Years ago, in the pock-marked lunar landscape of Cappadocia, people lived in caves. Nothing's changed
Saturday 01 June 1996
It was a long journey to Aksaray, an important bus depot and the springboard for Cappadocia. For 14 hours we climbed and surged around vertiginous bends, then trundled over the central Anatolian plain. We emerge from our bus suffused with the acrid smell of Turkish cigarettes into the silent, 3 degree chill of an Aksaray dawn.
This market town is a bustling place but at 5am only two or three figures moved slowly around the bus station. Obliging they served us breakfast: hot and spicy tomato and meat soup served with a mountain of deliciously fresh bread.
Warm soup was very welcome. It was hard to believe that we had left behind 30 degrees of Mediterranean heat on the coast to be greeted by this chilly breath of mountain air. I huddled over my soup wondering how to fill the time until 12 o'clock-ish when the local bus to Ihlara, gateway to one of the most interesting valleys in Cappadocia, departed. I emphasise the "ish" as the local buses leave only when they have enough passengers to make it worthwhile. We decided not to bother waiting and started negotiations for a taxi.
Mustafa was a stubborn taxi driver and we bargained fiercely, walking off several times until we reach a mutually agreeable sum for our one- hour trip. Then, in the hazy early morning light, we wound our way under the awning of the distant Melendiz range of mountains to Ihlara.
There is no gentle introduction to this canyon village - the taxi turned the last corner in a cloud of dust and we found ourselves plunged into the last century. Woodsmoke rose from rough stone houses. Corn and onions lay drying on the flat roofs in readiness for winter storage. Donkeys carefully picked their way down rocky paths, laden with bundles of twigs and dried hay, and children wandered aimlessly kicking stones, shouting to each other across the central square.
Guide books say that the Ihlara valley is as beautiful a place as you can imagine. That's not much of an exaggeration. The valley is a fertile canyon 15 kilometres long that runs from Ihlara to Selim. And the walk between these two villages passes an amazing collection of tufa dwellings.
Tufas are extraordinary formations, the result of erosion on the soft stone formed by the volcanoes of the local Erciyes, Hasan and Melendiz mountains. They are the hallmark of Cappadocia.
Murat, the manager of our boarding house in Ihlara, took us up a goat track to the top of the canyon. From here the water tumbles in falls and gulleys, creating pools that the local boys dive and swim in.
We set off, through a dreamy landscape, for Selim. The walk down the canyon at first took us through the steep walls that were dotted with ancient churches hewn out of the rock. These churches have existed since the Middle Ages and in many you can still see frescoes and wall paintings that have survived the religious disputes of the region.
The valley is relatively unspoilt by tourism and no one has yet thought to make tours of the local underground dwellings that are scattered the length of the canyon. There's a labyrinth of paths here, the extent of which remains unknown: clutching our torches we conducted our own voyage of discovery.
Further along the canyon, the walk becomes steep, with great boulders to negotiate. We also had to make our way through butterflies that fluttered endlessly around us. As the canyon widens, fields hug the banks of the river, offering a refreshingly green outlook. Flocks of sheep slept intransigently along the path, huddled together for comfort. In the river below, young lads stood fishing in the water.
We reached Selim as daylight was fading. It was a magical time to wander round this small village. Donkeys and goats came home unaccompanied from their day's grazing, and the setting sun cast long shadows over the tufa dwellings and the disused tufa churches.
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