Close encounters with absurdity in Eastern Turkey

Living in Kars is, in many ways, not so different from living in small towns anywhere. The language barrier exotifies things, sure, but in general, no truly radical culture clash happens. We even have a Burger King. Sure, it’s flanked by döner and baklava shops, but there it is, just like home! Sometimes, though, things happen that make you shake your head and go, “only in Kars”. Things in this category include: laundry hung out to dry on picturesque ruins, or the nearest mosque gate; the nearest mosque actually being an old Russian Orthodox church with minarets sticking out of it; or the occasional sheep or goose ambling through town, with or without its owner.

For example, today our yard was infested with cows. To clarify, errant farm animals have long stopped being newsworthy in Kars, but, aside from a few scrappy chickens, our yard is empty of wildlife. This morning, however, I glanced out the window over my morning coffee, and saw the two muddy behemoths strolling through the yard, methodically eating every green scrap in their path, and heading straight for our garden – and worse yet, for our cat, which was out on a leash on the clothesline (that may require a separate story; in short, the cat likes to escape and measures must be taken…).  I bolted out of the house in my plaid pajama pants to shoo the cows away from our glorious zucchini bushes, and to rescue the cat, which has no sense, and continued lounging about in the grass, ignoring animals that could crush it with one hoof. Luckily, the cows were pliable and complacent and slowly, slowly, allowed themselves to be steered beyond the gate.

If the cowherds had known my feelings about cows, they would not have threatened with shooting us for allegedly plotting to steal them.  We just wanted to see the Perseid meteor shower… ah, lying out on a blanket under the stars in the mild summer evening, with the smell of drying thistles and drying cow pats, while a searchlight waves over the hill, getting closer… wait, what? The two Turkish men found us, alright, and were not amused – I can see how we can be easily mistaken for cow-stealing masterminds, with our fleece blankets and tea thermos and our roomy 4×4. Thankfully, there were two ladies present, so they refrained from pulling their trigger on sight (as they told us in heated tones), and our suspicious “picnic” was broken up peacefully.

So, how to assuage the double disappointment of clouded-over skies and trigger-happy herders?  Imagine you are sick of Turkish beer, and you are out of smuggled Georgian wine. Imagine you have gin, but the store-bought tonic is questionable, to put it mildly. What do you do? Luckily, if you are my resourceful coworker L., the answer isn’t “cry into your Efes” – the answer is, you buy a bag of bark and cook your own tonic water from scratch! And this is how, on a Saturday night, we came to be stirring a pot full of cinchona bark, allspice berries and citric acid crystals, brewing up a red-brown potion that puckers your face in on itself – until it is diluted with sufficient sugar and gin, giving a delicious and surprisingly close approximation of a gin&tonic. Heady on our success, our next project is planting coconut palms – coconut milk is impossible to find in Kars.


Kars, to a different soundtrack

Another evening, another walk. My talisman against homesickness: listening to familiar music as I walk through unfamiliar places. No indie rock for me – I crave the musical equivalent of bubblegum and Doritos, Rihanna and Lady Gaga in my ears as a protective bubble from Turkishness when I am feeling particularly far from home.

The rain-washed Kars streets take on a surreal tinge to an American pop soundtrack. A playground is empty of children; instead, a man with a generous potbelly sits on the swing, surrounded by his flock of geese. Unminded geese and goslings wander the streets; in the winter, they will become Kars’ signature dish.

A boy rides uphill over cobblestones, trying to balance lumpy bags of apricots on his handlebars. A Turkish man with white hair and a sun-weathered face passing a blue gate, carrying bulging bags of bread. A group of construction workers are firing up a metal teapot on the street corner. Music echoes between houses, strings and flutes and twanging. I pass a party: a line of women, pinkies linked, dancers at the ends of the line waving handkerchiefs. The men stand to the side, drinking tea.

Yards are ubiquitously furnished with outdoor couches and armchairs. Patterned carpets are hung to air out on stone walls. Dominoes of cow dung patties for stove fuel are laid out to dry in neat rows, stacked into pyramids. Each dumpster is topped with a stray cat.

After following a trash-filled, weedy ditch, I turn at the river, flanked by miniature forests of thistles. When I can go no further on the soggy path, and not wanting to double back, I take a shortcut uphill through someone’s backyard, where I am accosted by 3 curious boys. I’m a tourist, I tell them, which doesn’t assuage their curiosity in the least; instead, as I let myself out of the yard, they follow, stage-whispering to friends and family members about this lost foreigner. Soon I have an entourage of children that follow me to the edge of the neighborhood. They pick roadside flowers, dragging them out by the roots, collecting a prickly bouquet for me.

The sun drops below the rainclouds, saturating the houses and lighting up the rain puddles. The white minarets are black against the sunset as I turn back home.

Daydreams in the Ani ruins

The first time I saw Ani, it was grey-wet with rainclouds and bursting at the seams with wildflowers, and I felt like I had walked into a dream. Most of this medieval Armenian capital has either been destroyed or remains hidden under rolling grassy mounds. Only a few churches and a mosque punctuate the angle-less landscape. In the rain, seeking shelter in a ruined cathedral – the caved-in dome letting in a cylinder of rain – we were alone with the landscape and the swallows in the eves. We could have been the last people on Earth.

I came back to Ani again in clear morning sunshine, expecting some of that magic to wear off, burned off by the clear blue glare, diluted by the shuffling groups of tourists. But walking along the riverside cliffs, looking across to Armenia over the heads of a monastery chapel and a crumbling bridge, or brushing against the columns of a Zoroastrian fire temple – that feeling was back again. It hits me in the gut, squeezes my ribs. This place used to be filled with markets, children, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, construction, commerce, military processions. And now there is only the broken geometry of grudgingly restored buildings.

Ani Cathedral, on a rainy June day

Ani Cathedral, on a rainy June day

How can a city go from a bustling trading center of 100,000 residents to a forgotten ruin, from the City of 1001 Churches to a leveled plain of broken churches? I can see the spiraling steps of a minaret lying queasily on its side. The market stalls are stone outlines filled with poppies. The frescoes are fading. The rust and black checkered walls cave in. I close my eyes and imagine I have retro-X-ray vision – the hillocks are now houses, the churches stand side by side with palaces, the city walls are unbroken, the bridge is restored and the streets are busy with Silk Road traffic. I open my eyes and it is full of ghosts.

I can’t say why this place affects me so strongly, after all the ruins I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the vastness of it, or the isolation; or perhaps it’s the contentious history, its years of neglect. I watch the swallows burst through the narrow clerestory windows, strobing through light and shadow in the high nave. I want to be alone with the ruins, retreating to the past, both fearful and relieved about how everything changes.


Kars smells like dust and freshly baked bread. Like cigarette smoke. Sometimes, like cloying baklava syrup, or the tartness and musk of strong cheese. When you pass the abandoned houses, it smells like mildew and rust.

It smells like lilacs.

On the edges of town, it smells like mountains. The sharp farm smell of cows, grazing sheep.

A grey-blue storm cloud rolls in slowly, lilac lightning illuminating it in flashes. And the smell of rain and lilacs. For a moment, I am surrounded by lilac on all sides, filling all my senses.

Kars by foot

My office is now my home. Or rather, my home is my office. Technically, the living room is the work space… unless we are having a meeting in the kitchen while chopping vegetables. Or writing to do lists on the front porch, during a tea break after gardening.  As much as I love working on the kitchen couch, or watching our house cat walk across my desk to get a better look at the chickens in the yard, it can feel claustrophobic to spend days here. So I take long meandering walks, and explore this corner of the world I’ve landed in.

Back in California, I would walk my favorite trails on weekends, to the oak groves in Shell Ridge and the lagoons in Briones. I would listen to music or podcasts as I scaled familiar slopes and followed winding creeks, resting my eyes on fuzzy green hills and valley vistas after a week staring at spreadsheets and emails on a screen.

Here in Kars, every walk I take feels new. Gone is the initial apprehension of walking through town – I don’t understand much more Turkish than I did 3 weeks ago, but I feel surer in my steps as I map new routes to the looming castle above town. 45 minutes from my house door, and I am looking over Kars and the still snow-capped mountains surrounding it. Below me, the colorful new buildings interspersed with crumbling stone houses;  an old Armenian church, now a mosque; fruit vendors, tea parlors, barbershops. I can walk down to the town center again, passing the decaying old hamams and the popular  tea garden, or take the long road behind the castle and follow the river back to town, bright bursts of green trees hiding old ruins, purple and yellow wildflowers blooming as spring finally reaches this high plateau.

Kars street scenes (more @ktuchinskaya on Instagram)

Kars street scenes (more: @ktuchinskaya on Instagram)

I walk past my favorite abandoned building, brick and blue-painted rooms filling with spring saplings. I cross a rickety bridge over a brown river as teyzes in headscarves corral playing children. Past men with lined faces drinking tea in tulip glasses, individually wrapped sugar cubes in pomegranate-shaped jars on each low table. Past endless cheese shops, with their neat rows of round yellow cheeses and shelves of local honey; past hair salons, dried-fruit stores full of heaped apricots and hazelnuts, stores selling shining new teapots and saucepans adorned with swirls and roses. I walk past a former Russian church, now with minarets instead of onion domes, as the cacophonous call to prayer starts up. I pass a fruit and vegetable market, the first greenish stone fruits starting to come in; at the corner, a man selling ducklings out of his duckling-yellow car.

As sun and fluffy white clouds alternate with rainclouds, I walk in the other direction from my house, as well, not into town but into the extended village of Kars outskirts, muddy alleys and fields and cowherds. Closer to home, a herd of sheep grazing by the train tracks, an errant turkey, a flock of skinny chickens pecking at garbage heaps around a crumbling wall. Behind them, white minarets and white flowering trees stark against a deep blue stormy sky. I walk around the cemetery as the rainclouds are broken up by a pink sunset, past kids biking by with multicolored geometric shapes bedecking their wheel spokes, past stray cats, past groups of chatting women or men strolling arm-in-arm, who stare at this oddly dressed single woman walking laps through the alleys, trying to turn at unfamiliar corners each time.