Thirst for travel
[b]To see the sights of ancient Assyria, Belarusian hitchhikes to Mosul [/b]Аli Baba, Sinbad the Sailor and Aladdin from One Thousand and One Nights, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the most ancient city on the planet, Baghdad, in which ‘everything is calm’: these images have fascinated Alexander Kozlovsky since childhood. Now, aged 28, he has managed to visit three-dozen countries by hitchhiking, including Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran and Uzbekistan.
Аli Baba, Sinbad the Sailor and Aladdin from One Thousand and One Nights, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the most ancient city on the planet, Baghdad, in which ‘everything is calm’: these images have fascinated Alexander Kozlovsky since childhood. Now, aged 28, he has managed to visit three-dozen countries by hitchhiking, including Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran and Uzbekistan.
Born and raised in the Belarusian city of Orsha, he learned the English language to advanced level before entering the Belarusian State Economic University. Graduating with honours, he then began working as a translator, knowing English and German at conversational level. He also studied French, Georgian, Turkish and Farsi, fuelling his desire to travel and fulfil his childhood dream.
He learned that ancient Assyria is located on the territory of present-day Iraq, whose ancient capital, Nineveh, is one of the most dangerous cities in the world — now known as Mosul. This didn’t deter him though and he set off as a tourist, alone, without any knowledge of Arabic, but a great desire to see Iraq’s archaeological sites for himself.
His intentions are, perhaps, best illustrated by an excerpt from the book he began writing on his return:
‘... Most of all, I wanted to see a lamassu: a mythological creature with human head, the body of a bull and the wings of an eagle. I first saw copies in the Mesopotamian Hall at the Museum of Fine Arts, named after Pushkin, in Moscow. Encyclopedias then taught me that the creature first appeared in ancient Assyria. There, human-bulls with wings guarded the entrances to public institutions. You might say: “I still don’t understand why you want to go to Iraq? Is it simply to look at sights long since disappeared? The Ishtar Gate of Babylon can be viewed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and bass-reliefs of lamassu are seen in museums worldwide: the biggest collection is in the Louvre. Other treasures are in the British Museum!” Perhaps, you are right. However, why do millions of tourists come every year to the site thought to be the city of Troy in Turkey? After all, nowhere is completely safe for travel. The answer is obvious. People want to visit the places where our civilisation first grew!’
Alexander, are you a fan of adventure tourism and were you anxious at the prospect of entering Iraq: still a site of civil conflict?
It’s not my style to visit ‘hot spots’ in an army jeep, protected by military escort! It would be boring. When you hitchhike, everything is different. If you don’t believe that you can travel far using this method, read Anton Krotov’s book on traveling through the Middle East and Asia or Valery Shanin book about his journey through Europe and the USA. It’s also useful to look through the Lonely Planet guides, which help travellers on a tight budget. It’s true that Mosul is considered to be the most crime-ridden city in the world, but nearly 2 million people live there and it has one of the largest universities in the Middle East. It’s the most dangerous city in the world, with 30,000 students walking around. It’s strange, don’t you think? Since last year, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has removed Iraq from its list of countries to which it advises citizens not to travel.
Why did you apply for your tourist visa from Moscow? Was it difficult to obtain?
I spend a lot of time in the Russian capital because of work. This is why I applied to the Iraqi Embassy in Moscow. I only managed to convince the consul that I really wanted to see the sights after my eighth visit (laughs). I entered Iraq from Turkey, through Kurdistan. The latter officially belongs to Iraq but its relationship with official Baghdad is extremely tense. After receiving a stamp at the Kurdish checkpoint of Ibrahim Khalil, in Mosul, it was harder for me to find a hotel bed. I always carried my tourist document — in Russian and Arabic. This eliminated the need for me to explain myself to the armed men at every checkpoint in an unknown language.
What’s it like in modern day Iraq? Is there any tourist infrastructure?
In the Old Town of Mosul, the ‘charming 19th century houses’ (as described in pre-war guide books) have been mostly destroyed. Local residents associate the word ‘Nineveh’ with a 4-star hotel rather than the museum. The manager, thinking me to be a rich foreigner, tried to charge me $150 a night to stay there, although the official price is half this amount. After talking with locals, I found a modest room at $7 a night in a building where students lived. Of the $1000 I took for my trip, I spent about $300 in Turkey and only $30 for 5 days in Iraq.
Were you disappointed by the sights?
As it turned out, the ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital are within the Army Staff compound, so I thought entry would be prohibited. However, the ‘general’ (as his subordinates called him) arrived in an armoured jeep and not only ‘allowed’ me in but also kindly acted as a guide. I walked around the ruins of the Palace of Ashurbanipal, saw the Nergal Gate (built during Saddam Hussein’s reign) and took a photo of the Mosque of the Prophet Jonah. I also saw Mosul’s biggest attraction: the 52m tall minaret of Al-Hatba. It is called ‘humpbacked’, being a little like the ‘leaning’ Tower of Pisa. In September last year, UNESCO approved its restoration.
In my book, I say: ‘Taking pictures of an unremarkable piece of stone, I was surprised to find Akkadian cuneiform engraved on the back. Among the grass, dust and sand, lay fragments of reliefs, on which you could see depictions of legs, trees and animals. As the palace was built in the 7th century BC, the reliefs belong to that period. I had to lift my feet to step over artefacts, to preserve them for posterity. I felt like a real archaeologist.’
In Mosul, you had a strange and rather terrible incident, being put in jail. What happened?
I photographed the Nergal Gate, which is located next to the police station. The law enforcement officers were frightened, thinking that I was taking their pictures rather than shots of architecture. They didn’t find anything illegal in my photos but I was put into jail while they checked; they took my passport and mobile phone.
How did the Iraqis treat you as a prisoner?
Humanely. In the police station, I was given tea and cakes. Everyone was smiling and looking at me with excitement. I felt welcomed rather than arrested. The other prisoners gave me mattress space and shared the food relatives brought to them.
How did you get out?
The day after my arrest, a local man came to see me, whom I had met at the hotel. With his help, I sent a text message to my father, who was in Moscow. Fortunately, he did not panic and really helped. He got in touch with the head of the consular department of the Russian Embassy in Baghdad, Jamshed Boltaev, who led talks with the senior Iraqi military to aid my release.
Do you regret anything about your extreme trip?
I regret the worry I caused my parents and not being able to complete my journey. I’m not a crazy young man but I really want to go back to Iraq! Maybe, I will go as a guide. I’ve just written a guide to the country: the first in Russian. I hope that Iraqi diplomats in Russia will help with its publication. I’ve already published my notes about my journey online (www.sanyok-belarus.narod.ru/kniga_vii_nastoyaschii_irak).
Believe me, Iraq is a very interesting place. After all, the Tower of Babylon was built there. According to some scientists, it’s where Eden was located. Post-war Iraq is not a paradise for tourists but, each year, it becomes more open to them. So far, only organised groups tend to go. In my view, it’s worth visiting.
By Sergey Golesnik