A Travellerspoint blog

By marshrutka to Kutaisi

semi-overcast 1 °C

My next destination is only vaguely on the rail map: I can get there by train, but it is awkward and slow. By road, it is about three hours. I have been on a couple of shared minivans - marshrutkas - but only for short distances but since there is no alternative, this is what I must do. These things tend to be Transit or Sprinter minivans, with a huge number of seats - 7 rows. Here's a Russian one, since I forgot to take any photos of mine.
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As I am heading to the bus station, I notice a couple of marshrutkas on the side of the road, bound for Tbilisi. Just pausing is enough for a driver to emerge to try to get me onboard: when he hears I am going to Kutaisi, he summons his mate, also bound for Tbilisi but via Kutaisi. There is a bit of confusion over the price: I am sure he is asking for 220 Lari, which is about $100, and so I remove my bag and start walking. This gets the attention of both drivers: they confer and say the fare is 10 Lari, even pull out the notes to show me. So, it seems I am off to Kutaisi for half the proper fare.

The land is quite similar to what I saw in Turkey, although a bit less rugged and scruffier. I can't take photos - the windows are clean enough to permit it. We stop periodically to drop off or pick up passengers. Although most towns have regular stopping points, all you have to do to catch a marshrutka is stand on the side of the road: since standing on the side of the road seems to be a favourite Georgian activity, we stop for lots of blokes who don't want rides. We do get there eventually, and I am let off near the railway station, on the main road to Tbilisi. I immediately regret my choice: I had heard that Kutaisi is nice, but this is not. All I see is a line of crappy looking shops, a McDonalds, a bus station with a horrible looking hotel above it, heaps of traffic and rain.

I have not booked anywhere to stay, so that's the first thing to do: there's a hotel which looks decent about a mile up the road. Booking it turns out to be a stroke of luck: I am pretty wet by the time I get there, but the fellow on reception looks after me - carrying my bag up, turning the heating on, finding me a hair dryer and getting me settled in nicely. I think the best thing for me to do is take a nap until the weather clears. Another stroke of luck: my walk in the rain has brought me to within a kilometre of the old town. Not that I know this - I set off in what I hope is the right direction for food. Everything is really quiet and I begin to wonder if the town has closed for the night, when I spot a pub in which I can get some dinner and a drink. There appears to be a band performing upstairs, but I am not really in the mood: instead, I carry on walking.

The centre of the old town is not very big, but at night, it is magical. Many of the buildings are in really good condition, and when lit properly, look amazing - to the point that I decide I will stay another night, but this time in a hotel in the centre. The city itself claims to be one of the oldest cities in the world, having been here 3,500 years or more. It was the capital of Armenia for a while, a thousand years ago, and the capital of the Kingdom of Georgia after that. The Georgian Parliament is here - even though Tbilisi is the capital - but I forgot to go look for it. With its long history, there are a number of ancient churches around - such as the Bagrat Cathedral which sits on a hill overlooking everything - but I only venture into one. Its interior surprises me, as there are no places to sit.
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Even the schools look amazing - this is the Kutaisi 3rd Public School, and a couple of the surrounding streets.
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The commitment to funding spaces for art is impressive. There's a big opera hall and a drama theatre (the Meskhishvili Theatre, in honour of an actor who was a big deal here at the end of the 19th century).
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I tried out two more forms of Georgian food here: the first is khinkali, a spiced meat in soup in a dumpling. The soup drained out too quickly, leaving me with a rather heavy dough. Apparently you don't eat the stalks - they are counted up by the staff so they know how much to charge. People have told me of more than 30 being eaten in a sitting! Not really for me, but I adored the cafe in which I ate them - Our Cafe.
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Ojakhuri is a much more palatable discovery - it is basically chunks of potato and meat (normally pork) roasted together with onions and peppers and lightly dusted with spices. Yum. This is a dish I repeat. Several times.
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Posted by NZBarry 12:36 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Batumi

all seasons in one day

There are several differences between Georgia and Turkey that become apparent pretty much immediately. The first is the absence of tea shops: sure, tea is still available, but not places where you get a small glass of tea for almost no money and linger. The only tea shops I see provide fancy teas. Second, it is much easier to get by when English is your only language. Third, there is more food variety - I suppose there were Chinese, Indian, Thai etc restaurants in Turkey, but I hardly saw them but here, they are all over the place. They are not necessarily authentic: I have some very interesting tacos, where the taco shell is almost a deep fried bread rather than what a Mexican might use. I loved them! Fourth - obviously, given the history, Russia is a whole lot more evident - I hear Russian all the time, signs are in Russian and there are facilities specifically provided for Russians. This is probably nowhere more the case than in Batumi, which is where Russians come to gamble. There is even an Intourist (the former Soviet travel agency that controlled foreign travel through Russia) Hotel - from most angles, one of the ugliest buildings I see in Batumi, but I quite like the entrance. I considered staying here, just out of curiosity, but opt for a more reliable hotel.
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I nearly didn't even stop in Batumi - the idea of a city catering to gamblers has no appeal, and while a lot of Georgians come here for the beach (it is on the Black Sea), I don't really do beaches myself and in any event it is the middle of winter. But I saw some pictures of the buildings here and had to come. My time is spent wandering the streets marvelling at what I see and eating. My first meal is in a restaurant serving traditional Georgian food - its walls are entirely made of timber, a bit like an old skool Lockwood house and the furniture is rough-hewn timber: they're obviously going for a rustic look. I break a personal rule and eat in an entirely empty restaurant and am happy with the result. I had read about ostri before leaving home, and it sounded real good - a spicy, tomato based, beef stew - so that's what I have, along with my first sampling of Georgian wine: they are very proud of it, as Georgia is one of the first places to make wine. Oddly, it is sold according to grape type, rather than winery: it does make life easier. I like the ostri so much that I plan to make some when I get home. Funnily enough, in the two weeks I spend in Georgia, I never see it on another menu.

Here are some random buildings and street scenes in Old Town Batumi that caught my eye as I wandered around
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There are various Armenian Apostolic Church buildings around. I am curious to see what they look like on the inside, so try to go into this one. When I find the door locked, I manage a photo through a glass panel in the door. The lady in the photo is not amused: she comes out and yells at me - basically telling me to fuck off in Armenian, although the only word I understand is private.
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There is a promenade along the beach which runs for several kilometres (I have 6 stuck in my head but have no proof), but even better, there is a garden-like park which runs between the promenade and the busy streets of Batumi. A French nobleman and gardener, Michael D'Alfons set this up in the 1880's - he is commemorated by a sculpture of him sitting in has garden, presented as a nice fellow.
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In the same area, there is a University, the Batumi Shota Rustaveli State University (named after a medieval poet) which has a Faculty of Exact Science, whatever that is, among others. Like several Universities I have encountered, there are security guards at the entrance, who are bemused by my wish to come in and look round but let me proceed. There is not much to see and I need not have bothered because there is no security on the other side.
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That last is the Batumi Art Teaching University I just like the building. My plan for my second night in town s to go to another Georgian restaurant, one which is very busy when I first see it but not so much the next time. The highly reputed Chinese restaurant is empty, so I give that one a miss as well. The crowd is across the road at a German beer restaurant, so that's what I have. My evening finishes with a gin in the bar on the 19th floor of the Radisson Blu hotel - it gives me some great views.
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I think the last is the lighthouse, but it looks like no other I have seen, and changes colours every few seconds. The night is clear so I go for another wander in the gardens. I really don't know what this building is about: when I look in the window, all I can see is a few bunches of fake flowers on pedestals, but the building is too small to be much of a function centre.
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The last building is a performance space for classical music: when passing earlier, some musicians were having a run through of a piece but there is no indication of when the public might go in and listen so I keep moving. One of the things that surprises me about Batumi is the mix of traditional buildings with the very modern, to create some odd juxtapositions, such as this McDonalds.
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Going back into antiquity for a moment, there is a statue of Medea in Europe Square, clutching what appears to be a golden fleece - the object of pursuit of Jason and the Argonauts. My understanding is that they were more in the west of Georgia, that the fleece might have been metaphorical and, in any event, it was never in Medea;s possession. Someone may well know better than me.
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I could easily stay longer, although I think I see most of what the city has to offer, so staying would be more about deepening my understanding of the local bar and food scene - no bad thing, but there is plenty more of the country to see.

Posted by NZBarry 12:15 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

Kars to Batumi

This was the one segment that I could not get all the details sorted for before I left: information I had found was very vague. I am including precise details at the end for anyone wanting to make this journey who stumbles across this post.

In Kars, I walk a bit out of town to buy my bus ticket to Hopa, just south of the Georgian border on the Black Sea. I change hotels to be closer to where I buy the ticket, as that's where they tell me to be. When I get there, I am picked up in a minivan and taken to the main Kars bus station, which is just down the street from my original hotel. I have been given seat #3 and I see on the driver's list there is no-one in #4 - so I have the front two seats to myself - the side windows of the bus are grimy but the windscreen at least is pretty good. Leaving town, we pass some sort of agricultural market - lots of little trucks overwhelmed by huge stacks of hay or sacks of whatever they grow around here, plus cattle. This fellow has either made a successful purchase or is a disappointed seller.
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The journey has three quite distinct phases. The first is the steady ascent out of Kars, so that the landscape is made entirely white with snow. There are a few villages strung along the road but no real sign of any ski activity - the slopes might not be sufficiently slopey for that sort of thing. There are times when the road itself is barely discernable, but the driver, a calm-looking man probably about my age, keeps up a steady pace of between 80 and 100 km/hr - even when the speed limit is clearly 50 - and every so often lights up a smoke.
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As in most parts of the world, when we get to a village or town, there is a sign to say so. It is a novelty for me to see that as we leave, they use the same sign, but with a read line through it, as if that place has been cancelled.

The second phase starts when we hit the crest - maybe 50 km out of Kars and up about 2,500 metres: suddenly the snow is gone, and we follow a steep-sided gorge - the river here is dammed three times, so gets to be quite significant, but I have not been able to find out its name.
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We stop for a lunch break - there is nothing except a service station and two ramshackle cafes - one evidently run by the bus company. I have no idea what they sell or how long we'll stop for, so just have some tea - the couple in the seats beside me have been kind enough to give me some simit - bread which comes in a 6 inch hoop, maybe half an inch diameter, and is often called Turkish pretzel. But then the food arrives for the people who did know what to do, and it looks and smells delicious - chunks of lamb cooked on an open fire in something like a pizza oven, a simple salad and flat bread. Hmm - missed a trick there. I go study the river.
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The third stage is where the contour of the land is simply too aggressive to allow the road to progress: there has been a massive investment in bridges and tunnels - I lost count of the tunnels at about 30, with the longest being 2 km. I do not see much point in photos of tunnels, so have little to show for this part of the trip - here's a bridge!
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It is 260 km, but we take around 6 hours, getting in to Hopa a bit after 4:00. THere is not much to be said about Hopa - it has the normal assortment of shops, although, curiously, the road provides a significant barrier between them and the Black Sea. I spend quite a long time going up the street and then back down past my hotel to the bus station. The internet had said the minivans don't go from the bus station, but from a hard to spot bus stop at an unspecified location - I think I'll ask at the station where that might be, but cannot make myself understood. It is dinner time, so I go for a pizza - it has to be the worst one ever, nothing about it is right. The staff are very nice, however, and I am dining in, so I can't really abandon it and gamely eat the whole thing. It really needs beer, but this is a Muslim establishment.

I get back to the hotel and notice a minivan parked at the door, with the words "Hopa" and "Sarp" on the windscreen, then a little stall basically making it clear that this is where the minivan to the border goes from. A fellow accosts me to find out what I am up to - despite everything I see, he says I must go to the bus station, and he comes into the hotel with me to talk to the fellow behind the desk: it is a con. I see him at the border the next day with his taxi. As with every place I have stayed, the hotel gives me breakfast but, unlike any other, this one gives me a sixth floor view of the Black Sea as I eat it.
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I then stroll out the front door, jump in the waiting minivan and it leaves immediately. Other people have said that at Sarp, there are many people taking a leisurely tea on the beach before leaving Turkey - but they must be people who get stuck in a queue somewhere. We enter a tunnel and then, bang, the border is right there - no beach-side tea shops to be seen. I do find a wee cafe by going the other way, and think I interrupt the staff's own meal by asking for tea, but I've decided I am not leaving Turkey without one last dose, because who knows what is on the other side!
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The fellow signing me out is very jovial - has a go at pronouncing my name and chats a bit before stamping me through. There is a makeshift corrugated steel passage way and another bang! and Georgia is in front of you.
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This officer is much more wary, questions me about my plans, insists I'll be staying for two weeks even though I show I don't leave for nearly a month, brings in a superior to have a confab - a bit nerve-wracking, but the superior doesn't see the problem and I'm in. There's even an ATM in the immigration hall. I catch another minivan and within about 40 minutes, I'm in my hotel swigging on Georgian beer.
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Details for travel Kars to Batumi

First step: Kars to Hopa. There is one bus a day, run by Yeşil Artvin, leaving at 10:30, cost is 80 lira. It leaves from Kars Köy Otobüsleri Terminalı (Yusufpaşa Mahallesi, Küçük Kazım Bey Cd. No:2), where the bus company has an office - the fare can be paid here by credit card. Dogu Kars is a local bus company which sells tickets (cash only) and will take you from their office to the bus station.
Second step: Hopa to Sarp (border town on Turkish side) - minivans leave from outside the Cihan Hotel, Sahil Cad. No:74 Hopa. There is no schedule, just as they fill, but they run into the night so there is no need to stay in Hopa. I did spot a ramshackle bus in Hope bus station with Sarp as its destination.
I have no idea how long it might take to get through: I had no waiting at all, but this was mid-December.
Sarpi to Batumi - there is a bunch of taxis, a minivan service and an actual city bus service into Batumi - but this seemed to require a card, and I did not see anywhere to get one, just a top up machine at the bus stop.

Posted by NZBarry 13:18 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Kars

1 °C

Kars is a fairly small city, around 75,000 people, in the far East of Turkey - just over 40 km from the border with Armenia but, thanks to the political tensions here, to get to that place just across the border in Armenia (Kharkov) involves a 260 km detour through Georgia. The train trip here is the last thing I have booked in advance, so from now I can move as slowly or quickly as I want.

I once knew quite a bit about Kars, thanks to reading Orhan Pamuk's novel set there, called Snow. The only two memories retained from the novel are of its sloping streets and, yes, snow - the name Kars is a reference to snow. A Guardian reviewer of the book had this to say about the city:

a remote and dilapidated city in eastern Anatolia famed less for its mournful relics of Armenian civilisation and Russian imperial rule than for its spectacularly awful weather

He does not mention the great cheese and honey made here or their tendency to eat geese. Ever the contrarian, I really enjoy my stay in Kars, to the point that I extend it by a day. Sure, there's not much to the town - it is centred on a few streets, with no fancy features. In fact the most notable buildings are notable for their lack of warmth - cold, grey stone buildings are scattered all round the place. Almost all are no more than two stories high - this was the Russians' doing, to give the sun a chance to thaw out the streets. I thought I had a number of photos but there are just a couple, both in the same street as my hotel.
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There are a few other buildings that catch my eye as I walk around - this Police Station seemed to have a lock-up affixed to its outside, but after watching for a while it turns out to be a sentry-box from which a Policeman watches us.
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Naturally, there are various mosques
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There is a University - Kafkas - and I take the 3 km walk out of town to have a look at it: it is sort of impressive in that it looks very new and shiny, but does not make for a great photo or even provide an inviting space to walk around. Instead, I cross the road and have a tea with a ridiculously decadent chocolate concoction - sorry, it looks so great I eat it without making any record of it. Of course, the major tourist attraction is Kars Castle (or Citadel) which is right behind my hotel.
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As I go in, there are a couple of guys in what look like soldier uniforms - I prepare to edge past them but notice that they are just taking selfies. A bit later, they're asking a couple of girls to take their photos.
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The exterior walls of the castle remain but much is missing. I am quite surprised to ascend to its highest point to find there are no barriers or warnings of any sort. Despite the cold, I like hanging out up here - it provides a great vantage over the town and to the north and, when it does get a bit chilly, there's a tea shop to escape to. I am not sure whether it is intentional, but it strikes me as particularly appropriate that Queen is playing from a music kiosk in the castle.
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Returning to ground level, there is a historic stone bridge, first built in the 1500's and then rebuilt in 1715 when it was taken out by a flood. There are several baths (hamami) nearby - no doubt they take the water from the river: there is no sign of life in any of them.
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I have no idea what's going on in the last photo when I take it but subsequent research shows that they are the busts of troubadours ("Aşık") - there is a strong local tradition of singers. Apparently, there was another batch of busts of them somewhere else in the city (as well as a monument to Humanity) but in December 2012, they came under attack from unknown assailants and had to be removed.

I don't know if these cabinets are refrigerated or they just rely on the natural coldness of the weather (certainly, when I have beer and juice to chill, I just put it out the window), but it is common to see glass cabinets like this one all round town.
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By far my favourite place in Kars is Craft Coffee No 74 - as their Instagram feed shows, it is where all the fashionable and best looking people of Kars go. I go in twice for coffee, spending quite a bit of time there, and go again for dinner. The space is very interesting and, while the coffee is not the greatest, they give two cookies with each tea. Plus there are seats on swings! It is even claimed to be open 24 hours, so I could have gone there when I got in so late. The cafe is normally pretty busy, but by going in strategically, I am able to get some good photos without disturbing other people . The staff are outstanding - there is one waitress who serves me several time. The last time I am here, I work out she is talking about me with a couple of her mates: as I leave, she has them take a photo of us. I have to get one too:sadly, it does not do justice to her vivacity or beauty.
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On my last day, I get a bit lost, trying to find the place to buy my bus ticket. I walk a fair way out of town, with the bus company office showing up on google maps, but not in reality when I get there. Instead, there's a food place, with a photo of a brilliant looking meal - vibrant peppers, luscious chicken, startlingly green beans and the like. I go in and point at the picture, but a lot gets lost in translation - the only commonality is that the dish has chicken, but it is a kind of stew with rice. Very tasty, and in fact very similar to something I used to eat when I lived in Auckland, just not what I expect. There are three older gents, all at their separate tables, having quite a heated conversation (it seems to be the Turkish way - they raise their voices, speak really aggressively, to the point that in other cultures I'd be expecting a fistfight but here, they smile and hug or pat each others' shoulder). They try to include me in the conversation but even when I can translate New Zealand to Turkish, they don;t seem to know where it is.

My last meal is just as random: I'd seen a restaurant up on the 6th floor of a building, so thought I'd eat there to take in the view. The place turns out to be more of a club, with a couple of troubadours singing away, and very dark. They do have food, but the menu is in Turkish only - I just choose something they have said is chicken: again, tasty, but I really do not know what it is.

As for the weather, I have to say it is not that bad - some snow did fall while I was there, and it rained a bit, but the sun came out and the temperature does not go much below zero. [Writing this a couple of weeks later, the temperature is -17.]
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Posted by NZBarry 12:59 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Ankara to Kars - the Doğu Ekspresi

snow -2 °C

Ever since I saw someone post a video of their trip on this train, the Doğu Ekspresi (or Eastern Express) on Youtube, I wanted to be on it. It runs for 1,300 kilometres from Ankara to Kars: spolier - it is not an express. It makes many stops (47 allegedly) and is not fast at the best of times. When I booked, it was scheduled to take almost exactly 24 hours (55 km/hr), but I think the schedule has been changed to make it more like 28 hours. Second spoiler: my trip takes 31 hours (42 km/hr).

Apparently, the ideal way is to get a sleeper, but there are not very many of them and they get block booked by tour group operators. There are stories on the net of people sitting anxiously at their computers as the bookings open, and doing their best to score a bed. I decide to deal with the enemy, and get a travel agent which has something of a reputation for making the block bookings to get me a bed. I am somehow forgetful, however, and it turns out the bookings are well and truly open by the time I get them onboard - they report there is nothing doing. No matter - there are plenty of seats and they are dirt cheap - $13! - so I just make my own booking. The travel agent, wanting to earn its pound of flesh, then proudly announce they have bought me two seats on the train - not side by side so I can kind of lie down, no, they're much smarter than that - two opposing seats so I can put my luggage on one. No matter that there is a perfectly good luggage rack or that the seat is right beside the very noisy door. The seat I organised for myself is much nicer, and even had a working electricity outlet to keep my phone charged.

For some reason, Turkish rail are a bit coy about letting us see the loco in Ankara station and it is not until we make a stop next morning that I get a proper look at how long this train is - I am in about the middle.large_IMG_0128.JPGlarge_IMG_0129.JPGlarge_IMG_0142.JPGlarge_IMG_0143.JPGlarge_IMG_0141.JPG

Here's the obligatory shot of the front of the train as it rounds a corner.
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The train leaves on time to the minute, and I can see Ankara pass by, although of course it is already dark. By about midnight, I am feeling really pleased about this trip - there is something magical about a slow train making its way through the night, the turns it makes, the wonder at what is passing by without me knowing and the wonder at what will be revealed in the morning. I make a couple of trips to the dining car, for tea, for a change of scene, to read, even to get the laptop out and to write. At one point, a young face looks over my laptop to ask where I am from: he is part of a group of seven University students from Istanbul, trainee pilots, on the way to Kars for a holiday. Surprisingly, there are three Universities in Istanbul which train pilots: I do not think to ask which one they attend. They are a very good-humoured group, but English is difficult for them so we do not spend the night talking.

Instead, I have a very good sleep, and awake to find that nothing is happening: the train is stopped in a very small village. Nothing happens for about three hours: I do not know this, so when I go into the shop, and the shopkeeper gestures that I should sit by his fire and drink tea, I think that I must return to the train. Eventually, we move on and I can get a good look at this part of the world.
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For quite some time, we follow a small river through what becomes quite a steep-sided gorge.
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I am intrigued by that last photo - the narrow road carved out of the rock: when was it last used? How far does it go? It is evident that it is not in use, as there are sections where the cliff has collapsed, but it looks like it would have been a hair-raising journey for those who did use it.

Along the tracks, there are various stations and the occasional town to be seen.
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I occupy myself with the occasional doze, a wander through the train to see who is using my other seats or back to the cafe car for tea, keeping a watchful eye on the word outside or reading - Elif Batumen's The Idiot when there's light or Mick Herron's Slow Horses (on my tablet) when there's not. It is a great journey to take so when six p.m. rolls around and it is clear we are nowhere near Kars, I am not concerned. By about ten, however, I start to wonder what I am going to eat. I bought a foot long wafer biscuit thing at the store when we were stopped., but it is long gone The cafe car closed - at least I had the feeling we were all ushered out so they could do so - but then I see the group of trainee pilots go in, so I follow. Ah - success! A nice plate of kofte, rice, cucumber and succulent tomatoes.

The last hour is actually a lot of fun: there is a family with three young boys in my carriage - the boys get adopted by the trainee pilots, and they play all sorts of games and there's lots of chat going on - I don't understand any of it, but enjoy watching.

Finally, a bit after 1:00, we pull into Kars station - there are a couple of musicians there putting on a bit of a performance and the normal range of taxis and the like looking for people to collect, despite the hour. I have the direction to my hotel all mapped out on my phone, so walk it. It is a little eerie, being so late and so cold - not a sign of life apart from a couple of blokes wandering the street and a dog scavenging in a rubbish skip. Certainly no shops open to give me a warming tea or a lamb kebab. Even my hotel is deserted and all locked up when I get there, despite the promise of 24 hour check in. This is a little disconcerting - I wander back and forth a little, perhaps utter a slightly wrathful word or two, certainly a wrathful rap on the door with the only metallic object I have - my cellphone. It survives, luckily, and there is a sudden movement within.
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Posted by NZBarry 14:00 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

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