A search for stamps brings a traveller closer to the Kurds who are waiting to establish a nation.
Wind whipped the snow from the peaks of the Piranshahr border crossing between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan. Immigration officers flicked their wrists at the impatient travellers, yet the air of quiet festivity remained.
Families perched on their luggage and shared food. One invited my husband and me to join them; the children eagerly explained over tomato and lime soup that their father, Ajwan, had undergone surgery in Iran. Ajwan nodded, his head wrapped in a white darsukh. "You are welcome to Kurdistan, a new, autonomous state."
During five hours of waiting, Kurds introduced themselves and offered us their homes. "We're proud of Kurdistan," we were told. "We fought for these mountains and fight for our futures." Despite their long history, Kurds have never had their own nation. We also met a young Iranian couple. "Kurdistan is multi-ethnic, multi-faith and secular," Saeedeh confided. "We feel free here."
Our bus plunged down the splendid Haji Omaran Road past clustered low brick buildings, youths herding goats and yellow suns of the Kurdistan flag painted on to mountainsides.
In the old city was the post office. It was closed, guarded by two peshmerga officers cradling Kalashnikovs. "Come back next week," they recommended.
As night swooped over the barren Zagros Mountains, young men gathered in the streets, burning cardboard to stay warm. None knew of a post office.
Nearby Dohuk was our last chance to find one. Outside a church in which Christians practiced carols, we met Hawar, a peshmerga. "I've lived in Australia," he said. "There my wife and I had security, freedom and opportunities, but we returned to build Kurdistan. It's our responsibility."
We located the post office on a highway leading to Lalish, the secluded village sacred to practitioners of the maligned Yazidi faith. Its staff sneered at our postcards. "We've no stamps here." Rebaz, an internet cafe manager, offered sweet chai that evening. "Of course there are no stamps," he grinned. "We hardly have electricity. No, I won't accept payment for using my computers. Don't you see it's a joy for us to have travellers here? It proves how strong and safe our nation has become."