Written by Annegret
Being the first friend to join Maike for one leg of her journey around the world, I also have the honour of being the first guest blogger she has invited to write a post for meanderingmaike.net And what better subject for me to tackle than our visit to Ani?
The idea of going there had been at the back of my mind since I first heard about it twelve years ago. That was when I moved into a shared flat in the student home and was welcomed in the kitchen by a friendly crowd of Italians and by Arsen, a young archeologist from Armenia. When I introduced myself with my nickname, Anni, he told me it was very popular in his native country as people would name their daughters after the legendary capital of ancient Armenia. Nowadays, only ruins remain of the former splendor, and like much of the territory ruled by the medieval kings of Ani they are located in modern Turkey. But the ruin city and the surrounding landscape with the canyon of the border river in the fore and snowy mountains in the background are still a site worth seeing. So when I discovered that Kars – the final station of the Dogu Express, which we had already decided to skip in favour of Erzurum and an earlier arrival – was the base station for visits to Ani I convinced Maike to come back on our decision and choose the route via Kars for crossing into Georgia.
We had our first cultural experience of Kars already during the night when the hotel guests on the other side of the corridor returned to their room and decided to have an early morning singing session:
click here for a short sample recording. After a few ballads the sound of their voices was covered by the calls of first one then many muezzins, each singing their prayers at their own rhythm, creating a rather fascinating zwoelfton-style harmony (click here to listen). Our neighbours were not so easily discouraged from their serenading (maybe they read the free city guide book which states that “minstrels are an indispensable fact of Kars.”) Maike and I decided to take things positively and enjoy the beauty of their voices but still felt somewhat grateful when another guest convinced them with repeated knocks on the door and a short discussion that no further encores were required.
The doubtful questions of people from western Turkey why we would want to go into the cold of Kars had made us wonder whether our sightseeing trip to Ani would be thwarted by mountains of snow. So the chilly rain that really awaited us came almost as a relief. We didn’t yet know that unusual amounts of snow in the district we were supposed to cross on our way to Georgia the next day would be the main topic of the evening news, so we weren’t yet worrying about the onward journey either.
We had come way ahead of the usual tourism season so teaming up with other tourists to share a taxi was not an option but the very caring and helpful manager of our hotel arranged for two young men to take us to Ani. While we weren’t able to communicate much, they did put up with our eccentricities such as wanting to stop to get our seat belts disentangled. As we drove, some rays of sun came out and mist started to rise from the fields and grasslands, where animals of all sorts from hen to horse were roaming freely.
We were rather surprised when after one bend we suddenly found ourselves in front of the Ani city walls and Lion Gate. Having payed a small fee to the three or four museum wardens waiting in a little cabin beside the gate we left our drivers to trink tea with them and set out on our explorer mission.
Soon we were met by a little boy who enthusiastically threw his few English phrases at us, starting with “Hello, class”. The expression what-s-your-name seemed to be standing in for a lot of different things, including all forms of “to be” so it took us a while to understand that he was trying to tell us the site was covered in landmines and we should cut short on our visit. Considering the neatly marked ways and other touristic infrastructure, we didn’t find that claim very convincing. When he saw that neither the supposed danger nor the rain that was starting to come down quite hard would make us follow his preferred route, he abandoned us to our fate.
While much of the city is now covered by grass, some roofs have braved the destructive forces of invading mongols and eartquakes. Apart from rain shelter, they offered:
As the river nowadays marks a closed and tightly guarded border, we were wondering whether the Armenian guards on the other side were maybe looking back at us as attentively as we were looking over to their side of the river.
Back in Kars, we were welcomed by big hailstones that painted the town white. While we hadn’t obeyed all the must-dos from the city guide book, we felt justified by the weather and the beauty of what we had already seen in Ani to abandon all further sightseeing for the day and stay in the safety of our warm hotel room.