The bus to Tehran departs nearly empty, so it’s no surprise that after an hour or so the few passengers are transferred to another bus. Still things seem rather calm and orderly, a last few hours of peace before arriving in the huge metropolis. I am staying at one of the most famous Couchsurfing places in the city. The host has several of hundred positive references of people who have stayed with him. Or rather in the basement of his family house which he has turned into some kind of free hostel. Perfect since I’ll be in the city for a while arranging visa which during this scorching hot month of Ramadan I suspect will take some time. I can stay as long as you want and he doesn’t want anything in return. Plus the host organizes couchsurfing meetings and get-togethers to read Darwin, the Avesta and Farsi poetry, he seems like a great guy.
I don’t actually get to meet up with him a whole lot, but do join in for a few of his meetings and one iftar meal with his family. The rest of my time I mostly hang out with other tourists and the handful of young men who regularly visit the basement. And since the city is huge there’s plenty to do during my three weeks stay in the city.
I visit several museums vilifying the regime’s enemies, praising its heroes and being fairly ambivalent about the country’s past. It becomes clear that museums should have a moral lesson when I conclude that the best designed museum in the city by far is the one dedicated to the Iran Iraq war. I spent other days visiting different neighborhoods and parks, including a surprisingly blatant gay cruising spot and one occasion even attending an overpriced but still fascinating slightly experimental music concert in an art gallery. Still it feels like a difficult city to understand, I know there must be many interesting things going on but I’m too much of an outsider to get caught up in them. So when I have received my Uzbekistan and Afghanistan visa I head out to the bus station and leave town.
My next hosts are almost polar opposites, as close to a yuppie couple as I have met in Iran, living in a big house with a nice yard in the center of Hamadan. It feels like the government control stops as soon as the garden gate is closed and both the husband and the wife disappear to change into more comfortable clothing.
For two evenings we join another young couple, with their child, in a public park to have an iftar meal. The atmosphere is very pleasant, with families gathering now that the heat has died down and people are allowed to eat and drink again. But perhaps I feel a bit too comfortable, I get rightfully reprehended by my host because my shirt is way too short. It should cover my butt, but it only goes a centimeter or two past my the waist of my trousers. No matter how at ease I feel with other people, I should still be aware that the government controls public space.
Hamadan is one of the world’s oldest cities, and there is a huge but fairly empty archaeological site to prove it which oddly enough includes a non-functioning Armenian church with a lot of pictures depicting only Jesus and Maria. But luckily the city has a few of other historic sides including cuniform inscriptions left by Darius and Xerxes and the graves of Ibn Sina and the Esther and Mordechai.
It’s not a good morning, I couldn’t get the air conditioner to work and even the water in the bathroom only ran hot. I can’t wait to get to the next place but I don’t really look forward to another day of hitchhiking. Dragging my bag across town to the highway a young man actually offers me a ride pretty quickly and he speaks English as well, but when he offers to drop me off at the bus station I don’t even argue. I’ve had it with hitchhiking, for now.
In Khoramabad I finally have a couchsurfing host. He takes me to a friend’s house in the country for an early dinner before we go to his house. There another friend drops by. A friendly young man keen on learning English he keeps insisting I go to his house to stay with his wife and daughter. I don’t want to be rude to my host but he won’t take no for an answer and my current host seems rather ambivalent so in the end I give in.
Things turn out pretty good. My new host is new to couchsurfing, he learned English by himself but did not have many opportunities to practice, and what’s more he makes his living selling fruit on the street. His wife, who unfortunately does not speak English and is a hairdresser. A very interesting change from the usual university educated middle class host.
A fellow passenger in the shared taxi to Shushtar has taken it upon himself to help me find a good hotel, I’ve already found a cheap place online however and after some effort I convince him that that’s the place for me. I go for a walk after checking in but it’s so hot my eyeballs hurt from the heat so I retreat to my hotel room. The air conditioning struggles against the heat but at least there’s a bit of relief.
The next day I walk around the city a bit, and hang out by the ancient water works purportedly built by a captured legion of Roman soldiers. While walking around town a few random people come up to me and state that they speak English and are ready to help. It’s Ramadan and I’m too hungry to wait for sundown so I head out to a fancy hotel where I am greeted by a fluent German speaker a former engineering student who invites takes me to the only working take away place, and then to his home where I can eat in peace while his relatives are arriving for iftar.
The next day my GPS on my phone finally stops working, it’s been spotty for days but now it’s gone completely. Luckily an English speaking guy in a car stops and offers to take me to the right crossing. The next ride takes me all the way to the ziggurat and he’s friendly overall, but something feels slightly off. So I insist that I walk back which initially goes well until it gets so hot that I hide under an overpass. Two passersby offer me a lift and I leave them puzzled when I set out on foot further. When I have to take a detour to a museum I can luckily leave my bags at a police post and once back there it doesn’t take too much effort to find another ride to Shush my last destination of the day.
I get dropped off by a shrine dedicated to the Daniel, the minor Jewish prophet. The inside of the shrine reminds me a bit of a garish nightclub with plenty of tiny mirrors but dozens of women in chadors are lounging around the the female half of the shrine. When I go outside the town’s dead. It’s still Ramadan and it’s still scorching. And once I get to the hotel it turns out to be closed. Luckily a man tells me that it will open at 5 so I drag my bags over to the museum to kill some time there until I can seek shelter from the heat in a hotel room.
My last ride to the border is given by a young soldier in traditional clothing. He tells me about his wife and kids and invites me into his house for lunch. I accept but when I get there I find out that his family is in Sulaymaniyah and I start to feel uneasy, I never take up these kinds of invitations unless I know there’ll be women present. After a quick cup of tea I ask him if we can leave. He looks a bit puzzled but relents.
Initially the border crossing into Iran goes smooth. They check my bags for bottles of alcohol and let me through. Just before arriving the soldier who gave me a ride pointed out a smuggler on a motorbike in the mountains and the check seems more like a formality than an actual act resulting from suspicion. But when I walk past the next desk I get told to wait outside to talk to some guys in a separate building. I wait about 15 minutes before being let in. One of the men speaks English and asks me all kinds of political questions, I just keep repeating in different ways that I’m a tourist and that I don’t know much about politics. He talks to his colleagues in Azerbaijani a language not locally spoken in this Kurdish area. I figure they must be some kind of special security unit keeping an eye on the unruly Kurds. Being finally satisfied with my lack of interest in politics they let me through.
Three guys offer me my first ride to town but after that it becomes more difficult. People keep offering to bring me to the bus station but eventually I get a ride from an English teacher and his wife heading out for a family picknick in the mountains. They keep offering to bring me back to the border town to spent the night and I keep repeating I need to be in Tabriz on time to meet with friends. Eventually they relent but not before arranging a ride in the back of a small truck to the next city where I spent the night.
Hitchhiking doesn’t become easier the next day. I get stopped by plain clothes police officers with neatly trimmed beards, perhaps members of Iran’s notorious revolutionary guard. But they let go without much fuzz. I have a more difficult time explaining my intention to a laborer who also happens to be walking the same way out of town. He even calls his English speaking colleague over to explain that what I’m doing is dangerous. I want to get away from him but I don’t want to be rude, and at the same time, since we’re walking in the same direction I can’t get rid of him easily. After some time I just stop walking and try to wave down a car. He gives up, and helps me find a ride with a lovely family who bring me all the way to Tabriz.
The first place my couchsurfing host takes me in Suleymania is a trendy restaurant. It looks unlike anything I’ve seen in the last weeks, very few headscarves lots of selfie sticks, but then again the city has the reputation as the most progressive city in Kurdistan. My host himself is a nice guy but a bit guarded which is both a pity and understandable since, as he tells me, he grew up in Iran since his father was participating in a Tehran supported Maoist insurgency against Saddam.
I spent a few hours the next day in one of Saddam’s old prisons which has now been turned into a museum. Models of man being tortured stand in different rooms while in other rooms bits of graffiti are protected by sheets of glass. While outside old tanks and army cars are rusting away.
Heading to the border I get a ride from three police officers, one of which tells me in broken English how he’s the only one from his family to survive the Halabja massacre. The sight is actually pretty close by and I’ve heard there is a good memorial but it’s time for me to leave Kurdistan though not without telling almost everyone I meet that I’ll definitely be back one day.
Not too far out of Erbil I get a ride from a guy in his thirties. He asks me if I speak French, he used to work in France and England but unfortunately I can’t dredge up my high school french so we continue in English. He tells me he’s trying to save $3000 so him and his family can be smuggled to Germany. He invites me to his family’s house for lunch, and old school building where his father lives with his two wives, and several children and grandchildren. Some of them speak English including the sister of the guy who drove me. She tells me that after graduating from university the government only allowed her to study English whereas she had much rather become a scientist.
After being given a ride to the highway I quickly find my next ride. A huge gun lays across the back seat but because of a communication barrier I can’t ask what it’s for. The driver has no problems at the check point though. The guards are more interested in me. I’m crossing into a part of Kurdistan which is controlled by another political faction. After having assured the female soldier that I’m just a tourist, and unpacking my bag to show I have nothing to hide I get permission to pass.
Back in the car I’m starting to get a bit uneasy about the driver. I don’t think he’s really aware of my intention and his hands start to wander. I ask him to stop, he doesn’t understand or want to understand so I apply my emergency trick for these situations. I open the door slightly as he’s driving and he quickly stops. Still a bit shaky I get my next ride from a well off and well traveled couple. They tell me they grew up in Baghdad but moved to Kurdistan after the city became too unsafe. They seem a bit puzzled by the way I travel, holidays for them are always a very luxurious affair.
After having camped in a field along the road I decide I’m not awake enough to hitchhike, besides there’s hardly any traffic on the road. So I start walking. It doesn’t take long however for a car to stop however, two friends on their way to Erbil to sell some gym equipment, and they speak a bit of English perfect. After a while the younger of the two men begins to tell me how the American army is responsible and actively helps out ISIS. I often hear conspiracy stories on the road and usually I just remain quiet and smile, but this time the other guy turns his head, looks me in the eye and asks, ‘you don’t believe that, right?’.
They drop me off in the center of town and since I have some hours to kill before my couchsurfing host gets off work I decide to visit the local historical museum. As I make my way past the bazar surrounding the old citadel I notice how few women there are and how seriously people seem to look, my host later tells me it’s rare to hear someone laugh on the streets of Erbil. As I continue my way a rather concerned looking youngish western man in a suit emerges from a car and asks if I’m in need of help. I guess tourists aren’t a common sight in these parts.
I spent the next morning visiting the relatively liberal Christian neighborhood which currently houses many Arab Christian refugees and has a very different feel compared to the Kurdish parts of the city. Later I go to the old citadel in the city center, but it’s under reconstruction and large parts are closed off, and honestly though it’s one of the oldest cities in the world Erbil doesn’t impress me much.
So the next day I hitchhike out of town to a beautiful canyon my host recommended I visit. I try to find an old church in a town along the way but I can’t quite seem to find it. It’s one of the few historic artifacts in a region which architectural legacy was largely bulldozed into oblivion. I meet up with my host and another guy again in the evening. We eat and drink tea on a long street filled with tiny restaurants and tonnes of plastic chairs occupied by men who enjoy the coolness of the evening. Afterwards we go for a walk and with some local insight I do get to see some interesting places, but I’ve already decided to leave the next day.
I decide to take the back roads to Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil. Through small villages and farmlands just south of the mountain range that forms the border with Turkey. As I walk to the highway in Dohuk I spot a sign saying Mosul 75 kilometers and it feels unreal how physically close fighter are dying on the front line while the city just continues on its ways.
Once again I’m a bit apprehensive about hitchhiking in a new country. The last time around I took the time to learn a bit of Turkish before heading out, now all I have is a small picture dictionary a Turkish Kurd gave me, it’s the wrong dialect but it makes for a good prop. Luckily the first driver knows a bit of English and he drives me all the way to Amedi, an ancient town which, according to locals, was the home town of the three wise men of the east. My luck continues when a young local men offers to show me around in perfect English and I spent an hour or two visiting old Churches and Mosques though unfortunately he doesn’t know where the former Synagogue is.
I start a conversation with the next driver in English but we quickly switch to Dutch when it turns out he spent years working in my home town, now that he’s retired he went back home. Afterwards I meet a German speaker who’s back to bury his father. He brings me to a checkpoint where the guards force me to wait until they find the next ride. Since there are PKK fighters in the mountains the government forces (who have their own agenda) are careful with who they let through the checkpoints. The regions seeming stability is strictly guarded.
The guy who invited me into the van to cross the border has taken it upon himself to make sure I have a good start in Kurdistan. His wife and kids are picnicking in the mountains so he has some time to kill before their return. We set out to buy a sim-card and when my recently bought phone refuses to acknowledge the tiny chip we visit his friend in the city center who runs a phone repair shop. He tells me a bit about the history of Zakho how it used to have a large Jewish and christian populations but that after many waves of political violence the place is now mostly Kurdish. And at the moment the region is very safe, safer than the Netherlands my new friend jokes. Which might be true, in any case it’s safer than the other side of the border where I had to avoid several regions and cities because of civil unrest.
It’s getting too late to hitchhike now so the guy gives me a ride to a stand for shared taxis and I end up at a hotel in Dohuk. Over the next two days I discover there is not much to do in town, except for visiting a tiny art gallery, find some relief from the sun in some parks and a strolling around a central market. The most interesting thing is just to look at the the people, the old men in their traditional costumes, the young man with their carefully combed up hair, the women wearing different styles of colorful headscarves.