I sit on the saddle, tighten my helmet strap, and switch on the ignition. I thank the attendant and prepare to take off down the road. He must notice something unusual in my stance, because he calls out, "Wait...have you ever rode one of these before?" When I shake my head from side to side, his eyes widen. "This is very dangerous!" he exclaims. I think to myself, I've seen 12 year old boys riding motor scooters around here, how hard can it be? But I decide that it is probably a good idea to get a little instruction. His colleague gives me a crash course in scooter operation, and finally I'm ready to roll. I resolve to hit maximum speed by the end of the day.
This scooter is my ticket to exploring the fantastical region of Cappadocia, Turkey. It may not be a Harley, but it'll do.
The rock formations that I'm seeing tempt me to pull over and pinch myself. After a prehistoric volcano eruption, this landscape gave way to valleys full of cascading cliffs and bizarre rock columns. I recognize a faint resemblance to Zion National Park in Utah. But this place is completely unique in its own right.
To add to the bizarre nature of the scenery, many of the rocks have been carved and left with what looks like a series of pockmarks. Upon further investigation, I discover that these holes are actually pigeon houses. Yes, that's right. Pigeon houses. Local people collect the pigeon droppings and use it as fertilizer. In fact, it wasn't long ago when a local man would have difficulty wooing a wife if he did not possess a pigeon house. And these houses are visible all over Cappadocia. There must be hundreds of thousands of them. Incredible.
It's past lunchtime and I'm starting to get hungry. Unfortunately I'm in a rural area and there don't seem to be any open restaurants. Being that it's Ramadan (the month where devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset), I may not find any grub for a long while. I hop off my bike and try my luck in the poor yet picturesque old village of Taşkinpaşa. At first glance there doesn't appear to be any living creature around, save for a curious cat eyeing me with suspicion from the rooftops.
I turn up an alley and am greeted by two elderly, veil-bound ladies sitting against a stone wall in the shade. In basic Turkish, I ask them if there is a nearby restaurant open in town. After receiving a negative response, I thank them and start to turn away. But one of the duo yells out to me, and to my surprise, stands up, walks a few steps, and opens a heavy metal door to reveal a giant stone furnace. She pulls out a large bread roll covered with spices and filled with spinach and cheese. She then wraps it in a tattered piece of old newspaper, hands this gift to me, and immediately shoos me away.
Thanks for your generosity, old lady. This was one of the most unexpectedly delicious meals that I've had in Turkey.
Ok, now I really am pinching myself. Carving holes for pigeons is one thing. But now it's clearly evident that people lived inside of these strange rocks. Erosion has left their former residences with a very strange appearance. Perhaps this is where the inspiration for "The Flintstones" comes from. Yabba Dabba Doo!
I don't see how anywhere will be able to top this. The town of Uchisar is stunning. The rock castle up on the hill is the highest point in the whole region and one of the most distinctive landmarks of all Cappadocia. I scale up to its summit. From here I can hear firecrackers being exploded below. I look down and watch the two young culprits running in and out of tunnels carved into fairy chimneys. I wonder if these boys know how lucky they are. I can't think of a more entrancing place in the world for a child to grow up than in the fantasy land of Cappadocia.
I'm standing inside an ancient cave and marveling at a fresco painted on the ceiling. Christians inhabited these grottoes starting from the 4th century, and adorned them with brilliant images of their idols. These painted caverns can be found all over the region. Some have unfortunately been graffitied over, but many remain astonishingly well preserved. In some caves, entire monasteries were created. When Christians were no longer persecuted by the Roman Empire, many people came to Cappadocia in order to learn from those worshiping in their hidden sanctuaries.
Of all the extraordinary places in Cappadocia, none have more impressive histories than the dozens of underground cities that exist here. The largest open to the public, Derinkuyu, was first created in the 8th century BC. Yes, thats nearly 3000 years ago. It was used and expanded all the way through the byzantine era, eventually sinking 11 floors deep and accomodating up to 50,000 inhabitants. I wander the ancient subterreanean tunnels and simply cannot believe that thousands of people used to live here for months at a time, all the while undiscovered by those who hunted them above ground.
The sun is setting and I'm motoring at top speed down an endless desert highway. I'm racing against the clock to get back to my home base before dusk. A comfortable cave bed awaits in my cave hotel located in the cave town of Göreme.
With a slight feeling of loss I returned my borrowed scooter to its owner. Blazing through Cappadocia on two wheels has been one of the highlights of my time in Turkey. I became addicted to the exhilarating sense of freedom my transport provided as well as the intimate connection to the unforgettable scenery that surrounded me. But 80 kilometers per hour wasn't quite enough. Next time, I'm aiming for a real bike...and will anxiously await the first Harley Davidson dealer to operate from the luxurious confines of a cave.