Sunday, June 10, 2012

It's not the entire Iraq that is engulfed in war...

21-24.05 - Silopi - Amadiya - Erbil



When I announced to my friends that we were eventually heading to Iraq, most of the responses didn't drift too much from "you must be mad!" For most of the people Iraq is the synonym of bomb explosions, gunfires, suicide attacks and widespread havoc commonplace. Kirkuk is considered to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world; the average time a white person spends in Mosul is ten minutes before they get captured. Who would like to tempt fate? However, the northern part of the country - Autonomous Republic of Kurdistan - is an exception that's been spared the carnage going on in the rest of the country. Liberated by the Americans after the Iraqi War and Saddam Hussein regime, it enjoys a high degree of autonomy, having its own government, constitution, language, law, etc. Ale and I, being intrepid travelers, couldn't give it a miss.


Getting into Iraqi Kurdistan was more straight-forward and comfortable than we could have imagined. Theoretically it's impossible to cross the border on foot, but as with every rule there's always a loophole. However, thanks to Hüseyin who arranged a taxi and made sure our trip was all set, finding a free way to get into Iraq was the least of our worries. We handed our passports to the driver, who kept them until the moment we reached Iraq. Dealing with Turkish immigration officials was hassle-free and felt like passing from Germany to Switzerland, with the only difference that you get an exit stamp. Shortly after on the Iraqi side we were invited into a large, air-conditioned immigration hall where we were seated on comfortable chairs and served some complimentary çay while waiting for our passports to get stamped. The nicest border ever - has anyone ever treated you to tea in a place like this? To be granted a ten-day visa to the autonomous north of Iraq Ale and I didn't even have to play our part - the taxi driver did all the business for us and we managed to escape a torrent of questions about our destination or the length of our stay. After no more than fifteen minutes the "Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan Region" sign written in four languages and the colorful Kurdish banner, bathed in the red of dusk and proudly waving next to the Iraqi flag, finally met our eyes.

Hüseyin joined us shortly after. Due to some issues with his truck he could only continue his way into Iraqi Kurdistan the following day. Another night in the companionship of the same driver awaited us - just unbelievable.

Kurdistan Turkey Iraq border crossing Silopi Zahko

Kurdistan Turkey Iraq border crossing Silopi Zahko

Kurdistan Turkey Iraq border crossing Silopi Zahko

Kurdistan Turkey Iraq border crossing Silopi Zahko

Kurdistan Turkey Iraq border crossing Silopi Zahko

Kurdistan Turkey Iraq border crossing Silopi Zahko

Kurdistan Turkey Iraq border crossing Silopi Zahko

Kurdistan Turkey Iraq border crossing Silopi Zahko

Hüseyin was beside himself with pride finally showing his country to us. "Turkish network finished! Only Kurdish - Korek!" "Photo! Check, check! Gas Kurdish marka!" "Road Mosul! Check, check!" "Mesopotamia!" "Taxis going to Kurdistan!" "Check, check! Kurdish people! No problem! Arkadaşlar!" Anything that proved we were no longer in Turkey was another opportunity for him to emphasize how much his country that attempts existing means to him. He was also delighted telling his friends on the phone that he was giving a ride to "tourists." I lost the count of times I was asked to talk to Hüseyin's friends who "spoke good English" and actually couldn't construct a sentence that allowed a flowing conversation.

The ride was punctuated by frequent military checkpoints and passport controls along the road. As much as I could understand, the policemen asked Hüseyin about his destination and additional passengers. Although it's relatively safe to travel in provinces of Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah, the security situation drastically changes when you travel beyond these regions. Disputed cities of Mosul and Kirkuk are raged with attacks and passing through them is not only not recommended, but also impossible without a full Iraqi visa.

The road winded through rugged, sparsely populated areas that often changed to expanses of perfectly flat and endless horizon. About five hours into our ride the landscape became more diverse and we passed through more river valleys. Close to our destination we also got to see the Gelî Eli Beg waterfall, presented on the five dinars banknote.

While Hüseyin's driving style in Turkey was quite reckless but still devoid of serious law-breaking driving habits, his behavior on the mountainous Iraqi roads was on another scale. Vertigo-inducing switchbacks were like a racing track for him. Any lane markings on the road got minimal consideration, when he didn't overtake other slow drivers on solid double-line markings, he drove in the middle of the road, making it difficult for other cars to pass. What's more he often managed to reach the nerve-racking speed of 100km/h - to think that even on European highways truck barely ever reach the allowed speed of 90km/h! Not surprisingly, he was not the only one. And to my great astonishment, not even a single accident happened during our six-hour-long ride to Amadiya.

What was to later turn out to be the longest ride of the trip, was also my longest ride ever - almost 1300 km and five days with one driver - definitely a memory to cherish for life. After an overnight in the furniture salon where Husein delivered just ONE sofa all the way from Ankara, Ale and I headed to Erbil.













Barely got it - note the speed.












We reached the capital and largest city of Iraqi Kurdistan at ten in the morning. Despite the weather being not very inviting to stay out (too hot), we dropped our bags in a hotel "Süleymaniye" located in the very heart of Erbil (Hewlêr in Kurdish), and went exploring.

First, we strolled in the Citadel (Qelay Hewlêr), which was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2010. At over 7000 years old, this mound towering over the city prides itself on being one of the most ancient uninterruptedly inhabited settlements in the world. Sadly, the site that was still in full swing in 2007, now is abandoned and to a certain degree turned into a heap of rubble. At the end of Saddam era all but one of the families living there were evicted and relocated in order to preserve and restore the Citadel, partially with the help of UNESCO. Despite five years of work, many buildings still look untouched by restoration workers. Major part of the ancient city is regrettably closed off for the visitors due to being endangered with collapse. Armed guards pay attention that none of the visitors trespass beyond the main walking street. From the top of the mound we had a stunning view over the city - Hewlêr Park, the rooftops of Qaysari Bazaar and the ambiguously-looking suburbs, with houses both affluent and crumbling.

The Citadel early in the morning


Kurdistan Erbil Iraq

Kurdistan Erbil Iraq



Wandering the city, sometimes it was shocking to see how much the Kurdish part of Iraq differs from the image of Iraq in general that is created by the media. Robberies are almost non-existent in Kurdistan. Kurdish currency exchange points have nothing to do with European ones, with thick bulletproof glass and safes. Here in the massive bazaar piles of dollars, Turkish liras and Irani rials are stacked on small tables, at hand's reach of any passer-by. Policemen are equipped not with batons, but with guns. Shops selling guns and proudly displaying their assortment in the windows aren't a curiosity. When we asked a guy on the street whether a slightly remote part of the city we wanted to see was safe he froze: "Safe?! Come on, it's Erbil!"

Later, when I continued discovering the streets of Erbil on my own or delved into its hidden alleyways, men batted an eye in my direction quite often, addressing me with multiple "hello's", "how are you's" or "I love you's." One even tried to shove a small piece of paper containing his email address/phone number/love letter/whatever to my pocket. Sometimes I felt irritated, but never in danger. Dressed like a European (though properly covered) and feeling quite comfortable on my own, I received gazes from girls and women as well. Most of them were clad in long dresses and had their faces hidden by light-colored hijabs. Not only did their presence fade in comparison to hordes of men, but they barely ever walked alone - usually in the in the companionship of men or other women.

Kurdistan Erbil Iraq

Kurdistan Erbil Iraq




Kurdistan Erbil Iraq

Kurdistan Erbil Iraq

Erbil is a comely city, not really overflowing with what is called a sightseeing must but worth appreciating its history and rapidly changing appearance. If you're searching for adrenaline rush and unblazed trails on your travels,  it's definitely a paradise for you to visit - before it becomes a paradise for foreign investors and modern architecture lovers; with a skyline resembling one of New York City or Dubai.

2 comments:

  1. this is a great story and shows the positive future ahead for this region!

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  2. Erbil is safe. Actually, all of Iraq can be considered safe now. Definitely, much safer than some of the dark alleys in Warsaw, Kiev or, be it, even London - much less street crime, more open people who are already tired of the war.

    Greetz,
    www.singlenomad.pl

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