When I travelled to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq not long ago, I didn’t expect to fall in love with the place.
But it was love at first sight. I have been raving about the region to everyone prepared to listen ever since I came back. Being legally attached to me, my beloved husband bravely took on most of the listening duties and has even offered to buy me a (return) ticket from London to Erbil next year – possibly to get a break at last from my incessant jabbering about Iraqi Kurdistan.
I was originally driven to visit the region for two reasons. Firstly, I was keen to visit Iraq in its current political borders. Kurdistan Region has an autonomous status and most Kurds would cringe at the reminder of being attached to Iraq, but, geographically, I saw the region as my closest ever chance of getting into the country. It is well known how much I like to visit less travelled territories, and Iraqi Kurdistan fit the bill perfectly.
Secondly and perhaps most importantly, I had been fascinated by Kurdish culture for a while and was keen to observe it with my own eyes. I first interacted with Kurds during my 2-week trip to Syria in 2011 (when it was still relatively safe to visit), and, more recently, have developed a profound respect for Kurdish forces fighting Islamic terrorists in Syria and Iraq. Visiting a majority Kurdish area was a logical next step, and focusing on Iraqi Kurdistan seemed the easiest way of entry.
IRAQI KURDISTAN: WHEN I FINALLY DECIDED TO VISIT
My decision to visit Iraqi Kurdistan was sealed when, by pure chance, I came across some beautiful photography from the region, produced by a person with a lifestyle not dissimilar to my own. Like me, Daniel works full-time and spends his every free moment flying around the world, often to controversial destinations known to present some danger to foreigners. I was particularly inspired to see someone embrace a limited holiday schedule, prepared to visit a medium-haul destination in a short time. Greatly inspirited by Daniel’s work, I knew I had to visit Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.
While crystallising my travel plans for 2017, I spent several months “trying on” new destinations and checking countless flights to places all over the world. During one of those searches, I discovered that I could fly from London to Iraqi Kurdistan relatively easily on Qatar Airways through Doha. I could leave London late, travel overnight on both legs and come back in the early morning, ready to head straight to the office – thus saving precious day time away and not having to take additional time off work. Almost out of courtesy, I checked other options – most of them involving routing through Turkey – but quickly settled on Qatar Airways, also thanks to my frequent flier status with another oneworld alliance member, British Airways.
I wonder if these two fine gentlemen of Sulaymaniyah will still be on the same spot, drinking tea, when I return?
I remember shocking quite a few people when my flights were finally booked. The widespread opinion was that Iraqi Kurdistan was dangerous to visit, and few could understand why anyone would choose the region as a holiday destination. I do not blame them: Iraqi Kurdistan’s geographical proximity to territories held by the so-called Islamic State has not served the region well. With terrorist-occupied territories shrinking rapidly, and increasingly more people visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, this perception is likely to change. While southern Iraqi provinces remain relatively dangerous to visit, Iraqi Kurdistan has already increasingly been seen as a safer part of a country otherwise torn by destruction and terrorism.
IRAQI KURDISTAN: WHAT I WANTED TO SEE
My motivation in Iraqi Kurdistan was to observe as much of the local life as possible. I am not a huge fan of museums and quickly get bored ticking off mandatory tourist attractions. My favourite way to spend time in a city involves parking myself in an area full of a large number of local people and enjoying the buzz, chatting to locals to the best of my language ability (often resorting to body language) and shooting plenty of portraits. I then like to wander off to another such area and start again. On a typical day in a new city, I normally spend several hours walking and a similar amount observing the locals. Markets, parks and busy eateries are by far my favourite places to visit in any city, while museums and famous buildings provide a less interesting – and therefore optional – kind of backdrop.
With this in mind, I wanted to keep my itinerary for Iraqi Kurdistan flexible and light. I spent five full days in the region and organised them as follows:
- Day 1: Arrive in Sulaymaniyah in the morning and walk around the city;
- Day 2: Day trip to Halabja and Ahmad Awa waterfall;
- Day 3: Drive to Erbil stopping at Qazqapan Cave, Lake Dokan and Koya;
- Day 4: Day trip to Amedi stopping at Alqosh, Rabban Hormizd and Lalish;
- Day 5: Walk around Erbil and depart in the evening.
Looking back, I could put my hand on my heart and announce that it was a perfect itinerary. At no point did I have to rush, and yet every single day felt so full of diverse sights, people and experiences that I could barely contain my excitement enough to sleep at night. My five days seemed like at least two weeks, so fresh, new and fascinating everything was. I certainly regret not staying the actual two weeks, but am already looking into ways of revisiting Iraqi Kurdistan in the near future – including through my husband’s very kind offer of a sponsored ticket next year!
IRAQI KURDISTAN: WHAT WAS SO SPECIAL
I never expected that a small autonomous province in the Middle East, very different from the kind of locations I normally rave about, would win my heart so strongly and irreversibly. It is very rare that I return from a trip and immediately start looking for ways to revisit in a short time. Last time it happened was with Chile, one of my favourite countries of all time: after having a spectacular time in Chile around Easter 2016, I went to great lengths to return to the country a few months later, if only for two days. Crossing the border from Bolivia that frosty morning in the Altiplano brought tears to my eyes, so happy was I to set foot on Chilean soil again. And, several years ago, another magical place my heart chose was Faroe Islands: a part of the world I used to promote shamelessly and visited two years in a row.
So what was so special about Iraqi Kurdistan? As excited as I was about my trip, I did not expect to love the place to such extent that I would immediately place the region among my favourites and start planning an imminent return.
CURRENT STABILITY AMID SOBERINGLY TROUBLED HISTORY
Having taken many precautions to ensure my trip was safe, I was almost shocked by the feeling of normality in Iraqi Kurdistan. It certainly did not look like a war zone: most people were going on happily about their business and many parts of the region would not look out of place in a stable European economy. Most of all, I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the Kurdish society, living together in apparent peace. Alongside the majority Muslim population, churches were open and looked after, a Jewish holy site stood carefully preserved, and a Yazidi temple was welcoming visitors of all creeds.
All this came in the ghastly backdrop of Iraqi Kurdistan’s relatively recent past. Before my trip, I had little understanding of the hardship and persecution endured by the Kurdish people during Saddam Hussein’s regime. My visits to the Amna Suraka museum in Sulaymaniyah, a morbid imprisonment and torture site for the Kurdish population during Hussein’s times, and the Halabja Monument commemorating deadly chemical attacks in 1988 were painful and eye-opening. It is important to remember such dark moments of human history in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Family plaques at the Memorial Cemetery of Halabja commemorate the victims of the 1988 chemical attack
UNMATCHED LOCAL HOSPITALITY
The hospitality I experienced in Iraqi Kurdistan was unlike anywhere else I have visited. The region still receives very few tourists, and I found the locals’ overwhelming desire to make me feel welcome heart-warming. Yes, I could have easily chosen to feel uncomfortable to receive many curious stares from locals in public areas: there are not many foreigners roaming Iraqi Kurdistan to begin with, and unaccompanied foreign women are an extremely unusual sight. However, the sternest look would turn into a smile as soon as I offered a friendly gesture. All uneasiness went away with as little as a smile and a simple greeting of “choni” (چۆنی) (equivalent of a “hello”), which was promptly returned, often accompanied by the placing of the hand on the heart for emphasis.
Another aspect I found unique in Iraqi Kurdistan was how happy locals were to have their photo taken. I love taking photos of locals wherever I go, and pretty much everyone I approached for a photo readily agreed – if not outright asked me to take their photo first. It truly fills me with happiness to return from an adventure bringing back numerous photos of locals to remind me of this more personal side of travel. Iraqi Kurdistan was perfect in that respect.
SARDAR, MY TRUSTY GUIDE
Sardar was my driver and guide for the three busy days on the road, and proved an excellent companion. I got Sardar’s contacts from Daniel (the same person whose photos inspired me to visit Iraqi Kurdistan), but Sardar has also built a good name for himself as a journalist fixer. I do not always get on perfectly with my road companions, but Sardar and I were a superb match. One thing I hate on a trip is to be rushed (that’s why my preferred way to travel is solo), but, with Sardar, schedule was flexible and there was never any rush. When we felt like spending longer in a certain spot, we did. When a local family invited us to share a meal with them atop Mount Goyje, in full view of a glorious sunset over Sulaymaniyah, we didn’t hesitate to accept. When we fancied searching for the spot in the mountains from where the iconic shot of Amedi was taken, we went and searched (though we had to turn back as Turkish border was near and PKK had been reported in the area). And there was always, always time for yet another tiny cup of sugary Kurdish chai – an essential aspect of a trip to Kurdistan.
I also greatly appreciated being taken to seemingly random places that I had no way of knowing and that most foreigners wouldn’t normally care for. Near Amedi, Sardar and I visited Saddam Hussein’s former villa, which was looted to distraction after his fall and now stands in ruin. Nobody guards the once luxurious site, and visiting made for a surreal experience. Also nearby, we stopped at Enishke, a restaurant carved inside a cave with water dripping naturally from the ceiling. It was full of visitors from Iraq’s southern provinces when we visited, and we were treated to some traditional Iraqi dancing. I would prefer such obscure places and experiences to formal museums every single time – and am infinitely grateful to Sardar for showing them to me.
SPECTACULAR, VARIED LANDSCAPES
Iraqi Kurdistan has long been renowned in the broader region for its striking landscapes, characterised by canyons, mountains, rivers and waterfalls. The region has been described in some Middle Eastern literature as a “paradise on earth”, perhaps thanks to how different it is from much of the neighbouring countries’ arid scenery. Indeed only the city of Erbil and its surrounding areas are located on flat land, while most of Iraqi Kurdistan is fairly mountainous. Especially in spring, with nature coming back to life in a variety of lush, rich colours, the region boasts some of the most beautiful scenery in the Middle East.
Since I visited in the summer, I did not have high expectations for landscape photography. However, I was pleasantly surprised: even with most greenery burnt out during the scorching summer, Iraqi Kurdistan had a lot to be proud of. I was mesmerised by the spectacular mountain range I saw on approach to Sulaymaniyah – my first introduction to Kurdistan. And on the ground, I found multiple waterfalls roaring happily, oblivious of the baking heat and splashing the nearby scenery with patches of green. Despite the prevailing sandy colour of dried up vegetation, I came across multiple spectacular vistas in Iraqi Kurdistan.
And I am counting the days until I can again watch the shadow of my plane creep gently into Kurdistan below – stretching across mountains and plains, rivers and valleys, cities and lakes. I will look forward to seeing the shape of this wonderful part of the world grow firmer in the morning light, as I approach the ground – reunited with the country that inspired me so greatly in so little time.