Mindfully Meandering in Turkey’s Middle Earth

Traveler writer Jeanine Barone is just back from Turkey, where she found an alternative way to explore this land that she heard was magical. Instead of going by van from one town to the next to get a glimpse of the magic, or signing up with a big name hiking company so she could trudge on the trails while everyone else chattered away, she opted for a one-man operation. Below, she discovers the magic of Turkey’s Middle Earth.

I’ll admit up front that I have two somewhat geeky obsessions: the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Surrealist art. Aragorn is my screensaver and my cell phone ring tone is from the soundtrack. I collect books on Salvador Dali, and I’ll wait in any museum line to view his bizarre, ingenious creations. Strangely enough, both of these passions came to mind in Turkey’s Cappadocia’s region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s renowned for its elaborate labyrinthine cave dwellings, and cave chapels and monasteries that once sheltered early Christians. As I trekked with my guide, Mehmet Gungor, this land, with its multi-story rock hewn portals, sometimes seemed straight out of Middle Earth. At other moments, I felt like Dali had a hand in the rainbow-hued landscape tinged with yellows, pinks and reds that’s riddled with curious, conical shapes, some blatantly phallic, and others balancing boulders shaped like top hats. (They’re appropriately called fairy chimneys.) I half expected to see a melting timepiece. As it turned out, watches (real or imaginary) had no place in my journey. Mehmet, who bears a Zen-like mindfulness, doesn’t wear a watch. “Visitors ask me how many hours to this or how far to that, but you can’t count or think about time. Just enjoy the experience,” he declared at the start of our full day hike.

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As we hiked first in the Meskendir Valley and then into the aptly named Red, Rose, White, and Honey valleys, it was relatively easy to put my Type A time-consciousness aside and focus on the moment with so much to captivate my attention in this land that was sculpted by the forces of wind and rain. The stark, volcanically derived landscape sliced by a multitude of valleys is actually quite fertile. Mehmet pointed out fields of pumpkins, chickpeas, wild asparagus, and walnut trees. Small vineyards cropped up, as did apple orchards and apricot groves. Mehmet crushed wild sage so I could sniff the aroma, and picked wild mint and sour black plums so I could nibble them. Focusing up, down, and all around, I spotted tiny holes dotting soaring rock walls. “These are for honey bees,” said Mehmet. A series of larger openings were dove-cotes, where farmers would collect their excrement as fertilizer. Silence ruled, except for the occasional songs of nightingales, the sound of a lone farmer and his wife tilling the soil, or the clip clop of a donkey pulling a cart.
    
The normally staid Mehmet suddenly became excited. I didn’t know our destination as he led me down a steep slope and up to a high ridge beside a cliff pocked with the holes of the ubiquitous dove-cotes. We climbed through a small entryway whose ceiling was pierced with openings once used to pour hot oil should the occupants be attacked. This gave way to a massive fifth century basilica coated with white dust and bedecked with columns and arches. “This is the White Church, my favorite; you can feel the holy energy.” We stood for some time in total silence soaking up the atmosphere. I didn’t glance at my watch.

Sure, like so many of the earth’s magical places, Cappadocia is on the tourist radar. Hot air balloons float above and mountain bikers zoom along the serpentine paths. But, I found that by navigating slowly and deliberately on foot, you can find the intimate and authentic flavor of this very special place.

Photos: Janine Barone