As the sun slowly emerges across the high plateaus of Central Turkey, beautiful shapes and shadows begin to form in the distance. Like diving into another world, the magical, fairy-chimney rock formations of Cappadocia take over the landscape.
But there are holes in the earth windows. People live in these earthly works of art. The locals peer through their windows as our bus calls into the small cave-dwelling town of Goreme.
On first impression, these strange, cone-like structures look utterly majestic. Three million years ago, they were created by a huge volcanic eruption which covered the area with ash, lava and mud. The forces of erosion got to work to create a bizarre geography that exists nowhere else on earth.
We, a few Kiwis and a Spaniard, go in search of accommodation. We stumble across the Shoestring Cave Pension. To our intrigue we find that guesthouses here are not houses at all - we'll be sleeping in the earth for the next few nights.
The first impression I have of our cave dwelling is one of dampness. Accommodation in Turkey is fantastically different, but this one beats them all. Such a euphoric discovery makes me want to slide out the front (and only) door and yell "yabba dabba doo!"
Wandering the labyrinthine alleys for the first time, we watch the local kids playing soccer in the street, while men walk with donkeys carrying heavy loads. People smile at us and there is a general feeling of happiness and wellbeing.
Like any town in Turkey there are carpet shops, but here we don't really feel pressured to go inside and drink free tea, guiltily knowing we don't want to purchase a carpet. The rejection of carpet viewing is acknowledged with a quick, "maybe later then, my friend".
We stop to observe a group of older men in the park, playing cards in a joyful fashion. We're invited to join them for a game and are encouraged to try the local soda drink, "gazoz". It tastes like bubblegum and is refreshing on such a hot day. We take part in a game of trumps, similar to 500, that sees us losing on purpose to keep the old boys happy.
Here, more women wear headscarves than in Istanbul and we see some wearing burka (where the whole body is covered with a veil). Mostly though, it's a mix of Eastern and Western Turkey.
Time for an Efes, the local brew named after the incredible ruins of Ephesus. We bump into Yavus (pronounced Ya-bus), a local Turkish businessman who greets us with, "Kiwis! I have many Kiwi friends." Yavus is very humble and friendly, like many Turkish people, and insists we join him at his Beanbag Bar for "cay" - the local tea.
Yavus joins us on a beanbag as we sip Turkish tea out of tiny, clear glasses. It's essentially black tea with a couple of cubes of sugar thrown in but in this environment it heals the soul and body in a uniquely different way from a Western country.
"I think you need a clean shave, my friend," suggests Yavus as he tells us about his barber mate in a nearby town, who will happily give us a "special price." We can't refuse his kind hospitality and take up the offer.
Yavus personally drives us to his friend's barber shop, where the greetings are as if meeting up with an old mate. My face is lathered the old-fashioned way, with a brush massaging the shaving cream on to my skin. The barber skilfully whips out his open-blade and gently removes each grain of stubble. Turkish music plays from the radio in a meditative rhythm. Time feels like it stands still, so precise is the barber's craft. A lemon solution acts as a fresh aftershave. That's the best shave I've ever had. More to come though - a head and neck massage kicks in - so completely revitalising that I almost forget about the barber's bad breath. He's not done yet. A pair of tongs, some cotton wool, doused in alcohol, a lighter - never had my ear hairs singed before.
With an Efes in hand, tea digested, facial pores in a state of ecstasy and back on one of Yavus' beanbags, I wonder how this experience could get any better.
"Best way to see Goreme is from the sky," mentions Yavus during one of our many relaxed conversations.
Hot air ballooning. Why not? We organise a flight with Lars and Kaili at Kapadokya Balloons.
They come recommended and have more than 45 years experience.
It's a 5am wake-up. We're pumped for the exciting morning ahead. The German and Turkish crew drive us to the launch site. The air is still, and it's cold waiting for the sun to come up.
As the inflator fan fills the balloon with air, we're allowed to walk inside before the burner begins to burn the propane gas. Ever so slowly the balloon begins to stand up; when it's vertical we hop in.
There must be 15 of us in here. We're hovering off the ground, I didn't even feel us lift off. The crew keep us connected to the ground with heavy rope attached to the corners of the basket.
Those poplar trees are coming closer. Looking down I realise we're away, we're flying. But we're heading straight for those bloody trees. Kaili increases the gas and we just trim the top of the poplars with the basket. That was another close shave.
Words can't really describe the supernatural view overlooking Goreme. This land has been sculptured initially by the elements and then by man. The balloon increases altitude. Kaili tells us that we're more than a kilometre high now. Cappadocia's fairy-chimneys spread out below us and the horizon appears to go on forever.
Kaili and Lars exchange ballooning banter, forcing each other to change altitude in a race to catch the fastest winds. We swoop down close to the ground and can see the locals going about their daily business. Old women dust their Turkish carpets out their windows as old men sit in the street playing cards and smoking cigars.
We drift towards the strange town of Uchisar, famous for the huge rock formation once used as a fort that dominates the town. Concealed from view many years ago, erosion has destroyed the surrounding area, revealing the honeycombed architecture inside.
As we descend closer to Uchisar, we hear a lot of yelling coming from somewhere on the old fort. Kaili points out a film crew making a documentary on the beehived rock. They're obviously concerned with the noise coming from the balloon's burner. "They think they own the place," says Kaili. "Give them a wave everyone - the louder the better!"
We spot our support crew driving towards a desolate field. The ropes are thrown overboard and the lads drag us to the landing spot - perfect.
Champagne is on the breakfast menu and is probably the best way to celebrate an experience we'll never forget.
Later that night, we meet up with Yavus, who says he wants to show us something. He takes us to his wine bar. The atmosphere is humming, the locals are on bongos. Yavus picks up the Turkish mandolin, called the saz, and as visitors we're given spoons to play. Before our new Turkish friend breaks out in song he says, "I like Kiwis, very friendly people." We could say the same about the Turks.
Cappadocia: Fly into Istanbul and either join a tour or make your own way by bus to central Turkey. A direct bus will take about 12 hours to Goreme or Uchisar. Alternatively fly into Ankara (the capital) for a shorter bus ride.
Where to stay: There's only one option really - in a cave. Booking in advance could land you a 5-star rock hotel or just rock on up and sleep in a budget cave.
What to do: Hot air ballooning, hiring a scooter to check out the nearby towns, seeing a Whirling Dervish performance, getting a haircut or shave at a traditional barber shop or drinking tea with the locals.
Best time to visit: Autumn and spring are the best times of the year to visit Cappadocia due to it being a plateau.
Further information: See cappadociaturkey.net.
Craig McClelland paid his own way to Cappadocia.