I have read mixed reviews about the Ihlara Valley hike in Cappadocia. Some say that it is full of tourists and rubbish. Others say it is beautiful. There are more knockers than supporters. But as I leave Aksaray I see a brown tourist sign pointing in the direction of Ihlara. I decide to turn off the highway and see the valley for myself.
The road to the valley is sparse and golden; a continuation of yesterday’s drive. The volcano I drove past stands as a blue silhouette against the yellow grass. I never seem to get closer to or further from it. It just stays put as though it might be some sort of mirage. All the while, I just follow the signs.
I decide to start my hike from Belisirma. It seems logical from what I’ve read and it’s the second entry to the valley that I pass. I throw some food and water in my pack, download some geocache coordinates and set off on my adventure. The entry fee is 10TL ($AU5), which seems a bit steep for a valley hike but this is one of the most famous hikes in Turkey and I have learned that in many countries everything costs money (and I figure it pays wages for the people who work here). I’m glad I paid the entry fee because I enjoy a glorious day in some wonderful natural and cultural surrounds.
There’s a geocache hidden not far from the Belisirma entrance to the valley. It requires me to follow some feint tracks up the side of the valley to the cliffs above. It’s quite a fascinating place with huge boulders created by the cliffs breaking away, caves that have been carved into the cliffs and stunning views of the valley.
The Belisirma village spire seems to fit into this landscape perfectly. It’s an ironic reality here in Turkey where many popular tourist sites are old Christian churches and monasteries. In this valley, there are many old churches where Christians hid from the Romans.
Some have these really cool holes cut up to the second or third level. I wonder whether they were used as steps at some point in history. And whether they were part of the original churches or whether people have lived in these caves and churches subsequent to their original establishment. For example, did people live here in the 1600s or 1800s or even 1900s?
It’s not just the exterior of the cave churches and dwellings that amaze me. Many contain the remains of gorgeous frescoes depicting various biblical stories or religious personalities and saints. While many have been defaced or damaged over the years; the fact that they exist at all after all this time is something of a miracle. I love art and spend some time appreciating the workmanship put into these pieces.
Like all the other historic sites I’ve been to in Turkey, you can just walk around inside the cave churches as much as you want. There’s little stopping you from climbing up the internal stairs to the second level of a cave church and I’m more than certain the odd brave soul has climbed the external hand holds too. I explore inside the caves. One or two have stunning views into the valley through upper level windows.
I spend hours meandering up one side of the valley to the stairs where the tour buses spew out their passengers about 3.5km (2 miles) from Belisirma. From here I follow the path first up one side of the valley for another 800m (1/2 mile) to a couple more churches then back to the stairs and another 1km to a couple more churches on the other side of the valley. It’s easy to just while away hours up here. By the time I get back to the stairs it’s gone lunch time and I am famished. So I relax on one of the many park benches and eat lunch watching the tour bus passengers go about their experience. So far I haven’t really met too many of these groups on the trail because I was too early walking up from Belisirma and then went further up towards Ihlara village where the tour buses don’t walk.
Sitting in the valley watching the bus loads of German, Korean and Japanese tour groups following their guides is fascinating. The guides speak fluently in the language of their guests. I have to say, hearing fluent Korean coming from the mouth of a non-Korean person is amazing; it’s such a challenging language. Each nationality has its own style. The Koreans are in a hurry. They are armed with selfie sticks, fashionable travel attire and cling to every word their guide says. The Japanese prefer big digital SLR cameras. They are fashionably dressed in street wear for the younger guests and smart casual for the over forties. They are in less of a hurry; preferring to take a little time with posed photos of their fellow travelers on rocks in the middle of the creek or on the more adventurous looking sections of the path. And then there’s the German guests who sort of swarm in a throng, stopping frequently to discuss whether or not they feel like climbing up the stairs to yet another historic church. And then there’s the lone hipster with his red beard, cycling cap and obligatory hipster “I’m too cool for this” scowl. I can’t help but wonder how he ended up on a tour bus populated by Japanese people.
Despite the bus loads of people coming down the stairs, I never feel as though the valley experience is being spoiled for me. They all walk down towards Belisirma on the path along which I have come. But I am heading back on a small trail that follows the other side of the creek. About half-way to Belisirma they all stop at a gorgeous cafe that has sitting areas literally in the middle of the creek around which ducks swim and goats wander. Ladies in traditional garb harvest potatoes in a nearby field and huge pumpkins sit in the sunshine still on the vine. It’s this amazing rural scene in the middle of a heavily touristed valley. Some tour guests are sitting at the cafe drinking Nescafe (not to be confused with coffee, which here is Turkish coffee) and cay(tea). But they add to the atmosphere, rather than detract from it. Besides, these tour guests probably contribute more to the well being of the Turkish economy than I do because each bus requires the employment of a driver, a guide who is fluent in a foreign language and all the background people who work in the marketing, advertising, sales, maintenance and administrative support necessary for the success of the tour operations. Me – I don’t really create many economic opportunities for Turkey beyond renting a car, paying for camping or cheap hotels, buying groceries from markets and shops, and occasionally buying a cheap meal. For my month here, I probably will spend about $AU1,500. Each of those people on the tour bus will probably spend that in a week. And their activities are fairly limited to specific regions so the environmental impact is able to be controlled (imagine if all those people just walked wherever they wanted to … the damage would be far greater than having them walk on a single mostly board-walked track without any real deviation).
I thoroughly enjoy my hike in the valley and am glad I didn’t pay too much attention to the critics. The valley is peaceful and pretty. It’s full of historic churches and fascinating cave houses. There are miles of trails to explore; including many away from the main tourist route. But that area does have the most churches. I end up walking about 12km return. It takes me about five hours because I spent time searching for geocaches, wandering through the churches, eating lunch and generally taking in the atmosphere rather than rushing myself. A two hour drive takes me to camp in Goreme and a well earned hot shower.