Ani

The ruins of the medieval Armenian city of Ani, eastern Turkey.

Taking a short respite from stuffing myself stupid with custard tarts and bowls of melted cheese one I left Trabzon and the Black Sea coast and headed southeast to Kars (thankfully short on both military coups and whiny poets; perhaps they only come out in winter) to chase down the thousand-year-old city of Ani.  Ani was in fact the capital of a medieval Armenian state, although the explanatory panels dotted around the site are curiously reticent about this particular fact. In the tenth century this kingdom covered parts of modern-day Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran, as well as Armenia, and Ani was during its brief heyday a major city on the silk road, of a size and magnificence to rival Baghdad and Constantinople.

From Kars you drive down through the gently rolling (and, in August, unbelievably hot) lowlands, perfect for galloping your invading cavalry across, which the Turks and Mongols did with great enthusiasm, and indeed, Ani joins the illustrious ranks of medieval cities across Eurasia whose most glittering historical chapters end with “and then the Mongols happened”. Ani was capital for less than a century – from 961 to 1045 – before it fell victim to the rather vigorous geopolitics of the region, being conquered in quick succession by the Byzantine empire, the Seljuk Turks, the Kurds, the Georgians (four times; apparently it was rather a hobby for the more rambunctious twelfth century Georgian nobles to capture Ani and then give it back again), during which time one can imagine its exhausted citizenry becoming very resigned to constantly erecting and dismantling minarets on all of its legendary 1001 churches. The Mongol sacking of the city in 1236 set in motion its final decline, and it was more or less finished off by an earthquake in 1319.

The ruins are dotted over a sprawling site right on the edge of the gorge which marks the Turkish-Armenian border (one of the more quarrelsome borders in a region known for these), facing off against an Armenian military base (which, despite our driver’s muttered imprecations, probably doesn’t contain Russian nuclear weapons). Accusations fly across the canyon of insufficient of respect for other people’s cultural patrimony on one side, and flagrant militarism and deliberate undermining of ancient structures through blast quarrying on the other, but the rather bored looking Armenian soldier on a watchtower occasionally giving the site a desultory sweep with a pair of binoculars didn’t look particularly threatening. Special permission used to be required to visit; these days you can just wander up to the site and buy a ticket (or not, if the booth is unmanned, which it was when I went), except that apparently very few people do. The day I visited I counted six other tourists, four of who had come in the same car with me from Kars. Despite rather arbitrary (and mostly unenforced) restrictions about where you can and can’t go, depending on how delicate the cross-border relations are that day, you can more or less wander around at leisure. So I did that, and took some pictures. Click on any of the images to open the gallery.

In which I embark on a literary pilgrimage

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Hang onto your Ottoman cannon. You never know when someone might try to invade.

While under most circumstances it is traditional to greet the Black Sea for the first time with a hearty cry of “thalassa!”, it is difficult to muster the requisite enthusiasm when you first glimpse it at 4 in the morning when your bus has been delayed at the Turkish border owing to the presence in the luggage compartment of rather more cigarettes than might reasonably be regarded as acceptable for private use even by Georgians. The rain drizzled gently and persistently, my fellow passengers gloomily smoked their way through their remaining unconfiscated cigarettes, and the mist rolled down from the mountains and obliterated any view of the sea. It was all rather a long way from Xenophon.

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Clichéd tourist activity alert

Chuck ingredients in wok - stir - eat. Simples.

It feels a bit redundant posting about Thai food, since it’s not exactly one of the world’s lesser-known cuisines and a Thai cooking course is pretty much de rigeur for anyone who spends more than a couple of days in the country. Despite the alarming quantity of ingredients required by most recipes, the actual process of cooking a lot of Thai dishes is pretty straightforward, consisting as it does of the following steps: 1) throw ingredients in wok; 2) stir vigorously; 3)  profit eat, which is an effort within the grasp of even the most reluctant cooks. I rather suspect that there is slightly more to it than that for things beyond the great trifecta of farang fuel that is green curry, tom yam kung, and pad thai. Not that I’m objecting; all three are delicious, and after three months living kitchen-free it was fantastic to be able to cook again.

Do not eat the crocodile

Just because you can't see the crocodiles, doesn't mean they're not there.

Flood warning of the week: “If you see a crocodile, do not eat it”. This approach would not immediately cross my mind should I encounter a crocodile, but it’s good to be forewarned. Apparently, what you are supposed to do is call the Ministry of Fisheries. Civil servants in Thailand obviously live more exciting lives their British counterparts (although quite possibly if crocodiles started showing up in the Thames, DEFRA would show hitherto unknown levels of intrepidity). Anyway, the flood waters are going down almost everywhere in Bangkok. I took this at Mo Chit BTS this morning: last week the water was nearly three feet deep here, while it can’t be more than eight inches now. I was briefly tempted to go paddling, but the water was kind of green, and leptospirosis reputedly isn’t fun.

Huh, Thai civil servants really do live on the edge. This article about the government snake-catcher and his work during the floods is pretty awesome.

Loi Krathong

Just so you know, this photo is all blurry because of Art, not incompetence. Yeah.

Loi Krathong is one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing in Bangkok. It is the festival of lights associated with the Yi Peng festival in the north. On the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, Thais launch intricately-decorated vessels called krathongs into lakes, canals and rivers. The belief is that the krathong will carry away the year’s disappointment, anger and bad feelings, and if a hair or some nail clippings are added to the krathong, it will carry the bad parts of yourself away too. It is also an offering to the water goddess, and a wish for good fortune and happiness with candles, incense and flowers down a river. Krathongs are traditionally made out of a section of banana leaves and a section of trunk and decorated with flowers, candles and incense sticks (these days styrofoam and, for the environmentally conscious, baked, coloured bread, seem to predominate). In a normal year, Bangkok on Loi Krathong is supposed to be beautiful sight, with the rivers and canals full of lights, and fireworks being let off everywhere in celebration.

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Lighting the sky on fire: the Yi Peng lantern festival

Ten thousand lanterns fly. Photo by Nish, because my camera battery gave out at the crucial moment.

When I am overseas, I try and make a point of not being a slave to the guidebook, but occasionally it cannot be helped and I find myself lured in by a flowery write-up or artfully lit photo and on a bus to somewhere quite out of my way just to see a particularly good waterfall or something. This was evidently due to happen at some point here: for the past two months, I had been preoccupied by the front cover of the Thailand Lonely Planet guide. The bible of the dreadlocked masses’ 2009 edtion is adorned with a photo of blissfully happy people launching huge paper lanterns in what seemed to me to be an excessively picturesque manner. This, the caption briefly informed me, was the Yi Peng festival held in northern Thailand in October or November each year. Further research unearthed online writeups of the festivities which dwelt lovingly on the majestic sense of awe that accompanied the sight of thousands of floating lanterns drifting upwards into the night. The phrase “like a school of luminous jellyfish” put in an appearance.  When it became apparent that the festival would happen over the long weekend granted to us poor indundated (or yet-to-be-indundated) Bangkokians, I knew that come hell or high water (and of course there was plenty of the latter) I was going to be up in Chiang Mai letting off skylanterns. So thus it was that while back down south central Bangkok was busy Not Flooding in the most frenzied, dramatic and media-friendly way possible, I was squeezed in the back of a pickup truck with sixteen couchsurfers and a baby, trying to locate the right filed in the right suburb of Chiang Mai to set the sky on fire.

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