Me and my donkey
Without a camera, I didn't feel like doing any major explorations so my first task was to go to the mall. The manager of my hotel said he had a few errands to run as well so he gave me a ride on his scooter to Nevsehir, the largest town around and the only one with a mall. Once inside, I could have been back home... malls just seem to look and feel exactly the same everywhere. I went to one in Hyderabad, India and it looked identical... the only thing that changes is the people. It even seems like the style of clothing is the same. It's like there is only one person in the world designing malls! Anyway, I was happy to find that cameras here are about the same price as they are in the states. I was worried because when my camera broke in Ethiopia, the cameras I looked at were all at least double the price they would be at home. Unfortunately, no one in the two electronics stores spoke English so I was left to my own devices to pick one. I decided not to dwell too much on my decision and picked a middle range Canon since that's what I've been using lately. I had the store charge it for me for a half hour and then head straight to Kaymakli, one of the underground cities in the area.
Kaymakli is known to be 8 stories deep but only 4 are open for exploration. It is believed people lived underground for security reasons and there were several massive circular stone doors at various points that were thought to be rolled into place to block openings during an attack. The tunnels connecting rooms were quite small and definitely not for the claustrophobic. Several ventilation shafts helped to make living so far down possible. Apparently some of the rooms are still used by villagers for storage and stables but the section open to the public was mainly a series of tunnels connecting rooms on various levels. Some rooms were labeled as food storage, living rooms and even a winery! It was hard to envision living in an underground world but it was quite refreshing to be out of the harsh sun for a while.
Back outside, the afternoon sun was especially strong and I marveled at the women who were all covered up. The head scarves at least look somewhat thin and breathable but many were also wearing what appeared to me to be trench coats over their clothing. I was sweating profusely in just a T-shirt so I can't even imagine what it feels like to be inside a long, buttoned coat in the middle of summer. Shockingly, they didn't appear to be perspiring at all! Maybe it's in the genes. :-)
I wanted to explore the Uchisar castle which stands at the top of a small mountain just a few kilometers from Goreme but when I arrived I found it closed for some reason. Even still, the views from the base of the structure (which looked like the other "cave buildings" I've seen here) were beautiful and I spent a good hour checking out the various caves and pigeon houses nearby - taking great care not to slip on the steep trails again. From there I wanted to hike back to Goreme via the Pigeon Valley which I had heard was a nice walk so I started asking around for directions to the start. Several people directed me to the same place and there were a few narrow, steep trails leading down into a valley but I didn't see any signs. One woman selling souvenirs urged me on and said "Goreme - 3 kilometers, easy!" with a huge smile. So, down I went. Very tentatively.
Having made it into the valley unscathed, I joined a wider trail and felt relieved the hard part was over. I assumed that once I was in the valley, it would be pretty straightforward to follow it back to town. And it seemed to be for about 30 minutes, although the trail did get quite overgrown in several places. The other trails I had walked here were not well signed but they were definitely well trodden so this was a bit worrying. Eventually the trail started to climb up the side of the valley and the bottom seemed to fall away into a deep chasm filled with thorny bushes and trees. I followed the path as it traversed the cliffside, continuing to snap photos of the beautiful white rock formations glowing in the light of the setting sun. Then, the trail abruptly stopped at the top of a cliff. It was clear that people had scaled down the rock and I attempted to do the same but being alone, I certainly didn't want to take any risks so I gave up my effort.
I backtracked to see if there was another way down but all of the little spur trails I saw all ended at the top of the same cliff. I went even further back and found a trail heading up a side canyon and considered trying to climb out of the valley and hopefully find a way back in later, when I saw a group of three others coming from the direction I had originally come from. At least I wasn't alone anymore so I suggested we attempt the cliff descent together but one of them had vertigo and wasn't even willing to look at the cliff. So, up the side canyon we went in search of an alternative route. We spent the next hour trying various spur trails but only ended up at more dead ends and the light was quickly fading. We were just about to throw in the towel and take a bus back to town when we spotted a family of four walking on a wide trail not too far from where we were. I called out to them to make sure they were heading to Goreme and they confirmed. We had to bushwack a bit to get to where they were but once on the trail, it was obvious we were finally heading the right way. Plus, now we were with two kids and there was no way the parents would put their children in danger, right!? That was my thinking anyway. :-) Within minutes we ran into two locals picking grapes who had ridden into the valley on a motorbike so we were sure there were no more cliffs in store. The hike turned out to be really beautiful, especially since the sun was so low. The colors of the canyon came out wonderfully. I was covered in dust from all the scrambling though so a shower was definitely next on the agenda.
In the evening I was strolling by some of the travel agencies and was suckered into one offering me a deal on a sunrise hot air balloon ride. I figured this was probably one of the best places in the world to do a balloon trip so I caved and booked it. I should have known better because the next morning I was left waiting for my pickup at 5am and then spent sunrise on a hill watching as at least 50 colorful balloons gracefully floated above me. I angrily stormed to the agency office expecting a fight and being blamed for the error somehow but instead I found the guy taking complete responsibility and apologizing profusely. Luckily I was planning to stay here for another day but waking up at 4:30am two days in a row is hard even for a morning person like me!
I had a full day ahead of me but decided to go straight to the Open Air Museum to try to beat the crowds and I'm very glad I did. A few tour groups were already there when I arrived but that was nothing compared to the number that were milling about an hour later waiting for their turn to get into the various churches and caves. Each site actually had a time limit posted outside it to keep the flow of traffic moving. Some were as short as two minutes but honestly that was enough for most of the caves. There was one really impressive cave church with brilliant frescoes on the walls and ceiling but that one actually had an additional charge affiliated with it! All in all, the caves I had explored on my own outside the "museum" were far superior and certainly more enjoyable without the crowds. My highlight of the day was the adorable baby donkey that followed me around trying to suckle on my fingers. Poor little thing was looking for his mom and any moving object seemed to suffice! I wanted to take him home with me but I don't think I'll get him through customs (or into my backpack)!