Published: April 29th 2008April 28th 2008
The weekend started as all weekends should, on a Wednesday. Çocuklar Bayramı (Children's Holiday) meant no classes - wooohoooo! I found a dirt cheap plane ticket and landed around noon in Kars, setting of Orhan Pamuk's novel, Kar (Snow), which I still haven't read (the English-translation of it that I found in İstanbul - in paperback! - cost more than the plane ticket to Kars!). Anyway, my guidebook was correct in noting that the city is full of Russian buildings, appropriately grey and run-down. Still, Kars did prove to have more to offer than I originally expected.
I shared a cab into town with a young man who had flown in from Aydın to visit his girlfriend. We sat, talked, and drank tea - because this is what happens in Turkey. Despite my improving skills and tactics I was unable to get to the bill before he paid it. I'm getting sick and tired of this constant hospitality and generosity.
I then found the slowest internet connection in eastern Anatolia in a smelly internet cafe where Turkish Reggaetón (I kid you not) was being blasted to a crowd of teenagers playing video games.
At this point Jen and
Lauren were making their way in from the airport, so I picked a spot for us to meet at. I found a street corner where old men were sitting, drinking tea, and I joined them. We met - me and the young ladies, not the old men, that is - and headed for a cheap, tasty restaurant where eggplant/aubergine is cooked to perfection. I assure you that you cannot properly understand the potential of eggplant/aubergine until you visit Turkey. Afiyet olsun!
Our next move was obvious: walk to the massive old castle (free admission!) on the edge of the city and snoop around. In addition to the handsome, well-preserved castle itself and the expansive views it afforded of the city and the surrounding countryside, there were good opportunities for people watching, in the form of local tourists, inside the fortress walls:
I saw a headscarved young woman walking hand-in-hand with her boyfriend, which reminded me that I'll never fully understand Türks, or people in general, for that matter. A pack of men in business suits was running around photographing itself - their mood could only be described as girlishly-giddy. On the way out I met a few old
men who amazingly survived the climb up the hill to get to the castle. They were perplexed that I could briefly converse with them in Turkish and yet not be a Muslim.
We walked back down the hill and into town, thinking that the day's highlights had been exhausted, when in fact they were just beginning. Rounding a corner, we found a few dozen children playing in the street. Immediately a young girl in a purple shirt ran fearlessly up to us and introduced herself as Yaprak ("Leaf" - a very cute name for an extremely charming child). At the children's requests the moment turned into a photo shoot and then evolved into sort of a soccer-don't-actually-hide-and-go-seek-practice-very-basic-English-make-the-dog-bark sort of game. Understanding the situation was not as important as realizing that some sincere bliss was for somehow being had, and it continued for quite a while. Hooray for the three over-sized kids from America!
A man, who we later learned had been watching us for a while from the balcony, invited us inside, having determined that we seemed to be good people. Hakan turned out to be Yaprak's father. His wife, Ayşe, brought us tea and biscuits and we
quickly felt at home. Before long Jen and Lauren were led away to Yaprak's room to do whatever it is that girls do when they go play in the other room.
Hakan and Ayşe told me the romantic story of how they eloped many years ago. He showed up in a car one afternoon and said "let's go to another city and get married." They did. Eventually they confessed to their fathers, who talked with each other about the situation and said basically, "yeah, alright, that's cool" and the happy couple was allowed to return to Kars with their blessings.
We talked about soccer and politics a bit. I've discovered that a large amount of Turks view the upcoming US presidential election as being between "Clinton" and "the black man." Nobody seems to be too upset that Bush's term will be over in less than a year. I parted ways with my Hacettepe öğrencileri Fenerbahçeli key chain and Yaprak's brothers are likely still sorting out who should be its new rightful owner. It has a way-cool spinning soccer ball in the middle.
Nighttime had come and we left to wander the streets of Kars in search of
on the left side: Armenia
on the right: Turkey
ice cream, which we found in a shop but passed up on, and instead went for the baklava. We left and bought three beers in a tiny shop on the way back to the hotel.
Upon our return, the man at the front desk asked if I could translate for an American who was staying upstairs. I knew that the situation must be extremely dire. We then were introduced to Kelsey, a Californian who has been living/working in Cairo for the past year. She was in search of a corkscrew, which the front desk didn't have, but they had some other method for opening up her wine bottle.
The four of us gathered in the modest lounge area outside Kelsey's room to discuss our adventures. We were soon joined by a funny group of traveling perfume salesmen from Erzurum. The front desk asked us repeatedly to quiet down as it was getting late, sort of.
Thursday morning breakfast started as all breakfasts should, as an all-you-can-eat. It was far from being the most exciting breakfast in Turkey, but it was a good feed before another long activity-filled day. At 8:30 our driver showed up to take us
what a place to put a church!
We wanted to attempt a hike out to there, but there was not enough time for it. Should you find yourself in Ani, ask for more than 3 hours...
to Ani (the four of us Yankees, including Kelsey, a lovely Canadian couple, and Stefan, from Switzerland). The seven of us ended up being the only foreign visitors that day, as far as I can tell, and I believe we outnumbered the few local tourists that showed up as well.
Ani is an ancient Armenian capital set in a dramatic landscape of rock-speckled fields, steep cliffs, and a meandering river - all tucked in between distant mountains. Many of the churches, mosques, and other ruins there were built a thousand years ago; some even date back as far as the first century A.D. The three hours that we were given at the site were quite rushed - Stefan even made a fair comparison to Angkor Wat as our time was running out (though of course it's not that big...).
It is a new favorite for me though in a country that offers some stiff competition. In its day, according to my guidebook, Ani was "home to nearly 100,000 people, rivalling Constantinople in power and glory."
The colorful Menüçer Camii is believed to be the first mosque that the Seljuk Turks built in Anatolia, in 1072. The half
of it that remains is perched near a cliff and its windows offer views over the river which serves today as the border with Armenia. Nearby, the stunning Cathedral/Fethiye Camii (987-1010) is the largest of the ruins at Ani, and its scale proved hard to capture with a camera. Unfortunately, none of my Ani pictures really do the place justice.
We cruised back to Kars in the early afternoon, utterly satisfied with the brilliant time we had. The weather was perfect and amazingly we had the place all to ourselves. After grabbing a quick lunch, we hopped a minibus bound for the Georgian border at Posof. The ride there took a few hours and near the end of it a wall of black, ominous clouds gathered on the left side of our path. As we climbed a high pass we were assaulted with a short bout of heavy sleet, which our driver somehow managed to navigate through. We agreed that we had basically reached the end of the world.
As abruptly as the weather had gotten mean and weird, it got, well, cute and weird. For our last twenty minutes or so of Turkey we passed through a
Church of the Redeemer
built from 1034-36 to house a piece of the True Cross
hilly green landscape that looked like the set of a children's cartoon. Trees filled with white and pink blossoms decorated the rolling land and it seemed like the type of place where singing, dancing animals might live. As we rolled through one of the last little towns we found the icing on the cake: a shiny, golden statue of Atatürk raising his top hat. Alas, it was gone before we could capture it with our cameras...
The really, really funny border.
The Türkgözü border was less-crowded than Ani. Jen, Lauren, Kelsey, and I were the only people crossing it - legally, that is. We were greeted by friendly, fluffy, clean, pleasant, pet-able, international dogs who probably cross the border dozens of times each day. I thought for a moment that perhaps they were there to sniff out drugs and weapons, but Lauren and I quickly determined that they seemed way too stupid to have any actual responsibilities - unless they were secretly genius dogs, undercover as stupid dogs.
The bored border guards didn't seem to mind us taking pictures. Some of them shook our hands, laughed and even conversed with us. When one of them
asked our driver why he was crossing without showing any identification he sort of shrugged it off as "I'm just going over there to talk... be back in a bit..." This seemed to be an acceptable answer to the guard, who was content to just hang out where he was.
The evening was starting to set in as we walked across the lot towards the Georgian gates knowing full well that the day could in fact still possibly get even weirder...
There are more photos below