Kars is set in a perpetually moving sea of dry grass. The flat, wind blown plains around the town provide the agricultural means to support the farming villages scattered around its outskirts. The scenery in this district is breathtaking, an endless vista of lofty mountains and fertile valleys surrounds Kars from every direction and when night falls suddenly on the high mountain peaks, the world becomes an impenetrable black, studded by stars so bright they appear to be close enough to reach out and touch.
It is here, in this eastern region, that the first camouflaged and sandbagged military checkpoints and identity controls have all traffic on the road stopped and heavily armed soldiers and police ask interminable questions about who is going where and why. Tourists in the area are expected to show their passports and explain why they are there. The soldiers and police I met on my travels were a friendly bunch, just as intrigued as the villagers about foreign travelers and happy to have an opportunity to practice their English and inquire about the latest happenings in Istanbul. They are amused to hear that tourists consider the region interesting and beautiful as each one of them can count exactly how many days he has left in this remote outpost until he can go home. Travelers are usually told to be careful and sent on their way with a wave and a friendly smile.
Kars sits sleepily in the center of the breezy plains at an altitude of 1750 m. This little eastern province once played an important role in Turkish history, being right in the center of the Russo-Turkish war in 1877-78. Kars was ceded to Russia by the defeated Ottoman Army at the conclusion of the war and returned to Turkey by a treaty signed at Brest-Litovsk in 1918. Although the Russians constructed many buildings and the wide avenues, really not all that much has changed within the last 1000 years.
The 10th Century Church of the Apostles, now the Havariler Museum, has a fine display of colorful bas-reliefs including the twelve apostles, posing in cramped and awkwardly artificial positions, in the exterior drum of the dome. Kars is also renowned for its production of distinctive hand-made woolen carpets and intricately designed hand-woven kilims in rich colors and warm tones with traditional motifs made with coarse, thick wool produced in the pastures around Kars.
A visit to Ani, 45 km east of Kars on the Armenian border, is the main reason for coming here and well worth the time consuming procedure of filling in the application for approval to visit forms and having them stamped by the various authorities -all in different parts of town- the day before the scenic ride out to the medieval ruins. It's best to start out early in the morning, after a delicious breakfast of unique Kars honey and excellent locally made cheddar type cheese.
The ancient citadel of Ani is situated on the barren plains above the Arpašay Valley which separates Turkey and Armenia. The site is surrounded by an imposing fortified city wall, currently undergoing intensive restoration. This one time prominent city used to house over 100.000 citizens in it's hey-day. Once an important station on the ancient Silk Road, serving as a trading post and caravanseray for merchants travelling with heavily laden camels between east and west, it is now a ruined ghost town. Ani quickly fell to the Mongols in the 13th century who left the city ransacked in turbulent disarray, then Tamerlane rampaged through and mercilessly destroyed what was left. When the trade routes moved further south, the once bustling metropolis lost its revenue from trade and soon the entire province died. It was again destroyed by earthquakes in the 14th century. What remains now are several Armenian built churches, a ruined Seljuk palace, a couple of mosques and caravanserays and a cathedral. The colorful frescoes and paintings in the churches are still in fine condition although time has left its mark as well.
Stepping back into the turbulent history of unspoiled Eastern Turkey is a refreshing change from the well-worn tourist track. Exploring in the remotest corners of this timeless land, a quest not for the faint-hearted, priceless treasures can be enjoyed at leisure and unforgettable memories retained for a life-time. A truly voracious adventurer can create his own footprints through the ages.