“It’s perfectly safe”. With this final reassurance (from a reliable source) ringing in our ears, we set off on our (supposedly) 7 ½ hour journey to Iraq. Thirteen hours later, I flopped down on my hotel bed in Zhako and fell into a blissful slumber. This is the story of those thirteen hours.
We set off in good spirits from Van, in southeast Turkey, just before midday after waiting for our American friend, Charlotte, to arrive from the airport. To be fair, she had been traveling since 2 am that morning from Syria and did very well to get there in time. Water bottles and boiled sweets packed, we climbed into the cab with our driver, Abbas, and were off!
Our route was going to take us through some of the most amazing scenery in the region: A gentle climb through the mountains, winding southwards towards Hakkari. Then through the towns of Sirnak, Cizre and Silopi, crossing the border five clicks south of there.
The journey started well enough; a stop for some lunch and to refuel with cheap, Iranian-smuggled petrol, and then we were on our way up into the mountains. Military checkpoints were numerous but many of them were deserted and we were just waved through those that weren’t. This just lulled us into a false sense of security, and a few hours later, as we were cruising through the mountain roads, we were finally stopped. Passports handed over to the teenager with a gun; we were left in the car for ten minutes to ponder over how the guards would treat us. Not satisfied, the young gentleman invited us into the guardroom for chai and a chat.
What exactly were two Brits and a Yank doing in that part of the world? Where were we going? What did we all do for a living? What is the meaning of life? The usual questions. Not satisfied (again), a gentleman in civilian clothes materialized and asked if any of us “spreche Deutsche”. In my best schoolboy-German, I explained all over again to Mr. Gestapo of the Turkish Secret Police and he seemed, more or less, satisfied.
This was to be the first of six checkpoints in total, over the next five hours, that we were asked to step out of the car and then interrogated. Every time we said the same things and were sent on our way after yet another delay. These checkpoints easily added another two hours to our journey.
Another checkpoint incident worth mentioning was the one where a Frankie Detorrie lookalike interviewed us. As we were unable to communicate with the officer in charge, an English-speaking squaddie was wheeled out. This young lad (a conscript from Istanbul who really didn’t want to be in this part of the country) not only spoke English but had a repertoire of crap jokes as well! Again, we were sent on our way. This time, with a warning to watch out for the five thousand pairs of PKK eyes watching us in the mountains!
As we climbed through the mountain roads, we encountered another obstacle to our progress – a new road surface. Tarmac is a funny substance. If it’s too cold, it can’t be laid. If it’s too hot, it doesn’t set, and we must have driven at about 10 miles-an-hour, for a good couple of hours, through a river of black gloop; miles upon miles of molasses being spread over the road by young, sweaty conscripts. Charlotte found this more appealing than Lee or myself!!
As the mountainous countryside rolled by, we occasionally spotted bands of AK47-wielding, baggy-trousered chaps, wandering around with apparent impunity. We learned that these guys are Kurdish village guards (Jesh), employed by the Turkish military to root out PKK guerrillas and persuade villagers not to harbour “undesirables”. Nice fellows. Lee was keen to see if he could stop and talk to some of them, but Abbas was concerned about how long the journey was taking and so we drove on.
The sun began to set around 19:30, and a fabulous, full moon rose in the southwest sky, as we climbed higher into the mountains. Checkpoint after checkpoint went by and we were looking at our watches and cursing our “contact’s” concept of 7 ½ hours. We were told that it was safe enough in Northern Iraq but, still, we didn’t want to be travelling at night if we could help it. We eventually popped out of the southern end of the mountains at the town of Sirnak and started to pick up a bit of speed on the gradually improving roads; furthermore, we’d encountered our last military checkpoint.
We passed through Sirnak and on into Cizre. The sky was black, the moon full and we still had a good couple of hours before we’d be at the border; the time was 10pm. Just outside of Silopi, we stopped for petrol – the fully-taxed, legal, expensive kind. Abbas decided that his miscalculations over the distance to the border were beginning to cost him, and said he wasn’t prepared to take us any further unless we paid him another 50YTL. We weren’t too surprised that things had come to this, so we happily agreed on the extra fee climbed back into the car for the final race to the border.
With the full moon illuminating the Tigris River to our right, we sped along the highway towards Silopi and the border. As we approached the border crossing, we thought we were in for a long wait – hundreds, if not thousands, of petrol tankers and cargo trucks appeared to be queuing to cross the border. But we realised soon enough they were all parked up, as Abbas just drove down the line and straight to the border gates. Still, I have never seen so many petrol tankers in one place before. The combination of diesel, dust, sweat and $hit makes this a place not to stay the night in. As Charlotte was to observe, in the light of day, on our return, it’s a “Mad Max town”
At pretty much midnight on the dot, Abbas scribbled down his mobile phone number, lest we have any problems with the crossing; shook our hands, kissed us on the cheeks and left us to complete the final leg of our long day’s journey. We took our bags and strolled over to a nearby official-looking building on the Turkish side of no-mans-land and were promptly invited to sit down outside for a cup of chai with the Turkish border guards. Shortly, two young lads whisked us, along with our bags and our passports, through a myriad of bureaucracy and red tape. Border crossing can be confusing places, as you wander from one office to the next, looking for the correct place to get your exit stamp followed by your new entry stamp (and visa if applicable), but these two guys made the entire process as smooth and painless as we could have hoped. There are numerous people working the border, on both sides, providing this service, but it never became clear if this was compulsory or if one was permitted to make the crossing independently; however, for the final fee of $21USD, you’d have to be constrained by a very tight shoestring budget not to want to take advantage of the service. They process your paperwork, drive you to and from the numerous offices that require something stamping, make photocopies where necessary, and then, if you like, become your taxi to wherever you want to go. The only thing to note is that no one actually tells you any of this; they just pick you up and whisk you through.
So, just before one o’clock in the morning, we arrived at the Iraqi end of no-mans-land and stood catching our breath. Another round of chai was administered and we took a few touristy photos of the border sign “Welcome to Kurdistan of Iraq” while we waited for the final rubber stamps and issue of our visas. Point to note here: if a guy has a pair of handcuffs attached to his belt and looks like he knows what he’s doing, he is probably not a taxi driver (eh, Lee?).
After we were issued with our paper visas (They don’t stamp your passport, in case of complications with the Turkish officials when you return), we piled into the taxi and entered Iraq proper. A twenty-foot Kurdish flag, draped from a high archway, welcomed us into this land of conflict, hope and aspirations, and twenty minutes later our taxi driver was hammering on the door of a hotel. Half an hour later still, we crashed out in our rooms, hot, grimy and exhausted. It was a long old journey but looking back – what a day!
Photography by Lee Ridley