Ghost cities and making a dash for the Bosphorus

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September 5th 2010
Published: September 5th 2010
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1: My ride with Reza 37 secs
The taxi driver in the Georgian town of Akhaltsikhe laughed at me as I put on my seat belt - he demonstrated the cause of his mirth - his frame and stomach were so big that the seat belt wouldn’t reach across him. I assumed his sheer corpulence would make all head on collisions a non-issue.

So off we went along the road to the border with nice mountain scenery but atrocious roads; despite this being one of the main highways between Turkey and Georgia, we spent most of the time slowing down suddenly and veering from right to left in order to avoid the giant pot holes.

Borders are such weird places and Vale was no exception. The taxi driver dropped me off at the Georgian border gate, or rather the farm yard - because that's what it looked like and then I had to walk in the mud in the baking heat about 400 metres to another barn ‘shed’ where Georgian border guards milled about and nonchalantly asked for my passport. Then more walking and onto a window in a wall, got my passport stamped by the Goergians then I walked across the frontier to Turkey land. I paid for my visa in US Dollars - EUROS not really wanted oddly enough and one of the Turks asked me if I had seen the Georgians and whether they were sleeping or not. Perhaps some antipathy there, but it was funny. I was now all alone sat on a plastic three seater under some trees with litter strewn about me and waiting for a bus to turn up. The Turkish staff in the office couldn’t tell me when the next bus would be and they didn’t seem to appreciate that I wasn’t really prepared to just sit there idly, hoping for a bus to turn up at any hour. After a while a taxi came along and passengers got out and then I got in and we drove with some other passengers to the Turkish town of Posof.

When we got to the town, problems began because the next bus onwards to my destination of Kars was at 9 in the morning, and it was already 5 pm; the town was small and well I simply didn’t feel like hanging around or staying a night in a hotel so after some predictable arguments about an increased price with the taxi driver having taken me to the additional stop of an ATM machine the taxi driver he let me off at the side of the road. The road was pretty much straight to Kars and I fancied my chances of hitching a ride.

So I stood on the side of the road on a junction of the town and the border road. I converted my usual thumbing to a new hand gesture of ‘slow down’. Cars flew by; some people shook their heads, guys in trucks laughed and then I moved a little further down the road, after a bus car park full of coaches. It was here I was joined by a Turkish bloke trying the same thing - he reassured me that I would get a lift with somebody - I just hoped it wasn’t Mustafa with a penchant for young English arse.

Reza was an ethnic Azeri from Iran and was a good sort - he was transporting Asphalt in his huge and ancient truck and trailer - a Mack - American Lorries that were imported when the Shah was sweet with the West. I climbed a great height to get into the cabin where I felt like I was in a time warp. As we juddered up hills and around winding mountain roads we were I had the thought that I was Jack Kerouac hitch hiking across a 1950s America. It was great to be able to speak a few words of Farsi with Reza but Azeris speak their own language as well, which is Turkic. He offered me some sweet sesame seed crackers and I offered him my Middle East language book - always of keen interest for people in this region. I ended up giving him the book as it wasn’t so useful to me anymore and so he drove and read...! The drive was incredibly pretty, mountainous with verdant green hills and valleys. We stopped at the side of the road for a fifteen minute break alongside other truck drivers sat at a water fountain - cold and fresh direct from the mountain; they made their ablutions and chatted and then we were off again. At dusk we reached the massive Lake Çıldır and for a long time we skirted its shores and I looked out into what looked like a sea.

After 3 or 4 hours we had reached the city of Kars, Reza stopped for the night at a motel/hotel/restaurant brothel where he put me in a taxi for the last short leg into the city. We said our goodbyes and I thanked him for the quick and painless journey.

I got to my hotel but no sooner had I dumped my bag in the room I realised that I had dropped my glasses in Reza’s cab. I couldn’t really afford to lose my glasses; wearing contact lenses all day and every day is not really an option. So, I had to return to the truck stop where Reza let me off but I didn’t know the name of the motel and only vaguely knew in which direction I had come via the cab. However, the reception made some phone calls to the only bloke who speaks good English in the city and he turned up to offer his ‘services’.

We drove in the direction I had come from in the cab; the guide told me that because there were lots of these places along the road we would have to try a few. Then prurience got the better of him. He was a moustachioed old geezer and clearly mistook me for one too as he spoke with delight about the prostitutes and even going so far as to far as to inquire if I was at all interested. Ah the life of a multi-linguist. But we found the place and as we entered the reception I saw female legs climb the stairs along a man’s. Inside was a dark room full of people sat around tables; Reza was sat around one with all of his trucker friends and I felt like a complete arse asking him to come outside and to search his cab for my scratched and crooked Bulgari specs. But he was so happy to see me again that he immediately left the table, rushed outside and had a good root around along the floor of his cabin. Then, magically he found them - all to an audience of curious young Turkish guys. He asked me to join him at his table with his mates but I had to decline, I’d been travelling all day and I didn’t know what kind of obligations would be expected.

The sole reason why I had come to Kars was not in fact to lose my glasses or indeed to be compromised but to actually see yet more churches and ruins. The following day I took a tour to a place called Ani, the once grand medieval capital of Armenia, but which is now in Turkey. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves and only give a few brief details. At its height, Ani had a population of 100,000 - 200,000 people and was the rival of Constantinople, Baghdad and Cairo. Long ago renowned for its splendour and magnificence, its wealth and renown was such that it was known as the "City of 1001 Churches". However, mass emigration of the population had started with the Mongol invasions and by the mid 14th century Ani had ceased to be a trading city and the remaining trade routes now passed further to the south. Tamerlane (him again!) captured Ani in the 1380s and then the Armenians decided to situate their capital in Yerevan. Ani is essentially a ghost city, abandoned and largely forgotten for centuries - Ani is now a ghost city, uninhabited for over three centuries and marooned inside a Turkish military zone on Turkey's border with modern Armenia. ‘Ani's recent history has been one of continuous and always increasing destruction. Neglect, earthquakes, cultural cleansing, vandalism, quarrying, amateurish restorations and excavations - all these and more have taken a heavy toll on Ani's monuments.’ Getting to see this this place sounded well worth the effort.

In the bus along with a dozen or so other Westerners I got talking to a young fella from Surrey who seemed to be the adventurous type; travelling by train from Vienna and now in eastern Turkey. Such was the novelty of speaking with a fellow countryman by this point in my travels (as opposed to the ubiquitous Dutch!) we had some banter and ended up exploring Ani. Set on top of a plateau the city is spectacularly protected by a ravine on one side and a river on another. We rambled along narrow rough paths peeking into the ruins of medieval churches with brilliant (and unprotected) frescoes; grand cathedrals split in half by earthquakes as well as castle keeps, Seljuk mosques and castle walls overlooking the distant river below. I was attracted to the lack of restoration at Ani but also concerned that the vandals and the great uneducated don’t ruin it forever.

I spent a few more days in Kars itself, not doing a whole lot, sort of taking a break from my break - I’ve been doing this a lot more lately - I’m kind of mentally blasé. Anyway, me and the Englishman plus a Czech guy climbed to the castle keep overlooking the city trying to imagine what it was like when the Russians were here. It’s got an interesting history (I know, I know you don’t like to read this stuff so I’ll keep it to a minimum and remember ‘past is prologue’. Turkish nationalist forces took the town in 1920 but the town is essentially Russian built, a very untypical looking Turkish town. Plenty of mosques and a few churches as well as the crazy call to prayer - think of five separate mosques with speakers all speaking at the same time.

Anyway, despite flirting with the idea of a Turkish massage in the hotel - I ended up chickening out in case massage translated to wrestling with oil. I had bought tickets for The Spirit of Burgas music festival on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast - where the likes of Prodigy, UNKLE, DJ Shadow and Gorrilaz were playing. I had to have some decent music to listen to - Australia had left me bereft and a tight-arse. The only problem was I didn’t have time to see the sights of Turkey in between and I had decided that I wasn’t going to rush it and would return and properly see Turkey another time. I planned to get over to Istanbul as quickly as possible and had already bought a that’s what I did. Two hours later I had skipped on my overland odyssey and arrived in ancient Constantinople.

I really cannot be arsed to writing about everything that I saw there - go visit the place yourself! It's very interesting for the whole east meets west but also very touristy, I can’t remember the last time I’d seen so many tourists in one place. Also, lots of irritating touts looking for business and to get you into their bloody carpet shops. But the whole mixture of the Ottoman, ancient Roman, Byzantine walls in a modern bustling city was really interesting and a great place to get lost in. However, it was very hot and humid; the kind where your back and forehead are just sweaty within minutes of leaving the hostel at 9 in the bloody morning. Endless petty and frustrating battles with the hostel reception about the use of the air con in the 20 bed dorm in the basement took it s toll. But I did meet some cool people in a cheap hotel there: Dan, 49 year old ex-alcoholic and graphic designer from Victoria, British Columbia and now on an around the world trip; his wife having spent the previous year doing the same thing. Is this the future I wonder? We hung out together took some walking tours of the mosques, the Grand Bazaar and generally having a laugh. I also made friends with my bunk mate - a 21 year old Dutch girl from Utrecht with the most authentic American accent who had converted to Islam when she was 14 years old and was now preparing for Ramadan. That was interesting.

Dan and I both caught a tram and a metro train to the bus station and then split up to walk the hundreds of bus companies for our separate destinations...

Additional photos below
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18 Istanbul - August 201018 Istanbul - August 2010
18 Istanbul - August 2010

Haghia then mosque then museum

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