**50 Shades Of White**
The road was calling again and while the temperature had pleasant -5°C I left Erzurum on Thursday, January 26th, towards the Iraqi border and into the unknown. Because the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs writes the following about the Kurdish region in Turkey:
“Travelling into the border region of Turkey with Iraq and Syria especially […] Cizre, Silopi […] and […] Şırnak is strongly disadvised.
During the last months ‘Temporary Security Zones’ have been established from time to time and there had been curfews, e.g. in Cizre, Silopi […]. These zones and curfews are strongly enforced, entering facilities of those security zones is forbidden and a violation of a curfew dangerous to life in case of combat operations. The security zones were established […] along the border to Iraq and […] south-east of the town of Cizre (border triangle Turkey – Syria – Iraq) […] Source: Auswärtiges Amt, from 20.2.2017“.
This sounds very dangerous, but in fact due to my experience these travel warnings and hints are very ambivalent. Up-to-date travel reports and my couchsurfing host in Silopi didn’t tell me anything about dangers so I didn’t see a reason to change my planned route. It was a unique opportunity for me to visit the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan and I didn’t want to let it pass just like that.
But back to Erzurum. After about 30km of permanent ascent the weather started to get uncomfortable. The wind became stronger and it started to snow a lot. I continued stoically since what was the alternative? Returning was not an option. Many cars though returned after some kilometres more and shouted towards me “Erzurum! Erzurum!”. It was ridiculous. Of course it was easy by car to go back but actually it wasn’t so bad on the bicycle. I passed trucks that got stuck and after some more icy wind blowing in my face a pick-up stopped. I gave in and they took me some 40km. In the late afternoon I was invited by them to eat and drink something in a mosque but noticed when I continued bicycle that my thermos got lost during the ride. I rode and rode, it was dark, it continued to snow and I didn’t see any place to pitch my tent. On top of the pass on 2390m there was the garage of gritters (the cars that clean the streets from snow). The light was on and for five minutes I was knocking and shouting for access. It was granted to me; I could sleep the night there and was even given dinner and breakfast.
The garage was located on the main road that I needed to leave after 20km the next day for a much smaller connection road. I was curious how condition was. On the main road I mainly cycled on the left side because if was free of snow. Maybe it was not correct but I expected the drivers (in these conditions) to overtake slowly. But no, not in Turkey: One guy overtook me on the left side where the snow was obviously very high. So the car got stuck and after 20 minutes of trying to get it free I continued since a gritter arrived to help.
The connection road was a challenge. Often the road could not be distinguished from the other white landscape. I cycled lurching or pushed my bike towards Varto. In the beginning a taxi stopped and the people shouted, I should go back because it’s cold and when I said I wouldn’t care I was told there were wolves who would attack me – bla bla bla. But as soon as I left Bingöl region and came to Mus region the street was suddenly in a normal condition again – the gritters of Mus did a great job. In the afternoon I had my first encounter with the police. I was stopped and taken the remaining 10km to Varto because of the snow (their decision). Being at the police station I was served tea, my passport was taken and I was asked where I’d sleep. I told anywhere but in hotels and first I was offered to stay there. But later when I was given my passport back I was just kicked out – thanks a lot… So I had no choice but to cycle into the dusk. In the dark I found a place and pitched my tent for the first time in the snow. It was a bit difficult due to the wind and continues snowfall. I also did cook anything for dinner that evening.
On Saturday I was able to cook some pasta in a café. The men there looked at my equipment as if it was of NASA. They claimed that (especially the gas cooker) would not be able to be bought in Turkey which is not true. For the night I chose a building next to a gas station. But the workers told me to sleep in a room inside the station. In the beginning everything was fine and we ate dinner together. But then it started to get weird and me to feel uncomfortable. Google Translate did very strange translation about girls that didn’t do much sense and were quite odd, I was asked a thousand times during the evening how I’d continue and in the end one guy wanted to swap his 500$ Samsung Galaxy for my 110$ LG smartphone. I took much overcoming but I would not have been able to close my eyes for just one minute. I didn’t feel safe and at 11pm told the astonished men I’d leave. They didn’t understand but I just had to go. In the next town a group of guys shouted “Hey baby come over here” towards me which didn’t make the situation better. However at 1.30am I arrived exhausted water treatment plant and car dump. The light was burning but only after 20 minutes of waiting, shouting, knocking the door and through snowballs against the windows (who assumes the night guard is sleeping?) Khia Samid opened the door for me and I could seek refuge. I finally felt safe and could sleep very well – apart of tooth pain that started.
On Sunday, January 29th, I wanted to go to Nemrut Caledera and sleep in the hot caldera lake there. The streets were white and I was difficult to find a safe spot to ride on. At the crossroads to Tatvan I noticed that I lost my gloves. So it took another 2.5 hours to return – fortunately with the gloves. Unfortunately the road leading to the caldera was impossible to cycle on and no one stopped to give me a ride. So I continued as planned southbound. In Bitlis is started to get very cold and one guy gave me a short lift. The street was quite icy and cycling a bit dangerous. The night I spent in a at least a hundred years old, dark and wet building.
When I started the next day I noticed that my rim was broken. I could continue but not use my front breaks. On the way to Siirt I left the snow behind me and hitchhiked the last 25km into town. In the bicycle shop I was told it was not possible to find 28″ wheels in the region but I could cycle some additional hundred kilometres like that.
For going to Cizre I didn’t decide for the main road via Sirnak but for a smaller road via Güçlükonak. What a great decision! Beautiful mountains and river Tigris waited as well as many nomad camps.
In a ghost village, there were houses but none seemed inhabited, below a military base, I was taking some photos when I heard aggressive shouting. I wasn’t able to locate where it came from and didn’t understand a word. But I remained calm because if it had been something serious I’m sure first of all some warning shots would have been fired. So calmly I cycled on and spent the night in a mosque in a cozy small village. Basri seemed to be the only inhabitant and he even brought some dinner and on Tuesday I ate breakfast at his house.
So on Tuesday, January 31st, I continued to Silopi. The street to Güçlükonak was difficult to drive on because of the snow and at the village’s check point I could wait for the first of many following hours to get my passport checked. To Cizre I was hitchhiking due to my broken rim and at the town’s check point could wait again for an hour and open all my bags. There was no communication at all between the check points – it was totally chaotic and senseless. I was boastfully told that I was going to be escorted through the town for my own security because the town was said to be not safe. ALL bullshit! If there happened an attack it would be against the police forces who act like occupants in their military vehicles and not against harmless bicycle tourists.
In the end Cizre was suddenly safe and when I cycled through everyone greeted me warmly with “Hello” and I didn’t feel unsafe at all. I didn’t wear a hat or gloves and one guy even stopped to give me his hat – unbelievable. Such a contrast!
I passed Syria by less than hundred metres and in the evening arrived after another 15km of hitchhiking (when my bicycle was in a vehicle I didn’t seem to have problems at check points) at my great host Ridvan and his family in Silopi.
Unfortunately even there the police didn’t leave me alone – but more about that the next time.