Caucasus Journey XV: Visiting Van

Saturday, May 23, 2009
During the course of seven years living in Istanbul in the 1990s, I traveled very little to the east of Turkey. Sure, I'd been to Adıyaman in order to visit Nemrut Dağı, but instead of venturing further east had simply turned right and gone south, down to Hatay and İskenderun.
Partly it was because of the weather--I worked during the school year and had summers off, and didn't feel like baking in the 100 degree-plus temperatures that can be typical in the southeast in July and August. And frankly I wasn't very enthusiastic about visiting the east, and the southeast in particular, at a time when the PKK was a lot more active than it is today. But mainly I think that, since I was already spending the entire year in Turkey, I liked the idea of going someplace different in the summers. So usually in the summer I'd take my backpack and travel for five or six weeks through the Balkans, Central Europe, the former USSR, the Middle East, or some other place, and then take a quick ten days or so on the Aegean coast somewhere before starting work again at the end of September.
Thus, when I started thinking about how to get back to Istanbul this year after researching in Georgia for the past six weeks, it wasn't long before I began contemplating a visit to Kars and Van. Kars was attractive because I've been reading so much about Kars, and people from Kars, in my research over the past couple of years. And Van is a city I've wanted to see since my earliest days in Turkey when, visiting a friend's house, I saw photographs of Lake Van and first heard stories of the bizarre Van Cat, a (frequently) swimmer with one eye that's blue eye and another yellow.  

Van Cat in the water (not my photo)
The trip down from Kars on Thursday lasted about six hours. Even though the scenery was not as spectacular as that between Artvin and Kars, it was still impressive. As we gradually traveled into lower altitudes, the snowy mountains receded further into the background, replaced by grassy hills on either side of the bus. About three hours outside Kars, Lake Van came into view, and from that point forward our road followed the lakeshore before finally pulling into Van in the mid-afternoon. 
Van is not the most interesting or attractive city I've ever been to, but it's pleasant enough. Just about every building I saw was constructed over the past thirty years, and most of them are pretty bland and uninspiring. But there's a fair bit of greenery along Cumhuriyet Caddesi, the main drag. I also had dinner in a couple of excellent restaurants, so clearly the town has got something going on. 

On Friday I got up early to go to the Van Kedisi Araştırma ve Uygulama Merkezi, a center at Yüzüncü Yıl University in Van which studies and breeds Van cats. The center operates a "Cat House" (Kedi evi), where they keep several dozen Van cats. I'd called them up the day before to ask if I could pay a visit, and they'd told me to come by whenever I wanted.  
According to their literature, the center is devoted to increasing the numbers of Van cats, who are hardly ever seen on the street today. This activity includes not only breeding the cats on the grounds of the "Cat House," but allowing the owners of Van cats to bring their animals in for free vaccinations and other medical procedures.  
To be honest, however, I found the "Cat House," like other kennels I've been to, a little depressing. While the females seem to spend a lot of time sleeping in the sun, the males (they are kept separate, and only bred in controlled environments) seemed pretty stir-crazy to me.  
Nevertheless, it does seem that, if it weren't for this institution, the Van cat population in the region would be in danger of disappearing altogether either because they'd be caught and sold or because they'd cross-breed themselves out of existence. Like many state universities in Turkey, Yüzüncü Yıl University is clearly starved for funds, so I'm not sure how much better things can be expected to be. Yes, it could be nicer, but at least it's a start. 
Perhaps they could start charging admission. 

The research center is nearly a mile away from the university gates. Upon arriving at the university gates in the morning, I'd gotten a ride with one of the security guards over to the center. Meanwhile, however, he'd gone back to his post so I was on my own. Walking back to the university gates under the baking hot sun, I flagged down a passing car and asked if they'd mind giving me a lift. Inside were three students--Faruk, Ali, and Ӧmer. Driving towards the university gates we started chatting, and before long we decided to get some tea. We sat around in the university tea garden for an hour or so, talking about our lives--Ali and Faruk are both civil servants studying in their spare time, and both hope to make a go of things in Istanbul. 
After finishing our tea, Faruk offered to drive me to Van Castle, which I'd mentioned was going to be the next stop on my itinerary. It was really hot out and we were far away from the castle, so I really appreciated the offer. Like the university, Van Castle is pretty far from the center of town, so I would have had to take two fairly long minibus rides were it not for Faruk. 
Faruk dropped me off in front of the castle, which has a shady restaurant and cafe in front of it. I had some lunch and drank some tea, then set out on my way. Van Castle is a really impressive place, but it's not for the faint of heart. There are various paths leading through the ruins, but basically you've got to climb over (often worn down and slippery) rocks or else navigate extremely steep dusty/rocky trails in order to see all of the sites. I almost sprained an ankle (or worse) on a number of occasions, but at the same time was really impressed by the availability of everything, as long as you're willing to scurry, shimmy, slide, and climb to see it. Here was this castle, and visitors are simply allowed to explore it any way they want to. Granted, this can't be very good for the castle itself, and the steep drops and slippery paths are clearly dangerous, but it still adds up to a memorable and really exhilarating experience. 
On Saturday I visited Akdamar Island, which is located about a mile off the shores of Van Lake. On the island is an Armenian church dating to the tenth century. As is the case with Van Castle, you're pretty much free to roam wherever you want, whatever the risks to life and limb might be. And, as was also the case with Van Castle, the surrounding area was simply stunning. 
And now my trip is coming to an end, as I fly back to Istanbul tomorrow morning (Sunday) for still more research in the archives.
While I did feel a little guilty earlier to be taking this week off from work, I'm extremely happy I did so. There are so many incredible places in Turkey, but this part of the country is really unique. And there's loads more to see--hopefully I'll make the effort to do a bit more traveling in these parts before too much time passes.
To see more photos from the Caucacus journey, go to the photos page of  
More links, analysis and photographs can be found at the Borderlands Lounge


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