The next morning in Erzurum we woke up early to go and see the sights before our hotel check-out time. The main square in the centre contains a mosque and a madrasa, the latter now converted into a museum and originally constructed around 1310. The madrasa has a unique minaret, tiled with turquoise and earth coloured patterns.
After our succinct tourist trip, we headed back to our hotel to pack our belongings, which as usual we had managed to untidily spread all over the room. The hotel was so surprisingly decent for the price, and we had become convinced we must have heard it wrong when we checked in, so it was with relief that we discovered it was as cheap as we had thought. They had even kindly let us park the bike in the fancy reception area to keep it safe overnight.
Following the usual faffing about, we hopped on the bike and sped away towards Kars. We were both glad we had stopped in Erzurum, but were also quite relieved to leave. This seemed a very conservative city, and although there were women around they were far outnumbered by men in every public place, which felt a little odd.
The route to Kars was short in distance but long in time. The road was hot, dry and dusty, worsening in condition as we got towards the city. To be fair, this part of the country spends most of the winter under a heavy blanket of snow, which does tend to wreck the tarmac. At one point, the air was swirling up the dust and dry weeds almost like a mini tornado and we had no choice but to drive through it. It was surprisingly strong and hit us like a smack in the face, leaving us covered in twigs, which was obviously nice and dignified. Although we had only ridden around 150 miles, we were worn out by the time we got to our destination.
The main reason for our Kars detour was to see Auntie Selçuk, who was spending the week there visiting some other relatives. With typical Turkish hospitality we were ushered up the garden as soon as we arrived and plied with delicious food and glasses of tea. After a tiring ride and having skipped lunch, this was very much appreciated by us both!
Most tourists come to Kars to use it as a base to visit the Ani ruins, around 30 minutes away by road. This ancient city was once the medieval capital of the Armenian kingdom, and at its peak reportedly had a population of 100,000 to 200,000. It is as close to the Armenian border as could possibly be, and the site has been much disputed between the two countries over the years. Considering that the border is closed, it was quite a bizzarre feeling to stand on one side of the river and only be metres away from Armenian soil.
As we were quite late in the day, the tour groups had all disappeared and we had the majority of the site to ourselves. Bathed in the evening light, the ruins and the surrounding landscape were quietly epic. We wandered around until closing time, alone but for a few other tourists and a young lad herding cattle amongst the stones.
On the way back to town, Auntie Selçuk mentioned somebody they knew was getting married that day, and that we should pop in. So, Oli and I found ourselves at a stranger's wedding. We were not exactly dressed suitably – motorbike jeans (both with knee armour, mine also with a luminous yellow bugsplat), t-shirts of highly questionable cleanliness, and extremely dusty motorbike boots. Fortunately, weddings in Turkey are not as formal as in England, and if anyone minded the state we were in they were kind enough not to mention it.
It was certainly a different experience to an English wedding. As the band blasted out local music, people danced in the traditional style with US dollars in their hands (apparently tips for the musicians). Everyone (except Oli and I) knew the dances, including a brilliant one where everyone holds hands, stepping and waving, with the music eventually getting faster and faster until the old people have dropped out and the remaining dancers are furiously stamping and jumping. It was brilliant to watch and I have promised Auntie Selçuk I will learn by the time Can or Tuncer get married...
After a very good night's sleep at our hotel, we walked over to Auntie Seçkin's house, where we were fed a second breakfast that easily bested the offering at our hotel. There were plentiful supplies of the delicious local Kars cheese, which has a stringy texture and a strong, almost tangy flavour (I realise I haven't made it sound the best here, but it really is amazing). Although we had already eaten, our self control failed miserably and by the time we had finished we were absolutely stuffed.
We had a guided tour of the sights from the aunties, starting with the mosque area which has been renovated over the past few years, with works still ongoing. The Islamic figure Hasan Harakanî is buried here, and the mosque itself is beautiful with a huge and ornate chanderlier. The artwork on the domes was spectacular, so apologies for yet more Turkey photos of mosque ceilings! From here we climbed up the steep hill to the ruined castle overlooking the city. Despite the heat of the day the effort was worth it, and we were rewarded with wonderful views stretching beyond the city boundaries.
We continued with Auntie Selçuk's guided walking tour of Kars. The city used to be fairly affluent, but was badly affected by the political troubles in the 1980s, and a lot of people (including some of Oli's family) fled Westwards. In the past, there was a heavy Russian influence, but sadly many of the beautiful old buildings are now showing signs of decay. However, a lot of investment is now going into Kars, with large areas being renovated and new apartment blocks being built. Hopefully things are now on the up.
The next day we rode off with emotional goodbyes, and headed for the Georgian border. The road was mountainous and became worse and worse in quality as we climbed, the tarmac having been wrecked by a combination of harsh winters and Iranian goods lorries. Whilst beautiful, this part of the country is desolate and largely empty but for a few tiny villages. It feels a thousand miles from anywhere.
Eventually we reached the border, and Oli made a few phone calls to family whilst he still had his Turkish SIM. The crossing itself was surprisingly painless, despite the Georgian border guard painstakingly inspecting every page of our passports, pausing every now and then to glare at us. We had a slight panic moment that we might have to unpack all our belongings, but after confirming it was just personal luggage we were waved on through, and our Georgian adventure could begin.