The author rides near Choman, Iraq.
The author rides near Choman, Iraq.
The author rides near Choman, Iraq. (Balazs Gardi)

My Crazy Kurdistan Road Trip

The Kurdish region of Iraq is home to spectacular peaks, wild rivers, and fiercely hospitable people, and it could be the Middle East’s next big adventure tourism destination. But there’s one small catch: it’s still dangerous as hell.

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The months apart were not kind.

When we finally track down our motorcycle on the outskirts of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, the engine is dead and all three tires are flat. The sidecar has become a trash can, strewed with empty beer bottles, newspapers, and a splash of motor oil. “Sorry, old girl,” sighs Carmen Gentile, my traveling companion and the bike’s owner. He slumps in the saddle for a while, head bowed, a little heartbroken. “I’m sad, dude,” he says. “This bike deserves so much better.”

In the summer of 2017, while reporting on a campaign by Iraqi forces to purge the Islamic State from the city of Mosul, Carmen had found the bike—a Russian-made Ural—buried under the rubble of a mortar strike, its gas tank crushed, its fenders shot through with bullet holes. An incurable moto enthusiast, he launched a salvage mission that involved jury-rigging parts and schmoozing his way through countless checkpoints on the 50-mile drive east to Erbil. The bike was then left with a friend of a friend, who apparently didn’t share Carmen’s affections.

Nearly a year later, with the jihadists on the run, we’re back to explore Iraqi Kurdistan’s potential as the Middle East’s next great adventure destination. Our plan is to dust off the Ural and ride with photographer Balazs Gardi, who’ll rent a car, traveling from the sunbaked plains up to the mountains that flare along the Iranian border—an alpine wilderness that’s home to virgin peaks, raging whitewater, and the region’s first national park. It’s not far from where a group of American hikers were taken prisoner nine years ago by Iranian border guards, an incident that muted the media hype that Kurdistan was the next big thing. But I’m in contact with a guide who knows the terrain well, and several high-octane travel dispatches I’ve seen online (“Taking on Kurdistan’s Wildest Mountain River,” “Iraqi Kurdistan: Intrepid Skiers Break New Ground”) suggest that a serious outdoor scene is emerging in the high country. We want to check it out.

The Ural won’t get us there, obviously, so we head to a bustling moto market in a different part of town. Rows of cheap Iranian 125cc four-speeds fail to rouse our spirits, but we have no choice. We settle on a pair of Honda knockoffs, slap on some stickers of Che Guevara for good luck, and ride down to the old city center to buy last-minute provisions.

I’ve been here before. On my first visit to Kurdistan, in 2007, the Iraq War was raging full tilt. It was the deadliest year yet for U.S. troops. Sections of Baghdad and the southern cities were no-go zones, terrorized by suicide car bombs and sectarian death squads. In contrast, Erbil, a city of around one million, was a bastion of calm guarded by the fearsome Peshmerga (“those who face death”), the Kurds’ national fighting force.

Environmental activist Nabil Musa runs a tributary of Iraq’s Rawanduz River.
Environmental activist Nabil Musa runs a tributary of Iraq’s Rawanduz River. (Balazs Gardi)

Having a U.S. passport in Kurdistan was a bonus. Soon after the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. enforced a no-fly zone over the region that helped stop Saddam Hussein’s brutal counteroffensive against the Kurdish rebellion, and Kurds have never forgotten that. I was invited to a wedding, ate free meals, and celebrated the Muslim New Year with friends and fireworks beneath the towering walls of the ancient citadel of Erbil, one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the world. It’s hard to believe that two wars have happened since my last visit.

Carmen and I park next to a glitzy new plaza that fronts the citadel and hike up to the viewing platform. The skyline bristles with shopping malls, cranes, and half-built condominium complexes thrown up by developers from Turkey and Dubai. Swarms of package tourists from Baghdad shamelessly snap selfies around us, but I don’t see any Westerners.

Kurdish authorities have tried hard to promote Kurdistan as “the other Iraq,” but to most foreigners it’s still a land synonymous with the bloodshed and beheadings that have stigmatized the rest of the country. In September 2017, flush from victory in their three-year battle against Islamic State militants, Kurdish leaders made matters worse by holding an independence referendum, in defiance of Iraq’s central government. It backfired catastrophically. Iraqi forces retaliated by seizing swaths of oil-rich Kurdish lands and banning international flights to the region’s airports. We arrived just weeks after the embargo was lifted.

Following a stroll through another market for supplies, we return to our bikes. This time mine won’t fire up. I stomp the kick-starter again and again, issuing a flurry of f-bombs and drawing a small crowd.

“Engine too much gas,” a mustached man says when I stop to catch my breath.

I grunt out a yes. Inevitably, he asks me where I’m from.

“Ah, Amreekah friend,” he says when I tell him. “Rambo number one! Bush good also.”

Another man squats down to my right and starts stripping the plastic off my ignition cable with his teeth. He pulls out a knife to finish the job, twists the bare copper threads into a braid, and taps the spark plug. On his cue, I give the bike a sharp kick, and it starts with a whimper, then revs to life. The group erupts into trilling, high-pitched ululations that send us off.

Kurdish hospitality is as robust as ever, but the early signals are clear. Nothing will come easy on this trip.

In the morning, we ride northeast up Hamilton Road, an old British-built highway that snakes some 110 miles from Erbil to the Iranian frontier. Near the city limits, a series of Peshmerga checkpoints give way to rolling hills dotted with farmhouses and stone fortresses dating back to the tenth century. Balazs is following us in a chase car, but it’s not long before we’re chasing him.

Just as the landscape opens up, my bike starts to flag. I pin the throttle, to no effect. A cling-clang of loose metal rattles around in my engine. “Man, this is not good!” I shout to Carmen, who’s having gear problems of his own. The predicament is made worse by Kurdish motorists who seem hell-bent on running us off the road. We sputter on, past a billboard honoring the “immaculate precious bodies” of all the Peshmerga martyrs who’ve fought and died to defend this terrain.

Kurdish history is a catalog of tragedy. Blessed with natural beauty and cursed by location, the ancestral heartland straddles a tangle of ethnic, religious, and geopolitical fault lines where conflict has ebbed and flowed for centuries. During the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, when Allied powers divvied up the region, plans to create an independent Kurdish state never came to fruition. Today some 30 million stateless Kurds are spread across four countries—Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. In Iraq, decades of ruthless government persecution have hardened the Kurds’ drive to carve out a homeland of their own.

Two hours, many stops, and maybe 35 miles up the road, we pause to rest at the edge of a sprawling farm valley outside the town of Shaqlawa. A pair of aging freedom fighters in traditional Kurdish costume—baggy pantaloons, vest, cummerbund, head wrap—are thumbing prayer beads in the dusky light. They say as-salaamu alaikum (peace be upon you) and touch their hearts. I introduce myself and say what a beautiful place it is.

“You should have been here in ’74,” says Qasim Abdullah, the taller one, warming up to tell a story. “Saddam’s fighters were up there and we were over there, firing artillery back and forth.” He points across the valley to where he was. “At night we sometimes had to cross minefields between us. Too many men died here.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, Saddam tried to Arabize Iraq’s estimated six million Kurds. More than 4,000 Kurdish villages were razed and entire communities forcibly relocated. When Iraqi Kurdish fighters sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, Saddam launched a scorched-earth campaign of bombing and chemical attacks that claimed at least 50,000 lives. Ahmad Mustafa, the shorter, stouter man, says that 20 of his neighbors were rounded up and executed. An additional 120 were taken from the next village. “No one knows what happened to them,” he says.

Like most able-bodied Kurdish men, Qasim and Ahmad fought with the guerrillas for several years. But with families to look after, they eventually fled to Iran, part of the more than one million Kurds who left the country in waves that lasted into the early 1990s. A 1991 uprising ultimately evicted Iraqi forces from the north and led to de facto self-rule, thanks largely to the U.S.-enforced no-fly zone that targeted Iraqi jets flying over Kurdish airspace, but not before a bloody crackdown by Saddam. Rival Kurdish factions then turned against each other in a civil war that ended in 1998, splitting the government in two. The groups did not merge again until after Saddam’s ouster and the drafting of the 2005 constitution.

As Iraq plunged into chaos, Kurdistan became the paradigm of peace and prosperity that American leaders had envisioned for the entire country. Qasim and Ahmad came home to try and realize the dream of a free and independent state. But that dream is fading. Clashes with the Iraqi army following the hasty independence referendum saw the vaunted Peshmerga concede to Iraq a reported 40 percent of the disputed territory they had controlled since the 2014 fight against the Islamic State. This area includes the city of Kirkuk, whose oil fields drive the Kurdish economy and would be the lifeblood of a state. Turkey is launching cross-­border attacks against Kurdish rebels and talking about a ground invasion, while Iran is targeting Iranian Kurdish opposition bases inside Kurdistan. “We’ve never been comfortable in our lives,” says Qasim. “This peace won’t last.”

Back on the highway, the knocking in my engine seems to be amplified by the darkness, and the bike stalls out on a steep, potholed descent. My rear wheel slides, and I almost crash before skidding to a stop. Balazs is somewhere up ahead in the car, so I wait for Carmen. A half hour passes before I walk back down the road and find him talking with a Peshmerga officer at a checkpoint. Turns out his front tire went flat and I’d left him behind. “Nearly lost it,” he says. “What happened to you?” He bursts into lunatic laughter when I tell him I’ve stalled.

The motorcycle trip is becoming a fiasco. Waiting for a flatbed trailer to haul our broken bikes back to Erbil, Carmen decides to fold and go home to Croatia early. He has just published a war memoir about getting shot in the face with a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan, and he needs to prepare for a book tour in the U.S. Balazs and I will head deeper into the backcountry in pursuit of wild mountains and rivers. But first we need to find our guide.

“Man, we're gonna do some crazy shit together,” Nabil Musa told me the first time we connected on the phone. Nabil was recommended by an American friend who used to live in Kurdistan, with the caveat that he’s an environmentalist, not a backcountry guide. I took his gonzo talk as just that: talk.

As Iraq’s lone representative for Waterkeeper Alliance, a global advocacy group based in New York City, Nabil is tasked with protecting waterways that flow through Kurdistan. This involves a mix of protest stunts and derring-do: multi-day swims across freshwater lakes that are being poisoned by industrial pollution, kayak trips to highlight the threat of multiplying Turkish dams, and so forth. More recently, an antidumping campaign had him doing headstands by the oil pools outside Sulaymaniyah, his birthplace and Kurdistan’s second-largest city. Balazs and I detour to meet him there.

Nabil is 41 but appears a decade older, with the road-worn look of a chain-smoker who’s spent his life on the move. Wearing sandals, shorts, and a tank top that reveals a strong build, he cooks us dinner at his apartment and riffs rapid-fire about his plans to raft and trek in the mountains around Choman, a gateway town near the Iran-Iraq border. He’s been stuck in Sulaymaniyah for more than a month, and his restlessness verges on manic. “I just need to get out,” he says in a faint British accent picked up abroad. “I go mad if I don’t get outside enough.”

In the morning, we load his pickup from a garage full of kayaking and rafting gear, and soon we’re back on the road, climbing past sawtooth ridges and burned limestone canyons, with “Guantanamera” blasting out of his speakers. In a cloud of smoke, Nabil recalls how, back in the mid-1990s, during the civil war, the two main Kurdish political factions—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani, and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—exchanged mortar and artillery fire on the strategic heights above us. Thousands died in the fighting, and Kurdish hopes for self-determination nearly perished with them.

Like most Kurds of his generation, Nabil has seen violence. As a teenager during the 1991 uprising against Saddam, he witnessed the death of his two best friends during a battle for the Iraqi Intelligence Service’s Sulaymaniyah headquarters, a former torture chamber that’s now a bullet-pocked museum. In 1996, during the civil war, he fled overland to Turkey, then to Europe. He spent several years busking on the streets and joined a traveling theater group in the UK before returning home permanently in 2011 to take the Waterkeeper job.

In the time Nabil had been away, a population boom and rapid development had taken a toll. Trash and toxic runoff choked the river he grew up fishing. Nabil had dreamed of this river while in exile, and he was angry that no one seemed to care. “Everyone here is obsessed with security and making money,” he says. “The environment didn’t have many defenders.” A friend told him about the Waterkeeper gig, and he decided to become “a voice for the rivers.” He has tattoos of the organization’s logo, a sturgeon mosaic, on his calf and shoulder.

About 20 miles past the resort town of Rawanduz, Nabil pulls over near a bridge spanning the Azadi River, one of Kurdistan’s fastest. Or so he says, and I’m taking his word for it. My online searches yield no details on the waterway, and there are no legitimate outfitters in the area for us to consult. Nabil figures that the stretch of rapids we’re sizing up are Class IV-plus, though he admits he can’t be sure. To his knowledge, no one has ever run them. He wants to be the first.

A stocky fire-brigade rescue swimmer named Khalil Mahmoud walks over and asks what we’re up to. When we tell him, he says, “You are not right in the head. It’s full of trash, and there are hidden currents—this is a death river.” Every year, 15 to 20 people drown, he says, adding, “Four days ago I pulled out another man.” A government placard behind him states the obvious: SWIMMING HERE IS DANGEROUS.

Nabil starts pacing back and forth, taking long pulls on his cigarette. “Fuck it,” he finally says. “Let’s do this.”

I like Nabil's can-do attitude, but our combined experience running hardcore rapids is limited. On the drive up, he told us about the last time he paddled a portion of the Azadi, in 2014, as part of an anti-dam campaign. One of the men in his group had his hand cut open by underwater debris. My whitewater experience includes a few Class IV rafting trips in the Himalayas, all with internationally recognized outfitters.

“You’re free to do whatever you want—I just have to warn you,” Khalil says. But he’s also a little excited by the turn of events and offers to stand at the water’s edge to save us if we flip. He points to the opposite bank, where a nasty concrete shelf juts out beyond the crux of the whitewater, bristling with shafts of rebar. “If you make it through, you must avoid that!” he says.

Balazs hangs back with Khalil to photograph our passage through the crux. Nabil and I drive a few miles upriver, inflate a big raft, and don helmets and vests. “Just follow my lead,” he says, “and when I say paddle, give it everything you got.” We push off, me in the front, him driving at the rear, easy drifting. The cliff to our left soars more than 300 feet and, at intervals, hangs over the river like a roof, lined with tumbledown vines that glisten from the last rainfall. On a day like today, it’s hard to believe that there’s no one else out here.

Kurdish authorities have tried hard to promote Kurdistan as “the other Iraq,” but to most foreigners it’s still a land synonymous with the bloodshed and beheadings that have stigmatized the rest of the country.

Suddenly, Nabil shouts “Hard right!” We’re too late. An eddy catches the edge of the boat and we whipsaw around, bouncing backward off the rocks. I turn to look at Nabil, alarmed.

“OK, that was my bad,” he says. “I fucked that one up.”

We shake it off and keep drifting. The next rapids are slippery smooth. Rounding a wide bend, the flow starts to surge, the roar of the water becomes more deafening. I thought I had a good read on the rapid from above, but at this level, the line through the boulders is invisible.“Which way?” I shout back. “Which way? Nabil?”

The current has a grip on us, and all I hear is “Paddle!” In an instant, we smash straight into a rock and spin sideways into an adjoining chute of whitewater that almost throws me from the raft.

As we slide deeper into the churn, I see Khalil, poised in a wrestler’s crouch, ready to jump in to save us. Balazs is right behind him, tracking us with his lens. At that moment we’re swept left and shot into the bank of broken concrete. The side of the raft shrieks against the metal spikes. Somehow it doesn’t burst. We spend the last leg of the trip gliding in silence, soaked and shaken.

“If this raft were Chinese, we’d be dead,” Nabil says as we step onto the riverbank. My jaws are clenched.

With no footpath to speak of, Khalil and another man help us scrape the raft up the canyon face. Down the road, a flatbed truck is backing up to the river’s edge to dump a load of rubble. “Look at this bastard,” says Nabil. He jogs over and turns on his camera to shame the driver. The driver stares back at him, confused. Tons of rocks go crashing down the bank, adding new complications to the rapid we just passed through.

Night is falling when we pull into Choman. Erbil, around 100 miles west of here, seems a world away. The main street is empty and quiet, except for the patter of yellow and green political banners that flap in a crisp breeze. Up ahead, Mount Halgurd—at 11,831 feet, the highest peak situated entirely inside Iraq—is socked in by clouds.

During the drive, I asked Nabil if it would be possible for us to climb Halgurd. Ever the optimist, he said we’d have to speak to his friend Bakhtyar Bahjat, acting director of Halgurd-Sakran, the first national park in Iraqi Kurdistan. I’d been told that the roughly 460-square-mile park—set high in the border triangle of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey—contains unclimbed peaks and dense forests prowled by bears, wolves, and Persian leopards. It’s also home to armed guerrillas whose presence both protects an extraordinary natural bounty and keeps part of the park off-limits.

The next morning, Bakhtyar meets us at the visitor center. He’s a hale man with a buzz cut and the earnest gusto of a schoolteacher (his day job). His crisp suit and upbeat attitude are at odds with the dereliction around us. The park’s carved entrance sign has been pulled from the ground and leans sideways against a wall. The courtyard fountain is dry, and the faux-log-cabin-style offices—crammed with topographical maps, pastoral nature paintings, and creepy taxidermy—are covered by a sheet of dust, remnants of a grand dream now forsaken. “Unfortunately, we are facing some challenges at the moment,” Bakhtyar says.

Policeman Kayvan Ezzat hunts for mushrooms.
Policeman Kayvan Ezzat hunts for mushrooms. (Balazs Gardi)

Background information on the park is scarce, but some articles about it say that the vision for a national park came to Choman’s former mayor Abdulwahid Gwani after a 2010 trip to Austria. Gwani mobilized a team of international experts to draw up boundaries and a multiyear growth plan to transform one of the most land-mine-

ridden areas in the world into a nature reserve. Backed by a million-dollar grant from the Kurdish government, he expanded the park to include Mount Halgurd and other peaks, brought in teams of designers, and hired dozens of rangers, mostly Peshmerga veterans, to crack down on illicit hunting and tree felling. With time, Bakhtyar says, many locals began to “see tourism as a future.”

And then came the Islamic State.

In June 2014, the jihadists stormed across the Nineveh Plains and eventually made it to within 20 miles of Erbil. Every one of the park’s rangers dashed to the front lines. Islamic State bombs and booby traps stymied their counteroffensive, and demining teams working around the park were called in to help. Globally, oil prices crashed, slashing the salaries of park employees. Bakhtyar went back to working full-time as a teacher. His codirector left for a job in Erbil. Poaching resumed, and locals hacked trees to replace winter fuel they could no longer afford. Worse, in mid-2015, a three-decade-old conflict reignited between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), leftist militants whose territory overlaps with the park, bringing regular air strikes and artillery barrages that reportedly have killed civilians. A final blow came last year when Gwani died.

“Right now, Halgurd-Sakran is just a name on paper,” says Bakhtyar.

With park visits down about 80 percent in 2018 compared with the year before, Bakhtyar is in an accommodating mood. No matter that we want to climb Iraq’s tallest mountain on a day’s notice and don’t have any gear. We stop by the local mountaineering club and enter a dank basement, where Bakhtyar starts digging through milk crates. In short order, I’m equipped with a yard sale’s worth of secondhand climbing gear from Eastern Europe: a neon snowsuit, trekking poles, gloves, and bent crampons. Balazs, who stands a brooding six foot five, is issued black pleather gaiters that rise to his knees and might have seen previous action in an S&M club.

Up on the mountain the next day, a drift of leaden clouds obscure the summit, dimming our chances of reaching it. But I’m more concerned about what’s underfoot. Mount Halgurd’s flanks are littered with land mines and unexploded munitions from conflicts that date back four decades. Kurdish fighters based in these mountains have alternately faced off against Iranian attackers, Iraqi jets armed with Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons, Turkish commandos, and each other during civil war.

Scanning the wind-raked slope we’re crossing, I see bits of shrapnel, mortar shells blasted into rusty flower shapes, Soviet anti­personnel mines, and the melted husks of American-made “toe poppers.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve been up here too many times,” Bakhtyar says, reading our minds. He assures us that the route we’re on has been cleared by experts, though we don’t see any sign of a trail and demining efforts around here seem to be scattershot at best.

Earlier that morning, on the drive up the Iraqi-army-built supply road, we passed a government warning sign about land mines that had been bulldozed by locals. Bakhtyar explained that land appropriation is on the rise, but there’s nothing he can do since the park has no rangers left to enforce the rules. Farther along, red metal posts topped with white skull-and-bones symbols line the road. These indicate mines still to be removed. But it appears that rockslides have shifted the positions of some of the posts.

Gravestones of PKK fighters in Qandil
Gravestones of PKK fighters in Qandil (Balazs Gardi)

Less than 30 minutes into our trek, we see other posts higher up the slope, which we’re traversing single file. Several feet to my right, I spot a beige plastic disc in the gravel.

“Is that what I think it is?”

Bakhtyar is in front listening to music on his phone. He turns and squints at the mine, a bit confused.

“Hmm… Someone must have thrown it,” he says.

“So this is not a minefield, but there are mines everywhere,” Balazs deadpans.

Bakhtyar is already walking again, lost in thought or pretending not to hear us. Nabil looks unsure.

Balazs and I exchange a glance. Both of us spent many years covering the war in Afghanistan, often hitched to U.S. combat units in the badlands of Helmand province, a Taliban hellscape. Firefights in 100-degree heat were bad, but nothing was worse than the improvised explosive devices that routinely took lives and limbs. After starting a family, Balazs had sworn off war zones. I’d done the same, but it took a couple of years before I could stroll through a park without reflexively appraising the ground.

Now I’m trying to walk in Bakhtyar’s footsteps, to minimize contact with uncertain terrain. My legs feel sluggish, the trekking poles an added liability.

I tell myself that I’m being melodramatic. But a familiar low-grade dread is setting in. As we pick our way through the final stretch of rocky dirt, heading for the snow line, Kurdistan is starting to feel a lot like Iraq.

It's well past noon when we reach the shoulder; clouds sheath the entire peak, which is under a fresh layer of snow. We pull out our crampons and lace up. Bakhtyar reckons that it will take at least another four hours to reach the summit, maybe more. Given our late start, we were kidding ourselves that we could reach the top and get down in a day.

I hand out energy bars, and Nabil shares a story about the last time he tried to climb Halgurd. A macho American guy in his group insisted that he knew a better route up the south side. Soon the climbers found themselves wandering lost through waist-deep snow, with mine posts sticking up now and then. After telling us this, Nabil says his foot hurts, so he’s going to head back to the truck, taking a roundabout route to avoid encounters with unexploded ordnance. “You guys enjoy,” he says.

Balazs and I follow Bakhtyar up a steep bowl toward the base of the rock face. The going is slow. For the next hour we crunch and stumble, the warped crampons sliding off my feet. We eventually stop at the edge of a couloir scattered with ice fragments. The passage is technical; thick snowfall dims visibility. Go any farther and we’re pushing our luck for no good reason. It’s time to turn back.

“We have a saying,” says Bakhtyar, trying to lighten the mood. “Touching the top is not like touching the stone of Kaaba,” a reference to a sacred shrine in Mecca. I catch my breath. Balazs tightens his gaiters while Bakhtyar takes selfies. Then we turn and start down.

The side of the raft shrieks against the metal spikes. Somehow it doesn’t burst. We spend the last leg of the trip gliding in silence, soaked and shaken. “If this raft were Chinese, we’d be dead,” Nabil says.

The going is smooth until the ice runs out and we’re on rock and scree. Bakhtyar decides we’ll follow a different route down, one that leads us through an alley of loose, rain-slicked rock. Clumsy steps send a jackrabbit scrambling up the opposite side of the ravine, giving me a jolt. To keep my mind occupied, I take a cue from Bakhtyar and look for wild mushrooms, which are plentiful this time of year.

And then I spot another mine. I warn Balazs to give it a wide berth. We shuffle down the scree with active feet, nervous and hyperalert, studying the ground obsessively. Bakhtyar is way ahead of us, singing along to folk songs about PKK martyrs. He has supreme confidence in his memory—or a cool fatalism I don’t share.

Nabil is sucking on a cigarette when we reach the truck. Butts dot the ground. Apparently he strayed from the “safe route” he intended to follow, an error he realized only when he looked up and saw skull-and-bones markers staring back at him. “Man, I nearly shit myself,” he says. He swipes his phone to show us the highlights, including an unexploded 82-millimeter mortar round.

The sun dips behind us on our drive back to Choman, casting shadows on Mount Sakran, across the valley. Beyond it lies the Iranian frontier, where in 2009 three young American hikers were arrested by border guards and imprisoned—one for 14 months, the others for more than two years. This foreboding stretch of land is seeded with land mines and the bones of countless Iranian troops who parachuted into paradise during the war. To this day, snipers stationed at the high army posts take potshots at Kurdish shepherds who wander too close. At night their floodlights glare down like menacing eyes.

Near the bottom of the mountain, we pass a scruffy Western backpacker on foot. Nabil throws the truck in reverse and we greet him. He says his name is Kaspars, that he’s from Latvia, and that he plans to climb Halgurd at dawn. “Some locals are going to meet me at the top,” he says. “They told me it’s easy. Just follow the path.”

“Who told you that?” Bakhtyar says, scowling.

The kid can’t remember their names but assures us: “They are nice guys.”

“You know, there are mine fields up there,” I say. “No joke—we just walked out of one.” Everyone chimes in, and the Latvian seems to reconsider. We wish him luck. For the rest of the drive, Bakhtyar grumbles about who Kaspars might have talked to, the dangerous ignorance of some people in Choman, and the general lack of order since the park project fell apart.

By definition, war is the enemy of development and tourism. Sometimes, though, it’s nature’s friend. According to Bakhtyar, the only part of Halgurd-Sakran National Park where poachers and tree cutters don’t operate with impunity is the roughly 20 percent under the control of the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. “They are hardcore fighters, but they also care a lot about nature,” he says. “It’s at the heart of their philosophy.”

I want to meet these conservationist rebels. Their stronghold is just a short drive from Choman, one valley over, in the Qan­dil Mountains. Trouble is, since fighting resumed with Turkey three years ago, air strikes and shelling attacks there have escalated. And with the presidential elections coming up in Turkey, the military has been ratcheting up bombardments to please its Islamist nationalist base.

My first e-mail query to the PKK came back negative. Near the end of our stay in Choman, I follow up. We don’t need a formal reception, I write—we just want to make a quick stop at a martyrs’ museum and cemetery that Nabil visited several years earlier, to take pictures and learn more about how the PKK is protecting its homeland from pollution, poaching, and overdevelopment. This time the guerrillas’ contact, nom de guerre Zagros, agrees.

PKK guerilla Egid Serhad mans a checkpoint in Qandil.
PKK guerilla Egid Serhad mans a checkpoint in Qandil. (Balazs Gardi)

“You can visit the Museum,” he writes. “You can also visit the site of the Zargali massacre. As I told you, the guerrillas cannot accompany you. Better not to stay in the area for too long. Because both of the sites have been bombarded before.”

Twenty minutes south of Choman, we reach the turn to the Qandil Mountains. The sign at the junction gives no indication of where we are, as though the valley road does not exist. Nabil gets out at the KDP checkpoint to register our names with local authorities, who tell us we’re on our own. We wrap around a ridge and a lush green vista unfurls in front of us. A couple of miles on, two PKK guerrillas emerge from the trees in traditional Kurdish shawls, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, their vests sagging with the weight of hand grenades. They wave us on.

We’re waiting by a destroyed hillside portrait of Abdullah Ocalan, the group’s founder, when Zagros pulls up and extends a hand. “You are most welcome in Qandil,” he says. I thank him and ask about the drones from Turkey. “They are not here at the moment, but when they see guerrilla clothes, armed men, they call in jets, which arrive in less than 15 minutes. The past few months have been especially bad—they hit this road three days ago.” Zagros suggests we head toward the museum. “Also bombed,” he adds with an apologetic smile.

I’m eager to move. Balazs and I join Zag­ros in his truck, and it dawns on me that we’re going to be driving 30 miles on a road that is regularly targeted by air strikes. With Nabil trailing us, we’re in what amounts to a convoy. In his blunt, Hungarian manner, Balazs voices what I’m thinking: “There are no other cars on the road.” Farther along, the charred wreckage of a family vehicle destroyed by a Turkish strike offers a visual we would rather not see.

Zagros drives with the beatific expression of a man who has surrendered to his fate. Handsome, with a strong, dimpled chin and a brushy black mustache, he says he used to be a high school teacher in western Iran, living a comfortable middle-class life. But he was haunted by the persecution of his people. When Ocalan was captured during a joint U.S.-Turkish operation in Kenya in 1999 and placed in solitary confinement in Turkey, Zagros came to view him as something like a Kurdish Nelson Mandela.

Red metal posts topped with skull-and-bones symbols line the road. These indicate mines still to be removed. But it appears that rockslides have shifted the positions of some of the posts.

“Through him, I felt the isolation of the Kurds, that the Kurds have no friends in the world,” he says. He left Iran for the mountains, later joined by five students—two of whom have since been killed. “My concern is not for myself but for my people,” Zagros says. “PKK is not only a party, it’s a new way of life, a new world vision.”

He ticks off the movement’s basic goals: the right to self-determination, the liberation of women, and the protection of the environment. He says that respect for the land and ethnic diversity were destroyed by modern nation-states like Turkey, the militants’ archnemesis, which has tried to erase the identity of its 15 million Kurds, in part by repressing the Kurdish language. “If real democracy is achieved in these countries, the Kurdish question will be resolved,” he says. “Until then we will fight, as long as it takes.”

Women make up more than 45 percent of the PKK’s ranks, from foot soldiers to commanders. Cruising along, we pass giant billboards that show photographs of female guerrillas who were killed in battle against the Islamic State, draped in ammo belts and thick hair braids. Some are buried in the martyrs’ cemetery, where the rows of gravestones are lined with roses and grouped according to the battles they were in: Sinjar, Al Hasakah, Kobani. The museum that stood here at the time of Nabil’s last visit is now just a hole in the ground. An unexploded bomb rests in the adjacent crater.

Near the end of the valley, Zagros stops at a Kurdish nomad camp. We spread out on a tattered kilim in the shade of a tree, and a woman with facial tattoos brings us a pot of hot tea and sugar cubes. Her sons are out grazing their flocks on meadows that run up the valley’s ridges. Moving with the seasons, living off the land, they are the embodiment of an ideal Zagros is ready to die for. For now the air trills with birdsong, rent by the barks of fighting mastiffs. The mountains brim with life.

They also take it.

The explosion echoes across the valley late in the afternoon, when demining teams around Choman are no longer working. Bakhtyar, Nabil, Balazs, and I are on a ridge outside of town, photographing the mountains, and it’s close enough to startle us. Bakhtyar texts around and learns that a local man named Haidar Shwan accidentally set off a mine near the Grmandil Mountains, one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War. He was blown to pieces.

Under a full moon, we drive up to a cemetery overlooking town. A single streetlamp lights a backhoe digging Haidar’s grave, a reminder that nighttime burials are not uncommon. I meet the victim’s brother, who shows me a picture of Haidar: soldier, father of four, and the sixth member of his family killed by a land mine. He suspects Haidar was taking the mine apart for the gunpowder, which sells for $45 a pound on the black market. “It was one of his hobbies,” the brother says.

Packs of men file in from the darkness and gather around the grave, murmuring, until the crowd numbers more than 400. A few shed tears, but most remain stoic, partaking in a ritual of shared grief that has affected families in Choman as far back as they can remember. They’ve all been here before, and they will be here again.

The casket is lowered and spades are handed out. Young men take turns furiously shoveling dirt into the hole, as though Haidar’s safe passage to heaven depended on their speed. Five hours after he was killed, he’s underground. The imam offers a prayer, and everyone goes home.

Kurdish men attend the funeral of landmine victim Haidar Shwan.
Kurdish men attend the funeral of landmine victim Haidar Shwan. (Balazs Gardi)

Our last day in the mountains is May Day, and for Kurds that means picnics. Nabil, Balazs, and I take the valley road out of Choman toward the Iranian border, until the pavement ends. We park by a stream too fast to ford, and a group of friends from Erbil wave us over to their fire for chicken skewers and fermented goat’s milk. We eat our fill and talk about why the U.S., staunch ally of the Kurds since the Saddam era, didn’t back last year’s ill-fated independence bid, considering all the social and economic progress and stability that Iraqi Kurdistan has achieved compared with the rest of Iraq. I don’t have a good answer.

As we get up to leave, one man warns half-jokingly: “Don’t walk too close to Iran.” We hike across a moraine and crest a small ridge to find a potbellied man in pantaloons bent over, staring at the ground, an AK-47 strapped to his back. Kayvan Ezzat, a 37-year-old policeman, is mushroom hunting and invites us to tag along. “I’m fat, but I can climb the mountains all day,” he says with a toothy grin. “Walking out here will make all your troubles go away.” Though with wild animals around and hostile Iranian soldiers within firing range, he always brings the gun. “It’s like having 50 men with you,” he explains.

I ask how he knows where to step. “I know because I’ve been walking in these hills since I was a boy,” he says. “Here is OK, but there and there,” he adds, tracing lines with his hand that I can’t begin to see, “are not OK.”

The mind starts to play its games. My time in Kurdistan has shown me that even confident, in-the-know locals have their blind spots, and missteps can be fatal. I’ve also come to understand that the Kurds’ nature-loving ways are inseparable from the threats that seed and surround their homeland. Living at danger’s edge has a way of magnifying the essential. And in the moment, these haunted mountains sharpen my senses, quicken my pulse, and whisper vast possibilities to be explored. The old expression “Kurds have no friends but the mountains” has a new layer of meaning.

I take in the breeze and exhale. I’ll just follow the policeman’s tracks. And try to think of mushrooms.

Jason Motlagh (@JasonMotlagh) wrote about the Afghan sport of buzkashi in November 2017.

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