My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Friday, 1 November 2013

Pilgrimage to Eastern Turkey: on the Road to Kars

Our itinerary simply said “enjoy the scenic drive through to Kars (pronounced, I understand, as Karce as in Farce). Life is full of such a rich tapestry of experiences, I wrote in my log for that leg of the journey. Whilst some dozed, I was determined not to miss any detail of this fascinating drive.

First we noticed several army camps along the route with training grounds and closely guarded by sentries in look out posts protected by sand bags. The large herds of goats seemed to be reliant on quite barren looking grazing; I wondered if their feed is supplemented at all? It was now very cold; not more than 6 or 7 C. The coach rolled on past poor primitively constructed single story stone houses, clustered together in small villages with dusty roads beside hayricks of the loose style I remembered as a child of the 1950’s on the Kentish farms before tractors and hay bailers became common. We rushed past meandering streams in flat plains, saw camping sights and picnic areas, wooden open sided huts sheltering wooden picnic tables and benches, often set out in neat rows around a field: all now closed down for the winter which would soon hit this region in earnest.

We stopped for cay – the Turkish tea that I was to come to love in the absence of a good old English cuppa! They drink it neat and quite strong, in small glasses, with sugar, which I could do without. It came as a surprise to me to find everywhere the squat type loos that we became used to in our early student camping days across Europe but which were mostly replaced long ago by modern sanitation. The squat loos, though basic, were variously clean and tolerable or seriously unpleasant. Either way, they invariably cost 1 Turkish Lira, collected by a woman or boy who seemingly did little cleaning of the facilities, simply collecting the money! The squats become quite a challenge to older and stiffer joints and bones!

We passed women in the fields pulling up potatoes, which were stored beside the villages, in clamps covered with plastic sheets, usually blue. We saw what looked like neat piles of blocks of dried mud. These are for use as building blocks. We passed fields of cabbages that would easily win any giant vegetable competition back home. There were pumpkins and squashes piled up beside the road, ready for sale or storage. And the goats had been replaced by large herds of brown cattle, still on sparse pastureland. And there was litter. Everywhere. The stream became a river, and we saw stone water irrigation channels alongside the pastures, rather like the levadas of Madeira. There was grass drying in some fields to make hay presumably for winter feed of the cattle. It looked thin and poor in quality. As we approached Horasan the mud block roofs of the simple houses in the villages along the way were now often replaced by corrugated metal. There was an industrial estate dealing mostly with farm machinery.

After Horasan the scenery changed dramatically, becoming more mountainous with some interesting looking geology. I had to study geology for one year at university and was reduced to tears by having to look through a microscope at endless slides of different rock types. The geology of Turkey is complex and its earliest geological history not fully understood, so I am not qualified to comment on what I observed.

But I did briefly glimpse from the coach window some very strange structures in a village by the side of the road – and just managed to get a shot of them. They looked like giant termite colonies, but with what looked like window and door openings, as if people lived in them. They probably do! These are quite clearly cave houses, for which the Cappadocia region further over to the west of Turkey is famous. I can find no further information about these ones near Horasan but such structures are apparently naturally formed compressed volcanic ash formations into which dwelling places are carved. They may be two to four stories high, and because of the insulating properties of the rock they are cool in summer and warm in winter. It seems that many are now being used as boutique and unusual hotels in some tourist areas. Sadly I only managed to get a very poor snatched photo from the coach. We were not stopping. This was after all a pilgrimage, not a tourist trip! Through Dellal we took the road to Agri and Eleskirt. Studying the map on my lap I had to assume that our guide and driver knew which way to go, but this seemed wrong! Sure enough we had indeed come the wrong way. Mustafa our driver navigated us safely and steadily throughout our trip, but this part of the country was clearly new to him and he seemingly had no sat nav. We came to a sudden stop in a layby where he spoke with a van driver. So we turned around in the road to retrace our steps back to the right road. I saw several large birds of prey during this journey, impossible to identify from the brief glimpses of plumage as we passed. One was standing in a field displaying a bright golden breast. A little later on I watched another land, this time with striking white streaks on the underside of the wings, surely a distinguishing feature for those with knowledge of such birds. I was curious about the tiny isolated cemeteries we passed along the way, often with only 4 or 5 graves.

So we arrived back in Horasan, our first sizeable town on the day’s journey, and a welcome stop for lunch in the local pizza café. I was amused to see for sale in the hardware store across the road a large solar energy panel alongside a new squat toilet. Not everyone here welcomes all the latest comforts it would seem. Our drive continued, more than replete with the best pizzas, enjoyed with the locals of the town. With my tiny appetite my pizza would have fed me four times over, so we wrapped the spoils in napkins and in true pilgrim style shared the pieces on the bus with those still feeling peckish! As we drove alongside the river Aros Nehri, herons standing sentinel on the banks rose into ponderous lazy flight as the coach passed by. There was the carcase of a cow in the shallows, the rib cage intact, cleaned no doubt by weather and scavengers. 

Then we drove close to the old road and an elegant well preserved Ottoman bridge, as we rolled on towards Kars, where there was so much to see before stopping for the night at our next hotel be contd...

PS if the quality of some of these photos is not brilliant, please remember that many had to be taken through the coach window as we drove along - we were pilgrims not tourists after all...

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