Journal of a 3 day hitchhike in northern Iraq

This past weekend was my Eid holiday break. Eid, or Eid al-Adha, marks the peak of ‘Hajj,’ when all financially and physically able Muslim men are supposed to make their pilgrimage to Mecca.

Eid is also distinguishable because of the calm and serenity that descends on Muslim towns and cities as people limit their movement and stay in with loved ones. Duhok essentially shut down for a few days, the Bazaar empty, the streets without traffic, and most people nowhere to be seen, celebrating privately.

For schools, Eid means a protracted break- in some instances a week off- in my case a few extra days, adding up to a five day weekend.  My tentative plans were to either bus into Turkey to explore northern Kurdistan, or get down to Erbil to pick up a new motorcycle. However, neither idea seemed plausible with further research; southern Turkey dogged by civil unrest and border trouble, and Erbil’s own bazaar shut down as well due to Eid.

So I decided to go on more of a whim and hitchhike to the fringes of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the extreme north of Iraq. Areas that I’d heard from word of mouth were among the most beautiful in all of Kurdistan, and also some of the least traveled by outsiders.

I prepared only minimally.  Maps are hard to come by, so I pulled up googlemaps, put a piece of paper on my laptop screen and scribbled my own map on top, writing out the translation of a few towns that I thought I might get to.

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I decided my goal was to reach Amedi.  A modest goal, given it is only about fifty miles from Duhok, but enough new scenery to give me a taste of what was beyond Duhok to the north before I have a motorcycle to explore in greater depth. I picked Amedi also because I had heard from many that it is the definitive locale of the upper valley of the Zab River, an ancient town dating back to Assyrian settlements more than five millenia ago and perched impressively atop an isolated mesa.

So with my minimal preparations, (my essential toiletries, my camera, water, and little else) I set off. I walked east through Duhok rather than taxi to the far fringe of the city only because the single time I had passed through was during the night. I wanted to know what I had missed without light.

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I walked for three hours clear through the end of the city and through a narrow gorge until I was on the narrow highway amongst small shrubs, a handful of shepherds with their flocks, and little else. At that point I decided to put my thumb out and catch a ride.

The first time I tried, I waited only five minutes. A small sedan pulled onto the dirt shoulder. He didn’t speak English, and I still speak only 30 or so words of Kurdish, but I understood that he could take me as far as Bagera, his hometown, another ten miles down the road.

Bagera
Bagera

He dropped me off, and my wait time was once again no more than five minutes.  This time, two young men no older than me driving a small truck.  Both of the them, Ahmed and Mohammed, were chain smoking their way through the day, and the little truck rolled back and forth on the road as we listed side-to-side over the narrow roads on a climbing pass. The truck barely peaked the crest when the engine started to whine and then completely shut down altogether. As for a breakdown, we couldn’t have picked a better spot. The descent northwards from the pass opened up to the wide valley of small tributaries and streams that would eventually pour into the Great Zab River.  The views were spectacular. The valley was as beautiful as anything I’ve seen elsewhere.

Ahmed tending to the car
Ahmed tending to the car
The perfect place to breakdown
The perfect place to breakdown

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We coasted a few hundred meters downhill with the engine shut off, coming to a small hut with a water tank and hose sitting at a perfect viewpoint. Ahmed, who’d been driving, tended to the truck while I snapped a few photos with Mohammed pointing out things in the distance for me.

Turned out the radiator just needed a refill. Once the truck was running again and sounded healthy enough, we hopped in and continued.  Ahmed pulled aside five minutes later for a quick photo opportunity as we passed one of Saddam Hussein’s old hilltop fortresses built several decades ago.

One of Saddam Hussein's hill top fortresses
One of Saddam Hussein’s many hill top fortresses
Qadish in the far distance on the mountain slopes
Qadish in the far distance on the mountain slopes

Twenty minutes later we were in the town of Qadish, Ahmed and Mohammed’s stop.  I thanked them both profusely and we parted. Qadish sits on the north slopes of the wide valley, and both ends of the valley continued east and west until they curved out of sight.  To the east, no more than fifteen miles away, I could see the clifftop town of Amedi, what I had decided was my goal for the weekend trip.

Qadish was pleasant and small, and I was instantly a fish in a little bowl, so obviously a tourist passing through. I found a small fruit stand, picked up some fresh snacks, and walked towards Amedi.  It felt good to stretch my legs and enjoy the scenery from the pace of a walk as a break from getting rides.  Again though, I walked maybe five minutes when a fully packed taxi pulled to the side of the road and a few men started calling out to me. I politely declined, telling them I had no money (I thought taking a paid taxi would’ve defeated my hitchhiking ideal). But they insisted, telling me it was no charge and no hassle for them as they were on their way to Amedi as well.. so I obliged and they somehow made room.

Approaching Amedi
Approaching Amedi

The approach to Amedi was as impressive as any fortress city I’ve ever been to. Every superlative that I’d heard attached to Amedi was fitting, and the town, an archetypal hilltop station, loomed above everything else like a lone sentinel.  Accessible only by narrow, steep, and windy roads.  On one of the last switchbacks climbing up the cliff side road we drove past a young man trekking up to the town, and the only person that possibly looked like more of an outsider than I did with his t-shirt, shorts, and massive backpack.

Walking through Amedi
Walking through Amedi
Relaxing in a teashop
Relaxing in a teashop

After the taxi dropped me off I wandered through Amedi until I found a small typical Kurdish tea shop. I sat down and started talking with some locals. One gregarious man introduced himself and boasted that he had over 5,000 facebook friends before taking a few photos with me.  I was in the middle of one such conversation with a man named Hindarin when someone else shouted out that my friend had just walked by and he was going to bring him inside.

A minute later, in walks the young man I’d seen walking up the switchbacks half an hour before. He was Peter, from Toronto, Canada, and had just recently started work as a freelance journalist in the Middle East.  After talking for a little while, Peter and I sat down to watch Hindarin and some of his friends play dominoes.  The two of us spent half an hour watching Hindarin and the others play, trying to learn the rules on the fly before trying ourselves. Hours disappeared as we played dominoes and relaxed, trying our best to fill any lull with conversation.

Hindarin showing Peter and I how to play dominoes
Hindarin showing Peter and I how to play dominoes

The day had completely escaped me by then.  I took Hindarin up on an offer he’d made a few hours before to give me a place to stay for the night.  Peter had been traveling with a tent and went off to find a suitable campsite for the night.  Hindarin and I drove to a small cliff side town called Silaf where his friend offered to keep me for the night.  It was still a little early to sleep, so after visiting the offered accommodation I took some time to wander up into Silaf, looking at various roadside vendors and stalls on a small localized tourist road.

A young man at one stall called out to me as I walked past.

“Hello friend!”

He was looking down at his smart phone, and then showed it to me as I walked up to him.  He was looking at pictures on facebook of Peter and I playing dominoes less than two hours before.

I had to get the evidence
I had to get the evidence

Wandering back down through Silaf I stopped at a small restaurant to grab dinner before going back to my flat for the night.  A man sitting at another table came over to introduce himself as the brother of the restaurant owner. He also happened to be a geography and GIS professor at the University of Duhok, and we spent some time examining maps he had on his phone of various spatial layouts and different structural overlays of Kurdistan.

It was now approaching midnight, and I went back to the flat, which was itself above a teashop and hookah bar. Hasan, the manager, wouldn’t let me go to bed with out some more overwhelming hospitality, this time several beers, a few shots of whiskey, a fresh hookah, and the permission to take anything I wanted out of the kitchen tomorrow for my own breakfast.

DAY 2

I woke up with Silaf’s beauty now strikingly obvious.  The restaurant and flat I’d stayed in sat on a small precipice dropping to a stream below, and the rocky cliff continued hundreds of feet above me with high meadows and mountain peaks in the not too far distance.  I grabbed a few bananas and an apple as per Hasan’s remarks and left.  I walked back towards Amedi, wanting to explore new parts.

Silaf sitting on the cliff side
The cliff side village of Silaf, I stayed in the building center-left of the photo

Passing a stand of trees a few hundred meters before the switchbacks to the city began, I heard someone call out to me… Peter, sitting on what was left of a picnic table in a small stand of trees.  We sat and talked further, exchanging what we understood about the current crises in the area and their effects locally and abroad. We shared my bananas, and some date syrup that he had brought with him from Turkey.  I asked him what his next move was going to be, and he thought most likely it would be to head to the small villages on the very northern fringe of Iraqi Kurdistan towards Turkey, in search of any that had been attacked by the Turkish air force due to their PKK sympathies.

We made sure to exchange contact info, and I wished him all the best, suggesting a road that I had passed only a few hours ago that I believed led in the direction he wanted to go.  Once back in Amedi, I wandered to new corners I hadn’t gone the day before. I passed a family eating fresh figs on the side of the road, and they invited me to join them. The two men introduced themselves as Redar and Havind, both of them working in education; Redar a high school English teacher in Duhok, and Havind with the newly established American University also in Duhok.

Redar and Havind took it upon themselves to show me the old stone gate, the original entrance to Amedi, something I wouldn’t have known about or even found had I just continued wandering by myself.  The beautiful stone gate pre-dated Islam and had spear-wielding guardians carved into the stone on either side.  A group of teenage boys excitedly greeted us and asked me where my friend was. I asked them to explain who exactly it was they were talking about, and they mentioned seeing the photos of Peter and I on facebook. I was starting to believe the boaster from yesterday really did have 5,000+ friends.

The old stone gate of Amedi
The old stone gate of Amedi
The old minaret, which also pre-dates the Islamic influence
The old minaret, which also pre-dates Islamic influence

I left Redar and Havind (exchanging information once again), and returned to the teashop I’d been at the day before to relax and catch up on some writing with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson’s Shanghai Noon playing on the TV in the background.  The two young men working the shop closed for their own late lunch time as I was the only one there. Instead of asking me to leave, they invited me to eat with them, a smattering of rice, steamed green beans, fresh onions and tomatoes, bread, and a stew of beans and slow cooked beef.  When I left, they refused my attempts to pay for anything. I even threw money down on the table, which was methodically and calmly folded up, and then returned to me.

More amazing views from Amedi
More amazing views from Amedi

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I had a few more hours of daylight once I left Amedi again, and decided on the fly that I’d try to get to Dereluk, the next major town heading eastward.  Like the day before, I opted first to walk, enjoying the scenery as opposed to zooming through in a car. Five miles east of Amedi I came to a small roadside stop with two old men selling fresh fruit and juice. They asked me to join them and keep company for a little while.  I obliged. As I see it, this short trip- and hitch hiking in general- is about being open to invitations, people, and possibilities whenever they may randomly present themselves.

The road to Dereluk
The road to Dereluk
Welcoming old men
Friendly old men

I sat down with them and relaxed, accepting their offers of fresh fruit.  I pulled out my journal to do some more writing.   But I got too comfortable, as I lost almost all of the daylight I had remaining. Several people told me there was nowhere to go in Dereluk as well, meaning it would not be a good place to show up in and try to find lodging after dark had set in.

So I went back to Silaf, after standing on the road for- you guessed it- five minutes.  My ride back was an energetic and bombastic man as alpha-dog as anyone I’ve met in Kurdistan.  He had tattoos down to his knuckles, communicated with slaps just as much as words, and showed me photos from his time as a champion bodybuilder as well as videos of him on the front line with dead ISIS soldiers and promotional videos he had done as a member of the Peshmerga. For all of his force of personality and glory videos, he did tell me that his most masculine accomplishments were now in the past, as he pointed to a small patch of grey hair on his chin and mentioned that he had two small children at home to look after.

Re-arriving in Silaf, I spent the rest of my night relaxing and talking with a group of young men I’d met the night before, and once again crashed in the small flat above the Hookah restaurant.

DAY 3

My overall plan for the day was to head back to Duhok, but I still had a little exploring to do. I woke up a little earlier than I had the day before, intent on spending the morning wandering up into the hills behind Silaf. The small village of Silaf eventually tapered to a little stream leading up a narrow valley.  Small trails followed the stream until it disappeared in what must’ve been a natural spring.

I wandered further, finding a dirt service road above the stream that connected small villages in the bluffs and high meadows overlooking the cliffs that dropped down to Silaf and Amedi.

Service road winding up the mountain side
A service road winding up the mountain side

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On one such wandering path, I found a breathtaking vista overlooking Amedi.  It was perfect, and what I’d been hoping to find all weekend, having seen photos like it online.

Overlooking Amedi
Overlooking Amedi

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Hiking back down
Hiking back down

Having found the culminating view for my weekend, I walked back down to Silaf, ate lunch at the restaurant I’d visited two nights before to talk Geography and geek out over maps, and then walked to the main highway back towards Duhok.  I stopped frequently to enjoy the changing views and scenery, and even found an abandoned school that was now populated by what I thought must have been some IDP’s (Internally Displaced People; essentially Iraqi refugees still in Iraq).  The school had a perfect view across the steep valley to Amedi’s ancient stone gate, and I had a group of boys pose for photos after they ooh-ed and aah-ed over my camera.

Amedi's old stone gate once more
Amedi’s old stone gate once more

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I kept walking and set myself a 3pm deadline to start hitch hiking so I wouldn’t be threatened by low sunlight. Around 245, a car pulled over (I wasn’t even thumbing yet).  The driver rolled down his window and yelled across the street to me, something about my friend. I crossed the road and Peter leaned forward from the passenger seat to wave.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  It seemed that he and I had been the spectacle of the weekend for locals.  The man’s BMW was already fully packed with other men in the backseat, but like before, the others made space, happy for me to join. He drove Peter and I as far back as Sirseng, his hometown, which sits in the shadows of yet another Saddam castle perched menacingly on a mountain top several thousand feet above everything else.

We stopped at his brother’s restaurant, which as best as I could understand used to regularly serve all of Saddam’s personal guards and workers. Peter and I eventually decided to hire a share taxi back to Duhok, only a twenty minute drive further.  By 4pm I was back in Duhok, Peter and I dropped off in the main taxi garage in the center of the city.

It was an amazing weekend, and yet another eye opening experience.  I didn’t find it surprising that people were so quick to help and divulge their stories and lives, but surprising as to how normal all of it is to them to do so.  Locals want nothing more than to share the rugged beauty of their home, and to share the everyday way in which they experience it.  Kurdistan is hospitable in a way that is overwhelming in its raw and uncorrupted humility.

Even as a traveler trying to make my circumstances as grassroots and small-production as possible, I found myself in situations were I couldn’t have wanted for anything.  Next time I take on a similar journey it will probably be from the saddle of a bike, but as for an introduction to far reaches I hadn’t yet touched, I could not have asked for anything better.

 

 

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