2nd February
written by Hope

There comes a time in every travel blogger’s life where you fall behind on your blog (four months in our case). And there comes a time when something so unexpected happens—something so amazing that it manages to infuse your cynical spirit with pure faith in the goodness of this world—that you feel like you can’t possibly wait four months to tell the world about it. This is one of those times.

Van is a town in southeast Turkey, set on the eastern shore of Turkey’s largest lake (called, fittingly, Lake Van).

storm over van lake, van
Storm over Lake Van. The lake is so large, some Turks refer to it as a sea.

At this point in our journey, we’ve learned a few lessons about traveling Eastern Turkey:

1. All the information in our guidebook is at best incomplete, and at worst incorrect
2. Nobody speaks English

Sure, this makes things like finding a hotel and getting around more complicated, but not insurmountable. But you know what is kind of hopeless? Trying to remain anonymous, even in a big town, because:

3. Everybody—and I mean EVERYBODY—will stare at you (if “you” happen to be an Asian woman)

Not in an aggressive way, and not in a judgmental way, but in a very, very curious way. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to live the life of a bacterium under a slide, visit Van, Turkey.

the latest in turkish fashions, van
Am I being paranoid, or is she staring at me too?!?

One day, J and I decided to head out to tiny Akdamar Island in the middle of Lake Van, where there is a small but beautiful Armenian church. The ferry to Akdamar leaves from a point on the lake shore about 45 minutes away from Van. All we had to do was to find the bus to the ferry, but given lessons #1 and 2 of traveling in eastern Turkey, this was easier said than done.

On our way to the bus, we ran into a hotel owner who informs us that the bus stop for Akdamar has changed. He helpfully points “over there” to show us the location of the current bus stop, and we head on our way. Having walked about 15 minutes without seeing any buses, we ask some guys on the street. They also point “over there.” More walking. No buses.

We stop at a little cafe and ask directions. Some kids at the cafe overhear us and invite us to sit down and wait while they finish up their tea and snacks. Despite the language barrier, we understand that they will walk us to the bus station. But when we leave, they start walking in the direction we came from. We try to communicate that the bus stop has changed, but this is not getting across. We try one more time, pointing in the opposite direction. No dice. More desperate pointing. More walking in the other direction. Remember how I said lessons #1 & 2 made things “difficult”?

Eventually, we run into two of their friends on the street. One of them speaks English, so we explain our situation to him. He tells his friends that they have been walking us the wrong way, and a flurry of Turkish conversation ensues. And then:

English-speaking guy: My name is Mustafa. This is my friend Ozgur. We are going to take you to the bus station. And then we will take you to Akdamar. We will spend the rest of the day with you.
H + J: Wha? You don’t need to do that! You can just show us the bus stop. We can go on from there.
Mustafa: Turkish people love visitors. We want you to have a good time in our country. Ozgur and I will stay with you.
H + J: Are you sure?!? You really don’t have to do that…we can go on our own.
Mustafa: We want to. Come on, let’s go.

So this is how we ended up spending the day with Mustafa and Ozgur. They took us to the bus stop. They paid for our buses. They found another party at the dock to go out on the boat with us (the ferry does not run unless there are 10 people minimum). They spent their entire Sunday wandering around an island they have probably been to at least 30 times in their lives. They did this in the hot sun. During Ramazan. When they couldn’t drink any water.

ozgur, jeremy, mustafa, and hope
Four new buddies on Akdamar Island: Ozgur, Jeremy, Mustafa, and Hope.

When was the last time someone asked you for directions and you not only took them to their destination, but you spent your entire Sunday with them AND paid for their buses? And then you thanked THEM at the end of the day for “giving you something to do during Ramazan.” I’m guessing, oh, NEVER. We were astonished by the generosity that Mustafa and Ozgur showed us.

But wait, there’s more! The next day, we head to Van Castle at sunset, with its sweeping vistas over Lake Van and bird’s eye view of the old ruined city of Van.

on top of the world, van castle
Jeremy, exploring the ruins of Van Castle (with Van Lake in the background).

And this is where we met Nevaf, who gave us a ride back to town in the middle of a crazy dust storm, took us out to dinner at a restaurant that Mustafa recommended the day before, and then invited us to drink beers (unlike many Turks, he is Christian) on the shore of Lake Van as the dark fell on our final night in Turkey.

our last sunset in turkey, van
Incredible sunset over Lake Van.

So, wow…Van. Sure, the Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar was very beautiful.

armenian cathedral, akdamar island
Detail of the Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island. It is covered with gorgeous stone carvings on the outside and religious murals on the inside.

And we’ll never forget watching that sunset from the top of Van Castle.

van castle, framed
Gorgeous sunset light framed by the ruins of Van Castle.

But we’ll always have a special little warm feeling in our hearts whenever we think of Van…and that is because of the generosity of both time and spirit shown to us by three Turkish friends. Thank you, Mustafa, Ozgur, and Nevaf, for showing us what true Turkish hospitality is all about.

Transportation from Kars to Van: Our bus ride from Kars to Van was so painless I can’t even remember it. Nice to have some of those every once in a while. 30 TL (US$20) per person.

Where we slept in Van: In a town with only a few budget options, Otel Bahar (right next to the big green mosque) delivers. Clean, spacious rooms, nice views of the mosque on the upper floors, central location, and free wi-fi. 50 TL (US$33) for a double room ensuite.

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