Kars is a city in North-Eastern Turkey, skirting the border with Armenia. It is the site of Orhan Pamuk’s book Snow, though after torturing myself with both Istanbul and My Name is Red only to abandon both works entirely (certifying forever the pretentiousness of literary critics everywhere) I have yet to read what I am certain is a
thrilling interesting read.
When I told friends and colleagues of my plans to head out East, they responded with a mix of curiosity and disgust. Why would you voluntarily go to Kars? There is a great divide between Western Turks and Eastern Turks, with this again divided into city and village Turks. Out East, they’re not like us. They’re backwards people. Out in the villages, they’re not like us, they’re backwards people. It seems everyone needs someone to feel superior to. And, being American, I’m all too familiar with this notion of being a real citizen.
I live in a part of Turkey that was “exchanged” (read: bloodily and savagely ripped) from one country to another for thousands of years. Where Thrace once housed Greeks, Jews, Bulgarians, and countless others, it is now home to Turks. The East had a similarly vicious history that I was excited to explore. Where once home to Armenians, Circassians, Laz, Kurd and Turk, today it has made great strides towards ethnic homogeneity.
People out West where I live constantly warn me that people from the East are crazy, they aren’t real Turks. They’re backwards, like the Iraqis or the crazy Saudis, they make their women cover, they don’t have proper schools. People out East liken Westerners to the heathens of Europe, they’re materialistic and snooty. (Sound like the American North/South divide to anyone?)
The more I’m warned about a place in Turkey, the more excited I am to visit it. And, Kars was no exception. The ride had been an adventure. Even before leaving Istanbul, I had encountered a little of the local culture. A pushy multi-generational family of village people (literal ones, not the YMCA guys) had caught my attention in Ankara when entering the plane when they were
- Gaping at me openly, saying yabanci (foreigner) over and over (its an international airport guys, get over it)
- Surprised that you needed photo ID (really? really? you need photo ID to buy a cell phone)
- Carrying all their things in tarpaulin bags (sigh)
- Extremely concerned that they were entering the incorrect plane (no really there is a system in place for this)
The family consisted of two incredibly elderly men, one of whom resembled the chess-playing man in that Pixar short (especially after he dons the glasses):
With them was a thick, heavy set elderly woman, a cross middle-aged couple, their teenage daughter who seemed to have taken her style tips from Miley Cyrus, a grown daughter, a man who I assume is the husband of the elder daughter, and a screaming baby. Plus their baggage.
My Anglo-Saxon/Nordic coloring tends to set me out from the rest, and as we were shuttled to our plane, the elderly lady, clearly curious about my nationality, asked me for help with her ticket, then praised my glorious Turkish (I can pronounce 18A like a champ!) During this little interaction, they announced that those with seat numbers 1-15 enter from the front of the plane, and those with seats 16-30-something enter at the back. This announcement was only in Turkish, and I sat there basking in the glory of understanding my first-ever loudspeaker announcement.
Perhaps the family was too engrossed in keeping track of their tarpaulin bags or attempting to read the numbers on their tickets (do they have optometrists in Kars?) to hear said announcement. They all entered from the wrong end and spent the next 10 minutes running over other passengers who were attempting to situate themselves.
The family was seated only one row in front of me, and as they arrived, an attendant asked that they please put their baggage in the over head bin. The elderly man without the glasses reached up to check the sturdiness of the compartments. He began to explain to the flight attendant that he was worried the bags would fall out and things would be broken. The flight attendant looked at him for only a split second (God bless him and his patience) whereafter he reached up and calmly explained to the elderly man and his entire family that in fact, the overhead compartments close. Ahh, the elderly man said, this seems to be a safe place for our things.
They sat themselves down, got up, rearranged, sat down, passed the screaming baby back and forth, and grumbled when the attendant explained they must wear their seat belts. The other passengers watched this scene with equal amusement, though their sentiments seemed tinged with shame whereas I enjoyed this interplay of culture diversity.
Upon arrival in Kars, as we continued to barrel down the runway at the speed of a racecar, they unhooked their seatbelts and stood up to gather their things. The flight attendants, still dutifully strapped in, were helpless to stop them. By the time we began taxing to the arrival gate, they had their bags in hand and had lined up at the back exit door.
“Where do they think they’re going?” Quietly commented the woman seated next to me, clicking her tongue in disapproval. I love seeing the interaction of Turks from various backgrounds, the village and city folk have about as much as common as I do with pretty much any Turk. But, unlike in my “native” Tekirdağ, in Kars, its the village folk who win out in normalcy.
After arriving on the tarmac of the Kars airport, I relaxed in the dingy cafe of the departures gate while waiting for Hannah and Sasha to arrive from Ankara. Once they had arrived we made quick friends with a taxi driver who would take us to Ani for the better part of the afternoon (if you’re wondering, we got him to 30TL per person for a 3 1/2 hour trip total.)
I love visiting historical landmarks in Turkey, they’re one of the nation’s great gifts to the tourists of the world. Unfortunately, those sites which do not immediately demonstrate the glory of the Ottoman history, and the Turks in specific, tend to be less-well preserved.
Ani is an abandoned Armenian city that sits on a cliff right up against the Turkish-Armenian border. It once housed 100,000 people but today its been reduced to rubble save the handful of semi-standing structures. Its always interesting to see what Turks make of other culture’s historical places. These places are always lauded as part of the “Glory of Turkey” even while the Turks themselves reinforce the yabanci-ness of the site’s original residents.
The plaque at Ani’s entrance had some phenomenal statements/translations that illustrate this Turk-centric ideology.
First is this, lest anyone forget who the most important party in Ani’s history is…
In Ani even though the foreground of the Christian Management, Turk and Islamic Governments were the ones who had the city for the longest period.
And this garbled mess of English that tells of Ani’s importance, what it has to give to science I’m not sure…
Ani city today as being a Ruin Pace (Open Air Museum), which is now in lands of Turkish Republic Government, services to science and culture, and with the excavations and researches it’s secrets are coming to light day by day.
We traipsed through the rubble, narrowly avoiding the enormous magpies left by grazing cows. Though the site is a historical monument, local cows are allowed to graze here. Hannah, discovered this for us when she stepped smack in the middle of a giant magpie, her foot covered in green-brown goo.
After making our way back to Kars, we set off to find our friend who was joining us from his placement in Ağrı. He has not fared so well this year, and who can blame him after eight months of isolation in a city whose name literally means “pain.”
We weren’t sure what we would find, and we searched for the hotel he was napping in with more than a little trepidation. After ducking into a place called Bizim Hotel, we inquired of the staff as to whether an American man had stopped in. Yes, he said, he’s upstairs.
Up the stairs, huh? The “stairs” were built into a nearly vertical wall, and we used our hands and feet to climb them, much like a ladder. On the second floor, which was called the first but really located on the european third, the man knocked on a door. We heard some English inside, but when the door opened, it wasn’t him.
We said our hellos to a blond, germanic-looking man who looked at us groggily with confusion. As we stood there, the receptionist started to make his way downstairs. As Hannah and I tried to explain who we were to the germanic-man, Sasha caught the receptionist and explained that this was not our friend.
“Sorry” Hannah and I explained to the confused and bleary-eyed tourist, “We said we were looking for our friend, and they must have assumed it was you… you know, there aren’t many tourists here, and well… sorry… go back to sleep. Have a nice trip though!”
Sasha’s conversation was a little less successful. As we left the tourist in peace, the receptionist made his way back to the man’s door, “No, no, of course this is your friend” he told us.
“No, really, we don’t know him,” we countered.
His boss, who had heard the commotion, made his way upstairs. His employee explained that we were looking for an American man who had made a reservation for four. “Oh” the man said, as he crossed over to the tourist’s door, “He’s in here.”
“No!” We yelled as he was about to knock on the poor man’s door. “That’s not him!”
“Of course it is” he countered, “He’s foreign, just like you.”