Hitch-hiking, Donkeys and Convoys: Travelling from Iran to Turkey through Iraqi Kurdistan

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September 1st 2013
Published: September 1st 2013
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Once more, I found myself heading towards the unknown, with all manner of scenarios playing through my head. I’d never planned to visit Iraq on this trip, but after talking to one of my Iranian friends and doing a bit of research, it seemed that there were a few cities in Iraqi Kurdistan that would be safe to visit. My curiosity got the better of me, and I set off on a detour through Northern Iraq en route to Turkey.

Obviously I didn’t want to put myself in too much danger, and so did a bit of research before leaving. There are a few Kurdish controlled cities in the north of Iraq that are well protected and safe to visit – Sulaimanya, Erbil and Duhok. Two cities that were really not safe to visit were Mosul and Kirkuk, especially seeing as the week before I went some bombs went off in both places. It was the month of Ramadan, and Iraq was having one of the most violent months in the past 5 years, so I was being a little bit cautious. I contacted someone living in Erbil, and he assured me that the bombs in Mosul and Kirkuk would not affect my trip – as long as I didn’t visit them anyway! Still, in the back of my mind I was worried about travelling between cities, as I would have to go close to Mosul at one point to leave Iraq. Anyway, after a fair bit of research and speaking to a couple of people that had travelled there before, I decided it was safe enough and worth the risk.

My friend told me that it would be best to get a taxi from Tabriz in Iran to the border, and then take a bus from the Iraqi side, so I set off one early morning for the border town of Piranshahr. The journey there was really beautiful, once more the browns and oranges of the desert gave way to more yellows and greens, and we drove across the vast white expanse of the Urmia Salt Lake. I’ve never seen a salt lake before but it’s amazing! The shores are bright white, and the reflections of the mountains in the water are so incredibly clear it’s like looking in a mirror. After eventually finding another ‘share taxi’ in Urmia, I headed towards the snow-capped mountains that mark the border of Iran with Iraq. At this point I began to get a little bit nervous, and my mind began to run through scenarios of guns and kidnappings. Probably completely unfounded but it still doesn’t stop your mind from wandering!

Eventually I arrived at the border, and after getting stamped out of Iran, I headed to the Iraqi side, where there seemed to be some problems with my passport. I waited for a couple of hours, praying that they would let me through – the last thing I wanted was to be trapped in no man’s land between Iran and Iraq – there’s no way I could get back into Iran so I would be stuck! Something similar happened to one of my friends once, and he ended up getting flown to Baghdad which was the last thing I wanted to happen! Eventually it all got cleared up and they let me through. I expected to see plenty of buses waiting to take me to my first stop, Erbil, but unfortunately there was nothing there – something I hadn’t exactly planned for! Being a Kurdish area, I knew people would be friendly, so figured hitch hiking would probably be fairly easy and safe. I stuck out my thumb and within a few minutes a well-dressed guy from customs stopped, and asked me in broken English where I was headed. He couldn’t take me all the way but he would take me to his village, Choman, where it might be possible for me to get a taxi to Erbil. The guy was hilarious, and although his English wasn’t great we still managed to communicate and have a laugh. He rang his wife, and she said that she would join us, and they would drive me all the way to Erbil 3 hours away! But first he would take me to their house so he could get changed. When we arrived at his house I began to get a little bit worried again, as he disappeared for ages and people kept coming and peering through the doorway at me. His brother then came in the room, and he was acting quite weird, at which point I was really beginning to think I might have made a bad decision – my mind was beginning to play tricks on me again. Well it was worrying until the brother asked if he could add me on Facebook - I breathed a sigh of relief and realised that there was probably no need to worry!

The drive across North-Eastern Iraq to Erbil was stunning – there are huge snow-capped mountains, the roads wind through gorges and valleys, past jagged rocks and cascading waterfalls. Shepherds ride their donkeys, herding their goats through the mountains. The closer we got to Erbil, the less mountainous and more sparse the landscape became. We drove past the air strip where he told me the Americans landed in 2003 – he told me about how they even came through his village at one point. We arrived in Erbil after passing through many military checkpoints along the way – although it is a bit worrying that there is so much security, it’s precisely this reason that makes it safe to travel there.

As usual, I hadn’t booked any accommodation and so I spent the next couple of hours trying to find something that was good value. To my surprise, the cheapest place I could find was $20 a night (after some negotiating), and it was an absolute hole! It had beds set up outside on the roof terrace, a few beds in a corridor with some old Iraqi men half asleep in, but luckily I managed to get a room to myself (although it definitely hadn’t been cleaned in the last few weeks or so!).

There are a few things to see in Erbil, although it isn’t the most interesting place on earth. Towering above the city is the citadel – supposedly the longest continuously inhabited place on the planet. From the outside it is very impressive, and apparently you used to be able to scramble round all the abandoned buildings inside. Now they are renovating the buildings inside and so a lot of it is off limits – the houses they had finished renovating were really good though, but I still think I would prefer to see the houses as they were before. The bazaar was also worth a look - I was hoping to find some cool souvenirs, but as it isn’t the most touristy spot in the world it was hard to find anything. I did manage to come across some old Iraqi bank notes with Saddam Hussein on though – might be worth a few pounds in a few years or so – you never know! I was hoping that they wouldn’t be so strict with selling food during the day as it was still Ramadan and I’d lost so much weight in Iran, but luckily it was a bit easier to get food than in Iran. The atmosphere at night was also really good – everyone is hanging out by the fountain in the centre – smoking huge shishas and drinking tea (I’ve seen some cultures where they use a lot of sugar in their tea, but Iraq definitely takes the medal – one cup of tea I was given was half sugar and half tea, and I’m not exaggerating either!).

I’d exhausted all the sights in Erbil and wasn’t having the best time, so I decided to head straight to Diyarbakir in Turkey. Finding a way to do that though proved to be difficult. There was no bus station in Erbil, but I’d heard of private bus companies that ran services to Turkey. Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to any internet, and nobody I had come across could speak a word of English, or even understand my miming and basic Kurdish. Every time I asked it was just met with a shrug of ‘Bus? No!’. After almost a whole day of trying to find out, eventually someone that spoke English overheard me trying to get information out of a policeman and offered to help me out. He spent the next hour and a half walking round the city with me trying to find out the information, and eventually we managed to book the bus and get an address. Once again, the kindness of people in this area of the world really blew my mind, without that guy I might well still be in Iraq!

The bus (which actually was the best bus I’ve ever been on – free drinks and food, wifi, tv with films etc.), was an overnighter to Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey. The roads have plenty of military checkpoints along the way, and bunkers with soldiers keeping watch along some sections. I woke up at one point in the night to find armoured cars escorting the bus on either side, and also another armoured car but with a big tank style turret on it. A little bit worrying, but I figured it was more safe that way! I met quite a few people travelling from Baghdad – one guy had been shot in the leg and was heading to Turkey for an operation. Needless to say, they confirmed Baghdad wasn’t a great place to be at the moment...

I didn’t really enjoy travelling through northern Iraq that much, it was really difficult to do anything and I didn’t see that much of any interest. The mountains in the north-east were pretty amazing but that was the only thing that I really enjoyed. The houses in the villages we went through were mostly just ugly, hastily made with concrete blocks, nothing like the ancient towns and villages in Iran. I was only there for a few days though so I am sure that there are much more interesting things to see. One interesting thing I did notice was the contrast in the cars from Iran to Iraq – due to sanctions pretty much the only cars you see in Iran are old Paykans. As soon as you cross the border to Iraq, every car is brand new – most of them huge 4x4’s.

After all the excitement of the past few weeks I decided to just chill out and relax in Diyarbakir for a few days before heading to Istanbul. I’d planned to spend more time in Eastern Turkey but I had decided to spend more time in Iran as I was enjoying it so much and it had been so hard to get the visa. On the way to Diyarbakir we drove along the Syrian border and went past some really cool places – one small town was made up of hundreds of caves built into the mountains where the people lived. I would have loved to have stopped and visited but unfortunately I have no idea what the name of the place was or where it is exactly.

Up until fairly recently, Diyarbakir has been at the centre of the fight between the PKK and the government, with the PKK wanting independence for the Kurdish region. It has all calmed down a lot in the past couple of years, and it’s hard to imagine any fighting going on in the old roads and markets of the town. There’s still quite a lot of military presence here and in the local area – whether it’s to do with the PKK or the problems in Syria I’m not sure. It was a great place to spend some time and relax though. The city is surrounded by some Roman walls, which you can climb on top and get some great views over the city and of the Tigris river. I also went and had a look at Gazi Kosku – an old summer house used by the wealthy, and it was a great place just to sit and enjoy the views over the river with a cold drink. Every so often you’d walk past an alleyway with someone whispering ‘shish kebab, shish kebab’ as you go past – it always made me laugh as it just reminded me of every alleyway you go past in Asia where someone is whispering ‘marijuana, marijuana’ – I think a kebab is a much more healthy habit!

The highlight of my time here was a day trip to Mardin. This small town has a fascinating mix of people and cultures – you can see the differences in facial structures, languages, and even clothes which is really interesting to see. A castle stands at the top of the town, with ancient sand-coloured buildings tumbling down the mountainside, all overlooking the vast plains that extend towards Syria. I spent the day exploring all the buildings and mosques, but by far the best thing I saw was the bazaar. It is an absolute maze, full of small caves where the locals are making their goods – whether it’s stuffing donkey saddles, engraving beautiful metal cups and plates, or preparing arrays of colourful fruits and vegetables. Locals navigate the bazaar on donkeys, winding their way through the narrow alleyways. It’s a beehive - absolutely buzzing with life. An old caravanserai was being restored here too, with some pretty incredible stonework being done. The stonemason was kind enough to show me round – he didn’t speak a word of English but it didn’t stop him explaining to me in great detail what he had been doing – it’s amazing how much you (think you) can understand through a bit of pointing and miming! I topped the day off with a Kurdish coffee sitting next to the towering minaret, looking over the plains towards Syria – I absolutely loved this place! Another cool place to visit in the area is Savur (although it’s a lot harder to get to!). This is a really sleepy village – there’s not a great deal there but I enjoyed a nice fresh fish lunch in the shade of the trees by the small stream, and walking round the old houses and streets.

I really loved this area of Turkey, and it was a shame I couldn’t spend any more time there. I hadn’t seen a single other Western tourist for a few weeks, and hardly anyone spoke English – just the sort of travelling I enjoy most! Next stop was Istanbul to meet up with a friend from uni and a friend from Vietnam – just a massive bus journey to get there first!

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1st September 2013

So useful
A brilliant account and very useful as this is a route we plan to do. What a shame you can't stay and see more of Turkey and the area that we live in and the places we have travelled to, maybe another time!

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