The air is thick where the Bendimahi meets the Gulf of Ercis. Deprived of energy (and all hope of escape), the mountain stream creeps reluctantly across the floodplain before slipping under the waves of Lake Van. Slender reeds bend to watch the demise. It is not a unique spectacle. Gravity forces every stream in the region to the same end. The basin simply has no exit. Van is an endorheic sea, a marine cul-de-sac. I lean forward, ponder this fact, and look in vain for the terminus. Between the mud, reeds, and island clumps I cannot tell where river ends and sea begins.
Small birds wing past. An occasional waterfowl is spotted: a duck, pelican, or crane. I wonder if the soda bothers them? Is the water sufficiently fresh at the river’s mouth to not be a problem? I do not know. What I do know is that unlike me, some of these birds have come to dine on Pearl Mullet.
The wheelman noses our vehicle along the coast. Straight ahead, perhaps 25 miles distant, rests the legendary city remembered as Shamiramakert in the Armenian tradition. More commonly, the city and the lake are known by the same label. They are Van, or, in Kurdish, Wanê.
As we continue toward this goal, I observe the opposite shore falling away in the distance. The gulf widens as it receives Van’s two primary contributors, the Bendimahi and the Zilan. I struggle to open my window. Then I remember. I poke Keith and ask him to pass back the screwdriver. This tool is needed to release the wood screws that are coarsely driven into our vehicle’s glass frames. Every time we stop, the driver goes round and resets this primitive, but seemingly effective, “antitheft” device. To get air (or an unsmudged view for my camera), the window must be “unscrewed” yet again.
I back the screws out and the window slides open easily. I lean into the wind, squinting for a shot. Unfortunately, the sun is also against me. The head of Süphan Dağı (or "Syphan volcano," per map above) a volcano of more than 13,000 feet in elevation (second only to Ağrı Dağı in rank), usually throws its shadow on the lake. Today, this is not true. Heat and humidity hang in the sky and reflect the sun’s rays in every direction. The distant shore disappears in the haze. I watch the fields between the road and the lake, hoping for something more immediate to photograph.
Lake Van is touted as the world’s largest soda lake. With a surface area of 1,450 square miles, it is almost five times larger than the more familiar Dead Sea of Israel/Palestine. Like its salty cousin, the Dead Sea of Turkey is filled by runoff from an elevated frame of mountains. It is also saline, equalized only by evaporation, and by some accounts, dying (for more, see here).
Ancient writers describe both bodies in similar terms. What Pliny the Elder writes of Van, he will also write of the Dead Sea. Regarding Van: its waters “are able to support all weighty substances thrown into them” and they “exhale nitrous vapours” (Natural History VI.31.6). Of the Dead Sea: “The bodies of animals will not sink in its waters, and even those of bulls and camels float there” (!) and it has “noxious exhalations” (Natural History V.15.24, 28).
A closer look reveals dramatic differences between these two bodies of water. The Dead Sea of Israel/Palestine rests in the most low-down sump of the earth. The surface of the sea rings in at nearly 1,400′ below sea level. Lake Van, on the other hand, is more than a mile high; its surface measures approximately 5,400′ above sea level. Winter cold freezes portions of Van. The Dead Sea swelters almost year round (although I shivered once through a cold winter rain at Qumran, but that’s another story for another day!). Finally, while both lakes could be called saline, their brines are quite different in both composition and density.
Regarding composition, Dead Sea water contains a potent mix of sodium chloride, sodium bromide, and other elements. It has a pH level that leans slightly toward the acid side of neutral (6-6.5). The water of Lake Van, by contrast, contains a potent mix of sodium chloride and sodium carbonate and has a pH level that is strongly alkali (9.8).
Regarding saline density, the Dead Sea is off the charts at 300 grams per liter. Lake Van, by contrast, measures a modest 24 grams per liter.
To reduce this to more familiar language: if the Dead Sea is a reservoir of anti-icing fluid, Lake Van is a tank of milk of magnesia!
These facts hardly matter when we arrive at our hotel. After dumping our packs, three of us head for the water. Soon, we are bobbing off the end of the dock. The water is refreshingly cool and but has a slick feel. We are corks! No effort required. Unlike a Dead Sea swim, there is no noticeable burning in the eyes or around the lips or nostrils. This is a good thing too. Keith barrels down the dock, eyes like saucers. With little hesitation he leaps, flies, and splashes into the drink! An odd drink of baking soda and water!