Kars! (Finally)

/ By Josh

So, after much waiting, I finally made it to Kars! It almost didn’t happen. I was sick for a few days before the trip and the night before leaving I had confusing dreams where I was getting ready for a trip except I was back home in Canada and I started driving without really knowing where I was supposed to be going.

Thankfully, by the time I had to leave, I had gotten my head pretty well cleared. Apparently, it wasn’t completely cleared though; when I went to check in at the airport I went to the wrong airline and didn’t realize my mistake till I got to the check in counter.

As Kars is a small city and flights are fairly infrequent, Fred and I got tickets to the neighboring province of Erzurum and rented a car from there. Apparently, the lady at the check in counter thought that a pair of obvious foreigners going to Erzurum was “cute” and proceeded to talk with her work mates about it. They continued talking about us in Turkish and finally the lady helping us told her friends to stop making her laugh because she didn’t want us to think she was laughing at us. Much to her embarrassment I told her in Turkish that it wasn’t a problem and that we had understood the whole conversation.

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Erzurum Mountain View Blog

I’m SO glad that we decided to be “cute” and fly to Erzurum. Before we even landed I fell in love with the stunning landscapes and had decided that I was going to find myself a good horse, take up banditry, and raid caravans for the rest of my life. Maybe it’s the old Turkish legends I’ve been reading, but with landscapes like this it suddenly seemed like a great idea.

Erzurum Mountain View Blog

Our first stop was in eastern Erzurum on the road to Kars. The Narman Fairy Chimneys occupy a handful of valleys where the brilliant red rock glowed against the backdrop of fresh spring greenery. This was a perfect time of year to visit the area; the bulk of the snow had melted though there was still snow in the deeper valleys and crevices and the air was fresh and cool.

Erzurum Narman Fairy Chimney Blog
Fairy Chimneys and strange rock formations in one of the areas handful of other-worldly valleys.
Erzurum Oltu Kalesi Castle Blog
The strange and unfortunately closed castle in the town of Oltu.

A little ways north from the Narman Fairy Chimneys we stopped in at the town of Oltu to see what we could do about food. Between it being Ramadan, the month of Islamic fasting and Erzurum being a rather conservative province, finding food was about as tricky as we thought it was going to be and so we made a meal of slightly spoiled fruit.

Further down the road we stumbled across a rather stunning sight a little way off through the trees. Speaking to a local farmer we learned that the locals called the place Penek Castle and he gave me directions that I completely misunderstood and ended up at some lady’s barn. Paying closer attention this time to the directions the women gave us we finally made it to Penek Castle!

Erzurum Penek Kalesi Bana Cathedral-
First sight of the ruined church from the road. You can see why we had to stop and check it out.

Even from a distance it was pretty clear that Penek Castle was actually built as a massive round church. Inside the ruins we found candle stubs left on the walls where people would still come to light candles and pray. While it’s hard to find definitive information, it seems likely that this ancient church, originally known as Bana Cathedral, became known as a castle after it had been used as a fort during the Russo-Ottoman wars that ravaged this area in the early 1900’s.

Erzurum Penek Bana Cathedral Blog Header
Church ruins in the stunning Erzurum countryside
Erzurum Penek Kalesi Bana Cathedral
The rough dirt track leading to the old church.

Resisting the temptation to stop another dozen or so times to take in the gorgeous views, we finally made it over the snow-capped mountains of Erzurum and Ardahan and into Kars. While the city of Kars is tiny, we were greatly relieved to find that good hotels were plentiful, and breakfast was served at 7 rather than the 3 AM Sahur (morning meal before sunrise during the month of Ramadan).

Kars Ani Ruins Blog
Abughamrentz Church with the mound where the old inner castle once stood.

Our first stop the following morning was to the ruined city of Ani, Kars’s main claim to fame. The city of Ani has been right on the top of my list of places I’ve wanted to visit. It had been a rich and powerful city of the medieval Armenain kingdoms built on a stunning triangle of land that juts out between deep ravines and gullies. Massive walls closed in the northern edge of the city and magnificent churches of orange and black stone graced the streets. It was known as the city of 1001 churches and it’s easy to see where the name comes from. Between the massive cathedrals, chapels, and scattered monasteries there were churches everywhere!

Bitter wars and grudges, both modern and ancient, threatened to destroy the remains and legacy of Ani but thankfully it has been included on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list and work is underway to help preserve this captivating place.

Rather than bore you with facts and history (as per usual there will be a separate article full of facts and history that I’ll be posting later) here’s a few pictures that show the stunning beauty of the place.

Kars Ani Ruins Blog
Known as Kız Kalesi, or Maidens Castle, the building on the edge of this remote clifftop is actually a church.
Kars Ani Ruins Blog
The astounding interior of Ani Cathedral
Kars Ani Ruins Blog
The ruins of Gagik Church (the Church of Gregory)
Kars Ani Ruins Blog
The remains of Ani Cathedral with Manuçehr Mosque in the background.
Kars Ani Ruins Blog
The interior of Tigran Honents with the remains of frescoes covering every surface.
Kars Ani Ruins Blog
The Church of the Twelve Apostles, also known by its later function as a Caravanserai.

That night we went out for an iftar (the first meal after the daytime fast during the month of Ramadan) of Cağ kebap. While I don’t regret having tried Cağ kebap, I don’t think I’ll have it again. Do you remember being five years old and trying to eat roast beef? Do you remember just sitting there trying your best to break down that stubborn piece of gristle for what felt like hours and the only thing you managed to accomplish was wear out your jaw? Well that’s Cağ kebap; it tasted good but even for an adult it’s impossible to chew through. Cağ is pronounced ‘Jaw’ and I think I see why.

The following morning we set out to find an old Armenian monastic site locally known as Beşkilise (meaning Five Churches because there were five churches here) though originally known by the much harder to pronounce Armenian name of Khtzkonk.

According to comments on Google maps Beşkilise Monastery was going to require some hiking and be pretty hard to find. From what I had seen in the pictures I had found the churches would be surrounded by cliffs in a deep twisting ravine making it hard to spot from a distance. With this in mind I decided to simply stop somewhere along the highway near where I thought the site would be and hike along the top of the canyon until we spotted the church then we’d try to descend into the canyon. The plan worked perfectly and we caught our first glimpse of the Beşkilise remains after only 20 minutes or so. The only problem then was actually getting down the steep cliffs and to the building itself which proved to take much longer.

Kars Beşkilise Khtzkonk Blog
The location of Beşkilise Monastery made it a bit tricky to get to.
Kars Beşkilise Khtzkonk Blog
Picking our way down to the church.

While the main church was still in decent condition (standing), there was almost nothing left of the other four buildings. According to reports from locals and the less-than-trustworthy internet, the buildings were blown up during the 1950’s by the Turkish Army and the area completely closed to outsiders till the 1980’s. Thankfully relations between Turkey and Armenia have been steadily, if rather slowly, improving and places like this are now open to visit rather than being blown up.

Kars Beşkilise Khtzkonk Blog
The last remaining of the five churches. It’s actually much bigger than it looks. Fred standing in the opening is 6’5″

Kars Beşkilise Khtzkonk Blog

Kars Beşkilise Khtzkonk Blog
The high cliffs where two of the other churches had once stood.

Making the long sweaty trek out of the ravine (making a long loop to avoid some of Turkey’s famously vicious giant sheep dogs) we made our way back to the car. From a distance we could see that there was a group of people next to the car and, getting closer, we noticed that some of them were soldiers and they appeared to be waiting for us. Feeling rather nervous we went through the normal formalities of handing over ID and explaining who we are and what we were up to with as much relaxed friendliness as we could muster. The officer wanted to see the pictures on our cameras and phones so he could check that they were legitimate and that we had actually come to visit the Beşkilise Monastery. He also wanted to see my blog and checked out my Instagram to prove that I’ve actually been travelling around Turkey visiting all the places that I said I’d been to.

I knew tensions had fully relaxed when he followed my Instagram, started chatting about Dutch footballers playing in Turkey, and asked if we could take a group picture! I assured the officer that he’d be able to see the picture on the blog, so here it is!

Kars Beşkilise Khtzkonk Blog

Our road being long and our time drawing to a close we left early the next morning and set off

to the picturesque village of Çamuşlu where thousands of years ago figures of deer, donkeys, and goats were carved into the cliffs above the village. The road up to the petroglyphs was, to be honest, terrible. The car barely made it up the rocky slopes and I was a little worried about getting my deposit back for the brand new car we had rented.

Kars Çamuşlu Petroglyphs Blog
Great herds of deer depicted in the Çamuşlu rock carvings.
Kars Çamuşlu Petroglyphs Blog
In a region with so little firewood, people use a mix of dried manure and straw for fuel. Here you can see cut blocks drying in the sun and a pair of stacks behind them.

Concentrating more on the driving than finding the rock carvings we passed them completely and ended up high above the village on a small plateau with a scattering of sheep and plowed fields. There we met a farmer who gave us directions down to the petroglyphs and, later, even had us in for lunch despite the fact that he was fasting. He showed us his farm and talked to us about village life in the area before we continued on our way to Erzurum.

As it turns out it was in Erzurum, not Kars that we had to worry about finding food during the Ramadan fast. We wandered all over trying to find a bite before our flight and in the end had to resort to the mall. Not exactly the sort of place you want to spend time when visiting a beautiful historic city. Iftar (the evening meal to break the fast) was just before our flight took off, so while we were in the waiting room at the airport there was a sudden rustling and crunching as people all over the room began opening packages and eating in unison. Judging by the massive pile of Burger King cups and bags overflowing from the garbage can, Burger King must have been one of the only places open!

Erzurum City Minaret Blog
Geometric patterns on the minaret of Yakutiye Madrasah.

While we got to catch a glimpse of what Erzurum is like with its historic city and beautiful landscapes, I can’t wait to get back and see what else there is!