- Middle east
A Backpacking Guide on Things to Do in Van, Turkey
As I was on a mission to explore the untouched east of Turkey, the second destination after Mt Nemrut was visiting Lake Van. Van, once a prosperous Armenian town but was enacted as part of the Turkish territory, is a small little city with a lot to offer for adventurers. Its close proximity with Iran and Armenia allowed this place to flourish in varieties of fashion over the years. From Armenian-style church with a romantic history to the mighty fortress of Van, let's explore Van together and see why the East of Turkey is so charming.Table of Contents
First impression of Van
It was Ramadan when I arrived in Van and boy was it noticeable. I flew from Istanbul directly to Van (because I had to go back to Istanbul to see my friend after Mt Nemrut) via Turkish Airline for 200 Liras and caught a taxi to the hotel I booked. When I arrived in Van, I realized that I may have made a big mistake visiting the east of Turkey during Ramadan. There were no tourists anywhere which should have been a benefit but it also meant that the majority of the restaurants and long distance public transportation were not in service. Given that it is Ramadan, restaurants that catered to tourists were rare and I had to survive with cookies and crackers for the rest of the trip in Van.
Where to Stay in Van
For accomodation, there were no hostel in the area and so I had no choice but to stay in a very average hotel called Side hotel. The price was affordable and the breakfast was good but that was all that they had to offer. The room was average but it was not equipped with an air conditioning which may get a little hot in the summer, or cold in the winter.
Getting to Van from Goreme, Cappadoccia
For transportation to Van, you can either make your way slowly from Adiyaman, stop somehwere in the middle and continue to Van on a 2 days journey, or you can rough it and take the 14 hours overnight bus. I flew so I can say how bad it would be to rough it, I would imagine it would not be so comfortable.
After sorting out my way for the next day, I went straight to bed and hoped that everything would go as planned. It was.. more or less but it required lots and lots of patience.
Visiting the Akdamar Island
I was tipped by the hotel owner that in order to get to Akdamar Island and see this Armenian church, I had to take a dolmus signed Gevas / Akdamar, from the minibus otogar in the north end of Cumhuriyet Cd (past Besyol Road). The island is 50km away from the city to the port and then I can take the ferry across to the island.
One caveat was that these services only run when the drivers think they got enough people so you may have to wait as long as 2 hours depending on the number of people going in the same direction. The dolmus from the city was not much of a problem but for the ferry, I had to wait 30+ minutes before it left the port.
It was all worth the wait though as the ferry approached the Akdamar island. This was my first sight of an Armenian architecture and I was impressed!
After arriving on the island, I decided to skip the church first and went straight to the only hill there was on the island to get a view of the island from the top. There were no clear path going up the hill so I had to improvise a bit and found my way inside the metal fence.
The reason why I rushed to the hill first was because the ferry was scheduled to leave every hour and I was still uncertain how I would go back to the city.
Based on the Armenian legend, there was an Armenian princess named Tamar who lived on the island. She was in love with a commoner living on the other side and the commoner, guided by a light she lit, would swim to the island every night to see her. It was all romantic until her father found out and as she was waiting for the boy to swim across, her father smashed the light leaving the boy in the minddle of the lake unguided. His body washed ashore later. What a sad romantic story, wasn't it?
After a good 40 minutes on the hill, I decided to climb down and explored the church. The Armenian cross cathedral was built during the 10th century but it was still impressively well-maintained. During the winter, I could imagine how nice the site would be, decorated with colorful landscape and snowy mountains as a backdrop.
During my time on the island, I met an Iranian couple and Thomas, a German student who was traveling back to Van as well. Everyone was on the same boat when it comes to going back to the city from the island port so we decided to stick together for the rest of the trip.
Right when we arrived at the port, we saw a dolmus waiting at the corner, and we were relief. We thought the dolmus would leave soon. Oh, how we were wrong. We waited for 2 hours before the next dolmus dropped more people at the port. Even then, we still had to wait for them to go to the island, explore and come back. It was irritating but since I did not have any other plan for that day, it did not matter.
We eventually arrived at the main otogar around 3pm. Me and Thomas were talking about visiting the Van Cats Home, a home to the beautiful 2 colored eyes Van cats and since we did not know what time it closes, we rushed through the Otogar and caught a dolmus signed "Campus".
Visiting the Van Cats Home
The dolmus dropped us off at the university gate and we walked for about 20 minutes before we reached the Home. Thank god, we arrived right before the home closes because when I saw this cat, I knew that the trip was well worth the effort. I have never seen anything like this before. To make it even weirder, these cats love swimming in water as well. There are no place save for us humans now!
At the Van Cat's home, they were trying to breed these cats with limited donation money they got from people so if you have some time to spare in Van, I do recommend visiting this place, paid the extremely cheap entrance fee (I believe it was 2 liras) and see these wonderful cats for yourself.
We were at the Cat's home until it closed and fortunately, the owner gave us a lift back to the city centre without us even asking. Hitchhiking is so much easier here!
Visit Van Fortress during Sunset
After they dropped us off at the Otagar, me and Thomas departed as I continued my way to watch a sunset at the Van fortress located far north from the city centre. I took a dolmus signed "Kalesi" from the Otogar again and off I went for the sunset.
Before I went to the fort, it was almost 6pm and I feared that the fort might be closed to visitors. Fortunately, Thomas tipped me that I might be able to access the fort from the other side, so when I arrived, the gate had already been closed as expected.
I made my way along the fence on the right of the fort and found a little openning. I snuck in, walked along the cliff for a bit and climbed the fort from the northern side and watched as the sun set behind the lake.
It was almost 9pm when I left, and I did not anticipate the fact that the dolmus no longer runs during that time. I ended up walking back to the hotel, feeding off the cookies and crackers I had left in my backpack for 50 minutes.
Since it was a hotel, the only thing I could do when I was back was to go right to bed. This is why I don't like staying in hotels. You don't meet people that way!
Getting To Trabzon
At the last minute, I decided to make my way to Trabzon instead of Kars to see the Sumela Monastery that were built off the side of a mountain by the Greeks. After spending the afternoon exploring Van city, and trying their famous Van breakfast (highly recommended!) at the only coffee shop that opened, I took an overnight bus to Trabzon and said goodbye to Van.
I hope you enjoy this episode of the Solo Traveler's Journal. Stay tuned as we explored the last 2 cities in the East of Turkey before we head toward the unknown territory of previous soviet countries.
Further Reading for Turkey
Turkey is a country that stands in the middle of Europe and Asia. Empires after empires rose and fall on this land and in order to see Turkey as a whole, you will have to go further than just Istanbul.
Here is a selection of articles and travel guides that you might need to further plan your trip to Turkey:
- Looking for a complete itinerary and travel guide for Turkey? One Month Itinerary for Turkey.
- You will likely be flying into Istanbul when you are traveling to Turkey. Check out my 4 days itinerary for Istanbul.
- A lot of Roman-influenced can be seen throughout Turkey. One of the big ones is Ephesus, a Roman ruin near Selcuk, south of Istanbul. Here’s a quick guide on how to get to Selcuk and visit Ephesus.
- Pamukkale is a popular tourist attraction since the ancient time. People from all over come to bath in these white salt pools along the cascade. It is an incredible sight to behold and if you want to visit, check out my One Day Travel Guide to Pamukkale.
- The southern coast of Turkey boasts a vivid turquoise colored sea, stunning cliffs and the Lycian trail, one of the best long trekking trails in the world that runs along the coast. Check out our travel guide on hiking the Butterfly Valley and Kabak in the Southern port town of Fethiye, Turkey.
- Cappadocia is a big area full of amazing things to do, from hot air balloon to hiking the valleys. Here’s a complete guide on how to spend 4 days in Cappadocia, Turkey.
- Mt. Nemrut and a collection of stone heads of gods atop the mountain are not easy to visit. The question has to be asked, Is Mt. Nemrut really worth visiting? We have the answer.
- The Northern coast of Turkey, below the Black Sea is also a great place to go off-the-beaten-path. Trabzon is an important ancient port city full of history waiting for you to explore. Check out my travel guide on how to visit Sumela Monastery in Trabzon.
- Kars is a city located on the easternmost part of Turkey and along the border with Armenia, there’s an ancient Armenian ruin called Ani that will blow your mind away. Here is a complete guide on how to visit Ani from Kars, Turkey.
- Not convinced by my words? Maybe these photos of Turkey will help! 45 Photos that will inspire you to travel to Turkey.
- Since you are already all the way east, why not cross the border from Turkey to Georgia and make your way to Tbilisi, a vibrant capital city of Georgia. Check out my Georgia Travel Guide to plan your next trip to Georgia.
- For all articles about Turkey, visit Turkey Travel Guide page.
- Looking for more travel guides for the Middle East? You can find more on my Middle East Travel Guide page.
- For more of my travel guides, visit my Destinations page.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by Pete Rojwongsuriya, the founder of BucketListly Blog where we will follow his solo journey around the world as he experiences different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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