Now that I’ve been to 158 countries, it’s kinda cool being about to watch CNN/BBC and see all sorts of places in the news that I’ve been. But, for some reason these last two weeks, the news from northern Iraq / Iraqi Kurdistan is really bothering me. Reflecting on my photo album, it’s really amazing how much we managed to see despite the circumstances, and especially given where things now – I count myself very fortunately to have been there.
When I went there a few years ago, I really enjoyed it. It was my first “you’re going WHERE?!” country, and the people were fantastic and it was really an eye opening trip. So, I’m going to repost here that trip report, with a few edits/thoughts from the last few years. Enjoy!
Immigration was a breeze, and soon we were really there…we were in Iraq. But wait…where are the taxis? Now, I guess we hadn’t really planned this part too well, because it’s not like I should have expected for the Erbil International Airport to be really prepared with a modern tourist infrastructure. A couple years on, I can admit what happened…and just how stupid it was. After about 15 minutes of standing around and looking lost, we started chatting up a couple of mercenary looking types who’d arrived on our flight. Yeah, they were “private security contractors” and their company was picking them up. They sized us up, decided we were worth the risk, and offered to give us a lift to our hotel…no need to pay. So, into the Humvee it was when their driver arrived, and we were off. In retrospect, it was pretty insane….but how well it turned out said a lot. There’s only one other time since I’ve had to rely on strangers at an airport (this past January in Gabon) and that also worked well. Anyways, back to the story…
Soon we were at the Ankawa Palace Hotel, which we had randomly stumbled upon online, and based on the website and little information we could find about looked like a reasonable and safe place to stay. The rooms were clean and basic, the staff spoke very basic English, so all in all I would highly recommend it as a place to stay. Plus, a reasonable breakfast buffet and internet were included in the reasonable rate of $154 per night, and given this was December 30 and 31, it was a pretty good deal. It was 5pm at this point and we had two things to accomplish:
One, hopefully arrange a driver to drive us into the countryside the next day, and two find some dinner. Number one, again, we weren’t in the best position to negotiate. Like I said earlier, there aren’t exactly many tourists here, so if you want to arrange things there aren’t many options. The guy at the front desk made some calls over the next hour, and managed to arrange us a driver for the day. There were two waterfalls we wanted to see on the mountain road up to Hadji Omaran at the Iranian border.
Our plan was to drive past the Gali Ali Beg waterfalls and the Bekhal waterfalls, on the way to the mountainous region by the border. A driver was found for the full day trip, which seemed semi expensive, but how often do you get a chance to be driven around the countryside in Iraq?! That sorted, we headed off the the Mehdi Mall to hopefully find somewhere to arrange dinner. We didn’t manage to find anywhere to get anything to eat there, but did find a bowling alley, and lots of very unusual Christmas decorations. Now, Erbil does have a rather sizable Christian population, but it seems they’ve managed to take the American commercialization of Christmas to a whole new level!
Looking back now, it’s sad to see what’s happening to the Christian populations in northern Iraq. I didn’t quite understand at the time just how large this population was, just that it existed.
Want a blow-up Santa? For just 30,000 Dinars you’re covered!
There were also several rather strange costumed animals wandering around the mall, and Matt managed to make a new friend:
I wanted to go make friends with the giant cat wandering the mall, but he seemed incredibly popular with the locals (not to mention the half dozen santa people wandering the mall), so we opted to skip him:
They did, however, have a big grocery store in the mall selling, of all things, turkey!
Having failed to find a reasonable looking dinner option, we headed back to the hotel and decided that despite being dark, we were going to wander the suburb of Ainkawa and try and find the “Happy Time” pizza restaurant for dinner. It was listed on TripAdvisor, so how bad could it be…if it existed. But first, we had a 10-15 minute walk through the dark streets of Ainkawa to find it. Eventually, we found it, the food was adequate, and it put some of the nerves to rest having wandered around in the dark and not felt at all unsafe. A view of the pizza from the Happy Time:
Then it was back to the Ankawa Palace and off to bed early for the big day trip adventure the next day.
Our driver met us early, and soon we were winding out of the city in yet more very heavy rain towards the Gali Ali Beg waterfall. This is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iraq, and probably one of it’s most famous natural features. It is even on the back of one of the dinar notes.
Unfortunately, we were pretty disappointed when we got there, because of the amount of litter and rubbish just strewn all over the place. It was really rather sad. The other waterfall we stopped by was the Bekhal waterfall. Again, very similar. They were really cool to see, but the amount of litter was just really sad. In both places, we were the only people seeing them, but some of this probably also had to do with the rain.