The setting for Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's somber novel Snow, Kars is a rustic and foreboding city set on a 5,740-foot plateau and forever at the mercy of the winds. Not far from Turkey's border with Armenia and Georgia, it looks like the frontier town it is; since 1064, Kars has been besieged over and over, by various sundry invaders from the Akkoyunlu to the Mongol warriors of Tamerlane. In the 19th century alone, it was attacked three times by Czarist armies from Russia who remained in power until 1920. The Russian influence is still obvious in many buildings.
With its tree-lined streets and low European-style buildings, Kars feels different from other Turkish cities. It can be surprisingly relaxed, has a reputation as a liberal and secular-minded outpost, and certainly has more bars and licensed restaurants than other towns in the conservative east. Attempts to develop a ski industry and lifting restrictions on visiting the ancient city of Ani—previously a closed military zone—has meant that more tourists are coming through the area, giving locals the incentive to upgrade what Kars has to offer.