33. Pamukkale // Cappadocia // Turkey

To get to Pamukkale, we had to catch a bus from Kusadasi to Denizli and then change to a local Dolmus (mini bus) to take us the remaining 60kms. As we were quickly learning with Turkey, you never needed to plan ahead and we grabbed a bus around 9am from Kusadasi. Five hours later, we were in the Denizli Otogar, roaming its’ basement with our backpacks looking for the correct mini bus to take us to our eventual destination. Some helpful finger pointing later from various bus drivers and we had managed to find the right bus to make¬†our way to Pamukkale, arriving mid-afternoon.

Pumakkale is known for its gleaming white travertines, which are calcite shelves with pools cascading down the plateau edge, and its natural hot springs. In the middle of the hot Denizli region, the travertines stand out like a group of giant polar bears and could easily be confused for snow capped mountains if it weren’t for the 40 degree heat reminding you otherwise.

During the Byzantine era, the ancient city of Heirapolis was built at the top of this attraction and used as a “natural resort” even back then. However, during modern times, hotels were built right on top of these ruins and it wasn’t until the area was deemed a World Heritage Site that this was all demolished and replaced with artificial pools. As such, I’m not sure how legit you can still call it. Regardless, it’s an incredible site to see and makes for some great backdrops for the Big Fat Dirty White Russians who were of course there posing at every angle they could.

As we climbed up from the bottom, I didn’t really know what to expect. To preserve the natural calcification, you are not allowed to wear shoes once you enter. You sort of feel like you might slip over as you step onto the wet rocks but instead your feet seem to grip on with ease, despite an inch of warm water continually cascading across your toes. As I said before, there are heaps of pools set up for the visitors to sit in. They are about two-three feet deep and the floor is covered in calcium-like mud.

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You don’t need much time in Pamukkale¬†and so the next day we arranged for an overnight bus to take us to Cappadocia. Cappadocia is an absolute must if you go to Turkey. The only downside that we and pretty much anyone else we spoke to will say is the bloody 12-14 hour overnight bus you need to catch to get you there. We’ve caught overnight buses before in Vietnam and overnight trains in Poland and everytime we have always said the next morning “Never Again!” But you’ve always got to way up the pros and cons. So foolishly you convince yourself that you are saving a night’s accomodation by making the trip at night and you are bound to get some sleep throughout the night – just take a valium you say. And then, 12 hours later, red and bleary eyed and looking like you’ve just been run over by a stampede of bulls, you emerge from the bus into the next morning’s sunlight and say “Never Again!”

After finding a place that was actually open to grab some much needed breakfast from, we thanked our lucky stars that reception at our accommodation was open and that our room was even ready! Needless to say, our bags had hardly hit the floor before we were both passed out on the bed to catch a couple of hours of shut eye before we began our expedition.

Cappadocia is a very special place. And I don’t know how to describe it. Goreme (a central town in the district where we stayed) stands in the middle of countless surrounding caves where people once lived. As you pull into the town, tiny little fairy chimneys (rock formations in the shape of chimneys) protrude from the ground, but are big enough to live in. They look not too dissimilar to the Smurf Village actually. The landscape feels, at times, a little like the Wild West and across the 200 square kilometres, many former underground cities and churches can be found.

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Although it’s a novelty, the coolest part about Cappadocia is that you can stay in these chimney houses. It really does sound fun to think of yourself as Papa Smurf and enter inside one of these stone huts but, truthfully, once you’re inside, you’re basically just surrounded by stone walls and little ventilation. Which might be ok if you’re visiting in winter (when I think it does surprisingly snow) but not when you’re staying in the middle of summer.

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When we did eventually wake up later that day, we were surprised to see the temperature had only risen about 2 degrees since when we had arrived – so instead of it being 40 billion degrees as it was at 6am, it was now 40 billion and 2 degrees. There’s so much to see and do in the region. You can hire quad bikes and go racing through the dunes, explore underground cities, ride horses like a cowboy, enter ancient tombs and, of course, drink beer. (Don’t worry, we didn’t do too much of the latter.) Still fairly exhausted, we didn’t get up to too much the first day … oh wait, yes we did. We booked tickets for our Hot Air Balloon ride the next morning! But seriously, apart from that we strolled around Goreme a little, pointing out all the phallacentrical chimneys we could and getting a feel for the place. Realising how hot it was going to be in our room, and realising one night just wasn’t going to cut it in this really cool region of the world, we booked another two nights at a place advertising air con and a swimming pool for the next day.

But let’s not mess around. The real excitement for us was the Hot Air Balloon. And, without a doubt, it has been the best thing we have done so far. It was not cheap though and will probably go down as the most expensive hour of my life. Let’s be honest. 240 Euro for a 4.00am alarm clock was essentially what it was. We were told we’d be picked up at 4.15am. At that time of the morning, every minute someone is late is another chance to yell “I could have had one more minutes sleep!” When they did pick us up, we found we were just going around the corner anyway. And that was just to eat breakfast for the next half hour. Who is hungry at 4.30am?? I managed to laugh at that but I think I still would have preferred another half hours sleep and walked myself there when it was in fact time to be driven to the balloons. (It’s also really easy to find reasons to whinge when it’s that early. Trip Advisor has Cappadocia as one of the top 3 places in the world to Hot Air Balloon. And considering it was still cheaper than what you’d pay to do it in Melbourne, where 6 out of 7 times of getting out there it is cancelled due to weather, it was hard to argue the logic that it had to be done. Anyway, a picture tells a thousand words and this was our greatest travelling moment to date:

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For those who have ever been to Dreamworld with me, you’ll know I adamently refuse to go on the Giant Drop due to a fear of heights. And if you ask Elisha, she’ll happily tell you that every one of the 20 passengers and the Pilot were quite aware that I was struggling a bit as we got airborne. There may have been a few mouse-like whimpers from me and yes I was leaning as far as I possibly could away from the edge. I may have also peed myself a little when the bottom of the basket collided with the top of one of the chimneys and the entire cage shuddered as we bounced over it. I’ve never really thought too much about how a Hot Air Balloon lands but it was very different to whatever it was I was thinking. The Pilot really has little control over the balloon. They can take it up and down and that’s it. So to change directions they have to find pockets of air going in the direction they want. When you come down to land, it’s very much like the scene in Twister. There’s a group of four guys in a 4WD with the balloon’s trailer, racing around dirt roads trying to predict where the balloon will come down. The pilot radios them with a rough location. They pull up, jump out and throw some dirt in the air so the pilot can again recalculate his trajectory. He radios again. They race off again and pull up somewhere else. The pilot teaches us all a brace position and then, with our backs to the fast approaching ground, we hit the grass hard, then bounce up, race along for a bit longer, bounce again, slide, bounce, slide, grind. Suddenly, all four of the guys jump on to the sides of the basket to try and catch it, adding much needed weight. We slide for a bit longer, now ripping through the long grass in a vast paddock before, eventually, we come to a stop. Popping some bubbly is customary when landing because, hey, you haven’t died. And, even though it was just sparkling juice (which is probably a good thing at 6am) we all saluted our Pilot for a memorable experience.

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Back at our fairy chimney, the day was still early – so early that our free Turkish breakfast was not even ready yet. We could either go back to bed or wait for an hour and marvel at our medallions (the first I’d received since winning the “Thanks for Participating” award at Junior cricket) until breakfast was served. Always one to admire my accomplishments, we went for the latter.

After breakfast, the day was heating up again to its traditional 40 billion and 2 degrees and so, we checked out and marched our bags across town to Nirvana where air conditioning and one of the comfiest mattresses I’ve laid upon in a long time awaited us. After a quick rest up, we decided to catch some local buses to Derinkuyu’s Underground City. Not the easiest place to get to without a tour bus, but spending easily a third of what we would if we joined a tour, we got ourselves there . . . where literally just one building stood. But that’s right. It was underground. After climbing down a set of stairs, you enter a world that blows your mind. This underground city is the largest excavated in the area but there are heaps around. Even as early as 2009 a guy found another one to the size of 2500 square kilometres below his house. This particular underground city is fascinating as it extends to depths of approximately 60 metres, 5 levels and is large enough to shelter up to 20,000 people (that’s two Dalby’s where I grew up in!) with their livestock and food stores. Believed to be from the 8th Century BC, the city included wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, chapels and even a cruciform church. It was very difficult to photograph so we largely gave up on that but it was truly a fascinating thing to see.

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The next day was another scorcher and so we elected to spend the majority of the morning beside the pool reading and then, about a minute into doing that, decided to spend the rest of the morning in the pool. We soon got chatting to Emma from Albury and Chris from Canada who were also trying to escape the heat. They’d just arrived from Istanbul. However, their expected 12 hour bus had in fact taken a grueling 18 hours and they’d missed all their previously booked morning tours. I really don’t know what holds these buses up. The distances are only about 600kms but they seem to just stop for no reason, repeatedly. After four hours of getting our skin as shrivelled as we could in the pool, we then joined them for dinner where we also met their two other friends, Alex and Sal, who had been sleeping all afternoon after that horrible bus ride. It was crazy to learn that Alex lived only a few blocks away from us back in South Yarra and was also on his way to London so hopefully, I should have one person to down a London Pride with.

We had one more half day in Goreme after that and so we thought we’d walk up to the nearby open museum. This is sort of like another underground city but, its above ground. So I guess you could say like a normal city. This too was from around the 8th Century BC (I think, or maybe it was 13th Century AD – somewhere inbetween those few years) and comprised of heaps of churches. In fact, Cappadocia is mentioned in the bible in Acts 2:5. During the 4th Century, the Cappadocian Fathers were integral to much of early Christian philosophy and this is evident in some of the paintings in the caves. It was all really cool stuff to see. The caves in the paid-entry museum are quite spectacular but truthfully, you can probably climb up into any cave around the area and it probably used to be someone’s house.

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After three nights, we wanted to make our way back across to the West Coast and decided on Antalya where we had been told a Metropolitan city awaited us. We were now pretty experienced with the skies and how to navigate the winds so we pooled our coins together and bought ourselves our very own hot air balloon, got ourselves into the air with some very deliberate turns of the gas control and pointed ourselves West.

Nah, not really. We caught a bus.