Land of the Fairy Chimneys

tufa cone
Tufa cones near Göreme, Cappadokia
Tuesday, August 31.

Someone was shaking me, yet I could neither see nor hear who it was. I pulled the anorak off my head and removed my earplugs, only to find the yardimci leaning down by my face.

"Kapadokya," he said to me curtly.

Susanne and I grabbed our backpacks from the upper storage compartment and walked down the steps of the bus, only to find ourselves standing along the side of a pitch black highway.

"Where are we?" I asked the yardimci.

"Nevsehir," he said. "You will take a taxi to Göreme."

"No we won't," I replied, showing him our ticket. "This bus is supposed to take us to Göreme."

"We are not going to Göreme," he responded, not appearing to care at all about our predicament.

"Could you at least take us to the local bus station?" Susanne asked, equally annoyed.

"The bus station is not open until seven o'clock -- two more hours," the yardimci said. "You must take a taxi."

Conveniently, of course, a lone taxi was waiting by the side of the highway, just behind our bus. We were in the middle of nowhere at five in the morning, so the only way the taxi would have known to be there would have been if he made prior arrangements with someone connected to our bus. We were being squeezed and there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it.

The taxi driver approached us as we argued with the yardimci. "Göreme -- kaç lira?" I asked him.

"Besmilyon lira," the cabbie replied. "Five million."

We were a captive audience, worn out and without options. Susanne and I either could sit by the side of the road or we could pay this guy the 13 bucks he wanted to take us to Göreme. We were in no position to argue.

The taxi took us down the highway, steadily making its way to Göreme. I fumbled through my Lonely Planet to find a hotel to which he could take us. I had previously circled the Peri Hotel, which had received a good write-up. As the minutes ticked by I watched the taxi meter reach five million lira, yet we appeared no closer to our destination. The meter soon passed six million lira, seven million, eight million.

"You promised us five million lira," I said angrily to the driver.

"It will be a bit more," he answered nonchalantly.

"No it won't, because we don't have any more than five million lira," I responded. "Either take five million or take nothing at all." I wasn't exactly bluffing, either. Since I had honestly expected to be able to get all the way to Göreme on our bus ticket I had neglected to change any more money before leaving Selçuk.

"Okay, no problem," the taxi driver said, apparently not wanting to debate the issue further. "Five million lira. The meter is no problem."

Around 5:30am we reached the town of Göreme, situated at the bottom of a jagged valley. We weaved along the main road, passing blunt shadowy peaks to our left and right. The cab pulled over in front of the Peri Hotel, a small collection of bungalows surrounding a rock garden. The lights from the hotel sign reflected towards several umbered hillocks across the road. As my eyes adjusted to the light I got my first clear sight of what we had come so far to see: the tufa cones of Cappadokia.

Millions of years ago, a series of fantastic volcanic eruptions showered the region with over 100 feet of hot ash. The ash eventually hardened into a soft pumice stone, locally known as tufa. Over the eons, wind and water had eroded much of the tufa in the valley, but certain sections of tufa were protected by enormous boulders that had been blown out of the volcanoes and onto the ash layer. The rocky debris prevented the rain from wearing down the tufa below it, creating tall columns of pumice with boulders perched atop. These tufa cones became known by the villagers as peribaca, or fairy chimneys. With thousands of giant fairy chimneys dotting its landscape, Cappadokia has become one of the most celebrated geological wonders in Turkey.

Turkish Pronunciation

Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!
Inside the hotel courtyard we found a sign in English asking us to ring a bell in order to wake up the manager. A minute or so later a tired young man in a t-shirt and sweat pants appeared.

"Merhaba," he said, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

"Merhaba, I replied. "Ingilizce konüsüyormüsünüz?"

"Yes," he answered. "Do you need a room?"

"Please.... In a tufa cone, if it's available."

The man brought us across the courtyard to a tall tufa cone that had been carved into a small bungalow. Because tufa is incredibly soft, it's possible for anyone with a hammer or a rock to carve out rooms quickly. We entered the cone and looked around; it seemed like a fine place to spend a few nights.

"How much is the room?" I asked.

"Seven million lira," the manager replied.

"We would probably stay for two nights," I said. "We'll spend today and tomorrow in Göreme and then catch an overnight bus out of town."

"So you will spend three nights here, not two," he replied.

"Are you counting this past night?" I asked. "It's after 6am. The sun is coming up. It's morning."

"It doesn't matter," he said. "If you come here now I will charge you for this past night, for I will have to make your bed in a few hours."

"That's crazy," Susanne said.

"Do you want to stay here or not?" he replied, clearly as frustrated as we were.

"What do you think?" I asked Susanne.

"Forget it," she said. "Not if he's going to try to charge us for an extra night."

Susanne and I picked up our bags and walked out the door, ticked off and not sure where to go next. We sat outside for a moment in order for me to put on my sweater and get my bearings. The sky had brightened since we had left the cab. We could hear the sunrise call to prayer emanating from the mosques near the center of town.

"So what do you want to do?" I asked.

"Are there other hotels around here?" Susanne responded.

"Every other building here is a hotel," I said. "There are several around the corner that are supposed to be good."

We walked 20 yards downhill and reached a steep driveway. At the top of it I saw a sign for the Horizon II Hotel -- or as it is awkwardly known in Turkish, the Ufuk II. We climbed the driveway and rung another bell, guarded ineffectively by a white terrier napping on a counter. A young man soon appeared and offered to show us a room. He brought us to a tufa room with double beds and a private shower.

"How much is it?" I asked.

"Five million lira," he said, two million less than the Peri Hotel. At this point Susanne and I both desperately needed a few hours of sleep, so we didn't care whether or not we would be charged an extra night for our nap.

"We'll take it," I said. The man gave us the keys and left us as we took off our shoes, collapsed on our beds and quickly fell asleep.

I awoke two hours later, just after 8am. I gave Susanne a tap on the shoulder to see if she was ready to get out of bed. When she opened her eyes it was clear that her cold had become significantly worse.

"I'm too sick to get up right now," she said.

"I know," I replied. "But we were going to take a tour today, then explore Cappadokia on our own tomorrow. Are you well enough for a tour?"

"I don't think so," Susanne answered, coughing.

"How about if you get some more sleep for a while and I'll walk into town," I suggested. "I need to change money anyway so it will give me something to do. I can also stop at a few tour agencies to get their tour schedule for today and tomorrow. We'll figure something out when you're well enough."

As Susanne went back to sleep I left the hotel, walking downhill to the center of Göreme. Göreme is a small town, with most places being no further than a five or ten minute walk away from each other. The roads were very quiet, apart from a street sweeper working its way towards our hotel. Young women in headscarves suspended enormous Turkish carpets in front of their family's shops while men used brooms on sidewalks to brush away the overnight dust. The downtown area was divided by a dry riverbed, now populated with green trees and rows of flowers. Göreme was very much a tourist town, a quaint destination for those of us seeking a little adventure in the surrounding hillsides. The town made sure to put its best foot forward.

Next to the small otogar I found Hiro Tours, a local agency recommended in our Lonely Planet guide. A large man with bad teeth sat outside the agency, splitting a bottle of coke with a young man in an Australian outback hat.

"G'day mate," said the man in the hat, his unusual accent lost somewhere between Ankara and Adelaide. "My name's Ahmed. Lookin' to join the tour this mornin'?"

"Actually, I just wanted to find out what tours you offer around Cappadokia."

"Come inside my office and I'll show you, mate," he replied.

Inside the agency I sat down by his desk, an Australian flag hanging behind it. "Have you live Australia?" I asked.

"No, not yet," he replied. "I learned my English from all the Aussies and Kiwis who come through Göreme. We get a lot of 'em here, y'know."

"My girlfriend and I are looking for a day tour of Cappadokia," I continued. "We only have a couple of days here, so we want to get on a tour that can take us around to some of the far-off sites, like one of the underground cities. We'd then do the area around Göreme on our own."

"I've got some tours for you, mate," Ahmed replied. "Today we're doing our Classic Cappadokia tour, which'll take you to one of the underground cities, a winery in Ürgüp, and a few other places. Tomorrow we've got our Ilhara Valley tour, which includes a hike through the Ilhara Valley, an underground city, a Silk Road caravanserai and the pottery town of Avanos. Both tours include a minibus with an English-speaking guide, entry fees and lunch. "

"What time does today's tour start?" I asked.

"At 9:30, so you could still make it. The bus comes back after sunset."

"I'm not sure if today will work out since my girlfriend is not feeling well," I continued. "But tomorrow might be better. Let me talk with her and get back to you."

"No problem, mate," Ahmed said, tipping his hat goodbye.

Around the corner from Hiro Tours I entered a covered mall populated by carpet shops and more travel agencies. Most shops had a sign out front noting their daily exchange rate. I found a carpet seller who was offering 440,000 lira per dollar, with no charge for cashing traveler's cheques. I exchanged $100 with him and returned to the hotel to see how Susanne was doing.

To my surprise, Susanne was up and around when I got back to the room, though she certainly did not look well.

"How are you feeling?" I asked.

"Miserable," she said. "I don't see how I can do a tour today."

"Well, I've got an idea," I replied. "There are some interesting tours that leave every day at 9:30am. Since today seems out of the question, let's plan for taking a tour tomorrow. Today, we can relax, get some brunch, and take our time seeing the Göreme Open Air Museum and the other local sites. It's only a 20-minute walk from the hotel. When you've had enough of that, we can return to town and chill out. Then we can get a good night's sleep for tomorrow's tour."

"I really wanted to rent motor scooters here, though," Susanne continued. "And a balloon ride is still really tempting."

"How about if we just plan to stay here for a third day?" I suggested. "Cappadokia was one of the main reasons why you wanted to come to Turkey, so let's take advantage of it while we're here. We've already worked in a couple of spare days in our itinerary just in case we wanted to stay somewhere longer or if we got stuck. Why not spend one of those days here in Göreme? That way we could rent scooters or take the balloon ride on that third day, then make our way to Nemrut Dagi either that last night or the next morning."

"Okay," Susanne said, satisfied with the idea. "Why don't you get tickets for a tour tomorrow while I get ready?"

I briefly returned to Hiro Tours to make our arrangements with the Aussified Turk, Ahmed. I was back at the hotel just after 9:30am, which had given Susanne just enough time to get organized. We walked down into town, checking out some of the local breakfast cafes. Immediately below our hotel we passed the Flintstones Bar, a backpacker hangout that advertised its satellite TV schedule and export beer selection. (Flintstones references seemed to be all over Göreme, thanks to Cappadokia's uncanny resemblance to that classic animated landscape.) Just beyond the bar was the Vegemite Cafe, a small outdoor restaurant that catered aggressively to Australians.

On the main road, just across from the dry riverbed, we walked by a no-name cafe with a medium-sized dog out front. The dog eagerly approached us and nudged my hip, literally steering me towards the cafe. It was a clever ploy, one we really enjoyed, so we acquiesced to the pooch and sat down under a small awning. Susanne ordered a hefty plate of French toast and some apricot juice while I got the Turkish breakfast, hot tea and peach juice, a meal that was fast becoming my morning ritual. The Turkish breakfast came with the usual olives, goat cheese, hard boiled egg and honey, and was accompanied by a generous sliced loaf of fluffy, oven fresh bread.

"I could eat like this every day," I sighed contentedly.

"You do eat like this every day," Susanne laughed.

Since I had promised we would take our time today, we lingered over every bite and ordered seconds of tea, allowing us to sit back and observe Göreme's persistent inactivity. Every few minutes a horse cart would come by -- an older man chauffeuring his wife and daughters, invariably concealed by headscarves and often under a full-length chador. Even though Göreme is now a tourist town, so to speak, its roots are still very traditional. Occasionally women traveling alone here have been hassled here because they were showing too much skin, but it seemed to me that Göreme had reached a compromise with most of its visitors: if you're polite and not being immodest, we'll welcome you here.

Nonetheless, Susanne and I spotted a number of backpackers wandering around in shorts, which struck us as being extremely indiscreet. We've always felt that it's important to respect local customs as much as possible, especially when it came to dress codes in Islamic countries. Though you can get away with wearing shorts in the touristed parts of Turkey, we still found it to be a bit of an insult. As warm as it could get here in Cappadokia, we would be sure to wear our khakis.

After our long breakfast Susanne and I started our walk to the Göreme Open Air Museum. The hills west of town were famous for their extraordinary collection of grottoes filled with ancient Byzantine churches. The soft tufa rock made it easy for the faithful to carve monasteries into the hills and fairy chimneys, and many of them still contained colorful frescoes from the 10th and 11th centuries. Hundreds of such monasteries are scattered around Cappadokia, but their greatest concentration could be found just outside of Göreme, in a national park now designated as the Göreme Open Air Museum.

tufa cone houses
A tufa cone house in Göreme sports a Turkish flag
Along the road, just uphill from the hotel, we found a row of tufa cones perched on an embankment like bloated stalagmites. Each tufa was about 30 feet high and was wide enough to host a small home. We briefly climbed around the hillside, trying to get our first pictures of Cappadokian tufas, despite the fact that they were often obscured by telephone wires and TV antennas. It didn't really matter to us that these particular tufas were perhaps the least picturesque cones in all of Cappadokia. We were just happy to have the chance to explore them, even the most mundane tufas.

About five minutes past the hotel the road sloped downward into a broad valley. Further ahead I could see the road rise again by the entrance to the museum, perhaps a kilometer away. To our left, beyond a sign marked "Overnight Camping," we found acres of farm land populated by congregations of tufa formations.

"Let's go that way," Susanne said, pointing left towards the distant tufas.

"But the Open Air Museum is straight ahead," I remarked.

"I know," she replied. "Let's go explore."

tufa cones in a melon patc
Ancient tufa dominate a Göreme melon patch
We turned left down a dirt road and then cut a little towards the left into a thriving patch of melons and pumpkins. Susanne and I walked carefully, avoiding to step anywhere near the bulbous orange and green fruit. Just beyond the patch we reached an outcrop of tufa on a hillside, which from a distance looked a bit like a petrified sandcastle. I followed Susanne as she scurried up the hillside, still avoiding those errant melons that had grown high above the field. We could see that some of the tufa formations had been carved out, so Susanne and I each chose our own cave to explore. My tufa had been hollowed out vertically into what must have been a church. Large black Maltese crosses were painted on the walls, and the shattered roof revealed the remains of what was once a vaulted ceiling.

"You've got to see this!" I yelled out to Susanne, who was somewhere above me on another hill.

"You've got to come up here!" She yelled back. "These caves are incredible."

I pulled myself up the crumbling hillside and found Susanne, crouching low to reach the interior of another cave. As I kneeled in front of it I could see more black crosses and symmetric lines of red paint.

"It's amazing that these caves are nearly a thousand years old," I observed. "You'd think that someone hollowed them out just recently."

"And the whole hillside is like this," Susanne replied. "It really is incredible."

Once again we split off in separate directions, hoisting ourselves higher and higher along the hillside. Some of the formations were easier to climb then others, with rows of steps carved into the tufa. Other areas weren't as accessible, with sand and pebbles tumbling down every time you took a step up. I quickly discovered that if I leaned forward and crouched as I climbed along these steep embankments, my center of gravity would be lower, allowing me greater balance.

We each spent some time exploring the caves, some of which were carved into multi-story dwellings. I followed Susanne to the second floor of one cave, which had large open windows facing west and south. A hole in the floor at one corner of the room dropped down to the first floor. I imagined a wooden ladder rising from the bottom, jutting through the hole towards where I was standing. I also noticed some charring on the floor and on the walls. In one corner of the room there was a pile of ash with black soot scarring the wall behind it. In the middle of the wall on opposite sides of the room, just above a round hole, I found more charring, this time streaking straight up.

"It looks like they had a fire in the corner, over there," I surmised. "And they probably had torches or some kind of lamp stuck in the walls." The ash in the corner included small pieces of bone. I wondered how old the remains were -- had people camped out here recently or were these the remains of some Greek family long ago?

Susanne continued her way to the top of the hill while I played detective in the ancient living quarters. "Come on up here," I heard her yell down to me. "You've got to check out this view."

I carefully followed her voice up a steep gravel path, eventually making my way to a rounded summit. Susanne was staring out towards the west. Far beyond the valley floor an enormous tufa formation stretched north and south, several kilometers wide and hundreds of feet high. Over the eons water had streamed down the formation, slowly chiseling a delicate pattern of channels from top to bottom. It was eerily beautiful, the tufa etched and polished like the soft peaks of Italian meringue or fresh whipped cream. A geological dreamscape -- fluid like sand, yet frozen in time.

tufa landscape
The meringue-like formations of the Valley of the Swords, Cappadokia

"I've seen pictures of this place on postcards," I said. "I didn't realize is was nearby."

"Do they write about it in the Lonely Planet?" Susanne asked.

"I don't think so." I skimmed through the book to see if anything like this place was described. I couldn't find any mention of it.

"It looks like we've stumbled upon our first major discovery of our trip," I said.

"I told you we should go this way," Susanne smiled.

After taking far too many pictures of the distant hillside we carefully climbed down the tufa formation, examining ruined cave dwellings as we went. The tufa sloped gently downward towards the Open Air Museum, so we followed the edge of the rock instead of going straight down. The far end of the formation was enveloped by pumpkin vines, so once again we had to tread cautiously. On another tufa knoll, 100 yards to the east, I noticed a series of geometric shapes carved in a sheer cliff face, as if Henri Matisse had made a pilgrimage to Cappadokia just to leave behind some mysterious graffiti.

As we crossed another melon patch and returned to the main road, I saw a sign pointing in the direction from which we had just come: "Valley of the Swords." Just to be sure, I checked the Lonely Planet again but found no mention of it. We walked another ten minutes uphill towards the museum entrance. We paused for a few minutes at a small cafe, drinking peach juice as several bees swarmed around the table. We had actually been plagued by bees just a week or so before in Washington, sitting outside a Starbucks looking at some Turkey travel books. I've always really hated bees, and found it difficult to enjoy my juice while they hovered around my face.

"Well, my nemesis, you have chosen to follow me to Cappadokia," I hissed at them. "It is a decision you will soon regret!"

I climbed the hill above the cafe in order to return to the main road. Susanne took her time coming up, pausing to take pictures of a local boy with a camel. Eventually we reached the entrance of the Open Air Museum and paid the $5 visitor fee. The museum was a series of barren tufa formations, each with several Byzantine caves carved into them. We followed a clockwise path from cave to cave, giving us a chance to climb around and explore them.

tufa caves
Byzantine tufa churches at the Göreme Open Air Museum

The first cave, the Rahibeler Manastiri (Nun's Convent), was a small grotto at the same level as the path. From the outside it appeared like a naturally formed cavern, its interior too dark to visualize from the outside. Once we entered the cave and our eyes adjusted, we could see a complex pattern of Byzantine icons covering the walls and the vaulted ceiling. Though the frescoes had deteriorated over the centuries, the precision of the drawings and their vivid pastel colors made them seem quite modern.

Byzantine frescoes
Byzantine frescoes inside a tufa church
Walking uphill we soon reached the Yilanli Kilise (Snake Church). Tall, thin figures of St. George and St. Theodore covered the vaults, as representations of Constantine the Great and his mother Helena occupied the lower walls. Not far from here, Susanne and I found the Elmali Kilise (Apple Church), an immense hall of no less than half a dozen vaulted ceilings. Once again, St. George played a major role in the church's frescoes, bravely slaying the dragon on horseback. To prevent further erosion (not to mention desecration), much of the fresco work was protected by a sheet of clear plastic.

As Susanne and I walked over to the next group of caves, we noticed two men inside a broad cavern, sitting in wooden chairs by a small table.

"Merhaba!" the older man shouted at us, smiling.

"Merhaba," Susanne waved back.

"Çay?" he asked, pointing to the kettle of water on the table. Susanne and I looked at each other, not sure what to do. Once again the older man smiled at us, waving his hand and shouting "Çay?" We both knew it would be extremely rude to say no to his offer of tea, though neither of us really had any idea of what we would do once we went over there.

"Tesekkürler," I said to him as we reached the table. "Tesekkür ederiz."

"Türkçe konüsüyormüsünüz?" he asked, surprised that I knew any Turkish.

"Biraz Türkçe," I replied, habitually pinching my thumb and index finger close together to convey that I knew a little bit. It only occurred to me as I did it that I could have been making a rude gesture, but the big smiles I got from the two men suggested otherwise.

"Isminizne?" I asked them, wondering what their names were.

"Ismim Osman," the older man said, proudly pointing his thumb at his chest. "Benim arkadas," he then continued, gesticulating to the younger man.

"His name is Osman," I said to Susanne. "I don't know the other man's name, but they're apparently friends."

"Ismim Andy," I continued, before pointing at Susanne. "Susanne."

"Andy and Susanne," Osman said slowly in English. "Welcome to Göreme -- hos geldiniz!" He poured each of us a small tulip-shaped glass of hot water and stirred in bright pink crystals. The water quickly transformed into rosehip tea.

"Sag olun," I replied, taking my first sip. "Çok güzel!"

"Çok güzel," Susanne agreed, smiling as she tasted it.

"Nerelesiniz?" I asked Osman, trying to find a way to make conversation out of my limited Turkish.

"I am from Nevsehir," he replied, his accent as thick as his powerful hands. "Work -- Göreme. Live -- Nevsehir."

"Does he have children?" Susanne wondered.

"Çacukler var mi?" I asked.

"Bes çacukler!," he replied, laughing and holding up five fingers. "You?" he continued, pointing at us.

"Yok," I answered. "No kids."

"Kids are good, very good," Osman smiled, clearly proud of his own.

"And you," he continued. "Nerelesiniz?"

"Amerikaliyiz," I said. "Washington'dun."

The younger man finally piped in at this point. "My brother lives in Denver," he said, his English somewhat better than Osman's. "Is Denver near Washington?"

"No, they are far away," Susanne said, "but my family lives in Denver. It is very beautiful there. Çok güzel."

"Para var mi?" Osman then asked. I wasn't exactly sure what he was driving at, since it sounded like he said, "Do you have any money?"

"Osman likes to collect coins," his friend explained. "He wants to know if you have American coins you can show him."

"Para yok, üzgünüm," I replied, sorry that we had left all of our small change in the US.

Osman poured us a second round of rosehip tea. My Turkish vocabulary was quickly reaching its limits, but we passed the time by teaching each other words.

Andy, Osman and friend
Andy poses with Osman and his friend at the Göreme Open Air Museum
"Türkçese ne?" Osman asked, pointing to the tea kettle.

"Tea pot," I said. "Or tea kettle."

"Tea kettle," Osman repeated. "Tea is çay, yes?"

"Yes," Susanne answered, "Tea is çay."

We sat for awhile longer, sipping our teas and exchanging words. Before we left to see the rest of the museum, we asked if we could take pictures of them. "No problem," Osman said in English. Susanne and I each took a picture, then offered to send them copies in the mail. I gave Osman a pen so he could write it down.

"Hosça kalin," I said to Osman and his friend as we got ready to leave.

"Güle güle," Osman said, shaking my hand goodbye.

"That was very cool," I said to Susanne as we left. "Everyone here is so genuinely nice."

"We'll have to send him some coins when we mail the pictures to them," Susanne replied.

Susanne and I visited several more caves that afternoon, increasingly impressed with each grotto, each fresco. On a hill beyond the caves we found a beautiful view of a steep valley, a sheer cliff covered in caves just across it. Two women and a man sat in yoga positions on the hill, soaking up the sun and smiling like buddhas. As we worked our way to the exit we found a winding path to another cave. The path was long and thin, with smooth walls of tufa to each side. We had to duck in order to get into the cave. Bright sunlight reflected off the tufa corridor, reminding both Susanne and me of the desert planet of Tatooine in Star Wars.

tufa caves
Tufa caves, Göreme Open Air Museum

The last cave we explored was actually just outside the museum gate, though it required a ticket stub in order to visit it. Rather unintentionally, we had saved the best for last -- the Tokali Kilise (Buckle Church) was a grand chapel with bright frescos on two floors. The main floor was protected by a high tufa vault, decorated with pristine images of Jesus conducting a series of miracles. The bottom floor, accessible by a precarious set of metal stairs, was much less ornate, almost spartan when compared to the colorful vaulted ceiling.

Susanne and I walked back to Göreme, slightly dehydrated and ready for a snack. Just beyond our hotel we stopped at the Vegemite Cafe, ordering cokes and some fruit cake. A young boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, played with two delightful brown puppies, neither of which could have been a month or two old. The puppies seemed intrigued by our presence, climbing under a table for a little attention before darting back to the boy or some other customers.

Across the street we noticed two women in headscarves weaving colorful kilims on upright wooden looms. The rich afternoon sunshine was coming down just at the right angle to make the kilims glow in warm red hues. Susanne suggested we go over to the shop to see if the women would allow us to take pictures.

"Merhaba," Susanne and I said to them.

"Merhaba," the women replied, smiling shyly at us.

"Fotograf çekebelirmiyiz, lütfen?" I asked them.

"Okay," one them replied in English.

Ali the carpet seller
Ali the carpet seller, Göreme
As Susanne kneeled down to take a picture, a young Turkish man approached us from inside the shop.

"Good afternoon," he said. He was in his twenties, thin featured, with long black hair hanging down his smiling face.

"Iyi günler," I responded. "Nasilsiniz?"

"Iyiyim," he replied. "Siz nasilsiniz?"

"Çok iyiyim, tesekkürler."

"Where did you learn your Turkish?" he asked. "In America?"

"I got a Turkish language book in the US," I replied, "but I've been only speaking it here for about a week."

"Your Turkish sounds good," he smiled. "My name is Ali. This is my family's shop."

Susanne and I both introduced ourselves to Ali. "Your English is very good," Susanne commented.

"It's okay, I think," he replied. "I get to speak a lot of English in Göreme, but it's confusing with so many different accents: American, British, Australian. But I see you are interested in the kilims. Would you like to try?"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Would you like to try making a kilim?" he said, pointing to the looms. "They wouldn't mind if you tried." The two women looked up from where they were sitting and smiled at us.

"Okay," Susanne said, kneeling to the ground. "What do I do?"

One of the women scooted over her small stool and invited Susanne to sit on a pillow. She handed Susanne a loop of wool and demonstrated how to weave it.

Susanne learns how to weave
Susanne tries her hand at the intricate art of kilim weaving

"Would you like to try it as well?" Ali asked me.

"Sure, I'll give it a shot."

The second woman offered me a pillow and had me sit down next to her.

"Sag olun," I said.

"Sey degil," she replied.

"Ismim Andy," I continued. "Isminizne?"


Andy learns to weave
Andy tries to weave a kilim without destroying it
Aya pulled out a couple feet of red yarn and pinched one end of it in the fingers of her left hand. Using her right hand, she then rapidly tugged a series of vertical ropes suspended on the loom in order to allow the other hand to slip the red yarn behind them. She laced the red yarn horizontally and let go of the vertical ropes, catching the yarn into the weave. Aya unraveled another foot of yarn and handed it to me.

"You, please," she said.

Despite her demonstration I really didn't know what I was supposed to do. I couldn't tell if she had tugged every other vertical rope in order to create the weave, or if she had pulled them in a more complex pattern. Sensing my hesitation, Aya pinched one of the vertical ropes and made me grab a hold of it. She then skipped over the next rope and pinched another one, again handing it to me. I collected the handful of ropes as she pinched every other line until there were so many ropes tugging off the loom it felt like I was going to lose hold of them.

"Okay," she said, pointing to the red yarn. Following her lead I threaded the yarn behind the ropes in my hand. She then grabbed my hand and made me let go of the ropes, which threaded the yarn across the loom. Finally getting the feel for it I unraveled some more yarn and tugged at every other vertical rope. Pull, thread, pull, thread, the red yarn soon stretched halfway across the horizontal length of the loom. As I went for my third try, I yanked at the yarn a little too enthusiastically: the red string snapped in my hand. I held my breath for a second as I wondered what kind of weaving disaster I had just caused. I imagined the worst: a $3000 Turkish kilim ruined by some overzealous American.

"No problem," Aya said, easing my fears. She wrapped the yarn a few inches before the break and created a delicate knot, allowing me to continue my mediocre work.

After a couple of minutes I had successfully woven a horizontal layer of red yarn across the kilim, though the yarn wasn't exactly flush with the rest of the carpet. Aya took out a heavy rectangle of wood with thick, comb-like teeth on one side. She pressed the wood against the loom, causing the teeth to be inserted between the kilim's horizontal ropes. Aya then motioned at me to press the wood block downward in order to flatten the red yarn as tightly as possible to the rest of the weave. I delicately pressed the wood, fearing that this time I would snap some of the ropes. Aya rolled her eyes and laughed; she took her fist and pounded it against the top of the wood, crushing the yarn flat against the kilim.

"Now you," she said.

Putting my faith in her demonstration I slugged the wood with my fist, flattening another 10 inches of yarn. "Çok güzel!" I exclaimed.

"Çok güzel!" Aya laughed.

Ali returned with a glass of hot tea for each of us. I sipped at the tea as I completed another row of weaving. Trying to strike up a conversation with Aya, I pointed to the red yarn and observed, "Kizil, degil mi?"

"Kirmiz," she replied, correcting me.

"Kizil means reddish or rusty," Ali chimed in. "Kirmiz means red."

"Like kirmiz sarap," I said. "Red wine."

"Yes, like kirmiz sarap," Ali replied.

After allowing us to weave for a several more minutes, Ali asked us if we'd like to check out the inside of his shop.

"Thanks," Susanne replied, "but we really have no money."

"That's okay," Ali responded. "You can finish your tea while I tell you about different carpets and kilims."

Susanne and I didn't have anything to lose by checking out the carpets, so we agreed to go inside. As Susanne reached down to pick up her tea, she accidentally spilled it across a kilim on the floor. Susanne looked horrified.

"It's okay," Ali said as he picked up the small kilim. "Kilims are strong -- the tea won't stain." Ali grabbed a hose and sprayed water on the tea spot, hanging it to dry on a fence.

"I am so, so sorry," Susanne said, clearly embarrassed.

"It really is okay," Ali insisted. "The tea won't stain. Coffee will, but tea won't. Don't worry about it."

We followed Ali into the shop and walked downstairs. "Now I am going to show you my harem," Ali smiled. The store's showroom was decorated with dozens of carpets and kilims: on the walls, the floors, the ceiling. Along the back of the room was an enormous bed covered in carpets and Ottoman pillows, fit for the Sultan himself.

"You see what I mean?" Ali said proudly. "My harem."

Ali went to a corner of the showroom and pulled out a thick stack of carpets. "Traditional Ottoman carpets are based on seven royal patterns," he explained. "During the time of the sultans, only he and his family could own these patterns. All other families would then have their own patterns that they would hand down from daughter to daughter. And these patterns are very old -- they have found pieces of carpet across Turkey and Central Asia that are thousands of years old, yet they still look like the carpets we weave today."

"Do all women learn how to weave carpets?" Susanne asked.

"Traditionally, yes," Ali replied. "Not as many girls in Turkey today weave carpets, but if you go to villages and away from the big cities you'll see that most girls still do. Let me show you something."

Ali rolled out a giant blood-red carpet. "Sit down on this Turkoman carpet," he said. "It is very soft, very wonderful."

Susanne and I sat down and sank into its plushness. It felt like I was floating on a cloud.

"This is a very special carpet," Ali continued. "It was weaved by a Turkoman girl as her dowry. When Turkoman girls get married, they are supposed to make three carpets for her husband and his family. They are never based on a pattern -- the carpets are meant to show her personality. Turkoman dowry carpets are very rare. We have had only two of them in our shop. I just sold this one to an American. Guess how much it cost him?"

Neither Susanne nor I had any idea how much the carpet was worth, especially here in Turkey. Normally I would have guessed most of these carpets to be in the $500 and up category, but clearly this carpet was a special one. Nonetheless I didn't want to venture a guess.

Susanne, on the other hand, was bolder than I was. "Ten thousand dollars," she said, shooting in the upper range.

"I wish it was $10,000," Ali said, laughing. "For you, I will sell it for $10,000. Actually, I sold it for $1700, which was a very good deal for him. In the US this carpet would indeed be worth $10,000."

Ali showed us several more patterns, including a fine white Persian carpet. "It is pure silk, made in single knots instead of double knots like Turkish carpets," Ali said. "Single knots mean you can weave very fine details, very complex patterns."

Another young man, perhaps a few years older than Ali, appeared through a back door. "My name is Mehmet," he said. "I am Ali's brother. I hope you are enjoying his harem."

"The carpets are really beautiful," Susanne replied.

"I wish more people said that," Mehmet continued. "Times are very tough."

"No one is buying carpets this year," Ali said, suddenly putting on a bit of a guilt trip on us for the sake of his older brother. "Business has been very slow."

"I wish we could buy them from you," Susanne said, "but we're just not shopping for one. We don't have that much money since we had to spend so much to come to Turkey in the first place."

"But you don't have to spend too much," Mehmet said. "We would have something for whatever is your price range."

"I wish we could, but not on this trip," I said. "We just can't spend the money."

"Well, maybe you can come back another day and think about it," Ali replied, offering us an exit strategy.

"Maybe we will," I said, leaving it at that.

Susanne and I managed to work our way upstairs and out of the shop. I had really enjoyed Ali's tour and was glad he hadn't tried to force carpets down our throats. But Mehmet's appearance changed the scene dramatically and started to make us uncomfortable. As much as I would have loved to have purchased a carpet, neither of us had budgeted for one and didn't want to make an impulse buy.

"The next time we come to Turkey I think I'll seriously consider buying a carpet," Susanne said as we left the shop. "But just not on this trip."

"I agree, a carpet can wait," I replied. "It's not like they're going to run out of them here any time soon."

Susanne and I walked back to the Valley of the Swords for sunset. Weaving through the melon patches we reached the tufa formation and climbed upward, boulder to boulder, outcrop to outcrop. We were about 150 feet off the ground by the time we reached the top. The fiery orange sun descended in the western sky, glowing so brightly it felt as if the fluid-like hills of the valley were snapshots of cooling lava floes. Susanne and I took more pictures than the scene probably deserved, but it was a wonderful moment. We had the Valley of the Swords to ourselves, and the sun was putting on its final show of the day for our own personal pleasure.

Andy poses near tufa landscape
Andy poses in front of the Valley of the Swords, Cappadokia

We returned to Göreme through the melon patch as a farmer burned scrub in the distance, leaving a ruddy haze just above our heads. Back at the hotel I took a well-deserved shower while Susanne sat outside talking with the woman who ran the hotel and her daughter. For dinner we walked through town and uphill to the Orient, a large restaurant known for its delicious multi-course meals. Susanne wasn't too hungry so she ordered some soup and pasta, but I was eager to try the fixed-price dinner: a feast of goulash, garlic bread, bean salad, fried cheese borek and a glass of red wine. Business was slow that night -- apart from two British women who were sitting outside with us, the only other diner at the restaurant was a pesky brown cat who meowed and meowed for food scraps but was too timid to get close enough to actually eat anything.

The temperature had dropped significantly since when we first sat down for dinner. Despite being warmed by several apple teas, Susanne and I were eager to leave the restaurant and get back to the hotel.

As we prepared for bed I discovered that an intolerable amount of noise was coming through our wall from the hotel restaurant. I tried to close a small window as tightly as possible but it did little to dampen the voices emanating from next door. I walked outside to scope the hotel just to see if there was a possibility of changing rooms.

"May I help you, sir?" I heard a deep voice from above. A heavy-set man with a dark black mustache was sitting on a second floor balcony drinking tea and playing backgammon with a friend. I hadn't seen him before, but he appeared to be the owner.

"I was wondering if we could change rooms," I said to him. "We are right next to the restaurant and the noise is making it hard to sleep."

"No, do not change rooms," he replied. "I will shut down the restaurant so you may sleep."

"You don't have to do that," I responded, a little bewildered by his plan. "We would be happy to move. There's no need to close the restaurant for the night."

"No, I will close it," the man insisted. "Thank you for informing me of your trouble. Good night, sir."

"Tesekkürler," I replied. "Iyi geceler."

I went back to the room and explained the situation to Susanne. True to the man's word, within a few minutes all was quiet.

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