We could have been halfway between Bakersfield and Las Vegas, but I was on the other side of the world, just a couple hundred miles from the Syrian border.
A domestic flight had transported us from bustling Istanbul to this bleak and desolate landscape. We paid our driver with Turkish Lira as he deposited us at the steps of a resort built into the side of a mountain ” every wall was solid rock. This was our honeymoon, so I was all for a crazy adventure, but I couldn’t help wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into.
The following morning felt like a gentle kidnapping. We were woken abruptly at 4am and very efficiently loaded into a van and whisked away toward the hills on dark, unmarked dirt roads. The headlights began to illuminate these large round formations that looked like sighing hillsides. Exiting the van, the whole valley was abuzz ” 200 fans and generators pushed air into large balloons, where it was then heated by flamethrower-like devices.
In a symphony of flames dotting the darkened landscape, bright flashes ejected from these small devices. The mood was both primal and extraterrestrial due to the warmth of the fire and the promise of anti-gravitational flight.
We boarded our hot air balloon by climbing over the edge of the basket. Strategic foot-holes woven into the sides aided our climb. As our 10 fellow passengers situated themselves inside the basket, the lucky 13th person (our captain), came aboard to replace the gas tanks used for the initial heating of the balloon. As he fired up the four jets, we began to rise. The take-off crew was soon mere dots, scrambling to get everything packed and back on the road.
Luck is relative to an individual’s desires. If you love the thrill of adventure, being the highest balloon in the sky that day would be good news. If you are deathly afraid of heights ” like my wife ” you melt into the basket when the captain explains, œOn weekdays we are only permitted to go 800 meters, but since it’s the weekend we are now at 1100 meters. 1150 meters. 1200 meters. 1250 meters. You guys are so lucky!!
We are now traveling at 15 kph across a landscape aglow with the orange and pink sunrise. Long shadows of the Fairy Chimneys stretch across the rocky moonscape. I’m in heaven.
My wife, on the other hand, had been terrified of this moment since we’d first planned it. She had done a ton of research before we left, to assure herself of the safety of this adventure. Before the industry was regulated, there had been a few incidents. In general, the biggest hazard with hot air balloons are power lines, but in an undeveloped area like this, our biggest concern was actually running into another balloon!
As we passed over the open-air museums, a valley where monks had carved out churches into numerous Fairy Chimneys, we saw another balloon rising out of one of the canyons. Every one of us could see that the trajectories of these massive balloons were going to cross ” or, as the captain noted with a smile, œThe balloons are going to kiss!
The balloons rubbed up against each other without incident and our trip neared its end. We could see a caravan of familiar vehicles charging toward the open pumpkin patch ahead of us. Before we knew it, we were on what we thought was the ground. In fact, our captain had expertly landed us squarely on the trailer, hitched to the Toyota SUV it had arrived on. My confidence in the pilot soared at that moment ” maybe a little late, but I was most grateful for his skillful delivery of my new bride and I back to earth. We were warned not to jump out of the basket right away or we’d immediately lift off again. The balloon was quickly deflated, and we were served champagne to celebrate a successful flight.
Sometimes you need to go 4000 feet up in the sky to change how you see your world.