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Field Reporting – Afgan Irony

September 16th, 2009 Tristan No comments

Last night, after bowling three games at UzBowl, I was sitting in the shoe return area waiting for Peretz to come back from a phone call. I had on my blue MBL (Marine Biological Laboratory) shirt, when a hefty, well dressed gentleman of Central Asian ethnicity sat down next to me. I heard him mutter MBL, huh?, and immediately he slapped me on the shoulder in a jovial manner and asked, So what state are you from?Pleasantly surprised to hear some English (the last few countries have, at times, been very linguistically isolating) I responded that I grew in New Jersey and now live in California. Turns out he went to high school in Philly, and is now the head of an Afghani construction company. Over the next few minutes of speedy conversation I assembled the following picture. The US military hires his firm as a primary contractor for reconstruction projects in the war torn regions of Afghanistan. He manages the projects, finding local sub-contractors to perform various, specific construction tasks like masonry, carpentry or excavation.As in the US, the sub-contractors are chosen in a bidding process; specific plans are laid out, costs are estimated in-detail for labor, materials, and transportation. From the primary cash flow his company receives from the US military, he sub-divides it to the subcontractors. Mixed in with the seemingly innocuous costs of each sub-contract is a non-trivial local business tax. Want to take a guess? Yup, thats right, its a payoff in cold hard cash to the Taliban, after all, we wouldnt want any unfortunate accidents to happen on your construction site. In typical bureaucratic style, the US military tracks where each dollar is spent and is fully aware of this cost of doing business.I guess I find it funny that the US military knowinglypays off the Taliban so that buildings can be rebuilt after US bombs destroyed them in an effort to eradicate the Taliban … ahhh … the sad irony of it all. Reporting from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, this is Tristan Ursell for Offsilkroadin.

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A Midday’s Cappadocian Dream: Part 2 (of 3)

September 13th, 2009 Tristan No comments

We descended to the car and prepared our packs and our minds for the adventure ahead.  On the south side of the town square, each step down the cobble-stoned street turned back the hands of time.  Cars were replaced by donkeys eating grass and dried bread; the mild hum of activity from the town square fell all but silent.  Winding our way closer to the remains the ancient urban center, a set of dirty stone steps between two walls led downward.  They seemed our best bet for direct descent to the valley floor.  We walked past reconstructed homes whose facades blended seamlessly with uninhabited rock dwellings.  When the people had left, where they had gone, and why they had vacated this paradise setting were unclear, questions further complicated by numbered stone porticos with old wooden doors and the debris of a timeless livelihood.  Pointed stone archways led onto the porches of houses dug deep into the rock.  Multiple layers of rooms extended inward, left and right.  Inside, the light was dim and air musty, the walls cob-webbed and spectacularly dusty.  Far from lifeless, the space was heavy with the flutter of small grey, brown and blue moths, who, in their hospitality to the first guest in ages, beckoned me to dance with them in their home.  Peretz and I watched their performance, while Amanda and Hari explored the street outside.

We walked along the grassy path of this nestled shire until the road forked, one heading deeper into the dendritic valley, the other closer to Ortahisar.   At this corner, an old stone wall marked the bounds of a formerly cultivated field so verdant we questioned whether it was still in use.  Where crops once grew, a grove of thin birch trees now speckled angled sunlight onto the ground, and mushrooms proclaimed the soil’s virtues.  On the northwest hillside of the field, a lean-to covered the opening of a small cave.  Dusty bedding materials, a dented pot and old walking stick told the story of a nomad that had once inhabited the dark inside.

Momentarily distracted by the beauty of the urban cliff-side dwellings on the right fork, we turned left to hike deeper into the main valley as the last sounds of Ortahisar faded. Mournful coos and the sound of beating wings darted above our heads; where bare sandstone met the brown, grassy plateau, dozens of pigeons navigated networks of small holes in the rock, roosting in the homes built for them by farmers long ago.  We later learned that pigeons held an important role in ancient times, when guano served as fertilizer, housing pigeons was tantamount to winning bread – after all, how could a man care for a fair dove girl if he could not care for a flock of pigeons?

Algae bubbled green and frogs sprang in the small brook that trickled down the path, its source now diverted to farther fields.  Edges of the once tended landscape, smoothed by time, ran along the path.  The fields above now grew wild-haired grasses that revealed the flow of the prevailing wind, and hints of the eons-tilled land waved over the ground.  Suburban homes of stone packed the walls of the widening valley with paths leading into neighborhoods of adjacent sub-valleys.  A switch-backed trail weaved up the hillside to our right.  Like a sandstone egg, cracked in half, the remains of an ancient church stood on the hill top, its ornately carved insides and maroon murals exposed to the elements southwest.  As the largest and most decorated structure we had seen in some time, this was clearly the next destination.

With stallion speed I ran towards the structure.  Thistles poked through my wool socks, their bite screaming respect; and I lived every boy’s dream of following Indiana to the temple’s center.  The chapel’s floor was pitted with stone coffins; some for men, some for children, some for infants.  In the half-domed ceiling above, weathered carvings wove intricate patterns and sun light gleamed through a second story balcony.  Where an altar once stood, an unintentional window now revealed a view of the valley downstream.    A gritty path wound circular to the unofficial balcony above, where a sandstone cone formed a natural dome over the chapel below.  Down the slope, just yards west, the shattered façade of a stone mansion fell into focus.

At the base of the large domestic complex we reprieved, peach juice dripping from our chins.  From the flat land at the front of the complex we surveyed the scene; like enormous piles of white sugar, the sandstone hills flowed one into another, the repository of a great candied civilization.  At different elevations, doorways and paths led deeper into their caramel-colored centers.  Awe-struck, we sat silent; munching our sweet fruit, as sunlight slowly baked visual cupcakes in this huge sandstone oven.  Behind us, no less than three stories of rooms, chambers and tunnels bore into the rock.  Dropping our packs, we set off to explore the bowels of this ancient residence.  Designed with the intuition of everyday living, handholds and tunnels’ width were perfectly suited to dim maneuvers within – move fast, search for balance, and in mild desperation fingers fell on grooves already cut into the rock of this antique jungle-gym.  Passages led to upper levels, and a large crack-passage exited through a small hole onto the sunny plateau above the valley.  The same ground-hugging grapes we had seen earlier now littered the landscape.  On its own accord, a lone tree nurtured sweet tasting apples, and past branches the rock castle of Ortahisar gleamed in the distance.  From the desiccated pages of an alien fairy-tale, the tower stood watch like a stone god over the expanse, purveying the entirety of its verdant valley kingdom.  Under the castle’s parental gaze, I felt the legend of mankind and narrative of creation stretch over the land.  It dawned on me that when untended land gave harvest plenty and peace reigned longer than family blood lines flowed, time could wash clean the markers of history, and oral tradition became fertile ground for tales of gods and snakes, and the first romance between two naked children in the wilderness.

Running free from plateau to slope, tunnel to chamber, we assumed our roles as the elated inhabitants of this forgotten land.    In a field towards the valley floor, a lone donkey bayed us to continue our journey.  As we packed our bags, three Turkish farmers strolled up the path to the domestic complex.  Grass mouthed, their relaxed pose, wrinkled back-country hats, and leather vests said “welcome home.”  With waves and wordless, we passed each other, they to take our roost, and we to move onwards.

The sun had begun the final leg of its journey to the horizon, and we accordingly picked up pace.  Descending back towards the valley floor we followed old trails further up the valley.   As we explored our surroundings, Peretz agreed to run ahead and scout for new directions.  He dove into the mix of brush and trail, only to reappear fifteen minutes later with wild excitement in his eyes, “You must follow me.”  Dodging trees and brush we ran to the base of the sugary sandstone we had marveled at from our previous perch.   In a moment, he was gone, his voice calling us to continue into the crushing darkness of a huge cavern.    I followed his voice and direction to a point many meters within.  At first, it seemed that this was simply a cavern under the rock, a place to cool off or store food.  As my eyes adjusted, the true nature of the cave became apparent.  A vast underground highway led further than I could see, with only the faintest light entering the cave from points deeper within.  On the fringe of invisibility, rock forms on the cavern walls and ceilings around us took on a delightfully eerie repose.  In the darkness, the distant light funneled around me forming a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors that resulted in a pleasant level of disorientation, and the wonders of a dark space called us inward; there could be anything down there.

Like part of a primeval metro system, the tunnel gently turned under the rock dwellings above, with the occasional access point to the surface, perfectly spaced so as to provide just enough light between ‘stops.’  Walking down the tunnel, I was impressed that my eyes could accommodate the ever decreasing levels of light – as one waited at the darkest point of the cave, new light would reveal itself, allowing a traveler to continue.  Whether this was a designed feature or natural convenience was unclear.  I consciously let my mind wander towards child-like fear; what if a small band of ancient inhabitants still darkly lingered, feasting on the last set of tourists who foolishly wandered into their domain, or maybe the last inhabitants had been devoured by the enormous spider that had dug, and now inhabits this cave; this last, grotesquely detailed image sending a slight shudder down my spine, or might the world’s most awesome subterranean rave be thumping ahead, just out of ear shot.  Water trickled on the cave floor as we headed upward, maybe towards the surface again?  Light seeped into the cave as we reached the end of the ‘Rockway’ line in the neighboring sub-valley, now slightly unsure exactly where we were.

Still deep between the sandstone walls, we followed a mixture of trail and streambed on the rising valley floor.  We passed apples, walnuts, and apricots that grew plump and wild, happy to sip the last dregs of sunlight that lapped against the plateau overhead.  We were now in the more rural area of the stone metropolis.  In a small clearing ahead, the brush subsided into grass, and sticks, worn barkless by the beating sun, were stacked against each other to form a fence, needlessly cordoning off the last section of the valley.  A gate in the fence opened into this last, private space.  As we entered the small field within, twilight began, and the white sandstone walls glowed, lighting our way to the valley’s end.  A lone apple tree stood in the natural courtyard, and again my mind drifted to question the myth of creation.  I had always thought The Garden of Eden was a proxy, a conceptual place that lurked in halos beyond the toil and tribulations of agrarian life, beyond the horror and turmoil of war; but in the romance of my mind I saw the reality, that this was it – a perpetually hidden place of peace and plenty.  In words and want, news would spread far and wide of such a paradise, and legend would replace reality about a land where fruit laid low and the nucleus of man first divided.  I couldn’t blame them.  Before our modern understandings, tools and realizations, the perfection of such a place must have begged explanation, especially when compared with the sweat and grime, the disease and the pestilence of the outside world.

At the knoll’s back, the sandstone cliffs overhung to form an enclosed space many meters high, the walls of which could not be scaled.  Water had once flowed through the back of the enclosure, forming a smooth white, natural sky light.   This was the valley’s end.  To our left, gravel covered the ground, and the lazy remains of a wagon sat in shadows, whispering the story of the last inhabitants.  To our right a rickety, single-beam ladder led to a small opening in the rock that presumably opened into the second floor of a residence, but alas the ladder could no longer hold human weight.  On the first floor, a dusty ladder in a cubic room led up to a kitchen on the left, and on the right a dark, well-crafted tunnel burrowed into the rock.  Shining my headlamp around the tunnel uncovered the home’s new residents; crawling insects galore and dusted cob-webs flapped in the air that gently flowed through the tunnel.  Inside, my headlamp pierced through the inky blackness of a tunnel that stretched in a wide arch to the right.  I walked for a distance and reached the adjacent sub-valley from an elevated opening, through which I could I see the deep twilight blue of the evening sky.  About-faced, I extinguished my headlamp and headed back through the tunnel to Eden.  Walking hunched in the darkness, I searched for the tunnel walls and easily found them, again realizing that intelligence and pragmatism had played a role in their design.  I was a caveman – in the pitch black, I could walk at speed with only my knuckles barely touching the tunnel walls, giving the necessary guidance to make it from tunnel end to end – it felt invigorating and beautifully primitive.

The sun had set while we were exploring this last enclave, and sweet darkness now floated onto the plateau.  We back-tracked down the valley to a trail that could take us to the western side of the plateau.   Atop, in the growing darkness, fields of grape plants looked like armies of strange, tentacled creatures scouring the ground, though they paid us no mind.  On the plateau, the fading western light arched eastward; grading exquisitely from blue to black, it shaped the sky into a magnificent dome whose pinnacle towered far beyond the description of mere words, and whose innumerable star spires every cathedral on earth pitifully strives to imitate.  A single tear ran down my cheek, carrying with it the day’s emotions; a concentrated elixir to be left as the desert’s gift.  Ground crunched beneath our feet as we made our way westward, toward the only incandescent lights in sight.

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A Midday’s Cappadocian Dream: Part 1 (of 3)

September 6th, 2009 Tristan 1 comment
A Midday’s Cappadocian Dream:  Part 1
In our cave home, the blankets were damp again with the light and pleasant smell of earth pervading.  We slowly stirred to life and made our way to the upper terrace for breakfast.  On the sunlight and dusty streets below merchants were starting to lay out their carpets.  Car horns, tractors engines and cow bells tunneled their way through the old stone streets to our perch.  The town of Goreme lay among the capped-stone fairy chimneys like the desert’s child – made of the same stone it blended with the eroded cliffs and arid plateau that lay beyond.  A single minaret stood tall with adolescent arrogance, comparing itself to the minarets perfectly crafted by the wind and ice.
Quickly finishing our tea and bread, we made our way down to the car, past house stoops with shoes outside and thin veils of ornate cloth, woven by time and isolation, separating us from the mystery lives inside.   On a covered porch three generations of women gabbed, their progressively sun-wrinkled eyes watched us with reserved curiosity.  Street-wise cats lurked and watched our every movement, fearing reprisal for the small bits they’d stolen the night before.  In the makeshift parking lot a thin block away, tractors rolled by with loads of bricks and local produce, billowing black fumes as they loudly plodded by.   In the town square, we enquired with a local tour organizer where adventure was hiding that day.  Our ingredients were ‘simple’, we wanted nothing short of amazing natural and anthropological beauty, absolutely no tourists, and a healthy portion Raiders of the Lost Ark style adventure.  He replied in a quintessential Turkish accent, “So you like adventure?” and fatefully directed us to a valley beginning from Ortahisar, a small town 9 km northeast of Goreme.
With pocket change jingling, Peretz and I walked to the market in search of tasty treats to be enjoyed at far-gone points:  pears, peaches, grapes and nectarines for all, 4.80 Turkish Lyra in total.  We packed the car and prepared our bags, making sure we had the necessary provisions for the day’s travels:  water, headlamp, camera, jacket, journal, and fruit.  First stop: the Goreme Open Air Museum, 1 km down a wide, black reflective road towards Ortahisar.  Along the road, European backpackers walked with jubilation and local shepherd boys road on jalopy donkeys toward destinations unknown.  A sun-scorched motel advertised the only swimming pool in town:  free for patrons, 9 TL for everyone else.
We parked in the bus parking lot, our station wagon nudged among the larger vehicles.  Par for the course, souvenir shops and ice cream stands lined the short walk to the museum entrance.  Having already been picked apart by dime vultures throughout our travels, the prospect of each paying a steep 15 TL museum fee was wholly unappealing; a not-so-ninja break-in was brewing.  Our ascent was witnessed by anyone who cared to look; we hiked round a fairy chimney that rimmed the valley, to reach the barbed-wire border fence.  Having spent less time culturing the comfort of clandestine activities, Amanda and Hari opted outright to turn back and pay the entrance fee. As they descended, Peretz turned to me, smirked and motioned toward our route of entry.  Like Carnival ninjas – he in a fire-engine red shirt and Gilligan hat, I in my incongruent fedora and bright yellow T-shirt – we descended down the sandstone, past broken glass, thorny plants and rusted barbed-wire fence towards a shady grove on the edge of the museum.  From atop the only modern building in sight, we suspected a plain-clothes museum guard might have spotted us.  As we approached the grove Peretz and I split, he heading for a shady section behind the wall of the ticket office and I strolling through a verdant section, attempting to blend myself with the other museum patrons as quickly as possible.  The guard immediately approached Peretz.  From the corner of my eye I watched as they briefly conversed, Peretz pointing in my general direction.  I later found out that Peretz had told him that his “friends on the hill have my ticket.”  They parted, Peretz heading deeper into the museum and the guard slowly walking in my direction.  I made my way to the first sight – a church carved into the rock – and like a good, ticket-buying tourist began to read the English information sign.   The guard greeted me and asked to see my ticket, I hesitated briefly and explained that I had “hiked” into the museum – a half-truth.  Without incident he pointed me towards the ticket booth.  We parted, and I began to walk towards the ticket booth just as Hari and Amanda were coming through.  I quickly asked Amanda for her ticket, to be momentarily passed off as my own.  Half her fault and half my own, we very conspicuously exchanged the ticket and immediately I knew this could have been done more smoothly.  As I began to walk back into the museum, I felt a tug at my right arm.  Without a word the guard walked me back to the ticket booth where I begrudgingly purchased my ticket.
Inside the museum tourists strolled and signs indicated the purpose of each underground structure, the architectured remains of lives all but beyond the reach of recorded history.  Churches dug into the rock, adorned with columns built under the pretense of structural support, within stone that had known how to support itself since long before the appearance of mankind.   Cracked and crumbled, faded wall paintings depicted Biblical history in flat, pre-Orthodox style.  The birth of the world, the fall of man, and his subsequent redemption were drawn in basic and once bright colors, with a degree of skill likely limited by the coarseness of their brushes, the thickness of the paint, and the at best dim light.  Other rooms served as kitchens and food store-houses, their tool-hewn ceilings still soot black from the countless fires that had burned within.  The air inside was still and old, with hints of creosote.  I wondered when the last time a fire had burned in the shallow pits on the floor, centuries at least, maybe more.  In those close quarters the smoke must have been unbearable.  Walking up the cliff side, a portico led into the long dark expanse of a dining room that could seat forty people.  The only other tourist left the room, and I sat on the fixed stone bench less than a foot from the monolithic stone table, with stone walls, stone ceilings and stone floors.  With the room empty, I spoke out loud to get a better idea of the acoustics –  they were terrible – with forty people gossiping, trading, praying, singing or whatever their employment of speech, it must have been a deafening hum of noise, out of which one could pick up only what their seat mate said.  What did they talk about during their meals?  There was no notion of international current events, no grand political parties, no new iphone to pine over, nowhere far lands to explore.  I can only guess it was the more pragmatic things of life:  their harvest, their stock, their romances, their god.
I walked around the cliff side to a higher elevation taking in a view of the surrounding, defunct rock village trying to erase the telescopic camera-carrying tourists and buses from view.  I let the view meld with my mind’s eye, I saw donkeys wandering, small lamps lighting the inside of stone homes, men talking about what to plant where, smoke rising from porticos, the sound of tool against rock, children in simple, earthen-tone garments yelling and playing with sticks, others fetching water from the brook that ran down the valley floor, as their mothers washed clothes.
I met the gang at a preordained shady location.  Peretz was now wearing Amanda’s off-pink, tight-fitting shirt in a successful effort to evade detection by the guards.
The car climbed up cobble stone switch-backs to the top of the plateau.  A few minutes and wrong turns later, we were trolling through the outskirts of Ortahisar.  A sun-bleached sign depicted an intriguing rock tower and guided us to the right.  Our car clattered down the main street, attracting the scare-crowed gaze of the men seated outside each shop.  We approached the village center and parked just south of the town square.  The surrounding streets fell out of view from our current elevation, and an enormous natural rock tower with Turkish flag atop, stood watch over us– clearly what the sign had shown.  At the foot of the tower were two antique shops with antique owners, a small café and a mosque, whose minaret looked sickly thin in comparison to the towering rock above.   Tinny  music floated through the noon air from the green copper amplifier of an old wind-up record player. Forlorn farm equipment lay against the walls of two buildings whose alley way led up a cobble stone path to a sun-light terrace.  Raggedy, wind-beaten umbrellas shaded the tables of the dining area.  All around flowers proudly basked themselves in the midday sun, their colors so sharp, vibrant and varied that is was hard to break their deep gaze.  Below the terrace lay a small underground café whose patterned, carpeted floors, beaded doorways and dusty shelves immediately warped me back to a much older time, when camel riding merchants sipped apple tea and bargained over the price of wool.  Outside, blue spray paint arrows and rusty sign indicated how to ascend the rock castle.
At its base the shattered remains of a decades-old café occupied a large cavern.  Broken glass lay on the ground spelling out the boundaries of a jig-saw puzzle, and a desert-dusted cooler housed one lone, hot soda can.  Past a broken gate and up stone steps, we began to ascend the castle.  A welded angle-iron ladder led us up the first two levels, into rooms with dark pits and shadowed passages heading in different directions.  Watching our heads, we scampered up and up, collecting dirt and dust along the way.  Passages led to crumbled porticos overlooking the valley below; balconies had once been here as indicated by the steps outside that led now only to the crushing fall below.   Ten stories of climbing opened on the upper look-out point where the Turkish flag flapped in the breeze.  From our craggy hold, the lay of the land was clear.  The castle was the headstone of an entire abandoned civilization, complete with downtown, suburbs and rural areas, in a microcosmic layout that stretched from northeast to southwest.   Water, wind and ice had carved an elaborate network of branched valleys stretching to the limits of sight towards distant occupied villages, only to coalesce not far from the base of the castle.  On the plateau above the valley, fields of ground-hugging grapes grew wild in the sun, living remnants of ancient agricultural efforts.  Down fairy tale slopes, the sandstone flowed like thick cream to a verdant valley floor.  In the early afternoon sun, routes were appraised and our index fingers charted the course southwest from the castle’s base to the village of Ibrahimsa in the distance.
We descended to the car and prepared our packs and our minds for the adventure ahead.  On the south side of the town square, each step down the cobble-stoned street turned back the hands of time.

In our cave home, the blankets were damp again with the light and pleasant smell of earth pervading.  We slowly stirred to life and made our way to the upper terrace for breakfast.  On the sunlight and dusty streets below merchants were starting to lay out their carpets.  Car horns, tractors engines and cow bells tunneled their way through the old stone streets to our perch.  The town of Goreme lay among the capped-stone fairy chimneys like the desert’s child – made of the same stone it blended with the eroded cliffs and arid plateau that lay beyond.  A single minaret stood tall with adolescent arrogance, comparing itself to the minarets perfectly crafted by the wind and ice.

Quickly finishing our tea and bread, we made our way down to the car, past house stoops with shoes outside and thin veils of ornate cloth, woven by time and isolation, separating us from the mystery lives inside.   On a covered porch three generations of women gabbed, their progressively sun-wrinkled eyes watched us with reserved curiosity.  Street-wise cats lurked and watched our every movement, fearing reprisal for the small bits they’d stolen the night before.  In the makeshift parking lot a thin block away, tractors rolled by with loads of bricks and local produce, billowing black fumes as they loudly plodded by.   In the town square, we enquired with a local tour organizer where adventure was hiding that day.  Our ingredients were ‘simple’, we wanted nothing short of amazing natural and anthropological beauty, absolutely no tourists, and a healthy portion Raiders of the Lost Ark style adventure.  He replied in a quintessential Turkish accent, “So you like adventure?” and fatefully directed us to a valley beginning from Ortahisar, a small town 9 km northeast of Goreme.

With pocket change jingling, Peretz and I walked to the market in search of tasty treats to be enjoyed at far-gone points:  pears, peaches, grapes and nectarines for all, 4.80 Turkish Lyra in total.  We packed the car and prepared our bags, making sure we had the necessary provisions for the day’s travels:  water, headlamp, camera, jacket, journal, and fruit.  First stop: the Goreme Open Air Museum, 1 km down a wide, black reflective road towards Ortahisar.  Along the road, European backpackers walked with jubilation and local shepherd boys road on jalopy donkeys toward destinations unknown.  A sun-scorched motel advertised the only swimming pool in town:  free for patrons, 9 TL for everyone else.

We parked in the bus parking lot, our station wagon nudged among the larger vehicles.  Par for the course, souvenir shops and ice cream stands lined the short walk to the museum entrance.  Having already been picked apart by dime vultures throughout our travels, the prospect of each paying a steep 15 TL museum fee was wholly unappealing; a not-so-ninja break-in was brewing.  Our ascent was witnessed by anyone who cared to look; we hiked round a fairy chimney that rimmed the valley, to reach the barbed-wire border fence.  Having spent less time culturing the comfort of clandestine activities, Amanda and Hari opted outright to turn back and pay the entrance fee. As they descended, Peretz turned to me, smirked and motioned toward our route of entry.  Like Carnival ninjas – he in a fire-engine red shirt and Gilligan hat, I in my incongruent fedora and bright yellow T-shirt – we descended down the sandstone, past broken glass, thorny plants and rusted barbed-wire fence towards a shady grove on the edge of the museum.  From atop the only modern building in sight, we suspected a plain-clothes museum guard might have spotted us.  As we approached the grove Peretz and I split, he heading for a shady section behind the wall of the ticket office and I strolling through a verdant section, attempting to blend myself with the other museum patrons as quickly as possible.  The guard immediately approached Peretz.  From the corner of my eye I watched as they briefly conversed, Peretz pointing in my general direction.  I later found out that Peretz had told him that his “friends on the hill have my ticket.”  They parted, Peretz heading deeper into the museum and the guard slowly walking in my direction.  I made my way to the first sight – a church carved into the rock – and like a good, ticket-buying tourist began to read the English information sign.   The guard greeted me and asked to see my ticket, I hesitated briefly and explained that I had “hiked” into the museum – a half-truth.  Without incident he pointed me towards the ticket booth.  We parted, and I began to walk towards the ticket booth just as Hari and Amanda were coming through.  I quickly asked Amanda for her ticket, to be momentarily passed off as my own.  Half her fault and half my own, we very conspicuously exchanged the ticket and immediately I knew this could have been done more smoothly.  As I began to walk back into the museum, I felt a tug at my right arm.  Without a word the guard walked me back to the ticket booth where I begrudgingly purchased my ticket.

Inside the museum tourists strolled and signs indicated the purpose of each underground structure, the architectured remains of lives all but beyond the reach of recorded history.  Churches dug into the rock, adorned with columns built under the pretense of structural support, within stone that had known how to support itself since long before the appearance of mankind.   Cracked and crumbled, faded wall paintings depicted Biblical history in flat, pre-Orthodox style.  The birth of the world, the fall of man, and his subsequent redemption were drawn in basic and once bright colors, with a degree of skill likely limited by the coarseness of their brushes, the thickness of the paint, and the at best dim light.  Other rooms served as kitchens and food store-houses, their tool-hewn ceilings still soot black from the countless fires that had burned within.  The air inside was still and old, with hints of creosote.  I wondered when the last time a fire had burned in the shallow pits on the floor, centuries at least, maybe more.  In those close quarters the smoke must have been unbearable.  Walking up the cliff side, a portico led into the long dark expanse of a dining room that could seat forty people.  The only other tourist left the room, and I sat on the fixed stone bench less than a foot from the monolithic stone table, with stone walls, stone ceilings and stone floors.  With the room empty, I spoke out loud to get a better idea of the acoustics –  they were terrible – with forty people gossiping, trading, praying, singing or whatever their employment of speech, it must have been a deafening hum of noise, out of which one could pick up only what their seat mate said.  What did they talk about during their meals?  There was no notion of international current events, no grand political parties, no new iphone to pine over, nowhere far lands to explore.  I can only guess it was the more pragmatic things of life:  their harvest, their stock, their romances, their god.

I walked around the cliff side to a higher elevation taking in a view of the surrounding, defunct rock village trying to erase the telescopic camera-carrying tourists and buses from view.  I let the view meld with my mind’s eye, I saw donkeys wandering, small lamps lighting the inside of stone homes, men talking about what to plant where, smoke rising from porticos, the sound of tool against rock, children in simple, earthen-tone garments yelling and playing with sticks, others fetching water from the brook that ran down the valley floor, as their mothers washed clothes.

I met the gang at a preordained shady location.  Peretz was now wearing Amanda’s off-pink, tight-fitting shirt in a successful effort to evade detection by the guards.

The car climbed up cobble stone switch-backs to the top of the plateau.  A few minutes and wrong turns later, we were trolling through the outskirts of Ortahisar.  A sun-bleached sign depicted an intriguing rock tower and guided us to the right.  Our car clattered down the main street, attracting the scare-crowed gaze of the men seated outside each shop.  We approached the village center and parked just south of the town square.  The surrounding streets fell out of view from our current elevation, and an enormous natural rock tower with Turkish flag atop, stood watch over us– clearly what the sign had shown.  At the foot of the tower were two antique shops with antique owners, a small café and a mosque, whose minaret looked sickly thin in comparison to the towering rock above.   Tinny  music floated through the noon air from the green copper amplifier of an old wind-up record player. Forlorn farm equipment lay against the walls of two buildings whose alley way led up a cobble stone path to a sun-light terrace.  Raggedy, wind-beaten umbrellas shaded the tables of the dining area.  All around flowers proudly basked themselves in the midday sun, their colors so sharp, vibrant and varied that is was hard to break their deep gaze.  Below the terrace lay a small underground café whose patterned, carpeted floors, beaded doorways and dusty shelves immediately warped me back to a much older time, when camel riding merchants sipped apple tea and bargained over the price of wool.  Outside, blue spray paint arrows and rusty sign indicated how to ascend the rock castle.

At its base the shattered remains of a decades-old café occupied a large cavern.  Broken glass lay on the ground spelling out the boundaries of a jig-saw puzzle, and a desert-dusted cooler housed one lone, hot soda can.  Past a broken gate and up stone steps, we began to ascend the castle.  A welded angle-iron ladder led us up the first two levels, into rooms with dark pits and shadowed passages heading in different directions.  Watching our heads, we scampered up and up, collecting dirt and dust along the way.  Passages led to crumbled porticos overlooking the valley below; balconies had once been here as indicated by the steps outside that led now only to the crushing fall below.   Ten stories of climbing opened on the upper look-out point where the Turkish flag flapped in the breeze.  From our craggy hold, the lay of the land was clear.  The castle was the headstone of an entire abandoned civilization, complete with downtown, suburbs and rural areas, in a microcosmic layout that stretched from northeast to southwest.   Water, wind and ice had carved an elaborate network of branched valleys stretching to the limits of sight towards distant occupied villages, only to coalesce not far from the base of the castle.  On the plateau above the valley, fields of ground-hugging grapes grew wild in the sun, living remnants of ancient agricultural efforts.  Down fairy tale slopes, the sandstone flowed like thick cream to a verdant valley floor.  In the early afternoon sun, routes were appraised and our index fingers charted the course southwest from the castle’s base to the village of Ibrahimsa in the distance.

We descended to the car and prepared our packs and our minds for the adventure ahead.  On the south side of the town square, each step down the cobble-stoned street turned back the hands of time.

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Our Wheelz

August 6th, 2009 Tristan No comments

Astrid’s crankshaft turned over for the first time in 1994. Gleaming off the assembly line with a bright turquoise paint job and a slightly funky deco interior, it was immediately clear that she had a spunky, no-nonsense attitude and a passion for travel. After a series of dead-end relationships in Germany, she found herself broken-down and out in Dresden. She had fallen in with a bad crowd of used vehicles, some destined for better things and some destined for the proverbial junk yard. On a fateful day in July 2009 she met Amanda and Tristan through a mutual friend (Geri); there was chemistry from the first turn of the key. She got so excited her passenger-side mirror fell off (how embarrassing!). A week later, Amanda and Tristan and Astrid began moving forward with their new relationship. While it was clear she could hold her own on the road, the team came to realize she also carried a lot of baggage. After the relationship had some mileage, she confessed (through a bad valve-tick) that she had a synthetic (oil) drinking problem. Each day presents her with new challenges, new bumps in the road, but we push on (with 2 quarts of oil at all times), and the current team of Astrid, Peretz, Hari, Amanda and Tristan are looking forward to changing gears from the comforts of Europe to the intrigues of Asia.

Astrid’s Facts IMG_0888
Bust: 1598 cc
Waist: 5 speed
Age: 15
Education Level: 159,814 km
Color: Turquoise
Favorite Drink: 95 Octane on the Beach
Favorite TV Show: Top Gear
Life Goals: “To see the world. Maybe meet a nice sedan someday.”

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