So very quickly the issues of travelling in a time of Covid-19 have fallen away and the tour is now just like any other. Having formed our own ‘bubble’, except where legally obliged face masks are off, social distancing is all but gone, and we are all having a great time.
From Erzurum we travelled east across the vast Anatolian steppe, a high altitude plain burnt yellow by the late summer sun, to the small city of Kars. Here we had a delicious traditional lunch before carrying on to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ani.
Lying as it does on a spectacular ravine that defines the border with Armenia, and surrounded by rugged low-lying mountains, the setting for this ancient citadel could hardly be more impressive. At the height of its power in the 10th and 11th centuries, Ani was a major city, the capital of the Armenian empire and an important staging post on the old Silk Road. Surrounded by four miles of city walls, it is still home to some stunning old churches, mosques, fire temples and forts. We spend all afternoon wandering through the site, marvelling at the still well-preserved treasures. Besides a handful of locals, out for a Sunday afternoon jaunt, we were the only travellers there.
Returning to Kars we visited a 10th century church, which had been added to by the Russians during their brief occupation between 1887 and 1917, and then turned into a mosque. Constructed out of dark basalt rock and sitting as it does in the lee of the town’s old fort, it made for a dramatic backdrop for the Turkish bride and groom that were having their photos taken when we arrived. We stayed the night in an old Russian mansion nearby.
The following day we drove northeast, across the never-ending steppe, passed Lake Cildir where we stopped for a chai and paddle, before travelling on to the tiny hamlet of Yildirimtepe, which translates as Thunder Crest. From here we had our first good walk, along a trail that led down a narrow gorge to the impressive Devil’s Castle. Improbably situated high on a promontory of rock this dramatic fort was built by the Georgians in the 13th century, although there is evidence of a settlement here dating all the way back to the 8th century BC. After scrambling up through the battlements, we climbed a near vertical ridge 500 metres to the top of an escarpment where the views were sublime. Travelling as we are through the borderlands of Eurasia, from here we could look east in Georgia. We sat in the sun on a carpet of beautiful wildflowers and had a picnic lunch. High above us four Griffin vultures circled on the thermals.
In all we walked for six hours amongst some of the most spectacular mountain scenery I have seen anywhere. We passed through small settlements where cattle and geese wandered, and old women bade us good day. The sun was setting as we reached the road and climbed back into the bus. We were all tired but satisfied after another truly epic day.