The bus journey from Trabzon to Van feels like a cross country drive. From the Black Sea Coast town of Trabzon, crossing the province of Agri and cold Kars, the bus makes a stop in chilly Erzurum at around 2 am. I am surprised to encounter frost on the ground, it is very very cold! We are halfway to the town of Van – a city in Eastern Turkey known for its all day breakfasts that are supposedly served even at 7 in the evening!
When the bus starts moving again, the landscape seems a lot similar to Ladakh in the winters. We are amidst mountains, it is almost barren with a thin sheet of snow on the ground, bare poplar trees standing tall, shivering in the still atmosphere. The bus route changes after Erzurum and doesn’t pass through the (even) colder town of Kars!
It is time to go back to sleep again. We wake up to an incredibly beautiful palette of sunrise colours on Lake Van. There are small villages on the banks of the lake with primitive looking homes – smoke billowing out of their chimneys reminds me yet again of remote regions in the Indian Himalayas. The last 50 odd kilometres of our journey are on the shores of Lake Van and we reach the tiny Van Otogar at around 8 am.
Van is a located near the Iranian border, with a majority of Kurdish population. It is known for its massive lake (Lake Van), its white cats with mismatched blue and green eyes, and hearty all-day breakfasts.
The sun rises very late in these parts in the winter months and it is barely daylight at the Otogar. Van welcomes us to a very cold and cloudy morning and we are relieved to see a complimentary drop(free servis) by a mini-bus being lined up for the Metro Turizm bus (the only silver lining of this bus company!). Van Otogar is located a fair distance away from Van City Centre and we shiver and get into the mini-bus with almost no clue of where we want to go!
The driver is a very young chap; when only 3-4 of us are left in the bus – he asks us where we want to go? We remember the only place I’ve researched about – ‘Van Backpackers Hostel’ and ask him to put this address in his google maps. I had kept this as a landmark in my mind and he is extremely helpful to make sure he drops us to the exact place even though it is very far for him. We thank him profusely and get down to the teeth chattering cold of Van!
Climb 3 floors of Van Backpacker’s hostel, looks like a nice and lively place. Multiple dormitories. Meet a tourist from Hong Kong at the reception. Reception guy is helpful and informs us that the only double room is with a shared bathroom. The price quoted is around 100 TL and it will be available after 2 hours as it is yet to be cleaned. We are not keen on staying in a dormitory and ask the Van Backpacker’s Hostel guy for other hotels nearby with an attached bathroom.
He says there are other hotels nearby in the market area too which isn’t too far from here. We thank and tell him we might come back if we don’t manage to find a nice place! We walk out on the street and are queried by a guy who asks us in broken English if we are looking for breakfast or a place to stay?
He is the owner, Nevzet of a Kahvalti (breakfast) restaurant, adjacent to Van Backpacker’s Hostel. He takes us to one ‘Hotel Imperial’ which is bang opposite to his Kahvalti restaurant. It is a huge multi-storey building made of glass and looks like an executive business class hotel. If not for Nevzet we would never have gone inside to check, simply assuming it to be an expensive hotel.
At the reception, there is a man by the name of Hassan. We introduce ourselves as being from Hindistan (India) and tell him to show us an ucuz (cheap) room. He also speaks and understands broken english and shows us a room on the middle floor. It is a huge room with a hall, 2 bathrooms and a massive bedroom bathed in sunshine from all 3 sides!
The hall has a sitting area with sofa sets and television while the bedroom has a centre table with stools as well. There are framed views of the snow clad mountains from the bedroom and the warmth of the sunshine means we are already sold on the room. It is total off season in Van and the price quoted is 140 TL. Hassan tells that the usual price is 180 TL and that 140 TL is the best he can do. We plead with him along with Nevzet and finalise 120 TL for the room!
The room and hotel looks very comfortable and warm even though its freezing cold outside with a stiff breeze blowing. Unexpected delight when over a thank you conversation, Hassan tells us that breakfast is served on the top floor in the restaurant area – we understand kahvalti (breakfast is included in this price!) Maybe if we had known this earlier, we might not even have tried to bargain on the offered 140 TL price!
Hassan gives us filter water glasses and makes us feel even more happier as water can get expensive in Turkey. We promise Nevzet to quickly come for breakfast to his Kahvalti and thank him for the help!
Go to the room, relax for some time and head out at around 930 am. Nevzet welcomes us for breakfast. Lavas bread, otlu peynir, peynir, cheese, eggs, and the undisputed winner – bal kaymak and served with çay. Nevzet’s café is quite cute with 2-3 tables and his son is also sitting there. We are quoted around 20 TL for the breakfast spread. We ask for another helping of the bal kaymak and another round of tea (tea is complimentary everywhere).
Final bill is 30 TL (Bal Kaymak is expensive, as we would realise later in Istanbul when a meagre helping is charged at 20 TL in one of the well known restaurants!). Nevzet reminds us that Van is meshur for its Kahvalti. Thank Nevzet for the super breakfast and go out walking on the street to find a ticket booking office to book a bus to Gaziantep for the next day.
Spot Kamil Koç bus office on the main road and are pleasantly surprised to notice a tandoor bukhari in the office. Sadly Kamil Koç buses don’t operate on the Van to Gaziantep route. The staff there suggests going the Metro office nearby which is located just across the road. We are not happy at all with Metro’s service to Van and the timing of the Van to Gaziantep bus is quite inconvenient at 1730 hours which means it is likely to reach Gaziantep at 3-4 in the early hours of the morning which doesn’t suit us at all.
So we just find the ticket prices (140TL) and go to other bus offices nearby – Best Van Turizm and Vangölu. Haven’t heard of Best Van Turizm before and finally get tickets from a different office of Vangölu for 10 TL indirim – 130 TL for 1900 hrs 2+2 bus next day. Pick up from the booking office will be at 1800 hrs that will save us the hassle of trying to figure how to go to the Van otogar.
Spot a cute coffee shop nearby with a dry-fruit shop in the lower portion. The flooring is done with gorgeous tiles and balcony. We go back to the hotel, feeling sleepy now that our basic needs have been taken care of. Relax for some time and then have a shower. Pleased when warm water comes from the shower after an eternity of waiting! Marvel at the mountains from our room and use the hotel wifi for checking emails, internet and social media. Also do some research about Van and Akdamar Island.
A little bit of sun is out now. We go walking on the street, the shops are now all open. Spot a small shop of souvenirs across the street, locally made bags and other crafts. Iranian designs, perhaps. Cute yellow citybuses in Van are run by the local transport corporation. We roam around Van market, and are astonished to see the variety of local breads at the many bakeries.
Try a dish Lahmacun (pronounced Lahmajoon) at one of the restaurants in the market, for only 3.5 TL. Lahmacun is baked like a fresh pizza and is very tasty, served with complimentary salad. The staff is very happy to see tourists from Hindistan in Van, thank them for the tasty food and pay. Some bakeries there have like 8-9 varieties of breads for sale. Some people think we are from Iran but everyone is excited to know we are from India! Everyone loves bollywood movies!!
While on our walk we also cross the cheese market in Van and the famous Kahvalti Sokak (breakfast street). Spot dry fruit sellers sell raisins and dates on carts in the streets. Delicious variety and very reasonable prices as compared to India. We try the freshly roasted chestnuts – kestane, they turn out to be yummy. We decide to to enquire about the dolmus that goes to the ferry point on the way to Akdamar Island on Lake Van.
Locals have suggested us to ask for Gevas ferry point. Lake Van is located at 1750m and is ringed with 3000m and 4000m peaks visible in the far distance. Akdamar Island on Lake Van has a 10th Century Armenian Church. Old Armenian proverb – ‘Van in this world, paradise in the next.’
We are lucky to find a hotel on the way to the dolmus point for a washroom break. I am tired with the long walk today and with the confusion as no one seems to know where the dolmus runs from. Ask a young guy while crossing the street what to see in Van and he suggests Van Kaleici, I remember the same from my research but had somehow forgotten it now!
So we look for a dolmus to go to the Kaleici right away and just find out about the dolmus for Akdamar Island for the next day. It is around 2 pm now. Randomly, an uncle speaks to us; he used to be a tour guide 10 years ago and walks with us to the dolmus point. He also points us to a beautiful mosque (Cami) on the way and bal (honey) sellers. Spot the dolmus, it is about to leave! The cost is 3 TL per person and it will drop us very close to Van Kaleici. Thank the uncle and take his leave 🙂
It is a very short ride, around 4 kms from Van Market City Centre, nice ride with views of the city. We are dropped at the intersection beneath the castle. Van Castle towers above us; the path starts from an Old mosque (cami), where there is a dirt path from the barbed wire. The path is slippery with a lot of sticky mud.
There is a family with kids who ask me to come and they will hold my hands. We dont have proper sports shoes, so we decide to take it slow with the tricky climb. Snow clad mountains are visible along-with views of Lake Van as the weather has cleared a bit. See ancient script on huge stones at Van Kaleici, looks similar to Greek language. We don’t even attempt to climb all the way to the walls of the castle because there is no marked trail and our footwear isn’t meant for the terrain.
We walk around the Kaleici (castle) and enjoy the surreal views. There are many dogs barking in the distance and not many human beings around. Only a few youngsters can be seen on one side of the mosque. So we decide to walk back on the slippery path and come back on the road.
We somehow manage to cross the barbed wire and start walking on the lookout for a dolmus going back to the city. While on the way to Van Kaleici, we had seen a recommended restaurant Asiyan Ev Yemeklari so we decide to head there itself for an early dinner, around 5 pm.
As we start walking towards Van Market, a beautiful park full of autumn colours comes to notice. There is an Iranian family dancing, chilling and celebrating with vodka and cake! They invite us to join them – from afar, hearing Hindistani language!
We enter the park and walk towards them, and are welcomed with hugs! One of them knows some old hindi songs so we sing and break into a swaying dance, while they invite us to Tehran. They have driven from Iran for a holiday to celebrate the birthday. We have a piece of cake and vodka, and are invited for party in the night in Van. We politely thank them and take our leave. Iranians seem to be very friendly and warm hearted people!
As we get back to the road, we are lucky to get a ride from an old uncle! He drops us to Asiyan Ev Yemeklari restaurant. His car is warm and comfortable, as the weather outside has got colder when the sun goes down. The restaurant is empty and we are the only customers as it is neither time for lunch or dinner!
There is hardly any vegetarian dish on the menu. We have already used the WC and now are morally bound to order çorba, pilav. The staff also served salad and we assume its complimentary. The food is tasty, and is cooked in home style (yemeklari and lokantasis across Turkey are known for their home style food).
We are surprised to be charged for the salad when the bill comes. We tell the owner they must inform before serving to a customer to avoid any confusion; pay the bill and start walking to our hotel on Uzun Sokak Street. We stop at a couple of dry fruit shops (tasted pista and other dry fruits from different countries), prices are very competitive and reasonable and the staff is friendly. When we come across a park just as it is about to be dark, we sit and chill for a bit in the nice and cool weather!
When we feel lost on the way to Uzun Sokak, we ask for directions from the locals. Even when we find the Imperial hotel, by a stroke of luck we end up walking till the end of the long street thinking I had seen a kilim shop there! There is an Aishwarya Rai advertisement on a jewellery shop shutter in Van Market.
We get back to the hotel at around 8 pm in a very tired condition. Its finally time to relax, write the diary, sip a glass of red wine (leftover from Trabzon), and go to sleep early. From our room we can see the crowd thinning in the shopping area. The central heating in the room starts automatically at around 10 pm. Therefore, the temperature is very comfortable for sleeping with the cozy and warm quilt.
We wake up feeling refreshed after an amazing night’s sleep. We head for breakfast to the restaurant on the 10th floor rooftop and are happy to see a huge breakfast platter. I count around 15 dishes on the spread with multiple varieties of cheese, breads, jams, honey, butter, helva, olives and Turkish tea. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast sitting on the royal sofa sets with a stunning view of the mountains.
After another round of çay, we go back to the room and have a relaxed bath, pack and leave our bags at the reception. Start walking towards the dolmus point for going to Akdamar island. We leave at around 10 am and going to Akdamar Island is our only goal for the day, our bus for Gaziantep is at 7 pm so we have the entire day to explore!
We reach the dolmus point, driver waits for the mini-bus to become full. It is a beautiful day, we drive slowly through the streets, and reach the highway as it runs along Lake Van. The dolmus drops us at Edremit, informing us that the ferry to Akdamar island goes from Edremit. We get down and realise (after asking multiple people), with the limited information due to language hassles that ferries dont ply for Akdamar Island from Edremit in winter. It is closed (kapali).
As per my earlier research too, we are supposed to catch a ferry from the Gevas ferry point which is round 35 kms from Edremit. Now we are in a fix in this beautiful location on the shores of Lake Van! So we roam around, trying to ask locals about how to get to Gevas; enjoying this beautiful location and views of the lake. Meet a local couple and they confirm that getting to Gevas ferry point is the right idea for going to Akdamar. I really want to pee and try to find a free WC; find one and relieve myself.
Someone tells us we can go to Gevas ferry point by bus. So we stand on the road itself and wait for a bus; but no bus comes even after 10-15 minutes of waiting.
As a last resort, we think of hitching a ride by asking locals who are headed in the same direction. A SUV stops, a family of old uncle and aunty and their kid heading to Bitlis on the same road. We converse in broken english, they ask us to sit. We greet them saying Hindistan Hindistan!
We are a little apprehensive and so are they! Van is quite close to the Iran-Iraq border and has a strict military presence. We had read some unpleasant stories and were quite scared at one point of time when the uncle asked if we were from Afghanistan, we would be put in jail and something like that!
When the ice between us breaks, the ride becomes fun as all of us relax. We give them 2 masala chai packets and tell them how to make it! We indicate in sign language, greet namaste and thank them before getting down at a petrol station very close to the ferry point and walk to Gevas Ferry point from there.
It is a gorgeous sight of blue Lake Van and Akdamar Island with the church visible from afar. At the ferry point, only 1 lady sitting – she also wants to go to Akdamar island. There are a lot of boats and ferries anchored here but we can only find 1 captain of a ferry, he declares that if there are 10 people in total he is happy to go. The return price is 20 TL per person; or we could club and give 200TL in total. We decide to wait, it is already 1130 am – 12 noon.
The church looks very pretty and enigmatic from afar. We decide to walk around the lighthouse, sit on the rocks and enjoy the sights. It is highly unlikely that the ferry would ply today with almost no chance of 10 people! One guy sold balik (fish) at a tiny stall close to the ferry place and a few cars would stop every once in a while.
The sun also went behind the clouds after a bit and the lady goes as well, after having waited there for long. After 30 odd minutes, we also decide to head back as the wind has picked up and try as much as we could, it is not possible that we enter the Armenian church on Akdamar island without crossing the water of Lake Van!
We walk across the road on a bridge and decide to take a ride in a bus/dolmus back to Van and not take a lift. It just seemed too troublesome in case the language issues got us in trouble! There is a restaurant across the road but it is closed too for the winter. So we wait on a turn on the road and notice that the captain of the ferry has also given up and wants to head back to his home! It must be a dreary time for him; to spend money to come to the ferry point and then go back without making a trip. Perhaps the views of Lake Van are a solace!
We try and try but no buses stop, we have no idea why. Two cars stop; 2 guys in the first car, heading to Van Merkez itself but we decline their offer. I feel bad about refusing the kindness on offer but don’t want to take a chance. The distance is 45-50 kms to Van market and it might perhaps be the first time I have ever said no to a lift!
After waiting for more than 30 minutes, finally a dolmus comes. It doesn’t stop! After some more time, get into another dolmus heading to Gevas merkez. We first have to stand for a bit because there is no space to sit!
The dolmus heads to Gevas market where we change into another dolmus to reach Van. To our great disappointment, we are dropped on the main highway itself. It has cost us around 9-10 TL per person. Little expensive but it’s ok sometimes! We walk all the way to Van Market and are trying to find Damak Kahvalti Salonu. We have been recommended this place as having the best breakfast in Van by the locals.
It is already nearing 3 pm, we manage to find Damak Kahvalti Salonu on Bahcivan area after walking more than 2-3 kms. Damak is about to close as breakfast time is over (in the winter). The owner is very kind though when he hears our story of us leaving tonight for Gaziantep and asks his staff to lay out 1 table for us. He doesn’t want us to leave Van without having eaten the real breakfast of Van here!
We are welcomed to the first floor and we order 1 breakfast among the 2 of us that is recommended to us. It costs approx. 35 TL. There are different types of cheese, and savouries, and menemen. We have a wonderful time interacting with the knowledgeable guy.
He tells us we should be back to Van for breakfast in the summer when the number of dishes is so many that they hardly have space on the table. He also shows photographs and guiness book world record on the wall. After finishing the breakfast by around 330 pm, we have 2 Turkish çay each to cap a fine experience. Thank him for a wonderful spread and his kindness!
Walk back to the area near our hotel. The souvenir bag shop opposite to the hotel beckons to us. I had liked one round bag yesterday, which was quoted at 40 TL. End up buying it for 25 TL, only 1. I think of buying more but don’t give in to temptation. Nice finish and cute product. Later on the trip, in Izmir a shopkeeper from Van offers us 400 TL for the same bag!
We are told a little bit about the history of Van that most locals seem to conveniently forget. The original, old and historic town of Van was entirely destroyed in 1915-16 and the present day modern Van city is located around 3 kms from old Van and was built from scratch. So, in essence there is no traditional Kurdish architecture in Van. The cities of Sanliurfa, Diyarbakir, Mardin and Bitlis were mentioned repeatedly by the locals as the places we should visit to really dig into the Kurdish culture and architecture.
We head back to Imperial Hotel, go to the top floor area and sit for a while. Pick our backpacks from the reception and walk to the Vangolu office at around 5 pm. Get wifi connectivity at Vangölu office and çay from the kettle! The pick-up van comes in the dark at about 615 pm. We are dropped to Van Otogar.
As soon as we reach the Otogar, passport check by bus officials. Meet 2-3 Bangladeshis Nationals at the Otogar. Speak in Hindi! Boarded the Vangolu bus to Kahramanmaras, not very comfortable as it is 2+2 seating bus. Little space to stretch the feet. Wonder if we could have taken the Best Van Turizm bus from Van to Gaziantep bus that was 2+1.
Only tea and coffee served, no snacks. Passport check by Jandarma 3 times. Tight military security on the entire route. Bad road, couldn’t sleep even though we were tired. Our bus driver keeps smoking all the time! We are on the Diyarbakir – Sanliurfa bus route. So Iran, Iraq and Syria border all close to the Van to Gaziantep route.
The famed Van breakfast is also available in Istanbul at – Van Kahvalti Evi, Cihangir, Beyoglu.
A breakfast in Van usually comprises of these dishes :
Peynir – cheese, otlu peynir – cheese with herbs, beyaz peynir – yellow cheese, Bal Kaymak – clotted cream served with honey, tereyagi – butter, zeytin – olives, lavas – bread, yumurta – fried eggs, Domates & salatalık – tomatoes & cucumber, murtuga – bread coated in egg and flour and lightly fried in butter, Kavuk – ground wheat with black pepper and sugar slowly cooked together in butter and pekmez-fruit molasses, tahin – tahini, recel – jam, çay – Turkish tea.
Recommended places to eat breakfast in Van are : Damak Kahvalti Salonu and Sütçü Kenan Kahvaltı Salonu.