Day 276 – Micro-Adventure in Cappadocia

Slippery Valleys, Cold Camping, and a Candy Colored Sky

 

The outdoor activities of Cappadocia slow down during winter time. There are few hikers in the valleys and no cycle tours, 4x4 tours, or horseback riders. This makes sense – it’s freezing outside. But, despite the slow season, we’re here having a mini-adventure for a few days to explore the fantastic fairy chimneys and cave churches that have made the area one of the most visited destinations in Turkey.

Our objectives? Sleep one night up high, so we can see the balloons in the morning, and sleep one night in a cave, with a campfire, and the sound of the wind howling through the chimneys.

The first day out of Avanos it’s around freezing. The map we painstakingly prepared is already somewhere at the bottom of Quentin’s pannier. We’re going to wing it. In the morning we cycle above Love Valley, and up to Uchisar village, known for it’s scraggly chateau and views over the region.

In the hopes of finding a perfect campsite early, we make for Red Valley, and Rose Valley, north of Uchisar. Very quickly, we realize we’ve entered the canyons from above, rather than from the canyon floor. The trails are not adapted to bicycles: narrow, slick with ice, and winding up and down. Pressing on, we tell ourselves that loads of mountain bike tourists ride these trails during the summer. It doesn’t comfort us; we’re pushing our loaded touring bikes up and down the icy trails. We’re lost in a maze of fairy chimneys. Despite it being frustrating, it is a bit magical to be all alone in these strange rock formations.

After a good hour of lugging and tugging the bikes, we reach sunset point. The view spreads over both Red and Rose Valley. We were right to keep pushing. Colors splash across the canyons as the sunlight wanes. Too busy taking in this spectacular performance of nature, we are slow to put up our tent. The second the sun drops below the horizon, the temperature follows suite. The low tonight is -8°C, and we don’t lose anymore time marveling at nature; it’s cold and we’re exhausted.

The hum of the balloons filling with air awakens us an hour before sunrise. Despite the winter temperatures, the hot air balloons of Cappadocia are preparing to take off. All across the valley we can see them filling up. By the time we’re dressed and out of the tent, the sky is dotted with a hundred candy-colored balloons.

Cave Camping and Guests of Fortune

It would be dishonest to say we quickly packed up the tent and got back on the road. The temperature was still well below freezing, and we snuggled back inside our sleeping bags for a few hours while the last balloons lingered in the sky.

Orthisar is our destination today. Located near the southern part of the region, the town is less touristic than Goreme or Uchisar. The tea shops are full of Turkish men, mumbling to each other as they slap down dominos. Across the canyon from town is a vast viewpoint. We stop to admire the cave dwellings. There are fewer “cave hotels” here than in other villages; the caves are used for storing farming equipment, or even livestock.

We heard about a ranch a few kilometers away, called Kapadokya Ranch, run by French and Turkish people. It was a bumpy but calm ride out to the Ranch. Upon arrival, we learn the French owners are not at home. The farm is under the care of Rafit, who has spent the past decade tending the horses. Admiring the horses, who are of proud Anatolian/Arab stock, we get to talking about horse trekking. It doesn’t take long for us to bond; horse lovers always find something to talk about together! When we explain to Rafit that we want to sleep in a cave he tells us right away it was too cold. But we insist. Does he know any caves down the canyon that might be nice? Of course he does, but we should come look at this other cave first; a spare room built into a cave! There is a woodstove for a fire. He is right, it’s very cold…and for us the stove counts as a campfire. Second objective achieved!

While Quentin is taking his shower, Ashley hears a commotion outside. A truck is parked out front, and two men are huddled around a bush. They call her over and explain they’re picking rosehips, “for syrups, teas, confiture!” Huseyin explains his role as chef at a nearby hotel, and invites her to stop by in the morning to visit what he calls, “a hotel like you’ve never seen before.”

In the morning, Quentin is dragging his feet about visiting the hotel, feeling tired and ready for a break after the past days cycling. But Ashley won out, probably because it was on the way to Nevsehir, our next destination.

Describing AJWA Cappadocia as a hotel is doing it injustice: it is a vast, upscale ecovillage. The hotel, which doesn’t officially open until May, pays homage to the history of the Silk Road, the Cappadocia region, and Anatolian cuisine. As we visit, we marvel at the attention to detail, and modest but refined furnishings. Over a platter of candied fruits and homemade cheese, Huseyin shares his vision; within 6 months of opening, he plans for the restaurant to be entirely self-sufficient, with everything being raised or grown in the eco-village. And he invites us to be the first guests, if we liked.

We can’t resist finishing our Cappadocia loop and cycling to Nevşehir, but that doesn’t stop us from accepting his offer two nights later. Our stay does not disappoint. The room and dinner are exquisite, and more than once we pinch ourselves to see if it was real.

 

New Arrivals and the Wild Horses of Anatolia

Though the team at AJWA says we could stay forever, and we are sorely tempted, we must get back on the road; things in our party arre about to change. The morning after leaving AJWA, we wake up in Urgup, a village just a few kilometers north. Two new arrivals show up; the first, 20cm of fresh snow, the second, our friend Antoine, with his bicycle!

Antoine began his bike trip in France last October, and has been chasing us down since New Years. Just before arriving in Turkey, he was swimming on the coast of Greece. The snow is an unlucky surprise for him; subzero cycling and snow covered roads. The snow covered roads are new for us too, and the first day out of Urgup, we all rid with care, afraid of ice. By the afternoon, we’re feeling more confident and enjoy the quiet roads as we cycle towards Kayseri. It turns out the Turks don’t like to drive on snowy roads either.

 

From Kayseri, we plan to take a train north, and skip the frozen and desolate Anatolian plain in order to spend more time exploring Northeast Turkey, which promises plenty of surprises. But before we can go to Kayseri, we have one more objective to achieve in the Cappadocia region: catch a sighting of the last wild Anatolian horses.

Each person we ask suggests a different place to look for the horses. “Near the salt lake,” says one man. His wife tells us that certainly they will be higher up on Mt. Erciyes. According to her, we have no chance to find them. Their neighbor has never heard of these so called wild horses. And so on.

We dutifully cycle to each place the horses might be, but no luck, until after lunch, only 15km from Kayseri, we approach the plains of Dokuzpinar. It is said here there are seven springs, spouting water all year long. From afar we spot about twenty animals grazing but we’re not sure if they are the horses or not. We stash the bikes by the road, and try to approach. Soon we can tell that yes, they are horses! It’s not surprising to find the herd separated into smaller bands for the winter when resources are scarce. Today we’ve found a herd of mares and foals, led by a grey stallion who keeps a watchful eye on us as we approach. He lets us get within about 60m of his herd before he rounds up the mares and begins to lead them away.

There was no better goodbye to Cappadocia than the feeling of watching a herd of horses communicate and act together in their homeland.