Journey on the Eastern Express
I boarded the train at Haydarpaşa station and was directed to my carriage, my home for the next 2 days. Its archaic style, a 1960s Pullman carriage, amused me instantly. With the seating area to the left, which pulled down into beds, a large table incorporating fridge and a sink with a bathroom cupboard hanging above, I quickly became familiar with my surroundings.
I would spend several days in this old carriage, providing plenty of time to think. My life, and in particular my career, had taken an unexpected turn in London and I longed to escape it; so a spontaneous trip east to Kars and Ani, the 10th century capital of the Bagratid Armenian dynasty 40km east of Kars, then potentially border hopping to Georgia or Azerbaijan was quite appealing.
I was heading east. Taking the Eastern Express (Doğu Ekspresi) from Istanbul to Kars, a small often forgotten city in north eastern Turkey on the border with Georgia and Armenia. The city is most well known through its association with Orphan Pamuk’s novel Kar [snow], which was set in Kars. Other than this, its history, unique surroundings and history is little known by the average Brit.
Back on the train
I sat back in the carriage to reflect on the journey ahead. It was the middle of July, and I soon realised the carriage’s air conditioning was on the blink. I spent the next 5 hours watching Istanbul’s urbanity slip away. Urban ‘villages’: Kadıköy; Erenköy; Bostancı; all the way to Gebze. The Eastern Express’ route incorporates 11 different key cities, up and down the country in a zigzag route, including: Izmir; Eskişehir; Ankara; Kayseri; Adana; Sivas; Erzurum; and finally Kars.
My time on the train were spent primarily catching up on reading and planning my trip upon arriving in Kars. I was free. Not tied by job or obligations and could spend as much time as I wished away from London (well, in theory). The only other thing I did during those few days was open my carriage curtains and watch in awe. The panoramic beauty of the landscape staring back at me from the window was unforgettable. From snowy mountains to sandy coloured fields, to gorges and green plateaus, even the empty barren landscapes were stunning.
Welcome to Kars
I got a wake up call at 4am from the tea boy, who let me know we were approaching Kars’ train station. I opened the curtains, it was still pitch black from the night and I could see nothing, not even halogen street lights. I looked around but everything was shut up. I approached the station night manager about the distance to my hotel. He told me it was a 5 minute walk, but recommended I wait until day light as the streets were not safe.
I waited 2 hours, until eventually the sun rose. Upon leaving the station, I was surprised by the lack of pavements and roads around the station. Kars’ infrastructure was like no other I had seen in a city or town and in fact was more like a village. Mud roads, derelict houses, no road signs; it was like a frontier town. However, Kars has always been exactly that. A frontier town of empires and modern borders. I eventually found some civilisation, in the form of old men drinking their first glasses of çay. I asked for directions and ignoring my request, they immediately insisted I sit down and drink tea. Foreigners are still unusual occurrences in Kars.
I found the hotel, which was surrounded by a forgotten building site. The place, although dated, looked comfortable enough. After a couple of hours sleep, I left the hotel, which in reality was less comfortable than I originally believed and walked around the town.
If you are visiting Turkey/Istanbul and would like to know what Kars is like without travelling to it, go to Asian Istanbul and travel to the furthest point east of the city, where the metropolis is slowly eating up neighbouring towns, villages and country side. There you will see a replica of Kars, an area which is waiting for modernity to take over: derelict roads, limited infrastructure, local residents surprised and suspicious of your arrival, a wilderness.
However, unlike these towns and villages, Kars is a city, but a city with little evidence of development. The walk from station to centre of town was a dilapidated dusty road, the pavements filled by rubble and impossible for a pedestrian to use. Buildings were slowly crumbling and looked like the victims of a civil war. Kars has not benefitted from the vast investments given to cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir or Adana. It has been left to rot. A border city, formerly part of Bolshevik Russia, its present state appears to be linked directly to its history. Why invest in a city which is constantly changing hands?
But Kars’ history, and especially its old town, makes it worth travelling eastwards. In particular, the castle which overlooks modern Kars on top of a high hill is a barricade with nearly 1000 years of history and was the scene of endless fighting before and after World War I. An Imperial Russian outpost from 1878 to 1917, it was then ruled by the Bolsheviks until 1920, before eventually becoming part of the modern boundaries of Turkey.
After an afternoon overlooking Kars from the castle, I walked back into town and visited Kumbet Cami. Kumbet Cami, built in the traditional bullet tower Georgian shape, is currently a mosque, sitting below Kars’ citadel. Originally built as an Armenian church, it became a mosque under Ottoman rule, and a Russian Orthodox Church from 1870s, before reverting back to a mosque in 1920.
Ani, the forgotten city
On my second day in north eastern Anatolia, I arranged to visit Ani, the forgotten capital of the Armenians built in 10th century. Driving through plateaus of farmland and passing a few far off villages, there appeared to be not much around. In the distance, stood grand snow-capped mountains towards the border between Turkey and Armenia.
We slowly moved further and further away from civilisation. Except a few 1970s vehicles – cars, motorcycles and the odd tractor – everything appeared old, from another time period. Farm buildings, fences, and houses looked like they had stood their since the early 1900s. I have previously visited rural communities in southern Anatolia, both village and plateau in Içel, and although older buildings were present, there were still evidence of modernity. However, these remote villages’ current states are due primarily to the position of Kars and Ani in Turkey: off the beaten track, with limited investment, and isolated from the modern republic.
We stopped at a great wall, near a security guard’s hut. The guard pointed in the direction to a great archway, the Arslan Kapısı [lion gate]: gateway to the city.
Although July, the shadows of the great wall made it quite cool. Entering the complex, the temperature grew colder as the full plateau was revealed. Windswept green and yellow grassland pulled out into the distance. Sandy ruins occupied the far-off sky line. Relics of the Armenian capital stood far apart from each other: churches, mosques, palaces, temples; and the remains of castles, scattered about the eerily flat terrain, with only the sound of the wind in the distance.
Ani, the former Armenian capital, was established in the 10th Century by King Ashot III of Bagratid dynasty in 961AD. Less than a century later it was taken over by Byzantines, then the Selcuk Turks, Kurdish Emirs and finally the hordes of the Mongols in 1239. I considered the city’s past, its sudden demise and its future and how easily it is for a city to be an important place of civilisation and how even easier it is for it all to disappear and to become insignificant to all but an archaeologist.
The death of a city and its civilisation can occur quickly. Ani and its grandness stood as the capital of Armenia for less than 100 years before being occupied by 3 different empires and with one economic decision, the city was destined to die. The earthquake which hit Ani in 1319 A.D, caused havoc and destruction to the city and population. But it was not the deathblow. Even now buildings still stand and could have been restored and even in 14th century. Rather the deathblow came from an economic decision taken by Timur (Tamerlane), founder of the Timurid dyansty. Timur re-drew the silk trade routes, bypassing Ani. The city lost its importance in the region and slowly people moved away to more thriving cities, setting the north eastern Anatolia as a distant border region. As an English north-easterner, the similarity to certain towns and cities in my own region was all too evident.
I headed south at Ani, eventually coming across the Church of the Redeemer, a bullet-shaped structure pointing towards the sky with half of the building had caved in. I continued south until I came to an area cornered off by the military. Ani’s ruins run opposite to the Armenian border and is considered to be a strategic area of importance. I looked into the distance at more relics and wondered how well-guarded the Turkish military kept the off limits zone, but decided to avoid any unnecessary trouble and continued on my route.
Ani was a cosmopolitan city, providing places of worships for a variety of different religions: Armenian Christians; Georgian Christians; Greek Orthodox; Muslims; Zoroastrians; and Jewish communities.But of all the other derelict sites the Cathedral, Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents’s frescos and the Zoroastrain temple left the biggest impression. The Cathedrel and St. Gregorys with their partially standing structures defying nature from consuming their stone back into the earth, while inside their beautiful frescos remained intact marking a period of lost civilisation in bleak north eastern Anatolia. Whereas the temple, with its painted black checks and swastika, reminded me how the importance of places and images so easily change as civilisations transform.
Playing the waiting game
I decided I would continue my journey by visiting Georgia. I went to the tiny bus station and enquired about buses to Tbilisi. The next morning, I left for the bus station early, to avoid running into the over amorous Hotel Manager. Drinking a rushed glass of çay in the only place open at 6am, a Kahve Hane (Coffee House), I was given suspicious stares by the other diners. Kahve Hane, are traditionally men-only places, primarily for retired men to drink endless cups of black çay/coffee, play backgammon and talk about politics. Even in Istanbul, it is considered bad etiquette if a woman entered a Kahve Hane.
Leaving quickly, I headed to the bus station. Two American girls came to reception and called into the office for assistance. The girls advised in English they were travelling to Tbilisi and wished to take a bus to the border.
I was bemused at the girls’ choice of route to Tbilisi. Taking a bus to the border, walking over and getting a taxi; one of the recommended routes in the latest Lonely Planet guide to Turkey, seemed rather risky to me, hence my decision to be boring, save money and take the direct bus to the Georgian capital.
The girls, Sarah and Jessie, explained they were doing an overland trip from Istanbul to Baku, visiting friends who were working in different cities throughout the region over a period of 4 weeks. I told them of my plans for going to Tbilisi, but taking the more convenient route of the bus and advised that it would be more efficient, and definitely cheaper, than taking a taxi to Tbilisi. They decided to travel with me.
The Road to Tbilisi
The road to Tbilisi was flanked by green mountains, valleys and wondrous waterfalls and rivers, with young boys swimming and diving naked into the rolling waters, oblivious of the passing traffic. Naked swimmers are not a scene regularly seen in Turkey. Crossing a small border appeared to change everything from the culture, the environment to even the infrastructure. All of the buildings appeared to date back to 1950/1960s Soviet Era: well built, sturdy and impressive, with some hints of an earlier Imperial influence. In the distance, on the other side of a roaring river stood a magical castle embedded in a hillock, with a Georgian style tower similar to the derelict mosques of Ani and Kars.
3 hours into our journey, the driver parked up on the motorway, pulling up at what looked liked a small summer residence of a Soviet Governor. He explained that if we wanted, we could have a break and buy something to eat. I explained in Turkish, we did not have any Georgian currency (Lari) and would rather stay on the bus. He advised this was “impossible”.
We got out and followed him apprehensively to this small mansion. Many other cars and trucks were parked up outside and women, scantily dressed, were shouting things at men leaving the building. Small children with puppies played outside with some of the men. The men eyed Sarah, Jessica and I suspiciously as we climbed the stairs onto the veranda and entered the building. A hostess greeted us and the driver and guided us into the lounge, where half dressed women sat hypnotised by the television, with a couple of children perched on their knees. I briefly, looked at the hostess, who was blond, looked ashen and had enigmatic dark eyes. A second woman approached the driver and spoke to him in a language I did not understand – Georgian, I guessed – and he left with her up the stairs. The hostess showed us into a room to the left of the entrance hall. My relief soon disappeared as we entered the room. In front of us, was a bar, several tables and chairs, a large fountain and, hanging from a ceiling, a disco ball. I was beginning to realise this was not your average motorway café.
We sat down at a grubby table. Sarah looked at me and Jessica. “Sheniz” she began, “do you think this place is more than a pit stop?” By saying it, we all recognised that this probably was the case. The whole set up – decoration, minimally dressed women, disco ball – seemed to indicate one thing: we were in a brothel!
We all started to get up together, quickly finishing our teas, then stopping, realising the potential of STD acquisition from the glasses and quickly left the room. We went outside to wait for our driver who had mentioned he would only be 25 minutes. I thanked the hostess and attempted to pay for our tea, but she refused. As we waited on the veranda, I asked her how she understands Turkish. She advised she was Turkish, that everyone here was Turkish. Then I viewed her appearance more closely, her blond hair was actually dyed, her light skin looked due to illness. She looked rather unwell. The hostess disappeared back into the building. I contemplated her situation and wondered what her story was. How did she end up here?
After forty minutes, more than an hour after we went into the ‘Turkish brothel’, our driver came out. With white shirt ruffled, hanging out at the back, he was very red in the face, like one looks after a great deal of exercise. This confirmed our suspicions: it hadn’t been a pit stop. I apologised profusely back on the bus to my fellow travellers, for persuading them to take my ‘safe’ alternative; but then again how many other female Westerners could boast that they had been to a Turkish brothel in Georgia on the road to Tbilisi? Not many I think!
This spontaneous trip to Turkey and some of Turkey’s neighbours was beginning to turn into a journey of many surprises, from the Ani’s eerie terrain, to Kars backwardness, and to a Turkish brothel in Georgia. I was slowly beginning to enjoy myself and could not wait to see what adventures lay before me in Tbilisi!
To be continued…
Scenes of the ruins of Ani – St Pirkitch Church (Redeemer)
Ani ruins, the river Arak beyond and Armenia on the opposite bank.