Sunday, 30 October 2011

Latvia, Georgia and Turkey Pt. 4: Batumi, Kars and Ani

Part Four of my Summer 2010 trip





Links to all parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Riga, Sigulda and Turaida

Part 2: Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Kazbegi

Part 3: Tbilisi, Gori and Uplistsikhe

Part 4: Batumi, Kars and Ani

Part 5: Doğubeyazit, Van and Diyarbakır

Part 6: Urfa, Haran and Adana

Part 7: Ankara and Istanbul

31st July, 2010 – Batumi, Georgia

I awoke at the crack of dawn with the Black Sea lapping the trackside outside the window. I had not slept well which was annoying since one of the main advantages to sleeper trains, (and especially ex-Soviet ones that are wider and warmer than most) are that you can usually get a decent night’s kip aboard them.
We pulled into Batumi and I was in two minds as to what to do next: Should I stay and explore the city or just head straight for the border? In the end my fatigued state, heavy rucksack and the fact that I knew I’d be having a long day ahead of me on the Turkish side triumphed over the delights of a city that promised little culturally, it being but a village before 1878, so I took a marshrutka out to the Georgian-Turkish border post at Gonio, some 19km further on. And in the end, I was glad that I had made that choice.
If asked to pick a low point on the trip, then there is no doubt whatsoever that it would be going through the border controls between Georgia and Turkey. In fact, in my entire life, I have never encountered a border even close to being as gruelling and absolutely miserable as that one. In a nutshell, I spent close to three hours in the full glare of the blazing hot morning sun, rucksack strapped onto my back, wedged in a mass of disgruntled humanity in a squash worthy of the old Boothen End on a Saturday afternoon but without the long-ball football as entertainment. Turkish border guards marshalled the Georgian (and Armenian) hordes like sheep, using truncheons when necessary and at times also when not. One woman passed out from sunstroke; I was surprised there weren’t many more. It was hell, and at the end of it all there was still a lengthy taxi ride into Hopa, the first Turkish town on the Black Sea. Still, at least I got through it all and as I sat with a tea and kebab in Hopa’s bus station, I managed to reflect awhile on the little country that I’d just left whilst anticipating what was to come in the big country that I’d just arrived in.
Georgia was not quite what I’d anticipated, but then again what had I expect prior to my visit there? A kind of Balkans in Asia perhaps, and in some ways that proved to be the case with its mish-mash of ancient peoples, cult of the strongman and warrior, rabid destructive nationalism, strong sense of traditional wrongs, long memories, fantastic scenery and decaying communist heritage. At the same time though, this was no Balkans; the scenery was far wider, more barren, too arid, and the culture different also. Yes, it was Orthodox Christian with splashes of Islam, but the Christianity here was more Asiatic and Pagan whilst the people, with their swarthy faces, jet black hair and pronounced features, looked more Iranian than European.
So it was both familiar and alien at the same time, but most striking of all was the welcome, the warmest that I’ve ever received in a foreign country and a sure reason to return someday soon. I felt that in my six days I’d merely encountered the tip of the Caucasian cultural, geographical and ethnographical iceberg. There is still a lot of Georgia to explore, plus both Armenia and Azerbaijan, not to mention the many Caucasian Republics within the Russian Federation. Yes indeed, as one famous strong man once put, I’ll be back.
But that was looking back to the place I’d just left, what about where I was now, for should a traveller not be looking ever forward? I was now in the Republic of Turkey, a country that I’d visited once before, back in 2003. Then I’d spent a freezing winter’s week exploring the delights of Istanbul, Ankara and Konya and I’d left feeling that here, like with Georgia in 2010, was a place where I’d only just touched the tip of the iceberg. Well, now it was time to add a little more flesh to the skeleton.
And the first bit of that new flesh was Hopa, the around which was green and lush and reminded me more of Corfu than anywhere else that I’ve been. It was very Mediterranean and noticeably wealthier than Georgia had been. However, after Hopa, where next? My original plan had been to travel from Gori to Borjomi, then Akhaltsikhe near to which I would cross the border and then end up in the small city of Kars. I was now however, over a hundred miles west of that city and the maps showed no major roads going in that direction. Would it be feasible to try and rejoin my original route or would I be better instead heading for Trabzon or Erzurum?
As luck would have it, there was the occasional bus running from Hopa to Kars and what’s more, one of them was departing in under an hour, so I booked myself on it and settled down for the journey. What followed was one of the most incredible bus trips of my entire life.
For the first hour or so, the coach climbed, up the green slopes and inland towards the town of Borçka (very Balkan in appearance) and then Artvin. I slept for much of this section, recouping from the rigours of a poor night’s sleep and the hell at the border, but at the bus station outside Artvin I got off, refreshed myself with some ice-cold water from a running hose outside the building and fell into conversation with a major in the Turkish Army who liked football, had recognised the sacred red and white stripes of Stoke City FC and wanted to talk about Tuncay.[1] After football we moved onto each other. He was travelling with his wife and young daughter (Merva), and was a native of Izmir on the coast but had been stationed to Turkey’s remote eastern provinces for five years.
Pulling out of Artvin we climbed steeply and enjoyed one of the most incredible views that I have ever seen. Across the valley of the Çoruh River an absolutely enormous dam – the Deriner Dam[2] – was being constructed. It was fascinating to see the work in progress after having seen several finished dams, (including the Borçka Dam which we’d passed forty minutes before), but what was most remarkable about this was the sheer scale of the project; it was unbelievably big! The dam wall itself, half-built when I saw it, will be some 249m high when finished, making it the fourteenth highest in the world.[3]
For the next fifty miles or so, our journey was greatly affected by the new dam. We travelled along dusty roads running down the bottom of arid river valleys, spectacular rock formations towering high above. Gone was the lushness and greenery of the area around Hopa; here all the rocks were bare and the colour of sand. I was reminded of some of the harsh landscapes of the Albanian Highlands or the Atlas Mountains.
But these valleys are soon to disappear, to be flooded as the waters rise behind the new dam, and with them, so too will the road disappear. A new road was being constructed high above us on the valley side and at one point in a most lonely spot indeed, we were stopped by a traffic light whilst the rocks above were dynamited. They came cascading down onto the road before us, boulders the size of cars kicking up a huge dust cloud that took some time to clear. When it eventually did, a bulldozer was fired up and the way before us cleared of debris, whilst a lorry flowed behind and sprayed the surface with water to keep down the dust. That done, the light changed to green and we continued on our way.
We stopped at a small roadside eatery where I drenched my face in ice-cold water and then enjoyed some tasty çorba (lentil soup) with bread. I was reading Karen Armstrong’s History of Islam and the proprietor, by both the title and picture of a mosque on the cover, asked if I was a Muslim. When I replied in the negative, he was nonetheless pleased that I had decided to take an interest in his religion and he proudly announced that as well as being the owner of the restaurant, he was also the village imam.
At Penek we joined the main road east to Kars and were subjected to a police checkpoint where my passport was scrutinised. I was reminded that we were now getting near to the tense areas of Turkey, for not only was the Armenian border close, but we were also entering the lands settled by Kurds.
From then on the landscape changed again. The craggy dry valleys were gone and in their place wide sweeping steppe reminiscent of Kazakhstan or Mongolia. I saw a ruined Armenian church and a host of villages that could have been several thousand miles further east. This was Silk Road country with vast treeless spaces, villages of yurts and other settlements made of strange squat stone cottages with turf roofs.
It was around five when we eventually pulled into Kars, a small frontier city of around 75,000 souls that recently gained some literary fame as the setting for Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow.[4] I found a basic hotel for 20 lira a night and then walked out, heading for the old part of the city and the citadel (which was shut). Below the citadel was an amazing Armenian church that had been turned into a mosque that I ached to look inside, but that too was off-limits; this time because a TV company was filming there.
Former Armenian church, now a mosque, Kars
I headed into the centre where I took a very welcome and invigorating hammam before retiring to an establishment named Café Kristal for my tea which consisted of a rather tasty yet unusual dish called pili which involved pieces of meat on the bone in a soup which one sucked off the bones before drinking the juices. Nice! Thus fulfilled and tired, I made my way back to the hotel, as I drew near viewing the proceedings in a large restaurant across the road from the hotel where I wedding was taking place and women in garish dresses and too much make-up, (but very few headscarves), milled around with men in sombre suits and serious expressions on their faces whilst all the while a band played cheesy pop-cum-folk music very loudly on a bad sound system.

1st August, 2010 – Kars, Turkey
There was a man waiting for me when I came downstairs from my room. He had a car with a cracked windscreen and he wanted to take me somewhere. I went with him even though I was a little reluctant to do so. After all, I knew that he would hurt me where it was most painful: in the pocket.
I had come to Kars because of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. In that novel, detested by many Turks because it lays bare some uncomfortable truth about their country, it is a semi-mystical place, cut off from the world by heavy snowstorms, a place that felt like it was on the edge of civilisation, the very end of the road. To paraphrase a much more famous work of literature, I’d unofficially decided that if one seeks the real Turkey, then one must journey even unto Kars, and so far she had not disappointed; the desolate steppe that surrounded her spoke of the end of the world whilst he grey fortress and shabby apartment blocks spoke of defence against both the harsh winters and the forces of evil that periodically spill over from their hostile eastern neighbours.
But if I’d come to Kars for Kars, then I was unlike the majority of her few tourists, as for them the city is merely a base from which to go further. For Kars is not in fact, the end of the road; the road continues for another 45km until it hits the impenetrable barrier of the Armenian border, closed since the Russians withdrew in 1920, firstly due to Cold War mutual suspicions and then, after 1991, due to political wrangling over Turkish refusals to recognise the Armenian Genocide of 1915. But just shy of that border, (and in the eyes of many, on the wrong side of that border), lies the ruined city of Ani, once the capital of an Armenian state.
Ani was selected by the Bagratid King Ashot III to be the site of his new capital in 961 and it remained the capital of the Armenian state until the Byzantines took over in 1045. Then, in 1064, the Great Seljuks took over, then some local Kurdish rulers until in 1239 when the Mongol Hordes poured across from central Asia and emptied the whole city whose fate was finally sealed in 1319 when an earthquake destroyed much of what was left.[5] In its day though, Ani had been one of the great Silk Road cities with bazaars, grand churches, hammams and mosques, a place where East and West met and some of the most important discoveries in human history were passed between the earth’s two greatest cultural entities.
I hadn’t know what to expect of Ani save that it would cost me a lot (60 lira) to get there, which is why I’d ummed and arred about hiring a driver to take me out there, but in the end I’d figured that I’d never be in Kars again so this truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity and as such, worth staking up the cash. And in the end I was glad that I decided to go.
Ani was amazing. It’s hard to put one’s finger on why, but it was. Perhaps it was the setting with windblown steppe all around and the rocky canyon of the River Arpa separating the ruins from the country that they once lorded over? Or perhaps it was those ruins themselves, vast eerie, empty churches inhabited only by birds, lines of stones on the ground that were once houses, shops, a hammam? Perhaps instead it is the fact that it had been an Armenian city and the Armenians are now all gone, wiped out by a holocaust unrecognised and untalked about in Turkey, whilst their tiny, truncated successor state now lies across the river, the descendents of the builders and residents of Ani able to look at but not touch their once-great city, yet another symbol of their pain and loss? Or perhaps it is because it is a potent symbol of human fallibility; how even the most solid and prosperous cities can be flattened by man or God, how the huge cathedral whose scale has to be seen to be believed, now sits empty every Sunday, the whole country virtually devoid these days of followers of the faith that once dominated it. As the Bible itself says, To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.[6]
I wandered around Ani for three hours, it could have been three more, but by then my feet were giving way and my stomach rumbling, so I retired to the taxi and returned to Kars, my mind full of one of the most remarkable spots on earth.
The enormous Cathedral of Ani. The scale does not come across in this picture but each of those stone blocks is half the size of a man.
Ani, desolate and spectacular
The novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk centres around a poet and journalist named Ka who has just returned to his native Istanbul after twelve years of political exile in Germany. He travels out to Kars, (the title of the book in Turkish is their word for snow, ‘Kar’ which has added meaning), in the depths of winter to investigate a series of suicides. The deceased are all ‘headscarf girls’, i.e. young ladies who wear the hijaab and live a conservative lifestyle somewhat against the teachings of the secularist Kemalist state. The Islamists say that this leads to a happier, more fulfilled existence, yet if that is the case, why are these girls being driven to end it all, especially when one considers that suicide is forbidden in Islam? As the snow thickens and cuts Kars off from the world, Ka discovers that all is not so rosy in conservative Kars as the powers that be would make it out to be.
What I remembered from the book is that all the headscarf girls were from shabby apartment blocks on the poorer fringes of the city. This interested me since my foray into the centre the evening before had revealed the locals to be quite secular and Kemalist in their dress, probably due to the fact that there’s a large military presence barracked in the city due to the nearby borders with Armenia and Georgia. So it was that I took a walk out through the grid-iron blocks of streets to the Kars Museum which lies on the very edge of town.
Turkey’s apartment blocks are distinctive. There is a tradition of covering them with tiled mosaics which softens the harsh angles and drab concrete. These examples however, did not look any poorer than the examples in the centre although the population had definitely become more conservative. A lot of girls wore multi-coloured headscarves and I saw one – the first of my travels – in an all-encompassing chador similar to those worn in nearby Iran. I was in the land of Snow! Then, beyond the apartments came the traditional houses, one-storey, unplanned and built of stone. And they were definitely the dwellings of the city’s poor.
Turkish apartment blocks covered in coloured tiles. This example is in one of the new suburbs of Diyarbakır
The museum was a good one with extensive exhibits on all aspects of Kars’ history, (save for the Armenian Genocide of course), and local culture and customs. After perusing and recovering from the sun, I headed back out, through the apartment blocks of the suicidal headscarf girls to the city centre and a well-earned meal.
After my meal I continued with my walking, firstly to a photo shop to get all my snaps put on disk so I could free up camera memory for some more and then up to the post office which, when I got there, was shut.
The post office is on the opposite side of town to the museum, up on the high ground in an area completely different in character to that which I’d left. Here stood the bureaucracy of the military and governmental forces that control the area, housed in late 19th century blocks guarded by unsmiling soldiers. Kars, although once the Armenian capital (before Ani) is in many respects a modern town built by the Russians between 1878 and 1920 when they controlled the area, and in the bureaucratic district this was evident; the architecture and ambience of the place being far more akin to Moscow than Marmaris.
I walked up to the citadel which was now open. It was pretty complete although a lot of the buildings within the walls were 19th century additions. Near to the gate there was a shrine to a Muslim holy man whose tomb had a Turkish flag draped over it. I wandered in and wondered what it was that he had done in his life but alas, I never found out.
As always with castles though, the best bit about this one were the views from the top. From the keep one could see across the scattered city to the railways lines, then onwards to the steppe beyond, stretching all the way to Armenia. Nearer to, there was a huge, (perhaps 30m high), statue of two stylised figures facing one another. One assumes that it represents some sort of friendship, but between whom? The army and the locals perhaps, or possibly the Turk and the Armenian? Neither seemed too likely.
Strange statue on a hillside near to Kars.
Down below, in-between the statue and the castle, was a collection of Ottoman Era buildings clustered around a stone bridge linking the two banks of the river. Several of the buildings had domes which made me wonder if they were perhaps hammams and I vowed to investigate them later.
I met three young men on the top of Kars Citadel. They were Rafet Mercan, Hûseyin Çöllü and Ali Zeybek, all soldiers from Turkey’s west, (Istanbul I seem to recall), who had been posted to Kars for three years. The posting was only a month or so old and it was summer so they were quite enjoying it but all were dreading the harsh winter and the prospect of such a long time in a town where there’s so little to do.
Rafet Mercan, Hûseyin Çöllü and Ali Zeybek; the cream of the Turkish Armed Forces
After exploring the citadel I climbed down and checked out the Armenian church where the TV company had been filming the day before. Built between 932 and 937 as the Church of the Apostles, it was turned into a mosque in 1579 and had remained one ever since. Inside it was peaceful and pleasant and it was not hard to imagine what it had been like when in use as a church.
I then went on to check out the domed buildings and stone bridge that I’d seen from the citadel ramparts. The buildings were indeed deserted Ottoman hammams and, to my delight, one had no door so I wandered on inside and explored the empty rooms, imagining what the place was like in its heyday. That little corner of Kars was my favourite, forgotten and picturesque and with the stone bridge traversing a rushing river it was almost Balkan in its ambience.
Ottomon Kars: an 18th century stone bridge and ruined hammams beneath the ramparts of the citadel
By the river I found a tea garden where I decided to retire for the day, my feet aching after all the walking. I ordered myself some tea and a nargile and wiled away several hours smoking, reading Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, drinking and watching the world go by. It was altogether civilised and pleasant and I was altogether happy. Yes, I’d arrived back in Turkey and so far I was finding it better than all expectations.

Next part: Doğubeyazit, Van and Diyarbakır

[1] Tuncay Şanlı, Stoke’s only decent flair player for more than twenty years and a member of the Turkish national side. He previously played for Fenerbahçe before moving to the UK.
[3] And the tallest that I’ve ever seen. The nearest I’ve come to that is the Kurobe Dam near to where I lived in Japan (186m). The Light of the Party Dam that I discussed in my Albanian Excursions travelogue is 152m whilst the Zhinvali Dam that I passed in Georgia is a piffling 102m. For comparison, the Eiffel Tower is 324m high.
[4] Although a massive success worldwide, this novel in particular and the man who wrote it in general, are not well-liked in Turkey itself. Due to his comments on the Armenian Genocide and the treatment of Kurds, Pamuk is disliked by the Kemalist establishment who accuse his of “insulting Turkishness” whilst the subject of the book – the suicides of girls who wear headscarves and the negative connotations of political Islam – have made him unpopular with the Islamists as well.
[5] Lonely Planet Turkey, p.555
[6] Ecclesiastes 3:1-3

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