On the Road to Erbil, Iraq
I tugged at the immovable seat belt I should have been wearing. It was stuck under a high-visibility jacket. Ali, the lorry driver, had placed it over the lorry’s passenger seat I was in presumably with safety in mind. I had got into a habit of not wearing a seatbelt whilst hitch-hiking in Turkey. I lacked all but 3 words of the Turkish language but became reasonably good at having wordless conversations and bonding with people that would pick me up, no matter what language they used. I had discovered that putting on a seatbelt was considered an insult to most Turkish lorry drivers. So to avoid the awkwardness of having a sweaty man physically stop me from putting one on, I just stopped bothering. Suddenly, clear perspective came to me. I realised I had been avoiding the brief upsetting of a stranger at the expense of my own safety every time I’d not bothered to put on my seat belt. With that realisation came another shining of perspective on my current situation; I was caught up in a high speed lorry-on-lorry chase whilst hitch-hiking in Iraq.
My trouser’s repaired, tattered bag at feet and shirt yellowed (unbothered whether it was sun-bleached or over exposure to sweat); I was a picture of 6 months travel. I had left home with an idea of what travel shouldn’t be: a regimented sequence of activities and pious adherence to itineraries moulded on the corporate repetition of package holiday sales-people which boiling down to nothing more than doing what you do for fun at home but on a sunny beach. No thanks. I’ll pack my bag, stand by the road and stick my thumb out to let whoever pick me up and take me to wherever. That’s how I’d try to discover what travel could be.
Whilst cruising along the road in Ali’s lorry cab I had the chance to reflect. From -30 to +50; perpetual frozen night to long summers days; nights spent at bus stops, beaches, tiny soviet style apartments, beautiful hill top villas, hostels, hotels, bars, lake side homes, lorry cabs and a night with the channel 4 sports team; ice swimming, sun bathing on secret black sandy beaches, facing death whilst mountain climbing, playing with seals, fishing under northern lights, a spot of speleology and having been thrown out of a prison… I was beginning to believe I had had the experiences I had left home searching for. Although there were brief periods of ennui, they were easily negotiated as I had learnt another unimaginable adventure was just around the corner.
I had found myself in Ali’s passenger seat with the help of a Peshmerga (The military arm of the Kurdish Autonomous Regional Government of Iraq). I had spent the previous night with a Kurdish family who had found me in a park in the city of Duhok. I had been wandering out of the toilet and a man greeted me with opened arms, ‘a tourist!’. He spoke English reasonably well as he had translated for the US military, which had been in the Kurdistan Autonomous region of Iraq one month prior, and introduced himself as Tawfiq. Without asking, he took me by the hand and took me over to meet his extended family with all 15 of them ecstatic to meet me. One look at the faces of the children and I could see that I was definitely the first tourist they had ever met. I’m sure I saw the same look on some of the adults too. They offered me a seat on their blanket and shared their food and drink with me, making sure I was comfortable and always had a burning cigarette to hand. Once settled, I noticed a circle had formed around me and the family proceeded with taking it in turns to ask question after question about me and my life… I’ve never been so flattered and welcomed. Although still warm, well hot, it became late and Tawfiq asked me where I was planning to sleep. I had been planning to stay in the park but upon hearing this news there was uproar and it was insisted upon I stayed the night in their family home.
I woke up in a refreshingly cool living room where Tawfiq and his brother had stayed with me. I had already mentioned I’d be leaving for Erbil and, although disappointed, the family had prepared a packed lunch for me and Tawfiq offered me a lift to the military check point on the road to the Kurdish capital. As I gave my goodbye’s, Tawfiq’s brother told me ‘of the two years we have lived in this house, your presence has made these two days the happiest’… that’ll make me think twice about ignoring the next lost tourist I see in London.
Hitch-hiking in the Kurdistan region of Iraq is easy because the Peshmerga do it for you. Due to the instability of the region the military presence is extremely high and there are military check points on all the roads going in and out of any city, town and some villages. Tawfiq drove me to the necessary check point. After talking with the personnel manning the check point he told me that they would find me a ride. Tawfiq left and the military sat me in front of their air-conditioning unit that had been set up in the middle of the road. During the 10 minutes it took for somebody to agree to give me a ride to Erbil, an employee from the cafe across the street had became interested in me and started chatting to me in broken English. He found out from me that I was some kind of scientist and took me by the hand to show me something. He had a caged wolf cub out the back of the cafe and wanted to know if it would grow to become a danger to his life. I said probably.
This is when I met Ali. I was waved over from the cafe back to the check point by the Pershmerga and they pointed at a lorry that had pulled up. I jumped up into the cab and introduced myself to the driver. With a cigarette in his mouth he reached over to shake my hand. He was driving an articulated lorry carrying brand new cars and was part of a 5 lorry convoy all on their way to Erbil. We attempted to get going but the engine was playing up so I was recruited to spray WD40 into the engine whilst Ali was choking it, a process that would need to be repeated on a number of occasions.
After an hour of travel in +60 under the midday sun I was parched, sweaty, restless but enjoying the vast open space of Mesopotamia and the surrounding mountains wondering about the ancient peoples that roamed this land, the cradle of civilisation. My thoughts were regularly interrupted by bumps and jolts as Ali avoided pot holes, traffic and the desert on the unpainted, uncurbed tarmac that had been laid down to be used for transport. The lorry was slowly climbing a hill when it all began.
A few cars had taken the gamble of over taking us, narrowly missing the oncoming traffic in the process. These successes seemed to inspire the driver of a small lorry to do the same. As Ali saw what the driver of this lorry was attempting he leaned out the window, cigarette in hand, and shouted at the driver to stop as there clearly wasn’t enough room on the road for this manoeuvre. Ali had to withdraw from his protest as the overtaking lorry became level with the lorry’s cab. An oncoming car caused the driver of the small lorry to swerve and his swerve took his lorry straight into the wing mirror of Ali’s cab, smashing parts of it trundling down the road and the rest through the window into me and Ali. Unsurprisingly, Ali descended into a rage and immediately dropped down gears to try and catch up with the smaller lorry that was quickly making is way up the hill.
Hitch-hiking is unpredictable. If you don’t trust strangers you can’t do it but trusting strangers is often a risky business. On one occasion I took the decision to hitch from Estonia for Riga late one evening. A guy picked me up who explained he had been cruising round the city bored looking for something to do and offered to make the 400 mile round trip for free. In my naivety, being new to hitch-hiking at the time, I hopped right in but I knew something was up when he instantly turned into the back streets of the city to pick up drugs to make the trip ‘more interesting’. Although reckless, the guy turned out to be harmless, letting me out after I became panicked. In my experiences, nothing had gotten any worse than being mistaken for a prostitute but I have friends who have not been so lucky and had to fight or flee from dangerous situations. I just accepted that with great adventure came great danger and continued hitch-hiking at times almost forgetting there was a risk attached. However, when Ali dropped down gears to catch up with his perpetrator I thought that that risk had finally caught up with me.
Ali’s heavy articulated lorry dropped further behind the old and rusting, but smaller and empty, flatbed lorry that was being chased. This only incensed him further. I saw the flatbed disappear over the top of the hill about half a mile away and for a brief moment I thought that would be that. An optimistic thought because as soon as we had reached the top of the hill the chase really began. We climbed over it and I saw the vast desert pan out in front of me displaying a long downhill stretch of road that was busy with traffic. We picked up speed quickly. Ali was lighting another cigarette as he had dropped a half smoked one in his furious attempt to change up through the many gears the lorry had to offer. Our momentum building, we started to make ground on the flatbed and suddenly it was Ali’s turn to do some overtaking. It was during one of his more daring swerves through the traffic that I failed in attempting to put my seatbelt on and felt more exposed than I had ever felt in my life. Not Ali though, he was enraged, apoplectic and, unbelievably, screaming down his phone.
With good purpose too. Speeding down the hill and gaining on the flatbed I saw two of the lorries in our convey ahead on the road. They had stopped, entirely blocking the side of the road we were travelling on. A road block. Ali had called in a road block! The flatbed was approaching it, so were we, and showed no sign of slowing down, nor did we. Unfortunately, for the integrity of the road block, there was a smaller road coming off the road we were travelling down just before it. Unfortunately, for me, it would take crossing the on-coming traffic to get down it. Seemingly without hesitation or breaking speed, the flatbed took the decision to avoid the road block and take the escape route, narrowly missing the oncoming traffic as it crossed the road without signal. Ali did the same.
The road deteriorated quickly. It became thinner and thinner until it was one lane wide and that lane being barely wide enough for the lorry. At points, a tire would drop of the road into the desert and we would sway side to side for 50m whilst Ali tried to stop the whole lorry from following the tire in. This slowed us down but the road took us into a tiny village which required the flatbed to come to a stop. We stopped. I breathed. I watched. Ali jumped out of the cab, ran up to the flatbed and dragged the driver out and started hitting him whilst he was down in the dust. People gathered, the fight continued and the traffic made its way round the commotion using the desert. I was frozen in the hot cab and my jaw dropped as a man with an AK47 came out of nowhere to attempt to break the fight up. He failed. Ali and his adversary were continuing to scrap as the gun wielder waved the weapon around but it wasn’t until the rest of the convey caught up and teamed up to drag Ali away causing the fight, and the chase, to finally come to an end.
‘No need to write that down in my journal’, I thought, ‘I’ll never forget that’. I hadn’t said a word since the moment the wing mirror had been smashed off and even after Ali had returned to the cab I still couldn’t find any words to say to him. Once the fight had been broken up the flatbed driver had got straight in his lorry and drove away. No police involved. No more protests from Ali. Desert justice. Reaching for a cigarette before even finding his seat, Ali started to calm down. 10 cigarettes later he finally turned to me and let out a deep laugh. I laughed too. We smoked 10 more cigarettes.
I was in Erbil by diner time. We’d made a stop at a service station after the chase had ended and Ali took a nap, woke and played checkers with a stranger. I pinched myself. In Erbil I, for the first time in months, found a hotel to stay in. I got a discount for being a tourist and slept a deep sleep. I spent one day in the ancient city but it was all I had time to do as I had a 1000 mile journey to Tbilisi to make for my flight home to London. I took a cab out of Iraq. I can’t wait to return.