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Sunday, May 18, 2008

A rocky of Cappadocia

The eternal conflict arises in Cappadocia: yes, it’s a beautiful area and the whole world should know about it; but increasing tourism brings inevitable problems. Cappadocia’s historial significance was overlooked by the world until the turn of the 20th century, when a French priest was believed to have drawn attention to its cave churches.

While archeologists were regular early visitors, the tourism boom only really began in the 1980s, and many tour groups can be seen in the area today. The ever-intrepid Japanese top the number of visitors, and Cappadocia is also increasingly drawing rich, elite travellers. The Hilton is scheduled to arrive soon, the first of other big hotel chains.

This is good news for a population dependent on tourism, of course. But we’ve seen this before: a beautiful, unique area becomes a popular tourist destination and, soon, what made it unique in the first place is lost.

Is Cappadocia at risk of losing its traditions, unique cave homes, and surreal rock formations?

Until 1974, locals could use the fairy chimneys (as the peculiar volcanic rock formations are called) as cellars and homes as long as they maintained them. Since 1985, however, Turkey’s National Estate Directorate has been charging annual rents, causing many residents to abandon the unique structures.

Some 5, 000 out of an estimated 50, 000 fairy chimneys in Cappadocia are at risk from erosion, said the mayor of Goreme village, Fevzi Gunal, in an interview with Turkish Daily News in January last year.

Goreme Tourism Development Cooperative Chairman Mustafa Durmaz told the same paper, “Whenever it rains, we worry about the fairy chimneys. One or two chimneys are ruined every year. In a few years’ time, we won’t be able to see them any longer.”

The Museum Directorate in Cappadocia’s provincial capital, Nevsehir, reported in the same paper in January, 2006, that 265 TV stations in 45 countries have received filming licenses, with Japan holding 52 permits – all of which means a higher profile for the region, and even more visitors.

With tourist arrivals rising from 1.5 million in 2004 to an expected 2 million this year, there seems no end to tourists treading this ancient land – and leaving their mark. Tourism has its benefits and drawbacks, of course, as the locals well know.

Harun Mumcu, 28, who runs the Kale Terrasse (Cave Terrace) Restaurant beside a Roman tomb inside a fairy chimney in Goreme, says there are just not enough tourists to fill the more than 90 hotels that already exist in Cappadocia.

“There has been progress, such as better roads and facilities,” he says. “But the benefits from big tourist groups are limited. Most profits go to the travel agencies in Istanbul.

The tourism season in summer also lasts just three months.”

Another restaurant owner, who asks not to be named, voices his sadness at the rate local houses are being bought and combined to create “characterless small hotels”.

“Last week when I took a walk around Goreme village, I was startled to find only four houses remaining on one of the streets. The rest had been purchased and turned into a cheap hotel,” he says.

One way of preserving Cappadocia is through sensitive planning and catering to small, exclusive travellers’ groups rather than huge tours, says Didem Z.

Bulgurlu, assistant general manager of Goreme’s newest luxury property hotel, Cappadocia Cave Resort and Spa.

“This was once a pile of rubble before Istanbul businessman Mustafa Cankaya restored the cave houses,” she explains, gesturing around the hotel’s elegant interior.

“We have to abide by strict rules about preserving a traditional fa├žade. Skilled local artisans were hired. We do want tourism here, it’s vital for development and jobs.”

Nevsehir governor M. Asim Hacimustafaoglu says he wants to focus on religious and cultural tourism to preserve Cappadocia’s historical significance and integrity.

“We have synagogues, mosques, and churches that have existed side by side peacefully for centuries,” he says.

“Cappadocia is significant for both Muslim and Christian pilgrims. There are over 2,000 churches and over 300 underground cities, with only 12 of the latter open, as it costs alot to restore and open them.

“As Cappadocia is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, it is under constant supervision,” he adds. “The rocks have weathered thousands of years. Crumbling fairy chimneys are not a risk.”

Goreme House Hotel founder Yasar Ozdemir, 42, is more worried about the change in lifestyles among villagers.

“We were once a close knit community,” he says. “Now people are living increasingly separate lives.

Young people no longer want to be farmers. We are following the European lifestyle and forgetting our own Turkish roots.”

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Rio from the mountain tops

I’d been told it was a magic place, a viewpoint in Rio second in impact only to heart-stopping Corcovado. I had tried several times to find it, but not even tour guides could ever get me there. Now I was with taxi driver Paulo. He spoke a smattering of English, was decidedly simpatico (friendly), and clearly knew his way around.

It augured well. It was my determination this time to see Rio from the heights, or as many of them as I could scale. This is the city of the morro, or hill. And the hills of Rio are all dramatic, divisional protrusions, soaring to improbable heights, like so many giant thumbs thrust straight out of the ground.

As sheer and rocky as they are, many of their summits can be readily achieved – by road, walking trail, or, in the case of Sugarloaf, by cable car. They all offer spectacular views of this amazing city setting: the crescent-shaped beaches of Flamengo, Copacabana and Ipanema, the indented Botofago Bay, the broad still waters of Lake Rodrigas de Freitas, the clustered city buildings that reside between the morros, and the adobe brick favelas, or slums, that clamour up their sides.

And all of this is pressed between the serious big waters of island-studded Guanabara Bay, and the serious big hills of the forest-covered Tijuca-Carioca Massif straight behind. Wow! Not surprisingly, Rio’s two most popular tourist destinations are elevated viewpoints. These are Corcovado and Sugarloaf. The former affords what must surely be the world’s most fantastic city panorama. Its talon-shaped peak thrust its way through the already soaring Tijuca-Carioca range. Crowning its top is the mighty 30m-tall Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer.

Improbable as it seems from down below, you can reach Corcovado’s summit by car or by “cog train”.

The centerpiece of your view is Sugarloaf. It soars an amazing 396m straight out of the shoreline of Guanabara Bay and guards mightily the entrance to Botofogo Bay. Seeing it from way up here, you feel impelled to conquer it.

The cable car that allows this does so in two stages, stopping at the only slightly less imposing Morro da Urca on the way.

Sugarloaf’s highlight is the view. Curving away to the south, in an arc of brilliant blue and white, is Copacabana. To the north is Flamengo, and then the city centre further on. On the far side of the bay is the skyline of Rio’s sister city, Niteroi. It is linked to Central by the world’s longest single-span bridge.

I happened to be staying in Copacabana. From my sixth floor window I had a great view of the forest-clad morro that marks the beach’s northern limit. At its top stands a fort – “Forte do Leme”.

The Leme morro is an environmental protection area, comprising 11ha of virgin Atlantic forest. The fort was originally built in 1779, and only deactivated in 1965. Several of its giant cannons are still aimed at the entrance to Guanabara Bay.

It goes without saying that you get a breathtaking view from up here: of Sugarloaf to the immediate north, and to the south Copacabana, Ipanema and the giant twin morros known as Dois Irmaos (two brothers) beyond.

Oh yes, and of the gargantuan flat-topped Pedra Gavea behind.

One more little trek would intervene before I set out on my major quests. The track up to the “alto” at Parque Catacumba is akin to a genuine mountain trail – broken steps, slippery patches with branches to grab hold of as you climb. The park covers the southern side of Morro dos Cabritos, which rises abruptly from the shores of Ipanema’s Lake Rodrigo de Freitas.

Two taxi rides with Paulo completed my assignment. The first took me up to Pedra Bonita, which is adjacent to Pedra Gavea. It is from here that hang gliders make their death-defying leap, landing on a beach some 400m straight below. The mighty Dois Irmaos form the best part of the backdrop as they float demurely down.

Buoyed by this success, we set off next day to find Vista Chinesa. To do so, we drove up past Corcovado all the way to the bairro of Boa Vista. Slightly south of here we saw the signpost: “Vista Chinesa”.

I have to admit, I never really imagined the spot to have anything to do with China. But it does. A large oriental pavilion stands in tribute to Rio’s Chinese population, and their efforts in building roads and planting tea.

They were honoured very well, for this indeed is a magical place. The view is uninterrupted. The dense Tijuca forest is slowly being encroached upon by a smattering of buildings. These begin to cluster, but only succeed in keeping the great forest at bay down by the coast. Sugarloaf looks impossibly imposing from up here. And you can’t believe you’ve actually reached its top.

On the way back down we visited yet another lookout. This was at Parque Dois Irmaos. It occupies the lower reaches of those mighty twin guardians, and offers the definitive view of Ipanema’s gently curving beach.

“Are there any other places?” I asked Paulo as I clicked merrily away, and then ran out of film.

“Sure, plenty! You want to go again tomorrow?”


# The Rio Othon Palace, Avenida Atlantica 1020, Copacabana; othon hotels

# Copacabana Palace Hotel, Avenida Atlantica 1702, Copacabana; copaca banapalace

# Center Hotel, Avenida Branco 33; asia rooms

WHEN TO VISIT Rio’s climate is pleasant all year round, but to see the city at its best, avoid the cooler months from June to August.

BRING ALONG Sun block, sun hat, comfortable walking shoes, repellent. Special requirements can be purchased quite cheaply in the city.


# Brazil is especially good value at the moment. You might want to take advantage of the bargains in the shops.

# Check that your taxi driver can speak at least a smattering of English before going on long drives, and negotiate the fee first.

VISA Required for Brazil. RESEARCH Lonely Planet has a current edition on Rio, with great maps and information on the morros.

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Walk on the wild side in Thailand

The two Bengal tigers rear up on their haunches and wrestle. Upstaging the king and queen of the jungle who are keeping a low profile tonight, the tigers unleash an ear-splitting roar that stuns the passengers perched on the tram.

Backing off from each other, the tigers then prowl their enclosure, howling in the moonlight as a guide trains a spotlight on them. His commentary drowned out by the noise, the guide kills his beam and the tram rumbles on.

Welcome to Chiang Mai Night Safari. Set on the fringes of the city romantically called “the Rose of the North” in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, the 1.5bil baht, Thai government-run initiative opened in 2006.

Modelled on Singapore’s night safari, it consists of two loops. The first, Savannah Safari, stretches 2km, and encompasses a hodgepodge of animals that, despite the name, come from Asia instead of Africa.

The second loop, the loosely named Predator Prowl, is about the same length but more glamourous. It features creatures you certainly would not want to meet on a dark night. Think vultures, tigers (including the rare white tiger), jackals, hunting dogs, wolves and Malayan sun bears whose dark disposition drives them to wreck coconut palms and cocoa plantations when not methodically dismantling walls. Or so we are told – they look cuddly enough to keep as pets.

Anyway, the safari nicely caters to tourists like me who have done spas and temples and want to embark on a tour with an edge. We head for the 7.45pm pick-up point, a tourist police booth buried in the depths of the night bazaar.

Greeted outside with a twinkle by a male usher in a zebra print outfit, we duck into a minibus that matches his get-up. Deliciously cool after the bazaar’s humid hustle, it whisks us to the park by around 8pm.

Beyond the night safari megalith sign (which must look strange in the day), dappled deer dot the fringes of the avenue that bristles with soldiers and statues depicting hybrid mythical beasts. This inspired one critic to think of a genetic engineering centre. The faux-mud roof, wood columns and bongo music of the arena that houses the ticket office, information desk and souvenir shops suggest a tribal village.

Strolling through, we take our seats in front of the lake. Peacocks wail. Otherwise, the park is eerily quiet in the run-up to the no-excess-spared laser show incorporating a musical fountain, which throws up water to serve as a screen for laser graphics portraying a procession of animals and objects.

An elephant makes the cut. So too do a crocodile and a squiggle that could be a snake or a gull, along with a cheeky rabbit that mutates into an impala. Enter three sticks of rhubarb and what resembles an Ikea flatpack furniture item. Everything wiggles around to a swaggering, mashed-up version of Mission Impossible.

As the music builds, the fountains pulse, shimmy to a Mexican wave before climaxing in an explosion of green beads of light. In the subsequent hush, ushers, one touting a megaphone, round us up and herd us towards the Savannah Safari train station. There, we have our tickets punched.

Climb into the back of the farang (“foreigner”) tram for the Savannah Safari loop. Many of the animals, in particular the hyenas, are just too lazy to hunt – a bunch of underachievers, the guide suggests.

The hyena’s neighbours range from gawky and shaggy animals it might try to eat, to monsters and one top-tier misplaced predator. That translates as wildebeest, yaks, giraffes, white rhinos and cheetahs. Then there are the obscure outsiders – serows (goat-antelopes with short, sharp horns, long coarse hair and beards), gorals (goat-antelopes equipped with backward curving horns), gaurs (mammoth oxen native to India and Malaysia) and barasinghas (deer native to India and Nepal).

Amid this menagerie, herbivore hippos play a cameo role, submerged so that they expose little more than their long-lashed eyeballs. Despite their penchant for bananas, cuddly toy looks and aura of calm, hippos are hard. In the wild, they regularly take out crocodiles.

What a scream it would be to see them tangle with the Siamese crocodiles presented in Predator Prowl.

We would see all the gory detail because visibility is consistently good. Only once, when scanning an enclosure for an unfamiliar goat-antelope called a gwarg or something, do I fail to see the occupant.

Keep an eye out for wandering ostriches, our guide says, observing that, while an ostrich’s egg is 30 times bigger than a chicken’s, its brain is the size of a bean.

Consequently, sometimes like a demented geriatric, an ostrich meanders onto the track and stares at the tram, obliging our guide to push the bird way. Our guide, who claims to ride bison, peppers his talk with aspersions.

He ridicules the free-running wild pigs that eat their own poop and male lions that do nothing but eat, sleep, mate and have a beer.

Emus for him represent a warning of the consequences of not washing your hair.

His irreverence injects some jollity into the tour, which needs it because seemingly every other animal is threatened with extinction – usually thanks to the supposed aphrodisiac quality of its private parts.

As the night wears on, we stay alert – jokes, jolts and sudden overpowering urine whiffs helping to ensure that. The worst whiff emanates from the golden jackal, which appears unpleasant in every way, living up to the reputation enjoyed by jackals in general.

For its party trick, the predator dances, siren-like, around its prey until the prey is infatuated, then rips into its face and tears it apart – the stuff of nightmares.

My only grievance is that, although the ushers say you can take photographs, just try. Flash is banned. Photographing fawn-coloured woodland animals without it from a tram negotiating slopes and bends is tricky. Expect megapixel soup.

About the only workable photo opportunity comes when some antelope-like animal, an oryx, I think, appears beside the tram and just stands there, nibbling leaves scattered over the tarmac. Never on the journey do I feel under threat except when some roving wildebeest come into view, all horns and sinew.

If you trespass on their territory and turn your back, the non-predators come after you, the guide says, revealing that he once jumped into a tree to avoid them.

More than any other animals we see, the wildebeest check us out but seem less feral than the cat I saw en route to the night bazaar, which was gripping a gecko between its teeth. The least tame creatures we see appear to be the zebras, which approach on the other side of the road from the wildebeest at a brisk trot.

Bugged by the Bengal tigers or pointing cameras, the zebras buck, displaying their massive haunches. Seized with the jitters, they then lose the plot, break into a canter and, bulging-eyed, bolt, generating a rush of air and contained excitement.

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