Kars has become one of the most popular holiday destinations in recent years. On social media I was constantly seeing it, I always had other priorities, somehow I never got to see it. My friend Zeynep Hale Yenice called me one day. How can I describe what she does for a living… Zeynep used to organize private tours before the pandemic. “Come on, jump to it, we’re going to Kars for five days. I can squeeze you in, you are so lucky, this will never happen again.”

It’s true, finding a place on the Orient Express, is like finding a hundred dollar bill on the street. I texted Zeynep saying “I’m coming” and with many years of experience as a travel writer, I prepared my small suitcase in a snap.

Travel by train is a must

First, let me talk a little bit about the train journey. Yes, now the train service has been cancelled unfortunately, due to the pandemic. But it will start again very soon, I hope. So be prepared, and learn as much as you can about this mystical trip. Finding a ticket for the Orient Express, is close to impossible. It requires making preparations months in advance or you would have to pull some strings. There are literally no tickets! None whatsoever!

There are two separate train services to the East. To be more precise, there used to be two seperate train services… Once life is back to normal, I think it will be the same once again. One is the Touristic Orient Express, the other is the Orient Express. The routes are exactly the same, but the touristic one waits three hours at every stop. I prefer the touristic one. On the way from Ankara to Kars, the train stops in three cities, Erzurum, Erzincan and İliç for three hours each, giving you time to stroll around the town and do some sightseeing. Every town has a tower, a historical mosque and also a bazaar to visit.

High-speed train services run from Istanbul to Ankara. It takes about five hours. You change stations in Ankara and get on the Orient Express. And the travel to the east begins.

Compartments on the train are decorated with Christmas ornaments and lights. Passengers take out stoves, kettles, beverages and food. Beautiful music from a tiny speaker is heard. You can also find people who make eggs with the Turkish sausage called ‘sucuk’, which you can smell from miles away but we usually choose to ignore them.

The journey takes more than 24 hours. With the long stops sometimes it even takes close to two days. But that’s okay. The important thing is the journey itself.

The linens and pillow cases of the sleeper trains are clean. If you are one of those people who think hygiene is the most important thing on a vacation, then please don’t leave your house. Toilets on trains get dirty after a few hours, weird smells may come from the restaurant car and although it is generally fancy, the hygiene bar may be under what you are usually used to.

It’s like you are on the set of the movie Doctor Zhivago. You expect the music from the movie to start playing in the background. You feel beautiful in this movie frame. It’s like you’re living in that period. Your whole past is almost swept away.

While approaching Erzincan, we order Döner Kebab by phone. We order Çağ Kebab before Erzurum. Just tell them which compartment you are in. The important thing is not to waste time in the city and have enough time for sightseeing. The historical Çifte Minare Mosque will be seen, jewelry or objects made from Oltu stone will be bought. You have to have time to do all.

The meals on the train are ok. It seemed better when I was a kid. The tea and coffee served is not worth drinking either. Anyway, let’s just say they have it, if you want to try it. You can always make your own and bring a thermose full of coffee or tea. This seems to be the most logical solution.

I travelled one way by train and returned by plane. It is possible to purchase a return ticket, of course. But then it is necessary to plan on a week or even ten day long trip.

At last you arrive in Kars and Kars is great. At last she shines her jewels.

Kars will Surprise You

Kars is actually a small city. To be precise, it is not crowded, but is rather large areawise. The distances are far and there is a lot to do. It also has a strange spell to it. The last time I was there, about 15 years ago, I didn’t feel this effect. What happened? How did the city change? I don’t know. But there is definitely something mystical in the city.

Kars is one of the cities at the highest altitude in Turkey. Between 1877 – 1878, the Ottoman – Russian War took place. After the war, the city remained under the rule of the Russians for forty years, many will remember from the history books. The Russians gave great importance to Kars. Engineers from Germany were brought here to reinvent the city. Wide streets, large squares, solid stone buildings with thick walls can still be seen. These characteristics in a city are always the work of the Russians. Within the years after the Russian rule, the city grew in a pathetic way, I don’t need to tell you what it has become.

The population of Kars is less than 150 thousand. In some winters the temperature drops to -40 degrees centigrate. It is so cold. The name ‘Kars’ is thought to come from the Karsak, a local fox. The other view is from the word ‘Kariskalaki’, which means ‘city of gates’ in Georgian.

The airport is almost in the city center. On the way back this information makes you very happy while you are packing your suitcase, if you return by plane like me.

You will see Kars carpets in the city center. You will taste and buy Kars cheese, there are many different kinds.

If necessary, go to Boğatepe Village, which is an hour away from the city center. In fact, please go. See the whole village flourish with a coop mentality. 16 different kinds of cheese is produced here. And the villagers have even established a small memory hall they call a cheese museum. Some clever peasant women even learned French. It’s a wonderful place.

Anyway, be sure to visit the Kars Museum, it is very nice. But there is also a museum opened in the city: Caucasian War Front History Museum. Those torn boots, those reenactments, it takes one on memory lane.

One Full Day to Çıldır Lake

I was there at the time of the Golden Horse Winter Festival. There were javelin, horse archery races. I rode the horse sleds, watched the competitions. It was great.

But I would say, you should definitely experience the pleasure of fishing in Çıldır Lake. You are in the middle of all the whiteness. They teach you to cut a circular or square hole through the ice with a saw. You can cook the fish you catch on the grill. Then you eat it in open air, by the lake. You are surprised that your body adapted to the freezing climate so easily.

In Çıldır, you also experience an adventure in “drift snowfest” time. If it’s festival time, someday activities need to be devoted to fishing one day. Keep in mind.

Skiing in Sarıkamış

The people who know it, love the powdery snow of Sarıkamış. This high quality snow, especially is the passion of snowboarders. And also Sarıkamış has an endless landscape. I loved it. The only thing I don’t like about it, is that it’s about sixty kilometers away from the city. The ride takes about an hour.

Great Goose

What a delicious flavor this is… I hadn’t tried it before. It was both very healthy and delicious. I didn’t know it beforehand. Served with cranberry or apple compote and bulgur rice made with goose stock. When she heard that I was going to Kars, my journalist friend Tuluhan Tekelioğlu, had said that I should definitely go to the Kars Goose House. I did. It is a very nice restaurant founded and run by women. It’s aim is to support other women. The taste of the goose I had there will be remembered for a lifetime.

Ani Ruins Deserve a Day

The ruins of Armenian church of Ani are right next to the Armenian border. A magnificent splendor… an immense ancient city spreads over the land. There is a lot more excavations to be done. It takes an hour and a half to reach here from the city center. I would say that you should spend at least four hours there. So think of it as a daily trip.

While touring Ani, you can see the border villages of Armenia and the army watchtowers.