Trip Archives: To the Caucasus and Back

Four months and 5000km of cycling around southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East in the summer of 2011.

The End

I decided to end the trip here on Cyprus and fly back home this coming week.

I have traveled for almost 4 months, have come through 12 countries, cycled roughly 5000km, and am now looking forward to going back home.

It was definitely an amazing trip. The hospitality and friendliness of all the people I’ve met on the way were unbelievable. The image of those countries our oh-so-righteous media paint for us is very one-sided and has little or nothing to do with the people living in those countries. For example, there is no such thing as ‘The Kurdish Problem’. There is a PKK problem, no doubt. But not every Kurd is member of the PKK, or even sympathizes with it. And along the same lines one has to add ‘there is a Turkish government problem’.

Of course, not everything was always great but other than the Azerbaijani love for honking nothing was seriously annoying for more than a few minutes. Except for the heat maybe, which peaked well above 50°C in the sun a couple of times.

The route through South-East Europe, 2540km

The route through South-East Europe, 2540km

The Caucasus/Middle-Eastern part of the route, 2506km

The Caucasus/Middle-Eastern part of the route, 2506km

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Gazimaǧusa/Famagusta – Larnaca

As I mentioned earlier, Cyprus is divided in two parts. The UN has a peacekeepig mission here to keep the Turkish and Greek sides apart. Famagusta is located very close to the border, and on the map it looks like about half the city is military no-man’s land. Last night I accidentally ended up close to the deserted quarters – the empty houses look quite eerie in the evening sun.

Today I crossed the border into ‘Cyprus proper’. It involved getting an exit stamp on the Northern Cyprus side, and a quick glance at my ID on the southern side. Welcome to the EU, finally and for real!

The ride went along the border for a couple of kilometers and past another village in no-man’s land that had become victim of the fights between Turkish and Greek Cypriots and subsequently had been abandoned.

Finding a hotel in Larnaca was a bit of a challenge as most centrally located ones where booked out. I’m now staying in an EasyHotel, an EasyJet off-spring. Just like with the airline, you pay for everything extra, even TV…

Cycled: 42km

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Girne/Kyrenia – Gazimaǧusa/Famagusta

I spent the latst 48 hours mostly inside, trying to get rid of that stomach bug I must have contracted in Hawler/Arbil, Iraq. It made me feel both hungry and sick at the same time during the last weeks and probably contributed to my overall not-so-fit-ness.

Today I set out to conquer Cyprus’ north coast. It was my plan to go about 50 kilometers to the east. Instead I cycled a bit more and ended up in Gazimaǧusa, aka Famagusta, in the southeast of the island.

Cyprus looks a bit like southern Spain, with yellowish hills, and olive groves and pine trees scattered around. Oh, and then there are those ‘villa villages’, newly built luxury communities (“Private Property! Keep Out!”) where one house looks like the other. Some of them were not even finished and have already been abandoned and now rot away.

After 40km I turned south and crossed a narrow chain of hills that stretches along the northern coast. From there the countryside was pretty flat.

Gazimaǧusa looks like a fun town to be in, but it was getting dark when I arrived and I was tired and I didn’t see much of it.

Cycled: 94km

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Taşucu – Girne/Kyrenia

The night was pretty rough. It was hot inside the tent and I discovered too late that outside there where too many biting insects to leave the door open.

I woke up before sunrise and watched it appear over the turquoise waters. First order of the day: swimming. Then: fixing the next flat tire. Another swim after breakfast.

Then I backtracked a few kilometers to the town of Taşucu to board the ferry to Cyprus.

Two hours later I was back in the EU! Hm, almost.

The island of Cyprus is home to two countries, but ‘country’ may not be the right word for Northern Cyprus.
After some clashes between the Greek Cypriot majority and the Turkish Cypriot minority in the 1970s, the northern part, then occupied by Turkey, declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in 1983. So far, only Turkey recognizes the TRNC as an independent country. That leads to an interesting fact: The Republic of Cyprus (the southern part) is considered by everyone else, including EU and UN, as the country that has control over all of (the island of) Cyprus.
So, while I’m in the EU from the EU’s point of view, I’m not from the local government’s one.

I’m in Girne/Kyrenia, where the ferry dropped me off. It’s hot here.

Cycled: 8km

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Mersin – Taşucu

Today’s destination was the little port town of Taşucu. It has an official camp site nearby. The ride wasn’t spectacular in any positive sense. The road was a 4-lane highway all the time and more or less flat. That included a flat tyre after 45km. Hey Schwalbe, what happened to “unplattbar” (“puncture-proof”), eh?!

Somehow it took me ages to reach Taşucu. Actually, I was on the road for eight hours!

The campsite is located directly at the sea and an extended swim in the blue and warm waters was the first thing I did after arrival.

I was having dinner next to my tent (it’s pitched under olive trees directly above the sea) when a neighbor came over with a plate-full of water melon, some Turkish bred and yoghurt. “For you”, he said, smiling, and returned to his camper van.

Cycled: 99km

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Mersin is a city of about 800.000 people, and Turkey’s biggest Mediterranean port is located here. Temperatures are warm (not hot) and very pleasant. I’m not sure I’ve actually found the city center, but the area I’ve spent most time in today (between the hotel and the sea) has everything I needed: plenty of opportunities to eat Turkish staples and drink tea, a fruit and vegetable market, hair dressers, etc.

Speaking of hair dressers, I finally found a theme for my trip(s): Going to a barber in each country I visit. I’ve been to one in almost every country so far (Slovakia, Romania, and Iraq are missing) but failed to describe most of my experiences here. Now it’s almost too late, but I’ll try anyway and start with today’s Turkish barber.

He started with the obvious cutting of hair and beard, then asked if I wanted the hair on my cheekbones removed. I’d seen that previously at a different barber, it’s a procedure that reminded me a bit of having one’s teeth flossed. I agreed, and I got more than I had bargained for. He put a ‘natural mask’ onto my face and after removing it he waxed cheekbones, nose, nostrils, and earlobes! Then he used yarn(?), both hands, and his teeth to remove any remaining hair below my eyes. Interesting indeed. Got a quick shoulder and arm massage as well. This was certainly one of the more elaborate hair cuts.

Later I tried tantuni, a regional speciality. A lady sitting there at a table next to mine started a chat, but the language barrier prevented us from doing any serious talking. She shared her roasted pumpkin seeds and peanuts with me, however. I tried myself at the art of opening the former with the teeth without crushing the whole thing, but didn’t quite succeed.

At another place I had künefe, a dessert the region (as in the Arab-influenced Near East) is well-known for.

In the hotel lobby I met two men from Cloppenburg, about 60km from my home town Bremen. They are of Turkish descent but live in Germany since 30 years and are here on vacation. They were curious about my trip and we chatted for a few minutes. At the end they said: “If you need any help, we are there for you.” I have encountered this kind of friendliness and readiness to help everywhere in the Caucasus and the Middle East throughout my trip. It is an amazing thing that has gone missing in the West.
I wonder if they had offered the same had we met in Cloppenburg or Bremen and not in Mersin.

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Unnamed rest area at motorway O-52 – Mersin

We left our rest place early in the morning, heading west.

In the early afternoon we met friends of Selim’s, left the truck behind, and made a 250km side trip in their car a an “archeological site” that Selim was interested in. Located on the bank of a tributary of a reservoir lake, it supposedly used to be a Roman settlement, but there was nothing to see at all. The only interesting things to see were a couple of natural springs.

We continued our drive towards Mersin at nightfall.
Selim dropped me off a few kilometers from Mersin’s city center after midnight. This guy left an awesome first impression of Turkey.

I cycled on and found a good hotel and even food! I <3 Turkey! Cycled: 12km Hitched: 638km [gallery]

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Shekhkaya – Unnamed rest area at motorway O-52

Everyone woke up with first light and Khalaf and I had breakfast. The girls and women, again, did not eat with us.

Khalaf mentioned that he had business to do in Dohuk, some 30km down the road and my planned destination from yesterday. He offered a ride and I happily accepted.

I decided to skip the visit to Dohuk, though, and instead go directly to Zakho and the Turkish border, which was about 50km from where Khalaf dropped me of.

Trucks started queuing up a couple of kilometers from the border. Border formalities where pretty easy on both sides, and a friendly Iraqi Kurd living in Aachen, Germany, and on vacation in Dohuk made things even smoother by negotiating customs and passport control in Kurdish for me.

I hadn’t even left the border complex on the Turkish side when I was approached by little kids shouting “Bakshish, bakshish”. Welcome to Turkey, eh?

Not 500m after that I was stopped by a truck driver. “Hey, you want a ride? I’m going to Mersin!” Mersin is one of the easternmost port cities on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and it’s en route for me, though about 900km to the west. Within a split second I ditched all my plans for eastern Turkey. “Hell, yeah”, was my reply, approximately, “but I have no [Turkish] money”.
“No, no! No money, no money!”, he said.

Selim is actually an archeologist, but limited employment opportunities in his field made him a truck driver. Our common languages are limited, but somehow we managed to make ourselves somewhat understood. In the afternoon we stopped in Nusaybin and I hoped he’d call it a day here. Nusaybin straddles the Syrian border and had I been on the bike, I would have tried to cross the border to have a look at a Kurdish-Syrian town for a day or two. Well, Selim just met a friend there and I was too hungry to not be eating. After about an hour we continued our road trip.

Until the last minute I did not have the slightest idea how far we were going to go today or where I’d be sleeping tonight. But that’s part of the adventure.

At 10pm we stopped at a rest area at the motorway and went to a hamam. Then we continued some 20km more to another rest station were Selim shared his dinner with me (I still didn’t have any Turkish money to buy my own).
I’m sleeping in the upper bunk bed in the truck. Another first.

Cycled: 60km
Hitched: 461km
Top speed: 72kph

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Malbworaan – Shekhkaya

Left Malbworaan after a hearty breakfast and with 6 liters of ice-cold water. I still felt somewhat weak, though, and cycling the 70km to Dohuk didn’t seem very realistic.

After maybe 20 kilometers I was stopped by a man waiting on the road-side with his little daughter. He invited me over to his house for lunch, in Mahad, a village just 2 kilometers down the road. I refused at first. He insisted, and insisted even more when he heard I was from Germany – his sons work in Munich. I still refused, though. Then he mentioned he was Yezidi, and that flipped the switch for me and I agreed to have a short rest at his place.
I stayed for maybe 2 hours and was fed with a full-blown lunch – salad and rice and chicken. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel well anymore at this point and couldn’t enjoy the food as much as I would have liked to.

Now who are the Yezidis? As far as I know, they are a long-misunderstood and long-hunted Muslim sect, also called the devil worshippers. However, they themselves say they are not Muslim.

Rashid and his lovely family showed me a wedding video (of someone in the family, not sure whose exactly) and a photo album. Interestingly, girls and women don’t wear head scarfs and join the men for gossiping. However, they don’t seem to join them for eating.
Rashid’s brother drove me up the next hill with his pick-up from where the road was more or less flat.

A few kilometers down the road I stopped at a tiny shop to buy some coke, but I was over-exhausted again and couldn’t move any further from there. I had a long break and talked to the owner of a car repair shop who spoke German. At the end of the day he invited me to his place for the night.
Khalaf is Yezidi, too, has 6 children, and his oldest son is married and has 6 kids of his own, and they all live in the same house.

Had a great evening sitting in the living room with the 15 people and some more friends and relatives. The food was great again.

I’m sleeping on the roof of their house next to the entire family.

Cycled: 30km
Hitched: 8km

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Hawler – Malbworaan

Ramadan is over. Eid is on, a three-day holiday following Ramadan. And it’s even worse. Nothing is open at all except for a few food shops, but you have to come across one first before you can buy canned tuna.

So I left Hawler earlyish. I cycled towards Mosul, then turned right well before that city. Mosul, not within Kurdistan, is one of the more dangerous cities in the world, especially for foreigners.

Anyway, I’ll skip to the interesting parts. After 100km and very little food I still felt ok but decided to have a break and either hitch a ride to Dohuk or pitch the tent somewhere. I was in the middle of nowhere, 75km from Dohuk. So I stopped and after a few minutes of relaxation everything went black, then white. I had serious trouble standing upright. My vision came back slowly, I decided to lay down the bike, and to sit myself down next to it – then the lights went out completely and I fell down flat (luckily I wasn’t standing anymore). And right into a bunch of thistles, but I didn’t notice at the time. I don’t think I was gone for long. But… holy crap! That was a first.

After a few more minutes I felt ok again and decided to cycle on to the next village and ask someone there for food. The next village had – a church!

To make a long story short, I’m staying with a huge family in Malbworaan, an entirely Assyrian Chaldean village right next to the church. They speak some English and fed me good.

Cycled: 105km

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Hawler, day 2

I managed to not get my visa extended, mostly due to my own lazyness. So instead of going further south I’ll head up towards the northwest and the Turkish border tomorrow.

Hawler/Arbil looks like a cool city (about 1.3 million inhabitants), even though I haven’t seen much of it.
It is actually one of the oldest cities on earth. The center, the Citadel, has been continuously inhabited for more than 8000 years. A couple of years ago the government kicked everyone out of the Citadel, due to the poor living standards there, I believe, except for one family to keep the line of inhabitance uninterrupted. The Citadel is now being renovated – revitalized, as the government calls it.

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This is already day 5 of my 10-day visa for Iraqi Kurdistan. According to various sources on the ‘net it should be easily possible to extend the visa at the Directorate of Residency. Now today I found an article in a travel blog that tells a hilarious story of useless bureaucracy at the Directorate – and a failed attempt to get the visa extended.

I’ll give the process a try tomorrow myself. If it fails I’ll have to skip my visits to Slemani (aka Sulaymaniyah) and Amedi (aka Amadiyah), the latter of which was another main reason for visiting Iraqi Kurdistan in the first place.

Ramadan is almost over (tomorrow is the last day) and I cannot say that I’m not happy about it. I must have lost what feels like 10kg of weight over the last days.

So why the heck would anyone voluntarily go to Iraq without being paid lots of money? Well, even though Iraqi Kurdistan is technically in Iraq, it is way different from Arabic Iraq which makes the news so often. Kurdish Iraq has been spared from Gulf War II and enjoys autonomy from Arabic Iraq in many matters since 1991. It has its own government and army (aforementioned Peshmerga). It’s security situation is entirely different from the rest of Iraq. In fact, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) actively promotes tourism to the region and calls Kurdistan “The Other Iraq”.

Peshmerga operate checkpoints along the border to Arabic Iraq (as well as inside Kurdistan) to keep insurgents out.

So, given the hostile conditions in Arabic Iraq and Turkey’s and Iran’s ‘unfriendly’ behavior towards the Kurds, it is no big surprise they are a bit paranoid here.

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Shaqlawa – Hawler

A short ride today in terms of kilometers, but an interesting one nonetheless.

I had just passed through the town of Salahuddin and enjoyed a couple of kilometers of hair-pin bends downhill, when I stopped at the road side before the next long climb to rest for a short while.
A car with two men, one in plain clothes the other in Peshmerga camouflage uniform, stopped next to me. They wanted to know where I was coming from and where I was going. No English was spoken, which made any further communication very difficult. The plain-clothes guys eventually introduced himself as ‘FBI’ and wanted to see my passport.

They then insisted on taking me (and the bike) back to a non-descript house in Salahuddin, non-descript except for the AK47-armed Peshmerga keeping watch outside. My initial annoyance changed to amusement and curiosity. I was brought to the ‘manager’s’ office and questioned by a German-speaking man in traditional Kurdish dress with a gun sticking out of his belt. They wanted to know where I had traveled before, especially in Iran, and where I planned to go. They asked me directly if I was spying for Germany and also asked if I was trafficking drugs from Iran. Hm.

So they were obviously Asayish, the Kurdish intelligence organization – counter-espionage and counter-drug trafficking are amongst their jobs.

I had to unlock my phone and it was passed around. I objected to them looking into my phone. Silence. Then, apologies. “It’s just our job.” I got my phone back and had to show them myself what they wanted to see, which was just the last photos taken and the last texts sent. They weren’t very thorough, and I managed to avoid showing them the daily GPS snapshots. I had no interest in explaining the existance of (somewhat) detailed maps and GPS tracks for the blog on the phone.

Eventually they were convinced I was no threat to Kurdish security and let me go. More apologies for wasting my time. They said they would have fed me some lunch had it not been for Ramadan – they didn’t have anything themselves. Hrmpf.

I’m in Hawler (pronounced Hauléhr) now, also known as Arbil, Erbil, or Ibil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital. Will probably stay here for a day or two and decide where to go next.

Cycled: 56km

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Rowanduz – Shaqlawa

As usual I started cycling later than planned – I left Mahdi and his extremely friendly and hospitable family at half past 11am.

The landscape just outside Rowanduz was dramatic. The Gali Ali Beg gorge features vertical rock cliffs and was a major obstacle for Hamilton’s road-building endeavours. In his book he describes the gorge and the exploration missions to find a viable way through it – so I had a picture of the place in my head. However, in reality it was much more stunning.

The ride was way more exhausting than I had expected. A headwind, the hilly terrain, and the heat – more than 48°C (in the sun) again – didn’t help and I didn’t make it to Arbil, I stopped in Shaqlawa, a touristy town known for it’s pleasant climate, located about 40km from Arbil.

On the road it sometimes happens that people drive past me then stop to talk to me. They then offer a lift – probably knowing very well that it would be very difficult to fit my bike and my luggage into their cars if I accepted their offer. The amazing thing is, they all come across as if they wouldn’t be bothered by any such difficulties and would find a way to make it work. Maybe I should challenge one of these guys one day. :)

Cycled: 64km

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Last night we hung out around Soran’s bazaar, meeting Mahdi’s friends and people-watching. Soran is a city very close to Rowanduz.

Today we went swimming in the Rowanduz river again with Mahdi’s friend Nisar aka Shadow, and Mahdi drove me around the area showing me some of it’s amazing countryside. However grand I found it, he kept pointing out that it’s much nicer in spring when everything is lush green and the rivers’ water levels are higher.

The road I’m traveling on from the Iranian border to Erbil (Kurdish: Hawler), the KRG’s capital, is called the ‘Hamilton Road’. It was built by and named after New Zealand engineer A.M. Hamilton in the 1920s when present-day Iraq was under British administration.
Hamilton later wrote a book called ‘Road Through Kurdistan’ about his time in the area and his experiences with the Kurds. Rowanduz is also prominently featured. When I read the book about half a year ago and then thought about this trip, I added the visit to Iraqi Kurdistan and traveling on the Hamilton Road as a ‘must do’ item to the itinerary.

There is little left of the traditional Kurdish life-style that Hamilton witnessed, of course. Iranian and Iraqi towns and villages look and feel very similar. The one difference is that there are nearly no old buildings to be found in Iraqi Kurdistan. The reason is Saddam Hussein, who frequently ordered the killing of Kurds and demolition of thousands of Kurdish villages during his reign.

Iraqi Kurdistan has its own army nowadays, which is called Peshmerga – Kurdish for “Those Who Face Death”. That is actually a pretty suiting name for an army.

I’ll continue my ride on the Hamilton Road tomorrow.

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