In far eastern Turkey, you’ll find a number of incredible places that you’ve likely never heard of. From Lake Van, Turkey’s largest body of water, to the fabled Mt Ararat, it’s worth spending some time exploring eastern Turkey. It encompasses the last reaches of Kurdish culture in Turkey and is an area that is far less visited by many tourists.
After spending time in Southeastern Turkey, I moved further northeast and based myself in Van, a cool, youthful city on the edge of a blue lake. From there I explored the surrounding area and did a couple of day trips further afield.
Here’s a guide for exploring Lake Van and Dogubayazit in far Eastern Turkey.
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Van is a city that sits on the eastern shore of Lake Van, Turkey’s largest body of water. It’s a modern, trendy city with a vibrant shopping central area and a young Kurdish population who make it quite a progressive place to be.
There’s not exactly a whole lot to do in the city itself, except soak up the vibe and climb to the top of the city’s castle or fortress for sunset. Still, it’s a great city to base yourself in to explore the lake.
How to get to Van
Van is a large city that is well connected to almost every destination you can think of across the country as well as over international borders. There are a number of bus company offices around the main shopping area of Van or you can head to the Otogar to book tickets.
From Diyarbakir | There are services running at 9.00, 12.30, 17.30 and 21.00 from the main Otogar (bus station) in Diyarbakir and the trip took 7 hours and cost 80TL (AUD$20).
From Kars | A town that is in northeast Turkey and close to the ruins of Ani. There are a couple of buses that run between Kars and Van each morning. The tickets cost 100 TL (AUD$25) and the journey takes around 7-8 hours.
From Istanbul | Yes there is a gruelling 25-hour bus service from Istanbul to Van. There are a number of companies offering this trip.
If you plan on exploring the ruins of Ani, check out my post on Kars and visiting Ani here.
Things to do in Van
The fortress of Van is the city’s main tourist site away from the lake and it’s an old fort built between the 9th and 7th centuries BC. It’s now been partially restored and the views over the lake and city are incredible from atop its walls.
It is possible to walk down to the fortress but it is just over 5km away from the centre. Instead, you can take one of the local buses running up and down Kazim Karabekir Street. Just ask for “kalesi” or “kale” and people should be able to point you to the right bus, which should cost maximum 2 TL.
I was dropped at the edge of the park where the fortress is and then I had to cross the park and through the fence to start climbing to the ruins. It may be a bit confusing at first but there is an official entrance quite a distance around the other side. Instead, I followed most local people and went through a gaping hole in the fence in the park where there are a few obvious trails that lead to the ruins at the top. You can always ask people picnicking in the park, I even had boys offering to escort me up if I needed.
Sunset time was a very beautiful and popular time to be at the fortress as the sun sets right over Lake Van.
Just 50km away from Van is the remains of Hosap Castle built by the Kurds as a sort-of fortress to defend their territory. It was once one of the main tourist attractions, however, it’s been under construction for some time and is often closed completely. The guys at the hostel in Van told me it wasn’t worth a visit, but I heard that if you were lucky enough to arrive on a day that they had decided to open it, it was worth it.
It’s possible to take a local bus to Hosap, which leaves from around the corner from the Backpackers Hostel. However, I heard that getting return transport is hit and miss, but it should still be a half-day excursion regardless.
Where to stay in Van
I stayed at the only hostel in all of Eastern Turkey.
Van Backpackers Hostel | This place is run by a couple of young guys. It’s a pretty standard hostel and not a bad place to stay. It’s centrally located and the staff speak good English and are very helpful about sightseeing and getting to your next destination. If you’re a budget traveller it should be a must-stay in Eastern Turkey.
There are plenty of other accommodation options though if you’d prefer and you can search for them here.
Day trip to Akdamar Island
The region’s main tourist attraction and easily visited independently from Van is Akdamar Island on Lake Van. It’s the largest of the islands and is home to an old Armenian church called the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The church is tentatively on the list to become recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the future.
Visiting the island and church is a relatively easy day trip you can take independently from Van.
First, I walked to the dolmus/minibus station just beyond the end of Cumhuriyet Caddesi (it’s marked on Maps.Me), where there are buses running to the main otogar/bus station regularly. Then from the otogar, there are minivans running to a place called Gevas, which is near the boat dock for Akdamar Island. There should be around six services a day and the bus I took left at 11am and cost 7 TL (AUD$2). Alternatively, you could take a bus going to Tatvan, a town on the western side of the lake, and ask to be dropped off in Gevas. The drive was just under an hour and the driver actually stopped directly at the boat dock, assuming that’s where we all wanted to go.
The dock consists of a couple of restaurants where you can buy a return ticket on the ferry for 20 TL (AUD$5). They tend to leave when there are around 20 people on the ferry and I only waited around 20 minutes before it left. In high season and on weekends, there are obviously more services, otherwise you can wait up to an hour. The boat trip to Akdamar took 40 minutes.
On the island
Once you arrive on the small island you will have to buy a ticket for the church which costs 18 TL (AUD$4.50). Then you are free to roam around the area as you please. There is the cathedral complex, a cafe and a lookout area and you really only need an hour or two maximum to see everything.
The church is really beautiful and it was my first time seeing the Armenian style architecture, something which I would see a lot more of in just a couple of months time in Armenia itself. The reliefs on the outside depict biblical characters and stories and along with the faded frescoes on the inside are considered some of the best Armenian artwork still preserved today.
The ferries return to the mainland when full and I jumped back on one at around 2.30pm, which left not long after. When I arrived back at the dock on the mainland I assumed I would have to go to the highway to flag down a passing bus. However, the restaurant staff told me to wait along with a few other people who were also wanting to get back to Van. We waited around 30 minutes and a minibus arrived to take us back. I paid 7 TL (AUD$2) again for the return trip.
Once back at the otogar in Van, I walked out to the road and waved down a minibus and asked for “merkez” meaning “centre” and I was able to get back to Cumhuriyet Caddesi easily. All in all a successful day trip.
Day trip to Dogubayazit
Dogubayazit, a town near the Iranian border, is home to an 18th century palace that is a unique blend of Ottoman, Persian and Armenian style architecture. It, along with a view of Mt Ararat, the supposed resting place of Noah’s ark, are the main reasons people visit the town. The palace is considered a must-see sight of Eastern Turkey.
I contemplated going to Dogubayazit for the night before continuing on to Kars, because looking at a map it makes sense. However, when I heard that you could do the return trip in a day from Van I decided to do that instead. I was comfortable at the backpacker hostel in Van, it was cheap and it also meant one less time of packing and moving my luggage.
If you want to stay in Dogubayazit overnight there are a few decent accommodation options which you can look at here.
In the Van otogar, there is a small office outside the main building and off to the right side where buses leave for Dogubayazit. There are departures at 7.30, 9.00, 12.00, 14.00 and 16.00. I arrived half an hour before and managed to get a seat on the 9am bus. The ticket cost 30 TL (AUD$8) and the journey time was 2.5 hours.
Exploring Ishak Pasa Palace and Mount Ararat
There are local shuttle buses that run from the centre of Dogubayazit up to Ishak Pasa Palace, which is 6km away. Locals will happily show you where to go for the shuttle buses as it’s not overly clear and the services are very infrequent when outside of peak season. A one-way trip costs 3 TL.
When I arrived at the palace, it was a Monday and it was closed. I was a bit upset after taking more than three hours to get there. However, as nothing always goes to plan when travelling I had to laugh. There happened to be a taxi driver dropping a local family at their home up the road and he stopped to ask if I needed help because he spoke good English and is a mountain climbing guide for nearby Mt Ararat in season.
Sadly, the palace was closed every Monday and a quick Google would have told me that before I’d made the trip. My new friend, Cuma, offered to instead drive me around to Mt Ararat and some Kurdish villages for a couple of hours before dropping me at the bus stop again. I decided I may as well and I went with him on an impromptu tour of the area outside of town.
I got a magnificent view of Mt Ararat, where many people believe Noah’s ark came to rest. I also saw many Kurdish villages on the border with Iran which was just a few kilometres away. Cuma told me smuggling was rife and Kurdish communities on either side of the border would trade clothes, alcohol and oil between each other depending on prices and then sell it on the black market. “They look poor these people, but they are not. Trust me, they are rich!” Cuma said.
I had a great couple of hours with my new friend and then he drove me back to Dogubayazit to where the buses leave back to Van. I paid Cuma 100 TL ($25) for the two hour driving tour.
I stumbled across a restaurant called Ergul’un Mutfagi at a coincidence but when I walked in, a local man who was eating there explained that it was actually a sort-of famous place for trying the local food known as abdigor kofta (pictured above), which is a giant boiled meatball. I decided to try it and I actually didn’t mind it, to the surprise of the staff. Apparently, it is homemade by women and the restaurant has been a great supporter of female employment. So I highly recommend you go there if you find yourself in Dogubayazit. You can find the restaurant on Google Maps.
The buses going back to Van leave from the same office where they drop you. They have departures at 6.30, 8.00, 9.00, 12.00, 14.00 and 15.00 and the ticket price is the same, 30 TL (AUD$8).