Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

9 Dec 2012

Cycling across Iraq

Posted by Will

Recently, I zig-zagged 10 days and 700km across the north of Iraq. I hadn’t intended to zig-zag but I didn’t have a map. Not having a map meant relying on dreadful signposting and equally dreadful advice from locals. It really is quite outstanding how someone will insist that a nearby city is left when in fact it is to the right. Asking directions from a group doesn’t yield a more accurate answer either. Instead it provokes a heated discussion amongst the members of the group. But I couldn’t stay frustrated for long because the people in Iraqi Kurdistan were by far the most hospitable of my journey so far. In fact, I will be deeply surprised if I ever visit a more hospitable country in my life.

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The first point to make is that I visited the Kurdish region of Iraq, not the Arab part. No visa is available for the latter and even if it was I’d be mad to make a visit. The army, police, locals and foreigners told me countless times via a single finger across the throat that the Arab part of Iraq remains extremely dangerous. Kidnapping and roadside bombs are the main concern. I met many people who had lived in the big Arab cities Baghdad and Mosul before the war and are now too scared to go back because they are Kurdish and therefore different.

On the other hand the Kurdish region is almost completely safe. It has its own government, resources and language. Also, Arab Iraqis need a visa to enter. Apart from one incident I felt just as secure in Iraqi Kurdistan as in any other country I’ve travelled through. There is a large military presence with checkpoints outside every reasonably-sized city but there is never any hassle. Importantly for me, the Kurdish people here love Britain and the West. In 2003, the invading forces toppled Saddam Hussein who had long persecuted the Kurds and who notoriously used nerve gas on the Kurdish city of Halabja killing thousands. The West helped establish Iraqi Kurdistan; finally a country that the Kurds could call their own. I’m sure all this contributed to the welcome I received.

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What a fine welcome it was! I spent every night except one in a family home where every time an enormous meal was produced in the evening. In Kurdish families, a mat is laid out on the floor, everyone sits around the edge, and then bowl after bowl filled with rice, stews, salads, dumplings and blankets of thin bread are laid down until there’s no space left on the mat. Breakfast always appeared in the morning too: bread, cheese, jam, omelette and a very sugary tea. More food was always piled onto my plate and if anything ever had to be split I was always given the bigger half. I had not eaten so well since my time working at the hostel in Zakopane.

I really love the way Kurdish people do things – their customs. Everything is done on the floor: eating, sleeping, watching TV, talking, praying. You don’t often see tables, chairs and sofas in Kurdish homes. In fact, there isn’t much furniture at all. Just a mass of comfy cushions and mats on which all the functions of daily life are performed. Kurdish clothes look smart but are also incredibly comfortable. I know because I tried on a 60-year-old man’s garments (leaving him in a rather revealing vest and shorts). The shirt and trousers are baggy giving plenty of space to move around and the cloth wrapped around the head is cosy. Family is very important and it is commonplace for each relative to have keys for everyone else’s house. Family members stroll in and out of each other’s houses unannounced, invite themselves to dinner, sleepover because they can’t be bothered to get up and always borrow each other’s cars without asking (much to the fury of one of my hosts). Some things I have become used to but still don’t find practical (I am thinking mainly of squat toilets). But this is a small price to pay for how friendly everyone is.

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The willingness to invite me to stay, or invite me for a meal, or for a glass of tea has surpassed everywhere else. At most checkpoints the police would force me into their office, not to question me, but to have tea and often to have lunch. It rained for a few days which would have been grim had it not been for all the home-owners, shopkeepers, restauranteurs and policemen who invited me in out of the cold. I must give particular thanks to an English-speaking man named Hashar who met me on my first day in Iraq. He had me to stay for two nights and then arranged for me to stay with various members of his extended family (Kurdish families are big!) in other cities. And guess how I met Hashar? His cousin worked at one of the first checkpoints I passed through and went out of his way to introduce us.

I could write on and on about the kindness of people here: about the shopkeeper who chased me up a hill to return my forgotten camera, the man who helped me navigate the queues at the border control, the people who leant me their phones so I could call Hashar, the petrol station attendants who shared their lunch, the army translator who bought me an energy drink without me asking and the women who made such wonderful meals. Instead, let me tell you about some of the more weird and wonderful happenings:

- I made a taxi driver friend who took me up to the top of a mountain where his friends were shooting an enormous rifle at glass bottles 100m away.
- The 18 year old owner of a Chevrolet Camaro, a very fast, sporty and expensive car, asked me if I ‘wanted to have a go at driving’.
- While waiting for someone in a small town I was surrounded by about 50 schoolchildren and their teacher. The teacher made each child shake my hand and say ‘Welcome to Kurdistan, how are you today?’. This took about half an hour.

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The hospitality in Iraq was great but the cycling wasn’t fun at all. Oil tankers thunder continuously down the thin roads giving little room or patience to bottom-of-the-food-chain cyclists. They belch out thick, black fumes, as do regular vehicles, meaning that all cities and most towns are horrendously smoggy. It is the first time I have found it difficult to breathe while cycling. The sides of most roads are browny black with oil residue which becomes sticky and sludgy in the rain. Oil rules in Iraq – it is abundant, cheap and makes the country rich. Where oil rules the cyclist suffers.

Tourists are scarce in Iraq Kurdistan. People do not realize there are two Iraqs: one is safe, one is very dangerous. The one I went to provides a benchmark for hospitality that every country can aspire to. Bet you didn’t expect that. I certainly didn’t.

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9 Comments already on “Cycling across Iraq”
  1. 1:28 pmpermalink
    09 Dec 2012

    Fran

    Wow! What an uplifting report and, indeed, most unexpected. It just shows how wrong one’s preconceptions can be.
    Great to hear news of you via M&G too. Keep safe and happy pedalling!
    Love Fran xx

  2. 2:40 pmpermalink
    09 Dec 2012

    Mumsy

    Not sure that I can match that sort of feast but great to know you are eating so well.
    XX

  3. 3:53 pmpermalink
    09 Dec 2012

    Mark E. Martin

    Excellent post! Here in the US we get a rather skewed view of things. Thanks for writing about the Kurdish Iraq. It certainly surprised me to read of the welcoming and helpful folk of that country.

    It also sounds like you’re getting an education in oil economies. Particularly the bit about the sludge along the roadways and the smog. I can only imagine the impact that has on not only the environment but the health of the people.

    Enjoy your ride!

  4. 5:58 pmpermalink
    09 Dec 2012

    Peter Rowland

    What a brilliant blog. Made me completely revise my opinion about an entire country. Deserves to be widely read. I’ll certainly use this in school where I teach.

    Congratulations and thanks. Good luck on the rest of your travels and stay safe

  5. 1:36 pmpermalink
    10 Dec 2012

    James Down

    Great to hear about Will. What a journey you are on. You will not forget your experiences and will never be short of some kind of story for one and all! Take care and stay safe.

    James Down

  6. 10:03 pmpermalink
    12 Dec 2012

    Belinda Ball

    Hey Will,

    Hope you’re doing well, havent see you in ages!

    Toby and I have been reading your blog on and off, its so interesting to see all that you’ve been doing! We were a bit concerned at your last post.. but good to see that the next country you visited has looked after you well! Must be awesome to meet so many people and sample bits of their culture. Good luck for the next bit.. wonder where you’ll spend Christmas? xxx

  7. 9:51 ampermalink
    01 Jan 2013

    Julian Bloomer

    Hi Will,

    Just came across your website here in Asia as I’m planning routes back to Europe – interesting posts about Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan…

    Enjoy Iran.

    Happy New Year,

    Julian

  8. 9:55 ampermalink
    01 Jan 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    HAPPY NEW YEAR WILL! – Carry on cycling. XXXX

  9. 10:13 pmpermalink
    06 Jan 2013

    osama zebari

    hello whats up brother Will . its me camaro guy :D enjoy the rest ,hope your good . see ya