Explore Lake Van and the southeast
Turkey’s remote southeast, bordered by Iran to the east and Iraq to the south, is a land dominated by soaring peaks, rugged plateaux and plunging valleys. Its austere natural beauty makes the perfect backdrop for some of Turkey’s most impressive and intriguing sights, whilst the predominantly ethnically Kurdish population makes the region feel distinctively different to the rest of the country. At its heart lies Lake Van, a vast inland sea ringed by snow-capped peaks. The Armenians who once lived around the lake were so enamoured with its beauty and fertility they had a saying “Van in this, paradise in the next”. North of the lake is the graceful 5137-metre volcanic cone of Ağrı Dağ – better known as Mount Ararat – the highest peak in Turkey, whilst the wild, alpine range south of the lake contains mighty Reşko (4135m), second highest peak in the land. Winters, starting in early November, are severe, with roads often blocked by heavy snow, but in July and August, whilst much of the rest of Turkey is sweltering, these highlands are relatively cool and humidity free.
The once-poor road system has been improved significantly, often due to military requirements during the PKK troubles, but ongoing roadworks are a minor nuisance. Food out here is plainer than in the west of Turkey, but it’s worth trying some of the local Kurdish specialities such as the matured herb cheese, otlu peynir. Until quite recently the economy of the region was largely based on nomadic pastoralism, but the lure of the big cities and the forced evacuation of hundred and hundreds of villages during the struggle with the PKK has decimated the rural population.
There are daily flights from various cities in western Turkey to the regional capital, Van (1642km from İstanbul), on the eastern shore of the lake. Van has an ancient citadel set atop a dramatic limestone outcrop, overlooking the atmospheric but scant remains of the tragically destroyed old town. Rapidly expanding and modernizing, Van is a remarkably civilized and welcoming centre for exploration. Overland, the conventional approach is by bus from Diyarbakır (see Chapter 11), via the old trade route through the stark hill-town of Bitlis and dull Tatvan, itself a base for exploring the northwestern shore of Lake Van. Alternatively, from Erzurum, travellers can head due east to Doğubeyazıt and its fanciful palace below the impressive bulk of Mount Ararat. From Van it’s a four-hour journey through spectacular mountains to Hakkari. From here, the truly adventurous can exit the region by following the road along the Iraqi Kurdish border to Şırnak.Read More
Lake Van and its wildlife
Lake Van and its wildlife
Lake Van, virtually an inland sea of almost 4000 square kilometres, at an elevation of 1750m, is one of the most unusual features of eastern Turkey. Along with Lake Sevan in Armenia and Lake Urumiya in Iran, it is one of a trio of huge upland lakes without outlets in the region. Surrounded on all sides by a narrow but fertile plain, and then mountains, the lake – nearly 200m deep in spots – occupies what was once a lowland basin that was later dammed by lava flowing from Nemrut Dağı. Owing to rapid evaporation in this desert climate, the lake water is highly alkaline, rendering it slightly soapy and slimy to the touch; local people can sometimes be seen washing clothes at the shoreline.
You can swim from the stony beaches on and opposite Akdamar Island, and along the more sparsely populated stretches of shoreline, but it’s inadvisable to bathe near Tatvan or Van because of pollution. In places the shoreline is littered with plastic detritus washed up from the lake – it’s a major eyesore and a public awareness campaign launched in 2009 has had little appreciable effect. Two species of fish – one called dareka – live in the lake though only where fresh water enters. They are caught for food during spring when, salmon-like, they migrate up incoming streams to spawn.
The lake is on the main bird migration route to Africa and is a magnet for serious bird watchers. Pelican and flamingo can be seen as well as the rare white-headed duck, velvet scoter and paddyfield warbler. The Van cat, a fluffy white beast endowed naturally with one blue and one gold eye, is now rare, but a few specimens are still kept at local hotels and carpet shops as tourist bait, and there is a breeding station (open to visitors) on the campus of Van’s Yüzüncü Yıl university. Reports of a bus-sized Van Canavarı (Van Monster) have been made since the 1960s.