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.....

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