Explore's Product and Operations Director John Telfer is just back from a trip to Iraq where he checked out the places our new tour visits. He shares his experiences in the country, quashesd a few misconceptions and tells of a few surprises!
"Iraq - are you sure it is safe?"
Well that was the response I expected from my wife when I said I was heading to Iraq with three top-notch journalists to check out arrangements for our new tour. As it happened she said “you wouldn’t be going if you weren’t sure” to which I replied “of course not” (an apt response seeing as I am responsible for the safety and overall experience for our customers). And my God I was excited at the prospect, having travelled extensively in Kurdish areas of Eastern Turkey, Iran and Syria in the 80s and 90s.
So let’s get some facts straight. Iraqi Kurdistan is practically a country within a country. It shares none of the well-publicised issues of the rest of Iraq. Kurdish (not Arabic) is the primary language and the Kurds are ethnically different from the rest of Arab Iraq. They are the largest ethnic group not to have a nation of their own.
The number of European tourists was probably around 100 last year – but it does receive tourists from the south of the country to escape the chaos there – and also from Iran as Kurdistan is so relaxed socially – and you can get a drink. This is an opportunity to visit a country where tourism is in its infancy and to experience a nation which is literally rebuilding itself.
The highlight for me was the Kurds themselves - proud, unbowed and incredibly hospitable. Numerous examples could be cited - for example the time we went into a backstreet liver kebab shop for breakfast. At the end, the owner refused to take any payment from us saying that we were his guests. Going into a tea-shop was a warming experience with people eager to speak to foreigners – or taking a picnic in the countryside where all the locals go for a break from the city, and being invited to join their lunch, play football and dance to Kurdish music.
Even if the country was flat and brown, it would be a worthwhile destination if visiting solely for the welcome you receive. But it is not. Known as the Alps of the Middle East, it has a range of dramatic peaks towering over 3500m. One day we spent the morning on a snow field and the afternoon in a sandstorm in the lowlands. It has waterfalls which create oases of green and cool even in the heat of summer. The Mesopotamian plains extend to the horizon in the south; green in spring and burnt ochre in the summer – offering a stark beauty.
My liver kebab may sound a little daunting for veggies (as would the head and hoof restaurant), but rest assured, the cuisine is excellent even for vegans (there was one in our party). The Kurdish speciality is baked fish drizzled with pomegranate juice – and I love breakfasts when you see things that you don’t quite recognise – such as chick-pea soup – or spicy chick-pea paste in fresh pita bread.
If you are expecting ancient architecture you will be disappointed – much has been demolished by Saddam Hussein or built over. Erbil itself resembles a construction site in places, but it is still a pleasure to wander its backstreets, snack on peppered beans and pomegranate juice whilst listening to the call to prayer.
By contrast, Sulaymaniya looks far more permanent and indeed affluent, boasting an excellent bazaar as well as the former security centre (now a haunting museum). What you see today brings home the repercussions of the first Iran/Iraq war and the two subsequent Gulf wars. The monument to the chemical attacks at Halabja is one of the most disturbing I have ever been to; it is shockingly humanised as you are taken round by one of the survivors.
An eccentric aspect of the British traveller is the eye for the odd or the obscure. It could be the stuffed goat keeling over next to a full ashtray at a hotel entrance or a sign for the hopefully non-eponymously named Hotel Lavo. Then there was the truly surreal decoration of our hotel in Erbil – think Kurdish psychedelia meets Vegas.
Another eye-opener was our visit to the centre of the Yazidi religion in Lalesh – a combination of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Unlike Muslims they pray to the sun, unlike anyone else they abhor lettuce (Satan hid in a lettuce patch) or wearing dark blue – you are welcomed into their temple (which is a village at which you must take your shoes off). Shrines similar to the ones seen in Konya, Turkey are evident; spotless (literally) paths intertwine between picnic spots on roofs and rise along the valley sides – where you are immediately reminded of recent history when you see the “Danger – Mines” sign.
One of the journalists asked me what would be the main reasons behind people choosing this trip.
Was it because it was a place just opening up to western tourism? Was it an interest in a greater understanding of the Gulf conflict? Was it bragging rights (to put it crudely)? Was it a keen interest in the Kurds as a people and their new-found independence? Whatever the motivation, what I will remember vividly is the openness and friendliness of everyone I met – and the beauty of the scenery. And concerns about safety? As I expected, there were none.
Product & Operations Director