Hello everyone, here are the details behind my secret stopover while on the Baltics and Beyond trip. I had a stop on this part of the trip that I deliberately chose not to publicize in advance. The secrecy was partly for safety concerns, but just as much because I wasn’t sure it would work out.
Breaking off from my exploration of the Baltics and Eastern Europe, I traveled to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq last weekend. Yes, I made it there and made it back with no problems, and with even more of an appreciation for how people live their lives with profound optimism in the midst of all kinds of trying circumstances.
I was worried about how I would be able to take Iraq off the list, but now I can say with integrity that I’ve done it. Here is the whole story, but first…
A Quick Geography Lesson
Kurdistan is not Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan (you know, where Borat is from). It is a northern region of Iraq that was occupied and repeatedly attacked by Saddam Hussein prior to his demise. Unlike the rest of Iraq since then, Kurdistan has been peaceful and largely unaffected by the sectarian violence in the rest of the country.
Even though they live within the political borders of Iraq, the Kurdish people have their own identity. For the most part, they don’t really want anything to do with the “other” Iraqis who live in Baghdad, Mosul, and the rest of the country. They fly their own flag, speak their own language, and pretty much do their own thing.
In other words, Iraqi Kurdistan probably should be a sovereign, independent country, but because of how politics works, it is instead a semi-autonomous region that is still accountable to the Iraqi government.
OK, that’s the geography. And now, on to the trip!
A funny thing happened to me on the way to Kurdistan. The leading political party sent me a personalized welcome message.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote to the Kurdish Democratic Party to ask about the visa situation. Most of what I read indicated that I could get a visa on arrival at the airport, but a couple of conflicting reports said that it had to be arranged in advance. I wasn’t sure the Kurdish Democrats would even reply, but they did so within 24 hours, telling me that it would be no problem at all to receive a visa on arrival.
Not only that, but they had also gone to my web site (thanks to Google, I presume, since I didn’t include an email signature with my message) and copied my photo into the reply, along with a nice welcome message that read:
“WELCOME CHRIS GUILLEBEAU TO KURDISTAN!”
I was pretty amazed at that. Thanks, guys. You definitely have my endorsement for whatever political platform you’re running on. Feel free to use my name and image in your campaign posters.
The welcome message set me at ease for what I was otherwise a bit nervous about, because even though I knew it was peaceful, after all, it is still IRAQ. Most people do not just fly in over there for a couple of days of independent touring.
But that’s exactly what I did, and it worked out even better than expected.
I arrived at Erbil International Airport (EBL) and was impressed with the facilities from the beginning. The immigration guy stamped my passport right away, and didn’t say anything about a visa. The customs officers (all women) waived me through with a smile.
On the other side of arrivals, I was given a free map of Kurdistan (I noted that the word Iraq was nowhere on the map), and helped to a taxi outside the door.
One company has a monopoly on taxi service at the airport, and they have the great name of “Hello! Taxi Company.” They told me it was a fixed rate of $25 to the city, which sounded high since I knew it wasn’t far away. There is another option to take a bus to a security checkpoint and then negotiate with a street taxi from there, but since I had never been there before, I decided to play it safe and take the Hello! taxi.
The taxi was a brand-new LandCruiser that reminded me a lot of my years in post-war African countries. It was 90°F outside, but as soon as the driver fired up the engine, a huge blast of air conditioning immediately cooled the vehicle. The driver got on the shortwave radio to tell his base about my drop-off, and off we went.
After riding for less than fifteen minutes, I told the driver to let me out at a small, two-star hotel called Shahan, where I booked a room for $23 a night. (I thought it was funny that the room cost $23 and the taxi to get there cost $25.)
I could have stayed in any number of cheaper places down the street, but I decided that $23 was a fair price for my own room. Besides, every hotel I had read about on the internet was for military contractors and U.N. people, and they charged $200 a night.
Photos (click to enlarge): Snacks and juice; cool statue; icons for sale
I spent the afternoon, evening, and most of the next day wandering around the city on foot. I never once felt unsafe or hassled in any way. I bought some almonds and cashews for a light dinner, which I had back in my room at the Shahan.
I visited the NasDak (I think it’s supposed to be like Nasdaq) shopping center, which still has a way to go before becoming a Dubai-style mall. The NasDak has five floors, but only the middle two have any shops in them, giving it the vibe of a downtown mall that has seen better years.
Just like most developing countries, fake DVD shops were in full abundance, selling collections of Angelina Jolie “master sets” and the latest blockbusters from both Hollywood and Bollywood for $2 each.
Walking around the citadel at the top of the city on my second morning, I met a soldier who came over to chat. It was a short conversation, since we had no common language. In situations like this, I’ve learned through many such exchanges, smiles and handshakes go a long way. He pointed to my camera and for a moment I worried that I was in trouble, but it turned out he just wanted his picture taken.
I was happy to oblige:
Erbil is truly a place on the rise. The kingdom of the Golden Arches hasn’t made it here yet, but with impressive infrastructure going up all over the city (and the whole region, or so I hear), it’s clear that the Kurds have big plans. My guess is that more development will come to Kurdistan than anywhere in Iraq proper.
The comparison to a U.N. republic ended at the airport. In the rest of the city, I saw plenty of Kurdish policemen and a few Kurdish soldiers (like my citadel friend above), but almost no international peacekeepers. A small force of South Korean U.N. soldiers is bunkered down with a Kurdish force somewhere outside the city, but the local joke is that the Kurds are there to make sure nothing bad happens to the Koreans.
For my evening reading, I picked up a copy of The Kurdish Globe, an English-language paper published “from the heart of Kurdistan region.” Readers of my recent essay on patriotism may be interested to know that Kurdistan, of all places, is planning to abolish the death penalty sometime next year.
By the way, for those of you who asked if I am going to start writing about U.S. politics, my answer is “not really.” My writing is non-partisan and I have friends of all political backgrounds. I am far more interested in writing about the whole world, and how remarkable people can achieve their own highly significant goals.
But if a semi-autonomous region in the Middle East can make plans to abolish the death penalty while America continues to put prisoners to death every year, I think it’s valid to question which place really understands criminal justice. To provide fair and balanced reporting, I should note that the same paper discussing the abolishment of the death penalty also has an article praising the fine sport of cockfighting, which takes place six days a week in Erbil for a $1 cover charge. My favorite sentence in the article was, “For those involved in rooster fighting, it’s not just the battles that attract them to the sport. They also admire the beauty and height of the special roosters.”
I’m not a big fan of cockfighting, but I thought that description was hilarious.
Photos (click to enlarge): Cool road sign with directions to Baghdad and Mosul; taxi roundabout in central Erbil; Erbil Int’l Airport
Getting to Erbil (and getting back)
Perhaps it’s obvious to say that this kind of travel is not really for beginners. Virtually everyone else on the flight from Vienna was Kurdish or with some kind of military group. The ticket usually costs more than $1,000 for a three-hour flight. Thankfully it cost me only about $320, since I used it as part of my first Round-the-World trip that I paid for more than a year ago.
(Side note: I know that a lot of you—several emails a day, on average—want to know more about how I’m able to travel to places like this for so little money. I promise to provide the full, unedited details soon for those who are interested.)
Even though it’s perfectly safe, there is not a whole lot to do in Erbil besides visit the NasDak and check out the fake DVD shops. I hear the Kurdish region beyond the city is probably worth exploring more, but since this was my first trip to this part of the world, I wanted to stick with Erbil and make sure I was comfortable. It was definitely worth it!
On the return trip to the airport, I made my own taxi arrangements. As I suspected, this was a much better option. I offered the driver $5 to take me, and he immediately agreed — which meant I probably could have paid less. Having paid $25 to go the other way a couple of days prior, I was happy with the $5 fare. At the drop-off point, I gave him a dollar tip and walked to the first security check-point, located about half a mile from the terminal.
Three times in a row, beginning at the first check-point, continuing to the one in front of the terminal, and finally at the one in front of the gate, all passengers go through a full security routine: belt off, watch off, laptop in case, mandatory pat-down, etc. At the third and final one, two contracted security agents searched through my bag by hand. They confiscated the batteries from my electric razor (disposable batteries are not allowed on the flight for some reason) and tried to take my contact solution, but relented when I protested about that.
The airport itself is a bit sparse, but isn’t bad otherwise. I was pleased to find out that they had free wi-fi, something my home airport in Seattle doesn’t provide. I waited two hours until the Austrian Airlines jet landed on the huge runway, discharged its passengers, and welcomed the half-filled planeload of those of us returning to Vienna. We took off right away, and I said goodbye to the land of the Kurds.
Now that I’m back in Austria, I think I’ll go have some strudel at the nice café by the river. Thanks for reading!
Oh, please share your feedback or any questions about the trip in the comments section below. That’s why it’s there.