September 16, 2006
Middle East Travelogue #4
Dear Friends & Family,
Here we are in a large city called Urfa, which is not too far from the Syrian border. We will be crossing over tomorrow and meeting our new tour guide.
Today we had a farewell luncheon with Jan as tomorrow he drops us at the border and then has to take a 20 hour bus ride back to Istanbul!
The past few days have been the very best yet here in Turkey. We were in Cappadocia, of course. This is an area in the center of the country where there are many varied and incredible land formations due to geologic forces many years ago, mostly volcanic. When erosion worked faster on some layers underneath others, it made many tall columns with tough little caps on top of them, called Fairy Chimneys. Additionally, a lot of the rock was like sandstone and easy to carve into, so the residents carved out entire cities underground and retreated into them when there were invaders. The rest of the time they lived above ground and raised crops. The cities are many layers deep and they have ingenious things like rolling rock doors to block off the passageways, deep ventilation shafts, holes here and there to pour hot oil on any invaders who got in, etc. We visited several of these sights on our first day in the region after a very long overnight bus from Antalya. The second day we were there was the greatest day. It started at 5:10 AM when we were picked up by a van and taken to a place called Goreme. Here we were served coffee and cookies while everyone paid and got registered, and then we were off again in the vans to the place where our hot air balloon would be set up. A crew arrived with the equipment and quickly set it up and by 6:45AM we were in the air! The weather was cold, but the air was fairly still and the sun was soon shining. There were 6 balloons that went up from the company we were with and about 12
more from other companies. There were 4 compartments in our balloon with 5 people in each one. Seeing all the formations from the air and gliding over everything was fabulous. This was my birthday present for this year and I think it is the best one I have ever had. After an hour of floating up and down and even coming very near many of the projecting columns, we made a very soft landing in a grassy field where the crew quickly found us and packed up the balloon. They set up a table with flowers, small cakes, and champagne mixed with sour cherry juice (a popular drink here) and we all toasted a successful flight. They gave us a very nice certificate as a remembrance of our flight and by 9AM we were back at our hotel. The whole experience was the most efficient and enjoyable one we have had in Turkey. This might have been because it is owned and run by a young British woman, who is also one of the pilots. Later that day we visited the Goreme Open Air Museum. This is an area where many churches were carved into the cliffs and hills and some have frescoes painted in them.
Our action-packed day wasn't over yet. We had a rest at the hotel and then in the evening took a taxi to a hall where there was a folk music and dancing performance. We arrived early and were glad we did because they showed us all through the place, which is also a large cave cut into a cliff. The chef in the very modern kitchen proudly opened the huge oven so we could see the lamb he was roasting. Then we were seated at our table. These were arranged in tiers so that everyone could see the dance floor clearly. The musicians played Turkish music on unusual instruments while we enjoyed many different types of mezes – this means appetizers. There were also unlimited drinks available, so we tried several kinds of raki, the typical Turkish drink. It has a licorice taste and is clear until they add water to it and then it looks cloudy. The dinner was served during the dancing and was couscous with lamb, which was tender and delicious. Fruit and baklava for dessert, along with tea and coffee completed the very delicious meal. The folk dancing was quite varied and interesting with several numbers where they had audience participation. When the belly dancer started asking guys from the audience to dance with her, there were lots of takers! Everything ended at about 11:30PM and we were back at our hotel by midnight. Just imagine, all this cost about 20 dollars per person.
The next day we left early and this time we had our own minivan because the places we were going would require too many changes on the public bus. We drove all day across very dry looking terrain, which changed often because we crossed over mountains too. Our driver got pulled over by the police and got a speeding ticket, which will cost him 101 lira, or over 70 dollars. We stopped at a lokantasi for lunch. These are like little cafeterias where the food is all prepared and you just select some food and it is usually inexpensive but tasty. We also had to stop at a place, which is famous for making the best dandourma in Turkey. Dandourma is a type of ice cream that is very elastic in texture. I thought it was good but Elaine doesn’t like it. As we drove through the countryside we could see many women working out in the fields, raking alfalfa, or picking cotton. The houses in the countryside are smaller than in the cities and there are not the big high-rise apartment buildings that you see in all the cities. When we stopped for gas, we learned that diesel here is about 6 dollars a gallon, and unleaded gasoline is about a dollar more! The other funny thing is that when you stop for gas, they offer you tea. Our driver sat and drank tea with the guys there while the van sat and blocked the pumps! We also have passed many goats, which doesn’t surprise us because goat cheese is served every morning for breakfast. Often it is very salty. In the fields there are also lots of sheep, cotton and brussel sprouts. Most of the work is done by workers doing it by hand.
We arrived in Kahta at about 4PM and after checking into our hotel, we left immediately in another van for Mt. Nemrut. The new van had to be 4 wheel drive because Mt. Nemrut is 9000 feet high and some of the roads are very step to get up there. On the top there are 2 terraces, one facing east and one facing west. In between them is a very high mound of small pieces of rock, which they say covers the tomb of King Antiochus, the guy who had this crazy thing built about 2000 years ago. On the terraces were huge stone sculptures of himself and about 5 of the gods because he thought that he was one of them. Because of earthquakes the heads have all fallen off and just those are over 2 meters tall (about 6 feet). We arrived up at the top at about 5:30 and it was a good thing we had a lot of jackets and windbreakers with us because it was very cold and windy up there, even though the sun was still shining. It was also a fairly step climb from the parking lot to the statues – about ½ mile. We took pictures and waited until sunset on the west terrace because that is when there is supposed to be the best light. People who drive up there for sunrise use the east terrace. We were glad that we were heading down right after sunset because it was getting dark and colder very fast. Just building such a thing in such a remote place and so very high on a mountaintop seems like a crazy thing to do. It wasn’t even discovered until the late 1890’s and nothing was done to renovate it or make it accessible to people until the 1950’s.
From the mountain top area we could see over a very vast area and were surprised to see huge bodies of water out on the plains. This is because they have now completed a huge dam project called Ataturk Dam, which collects water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This is going to help bring in lots of factories and people into the region but is already causing problems with Syria and Iraq who claim that Turkey is taking more than their share of the water. We visited the dam today on our drive to Urfa and we had to surrender our passports to the guards at the gate and promise not to take any pictures. It is about the same size as Hoover Dam, at least the one we saw today. I think there are others.
In Urfa today we walked around the pilgrimage site where supposedly there is the cave where Abraham was born. There is also something around here concerning Job, but we didn’t see it. We spent some time in the bazaar where we found the cheapest prices in Turkey. We each got a tee shirt for about a dollar. Leather shoes were 7 dollars. We didn’t price anything else because the salesmen were over eager if we displayed any interest. The people here are very friendly and try to speak English to us. It is the first place we have been where they just want to talk to us and don’t have a hidden agenda. I think it is because there are so few tourists here.
Time to close and get ready for tomorrow’s adventures. More from Syria in a few days.
Love, Mary & Elaine