Touring Iraq – Travel Adventures in Kurdistan

Iraq travel

Middle East Peace Talks - Iraq

Everyone I know who have ever visited Iraq were there for military reasons.  When I told a local in Iraq I was a tourist, they said… “Tourist?” What’s that? Tourism is really a foreign word, but no longer.  The Kurdistan region of Iraq is open.  Visa restrictions in Iraqi Kurdistan aren’t bad for many western countries.  For Americans you can currently get a 15 day visa on arrival!  I was impressed how easy it would be to get into such an incredible place.  The cradle of civilization.  Abraham himself is said to have traveled to this area.  Chaldeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, there is a serious history to this region of the two rivers.  I stayed in the Kurdistan region my entire stay, but traveled through a number of check points going both ways between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.  We ultimately took two routes between the two cities by cab.  One went on the highway and through check points.  We were worried there might be problem with driving between the cities, but the road itself was controlled by Kurdish forces.  So while we did get our passports checked a couple of times.  We did avoid entering Kirkuk and we avoided Mosul.  I really wanted to go to Nineveh and the tombs of the prophets, but instead stuck with our plans to spend time exclusively in the cities.

Iraq road map

Our route through the Iraqi-Kurdistan region.  Syria just on the other side of Mosul and the hills of Iran on the other side of Suliamaniyah.  Yep those hills!  While we were in Erbil (Arbil/Irbil) we met a man in the square who was a Syrian refugee.

Erbil, Iraqi-Kurdistan

Citadel fountain

I started my visit with the best, the ancient Citadel.  At 6000 or 7000 years old this citadel is the one of the longest continuously inhabited cities.

Erbil Iraq Clock Tower

The fountain and clock tower attract vendors and families coming to the beautiful square to shop and take pictures.

Old pictures of Erbil show the Citadel and the Minaret.  Over 500 years ago the city of Erbil was only what was on the hill protected by the city walls, and the minaret.

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We walked nearly all the way around the citadel hill.  “A city on a hill cannot be hid.” I have to wonder if this old saying came from this city.  As we walked I saw a group of old men.  I needed to find a restroom.  I just had to go and decided to ask them.  We found this tea house was actually a game center.  The men were drinking tea and playing some high volume game of dominoes involving slamming tiles.  Even though they spoke little english and we spoke little to no Kurdish or Arabic we were able to build trust enough after playing a couple of games and getting tips from our new friends.  In travel I have found there are moments to really dive in.  It’s not all about going to tourist destinations.  It’s about learning to understand people and visit new people and cultures.

Playing Dominoes game in Iraq

Most people if you told them you were going to Iraq to visit.  They would say avoid crowds.  Well, in a local market in Erbil we seem to have met the real masses.

Iraq Crowd in the market

The faces on the people do seem to be hard, but I can attest that the Kurds are some of the kindest people you will meet.  They have sacrificed much.  It has not been an easy life.

Cotton Candy Kids

Life goes on… Kids on their way to school

Chaldean Christian Church in Iraq

Our last night in Erbil we went to the Christian part of town.  This Chaldean church was in service.  My friend Michael and I enjoy visiting cathedrals, mosques, temples, and find that you can learn more about it’s people by understanding their passions, their worries and their faith in God.  We stayed for the entire service.  The prayer for the Filipinos was so strong it brought tears to my eyes.  The group of minority Christians in this vast land of Muslims with their faith prayed for those suffering in the Philippines.  It was so touching to see them turn their thoughts.  They have not had an easy life here in Iraq, but many came here to provide a better life for their families back home.  They saw this as a land of opportunity.  One of the people at the church had lost 30 members of their family in the Philippines.  It made the disaster personal talking with this group and hearing them pour out their hearts.

(This picture above and a couple of the others were taken by Michael Noel travel blogger at http://travelingtheglobe.com, my good friend and my traveling companion on this and may of my trips.)

Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi-Kurdistan

When we first planned to come to Iraqi-Kurdistan we tried to find connections in our technology.  You can read more about the visit to the University and our technology sessions with the Computer Science students and faculty of University of Human Development (UHD) in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan.  Those who wonder how I travel the world best understand it is my passion to visit the world and connect with people of all cultures and people.  How I do it is through my connections and relationships. I sacrifice my time and money as well to visit places around the world like this, and not only are the people changed through our encounters but I am changed.  Hearing stories from the students blows my mind making Iraq real and the horror stories of Saddam’s rule.  One of the assistant professors told me about his 3 brothers being killed and how he barely escaped and just recently came back from spending many years in the UK. Amazing personal stories.  I feel for these people.  Over night I became friends on Facebook and LinkedIn with over 15-20 of the students in the room.  I hope I can help them in the future in their pursuits.

Iraq University Students

So after a couple of nights in Erbil, the next morning we left for Sulaymaniyah by cab.  We arranged for a driver to take us on the road through the hills through the Kurdistan region.  On the way back we were feeling more confident and drove back through the highway faster route through Kirkuk.

When we first arrived I did a quick search and came across the Amna Suraka Museum known as red prison or Red Intelligence Museum. This prison was the former Ba’ath intelligence headquarters and prison.  Just as some death camps and concentration camps have been preserved, this captures the essence of torture and death in the treatment of Kurds.  In my travels I have found it fascintating to visit places in the world where minorities have been treated poorly.  I see a lot of parallels in how the Armenians were treated by the Ottomans as the Kurds were by Saddam’s regime.

Amna Suraka torture

Turned into a museum at the behest of First Lady of Iraq, Hero Talabani, in 2000, the façade still bears the bullet holes evidencing the scars of its past.

Iraqi sorrow

Our cab driver shared his person experience having been there only 11 years prior.  His wife and 3 of his family were killed.

women and children suffering

You really could feel the emotion of the place. The prison was haunting with

hall of mirrors iraq

Hall of mirrors… represent those that were killed in the mass genocide

Unmarked graves

There are other reminders of mass death in this region.  So many unmarked graves, and these that are marked with simple rocks that dot the hillside.

sheep balls menu

Interesting food choices!

tower

Hope is strong in this region.  They are ready to bring in the New…  The tower in the background which looks like it’s from Dubai is made by the same architect.

iraqi gondola and ferris wheel

It still isn’t Disneyland, but would you believe that there is an amusement park and gondola?  The construction going on is also quite impressive.  There is a lot going on here.  Change is coming.  The people are ready to see change.

gold mosque

Their faith will carry them.

cable tower

On our final departure we saw this wild tower piece of metal near the airport.  It took at least 4 scans to work our way from the street to the gate at the airport.  They are very serious about security.  I felt safe while in Kurdistan.  Speaking of God, I felt like he was watching out for me on this trip.  The faith of so many in this region is very strong, and the people of this land itself has had a strong connection Abraham’s God for thousands of years.

One of my most fascinating trips.  I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.  It isn’t for everyone, but I do see reason for investment.  I see passion and interest in the people.  People are ready for change.  As well, the Kurds are great people, a great heritage that has suffered greatly, and will rise from the dust.  I made some great friendships that will last though the years.

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