Our first stop in Turkey was Kars in the far north-east of the country, best known for its remoteness and as the setting of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. Although Kars is just a hundred miles or so from Yerevan, with the border between Armenia and Turkey still closed we were forced to detour via Georgia, and with next to no public transport along the way the journey took us 15 hours and 8 vehicles. With no public transport at all or even taxis from the Turkish border onwards we hitched the remaining 150 kilometres: first with an ethnically Armenian family whose grandparents had moved from Turkey to Syria during the 1915 Genocide, and who had moved to Armenia ten years ago and were returning to Syria – slightly nervously given the current political situation – for a family wedding; next with two young men who somehow managed to fit us and our bags into their tiny car; and then with an elderly man who drove us the last 60 km and offered to take us anywhere we wanted to go in Kars. One of the things we’ve both particularly enjoyed about the past year is the contact we’ve had with “ordinary” people around the world who have been almost universally friendly and welcoming. Gradually we’ve learnt again to be more open and receptive to strangers than is common or encouraged at home where a culture of fear seems to infect any interaction with people we don’t know.
Kars itself is a small town of pastel coloured buildings, prettily situated in a shallow valley, surrounded by open grassland. The town’s skyline is dominated by minarets, with mosques dotted around the town, some housed in buildings converted from older Georgian or Armenian churches. Many of the town’s buildings date from the 19th Century Russian occupation, and have a distinct Russian feel to them. Overlooking it all is a ruined castle on the hill above town, from which the views of Kars and the surrounding steppe were lovely.
There are few if any real sights in the town, but it has a pleasant atmosphere and we spent an enjoyable couple of days just wandering about, getting a feel for the place and how different it feels to Western Turkey. Although by the time we reached the town at the start of July summer was in full swing we were aware of how brief the summer is here, with many people already appearing to be preparing for the long and isolating winter by making piles of dung fuel and harvesting hay for the winter feed for the animals.
Just a few kilometres from Kars on the Armenian border is the ancient city of Ani, built by the Armenians as their capital in the 10th Century. The site remains highly important to the Armenians and its inaccessibility due to the closed border is a source of continued upset. Yet the city itself was only controlled by the Armenians for a little under 100 years before being taken in turn by the Byzantines, Persians and Georgians before falling victim to destruction by the Mongols, Timurids and a 14th Century earthquake. Since then the city has fallen into ruin and now the only buildings standing are the handful of churches and the mighty outer walls, with the foundations of the larger shops and houses poking through the long grass. It is a vast sight, beautifully situated overlooking a gorge and walking around it, visiting the beautifully and still wonderfully decorated churches was a haunting and moving experience.
From Kars we travelled to Cappadocia in central Turkey, famous for its strange landscape of soaring rock formations. When we saw it all the clichéd superlatives came tumbling out: astonishing, surreal, spectacular, breathtaking, moon-like. Hundreds of thousands of years ago the ancient volcanoes of Mount Erciyes, Mount Hasan and Mount Melendiz erupted and spread a layer of sand coloured tuff which blanketed the countryside. Over the centuries the wind and rain have worn away the soft rock, carving out spectacular gorges and leaving behind the dramatic pinnacles of rock - the 'fairy chimneys' - that are unique to Cappadocia. They come in an extraordinary range of shapes and sizes but most are around 50 foot high and cone or cylindrical in shape.
For thousands of years, the area’s inhabitants have carved their homes, stables, store rooms and churches out of the rock, and today almost every cliff and chimney contains the remains of a cave dwelling. During the Byzantine era, Cappadocia was home to a large Christian population, reportedly even St. George, who carved thousands of cave churches and monasteries into the rock and decorated them with wonderful frescoes of biblical scenes and medieval saints, many of which have survived the iconoclasts remain in spectacular condition. We were amazed by the richness of the colours, the detail of the painting and how in many churches every inch of wall and ceiling was covered with images or elegant carvings.
During the 6th and 7th Centuries, Byzantine Christians carved entire underground cities, up to eight levels deep and with room for up to 10,000 people into the rocks to escape the Persians and Arabs who periodically swarmed up through Syria and Capadoccia to Byzantium.
Today Cappadocia is a popular tourist resort with pretty villages set amongst the fairy chimneys, with boutique cave hotels and restaurants. After a year of travelling in some fairly difficult places with little tourist infrastructure, we found the comparative luxury and ease of Cappadocia very welcome, a real holiday to end our travels with, and made us realize the folly of underestimating the joys of easy travel. We spent a few days of active sightseeing: visiting the churches and monasteries, clambering about in underground cities and walking and cycling through the valleys until we succumbed to the allure of the pool, sunloungers and rooftop terrace bars.
Tonight we take the overnight train to Istanbul, a vibrant and fascinating city we know and know we like, and with its position on the edge of Europe it makes a fitting end to a wonderful year.