Eastern Turkey: Where is everyone? Even Noah's Ark is empty in this dramatic land

The top prize in last year's Bradt/IoS travel-writing competition was a trip to eastern Turkey and the chance to write about it in these pages. Here, winner Simon Duncan reveals a region rich in antiquities but startlingly bereft of western tourists

'And there is Noah's Ark." Silence greeted the prophetic scene. "I can't see it," I said eventually. More silence. But I knew the rest of the tour group staring at the hillside, in the shadow of Mount Ararat, couldn't see it either. Our guide, Denis, outlined the contours of the hill again trying to make us see a boat shape while we willed him to succeed.

"You can see better on the photos," he said, conceding defeat. We ventured inside to a makeshift museum, a stale, round room looking over the hillside and protected by a white-haired man who sat at a table, smoking. The yellowing aerial photographs showed the outline of a boat, but archaeologists continue to survey and argue the provenance. What struck me even more was that here were the apparent remains of one of the great stories of the Bible and we were the only visitors. It had been a recurring theme of my trip.

Part of the allure of visiting this part of eastern Turkey, was that 10 years ago it would have been near impossible to do so. Much of the area was heavily militarised, with relations tense along the border with Armenia and Iran. Tourists were vetted and chaperoned. Now, with only the presentation of passports at occasional checkpoints to bother us, we had the freedom to move about. Nevertheless, this part of the country has been slow, or unwilling, to cash in on the European tourist market. Guests at the busy hotels we stayed in appeared to be fairly local; Iranians on a weekend break or Turkish families on a trip to the seaside.

From our starting place, Lake Van, we spent a week travelling north via minibus, running parallel with Turkey's eastern border, winding our way across extinct lava fields in which the black rock had churned the vast green emptiness. The land is rich in minerals, and zinc has turned the soil blood-red. We would stop for tea and to stretch our legs on the plains and feast on endless watermelons.

On a hillside overlooking the town of Dogubeyazit, a few miles from the Iranian border and Noah's Ark, stood the proud 17th-century Ishak Pasha Palace. The Sultan was apparently so pleased with this creation that he had his architect's hands cut off to prevent him designing another. We were the only people there to appreciate the Ottoman architecture and panoramic scenery. As we left, a tribe of schoolchildren appeared from nowhere. "Hello! Hello!" they shouted, pleased with using their one English word and giggling when we repeated it back. Their teachers insisted on taking a photo as the children gathered around the exotic strangers. When we drove away we were waved off like royalty.

Further north, we came to Ani, a grand, desolate city, at the end of a nondescript road to the Armenian border. It had served as an important stopping point on the original Silk Road and at its height nearly 200,000 people lived here. Again we were alone, walking within 20m-high sand-coloured walls that provided respite from the sun. The once grand monuments were now forlorn buildings, ruptured by earthquakes and neglect. No signs told us which route to follow or what we could or couldn't touch. Like unruly school kids we traipsed through shops in the agora, clambered over toppled marble pillars that once supported roofs of grand churches and investigated a vast broken monastery while swifts darted above.

At the far end of the site an earthquake had shifted some buildings on to Armenian territory. "You could be shot if you go there," Denis warned; a reminder of its recent past. We saw clearly the orange-topped lookout posts on the other side of the hills and I couldn't quite shake the fanciful feeling that I was being watched through crosshairs.

On our final days Denis navigated us and our minivan across mountains drenched in tea plantations and cloud, and over roads that were still being built to connect east to west. Our last excursion late one afternoon took us to the Greek Orthodox Sumela monastery, founded in the fourth century and carved out of the cliffs.

According to Denis this was normally a busy tourist attraction, but the snowmelt that poured across the approach road and down into the valley had put off visitors. Inside the complex, mist and rain rendered the scene ethereal, while the views across the valley were wrapped in thick cloud. Two-hundred-year-old fresco s appeared almost freshly painted in the torchlight of the chapel. As we set off back down the precarious track in the dwindling light, I noticed that we were, once again, the only visitors there.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Simon Duncan travelled as a guest of Anatolian Sky Holidays (0844 273 3586; anatoliansky.co.uk) which offers a seven-night “North Eastern Anatolia” small group tour incorporating Van, Dogubeyazit, Kars, Rize and Trabzon from £1,499pp. The price includes return Turkish Airlines flights from the UK (Birmingham, Heathrow or Manchester) via Istanbul, the services of an English-speaking guide and driver; seven nights’ accommodation with breakfast and lunch included; entrance fees and excursions, including Hosap Castle in Van, the ruins of Ani, the fourth-century Sumela monastery and the Hagia Sophia Museum in Trabzon. Next departure 15 Sept; departure dates for 2013 to be announced shortly.

More information

Turkish Culture and Tourism Office (020 7839 7778; gototurkey.co.uk).