Over a month ago a new journey has begun. For starters I travelled with my mum for 3 weeks through Chinese provinces of Shandong and Henan; we vistied Beijing too. We were both very happy to have so much time to spend with each other, especially on a travel occasion. After my mum left, Dominika arrived and we experienced noisy and unfriendly atmosphere of Beijing, though sweetened by a lovely dinner to which we were invited by Caroline – whom I got to know through this blog, we went camping and trekking to amazing Gubeikou – a wild section of the Great Wall in Hebei province (I posted practical information about it on the ThreeTorn forum), visited Jilin province where we got a chance to live in a traditional North-Eastern Chinese house and do even more hiking, to finally arrive to Inner Mongolia, a province that welcomed us with a beautiful fall, vast and long grasslands, totally yellow birch forests (see a picture above with Dominika), and a cozy village atmosphere of a mixed Russian and Chinese heritage (Enhe, just north of Ergun City and 25km away from the Russian border).
While experiencing these new inspirational moments, it proved hard for me to find enough motivation to put my thoughts to my past travels and to write on this blog about things which took place almost half a year ago. My experiences from Azerbaijan, which were due next for sharing, seemed to distant to me to easily come back to them, especially that I would prefer to rather share my new adventures. Furthermore, the latter are of a different kind, still, since I am not a lonely hitchhiker anymore – and as such my One Smile Journey has finished back in Dagestan. Now that I am not travelling alone anymore, and hitchhiking and couchsurfing ceased to play their previously crucial roles, I felt a need for a new formula for sharing with you. This is fueled substantially by the fact that we both, as in Dominika and me, would like to be writing – and so we need to develop a new place to suit this new upcoming arrangement. There are other reasons too; for me writing in English is very time-consuming, averaging to few hours per each longer post – which effectively has made it difficult to squeeze writing in between travel experiences and resulted in significant time delays in me posting here. A slight disappointment with the reach of my blog was at work too, I cannot refuse, but, on the other hand, I should not be surprised taking into account my initial resolution to keep this blog low profile and subsequent lack of advertising so needed in the blog business. Surely before my departure I did not imagine how many blogging travellers are out there.
For the above reasons, Dominika and me will begin a new blog soon. It will be in Polish, hopefully to allow us to post more often than I did here and to help us with easier formulation of our thoughts. It should, additionally, destroy an important threshold preventing some of our friends and family members from reading; after all, they are our primary audience. This is hard for me, I have to admit, because of all the new amazing friends whom I met over the course of this journey. I know that some of you have been reading this blog and I really appreciate it – please welcome my apology for discontinuing this blog. I hope to be in touch with you through CS and FB.
This all means that I did not manage to write about my experience and adventures from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia and the whole of the Northern Caucasus. Those were very special to me and I am very sad to stop without covering them, the more that I know that Northern Caucasus is the least known and travelled region which I visited on my journey. This was the place where I could feel a little bit as a real explorer, in a sharp and striking contrast to China for instance, and therefore I think it would be great if I could share that. But after all, there is nothing that you cannot do by yourself, right? So please go and explore! Every amazing spot on earth awaits you :)
I will come back to you with the details of our new blog soon. For now, take care and please accept a big Thank You for all the support I got from you and for bearing with me so long. You are great!
UPDATE: new blog is up & running, www.brychiroz.pl
I have just added all the galleries from Northern Caucasus. I hitchhiked and couchsurferd there for over a month, between April and May 2012. Enjoy! Click here to access the album or simply go to the gallery section on top of the website. To give an impression of what awaits you in this album I will share few of my favourite photos in this post.
Frog from around Leso-Kyafar in Karachay-Cherkessia.
Me in Dombay.
Yahya – my host and his wonderful family with me, Karabulak, Republic of Ingushetia.
Tar, Persian lute
To keep it diverse I will share some of my audio-visual experiences from Iran. After leaving Iraq, Hamadan was the first city which I visited in Iran. There I was taken care of by a great and energetic guy, Mahdi, whom I met through Couchsurfing. Not only was he a skilled negotiator (he haggled over my hotel’s price and put it down twice – to 4 euros) but an amazing guide too. Among others, he and his friend took me to their friend’s music shop. In this shop we had a superb occasion to listen to their friend’s performance on Tar. You can watch one of the records which I did there below.
I have to say that his performance was very special for me. I could listen to traditional Persian music instrument which at times was accompanied by a male vocal (unfortunately on other videos) singing traditional Persian songs. What a great chance to witness Persian culture! After the performance I asked if I could buy any CD with tar music. In few seconds I was presented with a CD with Farhang Sharif’s songs – an example of Iranian hospitality: shared their culture with live performance and then gave a present. This, in turn, was my present for Dominika.
Echoes of Imam Mosque
Another video which I would like to share with you was filmed in Imam Mosque, which is located in the south side of Naghsh-i Jahan Square in Esfahan. Both the mosque and the square are registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I went there with a friend Salman who will show you on the video what is so special about Imam Mosque. So I will just say – enjoy!
For an echo experiment with a 50’000 Rial note done in the same place, check this Youtube video.
Honour killings and violence
An important topic which often comes to the fore when mentioning Iran is women rights. From time to time we are informed through high-exposure news reports about a stoning or an honour killing committed on women in Iran. The image that may and often does come to our minds is that the violence against women in Iran is widespread and unpunished. On top of that, we might imagine that women are subject to wide limitations which harshly constrain their lives. How is it in the reality?
Indeed, honour killings and violence are not uncommon in Iran. Although they pertain to both men and women, most of the victims are women. In some cases, perpetrators can omit punishment. It happens for instance when a father kills his wife or daughter who he witnessed to be willingly unfaithful (Islamic Penal Code, art 630). This legal authorisation for honour killings reflects Iranian penal code which is based on traditional Islamic law. Here, not all depends on the written codified law to which people have no appeal, as is the case in the Western secular democracies. Much is decided by judges who have strong independent position and by victims’ families. For instance, the family of a murdered person decides whether the offender will be executed or whether prison and blood money are enough – not the judge (Landinfo report). Most importantly, as shows the case of father killing his female relatives, people are allowed to defend their honour with their own deeds, be it a murder, and do not have to wait for the court sentence. I can imagine that most of us will be against such legal solutions which, among others, allow for high discrepancy between the rights of women and men.
Art 630: “If a man finds his wife in adulterous position with a strange man and has knowledge that the woman is willing he can kill both of them in that situation. If the woman is reluctant he can only kill the man. The same rules apply to beating and injury as it does to killing.” Source: Iran Bulletin
Picture #1: Women with a child in a public garden in Shiraz
Separate world of tribal people
What has to be noticed however is that violence and honour killings take place primarily among predominantly Sunni tribal/nomadic people of Iran: Kurds, Lori, Arab, Baloch, and Turkic tribes; and not among Shi’ite Persians who account for 61% of the Iranian population. Persian culture does not exert social pressure on men to commit honour killings or to resort to violence (Landinfo report). Even Ali Khamenei – the supreme leader of Iran, stated that honour killings are in conflict with Islam. As The Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs writes in their report, even conservative circles within Iranian politics are of the opinion that honour killings are in conflict with Islam. Honour killings and violence should hence not be mistakenly seen as part of Iranian daily life but as a sad and legally supported phenomenon occurring mostly among nomads in rural areas. Remember, Iran is a country with population of 80 million with a size over twice bigger than that of Turkey. In Iran you can find both urbanised agglomerations and distant and remote nomadic areas.
Picture #2: While I was in Iran I had a chance to take part in a feminist meeting near the Caspian Sea. It was a wonderful gathering and I was very happy to take part in the discussions. Above a group photo from this meeting. Make sure to notice that most of the women do not wear head scarves. Among progressive women scarves are taken off upon leaving public places (remember that before Islamic Revolution of 1979 socially Iran was a very progressive country and people do not change over-night).
When we look at global statistics of violence against women we will not spot Iran in any of them. Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India, Somalia, Peru, Colombia, and Zambia – those are the countries with the harshest situation for women, as seen in many dimensions. Why we do not hear much about massive rapes in Congo which happen in magnitude of 400’000 a year or about 1.2 million children prostitutes in India, yet we all remember loud cases from Iran? The answer is simple enough. Iran is a political opponent of the West and anything “bad,” independently of its somewhat little scale, happening there is quickly spotted and widely spread around all the Western media. In turn, it creates a superficial impression that Iran must be particularly bad, if not the worst, country for women. Example: a big photo-story by Daily Mail about a women charged with adultery who could be sentenced to stoning.
Picture #3: Officially contact between males and females before marriage, unless they are related, is prohibited in Iran. There are exceptions, i.e. mixed-sex education is the most prevalent one. Still, young people of mixed genders cannot hang around together in public without the risk of being stopped by the police and questioned. They naturally find their ways though. The law is not strictly enforced and in many cases it is a dead law. If you are interested in learning about Islamic rationale for prohibiting male-female pre-marriage contact check this entry on “The Caliph speaks.” On the picture a group of university friends from Shiraz who went out of town to spend time together. PS find Wally!
Not as bad as one can presume
What is then a situation of Iranian women outside of rare tribal environments? Quite normal according to European standards! Their lives are not dangerous or harshly restricted. Yes, you are right, they have to wear a head scarf and long sleeves. But other than that they can travel freely around the country, study, work, take part in politics and assume public positions. I met Iranian women travelling both alone and in pairs. If you asked them whether they felt somehow endangered, they would look at you very awkwardly not understanding what you meant. This is because public safety in Iran is very high. There is nothing to worry about and there is no reason to look over your shoulder, as is the case in so many European cities. And when it comes to the head scarves, once you arrive in Iran you will be surprised how many different ways there are to fashionably and nicely show your hair from under a scarf (which if the owner likes will accidentally fall from her head many times a day exposing her hear to you).
Picture #4: Friends at the Caspian Sea shore.
To summarise, situation of women in Iran can vary greatly. In tribal areas, violence and honour killings are not uncommon. Sadly, there is little legal protection and not much institutionalised consideration for their situation. On the other hand, in most of the country women do not have to worry for their health – life goes quite normally according to European standards. Still, the overall attitudes in the society are quite conservative and women are socially less free than men. For instance, they have fewer possibilities for going out as they can be pressured to stay more at home. All in all, there is very much to be done to improve women’s situation in Iran. Still, however, it is not as critical as we might assume.
Picture #5: My friends at a party in Tehran, where most of the mixed-gender socialising takes places at private meetings/parties.
- Situation of women in Iran is dramatic. Stoning, imprisonment, and violence against them are widespread across the country.
- Iran is among the worst countries for women in the world.
- Foreign women going to Iran are endangered because of the way women are treated there.
- Because Iranian law prohibits mixed-gender socialising, men and women do not have possibilities for meeting.
My post does not intend to fully represent the situation of Iranian women. I am aware that I did not treat this topic exhaustively, or actually anywhere close to it. I did not cover or mention many ways in which Iranian women are constrained or treated unequally. My intention is different. The public at which I aim are Westerners with little to no knowledge of Iran. As such I imagine that as a result of tendentious media coverage they may be overly negative with respect to the situation of Iranian women, and Iran in general. Hence, I envisioned my post as a little step to let them know that Iran is not as “bad” as they may have thought.
Hotly debated country
I remember entering Iran quite well. It was characterised by an unclear expectation of something special and a slight fear of the unknown. Superficial and hypocritical media coverage of the old and constant Israeli-Iranian to-be-conflict was at its peak and it portrayed the conflict as new and unstable, reminding a bit of the revisions of history in Orwell’s 1984. On top of that, my own knowledge of Iran, its culture and people was somewhat basic, if that word is not an exaggeration already. I knew little and thus I was excited. To make it short, it had been great to have the possibility to travel to such hotly debated country and see things for my own eyes. After 3 weeks in Iran, I can find the courage to say that it is unbelievable how many misconceptions we can acquire after listening to hasty, partial, and ill-conceived media news. I cannot even hope to be able to tell you much of the details, not even all the main points, but I hope you will get a hunch from this post why Iran is different from what we might expect.
Picture #1: A square near the market in Shiraz
Picture #2: Takht-e Jamshid (commonly known as Persepolis)
Politics of meaning
As a teenager I was a punk. A politically unmotivated one. I believed that I lacked serious political iniquities to object because, as I thought, I lived in a rather desirable and pleasant environment. As such I often thought that I was born in the wrong time. Two decades before, Poland had been under highly unpopular and forced communist rule. I longed for those times although I had not known them. There was something real to be against, something to oppose for good reasons. Although Poland gained its sovereignty in the meantime (1988-1990), there are still places where people only dream of it.
When I arrived in Iran I got precisely this feeling, that there is something important for what some folks are fighting there. I felt it even stronger than in Belarus. All the people that I met in Iran were unhappy with their undemocratically elected government. Some of them fought in events like Green Revolution. I have seen a good friendship which was formed when one man, now my own friend, took a stranger home because he lied unconscious on the street after being heavily beaten by the police during the protests (going to hospital was out of the question because it would mean being captured). Even the most religious people I met, be it my hitchhiking driver who would stop on the road for praying or a student who hosted me in Shiraz who strongly believed in religious marriage (in his case to be arranged by his mother), they all had been critical of the government. They all were, to a various extent, dissatisfied with the socio-political reality. There was no single person that I had met during my 3 weeks in Iran which would tell me that he or she supported the ruling elite. Although that is not to say that the Iranian regime has no supporters – I guess it has quite many, still I am convinced that it visualises quite well that while travelling in Iran one can feel that there are meaningful things to fight for and to support in Iranian society. My heart will always be with Iranian people striving for changes.
- Iranian politics is a result of the will of Iranian people. Thus, the most if not all of the Iranian society is very fundamental and conservative.
- Since Iranian government is labelled “bad,” its people can pose a threat to strangers.
To be continued…
First of all, I am very sorry not to have written for a month. There was a sudden change of my plans which kept me busy and prevented me from writing in the meantime. On the 20th of May I decided to come back to Poland for a while. The last place that I visited before coming back was Mahachkala, the capital of one of the Russian Muslim republics – Dagestan. Around 3am on the 20th of May I left my Tabasaran host in Mahachkala and got to a military post at the outskirts of the city where I began hitchhiking back to Poland. It took me 55 hours and 2910km of continuous hitchhiking day and night to arrive in Poznan in central Poland. My way back looked like this: I departed from the biggest lake in the world, Caspian Sea, crossed the whole Northern Caucasus, passed by Rostov and Black Sea, travelled the whole Ukraine from the East to the West to enter Poland and travel some 500km more to Poznan. Some days later I was in Szczecin, just off the Baltic Sea shore. It was quite a travel, but why?
Direct reason was simple – to see my girlfriend who needed me and whom I needed too. There are important and less important things in life. That one is the most important and my choice was simple. I never wanted to “be stuck on the road” loosing sight from what really makes me happy. Other than that, I was somewhat tired of 9 months of continuous travelling which surprisingly left me with very little time for myself. A combination of couchsurfing and hitchhiking meant, contrary to my pre-departure expectations, almost no time alone. For this reason, although I was surrounded by amazing and inspiring people, I have to say that I lacked some privacy. Additionally, my arrival in Poland meant that I could see my sister just 2 days before she gave birth to her first child, little Artur.
What next? Some time with friends and family around Poland and on the 12th of August I will be flying to Beijing, the capital of China, to continue my journey. Yet the journey will not be only mine now. For the first 3 weeks I will travel with my mother Hanna (58 years old). She always wanted to visit that part of the world and I am very happy that we will have a chance to do it together. I am planning to couchsurf with her, and who knows maybe hitchhike too. Shortly after her leaving my girlfriend Dominika will arrive in China too with around 4 to 5 months of free time to travel together with me. We are planning to see the whole South-East Asia but have no exact plan whatsoever. And then? I might go back with Dominika and search for a job or continue travelling for a while more, or maybe something totally different? It will depend on few things so it is hard to say now. Let’s be spontaneous!
On the blog I will be writing now about places which I have already visited but still have not written about: Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia and Northern Caucasus. Then I will start writing about China and further adventures.
Last but not least, let me say words of appreciation to those who worried about me not writing for a while and wrote me messages asking if I was okay, thank you so much. You are great!
Picture #1: From the left, my girlfriend Dominika, my sister Magda and her son Artur
Picture #2: A great Chechen truck driver who took me from N. Ossetia to Rostov
Picture #3: A radiator from Beslan school which I visited while travelling back
Since I am a hitchhiking traveller, I will start describing Iran by telling something about hitchhiking there. I spent 3 weeks in Iran starting from the 20th of February until the 11th of March 2012. Iran, after Belarus, was a second country that I had visited where I did not make most of my way by hitchhiking. In total, I crossed a little bit over 3’000km in Iran, out of which 1’573 I crossed by hitchhiking and the rest with buses (up till now on my journey I crossed around 25’000km out of which 78% is done by hitchhiking and 22% with buses and trains).
In short, I found hitchhiking in Iran very easy but tiring at the same time. Why very easy? People often will stop without you even signalising that you want to hitchhike (provided you are in a place which makes them understand that you are waiting for a ride). In general, people are very hospitable and interested in foreigners which makes waiting time for a ride very short. Moreover, they often travel for long distances as the country is rather scarcely populated so you can enjoy long rides quite often. Truck drivers will be happy to share their tea and snacks with you so having your own cup may help a little.
Why was hitchhiking in Iran tiring for me
On the other hand, virtually no one understood the concept of hitchhiking. In Iranian culture it is quite an extraordinary idea to expect a ride for free. This does not mean that people will expect money from you (unless they are an informal taxi), they will simply be shocked by what you are doing. As a result, locals may tell you that hitchhiking, understood as free transportation, is impossible. They will not be right since people on the road will be very ready to help you but you can understand where they are coming from with their idea of hitchhiking impossibility. All of that will mean that you will have to explain to almost every driver the idea of hitchhiking and why you are hitchhiking. Moreover, at the exit roads out of big cities a very large percentage of cars will be informal taxis that drive people to neighboring cities and settlements. So if you wave on the side of the road many of them will be stopping to offer you a ride in a taxi (in general very cheap one but watch out! the vast majority of taxi drivers will try to rip you off in any way you can imagine). You have to kindly refuse and wait until a normal driver pulls over.
Another downside for myself was the fact that I could not communicate much with my drivers – very few people knew foreign languages. Nevertheless, since they will be very very interested in your person, as a foreigner, they will try very much to communicate with you by all means. Furthermore, I met a lot of people full of prejudices towards other ethnic groups, particularly towards Arabs. As a result, quite often I had to hear elaborated opinions which I did not really enjoy.
How to hitchhike
In general, the basic rules of hitchhiking apply to Iran in the same way as to other countries. Go till the end of a city with a local bus, make sure you are visible and that it is clear that you are there to get a ride (do not stand on a bus stop or with other people around you), try to find a place where cars go slowly and have place to pull over BUT remember not to use your thumb to stop them. It is an improper gesture in Iran. As in some countries before, I asked friends to prepare me a slip of paper explaining what I was doing in the most common local language – in Iran in Farsi. In contrast to previous papers, I added to this one a line explaining what hitchhiking was and put an extra effort for people to quickly grasp that I intended to travel for free. As soon as someone stopped, I tried to talk in Farsi, from what I had already learnt at the time, and handed over this piece of paper.
To finish off, if you are a person which does not get tired by the things which I outlined above – then hitchhiking in Iran will be amazing experience. People are very helpful and hospitable and you will enjoy your time. If, however, similarly to me you find those things somewhat difficult then buses are a good option. They are very cheap, at least now during the UN sanctions, and well-developed. For instance, a ride from Yazd to Tehran (626km) in a 1st-class comfortable bus cost me 6,5 euro and from Tehran to Rasht (350km) in a normal bus was 3 euros.
In Turkish city of Samsun I met an American girl called Kara. We planned to travel together in South-Eastern Turkey. One of the destinations which Kara wanted to visit was Ulupamir. Although our plan finally did not work out and we could not travel together, I decided to still go there alone. Ulupamir is a Kyrgyz village in the Kurdish area of Turkey. After communist Saur Revolution which took place in Afghanistan in 1978 some of Afghanistan’s inhabitants decided to flee. A large clan of Kyrgyz people from Pamiwholr mountains, in particular from the Eastern part of the Wakhan corridor, fled to Pakistan. They did not wish to stay there, however, and finally were invited by Turkish military government, shortly after 1980 Turkish coup d’état, to settle in Turkey. This invitation was made because Kyrgyz just as Turkish are Turkic people.
I have to say that my travel plan meant a wholly new step for me. I was supposed to go to a village where I knew no one and where I would have to ask its inhabitants for “a couch.” I was very anxious to pop up there just like that out of the blue. My character made it quite difficult. I do not feel quite comfortable with the idea of coming somewhere counting on someone’s hospitality. To arrive without my own arrangement with the idea that there would be someone to help me. But since this journey means pushing myself to new and unusual for myself things, I decided to give it a try. Remember, it was in the beginning of February and Eastern Turkey was fully covered with snow and on the day when I travelled to Ulupamir the temperature during the day hit -20. Sleeping in a tent was thus out of the question.
Not that easy to reach Ulupamir…
… because it is situated among Kurdish villages. And Kurds will not simply let you go there, they are too hospitable for that. After hitchhiking from Doğubayazıt through Tendürek Geçidi (Garnidzor Pass) at 2644m, crossing city of Çaldıran where it was over -20, and visiting devasted Erciş, as an effect of a heavy earthquake 3 months earlier, I found myself on the beginning of a mountain road leading up to Ulupamir and other villages. Since I knew that it could take very long time for me to see any car going there, I was happy to jump on a dolmus (little bus) filled with Kurds which arrived soon after. As soon as I entered it, I was asked who I was and what I was doing. When my fellow passengers understood that I had no friends in Ulupamir and that I was going there just like that – to explore, I was invited by one of them to visit his village first and stay in his brother’s house before going to Ulupamir. I accepted this very kind invitation and after half an hour or so I found myself in Hasan Abdal! As I was already a guest I was not allowed to pay for dolmus.
Here, it is very hard to find words which could describe my experiences and those people’s hospitality. I became a part of their family in no time. I was being taken care of in a way which I was still not really used to, even after amazing hospitality of Turks in my previous time in Turkey and after my stay in Doğubayazıt (links to previous posts). I could not even walk to the toilet alone, all the doors would be open for me on the way, and special slippers put in front of me just before entering the toilet, and then I would be assisted in washing my hands in the courtyard (remember it was a countryside, here is a picture of the bathroom). We would communicate using those few words of Turkish that I had learnt over the course of the previous month and an English-Turkish dictionary which was present at the house. I was taken on a tour around the village, which included encounter with the most violent dogs I have ever seen, and took part in all the family meals and made simple conversations with various family members. Topics included, of course, travelling and history. Among others, I learnt about killings which took place in the village in the 30s.
I would love to tell you much more about this amazing day, and most importantly about customs of the people I met, but I simply cannot find more time for it. Maybe just one important thing connected with hospitality. From what I have seen Kurds mostly do not use beds, they simple unfold mattresses on a ground each day. On one of the photos you can see a pile of such mattresses. What is important, they have many more than needed for the household members. Thus, having a guest, in terms of sleeping, is very simple for them. In the evening, they will just unroll one mattress more. No shiny preparations and no need of arrival notification few days in advance, as in many European cultures for instance. Those people are used to having many guests at many occasions. In my impression, family members visit each other often and without unnecessary pompous aura. I love this approach.
All the pictures from Hasan Abdal can be browsed in the Gallery.
Kyrgyz village of Ulupamir
My hosts helped me to hitchhike to the crossing with the road which led to Ulupamir. I wanted to walk those 7-8 remaining kilometers but both my hosts and locals living in the village at the crossing were quite dramatically stating that it would be too dangerous because of the wolfs. I could hardly believe them that anything could happen during the day-time but finally I caved in and waited for a dolmus. I guess my experience with extremely violent dogs from the day before helped me not to be too confident. Soon a dolmus arrived and again I was greeted by a bunch of very talkative and hospitable Kurds. They dropped me off close to the village and did not allow me to pay for a ticket again.
While walking in the direction of the village I was passed by strange goats and few horsemen. I had already felt that this was a different place. Built just 30 years ago, reminded me more of a small Soviet-styled Siberian settlement (not that I have been to any) – there were no normal houses, just little blocks of flats with two floors. At the time, there were around 3’000 people living there! Upon entering I was greeted by a a guy in my age who waved to me from his balcony asking where I was going and what I was searching for. I told him shortly about my intentions and he advised me to meet with the head of the village and ask him for a place to stay. Soon I found his house and was greeted by his wife who offered me a tea and inquired me about my visit. With translation help from my friend from Samsun, Can, she understood why I came and offered me a bed in their house. She also designated her young son to show me around. I attended adhān in a local mosque with him where I again met Tuncay, who greeted me at the entrance of the village before.
He invited me to his house where I met his family with whom I spent my entire day in Ulupamir. They were very lovely people. I was offered food and tea with milk and salt (I wish I was not so courageous and did not try the tea!) and in return tried to teach Tuncay, who was an Eglish university student, some English and show his siblings how to make origami. He then showed me his horse and we went out in the snow where he showed how well he could ride it (a big picture above). When in home again, his mother spotted that I had a hole in one of my socks, which I earlier received from Zahari in Bulgaria (made by his grandmother). Without any questions she just came up to me with needle and thread and asked for the sock. Soon after I had no hole anymore! From Tuncay’s father I received a very warm winter hat made in the village from leather of animals which they hunted themselves in the mountains – a very special gift. So not only I was greeted by them with great hospitality, I received gifts from them too… I spent the evening in the house of the head of village, where I ate dinner with the whole family and played with kids again. All the food I ate contained a fresh meat from local animals with such well-cooked rice that I could not stop eating it. Soon, I could happily rest under few blankets in a very comfortable bed. In the morning, I jumped on a local Kyrgyz dolmus going to Ercis and I began hitchhiking to Tatvan to meet Israfil from Couchsurfing.
To summarise, both those days were very special moments. I met very good and hospitable people. And although in Ulupamir I could not feel this immense and honest hospitality which I could feel among Kurds of Eastern Turkey, I was extremely lucky to meet Tuncay’s family. If it was not for them, my stay in Ulupamir would not be such a memorable experience. From my impression, in Ulupamir they receive quite many guests like me, who just show up out of nowhere interested in seeing a Kyrgyz settlement. During their festivity which takes place in April, if I remember correctly, there are many hundreds people coming over. But I guess this is nothing knew – if you are thinking of visiting some villages to see how people live there, go to those that are rather unknown and unpopular. This way, not only you are going to be excited about the meeting but the people you meet will be excited too!
See the pictures from Ulupamir here.
In the beginning of February I hitchhiked with a road from Kars to Igdir in Eastern Turkey. It is one of the experience that I will never forget. Just check the video above for breathtaking views. Below, in turn, you can see where it was.
The second video I wanted to share is from Iraq. I have already written about hitchhiking on a tractor from Suly to Helebce before but now I wanted to post a video too. In the end, any ride that brings you closer to your destination is good, especially if you have a chance to exchange few smiles with locals.
Where it was? Here:
I was supposed to start writing about Iran but I realised that I still had few things more to share with you from Turkey and Iraq. I will start by posting a video I made in Ankara. My friend Cagri and his own friend invited me on one cold January evening to a famous kokoreç spot in Ankara. You can find there few restaurants which specialise in preparing this special dish. It is made of goat and lamb intestines. Since my travel rule tells me that I should try everything that is given to me, I reluctantly (but still) tried kokoreç. All in all, it actually turned out to be very tasty! Above, you can see a video showing how it is prepared. The most interesting part is that the cook makes some music while preparing it.
I remember when I conceived the idea of coming to Belarus in the beginning of my journey. It seemed to me to be quite a brave idea at the time. I still remember the faces of some of my friends and family members when I told them about it. I have already described some thoughts connected with travelling to Belarus in a previous post “Across-the-border prejudice.” After having a great experience, meeting very hospitable and amazing people, and most importantly, after uncovering big question marks and facing own unverified superficial assumptions and predictions, I could create an own understanding of what Belarus was. When my question marks vanished, which beforehand allowed some doze of fear to lurk behind, I was left with a brilliant impression of this country, should the politics be put aside. In such a way, my previous doubts and fears seemed somewhat trivial and childish. I discovered what was hidden behind the fence of solely political media coverage and behind societal fear resulting from that coverage. Yes, in Belarus I met people and saw their normal lives, because what else could have I seen? Yet we often seem to think that there is nothing besides negative politics. We imagine the worst and we put normal lives of normal people out of the equation.
Among other memorable experience, I will never forget my new friends, Kirill and Oleg, soldiers from Belorussian military who took me in as a guest in Pinsk only after a phone call from our mutual friend. Picture with Oleg above, September 2011.
Kosovo, still doubts
Despite this experience I still had had doubts about what could have expected me in Kosovo. While hitchhiking through Serbia I was warned numerously against going there. It was described to me as some kind of super-dangerous war-zone, a definite no-go area – most of Serbs would suggest. I have to admit that it kept me a bit anxious. Anyway, my innate strive for checking the reality by myself made me go there and have a brilliant time. Together with my back-then travel mate, Cecile, we stayed there twice and hitchhiked twice more through it. We made great friends and experienced a great welcoming atmosphere. Again, I had a chance to see how wrong various preconceptions can be. Above a picture of Sabahet, Fatos, and Bestar – Cecile’s and mine new friends from Kosovo, December 2011.
Iraq, a final hit
The final hit, I guess, came with my visit to Kurdish Iraq (February 2012). It made me realise even better how complicated and multi-layered the reality often is. Full of so many different places, with various levels of safety, with different ethnic groups, and socio-political realities. It made me never to easily believe any safety-warnings connected with travelling. And so I found myself hitchhiking through northern Iraq first and then through Iraqi-Iranian border at the end of February this year. I followed a road filled with oil-trucks which went through high snowy mountains. I hitched both with Iraqi Arabs, Iraqi Kurds, Iranian Kurds, and Iranian Persians. I walked through security checks with big smile and waved happily to passing soldiers. I knew there was nothing in particular to be afraid of. But two years ago, crossing Iraqi-Iranian border seemed to me like some kind of suicide mission during which I would maybe have to fight with Taliban (yes, Taliban) smuggling weapons through the border. Naturally, I knew nothing of such region as Kurdish Iraq, not to mention any other more complicated issues.
Iranian adventure has begun
At the border with Iran I walked through Iranian control without a queue, which similarly to many other borders applies only to locals. As a foreigner they usually invite you to pass straight away. Afterwards, I was asked to a little office where I had a chat with two officers while my passport was being checked. They were very nice guys and we shared some laughs. Among others, they asked me which was the best country in the world. I felt their anticipation to say that it was Iran but I recognised that it was a trap! I answered that of course it was Poland and I was granted entrance – I must have discovered what a correct password was. So remember, when you are asked the same question at Iranian border, say Poland! In this way, my Iranian adventure has begun. Above a picture of views which opened to me after crossing into Iran.
On my way to my last destination in Kurdish Iraq, Helebce (Halabja), I had my first hitchhiking ride on a tractor. After riding it for 2 kilometers or so I reached a security checkpoint where I got off to find a bit faster ride. A very nice man (here on the picture on the right, unfortunately I am very bad with names and I do not keep any diary at the moment) offered me a ride. Not only he brought me to Helebce but invited to his family’s house where I was offered a wonderful dinner. As you can imagine a hungry hitchhiker after a day-long thumbing must have been very happy with such an invitation! Ah, I would almost forget, while walking through one of the towns to reach its end to hitchhike, I was stopped by Peshmerga and took to their outpost next to the road. My passport was checked for roughly 15 minutes and in the meantime many Peshmerga took photographs with me. After 6 months of travelling it was the first time, although a very positive one, when I involuntarily visited a police station. The next time took place in Abkhazia 2 months later (which was 10 days ago) but was not so pleasant anymore since I spent a night in prison, about which later though.
Halabja poison gas attack
Helebce was not the most beautiful town you can imagine, to say the least, but it was full of touching history. Most importantly, on the 16th of March 1988, so when I was just 1 month old, it was bombed with chemicals by Saddam Hussein’s regime killing around 4-5’000 people in the attack itself and another 10’000 due to health complications in years after. In fact, the bombing took part in two series. Firstly, the city was bombed. Who managed to survive, hid themselves in the basements. In the evening people started to escape to the mountains since staying in the city was impossible due to chemicals in the air and danger of subsequent attacks. Then the second bombing came which was directed at the roads out of town filled with refugees.
In the museum of the attack, I had a chance to see both very moving pictures and videos made shortly after the attack. Above a picture showing one of the houses in the city. People were just dying where they stood. You can see more pictures in the designated gallery. In Helebce, I was hosted by a CouchSurfer Qaesar and his wife. His family survived the attack because they decided to leave the city later than the others. Just upon leaving it in the evening, they saw how the refugees going with the road to the North-East were attacked and so they went the other way to the South-East and so they escaped successfully.
Living and inanimate monuments
Most of the refugees walked to Iran where they stayed in refugee camps for 1 to 3 years before settling back in Iraq. Upon returning their lives were not easy. First of all, their city and houses were destroyed. Secondly, in the 90s economic sanctions were put by Western countries on Iraq and so it suffered insufficiency of food and basic products. Many people were forced to leave for Iran in order to work there and provide for their families. My host Qaesar at the age of 18 left to Iran and worked almost 5 years at construction sites to provide for his mother and sisters. This meant that he had to finish his education only with high-school. Apart of people’s difficult stories, you can see many inanimate monuments of the tragedy. In the city itself, you can see many graves where dead bodies where put together to rest. One of such graves on the picture above. Here you can see debris of the houses destroyed during the attack in the outskirts of Helebce too and symbolic graveyard for the victims. Read more about the attack on Wikipedia.
Dangi Nwe radio station
During my stay in Helebce, I had a chance to visit Dengi Nwe independent radio station for Women and Youngsters. Qaesar helped to establish the radio station, which is financed by a German NGO, Wadi. You can read more about the project here, and watch a video in German here. I guess it will be better than my description.
Trip to Belkha
During my stay in Helebce, Qaesar and his friend Hersh together with their wives and kids took me on a day trip to Kurdish villages at the border with Iran. It was up in the mountains and so we had a chance to make a snow fight. Other than that, we visited Tawela – the last village in Iraq which is surrounded by Iran from 3 sights, ate at a local meat bar (Qaesar on the picture), and most importantly visited Qaesar’s family in the village Belkha. Moreover, we saw a beautiful waterfall where local people come in the summer for picnics. It was an amazing day during which I had a chance to explore Kurdish culture. I ate a great meal with the whole family, talked with women about their situation (quite a difficult one, but this has to wait for a separate post), and play tavla and chess in a local shop. A great thank you goes here to Qaesar and Hersh for allowing me to experience all of that. Above a view of a few houses in Belkha.
Access full gallery here.
As a goodbye picture, Qaesar, his cousin and me in front of one of an uninhabited house nearby the waterfall.
My next station in Kurdish Iraq was Silêmanî (Sulaymaniyah), the second biggest city of Kurdish Region of Iraq (over 1 million in population). I checked the map of Hewrel for a road going in my direction and figured out that it was quite close to the Family Mall, where Houssem worked. I asked if he could drop me off at that road on his way to work. He was so kind to do it and so I found myself hitchhiking to Silêmanî on the morning of the 15th of February. Hitchhiking went well although I was still trying to communicate with people with my Kurmanji words which again and again was proving to be very inefficient. Instead of trying to learn Sorani I decided to try to survive until Iran without it. In fact, as usual – I had a piece of paper in Sorani explaining what I was doing. However, with an extremely high level of illiteracy in Kurdish Iraq it was not useful, most of my drivers could not read.
Amna Suraka Museum (Red Intelligence Museum) was one of the most interesting places that I have seen in Silêmanî. It was located in a former Ba’ath regime’s prison and intelligence headquarters. It was operational from 1979 until Kurdish uprising in 1991. It was used by the regime to oppress Kurds and dozens of them lost their lives there. This includes a relative of my Couchsurfing host Rebaz, who took me there. What was touching about this prison was that it was left as it had been captured in 1991. That means for instance that the blankets which were lying on the floor were the original ones which prisoners used to cover themselves. While sightseeing I made my steps over them knowing what they were. On the walls you can find calendars and signatures made by prisoners. Some of them, as I learnt, were made shortly before executions. Other than that there is not much there, because there was not much there before. This gives you a real feeling of tragedies which took place there.
Symbols of opression
In the other part of Amna Suraka Museum, there are 5’400 little light bulbs put on a ceiling of one of the corridors to symbolise 5’400 Kurdish villages destroyed under Saddam’s regime (although in some sources I found the number 4’000). On the walls there are 182’000 pieces of mirrors standing for 182’000 Kurds who lost their lives during Al-Anfal Operation. For more about it, please refer to an earlier post “What is Iraqi Kurdistan?” In yet another part of museum there was an exhibition of photographs concerning modern history of Kurdish Iraq. Unfortunately, the photographs were not undersigned. But with a little knowledge of history and Rebaz’s help I could guess what they depicted. Here is a photograph of Kurds escaping to Iran to seek refugee during Al-Anfal Campaign, here Iraqi Arab soldiers pose to a photograph with a dead Kurdish prisoner that they had just killed in Amna Suraka, and here you can see refugees killed with a second chemical attack during Halabja chemical attack while they were trying to escape to Iran.
Impressions of Silemani
Together with Rebaz we took a nice walk around Silêmanî. One of the local delicacy are sheep’s heads which you can easily find at a local bazaar. But the most important impression of the city that I had was that it was much more liberal and culturally-rich than Hewrel. I had a chance to have a tea in a nice bookstore-cafe where local opposition meets but I believe you cannot find such a place in the capital, Hewrel. It was Silêmanî where Kurds tried to demand democratic changes in Kurdish Region during the Arab spring and it is here where the opposition TV operates and is broadcast from.
As a backgammon maniac I found my own refuge in a local tea-house where Rebaz brought me. Most of the people there were busy playing games and so I found myself in heaven. In one part of the tea-house they played backgammon (a strange Iraqi Kurdish variation where you do not beat each other but step over your opponent’s piece and thus block it), in another domino, and yet elsewhere cards. I had one cup of tea there but the time constraint did not allow me to try my luck with local players.
Rebaz and Lukasz
In Silêmanî I was very happy to meet Rebaz and Lukasz. Rebaz was my Kurdish Couchsurfing host thank to whom I could see the first Kurdish house in Iraq and stay there with his family for 2 days. He took me all around the city and made sure I was feeling good. Lukasz, in turn, was a Czech-Polish volunteer who knew so much about local politics and situation that it was pleasure to spend time with him and I have to admit that I learnt a lot. Above a picture of Lukasz (on the left) and a local Kurd during our domino play in one of the local Nargile (Shisha) bar.
All the pictures from this part of the trip can be found here.
A good-bye picture series presents this time door knocks from an old Kurdish door, as shown in a cultural part of Amna Suraka Museum. Make sure to notice that both knocks have different shape and weight so that they give different sound when knocking. One should be used by men and the other by women so that people inside of the house would know what was the gender of the guest who was coming.
While hitchhiking from Plovdiv, Bulgaria to Istambul, Turkey I had a chance two meet Hakan and Hakan. When they stopped to pick me up near Edirne, I came to the car and heard one saying “I am Hakan!” to which second one responded immediately “I am Hakan!” while nodding his head. In this way we all three started laughing very hard and so began my half-day trip together with two joyful men whose both name indeed was Hakan. Since they spoke virtually no English and I knew no Turkish at all, my first Turkish lesson began straight away on the first day in Turkey. I pulled out a piece of paper and a pen and they started to teach me many Turkish words which we then tried to use in a conversation straight away. Since we had travelled for half a day I wrote quite many words and phrases there. Few days ago, my girlfriend Dominika took that piece of paper back to Poland and surely it will be one of the great memories from my journey.
While we drove to Istambul, one of them sang his own song – the one which you can hear in the video. If I remember correctly it was a song about love. Before that happened we stopped in Kırklareli for 3 hours where they had a job to do. They had to put Erikli water commercial on a transportation van. I helped them a bit with that and meanwhile enjoyed my time in a suburb of Kırklareli. Couple of times we received tea and cookies from the family of the owner of the car, who lived in a block of flats just next to us. Both Hakans were very relaxed and full of good sense of humor. We would laugh over and over again about silly jokes that they made. I hope that this little description gives you a feel of hitchhiking because although this situation was very special, in the other sense it was not. While hitchhiking you will have a chance to experience dozens of various interesting moments, meet many interesting people, and do with them what they are supposed to do. I hope I encourage you a bit to hitchhike more (or at all)!
The second video features a musician playing at Bosphorus in Istanbul.
I am sorry for a long delay in writing. Recently, I have not really had a chance to sit down and write and so I fell a little bit behind. In Iran I had little time for myself, later in Azerbaijan I managed to write only 2 posts (the last ones), and in the last days my girlfriend Dominika visited me. We travelled together in Georgia and Armenia but again that meant no time for writing. Now that she unfortunately has left I will be trying to catch up a bit. Although this might prove to be hard since I planned to travel with Simonas, whom I met in Rustaveli, in Abkhazia from the 14th on which will mean again little time to write (right now I am in Kvareli in Georgia). I am not particularly happy about writing about things which happened up to 2 months before. Memories are not that fresh anymore and I often do not remember what I intended to write. This leads me to writing much less than I wished in order to catch up… But gathering new experiences is more important for me than running away somewhere to close myself with laptop for few days, so please forgive me. Anyway, now I would like to summarise some of my Iraqi experiences so that I could start writing about Iran.
A great welcome
The picture above shows two Kurdish businessmen that I met on the day I entered Iraq, which was in Mid-February already, and me. The one on the right, Ahmet, gave me a ride from Silopi in Turkey to Zaxo (Zakho) in Iraq. On the way we stopped at his friend’s office where I was offered a tea and access to internet, which I quickly used to let my mother and Dominika know how great my adventure in Kurdish Iraq had begun. A third man that I met in this office, Delgsh, bought me a local sim-card, charged it with some credit, and then paid me for a shared taxi to bring me all the way to the Kurdish capital of Hewlêr (Arbil/Erbil). I was reluctant to accept this last gift despite I felt the real honesty of the proposition. Nevertheless, it was getting a bit late and I was running a risk of not making it to Hewlêr before getting dark so in the end I agreed and accepted it. I guess it was hard for it to be a better way to enter a new country than to be greeted by 3 very hospitable and helpful men. My subsequent Kurdish Iraqi experience was similar, I met great people on my way whose help and company made my 9-day stay a very enjoyable experience. I was happy to discover that Kurds from Iraq proved to be as welcoming as Kurds from Turkey.
One of the interesting things which you will notice in Kurdish Iraq are black banners hanged nearby important crossings. These are local obituaries. In this way, further family members and friends can learn about someone’s death. As a side-note, on my pictures from Kurdish Iraq you will notice that the alphabet used there is an Arabic alphabet. That does not mean, however, that people speak Arabic there (I mean, some do, but not that many and not that well). This is because Arabic alphabet, just like any other alphabet – be it Latin or Cyrillic, is used for writing many different languages, not only for Arabic language itself. Among others, Persian in Iran and Sorani in Kurdish Iraq are written with slightly customised Arabic alphabets (just as Polish uses adjusted Latin alphabet or Serbian adjusted Cyrllic).
Along the Tigris river
The highlight of my first-day trip was driving in between Judi Mountain and Tigris river. After travelling through somewhat bare and rigid landscapes of Eastern Turkey, I entered a green zone! All the fields were green and I could understand why civilisation started right there. Hot temperature all year long together with well-irrigated fertile land formed a great dwelling place for humans thousands years ago where they could cultivate rich land. I have to say I was very thrilled and happy to be driving there.
Where a big business meets with a poor country
My stay in the Kurdish capital of Hewlêr (Erbil/Arbil) was very intersting. I couchsurfed with two very nice and friendly expats Matthew and Houssem who lived in Ankawa – a Christian district of the capital. This part of the town is mostly populated with Assyrians who are mostly Chaldean Catholics. Large part of them has been immigrating for years from Baghdad and Mosul to avoid prosecution. While being there, we visited a Syriac Heritage Museum – you can find some pictures in the Hewlêr gallery. What strikes in Kurdish Iraq in general, and maybe a bit more particularly in Hewlêr, is how this previously rather poor and war-torn region becomes richer and richer through the recently intensified oil trade. Just compare the main square of Hewlêr from the first photograph with the second picture of the average downtown street hidden behind in a maze of small passages, or imagine seeing this Ford Mustang parked just next to this street.
The Citadel of Hewrel
The main attraction of the capital was its Citadel, about which you can read more on Wikipedia. It is supposed to be continuously inhabited since the 5th century BC – so for over 2500 years. I am not the author of the first picture, it was uploaded to Flickr by Jan Sefti. Normally, I do not upload pictures not made by me but in this case I really wanted you to feel the magnificence of the citadel which this photograph greatly depicts. At the time of my visit the citadel was under renovation. You can see it in my own picture above. All the houses were emptied and most of the streets and passages were dug to prepare new ones. I guess the access to the most of the citadel was restricted but I wandered all around anyway without anyone reprimanding me. This was actually the nicest part. I could freely walk all around the empty houses and streets without anyone around. I could climb all the stairs and roofs and I had a great joy in doing so.
Finally, I found a way how to get to this balcony through a roof of one of the houses. I sat there with my laptop for 2 hours in a beautiful sun wearing just a T-Shirt (remember, it was mid-February) and wrote the post “Across-the-border prejudice.” Great moments!
Kurdish Iraqi tea
While strolling around Hewlêr, I took a sit in one of the local tea-houses. I had a small chat with the men from the picture, which could only go as far as my personal 1-page Kurdish-Polish dictionary allowed. Another man though spoke a basic English. Since he had a book listing all the children names we started talking about our families. In one part of our conversation I tried to explain the concept of being together with a woman before marrying her. It was not straightforward since “if you are already sleep with a woman why don’t you marry her?” but I think I managed. I enjoy such conversations when both parties are caught off-guard with their assumptions being clearly exposed. But I wanted to write here about something else: tea in Kurdish Iraq. All around the region no one will ask you whether you want to have a tea with sugar, it will simply be served with a lot of it. Then you face a choice: if you like it sweet – you can just stir it well, if you like it somewhat sweet – just stir a bit and leave half of the sugar undissolved, and if you like it bitter – do not stir!
That would be it about the first part of my stay in Iraq. Click here for all the pictures from Zakho and hitchhiking, and here for pictures from Hewlêr. Fod a good-bye a photograph of a shop with wall-carpets situated in front of the citadel.