Van, the City on the Lake in Turkey

Van, the City on the Lake in Turkey

Van is a modern, mostly Kurdish city on the beautiful Lake Van. It is close to the border with Iran, as well as near several major tourist attractions, including the Isak Pasha Palace in Dogubayazit.

We didn’t really know what to expect from Van, except that it was going to be colder than anywhere else we’d been so far. It wasn’t freezing or anything, but we did have to break out the long underwear a couple of times.

Night buses are convenient because they save a night’s accommodation and technically get you in town with the whole day to do walk around and see things. It never really works out that way for us because we’re always so tired when we arrive. The buses aren’t terribly uncomfortable or anything, but I don’t think many people can sleep very well on them. We certainly can’t. The road from Diyarbakir to Van was particularly rough, causing the bus to vibrate at a sharp, low frequency all night long.

So when we arrived at 6 am, the first goal was sleep. The first hotel we tried was still closed from the night before. We had to bang on the door for a few minutes before the guy at the reception desk, bleary-eyed and moving slowly, came to unlock the door and let us in. Then he told us that the price was much higher than we were expecting and that we couldn’t get into our room until 10 am. So we went searching for another hotel. We had to repeat the same door-banging procedure there, too, but this time he only told us that the price was higher than we were expecting. We put our things down and promptly passed out.

Getting to Van Castle

Once we woke up we found some lunch, always a challenge to varying degrees during Ramadan. From there we began the mission of making it to Van Castle, situated on a large rock overlooking the lake on one side and the new city on the other. We flagged down a minibus, which took us right to the corner of the compound in about fifteen minutes. Every time we ride a crowded minibus it is a mini event for the people on the bus, and of course this time it was no different. Everyone is always very smily and nice though, so it’s usually light-hearted and amusing.

Getting to the castle was much easier than getting into the castle. The LP told us to walk along the fence until we came to an opening, so we did. Before we got there some kids told us to go a different way, which we tried for a minute before quickly turning back. On one side of the castle complex there is a small mosque that is the pilgrimage site of a Muslim holy man who can help infertile women. There were lots of women there praying, and the kids tried to steer us up a hill dotted with graves leading toward the castle. We felt uncomfortable and got ourselves back on the small road winding around the complex.

That road took us to the entrance to the castle park, but it’s not a common site to see tourists walking down it, so we became easy targets for the street children hanging around. They would come up to us and ask for money and try out their English before disappearing. Eventually we made it inside the gate, but from there it wasn’t that clear how to get up to the castle. The LP said to look for some steps, but there weren’t steps to be found anywhere. The sun was getting low in the sky, and during Ramadan you have to be very careful about needing any kind of transportation right before or after sunset. You could easily find yourself stranded while everything grinds to a halt and everyone gets the first sustenance of the day.

Eventually a small boy appeared and told us we were going the wrong way and pointed us in the right direction, so I gave him a lira and he seemed happy. We climbed up the rocky hill and made it into the castle, which was really neat. Much better than the castle, which was an old Urartian fortress, complete with spikes coming out of the walls, was the view of lake Van. The changing light from the setting sun turned the water several different shades of blue and white, and the castle is up high enough to see for miles in all directions. It was definitely worth the effort.

Ice cream with a knife and fork

After enjoying the sunset we made it back to town without incident, found dinner, and then set out looking for ice cream. If you’ve ever had Turkish ice cream, you know that it is very thick and sticky. The first time we saw it was in Japan at the Gion Matsuri, where the Turkish vendors serve it up using metal poles and then spin the cones around playfully before giving it to you. In a nearby town we weren’t able to stop at they make the ice cream even thicker than usual, and they say you can eat it with a knife and fork. So we wanted some.

We found some at this trendy cafe full of smart looking young people who looked very different from the inhabitants of Sanliurfa or Diyarbakir. The waiter brought out the silverware first, and we laughed when we noticed something: there was no spoon! Then out came the ice cream, and we tucked in using our knives and forks. The knife isn’t really necessary, but when someone puts a plate of ice cream in front of you and only gives you a knife and fork, you might as well use both of them.

No Keys to the Castle

The next day we set out for Hosap (pronounced Hoshap) Castle, an old Kurdish castle built on a steep, rocky hill. We got a shared taxi out there full of nice people who tried their best to communicate with us on the way, pointing things out and asking us easy questions. They drove us right up the doorstep of the castle and let us out into the cold, mountain air. And that’s when we found out that the castle was closed. We’re not ones for visiting the tourist office in every town we visit, but we learned our lesson and will do it more often now. We ate our lunch on the rocks right beneath the castle walls and lamented the fact that we couldn’t get inside: it looked awesome.

Getting back was even more interesting than getting there. We walked down to the little one-horse town below and looked for minibuses heading for Van, but there weren’t any. Then a man asked us if we were going to Van and said we could ride together. I asked how much and he laughed and said no money. It turns out he was a medical student and should be a doctor in two months. We chatted a bit on the ride and then when we arrived in Van he wrote down his number and said if we needed anything to call him. The amount of times people have been ridiculously nice to us in Turkey is astounding, so we are no longer surprised by it, though we’re always grateful.

The next day we went to Dogubayazit to see the Isak Pasha Palace, our final sightseeing destination in Turkey.

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