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Kurdistan :: From Esendere - Hakkari - Uludere - Sirnak to Cizre
Monday, 06 April 2009
In April 2009 we crossed the Sero – Esendere border in Kurdistan. Because of winter times we decided to stay as far south possible to escape as much of the cold. We tried to navigate the Kurdish region, tightly gripped by the Turkish army. The route takes us over the 400 / E90 towards Cizre taking a shortcut over the 30-51 from Asagi Dereli. Here you find our story from 2 days in heavily militarized region close to the Iraq border.

The first town after Esendere is Yuksekova, a city with quite a few people where we changed our last Iranian Rials and bought a Turkcell Simcard for calling and internet access. The latter worked throughout the full stretch of the route through Kurdistan.

The road to Hakkari

The first checkpoint where we got a full search was Bagisli. This junction is a road block where everyone is stopped and suspicious travelers like us searched and questioned. This was only the start and here we had to negotiate our way to Hakkari, while at first they didn’t want us to go there at all. Their version, the road is bad, it’s dangerous and its also a slower route. Most likely, anyone who comes from Van will have to do the same negotiation to get to Yuksekova and the Esendere border. For this route to Iran, Bagisli is the last checkpoint of significance.

So we got in after nearly an hour of checks, questions and what not. Most surprisingly they wanted to know our profession and to see our licenses / diploma’s. Who’s traveling with those anyway? Probably the totally wrong profession is journalist, writer or photographer. Their explanation; “we have to ask”.

The 36 Km to Hakkari is very nice – it goes through a valley with a river. Not that much checkpoints but at several points we saw military hide-outs on the slopes of the valley. A few lone guys just sitting there, not at all hidden and they seemed quite relaxed. The road here is in good shape also.

WHAT are YOU doing here!

The next big checkpoint was at the junction / bridge towards Hakkari. Here we were greeted by a group of Turkish policemen who had a real blast seeing us. Their amazement was clear “WHAT are YOU doing here.”. We’re just tourists on our way to Adana we replied. They laughed, it was probably a nice break from the dull checkpoint reality. They had a lot of fun with Indra, while they had several dogs for company also. One was called “apparat” which was very clear why. This dog was well fed and trained and seemed like a real pall to the guys at the checkpoint. One of the policemen showed us his dogs used for searching cars. Two ferocious German Sheppard’s and one funny Turkish dog with three nose holes – he seemed to be the top sniffer dog. This junction also had a huge furnace for electricity production, it dominated the junction with the sound of jet engines. The policemen told us this winter was bearable at the junction but the year before the had a very hard winter making life miserable for weeks. Just 4 days ago they had a snow avalanche just 500 meters from their camp. We had to cross part of the river bed to get through here.

From the Hakkari junction we went onwards, the valley narrowed and quite scenic. Somewhere halfway we stopped at a landslide which just happened a few hours earlier. Earthmoving equipment was already in place and the road was cleared in an hour or so. From here we got a lot of onward traffic – people hanging out of car windows with flags and yelling and making peace signs. Something had happened here on the 1st of April, not April’s fools for sure.

Kurdish gathering on the 1-st of April 2009

At the next junction with the 30-51 mountain road we saw a huge gathering, military personnel were itchy and seemingly nervous. The group was shouting, waving flags and making peace signs, it seemed like a political procession of some sort. These people came from Cukurca, a town near the Iraq border and also were the 400 continues. We don’t know what happened but we were directed on the smaller 30-51 mountain road, instead of following the 400 towards Cukurca and onwards. The 30-51 mountain road goes over 2 mountain passes, one about 2000 meters, the other about 1800 meters.

The road became steep and more scenic with small villages and people working in the fields. A lot of checkpoints on the 30-51 mountain road, soldiers seemed more nervous and more hidden in their hide-outs. The contrast was striking, locals were outside waving at us while military personnel sat inside with grim faces.

Nervous soldiers at Suvarihalil Gecidi

At the first mountain pass at – Suvarihalil Gecidi – 2000 meters – another checkpoint. Soldiers were very nervous and made cut throat signs at us, it was not meant for us, but for them as they pointed at themselves each time. We could feel their tension and the danger they were in being out there. Our truck was checked again and passports registered with a few questions.

Next was down again into the next valley. Halfway down the 30-51 road there’s the village of Basaran. Here the asphalt stops and the road gets quite narrow through the village. The army has a hide-out here too, cramped up the hill overlooking the village. Locals were out and sitting in big groups – seemed like drinking tea. They waved at us, we waved back and crawled on through the narrow village.

With sunset near we tried to look for a place to park the truck, however the Army wouldn’t let us. The only place safe according to them was Sirnak, which at least a 2 hour drive. With darkness setting in our pace dropped to 30-40 Km/hr crawling through the mountainous terrain. On many of the slopes we saw big flood lights shining down, probably an Army defense against unwanted visitors in the night. We passed several checkpoints – with young Turkish soldiers surprised by our presence. At one we talked a bit longer – they said it’s a rule to at least stop passing traffic for 20 minutes. The why of our presence baffled them, because according to the soldiers this place of Turkey was the worst part of the country. All a matter of perception – they are not welcome here.

Just before Uludere we found a bunch of trucks parked besides the road. We parked between them to avoid being noted by army patrols. Amazingly we had a quiet night and woke up the next day in front of an army hide-out.  The road from Uludere to Sirnak during april 2009 is one big construction site. Besides the road a pipeline is made leading to Sirnak. This city is the biggest when coming from Iran. Here we got new supplies after nearly a month of Iran. Apparently the locals don’t see that much tourists – our truck drew a lot of attention including that strange white dog.

The road in retrospect

Looking back the stretch from the Iranian border to Sirnak is a considerable haul. It’s just 280 Km but it takes about 1,5 day to get through with the many checkpoints. For the scenery it’s well worth the hassle, same as for the local population. As for perceived danger, we’ve been in more dangerous situations in Baluchistan (Iran, Pakistan). The weapon density here was the maximum we’ve ever seen, although we didn’t feel threatened at all. Probably we were the only ones in the region without a weapon.

For those heading towards the Iranian border, there are two options. One is to try and enter the Kurdish region at Sirnak and onwards. If that one fails, the second option is to get to Van and then drive down to Yuksekova. The 3-way junction and checkpost about 34 Km before Yuksekova is decisive, get past this one, you most likely reach the Iranian border. Forget about coming here in winter time. The road is most likely closed.
Also the border gets a fair bit of trading, when we crossed there were about 60+ trucks on the Turkish side waiting for the border to open.

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