On the eastern end of Turkey rests Lake Van, the largest lake in the country. It has many claims to fame: a deep history, a saline character, and even a “Loch Ness” style monster rumored to haunt its depths. Of these, it is the first that brings us here (although the third is certainly interesting!). In the first millennium BC, a kingdom remembered as Urartu was centered in the region. In fact, the capital of the kingdom was erected on a rocky knob rising above the water’s edge. A scramble over these ruins is is goal for another day, as is additional attention to the mysterious Urartians.
For the moment, I hang my head out the window of our vehicle, taking the wind straight in the face. It feels good. It is late summer and a heavy haze hangs over this vast landlocked sea. In the right season, flocks of migratory waterfowl wing their way through here, commuting between Europe, Africa, and Asia. I wonder what that must look like (in this wrong season) and settle for the grey gulls, an occasional pelican, and groups of small birds. Uraz, our young Turkish guide, describes what we can’t see. I listen quietly as the distant shore creeps closer and closer to us. Eventually the lake ends in the shallow marshes of Ercis Gulf.
Climbing out of the lake basin, it is easy to appreciate the beauty of the mile-high steppes ahead. I smile. After the pressing crowds of Istanbul, I find eastern Turkey to be welcomely deserted and strikingly beautiful. Rolling hills, mostly devoid of trees, but rich in grass, mark the horizon in all directions. When we do approach a village, patches of agriculture mark the flat pockets of ground. Hand harvesters collect the shocks. In the long stretches between villages, an occasional shepherd is spotted with a herd of sheep and goat. Some share our asphalt path and require our driver to be alert. No doubt, animal husbandry is the major industry here in the Wild Wild East.
Uraz announces that we are stopping for lunch. The driver pulls over and our small group unwinds from the vehicle. Our lunch stop is a small Kurdish restaurant located overlooking a small canyon. The Muradiye River spills over the canyon’s edge and runs to the south. To reach it, however, we must cross a swinging pedestrian bridge of cables and boards. It is stable enough and the meal (not to mention the view) is worth it, of course.
The kebap chef is the master of his kitchen! We eat outside to the sound of the rushing water.
After lunch we return to the road. It now becomes a labored climb as we approach the Garnidzor pass near Mt Tondrak. The temperature outside drops noticeably. I partially close the window and roll down my sleeves. Huge lava fields, severe and blackened, begin to appear and then spread out widely on either side of the road. The contrast between these moonish landscapes and the soft green pastures is striking. Continental collision at its best! My camera finds one village constructed against this volcanic backstop.
Uraz points to a watchtower on a small row of hills on the other side of the road. It is about one mile away. “That is Iran,” he announces. Our eyes widen.