Walking, Hiking & Trail Running

Hike Or Die | Meet The Kurdish Smugglers Climbing Mountains To Survive

When we hike it's for fun. For these poor Kurdish farmers, it's out of economic necessity

Photography by Guillem Sartorio Teixidó | Captions by David Meseguer

We hike for pleasure. We hike for fun. Some of us even hike just to get nice pictures to post on Instagram. Yet in many parts of the world people hike for different reasons, for darker reasons that are a million miles from fun.

The photographer Guillem Sartorio Teixidó met one such group of people in the mountains between Iraq and Iran. A group of Iranian Kurdish smugglers, who risk their lives running supplies of illicit alcohol from Iraq (where it’s still sold openly in the country’s Kurdish north, in defiance of a central government ban) into Iran.

“They’re constantly exposed to danger, whether it’s gunfire from the Iranian border patrols, landmines or wolves.”

They’re incredibly tough hikers who climb 3,000 metre-high mountains without any professional gear. In fact, as you’ll notice from the pictures below, they use regular clothes, sneakers and makeshift backpacks. Still, they cross the mountains three or four times a month, carrying very heavy packs of alcohol, always at night, to avoid the Iranian patrols.

“They remind me more of hikers and climbers from older times,” Guillem told us. “Taking on epic journeys across extreme environments purely for economic survival.”

Having got their permission to take photos, he was careful to obscure their faces in the shots, in order to conceal their identities.

A group of Iranian Kurdish smugglers drinking tea and having some food in the Zagros Mountains, a remote area of Iraqi Kurdistan after a 10 hour-journey across the 3,000m-high peaks. The porters start to walk at 5 am from the Iranian side of the border taking advantage of the darkness before the sunset to avoid the Iranian border guards.

A man carrying an AK-47 rifle, to ward off wolves, stands in front of a depot filled with boxes of different kinds of alcohol from various brands. Whisky, Chivas Regal 12 years, or Grey Goose vodka are some of those that can be identified as well as several batches of Bulgarian wine.

“For every trip we take about $ 70 per person. If the weather conditions are good and there are  no problems, we can make up to three expeditions a week,” a smuggler says. A considerable amount of money taking into account that the average wage in Iran is $ 490 and the minimum wage is $ 248.

Sometimes smugglers have to stop their activity for a few days because of the large amount of snow that accumulates on the route. In some parts it can be up to three metres, which makes the road impassable. Many of them use crampons to advance on the ice and avoid downfalls that can be deadly.

Some smugglers use up to six layers of socks to cope with the low temperatures, that can reach as low as -21 degrees at night in this area of the Middle East. Some of them have become disoriented during the journey and have died of hypothermia and froze to death. During summer they use horses to carry the bundles.

In the hidden warehouse near the Iraqi border town of Haji Omran the Kurdish smugglers keep food and some cooking utensils like this teapot. Tea is the most common drink in all Middle East and it’s perfect for a recovery after an intense physical effort and also very suitable for keeping the body warm.

To go lightweight during the return journey, the group of smugglers store food and drink in the warehouse. They need to regain their strength because the way back can take at least 20 hours crossing the snowy 3,000m-high peaks. Some of them are well-experienced porters with more than 15 years of carrying loads on their backs.

During winter temperatures can drop to -21 degrees. Smugglers tackle the lack of appropriate gear by adding layers and more layers of clothing, which makes their movements even more difficult across the snowy peaks. Most of them wear several wool sweaters, coats and gloves to survive the low temperatures.

A 70-centilitre bottle of this Scotch whiskey costs about $24 in a supermarket, a litre of this vodka distilled in France is around $30, while the Bulgarian wine is about $10 per unit. These prices will be up to 10 times higher on the Iranian black market.

The only electronic device that all of them carry well protected from the cold and humidity and indicates that we are in 2017 is the smartphone. With it, apart from taking photos and videos during the journey, they can call the members of the organisation once they have managed to reach Iraqi territory.

“We carry everything during the winter. Clothes, plasma TVs, different types of electronic devices, but especially tobacco and alcohol,” a smuggler says. The taxes paid on imported products in Iran are very high, so a lot of goods are transported like this across the border between Iraq and Iran.

The smugglers, mostly poor Kurdish farmers, only walk at night. They’re constantly exposed to danger, whether it’s gunfire from the Iranian border patrols, landmines or wolves. According to the Hengaw human rights monitoring agency, 39 Kurdish smugglers have died in incidents involving Iranian security forces since the start of the year. 17 were simply shot dead.

The smugglers’ difficult economic situation is in full evidence in the humble clothing and rudimentary gear that they have to use for the climb.

In place of Gore-tex or thermals, they wear jackets, woolly jumpers, trousers, backpacks, boots, leather pouches, and walking sticks so basic they reminded us of the gear Sir Edmund Hillary’s used to climb Everest in the 1950s.

Each man packs a bundle that contains between 15 and 18 bottles. All packages are covered with plastic to protect the cargo during the journey. “The weight we carry depends on the capacity of each person and the weather. But we usually carry between 30 and 40 kilos per person,” a smuggler says.

Hundreds of landmines buried during the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988, necessitate the presence of a guide who knows every corner of the route very well. “We have a guide who leads the group and he does not usually carry anything so he can walk easier and just concentrate on the way. If he is tired, he is replaced by another member who gives him his backpack”, a smuggler says.

To read the rest of Mpora’s ‘Dark’ Issue head here

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