Cappadocia - This surreal region in Turkey mesmerises us with its rock columns, pyramid and mushroom rocks

It was 5.30 on a finger-numbing cold morning when we grudgingly hauled ourselves into the hot air balloon, after a quick coffee and some doughnuts, all the while questioning the prudence of the outing. As the balloon rose gently and the first rays of the sun lit up the fairy chimneys casting dramatic shadows on the barren landscape, the cold weather and sleep were forgotten. We were at the almost-surreal Cappadocia in central Turkey, which owes its popularity to amazing geological formations such as rock columns, pyramid and mushroom rocks, and the lifestyle shaped over millennia as a result of the landscape.

Volcanic eruptions of the Erciyes Dag'I millions of years ago deposited soft lava on the surface, along with harder rocks such as basalt. The soft tufa below weathered away more easily than the harder basalt above, resulting in alluring conical formations called fairy chimneys. The balloon ride took us past dwellings for monks, places of worship and granaries carved in the rock as well as nests of pigeons in the rock face, whose droppings served as fertilizer in this harsh landscape.

Flying high above

The scary part was when the pilot mentioned that only vertical control is possible in the balloon not horizontal; so we were basically drifting at the mercy of the wind. There was a fair share of drama as he skimmed over the cliff tops with the rocks and vegetation within hand's reach, and in the process just missed a sudden outcrop. The ending was just as dramatic with the pilot landing on a trailer amidst cheering and clapping, followed by a glass of champagne and photographs to commemorate the memorable experience.

There are many interesting and fun ways of experiencing Cappadocia. After the balloon ride and a sumptuous breakfast, we did an organised trek through the landscape, which took a couple of hours and was a lesson in geology. The gently undulating landscape rose suddenly into sheer cliffs that were stratified by different colours and textures. It was like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon. The trek was followed by a visit to the local pottery workshops, and ended with tasting local wines. Cappadocia's wines may not rival those of the old world, but are still a relish to end a fun-filled, if tiring, day. The experience was complete as we chose to stay at a cave hotel, ancient dwellings carved out of rock now converted into boutique hotels. It may be a tad expensive, but is worth it.

A short walk from the town of Nevsehir, where we were staying, was the Goreme open air museum, one of the largest in the world. This was a first-hand opportunity to see the caves, dwellings and churches that have made Cappadocia famous, all at one location. The seven-storey monastery of nuns and saints greeted us as we entered the museum.

The interconnected dwelling spaces, carved out the soft tufa rock were fascinating. The different chapels of this area were carved out between the 11th and 12th Centuries, and owe their origins to the growth of the Christian community under the Great St. Basil in the 4th Century.

Contemplation over tea

Most of these chapels are single-nave, barrel-vaulted churches with paintings and frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible and the life of Jesus. The Tokali church, the largest in the region and the Karanalik church with its still vividly coloured paintings are noteworthy. We spent an entire afternoon walking around, sketching, and in just quiet contemplation over many cups of Cay — Turkish tea.

Another intriguing attraction was the underground cities of Cappadocia, of which there are more than 200. Many imaginative tales and interpretations abound on the origin and use of these underground havens, but the most plausible remains that people took refuge in these cities against marauding armies. What may have started as a single-room refuge, grew into a maze of tunnels — some so narrow that we had to crouch through — connecting dwelling rooms, storage areas, ventilation shafts, traps, graves and even wineries. Kaymakli is one such city popular on the tourist circuit, where there was even a melting pot to produce copper ore!

In spite of hostile climate and terrain, the settlers of Cappadocia expanded on the raw beauty of the landscape and gave it artistic shape by surrounding themselves with art and frescoes. We couldn't help but draw parallels with our very own Ajanta Caves. Cappadocia is quite unique in the western world, and our stay there was quite a revelation of how faith and hope can inspire man to create even under the toughest of circumstances.

Getting there

Capdoccia's Nevsehir and Kayseri airports are served by Turkish Airlines, to get from Istanbul. Hotels can arrange for pickup and drop at airport. You can also get there by bus from all major Turkish cities