April 2012

In Iraqi Kurdistan: Part 2

See Iraqi Kurdistan: Part 1

See On my return from the northern edges of Iraqi Kurdistan, I had originally intended to stay in Shaqlawa. It sounded appealing from the Lonely Planet guidebook to the Middle East:

“At 966 metres above sea level, the cool temperatures and lush green environment have long attracted wealthy Iraqi tourists from the hotter Arab regions of the country”.

On arrival, however, Shaklawa has degenerated into a caricature of a Malaysian hill resort. It was a large construction zone of oversized houses, shopping centres and bulldozers, dessicating the once beautiful area into something appearing as a city inside a strip mine. I decided to continue on to Erbil.

The following day I went to the “garage”, the collective taxi stand to go to Sulumaniya, the second largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan. I negotiated the fare and just as I was leaving, I tried to confirm thatthe route would go through Peshmerga controlled Koya and not through Kirkuk. The drivers said it was OK. “No problem, safety, safety, safety. Only near Kirkuk. No terrorism”.

While this contradicted the advice in the Lonely Planet guide (went to press in late 2008), and I had hired the taxi individually, previous advice received from major hotels had advised that taxis going from one place in Iraqi Kurdistan directly to another all went through safe areas. So we were on our way.

On the road to Dohuk, roads had been constructed that bypassed Mosul and stayed just inside Peshmerga controlled areas. There had been several checkpoints as we bypassed Mosul and my passport was checked several times.

As we left Erbil, there was a checkpoint where we were waved through. We drove at high speed along an excellent highway as the signposts counted down the kilometres to Kirkuk  …60,50,40,30, 20…

We passed a sign saying “Welcome to Kirkuk”, as we entered a semi-urban area. We approached another checkpost, this time with blue uniforms rather than green. We were in Arab Iraq. We were waved through.

Shortly after, there was a bypass with the sign for Sulaymaniya. The driver turned on it saying “This way central Kirkuk and Baghdad, this way Sulaymaniya”. Shortly after there was another Arab Iraq checkpoint, The Arab guard asked me in English without asking to see my passport, where I was from and where I was goings. He then said “Have a nice trip: and we were on our way. We stopped for tea at a road side stand for about 20 minutes, drove through another checkpost where we were waved through. Then another more formal checkpost with an Arab Iraqi flag on one side and  the Iraqi Kurdistan flag on the other.

This time the Peshmerga guard asked for my passport, reviewed it and gave it back to me. We were back in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Sulumaniya is a delightful city at over 800 metres above sea level with the Zagros mountains in the background.

There is a modern section along Salim avenue and a wonderful old bazaar and old quarter entered through a giant arched gate.

In the bazaar I met a shop-owner who spoke English and we agreed to meet that evening. He said he was from a town on the Iranian border and he was willing to have his cousin take me there, as well as Halabja and Ahmadawa, the two main sites outside Sulayamaniya. We went together and it was another great travel day.

His village was Tawela, a lovely village right on the edge (within two kilometres of the Iranian border) in a gorge surrounded by high mountains. Most of the actual frontier has been fenced by the Iranians. The border area is surrounded by impressive snow peaks.

As I come to the end of my time in Iraqi Kurdistan, I leave highly impressed by the what Iraqi Kurdistan has been able to accomplish in the last twenty years.The landscapes are gorgeous, and the place is fundamentally well organized and safe. It has been a privilege spending the last week here.

In Iraqi Kurdistan: Part 1

I am currently in Sulaymaniya (see Map), near the end of my sojourn in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is a fascinating place, very much off the beaten path, virtually devoid of international travelers, yet it is a safe and relatively inexpensive destination.

My first surprise came on arrival into Erbil International Airport from Amman, Jordan. My arrival in Amman was OK but slow, the airport older and crowded, and the process for getting a visa on arrival uncomplicated, but time consuming and somewhat cumbersome – get in line to change money into dinars at a bank, get into another line to pay 20 dinars to get the visa entry, get into another line to get through immigration.

By contrast, Erbil is a large, bright, brand new airport. The visa on arrival was free and stamped immediately into my passport and within a couple of minutes I was through and waiting for my bags.

Iraqi Kurdistan came into existence in 1991, during an uprising against the brutality of Saddam Hussein by the Kurds  in March 1991. When Saddam tried to reassert control through an air campaign in April, the UN and the USA imposed a no-fly-zone, allowing the Kurds in the north of the country to maintain control over the region. As a result it was also spared direct involvement in the 2003 war in Arab Iraq. The Kurdish military, Peshmerga,controls almost all of the territory in Iraqi Kurdistan. In terms of personal security, while it may not be Norway or New Zealand, it is certainly as safe a destination as, say, Jordan,or Costa Rica, or Hungary.

Erbil, and indeed the other larger cities such as Sulaymaniya and Shaqlawa are booming with vast construction projects. On my first full day, I walked around Erbil and to the center of the city in the now crumbling Citadel which is undergoing reconstruction.

One of the advantages of the widespread accessibility of cell phones and cheap digital cameras is the emergence of photographic tourism in reverse. Various individuals and families would come up and ask if they could take a photo of me with them (their camera) usually with the Kurdish flag in the background. I was, of course, happy to oblige. It was also slightly odd to be walking through the streets of the city with signs pointing to cities made notorious by the Iraq war such as Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk.

For me the real adventure began when traveling north to Duhok and then deeper into northern Iraqi Kurdistan.  Duhok is a crowded but somewhat appealing town with an extensive covered market and bazaar. I decided to hire a car and driver and we drove the following day tothe Yaviza temple at Lalish, Zakho and overnighted in Sulavm next to Amadiya.

On the route from Duhok to Zakho at the Turkish border the scenery became increasingly green and hilly. In Zakho I visited the famous Delal bridge, an old stone arch structure over the Khabur river. It was a pleasant site, without being particularly special. However, that deviation allowed us to take the northern route through more green hills and then, in the distance, a range of snow-capped mountains. As we drove towards Amadiya, the mountain range became ever more dramatic – reminding me of the Pyrenees. As we came to the crown jewel of Amadiya, I was blown away. My rough analogies  would be of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan or Bonifacio at the southern tip of Corsica.  The city is constructed and completely coversthe top of a butte at 1200 metres, with a backdrop of an extensive now-capped mountain range.Were it in any other place than Iraq, it would certainly have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The following day I continued to Barzan and then to Gali Ali Beg. Throughout the route, the panorama of soaring snow-capped mountain peaks continued. From there I took the Hamilton Road, constructed by the British in the late 1920’s and early 1930s as a strategic short cut to connect Erbil with Teheran and the Caspian Sea. The road goes through a deep gorge with cascading waterfalls.

We went as far as Chomran, the last town in Iraqi Kurdistan before the Iranian border at Haji Omran.

While major cities in Iraqi Kurdistan – Erbil, Sulumaniya and Duhok are packed with hotels, almost all of recent vintage, there is almost no accommodation elsewhere, even in places that virtually anywhere else would be mountain destinations with B&Bs, and niche hotels. Nowhere is this more true than in Amadiya. However, I did find accommodation in nearby Sulav. The Sulav hotel was basic, partly broken down, had only squat toilets, and had no heat, yet it was more than worthwhile to stay in one of the most gorgeous locations in the Middle East.

Individual reactions to my plans to visit Somaliland or Iraqi Kurdistan, often starts off with disbelief and then contempt that I would choose to be so careless. Yet the reality is more complex than that. While most of Iraq and Somalia remain lawless and dangerous, in both countries, de facto separate governments exist in parts of the country – with their own militaries, entry and exit procedures, numerous professional checkpoints and security, and are fundamentally safe to visit at this time.

See In Iraqi Kurdistan: Part 2