Saturday, May 28, 2011

Float of Fancy in Turkey's Cappadocia

Recently, the Travelife editorial team journeyed to Turkey to shoot our upcoming June-July 2011 cover. 

One of our destinations was Cappadocia in central Turkey -- a region famous for its amazing topography and for its remnants of early Christian communities. One of the (many) highlights of our trip to this ancient land was a hot air balloon ride across Cappadocia that enabled us to view nature's wonders in a most thrilling and unusual way.

By the way, I was looking over the proofs for our June-July Cappadocia issue last night with a friend, and he said to me: "This has got to be one of your best issues yet." I have to agree. We have a fantastic team on board with really great teamwork, and it's showing. Travelife's June-July 2011 issue will be simply amazing.

on official business today:

GUAM (Gel, Director of Business Development)
SYDNEY (Miko, Contributing Editor)
CEBU (Leah, General Manager)
TOKYO enroute to MANILA (Christine, EIC)



Should we or shouldn't we? This was the question I kept asking myself all the way until actual takeoff.

The previous night, we'd sat till late in the garden of our hotel in the town of Urgup, with the dramatic mountains as a backdrop, enjoying a typical Turkish dinner of salad and grilled meats, while trading stories about life and adventures. Going to bed at midnight, I was uncertain if I would actually be up in time and was actually contemplating passing up this flying opportunity.

Fortunately, the gods literally intervened, so I guess I was really meant to take to the Turkish skies.


The pick-up at our cave hotel for a sunrise hot air balloon ride across the rugged, mountainous plains of Cappadocia was scheduled for 4:50 AM the following morning, and just sometime after 4 AM, the muezzin’s powerful, lilting, nasal morning call to prayer (the adhan) emanating from the loudspeakers of a nearby mosque, drowned out the silence of the night. It was an effective wake-up call, and so by the appointed time, we were dressed in warm clothes and waiting for our van to arrive in the pre-dawn darkness of Cappadocia.

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Initially, we thought we would be the only people crazy enough to get up so early to ride a balloon, but we were very far from alone.

The van that drove over to pick us up was actually picking up another group staying at our hotel as well: about ten Japanese tourists joined us in the van for the ride to the balloon site.

It took 20 minutes from the town of Urgup to the outskirts of the picturesque town of Goreme, where Captain Erdal Yaris and the staff of Goreme Balloons were waiting to literally take us up, up and away. All the way I chatted nervously and tried to imagine what a balloon ride would be like.


The fact that there were so many other people taking to the skies that morning did nothing for my nerves, however. I’m not very good with heights, as it is, and the prospect of a balloon ride across a landscape of sharp rocks and pointed crags was making me very nervous.

Think about it: it’s quite daunting to be hundreds of feet up in the air, in a large basket held by strings to an inflatable nylon bag, with only hot air and the wind to determine your safe flight and landing.

I'm sure most people will probably share my feelings. For that very first ride into the sky in such a rudimentary contraption, I think it’s quite normal to experience at least a twinge of trepidation, if not a full-blown panic.

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This continued even through the makeshift breakfast of coffee, tea, and (quite delicious) cake and biscuits that Goreme Balloons had prepared for their itinerant air force.

Until the very last minute before lift-off, when all the tourists who had reserved places in the balloons were already inside the baskets, I was still of half a mind to get out and watch my companions from the ground instead.


“Balloon rides are safe, aren’t they?” I called out to Captain Yaris, who was about to wave goodbye. He looked like he’d been asked this question a million times by his customers. “Well, at least so far,” he replied, with a twinkle in his eye. It didn’t help either that my companion dead-panned: “If we go down, at least we won’t be alone.”

Fortunately, an Australian lawyer traveling solo, was in my section of the basket. Seeing my agitated state, he looked at me kindly and said, “Don’t worry. I’m nervous too, but it’ll be all right.”

And that little bit of empathy -- so crucial at a time of nerves -- was all it took for me to calm down enough to weather the lift-off into the clear blue skies above Cappadocia.

Surprisingly, amidst the roar of the balloon heaters, we felt barely a nudge, and within a minute we were airborne. By the time we were way up in the sky, my fears had been overtaken by wonder at the experience and the beauty of the nature below.


There were about 20 balloons up in the air simultaneously, viewing the same spectacle. From afar, I thought they looked like balloons that had escaped from a child’s birthday party. Up-close, it just seemed surreal to have all these colorful balloons hovering around the stark landscape.

Interestingly, in spite of the crowded skies, you never feel the proximity of other balloons, or feel that so many tourists have paid a small fortune for a pretty commercial venture.

The experience itself is so solitary and spiritual that you’ll find yourself contemplating life and forgetting you had companions on the trip. In the sky, it’s just you and nature and whatever god you happen to believe in.

Perhaps because we were all in awe over what we were seeing, no one talked for a while. It was peaceful, even eerily quiet, save for the sound of the wind and the occasional roaring of the heaters to keep the balloon buoyant.


Below is a view whose wondrousness can only be partially captured by photos, and that words cannot do justice to.

It’s best experienced first-hand. Cappadocia’s incredible rock formations, already amazing when seen from the ground, acquire a new dimension when their massiveness is seen from the air.

Picture an endless vista of desert colors amidst an orange and purple sunrise and a deep azure sky just starting to lighten, and a long valley full of structures of all shapes rising from the ground and protruding from walls.

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Now imagine looking at these from an unencumbered position in the air. It’s a view straight out of a Harry Potter movie set.

Some of us recovered somewhat from this most unusual commune to indulge in sporadic conversation. “This is probably as close as we’ll ever get to what flying feels like,” someone said. We all agreed. There were no external noises and no engines: we felt as light as birds gliding aimlessly around.

Then our balloon pilot decided to pump less air into the balloon and more adrenalin into our systems by navigating our basket down into the valley so that we were literally face-to-face with the mountain’s protruding crags.

“That’s a little too close for comfort,” someone jokingly remarked, as our basket journeyed literally to within handshaking distance of the crags.

Another person wondered aloud what would happen if one of the balloon’s strings, attached to the basket for balance, got caught in a crevice. Of course, the pilot redirected the balloon each time to avert a disaster.


Suddenly our balloon descended into what seemed to be a direct collision course with a tree top. Initially, none of us were worried and we’d laughed it off.

Our pilot had done this sort of close-up navigation before and had always averted a head-on at exactly the right time. But this time we were flying straight into the tree, prompting shrieks from some of the passengers.

“Make sure you get some apricots off the tree,” he advised with a chuckle as the bottom of our basket banged into the tree and then lifted off. Obviously he knew what he was doing; and, indeed, some passengers had managed to get an apricot in the few seconds that we scraped the tree top.

Finally, it was time to land after about 50 minutes in the air. The pilot announced we were going down, and there were not a few disappointed faces around. It had been so enjoyable that I’d even briefly considered tipping him for a couple more extra minutes of flight. But the pilot seemed set on reaching home in time for breakfast.

THE $10 OR $100 LANDING?

“Do you want the US$10 landing or the US$100 landing?” A German guy joked as we slowly made our way down.

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“The US$10 landing gets you within jumping distance of the ground,” he replied, “while the US$100 one lands you on the back of that flatbed truck.” We could see the vehicle waiting for us on the ground below but none of us considered even for a moment that we would actually land on top of it.

“We’d better start passing the hat around then,” someone else piped up. “I certainly don’t want to have to jump that high.”

We’d joked about landing the balloon on the back of the truck, but that is exactly what our pilot did.

After the basket had been firmly strapped onto the truck and the balloon was deflated, we clambered down to the grassy field where a bottle of champagne awaited us on a table with flutes and flowers. The captain did the honors and served the first glasses himself.

As we toasted to a beautiful morning and a safe flight, he said: “I didn’t want to tell you earlier because I thought you wouldn’t want to hear it, but I’m actually the youngest balloon pilot in Turkey.”

We congratulated him on this achievement and complimented him on his skill. He was right. I’m glad he didn’t tell me that before the flight.

Goreme Balloons
Tel (90)(384) 341-5662, 
Fax (90)(384) 341-7245

The Travelife team was flown to Istanbul, and then to Kayseri (gateway to Cappadocia), by award-winning Turkish Airlines. Turkish Airlines has regular and convenient connections from Manila to Turkey and onwards to Europe via major Asian cities.




  1. You write beautifully. I'm hooked!

  2. Please add an email subscription system like feedburner into your blog so that new articles are automatically sent to my inbox.

    Would love to read more of what you have to write. THank you.


  3. Thank you for making our day -- and actually, for making our weekend! We do have an email subscription system. Please check the upper left-hand side of our blog.

  4. You write beautifully. I'm hooked.
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