Travels in Northeast Turkey: Part 2

by Hari Balasubramanian

After the road trip to the Turkey-Georgia border (see Part 1), I returned along with my friend Serhat to Erzurum on the third day. Serhat flew back to Istanbul that same evening. My plan was to travel solo to the town of Kars next morning by bus, spend two full days there before returning by flight to Istanbul. All this was in July 2013.

1.The minibus from Erzurum to Kars

Map2Kars is at the far northeastern end of Turkey, about 3 hours by bus from Erzurum, close to the Armenian and Georgian borders. This is the same town where Orhan Pamuk's Snow is set. In the opening section of the novel, the protagonist Ka takes a bus from Erzurum to Kars; the bus runs into a raging winter storm.

I had a more basic problem. I thought that finding a bus would be a simple task. In the morning I took a taxi to the gleaming and modern Otogar, the bus station, about 14 km from Erzurum Center. But after a frustrating hour of enquiries, I had made no progress. I expected buses to Kars to be frequent. But no one seemed to know where to find one; the private companies – there were no government buses – said they did not have service to Kars that day. I roamed around the well maintained bus station, asking at least ten people, moving in circles, not making any progress, gradually feeling amused at my travel predicament. The language barrier was a huge issue: I realized that even very basic English words and phrases weren't working.

Not knowing how to proceed, I returned to Erzurum Center, and spent some time in an internet café pondering my options. The café owner wanted to help; we used Google Translate to carry on a rudimentary conversation. He let me use his cell phone to call Serhat. Something was eventually arranged, I wasn't sure what; I simply waited. Ten minutes later, a car with a young man and a boy – both from a bus company – arrived to pick me up from the café. They were going to lead me to the bus to Kars. I rushed out with my baggage and left my personal diary next to the computer.

In the car, I was asked many questions. The boy – chubby, no more than fifteen – was particularly talkative and seemed very much the street smart type. Understanding absolutely nothing, I only smiled at him in response. I had two things I needed to convey. First, if there was still time to turn around and retrieve my diary. Second, if I would get time to use a restroom. But I knew there was no way I could communicate these urgent needs.

The minibus to Kars, run by a private company, departed from a small side street, a kilometer or so away from Erzurum center (an informal bus stop that, perhaps, only locals were aware of). Relieved at having gotten into the bus, and now almost reconciled with the loss of the diary, I seated myself comfortably. The bus left in ten minutes. A conductor — another boy, as talkative as the one I'd met earlier — came by with a ticket slip and asked for some information. After seeing my blank face, he began to make exaggerated gestures.

A man seated a few rows ahead with his wife and few months old baby, came to my assistance. Turning around, he said in English: “The boy is asking for your name. What is your name?” It was the best English I'd heard all morning. After filling out my name, I promptly changed seats so I could chat more with him. The man's name was Nuri.

The bus was on its way. The flat landscape outside Erzurum had been cultivated into farms. Square piles of hay stood on neatly delineated plots of land.

“What are you doing here?” Nuri asked me, genuinely puzzled that an Indian with no language skills was traveling alone in northeast Turkey. I explained that my Turkish friend had been with me until yesterday, and that I was doing this last phase to Kars by myself.

“Are you Muslim?” Nuri asked.

It wasn't a new question: it had come up every single day that I'd spent in Northeast Turkey. Until then, in each case, Serhat had explained to all those interested that I wasn't Muslim. In Part 1 I wrote about a villager who had been keen on getting me converted. To avoid such issues, Serhat, before leaving, had advised me to say yes when asked.

So I said yes to Nuri. It felt very awkward to lie, but I did. After we'd exchanged some details about each other, Nuri said:

“I am a religion man, an imam.”

The one occasion I'd decided cover up the fact that I wasn't Muslim, it turned out I speaking with an imam! I looked at Nuri with renewed interest. He was wearing casual clothes: a white t-shirt and jeans. He was clean shaven, had youthful features – he was perhaps thirty – but had lost most of his hair. He had a large Samsung phone which he consulted whenever he ran out of English words. His wife was dressed in the conservative way: a black dress with a headscarf. It was clear that Nuri was Muslim, but there was no way I could have figured from his outward appearance that he was an imam.

Nuri was from the Erzurum province; he had grown up near Tortum, which has a famous waterfall that Serhat and I had visited on our way back to Erzurum the previous day. The mist from the waterfall had come as a tremendous relief from the hot sun. Not far from the waterfall was a fertile valley, and amidst small villages in this valley, reached by a flat unpaved road, were the beautiful ruins of a 10th century church: the Monastery of Öşk (see pictures at the end).

The minibus stopped at a gas station to refuel. I asked Nuri if it was a good idea to use the restroom. “Of course, do go ahead,” he said, “I will make sure the bus waits for you. You can leave your bag here.”

I ran in to the restroom and while I was at it, I heard an engine roar. I imagined the bus leaving without me – perhaps I'd made an error in communicating myself. But all this was my imagination: the bus was still there, still fueling. Nuri had gotten off to take new clothes for the baby from the baggage section to the side of the bus.

We resumed our conversation. He laughed and said he didn't like Erzurum very much. He had finished a degree – I forget which: perhaps it was economics – in Marmara University in Istanbul. After a year of military service, he had gone to a religious school in Bartın, a Black Sea city in the northern Turkey. He now taught religion to others. He was proud of his knowledge of the Quran.

“I have memorized the entire Quran,” he said emphatically. “I did it in one year.” He then asked me about a well known set of verses in Quran; these verses had a specific name that I cannot now remember.

I realized I was in a tangle. “I don't know those verses,” I said.

“Really, you don't know those verses?” Nuri asked unbelievingly, wondering perhaps how I could have claimed that I was Muslim.

I struggled for explanations. “My parents are not that religious,” I said. It just came out: a lie to cover another lie! I couldn't believe what I was saying. Only I knew the irony: my parents are very religious, just in a very different way.

“Well, that is not very good,” Nuri said.

I mumbled something irrelevant about India having both Hindu and Muslim faiths.

“Well, not everybody in the world is Muslim. In fact not everybody in Turkey is Muslim – you don't have to be Muslim,” Nuri acknowledged pragmatically. He didn't seem very affected by the fact that I wasn't quite who I'd said I was. He continued to talk in just as friendly manner as before. But I felt guilty: how much more honest the exchange could have been had I stuck with the truth.

We moved to other topics. I asked Nuri about the mass protests going on in the cities of Turkey. Firmly in the Erdoğan camp, Nuri seemed to believe in the government view that there was a foreign hand bent on disturbing Turkey's progress. “Look at how well the economy has done in the last ten years [under Erdoğan],” he said. “Look at the roads all around, how much progress has been made.” Certainly, I had noticed plenty of infrastructure projects in the region over the last few days: new tunneled roads through mountains, and a number of dams for hydroelectric power generation along the Çoruh River (not without controversy: 15,000 homes in Yusufeli will be submerged as a result of one such dam).

When the topic turned to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – I mentioned the prominent Atatürk University with 30-40,000 students in Erzurum; the huge hilltop statue of Atatürk in Artvin – Nuri said: “Yes, he is everywhere.” After a pause he said: “I don't like this guy. I can say that nearly 50 million people in Turkey do not like him. I think he was just a dictator like Mussolini…he killed a lot of people around here.” I was taken aback by these statements: this was the first time I was hearing a view unequivocally opposed to the founder of Turkey.

§

The bus was now getting closer to Kars; we had passed Sarıkamış, the site of a major battle during World War I, and now famous for its pine forests and winter skiing. Soon, on either side of the road were the gently undulating grassland plains that characterize the province of Kars.

The bus driver had been talking on his cell almost the entire time. He spoke in an accent I felt I'd heard in the United States, but I couldn't place it. I just knew it wasn't Turkish. And then I remembered it was exactly how the Iranians I knew in the US spoke, even when they spoke in English; it was the same intonation and accent I was hearing now. But the driver wasn't speaking Fārsi; Nuri said it was Kurdish.

Nuri and his family got off in the village of Selim, 40 odd kilometers from Kars. The family was visiting a grand-uncle who would be seeing the baby for the first time. The bus went into the village main street to drop passengers off. For most of my travels in the northeast, I'd felt that Turkey's regional cities, towns, and even villages had done quite well: they were clean, had reasonable roads and generally seemed well off. But the village of Selim was a bit ragged; and later, as the bus got close to Kars, I could see that the town was messier, less organized and poorer than Erzurum.

2. Kars and Ani

Not surprisingly, the Kars I experienced as a casual tourist was completely unlike the gloomy winter town full of intrigues portrayed in Orhan Pamuk's Snow. It was bright and sunny July day and everything felt cheerful: maybe I was just happy to finally make it here, after the difficulties of the morning. When I asked for directions to my hotel, at least four people volunteered, trying their very best. Unlike Erzurum, there were places open for lunch despite Ramazan. Kristal Café, right next to the hotel, had dishes that matched my vegetarian preferences; I ate there five times in three days.

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I spent my time largely walking the streets, and climbed the hill where the old citadel or fortress was, to get an aerial view. As a border town with plenty of countries in close proximity — and historically always a kind of frontier zone, close to competing empires; the Ottomans and Russians fought for it in the 19th and early 20th centuries — Kars is more diverse than Erzurum: there are Kurds, Azeris, Georgians, Russians here. The friendly hotel receptionist – who wished to travel to Delhi by bus, and who wanted to know how much time the journey would take – was Kurdish. Celil, an English-speaking local guide, said he had both Azeri and Dagestani ancestry. In the hotel lobby, I met a veterinarian from Mersin (southern Turkey) on a business trip. Stock breeding is the primary economic activity in the province, and the vet was here to meet with dealers of cattle about the health of their livestock.

§

The second morning, I went along with Celil to the ruins of an ancient Silk Road city called Ani, a 45-minute drive from town. There's a good summary of this special site from a 2006 article in the Economist:

“A millennium ago, Ani rivalled Byzantium as one of the great cities of the Christian world. At its height, the Armenian capital had over 100,000 inhabitants. Now all that stands is an impressive wall, and the gaunt but beautiful remains of churches and mosques randomly scattered across a vast expanse of grassy earth. On a hot day in early summer, with flowers blooming and birds swooping through the ruins, the place is utterly empty.

Ani's location at one of Eurasia's nodal points, where rival civilizations either clash or co-operate, has been both a blessing and a curse. The “silk route” linking Byzantium with China ran through it. But less than a century after it became the Armenian capital in 961, the city began falling victim to waves of conquerors, including Seljuk Turks, Georgians and Mongols. In 1319 it was devastated by an earthquake.

Even as a ruin, Ani has been a disputed city. In 1921 when most of the site was ceded to Turkey, the Armenians were dismayed. They have since accused the Turks of neglecting the place in a spirit of chauvinism. The Turks retort that Ani's remains have been shaken by blasts from a quarry on the Armenian side of the border.”

Ani is now open to tourists and is listed as a stellar attraction in travel guides. Yet, when I arrived at 9 am there was no one around, only hundreds of rock swallows and some hovering bees. Celil left me at the entrance. “There are Russian intelligence units across the border on the Armenian side,” he said gravely. He pointed them out to me: dull clusters of anonymous buildings. “Make sure you don't visit parts of the ruins close the border.”

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Celil's warnings only made Ani seem all the more dramatic and interesting. I spent two hours leisurely walking through the well spead out ruins. From the entrance, only parts of Ani are visible; the views get more interesting closer to the border. The Church of Tigran Honents (first image above), sits at a slightly lower elevation, at the rim of the canyon where the Akhurian River (Arpaçay River in Turkish) runs. The river forms the border between Turkey and Armenia. Also visible from the rim are the remains of an ancient Silk Route bridge (second image above). Two parts of the bridge are still standing, one on either bank, unconnected: symbolic, since the border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed.

§

To finish, a few other peripherally related pictures. First, the waterfall in Tortum on the Artvin-Erzurum road. Second, the ruins of the Monastery of Öşk, in a secluded valley near Tortum. Last, my typical meal at the Kristal Kafe in Kars: green beans (taze fasulye); a bulgur-lentil soup with spices called ezogelin (one of my favorite dishes) that tasted exactly the same no matter where I had it in Turkey; and salad, rice and yogurt.

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