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 Northeast part of the country: Kurdistan.
Kurdistan doesn’t officially have its independence, but unlike the rest of the country, it’s pretty safe from extremists and it’s home to 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— 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 lots 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 head to the "Christian" section of town, which has a few hotels and establishments, where you can kick up your heels and have a few drinks.
It’s a glorious hour and a half drive from Erbil to the famous Bekhal Falls, located in one of the most scenic areas in the Middle East. The rolling green hills turn into steep canyons and gorges and you might think you’re in Colorado. The cascade falls are a major attraction, and people come from all over to play in the water and have a picnic.
One of my friends suggested I drive to Akre, and any suggestion is better than no suggestion when it comes to uncharted territory. As I drove west, the canyons and steep cliffs gave way 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, but then I stopped to have lunch at a place that seemed to be pretty busy and ordered some lamb meat.
Suddenly, I had three bowls of soup, to different salads, and some kind of macaroni in front of me. The waiters didn’t speak English, and I was suddenly nervous I'd ordered the wrong thing. More dishes came. I had at least a dozen plates of food on the table. I was confused. The manager came out and said, “Free! Everything free with meat!" It was enough for a family of four and cost about $6.
I figured I should do more investigating before giving up on the town, and that’s when I saw the sign, a placard that pointed to the “old town." I turned and headed down a road that looked like it went nowhere.
About ten minutes later, I found what appeared to be the Kurdish version of Cinqueterre built into the side of the hill. 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, and into a market selling food and household items — 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. I was handed a hot glass and a small group of men formed around me (The women tend to not interact with men, so I never really met any). A few spoke English.
One young man 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. Despite the controversial ousting of Hussein by the United States, the Kurds I met seemed truly grateful to have him gone and appreciative of America. I felt like a celebrity in the town.
I made the hour drive back to Erbil, and thought I'd end my evening at an Iraqi bar. The only open place I could find was having a karaoke night and it was full of expats and other people who didn’t look like they'd been living in Kurdistan for very long. A few guests sang in Arabic. I sang Elvis.
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. I’ll be stopping back in the near future.