Northern Iraq – There And Back Again

Nomads2.jpgThe “Hamilton route”, named after the New Zealand engineer who designed it, links both Iraq and Iran through astonishing mountain landscapes, deep in the heart of Kurdistan.

…At least that’s what my friends in Dohuk have assured me. Even if it were not like that, I’d much rather take this journey than head back to cross again at the nasty Turkish border at Silopi, on my way to Iran.

The mini-bus to Akra leaves Dohuk bus station, fully packed, at 9 am. It’s a relatively safe trip, as I won’t have to leave the Kurdish region. But east of Akra, public transportation will be scarce, so I’ll need to hire a driver or try hitching.


Dohuk, also called “The Kurdish Manhattan” for the great profit it makes from petrol smuggling, is already busy with traffic at this time, but once outside the city everything quietens down, as we take the straight road east across the Sheikhan region. The familiar image of people crouching down under the sun, alongside the road, gives way to one of massive queues of cars, waiting for their fuel tanks to be filled at a rusty gas pump; this in a country that owns some of the largest oil reserves in the world.


We leave the conical Yezidi shrines of the Sheikhan region behind and continue east, eventually reaching the dusty village of Akra. I’m impressed by the huge fortress built by Saddam Hussein. Strategically placed to dominate and control the area, this solid, architectural monster needs no reconstruction work, which is more than can be said for the sorry village. The bus terminates here, and I’m informed by a local guy that I’ll need to wait for at least three hours for the next minibus bound for Rawanduz. Whether this is true or not I never find out, as he immediately phones his cousin, Abdullah, who arrives 5 minutes later in a handsome pick up. I negotiate a price of 30Euros. Not a bad deal, considering that it’ll take him more than 7 hours to get to the border and back. Besides, and what is more important for me, I’ll hopefully get to Piranshar on the Iranian side during daylight, and from there to continue to Mahabad.


Abdullah, smartly dressed with his Shalwar (the traditional, Kurdish, baggy trousers) tells me that he made the same journey on foot during his peshmerga days: 10 days it took, to reach the border with Iran, during Saddam’s time. It’s obvious that he wants his rematch now, as he is driving fast as hell, except on the occasions when we see the number of smashed cars on both sides of the road, probably driven by other “vengeful” drivers. He still has time to point somewhere in the mountains from where the PKK presumably runs their operations deep into the Hakkari area. I thought I was well travelled, accustomed therefore to this kind of suicidal driving, but I simply couldn’t help yelling when we overtook a rusty truck at the brow of a hill; there was no human way to know the road ahead was clear. “Inshallah” says Abdullah humorously, just Allah’s will. – So that was the secret.


To counter the speedy driving, we have to endure numerous Peshmerga checkpoints. At the entrance and exit of every single village, or just in the middle of nowhere, our Toyota is stopped. As we drive east traffic gets scarcer, so these Kurdish soldiers have two ways to kill the boredom: sleeping under a shady tree, or making me unpack the full contents of my backpack. Occasionally, I’m asked for money to get my passport back, but luckily enough, I still have with me a card from one top dog that I interviewed in Dohuk two days ago. I had deliberately borrowed it for these occasions. It works as follows: when they ask for money, I tell them I don’t understand what they’re saying, but that I have this friend at the Governorate of Dohuk who could help translating. I would get my passport back immediately. No need to pay for it. “A very good card this one,” says Abdullah laughing, once back in the car. “Very good indeed”.


After watching the Zagros range getting ever closer as we drive east, we finally reach its base. We cross a remarkable iron bridge and the road instantly takes us to a gorgeous place, crowned by a fantastic waterfall named Beijal. This is a local tourist spot; not only for Kurds, but Arabs too, as such water opulence is a rare spectacle in this dry and barren part of the world. A cafe with a big covered terrace hosts dozens of families, drinking Pepsi or tea under the shade. Nearby, boys in their swimming trunks and girls wearing a scarf swim and laugh next to each other, while some couples queue to get a “honeymoon picture” at a particular spot just by the waterfall. The place really is full of charm, thanks to its glorious waterfall, which brings so much life to the area, as well as joy for the people in a country that’s suffering so much.


Leaving Beijal behind us, the road winds across the narrow canyon of Ali Beg – 20kms, flanked by 500m cliffs; another dramatic sight that I’ll never forget. “Hosha” (wonderful) I say to Abdullah, grateful for bringing me here. He nods.

After Beijal, we take a wrong turning and head north instead of east for several kilometres along a dust road, but Abdullah realises the error before we get hopelessly lost. I don’t care that much because wherever I look the mountain scenery is overwhelming. We stop at one of the marvellous springs in the area before we face the last stage of our journey.

The steep road and the high peaks surrounding us indicate that we are close to the border, but it’s the international landmine warning signs that give confirmation. The Iran-Iraq war, the first and second Gulf wars, two decades of unrest, and even WWII, have turned this landscape into one of the world’s most heavily mined areas. It’s not by chance that shepherds here, or in Afghanistan, always walk behind their flocks. Actually, we’ve seen plenty of humble black tents that identify their owners as Kurdish nomads, and it’s they who prove best how arbitrary borders tend to be, especially in this part of the world: Two countries, Iraq and Iran, but the same ethnic group of people on both sides; exactly what I thought three weeks ago when I crossed the Turkish-Iraqi border at Silopi, or what I’ll feel on the way back from Iran to Turkey. But now, at this border post, controlled by the Peshmerga, I get to hate these stupid man-made lines more than ever – I cannot cross.


A middle aged Kurdish soldier explains to me in Italian that I need some kind of “safe-conduct” document, that I was supposed to have acquired in Dohuk, to allow me cross the border. I have to go back to Dohuk, he says, and get the paper.

“Are you telling me that I have to go all the way back after a 7 hour drive and come again tomorrow?” I ask him, totally crossed.
“Mi dispiace” (I’m sorry) he answers.
Plan B: I try a bribe.
Plan C: I try again with my “magic” card.
“Right!” he says, “that’s the man who’ll issue you the letter”
Jomeini frowns at me from a massive mural on the other side of the border, and I pointlessly do the same at the mustachioed, Italian-speaking Peshmerga.

Ataturk also looks irate, back in Silopi the following day, but not as irate as me. It will finally take me three more days to get to Mahabad on the Iranian side – three border posts, and just to reach the same people. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I took the trip across the Hamilton Route, even if I did have to do it twice.

Author – Karlos Zurutuza

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