An overland journey home

Kiwi journalists Mauricio Olmedo-Perez and Charlotte Whale are taking the scenic route home from London.

Turkey: Magical Cappadocia

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The distinctive rock formations of Goreme in Turkey's Cappadocia region have been inhabited for centuries. Photo / Mauricio Olmedo-Perez
The distinctive rock formations of Goreme in Turkey's Cappadocia region have been inhabited for centuries. Photo / Mauricio Olmedo-Perez

Goodbye Europe, Hello Asia. After three nights in Istanbul, the most time we had spent in one place so far on this journey, we had to hit the road again. We aimed for the heart of Turkey and the region of Cappadocia, an area we'd heard only good things about.

It's a long haul though, so we decided to jump on an overnight train to the city of Kayseri. The 15-hour trip is much longer than on a bus, but we managed to get the last sleeper cabin so it was an extremely comfortable journey.

I love travelling on trains, and it was great pulling back the curtains in the early morning and looking out into the Turkish countryside as it whizzed by. Vast plains that have been the tramping grounds of many civilisations over thousands of years.

We arrived refreshed in what felt like a real frontier city and hitched a ride with a holidaying Nepalese family to our destination, a wee town called Goreme. It's the main tourist base for an area which can accurately be described as a geologist's fantasy land.

A magical place covered in Martian-type terrain, it's famous for its caves and rock formations that look like petrified snow-freeze ice cream. We arrived as the sun was rising, bringing the chimney stacks to life (see photos).

Much of the accommodation is also set in the caves so we booked into one - it's a must do. The room was chiselled out of a cliff, the way people have been living in these parts since ancient times.

We only had one night in the area, so with a big area to cover the best solution was a scooter. We haggled a cheap deal, jumped on one together and set off.

The driving in Istanbul was on the verge of suicidal but this region is not very crowded at all so the roads weren't a death trap. Having the freedom to go anywhere in this fairy land was ideal.

We headed 40 minutes south to a town called Derinkuyu, famed for an underground city that's as old as anybody can remember. It's eight floors deep and used to house up to 10,000 people. They even kept their animals down here.

Charlotte and I are more on the hobbit side of the size spectrum and even we struggled in some areas. If you have a fear of enclosed spaces this isn't the place for you. Charlotte was freaking out a touch but she managed to get through it all and we recommend this place to everyone.

For the rest of the day we just hooned around, getting lost in little villages, asking traditionally-dressed locals for directions and taking in the scenery. Who knew watching rocks could be so much fun?

The petrol gauge was broken on the scooter and Charlotte kept bugging me that we should fill up just in case. I figured we'd be fine for a while, but at one point when we ended up on a very deserted road, that turned into a dirt track, and we passed a massive rotting carcass of a cow, I was starting to get a little bit concerned that maybe I should have listened to her.

We did end up running out of petrol... fortunately it happened across the road from a petrol station (the first we had seen for some time). All part of the plan of course Charlotte... all part of the plan.

The area is also famous for its pottery kebabs so we thought we'd try one out. Basically they put a meat stew into a ceramic jar, seal it, and cook it in a wood-fired oven. After a long wait, the chef brought the jar over and gave me a big cleaver. The idea was to crack it open to reveal a bubbling stew that smelled amazing. I've never had anything like it and apart from having to watch out for bits of pottery, it's melt-in-your-mouth type stuff.

We weren't quite sure where to go next in Turkey. We had wanted to travel to the southeast but there are many violent issues going on there with Kurdish separatists so it's a bit risky.

Van, of course, has just been devastated by earthquakes so we decided to try get as far east as Mount Nemrut - a Unesco World Heritage Site. We got mixed reports from tour agencies that the area was closed because of snow and ice but no one gave us convincing answers so we gave it a go anyway. This meant two long and cramped mini bus rides to get to Malatya.

We couldn't find anyone who spoke English in the city, but our hotel receptionist used Google translate to tell us that tours to Nemrut were closed but he knew a taxi driver who was willing to take us up the mountain.

"No problem," he said.

All sounded great.

The next morning we were picked up in a yellow cab by two young fellas: Unal and Gokhan who looked more like mafia hitmen than taxi drivers. So we set off on a hundred-kilometre journey to the sound of blaring Turkish house and hip hop music.

When we started weaving our way up the mountain road snow was everywhere. It was a stunning setting, and looked just like the Southern Alps. We were getting concerned though because the guys kept stopping to talk to local farmers who were all shaking their heads side to side. We passed a sign saying 13 kilometres to go but the road was getting dangerous. Six kilometres later, we were perched on a cliff face and the road was completely covered, we couldn't go any further.

It was decision time. We could see the ridge but knew it would mean a mostly uphill trudge through snow for seven kilometres. We had on the right gear for the job, but we couldn't communicate with our "guides". We didn't know how dangerous it might be or if there would be a clear path. But we had come so far for this we thought we'd be kicking ourselves for not giving it a go.

The taxi driver looked positive and because he was dressed up like he was going out on the town I thought, well if he's willing it can't be that bad.

I could see Charlotte wasn't convinced but she put on her brave face and was up for it.

There wasn't a cloud in the sky, so the views were astounding and the only worry on the way was the fresh paw prints all over the place. Obviously some kind of mountain cat lived here.

The taxi driver kept making claw and biting gestures, I thought he was just joking. But when he started carrying a big rock in his hand and kept scouting the ridge line I have to admit I was concerned. Charlotte was not impressed.

Anyway all went well. It took two hours of exhausting uphill climbing and one hell of a slog to the final summit. And there we were, 2150 metres up at Nemrut Dagi. It's a heritage site because perched up here are 2000-year-old statues, made for the ancient Commagene king, Antiochus.

There are various two-metre-tall heads of Greek and Persian gods. It's thought the whole bodies were once here but only the heads now remain. They are extremely well preserved because of the cold and look incredible.

We had the place to ourselves and it will be something we'll remember for the rest of our lives. If you're ever in this area, make the effort, you'll be rewarded as we were.

Next up: some more long hours in cramped vans north to Trabzon on the Black Sea, we'll take a hard right east and head for Georgia, the birthplace of wine they say.

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