Visiting Kurdistan

This item appears on page 12 of the September 2011 issue.
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The most memorable aspects of my journey with my husband through Kurdistan in the first two weeks of May ’11 are the speed-bump-filled roads and the incredible number of security stops. However, despite the annoyance of the constant braking and fishing for passports to show security guards before and after every city, town, village, hamlet and lemonade stand, it was well worth the effort in order to enjoy the wonderful scenery and culture presented by this rarely visited area of northern Iraq.

Did we feel safe there? Probably more so than at home. The people appeared prosperous, peaceful and friendly, constantly asking to have their pictures taken with us.

One day when we were visiting the ancient Shanidar Cave, where a number of Neanderthal skeletons were discovered, a busload of college students stopped us so many times for pictures that we began to wonder if we would be able to make the 300-stair climb to visit this historic site. Of course, we did, and upon our return to the parking lot the young folks invited us to join in a group dance. We declined, taking their pictures instead, the girls dressed in colorful, floor-length gowns.

We enjoyed many other sights, including a Zoroastrian fire temple (180 difficult stairs); ruins of old churches; temples; mosques, and the Erbil Citadel, dating back some 6,000 years.

From Sulaimaniya, second in size to the Kurdistan capital of Erbil, we took an excursion to Halabja to visit its monument dedicated to the victims of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical attack on the town. Stylized hands atop this edifice reach upward in a plea for peace and tolerance. The displays inside are reminiscent of those in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan.

We also visited the amazingly restored, fourth-century St. Matthew’s Monastery, which, while technically outside of Kurdistan, is maintained by the Kurdish Regional Government from a security standpoint.

Reportedly, Kurdistan currently has only about 500 American tourists visiting each year, and we did meet a few in the four- and five-star hotels in which we stayed. Many people who live and work in the Middle East go there for vacation, as the scenery of mountains, valleys and streams is awesome, and the climate is lovely in the mountain areas.

In restaurants, we were amazed at the sizes of the portions served. We never finished even half of anything. We found the menus to be varied and inclusive of international as well as local cuisine.

Our guide took us to the best restaurants in every town. Our favorite was Bakery And More in Erbil. It featured divine pastries, and I took home a kilo of their yummy cookies. My husband enjoyed their soups and sandwiches. Pizza and local specialties also were available.

Additionally, the barbecue grill outside our hotel, Erbil lnternational (known locally also as “The Sheraton”), seemed very popular with locals as well as visitors. Incidentally, this was the only hotel that had an inside, heated swimming pool, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and a shop in the lobby had some postcards, the only ones I saw in all of Kurdistan.

Our second-favorite restaurant on this trip was Roma, an Italian place in Sulaimaniya that was always crowded, as it featured such well-prepared food.

Credit cards were useless in Kurdistan, but our expenses were well covered in the price of the tour and we didn’t find ANY souvenirs to buy, so the only additional money we needed was for the tip to our guide.

I arranged our tour on the Internet with Dr. Douglas Layton, who, together with Col. Harry Schute (Ret.), owns The Other Iraq Tours (Laguna Niguel, CA; 619/519-2094). They organize both independent and group tours.

Our 10-day “Road Through Kurdistan” tour cost about $4,000 each, which had to be paid via wire transfer. We paid an additional $1,600 each for our flight with Royal Jordanian Airlines, which I booked through Vayama.

The tour price included all guide and vehicle expenses as well as all accommodation, food and entry fees. In the Kurdistan region, there is no visa required for stays of 10 days or fewer for citizens of the US, Canada, the EU, Japan and Australia.

As the roads — full of hairpin turns and those constant speed bumps — are difficult to navigate, don’t even think about renting a car on your own. But do go!

ELEANOR MAYO
Dallas, TX

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

The most memorable aspects of my journey with my husband through Kurdistan in the first two weeks of May ’11 are the speed-bump-filled roads and the incredible number of security stops. However, despite the annoyance of the constant braking and fishing for passports to show security guards before and after every city, town, village, hamlet and lemonade stand, it was well worth the effort in order to enjoy the wonderful scenery and culture presented by this rarely visited area of northern Iraq.

Did we feel safe there? Probably more so than at home. The people appeared prosperous, peaceful and friendly, constantly asking to have their pictures taken with us.

One day when we were visiting the ancient Shanidar Cave, where a number of Neanderthal skeletons were discovered, a busload of college students stopped us so many times for pictures that we began to wonder if we would be able to make the 300-stair climb to visit this historic site. Of course, we did, and upon our return to the parking lot the young folks invited us to join in a group dance. We declined, taking their pictures instead, the girls dressed in colorful, floor-length gowns.

We enjoyed many other sights, including a Zoroastrian fire temple (180 difficult stairs); ruins of old churches; temples; mosques, and the Erbil Citadel, dating back some 6,000 years.

From Sulaimaniya, second in size to the Kurdistan capital of Erbil, we took an excursion to Halabja to visit its monument dedicated to the victims of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical attack on the town. Stylized hands atop this edifice reach upward in a plea for peace and tolerance. The displays inside are reminiscent of those in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan.

We also visited the amazingly restored, fourth-century St. Matthew’s Monastery, which, while technically outside of Kurdistan, is maintained by the Kurdish Regional Government from a security standpoint.

Reportedly, Kurdistan currently has only about 500 American tourists visiting each year, and we did meet a few in the four- and five-star hotels in which we stayed. Many people who live and work in the Middle East go there for vacation, as the scenery of mountains, valleys and streams is awesome, and the climate is lovely in the mountain areas.

In restaurants, we were amazed at the sizes of the portions served. We never finished even half of anything. We found the menus to be varied and inclusive of international as well as local cuisine.

Our guide took us to the best restaurants in every town. Our favorite was Bakery And More in Erbil. It featured divine pastries, and I took home a kilo of their yummy cookies. My husband enjoyed their soups and sandwiches. Pizza and local specialties also were available.

Additionally, the barbecue grill outside our hotel, Erbil lnternational (known locally also as “The Sheraton”), seemed very popular with locals as well as visitors. Incidentally, this was the only hotel that had an inside, heated swimming pool, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and a shop in the lobby had some postcards, the only ones I saw in all of Kurdistan.

Our second-favorite restaurant on this trip was Roma, an Italian place in Sulaimaniya that was always crowded, as it featured such well-prepared food.

Credit cards were useless in Kurdistan, but our expenses were well covered in the price of the tour and we didn’t find ANY souvenirs to buy, so the only additional money we needed was for the tip to our guide.

I arranged our tour on the Internet with Dr. Douglas Layton, who, together with Col. Harry Schute (Ret.), owns The Other Iraq Tours (Laguna Niguel, CA; 619/519-2094). They organize both independent and group tours.

Our 10-day “Road Through Kurdistan” tour cost about $4,000 each, which had to be paid via wire transfer. We paid an additional $1,600 each for our flight with Royal Jordanian Airlines, which I booked through Vayama.

The tour price included all guide and vehicle expenses as well as all accommodation, food and entry fees. In the Kurdistan region, there is no visa required for stays of 10 days or fewer for citizens of the US, Canada, the EU, Japan and Australia.

As the roads — full of hairpin turns and those constant speed bumps — are difficult to navigate, don’t even think about renting a car on your own. But do go!

ELEANOR MAYO
Dallas, TX