Easy Riders

rock of Uchisar
Uçhisar Kalesi, Cappadokia
Thursday, September 2.

Susanne and I slept in until after 9am -- unusually late for us in Turkey. The last several days had been exhausting for both of us, so we planned to take it easy for the morning. We spent a long breakfast at the Vegemite Cafe, where Susanne took pictures of Abdullah, the son of the cafe owner. Abdullah posed happily for each shot, picking up one of his puppies for that added dose of cuteness.

"Ask him how old he is," Susanne requested.

"Kaç yasindasiniz, Abdullah?" I asked.

"On," he replied. "On dokuz."

"That's a little strange," I said to Susanne. "He said he was 10, but then he said 19. I think what he meant was 10-9, as in he was almost ten years old."

In the back of the cafe I noticed Abdullah's teenaged brother tuning a long-necked stringed instrument. The neck was about three feet long and it had a small, gourd-like body at one end. Since Susanne was busy taking pictures, I decided to investigate.

"Bu ne?" I asked the teenager.

"It is a saz," he replied in English. "It is a popular Turkish instrument."

"Do you play saz?" I asked.

"Biraz," he said. "Only a little. I have played for two months." The young man began to strum away at the saz, playing a traditional Turkish folk tune. It sounded like a Middle Eastern banjo, though about two octaves lower.

"Çok güzel," I said to him as he played.

"It's okay," he replied, a little embarrassed. "I must practice more."

Turkish Pronunciation

Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!
After breakfast Susanne and I walked towards the otogar to stop by several tour agencies in hope of some of advice regarding how we should get to our next destination, Nemrut Dagi. The great mountain temple of Nemrut Dagi is one of most unusual sites in all of Turkey, but as fate would have it, the mountain's remoteness made it a frustratingly long journey. If we were to get their by bus, we would have to catch a bus from here to Kayseri, then change buses for Adiyaman. Upon arriving in Adiyaman six hours later, we'd have to wait around for another bus to Kahta, a grimy oil town that serves as the closest base to Nemrut. From there, we'd have to make arrangements for a taxi or tour group to take us to the top of the mountain at 3am in order to make it to the summit for sunrise.

On the whole, this course of action sounded downright miserable to us, so we decided to invest in a package tour from Göreme. The standard tour would take you to Kahta on the first day, stopping at several notable sites along the way. The next morning we would then visit Nemrut Dagi before continuing on to the city of Urfa. After touring Urfa for the rest of the day, the group would then return to Cappadokia. Since Susanne and I intended to visit Urfa and then head further east towards Lake Van, we hoped it would be possible to join a tour for two days and then split off in Urfa before the group returned to Göreme.

Susanne and I visited Hiro Tours, which had arranged our Ilhara Valley trip the previous day. Ahmed the pseudo-Australian Turk greeted us again and brought us into his office. Unfortunately his company didn't have a scheduled tour to Nemrut that week but he offered to arrange one through another company. Since I knew this would only jack up the price for us, I suggested to Susanne we look elsewhere.

"Did you see his desk?" Susanne asked me as we left.

"No," I replied. "What did I miss?"

"That guy had 15 pictures of himself under a piece of glass. How arrogant!"

"How do you know there were 15 of them?" I wondered.

"I counted while you and he talked," she explained. "He must really love himself."

Across the street we stopped at the Ötüken Voyage travel agency, which advertised "Nemrut Tour Every Friday" on a sign out front. We talked for a while with a Turkish man who spoke English with a French accent. He said there would be a tour leaving tomorrow, and at that particular moment there were only two people signed up for it. I told him we would think about and get back to him late in the afternoon.

Susanne and I could now get down to our main objective for the day: renting a pair of motorscooters. For years Susanne had talked about the wonderful time she and her sister had once spent riding motorbikes around Hawaii. I had never been on a motorbike before, and she convinced me that Cappadokia would be the perfect place to try it for the first time.

Just uphill from the otogar we waited at a small shop that specialized in bikes as two Australian women in string bikini tops finished their riding instructions. Susanne and I were both surprised that women would actually go around local villages in bikinis -- Cappadokia was a far cry from the Aegean party scene, and dressing this way had to be an insult to many Turks. Eventually the Aussies took off on their bikes and gave us a chance to check out two bikes for ourselves. Each scooter cost just under five million lira for four hours and required our passports as deposit. A woman at the shop explained how to start and stop the bike, as well as how to park it. Susanne took off down the street as soon as she mounted her motorbike. I, on the other hand, surged directly towards a median and almost crashed before I got a handle on how to hit the brakes. Feeling a bit more confident now that I had managed to save the bike, I gingerly turned the front wheel towards the street and hit the gas. I was soon on my way, riding down the sunny streets of Göreme with Susanne leading the way.

Susanne and I surged uphill as a warm wind blew through our hair. Though we had yet to arrive anywhere interesting I still felt a sense of exhilaration at the prospect of cruising around Cappadokia for the afternoon, free to ride wherever we wanted.

I soon caught up with Susanne and saw the huge grin on her face. She was truly in her element.

"Mind if I take the lead?" I yelled to her over the din of the whirling engines.

"Be my guest," she yelled back.

I rotated the handlegrip and rushed past Susanne's motorbike. I had no idea where we would end up, though I knew it was going to be a great afternoon.

As we rode towards the town of Uçhisar we noticed a sign for the Panorama Cafe, a corrugated tin roof restaurant with a stunning view of the Göreme Valley. We steered our bikes into a gravel parking lot in order to take some pictures but had great difficulty manouvering over the stones. Neither of us were able to park the bikes since the gravel wouldn't give us the grounding to flip the bike onto its kickstand. An old man noticed our predicament and came over to help, tugging each bike until we finally managed to get the kickstands in place. As kind as it was for him to help us, it almost wasn't worth his time since we only spent about five minutes soaking up the view. We were both anxious to go exploring and find someplace new, so we soon returned to our bikes and hit the road after a brief struggle with those infernal kickstands.

landscape of Goreme
View of the Göreme Valley, Cappadokia

We circled counter-clockwise around Uçhisar Kalesi, the town's natural stone fortress, hoping to follow the road that our minibus tour had taken us yesterday before veering off towards some hidden valley or obscure village. We rode for 45 minutes past great fields of wheat and vineyards of grapes, though no matter where we went neither of us could spot a path to take us off the beaten track. I looked on a map and saw that the village of Ortahisar was somewhere down the road near the city of Ürgüp. Hoping we'd find something to do in that general direction, I took the lead again and drove onward.

shy girl in a doorway
A shy girl peers through a door, Ibrahimpasa
Susanne and I soon reached a minor intersection about two miles before Ortahisar. A small sign displayed the name of the town Ibrahimpasa and an arrow pointing to the right.

"Is Ibrahimpasa on the map?" Susanne asked as we pulled over to the side of the road.

"I don't see it," I replied.

"Is it in Lonely Planet?" she asked.

"I still don't see it," I said as I thumbed through the book.

"Perfect," she replied. "Let's go."

Susanne took the lead again and headed downhill towards Ibrahimpasa. There was little to see at first but we eventually reached an outdoor market along the side of the road. Women enveloped in black chadors walked alongside the market, pulling small carts stacked with watermelons. An old cobbler lined his blanket with rows of shoes, new and used. We were tempted to stop and look around but we figured we could always stop here on the way back to the main road. The market was too small to be the village of Ibrahimpasa so we picked up speed and continued our journey.

Another kilometer downhill the road unexpected turned to cobblestone, forcing us to ride our bikes as slowly as possible. The street was lined with concrete and mud brick houses whose simple architectural design defied time. The road became extremely steep at this point; I was almost tempted to get off and walk the bike downward. As suddenly as the road had become steep, though, it flattened and opened up into what must have been the central town square. We paused for a moment, looking around the square at groups of old men drinking tea in a shady garden. I wasn't sure if we should park there or not, so we started up our bikes and began to head further downhill. Two men from the tea garden waved over at us and yelled out something in Turkish.

"Üzgünüm, anlamadim," I replied, not understanding what they had said.

"You must park your bikes," a teenaged boy shouted out to us from under a palm tree. "It is not safe to ride further."

"You are welcome to walk around," a man from the tea garden added. As isolated as Ibrahimpasa was from the rest of the Cappadokian tourist circuit, it appeared they were used to having visitors wander through town. Susanne and I parked our motorbikes near a wall and continued the rest of our visit on foot.

view of the village
The village of Ibrahimpasa
The narrow winding streets of Ibrahimpasa were a living time capsule, a perfectly preserved Ottoman-era village without another tourist in sight. The local mosque and the surrounding houses were all built out of whitewashed stone, reminding me of a Greek seaside village. Susanne and I had the streets mostly to ourselves, apart from a young boy walking a donkey and an elderly woman herding two enormous cows uphill.

As we passed the village mosque we could see the road ahead of us spiraling downward into a green valley. To our left, several hundred feet below at the bottom of the valley, more white stone houses decorated the hillside, many with rooftops lined with blankets of fruit and chilis drying in the midafternoon sun.

"Though I'm sure it's not the case," I remarked, "it feels like we're the first visitors to have ever wandered into this village."

"It's so peaceful," Susanne replied. "We seem to have it to ourselves today."

Susanne and I walked up and down Ibrahimpasa's ancient streets, saying "merhaba" to the chador-covered women who passed us. We spotted a young boy and his grandmother sitting on a mud brick ledge. The two of them smiled and waved at us. As usual I pointed to my camera to see if they would be comfortable having me take a picture.

"Yok," the grandmother said apologetically.

As we made a circle and returned to the street by the village mosque, Susanne spotted a young girl standing in an open doorway. Susanne approached the girl and pointed to her camera. Despite her shyness, the little girl bit down on her lower lip and nodded. Susanne and I both took a picture and thanked her, but the girl just gazed back at us, wondering who we were and why we were there.

About a block north of the mosque we spotted a group of four girls walking downhill. Their ages ranging from perhaps eight to 12 years old, the girls appeared to be sisters returning home from school.

"Merhaba," the oldest girl said to us.

"Merhaba," I replied. "Nasilsiniz?"

"Iyiyiz," she replied.

Susanne again pointed to her camera and said, "Photograph?"

"Okay," the oldest replied as the other girls giggled.

four girls smile for the camera

The four girls huddled together and put their arms around each other, smiling for the camera. After we took our pictures the oldest came up to me and said in English, "Address?" Apparently she wanted a copy of the picture. Susanne and I were more than happy to send her one. I pulled out my journal and handed her a pen. The girl carefully wrote out her address, though she neglected to write her name.

"Isminizne?" I asked her.

"Emine," she said, as she leaned over the journal to write out her name.

"Sag olun, Emine," I replied.

Parting ways with the four girls we returned to our motorscooters and rode uphill to the main road, again passing the outdoor market. We had planned to spend some time exploring the town of Ortahisar but discovered that the village had started to succumb to suburban sprawl, its picturesque houses outnumbered by rows of poured concrete apartment blocks. Susanne and I made a brief loop through Ortahisar, passing little of interest save a group of woman in headscarves sitting on a large wicker mat, cleaning several bushels of cotton by hand.

Susanne and I spotted a sign pointing the way to Zelve, not far from the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys. We followed a deserted road through acres of grape vines, entering the outskirts of the rose-hued Kizil Cukur Valley. A couple of kilometers into the valley we reached a small guardpost that was collecting fees for the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys. Since we had just been to the valley for sunset on the previous day, Susanne and I decided we would spend our last hour exploring Uçhisar, which was about three-quarters of the way back to Göreme. Before departing the valley, Susanne suggested we take pictures of each other on our motorscooters. Susanne parked her bike on the side of the road while I manouvered mine into the middle of the pavement. After she snapped my picture I gave into temptation and once again grabbed a couple of grapes off the local vines. The red grapes were so swollen with juice they popped in my mouth.

Andy poses on his motor scooter

Fifteen minutes later we arrived in Uçhisar, its megalithic castle rising high above the town's modest homes and shops. We followed the signs to the city center until we reached a steep fork in the road, with two cobblestone streets leading upwards. We pulled over for a moment to sort out which road to take, as well as to determine whether it was wise to ride our scooters up so severe an angle. A middle-aged man with a thick mustache and gray cap approached us along the right side of the road.

"Merhaba," Susanne said to the man.

"Tesekkür ederim," Susanne replied.

old man sits on a ledge
An old man sits on a ledge outside Uçhisar Kalesi
"Merhaba," he replied, reaching out to shake her hand warmly.

"Uçhisar Kalesi nerede?" I asked, wondering where the castle was.

"Up, up," he replied in English. "Your bike will be okay. Have a good afternoon here."

We road our bikes slowly uphill, carefully avoiding several pot holes in the road. About 100 meters up we reached a small plaza where we parked our bikes in front of a small carpet shop. We followed a small path around the shop and soon reached the based of Uçhisar Kalesi. As impressive as the natural rock castle had been front a distance, up close the kale was truly breathtaking, as if it were the singular worldly inspiration for Pieter Bruegel's Tower of Babel. A ledge along the left side of the path dropped off several hundred feet towards the valley below, giving us a beautiful view of the countryside and the castle's rocky slope. Susanne paused to take a picture of an old man sitting along the ledge while I marveled at the giant tufa formation, spotting numerous man-made caves carved throughout the castle face. I could have imagined spending hours roaming the castle's ancient nooks and crannies, but time was running against us. In just a few minutes it would be 4pm, giving us just half an hour to return our scooters. Susanne and I spent a few more minutes strolling along the base of the castle before returning to our scooters.

old man sits on a ledge
Close-up view of the ancient troglodyte caves of Uçhisar Kalesi

After getting directions back to Göreme from a Turkish woman who tried to speak German to us, we took a brief detour in search of a picturesque spot from which we could take a picture of Susanne on her scooter. Not wanting to have taken the exact same picture of both of us, we neglected to get a second photo inside the Kizil Cukur Valley. Susanne and I drove down a dirt path that seemed to lead into the countryside but then trailed off into unmemorable acres of gravel. We rode back and forth trying to see if there was a good angle from which we could take a distant photo of the castle, but we decided to keep riding towards Göreme in order to avoid giving a couple of local boys the impression that we were teasing them by showing off our scooters. We eventually found a grassy spot behind a house just below the castle to take a picture, and then returned to the fresh black asphalt of the Göreme-Uçhisar highway.

Susanne poses on her scooter

Susanne and I reached the scooter rental shop in Göreme around 4:20pm, ten minutes shy of our four-hour limit. Since we hadn't passed a gas station we never got the chance to fill out our bikes, but the energy-efficient scooters had only swallowed up about 500,000 liras of fuel each. A few blocks away over at the Ötüken Voyage agency, we checked back in to see if the next day's tour to Nemrut Dagi had swelled past its initially-intimate roster of two participants. To our surprise, no one else had made arrangements for the tour, which meant that there was a real chance that we would have a grand total of four of us traveling together to Nemrut and Urfa.

Gambling that the group would remain small, Susanne and I signed up for the trip. For $150 we would have a driver and guide with an air-conditioned minibus, plus hotel, food costs and entry fees to all the sites. The total cost was probably a bit more than if we had chosen to make the trip ourselves and hired local guides and transport, but for the sheer piece of mind it offered, the money was well worth it. We also informed the tour agent that we planned to stay in Urfa and not return with the rest of the group. He assured us that this wouldn't be a problem.

Now that our travel arrangements were secure, we enjoyed a leisurely dinner of vegetarian Turkish pizzas at the Sedef Restaurant. A spitting image of the Sultan Restaurant next door, the Sedef had a long row of outside seating under a wooden awning. The pizzas were tasty but smaller than elsewhere, so we later stopped at the SOS Restaurant to drink some apple teas and split an order of Turkish rice pudding. A German man read Tolstoy on the table next to us as a pair of middle-aged Turks drank copious amounts of tea while whacking their fly swatters against the table.

Susanne and I spent the rest of the evening atop the roof garden of our hotel, drinking more apple çay while writing in our journals. The final call to prayer of the day rang out across the Göreme valley, echoing against the canyon's tufa cones and mud brick houses. We returned to our room sometime after 10pm, at which point I turned on the light and discovered a five-inch scorpion scurrying across the floor. Not sure of any plausible alternative, I walked over to it and squished the poisonous arachnid under my thick hiking boot.

"That was by far the largest animal I've ever had to step on," I said to Susanne, somewhat disturbed by the summary execution. Not wanting to go anywhere near the dead scorpion I covered it with several paper towels and avoided the crime scene for the rest of the night.

Before going to bed the two of us ransacked our room, looking inside and under any possible item that might serve as refuge for the scorpion's vengeful kinsmen. We unpacked and repacked our backpacks, lifted our mattresses, searched behind lamp stands, flung off our sheets and pillows. The scorpion, it appeared, was a lone wolf out on the prowl before I snuffed it. After securing our loose clothes and shoes well above the floor (and thus above the scorpion's nocturnal domain), we shut off the light and went to bed. A moment after the room went dark, Susanne and I both let out an audible creepy-crawly, hair-raising shutter, then broke out into laughter.

"Every time I feel the sheets touch me I think it's another scorpion," I lamented.

"Me too," Susanne said. "I don't know how we're going to fall sleep."

"The scorpion gets his revenge after all, I guess."

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