Backpacking Eastern Turkey – Van, Kars & Ani

Dariece Swift author's bio Goats On The Road

We arrived in Van in the evening and checked into our hostel we had booked. Had a quick bite to eat and were off to bed…totally exhausted after the hotbox of a bus ride! The next day we went to see the Van Castle, set high up on a massive rock overlooking the lake. There were only a few people there so we basically had the whole area to ourselves. Since being in Eastern Turkey we have been able to count the number of foreign tourists on our hands, it’s been great.

lake van eastern turkey
Views of Lake Van from Van Castle Rock, Eastern Turkey

We hiked up the rock to see a mosque and some amazing views down below of the remains of Old Van City, which was destroyed during WWI. We then hiked down the rock and decided to go around it at the base as well to see what we could find. We were greeted by some kids who wanted to say ‘hello’ and have their picture taken and we also saw two men shearing sheep.

What a process: first they have to catch the sheep, then give them a drink of milk with a sedative in it to calm them down, then they hog-tie them on their sides and once the animal has stopped kicking and freaking out, they cut off all of the hot wool with a massive pair of scissors…then the sheep carries on much happier to be rid of its coat.

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Talking to a local on the edge of Van Castle Rock, Eastern Turkey
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Kids smiling for the camera. Van, Eastern Turkey
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Stay Still! Sheep shearing in Van, Eastern Turkey
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Time to take off the hot coat. Shearing sheep in Van, Turkey

Around the base there were Armenian inscriptions on the rock, tombs cut into the rock and parts of old mosques, hammams and buildings from the Old City which date back to the 1500s! We headed home after that and relaxed and wandered around aimlessly before meeting up with some other backpackers from our Hostel-Philip (Germany), Moson (Iranian, born in Bangladesh, living in Vancouver) and Lucas  (Switzerland).

We all went for dinner and then to a teahouse to have chai and play backgammon, which is exactly what all the local men do every day and every night. There wasn’t (and never is) a single woman in there so they all kind of looked at me funny when I came in and sat down during “men time”.

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Wandering around the base of Van Rock, Eastern Turkey
mosque in van
Ancient mosque. Van, Turkey

After 2 nights in Van we took yet another bus to the City of Kars…Van to Kars, maybe there will be a ‘truck’ city next? That bus ride ended up being a nice temperature, thank God. We found our hotel (after some help from a local) and went out for dinner. Kars is known for its honey and specialty cheeses so along the way we stopped into a little store to sample some of the goods.

The honey was sooo delicious, sweet and sugar free and the cheese was a different texture, sort of like jerky but really good and not too salty. We ended up sitting with the manager and his friends for awhile chatting and having chai and taking pictures. Yet another great encounter with the local, hospitable people. We were planning on transiting through Kars on our way to Georgia but decided to stay two nights instead….which I’m glad we did because the next day we went out to the ancient city of Ani on the border with Turkey and Armenia.

local people in kars, turkey
Us with the shop workers in Kars, Eastern Turkey
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Delicious local honey for sale at a shop in Kars, Eastern Turkey

Ani was once a great prosperous city perfectly situated on the East-West Silk Road trade route. The Byzantines took over the city in 1045, then the Persians in 1064, then the Kingdom of Georgia, then the Kurds until finally the struggle for power over the city was taken by the Mongols in 1239. As they were (are) nomadic, they had no use for the city so they just abandoned it and moved on.

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Walls of Ani, Eastern Turkey
butterfly picture
Butterfly at Ani, Turkey

As time went on, an earthquake toppled much of the city and trade routes changed and Ani became less important. So, here it has sat in ruins since 1239! The setting for Ani was surreal, totally breathtaking. The ruins are dotted all along grassy plains covered in flowers with a rock cut river on both sides and rolling hills in the distance. We spent 3 hours there walking around and seeing all of the old ruins. Each of the old buildings were amazing but we had a few favourites.The Church of the Redeemer (dating from 1034-1036) stands as a tall building….but only 1/2 of it is there. The other half of the church was struck down by lightening in 1957.

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1/2 of the Church of the Redeemer, Ani, Eastern Turkey
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Beautiful plains of Ani, Eastern Turkey

Next was the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. It’s set on the cliffside overlooking the gorge and river down below. The relief work and frescos (pictures) of the bible and Armenian church history inside of the church are in such amazing condition even after all these years.

churches at Ani, Turkey
Church of St. Gregory The Illuminator. Ani, Eastern Turkey
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Frescos inside of the Church of St. Gregory The Illuminator. Ani, Eastern Turkey

There was one mosque at the site which is said to have been the first mosque built by the Seljuk Turks in 1072. The style of the mosque was completely different than the other ones we’ve seen on our travels: the shape was more rectangular rather than circular, and there were no domes, it looked like an odd church actually. We climbed the twisting narrow stairway all the way up to the very top of the minaret and enjoyed the great views of Armenia in the distance, the rushing river down below and an overlooking view of all the ruins on the plateau.

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The ancient mosque at Ani, Eastern Turkey
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Looking out at Armenia from the Mosque at Ani. Eastern Turkey

The building that stuck out the most for us was the massive well preserved Cathedral built in 937. Whenever Christians took the city of Ani, it was a church. When Muslims ruled the city, it became a mosque. Inside it was so spacious and there was lots of details and inscriptions on the walls. We’re so glad we decided to spend the extra day in Kars and make our way out to Ani, a place that many people who come to Turkey never have a chance to see.

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The very well preserved Ani Cathedral. Eastern Turkey

We headed back to the hostel and had some downtime and research time. We were planning to pop into the neighbouring country of Georgia for a few days and needed to figure out how to get there and what to see once there!


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Backpacking Eastern Turkey - Van, Kars & Ani
Dariece Swift author's bio Goats On The Road

Written by

Dariece Swift

Dariece is a co-founder of Goats On The Road, and an expert in saving money, finance management, building an online business and of course... travel. She loves meeting new people, trying new cuisines, and learning about the unique cultures of our world. She has over 12 years of experience helping others to realize their travel dreams and has worked in numerous jobs all over the world to help pay for travel.

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15 thoughts on “Backpacking Eastern Turkey – Van, Kars & Ani”

  1. Hi there, have just stumbled across your blog, great little read. Am going to Ani in a month…from what you saw do you think it is possible to sleep in the fields around the ruins in a tent?? I think it would be amazing being there sunset/sunrise!

  2. Hey Malcolm,
    I love you’re adventurous spirit! Camping around Ani would be incredible, but the area is very protected. It’s very close to the Armenian border and there have been times when the ruins have been closed due to tensions in the region. There have been times when they didn’t allow photography and visitors had to go through a lengthy permit process. Although these stipulations have been relaxed, it’s still heavily guarded due to its proximity to the border. (a border which still considers it an Armenian ruin)
    My suggestion would be to go see the ruins and decide for yourself. If you think you could find a secluded spot where no one will see you (difficult on a plain), then camp up and then tell us about it afterwards!
    Either way, the ruins are incredible! Even if just as a day trip.
    Good luck and keep us posted!

  3. Yea will see how I get on! was also planning on sleeping up on Mt Nemrut but i think this will be more tricky with the foottraffic that goes through there! shall let u know! Thanks

  4. What a beatiful area. We were planning to go as far as Urfa, but still undecided if we should continue all the way up to the Black Sea coast and Trabzon. Did you catch a bus from Kars to Ani and how did you return to Kars?

  5. I stayed over night at Ani in 1997. It was my third visit. Climbed out to and Kizkale peninsula and into the caves in Tsaghkotsadzor valley. It was one of the best nights of my life and incredibly stupid. Beautiful place.

  6. Urfa is amazing! Loved it there. We didn’t stay near the Black Sea at all, we just took a bus from Tbilisi (Georgia) to Istanbul and were able to see the Sea!

    We took a day trip from Kars to Ani – booked it with a sort of tour agent when we got to Kars, in fact, we weren’t even planning on going to Ani, but are sure glad we did. It was a return trip.

  7. I’ll be heading to Kars on Monday, and I can’t find any hostels online. Would you mind sharing where you stayed and would you recommend it? Cheers!

  8. Thanks for the post! I’m also planning a trip to Kars and wondering about accommodation options. Do you have any recommendations? (Unfortunately, I won’t be able to bring a tent…)

  9. Hi John,

    I’m SO SORRY about the late reply! I don’t know how your comment got missed. I hope you found somewhere to stay in Kars. We stayed at Hotel Temel and would recommend it. It was $37 at the time for a double room.


  10. Hello Bethany 🙂

    Kars is a great place, make sure to go to Ani! We stayed at Hotel Temel. It was a nice room with a private bathroom. At the time a double room with a/c was $37.


  11. I love visiting ruins and i am glad that i visited your blog. I intend to visit Istanbul, Ephesus in Sept this yr and would like to take some time off and visit Kars and Ani. It would be really kind enough if you can share how to reach Kars from Istanbul?

    Rohit, India

  12. you failed to mention that Ani (as well as Kars and Van) was an Armenian city, THEN it was taken over by the Kurds, Mongols etc. i write this. Ani is also my 5 month old daughter’s name, it is an Armenian name and the city is the namesake. one last thing – in response to one of your readers you wrote “a border which still considers it an Armenian ruin” it is an Armenian ruin. i wrote this to you from Van. hope this was not too preachy.

  13. D.R, I don’t know if you’re seeing it but I’d like to get in touch if you. It is connected to possibilities of sleeping in Ani ancient town. I’m looking forward to your response.

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