Istanbul is luminous. One can’t help but squint before the bustling bazaars, soaring mosques and glittery palaces. Like an emblem of Turkey at large, it is an encrusted crossroads where the tireless ebb and flow of civilisation remains etched upon flaking edifices. Istanbul has traditionally been the main course of a jaunt through Turkey, but the fantastical region of Cappadocia, in the country’s hinterland, frequently competes to be the highlight of a visit there. Istanbul submerges you in a melting pot of clamorous cultures; Cappadocia bewitches through its stark natural splendour – and what better way to apprehend its contours than from the sky. This is exactly what I did on Boxing Day.
I am always up early while travelling; there is something fascinating about witnessing a town’s wake-up routines. On arrival in the small town of Göreme, in Cappadocia, I set out for a solitary morning amble. In Turkey – as in all Islamic countries – the soundtrack to the morning is the call to prayer. Although it is often melodious, the Göreme brand was particularly discordant, sounding more like a soul in anguish than a spiritual broadcast. At least it jarred me to full consciousness. For someone with navigational deficiencies like mine, it is reassuring to arrive in a place with obvious landmarks – and Göreme has plenty.
The most striking features around the region are stands of conical stones, as monumental as the minarets in Istanbul. Resembling rock tepees, these towering volcanic forms punctuate the skyline. Their gaping interiors conceal a smattering of ancient Roman tombs, richly frescoed Byzantine churches and domestic dwellings. After wending my way through the town’s labyrinthine alleys, I discovered a lookout. The call-to-prayer receded, muffled by the valleys. In the silence surfaced a most intriguing sight: lazily rising forms appeared over the ridges. As these bulbs detached themselves from the serrated profile and soared heavenward in perfect time for sunrise, I knew this was something I had to try.
Some modes of transport seem perfect for the landscapes they traverse. The train has the trans-Siberian journey; the car, Route 66; and the hot-air balloon, Cappadocian skies. For me, air travel has always been associated with the rumble of jet engines, but this was different. Gazing up I could count a medley of 20 hot-air balloons, some hovering hawk-high while others seemed to skim the tepee-tops. The morning stroll had helped me orient myself among this breathtaking scenery, but it was clearly not the best vantage point for revelling in its grandeur.
Giddy with anticipation, we ventured out at 6am the next day. The winter sun had not yet risen, the air was frosty and the sky overhead promised a spectacular sunrise. The sagging mists provided just the right degree of obscurity, thrown like a feather duvet over the landscape. Complimentary cups of Turkish tea at the launch site did not compensate for a hurried administrative process (no release forms). Slapdash procedures continued on board (no safety attachments and a hasty run-through of the landing routine). Isn’t it funny how deficiencies you would condemn at home are recast as “cultural experiences” when abroad.
Around us other balloons were growing, preparing for take-off. We snickered as a group of geriatric tourists, encumbered by colossal cameras, clambered into their basket. Another group of young thrill-seekers shrieked and gesticulated as their basket scraped forward, balloon-canvas billowing. By comparison our take-off was placid, so much so that I did not realise we were airborne until my girlfriend squeezed my hand. In the windless conditions our balloon ascended with the fluid precision of a piston. All was still, save for the splutter of the propane burner: a trivial disturbance given the welcome bursts of warmth it provided.
Our senses were heightened and all sounds seemed amplified – particularly the groan of basket underfoot, triggered by every wide-eyed shuffle. Puffs of foggy breath accompanied each exclamation. The youngest passenger initially cowered beneath the rim of the basket. But before long, overcome by the sublimity of the setting, she emerged like a curious mouse that had just smelt cheese. As the sun rose, the clusters of stone chimneys cast long shadows over the landscape. The light illuminated jagged shapes that testified to numerous chapters of upheaval. As we gazed down into the shrouded depths of canyons, they seemed calm and resigned, with no echoes remaining of the cataclysmic forces that created them.
Only a woven brittle barrier, scarcely extending above my hips, separated me from the expanse below. It was exhilarating to be up in the sky without the familiar aeroplane configuration of a pressurised cabin and smudged Perspex window to mar the immediacy of vistas unfolding beneath. Images stacked up: the slothful sway of the basket; its languid locomotion causing the foreground to swim; the earth and sky melting on the horizon; and the serpentine gouges below, resembling borer marks on old floorboards. We amused ourselves attempting to discern man-made entrance ways from natural pockmarks in the topography. The more habitable outcrops were perforated like anthills, a persistent reminder of the region’s subterranean cultural history. The ascendant sun heralded the final phase of dawn. Everything was bathed in radiant hues. Now hovering at maximum altitude, our crow’s nest was the perfect vantage point to look down on the riotous terrain.
It’s hard to find adjectives to capture the enchantment of the flight. Magical? As we descended, I recalled the hot-air balloon that shuttled the Wizard to the kaleidoscopic world of Oz. Besieged by a flurry of hands, our hovering basket was stabilised by the mustachioed ground crew. The basket crunched as it made contact with land. Jeeringly, our companion orbs still bobbled overhead like fugitive birthday balloons severed from their tethers. According to a friend, a hot-air balloon ride is the supreme romantic experience – a prelude to a marriage proposal. The jury might still be out on that one, but it was a mesmerising experience, enhanced by sharing it with someone special. Exhaling deeply, we stepped away as the deflating balloon sagged, creased and crumpled, bowing to the dawn.