Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Iraq (well, Kurdistan)

Bungalows and a ferris wheel in the mountains. Weird.
 As we crossed the border from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan, our driver donned a traditional red and white checked headscarf. We found another taxi to take us to Dohuk (there being no public transport in Kurdistan) and within two minutes of chatting in pigeon English the difference with Kurdish Turkey was palpable: here everyone is not only fiercely proud of their Kurdish ethnicity, they are also able to say so freely, without fear of reprisal.

The northern part of Iraq, which we travelled through for six days, is an autonomous region issuing their own visas (free for EU citizens) and tightly controlling their bit of peace. The Peshmerga, the feared Kurdish army, have set up roadblocks throughout the area, checking everyone as they pass. Make no mistake, people would tell us, we are different from Iraq; we are free.

Our first night set the standard of hospitality for the rest of or journey: a boy of 19 approached us in good English and offered to guide us around the city, take us for dinner, find us a place to buy beer. At first I was sceptical since my experience of other countries' 'guides' hadn't left a good impression (see, for example Morocco), but it quickly became clear that all he wanted was to welcome us to his country. We tried multiple times to buy him dinner and drinks but he flatly refused. The next morning, leaving the city, he was waiting for us outside our hotel to help us find onwards transport; one last offer of a tip: polite refusal.

Near Amadiya.
 We made our way to Amadiya, a tiny village in the mountains with magical views despite the fog, but there was nowhere to stay. The only hotel was a few kilometres away and it was shut for the winter. We wandered into a cafe looking like lost sheep; immediately the dining locals jumped up to help, one driving us to his friend's unfinished hotel. They couldn't have been more welcoming: we spent the evening playing snooker, bingo and dominoes with all the town's men in a large smokey hall, the owner's son translating for us the entire time. The next morning we were invited for breakfast by the owner, a lavish affair of eggs, tomatoes, yogurt, cheese and honey prepared by his wife. It was only a shame she didn't eat with us.

Best breakfast so far.
 We continued to the large, uninspiring town of Akre, though the town itself matters not: all around are the imposing mountains sheltering Kurdistan from Turkey, Iran and the rest of Iraq. Evidently it's forbidden to take photos here because we were approached by the Peshmerga in a cafe. The owner used Google Translate to communicate and as soon as we'd understood and apologised they were all smiles and welcomes. They refused to let us pay for our meal.

While our positive experiences continued unabated in the town (a hairdresser phoning his friend to translate my request, people giving us tea) the same cannot be said for our choice of hotel. It was filthy and they didn't have enough beds despite having no other guests. I don't at all mind roughing it and would have forgiven them, but they were rude, tried to overcharge us and played football outside our room in their leaky atrium. As the family's mother stepped out after making up our beds, the ball flew straight into her face, possibly breaking her nose. Screaming and shouting ensued. We found another hotel around the corner whose staff were nice to us and served us beer (albeit in a dark cellar with the local alcoholics).

 We went east looking for the famous Gali Ali Beg waterfalls. Perhaps it's not the best season to see them, but they were rather small and undeserving of being on an Iraqi bank note. Even if they were bigger in the spring, the rubbish surrounding them makes for a rather unappealing view. The way people throw their rubbish away here (and in many other developing countries) breaks my heart and I hope it changes, especially seeing as how proud the locals are of their country.

Ascending, the rain turned to snow and we stopped for the night in the only place we could find, a bunch of mountaintop holiday homes called Pank Resort. It boasts stunning views and a surreal theme park on site but since we were the only guests it was utterly deserted. Wandering around the empty dodgems and rollercoaster made it feel like a ghost town, and the ferris wheel dominated the backdrop. Probably the weirdest place I've ever slept.

Getting hold of money in Iraq is a problem, but as we (two of us at least) were headed to Iran - which has no links to the outside banking system - we needed to get some cash. Erbil, some two hours south, is the only place to do it, but it still took two whole days of dashing from bank to bank to find one that (a) would except our cards, and (b) had enough cash. Success! Despite how annoying it was, I derived a certain amount of satisfaction from fighting the international banking system and winning. As my French companion puts it, if you want an Englishman to win, call it a game, but if you want a Frenchman to win, call it a war. His battle cry confirmed that idiom.

Erbil is Iraq's fastest growing city and has a definite cosmopolitan atmosphere. Couples wander about the centre's fountains and Iraqi tourists climb the citadel's walls for views over the bustling narrow streets, where men sit outside their shops smoking and drinking tea.

 And then for the final push towards Iran. Five hours in a taxi high into the mountains in the northeast of Iraq, where the snow formed deep drifts and the road became worryingly icy. More so because our driver evidently had no experience of driving on ice, sliding about and muttering about us all dying. I kept my mind busy by counting down the kilometres to Haji Omran, the border, and I was mightily relieved when we made it. We had to push the taxi up the last few metres past a vast line of lorries snowed in for the night. We wished our driver luck for his return journey.

En route to Haji Omran, the Iranian border.
 It was dark and -10C, but the border was thankfully open. We spent a good deal of time with the authorities, who were politely inquisative about the nature of our trip in Iran, but we were honest, joked with them and they let us through with the usual smiles and kisses. A few more police checkpoints, some of whom made a half-hearted attempt at procuring bribes, but it was too cold for them to stay outside too long. And then we were there: Iran! At 2000m. In the middle of the night. In the cold and dark.

Continued in the next instalment…


  1. Sounds absolutely amazing! Definitely jealous (except about the -10 degrees part - hope your furry hat is serving you well!) Stay safe :)

  2. Sounds like you are having an absolutely fantastic time Jas, keep safe and look forward ot reading the enxt instalment. xx

  3. Your story seems to prove the saying: the less people have, the more they are willing to share with others (strangers). Hope you'll keep on experiencing this throughout most of your trip!

  4. Welcome to Iraq anytime, from north to south, west to east. Iraqis welcome you.