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Cappadocia - The Moab of Turkey

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My brother and his family have been living in Istanbul, Turkey for the last 2 years. They are coming home this summer so I wanted to get over and visit them while they were still there. I booked a 10 day trip at the beginning of May and decided that, while Istanbul would probably be the largest portion of my trip, it would be worth it to try and see more of Turkey than just that exciting city. I spoke with my brother and he recommended I take a quick trip down to the Cappadocian region of Turkey. I was able to find a very inexpensive flight from Istanbul to Nevsehir for the middle of my vacation. There are many exciting things to do in Cappadocia but I thought it would be great to see the area by bike. By mountain bike if possible. So I started to do some research and found a company called Middle Earth Travel that does all kinds of bike tours in Turkey. They have a wide range of options but I decided if I was going to do it, I may as well do it big. So I signed up for the tour they’ve titled ‘From the Jungle to the Moon and Back’.

The flight from Istanbul down to Nevsehir was only about an hour long and I arrived in Goreme (the main tourist center of the Cappadocian region) early on Tuesday morning. My bike ride wasn’t until Wednesday so I had a full day to explore the area. I was staying in a wonderful hotel called the Elysee Cave House and the owner, Cengiz, was very knowledgeable and was able to recommend some wonderful hikes and other adventures in the area.

The Cappadocian region, in central Anatolia, has been shaped over the centuries by major volcanic activity. It’s a seriously surreal place with amazing rock formations and beautiful valleys interspersed among large expanses of farmland. In the pictures that I had seen of the area it reminded me of the Badlands of South Dakota but it also has geological features you’d find in some parts of Utah or Arizona and other features that are exclusively Cappadocian. As I mentioned, there are numerous ways to explore the area including hot air balloon tours, hiking tours, ATV rentals, 4X4 adventures, horseback riding, and, most importantly for me, mountain biking. The hot air balloon tours are definitely the most popular attraction but they can also be quite expensive. I found the bike tour, which lasted all day, to be much more satisfying than a couple of hours in a balloon. I also feel that we probably got to see just as much, if not more, of the landscape than those that took balloon tours. However, if you are staying in the area for more than a few days, the balloon rides are supposed to be a lot of fun.

After settling in to my hotel, I headed over to the Goreme Open Air Museum (within easy walking distance of town but Cengiz was kind enough to give me, and a couple of other boarders, a ride). This is an outdoor museum of churches that were carved into the amazing rocks of Goreme back in the 9th to 11th centuries. Over the course of its history, different populations found refuge in Goreme (which roughly translates to ‘hidden valley’) and during those two centuries Christians dug churches into the rocks and painted them with amazing frescoes. The open air museum has over 30 churches and is a great introduction to the history of the area. People not only dug out churches but actual underground cities where they hid to avoid different types of persecution. The volcanic rock in the area seems to lend itself well to carving and people still live in some of the structures to this day.

After the museum I walked for a bit in the Red Valley and headed over to the Love Valley as well to see the amazing ‘fairy chimney’ rock formations. The volcanic rock is called ‘tufa’ and consists of two distinct types of stone. The lighter, somewhat softer rock existed first as ash in the volcanic flow that formed the landscape millions of years ago. The darker, harder rock existed first as broken up rock in the lava. Due to the differences in geology of these two types of stone, the erosion rates are different and over time the fairy chimney rock formations gradually emerge. It was quite an experience to walk over, around and through this crazy landscape.

The next morning I woke up at 5:45 to watch the balloons take off. What a spectacle. I took a moment to count them and counted at least 100 balloons in the sky over Goreme. They go up first thing to catch the sunrise as the landscape takes on many different colors as the sun rises into the sky. It was fun watching all the balloons rise up into the air and float over the valley. I’m not sure how they don’t run into each other as the sky got very crowded in a very short time. After taking a few pictures and admiring the balloons I actually went back to sleep for a bit as I didn’t need to be at Middle Earth Tours until 8:30.

I got up, again, a bit before 8 and had a quick breakfast before heading over to Middle Earth. When I got there Jon, the owner of the company and our tour guide for the day, was loading up a van with the help of Sinan, another tour guide who normally did road bike tours but was getting some training on the mountain bike tours as well. We hopped in the van, loaded up with the bikes and helmets, and headed out to pick up Sam and Flore, a couple from France who were joining us on the tour. Normally the tour we were on would leave from Middle Earth headquarters in Goreme but Jon (thankfully) wanted to spare us the first climb of the day which was on the road up to Uchisar. Instead of riding we took the short van ride up the hill and unloaded the equipment at the top end of Uchisar.

Uchisar sits on the plateau above Goreme and is dominated by a stone ‘castle’ right in the middle of town. Some of the balloon companies start their tours up here and there are numerous cave hotels here as well. We emptied out the van and got ourselves comfortable with the bikes we would be riding for the next 40+ kilometers. Helmets and gloves were also supplied by Jon and Sinan. Once we were familiar with our equipment and we had accounted for everything we’d need, we headed out of Uchisar towards the next portion of the ride called Gemil Hill.

Gemil Hill climbs out of Uchisar to a plateau that sits above Goreme and the surrounding towns. We had a great view of the entire area and it was really interesting to look back on Goreme. You could really see why it is called the hidden valley as hardly any of the town could be seen. On the plateau above the valleys there were large expanses of farmland, open fields, and large, beautiful mountain ranges off in the distance. Very early on in the ride it became obvious that the rock in this area is exceptionally tactile, much like what I’ve heard about the slick rock in Utah. Due to the sandy consistency of the ‘tufa’, when it hardens it is almost like riding on sandpaper, which makes climbing even the steepest slopes much easier. You don’t want to take a spill on it but it is definitely great to ride.

After passing through numerous farms and open fields, we worked our way down to the town of Kavak. Kavak was an interesting stop because there is no tourism here whatsoever. Quite a switch from Goreme. The people here either farm or drive trucks that transfer the produce, mainly squash (Zucchini), to markets and towns in the area. We stopped in at a local Chai shop and had some tea and biscuits. The owner was very glad to see us and it was evident that Jon was a frequent visitor. One thing that became more and more obvious throughout the day was that Jon knew pretty much everybody. I was impressed by how much of an effort Jon, and Middle Earth travel, had obviously made to be contributors to the local economy and to ingratiate themselves with the local population. Jon spoke the language fluently, knew just about everything you could hope to know about the geography and history of the area, and seemed to know pretty much everybody by their first names. I mention this because it made the entire tour more comfortable and relaxed and in the end made it much more enjoyable.

Once our Chai and biscuits were consumed we pulled the bikes out and continued on the day’s adventure. Throughout the day Jon would take the time to give very directed and pertinent advice about mountain biking. He presented helpful hints throughout the ride in a respectful and kindhearted way so that all riders were prepared for the terrain to come. After Kavak he talked a bit about ‘attack position’ and floating over the bike which was going to come in very handy during the next section of the ride, called Gomeda Free Ride. They dubbed this next section ‘Free Ride’ not because there were extensive jumps or ‘features’ but more because the trail was a bit random through this particular landscape. Because of that, we could all make our way downhill following whichever path seemed the most welcoming. We were working our way off of the plateau, down into Gomeda Valley. A lot of the terrain on the free ride was ‘swoopy’ in that there were numerous little mounds and ridges that were made for riding up and over. This was definitely one of the most entertaining parts of the ride.

At the end of the free ride we were at the mouth of the Gomeda Valley. I took a quick, and welcome, snack break and ate some of my trusty Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews. I made sure to bring some with me from home as I’m finding that they are always a welcome charge up during any kind of a ride. Gomeda Vally, which then fed into Uzengi Valley, was a single track trail that cut back and forth across a stream that had obviously cut out a deep and impressive canyon through the rock. The day was beautiful and warm so the stream crossings, which soon became flat out stream riding, were quite welcome. Jon also informed us that the past winter had been a long, and wet, one so everything that we saw was very green or covered in beautiful purple, blue and yellow wildflowers. Riding through the valley took us a few hours and we saw numerous amazing rock formations, including an old, no longer used, Pigeon hotel. Due to all the farming in the area, the people used to keep pigeons to fertilize their crops with the pigeon droppings. Just as some people carved out homes, pantries, or churches in the rock, the farmers carved out and maintained pigeon coops carved into the stone. Although the coops that we saw are no longer actively maintained, it seemed that a few types of birds still used the cutouts as nesting spots.

After the amazing scenery, and copious water, of the Gomeda and Uzengi valleys, we worked our way, on the road, up to Urgup for an amazing lunch at the ‘Cappadocian Restaurant’. All of the food that I ate in Turkey was wonderful and our lunch here was no exception. We took our time and ate our fill to prepare for the rest of the afternoon. We also filled up on water which was becoming more important as the day progressed and became even warmer.

After lunch we had a casual climb up mostly dirt fireroads to the Red Valley Sunset Panoramic view. We again got a different, but just as beautiful, view of the entire area. We had our one ‘mechanical’ issue at this point as Flore got a flat tire. When Jon located the thorn that had caused it and showed it to the rest of us, I was surprised that all of us hadn’t run into the same problem. It was huge and more like a nail than a thorn. Anyway, Jon made short work of replacing her tube and we were quickly back on our way.

The next section was fast and loose as we made our way along the Meskendir/Swords Valley ridge. The trail was wide open and had just a bit of grass on it so we could pretty much cruise as fast as we liked. I kept slowing down to take pictures but we all made good time to the next stopping point. The next, and last, section of the ride was where they came up with the ‘Moon’ portion of the name for the tour. Even after all the beautiful and varied terrain we had seen throughout the day, nothing had prepared me for the next section of the ride, Swords Valley.

Swords valley is a valley and ridge of petrified, long sand dunes. The erosion in this area was surreal, giving the terrain a definite moon-like feel (not that I’ve ever been to the moon, but I’ll bet it looks like this in some places). We were heading downhill, to end up at the bottom of Swords valley so we were riding quickly. We rode through rock cuts and along bermed turns where you could ride up as far as you wanted. All of the rock here was the super grippy tufa that we had experienced first thing that morning. I couldn’t stop laughing as we kept riding through all of these crazy natural features. Definitely a great way to end what was an incredible day. After Swords Valley we stopped at one last stone Church as we came down in to one of the valleys that surrounds Goreme proper. Jon gave us another history lesson and we casually made our way back to the Middle Earth headquarters.

Overall the ride made for an amazing day and I have to say that Jon and Sinan and Middle Earth travel definitely know how to put together an epic ride. They supply the riders with great equipment, are very knowledgeable and interested in the entire area, have a great relationship with the locals, and work very hard to make sure that all riders, regardless of ability, have a rewarding and exciting experience. I was definitely spent after the ride but couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

Seeing the Cappadocian region by mountain bike is definitely something that everyone should experience if they get the chance. Taking any kind of tour with Middle Earth travel is highly recommended as well. My entire visit to Turkey was wonderful but my mountain bike tour of Goreme and the surrounding area is definitely an adventure that I will never forget. Thank you for reading and keep the rubber side down.

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