The trouble with bus travel is that bus stations are frequently in the least salubrious areas of a city giving a poo first impression, and often undeserved (not always -Slough). This is very much true of both Trabzon and Kars, the latest two destinations on the tour.
To start, Trabzon. A meandering 18 hours by bus from Khata, via Malatya, Sivas and a long stretch of the drizzly Black Sea highway (used by a large volume of trucks transporting goods twixt East and West). Granted, the rain does nowhere’s welcome experience any favours, and certainly not Trabzon’s. It is a city that has found itself at the epicentre of many historical events over the years. The tourist office boastfully tells visitors that Suleyman the Magnificent was born here and lived here til he was 15. What do you have to do to earn one of those epithets? I suppose Alexander was Great because he conquered Persian by the time he was 26. Let’s hope we have longer to achieve greatness on account of a longer life expectancy, giving us free rein to squander our youths on weed and computer games.
Anyway, apart from Suleyman, it’s also long been a trade gateway, seeing Russian and former Soviet bloc goods move into Europe. It features in a lot of literature from early travellers and it is said that Jason and his Argonauts were in the neighbourhood while looking for the golden fleece. Today, it’s outwardly a seedy port town with cheap brothel/hotels, mechanical workshops and container cranes lining the highway on the seafront. It doesn’t have any hostels: ominous?
Determined to see it as the ‘most cosmopolitan city on the Black Sea coast’ as described, I set out for an explore, getting little further than the ladies’ hamam to slough away the trials of the bus journey and the sweat of the Nemrut climb. Once again, the leetle English-biras Turkish-miming came into play. After an hour, the ladies were jovially trying to marry me off to one of their sons and the lovely Mariya, originally from Georgia, had invited me to stay at her place. Left with a spring in my step to go and cruise the shops for all the cheap leather and knock-off goods that I understood to flourish here.
This is no grotty Southmead market. A couple of pedestrianised streets form a most modern town centre with a variety of upmarket and normal high street shops, restaurants, coffee shops and museums. Away from the highway and bus station, it is immediately likeable.
The man in the tourist office had asked me if I wanted a job in Trabzon (?) and said he would take me to meet his friend the English teacher at 5pm if I wanted. Being British, I couldn’t just say no but palmed him off with a ‘sure, maybe, don’t wait for me if I don’t show…”. Idly wandering through the streets at 6.30pm, who should chance upon me and drag me off for an impromptu interview at the English school. That’s right. Second job I’ve been offered in Turkey and I in’t even trying. Hear me now, benefit skanks.
The main reason for my detour to Trabzon was to see the fabled (*artistic licence) Sumela Monastery, 50km out of town in the mountains. It was founded in the Byzantium age by some Greek Orthodox monks but abandoned in 1923 when the creation of the new Turkish state made the Greeks realise that it was probably Turkey’s for keeps. On a sunny day, it looks like I imagine Bhutan’s Tiger Monastery to look, clinging to an impossible rock face above the pine forests. As with much of my Turkish travels, I was there in the rain. But the mist only gave it a bit more Hollywood mystique (she says firmly).
Opted out of the organised trip and hopped on a one-way dolmus with a handful of locals, including two students from the university out for a weekend daytrip. How then to get back to town? Answer – three friendly professors. They’d all studied in Birmingham for several years and counted themselves Brummies. Each of the gents has published or is publishing books on their area of expertise so the journey was spent learning a little more about the Greek history of Trabzon and the Forced Armenia Migration. Every day’s a school day.
Kars beckoned next so back in town I booked onto a midnight bus to the Eastern edge of Turkey, because I am a glutton for punishment. The journey there takes you through mountain passes, tunnels, flurries of sleet and finally, across about 40km of straight open steppe. The sun rise over mountains and steppe was fabulous.
But Kars. Christ. Arriving there truly felt like arriving at the frontier of the Wild West, the back of beyond. Empty, grey, Soviet-esque streets at 8am on a Sunday morning do not lift the spirits. But this again is largely the peril of bus travel. I’m having to remember that first impressions shouldn’t count.
Got me a cheap dive to stay in and was whisked straight into a trip out to Ani, the abandoned Armenian capital, by one of the tour guides mentioned in the LP. These mentions don’t half give them delusions of grandeur. Can turn them into proper sharks. Still, it’s a ballache to get out there if you don’t go with a group, and you can take a big hit if you chance upon the city when noone else is visiting, so I hit the ground running despite the thunderstorm weather forecast that has trailed me across the country.
Ani was once the medieval capital of Armenia and a stop on the Silk Road (some people say that the caravanserai fell every 10km). Not just a stop, a freaking circus. 100,000 people once lived here plying their trade and making some dollar off the camel traders stopping off. Managed by some stroke of brilliant fortune to time the trip to coincide with a window of sunshine amid the rain which made the site pretty dramatic, especially with the snow-capped mountains of Armenia beyond.
With the world awake, the town itself became much more appealing on the return. Checked out the castle, the local football match, and in the evening, a great bar with live music and enthusiastic dancing. Was the only gringo, and for a while the only girl, in there which always makes for a warm welcome. Loved it.
The pastoral lands that surround the city mean that it’s famous for cheese, honey and geese so I sampled the first two and stayed away from the third. Don’t mess with geese. I haven’t since the fateful London picnic 20 years ago that the fam will remember; a goose nicked my quiche (out of the gutter, Sar).
Got chatting to a Siberian resident of Trabzon on the way to the bus station the night before who said that I should go to Georgia and Armenia on the way to Iran instead of going through Van, which is reportedly a fairly desolate place favoured by Iranian smugglers with little to recommend it other than the nearby lake. So that’s what I’ll do. Hello Tbilisi.
Ubiquity stakes (for Rice): hunting shops, netbooks, bad teeth, cracked windscreens. Colgate and Autoglass would have a field day.