Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Traveling across the peace bridges over closed borders

Monday, May 12, 2008
Başak Güneş Başat
I certainly welcome this kind of exchange people-to-people promoting understanding. In the same breath I wish to add that among those who visited Armenia there were no Turkish nationalists. However may be through these exchanges the message will get to the nationalists.
A travel agency recently organized the first-ever cultural tour to Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic relations. “The hospitality was great,” one partıcipant said. “During our last dinner, Armenians sitting next to us in the restaurant joined us to dance.” The urbane group, however, could not avoid their hosts’ genocide claims and listened patiently to genocide stories

Despite sour relations between Ankara and Yerevan, a Turkish travel agency decided to organize a cultural tour to Armenia and mustered a group of 30 tourists for a 10-day trip to Turkey's neighbor to the east.

The visit, the first of its kind, was organized by Fest Travel, known for its cultural tours worldwide. “We have organized tours almost everywhere around the world,” said trip leader Faruk Pekin, who is also Fest Travel's general director. “This time, it was Armenia's and Georgia's turn.”

Since the borders between Turkey and Armenia are closed, the group flew to Georgia, then traveled to Armenia by bus.

“Although there are no diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey, we encountered no problems with visa procedures except for a few bureaucratic ones on the Armenia-Georgia border,” Pekin told the Turkish Daily News.

Turkey sealed the border in 1993 to protest Armenian forces' occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the South Caucasus, a de facto independent republic that is officially part of Azerbaijan.

The Armenians were pleasant and interested in their group, Pekin said.

“In one church, they opened the treasury room just for us,” he said.

After crossing the Georgian-Armenian border, the group visited the Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries, named world cultural heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Tour member Ertan Şerbetçi said he found the mountaintop churches and cathedrals the most fascinating parts of the tour.

He was also impressed by the trip's upbeat tone.

“We experienced nothing negative,” he said.” The conflict is not between the Armenian and Turkish nations.”

Fellow traveler Leyla Çizmeci said she was proud to take part in the agency's first cultural visit to Armenia.

“The hospitality was great,” she told the TDN. “At our last dinner, Armenians sitting next to us in the restaurant joined us to dance.”

Nonetheless, the urbane group could not avoid encountering Armenian genocide claims condemning Turks for the killing of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 and saying the whole world should recognize it as "genocide."

“The group patiently listened to stories of genocide,” said Çizmeci. “Talking and listening to each other is the way to get rid of prejudices, and such kinds of trips between two countries may help normalize bilateral ties.”

The greenery she observed throughout the tour and the Georgian and Armenian music that accompanied them on the bus made the trip an unforgettable 10 days, she said.

The tour of Yerevan included visits to the Matenadaran Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan Square, Republic Square, Yerevan State University, the Haghtanak (Victory) Bridge, the state historical museum, the city concert hall and opera house and the parliament building.

After Yerevan, the group took in the Ejmiatsin Cathedral, Hripsime Monastery, Surp Guyane Church and Zvartnos Cathedral. The last stop was the Garni Temple and the Geghard Monastery, with its view of Mount Ararat.

The number of participants reflects the sizable demand that exists for visiting Armenia. Another tour is planned for the end of August.

“We also hope to contribute to building warmer ties between our two countries,” Pekin said.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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