Returning to England in 2021 after six years in China was a bit of a shock to the system. After spending one year catching up with friends and family, working on various projects and securing a couple of permanent freelance writing gigs it was time to hit the road again for a new adventure.
I had a vague plan to spend the colder months in southern Europe before moving onto the Middle East for some winter sun and adventure under new horizons. My loose plan was to follow the journey of my grandfather who drove to Baghdad from England in the 1950s (though I would go by bus).
Zlarin Island – Croatia
My first destination was the tiny island of Zlarin in Croatia. I set off from London by bus, crossed the channel, spent a few hours in Paris before heading down to Munich and changing buses for Zagreb. It was a long but scenic journey through the Alps and into the former Yugoslavia.
I booked myself an Airbnb on Zlarin Island and couldn’t have asked for a better place to spend September. The apartment was large, basic and a bit dated, but the views across the bay and nearby islands were simply out of this world.
There was a bench on the patio which directly overlooked the turquoise ocean below, and this is where I spent one very happy month working and catching up with a couple of friends who I invited to come and stay (there was so much space).
Lake Ohrid – North Macedonia
My next destination was the charming lakeside town of Ohrid in North Macedonia. But first I made a quick detour to Mostar in Bosnia, a town I fell in love with when I first visited 12 years prior. I stayed in the same hostel and my wonderful host, Miran, couldn’t believe that I had stayed with him all those years ago.
Through Montengro, into Albania and then a final bus ride to Ohrid where I spent a few days back in 2019 on my way back to China. I vowed to come back and now I had a whole month to explore this charming town filled with history from Hellenic and Roman time to the Ottoman period and everything in between.
I booked another Airbnb but this time just a room rather than a whole apartment, though the room had a balcony overlooking the lake and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay, right in the heart of the old town and a few minutes’ walk from the lakeshore.
I explored the nearby monastery at Sveti Naum, the incredible Bay of Bones and spent much time wandering the cobbled streets around the lake. I think I may return to Ohrid again for a month or two in Spring this year.
Greece and Turkey
From Ohrid it was a quick hop into Greece and onto Athens where I stayed with old friends for a week. After enjoying the city’s great food and nightlife it was time to leave Europe behind. My initial plan had been to take the bus from Athens to Istanbul which I’ve done before, but found that I could take a boat to Turkey which would be much more fun.
I took an overnight sailing from Piraeus to the Island of Kos where I spent a couple of days catching up on work after so much socialising in Athens. Kos was like a ghost town this far out of season, though the weather was still pleasant, if a little windy.
From Kos it was an hour’s boat ride to Bodrum in south-western Turkey. I’d reached Asia again without flying, and celebrated with a visit to the stunning Bodrum castle and a couple of beers in the evening.
Now the adventure was really about to begin. I took a 30-hour bus from Bodrum to Diyarbakir, a city with Turkey’s largest Kurdish population and with something of a troubled past. The scenery was fantastic with mountains and coast giving way to desert as we hugged the Syrian border.
I stayed with a Kurdish family in Diyarbakir for one month and the hospitality and friendship was such that I will never forget. I spent time exploring the Roman city walls, the impressive Hevsel Gardens which has been providing food for the city for millennia.
I ate traditional Kurdish foods, watched Kurdish musicians perform and enjoyed the local Syriac wine. One of the highlights of my stay was a day trip to the ancient Roman city of Dara, the easternmost outpost of the Roman empire and the city of Mardin overlooking the plains of Mesopotamia. Mardin really is a gem with sandstone buildings hugging the mountain overlooking Syria and the never-ending plains. It’s said that you can see to the end of the world here and it’s not hard to see why.
Erbil – Iraq
My principal reason for visiting Diyarbakir was as a jumping off point for Iraq. After a few false starts I finally booked my bus to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was a relatively short 8-hour journey and the border crossing was surprisingly straightforward.
I paid the $70 for my Iraqi Kurdistan visa and I was in! We passed by the city of Mosul, and I’ll admit that I was a little on edge, this being the former headquarters of the ISIS caliphate in Iraq. However we made it to Erbil without incident and I made my way by taxi to my hotel.
While I was checking in, I noticed a handgun just casually sitting next to the telephone on the reception desk. As an Englishman I’m not used to seeing guns, so this freaked me out a little. When the first power cut happened, I convinced myself Isis was storming the hotel, but soon realised it was quite normal.
I spent days exploring the citadel, thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited place on earth. The views from the citadel across the city parks and bazaar were incredible. Inside were some museums like the Kurdish textile museum, a gemstone museum and some impressive architecture dating back thousands of years.
I shopped in the bazaar for souvenirs; Iraqi and Kurdistan flags, and some old banknotes from the Saddam Hussain era. I never felt unsafe walking around the city and found the people to be incredibly friendly and welcoming. I spent pleasant hours in cafes around the square sipping strong coffee and drinking in the atmosphere.
I had made it to Iraq overland, just like my grandfather 70 years before me. Unfortunately, my visa only entitled me to travel in northern Iraq and to visit Baghdad I’d have to go back to the UK to apply for a Federal Iraq visa, or fly, which I don’t do. Baghdad, Babylon and Samara will have to wait for another day.
Back from Iraq, to Turkey and onward to Georgia and Armenia
I returned to my hosts in Diyarbakir for another week to catch up on work before exploring the eastern cities of Van and Erzurum. Van sits on the edge of a lake of the same name and was once part of Armenia with a castle dating back to this period.
Erzurum is Turkey’s highest city and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. There is a small citadel and some interesting mosques, madrasas and other historical sites in the town. From Erzurum I made my way to the border with Georgia in time for Christmas. I spent a week over Christmas and New Year in Tbilisi, a beautiful and historic city in the Caucasus with some of the best food and wine to be found anywhere.
After Georgia I took a marshrutka to Yerevan in Armenia, through the Caucasus mountains, which is where I am now. My next destination? I have no idea. I’ll spend the rest of January exploring Armenia and go back to Georgia before deciding where to go after that.
When you go:
Things to do in Erbil: www.thetripgoeson.com/things-to-do-in-erbil-iraq
Written by: Stephen Anthony Rohan
Stephen is an English teacher currently living and working in China. Originally from Colchester in England, he has travelled to over 50 countries and writes about his adventures for the blog www.thetripgoeson.com. His interests extend to music, reading, art and the great outdoors.
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