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Sam Firman
Written by Sam Firman
Leon McCarron
Written by Leon McCarron
Published on 20th March 2022
7 min read

The Zagros Mountain Trail is a new long-distance hiking trail weaving through Iraqi Kurdistan. We spoke to trail developer Leon McCarron about the new story it hopes to tell and the opportunities it hopes to bring.

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Writer, expedition leader and trail developer Leon McCarron, and his trail-development collaborator Laween Mohammed, began walking through Kurdistan in 2016. Wandering from village to village, they began speaking with local people and paying local guides - shepherds, elders, adventurous young folk - to help them identify existing trails. Work on the Zagros Mountain Trail had begun.

“The early stage of developing a trail is a really fun part, because basically you’ve got to walk everything,” says Leon. “You’ve got to find out: Who was walking there in the past? Why were they walking? Where did they go? Where did they come from?” Although satellite imagery sometimes helps identify forgotten paths, it’s no replacement for local knowledge. 

Photo courtesy of Leon McCarron

Not that it’s easy. “People who are a little bit more elderly in the villages thought they remembered the trails better than they actually did,” Leon recalls with a smile. “It might have been 30 or 40 years since they were out on them! And that became quite apparent when we were halfway up a mountain.”

Building a GPS network of potential trails spanning the length of the proposed trail corridor is the first step. But shaping that network into a single trail, in close collaboration with a sprawling network of local stakeholders and stewards, is the bulk of the task. Leon estimates that it will be another year or two until the trail sees regular groups enjoying trail services, and as many as five to ten years until it’s regarded as a world-class trail.

'People who are a little bit more elderly in the villages thought they remembered the trails better than they actually did,” Leon recalls with a smile. “It might have been 30 or 40 years since they were out on them! And that became quite apparent when we were halfway up a mountain.'

Although recreational hiking is well established in Iraqi Kurdistan, with around 80 local hiking clubs, it has taken repeat visits and patient relationship building to convince villagers of the potential for a long-distance trail connecting the region, and of Leon and Laween’s commitment. In 2019 Leon moved to Kurdistan to work more strategically, and secured funding from the Abraham Path Initiative (API). This has allowed the project to grow, and the API shares Leon and Laween's philosophy that a trail doesn't belong to anyone, but succeeds via collaboration, a shared vision and a strong local team to nurture it.

Local buy-in is absolutely crucial, not just for mapping the trail, but for stewarding a hiking ecosystem that enriches and empowers Kurdistan. This, to Leon’s mind, is why long-distance trails should exist: to “connect and have an impact on the communities that they pass through.”

Photo courtesy of Leon McCarron

This vision is partly economic. Opportunities for income and employment through food, accommodation, guiding and associated services - not just in trail villages, but the wider corridor through which the trail runs - are potentially sizable, albeit not straightforward.

One challenge, in Kurdistan’s case, is the contradiction between economic opportunity and the Kurdish culture of welcoming strangers without payment. As hikers become more numerous, extending such a welcome for free could be ruinous for local people. “We genuinely know families who would use everything they had, and would have no food to put on their own table, because they were servicing strangers,” says Leon.

'We genuinely know families who would use everything they had, and would have no food to put on their own table, because they were servicing strangers.'

How do you convince people to alter such a deep-rooted practice? Is it even ethical to do so? This is where the locally driven, collective effort comes in. Involving stakeholders deeply at every stage - from mukhtars (local mayors) to guides, homestay hosts, villagers and governmental environmental teams - is important for building a shared vision of what the trail could be. Involvement means “inviting them out to walk with us when we're in their area, asking their advice on the trail and on the sustainability of it moving forwards, and any safety and security concerns that we have in each area,” says Leon.

More than this, it means there will soon be a trail organisation, comprising local people, which manages everything. This organisation will administer an emergent framework of rules and guidelines covering things like appropriate homestay, guiding and food prices. 

Although Leon, Laween and the team at the API bring initial expertise and drive, local ownership is essential to this vision of what a trail can be. Leon, as somebody with a pre-existing platform as a travel writer and expedition leader, is proud to help secure exposure for the new trail for now, but looks forward to the day he is removed from the spotlight.

The most powerful benefit of the trail may be cultural, not economic. The pride and validation that comes with tourists enjoying Kurdistan is arguably more important to the people of Kurdistan than money. “This is a place that has had decades of war, decades of ethnic tensions, and it's still finding its feet in the modern era,” says Leon. “People are, of course, intensely proud, and they have a lot to be proud of. They’ve got a great culture of hospitality and kindness to strangers.”

But the beauty of Kurdistan is not widely recognised. Chances are, most international readers will associate Kurdistan with violence: with Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the region in the 1980s, or the Islamic State’s genocide against the indigenous Yazidis in the 2010s. “To see someone come in from the outside and say, ‘You live in a beautiful, mountainous landscape, and your community is so hospitable to us’ - that really means a lot to people,” says Leon.

This gets to the heart of what a trail is: a story, or a set of stories. Just as the Zagros Mountain Trail is about connecting, rejuvenating and reimagining existing pathways, so the trail hopes to shed new light on old and emerging stories of the region.

'People are, of course, intensely proud, and they have a lot to be proud of. They’ve got a great culture of hospitality and kindness to strangers.'

One aspect of this story, Leon says, will be showcasing Kurdistan as a “crossroads of ancient civilisations.” Without erasing the ethnic tensions that still trouble Kurdistan, and without taking a political stance, those involved in the trail wish to see the remarkable cultural heritage along the trail’s 220km corridor as something to showcase. 

“We have the Assyrians at the start, and we pass through the Yazidi’s holy place at Lalish shortly afterwards,” Leon outlines. “Then, in a village called Shush, there are the remains of an old synagogue. There was once a large Jewish population, before all the Jews in Kurdistan fled decades ago, but there is still that memory of a point they were still there. There are Sufi mystics in a town called Akre. We have some  Mandaeans. We've got the Zoroastrians further to the east.”

A more pressing narrative, though, is the emergent story of Kurdistan as a place of peace. There is a saying in Kurdistan, Leon says: “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” For years, the mountains have provided refuge for Kurdish people. Some of the trail’s local guides, stakeholders and villagers were Peshmerga (the Kurdish armed forces) fighting against both Saddam Hussein’s forces and the Islamic State. Many have lived in the mountains for months or years at a time. “A lot of them have got very moving and impactful stories to tell,” says Leon.

'The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.'

Phrase in Kurdistan

Ahmed Rezani, one of the guides working on the trail, captures the significance of the story to local people. “When he first began taking us walking and showing us the tails,” Leon relays, “he said that  the reason he loved this project, and loved the idea of it, was that for most of his life the mountains had been a place of refuge, and now he could help turn them into a place for recreation. Him and others spilled their blood, they fought for their area, so that people like me and you and even local people in the region - local Kurds, local Arabs - could come and enjoy this place as a place of peace.”