Kars and Ani, 11-16th October, 2012
“What’s your name?” the children ask. “Jo”, I tell them. They don’t ask where I’m from here, they don’t ask for money like the throngs that followed us on the streets of Diyarbakır, they only smile shyly. I meet Can and Ece and others whose names I don’t quite catch. “Where are you going?” asks a young girl in a brown headscarf. “I don’t know”, I tell her in Turkish, “I’m walking – maybe to the castle…” I point up to the castle which looms over the old city. She reels off directions to me in Turkish – “and from there it’s close” she finishes, beaming.
A man in a flat-cap sits on a bench, touches his heart lightly with his right hand as I bid him hello. Later, another man in a similar cap stops me as I’m walking past, digs into his plastic bag and presents me with two small green tangerines and a hard persimmon. I touch my hand to my heart in thank you and he smiles at me with clear eyes.
I’m shy about taking pictures when people can see me. I know they won’t understand how I think their neighborhood is beautiful. In the old part of the city, shards of straw scatter over rolling cobbled streets; colourful carpets and clothes-lines dangle from windows. Ducks and chickens squabble over scraps in the dust among ramshackle houses at the foot of the castle. Not many foreigners venture here.
At the top of Kars Citadel, I sit with a çay and my last small green tangerine. My eyes drink the view. Where city edges fray into fields, the plateau continues until mountains rise in the distance. Behind me, the sun strikes the red of the Turkish flag atop the castle.
I like this city a lot, maybe partly because of our host. Halil has to be in my top ten Couchsurfing hosts of all time. We share Turkish, Kurdish and Iranian music; beer; stories and ideas.
Not far from Kars, right on the bank of the river that scores a line between Turkey and Armenia, lies the ancient Armenian city of Ani. It is a source of some heartache to the Armenian people that this city lies on the Turkish, not the Armenian side of the river. As though the Turkish state denying them Mount Ararat wasn’t enough.
Halil has already visited Ani thirteen times with previous Couchsurfing hosts, but he offers to drive us out there and see it again. “Maybe you’ll see something different this time?” I offer – “something you never noticed before?” “Hmm”, says Halil.
We spy Ararat from the road, already coated in snow. I wonder how long it will be until the white blanket extends all the way to Kars and buries its streets – the old Armenian church up to her knees in frost. The word Kar in Turkish means snow, also the title of the Orhan Pamuk novel* set in this city. It’s the book I’m reading now, one of the coincidences that drew me here.
We arrive at Ani. Halil knows the guard and persuades him to give us a cheaper price. We wander around the crumbling ruins of Ani.
Halil takes me down to the Convent of the Virgins, in a nook of the river. On the way back up I spy a deep cave carved into the rock. “What’s in there?” I ask. “Ohhh!” Halil jumps down and makes his way inside the cave. It’s not too deep, but is large enough to stand in. “See, told you you’d see something new this time!”
We scrabble up the bank with what little breath we can find and I realise we’re at a higher altitude than I’m used to. We sit on the bank to catch our breath while Halil smokes a cigarette and watch three men climb out of a car in Armenia on the other side of the ravine. The men stare out at the history of their people, unable to touch it. One of them waves at us. “See you in Armenia!” I shout, but they can’t hear me.
Three weeks later when I arrive in Armenia, I will discover there is an Ani look-out place sign-posted, which must be where we saw the men. Throughout the country, almost every postcard pictures Ani or Ararat, the mountain that sits within the borders of Turkey, yet looms over the Armenian capital of Yerevan. A history just out of their clutches, yet never let go.
For Emeé’s take on these adventures (with better pictures!) see: http://ici-ailleurs.eu/ani-and-kars/
*Unfortunately Snow turns out to be a thoroughly drab read. Get a look at the one star reviews on Amazon and you will get the idea.