During this summer’s stay in Turkey, I went off on an unexpected weekend trip to Cappadocia — thanks to the intrepid, infinitely more organised Ren, who’d found a good deal and persuaded me to join her (not that it took much persuading, of course!). So there I was, barely over a day after I’d agreed to the trip, shivering slightly in the cool, crisp 4 AM air in the little town of Göreme, waiting to see if I might be able to board a hot air balloon for the first time in my life. Since the sky in Cappadocia gets too hot for balloon rides soon after sunrise, together with the fact that gauging safety depends on last-minute capricious wind conditions, all of us who’d registered for the ride had to meet at the balloon company headquarters at 4 AM and wait before being told whether balloon rides would be happening at all that day. We were a comical roomful of bleary-eyed, somewhat bedraggled travellers —some of us, like Ren and I, having only just flown in from Istanbul two hours earlier— of all ages and from all over the world, munching halfheartedly on chunks of cheese and watermelon slices in the reception room, all waiting to hear our collective hot air balloon fate (imagine having to simply head back to bed at this point!).
As luck would have it that day, the wind gods smiled upon us, and we were promptly shuttled to the take-off site, where we found ourselves at close quarters with the massive, fascinating objects that are hot air balloons.
The first thing you notice upon arriving at the take-off site is the frenzy of activity — there’s a lot of physical work involved in preparing hot air balloons for flight, as well as plenty of loud, palpable heat. Having become so accustomed to planes, which one generally boards and disembarks without really ‘feeling’ or seeing any of the processes that contribute to its eventual flight, this was novel to me. The blasts of heat would also radically change the cast of our surroundings one dramatic second at a time, with the atmosphere seemingly pulsating between cool and torrid.
Hot air balloons are probably the most popular way to ‘see’ Cappadocia, so there were loads of balloons all launching at roughly the same time, just as the sun was slowly beginning to peek through. This made for some charmingly surreal views against a rapidly changing sky.
These two gentlemen were part of the industrious team at Türkiye Balloons who helped us smoothly lift off:
Once our balloon was midair, I was surprised at how smooth and even it felt — no rocking or swaying at all. Just a beautifully calm, unhurried floating, over the earth. I also began to understand why everyone had recommended taking a balloon ride if at all possible, despite it being rather expensive; I don’t think I shall ever forget the way looking down from our balloon helped to gently unfold the dramatically gorgeous landscapes of Cappadocia, or the surreal presence of the other balloons, so oddly silent and toylike in the air from afar.
If I’d found the pre-flight and mid-flight hot air balloons somewhat surreal, nothing quite prepared me for the endearing outlandishness of the balloons being deflated post-flight:
The hot-air balloon ride, then, was a magnificent experience (we were even given champagne afterwards!). When Ren and I decided to explore on foot, however, we also had a delightful time. The famed ‘fairy chimneys’ of the region —”a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland” (thanks Wikipedia)— reward all kinds of angles and perspectives, and to top it off we crossed paths with a few locals who were wonderfully warm.
Göreme and its surrounding area may be one of the few touristy areas left in the world where it is safe for foreigners to hitchhike haphazardly. We were told as much, and, as it turns out, when buses seemed to be frustratingly few and far between, were given a free ride back to our hotel by a lovely young couple.
Ren and I were completely knackered by the end of our whirlwind trip, but were very sorry to leave the land of fairy chimneys… (—Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention: it was nice to find out that the smaller airport in Istanbul that we flew to and from, Sabiha Gökçen, is named after Turkey’s, and indeed the world’s, first female fighter pilot!)