My time in Iran is at an end. Continuing west, I enter Turkey, universally acclaimed as a darn great place to visit.
Iran’s western frontier
My father and I are dropped at the Iran/Turkey border by our driver, and then pay a taxi driver a nominal fee to drive us up to the customs clearance building. Leaving Iran is even less eventful than entering it. At first we find it difficult to even find an agent to stamp our passports; evidently there are few foot passengers today. Eventually we find someone, he lazily stamp our passports without any questions or inspections, and we are free to go.
On the Turkish side, dirt and onion skins litter the floor, and Turks crouch by huge sacks of onions, potatoes, and melons. The border agent takes about 5 minutes to validate my pre-purchased electronic visa, but before long we are allowed to pass, again without a bag inspection.
Upon exiting the building we are immediately accosted by taxi drivers offering to take us to Doğubayazıt, the nearest city. We negotiate a rate in Euros, and without further ado climb into a battered minivan. 30 minutes later the taxi screeches to a halt in the Doğubayazıt bus station’s driveway, causing the outgoing bus to come to a halt. The driver rolls down his window and shouts up to the bus driver in Turkish. Without a moment to collect our thoughts, we find that our luggage is being hauled out of the taxi and tossed into the bus’s cargo hold, and we ourselves are ushered urgently onto the bus. Our taxi driver has somehow negotiated us a seat on the bus, which just so happens to be going west into Anatolia.
The dry landscape that dominates Iran gives way to rolling hills, rivers, and mountains. The farms are larger and greener, and the buildings are in better repair. Out of the bus window I spot a beautiful snow-capped volcano; it is Mount Ararat, supposedly the landing place of Noah’s Ark. It’s interesting that Noah didn’t stray further from the Garden…
Turkey is renowned for having excellent bus service, and in my experience it does not disappoint. All of the buses are new and comfortable. Each seat has a fold-down tray, a seatback television screen (Turkish language only), and a complementary set of headphones. The most luxurious buses have only three seats across, making the ride even more comfortable.
Every couple of hours an attendant wheels a cart of complementary drinks and snacks down the aisle. I am offered Nescafé, tea, or juice, as well as a selection of pre-packaged cakes. Sometimes the attendant also offers a squirt of lemon cologne to splash on your face, although this practice seems to be losing out in favour of packaged moist towelettes.
After a series of three buses, we arrive in Goreme, Cappadocia, in central Anatolia, feeling reasonably fresh and active. Later that night, my father and I are joined by my sister Katie. That’s 50% more family fun!
Hello, developed world!
The Cappadocia region of Turkey is famous for its unusual rock formations. Uneven weathering of the soft volcanic tuff has produced unlikely spears of rock rising from the landscape, looking like a Dr. Seuss illustration. The tallest and skinniest ones, which look either mushrooms or a phallus, depending on your perspective, are known as “fairy chimneys.” Many of these have been hollowed out over the millennia as dwellings. Today they are used as hotels.
We spend a day exploring the city and the surrounding countryside, including the splendid “open air museum” that showcases, among other things, the marvellous Byzantine churches carved into the rock. The difference between idyllic tourist-path Turkey and what I have experienced over the past few months (rural China, Central Asia and Iran) are pronounced. People drive according to the rules here. There are a variety of restaurants. I have to dodge people with wheelie suitcases. I’m so jarred by the change in atmosphere that I buy a pair of tartan-patterned imitation Ray-Ban sunglasses from a street vendor. It’s almost too much to handle.
We watch the sunset over the moonscape from a stylish patio while drinking beer—another thing I’ve missed over the past month. What a life!
A balloon is not an airplane
The following morning we rise at 4:20 a.m. and await our shuttle. We are about to depart on a quintessential Cappadocia experience—a hot air balloon ride!
Simmer down, simmer down. Yes, I know that a hot air balloon ride involves flying. But I never said I wasn’t going to fly on this trip. I just said I wasn’t going to use an airplane. Read the fine print, sonny.
The team is already setting up the balloon when we arrive in the dark field. The woven basket, large enough to accommodate 20 riders, sits on the ground, while the deflated balloon is draped to one side, covering a substantial area. These suckers are big.
Suddenly a jet of orange fire bursts from the burner and the balloon begins to inflate. Giant fans set to one side work to keep the balloon pointed in the right direction and prevent the canvas from catching fire. In almost no time at all, the balloon buoys up, and we’re invited to climb into the basket.
An attendant circulates and clips a loop around my waist, seemingly as a half-hearted safety measure to keep me from plummeting to my death should I fall out of the basket. There is no safety training. I suppose that if the balloon or basket catches fire, there’s really nothing to do but die.
With great fanfare, the operator fully engages the burner, and the balloon lifts gracefully into the air. There is no jarring motion, no sudden jerk. Before long we’re high above the ground, and we watch as the sun rises above the Turkish countryside. The early morning light makes shadow puppets of the fairy chimneys.
Our operator handles the balloon with amazing skill. We glide up and down, rotate slowly, hover, and drift. At times he comes within a few meters of the ground, floating effortlessly and silently over the edge of a deep valley. At other times he takes us high in the air. It’s a remarkable dance. And we’re not alone. All around us, balloons of every colour bob up and down, drifting on the air currents just like us. It’s a carnival in the sky.
After some times, I spot a team of flat-bed trucks racing over the dirt. They are coming to meet us. Our balloon descends for the final time, and then touches down with a barely-perceptible thump directly on the back of one of the trucks. This guy could probably thread a needle with his balloon.
The underground cities of Cappadocia
In the afternoon we take a dolmus (mini-bus) to the nearby town of Derinkuyu. Here, rather than viewing the landscape from above, we can view it from below. Derinkuyu is the home to an ancient underground city carved out of the rock over millennia. Historians and archeologists think that the city was first occupied over 2500 years ago, but it really expanded under Romans, and later Byzantine, rule. In its final form, the city sprawls over eight levels, at a depth of up to 80 m.
The underground city was used primarily as a place of refuge in times of war. It was fully provisioned with stables, kitchens, a winemaking area, a church, a water source, and anything else a besieged population might need. There are still blackened marks on the ceiling where candles burned, and the ventilation shafts are intact. There is even a tunnel connecting a neighbouring underground city (closed to the public), complete with Indiana Jones-style circular stone discs to close off the portals to invaders.
Rolling to Istanbul
It’s unfortunate that I can’t charter a balloon to take me all the way to Istanbul, our next destination. But alas, I must take a bus (my father and sister elect to fly). So I climb back on another one of Turkey’s excellent busses the following morning and continue my journey west.