Pushkin travelled to Erzurum from the fortress at Kars while I took the route over the Pontic Mountains from Trabzon. OK there was nearly a 200 year time difference.
There have been so few documented well known travellers to Erzurum and Pushkin really does appear to be the only one to figure in the records, he went there to fight the Turks, I went there because it was on the map and had a train station.
If travelling and writing your own blog is nothing else it is that you can place your own name in the same paragraph as that most famous of Russians and the writer of Eugene Onegin.
Perhaps arriving from Kars presents a better and more pleasing arrival than coming from the north. After crossing the mountains and climbing to the high plain we dropped down occasionally to small villages with a stream and a few trees and huge flocks of sheep with a couple of mules weighed down by all the worldly possessions of the shepherd, a seriously tough and lonely life.
Erzurum lies at nearly 1800 metres altitude in a near treeless plain with mountains more than 3000 metres behind and from the bus station some 5 miles north of the town all I could make out was some pretty awful architecture.
The taxi ride into town actually costs more than the 6 hour bus trip and revealed Erzurum in its rather drab, dull appearance.
The air was thin and very dry and the town rather merged with the dun colour of the Anatolian plain. The light is extremely harsh for most of the day and there is such a short period as it begins to soften before it disappears behind the mountains, making photography a challenge.
I wouldn’t say the place actually depressed me but I realised as we drove into town there was so little to see, so much so that as soon as I checked in I asked the hotel manager who appeared to speak english what time the train station opened the next morning as an earlier than planed departure from Erzurum was the best way to retain what sanity I had left after a month or so in turkey. His answer with a motion of his exceptionaly large bespectacled head was ‘train station closed Saturday’.
As it happens this was not the only piece of misinformation I got from him sometimes I felt he didn’t actuakky speak any english as the answers bore no relation to the question it wasn’t.
A quick tour of the town before dark did however reveal a couple of interesting buildings, the Covered madrassa the Yakutiye Medresesi with its beautiful carved laticework tower in the central square is an architectural delight, and probably the one reason to travel here.
That night and everynight there were a dozen or so brand new cars with their temporary Iranian plates. It reminded me of the sole reason Erzurum existed and Theodosius expanded and fortified this small settlement and created a capital in the east.. It is the only spot for a hundred kilometres or more in any direction that had water and natural defences on the escarpment with a fertile plain that was on the way to everywhere else Iran, Caucasus, The Black Sea, Mesopotamia, the Caspian sea and Bagdad and the Gulf. Today only the Iranians pass through. Theodosius was the last roman emperor to have ruled over the eastern and western empires and in his day this was the last city in the empire facing the Persians.
As soon as I had finished my ‘everyday the same’ breakfast I ignored the managers advice and headed to the station. The station car park was evidently the meeting point for a wedding party and I was just in time to see some of the guests dancing to a small band before heading off into the countryside, serendipity!
The station was enormous for the one train in each direction per day timetable. There was a goods yard full with coal wagons, Erzurum is the coldest town in Turkey and there are no trees left to chop down. The ticket office was, of course open, and for under £10 bought sleeper to Kayseri for 4 days later.
The city has not really had a quiet past to develop slowly, it has not only been fought over and sacked too many times to mention, mostly by the russians, and has also had a few genocidal episodes involving Armenians, but it is also in an active earthquake area and suffered a pretty catastrophic quake in 1966 leaving thousands injured and 100’s of thousands homeless, so there has always been a lot of quick cheap and unattractive rebuilding. So it cannot be described as a pretty town. But there are many interesting faces
The centre of town must be like the frontier towns.
In the main streets that slope gently down t o the station from the main square that has the famous covered madrasa the shops are a bizarre mix there are a couple of womens fashion shops next to a workshop with guys rewiring electric motors out on the pavement next to the shoe shop is a store with huge great rolls of industrial cable on wooden frames and believe it or not in between is a very dodgy all day drinking club with odd caucasian bouncers.
As in Roman times the geographical significance of Erzurum is as important if not more so today. Nato has a codename for Erzurum ‘The Rock’. Initially a listening post during the cold war now it is the main pipeline interchange for oil and gas from the Caspian and that human rights oasis Kazakhstan to Europe, and due to Qatar vying for middle east ‘Blood on its Hands Award 2014’ in Syria and Iraq it will soon have a new gulf gas pipeline through Erzurum.
Erzurum is a strange town. The people are indifferent to travellers and according to the manager of the Madrassa there really are no foreign visitors. There are a few important Islamic buildings and there is pretty much intact fortress on the hill, closed and locked up to all, which anywhere else would be a tourist attraction.
There a couple of passable good canteens with kebabs and stews but it is not a culinary haven.
I was quite happy to leave after 4 or 5 days but there lingered some odd fondness for this very self contained place.
But remember I came here, took some pics and wrote a little SO you don’t have to !