We’re thinking about the other Turkey this Christmas, and an epic train journey through incredible landscapes
The Istanbul to Kars Dogu Express was not exactly streaking across Anatolia. The train was already two hours late and for the umpteenth time had sputtered to a creaking halt, this time somewhere along the upper reaches of the Euphrates near Erzincan. I’d long since shaken off Istanbul’s frantic chaos and was sleepily sipping a tulip-shaped glass of tea in the restaurant car. For a maintenance check the engineer couldn’t have picked a more scenic spot. The splintered cliffs of the Euphrates Gorge were glowing pink in the autumn sunshine while in verdant meadows flanking the bubbling river, groves of poplars were swaying in the breeze. As the engineer ambled along the tracks checking the underside of the carriages, one of the waiters jumped out and disappeared into a hedgerow. He’d spotted a wild grape vine and a few minutes later returned with several bunches of glistening black grapes. After washing them, he brought a bunch to my table with a beaming smile. Bursting with bittersweet freshness they were the perfect afternoon snack. A few minutes later the train lurched into motion and I settled back to enjoy a lazy afternoon of magnificent landscapes and endearingly friendly service.
Kars has one of the most extreme winter climates in Turkey and with temperatures plunging to dizzying lows of –20C, the city is a favourite location for moody art house films and tragic novels such as Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. Far from the bleak and desolate streetscapes I’d been expecting, Kars turned out to be a delight. A brief Russian occupation in the 19th century has lent a leafy neoclassical elegance to the streets more redolent of St Petersburg than a small Turkish frontier town. Down by the river, smiling children ran out of pastel-coloured cottages to have their photos taken. At a street market I bought some pears and found a shady tea garden with a magnificent view of Kars’ castle perched on top of a rocky outcrop.
“You can eat an apple’s skin but never a pear’s”, a waiter warned me, clutching his stomach to illustrate the consequences.
Always valuing these nuggets of rural wisdom I asked for a knife to peel them. The honey-scented pears were sensationally good and typical of Turkish fruit, which turns markets throughout the country into veritable Gardens of Eden each autumn. Later that afternoon, I climbed up to the castle, where an outdoor cafe was playing lively folk music. In the sparkling September sunshine, a Turkish passenger I’d met on the train gave me an impromptu dance lesson and with fluttering feet and arms outstretched she glided laughing along the battlements. Far from the forlorn place depicted by Turkey’s literati, I was beginning to think that Kars was one of the happiest towns in Turkey.
Turkey’s angst-ridden film makers and novelists would be far better off choosing the mournfully beautiful ruins of Ani as their stage set. Located on a bleak plateau overlooking a tributary of the Araxes River, a few crumbling churches are all that remains of a medieval Armenian city that once rivalled Constantinople in splendour. The melancholic landscape is heightened by brooding watch towers that dot the nearby mountaintops. Ani is slap bang on the fractious Turkish Armenian border. In eerily empty church naves, screaming swifts and cooing doves conjure up ghosts of this long vanished kingdom. One extraordinary church, the Holy Saviour, has been completely sliced in half by lightning, its bisected dome defiantly rearing its fragile facade against the elements. For reflective existentialism, Ani is a hard place to beat.
From Ani I headed south through a psychedelic landscape of stripy volcanic lava mounds to Dogubayazit on the foothills of Mt Ararat. Known affectionately as Doggy Biscuit in backpacking circles, the town is famous for its 17th-century Ottoman Palace, the Ishak Pasa Saray, which overlooks the city in riots of Arabian Nights’ whimsy. However, I was more intrigued by Noah’s Ark, a mysterious boat-shaped rock formation which appeared near the Iranian border following a landslide in 1948.
I was warned by Engin, my jovial Kurdish guide, that “Uncle Hassan”, a religious man who looks after the site flies into a rage if anybody doubts the Ark’s authenticity so I was surprised when a beaming elderly gentleman in a Val Doonican cardigan came out to greet us. He led us over to a lawn which had a spectacular view over a hillside where an enormous oval-shaped outcrop lay pointing towards the snow-capped double peak of Mt Ararat. He pointed out that the dimensions almost exactly match the 300 cubits mentioned in the Bible. Furthermore, petrified wood and corals had been found at the site. With his hand placed genially over his heart he waved us goodbye and I left this fascinating oddity almost a believer.
Lake Van dominates eastern Turkey and is in reality an inland sea which takes four hours to cross by boat. From the Urartians to the Ottomans, empires have waxed and waned in this region, leaving an astonishing historical legacy and also one of the most delightful four legged friends on the planet.
The shell pink Lake Van cat has one blue and one yellow eye and is one of the few breeds that adore water. Ancient Assyrian bas reliefs depict the cats merrily swimming in Lake Van. A breeding centre in Van University welcomes visitors and despite the spartan conditions of their enclosure the cats live up to their affectionate reputation. As soon as they saw me approaching about 20 noses eagerly appeared through the fence. As I stroked their heads, their bright blue and yellow eyes scrutinised me with a burning intensity and I had the strange sensation I was being hypnotised by a gang of feline Midwich Cuckoos.
Eastern Turkey’s volcanic landscape is certainly breathtaking but I felt oddly relieved the next day to be off the dusty roads and on a small ferry enjoying the cool breezes and lapping waves of Lake Van. I was heading over to Akdamar Island which is home to one of Turkey’s most beautiful historic monuments, the 10th-century Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Nestling amongst shady almond groves, the outside walls of this conical domed masterpiece are covered in intricate carvings depicting bible stories.
Following a quick swim, Engin was keen to drive to Van Citadel to watch one of its legendary sunsets. The twisting battlements of this ancient fortress rise up in tiers upon a westward facing outcrop by the lakeside. Sunsets here rarely disappoint and this one was exceptional. As I climbed up the rocky paths the sun was already sinking like a giant pumpkin over the lake. As it slid behind the distant mountains, rose-coloured sunbeams fanned out into the sky like giant searchlights. It was by far the most beautiful sunset I’d ever witnessed and seemed to encapsulate perfectly the timeless beauty of this bewitching corner of Turkey.
• The Facts Exclusive Escapes offers tailor-made itineraries throughout the region – prices start from £1,800pp sharing, including six nights’ B&B, return flights with Turkish Airlines, transfers, a private car with services of a driver-guide and entrance to all sites. Tel: 020 8605 3500, visit www.exclusiveescapes.co.uk; for more information on Turkey, visit www.gototurkey.co.uk