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A Journey to Ani

A roadtrip into the ancient lands of Eastern Turkey, once the center of historic Armenia.

The sunrise peered over the horizon, first illuminating the Caucasus until sweeping wide over the Anatolian steppe directly to the west of us. This is the morning where we will enter into Turkey and pass through both fertile, barren, jeweled lands, tracing history back to the start of mankind. From Eden to Abraham, Alexander the Great to the Apostle Paul, the Romans to the Ottomans and Mount Ararat  to the Mediterranean, a journey through Anatolia is a journey through history. And a journey we are just about to begin...

Before dawn, our alarm rang early. Outside our small guesthouse, a taxi waited. We threw our few belongings in our backpacks and made our way out the door, but not before the old lady of the guesthouse bid us farewell, gave generous hugs, and loaded us with fresh fruits. Our meander through Caucasus Georgia has come to an end; Turkey awaits to the west. After we loaded into the soviet-era vehicle converted taxi, the driver maneuvered his way through the cobblestone streets of Akhaltsikhe, past Rabati Castle, and onto the little-trafficked highway to the Vale-Posof border.

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Thirty minutes and 18 kilometers later, the taxi driver dropped us off at the Georgian-Turkish border, the least-trafficked of several border crossings shared between the nations. As we walked to the Georgian departure kiosk, we found ourselves the only ones at the crossing. Two men glanced at our passports, stamped departure dates, and directed us to the Turkish side. Only a few small buildings consisted of this checkpoint, and we couldn’t find anyone to legally let us in. We peered into the first couple buildings to find them empty until locating two officers who seemed quite delighted at our coming. Cheerfully, they glanced at our passports and printed-out visas, which we’ve been carrying for months, then motioned to inspect our bags. These backpacks, although not large, were completely stuffed to the brim. Once they opened the front lid of my bag and finding it impossible to see what’s inside unless they disperse the contents completely, they made the quick and trusting decision that our bags were ok. As we zipped them up, they directed us to officially enter Turkey.

We happily threw our backpacks on and started walking into Turkey. Before we could take a few steps, one of the officers spoke in broken English on how we were to reach Posof, the nearest small town, 15 kilometers away. We shrugged, realizing it was a great question and seeing there has not been a vehicle that crossed the checkpoint since we’ve arrived. The officer made a hand motion for us to hitchhike (this vehicle-less highway it seems, nonetheless). I noticed on my map there is a small village by the name of Turkgozu less than a kilometer down the road. I logically concluded we could walk there, find an option to transport us to a larger town, repeat the process to a larger town, and so on.

We casually walked a few hundred meters down the road when we encountered an old man eating his breakfast outside on his white car. Before we could even wave to him, this man excitedly invited us over. He quickly spread out a cloth over the trunk of his car and laid out breads and cheeses to share with us. We greeted him, being very thankful for his kind gesture of hospitality. We shared some of our fresh fruits we had packed away and enjoyed this serendipitous meal with a new friend. He asked of our whereabouts, which we responded Posof, the nearest "large" town 16 kilometers away. As quickly as he pulled out the meal for us, he packed it away and began cleaning out the back of his car to take us there himself.

As this scene was commencing, we notice off in the distance a white van, the first vehicle crossing the border since we arrived. The vehicle approached nearer to us until stopping beside us, with the driver motioning us to hop in. A mixture of confusion and gratitude engulfed us until we glanced at the checkpoint to see the border officer happily waving to us, signaling us to step in the vehicle. 

And here this brings us, two foreigners in an ancient land, succumbing to the generosity and hospitality of three complete strangers all going beyond necessary to help us. And all this before the mornings bright rays have fully engulfed the Anatolian Steppe. The journey of our Anatolian passage begins...

We climbed into the beat-up white van to find three middle-aged Turkish men all making turns greeting us. As is the theme so far, hand-gestures and the simplest English words were in use to communicate. Luckily, they knew immediately where we wanted to go ~ the nearest town of Posof. Asking why we wanted to head there, we tried explaining it was a jump-off point to get to Kars, an ancient Silk Road city. They probably didn't understand us, but they understood Kars and exclaimed that is their destination. They even offered to drive us there, a 155 kilometer journey.

For most of the journey, the men were engaged in a lively conversation amongst themselves, occasionally glancing back at us to see if we were ok. The road wound through fertile plains and highlands, filled abundantly with sheep and cattle. Small settlements dotted the countryside and streams of fresh water flowed through the valleys. It was a beautiful journey of stark simplicity.  Not long into the road trip, the driver took an unexpected left turn up a narrow road and into one of the few countryside settlements of this region. Back and forth, they drove through its brief, single street until stopping by in front of an unassuming house. All three men clambered out of the vehicle, encouraging us to do the same. Together we walked into the small house and one of the men ordered five teas with an endless supply of sugar cubes. We found out very quickly that tea is such an integral part of Turkish culture, so much so they veered off into an unknown village for the sake of sipping this hot drink. The five of us sat around a small table, enjoying the hot drink in the cool, high altitude morning. Once the second round of refills were depleted, the journey toward Kars continued.

The windy road led us through more valleys and gentle hills, reminiscent of a meander through Eastern Tibet and its abundant supply of cattle far outnumbering people. This was a seldom visited part of Turkey, one so far away from the image of the metropolitan Istanbul or the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. However, this is our first impression of the country, and first impressions are lasting impressions. The stereotypes that may have formed about Turkey over the years were vanished instantly when the helpful border guards, residents and the men in this vehicle (we still don’t know where they came from nor where they are headed) displayed welcoming hospitality to the nation they call home. 

Kars has a population approaching 100,000 people, easily the largest city along the Armenian border of Turkey. The city rests atop a plateau, 5,740 feet in elevation. Over a thousand years ago, Kars was the center and capitol of an Armenian principality until conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century. The following years, Kars traded hands through the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and currently Turkey. For hundreds of years, Kars was a crucial crossroads of Europe and Asia, west and east; today, it is seldom visited or even heard of outside of Turkey.

When we arrived by van into the city, the kind men asked where we would like to be dropped off. We had our sights on visiting an ancient, nearly lost, city on the outskirts of Kars - Ani is the name. They did not know of Ani or how to arrive there, so they made several stops asking passerby’s how to find transport to Ani. This led to a dizzying tour of central Kars, stopping by the main bus station, then smaller ones, until finally dropping us off in front of a tea and dessert shop. Apparently, Kars residents informed us a shuttle bus departs from this restaurant twice daily. We thanked these three men immensely for greatly helping us; it is a wild thought to think where we would be now if these men had not stopped to pick us. As we bid farewell to these three strangers, we stepped into the dessert shop, anticipating news of a shuttle to Ani and a hearty bite of sweets.

An unassuming road led eastward from the center of Kars through sparsely populated  villages surrounded by cultivated fields. The road had an end of the world feel, commencing at a tiny village at the border of Armenia (a border that is strictly closed).  Just beyond this village lay an intact system of city walls, standing tall for a thousand years to the once thriving and highly prized city, now an archaeological site and UNESCO World Heritage Site, of Ani.

We set foot off the twice daily shuttle bus to the ruins, eager to explore this archaeological expanse of “a thousand and one churches,” as Ani was once known. The return shuttle departed two and a half hours later, leaving us quickly buying the entrance tickets at 8 lira and exploring the site as hurriedly, yet thoroughly as time allows. Our first impression is the barrenness of the plateau, with yellow grasses growing uninterrupted and several cattle roaming around. Not many visitors make their way out to this far corner of eastern Turkey, but the numbers are relative. A millennium ago, 100,000 residents lived side by side in this plateau, relishing as the capitol of Armenia and frequented by Silk Road merchants. However, as recently as the 19th century, this area had been forgotten and neglected and was seldom, if ever visited, by those other than local villagers or Kurdish bandits. Currently, the few thousand annual visitors setting foot and imagining life in this ancient city is a far cry from both its splendor in the 11th century and its demise not to long ago.

Upon entering through the Lion Gate, a partly restored wall that also served as Ani’s ancient entrance, we walked southeast following the eastern edge of the plateau, spotting unrecognizable ruins and noticing hand-carved caves across the canyon. We eventually reached a magnificent ruin of excellent condition, leaving little imagination to envision what it looked like in its splendor. The Armenian church's iconic dome was mostly intact, despite a deliberate cut on the top.  Paintings were found on the exterior, seeming to escape the victim of vandalization. The amazing multi colored stones of the local volcanic rock shone in the midday sun. When we entered the church, we were equally amazed at its frescoes still visible under the dome.

The location of the church is equally impressive, at a dramatic edge of a cliff where a river lies to south, signaling the border of Armenia, and rolling canyons to the east. From this church, we could see an even grander church, although less intact, off in the distance to the west. We made our way to this structure, imagining as if we were the first explorers rediscovering this long lost city. This is the cathedral of Ani, or formally the Church of the Holy Mother of God. Completed in 1001 A.D., this is the most important building in Ani and represented a pinnacle of Armenian. Architecture. Although it’s top of the iconic Armenian dome is crumbled away, we marveled  at the size of the church. Inside, a bright blue shined brilliantly into the apse, illuminating the stone walls. I circumvented the church on the outside and crawled in small crevices in the inside to fully grasp what the cathedral may have looked like in its splendor. This church, and Ani in general, is a stark reminder to the powers of war and time. And like the country of Armenia, a reminiscence of old days that seem so far away.

The day waned and the last shuttle of the day departed Ani. As we sat inside on our way back to Kars, we felt so thankful for this first impression of Turkey - most notably the people who went out of their way to help us two strangers in need. As day one of our Anatolian traverse concluded, we anticipated what map come in the following days in these ancient lands.

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