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.
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.
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”
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!
Author - David Perkins
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