top of page

Chapter 4: In the Light

Baghdad to Miqdadiyah, Iraq. April 8

Some time before six in the morning, I pedaled from south Baghdad and marked the beginning of a long journey, for the day and for the months to come. The neighbourhood streets were empty as another day of fasting begun for the local Iraqis, and I felt light and energised as I set out toward the copper market.

I had very little sleep the previous night, my body partly busy with material preparations, my mind fully racing with anticipation in all its shapes and forms: excitement, fear, uncertainty, impatience, hope, dread. There was still so much that I did not know about the first few days that felt as the hardest part of the whole journey to Sweden.

There was a major choice to be made. To go northeast, toward Kalar, or north, toward Kirkuk. Both would eventually lead me into Kurdistan, the first border crossing on my quest, but presented different challenges and advantages. In my ignorance at the time, both paths seemed uninteresting, just passages to the more appealing Kurdish landscapes. The road to Kirkuk was said by some to be safer, but the "dangers" of the eastern path sounded outdated and exaggerated to me. It was along that path, in Jalawla, that I had the only hint of a host to stay for a night.

But in the serene morning I felt at peace, leaving the worries for later. My first two waypoints - the Copper Market to meet Fito and later Baqubah, the closest city to the north - were the same regardless of my decision. As I rode on the bridge over the river Tigris, the rising sun kissed my face and coated the land in gold. The beginnings of the day, of my journey and of civilisation itself intersected right then and there, and I couldn't help but smile like widely. If there would ever be a sign telling me that this path of life was the right one for me, that was it.

Our copper market visit was not perfectly timed as most vendors had yet to open, but it mattered little to me and Fito seemed satisfied, doing his vlogging while asking about the stories behind shops, their keepers and the tin trays, cups and pots they hade for sale. Without any hint of worry I had left the bike and the bags by the entrance to the market, looked after by the best local english speaker we could find. It is not easy to explain to westerners that your belongings are infinitely more safe in Baghdad than in any European Capital, but they are. The likelihood of theft is not even comparable, something you can truly feel after a few days of Iraqi culture. Having reclaimed my stuff, me and Fito did fake and honest goodbyes, for reel and for real, and I headed for the highway.

Whilst safety is of no concem when it comes to being targeted, the same cannot be said about traffic accidents. Iraqi traffic is, without a doubt, the worst I have experienced on my travels thus far. It is not bad because it is intense, has poor roads and low vehicle quality, the first and last of which isn't near as bad as any Indian states I've visited, and the roads are definitely better than I found them in Tanzania, for instance. No, the traffic is bad because it lacks harmony. Traffic in Mumbai or Bangkok can be hectic and feel chaotic, but the local participants know what they and those around them are doing. There is harmony, even if you as a foreign tourist don't understand it.

The best word I have to describe the traffic in central Iraq is unrest. I had already witnessed two car collisions and arrived at several others, and the feeling is that people expect there to be rules, but are not agreed on what they are. Suffice to say, riding a vehicle type that Iraqis are not used to deal with, I took extra margin and care around all others.

In the end I opted for the eastern route, and aimed to make it to Jalawla in just one day, all in all about 160 km. My recent track record with tents was not great, and I felt motivated to work for a roof over my head. Given the road quality and small delays that were all expected, I made good time to Baqubah where I stopped during the hottest hours of the day.

Mosques are perfect resting places for overland travelers.

• Free shelter

• Frequent on the roads

• Excellent cleaning opportunities

• Comfortable and quiet

• You are allowed to eat and even sleep inside

• Likelihood of meeting kindhearted locals on their best side is high

In a little mosque in Baqubah where I stopped for a nap, they even provided me with drinks and food aplenty, and kept it open extra hours between prayers to accommodate me. Iraqi hospitality is by no means exclusive to guests invited, and I left the town with restored energy.

All over Federal Iraq are checkpoints with military and police. Throughout the day, I was stopped and interviewed a handful of times as everything about me screamed for attention: a two meter tall foreigner on a packed bicycle, wearing shorts and a neon shirt. While these checkpoints might feel intimidating with automatic rifles and armored cars, I expected them and sometimes even welcomed them. Since my visa was valid and I had nothing to hide, they became timely breaks where I got to tell my story and bask in the spotlight. Once their initial skepticism ceased and everything checked out, there were many selfies and group photos with the guards, and they always made sure I had water, asked if I wanted to eat and whether I had GPS.

After the second leg to Miqdadiyah, the sleep deprivation started to feel as the sun vias setting. One of the countless curious Iraqis on the road even begged me to come eat and stay the night at his house, but I had a goal in mind and wanted to see it through. I am also one to keep my word and once I had accepted the invitation of Manar, the host in Jalawla, I would not change plan lightly. Undeterred and filled with gifted falafel and fruit, I continued for the last push of 50km through lands that had seen much activity from ISIS guerilla even after the war. After almost an hour of slow progress, I received a message from Manar.

"I want to advise you to take a taxi from Miqdadiyah to Jalawla. It's not that safe at night. Nobody here have gone by bicycle."

To be continued in chapter 5


bottom of page