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Ankara to Capadocia

August 14th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

8/14/09, 1:15 pm, en route to Nemrut Dagi (Turkey)

Having passed through Ankara and Capadocia, we are now en route to Nemrut Dagi, a mountain where a pre-Roman megalomanical king carved his face and those of the Gods (to whom he thought he was related) into massive boulders on the mountain’s summit.

We’ve about 5 hours left of driving, so I figured now would be a good time to chronicle the adventures of the last few days. We’re all in good health still – my lips were pretty chapped and were bleeding a bit, so I bought some chapstick and now they’re doing better. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of buying the strawberry-flavored kind, so although it tastes good, my lips are now a ruby-red… I look a bit funny.

Astrid (the car) has fared a little worse than us. Today we took her first to one mechanic for welding the muffler back on – it had been rattling alarmingly. About half an hour later (and about fifteen minutes ago), we discovered that when the muffler loosened, it also caused a front exhaust leak. We therefore took Astrid to a second mechanic, to have the leak fixed (a hose in the front had to be welded back on). I think we’ve been relatively lucky so far – no major Astrid problems as yet, and we’ve put on about 7300 km on her since the trip started (she had 154000 km when we bought her). I’ve grown pretty attached to the car – it affords us a flexibility that I’ve never had on previous trips, where I’ve mostly traveled by bus and train, and thus have been tied to those schedules.

But back to Ankara: We were pretty lucky to stay with a friend of a friend of PP, Siva, who is a master’s student in the ODTU campus in Ankara. She kindly let us stay at her family’s house, so we enjoyed nice beds and good breakfasts during our Ankaran stay, making it a convenient base from which to get our visas (there are many embassies and consulates in Ankara). As Azerbaijan is the next country on our route to require a visa (for Georgia, we technically need one also, but this can be gotten easily at the Turkey/Georgia border), we first drove over to the Azerbaijani embassy. All of the embassies are in rather grand, fenced-in bulidings, and most are open 5 days a week, for only a 3 hour window from 9 am to noon. As we found out, although these are the posted hours, most of the embassies we visited opened during a subset of this time, approximately whenever the staff feel like letting visitors in. For Azerbaijan, although we got there at 10:30, we (and the other visitors) were made to wait an additional 30 minutes for no obvious reason. Once inside, the guy who manned the desk told us that we couldn’t get an Azerbaijani visa without first getting proof that we were going to either Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan – evidenlty, they want to make sure that we had an onward destination. Wandering around the embassy compound, we found the Kazakh embassy and filled in paperowork to get that documentation started. The Kazakh staff were quite friendly, and PP helped a lot by communicating with them in Russian. They told us the visas would take one day to process – evidently our paperwork needed to be faxed to Kazakhstan and then sent back to the embassy in Ankara. They also needed to hold onto our passports for a day.

Needing to wait a day in Ankara (we couldn’t visit and get visas from other embassies without our passports), we explored a bit of the town. There’s a great historical and artistic museum in Ankara, filled with pottery, coins, sculptures, busts, etc. from Hittite, Roman, Christian, and Muslim times, certainly worth a visit. Above and behind the museum are the remnants of an old castle, and climbing up to it, one is afforded great views of the city. Although Ankara is the capital, and more metropolitan than Istanbul (less touristy, more businesslike, with less obvious ‘sights’), we had an interesting time walking around the castle area, because the cobbled streets were populated with a much different cross-section of Turkish society – poorer and more overtly Muslim (lots of headscarves on the women) than those we had seen before. Many of the families were enjoying their dinner outside as we walked around, and a small crowd of curious children started to follow us, excited that we were taking pictures and occasionally asking, ‘Money? Money?’. I certainly enjoyed seeing this different side of the city, but I did feel a bit uncomfortable walking around their houses and taking pictures. It felt in a weird way quite intrusive – I’m pretty sure that I’d not appreciate being photographed in and around my house as I was eating my dinner by curious tourists. I feel that much of the trip so far has been about trying to find a balance between straying from the beaten path and observing the ‘real’ life that goes on, but without offending and harassing the local people – at one point, we tried to photograph an interior courtyard, and were told firmly by the locals that we weren’t allowed to do this.

The next day we returned to the Kazakh embassy and picked up our passports, proudly admiring our new Kazakh visas. Running out of time, we then rushed to the Turkmen embassy. Like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan requires additional visas for the other countries surrounding it, and this time we had proof that we could lawfully pass through Kazakhstan. Still, we arrived at the embassy with about 10 minutes to spare (11:50 am) before closing, so the chubby Turkmen official that we talked to was reluctant to process the paperwork, claiming that it would delay his lunch. Apparently, one needs to provide visa photos, fill out the appropriate visa application form, provide a copy of our passport information page and have a photocopy of other relevant visas in the passport. PP again saved us – he sweet-talked the official into giving us the time to quickly fill out the forms, and even got the guy to photocopy the relevant parts of our passports and visas. It would have taken at least a day to process the relevant paperwork, so PP also got the Turkmen to send on the approved visas to Baku, in Azerbaijan, thus saving us more time and allowing us to proceed from Ankara to Capadocia. I would offer the following advice to those who are interested in getting visas on the road, as we are attempting to do: 1.) strategize and make sure that you get the easy visas first, especially those that border the countries that you are planning on visiting, as having these exit and entry countries in tow makes it easier to convince the middle countries that you need to go through them 2.) having a Russian speaker that can help you negotiate with officials is extremely helpful, and 3.) remember that most of the ‘rules’ can be bent, especially if one is persuasive and persistent. It remains to be seen if the Turkmen visas will arrive in Baku, and how easy it will be to get the Azerbaijani visas in Tbilisi, Georgia (we decided to try our luck there, instead of waiting for the visa in Ankara), but with the Kazakh visa in my passport I remain optimistic.

From Ankara, we headed southeast (about 4 hours drive), to Capadocia. I can’t realy do this amazing landscape justice with my desciption, as in this case a picture really is worth a thousand words. Capadocia consists of valleys and hills that are packed with intriguing rock structures, caves, and underground cities. There are many ‘fairy chimneys’ – rock spires that narrow and are topped with round protuberances. Although some of the many of the caves that are carved into the rocks were initiated by civilizations that lived several millenia ago, the most striking artwork and features that remain are due to the Christians that occupied the caves starting in the 4th century AD. Evidently the Persians would try and drive or kill off the Christians monks that lived here, so they devised an intricate system of interconnected escapeways – underground ciites that extend many stories deep, or many stories high, and gigantic stone wheels that could be swung into place, acting as doorways that effectively block off sections of cave networks. Many of these caves and and tunnels are remarkably well-preserved, and even the artwork – frescos of Christ and his disciples, various angels and other biblical figures – are still visible today.

The very features of the rocks that made it possible to carve out caves and passages – their malleability – also lend the structures a certain fragility. Many of the old dwellings we saw had literally been sheared away over time – there are often holes that are cut into the rock, but that are impossible to get to because the staircases or shafts that initially led to them have decayed or eroded away. The first day we arrived in Capadocia, we spent a few fun hours exploring, bushwacking and spelunking through a fairy chimney and cave system, and several times my feet slipped, as the chalky white rock that I climbed upon crumbled beneath me. The second day, we decided to lose ourselves in one of the myriad valleys in the region – quite a trip. Although Capadocia appears dry and arid initially, the valley was filled with all manner of beautiful shrubberies, magenta and purple blooms amidst a veritable garden of eden consisting of grape vines, tart apples, apricots, plums, wild figs, and squashes. The desert setting hides a suprisingly fertile landscape, irrigated by the rivers that cut through the different valleys. Somehow we ended up that evening in a club beneath the remants of a castle of interconnecting caves. It was T$ who summarized the surreal surrounding the best: ‘doggs, we’re in a Turkish cave bar!’. Complete with twirling disco balls, western dance beats, dusty divans, hookahs, and faded carpets, we sipped contendedly on apple tea and downed a bottle of local cherry wine.

Although Capadocia is well-preserved, a feast for the senses, and holds many more mysteries (several caves, monasteries, and churches we found were unearthed only a few years ago, having sunk into the ground over the centuries), this tourist blessing is not without a price. As is always the case, probing the local culture allows one to dig deeper into the nature of a place and reveals details and nuances that are hidden in an initial survey. The bar proprietor, Salemi, told us with a certain amount of cynicism that the declaration of the region as a UNESCO preserved world-heritage site has had not-so-good consequences for the locals that inhabit the place. Preservation has meant that somewhat arbitrary lines have been drawn around the region and through it – people that happened to have been inhabiting caves that have declared to have have historic value are under restrictions on how they can expand their dwellings, manage their gardens, and otherwise modify their houses. This is a tricky issue, as from a global perspective there is value to having these areas preserved, but from a local perspective it hardly seems fair to place such restrictions on those that have been living here for their entire lives. It is also interesting to speculate on the ‘touristification’ of a place, and what it does to the local businesses, and mentalities of the locals. Is this a good thing for the place? There is an air of aritificiality in the Turkish baths, the identical (or at least very similar) eateries that cater to the western palates, the book exchanges, cave-dwellings that have been converted to pensions and hotels, and gas-guzzling buses that permeate the place. I am convinced that I am richer for having visited this region, although I cannot help but notice the way in which tourists have influenced the place.

On a separate note, aD left us today, heading back to Istanbul, Amsterdam, and then home. She and her sunny character, as well as her nursing skills and ‘mother hen’ like ways will be missed. And then there were three…

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  • ashok shroff

    hey Hari, Peretz & Tristan,
    great to follow your journey.
    Hari you are a very talented writer, really enjoying reading your travelogue and feeling envious.
    Need to see more pictures- keep writing, you all are obviously having fun & be safe,
    much love

  • mary shroff

    Really fascinating reading your writeup, dear Hari. Miss you very much. Best wishes to PP and T$. Pity Amanda had to leave early. Have shared your blog with family and friends. Many are following your travels with interest.
    Doggies say Woof!