Lake Çıldır – The Largest Freshwater Lake in Turkey’s East Anatolia
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The first time I heard about Lake Çıldır was on the train from Ankara to Kars. A passenger said that it was a beautiful place to visit during the winter. Unfortunately, he has never had the chance to do so. I knew I would be in Kars for a few days, so I had to visit it for myself.
I went there the following afternoon after arriving in Kars and fell in love with the winter wonderland immediately. Although the lake was remote and everything there was covered in ice and snow, it was absolutely worth the day trip. If you have a day to spend in Kars, I definitely recommend that you put this lake on your bucket list.
Lake Çıldır is about 40 to 60 minutes’ drive from Kars and is a great place to spend your morning and afternoons just immersing in the ambiance of the remote area and partaking in some regional winter activities.
How to get to Lake Çıldır
When you arrive in Kars, get to your hotel and ask for a shared minibus that will take you on a day trip to Ani and Lake Çıldır. The cost is 50 lira for pick up and drop off, as well as a visit to Ani and few hours on Lake Çıldır.
Our minibus parked across the highway from Lake Çıldır, where we could go to the lake area from there. The road is dusted in heavy white snow during mid-winter and there is not much traffic so I do not recommend that you hitchhike.
Important: when you arrive at your hotel in Kars, just ask about this minibus. There are other travel companies organizing day tours to Lake Çıldır plus a visit to Ani and lunch, and some of these agents charge $100. It is too expensive and I do not recommend going on these kinds of tours.
Lake Çıldır is at an altitude of 1959 meters above sea level and covers 123 square kilometers. The area of Lake Çıldır contains a restaurant, few short and flat trails, and the lake itself.
Gunayin Yeri – fish restaurant
As soon as you walk into the lake area, you will see this resort-like building and on the first level is a cozy fish restaurant. Winter is when the fishing activity on the lake comes alive, and the fish from Gunayin Yeri is captured from Lake Çıldır through ice fishing.
Lake Çıldır is famous for several different fish species but if you want to try the best of local delicacy, I strongly recommend that you order yellow fish and trout. The yellow fish I ordered was fried, and I had to use my hands to eat it, but it tasted amazing.
I also shared a salad with two other travelers. The salad came in a big plate with corns, veggies, and cucumbers, which we all loved. It was actually a great pairing with the yellow fish.
One may think such a meal in this tourist area would be expensive but in the end, I only paid 40 lira, which also included drinks. There is also an outdoor seating area, where you can enjoy your fish dish with wine or beer in the summer, but I do not suggest that you eat outside in the winter.
Walking on Lake Çıldır
Lake Çıldır is the second largest lake in East Anatolia after Lake Van, and you can spend lots of time walking on the lake and exploring its surroundings.
Lake Çıldır freezes for up to 8 months in the winter, and the ice is thick so it made for a great adventure. The lake stretches infinitely, and everything on the lake was covered in snow and ice.
As the snow is heavy, you do not feel like you are walking on a lake but a huge white open space in a natural setting surrounded by the peaks of the Caucasus. If you stop for a moment and look back towards the restaurant, it is more like you are at a ski resort. It was exceptionally gorgeous and I can imagine that summer at Lake Çıldır can be as charming as the seaside town or even more so.
It was minus 13 degrees when we went, but I was so excited to come to this remote part of Turkey that I almost forgot how cold it was. I saw the locals blasting traditional music and people dancing to it. There were others trying to skate on the lake without a board and ended up almost falling on the ice.
To experience Lake Çıldır in a more exciting way, you can take a ride with Troika. Troika is a traditional Russian sleigh that has two to three horses chained to the carriage.
We took the sleigh ride after walking on the lake for a bit, and everything looked so beautiful from our ride. It was my first time riding the Russian sleigh, and it gave me a feeling of being on a Christmas holiday in the Arctic.
The best thing about Lake Çıldır is that you are in Turkey but you are also experiencing a bit of Russian tradition and culture. The lake is not crowded and there are no lines for the sleigh, so you can enjoy the lake on your own while meeting other people.
I only had a few hours visiting Lake Çıldır, but it has become one of my fondest memories in Kars. There are not so many facilities and tourists services, but there is the potential for developing them so they can draw more people coming to visit. I was also able to experience both the local and foreign part of Turkey through this lake.
Best time to visit Lake Çıldır
If you plan on visiting on your own without tours or the minibus, the best time you can go is on weekday mornings to enjoy it in a more peaceful setting. I went on an afternoon and the restaurants and the place was not full, but there were a few groups of local tourists.
Where to stay
Accommodation in Lake Çıldır is very limited and I recommend that you stay in Kars and visit Lake Çıldır on a day trip. I stayed at Kars Konak Hotel: in downtown Kars with complimentary breakfast and welcoming staff that frequently offers their guests free tea. It has cozy rooms with free Wi-Fi, TV, and a panoramic view of Kars. The staff helped me to arrange my day trip to Ani ruins and Lake Çıldır.
Have you visited Lake Çıldır? Share your experience below.
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