“You’re going WHERE ?”
“Be careful you don’t get kidnapped.”
“Isn’t it all just rubble?”
These are the three clichéd responses when received when telling friends I was visiting Iraqi Kurdistan. So I simply stopped telling people I was going. And how wrong they all were.
From the moment I saw images of Iraqi Kurdistan, I just knew I had to visit. The rugged mountains, cascading waterfalls, lush, green parks, and scenic hiking trails coupled with a rich history were a natural pull for me.
I had to go.
The media and government in the U.K. paint a grim picture of the area. Yet every travel blogger or intrepid adventurer tells of a land of natural beauty, friendly people and perhaps, more importantly, safety. I decided to trust the advice of the latter and follow my own intuition and instincts.
From the moment I set foot in this magical country, I was besotted. Iraqi Kurdistan is so diverse. Her natural beauty in harmony with her fascinating but turbulent history. I trekked along the Gali Sheran river, where the fresh, turquoise water tumbles down from the mountains over white rocks, forming welcoming azure pools to cool down in. I walked through the ancient, arched Bahdinan Gate — once the only entrance to the fortress town of Amedi. At Lalish, the holiest temple of the Yazidi faith, I witnessed the baptism of a small child. Standing in the shade of a mulberry tree, the ripe berries falling around me, I was welcomed warmly and given sweets. I visited ancient Ottoman forts, Christian monasteries, Roman bridges, colourful mosques. The imposing but stunning natural beauty of the Rawanduz Canyon, the old Hamilton Road, built by Archibald Milne Hamilton between 1928 and 1932 — a truly remarkable feat of engineering. In the Shanadar Cave, swallows darted and screeched while I admired the views of the surrounding countryside and pondered upon the excavations in the cave where Neanderthal man had been found. Sumac grows everywhere.
The city of Erbil is a beautiful dichotomy of venerable citadels and colourful, aromatic bazaars contrasted with high-rise, modern buildings. Where friendly gentlemen in traditional Kurdish dress invite you to stop for a chat, a glass of sweet chai and a slice of delicious kunefe. Where in the world can you see cuneiform engraved onto blocks of stone and just lying around in the countryside? Or a stone lamassu lying near the river at Khanis, a witness to a bygone age?
Natural wonders, nature, culture, history, crimson sunsets — the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has it all.
I could not have visited Iraqi Kurdistan and bypassed the sites of a tragic period of her history. I paid my respects at Halabja, where Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government used chemical weapons against the people there in 1988. The three mass graves and symbolic cemetery with the name of thousands of innocent people a testament to this cruel, hateful regime. A sign at the cemetery displaying the colors of the Kurdish flag informs visitors “Not allowed for bathesm to enter.”
At the Barzani Memorial Centre I saw belongings of the innocent victims of the massacre. Clothes, shoes, coins, watches, false teeth, the cutlery and water glass of one of the victims, the clothes of a teenage boy, the photographs of grieving mothers, sisters and wives… and bullets. A lasting memorial to the victims who were rounded up, taken to the desert in southern Iraq and executed indiscriminately. Some of the victims who were later found are buried nearby. Many graves are lost forever. I wandered pensively amongst the headstones, each one unidentified. We should not and will not ever forget these innocent victims of an oppressive administration.
The 360 degree panoramic views from the top of Gara mountain are stunning. Long bombed, looted and ransacked, one of the former palaces of Saddam Hussein sits on the summit with a sweeping vista over craggy peaks and expansive valleys. But beware! The surrounding area has not been cleared of landmines and warning signs alert the hapless tourist… no hiking here!
Amna Suraka, the former headquarters of Iraq’s secret intelligence agency (Mukharbarat) and once the site of unimaginable terror and suffering, is now a museum. The buildings are pocked by gunfire and tanks sit rusting in the bright sunshine of the garden. One of the rooms, a tribute to the Peshmerga martyrs displays the sign, “Martyrs names room. Welcome. Here is the martyr’s house, we are all here, others on the way. We need a far bigger house in order to welcome you, all together.” Moving stuff. But also birdsong. Lots of birdsong. A symbol of hope and new life, perhaps? A sign outside with the touching words “Not to be forgotten.”
A delicious breakfast at the Martyrs Café in Duhok was just as poignant. A working memorial to the freedom fighters, there are photos of over 700 fallen Peshmerga, both male and female, on the walls. Heroes who have been killed in recent conflicts fighting for their freedom.
Kurdish people are friendly, welcoming, kind and helpful. They embrace tourism and you will be invited to join them for a glass of their sweet, hot tea and fresh water. Our guide, Haval Qahraman, is passionate about his country and all the wonderful things it has to offer. I was welcomed into his house and invited to learn to cook dolma with his family. In one small, picturesque village, I was invited to dance with a group of young Kurdish people. They happily shared their delicious lunch with me with open hearts. We all became friends on social media and I know that these friendships — despite the language barrier — will stand the test of time.Their hospitality is both generous and extravagant. You will never go hungry in this corner of the world.
My favourite travel quote is this one by Mark Twain:
‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I don’t know when I will return there but I do know that I will. Because a little piece of my heart has been left in Iraqi Kurdistan.
And now my friends say…
“Wow! who’d have thought Iraqi Kurdistan was so beautiful?”
“Why did you decide to go there? It looked amazing.”
And my favourite…
“If you go again, let me know and I’ll come with you!”
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