Trans Caucasian

I’m starting this post aboard the Eastern Express, the Turkish train that runs all the way from Turkey’s capital to Kars, near the Armenian border in the east. Travel constraints forced us to take the train westward. We flew from Ankara to Kars Friday morning (5/27) and had a couple of hours that afternoon to explore the town and its citadel on our own.

Lounging on the grass below the castle seemed to be a very popular local pastime.

All day Saturday we were driven around the surrounding area by a masterful guide, Celil Ersözoglu. The whole side trip reminded me it isn’t always true, as the adage claims, that the point of travel is “not the destination but the journey.”

Kars became one of our destinations in Turkey in part because Fodor’s Essential Turkey lists “Exploring Ancient Ani” as #4 on its list of 25 “Ultimate [Turkish] Experiences,” A thousand years ago Ani, 26 miles east of Kars, ranked along with Istanbul, Baghdad, and Horasan (between Afghanistan and Iran) as the most important stops along the Silk Road. Some 150,000 people lived there, and over the centuries they built beautiful places of worship and a massive palace, all encircled by a double set of thick stone walls. Earthquakes and invasions destroyed the place long ago, but what remains has an eerie beauty.

Some of the structures, like these, were built before Christ — perhaps thousands of years BC. A huge area remains to be excavated.

Celil made a valiant effort to explain all the history to us, but it was hopeless. I’ve retained almost nothing of the head-spinning chronicle of sieges and occupations and battles, though I can tell you geopolitical tensions still simmer here today. Celil pointed out the Russian barracks and guard towers glowering in the near distance, in Armenia.

The bloody politics should have been depressing. But I was too elated by the weather. Just days before, fierce winds and snow had pummeled the area. Yet we strolled the site in t-shirts under sunny skies. Far in the distance, clouds partially obscured the volcanic Mt. Ararat, the site where Noah’s Ark came aground, according to the book of Genesis. At 16,850 feet it towers over the other nearby snow-covered mountains — part of a range known as the Trans-Caucasus. The Greater Caucasus mountains in Georgia are even higher.

This is NOT Mt. Ararat — just one of its shorter neighbors.

It was hard to believe folks call this part of Turkey “Little Siberia” because of its winters in which temperatures plunge to 40 degrees below zero. Summers are broiling. With wildflowers swaying in the gentle breeze, to me it felt like a paradise.

I also was thrilled to find myself on a section of the map I’ve rarely looked at and don’t well understand. Armenia was close enough to hit with a pebble tossed across the river. In the photo above, Turkey’s neighbor lies on the other side of that gorge.

Here’s a better view of Armenia on the left; Turkey on the right. The gorge is actually an earthquake fault, one that separates two tectonic plates. Those and others in the area are what pushed up the mountains and created the volcanoes.

The former Soviet state of Georgia lay maybe 50 miles to the north, with Iran not much farther to the southeast. Hillsides in every direction were green but barren; invaders and armies and freezing settlers long ago chopped down every single tree. Now it’s good pastureland, if you know how to deal with the packs of ravenous wolves who routinely prey on the livestock (and sometimes humans). But Celil said local shepherds, armed with their stout sticks and massive Caucasian herding dogs, shrug off the danger.

After surveying Ani’s ruins, we drove back toward Kars, but then Celil headed for a cobalt body of water about an hour to the north. Lake Cildir has become increasingly popular with tourists from the western part of Turkey, he explained. To my astonishment, he said 3,000 such visitors had flooded into Kars every day this past winter, eager to sample the frosty diversions. The lake freezes so solidly you can drive on it. Visitors ice-fish; they zoom around in cozy sledges.

No hint of any of that the day we visited.

We saw barely a soul on our visit Saturday, except at the roadside restaurant where we stopped for a late lunch. After that, Steve and I hiked for a bit in a beautiful canyon harboring a lonely castle, then Celil chauffeured us back to town.

It would have been nice to hike all the way to the castle, but the sun was starting to go down.

We had to be on the train for an 8 am departure Sunday morning. A special tourist train also makes the same journey over these rails but it only runs a few times a week, and the schedules didn’t work for us. If they had, that choice might have been more comfortable than our ordinary passenger train. The tourist train’s WiFi might have been working, unlike ours. It might have had a real dining car, unlike the club car on ours, which offered little more than candy bars, stale-looking sandwiches, Nescafé and tea.

We had brought our own bread and cheese, so this was lunch. And dinner.
Celil had helped us buy the cheese the night before. That’s a daunting task in Kars, which has dozens of cheese shops featuring close to 40 local cheeses. With all those cows and goats and sheep roaming the surrounding grassland, Kars has become one of the world’s foremost cheese making centers.

For about $65, I was able to book all four seats in a sleeping compartment on the non-touristic train. It was reasonably clean. As always, I enjoyed being able to lie in my berth and take in the lush panorama rolling by. Because we rode on this train, I now know that a huge stretch of eastern Turkey consists of rolling wooded hills intercut with swift-running rivers. Most of what we saw from our window seemed as devoid of people as the American West.

This part reminded us of the Virgin River Valley in southern Nevada.

I would have been thoroughly satisfied if the train operators had just told us up front we would reach Kayseri (the gateway to Cappadocia, our next destination) at 5 am, and that the conductor would alert us a few minutes before arrival. The motion and long stops probably would have occasionally jolted me awake. But with my eyeshades on and perhaps a sleeping pill sedating me, I would have gotten a decent amount of sleep.

Alas, the timetable said the train gets to Kayseri at 2:37 am. Celil had warned us it never makes it that early. But who knew when it would arrive? Since I’d arranged for a taxi to meet us upon arrival, this all resulted in a fretful, fractured night. Around 9:30 pm we found a conductor, and with the aid of Google Translate, asked him to predict our arrival time. He consulted some electronic device and said it would between 3 and 4, then amended that to indicate probably closer to 4. We set our alarms for 3:30 — but didn’t actually reach the station until a few minutes after 5.

Still we connected with our taxi driver and got to Cappadocia about an hour later — in time to see all the hot air balloons hovering over the magical landscape. A good omen.

Ataturk’s ‘hood

Ankara is somewhat off the Turkish tourist trail. Steve and I saw only a handful of non-Turks during our 44-hour-long visit, and folks seemed surprised to see us. Still, we wanted to shoehorn in a quick visit for a couple of reasons. This city has been Turkey’s capital for the last 99 years. Also, it boasts a couple of attractions worth seeing.

So after winding up our cruise Tuesday afternoon, we flew from the nearby airport in Dalaman to Istanbul and spent the night there. An impressive high-speed train delivered us to Ankara’s main train station around 3 pm Wednesday.

Thursday morning (5/26), we taxied to the first Major Attraction, Ataturk’s Mausoleum. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as anyone here will tell you, was the father of modern Turkey. Bold, intelligent, and charismatic, he led the resistance movement against the Ottoman sultanate and later, the Greek invaders, and in 1923 became the first president of the new Turkish republic. He spent the rest of his (relatively short) life working to transform the place from a medieval theocracy into the modern, secular, industrial powerhouse it eventually became. It was he who moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara. Over the years, I have visited some of the most impressive tombs on the planet — Mao’s on Tienanmen Square, the Taj Mahal, Lenin’s final resting place in Moscow, Ho Chi Minh’s in Hanoi — and the complex containing Ataturk’s body ranks among them.

We approached it via the grandiose “Lion’s Path” leading up to the huge Ceremonial Grounds.

The view from the bottom…

…and from the top.

As luck would have it, our visit coincided with some sort of holiday involving children, and the plaza was was jammed with kids of all ages.

That’s Ataturk’s actual tomb up in front.

We took in the scene for about an hour, then caught another taxi to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. (Taxis everywhere in Turkey have been easy to hail and are stunningly cheap. Many rides around town cost only a dollar or two.) I had read that this particular museum (another project of Ataturk’s) ranked among the best in the world for antiquities.

It probably wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But Steve and I both recently read The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a mind-boggling look at recent archeological discoveries that have upended experts’ understanding of how human civilization developed all over the planet. Among the most important findings have been digs in Turkey revealing communities and cities thousands of years older than the ones previously thought to be the earliest. This particularly museum holds many artifacts from those excavations.

I found it riveting, and it was pleasant to have as much time as we wanted to wander around the well-annotated exhibits. I lingered before the original 9000-year-old statue of the mother goddess whose photo I had seen in Selcuk……and there were any number of other charming goddesses…

Someone fashioned these ladies more than 4000 years ago.

We eagerly eyed the re-creation of a typical home in Catalhoyuk, the settlement of up to 8000 people that apparently thrived in central Turkey for about 1,200 years, starting around 7,400 BC

We also saw amazing examples of cuneiform, ancient writing on clay tablets that apparently stored tons of information in a very small space — and have survived for millennia.

We wandered through the museum for almost four hours before heading back to our hotel, the Bugday, pronounced BOO-DIE. As in the name of Turkey’s current president (Erdogan), the ‘g’s in both names when written in Turkish have two dots over them, indicating they are silent.

The Bugday is a well-rated business hotel located only a short taxi ride from the train station. It cost $42 a night for our comfortable, immaculate room and lavish breakfast each morning. What I didn’t realize, though, when I reserved a room is that the neighborhood around it is a home-remodeling Mecca, filled with block after block of shops selling plumbing fixtures, wallpaper, paint, brushes, bathtubs, urinals, ceramic tile — like some vast Home Depot broken up into individual vendors.

It didn’t offer much in the way of restaurants, however. Our first night, we asked the guy at the Bugday’s front desk if he could point us to any. He told us about a small joint down the block, but although open, it didn’t seem to be serving a single customer. We spotted a Radisson Blu in the distance and, confident that it would at least have a cafe, we walked there. But the dining options looked so dubious we got up from our table and left.

Next to the local bus station, we eyed a guy grilling meat on a cart. Because we were getting desperate, we decided to chance it. But… how to figure out what our choices were?

A young man materialized, offering help. This has now happened at least a half dozen times since we arrived here. We’ll stop somewhere, befuddled, and almost instantly, a helpful English-speaking Turk will approach and bail us out. With aid from the young guy, we ordered a meatball sandwich and beef strips wrapped in pita bread. While they were grilling, we took a seat at one of the tables inside.

The view from our table indoors, looking outside at the grill.

Soon our translator and three of the companions with whom he’d been drinking tea came up to our table and asked if they could practice some English with us. They all were students preparing to enter the local technical university. We of course were as happy to chat with them as they appeared to be, encountering us.

The next half hour or so was great fun. The kids ranged from 17 to 22 and were studying various things: history, business, sociology. We talked about where we all were from, how they were dealing with the terrible inflation, why we had come to Ankara. Then one of them blurted out, “What do you think of Ataturk?”

I felt a bit flummoxed. It would be a little like me striking up a conversation with a Japanese tourist and asking, “What do you think of George Washington?” But Ataturk here is more than a historical figure. He’s a symbol of progress and secularism, one that stands in contrast to the authoritarian and Islamist Erdogan, the current president who has increasing looked to the past. The students made it clear they despise Erdogan and all he represents. When they learned about my past work as a journalist, they asked if journalists could be punished for writing critically about the US government. They looked a bit nervous even talking about these things, while at the same time relishing the conversation.

Our second (final) night in Ankara, Steve and I took a taxi to Tilye, widely acclaimed to be the best seafood restaurant in the capital. For a little under $100 (way more than we’ve paid for any other meal), we consumed several marvelous fish dishes, a bottle of excellent Turkish sauvignon blanc, tasty bread, and two delicious desserts. It was superb, and I wouldn’t have missed it. But I also wouldn’t have traded a second night’s dinner there for our conversation with those curious Turkish kids.

Railroad Man

The other day when Steve glanced at our tickets for the Bernina Express, his jaw dropped. “Oh my God,” he breathed. “Am I really in seat #61?” “Yeah. You’re in 61 and I’m in 63. So what?”

“But that means this morning I will literally be the Man in Seat 61,” he replied.

I grasped his wonderment then. Several years ago I became an ardent fan of a website called The Man in Seat 61. I subsequently read an article about the guy who writes it, and if I were home in front of my desktop computer, I could tell you his name and his background. But as I’m working from my iPad with painfully slow hotel internet, all I will say is: if you’re interested, Google him. What I recall from the article is that he’s a Brit who I think began by writing online about European train travel, with an eye to making it easier for newcomers to navigate. He has since expanded to cover the rest of the world. I think I used his information to take trains in Vietnam. I read him religiously before our trip to India three years ago, and I give him all the credit for enabling me to traverse the subcontinent on rails.

Today his website is a vast repository of information, wonderfully organized and copiously linked. Thanks to him, for this trip I booked seats online for Steve and me from Paris to Bordeaux and back, Paris to Luxembourg, Luxembourg to Zurich, Zurich to Sargans (the gateway to Liechtenstein), Sargans to Chur, Chur to Tirano, Tirano to Milan, Milan to Bologna, Bologna to Rimini (gateway to San Marino), and Rimini to Rome.

It was the Man in Seat 61 who inspired me to route us from Liechtenstein to Italy on the Bernina Express. Poking around on his website I stumbled upon his glowing descriptions of it. The train is one of only three in the world to have been declared a UN World Heritage rail line, and The Man could not praise it highly enough. It was complicated to book online, run by a private Swiss line (the Rhatische Bahn) and requiring two separate tickets. But I did what he said and it all worked.

Steve and I actually have ridden on one of the other two World Heritage railway lines while in India. The “toy train,” as it’s known, runs from Jalpaigur up to Darjeeling in the Indian Himalayas, and I can tell you: the Bernina Express is about a million times nicer. Like the Indian train, the Swiss one runs on a narrow-gauge track, but the Swiss cars have huge panoramic windows and comfortable seats. The Indian train arrived at its destination more than three hours late, after tortuous intervals of sitting and not moving. The Swiss one took off at 8:16 instead of 8:15 and arrived in the Italian town of Tirano at 12:51 instead of 12:49. Its roughly 4.5-hour-long route took us over one of the highest rail beds in the world, one constructed more than 100 years ago specifically for tourists. It posed devilish challenges to the Swiss engineers who designed it, but it helped make them into the pre-eminent experts on tunneling that they are today.Lots of tunnels on this run!

People say it’s a strikingly different experience in summer and winter, and that you really should ride it in both seasons. I can tell you it was beautiful in late summer, on a day that began enshrouded in mist……but turned golden long before we crossed the Italian border. We had spiffy headphones that told us (in English) about the line’s history and highlights.The route literally winds through Heidi country — the part of the Alps where the book was set and movies were filmed.Bridges like this and sections of track that corkscrew through the mountains and meadows are among the attractions.In this view, the train is going under a circular bridge that it just traversed.Views of glaciers and glacial lakes also triggered avalanches of camera clicks.And there was a short rest stop that included traditional Alpine entertainment.

Steve and I enjoyed it immensely, as apparently did all our companions in the full car.

Now we’re on our last train trip of the trip, taking us from Rimini on the Adriatic southwest to Rome. Although we have more than two and a half weeks left before we return home, we’ll get around on planes and rental cars from here on. That’s too bad. When it comes to transit preferences, I’m with the Man in Seat 61.

Ground v. air — part II

I didn’t try to buy our Vietnamese railway tickets from home. I’d read that they would be easy to secure just a few days in advance, so when we checked into our hotel in Hanoi, I told Ms. Julia in the lobby that we wanted berths on the sleeper from Hanoi to Hue, seats on the 3-hour morning train from Hue to Danang (the portal to Hoi An), and seats on the 7-hour train from Danang to Saigon. The first two were no problem; $55 a person for the sleeper and $15 for the second train ride. But I had misunderstood the mechanics of rail travel between Danang to Saigon. Instead of taking part of a day, we learned, it would require a much longer amount of time, leaving Danang in a sleeping car about 10 p.m. Friday and not arriving until late Saturday afternoon.

I think that would have cost around $80 per person. In contrast, Ms. Julia informed us we could get seats on the one-hour-long Vietnam Air flight leaving Danang at 11:05 a.m. Saturday for $115 per person. We agonized a bit over the decision. We’ve come to loathe the time and tedium involved in modern air transport, and we had looked forward to seeing the scenery en route. In the end, however,the thought of giving up our prepaid room in Hoi An to rattle through yet another night made us come to our senses and buy the plane seats.

Thank god! The Vietnamese train system doesn’t offer first-class sleepers, so instead of having our own cozy space from Hanoi to Hue, we shared our 4-berth compartment with 2 other Americans (a likable young couple from Washington DC). We all had working electrical outlets, which was nice (I could charge up my phone and iPad!), but in other ways, it seemed inferior to the Thai sleeper we took from Bangkok to the Laotian border — no dining car, for one thing. And Steve saw a cockroach and spiders lurking in the recesses near his upper berth, though he kindly kept that news from me until after we had arrived.

The morning train ride from Hue to Danang was pretty mesmerizing. We had two seats In a standard day coach on which we appeared to be the only foreigners. The train was probably 60 years old and exceedingly slow, but it hugged a mountainous coastline with jaw-droppingly spectacular views. The action inside our coach was almost as diverting. Across the aisle and two rows up from us, a woman slept on the floor at her husband’s feet. I’m not sure how, with car attendants periodically rolling carts up and down the aisle (at one point dishing up some kind of hot food). Someone’s very naughty two-year-old was on the rampage. And from the ceiling, screens displayed “Rail TV,” which among other things aired a Vietnamese (officially franchised) version of The Amazing Race.

On the day coach from Hue to Danang
A view from the train

All pretty entertaining, but more than sufficient to satisfy the craving we’d had for rail time. Moreover, both of the short Vietnam Airlines flights we took (Luang Prabang to Hanoi and Danang to Saigon) felt like going back to a time when air travel was easy. All three airports were clean and uncrowded; the huge and gleaming one In Danang was only 2 years old. Hassles were minimal — no taking off of shoes nor long security lines. In fact, no one seemed to be paying much attention to what was rolling through the X-ray screeners. On board, the flight attendants didn’t patrol to check for seatbelt scofflaws, and no one seemed to care when I trturned on my electronic devices.

Now we’re in Saigon for two full days. I’ll probably wait until our Tuesday morning bus ride to the Mekong delta to write again. Between now and then, our schedule is pretty packed.

Air v. ground in Laos

Steve and I like visiting capitol cities. We feel they offer important insights into any country. That’s why we wanted to have at least a few hours in Vientiane in Laos. You can get to the Laotian capitol via a sleeper train from Bangkok. Thus we found ourselves pulling out of Hualamphong Station on the #69 Saturday night.

Somewhere deep within my psyche lies buried the delusion that night trains are romantic, which is why I keep taking them when I have a chance. At one point Sunday morning, in the Nong Khai station in Thailand, near the Laotion border, we actually saw such a train, incarnate. Elegantly labeled with raised golden letters, the Eastern & Oriental Express had dining car after dining car, and when they rolled by, we glimpsed tables set with linens and flowers. All the passengers looked to be plump and wealthy and Caucasian. I imagine their private compartments were plush and cozy.

The train we didn't take

The train we took, in contrast, had just one dining car, with six tables and battered plastic menus. The fluorescent lighting was blue-tinged and grim. A cheerful waiter served meals that were better than most of the fare we get on airlines (though those Eastern & Oriental Express passengers would have sneered at it). Steve and I also loved the fact that all the dining care windows were wide open, letting in the warm night breeze and giving us excellent views of the squalid conditions alongside the tracks that some of Bangkok’s residents somehow endure.

The train wasn’t the worst sleeper I’ve ever taken. It left precisely on time and arrived, 12 hours later, only about 20 minutes late. When the porter made up the bed in our car, the sheets looked reasonably clean, and the mattress wasn’t too hard. Still the clatter of the wheels penetrated my earplugs, and I’d have to be truly deluded to call the motion rocking, rather than jarring. When I have to pee in the middle of the night, I’d rather not have to walk through a corridor to a bad smelling little compartment with liquid on the floor, but we did enjoy waking up to stare at the fields of rice and sugarcane flashing by in the early morning light. After we pulled into Nong Khai, transferred to the shuttle train that takes you on the 8-minute ride across the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River (the border between Thailand and Laos), then took a taxi to our guesthouse in town, it was about 11 a.m. and we both felt a little weary.

Still, we were game for doing Vientiane. I’d had the good fortune to find and print out a September travel article published in the LA Times, so we had up to date recommendations for restaurants (which we hunted down and which proved to be 1) excellent (Xang Phoo for lunch) and 2) superb (Lao Kitchen for dinner)). That writer’s 5 must-see sights were all within walking distance of our hotel and each other, and we found and enjoyed visiting them all. By dinner, we were passing our judgment: Vientiane (pop. about 250,000) feels sleepy and mellow by the standards of other world capitols. It’s worthy of a 7-8 hour tour, but not two whole days.

So we were happy to climb aboard the “VIP bus” to Luang Prabang at 8 the next morning. We could have taken a plane (Lao Air, less than an hour and not expensive), but we’d read that the scenery seen from the bus was splendid, and we told ourselves: we enjoy the occasional bus ride. Once again, we were forgetting the qualifiers: IF it isn’t 10 hours long and IF the bus has halfway decent shock absorbers and IF it doesn’t break down or go over the precipice of one of a zillion hairpin turns. Steve and I usually enjoy that. Our ride avoided death AND disaster. The scenery for at least half the ride was indeed surreally beautiful. We saw details we would never have glimpsed on the plane: posses of three years olds running down the road with no adult anywhere in sight, tiny flooded rice fields, chiles drying on tin roofs, preteens hauling sticks in bags slung their foreheads, and more. But the last few hours felt grueling.

The town it took us to, Luang Prabang, in contrast has exceeded the good reputation that drew us here. It’s one of those enchanted towns, a Brigadoon or Shangrila or at least a Santa Fe. The balcony of our guesthouse overlooks the Mekong, which even this far north is wider than the Colorado. Surrounding mountains are as comely as those features of classic Chinese paintings. The streets are filled with pretty restaurants serving great food, with glorious temples, with spas offering massage services so cheap that even massage-resistent Steve succumbed to the lure of a 60-minute Classic Lao session (and liked it!). Monks parade through the streets at dawn accepting crackers and balls of rice from tourists and locals alike, and an endless line of stalls set up along the main street every night selling wares that even shopping-averse Steve found beguiling.

Monks receiving alms at dawn

Typical Luang Prabang scene
We have another whole day here before we take off for our evening flight to Hanoi. We could easily do more strolling and grazing and body-pampering, with breaks for coffee or cocktails to people-watch. But one thing about that hellish bus ride: it gave us glimpses into lots of dense and mysterious and and misty mountainous jungle. It called to us, and as luck would have it, a small industry of folks in this town puts tourists on the backs of elephants who carry them into it. We’ve signed up and depart in just an hour for yet another adventure in ground transportion.