Having dragged myself away from Istanbul, I’ve enjoyed relaxing and taking in some of Turkey’s other famous attractions. The Roman ruins at Ephesus and the tourist and ballooning hotspot of Cappadocia. Both were good, but neither stood out. Ephesus, with its crowds does compare rather unfavourable to some of the lonely ancient cities I’ve seen in the deserts of the Middle East, and the Temple of Artemis, is definitely another candidate for most underwhelming former wonder of the world. Meanwhile Cappadocia, whilst not as overrun with tourists as I perhaps expected, lacks something in the way of atmosphere, however pretty the sight of 50+ balloons taking off at dawn might be, and however many phallic shape rocks it might have lying around, just inviting men to revert to their 12-year-old selves and take stupid pictures.
If I wanted to see something really special in Turkey, as well as finally make my way towards Georgia, it was clear I would need to go further east. So further east I went. About as far east as fact as its possible to go in Turkey without finding yourself crossing borders.
Kars, (pronounced to rhyme with farce rather than cars) was unlike the other towns I had seen in Turkey. It has the definite vibe of a frontier town, emerging with no warning from seemingly out of nowhere as my 25 hour train journey to reach it from Ankara finally came to an end. Its several thousand feet up, making it colder than most of the rest of Turkey (although temperatures were bright and sunny when I was there, the previous weekend the forecast had been for ice-storms) and its surrounded, not by dusty rocky outcrops and scrub land, but luscious, grass carpeted, rolling hills in all directions. It also just looks different. The town was under Russian rule for 40 years starting in the 1870’s and when viewed from its Castle I felt I could easily be looking over a city from Central Asia rather than Turkey.
Still the reason I had come here was not for Kars’s sake, however fun it was to wander around its street grid of Russian architecture, marvelling at how every other shop seems to sell massive amounts of local cheese and honey and cursing that a giant wheel of cheese and a fat pot of honey would not be appropriate things to add to my current baggage list. The reason I had come to Kars lay 40km further away on a dual carriage way that see’s almost no traffic. 40km away lay Ani, an ancient city on the silk road originally founded by Armenians in the 10th Century, which time, war, earthquakes, shifting trading routes, and political strife saw it gradually abandoned and left to be forgotten. Under Russian rule, archaeological excavations took place, but following its return to the new state of Turkey, and with the issues Turkey continues to have with Ani’s founders, Armenia, Turkey has never seemed keen to try to exploit these ruins to their full potential. Which means less tourists, which for me, equals Win.
That’s not to say visiting Ani is difficult, an overnight bus or train from Ankara will get you to Kars where a charming selection of relatively cheap, smoke-stained hotels, with the décor inspired by the very latest in 1970’s design are readily available. From there a Taxi (if you’re a money bags) or a shared minibus, will take you the 40 minute drive away to Ani. The road as I mentioned is in relatively good condition, and is dual carriage way throughout, which seems rather optimistic because the only other traffic we past were tractors and horse carts, but the width of the road did make it easier to avoid wandering cows and horses. The reason for the lack of traffic is that the border with Armenia, which Ani sits right on the edge off, is shut and has always been shut, and no one seems to be holding their breath that it will open anytime soon. Still aside from watch towers on either side of the border, and large Turkish flags, flying to remind you which country you are actually in, whatever your mobile network might decide to say, the tensions do not impact on any visit to the site. It’s 8Turkish lira to get in, which is a little under £3. Transport varies but I ended up paying 45 Turkish lira for the ride there and back.
Upon arriving the driver of our bus told us that the best way to visit was in a clockwise direction. This was helpful. He then told us that ideally you needed 2 and ¾ hours to 3 hours to visit the site. He then informed us to be back ready to leave in 2 ½ hours time. This was less helpful.
I decided not to take a guide-book or to do too much reading before hand so my self guided wander around the site was somewhat made up, but I believe I got to most of the sites, including several tricky ones that I’m not entirely sure if I was supposed to get to… The majority of the “intact” ruins are churchs/mosques (they seemingly changed every time ownership of the town changed) Particular highlights are the first mosque built-in Anatolia in the early 10th Century, and the remains of some cool frescos in one of the Armenian churches. For the rest of the site, it is the spectacular backdrop of the gorge and river running between the two countries which surrounds the site on 3 sides and vastness, and general stillness, except for wildlife and the occasional fellow visitor that make the site stand out. A great change from Ephesus. It was lots of fun to explore and photograph, if surprisingly hot, given the elevation, and to do the site justice, particularly if you intend to seek out the further reaches of the site, you really do need at least the 3 hours our driver suggested. Still, as he only gave us 2 and a half hours, I can say it is also possible to do it in that time, if your willing to do a bit of running and scrambling around.
Fun as it was, the sadness of the site can still be felt. There is seems to be a general feeling of melancholy hanging over it at the futileness of the political issues and differences that continue to leave this site underfunded, underexploited, and generally unknown. Looking down from the city walls to the river below you can see where the old silk road descended from the city, crossing over the river below to what is now Armenia, part of the great trade network that linked the Western and Eastern worlds. Only now of course the bridge has long since been destroyed, and Armenia is left unreachable.
But I’m sure one day things will change, so if you get the chance, explore it before the hoards get here, because until political progress is made, Ani will remain unique and lonely, left largely forgotten at the endpoint of the road from Kars to nowhere…