Trip to Iraq (Kurdistan)
Trip to Iraq (Kurdistan)
A short introduction to my trip around Iraqi Kurdistan, a country surrounded by enemies which fights for its independence. Despite the difficult political and economic situation, Iraqi Kurdistan is worth exploring and differs from the Arab Iraq, with the capital in Baghdad.
Iraq is usually associated only with war, terrorism, chaos and the infamous Islamic State which cuts off heads for “infidelity” to Allah. Not many people know about the”other Iraq” in its northern part, which is controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government. The Kurdish part of Iraq is safe, economics and infrastructure are growing and this is the place where they behead ISIS fighters. On the other hand, as a Polish traveller I was treated well and I saw that the Kurds wanted me to have a good opinion about their country. In Kurdish Iraq I spent 2.5 weeks, I was hitchhiking, I walked during days and nights and I saw a lot of guns but I came back in one piece.
I would also like my readers to understand that even though Kurdistan is safe, weapons at every turn, military controls, roadblocks, concrete bases and ISIS in the neighborhood make it a region of surprises. If a country or a region looks that way, that is always a reason and Kurdish soldiers are very sensitive to Arab trucks which transport fruit and vegetables as they can import explosives. Besides, the Kurds don’t just fight ISIS. They also lead a guerrilla war against Turkey, they have Syria and Iran next door, and they are not keen on Arabs too.
The first impression of Iraq
I crossed the border at Ibrahim Khalil which is the only border crossing available to foreigners. Of course everybody was very surprised to have a tourist in the country because Iraq is not a very popular destination. From there I hitchiked to the town of Zakho what took about half an hour. From the hotel I had a view of the main square with fountains where patriotic concerts took place after dark. I was at the bazaar, I drank tea with Kurds on the street but spent most of the time near the historic Delal bridge. Unfortunately it was so hot that I took off my clothes and swam in the river. I could not stand the heat anymore. Of course people were very interested in me because the tourists in Iraq simply do not exist.
Because of the independence referendum drivers made noise on the roads, children wore “free Kurdistan” t-shirts and the entire city and also the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan was decorated with flags and advertisements promoting the “yes” vote in the referendum on Kurdistan independence which was held on the 25/09/2017. People were very exited because even on the vegetable market they posed to photos with Kurdish flags and photos of their leader. The most respected and loved man by the nation is Barzani who in my opinion is not just a leader anymore but the icon of Kurdistan. The Kurds have benefited greatly from the American invasion of Iraq and that’s why in the case of independent Kurdistan it could be a pro-American country in the heart of Arab soil. However, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria are certainly against free Kurdistan and I suspect that not a single country would recognize Kurdistan, apart from one Israel to further divide the Muslims.
Dohuk and a trip to Lalish
My next destination was Dohuk which became my base for a few days. Dohuk is a city in the north of Iraqi Kurdistan and it was where I saw how Kurds live in a larger city. I drank tea on the street with the Kurds what allowed me for better observation of the society and I started to get to know the atmosphere of Kurdistan. Dohuk has a beautiful Catholic church and a small but very pleasant zoo. There is a mosque in the centre, bazaar around it and crowds of men drinking tea. It was also nice to spend time by the dam where I was swimming and then under artificial waterfall in the mountains.
From Dohuk I went to see the temple of Yazidis in Lalish, to see the way they live. Lalish is a small settlement in the mountains which is worth the trip but I have to admit that I had mixed feelings. The Yazidis were friendly, they gave me tea, they wanted to talk as much as their English allowed but I saw religious fanaticism there because the temple was only in one small place but everyone had to walk barefoot in the whole village because they said that “the whole settlement was a temple.” I advise to take flip-flops and wear them to not to hurt your feet. Besides, young men over there told me that the head of the community they called “Father”. I certainly am not a specialist on their “religion” but given my first impressions all these things look like a sect to me. Whether it is harmful or not I am unable to say but I suspect that they are good people on the wrong path. The temples themselves were pleasant to the eye but they didn’t my capture my soul. I also had an interesting conversation with someone who introduced himself as sheikh Khalifa and who was sorry that Saddam Hussein was removed.
Adventures in the mountains of Iraq
To Ammadiya I went mainly to see the ancient Badinan gate but a few kilometers down there is also a very interesting resort called Sulav where I rested by the mountain stream and where I had room in the cave with a stream passing through it. Then I moved down and took pictures of the landscapes and to Dohuk I went back with a few cars that I stopped on the road.
Of the many places that I visited in Iraq I liked the old town of Akre. There is no tourist base over there and there is no hotel but watching people and the way they live gave me a good insight into what Kurdistan is. My base was a mountain with a ruin of a fortress and where I slept in a cave. It was one of the better adventures of my life because I slept in a dark cave on a naked stone and it was so hot that I took my clothes off. Sometimes I like to get out of a clean, organized world and live like a white animal in a cave or in a jungle. Climbing in the sun was hard but for a strong man this is not a big challenge. People were good, hospitable and above all very curious. It was obvious that tourist don’t go to Akre at all because people are simply afraid and that’s why the locals watched me like a television. One man who spoke English told me after a few glasses of whiskey that when they catch the ISIS fighters they cut off their hands and their feet to break their fighting spirit. I spent a really nice time with those people but there was also a very interesting transport hole at the crossroads about 10km from the city. It had great impact on imagination because it looked like a landscape after war.
Trips from Erbil
Erbil is the capital of Kurdistan and a shopping and a cultural centre. From the point of tourism the most interesting place is the Citadel built at the top of the plateau which dominates the city. There is also a well stocked bazaar and a couple of nice parks. I also recommend the very interesting Kurdistan Textile Museum, parks, the cable car running above the city and shopping. Women would find blue coloured lapis necklaces which are popular Afghan stones. Of course there were also Arabian sweets and fresh juices. The atmosphere in Erbil was great.
From Erbil I also went to the mountains, to Rawanduz, with its impressive cable cars and the Hamilton Road with many bridges. The whole area was beautiful because it was a canyon crossed with a river. On the way back I stopped by the Gali Ali Berg Waterfall, which is the pride of the whole of Iraq when it comes to the natural beauty and the gorgeous canyon leading to it gives opportunity to organize beautiful trips and take beautiful photos. The waterfall offers not only peace and quiet. One can spent time on a pontoon in the company of ducks and enjoy the cool breeze flowing from the dropping water. I thought I would stay there for an hour and I would go back to Erbil but I ended up staying a whole day and I even stayed overnight in the canyon where I slept on a wooden platform with Peshmarga soldiers. The Ali Berg waterfall is very popular with tourists such as for example Arabs who live in the ISIS controlled areas and go there to take some rest from the war. I, by an accident, spent time with Peshmarga soldiers, who were so nice to me that they served me tea and scrambled eggs. Whilst traveling in Iraq I saw many weapons and sometimes when I was hitchhiking I was given a lift by people who were carrying machine guns. Either way, the waterfall and the canyon were beautiful.
It was not the first time by the way. In Israel they carry guns even to synagogues, in Lebanon Hezbollah made me a cup of tea and served me pizza and in Sri Lanka during the civil war against the Tamil Tigers I was given a lift by a military bus carrying machine guns, hand grenades and anti-tank grenade launchers. I think I’m going to call it “the adventure traveller’s risk”, though on the other hand I do not want my readers to be excessively melodramatic at the sight of an arsenal. They simply carry an arsenal and they are so nice that they give me a lift to the beach or to the waterfall. Thank you very much. To them it is normal but to travellers in the beginning it may be a shock, but then people get used to it. If I was worried that they have guns in far away countries I would never go for a holiday.
On my way back to Erbil I also stopped at Khanzad Castle, also called Banman, which is a small 16th century fortress built on a mountain. The castle has 4 towers and it is visible from the road. It is located 22km from Erbil on the way to the town of Shaqlawa and in my opinion it is a very interesting sight, especially because I love old castles. Not far from there I saw grazing sheep and I went to stroke them to once again experience the rural life of Iraq.
My last expedition in Iraq was a trip to the southern city of Sulaymaniyah. I was driving through Kirkuk which was sad and deserted, even though just before the city stood a large monument of a soldier holding a huge flag of Kurdistan. There was something weird about Kirkuk because even the driver was afraid and rushed to get out of there as soon as possible. For that reason I don’t have any photos of Kirkuk even though really I wanted to. In Sulaymaniya I was as usual the only European and some people were suspicious but others were sincerely glad that someone finally visited them. I lived in the centre, near a great mosque and a bazaar, near the Zamwa gallery where every evening local vendors sold delicious food. There were various types of kebabs but also soups, snacks, ajran and fresh juices. The place that will remain forever in my mind is of Saddam Hussein’s former detention centre – Amna Suraka. There were still bullet holes in the walls, Saddam’s old tanks standing outside and indoors there were expositions and pictures of the history of the Kurdish genocide and the newer ones, about fighting ISIS. Some photos were tragic and unpleasant, the same as the documentary produced by the BBC.
On the way back to Erbil I stayed for 2 days on Dokan lake, where I was swimming and walking in the mountains. I also ate good fish from the lake and spent the night in a hut in the desert by the lake. To Erbil I went back by hitchhiking and after a day of socializing with the Kurds I went to Turkey the next day. The Iraqi side did not give me any trouble but the Turks were very suspicious and stopped me for an hour at the border to carry out checks. The British also gave me a special welcome after returning to England but I don’t want to continue this topic. Do I really look like someone who shouldn’t be trusted?
I consider my trip around the Kurdish Iraq to be very successful, although it is not an easy destination and it’s an adventure with a thrill. The places which I visited was one part of my trip while hitchhiking was a completely different chapter. When I was traveling there it was very safe but I advise to check the safety regularly. I mean that I don’t want anyone to go to Iraq and be harmed because “Martin Malik advised him so.” I don’t advise to go to Iraq. I just tell my story. On the other hand however, I want those travellers who decide to travel to the Iraqi Kurdistan to take their decision with responsibility. A true traveller is not the one who landed in Erbil, saw the Citadel and quickly flew out of Erbil. Whoever decides to take that trip must leave his safety zone … or not to go at all.