From Italy to Turkey, and to the centre. After our walk up Pigeon Valley in late afternoon light I felt wonderful and was very happy to be in Eastern Anatolia. The first few moments in a special place can never quite be repeated. My first few moments walking up Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia that recent afternoon in early October light and coolness, looking around at the stone towers catching the mellow sun, with their chiselled rooms and doors and windows, and dovecotes, and the winding sandy path among them, I felt like I was walking in a barely plausible and otherworldly land, I felt like I was a character in a strange film, I felt lifted up and exhilarated by the landscape around me like I have rarely felt in my life. Such a wonderful place, such a blessing to be there. Our guest house had a welcoming dog and cat, and errant and wild garden, travertine pavers and bathrooms and arched stone verandah.
The previous day sleep deprivation and too many crowds had made me want to go home. Travel can be horrendous, and then the next day travel can lift you up and make you deeply satisfied that you booked your aeroplane tickets.
The next morning morning I did one of the best walks of my life. It was down a tributary of the Rose Valley to the east of Goreme. We walked up a road for some time, stopping for tea at a little tent outside a thousand year old rock cut church where we let the silence fall sweetly on our ears. Later we walked on and turned left onto a dirt track, then onto a goat path, then we began a long and slippery decent into the gulley. The white crumbly, dusty path was clearly a path for water to fall down during wetter times of year, not an official path. It was so steep it required you to stem one leg to the left and right bank of the furrow of a path to stop yourself from falling face first down the slope.
When we got to the bottom we wound our way down the canyon, with green trees in leaf, standing straight and tall, against the white and skin toned erosion furrows of the gulley higher up. Here and there we could see caves cut into the stone, high up on sheer rock faces. Sometimes birds calling. Otherwise total silence. The path wound on, revealing surprise river tunnels, five metres tall at times, through which we walked enchanted. We both agreed this was one of the most satisfying walks we had ever done in our lives. Still twenty degree air, clear sunlight, no other humans to be seen, ancient human traces left on the stone, geological cathedrals of space and shadow coming into view around every bend of the canyon… Pure pleasure.
The next morning we took a taxi out to Zelve, an ancient Christian community’s series of cave dwellings in a precipitous valley south of Goreme. We walked without anyone else around for over an hour. The bird songs echoed off the tall stone walls. I climbed up, hand hold over hand hold, into caves and up stairs, and turned and looked over the valley. The hand holds everywhere are intentionally carved to shape a human hand and as you use them you get a kind of somatic knowledge of history that is impossible if you were to sit at home and read a book or look at a photo. You are moving yourself through space in the same pattern as a man or woman 1200 years ago into the same carved stone room or church or chamber. Inside an ancient Christian church, complete with apse, alter, nave and side aisles, even with separate baptistry, I stood and contemplated a carved cross on the stone wall as the light raked across it from a nearby window.
Hand hold over ancient hand hold.
People lived in these caves until the early 1950s. That morning in the valley of Zelve, before many tourists has arrived, under a blue sky, with such a still and baited atmosphere in the air, was magical. Standing inside a stone chamber and looking out through the door way, carved into the cliff face, at the stone dwellings on the vertical face of the valley wall opposite, with some green shrubs and trees below, I felt like I had come to one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited. High, precipitous, uncanny, and full of faint echoes of human lives. The place is almost like being in Mesa Verde in south-west America without all the tourists and park rangers and tarmac and signage. Often in developed countries you feel distant from archeology with someone popping up if you even stood on an old stone and telling you to get down. Here there are few barriers to experiencing the past directly and few things to stop you from venturing forth, taking your safety into your own hands rather than being shut out of places by fences.
The town of Goreme where I stayed is like a wild west town with its free ranging dogs, its dirt roads, its make shift atmosphere, its on the take entrepreneurs, much more so than any town feels today in the United States where the term ‘wild west’ originates. Zelve is just far enough out of this town that the tourist numbers are low – and it was easy to go in the morning when there were only about three other people in the entire valley (and not particularly early by any means). The walk down the winding canyon towards Rose valley, and the walk through Zelve the next day morning, were two of my greatest travel experiences, up there with my first moments in Ta Prohm in Ankor, Cambodia, and an evening without tourists up in a valley of Petra in Jordan. Transcendent, subtle, inspiring awe and grace in its colours and shapes and sounds in the heart and the eye.