GOREME, Turkey — The word most often used to describe Cappadocia is "otherworldly."
The harsh dry land of undulating hills and valleys is reminiscent of South Dakota's Badlands, with its pastel tones of tan, pink and gray. But erosion here has left eerie mushroom-shaped formations in the soft volcanic stone in which inhabitants centuries ago literally carved out their homes.
The result is a surreal landscape unlike any place on earth, an otherworldliness which impressed no less than George Lucas, who filmed scenes here for the original "Star Wars." You may recall the homes of the Sand People on Tattoine, the stark desert planet.
Located in central Anatolia about 180 miles southeast of the Turkish capital of Ankara, Kapadokya, anglicized as Cappadocia and Hittite for the "land of beautiful horses," makes an intriguing side trip from the usual tour of the Mediterranean coast.
There is a rich diversity of sites here from various historic periods, from the time of the Hittites (rivals to the ancient Egyptians) to the early Christians to the 13th-century Great Silk Road. But most of what is unique about Cappadocia — the homes and churches carved from stone and the vast underground cities — stems from its geological history.
The region was once home to several active volcanoes, including Mount Erciyes, a snowcapped peak of almost 13,000 feet which still looms on the horizon.
Volcanic eruptions as many as 10 million years ago covered the area in ashes, which hardened into a soft, porous rock called tuff. Over time, high wind and water eroded the tuff into free-standing cones, domes and other geological oddities.
Hittites and, later, the Byzantine Christians created shelter out of some of these formations by hollowing out the soft rock — an innovation that was partially due to the lack of trees in this barren land.
Your first glimpse of these peculiar dwellings is likely to come through the window of a bus.
Much like the trains in Europe, Turkey has a vast and easily navigable bus network. The buses are inexpensive, generally punctual and clean. After a few days of travel you will inevitably look forward to bus stewards serving coffee, sodas and light snacks, followed by a splash of lemon hand cleanser.
Turkey's tourism infrastructure is well-developed. But recent events — such as the 1999 earthquake and terrorist bombings blamed on Kurds — have kept tourists away. The latest travel advisory from the U.S. State Department says, "Although sporadic incidents involving terrorist groups continue to occur, the general security situation throughout Turkey is stable at this time."
With the tourism business slow, there are bargains to be had, and merchants are aggressive in courting your business.
The moment you get off the bus, travel agents will probably approach you. You'll inevitably feel like you're getting swindled, but a day tour by minivan is probably the best way to see Cappadocia, since some sites are fairly far apart.
The quality of your guide is sheer luck. They can range from charming fonts of history to boring drones whose English is indecipherable. But itineraries are similar and prices are generally standardized at about $20 per day, including lunch. Unfortunately, you can count on the tours to plop you off at gift shops along the road — tour companies are said to get 30 percent commission on anything you buy.
There's a slew of sleepy little tourist-driven towns where you can stay in Cappadocia. Of them, Goreme is particularly well-located and charming.
Old men with weathered faces sip coffee on benches and watch the action, as carts pulled by donkeys bring fresh produce to the markets. Women in veils pass bikini-topped tourists.
Restaurants, travel agencies, the occasional Internet cafe and gift shops selling pottery, onyx and carved alabaster all are clustered around Goreme's bus station.
Rug shops are ubiquitous throughout Turkey, but many rugs are made in Cappadocia, so stores here shouldn't have markups from too many middlemen. Even if you don't plan to buy one, sipping complementary apple tea as multilingual salesmen promise you deals and unroll rug after rug is a mandatory Turkish experience. A particularly plush shop for this in Goreme is Indigo Gallery.
There are plenty of hotels a short walk from town, including some with rooms cut from a tuff cone. Simple but clean rooms with private baths run about $7-$10. Upscale, more Westernized accommodations are available at the Ottoman House for $40 and up.
While Constantinople (now Istanbul) was the political capital of Byzantium, Cappadocia was the spiritual stronghold. Many tours start at Goreme's Open-air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site with some of the most impressive of Cappadocia's 400 or so early Christian churches.
Paths lead visitors among stone outcroppings that contained entire monasteries and nunneries, as well as ascetic cruciform-shaped chapels, complete with naves, apses and columns all carved from tuff.
Frescoes — dating from the 8th through the 13th centuries — depict the lives of the saints and the stories of the gospels on the stone walls. The colorful frescoes are well-preserved in the cave-like chapels, since temperatures remain between 39-54 degrees yearlong, while some were not exposed to light for centuries.
Our guide, Mehmet Kececi, explains that the Turkish government undertook in the 1960s and 1970s to evict families from these dwellings, considering the lifestyle an embarrassment to a modern state. Later, they learned to appreciate the charm — and perhaps the exotic allure to tourists — and changed their tune.