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Published: December 1st 2010
Ever since my friend Audrey told me of her trip to northern Iraq in the spring, it stuck to my mind that it's one of the possibilities when I get to the Middle East, armed with an old copy of the LP from my friend Juan de Argentino I set out on a dreary late morning from Batumi, Georgia, where I took a share minivan to cross into Turkey in Sarpi, one guy tried to boot me out of my seat in the van, claiming the seats are numbered and where I was sat is seat #9, I pretend not to understand him until he got on my nerves when he called the driver to butt in, I told them show me where the numbers are posted which is nowhere to be found, when I started yelling in English only did they give up trying as they could not understand me, tantrums over we set off eventually, all the people mostly men were Georgians and have stashes of cigarettes, trying to smuggle it across the border, one guy have a big bag full and started distributing to other passengers in case we get checked at customs.
Rain began to pour
as we check out of Georgia, as usual no queue, everybody trying to get ahead of everyone I have to push this tiny lady trying to jump the line, at the Turkish side I was told to get my visa at some office next to the cafeteria, I was running in panic not wanting to be left by the shared van, I found the office, paid $20 then to the police control again to get stamped, all the while our van is stuck at customs, when I got back, the other passengers motioned me to take my backpack and walk with them and waited for the van to get through customs a few 100 meters from where we sat, after clearing it bags back on the van and off we go to Turkey. The driver is a maniac, normal in these parts we flew for the most parts, as we near Trabzon the men in the van took out their tsacha and started drinking, I pretended to be asleep as I don't want to take part, the guy next to me tried to wake me up but I did not budge, 15 minutes later some people got off, they opened
the window at least and chained smoked the whole way through, even the women.
At Trabzon bus station, people fought to take me as I get off the van, Silopi, I shouted, my destination, one guy came and dragged me to the ticket booth inside, It was an expensive trip, 75 liras, roughly $50, 17 hours! I have to charade again to make sure we understand each other well, I dont want to arrive in Silopi in the middle of the night, the cashier spoke little English and told me 9am arrival time, ok, not bad. I waited an hour, the bus line is Ozlem Bingol, left at 4pm and stopped at several dozen other places, of them all Erzurum and Mardin looks the best and maybe I pay a visit on the way back. We have free tea and some snacks and even some lotion to cleanse your hands, stupid Turkish soap operas played the whole night, I had stiff neck trying to get comfortable. Apart from me 2 other gringos were on the bus but they got off at Erzurum.
9am we arrived at the new bus station in Silopi,taxi drivers compete for my attention, Iraq
things you can buy at the army surplus store
,Iraq, I heard, yes to Zakho, how much, I shouted back,one guy told me for share taxi $50! Forget it, I told them 20 liras, roughly $15, he grudgingly accepted, a local was also on the taxi, 2 more seats need to be filled up no takers at the station, the driver tried to persuade me to pay 40 liras, I said no. So we drove in to town and parked in front of Hotel Habur for an hour trying to get passengers, I did not see other tourists. Finally 2 locals came and off we go, the driver has to do the paperwork and stuff, I heard it's taxi mafia, they pass us on to the next drivers on the other side, you cannot walk the no man's land you need transport. At the border, it's busy, full of trucks but we bypassed it and headed to the taxi and car queue, the driver assigned one of the passengers to drive as the queue moves as he has to do the paperwork, I was impressed how he got ahead of everyone else, Turkey stamp out was a breeze taken care of by the driver who collected our passports, then
comes the Iraqi side.
I went with the driver to the counter submitting our passports,once the immigration saw my passport, he invited me in to the office and tea appeared all of a sudden, he briefly interviewed me of my purpose in Iraq, where am I going and told me where it is unsafe, don't go to Baghdad, or Mosul, it's not allowed, he said. ok, one other officer in uniform came and asked if I have notes on where to go to in Iraq, I showed him the old LP edition, he just looked at it and smiled, you will get better information in Erbil or Dohuk he said. Thanking me for visiting his country they let me go , handing me my passport with a 10 day free visa stamp and the driver quickly whisked me away, driving us off to the other side where the other taxi sharks awaits, this time Iraqis. One of the passengers is also going to Dohuk like me at first we negotiated with the drivers for a better fare but once it failed he quickly abandoned me and took off with his fellow Turkish not explaining what happened. I was left
to fend for myself and I waited for 30 minutes waiting for something to happen.(Footnote: info from other backpackers I met: at the drop off point on the Iraqi side head straight to the cafeteria, you can change money there and they will point to you where to get the CHEAP bus to Dohuk straight, or even up to Zakho bus station where you can catch a collectivo to Dohuk bypassing the taxi mafia, I wish I knew then..)
Every once in awhile taxi drivers approaches me and demand $30 which I said no to. Then they left me alone to think about it again. One kind man from Baghdad who spoke little English helped me bargain, he encouraged me to take the $25 offer, it's a good price he said, they are also stuck there, as these taxi sharks quoted him and his wife $200 to Baghdad, or $150 to Kirkuk. I took out my $20 and showed the drivers the money, tell them this is all I have, I urged the Baghdad man, one guy finally took the bait and put me on his taxi. I hate these mafias, they're a pain! We drove through desert, Zakho
road to Duhok
is not attractive, the road is surprisingly good, it was about 55kms to Dohuk, the driver drove me to the Parlamen hotel recommended by Juan to me, double room as single is all taken is $17 I bargain down to $15 but the arrogant owner said no and so I left, then as I stepped out of the hotel, I randomly asked a guy in front to help me look for a hotel and he walked me to Saheed hotel, $15 for a shitty room with fan and noisy location, old dilapidated box of a room, I asked for $12 I was shown the door.
Ziden, my "angel" as he an unknowing passerby suddenly became my guide, he walked me through the bazaar, all eyes on me btw,being a tourist and all and found Khordo motel, an elder American guy was at the door chatting with a local, I came up and was shown the room, big double beds with a living room, fan and a/c and ensuite bath facility for $15, I took it, it's right in the center and my room is in a quiet location, they photocopied my passport then I went with Ziden for lunch,
my 1st solid meal since breakfast in Batumi. Good cheap food at a local eatery, very clean and friendly people. The set up reminds me of Yemen eateries only way cleaner! Then we walked the bazaar, took a few photos, I bumped into 2 other tourists, a couple from HK, very friendly, we might meet up again in Erbil. We hired a taxi and Zedin took me to see a park near the dam, nice quiet place but nothing spectacular, this town is developing fast, lots of malls and shopping districts, I was surprised. Then we visit the National arts museum before heading to a dodgy hotel for some drinks, a small Chivas Regal whisky set me back $20! That's it, Ziden wanted a drink and that's his tip for showing me around!
Then we stopped at a cafe place where people were drinking tea, we sat there to have some tea and spoke with an old gentleman in traditional robe who spoke of his misfortunes during the Iran-Iraq war, a prosthetic limb he showed me. He obliged for a photo. At the bazaar we found an US army surplus stores of sorts, selling war/army paraphernalias, I tried to
buy a water bottle but it's $10 and they wont take any bargaining. Zedin then took me to a hammam, they gave me a towel and soap and some luffa thing to scrub myself, I showered and came out and asked where is the steam room, there is none, the sauna is broken and so all it was really is to shower! I could have done that in my hotel! Embarrased at the misunderstanding, the reception dude did not ask for payment, we left with me chuckling how stupid the set up was, people come here only to shower! but then again maybe they dont have facilities at home. Ziden took me back to my hotel and I have to give him 6,000 dirhams so he can go home to his wife and family! Nice fellow, he used to be a sniper in Baghdad working for the US army, that's what he claimed, now just selling fake phones and fake ipod skirts.
I was told that Americans are popular here especially Mr. Bush but everytime people ask Zedin where I am from"especially" the police he would say I am from Spain! I asked him why, Dohuk people love Spain,
they won the World Cup! Kurdish people are quite friendly with a ready smile all the time but not very shake hands ready type like the Tajiks, and in half a day I have seen what I need to see in Dohuk, not much culture and sights to be seen. At dinner time I went for a walk and met an American guy named Rob who is also staying in the same hotel as I, we went to dinner together, quite an interesting man, he had been coming to Kurdish countries for years now,a professional photographer and lecturer, he is passionate about this region, I was given a very brief introduction to Kurdish civilization as I must admit I did not read up on this before coming here. On the way back to the hotel we stopped for tea then a man talked to us and also is staying at our hotel, he is a bit weird, he offered us both money, do you need money he asked? I thought, why, do we look like beggars? Well maybe I do with my backpacker outfit! me and Rob were surprised of course and tried to lose him but he kept following
us, Rob quickly went up his room and lock the door! I ended up chatting with him for a bit along with the staff then I scurried to my room, making sure he does not follow me.
Rainy day the next day, started lazily, a big brunch then used the internet for hours as there is nothing to do, then walked the bazaar again for the 100th time, I returned to the army surplus section, they sell army gears like Iraqi soldiers' uniforms, some paraphernalias, telescopes, handcuffs! among other things, I think they are mostly gears used by the US soldiers during the Desert storm conquest, anyway I got interested in this water canister as my water bottle was left in the mountains of Georgia, I bargained hard but they would not budge so I left annoyed, as I walk down another alleyway, a young dude started speaking to me, Mohammed is Swedish by birth but is ethnic Kurdish and his family moved back here in Dohuk, nice fellow he walked me around the bazaar and then we laid back and cool off in his family's clothing store, his nephews started breakdancing to impress me, apparently it's quite popular
Zedin , dude who helper me find a hotel
to the youngsters here.
After I got bored sitting down in the Mohammed's store, I bid him goodbye and walked back to the surplus store and bargained hard again for the water canister, this time I got it for $13 from $20, then bought a souvenir skull cap with the Kurdish flag design, mission accomplished I had a hefty dinner at the kebab place near the Khordo hotel I am staying, the sun came out in the afternoon and gave a beautiful glow at sunset time, people seems to come out in the early eve to do their shopping and that is when the bazaar is at it's most busy point, women clad in black gowns with their kids shop and men in their baggy pants chat on side streets sipping hot tea constantly thumbing through their prayer beads. The juice bars are also busy, and so are the shwarma places, its time for me to move on , its all the same to me now, headed for the capital tomorrow.
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