Welcome to Kurdistan

The lure of the unknown has reached us and we are excited to discover the country we know mainly from negative media reports. Hello Iraq, hello autonomous region of Kurdistan.


The joy of crossing the border is great, not only on our part. We are greeted joyfully, honked at and a friendly "Welcome to Kurdistan" accompanies us from now on along the route. We immediately feel welcome, although the route is not very inviting. A dusty, wide, boring, busy road leads to Zakho, the first bigger town after the border and our night's lodging. As we have done many times before, we have to smile at the glamorous hotel names. It is not as noble as the name "Noble Hotel" suggests, but it is absolutely sufficient for our needs. Besides, we are already learning that the prices are quite negotiable (without great negotiating skills). The price can be halved without any problems, so that price and performance match.

We leave Zakho already the next morning because we want to continue to Duhok to our Warmshower host Benni. The drive is repeatedly interrupted by interested drivers who stop us for a chat and/or a selfie. It is not unusual for us to be able to hold conversations in German, as they are Kurds visiting their homeland, since an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million people of Kurdish descent live in Germany. One man even shows us a photo of himself with two cyclists we met in Greece a few months ago, what a coincidence. Shortly before we arrive at Benni's, we treat our steel bikes to a wellness programme at the car wash, so that we arrive at Benni's with freshly polished bikes. In the already published article you can read why we spend 4 nights at Benni's instead of the planned 2.

We leave Duhok, Benni and his super project behind us and pedal on. The landscape is not very spectacular, but culturally it is all the more varied. A few kilometres outside the city we pass a refugee camp for the first time, in this case a Yazidi one. Unlike the Syrian refugee camps, these are not supported by international aid agencies, as they are internally displaced persons. Once again we realise how privileged we are. A little later, another building catches our attention, a church. Alqosh is a Christian settlement, because Christians also belong to a minority that has found a home in Kurdistan. A stroke of luck for us, because despite Ramadan this means open restaurants and a substantial lunch before we drive up to the Rabban Hormizd monastery. This is built on a slope. We leave the bikes at the entrance control and want to walk up. But we are not permitted to do so. For some inexplicable reason this is not allowed, you have to go up by car. So we wait for some time at the entrance without knowing exactly how to proceed, until a nice gentleman takes pity on us and drives us up. Once inside the monastery, we are allowed to look around on our own. No information, but a beautiful view and underground passages were worth the visit. We are even allowed to walk down on our own...

We continue literally over hill and dale until white buildings with a peak catch our eye. From this we can conclude that we have now arrived in the Yazidi area. The main settlement area of the Yazidis is actually in the Sinjar region, but during the Iraqi crisis in 2014 many of them fled to Kurdistan. The very next day we will learn a lot more about this culture, as we pedal up the mountain to Lalish, the holiest place of the Yazidis. The attentive blog reader will now be puzzled, haven't I already read something about it? Exactly, there is already a small article online about it, because this visit will remain in our best memories.

The next few days we fight our way up and down the mountains through beautiful landscapes on a moderately busy road. Spring has arrived, the flowers are blooming and the trees are green. At regular intervals we pass the checkpoints of the Peshmerga, where a short chat and sometimes a selfie is desired. If there are problems in the region, we would be stopped at these points and sections of the road would be closed, which was never the case while we were there. The Peshmerga is the autonomous region of Kurdistan's own military unit.

One evening, Andre and his family invite us to spend the night and the next morning we witness a little family drama. The beloved canary, which was still sitting on Beni's shoulders the night before, has died overnight, which leads to some tears among the children. Grateful for the hospitality, we say goodbye to the family and speed on, it's really fun.

But one evening, as we have pitched the tent on a meadow between two villages, our peaceful dinner is abruptly interrupted. About 2.5km away in the mountains we observe bomb impacts. Over a period of about 1-2 hours, fighter planes fly overhead and drop bombs that we see, hear and also feel. Although we know that such attacks by Turkey on the PKK occur regularly in this region and that we are outside the danger zone, we have a queasy feeling. We pay a visit to the doormen of the company next door, information from the locals is always best. Laughing, they invite us for Çay and assure us that it is nothing to worry about. Happens regularly, I suppose. Nevertheless, we are glad when the fighter planes fall silent and it becomes quiet again. This experience gives us something to talk about for the next few days. We still feel safe in the country, but it has also brought home to us the sad reality. These conflicts are red-hot and just as real as all the friendly encounters we have every day.

The further south, the more impressive the region becomes. In the distance, snowy mountain peaks rise into the sky, rivers rush down valleys, simple villages line the roadside and flowers are splashes of colour in the varied landscape. The weather couldn't be better, so cycling is a great pleasure. There are hardly any street dogs left, but more and more street cows, as we call them. In the villages, in garages, everywhere they can be seen eating the rubbish, but they are much more peaceful than the dogs, which is fine with us. We diligently collect altitude metres as we ride up sweaty gorges. One of them is the Ravanduz Gorge near Soran, where we take a day's break.

At this point, the country's electricity supply should be mentioned. Several times a day, the power goes out and generators, which can be seen everywhere, take over the supply. Whether it is due to rapid growth or the now very strong generators lobby that not much has changed for years, remains to be seen.

Back on the saddles, we leave the narrow mountain valleys and cover over 100km in one day for the second time on our journey. The prospect of a swim in Lake Dukan is enough motivation, and indeed we find a promising spot right on the shore. After a refreshing bath and a delicious dinner, we disappear into the tent, but have to crawl out again twice in the middle of the night because people come by and want to have a chat. Somehow you can't be angry, even though you would like to sleep...

The kilometres in our legs become noticeable the next day. As a welcome change, we meet other travellers for the first time in Iraq. In the middle of nowhere we have a chat with a German couple who are on the road with their off-roader. It becomes increasingly difficult to stock up on enough food for several days and once again a mountain range rears up in front of us, which we have to overcome. After some back and forth we decide to hitchhike. No problem in Iraq. Without exaggeration, 90% of the cars are pickups and although the loading areas are packed, we can always find a place for our bikes and baggage. The two gentlemen are happy about the company, load everything quickly onto the car and then we chug comfortably up the mountain. During the drive we are allowed to taste Revas. This is a wild vegetable that is native to the Kurdish mountains and tastes like rhubarb. Translated, it is also called wart rhubarb, which we find very appropriate given its appearance. So we nibble on the stalks with relish, enjoy the beautiful sights and, in view of the long and extremely steep route, are glad to be sitting in the car.

The next destination is Sulaymaniyah, one of the largest and most modern cities in the autonomous region of Kurdistan. The way there leads along a boring motorway and since we have had the pleasure of hitchhiking, we again use this option for the section. In Sulaymaniyah we find the only hostel in Iraq, the Dolphin Hostel. We immerse ourselves in the city life, enjoy delicious coffee, celebrate Beni's birthday, marvel at the lively market hustle and bustle, visit the museum where we read about the atrocities committed against the Kurds and waste many nerve-racking hours getting money.

After four days we leave the city and again follow a tedious and busy road towards the border. The highlight of the day is Toon, a Belgian cycle traveller we meet. He is on the same route and so the three of us cycle on. Unfortunately, this is the only highlight of the day. What follows is a tiresome flat tyre, a mud fight and a night with gastrointestinal problems for Sara, so that the next morning she lacks the energy to sit on the bike, especially as there are again many metres of altitude to climb. So we already part ways again and once more take advantage of the helpfulness of the Iraqis. Already the first car stops and takes us to the last town before the border. The weather reflects our mood, it is pouring with rain. Our driver is a fish seller and while he sells his fresh fish, he takes care of our well-being. We are super grateful, because Beni's health now also leaves a lot to be desired. Finally, we pitch our tent in the park next to the kebab stand and spend the day sleeping and recovering. In between, we have a visit from interested teenagers who take a test ride on our bikes and have lots of questions, otherwise we are just happy to have a waterproof tent and not have to take another step for today.

The next border is within reach and we really hope to have our strength back the next day to start in Iran with full vigour. Unfortunately, things turned out a little differently, but that's for another time.