Day 89: Van Golu (Lake Van)

Look at a map of Western Turkey and you can't miss Lake Van.  It's a giant natural lake formed centuries ago when a volcano closed the valley mouth.  Its water level is maintained by natural evaporation, and this has led to an extremely high mineral content in the water – it's so alkaline that clothes washed in the lake come clean without soap!  The lake is surrounded by an extremely dry and arid environment and backed by an impressive range of mountains.

I'm writing this in the town of Van on the eastern shore of the lake.  The town was once part of the Silk Road and more recently on the hippie trail of the 60's and 70's from Istanbul to Kathmandu, and I'm here to prep for my trip into Iran.  I wasn't originally planning on spending this much time here, but I need to wait for the banks to open on Monday to change some travelers cheques.  I found out that Iran is the ultimate cash economy: no credit cards, ATMs don't accept foreign bank cards and banks won't change travelers cheques ("American Express – Do Leave Home Without Them").  That means I need to carry in all the $$$ I'm going to need for the 2-3 weeks I'll be there.  That might seem a bit of a safety concern for the independent traveler, but I hear that petty crime (or any crime for that matter) is negligible in Iran – probably because you lose your right hand if you get caught stealing!!!  (joke)

I did get the chance to see one of the highlights of the lake region though.  Akdamar Kilisesi (Church of the Holy Cross) is a 10th Century Armenian church built on an island 3km out in the lake.  To get there I had to take a dolmus (minibus) 30km south-west along the lake shore, and then catch the ferry out to the island.  The church is known for its great relief carvings, but of course I was destined not to see them!  The whole island was closed for restorations, so I had to settle for a boat trip around the island and a couple of postcards showing the stone carvings.

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Once I've done my banking tomorrow I'll catching a bus to the Esendere-Sero border crossing in the mountains and then on to Orumiyeh.  As there's not much to see there (although the mythical "Garden of Eden" is believed to be around the area) I'm hoping to get straight on a bus to Tehran.  While the city of 13 million isn't high on my "must see" list, I need to go there to apply for my Chinese visa and book a flight out of the country (probably just before Ramadan, which gets going on 22 September).  I think I'm going to fly straight to Kyrgyzstan, as I've pretty much given up on getting a visa for Uzbekistan and Afghanistan is too "hot" right now.  It's a shame as Uzbekistan has some of the best Silk Road cities, but there's not much I can do…

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