Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Travels with Li Dongni – Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey (September 2010)

Up, up and away...

For our belated honeymoon, my wife and I went to do some travelling in Turkey.  For us, it offered a great combination of attractions.  We’re both history buffs, so the ancient Roman sites were a source of huge pleasure for us to see and explore (I may focus on these in a future post).  We also had the beautiful Mediterranean to spend some time boating on (though I did get stung on the bottom of my foot by a big wasp during that particular trip!) and some great towns and cities to explore.  One particularly memorable element of the trip, however, was the couple of days we spent in central Turkey, in Cappadocia.

After taking one of many overnight busses we travelled on during the holiday, we arrived in the small but tourist friendly town of Goreme, nestled in the heart of Cappadocia’s chief natural attraction – the so-called ‘Fairy Chimneys’

The valleys containing these superb natural rock formations are great to explore by themselves, and we duly spent a day doing so, as well as visiting the Open Air Museum with its collection of fresco-covered churches built into the rock.

The main purpose of our visit to Goreme, however, was to experience a hot air balloon trip, which we’d booked before leaving England.  The conditions in Cappadocia are apparently perfect for ballooning, and many dozens of balloons go up every morning at dawn, to catch the sunrise.

I think I need to make a confession at this point.  I’m not great with heights.  I’m not terrible, but it’s not my favourite thing in the world either, so I had some trepidation about doing the whole ballooning thing.  My wife will tell you that while she was bouncing around for weeks with the excitement of going, I was acting more like I was going to have my toenails pulled out.  But on with the story…

On the morning of the balloon ride, we got picked up from our hotel (oh, which was in a cave by the way - Goreme is such a funky place!) at 5.15am and were taken with some other balloon-trippers outside the town to a launching area, where we were treated to some light breakfast and drinks while we watched a couple of balloons, including ours, being prepared, and started to see the first of the many other balloons flying that morning float away over the rocks.

Once properly inflated (is that the technical term?), it was time for us all to make a rather undignified entry into the basket by clambering over the sides.  The baskets were surprisingly large, holding about 24 people but in four inner compartments, with a central compartment for the pilot (yes, they are still called pilots) and his gas canisters.

The takeoff is remarkably smooth, though it seems to take a long time to get a decent way off the ground.  Any fears I had about being stood in a picnic hamper being suspended by ropes from a tent filled with hot air soon vanished entirely.  The whole journey was super smooth, and the basket big enough for you to forget about the height.  One thing I particularly liked was the fact that the basket (well, the whole balloon really I suppose) gently turns so you get to see what’s happening all around.  As we were ballooning at sunrise, it meant that everybody got to enjoy the wonderful views and weren’t competing for the best photo opportunities.

The ride itself lasted about an hour, and took us both up high to get views over the whole area and down low into valleys to get up close to the ‘chimneys’.

The landing was actually quite funny, as they attach ropes to the basket and bring it in to land on the back of a trailer, so they can just drive it away when the canvas is deflated.  After another undignified moment clambering out of the basket, it was time for some champagne, collecting our certificates for completing the trip (we worked so hard to earn those!) and we even bought one of the official photos of us in the balloon as it was taking off.

So that was it, the whole thing was over by about 9 o’clock, but the experience of gently floating over the land in a balloon was one that I’d recommend to anyone, the fact that it was at sunrise was just the icing on the cake.

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