Sunday, November 14, 2010

Iraq, part IV: Erbil, Iraq

Monday, October 22: Erbil, "Old-school" Iraq
As we walked out of the hotel with our bags, a man immediately waved us over to the garage.  Talk about service.  So to cut costs, we arranged to ride to Erbil in a taxi with one other person.  As you can see below, there are two routes to Erbil from Dohuk: the faster way being through Mosul and the "scenic" route ventures through the middle-of-nowhere.
Mosul competes with Baghdad and, at times, Kirkuk for most dangerous city in Iraq.  As we awaited departure, Steve and Bobby looked half-asleep on the bench.    

Suddenly, sitting upright in my chair, I quickly asked, "Hey, y'all told 'em we don't want to go through Mosul, right?"

Both Bobby & Steve brushed me off, "Yea, I'm sure they know.  Don't worry about it."

"But we should tell them, right?  It'd only take a couple seconds.  Maybe I'll just go ask."  Instead, I sat there. The non-English-speaking cab driver was all the way in the other room, at least 40 feet away.  Asking was just too much trouble, and my true purpose for asking Bobby & Steve was to pressure them into asking. 

"Do whatever you feel you need to do.  It's going to be fine."  They didn't take my hint.

Once we climbed in the cab, the driver assured us that we would not be traveling through Mosul.  Nonetheless, this small interaction was actually quite embarrassing.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, people overact when traveling.  Nothing is as difficult or as dangerous as 'they' say.  This was my first of two brief moments of weakness (the second didn't even occur in Iraq...we'll get there eventually).  

Several hours later we arrived in Erbil...or whatever it's called.  Because cultures may refer to by different names and because most or all vowels in the Arabic language are "oral," i.e. not in the alphabet, Erbil has numerous names: Erbil, Arbil, Irbil, Arbilum, Hawler (Kurdish), Hawlêr, etc. etc.  Regardless of its spelling, Erbil is the capital of and largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The city of Erbil surrounds the Citadel
Erbil might not be much to look at, but it is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world.  There is evidence that life in this city dates back 10,000 years, and the first written record of the city dates back to 2000 BC.  Throughout the city's history, power has changed hands numerous times.  Reading about it's history was analogous to reading about the history of my "homeland," Albania:  Everyone has conquered it at some point or another.  In Erbil, this includes the Akkadians, Sumerians, Greeks, Ottomans, and British. 

In the mid-1990s, the city was caught in the middle of a Iraqi Kurdish Civil War between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two major political parties.  These parties signed a peace treaty  in 1998, and violence has been sparse since.  Other than a suicide bombing in 2004 or 2005, I don't think there have been any recent terrorist attacks. 

Supposedly, Erbil is undergoing an economic boom at the moment. The infrastructure was much more sound than in Dohuk, and both men and women were dressed more modernly. There wasn't a "clash" between new and old, per se; however, there was no fluid transition between the different sections.
After arriving in Erbil, we dropped off our bags and explored the oldest bazaar in the world...which pretty much looked like a bazaar:
After exploring the city for the day, we decided to hit up a non-local eatery for a change.  We ended up in the Christian area, which greatly differed from the other parts of Erbil: (a) while walking to the restaurant, we passed a church with an armed guard standing outside, (b) alcohol was prominently displayed on kiosk shelves, (c) at the restaurant, women were working as waitresses.  Furthermore, we assumed that this area was also home to NGO workers and foreign service members, as prices were greatly increased and we heard the English language coming from two burly men and an old guy that looked like a missionary at tables in the restaurant.  

Tuesday, October 23: Erbil by day, [detour,] & Sulaymaniyah in the evening
On Monday, we decided to see the major sights in Erbil and move on to Sulaymaniyah today.  Erbil is nice, but it isn't overflowing with activities and attractions.

First stop on the list was the Citadel, which is claimed to be the oldest, continually inhabited place in the world.   Currently, the Citadel is almost vacant.  To maintain its "old" title, one family resides within the walls of the town.
Citadel in the "olden days"
Since tourism isn't a huge industry in Iraq, the officials are fairly lax with sightseeing policies.  We strolled around the inside of the town, giving ourselves the grand tour.  As we were exiting, our eyes fell upon a familiar face.  The Canadian who we met in Mardin, Turkey, had turned to exit, as well.  Sean (Canadian) joined Bobby, Steve, and I for a walk to visit a minaret and to exchange stories.  Sean was in his late-20's and awhile back, he decided to quit his job to travel.  Best line of the day goes to Sean, "Well, it turns out that I'm a lot better at traveling than I am at working."

So the minaret was not noteworthy. We parted ways with Sean, and decided to hit the road for Sulaymaniyah (hereinafter, "Sulay")(ha). We climbed in the cab, and instructed the cab driver to take us to the closest garage.  En route, we mentioned to the driver that we would be going to Sulay.  He then negotiated a price to take us to the city rather than using the garage-y services.
As you can see, I was logged into Skype, pretending to look over Anti-trust law, and scrolling through pictures from Erbil while writing this (and too lazy at the moment to re-copy, paste, crop, upload).  As you can also see, the road to Sulay cuts through Kirkuk, one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq.

Well, en route, we either (1) figured that the taxi driver would avoid Kirkuk, or (2) assumed that since the Iraqi Kurdistan military controlled the main road, we would be safe.  Actually..."we" didn't think about anything. I had no idea that driving through Kirkuk was a possibility.

Essentially, the main issue about Kirkuk is that it lies between Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.  About the city:
  • Travel guide: "The oil-rich city of Kirkuk is a kaliedoscope of ethnic groups, and a tinderbox waiting to explode.  Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen all lay claim to Kirkuk.  Kurds consider it part of their historical homeland and are seeking to make it the capital of [Iraqi Kurdistan].  Arabs and most Turkomans want the city and its oil wealth to remain under central government control...Apart from oil, Kirkuk has little to offer.  Bombings and shooting are common, giving this dismal city a feeling of the old 'Wild West'."
  • Recent news: Iraq violence kills nine & US presence remains divided in Kirkuk
  • Apparently, to put it lightly, Americans aren't too welcome here.
Now I will present our visit through my eyes:
We pulled into this small, random, run-down city, and we immediately noticed that it smelt like oil -- which was interesting.  The main road was closed, so our cab driver took us through some neighborhoods.  He even stopped to ask for directions.  Since I was becoming rather bored with the detours, I thought it might be a good idea to take pictures.  I rolled down my window completely and started snapping.  

"What are you taking pictures of?" Bobby crinkled his head and jeered.  He obviously has more experience than me.  

"I have no idea.  It seemed like a good idea," I innocently responded.

Bobby laughed, "Ha, you think you would take pictures of the typical Iraqi city?"

We managed to find the main road.  As we pulled out of the city, Bobby turned to take a picture.  I suspiciously looked at him, thinking to myself, "Well aren't we a little hypocritical right now."  Then, Bobby and Steve mentioned that we just spent 15 - 30 minutes in Kirkuk.  Woopsy!  It put my worry about Mosul into perspective.
My picture of Kirkuk.  Bobby was right...Why was I taking pictures?
We finally arrived in Sulay that evening.  We treated ourselves to a nice hotel outside of the city center, which ran us about $30/night.  My only issue with the hotel was that it had a swimming pool... only for men.  The hotel, however, was near heaven-on-Earth: a shisha bar-coffee shop-internet cafe mix called Cafe Amsterdam, with pillows and couches arranged on the floor.

Because we were eating the local cuisine 2 times per day every day, we attempted to find another restaurant. Tonight, it was Chinese:
It was a quaint little restaurant, having walls decorated with signs banning AK-47's and machetes.  We walked upstairs to the restaurant, sat down, and glanced around the empty dining area.  Several single men were scattered about, but we were the only ones who would be engaging in the dining experience.  The family owners of the restaurant were extremely friendly and seemed to enjoy speaking with our group.  The primary owner, an older Chinese lady, even revealed much of her life story to Bobby.  Midway through the dinner, music started blaring and a young woman, dressed in a bedazzled top & showing cleavage, strutted onto a corner stage to start singing for 15 minutes.  When thinking about it after we left, it was decided that we ate dinner at the Iraqi Kurdistan equivalent of a strip club.

Since we were to explore Sulay the following day, we grabbed a bottle of wine from a kiosk, engaged in our nightly talk sessions, and hit the hay.

Next posts contain my favorite days of the trip.  Stay tuned!

Closing thought: When traveling, there is no need for that fancy-schmancy stuff (e.g. Steve told a story about a guy that brought water purification tablets with him...What a loser).  But always remember to bring Nescafe packets. Coffee addiction woes.


  1. I know I've said it before, but it bears repeating - great use of GoogleMaps screen shots for visual aids, great travel narrative, great blog post.

  2. More maps are coming, just for you Dar'!

  3. Very nice piece, Jennifer.. I was there last summer, but you did a better job than I- I could travel around Kurdistan as you you did.

  4. Thank you! I appreciate you taking the time to scroll through the blog post. If you have anything to add, please do so.

  5. I am planning to travel to IRBIL, but I was a bit worried how it would be.... but it seems easy and safe!!!

  6. First, the city is nice, and if you want to visit there, I would not let safety deter you. If you have any questions, please let me know!

    Also, if you're implying that the city is spelled "Irbil" rather than the other spellings, could you provide a website for verification? Most resources I viewed spell it with an "E," and therefore, I stuck with that spelling.

  7. hey , its originally should be you call this city ( HAWLER ) than Erbil or Irbil , because the Erbil its arabic word and Hawler its kurdish word ok , so this city is oldest city in the world

  8. hi,,, just a quick question, is it safe to work in that city, did u find any foreigners like, indians, filipino, thai or indonesians,

    thank you very much in advance

  9. hi, im sorry to bother u, but i think u can help me giving an idea bout that city, as i have plans to go to iraq, but quit scared bout the safety,

    it would be very helpful if can tell me something about the situation,

    thank u in advance!

  10. 1. Unfortunately, I have no idea how safe it is to work in the city. Your guess is as good as mine. My best advice would be to visit and scope it out before you make any permanent moves. We once spoke with several Chinese who owned a restaurant, but that was about it.

    2. No worries, you're not bothering me! I always felt pretty safe in northern Iraq; however, the situation may change, and different people have different experiences. If you have any specific questions, don't hesitiate to shoot me an e-mail (see "Willkommen" for the address).

  11. Great Read! I've just been offered a job working for an oil and gas company in Erbil, but Im a bit skeptical and semi-nervous in regards to safety..

  12. Hi jennifer, nice 2 knw u, i just have 1 question 4 you
    i just got offer from one of new 5 star hotel in Erbil Kurdistan but i have no idea at all how is the situation and condition over there, i bit scare and worry but they gave me nice packege and seems its nice chance for me

    pls give me some suggestion

    thx a lot in advance jenns...

  13. Thank you for your comments. Unfortunately, I cannot give you definitive advice; however, I will try to point you in the right direction.

    First, my experience in Dohuk may or may not be representative of all Erbil visitors' experiences. Secondly, there may be a difference between the experiences of tourists and residents. Thirdly, the political situation in Iraq will likely being changing in the near future. If you have the time/money, I'd suggest a visit before you make any permanent decisions.

    The only thing I can tell you is that I felt safe in Erbil, the people were very friendly & accommodating, and my travel partners & I enjoyed the visit. I wish I could be of more help. If you have any other questions, either comment or shoot me an e-mail! Good luck!

  14. Dear Jennifer,

    Thx a lot 4 ur information,its really help me. i wish i'd to come there first before i move as a residents, but they gave me such a short time from my interview by phone call and arranged my visa in within a week.

    one more question jens, is there any mall or shopping centre or beach 4 tourist in erbil? coz when i browse in the internet it seems like small and old city, and only small shop like a grocery showing in the picture.

    Many thanks again...

  15. There is [at least] one huge mall; however, I'm pretty sure there are no beaches. Today, I will try to upload some Erbil pictures to the "Misc. pictures" page. It might give you a better idea of the city.

  16. thx a lot for ur all information jens.

    last question, is kurdistan (erbil)pretty close wt turkey ? and do u've any idea that how close they are ?

    i will wait for your browse erbil picture...

  17. I'd guess 3-5 hours from Silopi, Turkey:

    Pictures are up.

  18. hi jenns, i just wanna asked u from our last chat a few days ago, could u tell me how is the weather in erbil and around there? cold or hot or just normal temperature?

    thx jens

  19. Hot summer, mild winter is my best guess. Anyone else is free to elaborate.

  20. Please let me know if there are indian schools and indian families living in erbil

  21. I have no idea. I was there for 6 days.

  22. Came across this blog and appreciate your honesty. I (British) currently live in Erbil and wanted to add that is as safe here as any other city I have lived in and has a growing expat community. There are a lot of Europeans, Americans, Filipino's etc and all seem to be happy. There are a number of bars, restaurants and once settled most enjoy a reasonable social life.
    There are a number of malls with more opening all the time and a few large supermarkets with carrefoure opening shortly.
    The temperature ranges from very hot in summer months(40+) to quite chilly in winter(-1or2).
    Hope this helps answer some of the above questions.

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