Going to Iraq is not an easy decision to make. There are a lot of pros and cons to weigh before you make your “final final” decision. Going to Baghdad and the rest of Arab Iraq is still a no go for tourists without official business. However, the northern semi autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has been pretty safe for the past few years and is generally considered to be a safe place. So I decided to fly Atlas Jet Airlines into the capital of Kurdistan, called Erbil. A funny thing happened in Iraq…it was really pretty nice and very pleasant. Now I am not saying it is the type of place you’re going to buy a vacation home but they allege they are trying to turn it into the next Dubai. They have a long way to go but they seem to be doing pretty well with what they’ve got to work with.
When I arrived at the brand spanking new Erbil International Airport (literally 2 weeks open), I really didn’t know what to expect. I was in Iraq after all and that’s when it kind of hits you where you are after the “OK, now what” thought. The now what was to head to my hotel, the Erbil International Hotel, formerly a Sheraton and the bleeding heart of Erbil’s bustling and shady International business scene (below).
The fortified with bomb walls (below-they’re all painted) hotel has housed dignitaries from all over the world including many from the US including John McCain, Christopher Hill and several others. When I was there, it was filled with people from several nations, all well dressed and carrying tons of cash…US dollars. In fact, I saw one guy with a wad of cash that must’ve been $30,000 in crisp brand new bills. I couldn’t help but stare as he counted out several thousand to pay for his room or whatever shady business he was doing. But this is the Middle East; Iraq specifically, and these things happen.
The hotel has 6 restaurants, two swimming pools, a Turkish bath, massage room, gym and a rooftop restaurant that has the best views of Erbil (full moon at night below) and decent food to match. The lounge act has a lot of work to do but was entertaining nonetheless belting out soft 80’s hits while the Arab businessmen smoke and drink before them.
The hotel is located about a 15 minute walk from the main town square, mosque and the top sight, the citadel. The citadel looms over the city and houses the most visited places in town including the Kurdish textile museum, where I saw a top US dignitary although I didn’t recognize him because by the time I realized what was going on, the group had walked out. There are pictures on the wall of all sorts of world diplomats visiting this museum and posing for photos. The museum however, sucks…in my opinion that is, but I don’t care for textiles much! It also has that creepy statue right outside the walls of the citadel…he was a 12th century historian apparently.
The citadel is also where I saw many US military personnel and contractors taking in the sights or at least getting out of their compounds. They were very interesting to talk to and I ran into some hilarious contractors from Alabama who were great to talk college football with. I must admit the accent was tough for me to understand a lot of what they said, but the color they used when talking made up for it! I love the deep south…and college football for that matter!
The best thing about Erbil is the fountain rich main square (above and below). It’s the gathering place of local men after a day spent doing whatever it is that they do aside from sitting around drinking tea, smoking and chatting. It is always fun to people watch and see their customs and the way they dress and handle themselves. Not to mention they all stare at you, probably thinking what the hell is he doing here!
The streets of Erbil are very clean and well kept. The roads are well paved and there is good infrastructure with a lot of potential. When you leave from the airport it is very time consuming getting in and out of with street blocks everywhere and you get searched 3 times aside from changing vehicles twice. It’s a very strange place to be and I am really not sure what to make of it.
It’s an odd feeling at first, like I had in North Korea, Haiti or Iran but you get used to the nice people very quick in Erbil and once you get over the fact you’re only 20 miles from Mosul, the most dangerous city in Iraq, you relax and realize you’re safe and realize it’s not much different than other places in the region.
I am really glad I went to Kurdistan and had no issues at all and hope to someday get to Baghdad and Babylon, but the visa process and safety issue are too foreboding to deal with at this point. Erbil is one of those places in the world where you’re not really sure what to make of it. However, it was really clean, nice and I felt very safe and accommodated the whole time walking the city without any security or escort. The hotel is a good reprieve as well and I recommend staying there although it isn’t cheap but peace of mind is worth a lot!
I am in Dubai now after a lot of flying, including a stop in Saudi Arabia. I am heading out to see what’s changed here since I was last here 2.5 years ago and head to Kabul, Afghanistan tomorrow then Karachi, Pakistan the following day. I am also trying to figure out what the hell I am going to do with an week in the middle of my trip that opened up because the British Indian Ocean Territory expedition was cancelled. I will have more about this excessively frustrating and costly debacle as the details unfold and we see how it plays out. Should be exciting, stay tuned!
October 25, 2010 by 16 Comments