Caucasus Journey XIV: In Kars

Wednesday, May 20, 2009 
On Tuesday (yesterday) I took a bus from Artvin to Kars. The trip was long--about six hours--and felt even longer because so much of it was on road that is under construction. Calling the surface washboard-like would really be too diplomatic.

Nevertheless, our bus passed through some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery I've seen in years. Pulling out of Artvin, we passed through alpine forests and saw many snow-topped mountains similar to those I'd passed in southern Georgia and on the way from Hopa to Artvin. After a couple of hours, however, our surroundings became decidedly more rugged and lunar-like as we followed the Çoruh River. As we approached Kars, the land turned to high plateaus with bar, almost steppe-like plains on either side. Small pockets of snow lay on the ground, with the occasional white mountain top in the distance.
Gary Numan knows what it's like in Kars 
My photos don't really do the scenery justice, as they were shot through the window of our bus. Still, I think you can see how gorgeous this part of Turkey is.

Çoruh River between Artvin and Kars

Outside Kars

Our bus pulled into Kars at around 6:30 pm. As is often the case in Turkey, I was greeted by numerous taxi drivers at the bus station. They weren't so interested in taking me the short distance to my hotel, but rather establishing a connection in order to take me to Ani during the course of my stay in Kars. The competition is fierce, and several drivers started talking to me at the same time. I took a taxi to the hotel, but refrained from making any specific plans for touring Ani, a visit to which would cost about 70 Turkish Liras (about $45).
Frankly, I hadn't come to Kars to see Ani--I was much more interested in seeing the Kars fortress and the Russian architecture in town. All of the photos I'd seen of Ani--an Armenian Silk Road city created in the 10 Century--had made the number of existing structures seem somewhat meager. I wasn't quite sure that it would be worth the time and expense, perhaps especially because everyone (Lonely Planet included) seemed to be pushing it on me.
When I arrived at my hotel, the Güngören, I was dismayed to find it filled with middle-aged northern Europeans. It was my own fault, of course, since the place had been overwhelmingly recommended by Lonely Planet. All the same, it was kind of a drag dealing with surly hotel staff who spend their days dealing with foreigners asking them questions, and quite a different experience from the places I'd recently stayed in Kutaisi, Batumi, and Artvin. Frankly, I've grown to loathe Lonely Planet's tourguide hegemony, but can't seem to shake my dependence--which I imagine is largely psychological--upon them.
After checking in, I decided to step out for a few minutes to buy beer but ended up deciding to walk around town for a while. It was a beautiful evening, cool in the high altitude after Artvin (Kars is 1750 meters high, more than one thousand meters higher in altitude than Denver). I walked along the city straight grid-like downtown, which much more closely resembled a Russian colonial city than most places I've seen in Turkey.
After a few minutes of walking, I bumped into Faruk, a university student from Kars' Kafkas University that I'd met on the bus. Faruk and I started chatting, and soon were joined by several of his friends. After about ten minutes, his friends took off but Faruk offered to show me around the city. We walked for about an hour through town, and then he showed me where I could get Kars goose--a meal that Deniz (the guy I'd met on the bus from Hopa to Artvin) had first mentioned to me. Kars goose is a local Kars specialty, and I'd never had goose in Turkey before so I was intrigued, to say the least. We sat down to eat--I had the goose, and Faruk had mantı (he said his family, which lives in nearly Göle, eats goose all the time). It was served with rice and salad and was pretty good--certainly the best goose I've had for a while.
After dinner I headed back to the hotel, where one of the taxi drivers from earlier in the afternoon was waiting for me. He told me that he was taking a group of tourists to Ani the next morning, and offered me a place in his car for 25 liras (about $15). I decided to take him up on it.
The next morning (Wednesday) I got up at eight in order to meet our driver at 9 am. It turned out our driver was the famous Celil Ersoğlu, who is also touted by name in Lonely Planet. No wonder he was getting so many customers. Anyway, I couldn't argue with the economics of the deal, and was happy to be hitching a ride.
The ride out to Ani took about thirty minutes. On the way, Celil stopped at a large monument by the side of the road commemorating "the Turkish residents of a village who were killed by Armenians in 1915." At this point, Celil began an extended lecture on the history of the region, emphasizing the continued importance of the Caucasus to the world's major powers. Having sat through uncountable lectures on Turkish and Ottoman history from taxi drivers in Istanbul over the years, I was impressed by Celil's relatively strong command of the chronology of events and his willingness to make his case in front of what was, I gathered, a rather skeptical audience. The Norwegians and Austrians sharing the vehicle with me nodded nervously in response to Celil's insistence that Armenians had killed Muslims in 1915, then fell back to the standby line of foreigners not wishing to offend their hosts by contradicting them, muttering vaguely about how "politics" were to blame.
We arrived at Ani at a little before ten and stayed until 12:30. I'm definitely glad I saw it. True, there aren't a lot of buildings remaining on the site, but the landscape is definitely interesting--mountains on all sides, and the Armenian border just 100 yards away.

Ruins from Ani with Armenia in the background. The houses to the right are military barracks from the Armenian side.
Ani once had a population over 100,000

 By the time Celil had brought us back to Kars, I was really wiped out. I hadn't thought about how bright the sun would be at this altitude, and even with a hat I'd gotten badly sunburned. I vegged out at my hotel for a couple of hours, putting up my feet and listlessly reading a newspaper, but then forced myself to get up--I hadn't even seen much of the town yet, let alone the fortress.

Kars fortress--the site of considerable bloodshed in 1877-78.
 After rousing myself from a near-nap, I headed up to the fortress, which was filled with picnicking families. I then walked around the city for a while to take photos of some of the old Russian buildings still standing in Kars, which was part of Russia from 1878 until the end of WWI.

Kars' straight streets and boxy buildings bear little resemblance to most Turkish cities
Between all of these activities has been the talk. One person after another talking to me endlessly, inviting me to sit down, telling me what they think of the world, the United States, Obama, the Iraq War, Afghanistan, Islam, and especially the Armenian genocide issue. It's really overwhelming, and listening to all of this has perhaps been even more tiring that schlepping around from one site to the next. Literally dozens of people during the course of the 24 hours or so that I've been here. Then add another dozen from Artvin and the trip down from Hopa. 
Indeed, I'm a bad person to travel with in Turkey, because I'll listen to almost anybody. Rather than avoiding eye contact with people staring at me from the stoops of their shops, I just say selam or merhaba--it's a habit I picked up back in my Teşvikiye days, when I realized they could either stare at me awkwardly day after day, or else I could break the ice and say hello. Even in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I'll say 'hi' back (in Turkish) to all of the touts, rather than try to shut them out. 
So here and in other places in Turkey where Turkish-speaking foreigners are a rarity, when I say hello people at first assume it's the only word of Turkish I know, and many just leave it at that. Others will ask me a quick question to test me (nerelisin?, 'where are you from') , and if I can pass that test they as often as not start talking more. And talking. In Turkey, people ask relatively few questions about me other than the basics (where I'm from, why I know Turkish, whether or not I'm married, how many brothers/sisters, etc). Mostly they want to talk, and quickly the subject turns (and they're the ones doing the turning) to politics and history.
I could be mistaken about all of this, but here is my theory: people in parts of the world like Turkey--whose lives are influenced by decisions made in New York, Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere--are long since used to having our categories, our terminology, our rules imposed upon them. Rarely do they get a chance to talk back to someone who understands their language and is willing to listen. It's what Celil Bey was trying to do with his captive audience of nervous Europeans on the way to Ani, only Celil is one of the few here who has both regular access to foreigners and the ability to speak reasonably well in English. So even if it's just during the course of a conversation with a Turcophone post-doc emeritus soon-to-be assistant professor like myself, I think there's a hunger to communicate, to finally say what they think about these issues to someone who comes from the country which seems to impact their lives in so many ways. 
It's just a pity that we haven't devised more ways to communicate by now.

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