There are many other thoughts and ideas I want to convey through this 3-parter (besides obviously beautiful scenery). Several different things I took away from this experience.
This trip was full of shocking, raw beauty. And at seemingly every turn; landscapes of unbelievable variety for a nation the size of South Carolina or Albania. That much is now obvious.
But I was also shocked by my resultant feeling of distorted guilt. Not ‘guilt’ in any conventional sense, but it was the greatest immediate feeling I had after taking this trip. Not for anything I had done, but for what, even with sky-high expectations, was an unparalleled experience.
Guilt for what was ultimately the singularity of it. It was mine alone. I did not take anyone along with me. Nor did I truly invite anyone to join me (granted no one else I know here owns a motorcycle and my 150cc bike would be severely strained over 6 days with two people on back IF somebody had been actually interested).
Guilt because I felt like I had the chance to see a beautiful, organic and unfolding-in-real-time play put on by mother nature and wonderful strangers, and here I was, the only one in attendance.
Sometimes solo travel feels almost sinful because there are moments, experiences, with such depth of intensity and beauty that it could be easily appreciated by dozens. And yet it is the sole possession of only one person.
Stopping in teashops, restaurants, hotels, I took any chance I could to pull out my camera and show people photos I had taken only minutes, hours, or days before. In almost every instance each person was bemused to see the raw beauty of their own country.
Person after person, locals, told me they had no idea such views were so near. I noticed how it further reinforced how we are all often blind to the beauty directly in front of our eyes; the landscapes we all take for granted in our immediate surroundings. This trip reminded me that there is no corner of the world I have yet found where that truism fails to ring true.
It is a beautiful thing to know that you have experienced something so rare and in many ways unshareable, but there is also something so inherently selfish about such an experience. I don’t want to be part of such a small crowd.
I will admit that it strokes my self-view to be setting off alone to places I don’t know and few others would dare go-like some sense of self-fulfilling intrepidness, but the second I go I want nothing more than to grab the nearest hand, willing or not, and drag that person to see everything I did.
I would hope that everyone has the desire to see such a place for themselves. But I neither expect anyone to visit me, nor have any serious interest themselves in coming here when conflict and instability still loom so close.
It’s been difficult enough hoping these photos accurately portray the mostly-unknown and sometimes inhospitably beautiful land that the popular world perspective has only recently rediscovered through current events… It’s been nearly impossible finding the phrasing that articulates what it was like.
Words have their limits.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these photos so far. As far as my ongoing efforts to prove Kurdistan is for so many reasons a desirable place to be; this 3-parter is the magnum opus. I don’t think there’s much more I could show, do or say to topple this collection of photos to the oft-untouched interior of this land. Kurdistan is crying out for exploration, adventure, openness, intrepidness.
I will of course continue to explore and go to places I haven’t yet seen, and the photos will of course be just as equally beautiful as those here. I hope you continue to enjoy.
A massive loop. From Soran I went east on the Hamilton Road towards the town of Hajy Omaran on the Iran-Iraq border. I did, of course, leave the main highway for a few unknown and unmissable detours.
East of the town of Choman, near Galala, the valley narrowed significantly and the Rawanduz River broke down into smaller tributary streams. The road slowly climbed from the valley floor. After passing through some narrow stretches the valley widened to a broad-U with minimal vegetation and wide, scoping views. The valley disappeared in all directions to high mountain passes and the road rose with the hills. This was now the northeastern edge of Iraq, only a twenty minute ride from Iran.
As a law-abiding resident of Kurdistan and an obviously American citizen, the closest I could come to the Iran-Iraq border was the Kurdish terminal, only a few hundred meters from Hajy Omaran. My trip to Iran will have to wait a few more months at least.
The weather in Kurdistan has been unseasonably cold and rainy as of late, so I stayed in Hajy Omaran only briefly. I didn’t want to let the biting cold lower my body temperature too much or for too long with a strong return distance still looming ahead.
Outside of Choman I took another detour, into the fledgling Halgurd-Sakran National Park. Although very much still a work/idea in progress, the Halgurd-Sakran National Park will span the Hamilton Road on its northern and southern sides, connecting the wilderness immediately around the tallest peaks in Kurdistan, and by extension, Iraq.
I arrived back in Soran an hour earlier than I expected and decided to use my extra sunlight to drive through Rawanduz a final time. Entering the city itself I found a beautiful cafe built into the cliff face with remarkable views from inside the canyon walls.
Riding a 150cc bike for long hours on bad roads with worse drivers and an admitted proclivity to let my head and eyes wander towards beauty leads to total mental and physical exhaustion. On each and every day of my trip I stepped off my saddle at about 430pm and struggled to stay awake until even 9pm. Day 5 was no exception. I sat down at a table in the Rawanduz cafe wanting to shut my brain off and melt into a chair with a hot cup of tea in a near-desperate attempt to reheat my shivering body. A couple of young men sitting a table away invited me to join. I almost never turn down such invitations. I hesitated, but accepted.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my entire trip. The young men were all classically trained musicians at the Rawanduz Institute of the Arts; one a pianist, two violinists, and the fourth a flamenco guitarist. We talked and shared our mutual love for music and performance, and at the end of the conversation they invited me to visit the campus the next morning before I rode back to Duhok to conclude my trip.
Directions are often impossible in Kurdistan, with neither addresses or consistent advice to rely on in arriving somewhere. I found the Institute of the Arts through sheer dumb luck. Parked my bike on the side of the road after arriving in Rawanduz, realizing I hadn’t the slightest clue of where to go, and turned around to see the Institute’s sign directly behind me.
I was offered a cup of warm tea upon arriving, and after meeting the school’s director, I was given a tour of the campus by Shegda, a recently graduated pianist and instructor himself.
The building had a very innocuous exterior, in fact completely devoid of all expressionism or decoration. The interior, however, was another world. The six year old government-funded Institute was decorated entirely by student work, with new and old work overlapping, peeling off walls, and beckoning the observer in, closer and closer.
The campus was lively and energetic. Students were dispersed throughout the hallways and central courtyard, some talking during their break, others actively working on their own projects along the walls and corridors of the building.
Shegda led me through Oud lessons, live modeling classes, advanced sculpting, a strings class conducted by a former maestro of the Iraqi orchestra, and eventually to the piano room. He had one of his students, Revan, play Mozart’s “Alla Turka” in its entirety before sitting down himself to play a few enchanting pieces by Franz Liszt. I was the last player, having told a few young men at the cafe the evening prior that I play as well. They enjoyed the original jazz composition I played for them but it wasn’t hard to tell the gap in ability and technique between Revan and Shegda’s disciplined and technical fingers compared to my sloppy, hard-hitting, self-taught hands.
I left the Institute at noon, with about five hours of good sunlight left, and a very long ride ahead of me. It was to be the most difficult ride of the six days, as my bike was starting to show signs of fatigue and overcast skies for the entirety of the day made me realize how much I had depended on direct sunlight for warmth.
The sun finally made a long-awaited appearance, but only about forty-five minutes prior to sunset. I was already in a strong shiver at that point.
When the sun finally set I was about forty-five minutes outside of Duhok, on easy roads (again, relative to Kurdistan) that I had already driven several times and was comfortable driving in darkness.
I arrived back in Duhok at 6pm, parked my bike, slumped into my apartment with a hot cup of tea, and finally, fully, shut of my brain and relaxed. A beautiful trip.