A look of pity creeps across a person’s face when you tell them you didn’t go hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey. It’s akin to admitting you visited Paris and missed the Eiffel Tower, or politely passed on eating pizza in Naples.
The fact is there’s about a one in four chance that Cappadocia’s famed balloons won’t fly, courtesy of Mother Nature. She can get a little huffy and puffy sometimes and cause Turkey’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation to halt balloon flights, which can be disappointing, but significantly less so than being in an airborne accident. On the upside you get a full refund, the chance to rebook and an opportunity to seize the day.
We had two mornings in Cappadocia, but a little black helium balloon whipping around the sky indicated neither was appropriate for flying. Having been ballooning five years earlier, I admit it’s truly deserving of a place on your bucket list, but on this trip I realised there are more reasons to visit Cappadocia than for that Instagram money shot.
Not going ballooning gave us a healthy dose of perspective, both figuratively and literally. We found ourselves focusing on the other activities available in the area, from picturesque valley walks to intimate cooking classes. But perhaps the most memorable was cycling through the UNESCO World Heritage List-protected rock formations, known as fairy chimneys.
They protrude from the ground, some conical and others undeniably phallic (let’s just say “mushroom-like” to keep things PG rated), formed over millions of years by volcanic eruptions that have been carved away by wind and rain. These otherworldly structures are what make Cappadocia such a unique place. And while viewing them from hot air balloon bestows a sense of scale, mountain biking among them feels like pioneering a new planet.
Our journey started with seat adjustments and helmet fittings before we set off in Ürgüp, a town centre about 20 minutes from Göreme. I like to think of myself as a capable cyclist, but traversing this landscape is not for the feint of heart. Inclines are often steep and much of the trails are sandy and slippery – it’s a lot of fun, but probably not appropriate for beginners.
There are countless spots to stop and rest while admiring the twisting, bulbous chimneys, some of which have small doorways and windows chiselled away from when the region was a monastic centre, between the years 300 and 1200. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s not difficult to see why. The abandoned caves are a severe contrast to the trendy boutique hotels that occupy the rock formations in town. While it’s worth staying at one of the smaller establishments, some operators charge for entry to sought-after terraces and pools, where influencer-types with flawless makeup and carefully curated outfits jostle for prime position. Personally, I preferred the opportunity to get off the beaten track on two wheels.
The further we rode from Ürgüp, the further we were from social media-hungry travellers. There were a couple of die-hards on quad bikes piloting drones to trail them like over-sized mechanical flies. At one point we stumbled upon a film crew, their cameras pointed in the direction of a fellow leaning on a Cadillac and a woman gyrating towards him, flicking a scarf in the air in time with her hips. They were shooting a music video (it would have been rude not to dance just a little in the background). As we cycled towards Çavuşin they all but disappeared, leaving us to marvel at the landscape and yell “tünaydın” (good afternoon) as we passed farmers tending to the region’s dry but fertile soil.
On the outskirts of Çavuşin we stopped for freshly squeezed orange juice and some shady respite, before continuing past the village, where abandoned rock homes tumbled down a slope punctuated by significant churches. We continued past old men in small squares sipping çay and gossiping as overexcited hot air balloon escapees whooshed past.
Our guide – who was far more balanced on the loose surface than the rest of us – stopped suddenly up ahead, resting his bike against the side of the road before disappearing up a small, grassy hill. When we went to investigate he was waiting with an outstretched arm. One by one we joined him on flatter ground, engulfed by a sweet, familiar smell. Directly ahead was the most abundant apricot tree I’ve ever seen, swollen with fruit. We didn’t wait to be told to help ourselves. Ballooning aside, it turned out Mother Nature had our backs after all.