The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Head east for another slice of Turkey
Far-flung Kars is finding favour with a new generation – Terry Richardson discovers why
After meandering their way over hundreds of miles of bleakly beautiful steppe, squeezing through the precipitous gorge of an infant Euphrates and arrowing across empty plains lapped by snowcapped peaks, passengers on the Eastern Express from Ankara finally reach journey’s end. There’s a spring in their step as they file out of the rudimentary railway station in Kars, reviving in the crisp air, with a sense that an adventure that started some 26 hours earlier in the Turkish capital has barely begun.
Navigating the convenient street grid plan on their phones, the largely Turkish passengers disperse in search of their accommodation. Some pause to admire their first sight of Kars’s incongruous belle époque stone buildings, a legacy of tsarist Russian occupation between 1878 and 1917, others point excitedly to the citadel, set astride a dramatic rocky outcrop and scene of many stirring deeds in the 19th-century Ottoman-Russian wars. I glance down to see that the book clutched by a bearded young Turk is not a guide but a novel, Kar (“Snow”). Set in Kars, the social and political themes of this work by Turkey’s Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk make it controversial – but have drawn a new generation of visitors.
Twenty years ago, most Turks would have looked at a prospective visitor to far-flung Kars with bemusement. Snow-blanketed in winter, with temperatures plummeting as low as -32C, the province of Kars is one of Turkey’s most impoverished. More than 1,100 miles east of the balmy, sophisticated Aegean coastal city of Izmir, it was a grim posting that young men conscripted into Turkey’s military dreaded. They probably still do, as Kars remains undeniably rough and ready in places, but for Turkey’s burgeoning middle class it has become a “must-see” destination.
Wandering down straight, Russian-laid streets, it’s easy to see why. Many of the attractive buildings lining the broad avenues are now stylish boutique hotels, atmospheric cafés or fine-dining restaurants. One restauAlthough rant is named after Pushkin, who visited friends here in 1828 during the Russian campaigns against Ottoman Turkey. Several shops are crammed with Russian-style fur hats and socks hand-knitted from brightly coloured wool, along with antique Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian rugs.
Even more ubiquitous are stores stacked floor to ceiling with local cheeses. Another legacy of Kars’s Russian occupation, the hard, yellow wheels of cow’s milk kasar are famous throughout a country much better known for soft, white sheep- and goatmilk cheeses. So synonymous is Kars with cheese that a fascinating (truthfully) museum dedicated to it opened here recently. Try it as part of a generous breakfast spread offered by several cafés in town, where you can also enjoy locally produced honey.
Between the former Russian quarter and the citadel is an older Kars. The Kumbet mosque was once the cathedral of the Armenian Bagratid kingdom, centred on Kars in the 10th century. Distinctively Armenian in style, it has a cruciform plan and a conical dome. Next to it is the beautifully restored Evliya mosque (1579), all domes and slender minarets. Down by the Kars river, coiling lazily at the foot of the citadel rock, are a pair of domed Ottoman bathhouses. The river, iced over at the time of my last visit, in January, is spanned by a substantial stone-built medieval bridge.
Kars remains undeniably rough and ready, but for Turkey’s middle class it has become a must-see destination
there’s little within its forbidding basalt walls, it’s worth trekking up the long ramp to Kars’s citadel for the impressive views over the town and surrounding countryside. In 1855, in one of the last acts of the Crimean War, General Fenwick Williams marshalled a heroic but unsuccessful defence against a superior Russian army from the citadel. Despite surrendering, Williams was made a Knight of the Bath and Freeman of the City of London for his fortitude.
In the early 1980s, British travel writer Philip Glazebrook made the town an unlikely ultimate destination in his classic Journey to Kars. Enchanted on his approach, he wrote: “The immense grazing plain which we soon entered by way of the mountains was a wonderful sight to come upon at that altitude. Green and tender as a watercolour, grass spread out soft and far under smoke-puff clouds and the shining blue sky. This is the plain of Kars.”
The scenery around Kars remains entrancing. Enjoy it on the 20-mile journey east to hauntingly beautiful Ani, a medieval “ghost” city, now a Unesco World Heritage site, right on the border with Armenia. Succeeding Kars as the capital of the Armenian Bagratid kingdom, in its 10th- to 12th-century heyday, Ani’s 100,000 population made it one of the world’s great medieval cities. Grown fat on trade along the silk route, its wealthy elite endowed it with palaces, bathhouses, bazaars and (reputedly) 1,001 churches. When I first visited Ani, in the early 1980s, parts of it were restricted, owing to its sensitive location on what was then the frontier between Nato member Turkey and the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Today, visitors can wander freely over the entire promontory, along which the ruins of the long-abandoned city straggle.
Monumental city walls march across the uplands, whilst the evocative remains of churches, such as Ani Cathedral, St Gregory and frescoadorned Tigran Honents, showcase the mastery of Armenian craftsmen. Recent excavations have laid bare a shop-lined street, and archaeologists have just uncovered an exquisite pair of gold earrings. Towards sunset, the basalt remains glow a rich orange in the last rays, and shadows creep into the fissures and rubble mounds.
There’s much else to explore in the vicinity. Hiring a car, I visited remote villages where semi-subterranean houses, guarded by fierce sheepdogs and dotted with pyramidal stacks of dung cakes (still the major source of heating in these largely treeless uplands), cluster around the remains of medieval Armenian churches now used as barns. Near Digor, an hour’s drive south-east of Kars, I strolled along a beautiful gorge to the remnants of Khtskonk, an Armenian monastic church spectacularly perched on a rocky spur. A drive of similar length north-east took me to Lake Cildir, where I walked on its vast, frozen surface before continuing to medieval Seytan Kalesi (Devil’s Castle), close to the frontier with Georgia and with a commanding view over a plunging gorge from its clifftop eyrie. On my final day, I took the Eastern Express train a short hop west to Sarikamis, where in the First World War some 100,000 Ottoman troops perished fighting the Russians. Today, it’s known for its pine trees, ski resort and crumbling wooden hunting lodge built at the behest of Tsar Nicholas II.
Kars and its environs, whether reached by train from Ankara, Doctor Zhivago-style in the depths of winter, or by a two-hour flight from Istanbul in early summer, when myriad wildflowers carpet the grassy steppe under Glazebrook’s “shining blue” skies, is one of Turkey’s most alluring destinations. Go there before the steady flow of visitors becomes a deluge.