Eastern Turkey: what you need to know before you go

Eastern Turkey is a somewhat unknown and a mystery for travellers. Istanbul’s minarets, Cappadocia’s rock formations and the blue water of the Mediterranean coastline, is the Turkey most people know, with the Far East of the country seeming like a vast no mans land between continents. However, this is far from true. From the plains of Mesopotamia to the rolling hills dotted with archaeological sites to the country’s largest lake and the Black Sea coast, Eastern Turkey has so much to offer the curious and the intrepid.

If you’re interested in heading beyond Cappadocia and exploring some of Turkey’s eastern region then I have compiled a detailed guide here for all the practical information you need to know about travelling there. From the security and political situation to female travellers to border crossings, I have covered what you need to know before you go to Eastern Turkey, to unveil some of the mystery surrounding this less visited part of the country.

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Where to go

Turkey is a huge country and you could literally spend months exploring it. Even breaking it down to the eastern half of the country still leaves a huge chunk of land to traverse. Eastern Turkey also has a heap of sights to see and so, unless you have unlimited time, it would be difficult to cover everything. So here’s my list of must see places in Eastern Turkey:

Mardin

Mardin (with a day trip to Midyat)

The old honey coloured buildings and cobble stone streets of Mardin and Midyat make them some of Turkey’s most picturesque towns.

Mt Nemrut ruins

Mount Nemrut

First century ruins from the Commagene Kingdom on top of one of the tallest peaks in the region.

Ani ruins

Ani ruins

The destroyed former Armenian city is like walking around a ghost town on a Hollywood movie set with an incredible landscape as its backdrop.

Akdamar island

Van (with a day trip to Akdamar Island)

The trendy city on the eastern shore of Lake Van with one of the best preserved Armenian Churches in the middle of its largest island.

Mount Ararat

Doğubayazıt (to see Mount Ararat and Ishak Pasa Palace)

A unique palace with a mix of Ottoman, Georgian, Armenian and Persian features and the nearby fabled Mount Ararat where Noah parked his ark.

Diyarbakir mosque

Diyarbakir

The lively city and capital of Kurdish culture in Eastern Turkey.

Urfa

Urfa (with a side trip to Göbekli Tepe)

Archeological highlights with Abraham’s cave and the world’s first temple which may have rewritten humanity’s early history.

Trabzon (with a side trip to Sumela Monastery)

The largest resort city on the Black Sea coast, Trabzon is a popular summer vacation spot for Turkish tourists. It’s also the base for a day trip to Sumela Monastery an incredible Greek Orthodox monastery built on the side of the mountains. I had really wanted to go to visit this monastery, however, it’s been under construction for some time, which means you cannot actually enter it but just view it from outside which I figured was not worth my time and effort to go out of my way for a few days. When it’s reopened, however, it would be considered one of Eastern Turkey’s highlights for certain.

When to go

The best time to visit Eastern Turkey is in spring or autumn which avoids the extreme weather conditions in summer and winter. However, summer is a popular time to visit the Black Sea coast area and so if you’re looking for lively activity then summer is your best bet. However, to avoid the crowds of Turkish holiday goers then I would recommend spring or autumn.

I visited in October and the weather was perfect, with blue skies every day and mid-range temperatures. It was also relatively quiet in terms of tourists, although this part of Turkey is generally quiet anytime of year compared to the country’s west.

Midyat

Safety

Turkey is generally safe, however, incidences do occur although the likelihood is small. In Eastern Turkey there have been concerns with the rise of ISIS along the border region with Syria and it had been considered dangerous in the past. However, currently the situation in that area is relatively stable for those travelling through and even in places like Mardin and Urfa (which are within close proximity to Syria), you shouldn’t have any problems. The area is very militarised because of the conflict across the border so don’t be alarmed by the number of passport checks on the roads as that’s been relatively normal now for years.

The main security threat that foreign governments warn their citizens about for Eastern Turkey is the ongoing struggle with the PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers Party). For decades now the PKK has been fighting for greater autonomy and ultimately wants independence for the Kurdish people. Most Western governments consider them a terrorist organisation and violent clashes do occur between the PKK and Turkish forces. However, mostly, this happens far from any tourist area and rarely, if ever, targets foreigners so you shouldn’t necessarily let it affect your travel plans.

If you check your government’s travel warnings, they’ll likely warn against travel to places like Diyarbakir, which has long been the PKK stronghold and the capital of Kurdish territory in Turkey. However, the city is actually a lively place to explore and I spent five days there without any sign of trouble and would highly recommend you visit for a day or two to see the city. Fighting has occurred there in the past, usually during election times or on important historical or political days, however, at present I would say any warnings against travelling there would be more politically motivated than based on facts. More on the Kurdish-Turkish relations below under the politics section.

Female travellers

Some solo female travellers have had some bad experiences in Turkey, however, I’ve now spent two months over two different trips and I can say that I never have. It mostly comes down to how you dress as a female and dressing relatively conservatively can ward off most unwanted comments and attention (more on dress code under religion section). However, I find Turkish people some of the nicest and most people will try to help you, especially if you’re alone. It still pays to be stern and ooze self confidence (even if you have to fake it on occasion), as younger guys may take advantage by making sexual comments if they sense you’re uneasy, although this is similar to many other countries and not unique to Turkey.

In some rural or more conservative areas, solo female travel is still a bit of an anomaly and you may get some curious stares or questions, but generally they will just be intrigued rather than possess any sort of ulterior motive.

Solo female travel Turkey

Politics

Politics is a complicated affair in Turkey, especially in Eastern Turkey where a cultural and ethnic mix of people reside. The Kurdish population is perhaps the most complicated political issue in Eastern Turkey as majority of Southeastern Turkey is made up of Kurdish people who have long sort independence.

Turkish Kurdistan is referred to by Kurds as the northern part of Greater Kurdistan and has historically included basically the southern half of eastern Turkey, where at least 50% of the population in each province are Kurdish. There have been clashes between Turks and Kurds throughout history, including Kurdish uprisings in the early twentieth century which were met with harsh repression and an almost blanket ban on the expression of Kurdish culture.

A Kurdish political party known as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), founded in 1978, resorted to guerrilla warfare and a brutal conflict took place between the Turkish government and the PKK from 1984 into the 1990s until the leader of the PKK was captured in 1999. It’s estimated that over 30, 000 people died during that time. Technically the conflict has not ended with the last ceasefire breaking down in 2015 with the PKK declaring that they will continue to fight against Erdogan and the Turkish government.

The PKK have at some point or another been supported by Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria, although they also have a large support base from the Kurdish communities across the world. Most Western countries have declared them a terrorist organisation with hefty bounties for the main leaders. This has led to Eastern Turkey being sometimes declared ‘unsafe’ for travel, however, tourists have hardly if ever been targeted.

Some consider the Turkish government to be autocratic and freedom of speech is actually severely restricted in the country with a heavy censorship of media and news. It is worth noting that criticising the government or the Turkish nation in general is considered a serious crime and can result in imprisonment even for foreigners. So be aware of what you say to people you don’t know, especially on the internet, which is heavily monitored (more on this below under internet and VPNs).

Religion

Turkey is a Muslim-majority country with official statistics declaring 98% of the population follow Islam. How strict or conservative people are mostly depends on where you are visiting but generally people are accepting of other religions and do not expect foreigners to abide by any strict religious standards. Saying that, I would always dress relatively conservatively as a female in most, if not all, places in Turkey, and especially eastern Turkey where there are much less tourists. I always had my legs covered with a long skirt or pants, but a t-shirt is acceptable.

You will notice around half of women wear a headscarf as a generalisation, likely more in rural areas. However, there is no expectation for foreigners to wear one, unless entering a mosque.

Turkey flag

Visas

Many European nationals, British, American and Australian passport holders require a visa to enter Turkey. Some European countries along with New Zealand, Japanese and Korean nationals do not need a visa for up to 90 days. Check the most up to date information on the Turkish visa website here.

The easiest way to obtain a visa is through the e-visa platform here. There are different rules, costs and validities for different nationalities but Australians can get a multiple entry visa, valid for six months with a maximum stay of 90 days through the e-visa platform. It costs USD$60 and must be paid online with a credit card. It’s approved basically instantly and you can download the visa onto your device. Visas on arrival are generally more expensive now as they’re trying to encourage everyone to use this e-visa platform, which saves time.

I didn’t bother printing the visa but saved a copy on my phone just in case. The immigration official asked to see it but he had all the information on his computer anyway and just needed my passport.

Borders

Eastern Turkey has borders with Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, Armenia and Georgia. Currently, the Syrian border is closed for tourists due to the conflict and the Armenian border has been permanently closed since Armenia became independent in 1991.

The Iraqi Kurdistan border is open and I crossed into Turkey from there. You can read my border report for the Kurdistan-Turkey border here.

The Iranian border is popular amongst overland travellers and it’s relatively easy to cross in either direction with a good transport network. There are daily buses between Van and Dogubayazit in Turkey and Tabriz and Tehran in Iran, as well as longer buses, even all the way to/from Istanbul.

The Georgian border is the easiest to cross in Eastern Turkey and you can either cross from Trabzon or lower down from Kars. There are buses from Trabzon to Batumi and Kars to Tbilisi, with the latter only operating every few days as it’s less popular. I took the bus from Kars to Tbilisi and you can read about it at the bottom of my post on Ani here. Otherwise, taking a bus from Trabzon is much more common and there are daily services to Batumi in Georgia.

Travelling in this region? You can fine my Iraqi Kurdistan posts here and my Iran posts here.

Mount Ararat
Mount Ararat

Money and budget

Turkey’s currency is the Turkish Lira.

In terms of budget I would say that Eastern Turkey is slightly more expensive than the west for budget travellers mostly owing to the lack of budget accommodation and hostels. I stayed in hotels and guesthouses which were actually all pretty good value considering I tended to go with the cheapest one I could find on Booking.com. Still, I would say to allow up to AUD$50 per day for everything, although around AUD$35-40 would be more accurate, with half often being for accommodation.

At a restaurant I was paying between 20-30 TL or AUD$5-7, otherwise you can get a kebab or pita for less than half that at a cheap takeaway place.

Language

The national language in Turkey is Turkish, although in Eastern Turkey you will likely hear a lot of Kurdish and it’s dialects, as much of southeastern Turkey is inhabited by a majority Kurdish population. It was previously banned under Turkish law to speak Kurdish or any other language until the 1990s, and even today there are significant linguistic divisions and conflicts when it comes to the education system, where Turkish is still considered the main and most important language.

It’s worth learning some basic words in Turkish as English is not that widely or well spoken in Eastern Turkey. Even some of the young people are shy to use English at all, but generally, staff in hotels will speak some, if not a lot.

Lake Van
Lake Van

Internet and VPNs

Wi-Fi is practically available in all hotels and guesthouses across the region.

According to a report by Twitter, Turkey leads the world in social media censorship and the government has also, on occasions, blocked Facebook and YouTube temporarily. Many locals use a VPN to get around this and if you’re concerned about censorships or privacy then I would also opt for a VPN in Turkey.

Using a VPN means you basically divert your internet traffic through a server that is in another country, which allows you to get around blockages and censorships.

There are quite a few blogs comparing VPNs out there and after reading a lot of them, I went with ExpressVPN, which seems to be the most popular option. It’s one of the safest companies without slowing down speed and it’s reasonably priced compared to many others. It works on all devices and even with Netflix, and you get a 30 day money back guarantee if it’s not working. ExpressVPN have plans ranging from 1 month to 12 months, with 1 month costing $12.95 and 12 month plans at $8.32 per month.

I personally used ExpressVPN in Iran and then continued using it through Iraq and Turkey and I never had any problems with it.

If you want to download ExpressVPN you can use the link here, to get started.

I would still be wary what you post on social media, even with a VPN. Especially in regards to sensitive topics like the Kurdish people and their plight for independence. And, especially, if you will be travelling in Eastern Turkey and in the Kurdish-majority areas. I never heard of foreigners having a hard time for what they posted on social media, however, with tensions in that region fluctuating constantly, I would err on the side of caution.

SIM cards

It’s quite easy to get a SIM card with data in Turkey as a foreigner. I recommend Turkcell which is the largest provider and it works pretty much everywhere. For foreigners, they offer 20GB, 1000 SMS, 200mins calls for 120TL, which is quite expensive.

I went to a Turkcell office in Midyat and the young girl set it up for me and I got a smaller package with 10GB for around 80TL (AUD$20). Apparently they are not supposed to do that and if you’re in Istanbul or Ankara then they will likely only offer you the 120TL package. It’s certainly a painless exercise with your passport as ID, just a bit on the pricey side.

Ani ruins

Transport

Turkey’s bus network is one of the most impressive and efficient I’ve used in the Middle East and Asia. You have the choice between nice coaches with large seats, snacks, tea and water, Wi-Fi and personal entertainment screens and dolmus’ which are basically your everyday white minivan that leave when full. Either way, it’s an extremely easy place to travel and doesn’t even require much planning, as each time I just arrived at the station and bought my ticket on the spot.

The large coaches run to a timetable which you can ask for at any of the counters at the bus stations. They are usually very organised with touts floating around so it doesn’t take long for you to find the company you need. For popular routes between larger cities it’s worth shopping around for times and prices as there will often be many buses running the same roads.

If the schedule of the larger buses don’t suit you or you want to opt for the cheapest option, then there’s usually always dolmus’ running, although it may require multiple changes if it’s long distances. For example, from Diyarbakir to Kahta (for Mt Nemrut) there is only one direct bus per day at 2.30pm which costs 45TL. Whereas, you can also take a dolmus from Diyarbakir to Siverek and then change to another dolmus on to Kahta and it will cost 30TL in total and they leave when full.

Food and drink

Tap water is safe and drinkable. I didn’t have any problems with it and I drank it for weeks whilst there.

Food is largely standard Turkish offerings. Meat and bread make up a large part of meals, with shaved meat off a doner kebab (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie) being the most popular option. There’s also a lot of eggplant and potato dishes on offer, although most will have meat in some form. Stuffed eggplant (below) is common in local restaurants and is probably my favourite meal I had.

A basic salad of cucumber and tomato is generally always offered or served with any sit down meal too.

For gluten free travellers you’re going to have a hell of a time. Turkey is probably the hardest country for me to travel in when it comes to food for this reason, because even their rice is served with small pasta in it and it’s near impossible to find it without. My best options were the stuffed eggplant or any dish with eggplant and potato as well as lentil soup which can be found at many restaurants.

Kars restaurant

Accommodation

As I said above, budget accommodation in the form of hostels has not reached Eastern Turkey as yet, with the exception of Van Backpackers Hostel, which is the only hostel in Eastern Turkey. Otherwise, guesthouses and hotels are your only options and a quick search on Booking.com reveals they are not that cheap but the standard is generally pretty good.

Most places include breakfast in their price and private bathrooms are pretty common too. You can find my specific recommendations for each city or town I stayed in the individual blog posts for Eastern Turkey here or start searching for accommodation below.

Booking.com

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