March 30, 2022 1 Comment
We had conducted extensive research on the options for getting us, our motorbikes and the dogs from Europe to Jordan. Jordan had been on our itinerary since the beginning of our travels, being a very tourist friendly country with so many great ancient sites, varied landscapes and of course the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at a staggering 430m below sea level. It was a place that fascinated us and begged us to visit.
Financial limitations had prevented us from visiting when we were just next door in Egypt back in 2017, but it was decided that it would become part of our Asia leg. Now in a slightly better financial situation, we assessed our options as follows:
The two shipping options were discounted immediately due to cost and practicality, had there been no other options then we would have given the direct shipping option a little more thought but this wasn’t the case. Riding through Iran and Saudi Arabia would have resulted in us backtracking on ourselves and over an extended distance so was likewise disregarded as a viable option. This left the options of the ferry or riding through Iraq. We were aware that Iraq had stabilised extensively in the last 10 years, but were wary of the desert in the west leading to the Jordan border, this region had been a hotspot for Isis in recent times and although more or less defeated they were still known to be hiding out in the vast Iraqi desert. We put this idea to one side while we considered the last of our assessed options, the ferry.
Very little information was available regarding the ferry. We’d read a few forums where it was mentioned that the ferry was running, but they weren’t recent. We’d also found information on iOverlander about where and how to purchase tickets but no information on the cost anywhere. The little information that was available did concur and suggested that if a ferry were running, it would leave from Taşucu on the south coast of Turkey. As luck would have it we were already planning to travel to Taşucu to take a ferry to Cyprus and so we would be able to investigate in person and get the facts.
After sorting out our Cyprus tickets, it was time to visit the MedStar booking office to see about the ferry to Lebanon. Medstar was not a very professionally run outfit at all, we’d tried to make contact via WhatsApp and email but had no response. But once in the office they had to answer our questions. We were told that it was no problem (the usual response), just return in the morning and they would book us on the ferry leaving that day. They had to make a phone call to get the price, which left us a little shocked, USD$230 per person and USD$400 per motorbike (they did say the dogs could travel for free). We assumed this had been lost in translation and later asked a friend to call up and confirm, but they received exactly the same response. So all up the 10 hour ferry to Lebanon was going to cost us USD$1260 payable in US Dollars. For comparison, the 6 hours ferry to Cyprus had cost us around ~USD$200 for both of us including our bikes. A little bit of extortion but they had a monopoly and knew people would pay.
As well as the ferry cost we needed to cross Syria, including the visa and potentially a guide. We’d read about the need to be escorted through Syria by a local tour company and that they would arrange the visa prior to arrival. We reached out to a few guides mentioned on various forums and websites. The quotes came in quickly with fairly consistent prices all around the USD$600 per person mark. All of the quotes included more than we wanted with vehicle transport, tours of the sites and hotel stays. But removing these didn’t have a huge impact on the price and so it made sense to include the tourist activities while in the country. The hotels we would need anyway and the guide assured us they would be pet friendly. The ferry option was really adding up. It was going to cost us nearly USD$2,500 to get to Jordan from Turkey.
The day before we were to depart from Adana, our friend and the General President of the Turk Riders Chopper Club (TRCC), Ruhsati, asked us about the cost for the ferry and without even knowing about the Syria costs he said he would talk the ferry company down in price or work out a cheaper route. He spent a long time on the phone to the chief operating officer at MedStar who said they would discuss a discount once we arrived and not sooner. This wasn’t very helpful given that it was 170km in the opposite direction to our alternative route and we really needed to decide whether we were going ahead before we left Adana. Added to this was the fact that Stu now only had three days left before his 90 days in Turkey was up, so riding one way only to find out that the deal wasn’t suitable was not a good option. Hours before our departure and all ready to take the ferry, Ruhsati and Özgür, President of the local TRCC chapter, sat us down and proposed the Iraq option. It came as a little bit of a surprise as previous attempts to ask about travel through Iraq had been met with hesitation, but they assured us that it was safe and that they knew bikers who had travelled into Iraq recently and had no problems. We put a little thought into it and eventually agreed that the money really could be better spent and worse case we could pass through to Kuwait or Iran and try riding around. We did have the luxury of time and so just like that, we were heading in the opposite direction and into the unknown.
The ride to the Habur border was cold but dry. The morning before our crossing we woke up to bikes covered in snow, luckily we were being hosted by a Turk Rider, Akif, and staying in a lovely warm apartment. Approaching the border we somehow took a wrong turn and we found ourselves 15km out and the road essentially blocked by parked trucks queuing for the border. Travelling on motorbikes has its advantages, this wasn’t a problem for us and we simply rode down the shoulder and between trucks where the shoulder too was blocked. The sheer number of trucks was mind blowing, we thought surely it wouldn’t continue right up to the border and that this was just a way of holding them back. But sure enough, we were weaving through trucks for the entire length of road until reaching the Kurdistan border.
We’d read about this border being one of the busiest checkpoints in the world, so the line of trucks really was no surprise. We also read that it was chaos and near impossible to navigate independently, but as seasoned travellers we were willing to give it a go. Important points when conducting a border crossing:
So we don’t really do early, and sometimes this works in our favour as the border staff just want to get home in the afternoons. Other times it has no effect and we just end up having a painfully late night. This was to be the latter. Checking out of Turkey was a bit chaotic for sure, people parked all over the place and walking up to different booths. We ended up getting our passports stamped fairly quickly and heading for the boom gate ready to enter Iraq, but the staff at the exit said we’d not completed the customs requirements. So back we rode with no idea what we were to do. Janell volunteered to try and work it out while Stu stayed with the bikes and dogs. Janell found a very helpful person in a big office on the top floor of the building and pulled him out of his office, down to the chaos outside to help process our paperwork and get us on our way. She then ran back to Stu and told him exactly where to go. Unfortunately Stu’s bike had now been in Turkey for a week longer than allowed and so a fine was issued. This wasn’t completely unexpected and we were prepared to pay the small fine (USD$25 fine per month). With the fine paid and the documents in hand to exit the border post we were free to enter Iraq.
We crossed the short bridge over the river separating Turkey from Iraq. There was a lot to do at the Kurdistan-Iraq immigration; Covid check, purchase a visa, get the stamp, vehicle inspection, vehicle registration and Pet import. Each of the individual steps were actually simple enough, but some were very time consuming. Although it was well documented that we could get our visa at the border, the officials seemed surprised that we didn’t have one prepared in advance and we were asked to sit to the side and wait. Someone eventually took us to change money to pay for the visa and brought us back to the immigration office to proceed. We complicated matters further by providing our Australian passports and not our British passports which we had used in Turkey. Being dual citizens we have both British and Australian passports but so far the British passport has served our destinations. We knew we needed to swap to the Australian passport for countries ahead of us but didn’t want to draw attention to the swap. The immigration officer obviously wanted to see our stamp out from Turkey and so we needed to show the British passport, he then said we needed to enter Iraq with a passport containing a Turkish exit stamp and told us to return to Turkey and ask for an exit stamp in both passports. We’d already been at the border for 3 hours and didn’t believe that the Turkish officials would in fact give us the exit stamp so we just gave up and asked to continue with the British passports. This took even more time and now we were dealing with disgruntled staff. Never mind, it was worth a try.
The remainder of the border process was uneventful and straightforward other than the pet import which happened well after dark. We'd registered the bikes and cleared customs in every other respect but the dogs needed to be cleared and we were told to see the manager. Stu went to see the Directorate for his approval, handing him a piece of paper with Arabic writing on it and so having no idea what it said. The Director asked a question about passports and Stu showed him his passport, the Director asked something else in Arabic and Stu didn’t understand and tried to converse with Google Translate but he wasn’t interested and wrote something on the paper. Stu thought he’d got what we needed and returned to the customs office. But what the Director had given was instructions that the dogs needed a vet inspection. This wasn’t going to happen at this hour so who knows what that meant, but luckily an Iraqi man standing nearby got involved and asked Stu if we had a Pet Passport. Stu then had a lightbulb moment regarding the question the Directorate had asked. The man told Stu to go back to the Directorate and show the Pet Passports. Stu walked back over to the Directorates office and asked again to look at the paperwork and showed the Pet Passports. Again the director wrote on the piece of paper and when this was taken back to the customs office we were given the all clear to enter Iraqi Kurdistan.
It was getting close to 9pm once we’d finished at the border. As we pulled out we saw a service station with a nice restaurant and decided to pull in and get a meal and hopefully get an internet connection and find some accommodation. We were both shattered and even though the nearest town was only 10 km away, neither of us felt inclined to ride any further and who knew what lay ahead of us with pet friendly or not so friendly accommodation. So we asked the restaurant if we could pitch a tent in the car park for the night.
We were up and out early after a fairly broken night in a floodlit car park. The road to Mosul, a must see destination in Iraq, was only 135 km and we had accommodation organised with a Couchsurfer. We knew we would be there by early afternoon at the latest. The roads were far better than we’d expected and we were able to make great time. We quickly got to within 30km of Mosul where we were met with checkpoints. The first was definitely Kurdish but the ones after that were not so clear, except for the fourth one, which was clearly an Iraq checkpoint. After examining our passports they determined that we were not legal in Iraq having only obtained the Iraqi Kurdistan visa and we were told to go to Baghdad to get the Iraq visa and entry stamp. This really confused us as we had no way to get to Baghdad without our bikes, or so it seemed. The way they spoke to us it seemed we needed to return to Turkey, but Stu had no days left so that wasn’t an option anyway. After a few questions and a little help from other motorists we worked out that we could get to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, and then fly to Iraq but only by going back on ourselves and remaining within the confines of Kurdistan.
So back we went, a long way back, and found the road for Erbil. We weren’t going to make it that night and even if we did we had nowhere to stay so when we saw a well lit restaurant with a large car park on the side of the highway we pulled in and asked if they would let us camp. Another night without a shower, Yay! The restaurant had internet, so we were able to start making arrangements for our stay in Erbil. We reached out to a bike club in Iraq, the Iraq Bikers, who had chapters all over the country. Even before we’d got to sleep they had come back with a solution to our problem and invited us to a festival in Baghdad the following weekend. What was needed was an internal flight from Erbil to Baghdad where we could buy our Iraq visa at the airport and then take a taxi back to Erbil. So on arrival at Baghdad airport we would get the visa, the stamp and then we’d be able to travel anywhere within the country, both Kurdistan and Iraq. The Erbil Chapter of the Iraq Bikers had just done this for a couple from Brazil and Portugal and were able to assure it would work and help us arrange everything quickly.
The staff at the Restaurant were very nice, we had dinner and breakfast there. It wasn’t a great night sleep again so we were up early and keen to get to Erbil, a little over 100km, and meet the bikers. We found a cafe in the city and sent our location to the Erbil Biker contact we had and waited, we told them no rush as we were happy to sit and catch up on emails and socials and enjoy our coffee. About 2 hours later we heard the rumbling of bike engines approaching as 10 or so bikes of various types but mainly of the cruiser style turned up and parked out front the cafe. We were quickly introduced to each and everyone as tables were pulled together and coffees ordered. It was good to be amongst bikers again.
Hasan, our contact, spoke perfect English. He worked in security at the US embassy and acted as our translator and main point of contact. He explained that we would fly to Baghdad that night and be hosted by Bilal the Captain of the club in Baghdad and the creator of Iraq Bikers and then be taken by taxi back to Erbil in the morning. Our main concern with this plan was of course the dogs, where would they spend the night? Hasan suggested that a clinic would be better than leaving them with one of the members and we agreed, so some phone calls were made and a clinic booked.
Our first stop after coffee was to book the flights. We stopped in at a local travel agent and found a flight leaving at 8:45pm and were told to get to the airport an hour beforehand. Next we rode to the clinic, we took one look and were not impressed. Hasan told us not to worry, there were others and we could keep looking. At the third clinic we felt somewhat comfortable. The Vet seemed nice and although the cages were small the Vet told us that the dogs could roam freely in a room and that the door to the room would remain closed. Knowing it was for one night and that they were all together we agreed, reluctantly to leave them. Finally the bikes were to go into storage for the night. We followed all the bikers to a warehouse near the airport and parked the bikes up, we took our laptops, documents and a change of clothes and left everything else secured with the bikes. We’d see them again soon enough. With the dogs and bikes taken care of and plenty of time before our flight we were taken out for dinner at a nearby restaurant. We were fully briefed on who we’d meet and what to do when getting to Baghdad. It seemed easy enough even for our tired minds. We were really just hoping that someone would offer us a shower before long and that we could get in that taxi back to Erbil and back to our girls.
We were cutting it close with regards to our flight time but before the bikers put us in a taxi to the airport they insisted on sorting out a sim card for us, this would be needed when we arrived so we could communicate with Bilal or Hasan if something went wrong. With everything organised a taxi was flagged down and the driver paid and given instructions. We were on our way to Baghdad, or were we.
Once at the airport things moved slowly, we arrived with over an hour to spare but had to pass through two security checks before waiting about 15 minutes for an internal shuttle bus to take us to the main terminal where check in actually occurred. By the time we reached the check in we were certainly inside the 1 hour requirement for checking in. The staff processed us and pointed us in the direction of immigration. It now made sense that we’d get a stamp in Baghdad given that the flight was treated more like an international flight rather than domestic. The officers looked at our passports and asked about our bikes, which had been recorded in the passport. We explained the situation and the purpose of our trip, he understood but said he needed to contact the border where we entered and get their approval, and so we waited. The officer tried calling the border but said there was no response and that he couldn’t let us leave Kurdistan without this approval. He then went on to tell us that he had applied for a visa for the UK but been rejected, so we started to question his motives, only to ourselves of course, we weren’t about to give him any more reason to make our life difficult. He told us not to worry and that he had spoken with the airline and that they were holding the flight, but it was getting very close and we weren’t feeling confident. Eventually he called us over and gave us our passports with the exit stamps we needed and told us to proceed. We ran for the gate, but needed to pass another security check this time taking boots and belts off. It was painfully slow and we were trying to do things quickly. We ran down the escalator and towards our gate. A man with a radio was waiting, we showed our tickets and asked to board but he told us to wait and radioed the captain. “Doors are closed, no more passengers” was the response. We pleaded but he said the decision was made and we’d need to rebook.
We were seriously pissed off, we’d done everything as told and they wouldn’t hold the plane for a few minutes. We complained to security, immigration and the airline staff but no one cared and no one showed any sympathy. We called Hasan and told him what had happened and that our greeting party in Baghdad needed to be stood down. He asked to speak to staff at the airport and tried to arrange another flight but there were no seats available. He then told us that one of the club members would come and pick us up and take us to a hotel. We of course said we needed to pick up our girls first and Hasan said he'd arrange it. Jegr, one of the Erbil members, collected us from the airport and took us to the vet clinic to pick up the girls. The vet was very understanding and seemed happy to be dragged back to the clinic at 9pm. We found the perfect pet friendly hotel and booked for one night knowing we could easily extend if needed, but for now we just wanted a shower and a good night sleep.
The next morning we woke at our leisure and after taking the girls out for a quick walk made our way down to breakfast. It was going to be a good day, we told ourselves. We decided that one way or another we were going to need the hotel for at least 2 more nights so we extended our booking. The previous day and night had been so full on, stressful and all a little out of our control. We didn’t want to go through that again but we were also across the process now and could be better prepared. The bikers met us after breakfast and we headed to the travel agent to sort out new flights. They were surprised to see us and when we explained what happened, they called the airline and tried to work things out. After a few hours of back and forth it became clear that no amount of persistence was going to get us a refund or credit for new flights and that we’d simply have to fork out for new flights. We booked the same flights but this time armed with the knowledge that we’d have difficulties getting through immigration. Next we had to sort out the girls and we were not keen on leaving them at the clinic again. Jegr, one of the bikers, said he would take care of our dogs for the night in his home and we instantly felt comfortable with this. He had dogs of his own and assured us his dogs would be kept separate and that our girls would be perfectly safe inside. We dropped them off at his home and made our way to the Airport with over three hours to spare. We weren’t taking any chances this time.
Entering the airport was seamless, we passed through security in no time and the shuttle bus was waiting for us. We arrived at the check in counter and still had three hours until the scheduled departure. Today however, the flight had been delayed by two hours. Why couldn’t this have happened yesterday? We then learnt that check in only opened two hours before the flight, so with five hours remaining, we’d have to occupy ourselves for three hours in the check in lounge. There was a restaurant so we could get something to eat and use the airport internet but time passed painfully slowly and the seats didn’t allow for stretching out for a snooze. After we eventually checked in we again faced immigration, we walked up to the officer and he took our passports, stamped the exit and told us to move through. Again, why couldn’t this have happened yesterday? Time for a beer and to relax until the flight.
The flight ended up being further delayed and there were even rumours of it being cancelled. At nearly 1am we were finally onboard and ready to make our way to Baghdad. We kept the bikers in Baghdad updated with the delays hoping not to cause too much disruption to their time.
Once in Baghdad we needed to obtain the new visa before we could pass through immigration. We filled in the form and handed it over with our passport at the visa counter and then sat down and waited. We weren’t alone in this process, three flights had arrived at the same time and many onboard were getting their visa on arrival. The passports returned in batches and the number of people slowly dwindled. Every time the official returned we were hopeful that he would be holding our passport but were continually disappointed. As fewer and fewer people remained we started to worry, was there something wrong with our application or the way in which we had arrived? Were we actually allowed to enter this way? One last batch of passports returned and were handed out, our passports amongst them and left until the very last. If there was a reason for ours being left until last we didn’t know of it or really care at this point, we paid the USD$73 each for the visa and proceeded to immigration.
Once outside the airport we were met by Ahmed, one of the Iraq Bikers who had been tasked with collecting us and getting us to our taxi. Ahmed was great, he’d been waiting all night and was still pleasant and happy to meet us. He drove us to the outskirts of town where a taxi driver (also an Iraq Bikers member) was waiting to take us back to Erbil.
We slept most of the way to Erbil, we were exhausted and felt safe in our surroundings. When we did open our eyes we were a little surprised to see the speed the driver was travelling (>170 km/h at times) but too tired to let it worry us. There were many checkpoints on the drive back to Erbil, everytime our passports were required and inspected, usually taking around 15 minutes to check.
We contacted Jegr as we were approaching Erbil. It was now Thursday and he had agreed to meet the Taxi driver, collect us and take us to him to get our dogs before returning to the hotel. We were beyond exhausted but so happy to see Weeti, Shadow and Azra. Jegr told us they had been no trouble at all.
All we wanted to do once we got back to the hotel was sleep. We were back in time for breakfast and thought it best to get a good feed, followed by a shower to freshen up before hitting the sack. As we were showering the Erbil Bikers called to ask if we were ready to join them in the ride to Baghdad. What now?! Obviously something had been lost in translation because we were in no position to ride 370 km. We explained that we needed to sleep and would meet them in Baghdad for the festival on Friday some time. Without any information or reasons, they kept insisting we ride with them. A nap was not going to suffice, we needed to really catch up on some sleep before riding to Baghdad. A compromise was to get up at 4am on Friday morning and ride 370 km to Baghdad to be at the start of the event at 9am. That seemed possible because there would be no traffic at the time and we wouldn’t stop for anything except toilet breaks for the dogs.
We got a little sleep during the day but still needed to collect our bikes. Omar, another club member, picked us up in the afternoon and drove us to the warehouse. We were all back together again for the first time in days, humans, dogs and bikes, and it felt good. We had everything we needed to get us through Iraq and the plan was coming together. We just needed to make it through the bike festival over the weekend. With everything arranged we climbed into bed, it was 7pm but we had no problem sleeping and should get over 8 hours of quality sleep.
We woke from our alarm at 3:30am, we’d mostly packed the night before so we just needed to lug everything down to the bikes and get the girls walked and toileted. We hit the road by 4:20 and given that the ride was scheduled to begin at 9:30, this gave us over five hours to ride 370 km. No problem, right?
By 8am we had been stopped at six checkpoints with our passports taken for interrogation at each one holding us up for a grand total of two hours and leaving us with 200 km still to go. By the seventh checkpoint we sent a message to Bilal, the president of the Iraq Bikers, telling him that we were not going to make it by 9:30 and apologetically explaining the problems we were facing. We continued and while riding received messages with a revised plan, a few bikers would meet us at the outskirts of Baghdad and escort us.
By the time we reached the meeting points, we had been stopped at 11 checkpoints and were way too late for the main ride. But to be fair, had we departed with the club the day before, we would still have been met by these delays and would have been exhausted in doing so. The Bikers from the Diyala chapter of Iraq Bikers waited for us as we approached Baghdad and then escorted us to Ramadi, the city where the big ride finished. Getting there was still slow, even with the escort as police and military checkpoints still wanted to see our passports before allowing us to proceed, albeit much quicker with the persistence of locals who could explain our presence in a way they understood.
Due to the size of the event, the bike rally was afforded a police escort, so once all together things did move much quicker. After a late lunch and a TV interview in Ramadi we returned to Baghdad, getting in very much in the dark. A hotel had been arranged for us by the club and being already after midnight we unapologetically retired to our room and climbed into bed. It had been an absolutely ridiculous day, and a crazy couple of days. We were up and riding at 4:20am. We only had one meal, the late lunch in Ramadi. The Bikers had given us no information about the event and the extent of riding that was occurring so in total we ended up riding over 600 km. The girls were exhausted, we were exhausted and at one point, riding in the dark in formation with 900 bikes to Baghdad, we pulled out of the formation onto the side of the road and said we were going to set up our tent and camp, the girls were tired and had enough. The noise of all the bikes was too much for Azra and Weeti and Shadow needed to sleep. Nobody had given any thought to what we’d been through up until this point but very quickly arrangements were made and Janell and the dogs were in a car and someone was riding her back to Baghdad. We were so grateful and wished we said something sooner rather than getting to breaking point.
The next morning we were in no mood to ride but we were told to be ready by 8am for a 120 km ride to Babylon City. Our girls were exhausted but we’d made a commitment and didn’t want to let the bikers down so started trying to think outside the box. We asked if a car was driving to the event and if the girls could travel that way. Eventually after some negotiating Ahmed volunteered to swap his bike and drive, and a rider was found to take Janell’s bike so she could sit with the girls and keep them company. Driving in the car is just as good as a rest day for them as they just sleep and it was a good thing as we’d have some pretty challenging days ahead.
The main event was actually the Babylon visit, all riders were either camping onsite or staying in one of the suites. The club had arranged a room for us and the girls and it was huge, plenty of room for a young puppy to tear around and burn up the energy they’d built up travelling in a car all day. It was very kind of the club to arrange the suite for us, we could easily have camped but we really needed the quality sleep and a safe place to leave the girls during the day while events were taking place around the site.
The festival was the clubs annual meet, with riders from all over the country present, 905 bikes in total. A representative from the Ministry of Youth and Sports attended and told the audience that this event had been the biggest of its kind since 2003. We were honoured guests at the award ceremony, sitting on the stage along with representatives from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Stu felt a little uncomfortable and confused about our purpose but happy to oblige. But if Stu felt a little uncomfortable, Janell was totally uneasy with the situation, she was the only female at the event and placed front and centre up on stage, her worst nightmare. The formalities took around 5 hours but Janell disappeared from the stage after about 2 hours to look after the dogs. The evening took off with music and dancing, but as the number of attendees dwindled we excused ourselves and returned to our room and our girls to sleep.
We were allowed to sleep late the next morning, it was lovely. When we did emerge we took a walk along the river with girls, it was a peaceful and pleasant morning. Along the walk we met up with the other honoured guests for coffee and had an opportunity to talk to them for the first time. They had each flown in for the event, Presidents of their respective Motorcycle clubs, and borrowed bikes locally. We got the impression they were regular attendees at events and probably host Iraq members on a similar basis. After coffee we were free to make our own way to our next destination, although offers of consort were forthcoming we really wanted to have the freedom to travel at our own pace and stop as we please.
Our next stop was to be in Ramadi, where we’d had lunch on the first day of the festival. One of the local bikers had volunteered to host us at his family home for the night. We only had two checkpoints along the road, a great relief. At the second checkpoint the officers told us that some bikers had passed through not too long before and asked that they be contacted when we came through. They were very friendly and took a few photos while calls were being made. We were then instructed to ride about 15 minutes further where we’d be met by the Anbar (state in which Ramadi resides) Bikers.
We were met by Ali (our host for our stay in Ramadi), Mohummad (Captain of Anbar Bikers) and a few other club members and escorted to Ali’s house. Ali lived with his parents and multiple siblings but the house was full with extended family most evenings and Ali told us that it was usual to have visitors staying at least once a week. We were made to feel very much at home and invited to join in birthday celebrations for one of his younger brothers. For us this was the reason we were there, to interact with local families, as much fun as the festival had been and hanging out with bikers seeing the local sites, it was these interactions that we really enjoyed.
Ramadi is a beautiful city. Ali and his brother Waleed took us around by car and showed us all the sites and explained that the city had been flattened 5 years prior during the Isis occupation. Ali told us that his parents fled the city as Isis took control because his father was a General in the Police Force but he and his brother both remained. However, after 6 months living under Isis Ali too had to flee for his life as Isis learnt of his connection to his father. A few months later and Iraq Security Forces reclaimed Ramadi after heavy fighting. In the 5 years since the occupation the Iraq government has invested heavily in rebuilding Ramadi and they have done a spectacular job. It’s located in a very picturesque spot along the Euphrates River less than 100 km west of Baghdad and served by a good quality motorway. The city and surrounding region has huge potential for tourism and would be a great place for overlanders to spend a night and replenish before venturing further west and into the Syrian Desert.
After spending two nights with Ali and his family and having a very genuine Iraqi experience it we headed to the Jordan border. Ali and his Mum made sure that we were well fed before we left and had food for the journey. It was strongly advised that we leave at 7am when heading west and to not even think about riding at night. From Ramadi it was 450 km of nothing but the odd small settlement. Isis was still hiding out there amongst the sand and probably in the settlements, BUT the military presence along the road was impressive. Over the entire 450 km we were always within line of sight of a military vehicle, soldier or outpost. However, they started returning to barracks at about 4pm and by 6pm the road was considered unsafe.
Ali’s father had arranged for a friend of his to host us in Rutba, 300 km west of Ramadi and the only real town between Ramadi and the Jordan border. We were told that his friend would meet us at the checkpoint before Rutba and escort us to his home. We filled all our tanks so we knew we would make it to the border without any problems (Thanks Touratech long range tanks) and set off. As we left Ramadi there were soldiers posted every 100m on the motorway. Keen to get some footage of something we’d never seen before we stopped quickly to set up our camera but a soldier came over to investigate. We then had to wait while his superior came to ask questions. We were very grateful for their presence and complied with all their requests and thanked them as we left, but it was clear that they didn’t want anyone stopping on the road. We knew there would be a couple of fuel stations where it would be safe to stop during the day but told not to try and camp as things change after dark.
As we continued the military thinned out but was still always visible and as we moved further west the size of the barracks and the hardware present increased, both in numbers and in capability. About 60 km out from Rutba we were met by an armoured vehicle and a pickup truck and asked to pull over. The men explained that they were to accompany us from here on. We didn’t completely understand but assumed Ali’s father or his friend had arranged the escort. Janell politely instructed the officer in charge that they were not to go any faster than 80 km/hr as that would upset our dogs and he complied.
We remained in convoy up to Rutba and then beyond, 10km past we pulled into a small desert settlement with a small shop and one of the soldiers bought us some food and drinks. We were a little confused and so called Ali who spoke to one of the soldiers for us. When the phone was returned to us Ali explained that there had been Isis activity on the road and the friend who was meeting us was occupied preparing operations for the next day so we were to be escorted directly to the border. It was getting late and already a big day but what could we do? We were certainly grateful for the escort, everyone had been so nice to us, but we still had another 120 km to the border and we weren't really mentally prepared for such a big riding day. Oh well, back on the bikes and lots of encouragement and treats for the girls.
At the border we were met by friends of Ali’s father and rushed through the initial aspects of the border process so that in the morning we would only need the exit stamp and to move over to the Jordan post to go through the checking in process. We were then hosted by an Iraqi Police Captain. We had dinner with him and his friends and slept in his office. We explained that we had a tent and would be very comfortable camping but he wouldn’t hear of it and had one of his staff retrieve a mattress and pillows for us to place on the floor of his office. He made his personal bathroom available for us to shower and freshen up. The only problem was that he was reluctant to allow the dogs to sleep with us in his office but after understanding that they would be in our sleeping bag and wouldn’t not go on any of the furniture he allowed it. In the morning he gave us breakfast and we said our farewells, another really lovely and surprising Iraqi experience.
At the Jordan border we decided to have another go at changing onto our Australian passport. We had even asked the Iraq Immigration if they could put an additional exit stamp in our Australian passport after explaining our dilemma. Fortunately or unfortunately, they told us that it wasn't necessary and that Jordan would simply allow us to enter on the Australian passports anyway. We weren’t convinced but there was no point in pushing the issue, we’d give it a try and if it didn’t work then we’d try at the next border and the next border. We still had a few borders to cross before it became desperate.
Finally we were on Jordan soil. It was again a slow process at the border, checking and scanning our bags, buying insurance, importing our bikes, getting a visa and importing the dogs. The first official we spoke to was the Police Chief and we asked him about changing to the Australian passport as he needed to fill in an application form on our behalf but he said it was against the law and refused. Oh well, at least we asked. After our vehicle and bag check was completed we rode a little further to another office for customs and immigrations. We figured we’d ask the question again of the immigration officer, surely he would be better placed to give us the right information or maybe not and help us out anyway. He took both sets of passports and flicked through the pages. We pointed out that our British passports were nearly full and that at some point we’d need a new one anyway. He understood and asked his superior. We waited a little while and before long he returned and said “of course”. Really? We were so happy, if we could pull it off here we’d be set for the rest of our travels as the Australian passport was completely empty. He processed our visa and stamped into our new passports. We completed customs formalities and quickly made our way to the exit gate, wanting to get clear of the border post before someone realised they’d made a mistake and called us back. Thankfully no such issue was raised and we rode off into the Jordanian desert and onwards to Amman.
Taking the Iraq route certainly ended up being cheaper than taking the Ferry to Lebanon but it wasn’t without its challenges. There were many moments when we cursed Ruhsati and wished we’d taken the ferry. But it must be acknowledged that he was right and not only did we save money, we had a great adventure in doing so and made some great new friends.
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