The Long Cold Drive

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Travel sickness occurs when your eyes and inner ear tell a different story to your brain. If you’re being bounced up and down on an ocean wave or thrown side-to-side on a hairpin road, your brain can’t make sense of the world. It’s normally a quite unpleasant experience.

Relaxing, and keeping your eyes on the horizon, is the well-established solution. Indeed a good solution for most problems in life.

Relaxed though I was, I had quite enjoyable experience of conflicting messages being received when I took to the road for a few days in Turkey’s far East.
I’d hired a car from the small town of Kars in Turkey’s North East. Hiring wasn’t a particularly simple process. Kars doesn’t have the usual international complement of Hertz, Avis or Europcar.

After a bit of research I’d found what looked like a moderately reputable national Turkish chain. I booked a mid-sized car online, selected the snow-chains option and left it at that.

When I arrived in town late the night before I was due to pick up the car, I realised I hadn’t been sent the address for the rental agency. Google couldn’t help and nor could the hotel staff.

After a few emails and phone calls I soon established that even they didn’t have an agency in town but had palmed my booking off to a local firm.

Kars is a pretty small town. It didn’t take long by process of elimination to track down the agency.

It was a beaten up, old, diesel fiat. It had 150,000 km on the clock. I scraped the snow of the roof and we looked around the car. There were far too many dents and scratches to note on the official-looking rental form. It wasn’t exactly as if I was spoilt for choice. And I was anxious to hit the road.

I took a few photos of the car’s dilapidated state and hoped that would do.

The guy showing me the car spent considerable time pointing out the spare wheel in the boot. The spare had clearly been well used and was partially flat. I couldn’t quite work out why he was so insistent on pointing it out.

“If you get a flat tyre, you’re fucked” I imagined him saying as I helpfully translated.

It had taken us whole minutes – even with the help of google translate on his iPhone – to agree that the fuel tank was half-full and I’d bring it back half-full. I couldn’t face another ten minutes of google-translating to work out what he was going on about.

I set my phone in Sat-Nav mode and chucked it on the dash. I took the keys, swung my bag on the back seat and, after a bit of coaxing, managed to get the car to start up and I drove off.

Central Kars is made up of a small grid system of roads. There had been a dusting of snow over the previous few weeks, which had suffered that horrible freeze-thaw effect of turning beautiful snow into treacherous ice.

I tried pulling away in second gear to save spinning the wheels and noticed that the clutch was pretty worn.

Driving around town was less than pleasant, but I was soon out onto the dual carriageways, which were well surfaced, clear of snow and ice and discomfortingly quiet.

High on the Anatolian plateau and with the snow-capped mountains forming backdrop it was hauntingly beautiful. And quiet.

I’d wanted to visit the ancient Armenian ghost town of Ani some 40-odd km southeast of the Kars.   It was about 40 minutes drive to Ani. I don’t think I saw another car on the way.

 

 

There aren’t many tourist attractions in this far-flung corner of Turkey. And I’m always a little suspicious when any guidebook tells me that something is a ‘must see’. So many ‘must see’ tourist attractions are always a disappointment.

As arrived at Ani there was only one other car parked outside the gates. I paid the few Lira entrance fee at the little ticket window – waking the clerk up in the process. He hadn’t had much business all day.

I was conscious that I didn’t have too much time. This far East darkness came early in the afternoon. It was cold enough as it was, and I hadn’t much fancied driving in the dark in case the car packed up. According to the weather forecast, minus 14 was predicted overnight.

So I was conscious that time was short, which is perhaps the best way to enjoy an experience as it encourages you to live in the moment.

Ani is described in my Bradt travel guide as ‘haunting’ and I can find no better word to describe it. The remains of the town overlook a deep ravine. The emerald coloured river at the bottom marked the border with Armenia. There were a few desultory looking military checkpoints dotted around, but the boder looked porous at best. The fences on the Turkish side of the border were topped with barbed wire, but cut through with holes.   Hundreds of years ago Ani would have been the centre of a great metropolis. Now it gave the impression of a lonely and isolated frontier.

The town, my guidebook told me ‘grew up on a major east-west caravan route, amazing great wealth which its Armenia rulers later used to endow the city with sumptuous churches… its size and magnificence in the mid 10th century, nothing in Europe could touch Ani, and only Constantinople, Cairo and Baghdad were its rivals.’

The remains, were vast and made all the more imposing with the backdrop of snow capped mountains.

Being quite so alone in a the ruins of what was once a city of such magnitude was, to use that word again.. haunting.

But time was pressing, and after about 40 minutes I knew I had to get going. It was now late morning and darkness wouldn’t be too far off. I jogged back to the car and set off.

 

I drove back towards Kars, where I took the opportunity to fill up the car with diesel. Such was the isolation in these parts, I thought it was prudent to have a full tank.

The pump attendant filled up the car whilst I nipped into the shop in search of a loo. Despite it being a big petrol station, geared up for passing lorry traffic, the place was deserted.

The pump attendant – despite speaking no English – seemed insistent on offering me Nescafe. My immediate thought was that this was either a money making scam or a bid for a tip. It’s the one thing I hate about travelling off the beaten track – you keep your wits about you to avoid being scammed – but it does mean thinking the worst of everyone.

But it turned out to be genuine. I hadn’t eaten all-day, let alone sat down for a coffee. I paid for my fuel and stood in the desolate forecourt with the sugary Nescafe and felt instantly recharged.

 

After Ani I initially had no real plans. I’d not booked that night’s hotel and had been anticipating the freedom of a car and a load of options.

I had vaguely decided to drive to Doğubayazıt as the major town at the foot of Mt Ararat – the highest mountain in Turkey and the fabled home of Noah’s Ark. I knew I couldn’t climb Ararat – you need to wangle a permit, and that takes months.

But there’s northing I love more than hanging around mountain towns and I was keen to see the Persian influence this far east. Doğubayazıt sits just 10 miles form the Iranian border.

And so with a full tank of fuel I started the long drive south to Mr Ararat.

The car stereo wasn’t advanced enough to allow me to plug in my music, so I scanned the airwaves repeatedly for something – anything –  to listen to. There’s wasn’t so much as any decent Persian pop. Just a lot of Arabic and Persian wailing. I’m all for soaking up a bit of ethnic music, but there are limits.

I drove for what seemed hours over clear wide roads. The road would climb from time to time to pass over a gentile mountain pass. Only the signs on the road reminded me quite how high I was. The road frequently crested 2200 metres, which would be a serious mountain pass in the Alps. Only on some of the higher passes did the clear tarmac give way to a light covering of snow and ice, but it was nothing too troubling.

As the road crested the next set of mountain passes I passed close to the Armenian border, I started flicking through the radio stations again.

Somewhat bizarrely I came across RFI – Radio France International, which seemed to be broadcasting out of Armenian capital Yerevan. It was vastly more listenable than anything else I could find.

Slowly the dark and heavy overcast clouds began to part and the sun intermittently came out. It was strikingly beautiful against the golden landscape. I passed a delightful few hours with the generally easy driving. It was amazing how quickly I tuned into the French. With no one else to talk to in the car, I quickly found myself starting to think in French too.

The road began to wander and get thinner as it tracked the side of a valley. The odd switchback began to feature.

It was an oddly surreal experience – my ears telling me I was in France – but the view screaming Central Asian Steppe.

 

Igdir was the first major town I came too. It’s main drag was a bustling thoroughfare. I half contemplated finding somewhere to stay and calling it a day, but the evening light was so beautiful I decided to push on.

I stopped a little outside Doğubayazıt as I had no idea where I was going to stay.

I peered down into my phone to look at the map. It was starting to get dark. I was tired and in need of a shower and a good meal.

I tapped away on my phone. Within a few minutes on Booking.com I found the Tehran Boutique Hotel. A new build hotel, which at about £20 a night look clean and decent and one of the better offerings in Bogubeyazit.

After hours of such piece and quiet on the open road the arrival into town came as something as a shock.

I reach a junction with the main drag through town. It was heaving with lorries, and cars, and donkeys pulling carts. This was the main route from Turkey to Iran. By now it was starting to get dark. I realised I’d have to change my driving from relaxed to assertive if I wanted to get anywhere. I forced the nose of the car out into the traffic, weaved around the cars and joined the throng going left.

In its reassuring calm voice my satnav soon suggested a right turn to my hotel. But the alleyway looked narrower than the car so I borked and carried on.

After a few hundred meters I came across a slightly more substantial road and slipped off the main road. The road was heaving.

I eased the car further into the town as the road got thinner. Cars coming the other way were just inches from my door. I turned left and right getting deeper into the rabbit warren of the city.   Parked cars and market stalls would occasionally require me to mount the pavement and come perilously close to brick walls of neighbouring buildings. Never before have I quite had to squeeze a foreign car through such small gaps.

I got tantalisingly closer to my intended hotel, but a maze of one way streets – armed with vicious looking one-way enforcing spikes buried into the tarmac – soon carried me off in the opposite direction.

It was now all but dark and the town was immensely busy. It occurred that I might be better off on foot.

I was conscious that I was now tired and cranky and this would be prime time for mistakes to happen – the kind of mistakes that involve the grawnching sound of metal being scrapped across concrete.

As if my magic I saw what might possibly do as a parking space. In the couple of seconds it took me to assess whether the space was any longer than my car, the traffic behind me started, almost in unison, a cacophony of horn blasts.

It took more seconds of arguing with the clutch to engage reverse. More horn blasts.

It was a narrow road so even swinging the car around to do a parallel park was difficult, but somehow I managed to fit the car in the space in one smooth reverse move. ‘One take Wainhouse, I congratulated myself’

I scraped up anything valuable looking from the cabin and set off to see if the hotel had rooms.

It did. And it had a car park too.

 

The next day I woke with a strange knot in my stomach. I looked out the window. It was snowing. Hard.

I’d been planning a leisurely wander around town including a visit to Isak Pasa’s pleasure palace just outside of town before leaving after lunch for the drive back to Kars. I had a flight booked the next day from Kars back to Istanbul.

I checked the weather forecast which showed more snow all day and a low of minus 18 overnight. Whatever happened I knew it would be a pretty serious deal if I got stuck overnight in that with a crummy broken-down car.

I went up for breakfast on the top floor of the hotel to mull over my options. The views were supposed to be stunning over Mt Ararat, but all I could see was a swirling snowstorm. I hadn’t slept particularly well and all I wanted now was a lazy day reading and watching the world go by in this slightly remote town. I knew it was going to be a tough day.

There were three roads out of Doğubayazıt. One led to Iran, about 15km to the East. I had no visa.

The other was back over the switchbacks and mountains the way I’d come the previous day. I really didn’t fancy that. As in really, really didn’t fancy that.

And the other route was West via Agri and Horasan, which added about 150km to the route I’d taken the day before.

I knew that if I was going to try, I’d have to leave early to get as much from the limited daylight as possible.

But I had another coffee, then another breakfast. All trying to put off the inevitable moment. Perhaps somehow hoping another option would reveal itself to me.

I thought about trying to buy some snowchains. But I figured that would take a couple of hours and would make it even more likely that I’d end up driving in the dark by mid afternoon. I’ll risk it during the day I thought. But I’m not driving in the dark.

I looked up the longer route on Google maps, trying to see if there were any tell-tale switchbacks. All in it looked like it was about 320km to Kars. That’s a long trudge through heavy snow.

I asked at the hotel reception what the roads were like, but the helpful guy who’d checked me in the night before wasn’t there – and now no one spoke any English.

I paid up and walked out the back of the hotel, where the car was parked. There was already a thick covering of snow on the steps down to the car park. The fresh snow covered an expanse of marble, which it turned out was extremely slippery. Almost immediately my feet went flying and I landed heavily on by back, slightly knocking the wind out of me. Scrabbling around for something to hold on to I then slid down the steps. This didn’t bode well.

Slightly freaked, I climbed up. I was uninjured but felt a huge wave of adrenaline suddenly start to pump into my system. I felt strangely and uncharacteristically apprehensive.   Hello fear.

I felt strangely and uncharacteristically apprehensive. My last folly with a car and snow was when I managed to get a Toyota Yaris stuck in a blizzard on the Georgian Military Highway somewhere south of the Russian border. It was probably this rather hairy experience that led to my nervousness now.

 

I drove slowly back towards the main road and turned right before doubling back on myself. The road was disconcertingly empty.

As I left town a saw a few cars pull in, their drivers fitting snow chains. I gulped and pushed on.

It was a decent dual carriageway.   But with the snow it was hard to tell where the edge of the road lay. I drove down what I took to be the middle of the two lanes. There wasn’t enough traffic for this to be a problem. There was a bit of traffic on the other side of the road. I took this to be a good sign that the road must be open. Feeling slightly more comfortable I pushed up to 60kph.

It can’t have been much longer before I came across the steaming wreck of another car which had spun off the carriageway across the central reservation, its front end smashed in. Another car going the other direction has stopped to help.

I gulped and involuntarily eased back on the throttle to get a better look. I didn’t speed up again for a good while. After about an hour I reached a major junction. I pulled over to check the car over – there had been a disconcerting graunching noise from somewhere below the car every time I went over a bump. I had tried to ignore it, hoping – wishing – it would go away. But now there was somewhere convenient to stop.

I flung open the door and stepped out. My feet sunk through the snow which settled around the bottom of my calves. I immediately saw the problem. All four wheel arches were snarled up with solid snow and ice. So much so that if I tried to turn the front wheels – normally quite necessary in the process of steering – they would grind against the ice. And if I went over a bump the ice would hit against the tyres.  I tried as best I could to break off the ice.

In the ten minutes or so that I spent trying to re-habilitate my car, only another two vehicles passed. None came other way.

When I climbed back into the warm cabin – I’d left the engine running and heater blowing – I realised quite how cold and numb my fingers had become.

I pulled away again slowly but almost immediately saw two cars coming back down my side of the road with their hazard lights on.

I wound down my window and stuck my head out. Without stopping, the first car crossed over into the other lane and drove back the way I’d come.

The second driver, seeing my wild gesticulating also wound down his window and in response to my arm waving and bellowing, just shouted “closed”. It was the only English I had heard all day.

‘That’s it’ I thought. I would be stuck in Doğubayazıt for God knows how long. Whilst I was mulling over my options (Did they ever plough these roads? Would I be trapped till summer? Would I have to buy a house, settle down and start a life here?) the driver crossed the carridgeway and started driving – the wrong way – down the other side of the road.

This seemed mighty dangerous. And if the road was closed at a mountain pass surely it would be closed in both ways. I had to make a split decision. At least if I was driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway there would be one car in front of me.

So as quickly as I could I crossed lanes, turned on my hazard lights and made off in quick pursuit. I didn’t want to lose the car in front.

The road rose quickly and after about ten minutes the problem became apparent. There was a queue of stationary lorries for about 400 meters and, at the front, a series of jack-knifed lorries and one huge juggernaut which appeared to have slid sideway off the road. Gulp.

I dared not slow down for fear that I wouldn’t get going again up the hill. I could feel myself hunched over the steering wheel. Gripping tightly. Another bucket load of adrenaline released itself into my system. I tried to relax. To breathe slowly. Let my shoulders relax.

As the snow closed in I eventually lost contact with the car in front. And it was what seemed like hours before I came across any other cars coming the other way.

Eventually at another junction I crossed back onto my side of the road and felt only slightly better.

In parts I could only barely make out the sides of the road. I worried if I misjudged things I’d go sliding off into the ditch.

Over some more mountain passes I came across more stuck lorries – just spinning their wheels.

Eventually I came to a town – Taslicay. It was barely more than a one road town. A few snowploughs were starting to make a desultory effort at clearing the main drag. A few people were hitching. I’d never even considered picking up a hitcher. But now I thought – just a small thought – of how comforting it would be to have someone else in the car. Even if that person didn’t speak a word of English. But I didn’t stop.

By now the snow had either eased or I was feeling gung-ho enough to carry on. I drove on through the slightly bigger town of Agri, then on to Eleskirt

I came across a few snowploughs as the morning wore on. Again this reassured me, that if the worst happened I could – I would – abandon the car and hitch a ride to safety. I followed a snowplough for what seemed like ages. Then – in an act of mighty folly – decided it was going too slowly and decided to overtake it.

As morning turned to afternoon the roads gradually got better. Gritters had started to have an impact and I could, in patches, begin to see tarmac again.

I reached Horasan – one of the larger towns on the Anakara – Kars – Armenia route about four hours after starting setting out. The main road seemed to have had more attention from the gritters and snow ploughs.

I drove on to Karakurt when I realised that apart from being shattered by the concentration, I had a caffeine withdrawal headache. By now I was increasingly confident I’d make it to Kars before dark. I’d not wanted to stop before as I couldn’t be sure I could spare the time.

As I came up to a junction where the road split for Kagizman and Kars there was a collection of market stalls. I pulled in amongst the minibuses that ply the route. Attracting a little more attention than I’d planned I sized up the stall and found what looked to be a small travellers café.

Inside was a small cast iron wood-burning stove and a scene that could have been from anytime over the last thousand years. Elderly men and women sat round the stove, all dressed in conservative black. The walls looks like they contained about a thousand years dirt.

It was one of those places where taking a photo would have been distinctly not appropriate. So I tried my best to mentally imprint the image on my mind for later.

In the corner a young guy manned a gas stove. ‘Coffee? Café?’ I asked tentatively

With a little shake of the head ‘Chai’ was the answer. For such a simple job he seemed to take such pride.

So I took a sweet Turkish tea. There was nowhere inside to sit so I stood outside happy to take in the fresh air and stretch my legs.

Another guy about my age was standing there smoking, who I took to be the driver of one of the minibuses. ‘Kagizman?’ he asked pointing down the road. ‘Kars’ I replied pointing the other way. ‘English?’ he asked. ‘English’ I replied.  We stood there in reflective silence.

He had reached the limit of his English and I the limits of my Turkish.

Feeling restored I set off again for the hour-and-half’s drive to Kars which despite re-freezing snow passed off uneventfully.

***

Arriving in Kars again came as a shock to the system. It was just starting to get dark.  After doing my best to make progress on the dual carriageways, I had to consciously slowdown when I reached the smaller roads in town. I kept braking too heavily on the small town road and firing the ABS.  It would be ironic if I crashed now, in town, I thought.

Again the wheel arches had become blocked with ice to that each time I turned more than a few degrees there was an awful grinding noise.

I had planned to keep the car until the next morning when I’d drop it off at the airport. But suddenly I wanted to be shot of it. I found my way through town, where the guys in the hire company seemed surprised to see me.

I tossed them the keys and gave the car a once over, checking I’d picked up everything.  I had a rummage around the boot, beneath my bags, where I came across I large red bag that wasn’t mine.  I peeked inside. It contained snow chains! I laughed to myself. They seemed puzzled why the snow chains remained obviously unused.

***

I’d not booked a hotel for that night in Kars – I had’t been sure I’d make it this far – but the Grand Ani Hotel was just a few steps from where I’d left the car.  Despite its name it wasn’t particularly grand.

Delighted to be shot of the car, I checked in and climbed the stairs to my room.  I fell on bed with a big grin on my face.

For the first time in hours everything was still and calm. My eyes and brain knew I was stationary.  But my inner ear seem to still be bouncing along those bumpy roads.

Despite the sensory overload and conflicting messages, my brain knew I was safe.  Travel sickness is great when it stops.

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