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Last Updated: Monday, 22 November, 2004, 17:56 GMT
Turkish journey: End of the road
The BBC's Istanbul correspondent Jonny Dymond is exploring Turkish life across the vast country as it lobbies the European Union to open membership talks.

He sent the last in a series of reports from the town of Kars, near the Armenian border.

I woke up in my hotel in Kars - an establishment unlikely to make the Best Hotels in Eastern Turkey guide - to find news from England on the television.

Turkey's border with Armenia
The town of Kars lies near Turkey's border with Armenia

A correspondent in London was explaining to a presenter, who appeared to be doing her best to restrain her incredulity, that the British government had announced plans to ban smoking in public spaces.

The words of the correspondent, who was on a telephone line, were illustrated by file footage of people smoking in London.

Many of them were sitting outside, and a disproportionate number were blonde, gaily enjoying a cigarette whilst sipping mineral water or having a glass of wine. London life looked suspiciously like a Mediterranean holiday.

Rarely had I felt so far from home. Kars is very, very cold. No one is sitting outside. And, this being Turkey, everyone smokes. In case you are wondering, there are precious few blondes knocking about either.

Kars has attracted a little more attention than usual in the past couple of years because Turkey's most internationally famous novelist, Orhan Pamuk, used it as the setting for his latest novel, Snow.

A question of identity

In the book, Kars - a forgotten city in the country's north-east corner on the border with Armenia - plays host to Islamist terrorists, Kurdish nationalists and secular Republicans.

Over the space of three days, in which the city is cut off from the outside world by snow, they pronounce, denounce, launch a coup and generally shed some light on that ridiculously complicated question of Turkey's identity.

I freely admit that Snow had drawn me to Kars. I ran into a French journalist on my final night there. I asked her why she had come. "The closed Armenian border, of course," she said. Ah yes. That too.

Old mansion in Kars
The money left Kars in the 1960s, drawn west

The city was once part of the Russian empire and, immediately after World War I, became an independent republic - the South West Caucasian Republic. It happily gave itself up to the Turkish Republic when that came along in 1923.

It was also, a while ago now, rich. It was a trading city, and the houses of Russian and Armenian merchants can still be seen, their fine construction and exterior decoration incongruous amongst the drab concrete buildings that now dominate the city.

Many of these houses were pulled down in the 1960s - the government either not interested in the history of the town, or only too happy for it to be eradicated.

Glorious past

The current owner of Huryurt ("Free Land"), one of three local papers, fondly remembers a time when balls and concerts were a regular event in the city.

In one corner of the newspaper's office sits a 150-year-old printing press that until last year had been used to crank out the 400 copies that the paper prints every day.

Erol Huryurt showed me one of the earliest papers, framed on the wall. "This evening" went the headline. The short article was a call to a dance to be held in the city centre.

"All the night will be full of surprises. So we would advise you not to miss it".

Newspaper owner Erol Huryurt
Newspaper owner Erol Huryurt

But the money left Kars in the 1960s, drawn west. Kars was cut off, its airport closed, its trade to the east ended by the presence of the Soviet Union.

And now, with the border to Armenia shut once again, the life of the city is still draining away.

The shops are shabby, the goods careworn before purchase. Into the chill air chimneys puff smoke that in the evening hangs in the cold deserted streets. Groups of men stand idly on the roadside, looking lost and defeated.

Unemployment is something around 50%.

The mayor is doing his best. When we talked he showed me picture after picture of the cultural festivals he had arranged.

He has high hopes of a film festival to be held in January - a curiosity this, a film festival in a city that currently has no cinema. It's all good clean fun.

But you have to wonder how many Slovak dance troupes and Circassian marching bands a town can take until it cries out "No more!"

Facing east

Kars hopes for the best from Europe, but its eyes are still firmly to the east. In the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, a wave of Turkophilia swept Turkey - it was to lead a new Turkic Union of the east, it would resume its rightful place as the pre-eminent regional power.

The dream died pretty quickly when it became clear that the old Turkic states had more in common with Moscow than they did with each other, but it lives to some degree in Kars.

Today Kars lives in the shadow of its past
Today Kars lives in the shadow of its past

Erol's son Erdil does not go misty-eyed over the balls and dances of the past. Over lunch in what seemed to be Kars' only decent restaurant, he talks of an unlikely future when the city might become the capital of the Caucasus.

The mayor's brother, Alican, joined us.

Alican, a businessman, was not so interested in wild talk of leading the Caucasus. Instead he, and nearly everyone in Kars, just wants the border with Armenia reopened, so trade can restart, and life can return to the dying city.

As with so many changes in Turkey, all eyes are on Europe to do something to sort out the problem.

I drove out to Ani, once a city of 100,000 that was said to have rivalled Constantinople in its glory, now a place of wonder where you can stumble for hours amongst the stunning remains of ruined 10th- and 11th-Century churches and mosques.

From inside the first ever mosque to be built in Turkey I peered down at the river that separates the country from Armenia, and at the ruined bridge which once carried travellers on the Silk Road on their way West.

I had reached the end - the end of Turkey, and the end of the long haul from West to East.

It was a fitting finale to the journey: Turkey's eastern border, perhaps to be Europe's new eastern frontier, ancient churches and mosques rising like tombstones out of the long wild grass.


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