A Kurdish Welcome (Kurdistan by motorcycle)

A Kurdish Welcome (Kurdistan by motorcycle)

Each day in Kurdistan, we experience the kindness of people living here. Soon after meeting Taha by chance, we were invited for lunch. Not only that, he became our guide for the day, took us for ice-cream and even paid for our petrol. Later he asked us to spend the night in his house and had his wife prepare a lovely dinner and breakfast for us. We spent a fantastic time with Taha’s family and are happy that our paths crossed.

The most intriguing thing about this man was his life story. He told us about having to leave his home in 1975 to escape Saddam Husain’s attack on Kurdish people, his father’s passing away whilst in the exile, and about the 19 years he spent in the mountains as a peshmerga fighting for the freedom of Kurdistan.

Thanks to people like Taha, willing to sacrifice his life, this region is now autonomous. For me it’s amazing how people who were oppressed for such a long time and have suffered so greatly, can possess so much kindness towards strangers.

Iraqi Kurdistan Kurdistan by motorcycle

Cooking on the road with our small mobile kitchen

Cooking on the road with our small mobile kitchen

Our mobile kitchen (the list of stuff we carry):

Cooking is very important for us as we like to enjoy our food. It also allows us to stay healthy while travelling and to save a lot of money on restaurants. For that reason almost half of what we carry on our motorcycle is related to food and cooking.

Our kitchen equipment and cooking stuff:

  • Small wooden chopping board
  • Vegetable peeler
  • Small knife
  • Greater
  • Coleman saucepans
  • Frying pan
  • 1 plastic spatula
  • 1 large plastic spoon
  • 2 sporks
  • A couple of dish cloves and a roll of toilet paper

Water

We try to have at least 2 litters of water with us at all times but often forget. We learned that having a small bottle (1 litter) with us all the time and then buying additional 2 litters (minimum needed for cooking and cleaning) before camping is the way to go.

Spices = flavours

We carry a lot of spices, which is one of the most important things in our mobile kitchen. We always try to have with us:

  • Turmeric
  • Ground coriander
  • Coriander seeds
  • Ground cumin
  • Cumin seeds
  • Garam masala
  • Dried chilli flakes
  • Hungarian sweet pepper powder (running low)
  • Fresh and dried ginger
  • Salt
  • Star anise seeds
  • Fresh garlic
  • Dried oregano and dill
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Cardamom husks
  • Bay leaves
  • Fenugreek powder

Also in our little mobile kitchen we find:

  • Olive or sunflower oil
  • Soya sauce
  • Coco powder, tea and coffee
  • Little sugar
  • Couple of lemons
  • Onions
  • Red lentils
  • Pasta
  • Tomato pure
  • Bit of flour

Cooking on the road

Van cats; cats that love swimming and eating ice-cream

Van cats; cats that love swimming and eating ice-cream

Have you ever met a cat that loves swimming and enjoys eating ice-cream? No? So you haven’t met Van Cats yet. 

During our stay in Van area we visited the Van Cat House, which was founded by Yüzüncü Yıl Üniversitesi in 1992 to protect the special local cat species. Van cats are rather unique and one of their distinct features can be noticed at first sight. Their eyes have a different colour.

Odd cats

They are also famous for their love of water and enjoying ice-cream. The Van is a natural breed and has probably existed in Turkey for centuries.

Turkish Vans are said to be highly intelligent and can learn tricks and games, such as playing fetch.

Van cat museum

The museum is located in the university (Yüzüncü Yıl Üniversitesi), about 20 minute drive north from the centre of Van. Entrance to the Van Cat House is free and if you’re lucky you can even get to play with the cats.

Although at first I wasn’t sure I wanted to get all the way there to look at cats, I really enjoyed this visit and would recommend it to anyone visiting Van.

Unidentified flying objects in Georgia (pine chafer beetles)

Unidentified flying objects in Georgia (pine chafer beetles)

We both got quite freaked out last night when pitching our tent: two huge things kept flying at us and wherever we moved they seemed to chase us. We thought they were hornets and knowing they can sting multiple times, we dived into our tent as soon as it was up.

In the morning while packing we found an amazing male Polyphylla fullo beetle, otherwise known as the pine chafer /ˈtʃeɪfə /, sleeping on the tarp covering our bike. It was two of these that had been flying at us, not hornets. When we tried to get it off the tarp it hissed at us defensively.

Didn’t mind posing for a few snaps though. Isn’t it beautiful? We love nature. 🙂

Some interesting facts about pine chafer beetles:

  • Body length up to 4 cms.
  • Found in North Africa and Europe.
  • Males have a large antennal fan.
  • They make a scary hissing sound when feel threatened.
  • Adults eat pine foliage.
  • Larvae feed off the roots of grass and similar plants and take up to 4 years to fully develop.
  • Adults fly around at dusk in June and July. You’ll know they’re near when you hear a very loud buzzing.

Please feel free to add to or question our facts about pine chafer beetles. 🙂

Alqosh, an Assyrian surprise in Iraq

Alqosh, an Assyrian surprise in Iraq

Getting lost in Iraq, finding Alqosh

Our plan was to spend 2 weeks in Kurdistan, a northern and independent region of Iraq. My research consisted of a few hours on the internet which resulted in a rough route. We knew it was safe for travel and that people were kind and friendly.

For our first day we chose Alqosh. I’d read somewhere that it was a nice place and assumed it was in Kurdistan so after few hours of riding in scorching heat, we were pretty surprised to find ourselves in Iraq proper.

At the entrance to the town, we were stopped by a soldier at the checkpoint. He didn’t like our idea of camping in Alqosh and insisted that we would have to leave within a couple of hours. We were tired from the heat, didn’t really know where we were going, and on top of that we were now being told that we couldn’t stay overnight in our first destination. All this made us want to turn around and leave, but luckily we went against our feeling.

When we drove into the centre, we were amazed to find Catholic churches and houses painted with biblical scenes. It seemed more like something we’d expect to see in Mexico, not Iraq.

The town was pretty heavily guarded. At our first stop, soldiers armed with guns came to us, wanting to know who we were and what we wanted. When we got to one of the churches, there was another group of soldiers guarding the entrance. Inside the church there was a special celebration, which we were allowed to attend only after confirming that we were also Catholics.

After we’d left the service, the soldiers wanted us to see some interesting sites; a friendly young boy called Fadi showed us around the town, and we got to meet some welcoming locals too.

St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Alqosh

That night we camped in the grounds of St. Joseph’s Orphanage after spending a great time with the boys who live there, and the priests who look after them.  They greeted us with a warm welcome and made sure that we weren’t hungry or thirsty.

We’d heard lot of good things about Kurdish people but that day we got to experience real Iraqi hospitality.

Swimming with dolphins

Swimming with dolphins

Swimming with dolphins in the wild at the coast of Batumi

A week ago we spotted dolphins just off the coast of Batumi. Not just one or two, there were loads of them swimming in groups everywhere. I got very excited and the idea of going in to swim with them in the wild seemed like a dream.

At the time we were with new friends from Poland, Gosia and Rafal, and I managed to convince Gosia to go in with me. I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to do it on my own, but knowing that someone else was also up for it, I started to believe that this really was possible.

We rushed to the apartment to change to swimming clothes, get blankets, warm clothes, and prepare hot tea for when we came out of the sea. We even took vitamin C before heading back to the beach.

We knew that the water would be cold, but we hoped it would be warm enough to get out to the dolphins and back.

We walked very quickly back to the beach, partly because we were excited and didn’t want the dolphins to swim away, but also because we wanted to warm up our bodies before going in. Once there, we quickly changed and braved the freezing cold water.

For a very short time I thought it wasn’t too cold, only to discover after about 15 seconds, that being in this freezing water was unbearable. Starting from my feet and quickly spreading upwards, was the burning feeling of icy water. Without hesitation we both admitted defeat and got out!

We felt a sense of disappointment, but on the other hand we both felt proud and happy that we had tried.

Any water between 0.5 and 5 degrees is considered freezing. In these conditions it is expected that after about 15 minutes exhaustion or unconsciousness occurs. Looking at our little adventure from a time perspective, I think we made the right choice not to persevere. Swimming with dolphins had to wait for a better occasion.

Interesting facts about dolphins:

  • Dolphins never sleep; they use their left and right side of the brain in turns to stay awake.
  • Dolphin skin is like silk.
  • Each dolphin has a name which other dolphins use to call each other.
  • Dolphins live in a tribe which has got its own language.

There are no living creatures in the Black Sea which swim faster than dolphins.

The Story of my Unlucky Sprocket (welded sprocket)

The Story of my Unlucky Sprocket (welded sprocket)

The story of my welded sprocket

This story started a couple of years ago when we were still living in Poland. It was time to replace my old chain. I went to a mechanic and paid for a new one, plus two shiny sprockets. The story should have finished here, but two days later, when riding in remote villages of southern Poland, one of my new sprockets came off while negotiating a turn.  I was lucky enough to stop the motorcycle just before the chain jammed and blocked the wheel.

We were stranded in the middle of nowhere, scared about what had just happened and what could have happened. It was Saturday evening so chances of quick recovery weren’t high. There were no mechanics nearby, only one guy with a welding machine. The sprocket was brand new so I figured I would get another 20.000 km out of it with good care. At the same time I was pretty frightened about the sprocket falling off again. Emotions got the better of me and I agreed to have my sprocket welded to the drive shaft. At the time it seemed a reasonable idea.

Old welded sprocketIn September 2013 we started our big motorcycle journey. We drove from Poland to Georgia. For about 8.000 km all was good, until I realised that the welded sprocket, which was not aligned properly, was causing the chain to vibrate excessively and wearing it down faster than it should. I had to do something about it quickly, but didn’t know what. The weld seemed to have been done well. I posted a question with some pictures on Horizons Unlimited and was told the following:

 

That is WELDED… Permanently… You’re not grinding that sprocket off without taking the end of the shaft with it. He’s turned the shaft molten from the very end.

Quite simply…. You need a new shaft.. It’s F**ked

Unwelding

In spite of this advice, I decided to try my chances at getting the old sprocket removed and somehow a new one attached. All I needed was a new set of sprockets and a chain. On my brief visit to Poland in February this year (2014), I picked up a set and packed it nicely in my hand luggage before catching a flight back to Georgia, where my motorcycle was waiting. Unfortunately the security personnel were not impresses with my motorcycle parts and refused to let me go through. Luckily some guy queuing to check in his suitcase agreed to take both sprockets for me. I picked them up a few hours later on the other side.

New welded sprocketWhen we left the airport, we quickly boarded one of the tourist buses going to Batumi. Because there weren’t enough passengers, we were moved to another, smaller bus. Most long bus journeys in Georgia start with an obligatory petrol station stop. It was while the bus driver was filling the tank that I realised I’d left my sprockets on the first bus we’d been on. It took me some time to persuade the driver to go back and when we did finally get back to the airport it was too late; the bus with my sprockets had already gone. After a couple of phone calls I was told that the bus hadn’t got far and somebody would bring my things back to me within 10 minutes. As promised, they were returned to me.

After a few days of looking for a good welder or mechanic in Georgia, a friendly Canadian biker offered his help and gave me a list of contacts. Within a week I was making my way to Tbilisi where he introduced me to a welder. This guy knew what he was doing. With the right tools (bearing puller and grinder) he quickly removed the old sprocket. The drive shaft was in very good condition so we decided that welding a new sprocket should work. With the utmost caution, he took his time to make sure that the new sprocket was properly balanced on the shaft. After about 1h I had my motorcycle ready to ride.

Aftermath, with the welded sprocket

About 7000 km later the sprocket is doing really well. What will I do the next time I need a new chain? Probably the same thing, but it should be much easier as the current weld is pretty clean and hasn’t deeply penetrated the shaft. I am really happy I didn’t listen to advice on forums. If I had chosen to change the shaft, it would have been a major piece of work and a lot more costly.

Riding a Motorcycle in Georgia (the country in the Caucasus region)

Riding a Motorcycle in Georgia (the country in the Caucasus region)

Riding a Motorcycle in Georgia (country  in the Caucasus region of Eurasia) can be a tricky business. Here’s my few words of advice.

  1. In Georgia motorcycles are not respected by drivers who often try to push in front of you. Even riding assertively in the middle or more towards the left doesn’t help. They will try to get past you either on your left or right hand side.
  2. On roundabouts the rule is “there’re no rules”. Be ready to give way at any time, even when you think you have right of way. The rules across Georgia seem inconsistent and drivers are obviously confused.
  3. Expect to see many cars cutting corners, meaning that you will have to get out of the way to avoid a collision. Maybe it’s a way to save some petrol, who knows. :p
  4. Riding a Motorcycle in Georgia - Cows on the RoadDomestic animals are everywhere, especially hiding behind corners and inside dark tunnels, where they shelter from the sun. Very dangerous for bikers. High speed cruising is not recommended. Always be ready to stop.
  5. It’s normal to overtake another vehicle even if there’s a car coming from the opposite direction. Seems like the common belief is that there’s enough space for 3 cars, not mentioning a motorcycle, which remember is invisible to most drivers, so don’t be surprised to see a car overtaking straight at you.
  6. The road accident rate is highest in all Caucasus countries.
  7. You will see a lot more accidents when it rains, it’s as if people don’t realise they are supposed to slow down when it’s wet. Or maybe it’s because of old or not matching tyres, which are plentiful in Georgia
  8. Don’t be surprised when drivers beep at you, flash lights at you, wave at you or drive curiously 1m behind you.
  9. Avoid the main Kutaisi – Tbilisi road if possible, it’s an extremely busy road and cars drive very quickly. Most of it is a single lane and accidents happen often.
  10. You will have to speed to stay with the traffic. I found it relatively safer to go faster to avoid cars overtaking Some cars in Georgia look like like thisme all the time, but this meant that sometimes I had to ride 70 – 90 km/h through villages. Police check-points and speed cameras are almost non-existent. Speeding seems an acceptable way of driving.
  11. Interestingly, I was told that to pass a driving test, you don’t even have to go on a public road. Driving tests take place entirely on a practice square outside cities.
  12. The condition of main roads is relatively good. They are pretty well maintained and there’re no big surprises, except animals. But once you go off the main road, expect to see anything.
  13. We’ve never been stopped by police in Georgia. They are not looking for foreigners to stop to ask for a bribe. In this respect, it’s safe in Georgia.
  14. There’s no obligatory MOT car check, so anything that moves can be seen on Georgian roads.
Batumi Travel Tips

Batumi Travel Tips

It took us a while to find our way around Batumi. For that reason we had created this “Batumi Travel Tips” post for you, to make your stay in Batumi as enjoyable as possible.

Food and drinks in Batumi

Just off the main square (see map, number 4), there’s a small fast food place that makes tasty and very cheap Georgian snacks. You can buy them from as cheap as 60 tetry. It’s busy all day, so the snacks are always fresh and usually still warm. The one filled with cabbage is our favourite (ask for “composti” to get that one) but you can try many different ones, with red bean paste (lobiani), meat, cheese, potato, chicken & dill, etc.  The ladies who work in this place are friendly and patient.

Kiziki Restaurant was recommended by locals and we think it’s the best places to eat in Batumi. It’s not fine dining, but the food here is always fresh and tasty, the prices are very good in comparison with other places, and the staff are always friendly. In most places in Georgia it’s common to have a minimum of 5 khinkali (Georgian dumplings), but here you can order as few, or as many, as you like. For directions see map, number 9.

In Batumi most places allow smoking. We managed to find a nice smoke-free café (Boulangerie) that makes a very good coffee and some other snacks at reasonable prices (e.g. 3GEL for a cappuccino, cakes from 80 tetry). It also has free Wi-Fi. Boulangerie is located just off the main square (see map, number 2).

If you like to try different beer when travelling, this place is a must. It offers 3 varieties, of which dark stout called Black Velvet is our favourite. It costs 2.20 GEL for a glass (0.4L). Bring your own large plastic bottle for a takeaway. For directions see map, number 10.

The fish market

If you fancy eating fish, you should go to the fish market. They have a good selection of fresh fish for a good price. You can also have it prepared for you for an additional 3 GEL just next door. When we tried this option, it took more than 1.5h before our fish was cooked. When you go there, don’t take locals recommendation to buy sturgeon (beluga) as it’s endangered! For directions see map, number 8. It’s about 20 minute walk from the centre.

Daily shopping

In Georgia there are not so many supermarkets, as most produce can be bought fresh and at a better price at local bazaars. Centrally located (see map, number 5) Goodwill is one of few supermarkets, but if you’re looking for fruit and veg or eggs, go just 500 meters further along on the right, and you will find a good selection of small market stalls and locals selling pretty much everything.

If you are looking for an authentic experience of a Georgian bazaar, ask for “Boni Bazaar”, it’s about a 30-minute walk from Goodwill. It’s a 2 storey building. Locals there are very friendly and will often let you taste before you buy and if you’re lucky you’ll get some chacha (local vodka) to try for free.

Usually local people advise to buy the wine in plastic bottles. It’s mostly good quality and the price is much better. For example you can buy a 3.5L bottle of semi sweet for less than 20 GEL. White is very much hit-and-miss. Available in most shops in Batumi.

Attractions

If you’re lucky, you will be able to spot dolphins near Batumi beach. They sometimes come as close as 50 metres off the shore and swim in large groups. There are times when you can see them each day for a week. The best viewing point is just left of the Nino and Ali moving statue when you’re facing it. For directions see map, number 1.

For a rainy day, you could treat yourself and book a spa day in the Sheraton hotel (see map, number 6). They have a 20 metre swimming pool, Jacuzzi, gym, Turkish hammam and wet and dry saunas. It costs 50 GEL per couple and you can stay there for as long as you like.

Other useful places

In the local library you can find free internet 7 days a week.  They have a very good selection of English language books in the American Corner. Membership costs 3 GEL per year. You need a passport to sign up. For directions see map, number 7.

We discovered that the ATM at TBC bank offers better exchange rates than other banks in Batumi when withdrawing money. With TBC bank we saved about 5% on each withdrawal.

From what we’ve seen, it’s pretty easy to get an Iranian visa in Batumi in the consulate. For most European Union citizens, the cost is 50 Euros to get it in one week, and 75 for next day service. Opposite Goodwill there’s a little photo shop where you can have a picture done for your visa application.

Post Office is situated on Baratashvili street (see map, number 3) and costs 3 GEL to send a postcard to Europe.

Transport and accommodation

It‘s possible to take a morning train from Batumi to Kutaisi for as little as 2 GEL per person. The train is pretty comfortable, but you need to rush in to get a seat as it gets pretty busy. Also it takes between 3 to 4 hours, whereas by car you get there in less than two, but for that price you can’t complain.

In our experience the most convenient option to travel from Kutaisi airport to Batumi is to use the bus service that will be offered after you come through security (marshrutka). There’s a sales desk near the exit doors. It costs 16-18 GEL and is very reliable. Also you need to remember that there’s no ATM in the airport, but you can buy tickets with a bank card. The airport is situated just next to the road to Batumi and it seems pretty easy and common to hitch-hike.

When it comes to accommodation, we stayed in TJ Hostel for over a week. Run by a very friendly family, this small budget hostel is a place to meet other travellers. The price is 10 GEL per person or 20 GEL for a double room. TJ’s is located in Makhinjauri (train station area) about 20 minutes from the centre but very easily accessible by marshrutkas (1 GEL each way). You can book a place at this hostel through Facebook. Just send a message to Teona.

Let us know if our Batumi Travel Tips were useful.

Batumi travel tips, map

Riding a motorcycle in Iraqi Kurdistan

Riding a motorcycle in Iraqi Kurdistan

(this post was written in 2015. I cannot comment on the current situation in Kurdistan)

Kurdish region of Iraq is not only a safe place, it’s also an amazing destination to visit. We travelled to Kurdish Iraq on the motorcycle and loved every moment of our stay there.

In Kurdistan the mountains are beautiful, people are most welcoming and history is fascinating.

By motorcycle in Iraqi Kurdistan

Entering this country is free. Standard 15 days visa stamp is issued on the boarder without any problem, but extending this period can be tricky, as blood test is required.

When entering by bike, we had to pay 42$ for motorcycle insurance and nobody even asked me if I had a green card. The cost was soon balanced off by petrol prices which during our stay were 500 Iraqi Dinars per litter which is only about 20 British pens. The government introduced the law that across the whole region, the price for petrol has to be the same.

The roads are not bad, but due to the heat, some stretches of asphalt are pretty deformed, making it hard to ride. The most annoying thing about riding a motorcycle in Kurdistan, are ever present speed bumps, which are almost everywhere and not always marked. I suppose this makes riding safer as cars have to adjust their speed, but slowing down every 500 meters is no fun.

Apparantly Kurdistan is notorious for road accidents, but to be honest we didn’t notice anything out of ordinary.

Be prepared to be stopped by police on every check point, and there are a lot of them. When we were stopped, police man usually were very nice and wanted to joke with us, but after being stopped for 50th time, we kind of lost a sense of humour.

Kurdistan is not a large country so 15 days isn’t actually that short.

Our itinerary

Amongst many popular destinations to visit, we went to:

  • Duhok with it’s cool bazaar
  • Alqosh
  • Lalish
  • Arbil (also known as Erbil and Hawler), worth a visit for it’s Citadel and Blue Mosque.
  • Sulaimaniya where we spent almost a week. It’s an interesting city with a nice vibe.
  • Halabja and nearby villages

Also bikers should consider riding through Amedia and Barzan on their way from Duhok to Arbil. It’s a nice ride with picturesque scenery.

Kurdish people

The best thing about Kurdish part of Iraq is its people, who are ever so kind and generous. Wherever we showed up, there almost always was somebody who wanted to invite us for food or to their house for a night. People are just happy to see tourist and show them Kurdish generosity. This makes Kurdistan a very special travel destination.

Alcohol is surprisingly cheap and available in most large shops.

When to visit

We were there in May which already was very hot, with temperatures reaching 35 degrees. Probably early spring (March/April) or autumn (October/November) is the best time to visit.

Riding a motorcycle in Iraqi Kurdistan is a fantastic adventure. We loved every moment of our visit.