Iranian Kurdistan

Although travelling through Esfahan, Yazd and Shiraz in Iran had certainly showed me the beautiful highlights of the country, I was still searching for more. I was searching for that place that would really grab me and pull me in; somewhere that would perhaps show me something unexpected. With 10 days left on my visa in Iran I was contemplating where to spend my time. I considered going to the north east or north west areas where it was meant to be greener and cooler. However, I found myself thinking about Kurdistan, a small province on the border with Iraq where majority of Iran’s Kurds live.

I had been curious about the region’s Kurdish population for some time. They are the world’s largest stateless population and have faced almost continuous persecution for centuries. However, what I did know about them was mostly confined to their population in Iraq and so I had no idea what the province would hold for me in Iran, but I decided to take a chance and explore it for a few days.

Sanandaj

From Tehran, buses ply up and down almost every road in the country and so I took a taxi to the terminal and found a bus going to Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province, within minutes. There’s only a handful of hotels scattered in the central area and I decided to turn up without prior booking. The bazaar area was bustling as it always is at sunset time in Iran and I plowed my way through the crowd to arrive at the first hotel I’d seen mentioned online, but it was full?!

So I continued down the street further and found another hotel where for 1, 800,000 rials (AUD$24, quite expensive for Iran) I got a basic room. I walked around the outdoor bazaar that night and it was quite a fun place, with a different vibe to other places in Iran. I found a nice restaurant to eat where the young boy even spoke perfect English, which was a rarity in the country.

Marivan

The next morning I headed for the bus terminal to take a shared taxi to Marivan. A taxi driver offered to take me there and as he spoke some English I decided to go with him. Being a Friday, the city was very quiet. He offered to take me all the way to Marivan, which is usually 300,000 rials per seat in the car. I was reluctant but he said, “No problem,” (a favourite phrase in Iran).

Hawraman village Kurdistan

We stopped for tea along the way and a viewpoint over a village and the valley. The road was mostly busy with oil trucks which he told me were going back and forth from Iraq.

We arrived in Marivan and of course, he expected more than 300, 000. I gave him 500, 000, which he said would only cover fuel but it was more than we agreed so that was it. I walked the five minutes to where someone had told me there was a brand new hostel opened up, by the ‘See You in Iran’ crew from Tehran. Friday prayers were just beginning and I watched as men and their prayer mats formed perfect lines in the middle of the main street with the loud speaker from the mosque overhead. I’d never seen anything like it. So I found the hostel, dropped my bags and went back outside to observe and take some photos.

Friday prayers Marivan
Friday prayers Marivan
Friday prayers Marivan
Friday prayers Marivan

It was a beautiful scene to see; I’d never witnessed so many people praying in the streets on a regular Friday. As soon as the imam announced through the speaker that prayers were over, however, it was straight back to business with men yelling out what kind of fruit they had for sale and the price. Prayer mats were rolled back up and the men immediately began doing their shopping. I spent nearly an hour just walking up and down and watching the chaos unfold.

Marivan market

Soon enough, a local guy stopped me with perfect American English. I was certain he had lived in the States but he was just the local English teacher who had watched too much Netflix, where he’d picked up a very distinct accent. He invited me to go back to his family’s home for lunch and I accepted. His mother in law and sister in law were there, along with his wife, but none spoke any English. His mother in law was visiting from a rural village and continuously stared at me until I caught her out and then she would just smile. She tried to talk to me in Kurdish even though I repeatedly said I couldn’t speak it and Aso translated and told me that she was saying, “How did you get here? Are you lost? Don’t you have a family that are looking for you? Don’t you want to go back home?,” the concept of travelling at my own free will was a completely foreign and non-existent concept for her.

The lunch soon got awkward when my new friend Aso and his wife started arguing. I, of course, didn’t know what they were saying but it soon got pretty heated. After a bit of back and forth, a couple of men arrived who were apparently family members and they entered into the argument. Soon enough an older man, who was Aso’s father, also came to discuss the problems. Even further still, some other men arrived and we soon had an entire family intervention into the couple’s marriage, whilst I sat on the couch trying to sink away into the background unnoticed. After tears and door slams and lots of shoulder shrugs, Aso finally told me that we could go and he would let the rest of his family sort it out. He apologised profusely for witnessing it and he seemed quite embarrassed. It was such an awkward experience, yet in many ways it was also an eyeopening thing to see unfold and was a real insight into the family life in the Kurdish culture. There is really not much privacy or any secrets kept within families and of course, it is the man’s job to sort out any problems.

By the time I got back to the hostel, it was 7pm and my bags were still sitting where I’d dropped them hours earlier thinking that I would return within half an hour. But in Kurdistan, that was a common theme, there was never such a thing as “I’ll just be five minutes”, because of the amount of people who wanted to chat with me or buy me tea or invite me to their home for lunch.

Marivan
Marivan lake

Marivan itself is just a small place, however, it’s quite nice to hang out for a few days. There’s a pretty lake on the edge of town with a small market and food stalls that is the local favourite hangout of an evening. I just enjoyed walking along the main street and through the bazaar, watching the old men in their traditional Kurdish clothes drinking tea and in deep conversation about life and the women gazing longingly at the expensive jewelled material sold by the meter that is reserved for special occasions like weddings. 

One day, I wanted to just go for a walk at ‘golden hour’ to take some nice street photos. Within minutes I had two women about my age approach me wanting to walk and chat with me. I partly just wanted to take photos and leave, but I was also stunned that women were actually coming to talk. After three weeks in Iran, I hadn’t really had any open conversations with women; it really was a man’s world. 

So I walked and talked with them for a couple of hours over sunset and it was a real insight into how women think in this part of the world. We walked through a small park where there was a lot of older men sitting around, drinking tea and playing checkers. I was curious about the game as I had seen so many men playing it at around sunset time on the streets. The men were pretty friendly towards me and smiled as I watched them play. My two new friends however, confessed that they felt uncomfortable because there were only men around and maybe we should keep walking. I told them that they shouldn’t feel uncomfortable because we were just walking by, and the men had seemed pretty unfazed about it. However, it just showed how the cultural experience for me was a lot different to how a local woman experienced it and even in a place where I had felt so welcomed, the reality for local women was quite different. We moved on to the bazaar where the girls were a lot more comfortable window shopping and explaining what kinds of clothes they liked. 

Iraq viewpoint
View looking into Iraq

Hawraman valley

The hostel in Marivan had only been opened for a month but they had already found a local guide, perhaps the only one in the area, who was very passionate about sharing Kurdish history and culture with foreigners. So, I joined him, with three other French guys who had also arrived in Marivan, for a day trip to explore some of the villages. Mokhtar took us for a full 12-hour day and it was one of my favourite days in Iran. He was very open to discussing everything from Kurdish history to politics and I learnt so much in such a short time, reminding me that sometimes having a guide is worth it. First, we drove up through the mountains to a couple of lookout points. There were also some other Kurdish people from Sanandaj there, dancing with music blaring from their cars – something you certainly wouldn’t see in other parts of Iran. “Dancing is always good. Life without music is like torture,” Mokhtar said. 

Smugglers Iran-Iraq border
Spot the kolbar
Smugglers Iran-Iraq border

From one of the viewpoints, there was a spectacular vista of the mountains leading down to the plains in Iraq. I noticed a few people in the distance seemingly trekking up the side of the rocky slopes with heavy loads. When I pointed them out to Mokhtar he said, “Kolbar, like carrier, porter.” So, like, smugglers? “Yes, exactly.” These men, young and old, carried goods across the border from Iraq and all the way up the mountains to a checkpoint close to where we were. From there, the goods were usually unloaded into small trucks and taken further on to towns in Iran. We watched as this happened, not far from military and police, who usually turned a blind eye as long as they got a nice cut of the pie. Mokhtar said the kolbars generally walked around 18km per day with up to 50kg on their back, but they made good money, which is of course why many of them chose to do it. The riskiest part of the informal trade network was when the police decided to shoot rather than take a cut, something that happened when pressure from the top filtered through. There was also a real risk of falling, as the last steep section we watched them climb was extremely dangerous with such a heavy pack. Mokhtar even showed us video footage of the same trade happening in winter, when the kolbars would be trudging through snow and ice to make a living. 

Hawraman valley
Hawraman Valley

From there we continued on to Hawraman valley, an incredibly picturesque deep split in the earth’s surface, which traditional Kurdish villages have inhabited for centuries. We drove through the main village of the valley called Hawraman Takt and stopped at a small park and holy place for a view. There were families from Sanandaj there having a picnic and they instantly invited us to sit with them. Most of the adults didn’t speak English but a lot of the kids had been learning it at school and so the girls were keen to practice their English with me, while the young boys gravitated to the French guys. They shared grapes, nuts and tea with us before moving on. 

We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the village. It’s a stacked village, which are quite well-known in Iran. The houses are built on such a steep slope that one families roof is another families courtyard. It also means that to explore the place we were climbing through skinny tracks passing by people’s homes, however, true to the Kurdish culture, everyone was very friendly and welcoming. We stopped to see an old man making wooden combs in his small workshop and when I asked to take his photo Mokhtar told me he said, “But why would she want to take a photo of me? I’m not an important or famous person?”. Possibly the most humbling response I’d ever received.

Kurdish men Hawraman
Kurdish man Hawraman
“But why would she want a photo of me?”

We met families sitting outside their home, young boys on their way to Qur’an lessons at the mosque and the usual, old men sitting outside a small tea shop talking the day away. Looking into the older faces around the village, I couldn’t help but wonder what they’d seen in their lifetime. So much has happened in this region of the world in the last century and they would have witnessed a hell of a lot from war, to the fall of dictators, to changing borders, I’m sure they have plenty of stories to tell. Just before sunset we started the long drive back to Marivan and my heart was bursting with happiness. I’d found the place, the place that surprised me and grabbed my attention like no other in Iran. Exploring Kurdistan had turned out to be a great decision after all. 

My original plan was to head up to Tabriz and then cross over to Armenia. However, I overheard a couple of travellers at the hostel talking about Iraq. It was possible to go there as they’d just come from there and in that very moment, I knew that I was going to Iraq, Armenia could wait. 

Hawraman takt
Hawraman Takt or village
Hawraman village Kurdistan
So-called “stacked village”
Kurdish family Hawraman

How I got in

I took a bus from Tehran’s West Terminal, near Azadi Square. It’s a large terminal and there are plenty of touts running around yelling out destinations so it’s not difficult to find a bus. I took a VIP bus at 10am which cost, 660, 000 rials (AUD$8) and I arrived in Sanandaj at 5pm.

Where I stayed

In Sanandaj I stayed at Hotel Kaj on the main Ferdowsi Street. It cost 1, 800, 000 (AUD$24) for a twin room for one night, no Wi-Fi but breakfast was free.

In Marivan, I stayed at See You in Kurdistan Hostel, run by the founders of the See You in Iran Hostel in Tehran. They’ve moved to Marivan to run the hostel and it’s such a beautifully decorated, cute place. It had a nice courtyard, perfect for chilling out and chatting with other travellers or interesting locals who stop by. It’s just off the main market street and I had plenty of locals pointing me the way as there’s only a tiny sign which is easy to miss.

Where I ate

There aren’t really any memorable restaurants so to speak in Marivan, however, a must-try is the grilled fish or fish kebab. Anywhere near the lake you will find small stalls and some restaurants grilling whole fish and it’s incredibly good.

How I got out

From Sanandaj to Marivan, a shared taxi usually charges 300, 000 rials per seat for the two and a half hour journey and they leave from a terminal north of town.

From Marivan, I crossed to Iraqi Kurdistan through the Bashmaq/Penjwen border post. I was lucky enough to find a taxi driver in Marivan by chance who spoke fluent English on the morning I planned to leave and he drove me the 20km to Bashmaq for just 300, 000 rials (AUD$4). Although I gave him more in the end because he was a nice guy and I didn’t need my leftover rials any longer.

Blog post on this border crossing coming soon!

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