Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Over the Mountains to Artvin and on to Erzurum

As I said it was raining as I left Trabzon and it was still raining very hard as I boarded the Ford Transit minibus to begin the ascent into the Kackar Mountains. My aim was to reach Artvin, spend the night there and then travel on to the Steppe, to Erzurum and onwards to Dogubeyazit.

The rain was so heavy that at one point the road was blocked by a landslide. This was real traveling. The distance between Hopa and Artvin was only 67km but it took until early evening to reach Artvin.

I booked into the Otel 7 Mart. It was cold 1000ft up in Artvin. The town was not pretty and the weather not very good. I don't know why my hotel was called 7 Mart (7th of March). I have tried to find out the historical significance of the date. It may have something to do with the struggle after the end of the First World War that Turkey had to maintain its borders. After the end of the First World War the area was occupied by Georgia. Artvin is barely 30 km form the border established by the Treaty of Kars that seems to have ended all the hostilities. Anyhow the hotel was pretty Spartan and the view from my window (below) wasn't very good. Since I planned to be on my way very early in the morning, after it got dark I got an early night.

My bus to Erzurum was at 6.00am so I was up pretty early. I took the photo below. I have done some internet research on Artvin for the purposes of this blog and to tell the truth on a good day it seems as if Artvin could be quite nice. The surrounding area looks quite stunning and there are lakes and alpine forests not to mention white water rafting on the Coruh River.

Wikipedia says: "The city of Artvin looks impressive, standing high on a rock above the Çoruh River, a 5km climb along a road that winds back and forth up the steep cliff face; a piece of advice; don't buy a second-hand car in Artvin, and drive carefully, you only get to make one mistake in this landscape. If you buy a house here however you can be sure it will have a great view; the surrounding countryside is a Tolkienesque landscape of thick forest, waterfall, lakes, mountains and high plateau like the Kafkasör, where the bull-wrestling takes place. In the words of the popular song: "Not Paris my friend, see Artvin before you die". I'm not sure that I know the popular song they mention but I have seen Artvin and Paris and not wishing to be unkind to Artvin I think Paris edges it. Wikipedia goes on: "Like most towns in Turkey since the 1970s Artvin has seen uncontrolled building of concrete apartment blocks and ugly government office buildings and has lost some of its attractive historical feel. But on this clifftop Artvin can never be a huge city, it's a quiet provincial town."

On the other hand Paris does not have landscape like there is on the way from Artvin to Erzurum.

Around 11.00am I arrived in Erzurum, per Wikipedia 1757 meters (5766 feet) above sea level and has an extreme continental climate with an average January temperature of −11 °C (12.2 °F). Temperatures often drop below −30 °C (−22.0 °F) in the winter, with heavy snowfall. I think that this landscape is the nearest to that of a Steppe I have been in. It seems that I was right because trusty Wikipedia tells me that 60% of the province is comprised of Steppe formation.

Luckily in early October the temperature was very comfortable. Where I live the climate is temperate. Although some bad weather is forecast for the next few days and the coming winter may be one of the coldest for 20 years or so, it will never last very long. Snow falls in Erzurum province for 50 days of the year and stays for 114 days. Summers can be warm here but not usually unbearably hot. We complain about the vicissitudes of the weather but let's face it: there's nothing to complain about.

Furthermore nothing very terrible has ever happened here. OK, there was a terrible mining disaster in the village when over 280 men were killed (most of whom had gone underground to try to rescue trapped colleagues)but Erzurum was looted and devastated by the Seljuk Turks in 1049 and fell to the Mongol siege in 1242 who looted it and devastated it again! After that it was an an administrative province of an Ilkhanate. When the grip of the "sub khan" was lost it was ruled by Black Sheep Turkmen and White Sheep Turkmen (no, it really was).

Then Suleyman the Magnificent conquered the place. There were struggles and rebellions backed by Iran until the middle of the 17th Century. The Russians conquered the place gave it back to the Ottoman Empire and then fought over it in the Russo-Turkish War. There was major fighting in World War I and genocide of Armenians in 1915. In the Turkish War of Independence it was a major base. It was very peaceful when I visited but with a history like that you have to wonder how much longer it can be before something else happens. There's a NATO base in the area so perhaps it will remain peaceful.

Above are my pictures of the Cifte Minareli Medrese (Double Minaret Medresse) from without and within and its mausoleum at the rear. While I was there a guy called Hakan attached himself to me. I spent a few hours in the city with him acting as a kind of guide (he wasn't hassling or hustling me) and we went into the main mosque (but only after I had told him that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed was his prophet). There are a few historic buildings but not many. Given the history of looting and devastation by various conquerors this is hardly surprising, I suppose. Pictured below is the portal of the Yukutiye Medresse on the same street (Cumhriyet Street). I don't think I could tire of marvelling at the splendid effort put into the portals to the medresses and other buildings in Turkey. They really know how to do a front door! If first impressions are the most important then that is perhaps why the entrances are so fantastic.

This was a short sojourn en route to Dogubeyazit and soon I was on my way again. Before I left I bought some prayer beads. Erzurum is has been famous since the 17th century for the carving of the black Oltu stone (jet) quarried in the area. Jet is formed when fossilized trees are subject to diastrophism resulting in folding. The term diastrophism covers movement of solid crust material (as opposed to molten material which is volcanism). The movements cause rock to be bent or broken as a result of pressures exerted by plate tectonics or the rise of magma from below. The previous three sentences are paraphrased from from a website "All about Turkey" and Wikipedia. Obviously I didn't know that when Hakan told me I should get some beads made of the special local black stone. While looking on the net for something informative to put in about the beads and what they are made of I did come across some scary stuff by a creationist called Bernard E. Northrup who has written pages and pages to justify the belief that everything was created. It was the word diastrophism that led me to his sites. I wouldn't recommend reading the stuff except to see how someone can be obsessed with finding evidence to back up a tenet of his faith. Anyway, if he's right my jet prayer beads are carved from stone formed during cataclysmic earth movement described in the Book of Job.

As dusk fell I boarded a bus for Dogubeyazit. I can remember the bus trundling reasonably fast along the straight road over the relatively flat land and a huge moon rising. As the bus motored on I had my short wave radio tuned to the World Service and learned that John Major had announced that Britain would be joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and that there would be an immediate cut in interest rates of a whole percentage point with more cuts to follow. This was very good news. It meant the mortgage on the flat would go down and thus I could carry on traveling with less worry about whether I would be bankrupted in the process.

The bus pulled into Dogubeyazit about 8.30pm and I checked into the Otel Erzurum at 8,000TL for the night (probably less than £1.50).