I half expected to be mauled by Dino, Fred Flintstone’s pink dinosaur, as I disembarked from my bus in Göreme. Perhaps a brontosaurus powered excavator or a pterodactyl delivery vehicle would be around the first bend in the road. A surreal arid landscape of organically shaped ‘fairy chimneys’ surrounded the touristy town center. Shops and hotels were dug into and grew out of the skin-tone stone walls, replicating the ancient cave dwellings littered about the area. It’s a truly bizarre aesthetic almost certainly unique to the Cappadocia region of Turkey.
After recovering from 24 hours of bus travel (it turns out Turkey is a very large country...) I dawned my boots and wandered out into the free-form work of erosion and time. I waded my way through the stone waves of the Rose Valley, and was soon completely enveloped in the strange Dr. Seuss environment. Cave dwellings of all shapes and sizes were recessed into the walls. Some were low and easy to explore and others so high off the ground it was difficult to imagine how someone could have entered, let alone built it, thousands of years ago. As I ventured deeper cave churches and eventually entire monasteries materialized. Bright frescoes from the early hundreds still radiated, having been protected from the harsh sun and dust by the resilient cave walls. I crossed paths with only a handful of other visitors as I wiggled through and scrambled over the endless undulations of rock.
Each morning around five, just as first light began washing into the valley, a deep VOOSHHH! would break the morning calm. VOOSHHH! like a power washer spraying against pavement. VOOSHHH!, VOOSHHH!, VOOSHHH! The sounds gained frequency and strength. A crescendoing alarm clock, calling me out of bed each morning to take in a remarkable spectacle. From the terrace of my guesthouse I watched dozens of hot air balloons fire their burners, drifting aimlessly in the calm sky. Hundreds of them bobbed around, silhouetted by the rising sun. The passengers eagerly snapped their bird’s eye Instagram photos as I watched from the ground. One by one they began to descend, landing throughout the valley. As they plopped down my interest waned, and a morning Turkish coffee beckoned.
Along with the hot air balloons and wacky terrain, a large number of underground cities lurk beneath the hot pavement in the surrounding area. These massive dwellings can burrow over eleven stories beneath the earth, and many were able to sustain populations well into the thousands. For months on end during raids and wars from ancient times through the middle ages entire cities relocated into these early bunkers. Exploring the claustrophobic tunnels, I certainly did not develop envy for those who called them home.
Cappadocia has long been a famed region the world over. I was no stranger to the iconic sunrise balloon photos, and expected it to be overrun by visitors. But what I found was something quite different. A sparsely populated tourist town, full of tour providers, scooter renters, and accommodation slingers, but only lightly covered by visitors whom descended primarily from other parts of Turkey. The area is literally covered in UNESCO World Heritage sites, most of which are extremely compelling. Yet unlike the rest of the world, these sites are empty. As I wandered around the semi abandoned town, I started to realize the lack of tourists I had experienced since arriving to Turkey wasn’t an East Turkey phenomenon. I was beginning to understand this was the carcass of a once thriving Turkish tourism industry.