Takin' the High Road (Dohuk - Erbil)
by Joe Scarangella
So you think you know Iraq, eh? After years of mass media bombarding us with images of... well... bombs, we have come to recognize Iraq as a country of chaos, death and destruction. But as is usually the case with mass media, the reports couldn't be any further truth. Northern Iraq, often called Kurdistan, is a beacon of peace and stability, not only in Iraq, but in the entire region. But beyond dichotomy of war & peace, northern north Iraq offers an Iraqi experience rarely seen by western eyes.
When travelling through Kurdistan, 2 cities which will most assuredly be on any given route will be the western city of Dohuk and regional capital, Erbil (aka Hewler). To get from A to B, one has 2 main options, the southern desert road or the northern mountain road. For most travellers in the region, the southern route poses few challenges. There are buses and shared taxis leaving all the time in either direction. And at a bargain price of 15,000 IQD/seat, it fits most backpacker budgets. But the way is boring and just plain unattractive. The desert expanse is occasionally broken up by uninspired towns and villages. And to complicate matters, the road passes through the very outer suburbs of Mosul, arguably one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. But for those up for a bit more of a challenge, or with a few extra dollars to burn, the northern road is an experience not soon forgotten.
Leaving Dohuk, the first part of the northern road is a breeze. Shared taxis head to the pictuesue village of Amediyah. Even if you can't find someone to share with, it's only 25,000 IQD for a private taxi. There are hotels and restaurants for those wanting to spend some time. But from there, things get a little complicated. If planning to head to Erbil from here, any local will tell you to backtrack to Dohuk, then take the boring southern route. That's what they do after all. But if you're determined to head east, you either have to be rich, lucky or daring (or a combination of the three).
There were no taxis leaving town and heading in my direction. Even on the best of days, nobody's heading all the way to Erbil. So i was left with no other choice than to stick out my thumb. I had packed some extra water and munchies expecting longish waits. After all, who in their right mind would pick up a hairy Canadian? I stepped out of my hotel and started walking to a what i thought would be a good waiting point. But before i could even get there, the very first car stopped and offered me a ride. Although not an "official" taxi, a couple boys from Dohuk were paying some guy to drive them to their jobs in the mountains. Turns out the boys were English teacher in the rural schools. I couldn't ask for anything more. They were able to explain to the driver my plans (who chuckled a bit), and they were great for a bit of a chat along the way. But they were only going as far as Sirye, a village about 1/4 of the way to Erbil. As we arrived in town, they tried to negotiate with other taxi drivers to take me the rest of the way. But as no one else was going, i'd have to pay for a private taxi, quoted at $60. Too rich for my blood. So i paid the driver 5,000 IQD to get this far, and he dropped me off at a nearby security checkpoint.
The soldiers were, shall we say, a little surprised to see me. Not only do they see few foriengers up here, but they see even fewer hitchhikers. I did my best to explain my plans (as they all chuckled), they offered me some tea, and pointed out some PKK areas to avoid. Sadly, they wouldn't let me shoot their guns :(
The very next car to pass was a van full of young men, all in their 20s, heading somewhere from somewhere else. And even though their car was full, they squished and rearranged to make room for the crazy Canadian trying to make it to Erbil. Among the 9 of them, they'd struggle for 20 minutes to squeeze out "Where from?" and 20 minutes later manage "How years?" Needless to say, conversation was limited. But we had fun singing along to Kurdish music as the beautiful scenery passed by the window. The boys were heading to the town of Borzon, the home of one of the most powerful families in the country. Once there, they tried to find a taxi to take me the rest of the way, to no avail. I offered them some money, only to be quickly turned down. As they sped away, Kurdish music a-thumping, it began to drizzle.
But before i could even get my jacket out of my bag, i was picked up by the very first car heading in my direction. Again, language was a major stumbling block, but he was only heading about 30 minutes down the road to the tiny village of Bile. Once more, he did his best to negotiate with local drivers to take me the rest of the way to Erbil (about 2 1/2 hours away) but $50 was still too much. Finally we agreed that for 20,000 IQD, one of the drivers would take me over the mountains and through the canyon to the sizeable town of Akre, where it would be much easier to find a shared taxi. I offered my other ride some money, but it was again declined.
This was unquestionably the most beautiful part of the trip. It was a nearly vertical ascent on a switch back road up and up the mountain side. Shear cliffs fully exposed, almost taunting cars to make one small mistake. I hear it's not the fall that kills you, but it's the sudden stop at the bottom. As the road finally crested, the view was nothing short of spectacular. As we descended the mountain sides began to envelop the road. Soon, we were fully enclosed by a stunning canyon complete with raging river. Breathtaking. As we emerged into the open valley, the town of Akre came into sight. As promised there were shared taxis heading to Erbil, for 10,000 a seat. The road became less exciting as it eventually joined the last bit of the southern route before entering Erbil. With the hard part behind me, i fell asleep and waited to be brought home.
One might question if it was worth the hassle. I can unequivocally say, YES. The road is stunning, the people are lovely and there's the added bonus of avoiding the Mosul bypass. Perhaps as a travelling pair, or with deeper pockets, i would have simply paid for a private taxi from Amediyah. But I'm so glad I didn't.
You can read more by Joe here: http://www.joestrippin.blogspot.com/.
More by Joe ScarangellaIraq (Kurdistan Region)
Stumblin' over History
Goin' without Knowin'
Fallin' in Northern Iraq
Charmed by Koya
Doublin' Up on Dohuk
Za-kho, Za-kho, Off to the Bridge I Go
Divine Lunchin' (Mar Mattai)
Shaqlawan Sugar Coatin'
Al Kosh, of Course!
A Day at the Museums (Erbil)
Parkin' it in Erbil
Suly the Sequel (Sulaymaniyah)
Duckin' into Dukan
Crackin' the Citadel (Erbil)
Iraq's B-Side (Amedi)
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