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From the air, a fantasyland

Special to The Times

WE were up before the day’s first call to prayer. I was already brushing my teeth when I heard the speakers on the nearby minaret broadcast the muezzin’s cry heralding the imminent dawn and hastening the Muslim faithful.

Judging by the warm, kitcheny odor in the air, the baker at the Hotel Perissia had gotten up long before we had. It smelled like simits, the sesame-coated bagel-pretzel hybrids so common in Turkey. Did I really want to abandon such a comfortable place for the cold and dark outside?

But we had been promised a remarkable experience that morning: soaring at the pleasure of the wind in a hot-air balloon above Cappadocia, where nature has carved the soft volcanic tufa into a fantasy landscape of fairy chimneys.

Cappadocia’s terrain is interesting enough from ground level, but viewing it from above would be fascinating, the difference between looking at flowers individually or seeing an entire garden.

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I had never considered a hot-air balloon ride before this vacation to Turkey in May; if I had thought about it, I probably would have rejected it as too costly, too early and (gulp) too scary. But the guide on the bus from Kapadokya Balloons, the company arranging our adventure, reassured me: The pilots were skilled; the weather would be pleasant; credit cards would be accepted.

The eastern sky was seamless dark blue as our shuttle bus rumbled along the otherwise empty brick streets of Urgup.

I could make out a flag fluttering on its pole, and as we left the city proper, I also could see vague shapes in the scenery: faces, beasts, spectral houses. Later, the daylight would reveal the strange shapes to be mounds of tufa, some of them carved into homes.

Someone aboard the bus mentioned the Disney movie “Fantasia,” and she was right; it did seem as though our ride should be accompanied by music by Mussorgsky.

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We stopped at a small garage-like office, where we checked in and paid. We were offered tea or Nescafe. (How is it, in a country whose name is synonymous with coffee brewed so thick that it almost requires a knife and fork that a mark of hospitality is to serve instant?)

Second thoughts

THE launch site was filled with what sounded like lawn mowers, which were actually big fans pumping air into the openings of flaccid balloons extended on the ground. Ours was a big red one bearing the Coca-Cola logo. Our group of 19 would fill its basket, which meant we would have to rotate in and out of the “window seats.”

I had misgivings. Although not a complete acrophobe, I’m usually the guy clinging to the elevator door on skyscraper observation decks.

“Boof!”

My foreboding was interrupted by a blast of yellow-blue flame as the crews began to heat the air inside the balloon. The basket, also still on its side, had four burners connected to four propane tanks, plus a fifth tank for ignition. That last one would be left behind when we took off.

“Boof!”

With each shot of flame, the balloon swelled and rose. Crews struggled to hold it down, but it was more powerful, and it soon had pulled the basket upright. We clambered aboard the basket, a big wicker box divided into five chambers, like a giant’s desk organizer.

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I stood opposite Serhan Leki, our pilot, who occupied the center chamber and controlled the balloon’s burners and vents. I felt the intense heat of the flame and smelled something reminiscent of hot beeswax candles.

Through the vents, Serhan could spin the balloon on its vertical axis so that everyone aboard could see all the good views; otherwise, we would go where the wind would take us.

We slipped sideways a bit, then, gently, the Earth loosened its grasp.

We floated up in the quiet morning breeze, in the sharply angled orange light of sunrise. We skimmed treetops, and someone reached over and plucked a leaf.

Around us were a dozen other soaring balloons, like oversize lollipops against the clear blue sky. Serhan’s radio crackled with Turkish and English voices as the pilots coordinated with one another.

We passed over the Goreme Open-Air Museum, where a millennium ago the eroded rocks were hollowed out and occupied by people. The odd shapes in this area reminded me of the Badlands of South Dakota, but that hardly begins to describe their importance. They served as monasteries, convents and churches of early Christians who decorated the interiors with biblical scenes, some of which remain remarkably vivid.

What created this hallucinatory terrain? Back in Turkey’s prehistory, erupting volcanoes deposited soft ash, which settled into tufa, a soft rock, followed by an upper layer of lava. Wind and water permeated the lava crust and carried away the tufa. The process was abetted by the freeze-thaw cycle.

Serhan lowered us nearly to the bottom of an eroded valley, whose opening was not much wider than our balloon. We waved at our shadows, clearly cast on the sheer rock face, but we soon lifted out and sailed again over the landscape at a leisurely 2.5 knots, almost grazing the tops of apricot trees.

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We rose smoothly to 1,500 feet above the convoluted terrain until it looked like a brain model from an anatomy class. Although there was only a wicker half-wall separating me from a long, long fall, I felt no more fear of height than I would in a 747. The early hour helped; later in the day, the ground heats up, creating thermals and turbulence.

Another reason to fly early in the day is the angle of the sun, which is low in the sky, highlighting the irregularities of the valleys and ridges -- like Mother Nature cranking up the contrast.

The early-morning world below was still unpopulated. No people, no cars were on the roads yet. We saw only a fox, apparently unsettled by our unnatural red sphere looming over it, dart through the rocks.

It was incredibly quiet in the air, tranquil in a meditative way. Usually, such views are accompanied by jet engine noise and the clinking of bottles on the beverage cart. In the balloon basket, the stillness was punctuated only by “Wow!” and “Omigod!” and the occasional “Boof!”

Down to Earth

AFTER we had been aloft for almost an hour, Serhan looked for a field to land in, trying to avoid one with crops, so the company would not have to reimburse a farmer for any damage.

The ground crew had anticipated our landing, and, as we softly descended, we saw the bus and trailer approach along the road. Although Serhan had drilled us about what to do if the basket flipped over on landing, our touchdown was untraumatic. We landed gently, right side up and, with a bit of wrangling on the part of the ground crew, right on the trailer.

As crew members deflated the balloon and packed it into a giant knapsack, we disembarked and smiled for one another’s photographs. We were served mimosas with cherry juice and presented certificates so we would remember our flight. Like we’d ever forget.

We were back at the hotel in time for breakfast and to see what the baker had been making. Turned out to be sweet, sticky little pastries. Not bad, even with Nescafe.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Turkish float trip

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Lufthansa, KLM, Air Tahiti Nui, United, Virgin Atlantic, American and Air France have connecting service (change of plane) to Kayseri, Turkey, about 45 miles from the balloon launch site in Goreme. Restricted round-trip fares begin $1,465 until Aug. 13, dropping to $1,129 until Oct. 12.

TELEPHONES:

To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 90 (country code for Turkey) and the local number.

BALLOON TOURS:

Kapadokya Balloons, TR-50180 Nevsehir; www.kapadokyaballoons.com. We flew with this company, whose website includes some reassuring answers to questions about safety. Flights are subject to cancellation in the event of adverse weather. Conditions in winter are unfavorable for flying. A 90-minute flight is $289 per person.

Other balloon tour operators in the area are listed at www.cappadociaballoontours.com. Their prices are comparable to Kapadokya’s.

TO LEARN MORE:

Embassy of the Republic of Turkey, 2525 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008; (202) 612-6700, www.turkishembassy.org.

Turkish Government Tourist Office, (877) 367-8875 or (323) 937-8066, www.tourismturkey.org.

-- Jerry V. Haines


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