(Just one) Rock Church in Selime

To avoid the busy highways through the endless suburbs of Ankara, we take a bus until Sereflikochisar. From there, it's still an 80 kilometer ride on a busy highway to Aksaray. The "under construction highway" leads along the Tuz Gölü, the biggest salt lake of Turkey. With the late afternoon light, the surrounding hills gloom yellow and red, and the lake shimmers at times even pink. The surrounding hills are bald and brown. Melons and pumkins grow on dry fields and I wonder where they get the water from. Two farmer boys jump across the road and cut a sweet honey melon for us while we fix the first puncture on the journey.

From Aksaray, we time-travel into the past. Actually, we lost our way and take another route heading South towards Ihlara, with splendid views of Mount Hasan Dagi. Out here the small villages consist of more or less faded ancient stone houses. Donkeys and horses and cows on the road, old men with wrinkled faces sit in the shadow in front of the Cay Evi, the tea houses. Yet beside the old Renaults and Fiats, there is always a new Mercedes or Audi with German or Dutch member plates. Expat-Turks are on vacation, visit their relatives, which is good for us with our still desolate Turkish skills. So there is usually a kind insider to tell us more about the country than how much a Cay is.

Ihlara is such an old small village. The former inhabitants of the valley, the orthodox Greeks hid themselves from the hostile world and dug thousands of flats and hundreds of churches into the soft Tuff stone walls beside the river during the last 17 centuries. Hundred thousand people are said to have been living here. We enjoy the hike in the green valley in the shadow of gnarling widow trees, climb up here and there to explore some of the extensively painted cave churches in the tuff stone walls. The frescos are sometimes just red Orthodox crosses, but more often colorful bible scenes. Niches in the walls of the cave flats were dove nests. Their eggs were used to make long-lasting color for the paintings, a park ranger explains during our lunch on a shady rock on the river side. Unfortunately, often the faces of the Saints have been damaged.

Sneaking up the dark tunnels between the levels of some flats feels pretty adventurous since we forgot our headlamps. Eventually the valley opens, and we find our selves in a vine yard. It's harvest season - yummie! In the distance we see the fairy chimneys, the famous aspargus-shaped rocks. There are hardly tourists on the 16 km hike until we reach the big rock monastery of Selime. Here backpackers from the more famous Göreme are dumped with big buses, and their guides keep calling “One hour, then we meet here again lads”. The rock cathedrals are truly impressive – wide halls with rock columns and a dome roof, and multi-level side ships. An England-based Turk gives us a lift back to Ihlara, we arrive on the campground just in time to see the ducks marching from the river to their house. Back in town we fancy to buy a motorbike with side kart for Kathrin to move on.

Fullmoon. We cycle to Güzelyurt, a nearby town with an ancient underground city, rock monasteries and some very old stone churches. The underground cities here in the area have been used to store food, as well as to escape the frequent raids of Arabs and Mongols back in time. Again we forget our headlamps. Few of the lamps of the installed light system do function.

Kilise Cami in Güzelyurt

One of the biggest underground cities is located in the nearby Derinkuyu. This one has 8 levels and reaches up to 60 meters deep with an extensive ventilation system. Massive disc-shaped rocks have been used to close the narrow tunnels from the inside. It is declared UNESCO World Heritage, and a prime tourist attraction with a fully functioning light system and a lot of sealed tunnels.

The little girls nearby are first curious: “Money money”, then ask us to buy them ice cream. Eventually, one of the girls tries to ride Freddy, Kathrins green folding bike. A puppy dog comes in her way. The girl crashes and the poor puppy ends up punished for the kids fault. When we have coffee on the market nearby, pottery flies between the makeshift stalls during intense discussions between some sales boys and big grannies. No way we spend the night here!

By sundown we cycle up the last hills before Uchisar. A giant rock on the horizon locks like the Babel tower in some famous painting, or like a cheese with all its holes. It is called the castle, we learn the next morning. The view from its top over the fairy chimney rocks in the Göreme valley is fantastic. People still live in these rocks. Some of them have up to eight levels. We take a stroll between the crumbling walls. One guy calls us from his rock balcony and invites us to visit his flat. His name is Jamma, and he shows us the rooms with carpets on the floor and has us sit in the comfy cushions and couches. Besides his flat is a souvenir shop - Jammas sales strategy works pretty well.

Kathrin and the Fairy flats of Uchisar

The next day we venture down into Göreme, visit three campgrounds before deciding where to pitch our tent for the next week. The Panorama camping is just a little steep climb up from Göreme village. It has a pool and a kitchen area and a comfortable lounge to hang out. And luckily, Ahmet the funny owner doesn't bother for permanent musical entertainment.

A roaring noise directly above us ends our sweet dreams by sunrise. No, that can't be a truck this time – it's above us. It stops after a few seconds, and it starts again. There is a hot-air balloon directly over our heads, the passenger basket scratching the branches of the olive trees nearby. We crawl out of the tent and view the spectacle. All around us are colorful hot-air balloons rising into the sky. Some of the balloon drivers go right between the fairy chimney rocks with their dozen passengers screaming excitedly. It is a dreamlike scenery surrounded by the Uchisar castle in the west, the 3500 meter high Mount Ercies to the east and a big red striped mesa in the North. Kathrin counts 43 balloons. Ahmet mutters somewhat disappointed that it was up to one hundred on busy days.

We enjoy the rest days. I can do my Yoga in the morning again. The pool cools us during the baking heat of the day. The two campground kittens gain a lot of our attention . We do some hikes in scenic and lonesome valleys nearby, feasting on grapes and plums. A Scottish cyclist couple arrives, Kevin and Lucy, and we have a lot of stories to share.

Eventually Kathrin gets an inspiration how to work around the faded cycling motivation. Apparently there is a train from Ankara to Tehran, that stops in nearby Kayseri. Why shouldn't we go to Trabzon by Rental car to get the Iran visas. And why not cycle some mountains with my bicycle too?