Shaqlawan Sugar Coatin'
by Joe Scarangella
There are those elitist travellers who preach some sort of gospel of not needing a guide book. Somehow, local knowledge will trump any research, blogs or convenient paperback book. After nearly 2 decades of living, working and travelling overseas, i can say that local knowledge more often than not... sucks! But let's be fair. Do you know the best hotel in your city? Do you know the best/cheapest way from A to B in your own country? My guess is "no". So when i asked locals in Iraq where the best place was for me to visit for the weekend, the almost unanimous answer was Shaqlawa. I should have know what to expect from local advice for travel.
Let's look at the bright side. While tourism remains in it's infancy in much of Iraq, the mountain village of Shaqlawa (45 minutes north of Erbil) has taken to tourism like a duck to water. Without question there are more hotels in this town per capita than anywhere else in the country. And honestly, it can be tough to find affordable accommodation outside the major centres. There are a plethora of restaurants, serving mostly the same menu. And there's even fairly easy public transport from Erbil with both buses and shared taxis up for offer (although the station in Shaqlawa is poorly located). The reality is, Shaqlawa is the closest thing you'll get to a tourist trap in Iraq. Shops hawk the same sweet wares. Buildings are all new (including ancient churches that have been built over). But locals swear by the town as a great destination to BBQ and escape the torturous heat common in the desert basin around Erbil. But frankly the town is nothing special.
But all is not lost. Despite lacking in what most foreign tourist might deem appealing, there are a couple places to make the trip worth while. For the main attraction in town, all you need to do is follow the hordes of weekenders and holidayers. The Cave of Raban Boya dates back nearly 2,000 years. A small, greatly deteriorated shrine remains hidden in a crevice of the large mountain back-drop of Shaqlawa. It's a short hike (not more than 30 minutes if you're in bad shape). But the trail is literally overflowing in the summer, especially on the weekends. Inside the shrine, a large stone is used as a "Wishing Rock". If you make a wish/pray (same thing really) a slide down the rock 3 times, head first, your wish will come true. Locals swear by the power of this stone and is a major reason for the crowds. There are a couple other shrines tucked away into the hills, but none are as impressive (not that Raban Boya is impressive). Other sites include a couple churches. But even with ancient foundations, the churches are mostly new and uninspiring. The market downtown is famous for pomegranates and walnuts. And you can find a variety of sweets & treats to prove it. Not a great place for diabetics. And for those really wanting to live on the wild-side, there's an amusement park complete with rusty Ferris Wheel and partly functional bumper cars (or Dodge 'Ems for British folk). But remember, electricity is shockingly inconsistent in Iraq.
Shaqlawa just wasn't for me. But it does offer an escape for the summer heat, and is one of the few places outside the main cities with tourist facilities. If you manage to befriend a local in Kurdistan, Shaqlawa might be worth it. The BBQs are kind of fun and the setting is not that bad. But if on your own, i'm not sure the town is worth the effort.
You can read more by Joe here: http://www.joestrippin.blogspot.com/.
More by Joe ScarangellaIraq (Kurdistan Region)
Stumblin' over History
Goin' without Knowin'
Fallin' in Northern Iraq
Charmed by Koya
Doublin' Up on Dohuk
Za-kho, Za-kho, Off to the Bridge I Go
Divine Lunchin' (Mar Mattai)
Al Kosh, of Course!
A Day at the Museums (Erbil)
Parkin' it in Erbil
Suly the Sequel (Sulaymaniyah)
Duckin' into Dukan
Crackin' the Citadel (Erbil)
Takin' the High Road (Dohuk - Erbil)
Iraq's B-Side (Amedi)
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