Virtually an inland sea, covering almost 4000 square kilometres at an elevation of 1750m, Lake Van is one of eastern Turkey’s most unusual features. Along with Lake Sevan in Armenia and Lake Urumiya in Iran, it is one of a trio of huge upland lakes hereabouts that lack outlets. 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.
Although venerable Bitlis is a twenty-minute drive from the western shores of the lake, and set 200m below it in a narrow valley, the vast majority of visitors pass through the town en route to or from Lake Van and its immediate environs. On the west shore of the lake, workaday Tatvan makes a handy base for forays up impressive Nemrut Dağı and its crater lakes. Of interest on the austerely volcanic north shore of the lake are Ahlat and its incredible medieval Muslim cemeteries, while to the northwest pastoral Adiıcevaz nestles in the shadow of 4058m Mt Süphan Dağı. The major draw on the south shore of the lake is the beautiful Akdamar island and its Church of the Holy Cross, while the east shore holds the regional capital, Van.
Although you can swim from the stony beaches on and opposite Akdamar Island, and along the more sparsely populated stretches of shoreline, pollution makes it inadvisable to bathe near Tatvan or Van. In places the shoreline is littered with plastic detritus washed up from the lake – it’s a major eyesore and a public awareness campaign has had little appreciable effect.
Set on a major bird migration route between Africa and Russia/Central Asia, Lake Van is a magnet for serious birdwatchers. Pelican and flamingo can be seen, as well as the rare white-headed duck, velvet scoter and paddyfield warbler.
Two species of fish – one called dareka – live in the lake, but only where fresh water enters. They are caught for food during spring when, salmon-like, they migrate up incoming streams to spawn.
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 carpet shops as tourist bait, and there is a breeding station (open to visitors) on the campus of Van’s Yüzüncü Yıl university.