Iraq: getaway or stay away?
By Dom Daly
Iraq is not the kind of place you go to if you want a holiday browsing high-end boutiques and relaxing in tranquil swimming pools. Certainly the very suggestion of venturing into this region of the world makes people feel uneasy. Iraq as a whole is very dangerous, especially for Westerners and every week you hear news about bombs and kidnappings that would put off the most heart-strong travellers. However, to the north of Iraq, there lies a gem.
Iraqi Kurdistan is the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, with its own government, its own army and its own thriving culture. With the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the previously oppressed Kurds in the north were able to spread their wings and take off into a new era of social and economic development that was previously impossible under Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime and his hatred of the Kurds.
Wherever you go in Kurdistan you are welcomed almost as heroes, with free food, free taxi rides and a kindness and genuine sense of pride in their region that is hard to find elsewhere in the world.
The three main cities are Dohuk, Erbil and Sulemani and they are by no means run-down, poverty-stricken locations: as you enter the main cities you are greeted by smooth roads, traffic lights and high-rise buildings that show the development of the region since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Most hotels are cheap and in Dohuk we found a very pleasant place to stay, Parleman Hotel, which was £15 a night with friendly concierge that spoke perfect English and boasted that he could speak many more languages as well.
“Dream City”, the theme park located not too far from the city centre provided a cheap and entertaining way to enjoy the night with a rollercoaster and Health-and-Safety-free go-karting.
Erbil, the unofficial capital city in Kurdistan, is built around the Citadel, which some claim is the oldest continually inhabited place on earth. The Citadel is situated on the top of a plateau which gives some great views when looking out over the city from the walls. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the summer, then Sami Abdul Rahman Park is an absolute must, to see thousands of types of flowers in bloom, filling the air with their scent.
For the beer-lovers there is German beer garden called Deutschers Hoff in the Christian quarter, though this is quite a hard place to find, and the beer is very expensive at around £10 a pint. After a few months without good beer though, this place really is a life-saving oasis.
Sulemani is a very diverse city with spectacular malls filled up with such rare items as ‘Virginity Soap’ and a range of fake Kevlar armour. But its clean, well-kept streets hold a very sad history. Visiting the Amna Suraka museum you see where Saddam’s Ba’ath regime killed and tortured many innocent Kurds in its Anfal campaign.
One of the most touching places in Kurdistan is the nearby town of Halabja which too holds a horrific story: in 1988 the Ba’athist regime bombed and gassed the town, eventually killing around 15,000 Kurds.
Visiting the museum dedicated towards the memory of these people is very humbling, and when we asked if we could donate money towards the museum, the owner replied “We don’t want money; we just want people to know what happened here”.
When travelling from place to place it’s impossible not to take thousands of pictures of all the amazing scenes and natural wonders.
The countryside is dotted with waterfalls and gorges that astound and amaze, and most taxi drivers will know a plethora of places to take you to. One of the famous ones is Gali Ali Beg: a waterfall deep in the middle of a gorge which is visited by swarms of tourists from southern Iraq.
Although it’s not quite there yet, Iraqi Kurdistan has all the makings of a great place to travel to: friendly locals, stunning landscapes and a fascinating history.
In ten years’ time it wouldn’t be surprising if Erbil was a holiday destination as popular as Dubai and it’s definitely a place to visit for any aspiring travellers.