Iraqi Kurdistan by bike

The air often smells of oil. There are fires in the distance and sometimes next to the road. Among them plenty of checkpoints with armed men. Electricity power cuts are just like closing your eyes for a moment. When you open them, you’re back in Iraq. Cycling. Climbing the mountain at sunset. Dancing under the waterfall. Greeting people, their hospitality being bigger than mountains. Can I express Thank You big enough?

My last kilometres in Turkey were full of emotions and wonderful people. In Midyat I performed Pocket juggling show for the special-needs class, I rode a motorbike with new teacher friends and cycled through Tigris canyon towards the border. At one of the checkpoints police investigated all my belongings, I had to unroll my tent and they even went through the pages of my books. After 2 hours officer counting bullets next to me offered me energy drink and let me go.

In the morning of Friday the 13th Nebahat, a teacher, took me to Dengbêj music house in Çizre and I juggled through the pockets of her students in the school at noon. Walking the streets with a woman where many women wear black burqas was an unusual experience, I must admit. Just before sunset on the same day I approached Ibrahim Khalil border crossing not knowing what an adventure awaited me!

A new flag was fluttering above me. I got 30-days visa on arrival although e-visa is available. Last 10 km to Zakho I rode in the night, meeting people beside the road who were asking me to take selfie together. When I was buying Fastlink SIM card guys in the phone shop invited me to sit down among the shelves loaded with mobiles and brought me dinner. Meanwhile I told them my IG account name. Then a hacker promised me I could expect 5000 followers more in next 24 hours. Welcome to Kurdistan!

Navigation system took me to backroads avoiding highway towards Duhok. Peeing in the middle of yellow grasslands I was thinking how dangerous really is to walk offroad, because of the land mines. Can you imagine witnessing an exploding donkey? Yesterday a man was telling me about it on the street of Sulaymaniyah.

Then, after just 8 km from Zakho, my tyre exploded! Valves of my reserve tyres were a bit too wide to fit, I realised. What can I do? Luckily a car stopped next to me and Masoud, a building company manager speaking German, drove me and my wheel back to the city.

We visited 3 bicycle repair shops but they didn’t have a suitable tyre. Repairman than grinded the hole to make it wider and I could feel the metal pain of my Bici. Hopefully it won’t fall apart because of that in the next thousands kilometres to come …

Work finally done we went for lunch – how do you eat from 9 different plates at once? I managed and it was delicious! On the way back to bicycle Masoud spoiled me with a fresh milkshake with avocado too. And because it had been already late afternoon he proposed I could overnight in his garden hut, just where my tyre went flat. We talked about business in his garden, chicken running around, until sunset. Here he finds peace and can stay away a bit from his family. Later his boys brought me a huge pile of rice, meat and vegetables from their family gathering. Welcome to Kurdistan!

Don’t ask me about Duhok. Or Dohuk, it doesn’t matter as both is correct. I had the weirdest time there and I still wonder what shape my memory will take.

Firstly, cycing from Zakho into the mountains, soldiers at the checkpoint didn’t allow me to proceed. I had to go back and find my way along the highway, eating dust and smoke. There I set a new personal speed record, reaching over 70km/h! In the evening I set a tent on the red shore of a peaceful lake.

Maybe I will write a book one day. If I do, it will talk about onion. About tattooed hand of a young man smashing it on the ground and offering slices to other prisoners. Because there are no knives allowed in the cell. And then I will write about onion soup in a 5-star hotel at Zawa mountain next day. Looking down to the black spot among city lights in the valley: a military zone I accidentally walked into the night before.

How can life offer such a contrast events in such a short time? I can only stare in awe.

I was number 660. There were strong neon lights shining all night. 18 men in the cell with 15 matresses spread all around the floor, I tried to sleep in the crack between two with a sleeve over my eyes. Nobody could speak English. But they had a little phrase book trying to understand me. They kindly offered me food, water, cigarettes. Their body language was telling me everything would be fine. Small blue toy clock was moving on in circles.

One of the first question I got on the phone in the small office packed with soldiers was: ‘Which agency are you working for?’ I felt wet and cold mud on my shoe as I stepped in a puddle, realising my whole body is sinking deep into mud now. I was squeezed in the car between two soldiers with their heavy guns in hands. I could feel their breathing, every small move on the seats. I didn’t dare to move. Fear was filling my body. Guarded doors were opening and closing after us. I had no idea where were they taking me.

They kept asking me questions. I was standing in a small basement room in front of a muted TV. Investigator was smoking and drinking tea. He wrote pages about my case. He talked on the phone to Mohamed, the owner of the hotel where I was staying. Then a man in black with a wire attached to his ear, as an agent from the movie, took my papers sealed in an envelope and my phone and I followed him accompanied by a soldier to the truck. They told me to look into my feet all the way. I was counting my breathes to estimate how long are we driving through the cold night.

After they took all my belongings, even the belt from my trousers, I became 660, standing in front of the white wall.

‘What will happen tomorrow?’ I asked.

‘You speak to Iraqi FBI.’

We walked through the hall with many metal doors, I could hear men chattering behind them. The last door opened. I was hesitating to enter. I was afraid. All the heads turned towards me. It was almost midnight, 3 hours since I was detained, when I stepped into the prison cell assumed of espionage.

I am often thinking about those men, they are still there, under the constant light. How they stand in line in the morning to wash their face and comb hair to keep dignity. How they pass lighter to eachother sliding on the floor. How they mark their water bottles. How they gather around small transistor to listen to music. How they share food and fill the room with smoke after a meal. How they pray on a rug turned towards toilet. How one-handed man is reading Qura’n. How they walk from wall to wall or do push-ups. I felt like I entered their home. Most of them were staying there for months or a year. I wondered about their crimes.

Next day I talked to investigator and the translator. File on the table, with a big photo of me in the prison jacket, was getting thicker with handwritten pages. What is the name of your father and grandfather? … What is your religion? … Do you share religion here? … Do you collaborate with PKK? … What about ISIS? … Do you know Peshmerga? … Are you a s-p-y? He slowly spelled every letter.

They went through my phone, photos, WhatsApp and IG messages, asking me details about all the names in my contact list from Kurdistan. They were unexpectedly friendly. Translator, silver watch and rings shining on his hand, even made a joke at the end, after 3 hours of interrogation: ‘We’re sorry for the situation, we just want to protect you. That’s how we welcome people in Kurdistan.’

It must be a custom: around 40 years earlier Slovenian avanturist Tomo Križnar was imprisoned in Kurdistan while cycling the world too.

After 20 hours I was out! Driving with taxi, wondering where I am, and staring to the clouds as if I see them for the first time. In the hotel I immediatelly fell asleep, exhausted to death.

When I woke up from the nightmare, my cyclist friends Alex and Max had already reached the hotel in the evening. I knew Alex from Mardin, where he stopped to repair his bike, and after emptying the bottle of wine on the rooftop we kept in touch. We had many things to talk, and Mohamed, talkative and corpulent hotel owner, joined us too. He called army 20 times back during the night trying to convince them it was just a bad coincidence, he explained.

Next day he took us in his car up to Zawa mountain and bought us a French-style onion soup in a bread bowl. We were sitting on the terrace of a luxurious hotel high above the city, with waterfountains around the park dancing to classical music. In the most strange and unexpected way we celebrated my prison release. But my thoughts kept returning to the raw onion and men sharing it in the cell.

We continued to the city, into the live-music bar. At one moment singer, a woman in the thight and shiny yellow costume, was sitting next to me and singing-announcing into microphone what Mohamed dictated into her ear. I could understand just my name. We drank beer after beer. Who would expect this in Iraq? Uncovered young women were walking up and down the dark space, serving, talking to costumers (only men!?) and dissapearing in the smoke of shishas. To my surprise I got a kiss from one of them after we tried to speak. Mohamed looked happy as he secretly gave her a tip for it. I felt just awkward. Welcome to Kurdistan!

At last back on the track! Unfortunatelly Max got sick and decided to stay in Duhok. But with Alex we started pedalling towards Lalish, the holiest Yazidi temple.

It was Friday, a free day, and people were having picnics in the nature. A Syrian refugee family friendly invited us for a lunch. On the road people were cheering for us, taking selfies, leaning from the cars and waving their hands. I felt like riding an important race, it was funny and beautiful!

We reached temple in the evening but guards didn’t allow us to enter anymore. We followed small river nearby to find a place for wildcamping. There we encountered new friends having picnic. They grilled masgouf (a bass fish with veggies, so tasteful!), chicken and eggplant to share with us. We had beer again, brewed in Iraq, and they drank vodka. Two of the three men were soldiers, at one moment one was showing us photos on his phone: himself with dead terorrists, killed in southern Iraq. It was shocking, but for them it seemed just normal. No, I’m not afraid, he said. Can this be a reason for them searching an escape in alcohol? A distant fire of an American oil company was fluttering on the slopes above us.

Shakir started to sing and dance in the night, his phone connected to car speakers. He offered us money, but we didn’t want to accept it. Uh, it was difficult not to offend him. But soon he was happy again, clapping hands, and you should witness our farawell, I’ve never got so many kisses by a man! At least these were sincere, I believe. Welcome to Kurdistan!

In Lalish temple everybody was walking barefoot. And everybody was wearing their best clothes. The temple area is a small stone village with many watersprings. Families were sitting in the yards, beside wooden cradles and under old trees. A young boy took us inside the holy building, careful that we stepped over every threshold he led us into the basement. I was amazed by the dark chamber full of amphoras and wet handprints on the walls. Whitebearded man was burning scents in front of a tomb. I had a feeling something pagan is happening there. Coming back to daylight we bumped into a man, one hand holding a sheep for its horn and a knife in the other.

It felt nice and peaceful stralling around sunny streets barefoot and observing how alive the temple was. We discovered a basin for baptising and fresco of Noah’s ark. Another boy invited us for breakfast with his family. They come here once a year to spend a night and connect with their god.

Who are Yazidi? I wondered. They are a Kurdish speaking ethnic group with their religion being monotheistic and having roots in pre-Zoroastrian Iranic faith. Only recently, in 2014, Yazidi genocide was carried out by the Islamic State. Most of Yazidis today live in northern Iraq.

We continued cycling to Akre, a beautiful old town with yellow stone houses settled on the mountain.

While drinking cay a local told us the story of his migration to Europe. He was 18 years old and for 8000 $ he got a fake passport of a Polish citizenship. Illegally he crossed the border from Turkey to Greece, where he took a flight for the first time in his life to Finland. He was the only lucky one in the group of 8 fake-passport holders who made it through the airport. After a few years in the north he threw fake passport away, asked for the Iraqi-one and returned home. He helps local children to attain their documents now.

Akre is most famous for Newroz, Kurdish new year, celebrated on the spring equinox. The zig-zag path to the mountain is full of people walking with torches into the night and singing. Now we are in the year 2723 following the local calendar!

Next days were mesmerizing! We cycled through dramatic landscapes of mountains and rock canyons to Soran and Rawanduz. It was great to have Alex for a company, sharing food and stories, laughing and repairing another flat tyre.

We bargained well and could sleep in a 4-star hotel for only 9 $ per person, breakfast included. What a comfort in the middle of the big uphills!

At the end of the canyon we were hungry asking for masgouf, when Jegr approached us, a French-speaking local. We drank cay together under artificial waterfall and when leaving he surprised us with his gesture – paying for our fish. I call this kind of fish magic now as I had it 3 times and never had a chance to pay for it. Welcome to Kurdistan!

We met Jegr again next day in his hometown Shaqlawa and played billiards. He and his friend Zana, medical student, didn’t allow us to pay anything, it was Kurdish hospitality, they said. Only in Erbil, where they took us to Dream City, the most modern part of the town with skyscrapers and even private imitation of the White House, we could finally pay for our beers, as Muslim custom didn’t allow them to do it.

Ankawa district of Erbil (or Hawler in Kurdish) is mostly populated by Assyirians who adhere to the Catholic Church. We passed a store selling Christmas decoration and many alcohol shops there. During the dinner in the cosy Syrian restaurant we talked to a man with a scorpion tattoo sitting at the next table. Then he and his friends generously payed for our food. It happened like this so many times! ‘Welcome to Iraq!’ they said, as they were from Baghdad.

In the middle of Erbil, very center of a spider city if you look at the map, is the hill with an ancient citadel. Most of the time I spent wandering the small streets and bazaars around it, stopping for tea, chatting and reading.

Usually there was a street all along packed with the same goods or offering the same service: bicycle repair street, carpet street, chicken slaughter street, traditional Kurdish clothes street, money street … The streets got really crowded in the evening!

I had fun with street photography as people were very eager to cooperate. Only on the money street it was delicate; they wanted to know if I was a journalist.

They keep huge piles of money on the small stalls there and a big crowd of men was shouting in front of the dollar stock market, everybody taking 100 $ notes from their pockets. Cash is a big thing in Iraq as most of the transactions are still made that way and black market flourishes in spite of central bank trying to eliminate widespread use of dollar (1 $ is officially around 1300 Iraqi dinars, but 1600 on the street). We were not able to withdraw dollars from atms.

Alex couldn’t resist to try on traditional Kurdish costume many men, young and old, were wearing on the street. He was surprised that it is actually made of two pieces and very comfortable. He needs to choose yet a band to wrap around his waist to be complete!

Road towards Sulaymaniyah (Slemani) was wonderful and despite many trucks and petrol cisterns headed towards Iranian border we had enjoyable two-days ride. I turned over 4000 km!

In Slemani we visited Amna Soraka, Red prison, known also as the world’s most depressing museum. Walking along the walls covered with portraits of killed Kurdish soldiers and through the broken mirror hall I started to understand cruel recent history of the area and unhuman crimes of Sadam Husein’s regime.

There is a room in a memory of Kurdish refugees, a room of Halabja genocidal massacre, a room of land mines. On the white paper coins of ISIS currency are presented next to their horrible dagger. Suddenly their despicable murders became very real and close. As they wouldn’t belong into museum, because they have not been part of history yet.

In the walls of the buildings bullet holes were still visible from the time when Peshmerga attacked and finally took them over. In the Red prison political prisoners, men and women, had been kept and tortured.

Every place in Slemani had a birdcage with a singing bird. I felt a bit as one of them since I got ill and couldn’t cycle to Iran together with Alex. But drinking cay at the main square amidst hundreds of men or observing the sunset from hotel’s terrace my strength was returning. I got a new book, inevitable in the capital of litarature. And I learnt about local cinema, these are few films to watch: Turtles can fly, Bekas, Yol. Last one was written by Yılmaz Güney when he was in prison. His friend and assistant Şerif Gören directed it. After Güney escaped from prison, he edited the film and won Palme d’Or at Cannes film festival in 1982!

I met Areen and Sawen, students of political science, in cinema caffee. Talking to two modern girls in black leather costumes, with piercings, hair uncovered, speaking English fluently, significantly changed my perspective about the whole Iraq. I felt their rebellion power while explaining to me how they fight their ideas during the lessons or with religious parents, what music they listen and future they dream about.

Areen recalled her early memories, seeing American tanks in the bazaar and how she wanted to climb them, or looking at the faces of her parents while they were watching the hanging of Sadam Husein on TV in 2006. We talked about contemporary poetry and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, whose books I saw in the bookstore, too.

In the night I was walking the streets and felt mad about only men sitting around, playing domino and waisting their time. Will they ever truely understand emancipated women and let them live equally and free?

I saw colourful birds and even squirrels in the cages. There was a big hawk and a monkey playing with a cigarette. I had a sudden impulse to open all the cages and see what happens.

Karl May, German writer, wrote an adventure book Through the wild Kurdistan in 1892, soon after he was released from prison. He had never visited the region, it was just his wild imagination combined with the facts from the books and maps. My travelogue about Kurdistan might be only my imagination too, at the end it is upon you to decide what to believe.

I want to express gratitude to all the incredible people I’ve met on the road. You’ve made my travel memorable and beautiful, thank you.

My bike was loaded with pomegranates I got as a gift in the last uphill and I could feel tears in my eyes, as always when leaving the country. In front of the border crossing to Iran I ate kebabs in the dark cantine full of truck drivers. It was day 30, the last day of my visa. I found it amusing when for the last time they told me lunch is free for me, welcome to Kurdistan!