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A Visit To The Delightful Cappadocia

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I had never heard of Cappadocia until we began to plan our trip to Turkey. A couple of friends insisted that we include it on the itinerary.

After spending a week in Istanbul, and taking in all the history and culture that amazing city which straddles two continents has to offer, we encountered a travel agent near the Blue Mosque and booked a trip to Cappadocia in central Turkey.

The flight was smooth and uneventful. Our guide who met us at the airport introduced himself as Changez Khan. I thought that was a nick name but that was indeed his given name. I asked him if he was a distant relative of the Mongol emperor. With an impish smile, he said possibly.

With him as the guide, I knew that Cappadocia was going to be anything but boring. We were headed for Lale Saray, a cave hotel. We had never stayed in one before and did not know what it meant. He said it’s a hotel built into a cave, just as the name implies.

The hotel was situated at an altitude of 1,260 meters and looked down upon a little village. The word saray means castle in Turkish and, as best as I can tell, Lale means tulip. Lale Saray was designed to evoke the lives of cave dwellers, or troglodytes. It had 14 rooms of which 7 were cave rooms with no windows. Our cave room had all the creature comforts that one would expect in a room at a five star hotel.

Dinner that evening was going to be served in a place called Turkish Nights which lay in a cavernous cave several miles away. Changez drove us there are stayed with us. The meal was healthy, albeit a bit bland for our palate. Dessert, we were informed, would be accompanied by coffee and served with a belly dancer. I had seen Arabian nights in Alexandria, Egypt but did not know what to expect next.

The dancer appeared and swayed effortlessly to the music to much applause. Then she pulled four men from the audience to join her. She asked them to remove their shirts which they happily did. As one bared his chest, two money belts with little pockets became visible. As he danced, the pockets swayed up and down. More people were looking at him than at the dancer.

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The next day we toured an underground city which had numerous caverns. We were told people hid there for months when the invaders arrived. The city had many rooms, many levels, and many stairs connecting them. It also had provisions to last for a long time.

After that tour we were taken to have lunch besides a river. The scenery was pastoral. We sat near two pilots from Turkish airlines and chatted about their impressions of Islamabad, which was a frequent destination.

The following day we got up early for our balloon ride. Our daughters had done it the previous day and enjoyed it. Since I suffer from vertigo, I was hoping to board a balloon with a large basket. But by the time our turn came, those had filled up. We ended up boarding the smallest basket. It only had room for five. Besides us, there was the pilot and a couple from the US.

The pilot, a young man, had just finished his compulsory military service. I had never been in a balloon before and watched intently as it filled up. At some point we lifted off into the sky, which was just beginning to be illuminated by the rising sun.

The views were surreal. We saw “Fairy Chimneys” on the ground, conical mud pillars sculpted by the wind. At some point the city of Cappadocia swung into view. I felt like we were flying over another planet. No wonder a Star Wars movie had been filmed here.

I had put on a telescoping lens on my camera but realized I need a wide angle lens. But there was no room in the tiny basked to bend down and retrieve the camera bag.

About 40 minutes into the ride we began to descend. I asked the pilot about the landing field.  He said we will land where the wind takes us. I asked how we would get back to the starting point. He said a truck is following us on the ground to take us back there.

At some point we were a thousand feet above the ground. I asked how we were going to land. He said by deflating the balloon. Stunned, I said, you have no other controls? He said gravity works out fine every time.

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I felt us graze the trees at a high speed as we approached the ground. That was scary. Then one bump and another bump. And then the motion stopped. We were on the ground. It was a landing like no other.

The views had been superb and it was truly one-of-a-kind experience. But an inner voice spoke: this was your last balloon ride. A few weeks later, after we were home, I read that a balloon had crashed and burned in Cappadocia, killing everyone on board.

That evening we took a night bus to Kusadasi, a favorite cruise ship destination. We stopped at Konya, home to Maulana Rumi’s tomb, for a break and felt his presence.

From Kusadasi we toured Pamukkale known for its mineral-rich thermal waters flowing down white travertine terraces. Nearby is Hierapolis which includes a well-preserved Roman amphitheater.

We also toured Ephesus, site of an ancient library. The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was once located near the city. The city is cited in the Bible. Some say that the Gospel of John was written there.

A couple of days later we were bound for Istanbul in a car. We drove through Izmir, the ancient town of Smyrna and home to Troy, and imagined the battles over Helen that were fought there.

In Istanbul we stayed at the iconic Pera Palace where Agatha Christie is said to have penned “Murder on the Orient Express.” It is featured in Ernest Hemingway’s book, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and appears in one of Graham Greene’s short stories. Trotsky stayed here as did the Shah of Iran. The main attraction is the Ataturk Room.

Each of these places was incredible but none compared with the awesome balloon ride in Cappadocia or our stay in the cave hotel.

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