15.12.2018 - 18.12.2018 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.
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.
Naturally, there are various mosques
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]