When we arrived in Cappadocia, it was around 5 deg C and way too early in the morning for first impressions. All I can remember is that the landscape was brown and beige all around and the language still as strange as it had been since we landed in Istanbul a couple of days ago.
12 hours of sitting in a bus trying to ignore a really bad Turkish movie ( I didn’t understand a word, but there was a lot of visual “comedy” that wasn’t the least bit funny! I guess bad movie-making isn’t restricted to bollywood!) really took it out of me! Us, actually. There were 7 of us, this was one of our earlier trips, before we had become the group that we are now, before we all knew each other properly. This is the trip that made us us! Not that we knew it then. At that time, we were just hungry and tired. And we were freezing our asses off!
So when we found a man holding our placard up and waiting for us we all heaved a collective sigh of relief. We’d had enough trouble getting to Cappadocia the previous evening in Istanbul cos no one at the bus station spoke English; our knowledge of the Turkish language began and ended with teşekkür ederim (thank you!) which obviously wasn’t of much help!
We loaded our luggage into the mini-van and set off to the cave hotel. Yup! We were staying at a cave hotel, or inn rather! Cappadocia is famous for it’s “fairy chimneys” and network of caves. The soft volcanic rock created from hardened volcanic ash has been hollowed out for homes for centuries and a lot of them have now been converted to inns that are fantastic to stay in! I don’t know why anyone would go to Cappadocia and stay in a regular hotel!
We got to our inn, the driver hopped out, unloaded the luggage, we teşekkür ederim-ed him and he drove off. We went in through a small gate that led us a few steps down into what looked like an open terrace. You enter from the top here, and have t0 work your way downwards and underneath into the caves!
The sky was an icy blue and the cold wind made our cheeks red. The place was quiet, everyone was still asleep and there was very little activity. I felt like we were trespassing into the past, like we’d gone through some time warp and landed into a forgotten era. Everything looked so rustic and untouched by civilization! We had a view of the (now dormant) volcano in the distance and the hills and fairy chimneys all around.
There was another flight of stairs that led down from the terrace to what seemed like an outdoor dining area, with neat wooden tables and chairs laid out. A brightly striped awning partially shaded the area. The whole “building” was carved out of the mountain with bricks and stairs added to complete the structure. It was fascinating! I saw an old lady downstairs, who glanced unconcernedly at us for a second and then shuffled away into the room that I later found out was the kitchen.
We weren’t really sure what to do as there was no reception or anything. I was half-convinced we’d walked into a private home! Subodh (our “captain” who usually does all the bookings and arrangements) then called up the lady who’d confirmed our reservations- Jillian.
Apparently, we were early, she was expecting us only after noon, and she didn’t have the rooms ready for us yet. We’d get them only by 1pm. We we were all desperate for a hot shower and breakfast and needed a room badly. Finally Subodh talked it out with her and she said ” Okay, there are 7 of you? For now, I will give you ONE room, and seven towels! Is that ok?”
We were amused more than anything else, and agreed, and all of us – 2 couples, 2 single guys and a girl (me) trooped into a lovely room built inside the cave and used the bathroom, one by one. This took a while obviously, but thankfully there was hot water till the end. The whole place was cosy and well maintained, and apart from the fact that the walls were a million years old, the room was up-to-date with modern amenities like hot water, hair dryers etc. The guide had arrived meanwhile, and had to wait for us to get ready. He was grumbling about Indians and their obsession with bathing and by the time we were done, he wasn’t in the best of moods.
We breakfasted on fresh bread, fresh strawberry and apricot jam (the best I’ve ever eaten!) honey, butter and hard-boiled eggs that I cut into 4 slices length-wise and sprinkled with salt and pepper. There was also this sweet thing made from peanuts… little soft blocks that just crumble in your hands and are really delicious! We washed it down with several cups of excellent apple tea that’s specific to Turkey and is made from a very complex-looking apparatus that reminded me of chem lab!
Finally, after eating, we were ready to go, and the guide, who was kind of an Indiana Jones (he was doing this part-time, he’s a trained archeologist!) finished his last cup of apple tea and we were off!
He took us to the Open Air Museum and showed us the labyrinth of caves that were used by the monks who had run away from the city to continue practicing Christianity in secret when the Czar had taken over Turkey and made it a muslim nation. (On an aside, the Hagia Sofia museum at Istanbul is the only place in the world where you will find scriptures and paintings from both the Islamic and Christian religions). We had to crawl into caves and walk around dark tunnels, watching out for booby traps that made the whole thing more exciting , but we were soon tired of crawling into airless caves on our hands and knees. I, being the clumsy one, ended up with more scrapes than everyone else combined. I wonder how those monks did it back in the day!
Lunch was excellent, but they didn’t have Testi Kebab (has nothing to do with testicles, btw!) which I’d been hankering after ever since I saw the couple at another table order it while we were in Istanbul. After several glasses of wine we were feeling tired and happy and the cold didn’t affect us as much anymore. We went to the local wine shop and stocked up on wine and also bought a bottle of the local alcohol called Raki.
When we got back to the hotel, we met Jillian officially, a very friendly and totally un-German-like German who showed us to our rooms. The single guys and I were given a beautiful suite with one room up in the loft that you had to climb a ladder to get to! The guys agreed to sleep on the loft and gave me the master bedroom (yes yes, very nice of them and all that! :P) and so I got the lovely bedroom with a bed so huge that you could’ve fit 4 people on it! The suite also had a charming little living room with comfortable wooden chairs surrounding a round coffee table. This is where we sat back and relaxed after our tiring day. Of course, that just means that we drank all the alcohol in sight! :P
Raki is anise-flavoured and tastes like sambucca. It needs to be mixed with water, which turns the clear liquid a milky white. The difference is that while sambucca contains 38% alcohol, this one has 45% and is so potent that the locals call it aslan sütü ( Lion’s milk) cos apparently you need to have the constitution of a lion to be able to down the stuff!And we all had 6 shots each! We finished the bottle. Plus innumerable glasses of wine! We were reeling, but, I think it’s because it was so cold, we weren’t drunk to the point of incoherence. Jillian joined us after a bit, I think she had a glass of wine with us too. Then she said ” You guys are so fun! There’s someone I’d like you all to meet. His name is Crazy Ali”.
I thought I’d heard wrong. Maybe I’d too much Raki? “Excuse me Jillain… did you say you wanted us to meet a guy called Crazy Ali ?!“
Yes, you must! He will take you for a walk! You will like him! He will show you the stars!
Okayyy then! Either Jillian was drunk, or thought we were drunk!
We all made excuses – we were tired, we had a hot-air balloon ride we’d scheduled for 6am the next day (yes, 6 am! In retrospect, what the hell were we thinking!?), we can see the stars from here, we had to crawl through caves today for heaven’s sake!
But she insisted. And as we got drunker, we also got more compliant!
Okay, we’ll meet this Crazy Ali. We’ll even go for The Walk with him. But we needed to be back early ok? We wanna sleep by 11! Okay then!
Next thing I knew,we were in a mini-van with the driver, and I was holding onto two bottles of wine to give (as peace-offering?) to Crazy Ali, and rattling off into the darkness.
We reached… somewhere (give me a break, this was a drunken episode in a foreign country!) On the way over we were all wildly speculating on how crazy Crazy Ali actually could be and what could have given him the nickname. Someone starting talking about how he maybe he was John Kramer crazy, and wondering how many of us would make it back to the hotel alive. Or make it back at all!
With all these wild surmises (and a lot of help from the alcohol), I was curious and slightly freaked out about meeting Crazy Ali. The minivan finally came to a stop outside a store. An old man came out the store to greet us. He looked around 60-65 yrs old and was fit as a fiddle (albeit an old one!). He was in a brown leather jacket and jeans and wore a woolen scarf & brown flat cap to protect himself from the cold.
Hi, I’m Crazy Ali! he said as he shooks hands with us. He stopped when he came to me and said ” I like your hat!” I smiled nervously, thinking of John Kramer and whether I would be the first victim on account of my ‘nice hat’.
He was very jovial and loved to talk. He had a discussion in rapid Turkish with the driver for a couple of minutes and then turned to us and said ” Okay! We go now!”.
We all trooped into the minivan and set off again. After about half an hour, we stopped. We got out and looked around us. It was dark and we were at the edge of what looked like a cliff. We could see lights of the town in the far distance. We had no idea where we were.
“Look! Look at the sky!” Crazy Ali pointed.
It was beautiful. The stars… they’d never looked more clear, twinkling like diamonds in the dark, looking close enough to touch. And it was collld! The wind made our eyes water and my ears and nose were almost numb from the cold.
Suddenly, we heard the engine start up and by the time we turned around, we saw that the driver had left us. With Crazy Ali!
“Come, we walk now” he said and started off towards a slope. I could almost hear our seven scared hearts begin to thump faster. For a second, I almost considered running after the van. Then… the alcohol clouded my senses again and I went after the others, all obediently trooping behind Crazy Ali.
*To be contd*