By Levison Wood
Hussein Hassan is 84, and, with a neatly trimmed and brilliantly white moustache looks every inch the immaculate host. He sits on the carpet smoking a cigarette through a two feet long cane pipe with his ancient legs crossed delicately in a way that us westerners could never hope to emulate. The baggy grey pants, elaborate cummerbund and smart waistcoat combine, with a black and white turban, to conjure up visions of Arabian nights. His choice of ornamental dagger, tucked into his trousers adds to the impression, but it isn't until he stands up that I realise he is also donning a belt of 9mm ammunition and a magnum revolver, only half hidden away. But Hassan is harmless enough. In fact his hospitality is impeccable. Like all the other Kurds we had met, he welcomed visitors with open arms- and an open house. Everywhere we travelled in Kurdistan we had been greeted with the same genuine warmth. "My house is your house" comes the cry from every smiling corner.
Hassan is delighted that we agree to stay the night. We were welcome of the warmth to be honest. After four days of freezing conditions high in the Zagros mountains this was the moment we had been waiting for; an opportunity to sit down around a gas heater, eat delicious kebabs with yoghurt and relax to the sound of an acoustic Kurdish guitar. We were in Choman, a small town four hours away from the nearest city of Erbil in Northern Iraq. It seemed a strange place to want to go trekking but this autonomous Kurdish region is completely safe and far removed from the daily violence that blights the rest of the country.
The expedition was comprised of an international team of Brits, French and Scandinavians under the guidance of expedition company Secret Compass in order to promote tourism in this infamous country where news is normally of bombs and bullets rather than spectacular mountains and friendly locals.
"I came with no expectations at all" says Kit Monsen, a Norwegian who had brought his skis in an effort to become the first person to ski in the remote mountain range and possibly even the first person to go skiing in Iraq. "All I heard was that there is snow at this time of year so I brought my gear and off we went."
The plan was to summit one of the 3000 plus metre peaks in the Zagros mountains that straddle the Iranian border. The local police, who were very friendly- if a little bemused- said that because of the situation in Iran (and due to a couple of Americans getting kidnapped in 2009) we would need a police escort.
"Don't worry about the Iranians" said Abdul Khaliq our appointed guide, with a wry smile and a roll in his eyes, who spoke near perfect English- learned online with a dodgy dongle connection and an ancient laptop. "They"re really very nice."
Looking up at the snow covered peaks, high above the clouds, it was hard to imagine an Iranian security outpost: the weather had been reported to be minus twenty, and Jon Beswick- who climbed the highest peak last year- assured us that there were no settlements anywhere near the top- it is just too exposed.
This year snow had been particularly heavy and our armed convoy dropped us at the end of a sheep where track we began the steady ascent. The scene reminded me a little of the Alps- not at all the visions of endless deserts that most people associate with Iraq.
Abdul and a gun toting policeman guided us carefully around a minefield (although since the snow was up to two metres deep anyway so it wouldn't have mattered) until we reached a high plateau with stunning views across the valley. Although the climb was never technically difficult we donned crampons and used ice axes for safety as the snow was fresh and risk of crevasses potentially high. Kit, the Norwegian was in his element as he attached his skins and skied uphill, leaving us trailing behind.
But despite tremendous optimism, poor weather meant a cold night sleeping in tents where gusts of gale force winds threatened to blow us off the mountain. Visibility was reduced to near zero the next day and hail pummelled us from above. It was more south pole than western desert here. So, sensibly after only two days in the snow we descended and took refuge in an old shepherds hut. It was an experience in itself. Ten total strangers- bonded by the excitement of adventure- cuddled up in sleeping bags to escape the cold mountain air. We stayed for another two days as the snow got heavier, but as conditions worsened, resolve and team spirit reigned supreme as jokes and stories were told around a fire. Banter filled the air and it was hard to imagine that we were in a country that has for so long been the victim of its own -and others - violence.
"Kurdistan is the only safe place in Iraq" said Abdul Khaliq. "After we got our freedom in 2003 we have been an autonomous region- there have never been any problems with security here." He was right- from what we could tell, this small mountain fiefdom was completely independent from the rest of Iraq and remained safe as the rest of the country descended into chaos - a situation that remains to this day.
Before setting out we had met Karwan Barzani, one of the most influential figures in Kurdistan and head of the Kurdistan- UK Friendship Association. He had arranged for our adventure to be filmed for the national TV station. "We want the world to know that Kurdistan is safe." Said Barzani. "It is a beautiful country with so much to see and do. Did you know that Erbil, with its mountain top citadel is one of the oldest cities in the world" We want to encourage visitors to experience the Kurdish people's hospitality and understand that there is more to Iraq than Saddam Hussein and suicide bombers."
Certainly as we huddled together on the mountainside- cold but happy- they were the last things on my mind. On day five of the journey the team made a final push from the hut. Halgurd and Cheekah Dar- the two highest peaks were out of the question because of continued snow and plummeting temperatures so instead we headed for an unnamed and probably unclimbed peak (no one keeps records out here). It was a long, hard slog as the group took it in turns to lead in breaking a trail in the deep snow, but at two in the afternoon as a break in the cloud appeared as if by magic, we got to the top in a mood of jubilation. The hard work was worth it. Kit celebrated by skiing back down as fast as he could - as for the rest of us, we had to make do with wet backsides and an undignified roly-poly if we were to get back to base camp for dinner.
Back in Choman, as we regale the old man with stories of our feats of adventure over the past week he smiles benevolently and asks if we would like more food. I thank him for his generosity and tell him that the Kurdish hospitality is the best I have ever experienced. "It is nothing. You would do the same for me." As I look around at the nine other dozing bodies around me, taking up the old man's entire living room, having eaten his wife's cupboards bare I begin to wonder.
For a true understanding of this corner of Iraq and the warmth of the Kurdish people, drop your preconceptions, lose the fear and head to Kurdistan.
The expedition was organised by Secret Compass Expeditions (www.secretcompass.com) and cost £1850 for 7 days (land only). They plan to return in winter 2012 and Spring 2013 to trek new routes in Kurdistan. Flights from London to Erbil begin at £450 with Lufthansa.