Jesse shifted in his seat, turning to face me in the half-light. The glow from the bus's instruments reached to our spot a few rows back, giving his features a green tinge.
"You know, man, this might not have been the best idea," he whispered, rubbing tired eyes,
I nodded. I was way ahead of him. It was 3am, a ridiculous time to be on a bus. We were ... somewhere in Turkey. I couldn't be sure where. We'd just left a service station after an interminable wait for the driver and his crew to have a meal and a cigarette, which meant we were now five minutes away from whatever town that service station was in. That was the level of my thinking at the time.
"This better be worth it," Jesse said, stating the obvious as he slipped his headphones on and wrapped a jumper around his head, attempting to drown out the sound of the driver chatting to his crew a few rows ahead. Sleep had so far evaded us.
Better be worth it. The dash we were making was mad, the sort of thing normal people on normal schedules would disregard without even thinking about it. You've heard of the trend towards "slow travel", the thoughtful adventurer's answer to the slow-food movement? This was the opposite. This was the McDonald's of travel, the late-night kebab of the touring experience.
I'd met Jesse about 10 hours ago on the streets of Istanbul, the two of us bonding over our status as solo travellers and our desire for a cup of cheap Turkish tea. We'd sat down at a tea house and talked over our travel plans for the near future.
Jesse, a Canadian, was on a tight schedule and had to head home in three days. So did I. He'd always wanted to visit Cappadocia, the famed land of bizarre rock formations, pictured, in central Turkey, a solid 12-hour bus ride away. So had I. Given the time restraints, he'd worked out the only way possible to make the trip: overnight bus there, spend the day on a tour of the area, then jump on an overnight bus back to Istanbul. A total of 24 hours' travel for eight hours of sightseeing.
It was insane, clearly, a sprint across half the country to spend a mere eight hours taking in one of its true highlights, but Jesse had a good point: "When are you going to be back?" So I agreed, we booked the tickets and found ourselves chugging through the dark countryside that same night, listening to the hum of wheels on bitumen and the chatter from our driver and his mates.
Turkish bus drivers keep to a schedule only they seem to understand, with frequent breaks to smoke, chat, drink tea and kick some very large tyres. We made it to the town of Goreme far later than we really needed to and stumbled out of the bus dazed from lack of sleep, with just enough time for a quick breakfast of guzzled coffee before our tour commenced.
"So where do you stay?" a Korean guy asked to make conversation as we took in the first stop, a lookout across some fantastic alien lands, outcrops of rocks moulded in dripping wax.
"Nowhere, man," Jesse replied. "Got in this morning, going back to Istanbul tonight."
"What?" the Korean guy shook his head. "You're crazy."
We were soon whisked on to the next site, the Kaymakli underground city, a warren of dark tunnels and narrow stairs burrowed into the rock, which took on an even more claustrophobic feel in our sleep-deprived state. We then moved on to two churches carved into gorge walls, beautiful spaces with meticulously painted walls and ceilings.
"Good, huh?" I said, stretching the limits of my vocabulary.
Jesse nodded. "Yep."
Next stop was Selime Monastery, a huge complex of churches and rooms hacked into the mushroom-shaped rocks. By now Jesse and
I were in a permanent daze, him chain-smoking cigarettes and staring blankly into the distance while I stumbled around trying to take photos of everything so I'd actually remember it.
Jesse waved away some cigarette smoke. "Yep."
This was going well. We visited another lookout, me taking photos and Jesse smoking, before heading back to Goreme to meet our return bus to Istanbul. We managed to fit in a quick pide before the bus trundled in, time to repeat the cycle of chatter, hum and pit stop in the weird half-light.
"So what do you reckon man, was it worth it?" Jesse asked, getting his headphones and jumper on again, this time ready for sleep.
I considered this as the Turkish countryside sped by outside, unexplored and unseen for now, its people unmet, its food uneaten, its delights undiscovered. "Yeah, I guess it probably was," I nodded. "I mean, when are we going to be back?"