March 2018: My friends Jimmie, Frank and I visited the ghost city of Ani as part of a larger 12-day trip that included Romania, Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh and Georgia. The main purpose of this part of the trip was to visit Armenia but I couldn’t come this close without visiting Ani, founded 1700 years ago, and nicknamed the “walled city of 1000 churches.” Ani once lay on the crossroads of thriving silk road trading routes, but now is a ghost city of decaying ruined buildings seated along the edge of desolate river cliffs. To get to Ani from Armenia, which due to political obstacles, was a lot longer of a journey than it would have been if the border between Turkey and Armenia was open. At its peak, Ani was the largest city in the world until raiding Mongols and an earthquake decimated it. Ani never recovered and eventually was abandoned all together. Now sadly, the ancient Armenian city sits right across the river from Armenia but due to poor relations with Turkey and Armenia, the border is closed and as I discovered to reach Ani from Armenia it is an 8-hour journey through Georgia and Turkey.  This is the story of our trip to Ani.

 

 

Ani

We crossed into eastern Turkey from the Georgian city of Akhaltsike with its 9th century overly restored castle. It was early in the morning and below freezing outside.  Our taxi dropped us off at the lonely border and could not go any further. From here on out we were on our own and would have to find a taxi on the other side. The Turkish immigration officer was rude and tried to accuse me of having a fraudulent visa because the visa did not include my middle name which was in my passport. I explained to the immigration officer that the visa form did not ask for my middle name, and he was unwavering almost as if he was seeking a bribe. I didn’t argue and tried to stay as polite as possible, and he eventually agreed to let me in.

Crossing the border was the easy part. Now we were in the middle of nowhere in the icy morning cold and the streets were empty. All we could do was keep walking until we found a village and hope to find transportation to Kars. We walked for a few miles until a village was in sight. The small village of wooden houses with wood smoke billowing out if the chimney stacks was quiet and no one was out on the streets. At this point we were freezing and more concerned about getting out of the cold than in finding transportation. I spotted a man who had just walked out of his house to his van, and I quickly approached him and asked him where we could catch a taxi. He didn’t speak English but pointed to another house and made a call and another man came over and offered to take us to the next village for a small fee. He said the next village is where you can find a bus or long-range taxi. In the next village we were able to take out Turkish money to pay the man and find a taxi to take us 3 hours to Kars through an icy winding mountain road. We arrived at Kars late in the day without much time to do anything other than explore Kars.

 

Old men in outdoor street cafes in early morning

We stayed the night in Kars, an old city with a mixed population of Kurdish and Turkish people. In Kars we walked around until we found a guesthouse to drop our stuff off at and we immediately set off to explore the city. It was clear to us right away when we walked the streets, and everyone turned to stare at us that this was a part of Turkey that didn’t receive many foreigners. Kars is an interesting city with many old buildings and ruined abandoned ruined monasteries that we were able to crawl in through broken windows and explore. There was also a great vista from the top of one of the hills and some beautiful old mosques. Morning belonged to elderly men in flat caps and suit jackets drinking tea and smoking cigarettes while debating politics over discussions about how better society was in their day. Nighttime belonged to youthful kids wearing Addidas track clothes with Nikes and whatever the latest western fashions are while congregating at loud cafes blasting loud Turkish electronic music. Kars is conservative and we didn’t see many women out at night. The proportion to men on the streets at night were far higher than women.

 

Frank overlookig the river valley to Armenia from Ani. Armenian soldiers could be seen patrolling the border on the otherside.

The next morning, we hired a taxi for the one-hour drive through flat grey featureless terrain to Ani. My initial plan was to camp inside Ani or in one of the caves overlooking the river and Ani. This would have been easy to do even if not technically allowed but we were just too tired after our long travels and we had to catch a plane the following day to Bucharest, where we would be climbing to Vlad the Impaler’s castle,  the man who inspired Dracula, and two nights of illegal camping sounded fun but too exhausting for us, so we opted to just visit Ani for the day and stay another night in a hotel in Kars.

Ani did not disappoint. The flat monotonous landscape suddenly gave way to a series of majestic rolling river bluffs surrounded by snowcapped peaks and before us was this ruined ancient city that was losing its battle with time. Part of the city’s old wall remained which Turkish authorities used as a ticket booth. But beyond paying for ticket, there were no guards, no one patrolling Ani and best of all, there were few tourists. We rarely saw anyone else, and it was a magical feeling to wander the ruins of this city, which has not been tactlessly restored. Some of the buildings were being restored but it appeared as if there were efforts to conduct the restoration carefully and to not add a lot of new building materials to rob the buildings of their original character. Ani is a vast place and to visit all of it, it took us most of the day. We spent a lot of time in each building just sitting and soaking in the haunting atmosphere. My friends and I all agreed it was a highlight of our trip and worth the long journey. I am sure that the secret of Ani is bound to get out and be discovered by mainstream tourism and when it does, well…….I am just glad I got there before it did.

 

Ani ancient church

Frank and Jimmie walking to one of the old buikdings in Ani

Decaying old building in Ani

Crumbling ancient church

Old abandoned church on Armenian side of river precariously clinging to a cliff

inside an abandoned church

inside an abandoned church with an old mural of Christ on the cross

Old Ani

Frank admiring an old building that was part of a cave

Jimmie having a moment

Old Ani

Old Ani

After two nights in Kars, we flew from Kars to Istanbul and onwards to Bucharest, from where we continued on to sleep atop the castle of Vlad Tepes, the man that inspired the story of Dracula.

 

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