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 Doğubeyazıtand 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.
Most of the few travellers who reach the wild, impoverished mountain town of HAKKARİ, 200km south of Van along the gorge of the Zab River, do so after a three- to four-hour bus trip through some spectacular mountain scenery. The town itself is dramatically situated high above the surging river, backed to the east by the Cilo range, which incorporates Turkey’s second-highest peak, Reşko (4135m). Locals wear their Kurdish identity more openly than anywhere else in Turkey, apart from Diyarbakır. The handful of visitors who get this far tend to spend one night here and return to Van, though a few adventurous souls take the checkpoint-littered road along the mountainous Iraqi border to Şırnak.
The Nestorian Church traces its existence back to Nestorius, fifth-century bishop of Constantinople, who formulated a doctrine that Christ was predominantly human in nature. Although this was declared a heresy by the Council of Ephesus in 431, the faith flourished, and Edessa (Şanlıurfa), Antioch (Antakya) and Nusaybin near Mardin became important Nestorian centres. After Mongol attacks, the Nestorians fled to the Zagros mountains of western Iran and the wild mountains around present-day Hakkari. Isolated in the inaccessible mountains, they developed their own ethnic as well as religious identity, with half the population organized into tribes little different from their Kurdish neighbours.
Serious rivalries developed during the nineteenth century between the Nestorians and the Kurds, exacerbated by the British and American missionaries who were proselytizing in the region. Local Kurdish leaders massacred many Nestorian men around Hakkari, and sold the women and children into slavery. In 1915 the Nestorian patriarch sided with the World War I Allies. After the war the Nestorians, now seen as traitors, fled to Iran and then Iraq, though half their number perished in the exodus. A short-lived attempt to resettle their mountain fastnesses was crushed by Atatürk in the early years of the Turkish Republic. Today just a few tens of thousands survive in Iraq, Iran and Syria, with the patriarchate now in Chicago.
Although we visited the mountains that lie south of Lake Van in 2012, it’s important to note that the British Foreign Office among others advises against all but essential travel to both Hakkari and Şırnak.
This remote area is sensitively located next to the proto-Kurdish state in northern Iraq, part of which is used as a base by PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) rebels to launch cross-border raids. For more information on the security situation in the southeast see the section Security and restricted areas and check the latest travel advice from your home government – and keep an ear to the ground while you’re travelling in Turkey.
Northeast of Van, the road skirts the lake before heading up into the volcanic peaks bordering Iran. The drive, over a bizarrely contorted laval landscape, is spectacular in places, especially on the 2644m Tendurek Pass. In clear weather, the views of Mount Ararat from the far side of the pass are stunning. Huddled on the plain south of Ararat, the unkempt border/garrison town of Doğubeyazıt is a functional base from which to visit the spectacular palace of İshak Paşa or, more adventurously, ascend the peak or cross into neighbouring Iran.
Impoverished DOĞUBEYAZIT, 130km northeast of Van and just half an hour from Iran, is, thanks to its border position and largely Kurdish population, heavily militarized, with a huge army camp just outside town on the road to a spectacular ridge-top fortified place, İshak Paşa Sarayı. In response to the blatant Turkish army presence, the truculent locals boldly elected a (female) Kurdish mayor from the now banned DTP party in 2009, and have named the main street after dissident pro-Kurdish intellectual İsmail Beşikçi.
Overlooking Doğubeyazıt from atop a rocky promontory, the iconic İshak Paşa Sarayı is an overblown, impossibly romantic palace. This was once the site of a Urartian fortress; both the Selçuks and Ottomans later built castles to control traffic along the Silk Route.
The palace itself was begun in 1685 by Çolak Abdı Paşa, a local chieftain, and completed by his son, İshak Paşa, in 1784. By 1877, the complex was already in decline, being used by the Turkish army as a barracks; subsequent periods of Russian occupation set the seal on its decay. A controversial new glass and steel roof, added to preserve the walls of the crumbling palace, has spoilt the classic photograph of the palace taken from above.
The grandiose gateway of İshak Paşa Sarayı once boasted gold-plated doors; removed by the Russians in 1917, during their retreat from Anatolia, they’re now on show at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. From the outer courtyard, an ornately carved portal leads to a smaller, inner courtyard. Straight ahead is the harem entrance, while to the right is the entrance to the selâmlık or men’s quarters. The tombs of İshak Paşa and his favourite wife stand in a türbe in one corner of the inner court.
The harem contains fourteen fireplace-equipped bedrooms (in which four hundred soldiers were quartered in 1877), overlooking the valley below, a kitchen and two circular bathrooms. At its centre is a colonnaded dining hall. The selâmlık also holds a library, bedrooms and a fine mosque, retaining much of its original relief decoration and ceiling painting.
Behind the palace is the picturesque, recently restored Ottoman mosque. It’s possible to scramble up behind the mosque to a rock-cut Urartian tomb flanked by two carved relief figures. Above this, reachable only by a scramble, there’s a narrow niche in the dramatic ridge-top fortress wall. Squeeze through this and you can descend to the much-visited tomb of the Kurdish poet and philosopher Ehmede Xani. His Mem u Zin (1692), a tale of star-crossed lovers, is the epic work of Kurdish literature. Drinks and souvenir stalls here cater to pilgrims.
The foundations on the plain below the palace are all that’s left of Eski Beyazıt (Old Beyazıt), a city founded by the Urartians. It was inhabited until 1930, when – in the wake of an unsuccessful local Kurdish rebellion – it was forcibly depopulated and the new Doğu (East) Beyazıt founded in its present location.
Few mountains west of the Himalayas have as compelling a hold on Western imagination as Mount Ararat (Ağrı Dağı in Turkish). Traditionally, Armenian monks considered this volcanic mountain holy, and nobody was allowed to climb it; it was not until 1829 that Dr Johann Jacob Parrot, a German academic, conquered the peak. Numerous other ascents have followed, though it was forbidden by Turkish officialdom until the 1950s.
Despite the efforts of American astronaut James Irwin and others, no reliable trace of Noah’s Ark has been found. Locals, however, insist that the oval mound of earth spotted by a Turkish air-force pilot on a routine flight is the “Ark”, which now boasts a visitor centre and is included in tours of the area. Genesis 8:4 reports the Ark as coming to rest on the “mountains of Ararat”, but this is prone to misinterpretation, as Ararat was the Assyrian rendition of Urartu, the ancient kingdom centred on Lake Van, meaning the Ark could have come to rest anywhere within the bounds of the kingdom. According to the Koran, the Ark was deposited on Mount Cudi, hundreds of kilometres away near Cizre.
Treks up Mount Ararat are normally five-day affairs, supported as far as Camp 2 by mules. From the starting point at Eli (2150m), 10km north of Doğubeyazıt, it’s a half-day walk to Camp 1 (3200m).
Camp 2, at 4200m, is a strenuous six-hour march higher. From Camp 2, a 1am start is needed to reach the summit (5hr) before cloud cover becomes too thick. At around 4900m the stones give way to permanent snowpack and then glacier. The views on a clear day are stupendous, compensating for the hard slog of the ascent. Winter climbs followed by ski-descents have become increasingly popular for experienced mountaineers.
From Hakkari a road heads southwest to Çukurca, along the valley of the rapid-strewn Zab River, for about 50km. At a major checkpoint the bus turns right and west instead of continuing to Çukurca, along a road that runs parallel to the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, to Şırnak.
As the road runs close to the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq and was built in order to patrol the frontier with it, you can expect a heavy military presence and up to ten checkpoints, where your bags may be searched. You may be refused permission to make this journey if there have been any recent incidents involving the PKK, who cross the border here from their bases in the Kandil mountains, in what now amounts to an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. The journey is beautiful, especially where the road crosses a 2350m pass in the Konaklı range, near to the turn for the mountain town of Beytüşşebap.
ŞIRNAK, an hour beyond Uludere, is perched on a hillside with views across a broad river valley to the peak of Cudi Dağı (2114m). Many believe the mountain to be the true resting place of Noah’s Ark, while the tomb of Noah himself can be found in nearby Cizre. One semi-collapsed stone house apart, nothing is left of old Şırnak; while the mountain scenery hereabouts is certainly spectacular, it serves only as a stepping stone to other destinations.