Ok, this is turning more into a travel journal than a blog, hope you enjoy reading anyway! Here`s Albert`s part........ en español.

07 September 2012


Kurdistan, the autonomous region of Iraq..

....a relatively safe place and open for tourists.  We had heard of several travelers who cycled through Kurdistan and got curious.  Finally, after some research, we decided to change our route.  Instead of crossing the high plateau and mountains in the East of Turkey, that are still covered by snow, we travel through Kurdistan.  A good choice, indeed!  Though initially not so obvious..  For six loooong kilometers, trucks are lined up from the border.  The air (..is there any air?) is full of dust.  The smell of gasoline everywhere.  And more trucks.  Crazy drivers on bumpy roads that we literally surf on, trying hard not to miss the wave, but at the same time we have to make way when a car comes too close. Occasionally, we disappear in black smoke.  The sun is burning on our skin and on the asphalt -or whatever it is- the black stuff sometimes gets very soft and sticky...  why so crazy???  
Men in uniforms who are standing by the road wave at us, wanting our attention.  We don't know if they want to just chat or if we really should obey when they call us over.  It is hard enough to concentrate on the traffic and the surface of the raod!!  But we find out soon: if they check out passports, it is pure curiosity, they want to chat, that's all. 
Just after Zakho, there is a sign by a three lane road saying: Happy Park.  And a Dutch mill.  What an amusing amusement park, ha!  Just who'd have such ideas, or rather: why??, I wonder.

Zakho is a bustling city, 15km from the border.  We ride into town in the hope of changing money and then have lunch.  But the banks don't exchage any money (after all, they are just banks).  We ask a police man in the street where we can change money.  He looks confused.  He's thinking, thinking, thinking... the owner from the shop behind him comes and says he can change dollars.  Ah! The police man's face brightens up: Problem solved!

We go to the bazaar.  Many of the women are dressed in long, black dresses with bright colorful patterns.  We obviously stand out against the crowd and people point at us and giggle.  Most of them don't seem to speak any English but they are very curious and want to convese anyhow.  
Dubious looking men are sitting behind tiny booths with drawers full of banknotes.  Ah!  The "real" money changers!  They are waving with big bundles of notes.  Some of them are leaning on their booths and sleeping.

We ask for a place to eat.  "Burger King!" somebody says (-whenever we stop and ask one person for something, there are at least 20 around us within seconds).   No, no!  No Burger King, we try to explain... and finally find a small local restaurant, that serves us a bean stew, aromatic rice, salad and an endless amount of home-made bread.  The bottom half of my glass is filled with sugar.  There is a bit of tea on top.  And everything is super delicious, so much better than Burger Kindg!!  (All this for a bit more than a Euro).

Albert buys himself a juice from one of the shops that are nicely and misleadingly decorated with fruits... the flavor is as artificial as some of the plastic fruits, I guess.  ; P

We are superstars on bicycles.  At least a million people stop us on the road and take photos of us.  Even the police/Army.  If you ever intend to smuggle anything through Kurdistan, simply ask two foreign cyclists to ride ahead of you.  The check points will be busy for at least 15min, nobody will care about anybody or anything but the cyclists.  It's a good plan..

Kurdish people might be (what am I saying.. they must be!) the most hospitable people on earth.  We rarely get to spend any money, because people invite us all the time.  Some passerbys would just draw a note from their wallet and pay when we are buying ice-cream.  Or the shop owner would insist to invite us.  We have eaten in restaurants where other people who we had not even talked to (!) would cover our bills without letting us know.  But it is not only like this with money.  As I have mentioned before, people pull over their cars all the time, just to chat for a bit, take a picture etc. If they speak English, their second question (following the first one: where are we from?) would always be: Do you need any help with anything?  If they don't speak any English, they would often call somebody who then would translate or offer his help.  Sometimes even his/her number, so if ever we needed any kind of help later on, we could call. 

This gentleman (note the elegance of his pose!) helped us out on a Friday when all the shops were closed and we were stranded without any food.  First he offered to kill and grill one of his Turkeys... then he called a family member to pick us up and take us to his house.  There was his family with 5 kids and his neighbors with another 5 kids.  We sat amidst those kids in an kindergarden atmosphere and were offered -once again- delicious food... simple, but delicious.  Rice, chicken (or was it Turkey after all?), the broth and fat of it on top. 

The father with his kids... so lovely.


The trick is: When you pitch your tent in the afternoon, immediately start cooking.  It is the only convincing argument that land-owners would accept why you wouldn't want to pack everything again and go to their house.   The rice is already cooking!

It is not that we don't like to invited, of course.  In the contrary, having the opportunity to actually enter local people's houses and lives is one of the most interesting experiences of traveling.  But when everything is just set up and we are already in the "end of the day-relaxing mode", we usually don't feel like packing everything again and to load the heavy bikes on a pick up car etc.   Luckily, this man understands, after half an hour of "talk" in only body language.  But we (happily) (have to) accept a breakfast in the morning and he comes, just as had said, at 8 in the morning with bread, yoghurt, tea and sugar.

Some people have breakfast at Tiffany's.  Some have it in the green countryside (I don't mean to compete, really, but we certainly have the better life!!).  In return, we help the family planting water melon plants. 

This girl speaks English amazingly well.  As soon as she and I are alone, she asks me:"Love marriage??"   I don't get it at first, but then I nod.  She has a big smile in her face.  I ask her if she has a boyfriend.   In a low voice, she explains that she is going to have her first date in a few days with a boy she has never seen before.  One day, he dialed the wrong number and since then they sometimes talk on the phone.  Her two mothers and father don't know about it, she says she is a little afraid.  Also to meet him.  She tells me more about him.  I am surprised about her sudden openness.. and love being a woman.  This woman-woman connection is, I find, very nice about traveling in rather traditional countries.

Sometimes, when we meet people who speak English, they ask us where we are from.. and after we clear up our nationalities and origin and where we live etc. they tell us they are from Sweden.  Or England.  Or USA.  But their looks are clearly Iraqi.   At first we think they are kidding but they are not.  Finally, we find out that they have lived in those countries for one, two or more years.  Almost any person we meet has some kind of link to Europe or the US.  Most of them have at least one family member that lives abroad.  In Akre, me meet an Iraqi man who speaks English and German perfectly.  He helps us getting around in town and we end up having lunch with him.  His story is that he had been living abroad for many years, working for the UN, but then was forced to come back to Iraq under Saddam Hussein's regime, threatened that if he didn't, they would capture and take the life of his mother.  When he arrived in Bagdad, he was arrested, accused for being a spy.  He finally ended up in prison for almost a year when he refused to go to war...


In Duhok, another bustling, busy city, we stopped for lunch.  Ooohh, a nice and exotic lunch. A kind of salad bar, where we got to chose different kind of salads (that I have never tasted before.. most of them a little spicy).  The owner of the place is super friendly and although we don't have a common language, we try to communicate about this and that...  The baker gives us two freshly baked breads straight from the oven for free, I almost burn myself.  I watch some kids in the streets making a bit of money by cleaning peoples' shoes, creating a contrast to the big, shiny cars parked right next to them.  There must be not only Muslim people in this town, I'm thinking, since we are sitting right next to an official liquor shop.  I was just stuffing something inside my bag when I hear a voice in a super American accent "Hey what's going ooon?"  and another one "what are you doing here?" but strangely, when I turn around, I only see two foreign looking men walking by us, not toward us, and our eyes don't even meet.  All in all, a rather surrealistic atmosphere.  Burger King versus beans stew and sweet tea.

At a check point, we get invited by these people.  There are around six mattresses in this room, the officers were leaning on some pillows, very relaxed and trying to communicate with us, with the big machine guns in the background.  I thought it would be an interesting picture and ask them if I can take one.  Suddenly, they all get up, put their jackets and socks on, position their hats in a certain (the perfect) angle and here they are:

Landscape-wise, Kurdistan is very beautiful.  Mountainous, most of the way.  The further east, the less cars and pollution, and the more untouched is nature.

On our last day in Kurdistan, we get invited by the mayor of Rawanduz, and spend a night in his huge but humble house, situated in a beautiful valley next to a river.  A very interesting man, this mayor - he actually lived in the U.S. for many years with his family where he was a violinist.  Music is his passion, but one day he decided to go back to his country and try to help his people.   In less than a year, several schools have been built in the surrounding villages already, a few more are to be built in the near future and his next project is to enable the city to have an own source of nature (by building dams.... what can I say as a selfish tourist and a freak of nature?  The beautiful valleys, argh........!).  Like most of the people in Iraq, Mr. Sereni basically grew up in wars, one after the other.  When he was a child, his family fled into the mountains where they were living in caves.  Only to fetch water, he sometimes left the cave, because his mother was too scared to leave it.  People were being shot by their own people, there was no differentiation, he said.  Anybody he knows has lost at least one, if not many more family members. 
He also tells us about the PKK to which he refers to as "freedom fighters"; they are the most hospitable people you can imagine, he says, and if we meet any members of the PKK, they will invite us to their homes and treat us well (& several travelers we've met on the road have confirmed this).  In the past, a vast amount of trees have been burnt down in the mountains in order to keep the members of the PKK from hiding.
There are also civil unrests between the two ruling parties in Kurdistan.  
I can feel the attachment that Mr Sereni has to his people and his sincere concern.  At the same time he has the ability to analyse the situation from a rather western point of view.  It was a very interesting conversation we had over dinner, sitting on the ground, eating walnuts dipped in honey with bread and yoghurt and a wonderful cardamon tea.....

20 Juli 2012

old stuff part 4

Big Mama and me...

Kurdish breakfast!

You would wonder why, with a language barrier (at least verbally) we would exchange phone numbers, but we did.  Big Mama gave me an even bigger smile and made signs that she would call me.. - and she did!  Several times even.  They handed the phone to an english speaking person who translated: they wanted to know how we were and if we needed any help, was there anything that they could do for us... and so on!

We were happy to leave the area near the Syrian border, especially after we had heard gun shootings and sounds like bomb explosions until dusk when camping near Killis the following night.  The sounds were far away and we didn't feel threatened, but it surely was discomforting.  We were not sure where the sounds really came from.  Some people thought they were from Aleppo, a big Syrian city less than 100km from Killis.  Others said they were recorded sounds played by the Turkish Army (situated by the border) to frighten the refugees..  This did not really make sense to me at first, especially because 3 days later, a refugee camp was opened in one of the border towns that we had cycled through.  But people were saying that the Turkish government/army was very careful to not let the Kurdish inhabitants of the area help Syrian refugees in order to prevent them to "reunite" with the Syrian Kurdish people.  Also the Kurdish people might gain a good reputation with their unbelievable hospitality.   I don't know if this is true or not but certainly, this is a very complicated issue...

A new discovery: Erasmus students are not only party-people!!!  Two very nice Polish students hosted us in Gaziantep - they have hitch-hiked extensively in South East Anatolia and we learned so much more from them than from any guide book!  I realize again, traveling is the best means of education!!

Ahhh, these two very sweet humble men, how I enjoy thinking back of them.  They are guards of orange tree plantation.  But when they found us pitching up our tent under an orange tree, me with two oranges in my hand, they didn't send us away.  They invited us to sleep in their little room instead where there was actually just enough place for the two of them!  In the morning, they gave us a breakfast, tea and told us to offered us to take as many oranges as we could carry!

Another Kurdish family that hosted us.  Sorry for the not very thoughtful picture, but you can see a little bit how all the girls of the family sat on one side of the room with the eldest in front (actually in the back of the room, away from the door. This is also where the guests sit).   There were 4 men sitting on the other side, and this is one family.
(And what is this man doing on this side?  I don't know)

As usual, we managed to communicate somehow with the little Turkish we spoke and a lot of non-verbal language.  Everything went fine, the girls were giggling most of the time and it was a hihihihahaha thing... until the one who had inveited us asked us about our religion and Albert explained to him:
-his parents were Christians but he himself was not (my eyes widened up: ohhhh, not good, not good... I thought )
-he did not believe in any God (uhhh-hoo..)
-at this moment, he was busy traveling and his bicycle was like a religion (ahhhhh...!!!!!!) 

He gave them a big smile but the smile vanished slowly when he realized that his answers were not exactly what they were hoping to hear......  

..though they did not kick us out, obviously:

But we did have a long conversation (?) about this religion-issue, and finally we settled everything on the level of: We are kind of lost but one day, we will really think about everything (and maybe find the way to God).  Inshallah!   (Albeeeeeeeeeeeeert!!!!!)  I sweated a lot that evening.

Hitch-hiking to Trabzon (at the Caspian Coast)....  a 19h marathon to arrive...

Why?  For this!

Fingerprints.. for the Iranian Visa.  Only Allah knows why mine but not Alberts'......

And back in the South...

(Ever baked a cake with camping gear???)  - Albert's birthday : )

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