I woke up at 3:45 AM at my budget hotel in Kadiköy, Istanbul’s trendy Asian counterpart, and ran down the block to catch the first HAVATAS shuttle of the day at 4:15 AM to Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. In my attempt to spend as much time in as many cities during my limited time in Turkey (part of a much larger Middle East voyage), and most importantly to do so on a college student’s budget, such daily start times were not uncommon – they were Pegasus Airlines’ cheapest seats. Prior to arrival in Van, one of the largest cities in Turkey’s Kurdish far east, I compiled only a handful of items on my touristy checklist, as most tour guides left this area off their table of contents, so it seemed it would be one of the simplest agendas of my travels.
After landing in Van, I boarded a local minibus, and, after a short ride, I got off as soon it passed a sign pointing towards Van Kalesi (Van Fortress, an ancient stone construction) as 3 kilometers away. The weather was very pleasant in Van – a great reprieve from the likes of Erbil, Kuwait City, and Muscat – and the walk to the fortress an easy navigation, being perched on a hill easily seen from afar. Upon arrival and ascent, the views of nearby Van city and the stunning Lake Van were easy on the eyes.
What was supposed to be a quick descent turned into a much slower but more fascinating experience, meeting two groups of travelers who offered more insight into the history, dynamics, and appeal of Kurdish Turkey – a group of senior Armenian-Americans on a heritage tour, who explained how Armenian ruins are preserved and scattered throughout the Kurdish region, and a family of four from Iran, including their father who gave it his all speaking English and was surprisingly excited to hear I hailed from America, whom I thought was his nation’s mortal enemy. In speaking with his daughters, I learned Eastern Turkey is a frequent getaway for those in Western Iran, as Van is connected by highway to their country, and the looser social restrictions of Turkey, especially in the more liberal Kurdish regions, offer a chance to live “in another world” as they put it. The most obvious sign of their otherworldly living was in their outward attire – neither mother nor daughters wore the chadors (or any head coverings at all) I commonly see in portrayals of modern Iranian women.
After departing the fortress, I walked to the city center and attempted to locate an intersection where my guide books indicated minibuses left for the boat docks to Akhdamar Island, miles away from Van but the top sight in every book. It appeared they were not located as shown, and after wandering fruitlessly from street to street looking for my desired minibus, I eventually stumbled upon a driver heading to a city nearby the island who was willing to drive further to the docks.
The bus filled up, and, as expected, I was eventually the last passenger on board after several stops along the way. The driver continued toward the docks, stopping briefly along the side of the road to drink water from a natural spout. “It’s the cleanest water you’ll ever drink,” he noted. Though I couldn’t swear to that, it was a welcome refresher after completing a dozen laps around Van looking for his bus.