Bordered by Iran to the east and Iraq to the south, Turkey’s remote southeast is a land dominated by soaring peaks, rugged plateaux and plunging valleys. Its austere natural beauty makes the perfect backdrop for some impressive and intriguing sights, while the predominantly ethnically Kurdish population gives the region a distinctively different feel to the rest of the country. At its heart lies Lake Van, a vast inland sea ringed by snowcapped peaks. The Armenians who once lived around the lake were so enamoured with its beauty and fertility they had a saying “Van in this life, paradise in the next”. North of the lake is the graceful 5137m volcanic cone of Ağrı Dağ – better known as Mount Ararat – the highest peak in Turkey, while the wild alpine range south of the lake contains mighty Reşko (4135m), the nation’s second-highest peak.
Winters, starting in early November, are severe, with roads often blocked by heavy snow, but in July and August, while 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 hundreds of villages during the struggle with the PKK has decimated the rural population. This population decline was exacerbated in October 2011 when a massive earthquake struck the eastern part of the lake, causing devastation in Van city and the surrounding towns and villages.
Various cities in western Turkey offers daily flights 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, via the old trade route through the stark hill town of Bitlis and dull Tatvan, itself a base for exploring the northwest 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, a four-hour journey leads through spectacular mountains to Hakkari, from where the truly adventurous can exit the region by following the road along the Iraqi Kurdish border to Şırnak.