The Life of The Great Melt – What Hides Beneath the Snow in Kars


"Have you really forgotten us?"

A toxic cocktail of dust, coal, petroleum, burning garbage, fog, smoke, and air strangles me as I walk through Kars at sunset. Outside of the lethal bubble of fumes that encapsulates the city, my blurred vision distinguishes the smooth lines of a pristine landscape that looks like the moon. It is surreal, martian terrain that suggests thin air and icy famine. A small blur, a fox whips its head out of the snow like a curious character from the Little Prince, but too hungry to linger, it dives back into the icy crust of the steppes. If the land out there is the moon, here in Kars, it is sandy red Venus, the houses burping with rising smoke and heat, a lethal venom that slithers through my nose and down my throat.

These are the times of the Great Melt. The Great Melt is when temperatures in Kars consistently rise above zero, the sun shines blue, the snow stops falling, and the residents of Kars both emerge from their homes in relief and disappointment. Relief, because the long cold winter is over. Disappointment, because the waning snow and the cracking ice reveals the damage of yet another season. With the snow, Kars is cold, beautiful, sleepy, and covered. With the melt, it is dusty, potholed, broken, exposed.

Last summer, we all took off a week of work to stand beside the mayor’s new road construction projects, our arms crossed behind our backs, proclaiming about what should be done differently. These same roads have now been reduced to a toxic dust of crumbled asphalt and flaky mud, turning the insides of all of our noses black. At dusk, the danger of air pollution reaches its zenith, and with their heads down and their shoulders hunched, the people of Kars mutter all the way home to their dinner tables where they draw up a list of everything that could be changed to make this town better. “New roads! No more asphalt, use stone! Repair the windows. Build-up the public parks. Add an ice skating rink! Subsidize renovation of the old houses! Use up the empty lots of the city! TURN ON THE TRAFFIC LIGHTS!”

Kars is a trap for the romantic. So many of my friends – young Turks, idealists, radicals, pessimists, staunch liberals, leftist, nationalists, environmentalists – everyone comes here for a different reason, but in the end, it is the greater potential of this place that drives us. We walk down the streets and look forlorn at the crumbling buildings, fantasizing about their Russian, or Armenian, or Azeri, or Greek, or Turkish builders, who once exited through their massive doors wearing furry winter hats. This city was once the height of luxury, an important military holding and trading outpost. But as it was passed like a hot potato between Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Iran, Byzantium and the Ottomans, a sense of responsibility over the incredibly rich history here seems to have been covered by snow and time. And with each passing year that no one repairs the old buildings, they slouch deeper and deeper under the weight of the snow. Then comes the Great Melt, and they emerge with their sad hanging doors and collapsing roofs, imploring onlookers, “have you really forgotten us?”

Inside my body I want to yell, “NO WE HAVEN’T! YOUR HISTORY IS SAFE WITH ME!” but I know this is a lie. I don’t have the millions of dollars it would take to renovate this city. Many have tried before me, wooed by the buildings’ romantic plea. But I know they were crushed by the bureaucracy, by the weight of time, by the lack of results. During the Great Melt, I walk around the city in the early hours of the day before the snaking arms of toxic fuel can find me, looking for my new home, nibbling on homemade cheese. I make plans in my head about what I will do, what I can do, but before the day is over, I am coughing and hacking like the rest of Kars. My side aches, my eyes are droopy. I notice all the cheese shops have closed, everyone is going home early, consumed by spring sickness and exhaustion. My friends and I curl up on couches, pounding cup after cup of lemon, honey, mint, tea, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, pomegranates, and soup. When we all awake, when the Great Melt is complete, and spring is truly upon us, we will face the damages of winter, the lure of potential, and that fire that burns within us – to save the environment here, to restore the city, to provide opportunities in the villages, to build cleaner roads, to turn on the traffic lights – one by one we will do it. Because for the captured souls who are dawn to this place, we cannot truly live in peace with the alternative.

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About Cat

Catherine de Medici Jaffee is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a Fulbright Scholar, a Luce Fellow, the Founder of Balyolu: the Honey Road, and a lunatic about honey culture in the Caucasus. Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude. Her dedication and passion for animals, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world as a Luce and Fulbright scholar: to raise Aigamo ducks in Japan, to research yak trade caravans in Sikkim, and to study rural women’s migration in Turkey. In particular, Turkey - with its fish hung like laundry from windows, its 9,000 species of flowers, and its delicious honey - continues to lure Cat back to its borders. Cat’s love for Turkey, the mountains, agriculture, and women’s leadership blend together sweetly in her new venture Balyolu and her blog Inspired Beeing. You can most frequently find her jumping on a mountain, running from angry bees, cooking in villages, hitching on dirt roads, or joking with Turkcell about her internet woes. Cat is joined by her partner in crime Claire Bangser, artist, photographer, writer, and globe wanderer who believes in creative storytelling as a way to powerfully connect people across mental and physical borders. From working with small-scale women farmers in Mali, to documenting peoples' lives along a 2,000 mile bike tour in the US, she finds that every person (and bee) has an important story to tell and much wisdom to share (speaking of Wisdom, Claire just published her first book, Ride Somewhere Far. Check it out on our Link Roll). These days, you're most likely to find Claire upside down, yodeling from a mountaintop, making tragic mistakes in Turkish, or eating meat for Cat.

Posted on March 27, 2012, in Culture, Environment, History, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Another beautiful post and incredible pictures, Cat. Thanks for sharing these stories with us. What do you think it would take for these beautiful pieces of history to be preserved? I hope all of you have a speedy recovery!

  2. Your posts & pics inspire me ;-)
    As a hobbyist beekeeper in California, it always amazes me how people (and honeybees!) ‘winterize’ themselves in below 0 temps. I have such respect for their strength.

  3. A great read and some fascinating photos! Thanks for sharing your perspective on the city!

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