23 February 2012

The Caves of Heaven and Hell

Heaven and Hell are more similar than you would think. Formed by the same underground river, they sit side by side, both enormous mountain chasms in the town of Narlikuyu. Heaven is deeper and more easily accessible (doubly ironic). You take a lovely ramble down 450 odd steps into the mouth of the cave. At the bottom, surrounded by red-rocked cliff sits this church - the Chapel of the Virgin Mary. It kind of appears out of nowhere, obscured by the twists of your path and the twisting trees all around. From down in Heaven's mouth, it's hard to imagine anything in the world exists besides the chapel. Looking up at the ancient house of worship, silhouetted against the sky by a blazing sun, made me wonder if the cave itself isn't dubbed "heaven" but, instead, the view from it.
It's an amazing thing to be right at the bottom of a cave, where the water that began forming it thousands and thousands of years ago still seeps out from the earth. You know that it is, drop by drop, still changing the landscape - like the longest ceramics project in history. In some caves, you can hear a drop here or there. Here, it rushed from a few different points in the rock and mud floor. The echo was loud and the air was humid. This is the same water that the locals drink, as it flows out into their cove, giving the warm, salt water a cold fresh water cover. It's also believed to be the River Styx - the boundary between the Underworld and Earth according to Greek mythology.
It was hard not to poke around the 5th century Byzantine church a little longer on our way up. It was brighter and less slippery and there were so many little details to notice. The Chapel of the Virgin Mary is beautifully ruined, a partial skeleton with half of its dome remaining. On it, you can still make out a few frescoed apostles out of the dozen that used to be there.
What's nice about Heaven is that it's just so pleasant to walk around. It was a new definition of "cave" for us. The sun was our flashlight, the clouds swirled like bats and twisted trees were our stalagmites. About 600 ft tall, 270 wide and 210 deep, this is where Zeus is said to have been imprisoned by the 100-headed dragon, Typhon. He's rescued by Hermes and Pan, who must have left his mark on the place. The Chasm of Heaven is a really perfect picnic spot and would be an ideal backdrop for flute-playing nymphs.
Once he was free, Zeus didn't travel too far to punish Typhon. He buried him deep into the ground, in The Chasm of Hell, only a few feet away. When we saw a woman coming back from the site in high heels, we wondered how in the (insert cave's name) she did it. The powers that be wisely keep you away from the massive hole in the earth. It's really only impressive as a companion piece to Heaven, or if you're a mythology buff, but how can you resist taking a peak? Near the viewing platform, two camels for rent stood tied to a rock. Another version of Hell.
If the first two caves take your breath away - or the massive amount of stair do - there's the nearby Asthma Cave! This is a much cave-ier cave, complete with metal staircase, crazy drip-stones and spot lighting. A man sat at a dusty staircase, ripped off two tickets from his pad, took our money and pointed toward a spiral staircase. It kept going and going at such a tight wind it was almost like descending a fireman's pole. The arcade at the bottom was stunningly large. A testament to Turkey - if this place existed in so many other countries, it would be a heralded tourist attraction. And not just for its "asthma healing capabilities" (aka its humidity), but for its beauty.
There were some really amazing formations, ranging from whimsical to sort of demonic. What struck me was the variety and how closely they coexisted. Stalactites that looked like large bundles of fanned out parchment paper hung right above dark pillar-like stalagmites. The bundle in the picture were a common design and reminded me of melted skulls. I'm not very well-versed in speleology, but I love to walk around and make out shapes, like you do with clouds. Well, the asthma cave is a really amazing place for that sort of exploration. Especially because you are able to walk around without a guide.
This, of course, has its downsides. It was difficult to tell where you should and shouldn't walk and I'm sure very delicate structures are touched more than they should be. It's very slippery and could be dangerous and, well, there's the whole "carve your name into a cave" urge. For now, not enough people visit to make a guide necessary. The proprietor at Hotel Rain, who kindly offered to drive us to and from the site, told us it was his favorite cave, but it generally gets overlooked. Too many people exhaust themselves on the first two and never make it to the third, he lamented. Personally, I think it just needs a sexier name. Like Purgatory.

Note: Three different people reiterated that we only needed one ticket for Heaven and Hell, not two. We assume this means that visitors are sometimes scammed by people who hang out and try to get them to pay a second entrance fee. This didn't happen to us, but we figured it was worth mentioning. The Asthma Cave does require a separate ticket - and it's totally worth it.

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