Friday, 1 November 2013

ENCHANTING CAPPADOCIA...

Our recent trip to Turkey was predictably enjoyable. Istanbul,the bustling city stands loud and clear around the historical charm of Black Sea, Marmara Sea and the linking Sea of Bosphorus between them under which a new underground rail to connect Europe and Asia has been established the other day. The cultures of Europe and Asia blends so well to give any visitor an unforgettable experience which is well known to the tourist world. Here what is given is not about Istanbul but our experience in another lesser known  location in central Turkey, Cappadocia. The place is known for open air museum at Gerome ,ancient underground cities and fabled rock formations . More than that you may read narration of what we -Geetha and I- went through for our journey up the air in a hot air balloon there which was unique,at least for us. 


                                                   The cave hotel as it is seen in the night

Gamirasu....the cave hotel
Istanbul in Turkey was always in our list of 'places to be visited' but not Cappadocia. But when the travel agent suggested it for the famed caves listed by UN and  hot air balloon rides we decided to consider it because otherwise the place is known well to Geetha being  biblical name.  She was not initially very fond of the idea of flying in a balloon for obvious reasons. Of course I had to dig for more info on the place and safety of balloon ride before we confirmed the trip and started.
It was dusk when our Turkish Airlines plane from Istanbul landed at the small airport at Nevshir, in central Turkey.The guide was there to pick us up to drop at the hotel, which was about 40 kms away. We had booked a hotel to stay which is not normal, a cave hotel in a remote village. It was getting dark and the roads were deserted . After Urgup, a small town which we passed, as the guide started driving up thorough the steep curved roads without a sign of human habitation or lights ,we had doubts on our own wisdom for choosing such a hotel in such a location. To make matters worse, twice the guide lost his way, which we thought unusual in such an arranged trip. I had to struggle to keep my cool!

Soon we reached the hotel Gamirasu around 8pm, the scenario changed dramatically. We climbed the steep steps built below the canopy of grape vines with the ripe fruits hanging down and entered the reception which is again in the cave. An accolade by 'Trip Advisor' which was hanging on the wall gave me the confidence that we have come to the right place. Soon we were ushered to our room- something beyond our imagination in a cave! Gamirasu is a five star hotel built into  a natural volcanic rock cave but with all the modern facilities including a Jacuzzi, mini bar and wi fi! The architect of the building has successfully taken maximum efforts to see that the new structure merges with the existing caves in the rock which was habituated by Orthodox Christians in the 12th century hiding from their persecutors including their monasteries, paintings and churches. Within the hotel premises they have preserved what is left, one of such which was so close to our room.



   12 th century church preserved in the cave hotel

Preflight preparations..
As soon as we got into the car which the guide had brought to pick us up in the airport, he told that we had to prepone the balloon ride to the very next day morning since the scheduled day which was a day later is likely to be windy and partly cloudy due to which they may cancel the fight. We did not want to take a chance.Before he parted us he told us to be ready at the hotel lobby at 5.20 am, not a bright idea when we had checked in hardly at 8.30 pm! We did not want to miss Turkish salads and grills in any case. We  were picked up promptly the next morning. The outside temperature was just 3 degree C and for us South Indians it is pretty cold. We had anticipated this weather and had brought enough woolen. It was still dark when we reached an open space where a lot of balloons lying 'deflated' around on the ground . Hot tea/ coffee was served to warm us up and the passengers started to mix slowly.


                                                   Balloon being filled up with hot air

The balloon of Cihangiroglu Balloons, the company in which we had booked started getting 'inflated' with the hot air  with liquid propane gas , I presume. Within 30 minutes the balloon is in the erect position to take off with the bucket forcibly kept on the ground tied with a rope on front bumper of a 4 wheeler parked closely. Passengers were asked to be in the bucket, which is made of  rattan , having height of 5 feet  . Each one has to use a small ladder to get to the top of the bucket and then jump in. A bit difficult for our age but we managed. The bucket is  partitioned to 4 equal rectangular chambers plus a central place for the pilot and gas cylinders/burner. Five passengers in each, twenty altogether got in. Except us and another Pakistani couple from Egypt all were from UK, interestingly more ladies in their mid sixties or older!! I think Europeans and Americans travel world wide as tourists more in that age or later contrary to the nature of Indians.

Pilot, an handsome youngster- I used to joke to Geetha that there are thousands of Turkish youngsters whom we have seen while being there to make our Bollywood heroes and heroines run for their money- introduced himself and briefed about the safety procedures to be adhered while in flight. He emphasized on how we have to position ourselves in the bucket while landing and asked us to rehearse and show him .Once he was satisfied he gave the signal to unknot the rope and we slowly started going up. The pilot said " Lets have a good flight" to all. The Pakistani cracked a joke to the pilot "Hope this is not your first flight". The  pilot in turn seemed not much amused over the joke or he did not hear him properly, as he was concentrating on his machine. The take off was smooth.

Up in the air.....landing back
Horizon had brightened with the sun rise. Air up was colder getting to the bones through the hand and feet, which  reminded us that we had missed bringing hand gloves. As a whole it was pleasant feeling as we might have moved about 300 meters up. Hot air lifts the balloon in the air but goes thereafter entirely dependent on the wind. The balloon was ascending and descending , may be the pilot was searching for air current in the desired direction. We started drifting further up.


View as we drifted going up 

Below the peculiar landscape of the region Cappadocia with volcanic rock formations could be seen . 'Bird's eye view' of the 'Fairy chimney'  formations as it is called is amazing with distinctive colours and shapes . Barren hills but valleys full of vegetation-vine yards and orchards  mostly. Few of the old English ladies were chatterboxes even up there! View from the balloon as it reached the highest point it could technically, is breathtaking! So many balloons below you with a stunning landscape! Incredible panoramic view!
             

                                                 Panoramic view from the highest point

After sometime drifting, we started descending slowly but steadily, opposite the way we went up. The Pilot looked to me a bit struggling to find a suitable place to land as we came down more. When he  had done that he ordered us to sit in the basket since he was about to land . The basket came down and hit top of a flat plateau with a jerk and went up a bit again. All the passengers made a mild common shout of "Oh". Then seconds after it hit again on the ground and came to a stop on a bushy place. All joyfully clapped the hands . Since we had a smooth take off , mistakenly I thought it will be as smooth while landing. Four assistants came running from the four wheeler which was there at the start, now parked not far. Obviously the pilot might have radioed them the location.

 As soon as we came down before we were out of the basket our Pakistani friend told in my ear "It seems the pilot crash landed. You can see from his face". Apparently he had not since  another two balloons were seen landing in the same way as ours did. Getting out of the basket was more tedious for us than getting in.

It could be to build up some adventure atmosphere among the passengers for more than fun that the pilot announced that all will be distributed with certificates . All welcomed him when he said that he is going to open up a champagne bottle to celebrate the occasion. He did so in the traditional way of opening a bottle but on sipping we found out that to be sparkling fizzy grape juice ! Nevertheless it is a great experience one should go for given a chance. Back to Gamirasu for their spread out breakfast including fresh organic honeycomb and fresh Pomegranate juice!

Under ground cities and old monasteries
Later the same day we had visited the Kayamakli underground city which is in the UN Heritage list . These caves were carved out of rock formations with low height interconnecting tunnels, stables in the first floor and living floors, dining, storage for wine / oil, kitchens and churches in other  floors further down with enough ventilation shafts. There are 8 floors down but only 4 are open to public.It was made and used by early Christians in the second century before Christianity became an accepted religion during the time of Roman Empire. Such early Christians there suffered persecution at that time because they refused to pay homage to the emperor as divine and later from others. When it comes to early Christians many facts are not given due publicity or recognition it is eligible for in the church history -could be due to the difference of interests among catholic and orthodox churches-as in another case of Saint Thomas Christians of India, a sect in which we belong . Christianity came to India as old as this underground city but never persecuted to this day and the community is thriving in India and very much part of Indian society.





                   Pigeon holes in the caves and  'concept' of the same for lighting in the cave suite

A lot of paintings on life of Jesus and Bible done at the time of Byzantine church can be seen in the caved churches and monasteries at Goreme open air museum, which is the star attraction of Cappadocia. Though patron saint of United Kingdom, earliest known painting of Saint George and the dragon also can be seen there. Another matter which I noticed in these caved dwellings, on the outside a lot of pigeon holes are also carved .It seems pigeons were encouraged for mainly food and fertilizer those days. They were also used to send messages while their egg shells used in making the plaster and egg whites as a protective glazing for the painted frescoes! Gamirasu hotel has successfully blended this concept of pigeon holes in the suite they gave us for lighting.

As  we were driven in certain areas where fields full of ripe pumpkins in thousands were to be seen .We were told that the local people use only the seeds of pumpkins but leave the flesh of the vegetables in the fields for the birds !!


                                                              Ripe pumpkins......


 ALL PHOTOS ARE MINE EXCEPT GAMIRASU, THANKS TO THEM.