A Motorcycle Adventure to Iraq
“In 2011 I was 23 years old and sat on my Yamaha XT660 by the Syrian border when the civil war kicked off. With no plans, no clue and a burnt map, I headed East and ended up in the Iraqi desert riding past Saddam Hussein’s old house.” Here’s the story of a mad motorcycle ride from the UK to Iraq and back…
This story was originally published in Motor Cycle News (MCN, UK) in 2011
Embrace the road
Say bye bye to this man, son,” said the Turkish father to his boy at the border crossing. “He is going to the clouds.” The small boy looked up at me with a sad face. I hadn’t planned it, I didn’t even realise I was actually doing it until I was elbowing my way past sweaty, shouting truck drivers at the border and by then it was too late. I was entering Iraq…
I have to make it very clear that, as far as adventure motorcycle travel goes, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. However, from previous biking adventures I had learned that motorcycle travel can be a psychological battle. It’s easy to try to avoid the ‘dangerous’ side of it and plan to fine detail: pack everything, fill your panniers to the brim, stay in hotels and dodge all the crazy people. But if you’re after an adventure and you’re gone long enough, you just have to accept that at times it will be crap – and that crap can’t be avoided. So why bother with any plans? Screw the GPS, just take maps; never say no to people; and, if lost, turn right. Instead of fighting against it, everything becomes more natural once you embrace the road, trust it will take care of you and try to relax.
My original plan was to ride from the UK to Syria, but due to the revolution that had just started in the country, that plan didn’t pan out so well. In fact, nothing much really went according to plan. I set off six months ago with two duffel bags, one fully-stuffed aluminium pannier and a tank bag. Every single item was indispensable, there was no way I could chuck a single thing. Three weeks later my 40-litre duffel, the entire tank bag, a roll matt, half the pannier, about a third of my 60-litre duffel and an axe I was given by the owner of a shooting range all got left behind in Slovakia. So much for indispensable.
It took me weeks to decide on a helmet before I left, but by the time I reached Turkey I had burned a hole straight through it and the inside had been hollowed out leaving a plastic shell (moral: don’t tie your helmet anywhere near your exhaust) and I happily rode another 6,000 miles with it. My point being: man plans, God laughs.
The good and the bad
But, sometimes motorcycle adventures are hell… Being cold with soaking wet jeans and pants isn’t much fun; neither is being up to your neck in thick, slushy mud in a Romanian field, just about able to muster enough strength to pick up your bike for the 13th time. When a lorry tyre blows metres away from you, shooting thick chunks of rubber into your chest on a motorway, the boom makes you wish you’d packed more pants. Packs of dogs chasing you through heavy traffic, chomping at your ankles while you try to off-road on a ditch-infested hard shoulder; sleeping in the middle of a field under the only tree during a terrifying lightning storm; running into a crazy albino man at a layby who wouldn’t stop licking his lips at me; tussling with drunk guys; loneliness; having your gear catch fire while riding in Bosnia; difficult border guards and being totally lost in the dark in the middle of nowhere
They can all take their toll. However, there is an upside. By going through that sort of stuff, everything else seems easier to do.
The kindness of strangers
I had a tiny budget, so accommodation was out and roughing it was in. I ended up sleeping in a lot of back gardens. It is a strange thing to strike up conversation with a stranger along the lines of: ‘Bonjour! Can I sleep in your garden, s’il vous plait?’ I have to admit, it took a long time for the nerves to subside.
All the way through Europe I relied on the kindness of strangers to get me through. The very first Frenchman I asked for directions to the nearest field, ended up inviting me back to his house. My first night in France was spent camping in his beautiful garden overlooking the countryside, after a hot shower and dinner with the family. Throughout my European garden exploration, intrigued neighbours would cook me breakfast and give me packed lunches. I would randomly meet people in town centres who invited me back to their homes. Morning breakfast with families became the norm. I slept in the garages of hotels, in fields, by lakes, in forests, in greenhouses, up mountains, on beaches… the list goes on.
Learning to pack a smile
I quickly learned the most important bit of gear to pack was a smile. Instead of propping up hotel bars, I drank beers with farm-hands while watching the sun disappear behind grassy hills. My shocking map-reading meant I stumbled across little places like Lake Iznik in Turkey, where I met Levant and the Iznik bike club. It wasn’t actually a club, more a big group of dudes who owned bikes and drank a lot of tea while taking the piss out of each other. Those guys were so hospitable – they bought dinner, endless amounts of tea and showed off their haunts. We swam in the warm lake, topped off the nights with singing, fruit and accordions. (I became such good friends with Levant that he’s been over to visit in the UK and we visited and stayed with his family on our current round the world trip. Check out our blog post for more: One Foot in Asia)
I truly loved meeting people that way and continued to do so for the entirety of my trip.
A Cypriot wedding
I was on the Turkish coast with two friends of mine, Barney and Rusty, heading to Cyprus for a friend’s wedding. We had four days until the big day and were only one day’s ride from the ferry. Out of pure coincidence, a young Turkish guy informed us that the last ferry for Cyprus left that night at eight o’clock and, because it was Ramadan, there were no more for a week. He phoned the ferry office, who confirmed it. We had roughly two hours to cover 100 miles in the dark over sweeping mountain bends and precipitous drops. It was a hell ride. We rode like maniacs, nothing else mattered… until we got there and found out the last ferry didn’t leave for another four hours. Weeks were spent riding the circumference of the island, flitting across the UN border, sleeping on beaches and loving the laid back island life.
East to the Middle East
Leaving Cyprus and turning right towards the Middle East was a nerve-wracking experience. I disembarked the ferry in the middle of the night. I was scared. Should I just find a safe hotel for the night? Nah, that’s soft talk and against everything I had just learnt about people the last few months. I knew I could do it, but I still had to force myself to put the XT into first gear and ride. I saw a glimmering light just off the main road and headed towards it. Half a dozen men were sitting outside, drinking beers. Normally, every instinct would tell me not to approach, keep riding but people had been kind to me all this way, so why would that stop now? Ten minutes later, I was inside their house as they prepared my bed and a midnight feast.
I was in a Turkish border town, ready to go in to Syria. Friends and locals gravely warned me of the dangers I faced as news hit home of the civil war that was erupting in the country. The violence was rapidly escalating. I thought long and hard and eventually decided that going into a country spiralling into civil war was not worth the risk. I had travelled around Syria many times before and it’s my favourite country in the world. I had always dreamed of riding from the UK to Syria and was gutted I couldn’t cross the border.
But I wasn’t ready to just turn around and go home. Therefore, Iraq was more of a consequence than a decision – I had to go, because Syria was no longer on the cards. I did my research in a little Turkish internet café and learned that the north of Iraq is under semi-autonomous Kurdish control and safe. The southern half, under Arab control is a massive no-go, unless you have a death wish. I wanted to see the north, so onwards I rode.
Motorcycling into Iraq
I’d be lying if I said I had no preconceptions of northern Iraq. I thought it was going to be dangerous and I would potentially have a rough time. Within a few days, my mind would change completely. Upon entering, I was given a free 10-day visa and some tea, no Carnet was required and I didn’t pay for anything. My first experience with a Kurdish soldier at the border was not how I’d imagined it. He slung his machine gun over his shoulder and held up his hand to stop me. With a huge smile, he said: Welcome to Kurdistan. Once I arrived in the city of Dohuk I decided to treat myself to a hotel. The owner helped me heave the bike into the foyer of his sparkly establishment (£10 reduced from £50 for being English). He then left the hotel to buy me some aftershave as a present.
Falling in love with Iraq
I literally fell in love with the place. I felt completely safe walking around the bazaars and streets. Everyone was welcoming. I was continually bought food and tea. It was a struggle to pay for anything in a restaurant. If I walked into a shop to grab a bottle of water, they would refuse money. I spent many peaceful afternoons sipping sweet tea, smoking shisha and watching the country go by.
I decided to ride to Erbil, the largest city in the north. This meant I had to ride past Mousul (one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities). I was told by soldiers making slit-throat gestures that if I took the wrong turn and ended up there I would be dead in 10 minutes. I had no map of Iraq, so the hotel owner doodled one on a piece of cardboard, even though he had never been.
Every 10 miles I was stopped at military checkpoints and pulled to the side by groups of soldiers who wanted their photo taken with me and the XT. Everyone was surprised to see a motorcyclist and greeted me with huge smiles and handshakes. A week later, on my return to Dohuk, the soldiers recognised me and waved me to the front of the queue complete with salutes and cheers.
Only old men and a few very young children spoke English. The old chaps had studied it at school and the kids spoke with a loud American accent (complete with slang) as they had worked as translators when the Americans were there. I hardly spent a penny there; other than my hotel, the most expensive thing was filling my tank – £1.50 for 15 litres. On long rides I enjoyed stopping off for breaks in little roadside towns and buying a bag of fruit. I would sit outside on old plastic chairs with groups of men and kids with the elder of the group translating for me. I’d buy extra fruit for the soldiers I’d meet along the way and have good chats with them.
I loved every minute of it. I always felt safe, whether strolling the streets at 2am, riding in the middle of nowhere or surrounded by dudes with sunglasses and rifles. It was dreamlike; the type of thing I had only seen on the news. But here I was, riding past Saddam Hussein’s old house, watching military helicopters flying overhead, getting caught in sand storms on long empty desert roads, making friends and parking next to pickup trucks with huge fixed machine guns surrounded by groups of soldiers to ask for directions like it’s normal.
The people were exceptionally good to me and I fell in love with them and the country and didn’t want to leave.
The journey home
The hardest part was getting back into Turkey, where I was searched and questioned for hours and hours, due to recent terrorist activities nearby. One of their questions was: “Why are you so young?” To which I replied: “I guess I was just born that way”. They didn’t see the funny side and I ended up sitting in a hot room for three hours.
Once back into Turkey, I headed east to Iran and then north to Georgia. I spent a long time exploring the mountain roads before turning west and heading back to Europe. But before I did, I met a bunch of very cool people in Goreme and made good friends with a Canadian chap, who ended up riding pillion with me all the way to Croatia via Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. And that insanely mad ride is another story in itself…
In all, I covered 11,000 miles in six months, visited 19 countries, turned 24 on the trip and did it all with just maps – most of which, along with T-shirts and my bag, got accidently set on fire. There was no public WiFi, social media posting or smart phones back then. Everything was raw and without information at your fingertips. If you wanted to look up your route online or send an email or find out paperwork requirements you’d have to find an internet cafe, which was impossible for most of the trip so you had to rely on the people you meet, which makes travelling so much more visceral.
The other side is that nothing went according to any type of plan. And the trip only became an adventure when I let go of trying to control everything. People were kind to a level I have never experienced in my life. Being stopped by old men on donkeys in the middle of nowhere just to give me fruit was a humbling experience. Sure, for the first half of my trip I was scared and tense most of the time. But once you experience the goodness in others and give yourself to the road, it will take care of you. All you need is a smile, gaffer tape, a can of WD40 and a willing heart and you’re good to go. The road awaits you, life awaits you, people await you, adventure awaits you… so what the hell are you waiting for?
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