Blogging from IraqFriday, 7 April 2006
Blogging Across Iraq
I’m in Iraq. No, this is not some sort of ‘dangerous places’ mission, the south and centre of the country may be war zones but the north, the Kurdistan region of Iraq is, so I’m told, quite peaceful. Not at all like the rest of the country. The first couple of days of my visit to Iraq follow …
04 April 2006
Tomorrow I hope to cross the border into Iraq
I’m on my way to the WTT (World Tourism & Travel) conference in Washington DC. A year ago when I went to Macau to speak at the PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association) conference I travelled by land from Singapore, via Macau to Shanghai.
What better way to travel to a conference which will be opened by George ‘Axis of Evil’ Bush than to drop in on two of the axis members en route?
So tonight I’m in Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey and tomorrow morning at 7 am I set off for the Iraq border. Crossing into Iraq shouldn’t be any problem, officially you need a visa, but it appears that it isn’t necessary if you come in across the Kurdistan border. What may be more of a problem will be getting into Iran. Recently the Iranians decided that Australians didn’t need a visa for stays of up to a week. I’m only planning to be in Iran for a day or two, but I’m not sure whether this news has percolated down to the Iraq-Iran border.
Diyarbakir is not likely to hit my favourite towns list quite apart from the clashes between the local Kurdish population and Turkish security forces just a few days ago. The town has an impressive 6km round city wall dating from the Byzantine era, 1500 years ago, but the wall itself is dark and foreboding and everything I’ve seen of the city is either modern and tatty or old and decrepit. Not that I’ve seen much, I arrived in town from Istanbul just before dusk and the weather has gone from overcast and threatening to drizzling to bucketing down. Of course I’m also pretty jet lagged having flown to Istanbul from Singapore overnight.
05 April 2006
Into Iraq, first night in Dohuk
I’d just got to sleep last night when the front desk phoned me and asked me to come downstairs to meet my driver. I’d lined him up at the airport when I arrived but turns out he’s handed the job on to someone else, Husni Tutug.
Next morning we depart at 7 am and travel via Mardin, Midyat (with an impressive collection of Syrian churches) and a pause to look at the Morgabriel Monastery before stopping for lunch at Silopi, just before the border. For 8-solid-km before Silopi a nose-to-tail line up of trucks waits to cross the border into Iraq. There’s some paperwork to complete in Silopi which I wouldn’t have known about, but I’ve been wondering why it’s necessary to take a driver right across the border, rather than just get dropped at the border. I’m about to find out.
Syria’s right across the river from the road for the next few km but the truck line continues for another 10km and now it’s often 2, 3 or even 4 trucks wide. There must be thousands of them. And the border is chaotic, a muddy mess and it’s raining solidly again. Husni seems to know exactly which door to head for, which window to bang on, which queue to barge to the front of and exactly whom to bribe, I spot him slipping a note into the passport before he hands it over to one official.
Finally we’re out of Turkey and into Iraq and it’s like a doorway to heaven, suddenly I’m sitting in a clean, dry, mud-free waiting room being served glasses of tea while we wait for the passports to be processed – Husni’s too, he has to exit Turkey, enter Iraq and then repeat the process in the opposite direction to get me through. The officials decide to put me through hoops, however, and I have to spend 20 minutes explaining why I want to visit Iraq and what I do for a living. Finally they relent, hand my passport over and welcome me to Iraq. I’ve already been welcomed by half a dozen peshmerga soldiers, photographed with two of them and had a chat in French with one.
I’m dropped in a car park, over two hours after we arrived at the border, and take a taxi to Zahko to look at the town’s ancient bridge before continuing on to Dohuk for the night.
I take an instant liking to Dohuk, it’s bright, energetic, crowded and has lots of fruit juice stands. The Sulav Hotel might be one of the biggest (and most expensive) in town, my room is costing US$36 for the night.
06 April 2006
Dohuk to Arbil
It’s still raining when I get up and as I leave Dohuk it starts to bucket down again, a condition which continues all the way north to Amadiya which I was expecting to have hints of a Kurdish mountain escape but, in the rain, it turns out to be simply a miserable dump.
Perhaps it all looks better when the sun’s shining and indeed, as I head south again, glimpses of snow-dusted peaks appear. Before long the sun is shining and everything looks much better.
Travelling east towards Arbil seems to require lots of diversions, presumably to avoid approaching too close to Mosul. There’s lots of security but it seems to concentrate on checking each vehicle’s inhabitants, presumably Arab passengers get more than a cursory glance. Only once today (and once yesterday) do I have to produce my passport and explain what-the-hell I am doing in Iraq. Along the way we stop for a hearty roadside lunch (the Kurds seem to like to eat well) and taking some photographs of the restaurant and staff delights everybody.
Arbil is a delight as well, I’d always thought that Damascus was the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city but Arbil (Hawler or Hewler in Kurdish) disputes that claim. The modern city crowds around the ancient citadel and inside I discover a superb recently opened textile museum run by Lolan Mustefa, who is a mine of information on Arbil and the surrounding region. It seems ridiculous but I’m really enjoying Iraq.
07 April 2006
Arbil to Suleimani
Funny how things always look darker at night. I woke up in the middle of the night worried about how the crossing to Iran might go and that unease coloured the rest of the day. Before departing Arbil I wasted some time tracking down the small, rather dusty and forgotten archaeological museum. Findi
ng things which nobody seems to know about and with language difficulties to cope with is never easy.
The drive to Suleimani was fast and fraught and even featured a brief dip into Kirkuk, a town I thought we would try to avoid. Rereading my information it seems the northern fringe of the town is under Kurdish control but the driver seemed keen to linger as little as possible.
Suleimani featured another museum-location operation and by the time I found it the doors were shut for the day. Wandered the park, the market, the mosque and shopping area before returning to the Ashti Hotel, which is definitely not up to the high standards of Dohuk and Arbil.
8 April 2006
Suleimani to Arbil
Again I wake up in the middle of the night running through the logistics of this trip. I’ve got to get to Tabriz in Iran by tomorrow night in order to fly out the next morning to Istanbul and on to the USA. It looks like the drive from Arbil to the Iran border could take 4 or 5 hours. Add a similar time from the border to Tabriz and it’s going to be a push to get it done in one day, especially if there are any delays at the border. And what if I can’t get across the border at all, that’s going to be a huge hassle?
So after a look around the surprisingly good museum (it didn’t get trashed in the post-invasion chaos, like the Baghdad museum) I decide to head straight for the border. Which still means going via Arbil and, once again, hitting the edge of dicey Kirkuk.
Beyond Arbil the road starts to climb and then runs through the spectacular Rowanduz Gorge along the ‘Hamilton Road’. This fine piece of British colonial road building was managed by Alexander Hamilton, a young New Zealand born engineer, between 1928 and 1932. He wrote a book about it, Road Through Kurdistan, which after nearly half a century out of print was reprinted recently and I’m reading it at the moment.
Beyond the gorge the road continues to climb and I begin to get more concerned about the crossing. This is nothing like the busy crossing I’ve made from Turkey, it’s a very remote region surrounded by snow-covered peaks and little else. If the border’s closed for the evening, it’s now late afternoon, what am I going to do until morning? Stand in the rain? Yes, the rain has started again. Finally we arrive at the Kurdistan border control and my worst fears are realized, I’m not sure what it is that I’m told at great length but the general message is I’m not going to get into Iran, perhaps the border is closed to anybody who is not Iraqi or Iranian?
What a drag, here I am right at the border, about the same distance from Tabriz as Arbil but that’s where I’m heading back to. Still the sun breaks through to provide a nice clouds-over-the-snow sunset as we hurtle back downhill. It’s a scary ride, a 9 hour round trip when I arrive at my hotel. There are flights out of Arbil, I’d checked that possibility before I left, but tomorrow the only option is to Beirut. Looks like the best bet is to retrace my steps back to Diyarbakir in Turkey, where I started my Kurdistan foray. But are there flights tomorrow and can I get there in time to fly to Istanbul to pick up my flight to the USA the next morning? I dump my bag in the Arbil Tower Hotel, race around to the internet café next door, where I’m told they close in 5 minutes. Which, it turns out, is plenty of time to get on to the Turkish Airlines website and check their flight schedules. Isn’t the world wide web wonderful, even in Iraq it works? If there’s a seat available and if I can get across the border fairly quickly I should make it.
9 April 2006
Arbil to Diyarbakir to Istanbul
Arvan doesn’t turn up at 530 am. Which is probably just as well, the first hint of dawn only shows after 6 am, when he does arrive, and then there are thick patches of fog to slow us. Plus we get lost once, just after I thought we were heading in to the Mosul no-go-zone, and for awhile we seem to be travelling in totally the wrong direction. Twice last night on the return trip from the Iran border he took wrong turns as well, once my GPS squawked ‘no’ and once I realized he’d gone wrong.
Arrive at the border just after 10 and I’m immediately pounced on by a gang of Turkish drivers keen to take me to somewhere, anywhere in Turkey. I quickly negotiate a price with one dapper gentleman and it’s less than half what I paid for the same trip heading to Iraq. Then it’s the excruciating departure procedures including a fine-tooth-comb search of the car for smuggled cigarettes. Some vehicles seem to spew cigarettes out of every cavity but the three cartons my driver has are not found. In my travel pack. Altogether the paperwork, rubber stamps, racing from office to office, standing in line and car searching (out of Kurdistan as well as in to Turkey) consumes almost three hours.
The line of trucks waiting to cross the border seems even longer than at the beginning of the week, it’s well over 20km long.
Then we’re on the road and what a beautiful road it is. The sun is shining, the countryside look beautiful, later in the trip the snow capped mountains spread right across the frame, the town of Mardin looks like a postcard (wish I had time to stop for a day or two) and we even pause for an excellent lunch which also includes a car wash and shoe shines for both of us. Arrive at the airport at 4.45 for the 5.45 Turkish Airlines flight but it’s full. Diyarbakir’s modern little airport (excellent wifi reception throughout) has one curious omission – there is no departure or arrival board anywhere so the only way you can find out if any of the four airlines represented (Pegasus, Sun Express and Onur Air as well as THY) have flights and when is to ask at each desk.
There are some no shows so I get the last seat on the flight but there’s one final amusement. Out on the tarmac we have to identify our bags before they’re loaded on board and mine isn’t there. Some more last minute bags arrive, but mine still isn’t there. Finally somebody looks at my baggage tag and boarding pass and points out that I’m standing beside the wrong aircraft. The Airbus over there – waiting for one final passenger and with a lonely blue travel pack sitting beside it – is where I should be.