After being saved from missing the bus by our obliging Hotel owner, who rushed us to the other side of the dual carriageway in his own car, we head south again, leaving the snowy majesty of Ararat .
The road climbs steeply out of Doğubayazıt, through fields that cling to the slowly melting spring snow.
Poor houses hug the thin grass, their low walls misleading, as their floors are lower than ground level, dug in to take advantage of the insulating effects of the earth during the long savage winters. The flat grass roofs of the houses are greening, and the fields are dotted with shepherds, sheep beginning to replace cows as the dominant animal in the landscape as we move towards the sun.
As we travel through the mountains on the edge of the Iranian border, watchtowers and fences, high up on the hill tops lend a feeling of austerity in the landscape, and contrasts sharply with the jovial atmosphere in the bus, full of music and chat.
Careering around the hairpin bends, we need to hold on tightly in order to avoid being flung out of our seats, and it is difficult to fully appreciate the other-wordly scenery that we are passing through. Tendürek Dagi, a sleeping shield volcano, has graced the landscape with sharp fierce and inhospitable lava fields, that brings to mind a giants plasticine playground.
As we move further south, the houses get bigger and look more affluent, shiny tin roofs, built to withstand the weight of snow, glint brightly in the spring sun. As the cattle have diminished, so have the ubiquitous heaps of dried dung, used for fuel in the bare northern plains, and a feature of every yard. With the warmer weather, the trees have increased, and we drop down into lower lands, with lush valleys, thickly wooded, bursting into leaf.
The rolling hillsides are dotted here and there with tiny doll like figures, children running across the open fields in their brightly coloured clothes. Every figure seems tiny in this vast vista, and each sighting only serves as a further reminder of the frailty of humans in this elemental place.
The road is generally good, and it is not long before we sight Lake Van, and the road that skirts the edge of the lake for many kilometers before we reach the city of Van itself.
Van is a busy city, with a huge university campus and streets thronged with people. Everyone that we meet is friendly and delighted to see us. Kurds are polite to the extreme, and although heavily armoured police vehicles roam the streets, we do not feel threatened or unsafe at any time, though the streets are virtually empty by nine in the evening, and it is only really then that you begin to get a feeling that there is something else other than normal daily life going on here.
Its is still early in the season here, although western tourists are now very few and far between because of the civil war in neighbouring Syria and Van has to rely now on domestic and Iranian visitors to swell the coffers.
Van is famed in Turkey for many things, but I am sure that not many people leave this place without visiting the Van Cat research center. We get driven there by a bus driver who takes it upon himself to personally deliver us to the door, although I am not sure as to whether it is actually his route or not!. The Research center is on the University campus, and I am fascinated in how the young women inventively use colour and style of dress to express themselves as modern individuals whilst still adhering to the dress rules of their Muslin faith.
The Van Cat is a Turkish breed, that is recognised by its long legged and lean appearance, chalky white coat and amber and blue eyes, (one of each). Van Cats are also said to be fond of swimming! Van Cats are bred and studied here, the place is literally crawling with them, and all funds collected go towards promoting this rare breed.
Favours are called in, and we get a fancy hotel, with a suite, and I take advantage of the city facilities with a laundry service and a just for the hell of it, a hair appointment, although finding a ladies hairdresser at street level is impossible. Women’s services are hidden discreetly away in this conservative Muslim city, and we have to climb seven floors to find one!
The obligatory trip to Akdamar Island sees us accompanied by a rather mournful Kurdish guide, Zecki, who arrives to escort us and who is typical of the men that we have met here. Tall, slim and handsome, polite to the extreme, concerned with our welfare and anxious to please. He tells us about growing up a Kurd in Turkey, and having to be taught in Turkish rather than his native Kurdish. He shows us photo’s of his daughters and his wife, and I get a sense of wounded pride, that matches a stylish elegance that is underpinned with a certain threadbare hardship.
The Church we visit is much like the ones we found near Kars, but is perched on a tiny island, surrounded by the turquoise waters of Lake Van. Rabbits run freely on the short grass, and the slopes are thick with almond trees. The weather is kind to us again, with clear blue skies and views stretching into the far distance, the whole stage still dominated by the firm gaze of Ararat, that has governed the entire landscape since we reached Kars.
We meet some local women, on the island, gathering wild greens on the hillside, and they make a perfect picture; their jewel bright clothes and warm smiles, radiant against the blue skies and the perfect calm of the morning lake. They carry on with a task that their ancestors have done for millennia, stopping to cheerfully volunteer for a photo, whilst visitors from the 21st century arrive and leave by boat.
Zeki follows us at a respectful distance, a little unsure about where he is meant to be standing with these two foreign women, but Sam sets him at his ease, and they are soon chattering away in Turkish, whilst I wander around, soaking up the history, and drifting back and forth in time as I gaze at the beautiful carvings on the walls of the church.
Relief Carvings on the Church Showing Tales from The Old Testament
After the peace and calm of the 10th century church, and its beautiful carvings, we head towards the castle that lies a short distance from Van . The castle here is a massive fortification built by the ancient kingdom of Urartu during the 9th to 7th centuries BC, and is the largest example of its kind. It seems incredible that the mud brick walls are still standing, three thousand years after they were built.
Zeki leaves us at a Kurdish restaurant that he recommends, and we are not disappointed. We settle down to the most delicious meal that I have yet encountered in all of Turkey, featuring a dish called Keledos, which even Sam hasn’t had before!
The Kurdish food seems to have tastes which are more vibrant, spicy and interesting than the Turkish food that I have generally eaten in the past, and our host was exemplary. The place was scrupulously clean, and although they were soon to be closing up, we were plied with food, teas and coffees until we could eat and drink no more.
Wandering home in the dusk the streets of Van are alive with colour. A feast for the eyes, eyes already so full of wonder, that they can barely stay open!!
This baker fascinated us, welcoming us into his tiny streetside bakery to film him making his bread. One man shapes the rounds of dough, and throws them to the man in the picture. He tosses and stretches the dough into a large oval, over a leather cushion. He then puts the whole thing into a well like oven, a bit like an Indian Tandoor, pressing the dough onto the sides, and taking out the cushion. In the time it takes to cook the bread, another has been shaped and stretched.