In December last year, just before my #FlightFree2020 began, I took a hike across northern Iraq, where my long-time collaborator in adventure Leon McCarron has been working with the Abraham Path Initiative on a nascent trail project in the region.
We’re talking about landscapes that were once part of ancient Mesopotamia, so the route traverses a very long cultural timeline on its way across the southwest flanks of the Zagros range.
Despite years of experience of working and travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan, Leon really has his work cut out for him – for reasons I’ll come to shortly – but I’m excited to see this trail unfolding in a place still seen by many as inaccessible, uninteresting, or simply too dangerous to visit.
Here are a few of the highlights of this journey – and a taste, perhaps, of things to come.
Reached via a southerly approach from Erbil, the town of Akrê sits nestled in the foothills of the Zagros, hinting at the ridges and peaks beyond. We started the day with a classic breakfast of fresh bread with cream, yoghurt, cheese and tahini, washed down with several glasses of absurdly sugary tea.
Above the town sits the ruined Akrê Citadel, dating back to the 6th century BCE. We climbed a steep path among back-yards and chickens and drying laundry, emerging above the town and traversing the hillside to reach the site. It wasn’t hard to see why this prominent hilltop was chosen for the fortification: it commands a view not just of the endless plains below but of the entire surrounding mountainside.
Ancient water channels chiselled out of the bedrock took us deeper into the hills, where a tangled track continued to wind upwards, this man-made route easy to identify by the semi-collapsed rock retaining walls. I wondered why such a substantial construction effort had once been made here; the answer lay at the summit of the ridge, where on a peak a couple of hundred metres along from the pass stood another fortification, more prominent still in its overlook of the lowlands to the south and the oak forests to the north.
Plunging down through the autumnal woods along braided cattle trails, we reached the lunar landscapes of the valley below, picking a route among the crumbly protrusions of rock to reach the town of Dinarta. With no accommodation available, we followed local advice and knocked on the gates of the town’s peshmerga base, where we were quartered for the night without hesitation.
The following day we clambered up a steep valley among orchards and vineyards and out onto a loose scree slope. Traversing the mountainside, we came level with a checkpoint on the paved road that passed the ridge, stopping for a chat and a cup of tea with the conscripts and officers in command.
Much of the Barzan valley north of the pass is, I was told, a conservation zone, strictly protected against hunting and logging. The rule is not inscribed in written legislation or in the framework of any international convention on protected areas; rather, it is self-enforced by the strict codes of honour and hierarchy that govern tribal Kurdish society.
We walked some of the finest trails I’d yet seen, passing through patches of leafy woodland tucked away among fierce mountains.
Unable to remove my trail-designer hat, I noted that many of these paths were propped up by rock walls several metres tall, indicating – at some point in the mists of history – a calculated investment of time and effort to make these routes not just passable but able to withstand the heaviest of traffic and the highest of floodwaters.
Other clues told of a historical cultural landscape moulded to support a population of thousands. We passed ruined barracks at pinch-points in gorges and stumbled over fragments of irrigation infrastructure, the hillsides above extensively terraced for agriculture. But these valleys were now uninhabited, the villages nothing but sporadic ruins poking from the grass, victims of a centuries-long story of violent oppression – most recently by the Iraqi army itself under Saddam Hussain.
I’ve travelled extensively throughout the Middle East, and I often find myself playing the role of the perennially embarrassed Englishman, apologising for the actions of past governments I never voted for. It is very rare to find people in this region who support foreign interventionism by the UK, yet the Iraqi Kurds – particularly of the generation who defended traditionally Kurdish territory against the genocidal tendencies of Saddam – seem to be the exception. Many told of fighting personally alongside the British. I wondered if this might be explained by the maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
I mentioned a very long cultural timeline, and I meant it. Shanidar Cave was first explored by modern-day archaeologists in the mid-20th century. They uncovered the first Neanderthal burial site known to science, including skeletons dated to over 50,000 years ago, some of which appeared to have been buried alongside ceremonial garlands of flowers.
Like most ongoing archaeological digs, it isn’t much to look at; a pit covered in latticeworks of surveyor’s string and blue plastic tarps. We took a few minutes to dwell on the story of the site, letting our imaginations bring it to life from the mouth of the colossal cave.
The weather was not particularly kind to us, and I wouldn’t be the first writer to make an unimaginative quip about it not dampening our spirits, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll say that the hills and gorges between Shanidar and Rwandooz rank among some of the most ruggedly beautiful and geologically varied I’ve come across in some time. And I spend a hell of a lot of time out hiking.
In the valleys north of Rawanduz, I noticed an abundance of what, on the blurry scans of the Soviet military maps I’d downloaded for the area, looked like the symbols for churches. Exploring the mountains upriver from Darghala, we decided to try and find one such church, or at least some evidence of its former existence.
The approach was lined with the ruins of old terraces and canals, as well as several walnut trees, which in the Caucasus I would pick out as tell-tale signs of a nearby monastery, trees often being planted at the same time as the buildings’ construction to feed their future inhabitants. I wondered if the same might be true here.
It was a classic location; easily defensible with the narrowing of the valley downriver, on the point of a confluence of two tributaries, nearby to water and ample growing land for orchards, and pastures flanking the site on every side. In the end, all we spotted were the remains of a few structural walls, and what might have been a gravestone or two – the opening lines of forgotten stories that would need to be unearthed later.
We were unable to cross the pass above us for reasons of security. It had been snowing on the peaks, which meant that the members of the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party who lived high in the mountains – more commonly known as the PKK – had had to descend the slopes, and had arrived at a village through which we were due to travel.
As the journey matured, it became clear to me that Leon and the Abraham Path Initiative faced two unique challenges in making this trail safe, accessible, and ultimately successful.
One was the ongoing game of cat and mouse between clusters of PKK fighters, the Turkish drones that hunted them, and the ever-shifting seasons in the mountains.
The other was the uncleared landmines that persisted across the region. Not a step had been taken in exploring and mapping this route without scrutinising all available data, then hiring knowledgeable local guides as well, just to be on the safe side. These were not issues I’d ever really had to worry about with the Transcaucasian Trail – as long as I kept clear of militarised borders and disputed territories – and I suddenly realised how luxurious were the circumstances of my own trail development work compared to this.
Our hike remarried with modern-day Kurdistan as we closed in on Choman, following a route pioneered in the interwar era by British explorer Archibald Hamilton to expedite goods moving across the Zagros.
Choman has the character of a classic mountain town, set in a vast bowl of alpine peaks and ridges already white with the winter’s first snows. We met with Omar, a local mountain guide on a mission to almost single handedly transform his town into what a friend quipped was becoming the ‘Chomanix’ of Iraqi Kurdistan. We drank absurdly sugary tea on the floor of his opulently renovated home. We talked of the future; of trails, of mountains and of dreams.
Then it was over, and I was packing my bags to return to the Caucasus.
But something is happening in the mountains of Kurdistan. And I have a feeling I’ll be back to find out more.