Behind Amedi the soft dirt road climbed quickly. A storm had passed through within the last day, and the switchbacks still had a small stream coursing down. The ruts in the road were clearly set, but just enough pressure on any one spot would make the dirt slip out beneath my tires because the ground was still well saturated. In the distance the rumble of a jet punctured the silence.
The peak season of spring riding had arrived. Kurdistan was as green as it ever would be over the course of the year, and the days were long enough without being too warm. The only problem was the predictably unpredictable spring weather, and speed with which it could, and sometimes did, turn violent.
I had mapped out this ambitious ride back in October, but hadn’t had a chance to undertake the route for a number of reasons. When the weather was good enough, I wasn’t free. And the weather had only recently improved to the point that I could attempt this ride, with its multiple 5000 foot passes and sparsely populated roads. In addition, my bike had only recently emerged from its quick crisis of multiple breakdowns in just a few short weeks.
My bike struggled up to the summit as I refused to push it anywhere near its limits. The engine sounded great and the tires were new, but my confidence in it was still low. When I finally reached the pass the view was spectacular, scoping. A perfect panorama.
I was about 1500 feet above Amedi and the Sapna Valley to the south, and to the north only a narrow valley and some 10km separated me from lumbering 10,000 foot snowcaps in nearby Turkey.
I parked my bike and looked around for a walkable vantage point, but abandoned the idea once I saw a triangular land mine warning. One such sign is enough to forbid any off-roading for miles and miles around. The general rule of thumb is to avoid all wild areas because of the uncertainty regarding mine fields (often unmarked), and the only exception being where human or goat paths are present. And when the paths are present, don’t step more than a foot off either side.
I didn’t stay long on the summit, as the air was still chilly, the clouds looked charged with the bipolar potential of spring, and I still had no idea how much dirt road still stretched in front of me. Even on a smooth dirt road I don’t risk anything more than about 20kph, so until I knew where the pavement began, time was invaluable.
The road coming down was equally steep and required my full attention, so much so that I hardly noticed a pickup approaching from behind until he honked when he was close. He beckoned me to stop once he was alongside me, and asked what I was doing.
He wasn’t visibly Peshmerga or Asayish, but dressed in military clothes. He told me in what little Kurdish I could understand that he was PKK, and this wasn’t the best place for me to be. He gestured that jets were doing flyovers in the area. Much like I had heard on my approach only an hour or two before.
I thanked him and stayed behind him for as long as I could on my bike, just in case there were any turns that I would need to navigate.
The valley was beautiful and lush with the spring rains, but very sparsely settled. As such there seemed little need for more than the rudimentary dirt road in place that climbed and dropped over the base of the steep hills.
Pavement eventually returned, and I was overcome with relief that I could finally sit back in my saddle without riding upright to absorb the shock of constant rocks under my tires. Coming around a narrow bend I had to slow down once again as a slew of rocks lay scattered across the road. The rocks were odd and out of place, as if someone had stood on the shoulder and spent ten minutes kicking large stones to small pebbles into the road.
I looked to the side with the most debris, and ten meters off the shoulder was the scorched and warped black shell of a truck, and the charred remains of a tree in the middle of a black circle about ten meters wide, with rocks scattered away from the center.
Certainly what was left from a Turkish airstrike on a small PKK camp. That all of the rocks and stones were so equally scattered into the road seemed to mean that it was a very recent strike, maybe even from the morning flyovers I could hear on my ride out.
I had many times before heard Turkish jets flying over the Sapna Valley and the more remote edges on the border, but this was the first time I had seen a direct result of the current level of tension between Turkey and the PKK. Tensions have flared for much of the last 9-12 months, and it is not uncommon for Turkey to launch retaliations into PKK camps in northern Iraq immediately after attacks on public areas or government establishments in Turkey. There had been a suicide bomb in Istanbul only two days before, and I wondered if I had maybe stumbled upon one such retaliation.
Five kilometers further I passed through the first village I’d seen in hours. A sprawling oak tree cast a large canopy across the road on one bend, and in its shade sat 4 young men with Kalashnikovs on their lap. They first waved at me, and then noticing I wasn’t local, waved for me to stop.
I stopped and let them approach. None of them were older than 30, and were all obviously PKK, the badge clear on their fatigues.
They laughed at my back story of being an American teacher riding around enjoying the scenery, and didn’t press further for more information. Instead, the one in charge simply said to me in broken but friendly English, “You, go back to Duhok.”
No more explanation was needed, as I knew exactly what he meant in everything he didn’t say. I thanked him and got back on my bike, and as I left they retreated back to the shadow of the oak.
The Turkish fly-overs and bombings of southern Turkey and northern Iraq have become common, though unpatterned, over the last half year. PKK soldiers and sympathizers have consequently adjusted to the new norm. Soldiers move openly only when they need to, and only in small groups. The jets almost never target villages, but rather small camps, much like the one I’d seen incinerated only shortly before the village.
As such, PKK soldiers are only together in small collections, and are vigilant in practicing guerilla tactics of motion or inactivity to minimize detection by jets and reconnaissance aircraft.
Their conflict with Turkey, though devoid of massive or repeated success, is one they will never truly lose, much like the original guerillas of Spain against Napoleon, or the Mujahedeen of Afghanistan against Russia and more recently America. They are yet another modern example of steadfast natives using their intimate understanding of the local terrain against their aggressors.
A further 15km down the road I stopped at the only formal checkpoint of the day, where two Peshmerga were completely confused as to how I even managed to be coming from the north. I gave them my normal ‘American teacher’ explanation, rather than telling them that I had deliberately taken the 50km dirt road knowing it was the only way I would get into the remote valley, as I knew of the checkpoint, and the almost certainty that they would never have let me through had I approached from the south.
One more pass and decline, and I re-entered the Sapna Valley. Time, however, was quickly disappearing, and the clouds that were building up on the south side of the mountain when I rode out in the morning where now compressed into an opaque thunderstorm battering all edges of the valley.
My road back was likely impossible, as it would have gone through the center of the storm, and lightning bolts were nearly touching the ground no more than a five-minute ride in front of me.
With it all very much outside my control, I stopped on the side of the road and watched the storm, trying to wait it out. It was a beautiful show, but a game of time I wasn’t going to win with the lightning and downpour inundating all roads before me, crawling in my direction, and the sun crawling towards the horizon.
I had little choice but to get on my bike and head in the opposite direction, and managed to improvise a road back to Duhok on roads I hadn’t taken before.