– Iraq? What? You have a death wish, or what?
Reactions like this one, or very similar to it, has been a part of my life since I late February decided to go begin my trip in the Iraqi part of Kurdistan.
It all came about fairly quickly. I realized that I had arranged for having the entire month of April off, but had yet to plan my trip. The disappointment of a break-up got me the energy I needed. It was definitely a way of escaping but also making something good come out of it all.
So how does one come up with Iraq as a place for one´s holiday? Well, I have wanted to see the border between Iran and Iraq for a long time, mainly because borders – and particularly in geopolitical hotspots – interest me. I also knew that the Kurdish part of Iraq has been safe for a long time. Since I also wanted to visit friends in Tehran, the first part of the trip fell into place within a few minutes. All that was needed was a ticket to Erbil, a guide in Iraq and a visa to Iran.
All in all, the Iraqi part of the trip has been a success. Erbil is a sprawling city with a lot of housing projects going on. Erbil´s downtown looks like most larger cities do with neon signs, restaurants, shopping malls and the like. I had a couple of walks in the city on my own, in the afternoon as well as after dark, and I had no problems what so ever.
It was stated somewhere, probably in the Lonely Planet guidebook, that Erbil is rushing into the future. I wonder what they meant by that. I know now. Take the citadel for example. It´s the pride of the city as it´s looking down on its inhabitants from the big hill it is situated on. The citadel was about to fall apart when restoration started a number of years ago, a restoration which is badly needed. But judging from the way the restoration is being done, my fear is that the feeling of the place will be lost. It´s all becoming too new. All the ruins will – according to the plans I saw – eventually be restored thereby making the citadel nice and new again. New and without character. Without flaws. I´m glad I got to see Erbil now, while some of the old parts are still there. In a few years I fear it´ll all be done and the character gone forever.
The daytrip to the Yaziri village of Lalish became more interesting than I hoped for. After Omar, my guide for the time in Iraq, made a few wrong turns we got in there around lunchtime. First item on the agenda was to remove our shoes. I did so a bit reluctantly considering it was raining and the temperature was around ten degrees centigrade. But the rules were strict: inside the village, all shoes are off even if you´re only walking the street.
We were soon invited for lunch where we ended up having it in the company of the Yaziri women that the Peshmerga rescued from Daesh about a year ago. These were a few of the women that had served as sex slaves for Daesh. As I looked at them eating I realized I couldn´t even start to comprehend what these women had endured.
The village church was a highlight. On our way in Omar and I both stood on the big and sturdy block of granite that was the threshold of the church, looking if it was ok to go in. Suddenly, a man comes up to us and tells us to get down. It turns out thresholds are holy. People bend down, or fall on their knees, to kiss them. And we had stood on them. But despite our faux de pas we were welcomed in and given a short tour of the church.
We left Erbil on the next day, heading northeast on the Hamilton Road towards the border to Iran. Hamilton was a civil engineer that worked for the British forces. Between 1928 and 1932, he led the construction of the road that was to bear his name. The new road is narrow at times and the old road is still visible at times, just as the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan is. The Hamilton road goes between the city of Erbil and the border area to Iran. It has to be one of the more scenic roads I´ve ever been on. It is not the Karakoram Highway but coming from the plains around Erbil, you find yourself surrounded with great scenery.
My friends will probably say that I survived Iraq. I don´t care if they do. For me, the Kurdish part of Iraq is safe, at least Erbil and eastwards. I had a great time. I know that Omar and others arrange mountaineering and skiing in Kurdistan. It has to be a great adventure. If you´re into that, I hope you´ll go. If you, like me, live in Stockholm, there´s even a direct flight to Erbil.
For the traveler who wants do this trip on one´s own, here are a few tips:
- There are direct buses between Tabriz and Piyanshahr in Iran. However, at the time of writing they are not going. This is due to the Iranians refusal to accept buses that cross the border because of heavy smuggling of liquor and beer. Traffic might start up again tomorrow or it might take a while…
- The airport in Erbil is a good airport, but it is kind of far away from everything. If you have a hotel reservation, ask them to pick you up as most flights seem to land in the hours between midnight and 6 am.
- Good coffee (my definition: black without sugar) is available in the city. But you have to look for it.
- Consider the costs of having a guide, even if it´s only for the Erbil area. I went thru Untamed Borders that I have traveled with before and I know they deliver. As always, it all depends on what you want to do.
- Hotels don´t come cheap in Erbil. I stayed at the Malito hotel (Malito means “your home”). Considering the service in relation to the price of USD60 I have to assume that there has to be better options.
- The best restaurant I went to was downtown. It is called Maly Daykm (meaning ´My Mother’s Home´). Kurdish food in abundance. Another good option is Zirak Fish, a fish restaurant (!) about a mile from the city center.
- Visa is in most cases not needed if you stay within Kurdistan.