Kars: a veritable winter wonderland

A thousand-year-old UNESCO heritage site, ice fishing, a fortress towering over a Caucasian town with Russian influences, and an emerging ski resort. What do the Kardashians have to do with it, and why are there so many cheese shops in town? We visited frozen Kars in Turkey and lived to tell about it

We arrived in Kars in late January, approximately two days after a blizzard carpeted Jerusalem with snow, only it melted within a day or so. Unlike Kars, a little-known winter wonderland in the northeastern part of Turkey, where the winters are very long, and the snow is incredibly soft. But let’s start from the top and explain what we were doing here.

Actually, we were invited to explore the capital of the eponymous province in the northeast part of the country, because Turkey wishes to “familiarize the Israeli tourist with new and lesser-known destinations, perfect for those looking for nature, mountains, history, archeology, and culture, and those who wish to get to know another side of Turkey.” Moreover, said our hosts, “Israelis are adventurous travelers, and Kars is a well-suited destination for backpackers and families.”

So we put on our thermal clothes and set out to explore Kars.

Kars fortress. Photo: Inga Michaeli

The town, population 120,000, lies at the meeting point of three countries, Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia. The dominant Caucasian culture is quite evident in the architecture, the folklore, and even the food.

Speaking of Armenian influences, it turns out that Kim Kardashian’s great-great-grandfather was an Armenian-Christian born and raised in Kars. The family immigrated to America, and the rest is history.

Kars is dominated by a fortress rising high above it like a black basalt cliff against the backdrop of the pure white snow covering the land. It was built and destroyed many times by the Seljuks, Armenians, Georgians, Ottomans, and finally the Russians – who left their mark in the form of some turn-of-the-century European architecture, not to mention a hammam where Pushkin liked to bathe.

Downtown Kars boasts an impressive Armenian cathedral converted into a mosque, a beautiful promenade by the frozen riverbank, and a respectable amount of cheese shops. What’s the deal with all this cheese? We asked our hosts.

Apparently, Kars is at the center of the Turkish cheese industry, as the locals are known to herd their cattle every summer to the surrounding plains to feed the cows with the rich grass growing at an altitude of about 8000 ft above sea level. The local Gruyère cheese (here they call it gravyer) is quite famous and is traditionally aged for ten long months.

While we’re on the topic of food, Caucasian traditions and influences are also evident in the local cuisine, which is very different from the more familiar Turkish cuisine. The food here is heavier, rustic, and much simpler, with lots of soups, okra, and bulgur. A typical meat dish is lamb shank, slowly cooked until it practically falls off the bone and served in broth on a bed of pita bread and chickpeas.

Yet the signature dish of the area is undoubtedly the goose, salted and dried outside in the freezing cold, then cooked and served with bulgur. In the past, the goose was the primary source of protein for the locals, and today they simply follow the tradition. One of the well-known restaurants in the area is Kars Kaz Evi (Kars Goose House), and it is filled with diners day and night.

The nights in Kars are frigid on the outside, yet fiery indoors, with folklore shows like the one we experienced at Pushkin Restaurant. The opening act was two heavily mustached Turkish troubadours – strumming traditional instruments and playfully competing to establish who is better at improvising rhymes – then a whole dance troupe took the stage and enthralled the diners with Azeri-Georgian traditional dance. And if you wish to party well into the night, there are quite a few lively bars in town.

Ruins of Ani. Photo: Inga Michaeli

City of 1001 Churches

An hour’s drive from Kars is one of the main reasons to visit the area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Around 1000 AD, the city of Ani was the capital of the Kingdom of Armenia, which also included parts of present-day eastern Turkey. At its height, Ani was one of the largest and most prominent cities on the Silk Road – with 35,000 inhabitants, it was equal in size and importance to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). It was known as the city of 1001 churches.

The vast ruins you will see here today are indeed very impressive, in large part thanks to the jaw-dropping views and pristine landscape. The city sits on a plateau surrounded by deep ravines (the border with Armenia is just across the river) and the remains of a vast wall. Upon entering the gates, you will be greeted by the frozen landscape, with some hauntingly beautiful ruins scattered here and there: a well-preserved Armenian church, one of many, a mosque, a Zoroastrian fire temple, some remains of shops or houses, and possibly a synagogue – no one knows what the building was used for, yet it is decorated with two Stars of David and a relief of a Menorah.

Sarıkamış. Photo: TGA

Powdery snow

Aside from being the gateway to Ani, skiing is another excellent reason to visit Kars. The Sarıkamış ski resort, just a 45 minutes drive from town, is not yet as developed as Bansko in Bulgaria or Godauri in Georgia, but the area is known for its powdery alpine-grade snow, as well as 13 miles of slopes, five ski lifts, and several hotels, such as Habitat Hotel, offering guests an indoor pool and spa.

Still mainly popular with Turks, the ski resort’s main draw is the price tag – six nights of full board for a family of four will cost around 1000 Euros, and ski equipment rentals are dirty cheap.

Walking on water

The huge Lake Çıldır stretches about an hour’s drive from Kars. Children will enjoy riding a horse-drawn sleigh (here it is called a troika) on the frozen lake, which is 150 ft deep. Although the ice is very thick, almost 28 inches deep, it is worth remembering that this is the only thing separating you from the freezing water.

Locals dig holes in the ice, casting nets and fishing carp – the same carp they serve deep-fried or char-grilled in the lakeside restaurant. It’s a nice place to warm up after a ride in the open troika on the windswept lake, and you can finish the simple meal with nicely presented Turkish coffee or tea.

To sum up, Kars tourism is not yet as developed as other parts of Turkey. More investment in infrastructure and international hotels is much needed, not to mention direct flights from Tel Aviv. Still, if you are adventurous, looking for a cheap ski destination, or want to combine a visit to Georgia and Armenia with some time spent in Northeast Turkey (not far from Mount Ararat), Kars is definitely an intriguing place. And in a couple of years, you’ll be able to say you were the first to recognize its full potential.

Troika on Lake Çıldır. Photo: @markdavidpod

Worth noting

Kars Harakani Airport is located just four miles from town, and you can fly there with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, Izmir, or Ankara.

Another option is to travel to Kars with the Eastern Express train (Doğu Ekspresi) from Istanbul or Express Arzurum from Ankara. The trip lasts a full day and night, passing through spectacular views, and costs just a few bucks.

I probably mentioned a couple of times that Kars is frozen, but just how frozen? Think 24 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 10 degrees at night. In the dead of winter, the temperature might drop to -13 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure to dress accordingly.

The author was a guest of Turkish Airlines and the Tourism Development and Promotion Authority of Turkey (TGA) and would like to thank Selim Öztürk, Seda Sadi, and all the TGA staff for the hospitality.



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