Published: March 25th 2010March 19th 2010
Despite all that you hear about Iraq these days, especially something about some sort of war going on over there, you would think I was crazy for going there. But no, instead I am simply one of a flock of tourists heading to Iraqi Kurdistan
, the hottest new destination in the Middle East.
The north of Iraq is home to a majority Kurdish population, and is indeed completely safe to visit. Yes, Iraq safe! Iraqi Kurdistan has been relatively autonomous for almost two decades now, and so has managed to separate itself from the instability seen in Arab Iraq pre and post Saddam.
this part of Iraq is safe. But a safe part of Iraq is Iraq nevertheless, and Iraq is an otherwise forbidden country. And to prove how accessible it is, Kurdistan is even in the newest update of the Middle East Lonely Planet. So now every backpacker with a Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle East is heading there, probably so that they can brag to their friends back home, or inspire wild admiration in an attractive girl at a trendy bar, that they've "been to Iraq".
I know, because I was one of
But in fact I was a bit different, in that I did not have the Middle East Lonely Planet at the time. I only knew about Iraqi Kurdistan after meeting people in both Uzbekistan and Iran who had been there and told me that there is actually a safe part of Iraq. So... why not! Then while in Iran I managed to peruse a friend's ME LP, and was curious to see what I could actually see and do in this Iraqi Kurdistan, my next destination. The good people at LP touted IK as an unforgettable
place: the ancient atmosphere of one the world's oldest continually inhabited sites (Erbil), chic and modern European-like cities (Suleymaniyeh), poignant museums (the Genocide museum in Suley), mountain scenery parallelling the famous Karakoram Highway (Erbil to Haj Omaran), and impressive waterfalls (Guli Ali Beg).
What a destination! I was sold.
But unfortunately, it was all lies. Lies, I tell you!
Because Iraqi Kurdistan is probably the
least interesting and most anticlimatic destination I have been to on this entire trip.
Erbil was a huge disappointment. The citadel (hyped up as a must-see) is so dull. It is hardly
"continually inhabited" anymore, as the area's entire population was moved out. So instead of seeing people living their daily lives as they have for hundreds or thousands of years, all you can do is walk along the main street amongst abandoned houses. You can't even go off exploring the houses and side-streets as everything is cordoned off with tape, and soldiers with big guns stood guard to ensure there's no funny business (as they do all over Iraqi Kurdistan). As a result, all I could do was walk from south to north, and then leave. It took 10 minutes, and even then I walked really really slowly. And plus, Erbil may be old, but did anything of note happen there...? Not really.
Contrast that with Damascus and Aleppo (also two candidates for the world's oldest cities) where one cannot help but be completely lost in the magic time warps of their history-laden streets. One needs entire books to simply describe them.
And Suleymaniyeh? Chic? Modern? European? There are about 3 cafes, 2 bars, and the only nightclub is a real dodgy-sounding secret establishment that is a 30min drive away, hidden in the mountains.
And the Genocide Museum
(I forgot it's real name, it's been a while since I went to Kurdistan) was also a disappoinment. Not the museum itself (something so important could never be disappointing) but it was the staff who really let us down. The museum was the compound from where Saddam tortured and executed hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Kurds. Many times for no reason or baseless allegations. Terrible doesn't even suffice to decribe it.
But before I explain about Suley's Genocide museum, I might compare it with the Holocaust Museum at Auschwitz first. The staff and guides at Auschwitz were so moving and respectful and passionate about the place, they really wanted to educate people, to do their best to make us understand the enormity of that tragedy. They were welcoming and helpful and their poignant vigour gave the effect that this was one place which every man must visit so that mankind can never forget, to learn from the past so such terrors are never repeated.
I really hate to say this, but Suley's museum truly was the opposite. The staff simply didn't care that my friend and I were there. They just ushered us through the museum in 15min.
There wasn't any English, which although unfortunate for such an important place is something I can't complain about. But more importantly, because I couldn't understand anything, I wanted at least some time to look at the photos and exhibits and really consider and try to grasp what happened there. Instead the guide angrily kept pushing me along, and even when I tried to rebel and linger for an extra few seconds he just stopped and stared at me impatiently, and then only continued once I got his attention. Even at the end, as soon as we walked out the museum, he just slammed the door in our face! He didn't say a word to us, nor even look at us. I don't know what on earth was going on, but my friend and I honestly got the impression that he didn't want us there, nor wanted to educate us on his people's tragic history. And it wasn't just the guide, but the rest of the staff were just flippant, to put it bluntly. I don't accuse them of not caring about what happened to the Kurdish people - far from it, I am sure that they have been so affected
Kurdish meals traditionally involve LOTS of entres!!!
that I cannot even begin to comprehend their pain - but it was such a shame that they hardly made an effort to convey any meaning of it to us, when their job is to actually do that, so that we (and others like us) who visit Kurdistan and take an interest in their history, can learn and understand. Now, instead of going there to learn in the place where it happened, I can only resort to books.
And also, the mountain scenery a la the Karakoram Highway, on the road between Erbil and Haj Omaran on the Iranian border? Sure it was beautiful with nice mountains covered in snow... but Karakoram-like...? Clearly the author (some guy, Cesar something-something) doesn't know what he was talking about.
And Guli Ali Beg, an impressive waterfall? It's only 18m high. I piss stronger than that.
But Amadiyeh is beautiful. An almost perfectly-located village on a small hill in a valley of mountains - incredible. And the people there are sooo friendly, so nice.
So truly, for the tourist, there is very little to see in Iraqi Kurdistan. I write this blog purely as a disclaimer for anyone who read
the Iraqi Kurdistan section of the Middle East Lonely Planet and is tempted to go there. If you are going there for those tourist reasons, or you're one of those people who got sucked into the idea of "going to Iraq", I advise that it's simply not worth it.
But Iraqi Kurdistan is
interesting for other reasons!
First of all, the Kurdish people are incredible. Few peoples I have met are so genuinely warm and welcoming. I was always greeted with a huge smile and sincere welcome with a hand on the heart. I was stopped in the street and talked to, offered tea on numerous occasions, and given help whenever I was lost. My companions and I were even the recipients of an incredible gesture of generosity: we tried to hire a car in order to traverse the fabled "Karakoram Hwy-like" road to Haj Omaran and back, just to see the scenery, but were unable to do so. So one Kurdish friend we met used a day off he suddenly got from work to drive as all the way to the Iranian border, and back, just so we could see the mountains! Kurdish hospitality is moving,
they do absolutely everything they can to ensure "guests" are satisfied. An amazing and touching mentality.
Secondly, the progress of Iraqi Kurdistan today is like building a new storey on an existing foundation; building a new country on an old one. Old Iraqi Kurdistan, obliterated by war and persecution, is now given a facelift American style. Some Kurds even refer to it as the 51st state! Kurdistan has flash shopping malls, the most luxurious cars (Cadillacs, Benz, even Hummers!), and even up-market fashion brands. The youth seem obsessed with American culture, from 50 Cent to Brad Pitt. Everyone wants to go to America to study, and no one resents America's ousting of Saddam, and even like George Bush.
Thirdly, the security situation. Kurdistan may be safe, but it is
in Iraq, and as such the threat of terrorism and insurgency is always knocking. The Kurdish authorities and army (Pashmerga) take no chances, and security is the tightest I've ever seen. Tighter than Tibet under Chinese rule, or even Turkmenistan under Turkmen rule. There are police checkpoints every 5-10km, and there are garrisons of soliders and policemen on the streets.
And they are all suspicious of me
Just like in every other Asian country I am in, people see my skin colour (brown - subcontinental) and immediately view me with wariness. But those others are Asian countries not at war... so think about just how suspicious the authorities are in a country at war like Kurdistan! Every soldier I walked past eyed me severely, at every border crossing I was singled out for ID inspection and even interviews. I was also followed and escorted by counter-terrorism agents from the town of Koya to Erbil because they suspected I was up to funny business. And even still, the very next day in an un-related incident I was arrested by the military on the street and taken to several compounds for questioning as to my business in Iraqi Kurdistan.
What a welcome!
Of course, none of the other travellers I met in Kurdistan had similar experiences; they are white, and white people are never terrorists.
But to tell you the truth, sometimes it was quite exciting. And it most definitely made up for the completely anticlimatic dullness of Iraqi Kurdistan (after being grossly exaggerated by the inept author of the Iraqi Kurdistan section of the Middle
"Birth and Death Office"
You end up at the same place where you begin!
East Lonely Planet).
So if you do choose to go to Iraqi Kurdistan, I encourage you to go there to meet the Kurdish people, who will surely take a special place in your heart. But don't expect to see
anything or do
anything of note, because I am sorry to say this but it was boring. If you want an interesting experience, try and get arrested!
(Note: this blog is about my experiences in the countries I visit. I am sure that others may have had splendid times in Iraqi Kurdistan. Apologies if anyone is offended, but understand that I am just retelling my opinion of what I saw and experienced.)
There are more photos below