Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Our call time at the taxi was 8:00am. Breakfast proceedings began at 7:30am (despite the onset of Ramadan having begun days previous) so I was down and ready to eat at 7:31 (gotta be fashionably late, ya know?). Tea bread cheese olives cucumbers and tomatoes, the standard Turkish breakfast fare. Added to the mix was some of the best honey I’ve ever had. Three different kinds! My over-carbed tummy ignored its own grumblings and down my gullet went quite the load of food. Sufficiently sated, Steph and Justin helped me waddle out to the waiting taxi.
Inside said taxi were the driver and a Slovenian couple. Steph jumped in the back seat with the couple and I grabbed the middle seat in the front. In case there is any question as to how large a car we were in, there was no actual middle seat. I had one cheek on the passenger side and my left side against the side of the driver’s chair. Not as comfortable as the recliner that still does not adorn my apartment, but not bad.
Cruising out of town our garrulous driver slowed as we passed a swap meet that would have made the FFA jealous. No slaughter scenes met our eyes before we’d passed by and barreled towards the ancient Armenian city of Ani, now mostly on the Turkish side of the border.
Our driver with his wonderful English filled us in on all things current eventish. The Iraq war? Bad and a huge mess (random-who doesn’t love the Top Gun soundtrack?). Armenia? Also a huge mess in a very similar way to Iraq, only the Russians were occupying their land, thanks in large part to….an oil pipeline! Crazy. This driver was erratic, of course (yes mom, I had not only my seat belt on but Justin’s and the driver’s as well. And I’d taken the seat belt from the middle in the back seat and tied it to my belt, just in case. And I had on a bike helmet and driving goggles and gloves), not only in his driving but in his speaking. Erratic speaking in that he talked about things taboo in most of Turkey. Such as the slaughter of Armenians. This he mentioned “very bad” on the heels of us having passed a monument memorializing the slaughter of Turks, by radical Armenians, an even “never mentioned”. A nutty course in current events, really. He had a lot to say about Armenia: Turks and Armenians have no beef (“look! My friends there are from Armenia!”), it was the governments that were beefing and at the behest of the Russians. His claim was that upon entering Armenia (no longer possible from Turkey) you are checked by Russian border guards before Armenians. Fascinating stuff.
Upon reaching Kars we stopped in a cloud of dust and dismounted. My right butt cheek would have been protesting but it had long since stopped feeling. Our driver gave us a quick history, mentioned a church we had to see, and then pointed us over to the ticket takers. We paid and entered through the massive gate. Which I felt impelled to climb. Successfully, I might add. Though Justin reached the top and taunted me from above with juicy grapes. He took the stairs I’d missed in my excitement at scrambling up 1000 year old ruined walls. Whatever.
Around we walked. Along the Armenian border, kept away from us by a simple fence. A simple fence that in places had holes gaping enough for foolhardy youths to venture through simply to be able to say: “I snuck into Armenia”. I tell you. If I hadn’t been around my friends would have gotten into SO much trouble! But I digress. Around we walked, past ruined buildings, half ruined buildings, grasses and stubbled walls. A very slight breeze blew down from the cloud dappled skies and the silence pervaded all. Except for the occasional rumbling from the quarry just across the main gorge.
Oh man. What a wondrous gorge! Beautiful and deep, rocky but strewn with vegetation, dropping down to a murky green river that flowed swiftly and silently, as though ignorant of its duties as the dividing line between two countries. After walking through an amazing 800 year-or-so old church with gorgeous paintings still upon its walls, I stumbled across a path that appeared to lead down towards the river. Overcoming my hesitations at approaching the border area I started down it, Steph following me (Justin was back in the church trying to figure out how to get out without stampeding over the German tourists that had invaded right before he was able to leave). Descending, I tried hard to ignore the shepherd whistling at us from across the way. Steph, polite as she is, held me up until the sheep had been herded downwards and our “savior” could come talk to us. His “tale” was that if we continued down there would be people asking for more money. But he would lead us around for 2 lira. We demurred and moved back uphill and to the next amazing old church (Steph snapped a gorgeous picture that I’ll have to put on here). While she and the newly resurgent Justin pittered about, I gave in to the stubborn “you can’t tell me what to do” voices in my head and began moving downhill in the general direction of where I was told not to go. I’d seen hints of a church on a finger out over the river and the remains of a large old stone bridge and wanted to get a closer look. Down I went, along no obvious path, passing old cave dwellings, old air ducts (one of which I almost fell into. Which would not have been ideal) and….hard to describe. Such history it boggles the mind. A stunning vista, but sight of many old battles. Across the river (not far now) I watched a small crowd form by the now looming guard tower on the Armenian side, but still I descended until I was perched on a small outcropping over the old bridge. Amazing. The old road could still be seen. Straight ahead was Armenia, to my right the river wound away out of sight and to my left….the “forbidden” church. Which way did I go? Guess quickly because I am going to tell you. Left. Across a steep crumbling slope with only sheep trails to afford footing, a growingly attentive crowd across the way and the voices urging me not to give in to some random “advice” giver. With only a short backward glance I passed by the road that led down to the river (see, I have some good sense! I didn’t even feint a move in that direction. Though I must admit that all this time I had to fight the urge to wave at the border guards to see whether or not they really were watching me. See below for more thoughts on this. I never waved. Way to go self-control!) and approached the church. What a location! Maybe I’d find God again if I had a place like that to worship! This church was poised on a small outcropping over the river with vistas up and down the river. Amazing. Seeing no one waiting inside I checked the place out and then hoofed it back uphill to catch up with the others.
Catching up to the others we mounted a hillside to an old fort, then walked around before making our way back to the front gate to make our allotted end time. We passed through more old ruins on the way and marveled at the scene. Even now my head reels at the history wafting through the air. Mind-blowing. Check it out. Really.
Yes, I may have some control/authority issues. But it turned out ok. No one was arrested or shot. And I fully exhaled once we completed the 45 minute drive back to town. But that is irrelevant.
Back at the hotel that night I re-read the section of the Lonely Planet that talked about Ani. According to the book there were some “out of bounds” areas to be avoided. Seems we, one of us more than the others, spent some time in those areas. (Like the entire area I spent wandering through partially to spite the “direction” of a shepherd. Oops. )