Of Hordes, Fords, and Borders

Posted on June 14, 2012 by

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We had a few days off of school for Easter. I took that time to travel, but I didn’t go too far. My Easter vacation was spent in a space between Europe and Asia, between the Muslim and Christian world, between modern and ancient. It is a place where Turkish çay is sipped in the shadows of crumbling 11th century Georgian churches. A place where an ancient Armenian metropolis now lies dormant on the steppe just as the Mongol horde left it seven centuries ago. A place shaped by the movements of the Georgians, Armenians, Turks, Mongols, Russians, and Persians. Though this place has names like “the Georgian Valleys,” and some of the locals speak the Kartvelian language Laz, a Turkish visa is required to visit it.

The story begins with four TLG volunteers in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, Turkey. After some signatures and niceties at a Budget Rental Car office, we added an unsuspecting Ford Fusion to our number. We knew very little of one anothers’ histories or trajectories; all we really knew was that a roadtrip in Eastern Turkey appealed to all of us as a worthy way to spend Easter vacation. We left the rental car office cautiously. What had we gotten ourselves into? We had no itinerary mapped out, we were uninitiated in Turkish road etiquette, and only one of us could count to ten in Turkish. Our Lonely Planet guidebook even seemed tentative about travel in Northeastern Turkey. Nevertheless, we put the Black Sea to our backs and turned southeast off of the coastal highway and into the untrammeled Kaçkar Mountains.

We stopped to toss a message in a bottle into the Black Sea

The area comprising today’s Northeastern Turkey is remote, sparsely-populated, and largely undiscovered by tourists. The scenery ranges from craggy low mountains to snowy alpine passes. There are quaint villages framed by murmuring rivers, apple trees, and sky-bound minarets. Goats and cows are more likely to be on the highway than other motor vehicles. Though this area is currently recognized as Turkey, in centuries past it was claimed by the Georgians, Armenians, and Persians, razed by the Mongols, and colonized by the Russians and Ottomans. For TLG volunteers, Northeastern Turkey is a fantastic place to better understand Georgia’s story.

Traffic on the road from Artvin to Ardahan

A traveler’s map of Northeastern Turkey shows few roads and cities. There is, however, a generous smattering of crucifix-shaped dots. These dots mark the location of centuries-old Georgian and Armenian churches. As any traveler to Georgia or Armenia can confirm, the early Christians of the Caucasus had a knack for planting their churches on the most precarious and breathtaking real estate. Some could argue that this was done to glorify God or to conceal cultural treasures from marauding enemies. A more plausible argument is this: it was done to create epic scavenger hunts for curious and athletic 21st-century travelers. Indeed, every day of our trip was spent tromping through pastures, villages, gorges, and mountains in search of these little dots. Our missions afforded us the opportunities to meet many generous locals, enjoy breathtaking views, and admire the handiwork of 9th-12th century Georgians and Armenians. For free.

Our scavenger hunts for old Georgian churches took us to great heights, indeed.

The view from the 10th century Georgian church of Hamamlı.

The 11th-century Armenian church of Beşkilise was perhaps the most rewarding scavenger hunt of the trip. Our guidebook gave us the following advice: “Access is hard to find: …it’s about 600m before a dirt track leading to white pumice quarry. From the main road, you’ll have to walk across pastures to find the entrance to a gorge. Follow the valley upstream staying on a vague path on the hillside midway between the valley floor and the clifftop above. After about thirty minutes, the church appears like a mirage.”

We found the benefit of traveling with a personal vehicle is that is that we could choose our own adventure. We stopped to climb in caves, sample local delicacies, explore muddy villages, and even to pick up (very bewildered) local hitchhikers. The highway was our personal tour guide. It advertised the inviting nature and led us through canyons. It carried us across the base of Mount Ararat and it always delivered us safely to our next cup of çay. Cities were for sleeping, gathering provisions, and reminding ourselves that we were indeed in Turkey, not time-traveling in a historical Caucasian wonderland. We tasted tasty food, did some light shopping, and even got our beards shaved in by a traditional Turkish barber—well, one of the boys did, at least—in the cities of Artvin, Yusufeli, Kars, Doğubayazit, and Erzurum.

If there’s caves on the side of the road, why not climb in?

The car took diesel, but we took kebap.

A friendly hitchhiker invited us to çay in his hometown of Tuzluca, near the Armenian border.

You can lead a horse to water, but they’ll probably just jump in.

The Georgians of yesteryear sure knew how to perch their fortresses.

Inside the 10th-century Georgian cathedral of Öşkvank.

The highway hugged the base of Mount Ararat (5137m) en route to the Kurdish city of Doğubayazit.

Overlooking the city of Doğubayazit and straddling the Iranian border, the İshak Paşa Palace was built in 1685 by a Kurdish chieftain.

Chris’s lumberjack beard goes “nakhvamdis” at the hands of a Turkish barber in Erzurum.

Lake Tortum, on the highway between Erzurum and Yusufeli.

The chilly, conservative Ottoman city of Erzurum.

During the entire week, we needed to pay for only one tourist attraction: the ruins of Ani. Before it was razed by the Mongols in the early 14th century, Ani was the capital city of the kingdom of Armenia and home to more than 100,000 peasants, merchants, clergy, and weary Silk Road travelers. Following the Mongol invasion, Ani was abandoned and the Armenian kingdom contracted eastwards. A visitor to today’s Ani feels totally isolated. There is nothing but flat panes of grassland interrupted by a dramatic river gorge. The majority of the site comprises piles of rubble and stones. Rising out of the grass and rubble are the remains of a few Armenian churches, a cathedral, a Georgian church, a fortress, and a mosque. We visited Ani on a windy day. Dark clouds hovered low over the steppe and the wind was merciless. We shared the city with just two other tourists.

Perhaps the most startling structure in Ani is the remains of the circular Armenian Church of the Redeemer, finished in 1034.  Only half of the church now remains after it was bisected by a bolt of lightning in 1957.

Surviving frescoes in the dome of  Ani’s Church of St Gregory (1215).

Looking out over the steppe from Ani.

An adventure is as much defined by the location as it is by the travelers themselves. We all came from totally different places and we’re all orbiting in diverging directions. Between the four of us, we had a lumberjack, a philosopher, a Romantic, and a historian-cum-leader.  We shared four wheels to travel but we were all taken somewhere different. While Chris admired the perfect terracing of the farmland, Leslie’s eyes twinkled from the poetic scenery splashing by, Kiyoshi took thoughtful drags from his cigarettes, and I imagined the wrathful Mongol horde thundering westward over the steppe. Our singularities made the conversation more honest and rich.  How beautiful it was for our lives to converge for one week on the highways of Northeastern Turkey!

The Georgians, Armenians, and Turks might lay claim this piece of land or that today, but their histories are more intertwined than maps suggest. Today’s political boundaries tell so little of the story. The crumbling churches and fortresses that adorn the landscape of Northeastern Turkey tell a story of  growth and decay, of dramatic beginnings and endings, and of continuity despite it all. The story told by Northeastern Turkey makes the story of Georgia richer.

We returned to the rental car office in Trabzon obediently (regretfully) after seven days. While we looked invigorated, the car was a mess. We turned more than 2000km on the odometer—much to the chagrin of the Budget Rental car staff. The exterior was caked with mud and luckless insects. We were sad to leave our stout, diesel-consuming friend.  After a few more signatures and niceties in the rental car office, we were rambling northbound along the Black Sea coast again. This time, however, we did not turn southeast into the Georgian Valleys. Rather, we went straight on to the Georgian border—whatever that means, hey?

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