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Sunday, 13 November 2011

Turkey Part 1: Crossing the border from Syria; Onwards to Goreme (Cappadocia) and Derinkuyu Underground City

Turkey. The last country on our Trans Africa trip. It was sad to see, but to be honest, a lot of people (myself included high on this list) had been looking forward to the end for a while. The Middle East (Egypt, Jordan, Syria and now Turkey) had been great but it just didn’t capture the spirit of adventure like a lot of Africa did - particularly the route we took down the west coast of Africa, which had been left largely untouched by tourism. That being said, it seemed apt to be celebrating with Turkey over the Christmas period…

It was late afternoon on December 23rd 2010 when we crossed the border. It was a cold and grey day, and I was being laughed at by my co-passengers for looking like I’d come straight out of a trailer park: second-hand trucker hat, aviators, ill-fitting vest, unkempt beard, stained jogging bottoms and Crocs on my feet. I’m not sure if they were laughing at my garb or at the fact that I was wearing a vest in the cold… I didn’t think it was that cold…or maybe I was just being kept warm by the Scottish blood running through my veins.

Considering we were heading back into the “western-world,” the border crossing was a bit of a convoluted throwback to the sort of stuff we’d seen closer to the heart of Africa. We had to hand our passports in at one place, then leave them with that office and take a stamp or something to another office about 200 metres away, then pay for a proper stamp then go back and get our passports from the first office, then cross the border.

We made our way towards Goreme and got as far as we could before the daylight failed. Then we found a truck-stop/layby and parked up for the evening for some (partially defrosted) chicken nugget tortilla wraps cooked up by Pat and Kimbo. There was a derelict building towards the back of the car park which some of us explored (only to find the disused toilets had actually been used for a loooooong time after they stopped working…it was a sinus-splitting stench).

We all shuffled into our tents pretty hastily so as to avoid staying out as the night temperature dropped. As we did so, Marjane explained how the previous year, when he did the Trans that started in November 2008 (as opposed to March like ours), the asphalt of the car park had got so hot that the passengers could barely sit on the floor let alone pitch their tents. It just goes to show how doing a Trans like this, crossing a multitude of countries as well as the Tropics and the Equator, the weather and time of year can impact your experience greatly. I think the November Trans finished in Turkey in late August/September…and as my Scottish blood finally failed me that evening, and my teeth chattered me to sleep, I thought of how much I would have preferred to be snorkeling off a boat near Olu Deniz (as they had done on the November Trans) as opposed to braving the cold. 

We had a quick breakfast at the break of dawn and jumped back on Roxy before finishing our journey to Goreme – a town in the Cappadoccia region of Turkey. Goreme was a truly stunning and mystical place, like something out of the minds of JRR Tolkein (Hobbiton) or George Lucas (Tatooine). The landscape was dominated by wind-hewn chimney stacks, which the local Turks had fashioned into their own abodes.

On the way in, Marjane stopped Roxy at a stunning lookout point. Amidst friendly banter with some of the local touts selling “traditional” Cappadoccian souvenirs, we all stood agasp at such a wonder and hoped more than usual (and with a greater likelihood than usual), that this year we would have a white Christmas. Waking up to any kind of virgin normally means you haven’t done your job right, but waking up and seeing this landscape under a thick layer of virgin snow would have been one hell of a spectacle…alas, it was not to be.

The viewpoint. Looking out over Cappadocia.

Like something out of Hobbiton or Tatooine.

Homeless tries on one of the local souvenirs.

We finally reached a place called "The Rock Valley Pension" - an amazing and cosy little hostel nestled into the base of some of the aforementioned rock formations. After a bit of dilly-dallying about who slept in which room…and with whom. Everything was settled, bags were dumped on beds and we all congregated in the hostel’s ample (and uber-comfortable) lounge/bar area. Some people then went off exploring the town, some retreated to their rooms, some used the free wi-fi to catch up with friends and family back home and some started tucking into the beers and the spirits (…of Christmas yet to come).

Roxy - Parked up outside the Rockey Valley Pension, Goreme.

By dinnertime, everybody was back in the lounge and the general hubbub was at a higher volume than it had been earlier. I took an opportunity to pop out and Skype home from my laptop in my room, and I swear I must have gone back only an hour later and already, words were being slurred and eye contact was a struggle. In the corner you could hear the beginning of “deep and meaningfuls” so I chose my moment to sneak back out quietly. There were a few valiant (and drunken) efforts to come and get me but thankfully, I was still feeling a little bit rough from whatever I picked up in Aleppo, so I at least had a (very lame) excuse to duck out of the inebriation. The truth is, I’ve never been a fan of boozing on Christmas Eve – I’d grown up as the oldest of four (by seven years) so it was always about my wee siblings enjoying “the magic” rather than me stumbling home and waking everybody up at 1am and disturbing Santa as he was putting presents in sacks…

More to the point, I’ve never fancied spending Christmas Day hungover as a lot of the others did…in fact, there were a few we didn’t see until lunchtime and one or two we didn’t even see all day on Christmas: they missed the non-traditional, yet awesome Christmas lunch put together by our resident Italians (Marjane and Gab) and didn’t even surface for the much-hyped “Secret Santa”!

Secret Santa went down really well and there were some cracking presents dished out. Inevitably, before 30 minutes had passed, everybody had done the detective work and figured out who had got what for whom: Dan got an ornate beauty of a shisha pipe from Elisa which no doubt blew the $5 budget right out of the water; Allison got some furry lion slippers from Kyle; Pat got a “Call To Prayer” alarm clock from…Son I think. As I suspected from the glance over the fire back in Damascus, when the names were pulled out of the hat, Kimbo was indeed my Secret Santa, and she got me a miniature shisha pipe, which now sits pride of place in my room.

The next few days were filled with more of the same antics with one of the highlights being a paintball session. It was a pretty amateur set-up with wooden crates and hay bales making for much-needed sniping points/hideouts within the 50 metres squared enclosure. The layout didn’t stop us from having a good time trying to blast each other to smithereens. I think Allison and Spencer had the most fun towards the end: they were the only ones with any ammo left so it was a husband and wife showdown til they ran out of paintballs.

L-R: me, Ish, Son, Ron, Allison, Mark, Gab, Spence, Kimbo. (Photo courtesy of Allison Harvey.)

On Dec 28th, inspired by two of the couples (Gab and Elisa, Kim and Kyle) on the trip who had done it the day before, a gang of us hired some scooters with the idea of...
  • A. bombing around the Cappadocian countryside, 
  • B. finding one of the underground cities and 
  • C. staying alive!
Any of my friends back home can testify to the fact that things with motors and me, just aren’t meant to get along.  For example:

When I was about 15, I spent a good couple of weeks helping one of my best friends put together a “chicken-chaser” of a scooter that he’d bought dirt-cheap. The thing’s motor was barely more powerful than a lawn-mower and it made the obligatory horrific high-pitched whining sound that seems to provide non-stop entertainment for teenagers stuck behind you at traffic lights across the globe. We didn’t care, this was us on the road to freedom….so we carried out a black and red spray paint job that made it look like the faux-camo trousers East 17 used to wear…then we gave it the once over with some T-Cut before covering it in Billabong and Rip Curl stickers. We couldn’t find stickers for the brands of choice – Stussy and Quiksilver – so we compromised by making some cardboard stencils and spray-painting the logos on.

The job was complete and my mate (Dom) took his first proud journey around the garden on his souped-up chicken-chaser. Then it was my turn. Sensing my reluctance, Dom told me how simple it was and how I couldn’t go wrong. 30 seconds later, I’m up to my waist in water and algae and trying (but failing) to pull Dom’s pride and joy out of the garden pond. Fortunately, the bike came away relatively unscathed, I just can’t say the same for Dom’s dad’s Koi-Carp collection.

That was 1995 and I hadn’t ridden a scooter since then, so I was pretty apprehensive. Luckily for me, I was in good company: Berbs was the only one with any experience on a scooter or motorbike and, humble as ever, even he confessed to not exactly being an expert. Apart from that, the rest had either as little experience as me…or were completely mal-coordinated!

After a hesitant start from all of us (me more than most as I didn’t even have a full driver’s license at that point – apparently a pre-requisite for renting a scooter here) we were whizzing up and down the roads of Goreme which, up until now, had been quiet at this time of year. There goes the neighbourhood.

Within less than half an hour of being on the bike, all of my fears had disappeared and I was whizzing down the empty country roads with Berbs and Spence, topping at 115km/h. In hindsight, this was pretty stupid – I knew my experience was meager and I could have been hairy strawberry ice-cream if I’d have come off the bike at even half the speed I was going at. At the time, I couldn’t care less.

We passed these strange mushroom-like features at the beginning of our ride. They feature on all the Goreme tourism shots.

Mount Doom in the background!

We rode for a couple of hours out of Goreme before stopping for a snow-fight on the side of the road (it seems that we had come agonizingly close to a white Christmas in Goreme). There were a few more stops along the way to check maps and ask locals for directions but eventually, we reached the ‘Derinkuyu Underground City’ and before entering, popped into a local restaurant for some Pide…beautiful Pide. (Pronounced 'pid-ay'. An amazing pizza/panini type dish that Ish introduced me to.)

Derinkuyu Underground City

We didn’t really know much about Derinkuyu and were still buzzing from our bike journey when we got in. Entry cost us 15 Turkish Lira (just under 8.5USD), and it was money well spent. It was an amazing place and it hurt my brain trying to picture how entire communities and civilisations had flourished here in one of Goreme’s handful of underground cities. The “city” went about 85 metres deep and with its own underground school and burial chambers was supposedly big enough to shelter tens of thousands of people along with their livestock. We all practically skipped our way around behind our guide – I’m not sure if our bikes had leaked petrol fumes or if we were just so exhilarated from the ride there and the fact that none of us had crashed.

Son crouches in one of the many passages.

Berbs feigns death by hanging in the burial chamber. (The sign says 'Graves').

The view from the afterlife. In the words taken from Spike Milligan's epitaph "I told you I was ill!" L - R: Berbs, Spence, Pat, Tanj, Ish, Son, Allison.

It was pretty damn cool.

Playing around in the underground school's playground. L-R: Allison, Spence, Son, Ish, Pat, Tanj. Berbs is lying down.

Pat & Tanj - ready to take on the lunar landings.

The journey home couldn’t come quick enough – not because we were bored of the underground city, but because we’d all enjoyed the freedom of taking in the Cappadocian countryside from the seat of a scooter.

Time to reflect with my wingman.

The Hell's Angels were quaking in their boots. L-R: Berbs, Ish, AK, Spence, Allison, Son, Tanj & Pat.

To make the return leg a little bit more interesting, we tried to just make it up as went along…with little reference to the map. At one point this lead to us all trail-blazing along a dirt path which turned out to be nothing more than a trough in a Turkish farmer’s furrowed field.

Just outside of Goreme, we stopped off at a place called Rose Valley where - it was rumoured - we would see the best sunset we could ever expect to see.  We’d seen so many magical sunrises, sunsets and even “moon-rises” on this trip that it was hard to rank them in any order of preference, but this sunset was certainly up there as one of the best I’ve seen in my life. I can confirm though that it was, without a doubt, the most colourful sunset I’ve ever seen. The sky was awash with warm hues of orange, swirls of vivid pinks, and electric purples. It was like it had been taken directly from one of Jimi Hendrix’ acid-induced dreams or a psychedelic rock video from the mid-70’s. On that note, Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith fame) was once quoted as saying “the only difference between pink and purple was a tighter grip…


Pat & Tanj take it all in. (I told you the colours were amazing.)

Ish's Sponge-Glove Square-Pants. (Bought in Damascus.)

No Photoshop necessary.

The ride home had been little bit more eventful than our outbound one: at one point, we stopped behind Son who was in hysterics having just witnessed Spence over-use his throttle and go flying over a grass island at a junction. Not to be outdone by her hubby, Allison also stacked her bike in front of a group of local men in a sleepy town we passed through. Thankfully, her pride was the only thing that took any bashing worthy of mention. About an hour from home, my scooter starting giving an even more teenager-friendly whine than originally and when we stopped I realized that it’s exhaust had rattled itself half loose

Back at the bike shop, my dodgy exhaust went unnoticed by the owners, but they did pick up on the broken wing mirror on Ish’s bike…I didn’t really get the full details as Ish got pretty “emo” about it when I asked but essentially he’d dropped his bike after an abrupt stop somewhere along the journey. He’d noticed the break but, under the duress of the rest of the group, tried his luck at telling the bike owners that it was like that when they gave it to him. Despite this being feasible (considering they didn’t do a bike check with any of us before we took off) they weren’t swallowing it and I think poor old Ish had to fork out a hefty lump of money as a result.

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