When I told my friends I was going to Iraq, some figured I’d joined the military or was planning to do something illegal. After all, what do most people think of when you mention this country? Tanks, blown-up buildings, bombs….. Face it, out of all the places in the world, Iraq is going to be at the bottom of most tourist bucket lists. Believe it or not, this country has a lot to offer. I’m not talking about the places you’ve seen on CNN, but the autonomous enclave in the NE part of the country: Kurdistan.
Kurdistan doesn’t officially have its independence but it’s been doing a good job of taking care of itself for years . Unlike the rest of the country, it’s pretty safe from extremists and it’s got some of the most beautiful scenery in the Middle East. The Kurds are a different ethnic group than the Arabs and have their own language, food and traditions. There’s no entry visa required for US citizens. Just show up with a passport and you’re in. What’s not to love?
There’s two major cities in the Kurdistan region, Erbil and Suleymaniyah. Chances are you’ll fly into Erbil. The airport is small and hassle free and you can take a taxi for the 10 minute drive into the city or rent a car and go exploring.
The center of the city contains a 7,000 year old citadel perched on a hill and is a good place to walk around and watch the locals. Below the walled fortress is a huge market selling everything you could want to eat or wear (think lot’s of knock-off designer shirts). Nearby are lots of little restaurants. Pick a spot and have tea with the residents. There’s a relaxed vibe and no one seems to be quite as hurried as other destinations in the Middle East. You won’t find alcohol for sale in most places, but you can bring in a bottle or two and stash it in your room or wander over to the Christian section of town.
It’s about an hour and a half drive from Erbil to one of Kurdistan’s most famous attractions, Bekhal Falls. The rolling green hills turn into steep canyons and gorges and you might think you’re in Colorado as you drive around beautiful turns. The cascade falls are a major attraction for the Kurds and residents come from all over to play in the water and have a picnic. The drive to the falls is one of the most scenic areas in the Middle East.
One of my friends had suggested I drive to Akre and any suggestion is better than no suggestion when it comes to uncharted territory like this part of the world. As I drove west I traversed through another beautiful route of canyons and steep cliffs, the scenery eventually changed to dry rocky hills. There’s not a lot in between the cities, but the roads were good and there seemed to be plenty of gas stations.
My first impression of Akre wasn’t great. I was wondering why my friend would recommend a town that didn’t seem very interesting at all. I stopped to have lunch at a place that seemed to be pretty busy and ordered some lamb meat. Suddenly, I had 3 bowls of soup, 2 different salads, then some kind of macaroni. The waiters didn’t speak English and I was suddenly nervous I had ordered the wrong thing. More dishes came until my table had a least a dozen plates of various orders. I was confused. The manager came out and said “free”….”everything free with meat”. It was enough for a family of 4 and cost about $6.
I figured I should do a little more investigation before I gave up on the town and that’s when I saw the sign. Apparently I had missed the “old town” placard. I turned and headed down a road that looked like it went nowhere.
About ten minutes later I saw the town and it was amazing! Built on the side of a hill, it reminded me of a Kurdish version of Cinqueterre. You could see a glimpse of stairs and twisty roads winding through the ancient buildings. I parked my car at the base of the hill and walked up the cobblestone street past the mosque into a market.
There’s markets and then there’s markets. Honestly, I couldn’t find anything to buy in Iraq. Other than food and household items, there seemed to be no trace of anything souvenir-ish. No handmade crafts, no clothing with “Iraq” or “Kurdistan” printed on it, no refrigerator magnets or shot glasses. Of course there’s no shot glasses since there’s virtually no alcohol. The locals were super friendly and invited me to sit down for tea. Immediately I was handed a hot glass and a small group had formed around me. Only a few of this crowd spoke English, but one of the young men decided to play tour guide and showed me some of the old buildings in the area. Right in front of me was an old jail where Saddam Hussein used to keep his prisoners. The place was in ruins and looked like it hadn’t been used in a hundred years. In spite of the controversy ousting Hussein from power generated for the US, the Kurds were truly grateful to have him gone and seemed like they were very appreciative of America. I felt like a celebrity in the town. The women are very covered and tend to stay away from men, so I never really met any. It’s strange to be in a country where there’s absolutely no interaction with the opposite sex.
I made the hour drive back to Erbil and thought I might wind up my evening with an Iraqi bar. There’s not a ton of bars, but the “Christian” section of town has a few hotel establishments where you can kick up your heels and have a few drinks. The only open place I could find was having karaoke night and it was full of expats and other people who didn’t look like they had been living here for long. I sang Elvis, but there were a few guests singing in Arabic. It’s a funny thing being in such a seemingly dangerous country where nothing is what you expected. My only regret is that I only had two days in Iraq. There are lots of adventures to be had and I’ll be stopping back by in the near future.