Stage 1: Turkey - Iraq

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Middle East » Iraq
November 29th 2013
Published: December 7th 2013
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So here I am again standing at the start of a massive journey this time through the Middle East. I have just completed a one month tour of 12 Eastern European countries but the Middle East is why I left New Zealand in the 1st place. The Middle East is a place that has aroused my imagination for the past few years but have been reluctant to make a move. Now fast forward 3 years and I stand at the gates ready to jump in... so here goes!


First things first... I have been to Turkey before however it was part of a Contiki tour so even though I went there I am not sure that it constitutes actually "seeing" the place, I remember drinking a lot, getting beaten up in the Turkish baths and seeing some females covered up in sheets but really that was the limit of my understanding of the place (but that’s not surprising, it was Contiki).

Ok so arrival. I approach from the North, coming via long bus from the Capital of Romania, Bucharest. I choose the non-smoking section of the bus which just turns out to be the first 3 rows, charming. We pass through Bulgaria with no issues and then I start to see and hear movement from the back of the bus (smoking section... figures). There is now money being handed out by our waitress to all members of the bus, yes bonus didn’t know we got paid to ride this bad boy but surprisingly she just passes me over. Next we are at duty free and all 39 people on the bus go in and buy their limit in hard liquor and return. The bus boy comes back with about 30 extra cases and starts arranging them in secret cavities around the bus. We pass through Turkish customs, bus gets x-rayed and we get through, and their is a big cheer from the staff. Then the hundred odd bottles of liquor are rounded up but to add to this they start pulling out bags and bags of cash hidden throughout the bus... money laundering at its most high tech and the liquor will fetch a handsome price in this Muslim country I am sure.

Quick Facts

• Population: 75 million predominantly Muslim
• Former capital of the Byzantium empire (Constantinople aka Istanbul)
• Seat of the once powerful Ottoman Empire
• WWI Gallipoli: Founder of the Turkish nation Ataturk hit by Shrapnel but his pocket watch saved his life

Anyway I am back to Istanbul, 8 years since I was last here. I go back to all the places I visited all those years ago and if we put the massive crowds to the side, it still manages to wow me. I also make a point of visiting Topaki palace the center of the ruling elite of the Ottoman Empire. I am blown away by the extravagance, the jewels, the Harem it is not hard to see why their public support dwindled into the modern age.

Istanbul for me is a rest and VISA stop. I head to the Iranian Embassy to get my application processed. I had previously been using an Iranian travel agent to get me an authorization code to get me into the country. That took about a month but I now have it so have just dropped it at the embassy to give me my stamp. After waiting the prescribed 3 days I go back and I have a shiny new VISA for Iran, oh how long I have waited for this! As celebration I head to the Turkish baths again to relive old times. Yep they haven’t changed it is basically a legal beating session. I am smashed and tortured by a big hairy Turkish guy... and it’s supposed to be good for you, smile please while I beat you.

Leaving Istanbul I come up with the plan to head directly out of Turkey to maximize my time in Iran. I had also heard Turkey is now over-run with tourists so I quickly try to cross the country. There is one monument that I do decide to see which are the statues on top of Mt Nemrut. Twenty seven hours of buses later I am standing on Mt Nemrut looking into the eyes of huge statues that had been installed there. In 62 BC King Antiochus I built a mountain top tomb sanctuary with one side facing Greece with all Greek gods and on the other side facing Iran, Persian gods. Later it was destroyed by an earthquake and the heads of the gods were severed leaving them scattered around the hill. Is a remote and inspiring site and I stay at the base of the mountain overnight. Then just after midnight I feel something crawling over me, I slap at something and I hear a squash. Turning on the lights, oh no bed bugs, blood. This is a traveler’s worst nightmare; the bites can be excruciatingly painful and stop you dead in your tracks. I cannot sleep there as the room is infested with them; I crash in the hallway until morning freezing in the sub zero temperatures.

Morning comes and after yelling at the manager a bit it is off to Diyarbakir in the former Kurdish area. For those unaware the Kurds are often regarded as "the largest ethnic group without a state". They number approximately 38 million scattered around the world, predominantly in Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The Kurdish Working Party PKK fight for an independent state against Turkey in this area in the South West. I take a guide in Diyarbakir which is ground zero for a lot of the fighting between Turkey and the PKK. He is Kurdish and cannot even say the work Turkey without saying the word mother f(&*(kers before or at the end of it. It opens my eyes to the problems facing this displaced group. We also take a trip through the parks where there are countless groups of Syrian Refugees living next to the city walls (Diyarbakir is also close to the Syrian border). I ask him how they live and he says just in the park there are no refugee camps, I say that’s sad, he replies "Better than being shot at right?" and yes he is right.

Tonight I book my bus into Iraq Kurdistan. Turkey has been good but delving into the past and current history of the place didn’t exactly rub me the right way. I will say that they have come a long way since Ataturk was hit in the chest and there is hope for the future. And with that I catch my night bus into the unknown.

Iraq Kurdistan

I am both prepared and totally unprepared for this next journey. Iraq is a warzone, however the top half that is known as Iraq Kurdistan is known to be "relatively" safe with Arab Iraq (the South) being extremely dangerous. Guidebooks and travelers (strangely none whom I have met) speak about this being the "other" Iraq. Prior to the gulf war this area was held by Saddam Hussein, committing atrocities on the local Kurdish people. The Kurds are Shia in which the Iraqi Arabs are Sunni, for those who don’t know these are two distinct sects of the Islamic religion they are essentially very similar i.e. same customs etc however the main difference is the choice of successor after the death of their founding father "The prophet Mohammad". This has caused and continues to cause massive rifts between countries/regions/people who observe different branches of Islam. Post Gulf war the Kurds had pushed Saddam out and they formed the basis of a special autonomous area for themselves. This was further cemented with the 2003 Invasion of Iraq (Kurds hold George Bush Jr as a hero) and them having some land to call there own. It is not separate from Iraq but they have autonomy around how they rule their area.

Quick Facts

• Kurdistan is a region not a country (They have not had their own country since the seventh century)
• The Kurds have been fighting for independence since the end of WWI
• Kurds are a nation of about 30-40 million people without a country
• Last Terrorist Incident 6 years ago

Back to the story... So with a fair amount of apprehension (this is still Iraq right) I board my bus at 10pm. I had been informed that it would arrive at 7am, perfect timing as bad things happen to good people when it’s dark. We approach the border and a distinct quiet falls over the bus. I see the distinct sight of the Kurdish military dress, one that I will see a lot more of during my time here. The border formalities are painless and I am given a free one month VISA with no questions asked.

The bus continues and about 2pm it stops at a gas station, standard right? Nope this is their high security money changing facilities. A legion of shotgun wielding Kurds hang outside while I go inside and change money. I don’t think I have ever seen so much money in every different currency and is just scattered all over a desk. Ok I will change money, black market rates of course so I get a lot more than I bargained for, bonus will buy an ice-cream too then.

I am now starting to get a bit worried as it is still really early in the morning, completely dark and we are getting close to the city I want to stop, Dohuk. About 3.00am the bus stops on the side of the highway and attempts to offload me saying this is Dohuk. I argue with the guy as he can’t just drop me off on the side of a highway at night in the middle of nowhere, this is IRAQ! He points to some distant lights and says that’s Dohuk, throws me my bag and leaves me on the side of the highway. Looking around, there is a fully loaded policeman just staring at me in disbelief. I walk past him and he is pi$$ed that I am there (aint no foreigner gonna die and make a mess on my highway). Trying to flag taxis down they just hear me say Dohuk and take off, this happens 5x so I am now very anxious, why on earth are they not picking me up? They don’t speak English and I aint got no Arabic so no idea why they can't take me. Grrrrrrr, bad things happen to good people when it’s dark... especially in Iraq (keeps going through my head). Finally after being exposed for an hour I convince a taxi to take me to Dohuk. Into the centre I find an open teashop and hide in there until sunrise. Phew welcome to the country, I am here and safe.

Upon finding an excellent hotel it is off to find food and arrange a trip for the day. Under the hotel I find a clean looking restaurant and start ploughing into eggs and Kurdish Tea. Kurdish tea is served in shot glasses, is potently strong and I swear it is first filled 1/3 up the glass with sugar. As luck would have it I met the owner and tell him I want to head to Al Kosh to see the fortress there. Turns out he used to live in Norway and speaks perfect English. He insists on taking me in his car to the taxi stand and gets me a lift. So we step into his brand new wide body Chevy and we roll like black rappers up to the taxi stand. There he arranges a taxi to get me to the first checkpoint but no further. Hmmmmm ok, don’t worry he tells me, the army people will help me arrange. Ok now I’m worried.

The taxi is shared and drops me off at the first military checkpoint outside of Dohuk. In Kurdistan, military checkpoints are everywhere to stop and check flow of Arab Iraqis from the south. The army officer talks to me, is actually a real good guy and calls over a taxi to take me to Al Kosh. This taxi we go very close to the border, have to be very careful here as Mosul, one of the most dangerous cities on the planet is only a few kms away, we cannot cross out of Kurdistan or I will be in big trouble, my travel insurance is already not valid here. The Al Kosh town is Christian and strangely has not been subjected to any form of religious cleansing. We did stop at a church and they did have a picture of Jesus holding an AK47 right out the front, scary prospect. All good though and we drive to the fortress of Al Kosh. Oh no the very familiar South Iraqi black and grey military uniforms that I see on TV become distinct, barring access to the fort. They take one look at me start asking questions but let me go. Very weird but as I see the fortress I understand why. It is high up on a cliff giving incredible views across the desert, you can see for 100kms + so they have setup their own base in the ancient fort. I am greeted at the fort by an old hermit, who drags me into his cave for Tea, and then I tour the impressive fort.

Next stop is the temple of Lailish. Lailish is the spiritual home of the Yazidi faith. The Yazidi faith started around the 12century and has many elements of different world religions rolled into it. I visit their main pilgrimage site, the tomb of their founder. Here I am met by a camera crew and the one man army that goes by the name of "Lohman". Lohman runs the local high school but in his spare time he is an expert of the Yazidi faith and today he is making a movie for international school students about it. Once seeing me he says hello, doesnt explain himself but hands me a digital SLR and says start shooting him getting interviewed. Randomly I start taking photos of this weird dude getting interviewed. Next he gets a brainstorm and decides to make his movie featuring me going to the temple to learn about the faith. For the next hour is a lessen in randomness but it is entertaining. He takes me through the temple teaching me about the place while shooting the movie, hilarious. Finally manage to exit stage right and leave the one man stage show, he takes my email and promises me to send a copy of the production; I can’t wait for that one; going to be a blockbuster, like Oscar standard.

The next day I arrange a private taxi to the capital of Iraq Kurdistan, Erbil. We come close again to Mosul but skirt it. I say that I don’t want to go near Mosul, the taxi driver laughs and indicates someone shooting a gun at his head... we are on the same page good. Erbil is held as one of the oldest continuously populated places on earth. The citadel has been populated for a whopping 6000 years. It is easy to forget that Iraq is ground zero for the start of modern civilization. Erbil is a chaotic but modern city. I spend my days here heading to sprawling Iraqi parks where picnicking is honestly a national sport, they do it up big time. Also I head to a mall, yes that right a mall in Erbil to see how modern Iraq is shaping itself. It has all the standard American and European brands, coffee shops, girls in jeans; a very different side to Iraq. Also there is a heap of expats and Americans there, testament to the growing oil culture that is appearing there.

After 3 days of relaxing I arrange my taxi to take me into Iran. I have chosen the remote mountain border at Haj Omaran to cross over. To access this border you go along the famous Hamilton Rd. The Hamilton rd was designed and built by the kiwi Archibald Hamilton in 1932. It remains on the greatest engineering marvels of its time. The road crosses the seemingly impossible cliffs of canyon after canyon. It is also known as one of the most beautiful roads in the world and I can testify to that. The driver upon hearing I am crossing to Iran is immediately worried. He has never heard of any foreigner crossing that border which fills me with apprehension. As we progress down the road we stop at numerous waterfalls that are just covered with people in every inch of water. We also spot hundreds/thousands of Arab Iraqi "tourists" escaping the war for the weekend.

Finally after 4 hours we reach the Iran-Iraq remote border at Haj Omran. This is the area that in 2009 3 American hikers were taken into custody for accidently crossing the border into Iran. They were branded as spies and served in Iranian prisons. With that we pull into customs and my taxi driver is worried sick. He comes into customs and asks around to try to help. The border guards say for me to wait for an hour here until they can sign me out. They say we have no problem letting you go but Iran accepting you.... we don’t know. So with that I say goodbye to my taxi driver and make the walk through the barbed wire into Iran and the unknown.

So that brings me to the end of my journey through Iraq Kurdistan. It was an amazing adventure and I was blown away by the friendliness and generosity of the Kurdish people, they were some of the most wonderful people I have met. It is the exact opposite to what we are sometimes fed by western media and governments. Security wise I did feel safe as I know the Kurds would do anything to protect their precious few tourists but being so close to a warzone can be unnerving for anyone and really anything can happen. Anyway elections are close and I hope that the future remains bright for this stunning country; they desire this stability they have worked so hard for. Am going to miss those smiley faces, huge welcomes and strangely enough that ridiculously sweet tea they serve by the truckload.

Next blog..... Into Iran

Thanks for reading


Note: Two days after I leave the first bombing in Kurdistan in 6 years occurs. Two went off in Erbil, one in the market and another in front of a security complex. This breaks my heart as the Kurds I met were incredibly proud that they were safe and had not had any blasts in that time. I think this will rock the people, the tourism and expat sector as travelers were just starting to come back. I hope this set back does not affect them and they can begin to rebuild their lives again because they really do deserve it.

Photo Links:

Turkey Photos Click here

Iraq Photos Click here


8th December 2013

Absolutely stunning. Love reading your blogs!

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