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Turkey's Lake Van is a spectacular example of a very old lake surrounded by a very old culture. Located in the far eastern area of Turkey called Anatolia near the border with Iraq, Iran and Armenia, this ancient portion of the Silk Road has been conquered and re-conquered so many times that it's difficult to accurately trace the history of the local people. Currently the area around the huge saline lake is the cultural home of the Kurds, but with a large population of Muslims and other ethnicities. Before the Ottoman Empire, the land was held by the Armenians who left a huge number of church ruins behind. One of the 20th century invaders were the Russians who occupied the region after defeating the Ottomans during WWI. The Ottomans destroyed the old city of Van when they left. The new city of Van on the east end of the lake was built a few miles inland. Some of the most spectacular treasures of the region's early church history now reside in museums in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The 928,000-acre lake was created by volcanic action when lava flows disrupted drainage out of the valley where the lake lies. With several inflowing streams and no outflow, the sodium carbonate in the lake continues to build, so the water is chemically nearly 20% sodium carbonate. Surrounded by dormant volcanoes, the lake has collected sediments for a great many years. In some places bottom sediments are thought to be hundreds of feet thick. Recently, science has looked to core sampling to determine if Lake Van's sedimentary layers can tell the story of the earth's climate over past centuries. Scientists have recently discovered the largest known examples of microbialites in Lake Van. Growing similar to coral using the carbonate minerals to form a structure, the microbialites found reach up to 130 feet tall. Diving is tightly regulated in Turkey and non-Turkish citizens must obtain a permit, be accompanied by a licensed Turkish diver, and remain above 60 feet in depth, so it isn't likely these will become a tourism feature.
Due to the extreme salinity, only one species of fish survives in the water. The Pearl Mullet is a small fish related to the carp and a major source of food and cash to the many fishing operations in the area. Even this small fish cannot successfully breed in the salty waters; it must migrate to the incoming streams to spawn. Because the government is concerned that too many fish are being harvested by the 120 or more fishing boats, and because they suspect some fish are being taken at the mouths of streams before they have managed to breed, conservation officials are watching the situation closely. Therefore, sport fishing is not a large draw for tourists. However, tourists can watch for the Lake Van Monster, called Van Golu Canavan. Since this 'monster' isn't the stuff of long-standing local legends and was first sighted in 1995, even more questions remain over this creature than other monsters supposedly residing in large deep lakes around the world. A video taken of the monster in 1997 by an employee of Yuzuncu Yil University in the City of Van has been much criticized. Needless to say, visitors need not worry about encountering the underwater beast.
Lake Van holds four islands that are of interest to tourists. Akhtamar Island (also called Akdamar) contains The Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross. This ancient, partly-ruined church has many bas-relief carvings of biblical figures on its exterior walls. Boatmen on shore are willing to take visitors to the island for a fee. Near the boat landing is a unique 'camping restaurant'; campers are welcome to camp free as long as they eat in the restaurant. Carpanak Island is now uninhabited, but formerly contained an Armenian monastery called Ktuts. The ruins of it can still be seen. Adur Island also holds 17th century church ruins. Kus Island, also called Bird Island, is noted for the numbers of birds found here. The island formerly contained a small Armenian monastery, the ruins of which can be visited. One popular day trip from Van is to visit the Muradiye waterfalls. These spectacular falls tumble 60 feet into a deep gorge. The gorge channels birds migrating north from Lake Van in May; hundreds of species can sometimes be seen near the falls. The nearby fields contain some of the area's most beautiful native flowers in May and June.
There is no public swimming beach at the City of Van on the eastern shore. One is located about 10 miles along the south shore at Edremit. Many of the better hotels have swimming pools on their premises. Another site around Van is the Rock of Van or Van Castle; the summit of these ruins provide a stunning panoramic view of the city and lake. The town of Van, originally named Tushpa, was the capital of the Urartian kingdom in the 9th century BC. Cuniform inscriptions dating to the 8th and 7th centuries BC found here were ordered carved by Darius the Great of Persia. Van also has an excellent local museum, and craftsmen in the area are noted for their fine gold and silver jewelry, rugs and famed kilim carpets. Lucky visitors may also see one of the elusive Van cats. These famous white cats are a local variety that are known for having eyes of two different colors and actually enjoy swimming. The cats have declined in number and are now protected as the government makes an effort to increase their numbers.
Getting to Van on the east end of Lake Van can be difficult as it is quite remote from Turkey's population centers. Most visitors come by air to the small airport. Locals usually take the five-hour ferry ride from Titvan at the west end of the lake. Because it has been considered too difficult to build a rail line through the rugged terrain, a separate train ferry moves freight cars across the lake. Although smaller than Van, Titvan has several hotels suitable for tourists and a number of local attractions. The main terminal for the ferry is here, and the town is well-supplied with small eating establishments. Both here and in Van, huge breakfasts are a time-honored ritual, and many forms of lodgings provide the meal with the room.
Turkey is an area in transition due to political and military issues. Because there is little public information about Lake Van tourism, a reputable travel agent can help to plan a trip to meet visitors' particular interests. Careful planning will assure that visitors have the best possible visit to ancient Lake Van. Bring a camera: the architectural treasures alone could fill many albums.
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