Considering the horribly harsh winter that the northern hemisphere is currently enduring, the concept of going in search of a white Christmas might seem slightly mad to some. But for an Aussie who’s used to hitting the beach on Christmas Day, all Intrepid’s Julie Keldoulis wanted was to explore East Turkey and see it snow…
“After asking many people and reading many guidebooks I decided on Erzurum [Arz-e Rum] (in Persian this literally means The Land of the Romans). Erzurum was known as ‘The Rock’, as it served as NATO’s southeastern-most air force post during the Cold War. At 1757 metres above sea level, there are many reports about being the coldest city in Turkey. So why not go there I thought. Seems to have a lot of history as well as the near-by skiing resort on the Palandoken Mountain – the summit (Buyuk Ejder – Great Dragaon) reaching a height of 3188 metres.
On flying in from Istanbul I was instantly gratified at the wonderful scenery and snow from the air. The airport was clean and efficient, and after collecting my luggage I was directed out of the airport by a friendly local to catch a bus to the city. I told the driver the street name I needed and pointed to map and as I approached. When the time came he told me to get off and pointed to the street, then I checked into my hotel with some basic words in Turkish and received a nice smile back. I ventured to the tourist bureau, not far away and they had a wonderful brochure on the city and surrounding areas.
Not being a tourist town, I was greeted along the street with lots of smiles (maybe it was my beanie and 5 layers of clothing!). I was not far from the building where the Erzurum Congress of 1919 was held. A founding point where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, resigned from the Ottoman Army and was declared the “Honorary Native” and the freeman of the city, which issued him his first citizenship registration and certificate (Nufus Cuzdanı) of the new Turkish Republic.
In my time in Erzurum I visited a number of mosques, the 5th century byzantine castle, and the wonderful caravanserais and enjoyed lots of delcious food. I went into a couple of restaurants where antiques, carpets and collectables adorned the walls and made me feel like I was in a special place.
And of course it snowed for my white Christmas, soft white snow – it was magical.
I decided part of my trip would also take in Kars and Ani. I was given the name of a local guide in Kars. I rang him that night at around 7pm and he suggested I get an early morning bus from Erzurum, as he had a few people going the following morning for a tour of Ani. So at 4.30 in morning I got out of bed and went outside to find a taxi. Before I spotted a taxi, a police car pulled up next to me wondering why someone with a backpack would be standing outside at that time of morning. In Turkish they asked me what I was doing (or so I gathered), so I indicated I was going to the Otogar (bus station). With no English they indicated for me to get in the police car and they took me to the bus station. How nice!
The men in the bus station directed me to the right window to buy a ticket on the 5.30 am bus to Kars and then gave me a nice warm tea – without me asking- a staple drink in all Turkey. At the end of the wonderful scenic 3 hour journey I was greeted, again without having to ask, by my guide who picked me up and took me to a hotel. He then collected a couple of other tourists and we drove to the Ani site.
Ani is a ruined and uninhabited medieval city-site situated on the border of Armenia. It was once the capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom. Called the ‘City of 1001 Churches’, it stood on various trade routes and its many religious buildings and fortifications were amongst the most technically and artistically advanced structures in the world. At the height of its glory, Ani had a population of 100,000 – 200,000 people and was the rival of Constantinople, Baghdad and Cairo. It was a wonderful site and well worth the early morning travel with landscape covered in snow. We then drove back to Kars and I explored the town. After a couple of days I headed back to Ezerum to catch my flight back to Istanbul.
Now a year ago, my white Christmas seems worlds away from this more familiar festive season, but I’m so glad I made the effort because my week in eastern Turkey was a fantastic winter wonderland dream come true!”
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