Visiting Turkey's Cappadocia region while sober is not recommended. To your rational mind, this place will beg far too many questions to be any fun. Yet, on 'shrooms, your brain will simply enjoy this fantastical landscape. It won't question the bizarre physics that created it, or the incredible odds against its existence. Hell, your mind won't even care if any of it's real. (Spoiler: It is.)
Cappadocia is unlike anything you've ever seen—while conscious, at least.
So what makes Cappadocia—a barren region in the sandy center of Turkey—such a great location for doing 'shrooms or other psychedelics? I wouldn't actually know—I don't do drugs [“Barkeep! Another whiskey…and make it a double!” Continues typing]. But I do have a couple of harebrained theories based on post-surgical experiences with Percocet® and Vicodin®.
Cappadocia is a great place to do psychedelics because first, Turkey has a long history in the drug business (both legal and illegal), so no one is likely to harsh your buzz. And second, Cappadocia's surreal landscape looks like something dreamed up by Sid & Marty Krofft after one of Charlie Sheen's parties. Whether you're a philosophic Bohemian, a micro-dosing tech-bro, or just a dirty hippie, Cappadocia will blow what's left of your burnt-out mind.
How Cappadocia got its famous phallic formations.
Geologically, it would take awhile to explain why Cappadocia looks like a sandy sausage-fest. But, in a nutshell, volcanic eruptions from Mt. Erciyes (pron. “mount air-chess”), rained down over a hundred feet of ash that solidified into soft, porous rock called “tuff.” That light beige layer was then covered by a darker layer of basalt, a denser, magma-based volcanic rock.
Over the millennia, the softer layer of tuff slowly eroded, leaving 130-foot-tall pillars randomly dotting the landscape. The tougher basalt eroded even more slowly, leaving a weird cap atop each tuff pillar. The resulting formations create trippy desert scenery. A landscape where you wouldn't be surprised to see Sesame Street's Mr. Snuffleupagus playing George Stephanopoulos in pickle-ball (they're friends, Google it).
Cappadocia is the ideal setting for an X-rated reboot of “The Flintstones.”
The locals call these penile pillars, “fairy chimneys” or “mushroom-shaped.” Why? Most likely because they don't want to scare away tourists who might be religious, feminists, lesbians, or all three. And that's smart. Those three groups are notorious for their love of fungi-based souvenirs, like “I don't give a Shiitake” t-shirts.
But we're all adults here, right? And we know a penis-shaped rock formation when we see one. I mean, if something walks like a penis, and talks like a penis, it's a penis. Okay, sure, it might also be someone in a penis costume—that would more credibly explain the walking and talking part.
Regardless, these rocks obviously look like massive members. That's just a fact.
Now, I realize, you could argue that my reading penis shapes into things that aren't actually penises might make me seem obsessed with penises somehow. And yes, Sigmund Freud certainly had some odd ideas about that topic. But rest assured that my interest in penises is purely competitive in nature. (That makes it less weird, right? Whew.)
Understandably, few people want to live near The Phallic Forest.
Located on Turkey's central Anatolia Plateau (Elevation: 1,600 ft), the Cappadocia region has never been a “hot” real estate market—pun intended. Cappadocia has hot, dry summers and cold, snowy winters, so the plateau's value to industry and agriculture is about on par with its value to beachfront condo developers. That is to say, not much.
Yet, in the early 4th Century CE, prior to Constantine jumping on “Team Jesus,” Cappadocia experienced a land rush, of sorts. The area's population swelled for a while, despite how infertile and impotent the land appeared.
Unlike modern Christians, ancient ones were actually persecuted.
Turkish Christians, most of whom lived around the Mediterranean coast, spent much of their waking hours either hiding from, or running from, the religiously intolerant Romans who ruled the region, and their hungry lions.
All that running eventually took those Christians 1,600 miles away to Turkey's Cappadocia region, a place where they thought they'd be safe. Unfortunately, the Romans had sworn to “pursue them to the ends of the Earth,” and this desolate part of Turkey certainly qualified.
There's a reason emigrating Christians didn't displace any locals.
This worthless wasteland was so far away from everything that made ancient life worth living, that Christians felt safe building miserable lives there. To make matters worse, surviving on the parsimonious Anatolia plateau presented no end of challenges. Its sandy soil, spotted with only patchy scrub, was both hard to work, and even harder to look at day in and day out.
Even more worser, the terrain offered few indigenous animals, even fewer edible plants, as well as an almost total lack of bushy trees to hide behind. The Christians were fully exposed both to the elements, and the Romans. So many of these persecuted people prayed for their god's rescue from their shitty situation.
While the others waited for the arrival of two boats and a helicopter, the more proactive Christians took stock of their surroundings. They soon discovered long-abandoned caves carved out of the volcanic hills by the ancient Phrygians. They were some of the area's first inhabitants, and also some of the first to leave for somewhere better.
When the Romans went high, the Christians went low.
The Christians quickly became mole-people to avoid becoming LionChow®. No longer confident of divine deliverance, they set to work carving churches, homes, stables, cellars, storage rooms, and even dining tables out of the very rock itself (see photos). These Honeycomb Hideouts had everything anyone running for their life could want except, maybe, bathrooms.
By the time the Romans had stopped trying to murder them, the Christians had dug thirty-six of these underground cities, all over Cappadocia, and all without backhoes or tunnel boring machines. Each city was a testament to the motivating power of living in so much fear for your life that “carving a human habitrail out of rock” was a rational response.
Seventeen centuries later, we toured Derinkuyu (pron. Darin-koo-yoo)—the deepest of Cappadocia's underground cities. When finished, this subterranean shelter was almost 10-stories deep. And it could theoretically hide as many as 20,000 people, assuming nobody farted too loudly.
Derinkuyu was more comfortable than I was expecting.
Derinkuyu's first few rooms were large with high ceilings, so I didn't immediately have a panic attack when I stepped inside. The subsequent rooms and passageways, however, got progressively tighter as this winding warren got deeper. The noticeable drop-off in usable square footage stemmed, presumably, from its Christian carvers getting older and lazier. Their increasingly shoddy workmanship soon presented a problem for me.
Now, I'm not afflicted with claustrophobia, per se. But being six foot three inches tall, I am very disinclined to hunch over too much, or for very long. So, to avoid getting trapped in a tight tunnel, I had to let shorter people clear the passages before me, and then scoot through them briskly. The approach took longer, but it saved me from needing painkillers, SNRIs, or other drugs.
It's difficult to imagine carving a place as big as Derinkuyu, much less living in it. Especially without high-speed broadband, central air, or indoor plumbing. But that's probably why the place is listed as an educational museum, instead of listed on Zillow.
The Göreme Open Air museum still requires tickets.
An hour north of Derinkuyu is the Göreme Open Air museum. This UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Göreme Valley (pron. Ger-a-may) is filled with numerous rock-cut churches, monasteries, graves, and store rooms. Dug during the Byzantine period, this historical Honeycomb Hideout was home to monks as well as a pilgrimage site for Christians who'd been banished from better places. Oh, and bats—so many freaking bats.
The museum's highlight is the “Dark Church”—aka, Karanlık Kilise (pron. Karank Kal-eyes)—whose only light source comes from a small opening in the narthex. Its well-preserved 11th Century frescoes are unique in that the colors aren't faded, and because so few artists back then could paint very well in near total darkness.
The carpet craftswomen of Cappadocia.
When not carving man-caves and she-sheds out of volcanic rock, the people of this region had a lot of time on their hands. So the monks started painting frescoes, and the ladies started weaving carpets to cover the “hardrock” floors in their caves. The more bored they were, the more intricate the designs got. Eventually, their rugs got so intricate that other people wanted to buy them for their own caves.
When the Romans finally accepted Christianity as a credible-sounding religion, and stopped feeding its adherents to lions, the supply of rugs increased dramatically. Soon, “
Oriental”—er, Turkish rugs became coveted decor for actual houses, too. Sadly, young people today have no interest in learning the craft of carpet-making. Unless they can use it as Instagram content, that is.
Sleeping in the shadow of Uçhisar Castle.
Located a short, two-hour walk from Göreme National Park, the town of Uçhisar (pron. “We-CHEE-sar”) surrounds the base of a 60-meter-tall rock cone. That “rock cone” is known as Uçhisar Kalesi (aka, “Uçhisar Castle”), even though it was never used as a residence for royalty. I mean, what Queen would be caught dead living in such a freaky looking castle?
The Byzantines used Cappadocia as a buffer zone—a sort of No Man's Land—to prevent Islamic incursions into Europe (Spoiler: It failed). To that end, Uçhisar was more of a defensive fortress than a palace. One whose creepy appearance likely did a lot of the heavy work of scaring off Muslims.
Like everywhere else in Cappadocia, Uçhisar is crisscrossed by underground passageways and rooms. So many, in fact, that up to a thousand troops could've lived inside this carved-out encampment. Just not comfortably nor happily.
Reportedly, there's even an ancient tunnel that extends for about 100 meters below some of the houses, linking the fortress to the outside world. Presumably, it was built for cowards and deserters to avoid being killed by the approaching Ottoman Empire.
The pooping pigeons of Cappadocia.
Cappadocia's Pigeon Valley is so called because of all the flying rats that now live there. Up until the 1970s, “guano” (aka, pigeon poop) was widely coveted as fertilizer. So pigeons were lured away from cities like Istanbul with promises of Cappadocia's more affordable housing and free bread crumbs. Over the years, lots of pigeon condos (named, Dovecotes) were carved into the hillsides of this valley. Inside, pigeons could roost, relax, and poop in privacy, safe from predators constantly knocking and jiggling the door handle.
Hot-air balloons are huge in Cappadocia.
Just to be clear, I don't mean to convey that the hundred-foot balloons in Turkey are any larger than those in other places. Rather, that balloons are just extremely popular in Turkey's midsection. Especially with tourists who've run out of psychedelics to take.
We know this because we booked a balloon flight at sunrise. And, when we arrived at our “launch site,” predawn, we found about 100 other hot-air balloons being inflated as well. There wasn't even a hot-air balloon festival or anything going on. This was just another Sunday in Cappadocia.
As the sun slowly rose, so did a hundred balloons. Our assigned aircraft took awhile to inflate, giving us time to consider the enormity of the hot-air balloon industry in Cappadocia. For starters, each balloon could hold 16 passengers, including the pilot.
One of our fellow passengers figured that, including our group, there would be about 1,600 people in the air that morning. The guy could've been wrong, but I wasn't either awake nor invested enough to question his math.
More balloons than a rich kid's birthday party.
Once our balloon was sufficiently full of hot atmosphere, the group boarded and our pilot took off. To be honest, “took off” is too exciting a phrase for what actually happened—we “lifted off,” and incredibly slowly at that.
The lack of wind and silence of the morning made for a pleasant dream-like experience where I felt like I was floating—just not naked this time.
Our captain was as arrogant as he was skilled at piloting a balloon. With only binary burner control—that is, either all-on or all-off—he sank us deep into the valleys and lofted us high into the sky. Incredibly, he did it all with a wink, and the quiet confidence of a man who probably had a hot-air balloon pilot's license, though we never thought to check that while we were still on the ground.
What goes up, must come down. —Gravity
After an hour or so of flying, our pilot casually explained that, upon landing, we should expect the basket to hit the ground hard and then fall over. We'd need to be prepared for it, he said, and to really hang on. His warning, however, turned out to be a Turkish attempt at humor.
Instead of fatally crashing us into a mountain or dragging our basket across rocky brushlands, the pilot gracefully landed the balloon—fully upright—and precisely onto his ground crew's waiting trailer like a boss, which I believe he was.
We clambered out of the basket and congratulated our pilot on his impressive flying skills. Then we had champagne at seven in the morning to celebrate none of us having fallen out of the basket while trying to take a selfie. Good job, everyone! Now, drink up!
So, is Cappadocia worth visiting if you don't do drugs?
Honestly, I probably wouldn't have chosen to go to Cappadocia if I had been planning this trip. But then, I wouldn't have chosen to go to Turkey in the first place, either. Nothing against Turkey, there are just other places I would've preferred to see first.
Nevertheless, the area is undeniably breathtaking, just in a horrifying “What the hell is that…?” sort of way. The bottom line is that most of Cappadocia looks seriously effed up and bizarre, whether you're on drugs or not. So if you want to go someplace normal, look somewhere else—I hear good things about Cleveland, Ohio.