Turkey’s Wild East

Kay and I are walking along the main street in Tatvan, a Kurdish town on the western shore of Lake Van in Turkey’s  ‘Wild East.’ It is evening and both sides of the street overflow with men, and men only, chatting and relaxing.

Jonesin’ for a beer, we’ve walked the street from end to end trying, without luck, to find a store that sells it. A cold beer would really taste good right now after a dry, hot July day of sightseeing.

Thwarted, we are about to cross the street and turn into our hotel, when a young man approaches and greets us in English. We are instantly stuck by his appearance.

Hakan with Kay

His red hair and white, freckled skin are in sharp contrast to the hundreds of other black-haired, dark-skinned men we’ve just passed on the street. Judging by his looks alone, no one would mistake Hakan (for that’s his name) for a Kurd. And yet, he is Kurdish; he was born and raised in a nearby village with 14 brothers and sisters.

Upon learning our desire for beer, Hakan leads us up a back street to a shabby building then up a dingy staircase to a darkened room. What light there is comes mostly from the fluorescent Efes sign of a beer cooler. While alcohol isn’t strictly illegal in Turkey’s conservative areas, it isn’t quite respectable either. Entering this den is reminiscent of entering a blind pig in some obscure dry county in America’s Bible belt. There isn’t much furniture and our few fellow drinkers, — all men of course — are mellow, listening to recorded music as they sip their drinks.

Even though we are foreigners and one of us is a woman, our presence is accepted easily, and we spend a relaxed hour over our beer, getting to know Hakan and his world around Lake Van.

Kay and I had flown to the city of Van from Istanbul a couple of days earlier. We wanted to broaden our knowledge of Eastern Turkey and learn about the Urartians, an ancient people who ruled much of Eastern Asia Minor for several hundred years in the millennium before Christ. An interesting fact about this civilization is that until 19th-century archeologists unraveled its cuneiform writing, the Urartians were thought of as Assyrians when, in fact, the Assyrians were their mortal enemies.


Van’s only monument that reaches back to these ancient times is a kale, or fortress built atop an enormous rock at the edge of the modern city. In its day, it must have been a mighty stronghold; however, in its current dilapidated condition, it is interesting mainly for the view to be had from its summit.

View of Van from the Kale

I only mention the Van Kale here because of something heart-warming that happened to Kay during our visit.

She didn’t want to climb the rock at all. She’d been having problems with her feet and was put off by what she had read in the guidebook about the steep assent. Nevertheless, I convinced her to give it a try, and we walked quite a way up a stony path to a point where she decided to stop. Since we were nearly at the top, we agreed that I would continue on for a few minutes and she would wait for me where she was. I climbed up, admired the view and was just starting down to meet Kay when she called on my mobile, saying that she had met some people who were helping her climb further up.

Her new acquaintances turned out to be two Kurdish families from the southeastern city of Diyarbakır. They had passed Kay on their way up, then became concerned about her safety and returned to invite her to join their party. I joined them as well, and we descended together.

They bought us tea in the garden at the foot of the rock, and we had a nice chat. Before we parted, they invited us to look them up when we come to Diyarbakır. Although we’ve lived in Turkey more than four years, these spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity still surprise and gladden us.

Apart from the kale and a small museum containing some remarkable Urartian jewelry and metalwork, the city of Van has little to interest us, and we soon set off by rented car to visit other sites in the region. But first, I want to mention the adventure of renting the car itself.

Arriving at Van’s airport I had gone to the only car rental desk that was manned (or should I say “boyed” since the clerk looked only about 12 years old) and chose the least expensive car they offered, a Fiat Albea. In the city center where the cars are kept, the lot contained two Albeas both of which looked in pretty rough shape. The young man, the agency owner’s son I think, wanted to trade me up to a more expensive model, but I resisted. I thought 95 liras a day was enough to pay, especially for the wrecks I saw around me. I quickly had reason to rethink this decision since I had hardly driven the car out of the lot when the knob of the shift lever came off in my hand and condensation from the air conditioner began to drip on my accelerator foot.

Even though it was dented and cranky, the Albea took us to some memorable sights around Lake Van. For instance, on one excursion we drove northward along the volcanic eastern shore to a settlement close to the borders with Armenia and Iran that the Rough Guide likens to a frontier town.

Doğubeyazıt Street Scene

Doğubeyazıt, which English speakers, challenged by its Turkish pronunciation, sometimes refer to as “dog biscuit,” sits at the foot of Mount Ararat, the mountain sacred to the Armenians and the reputed resting place of Noah’s Ark.

Mount Ararat

Ararat rises 5,165 meters to a classic snow-capped apex, and although on the day of our visit white clouds hid the top of the mountain, it was still a thrill to stand so near this legendary spot.

Akdamar Island

In conversation with Turks, whenever the subject of Van comes up, someone usually mentions the 10th-century Armenian Church on Akdamar Island as a site not to be missed, yet from a distance we wonder why. As the boat approaches the small island the church looks small and rather ordinary , , ,

but once on land and close to the church we see that it’s not ordinary at all because its exterior walls are covered with unique carvings, several depicting stories from the Old Testament.

Jonah and the Whale

On one wall Jonah is about to be swallowed by a fanciful creature imagined by someone who had never seen a whale.

David and Goliath

In another panel David confronts Goliath. Adam, Eve and the serpent are represented, too. Interwoven with these biblical scenes are several kinds of birds and animals surrounded by grape clusters.

It’s a known fact that the medieval Armenians excelled at stone carving, and the walls of Akdamar Kilisesi prove it.

It happens that in Ahlat, an economically distressed town on the far side of Lake Van, we have another of those human encounters that refresh our spirits.

We had come here to see the famous Kümbets or Selcuk and Mongol mausoleums most of which date from the 13th century when the town was a polyglot city much greater in importance than it is today.

Bugatay Aka Kümbet

The Ahlat Kümbets, scattered across a couple square kilometers, are exceptional, even in Turkey, known for the number and diversity of its mausoleums. Finely constructed of brownish basalt and intricately carved in the Selcuk manner, probably by Armenian craftsmen, they have come down to us in wonderfully good condition.

As we roam around the area studying these memorials, groups of aggressively begging children surround us. At one site however, a lone child of about 10 approaches and recites what we take to be a litany of historical facts about the Kümbet and its occupants. He then asks us a question and, though we misunderstand him, encourage him to go ahead. What follows is a longish recitation from the Koran, which the boy has memorized. It’s an impressive feat, acknowledged and rewarded.

Back in Tatvan, on the morning after our evening in the beer den, we meet our red-haired friend again, this time by appointment. Hakan works with his father looking after the occasional tourists that come their way, and we’ve engaged him to guide us up to the volcanic crater of Mount Nemrut a short distance from the city.

Mount Nemrut near Tatvan

There are two Mount Nemruts in Eastern Turkey, the famous one that has the giant stone heads seen on travel brochures and Lake Van’s Mount Nemrut, the summer retreat of an early ruler, who named them both. Six thousand years ago, when it last erupted, the whole of the mountain’s top landed in the Van basin, blocking its outlet and creating what has become Turkey’s largest lake.

Hakan’s shortcut up the mountain is rough, and I’m glad to be driving a rented car and not my own. Before long we are at 2200 meters, looking down from the crater’s rim at a deep, blue-water lake. Then we descend.

Nemrut’s Crater Lake

There is a second lake in the giant crater, this one as green as the other is blue. The green water is warm, and after a pause by the lake to look around us and eat some fruit bought earlier in Tatvan, Hakan leads us to a fissure in the rocks where we can feel the warm breath of the Earth’s core arising from below.

As impressive as this scenery has been, the highlight of the day is driving to Hankan’s village on the lava plain below the mountain, meeting his family, and learning about their way of life.

Some of Hakan’s Family

As we sip tea in their shady garden, curious relatives join us one by one. A married sister lives in Izmır and has brought her children home for the summer. Another, unmarried sister, lives at home and joins us from milking her cows. Her strong hands remind my of my father’s; he spent his early years hand-milking cows on an upstate New York farm before escaping to the big city.

Hakan’s mother, still strong and vigorous after raising 15 children, takes us to an out building with a dirt floor to show how the family makes cheese. From watching this process and observing the poultry, animals and the large vegetable garden, we conclude that most of what the family eats they raise or make themselves.

This day spent with Hakan comes near the end of our visit to Van. The next day we fly home to Istanbul, a world a way from the rigors of Eastern Turkey.