“My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him against the liberty of his fellow men.” — Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey
My mother lives in Dhaka, my sister lives in Boston with her husband and two daughters, and I live out of a suitcase. We see each other by visiting one another’s homes. This year, for the first time in decades, we decided to travel to somewhere new together.
We meet in Istanbul. The six of us cover three generations, three nationalities and four ethnicities. We are a true modern family. Turkey – approximately mid-point between Bangladesh and the US, itself a blend of East and West, with a foot in Europe as well as Asia, rich in ancient history and modern city life – is an ideal meeting place. My eight-year-old niece is keen to eat turkey in Turkey, though my sister tells her they are not native here and unlikely to be on any menu.
My mother and I fly in from Dhaka. We get upgraded to business class on Turkish Airlines, which allows us to arrive less cantankerous and crumpled than we otherwise would have. My sister’s family arrives later in the day. Hooray! We are all together again.
We rest at a hotel near the airport before our morning flight to Cappadocia the next day, where we plan to spend three days out of our 12-day itinerary. On the hour-long flight over, we are served snacks that are given to us not on a plastic tray, but in a paper box with a check print, with two rope handles so it mimics a picnic basket. I find myself more and more charmed these days by small details and earnest effort.
Cappadocia is a land-locked agricultural region in central Turkey. It’s famous for its fairy chimneys and astonishing landscape of caves and cones. We are staying in Göreme, packed with dozens of cave hotels – hotels built inside and around caves. Our cave hotel is at the top of a short but steep hill. This means that I get to write this blog post sitting on the terrace with this view:
My mother, with an osteo-arthritic knee, and I stay in a room on the ground floor. Our bathroom is bigger than my London flat (I say that with only slight exaggeration).
Tourism brings welcome income to the region. Nevertheless, I am amazed when the hotel owner explains the different options we have for tours with patience and enthusiasm. I admire anyone who can repeat a task (especially one that involves clueless tourists) and sound sincere.
We opt for an English-speaking tour guide along with a car and driver the next day. My sister, who has researched everything, asks for a customised tour that will be interesting for our motley crew. At our first stop at an underground city, our guide Selim asks the ages of my nieces, and says the eight-year-old gets in free while the 14-year-old is considered an adult.
The eight-year-old tells off the 14-year-old: “Who would have guessed you’re 14? You should have said you’re 12 so you too could have gotten in for free.” My sister and brother-in-law, the most honest and straightforward people I know, are stunned their eight-year-old could even conceive of such a scheme.
Selim tells us a family used to live on this site when, one day, one of their chickens disappeared into a hole at the back of the house. When the chicken didn’t re-emerge, the family called the authorities who came to investigate, and discovered there was an entire underground city built under the property. This was in 1964. They went on to discover 36 such cities, all of them interconnected with tunnels. Some go down eight storeys. The one we visit – Kaymakli – has four.
The underground cities were used as a safe place at times of strife. They were built 4000 years ago by the Hittites, who worshipped the moon. They were at war with the Egyptians who worshipped the sun. Later, the cities were taken over by the East Romans who fought with the West Romans. Then the early Christians, in fear of persecution, used it as a refuge until Constantine converted to Christianity. The cities were eventually abandoned and forgotten until the chicken disappeared inside one 50 years ago.
The living areas are more like cubby holes (the Hittites were thin, short, compact people). There are kitchens and food storage cells and animal holds. There’s also lots of space devoted to crushing grapes and fermenting them for wine. So much so, it feels more like a winery with a bit of living area. The tunnels going from one storey to another or even one room to another are narrow and require hunching over, except for the eight-year-old, who is currently still Hittite-sized:
Göreme Open Air Museum
The Museum has former monasteries and a nunnery. Inside them are carved-out churches complete with frescos dating from the 10th–12th centuries. We are each allowed inside for only three minutes because our breath – the humid beasts that we are – can ruin the fragile artwork.
Our guide takes us to a large buffet restaurant in Avanos that can cater to the three vegetarians in our group. I misread a menu and accidentally say “vegiterannean” (rhyming with Mediterranean) and thereafter we become the three vegiteranneans.
The buffet, in addition to two vegetarian stations, has one serving cooked turkey (which thrills the eight-year-old), as well as chicken. My mother, who is not vegetarian but has been eating like one for these few days, pounces on the meat with relish. Despite her enthusiasm, she finds it tough and chewy, and says it must have come from the chicken that disappeared into the underground city in 1964.
Nine million years ago, a volcano erupted and covered the region with lava. The lower layers of ash are relatively soft, while the upper layers are of the tougher basalt. Over millions of years, the softer ash has eroded more readily from wind, rain and snow, leaving conical towers dotted around the landscape that has also been carved and shaped by canyons and valleys.
We go to Pasabag to see the mushroom stones, or fairy chimneys – so called because older civilisations believed only fairies could have delivered the basalt stones at the tip of each cone. They look entirely otherworldly, unlike anything any of us have ever seen before. We can’t stop gaping in awe.
We spot some couples in wedding clothes having their photographs taken at the top of one of the hills. One bride wears trainers under her white gown to enable climbing up and down.
We go see Devrent Valley, known colloquially as Imagination Valley as some of the rock formations resemble animals, such as this one that looks like a camel:
We also stand at the top of Love Valley (Çavuşin) and gaze down:
Shopping (or not)
We are taken to a pottery studio where we watch a family potter throw red clay onto a wooden wheel to make a vase. We are ushered through to their showroom where we are encouraged to make purchases. In my family, we are good tourists in that we are interested in a place’s history, culture and sights. But we never think or want to buy souvenirs or trinkets.
This becomes An Issue when we’re taken to a carpet cooperative. We watch weavers at work on the world-famous Turkish carpets as a gentleman from the cooperative explains every step of the process in careful detail. We’re also shown how silk is spun from the cocoons of silkworms boiled to their death (thereby putting an end to my purchasing silk products ever again in my life).
We are then ceremonially led to a large room, given apple tea and shown carpets. We are told it’s for our viewing pleasure, and we are under no obligation to buy.
They bring out carpet after carpet – ones with only undyed wools using black-haired sheep and white-haired sheep; carpets that look turquoise from one side but navy from the other because of a special weaving method; vintage carpets and modern carpets; tiny rugs and giant carpets; we are shown every type of carpet that is made in Turkey.
We sit there ooh-ing and aah-ing over how beautiful every one of them is, while exchanging alarmed glances. Nobody from our side is interested in actually purchasing any. We say several times to please not go through all this trouble for us.
The cooperative gentleman increases the sales pitch: carpets can be delivered to our doorsteps anywhere – really, anywhere in the world – absolutely for free, as the Turkish government will cover all shipping fees and import taxes.
My brother-in-law mentions he needs a yoga mat, though not a carpet. I feebly joke how I wouldn’t have use for a carpet unless it’s a magic one that can fly, as I live out of a suitcase.
The gentleman from the cooperative sighs heavily and tells us that these are terrible times for Turkey. With Russia invading Ukraine to the north, and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq on their southern border, they have suffered a significant drop in tourism. The good news – for us – is that their prices are now at an all-time low.
On our side, we look beseechingly at one another, hoping one of us will suddenly decide to buy something here. Our discomfort at this point feels palpable.
The gentleman valiantly calls for backup in the form of an “expert friend” to give us further information. By this point, we are begging them to please not waste any more time or energy on us. When it finally becomes clear that no amount of lavish attention, cajoling or guilt can prompt us to buy a carpet, they finally, reluctantly, admit defeat. The gentleman can no longer hide his disappointment in us. We are unceremoniously rushed back to our car outside.
The top of the heap
The next day, we visit Uchisar Castle, now a ruin. As with anything that requires a large amount of climbing, my mother hangs back and chats to the locals as the rest of us explore. We climb to the top of the castle, which is the highest point in Cappadocia.
My fear of heights catches up with me. Though I do make it to the top, my heart is pounding with the gripping fear of either falling myself or someone around me (particularly the eight-year-old) falling. I have to keep my eyes tightly shut and force myself to breathe because adrenalin is pumping through me so much I think I should jump just to relieve my fear. I rush back down.
We stop at the top of Pigeon Valley on the way home. This has a tree decorated with glass evil eyes, the talisman against bad luck that we see everywhere here (as well as some other countries).
Early the next morning, some of my family go on a hot-air balloon ride. With my fear of heights freshly resurfaced, I am relieved I opted out. A balloon ride is meant to be the most spectacular way to view Cappadocia, going right above its majestic cones and fairy chimneys, its deep valleys and wide canyons, over this sprawling land of natural beauty.
Byzantium —> Constantinople —> Istanbul
That afternoon we fly back to Istanbul. My sister’s rented an apartment for us for eight days in Beyoğlu, a few blocks from Taksim Square. The neighbourhood is filled with cafés, bars and restaurants, and every few doors is a greengrocer’s or a bakery where the locals do their daily shopping. We take the tram over the Golden Horn to Sultanahmet where the famous sights are, and go on a ferry over the Bosphorus to visit Büyükada Island. We wander around the hilly cobblestone streets and winding narrow roads of Cihangir near our apartment. The people are friendly, the public transport system is terrific, everything is walkable. I could happily live here – something I rarely say about places I visit. Istanbul feels at once familiar and exciting.
I am, however, glad we started our trip in Cappadocia. Its serene beauty and breathtaking sights are seared in my mind as the most unusual landscape I’ve ever seen. Its gentle pace allowed our family to reconvene with ease and peace. We will never forget our time there. Even if we don’t have a carpet to show for it.
“Travel brings power and love back into your life.” — Rumi
We stayed at Harman Cave Hotel in Göreme, owned by Mehmet Cingil. It’s lovingly decorated, the rooms are spacious, the generous buffet breakfast is included and the staff is lovely. It’s a seven-minute walk (including the short, steep climb) to the town centre that has shops, restaurants and bike rental places.
The Turkish love their bread. They have pide – soft, elongated, eye-shaped – which can also be stuffed to make their version of a pizza (delicious). In Istanbul, we especially loved simit, the thin sesame-seed-encrusted bagel-shaped rings. Every sit-down meal comes with piles of bread baskets, though only one restaurant so far – the Sultan in Göreme, Cappadocia – served it with bowls of oil and a delicious spice/herb mix to dip them in.
We may not have bought any carpets, but I did spend a small fortune at Sultan’s Charm in Göreme, which sells organic cotton (and bamboo) hamman towels, which are quite my most favourite things in the world. It is run by Fatih Dogan, who is terrifically kind and helpful.