Iraq (Kurdistan Region)
by Joe Scarangella
No other single country has been mentioned in the news more in the last 20
years than Iraq. The name has become synonymous with terrorism, suicide bombers and war. The mere thought of tourism in such a region should be considered absolute ludicracy. Or should it? I've certainly never been one to take CNN or BBC as my only source of information. Or dare I say a reliable source of information. And I have a tendency to ignore Foreign Affair office warnings. It couldn't be any worse than Afghanistan. So, with some time off work in Azerbaijan for the Nowrus public holiday plus some private paid holiday, i couldn't ignore the call of Iraq.
Crossing into Iraq from Turkey was rather straight forward. The towns of Cizre
or Silopi make for an excellent springboards into the Iraqi border town of Zakho. Only problem is there's no public transport. And truck drivers are unwilling to take you, which is probably for the best as they sometimes get stuck at the border for days. This means that the only way across is by taxi, and they know it. There seemed to be some sort of taxi cartel running the joint and charged a flat rate of $50. As a single traveller, it hurt a bit. But the driver helps the crossing go smoothly.
The Kurdish issued visa is free of charge, and though they ask a couple of questions like "where from?" and "where go?" it was a piece of cake. He dropped me off at a taxi stand at the border where I arranged for another overpriced taxi to the town of Dohuk (hotels, map). Only 70KM (or so) from the border, I really had no idea what to expect. But Dohuk made for an excellent introduction to Iraq. OK, sure there NO attractions or sights. From the get go you feel at ease. The people are friendly, if not super curious. Clearly there aren't a lot of tourists in this part of the world. For the first time, you can see men walking around in traditional clothes, including turbans. There are only a few women around, most of the older ones wearing chador (the long black robe), but the younger generation wouldn't be out of place in any western city. As with most other cities in the geographic area, all the side alleys are somehow interconnected into an elaborate labyrinth called a market. While not terribly exotic (mostly socks and underwear), it makes for a great place to wander around checking out people and perhaps even meeting a few.
The level of English is extremely low, but that didn't seem to deter them from trying to communicate. One of the best parts of the town is as night falls, and the restaurant lose the public electricity. Little mom-and-pop shish kebab stands start to appear all along the street. Mini Bar-B-Ques with tables full of meat and vegetables plus an extra table and chair for customers. All for only a couple hundred Dinar (40 cents). So with a belly full and a mind at ease, i headed back to my hotel for some TV before it lost power too.
With Dohuk under my belt, I had a taste and I was ready for something more.
With no long distance buses, i headed to the shared taxi stand (costs) to find transport to Arbil (hotels, map), the Kurdish capital. I had asked my hotel how much the taxi should cost, after all forewarned is forearmed. Ready to bargain hardcore, i was shocked that the driver gave me the exact price the local had said it was. No rip off!! To get to Arbil, there is really just the one road. This road, although Kurdish control, passes by the Arab controlled city of Mosul. A name easily recognizable as one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. But with decapitation avoided it wasn't long before we arrived in the capital. Arbil is a bustling city made even busier as scores of Arabs came up from Baghdad for the holiday to relax a little. To my surprise, the city also had more than it's fair share of tourist attractions as well. The most dominate of these attraction is the city's central citadel.
The citadel was built on layers of archaeological ruins which represent consecutive historical settlements, since the building of the first village in that place around the 6th millennium BC. Entry is free of charge, but it's also quite limited. It wasn't clear if it's closed because of the UNESCO restorations or because it was now a military base. And with the army around, i figured "if you can't beat them, kick their asses in volleyball". Regardless of the roaming freedom, you can still get a feel of how things were. The houses were lived in until recently, but now the dilapidated homes are being swallowed by the overgrown greenery. Quite atmospheric and I give it 2 thumbs up. Besides the citadel, there are a few mosques and such scattered around town.
There is also the surprisingly well-manicured Minaret Park. With fountains, cafes and as the name suggests a minaret, it's a great place to unwind and people watch. That is, of course, if you can get through security. Across the street is another, though less impressive park. Best seen on a Friday (the weekend here) the park are alive with parents walking their children or perhaps even dancing to some local music. This is NOT what i expected from Iraq. In the mood to shop? Of course half of the downtown core is a make-shift market. Not surprisingly, it is much larger than the one i had seen in Dohuk.
Later that night, i met up with a couchsurfer, a local telecommunications expert, i had arranged have dinner with. One thing i came to notice about the Kurds is they are extremely kind and generous. He took me to a VERY exclusive VIP restaurant his friend ran. I rubbed shoulders and drank with some of the big wigs in town. I even got a job offer of two. But, cause everyone was blind drunk, i took the offers with a grain of salt. The following morning a got out of bed, with great difficulty, and headed off to the Sulaymaniyah Garage to find a shared taxi to, oddly enough, Sulaymaniyah.
The road to Sulaymaniyah (hotels, map), once again, had to dip into Arab controlled Iraq, specifically through the city of Kirkuk. But with heads still attached, we coasted into the most southern Kurdish city. It is also the most liberal Kurdish city. There is quite frankly little to do there. There's a big market, surprise-surprise. It seemed to be the best place to pick up materials for that bridesmaid dress you might want to punish your in-laws with. But the major draw in town is the 'Amna Suraka' (red house prison). Bullet holes and broken walls show marks of the battles during the 1991 uprising, when Kurds in Iraq took control of this Ba'ath Regime prison in the centre of town. Weathered tanks from the Iraqi military line one wall of the courtyard. The buildings have not been restored, remaining as a museum memorializing the cruelty of Saddam’s regime. Entry to the museum is free, although it can be a little hard to find. It's about 5 blocks west and 2 blocks north of the main pedestrian market street.
As i was staying with a couchsurfer, he invited me out for dinner. But instead of a fancy VIP restaurant, we drove up one of the surrounding hills and, like everyone else it seemed, had own own little impromptu bar-b-q. Right on the side of the road. Beats VIP service any day if you ask me.
My final stop in Iraq was the most sobering. The city of Halabja might not be a household name, but it should be. Only about an hour for Sulaymaniyah, near the Iranian border, this town had one of the darkest moments I've ever seen. On March 16th 1988, then president Sadaam Hussein made an example of the local Kurdish population. He released a gas attack that turned out to be the largest-scale chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history. The attack involved multiple chemical agents, including mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, soman, tabun and VX. Some sources have also pointed to the blood agent hydrogen cyanide. The survivors said people died in a number of ways, suggesting a combination of toxic chemicals: some "just dropped dead" while others "died of laughing"; still others took a few minutes to die, first "burning and blistering" or coughing up green vomit. The photos are truly disturbing and not for the faint of heart. Mass graves on the far side of town now hold the 5,000+ people who died that day. This doesn't even include the tens of thousands more survivors who have suffered long term effects, and even continued effects can be seen in newborns.
I could not end this trip on such a low note, so the museum director offered to take me up into the hills where the locals were dressed up in their best clothes dancing, singing and picnicking their Friday afternoon away. Every picnic i passed, i was invited to. So i sat, enjoyed the food and good company, trying to replace the unimaginable pictures of the past with the portrait of happiness i was sitting amongst. But the time came for me to head back to Sulaymaniya and plan for the following day when i would try to use a border crossing into Iran. Oh, by the way, the crossing is technically closed to foreigners.
The following day was filled with a confusing array of mini-buses and shared taxis as i tried to get into Iran through an obscure Banax border crossing. As i arrived, i was immediately given celebrity status, no line waiting... free tea... and tonnes of questions. They don't see many foreigners here. Eventually I was let through into Iran, but that's another story...
TIPS: If you want to meet locals, just sit down somewhere public. They are so friendly and curious, it's only a matter of time before someone talks to you.
Brings flashlights, the power is guaranteed to go out at least 12 hours a day.
The best time to visit is Nowrus, which is on March 21st. Locals dress up in their best clothes and become a living anthropological museum.
Iraqis (at least the Kurds) are shockingly honest about pricing. There isn't much need to bargain.
There is only one ATM in Arbil that works only half the time. Brings cash!
MY VIEWS: Security! It's the first word on the lips of politicians, locals and potential tourists. The fact of the matter is the UK has has more terrorist attacks in the last few years than Kurdistan. And while transport is through cities like Mosul and Kirkuk, which are arguably two of the most dangerous cities in the world, the chances of being involved in an act of random violence are about as great as winning the lottery, while being struck by lightning on a Friday the 13th of a leap year. But as low as the risk is, there is a risk. And serious thought should be given as to whether it's worth it or not.
A recent law change ensures that it is now impossible to visit Arab controlled Iraq with the Kurdish issued visa. Much to my disappointment. I was unable to get my first hand experience of the war in Iraq I was hoping for. But from the Kurdish perspective, i got some interesting insights. They danced. The Kurds danced the day Sadaam Hussein died. But time and time again, i was told by Arabs that they long for the days of Sadaam. While nobody liked him, at least they felt safe enough to go to the market and buy fruit. A generation of children have been denied education because it has been too dangerous to go to school. And women now face greater pressure to adhere to more extremist Islamic dress code. Freedom?
"Why you come here? This country is shit" one local told me. The mood was equally dark when asked about the future of Iraq. It was nearly unanimous that they don't feel they are ready for US troop withdrawl, though they want the occupiers to leave. A renewed civil war, meddling by Iran and disappearance of aid agencies are about all the could talk about. There was no optimism.
But the Kurds, oh the kurds, how they are able to take a bad situation with a smile, i'll never know. But they have. Regardless of the atrocities that have happened to them over the years, they continue to dance. Iraqi Kurdistan is a great place to go. And i would comfortably recommend it to anyone who has a head on their shoulders.
You can read more by Joe here: http://www.joestrippin.blogspot.com/.
More by Joe ScarangellaStumblin' 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)
Shaqlawan Sugar Coatin'
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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