Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Iraq, Part III: Dohuk, Iraq

(Ok, so that was a LITTLE over-the-top, and we didn't quite go to India...but I couldn't resist)


Saturday, October 23. Operation: Cross the Border.
It was our sole mission to cross the Turkey-Iraqi border - via Silopi, Turkey - and find accommodation in Dohuk, Iraq. When rockin' up to the bus station in Mardin, we unexpectedly came across one other tourist, a Canadian (sans flag emblem stitched on his backpack), who was also heading to Silopi. While he was able to jump on the first bus, we waited for the second.
After a 3 hour bus ride, we arrived in Silopi to a place known as a garage, or pronounced as "garage-y" in Kurdish and Arabic, which is essentially a location for taxi drivers who offer long-distance services. At the garage-y in Silopi, the driver charged 50 USD to drive us to the border, handle all the paperwork required to obtain a 10-day Iraqi Kurdistan visa, and take us to the closest garage-y on the other side of the border.


The queue to enter Iraqi Kurdistan from Turkey was lengthy and unbelievably idle, making the alleged four hour wait time a reality. Travelers often exited their vehicles to make small talk with the others waiting to cross. The situation to the right of the leisure travelers' was worse: commercial trucks lined the streets for what seemed like miles. The truck drivers even rigged up chairs and flat surfaces to play cards in order to pass the time. After observing our surroundings, we prepared ourselves for a tediously long day. Suddenly, without instruction, our taxi driver sped to the front, cutting in front of many cars. When questioned by two or three others, our driver retorted, “Ameriki,” and gestured toward us. Inexplicably, most people accepted that as a justification for us "cutting in line". Instantly, however, one woman stormed up to our taxi, pointed a finger to Steve and I, and scolded, “Dirty! Dirty, American!” Guilt trip & nervous laughter followed.


After inadvertently maneuvering our way out of Turkey in 1/4 the expected time, our next task was crossing the Iraqi border. Before anyone enters Iraqi Kurdistan, his or her passport must be "processed" in a separate building. We strolled into a contemporary building with our fellow border-crossers, and our taxi driver disappeared with the passports to... help... "process"... them. In the meantime, we sat on leather couches, watched television, and were served chai tea.  Nicest border crossing ever.


While relaxing, an Iraqi man approached us, “You American?” (as if it weren't obvious). After responding in the affirmative, he explained how he worked with the U.S. Army in Mosul several years ago and how, when they parted ways, he left with “400 friends.” Needless to say, it was not the time nor the place where you would expect to have an "Awww" moment.


So aside from our taxi driver using us to cut in line, crossing the border was hassle-free.
Whenever you enter a new country, the wireless service texts you a welcome message.
It's one of my favorite things when traveling.  I desperately wanted
this text & was so stoked when we received it.
My immediate observation when arriving in Dohuk was the lack of infrastructure. Alternating between structurally sound and rickety, the buildings were loosely joined by electrical chords resembling old shoelaces. This, I'm assuming, was a cause of the mini-power outages. Several times throughout the day, a city in Iraq will undergo one of these outages lasting approx. 20 seconds - 2 minutes; however, they were more amusing than they were an inconvenience.  Overall, the city was fairly nice under the circumstances.
The nicer side of Dohuk.  Notably, the Iraqi Kurdistan symbol is displayed prominently on the mountain top.
Our first mission after arriving in Dohuk was to find food. We walked into a local, neon-colored diner where we received our first taste of the Iraqi dining experience. Upon sitting down, 3 bowls of soup, 3 salads, 3 bowls of rice, a pile of naan (bread), a bowl of vegetables, and 3 bottled waters were placed on the table. Ten minutes later, despite the fact we ate enough food to last for the week, the waiter asked whether we wanted to order chicken, lamb, or beef.

The waiters rolled us out of the diner, and to minimize the bloating effect, we strolled around town. It was immediately apparent that I was in the small minority as a female. At night on the streets of Dohuk, my best guess is that there was 1 girl for every 30 males; although, more women were out during the day. Of the women at any given time, approximately 25% to 33% looked “westernized,” meaning that their dress was similar to women’s dress in Germany or the States. The vast majority of women wore traditional or glam’d head coverings [though those in Dohuk were much more traditional than those in the cities to follow]. 

While there was an absence of women, there was a disproportionate amount of young men who... well, Bobby best described it: “All these guys look like they just walked out of a gay bar.” Tight-fitting, name-brand T’s and polo shirts were the norm, accompanied with dark or faded jeans, large belt buckles, and the latest Adidas sneakers. This fashion was juxtaposed by the traditional clothing worn by the older men: turbans or keffiyehs, brown loose-fitting pants, prayer beads, sandals, and dark-colored belts.

The final observation from our first night wandering the streets was that the "tables were turned."  When visiting a new city or country, you are obviously the one doing the sightseeing.  In Iraqi Kurdistan, while walking around town, we were the site.  People often stared at us. In no way was it malicious; rather, they were stares out of curiosity.  It's not like the people of Dohuk see a tourist everyday.

Sunday, October 21: Unexpected Sightseeing.
Our breakfast for each day of the trip was nearly the same: a free continental breakfast of bread, tea, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives, and cheese.  After eating and attempting to connect to the internet, we undertook the 60-120 minute journey to Amadiyah, Iraq via taxi.
Amadiyah in the news, circa 2007:
The road to Amadiyah winds through the rugged Kandil mountain range and among the small Kurdish villages scattered therein.  Characterized by its vastness rather than height, the range held a certain impenetrable quality.  The mountains seemed more like painted shadows in the distance.  Think Jim Carey as "Truman" in the movie, The Truman Show.  After some initial observations, I fell asleep for the remainder of the trip.  Some things will never change, such as my propensity for falling sleep while riding in cars.

Amadiyah is a small town with nice scenery, but it wasn't quite the "breathtakingly picturesque" and the "village in the clouds" that a travel article described it as.
Center of the breathtakingly picturesque city, decorated with the Kurdish flag

After looking around for several minutes, we decided to return to Dohuk.  As Steve whistled for the cab, a metal bar swooped down out-of-nowhere (i.e. the bar jutted out from the wall and Steve was looking in another direction) and nailed him in the head.  As we were tending to his wound, a local man - and one of the only people we met the entire trip who spoke fluent English - suggested that Steve receive stitches at the hospital... which happened to be located directly behind us.  The doctors and nurses, who also spoke fluent English, took Steve in for "treatment" immediately.  Their verdict was that Steve needed a tetanus shot.  So Bobby and I stood outside the room, holding back laughter and tears, envisioning Steve get a shot in the butt in Iraq.  We were disappointed to learn that tetanus shots were arm-shots.  Post-shot, we asked where to pay.  Their response? "It's free"...and it being free was not a result of us being tourists.

On the return trip to Dohuk, our cab driver pointed to an anomaly: a mansion sitting on the mountainside overlooking the Kurdish villages.  "Saddam house," he informed us. No, tours are not permitted.
He owned another one one up here:
My best guess is that Saddam had a small case of paranoia.  But then again, you'd want to keep an eye on the people you were killing.

After a long day of traveling and hospital visits, we grabbed food and headed to a shisha bar.  It was immediately apparent that I was the only girl, but no one seemed to mind.  This...  mentally unstable fella walked in several minutes after us, sat down next to me, and proceeded to talk incessantly for an hour. At one point, he wanted a picture with the American girl (me).  I obliged, he put his arm around me, and Steve snapped the picture. This is only notable because during the entire time in Iraq, he was the only person that touched me. Even on the crowded streets, men would never touch women.  Not even an inadvertent arm brush.

While the guy was talking and when he put his arm around me, everyone in the bar continually shot glances from the corner of their eye.  I even made eye contact with two of bar patrons.  It was my impression that as soon as we gave the head nod, and they would tell crazy guy to leave.  Fortunately, however, he left on his own accord.  Upon departure, he left Steve this cool bracelet.  Bobby was gypped. And he left me a used, dirty... tennis ball...  

Next post: On to Arbil aka Erbil aka Irbil aka Arbela aka Hawler

Final thoughts:
  • People in Iraqi Kurdistan generally think very highly of tourists, including Americans.
  • Traveling in Iraqi Kurdistan is a cinch
  • In two days, the Iraq flag was no where to be seen
EOBA:  Don't trust travel descriptions.  And don't give dirty tennis balls as gifts.  And if you're friend receives a cool gift, resist the urge to steal it from him in the middle of the night.

37 comments:

  1. really enjoyed this post. still doesn't seem real that you were visiting Iraq.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Agreed, excellent blog post - I love the visual aids and photos.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Danke, danke. The 'visual aids' serve a second purpose -- just another means of procrastination :).

    ReplyDelete
  4. So you came to Kurdistan, but you didn't saw the beauty of my country yet... if you decided to come back again you should go to (Rwandoz, Bekhal, Gali ali beg, Solav, Amedi and Hawraman) you must see those places.

    have a nice one.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I wish we could have seen the places you mentioned! And thank you for the tips! Unfortunately, we could only stay in the country for 7 days at the most. The reason is because the travel visas they issued were only good for 7 days. I hope to see the places you mentioned on a return trip! I've heard of Gali ali beg and heard it was great!

    ReplyDelete
  6. dear Jennifer
    my name is laween and aim from dohuk city. may I ask you something what did you exactly thought you would find in dohuk flying cows or flying dogs maybe, you say (In Iraqi Kurdistan, while walking around town, we were the site ).really why were you wearing like superman ,aim in Egypt now for studying and i have green eyes white skin blonde hair and everyone looks at me not because how handsome aim no because I don't look like them ,and the other thing you say (All these guys look like they just walked out of a gay bar.”)really cause I live in dohuk and maybe few of them look like that and unfortunately they thing that's fashion not gay, we may don't have Niagara falls or the grand canyon but that's okay with us. and piece of advice don't visit Kurdistan again cause all the places look the same and you wont like it.and if you wanted to come back my account number on facebook is
    (laween botany) i would be more than happy to help. and sorry for my english

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Laween,

    Thank you for your feedback. I would like to sincerely apologize if I offended you in any way. I would like to assure you that we were not in any way acting disrespectful. By nature, I am very sarcastic, but I do not mean it in a disrespectful way, what-so-ever.

    First, when I said that "we were the site," I meant that it was fairly apparent that not many Americans/New Zealand-ers/Malawians visit the country (not that there were no sites in Kurdistan). People obviously looked at us because we did not look like them.

    Secondly, fashion varies across regions, countries, and even cities. For example, people will often comment that Americans look like they just rolled out of bed. Our observation was not intended to be negative what-so-ever. In fact, the men's fashion in Iraq was much better than that in the US.

    Lastly, I really truly enjoyed the visit to Kurdistan. It was amazing, simply amazing. I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to have been able to visit. The people were the nicest, most genuine people I've ever met. The sites were amazing. I'm afraid that my sarcasm dominated the posts, and it was not clear how much I loved visiting your region.

    Please forgive me if I disrespected you in any way.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I am from Dohuk also, I just wanted to let you know, you are always welcome in Iraq, it is your second country, and we love foreigners. Iraq is a beauty, we have palms trees and rivers in the south, mountains and snow in the north, deserts and landscape in the west.

    I recommend you visit Baghdad and Babylon as-well.

    Welcome to Iraq dear.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hello My name is lawan.

    I am from Iraq. I would like you to know that we are very happy to see tourist in our country. After years of war and neglect, the tourist industry has truly thrived post war.

    I live in Baghdad, and I want you to know, that we as Iraqis love to see tourist as our country progresses for the good of the nation, and indeed we are heading that way.

    Iraq will become the center of tourist attraction in the near future, and I'm a delighted that you take part in spreading the message that Iraq is truly and nice place to visit.

    All the best.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Its nice to see some people actually find Iraq a more interesting place than just a war zone. :)
    I actually visited Kurdistan with my family this summer and must say things have changed ever since the last time I visited which was in 2006. We visited Duhok plenty of times, but stayed with our families in Zaxo, and Turkabari(Im not exactly sure how they spell that)
    Sounds like you had a great trip and experienced a lot of new things!
    Hope to see you back there again!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank you all for sharing your experiences and your comments! Much appreciated!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Dont visit babylon and baghdad thats the stupids thing i've ever heard if you visit there you'll get killed

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi Jennifer, Hope you read this in time.
    Myself my son and good friend are visiting Kurdistan in 2 weeks time, and although respecting the change in culture ( we are english) we want to get a real perspective on how to dress and be...??? thank you. we have enjoyed immenseley your blog :-)
    thanks chloe

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We wore "travel pants" and Tshirts. Id stay away from shorts (or showing your legs) and sleeveless shirts. I wore run-of-the-mill sneakers & nothing flashy. Only time I had to wear a head covering was in a madrasa; however, if you need one for any reason, you can buy one there inexpensively.

      As far as 'be'ing', just be respectful! If you don't know, ask. Smile a lot. Go w the flow :). Im sure you have it down!

      Delete
  14. Hello Jennifer,
    Like others I enjoyed your blog immensely and since you have provided me with more information on the area than any other site, I hope I also can ask for your advice. I have a friend who is now living in Dohuk; she is sick (an Iraqi woman) and it seems all of her family has deserted her. I am worried about her and I am really ready to go there and try to help. I don't like the idea of flying into Baghdad and then taking the bus through Mosul to get to her. So how crazy really would it be to fly to Turkey on my own and then do what you did and get myself to Dohuk? I would be planning to do this soon..
    I have not read the previous parts of your blog, so I will do that now to see where you flew in and how long it took you to get to the border. I would appreciate hearing what you think of doing this on my own..
    Thanks and I look forward to hearing your reply.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Jen, I am an American who worked for the Department of State in Iraq and I have been to Dohuk many times and have stayed there for days at a time. I don't know if you have seen the rest of Iraq particularly everything south of the Kurdistan boarder, well trust me it is complete shit and Dohuk, Irbil, Zawita, Ainkawa, are some of the most beautiful and safest places within Iraq. Try traveling around Baghdad on your own you wouldn't last a day. In Kurdistan an American can walk around in complete safety. Also trust me some of the most beautiful women come from Kurdistan. So before you nit pick Duhok try traveling around the rest of Iraq. I would vacation to Duhok and Did you visit Zawita? It totally reminds me of Sedona Az.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Never said I would travel to Baghdad... There's a reason we only stayed in Kurdistan. Also, I never said I disliked Dohuk.

      Delete
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  28. Hello Jennifer, I've lived in Duhok 30 years ago when we built the biggest dam in Duok. It was very interesting for me to read your blog. I lived there two years and I can say that Kurdistan is the best part of Iraq. People are very good and hospitable. Unfortunately the lifestyle remained at the level many years ago.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Thanks Jennifer for this realistic description of Duhok and area. I run a Canadian company and we would sincerely like to help this area, especially small isolated homes and small rural villages to stabilize their electricity supply. I know the Kurdish government is making great strides in upgrading the region's power supply with large wind and solar projects. This is great and we applaud this.

    We have a heart to help the more isolated regions and have developed complete solar and wind packages to provide supplement grid power for a continuous electricity when power from the grid goes off, or to supply electricity where a house is not connected to the grid. Our company is not trying to 'get rich' off the people but really want to make a difference in the lives of these nice sounding people. Our systems are simple to install and inexpensive. If anyone in the region is interested in these systems please contact me at dave@shawsonline.com .

    Again thank you Jennifer for a great blog describing the reality on the ground from a North American perspective.

    As it is likely I will be traveling there in the near future I would like to hear from frequent travelers the most painless way to get to Duhok (email above). I am 64 and don't relish long bus rides. Money is not the main concern, my butt, and sanity are.

    Thanks to all,

    Dave Shaw

    ReplyDelete
  30. Hi Jen

    Thanks for this awesome blog. You have pictured my country in a very realistic way. People in the western countries are totally unaware of the security condition in Kurdistan because all what people see is what is in the news, which is war and only war. If you come back please let me know.

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  33. Hi Jen, are there any place in Dohuk where people can chill out and have cold beer?

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