Sleet had been falling on and off all morning. In the village the men huddled around a tea shop next to a barren mountain in the gray, bleak Turkish countryside. Inside—that is, inside of the mountain—I was precariously wedged midway up a 30 foot vertical shaft that connected two levels of a vast, hidden underground city. I paused in the darkness and looked down into the abyss, a lone useless rope dangling between my legs and disappearing into the black space below. The space above me was illuminated by a flashlight held by a mustachioed man in a leather jacket, a Turkish Burt Reynolds. The chute was no more than 24 inches square, having little pockets dug into its walls to serve as toe and finger holds, carved into the solid rock by villagers seeking protection from invading Hittite tribes some 3,600 years ago. I tried to imagine how I might utilize the rope should I lose my grip on the walls, seeing as how both hands and feet were busy keeping myself wedged in the shaft, but every mental scenario ended with me lying in a crumpled heap, the dangling rope faintly tickling my lifeless body.
Being the only visitors at the Mazi underground city that day, and finding a complete lack of security, we had simply walked into a cave at the base of the mountain to access the underground system. Deciding that a guide might help to keep us from getting lost in the extensive underground system spanning multiple levels separated by chutes and tunnels, we had grabbed one of the men from the tea shop to keep us safe. After crawling through a kilometer of tunnels we had ended up here, and here I was clinging to dear life by my fingernails. At that moment it occurred to me that this would never fly back home in litigious America, and that these were the types of things that made the rest of the world so much fun.
Cappadocia (pronounced cap-uh-dokya) lies amid the barren grassy hills and canyons of Central Turkey. The drive from Eren’s house had brought us past a giant salt lake and over hours of rolling hills and wind. As we approached our destination the landscape became crisscrossed by canyons and pillars shaped by millennia of erosion, giving it the feel of Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah, only this one extended for miles in every direction. We arrived in the evening and drove off into the hills on a dirt road to find a place to camp.
For two days we drove around to sites like the hand-carved rock cities in the Ihlara Valley and the underground city at Mazi, each night pulling off onto a dirt road and finding a secluded camp site. It was the first time since leaving South America, more than a year ago, that we had been able to find truly isolated and wild camp sites away from people. It was, in a word, glorious.
All of the fresh air seemed to be messing with Sheena’s mind. She sat on the couch and I on the captain’s chair in my matching down shorts and down jacket.
“You look like that long gray guy. What’s his name?”
“Gray guy? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The elephant? I thought he was pink. Then again I’m color blind, so you’d know better than I would.”
“No, not Dumbo. You know, from the TV. Is he green? He’s stretchy and has long arms and legs.”
“You mean Gumby?”
“Yeah, him! I used to watch that when I was little. You look just like Gumbo!” She stared blankly ahead, having deeply confused herself, until she spoke again, almost in a yell. “Who the hell is GUMBO!?” I sipped my beer, amused by this little woman.
After three days Sheena identified a valley where she wanted to go hiking, so we decided to find a place to camp somewhere on the way. Our Garmin showed two roads leading to the valley, and between them a vast expanse of canyon wilderness. We set off on one of the roads and kept our eyes out for a way to drive into the boondocks. A small dirt track on the left led into a wash, and then up and around a small hill, so we took it. After a short jog through an orchard the road wound up the side of the hill to a cave home carved into the side of the hill. Outside, its inhabitants had just killed a sheep, and as we came to a stop the last signs of life shuddered from its body and blood pooled under its neck on the ground. A man walked up to my window, bloody knife in hand, and through charades he motioned that there was no way to get through to the valley without taking the paved roads. He smiled and waved us off.
A short time later we found a muddy 4×4 track leading off through a farmer’s field, so we took it. After a sloppy jaunt through the field, the track curved around a hill and began a long, bumpy descent along the edge of a small canyon. We slowly crawled over rocks and straddled gaps in the track until finally coming across an area littered with large cone-shaped stone spires. There seemed to be a flat spot between two of the spires on the hillside, so we aimed Nacho toward it.
After setting up camp in the waning light I took a quick saunter around the spires, and to my surprise found many of them to be hollowed out. Most of them had no clear entry point except for holes high up on their sides, and a few dozen meters in front of our camp there appeared to be an old church carved into the hill.
In the morning we set off with flashlights to see what we’d stumbled upon, and were amazed to find an entire community of caves. The hill next to our camp had been partially hollowed out to form a church, complete with domed roof and columns, but the main dome had recently collapsed. Along the walls and ceiling ancient Christian frescoes depicted saints and angels.
I remembered from an art history class I’d taken in college that at a certain point in history artists had figured out how to draw in perspective. Before that point, it hadn’t occurred to them that shapes should be drawn obliquely to show depth, and so landscapes and buildings appeared to be oddly two dimensional and disproportional. The turning point when perspective was generally adopted was in the 13th century, and can be pinpointed by looking at halos over the heads of saints in old Christian paintings; pre-perspective paintings depict the halo as a perfect circle behind the saint’s head, while post-perspective artists drew a more realistic oval. The frescoes on the church we’d found depicted saints with circular halos, so I deduced that they must have been painted more than 700 years ago.
We moved on to the hollowed out spires jutting up around the hillside and found our way into a few of them. They were mostly basic habitations with a couple of rooms and windows, though a few of the more elaborate ones had multiple rooms and kitchens with underground cooking vessels that looked just like Indian tandoor ovens. We came across one spire with a high door accessible by climbing part way up the side and shimmying along a ledge. Inside it was the most elaborate dwelling of the whole complex, having multiple rooms, various shelves carved into the walls, and a series of divots in the floor where giant clay jars would have stood to hold wine, oil, and dry goods.
On the way back to Nacho I noticed a small hole at the base of one of the hills near the church, partially closed up by dirt but still big enough to squeeze through in a crawl. Sheena wailed in fear and refused to enter, so I turned on my flashlight and squeezed inside, finding not a room but a tunnel. I crawled along on my knees as the tunnel sloped steeply downward, and before long I arrived in a room underneath the hill. The entrance to the room was protected by an enormous rolling stone door. This must have been a shelter for villagers during raids, and once closed from inside it would be impossible for the rock to be moved from the outside. Another small tunnel took off from the back corner of the room, but very quickly ended in a collapse. Later on we found the other end of that tunnel in the back of the collapsed church.
Our time in Cappadocia passed as a parade of sunny days spent exploring, punctuated by cool nights camping in the countryside. We hiked canyons, hills and orchards, all the while discovering little bits of the old civilization; aqueduct tunnels cut through cliff walls, shepherd shelters carved into rock spires, and whole communities carved in rock. We visited some tourist sites, the open air museum and the Rose Valley, but found them to be overbuilt, over commercialized, and overall less interesting than the remote sites that we found on our own.
After a week of exploring dirt tracks and backroads, we finally stumbled upon the jackpot. It came about as Sheena sat in the passenger seat softly whimpering about the dinner time hunger welling up in her belly.
“We need to find a camp,” she whimpered. I knew that this would be my only warning, and that she would quickly slide into a state of intense hunger-induced unrest and aggravation. We sailed around the bends in the road and then, on our left, a dirt track took off down a hillside. I passed it on account of Nacho’s high speed and poor braking combo, and then flipped around and took it. The road wound its way around a few hills before stopping at a turnaround spot, a perfect place to camp. Off in the canyon to our right there sat a multistory ancient stone village carved directly into the canyon wall. Small window holes pocked the cliff and the face of a stone arch extending over the creek below. A section of the cliff had sheared off, exposing the once hidden rooms within.
Throughout the evening we peered across the canyon, imagining the adventure to be had exploring the rooms within the canyon walls, and drifted off to sleep in a silence accented by the faint sound of trickling water from the creek below.
In the morning we took to the canyon, summoning our inner Indiana Joneses. Crossing the creek posed the first challenge, and I daydreamed of Indiana Jones fearlessly whipping a snake and then swinging across the creek on a vine, probably holding a helpless damsel under one arm. I looked at Sheena and thought better of trying to hold her under my arm, and anyway I couldn’t find any vines. I summoned my inner Indiana Jones and then made a valiant leap across the water and onto a big sandstone boulder. My style was good, but that’s all that can be said. Failing to move my center of gravity over my feet, my body teetered and then I instinctively pushed off with my legs, sending me airborne into the middle of the creek. I sighed and walked through the water to the other side while Sheena made clucking sounds with her tongue and shook her head.
We found our way into the cliff dwellings through a squat tunnel, flashlights illuminating the way, and climbed through a complex of small rooms and makeshift stairways carved into the soft rock. It was amazing to think that once a civilization had thrived here. We found kitchens and storage rooms and habitations, all bare but clearly well-used. It was like finding an enormous ruined Native American habitation back home, except that this had been completely untouched by modern managerial infrastructure, and was much better preserved on account of being carved in stone. We were free to explore as if discovering it for the first time.
We hiked around the cliffs and down the creek, and eventually came across a church carved high into the canyon wall. Its walls were still adorned with frescoes depicting ancient Christian scenes, though they were covered in the scratchings of visitors wanting to leave their mark. On one hand it was a shame for the frescoes to have been defaced, but at the same time the graffiti served as a fascinating chronology of the visitors who had passed through this cave. We found Greek letters, Arabic scroll, and Roman characters, and dates spanning centuries. In 1732, forty four years before America’s declaration of independence from Britain, a little Greek punk stood in this very place and scratched a message into the cave wall. In a way the graffiti was just as interesting as the fresco that carried it.
On the way back we discovered a new entrance to the cliff, only accessible by approaching it from a different ridge. We lit our flashlights, put on our Indiana Jones fedoras, and entered. Before long we located a vertical shaft leading up into the darkness, just like the one from the underground city we’d visited with the mustachioed Turk. We had thus far been unable to find access to the upper stories of the cliff dwelling, and this looked promising.
Sheena, sensing danger and possible bodily harm, encouraged me to go for it. I pulled myself into the ceiling with Jean Claude Van Damme swiftness and musculature, and wedged myself in place. From there I nervously and clumsily inched myself upward, the shallow toe and finger holds and my Van Damme musculature the only things keeping me from becoming a crumpled corpse on the floor below. I inched upward, and finally emerged thirty feet higher in a bright room overlooking the creek from high up on the cliff face.
It became immediately evident why a piece of the cliff had fallen off adjacent to this room; a two-inch-wide crack ran across the floor from one corner of the room to the other, and continued up both walls and across the ceiling. It seemed that any weight placed in the outer half of the room could cause the whole chunk to shear off. I nervously, stupidly, sphincter-puckeringly, and with feline-like agility tiptoed across the crack to have a look out the window, and then quickly retreated, jumping back to safety like Indiana Jones, or Jean Claude Van Damme.
In all we spent two days at our canyon campsite, and in those two days the only other visitors to the canyon was one car load of local boys. They had come to sit around on rocks and drink soda from a two liter bottle. A few minutes later they loaded up and left. No tour buses, no visitors, no fences, no signs. It was just us and our little roving home, left alone to admire an ancient scene, like Indiana Jones and that little Asian kid, or Gumbo and his trusty clay horse.