Turkey Lake Van 2001.08.16 - 08.19


Mt. Ararat (5137 meters / 16,854 feet) in eastern Turkey on the Iranian border was closed by the Turkish military for 10 years due to "security concerns". This year the mountain is open, provided that climbers obtain a military permit. The Mountain Club in Doğubeyazıt (on Belediye Caddesi opposite Hotel Erzurum) has rental gear, applies for military permits for clients, and guides climbers to the summit. Wait time to receive the permit is 3~7 days. After giving the Mountain Club a US$100 deposit for their mountain guide services and our passport information for permit application, we visited Lake Van until our permits were ready.

Lake Van is a 200km long clear blue body of water with high alkalinity. Surrounding the lake are Kurdish towns, Van being the largest with a population of about 500,000. We chose to visit Lake Van for 2 sites: Akdamar, a 1000 year old Armenian church on an island in Lake Van, and Nemrut Dağı, an extinct volcano on the eastern shore of Lake Van with beautiful lakes in its 2000 meter high crater.

From Doğubeyazıt, 4 mini-buses run to Van between 08:00 - 13:30 daily. Driving time is 2 hours but regular military checks can extend the travel time by 15 to 30 minutes. (More on military checks below.) Continuing west from Van is easy. Buses from all major cities in the west, center, and south of Turkey terminate in Van, then return. The only eastward option from Van are 4 daily minibus to Doğubeyazıt.

Turkey suppresses minority populations living within its borders. The largest of these populations is the Kurds who live in southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and western Iran. In Turkey alone, the Kurdish area is about 1000 km by 400 km. The Kurds want independence, but the Turks are unwilling to release land. The result is a bloody Kurdish resistance movement and a heavy Turkish military presence. Until a few years ago, foreigners were prevented from entering Kurdish lands by the Turkish military. Speaking Kurdish or claiming to be Kurdish was punishable by torture and death. Entire villages were destroyed. Over the past couple years, several factors relaxed Turkish military control over Kurdish areas: the Kurdish resistance leader is in a Turkish prison, the more troublesome Kurdish people were displaced by the Turkish government, and in an effort to join the European Union, Turkey is trying to improve its image by limiting certain atrocities. Today, Kurds can admit they are Kurd, and Kurdish is sometimes spoken in public yet still with fear. Nevertheless, Turkish military presence remains high. Tanks are commonplace. Military checkpoints every 20~100 km verify that every local vehicle and passenger has an appropriate Turkish ID and that tourists have a passport. The Turks and the Kurds are some of the most open, friendly, and enjoyable people we met on our journey. What a pity the fight against each other continues.

Any guidebook on Turkey will have a photo of Akdamar Kilisesi, or Church of the Holy Cross. Built in 921 AD by the King of Vaspurkan, this Armenian church is on a small island in Lake Van several kilometers off shore from the town of Gevaş. For those who don't have time to visit neighboring Armenia, a visit to this church is an excellent consolation.

Akdamar is an easy daytrip from Van, but a morning departure is essential. Two bus options from Van are available. Option 1: Take a dolmuş from Zübeydehanım Caddesi in the center of Van to Gevaş and pay the driver a little extra to continue alone the lake 8 km west of Gevaş to the motorboat port for Akdamar. Option 2: Go to the Van otogar and ride any bus to the motorboat port for Akdamar. Option 1 cost us TKL 2.5 million per person and took more time than expected because our dolmuş driver decided to spend an hour driving around Gevaş looking for more passengers wanting to continue west. Option 2 involves riding a dolmuş from the center of Van to the otogar 3 km outside the city, but overall is much faster because the bus makes no stops between Van and the motorboat port. We assume the cost is about the same because the bus ticket from Van to Tatvan (about 70km further than Akdamar) costs TKL 3 million.

Once at the motorboat port, wait for 12 other passengers. Depending on the day, this can take 5 minutes or a few hours. Boats depart for Akdamar with a minimum of 13 passengers for a fee of TKL 3 million per person (student card holders get an un-posted TKL 500,000 discount). The boat returns from the island one hour later. Many travelers advise returning from the island by 16:00 to ensure the availability of transportation back to Van. Although dolmuşes stop running in the late afternoon, in our experience, hitchhiking is easy. In fact, from the motorboat port we tried hitchhiking to Tatvan. Wes stuck his thumb out and 1 second later we had a ride.

There are 2 Nemrut Dağıs in Turkey. Both are mountains. One has lakes in a 2000 meter high crater and is located on the western shore of Lake Van near the city of Tatvan. The other has huge ancient stone heads at the summit and is located 500 km west of Lake Van. While at Lake Van, we visited the Nemrut Dağı with crater lakes.

Nemrut Dağı isn't a mountain for hiking. A dirt road leads up this extinct volcano to the crater lakes. Locals and tourists alike escape the summer heat for picnics and a swim. High in the rocks, sulfurous steam is used by the locals to remedy rheumatism. Sections of the lake are warmed by underground activity into "hot springs". Above all, the clear blue water and cool fresh air makes Nemrut Dağı an excellent leisurely daytrip from Tatvan.

The easiest and least expensive way to reach Nemrut Dağı from early June to late August is through a tour by Hotel Üstün in Tatvan. The tour runs most days but not daily. Telephone Ekrem Kaplongiroy (Mobile: 0535 544 9901) to confirm departure dates. At the time of writing, the tour departed at 08:00, returned at 16:00, and cost TKL 5 million per person. Included is transportation and a guide. Carry your own food and water. Alternate transportation options are by dolmuş and taxi.

Akdamar Kilisesi is an Armenian church on an island in Lake Van. Exterior religious carvings and some Armenian writing are well preserved. Interior frescos are in disrepair.

One of the lakes in the Nermut Dağı crater stretches below us as we walk along a trail.

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