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.
After this our driver tried very hard to discourage us from continuing on with the rest of our planned itinerary, and wanted to head back to Erbil. We protested, and complained that we really did want to drive to Haji Omaran near the border with Iran because we’d heard the mountains up here were an awesome view. We reminded him we’d promised him a substantial amount of money. He kept telling us it was “not a good place” etc, but everything I’d read said it was safe, so eventually he agreed to continue on.
The closer we got, the more frequent the Peshmerga checkpoints got, to the point where there was one every couple miles. The routine was always the same: check passports, wonder what the hell a couple of American tourists were doing there, and wave us through. I will say, the Peshmerga were completely professional at all times, and polite.
Soon we were in the town of Haji Omaran, and Matt managed to snap the following picture of the mountains, before doing perhaps the least bright thing we’ve ever done: turn straight towards the Iranian border (maybe 500m away tops) and start taking pictures of the mountains there. This led to lots of screaming, yelling hand waving etc from the border. Um yeah, photographing the Iran-Iraq border crossing – even with a scenic background, probably was not the brightest thing. There was light snow falling at this point, and we decided to hightail it back to the car and head out of there.
We later found out, this also seems to be near the point where the American hikers managed to “wander across the Iranian border” and illegally enter Iran. Given the heavy military presence we saw, pretty hard to imagine you could just randomly hike across by accident! I’ll leave you to decide what really happened…
On the way back, we’d gone maybe 2-3km before we hit the first checkpoint, where there was much hysteria and excitement over our passports. Seemed they’d called ahead from the border, and wanted to know just what we were up to there for 10 minutes. Seems the Iranians had gotten PISSED at this, decided we were spies or something, and raised a MAJOR fit with the Iraqis on the other side. In the 10-15 minutes in between there had clearly been lots of screaming, and the Iranians had demanded we come back to talk to them. The Peshmerga in Haji Omaran were honestly not sure what to do with us, and this is where our driver proved to be worth EVERY penny. He talked our way out of it with (shocking) the truth, and soon we were headed on the long drive back.
On the way back, our driver insisted on stopping to show us a large dam that was under construction. Nah, it’s not the same huge dam ISIS recently seized control of, but a few years later on a feel safer showing the pics:
About three hours later, out in front of the hotel, there was yet another sign of the season:
We wandered around the Ainkawa area for over an hour trying to find somewhere to eat, but being New Years Eve literally everything was either booked full or closed. Happy Time was closed, and there was some German Biergarten we were hoping to eat at, but they were fully booked for a private party.
Eventually, we decided to just eat at this strange little buffet full of arabic mezze and pizzas and surprisingly it was pretty decent….and even better…we didn’t get sick! After dinner we wandered the streets of Ankawa a bit, and stopped in a couple of the little Christian shops and managed to find…beer! Picked up a few bottles and headed back to the hotel for a small New Years celebration. Compared to other places we’d been in the Islamic world, Erbil seemed remarkably cosmopolitan, and despite the limited options it was really a welcoming place.
There was a rocking party in the lobby of our hotel (we found that many Baghdadis had come up for the weekend…why? Because you can get alcohol here!) for $100 a head…yikes! We decided to put the earplugs in and head to bed. In retrospect, I should have spent the $100. I can only imagine what sorts of fascinating people we would have met at that party. Lesson to self: when you’ve come this far to experience something this out of the ordinary, don’t hold back on spending.
The next morning, up early, having slept shockingly well with the earplugs in despite a raucous party in the hotel.
Our flight was mid-afternoon the next day, and we were feeling pretty brave by this point, so we grabbed a regular city taxi to head into the centre of Erbil to see it’s main site, the Citidel. The Citadel was built over 6,000 years ago, and is supposedly the longest continuously inhabited settlement known on Earth. It’s a bit of a stretch, however, since the only inhabitants now are one family who stay there just to keep this “tradition” running. The Citadel was pretty cool looking, however, but was in a pretty bad state of repair. I guess, given that this country has been a war zone for much of the last decade, it’s not surprising:
After exploring the Citadel we decided the area felt relatively safe, so decided to wander the central area a bit more.We headed around the city which seemed to be one giant construction zone, and did a bit of wandering through the Souq. Unfortunately, the souq was pretty crowded and a bit less safe feeling, so we really didn’t feel too comfortable taking any pictures there. Just outside, however, we spotted a couple of very “cool” signs and decided to take a picture by them:
I actually just saw this same intersection on the news this week – and there’s a giant mall here now, and it almost looks like it could be somewhere in Europe. The amount of development that seems to have happened in Erbil in the last few years is nothing short of amazing. I would love to have the opportunity to get back soon and see just how things have changed.
A few more shots wandering around Erbil:
Which brings me to closing thoughts. Yes, we ventured out of Erbil, and went all the way to the Iranian border. It was mildly braver than staying in Erbil, and despite our attempts to be stupid, it worked out quite well. That said, we didn’t go as far west as I wanted to, and we didn’t visit Sulimaniyah or Mosul…both of which looked mildly dodgy at the time. I really hope things settle down soon, because based on what I saw I would love the opportunity to go back again, and really explore more.