I hear Iraq is great this time of Year

I hear Iraq is great this time of Year

Telling my friends this phrase reminded me of Bad Idea Jeans…

Well, to be fair… I guess it is Kurdistan, but I was going to the Iraqi part of it. In case you don’t know much about this conflict, more can be read here, or the Kurdish-Turkish Conflict, or maybe just the overall conflict. You may also remember Saddam Hussein’s actions. Long and short, there is a very tragic recent history of this wonderful group of people. I have always heard amazing things about their hospitality and gentle nature.

Map showing the area known as Kurdistan
Map showing the area known as Kurdistan

As my time here in Saudi Arabia wanes, I am left with a lot of emotions. I am also left with a sizable amount of Qatar Airways QMiles. I had hoped to use them for my flights during my Tax Exclusion trip in December. But the more I tried to book using them, the more rejected I got. I had one final weekend, and I figured, “Why not use some miles and check out Erbil?” I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to join me. Strange, right? But after speaking with a friend of mine, I was given hope that I should take the risk and check out Iraq. Thanks for the push. I guess I was jealous of all my friends going to Chicago for the Parade.

I am normally an outspoken guy. I talk with my family several times a week. After hearing skepticism from my friends here, I decided that it might be best to keep this trip under wraps until I get back to the Kingdom. Seemed like the smart move. I didn’t want to worry them and get multiple comments trying to stop me from going. Eh whatever.

I booked my flight using miles. Sadly, there aren’t a lot of flight times offered into or out of Erbil, but I was going to be able to get a night and a morning in. For hotels, I used my Booking.com rewards. The hotel wasn’t the nicest, but it was in the Christian neighborhood, Anikawa: this meant, I was near the bars. So I guess that is good. I had found that there was a German restaurant and beer garden started by a German expat, Deutscher Hof International.

Arrival

My flight in was the most worried I was the whole trip. We got into Iraqi airspace, and that is when I realized we were circling Erbil several times. Most of the time, this action wouldn’t cause much unrest… but in this circumstance, you start to look at a map. Erbil airport is 47 miles from Mosul. I won’t dig into much detail, but you can read through the websites if you don’t know what Mosul is these days. Anyhow, with that kind of proximity, circling the airport did not seem like something I wanted to do. On the third go ’round, I was officially nervous. Thankfully, we finally landed. The airport wasn’t much to speak about, except apparently, it is home to one of the world’s longest runways. I quickly found out that Kurds do not like to be associated with Iraqis. There was even more hostility towards the whole situation that I experienced in Occupied Cyprus and Northern Ireland.

Arriving at immigration, there is no need for a visa. This is a loophole to get an Iraqi stamp in your passport. They didn’t even ask how long I would be there.

My passport's 'I' page sporting my India visa and my Iraq visa.
My passport’s ‘I’ page sporting my India visa and my Iraq visa.
Welcome to EBL
Welcome to EBL

Luckily, T-Mobile actually works in Iraq. So I did not need a SIM card. Then I saw an ATM, but I had been told bank cards didn’t work in Kurdistan because banks have some embargo with Iraqi banks. I have that Schwab account, so I figured I would give a quick whirl. Wouldn’t ya know, I got some Iraqi Dinars. Even though my hotel was a quick 5 minute drive, there is only one cab company allowed to pickup and drop off at the airport. This monopoly meant that the ride was $35. Awesome.

Walking into the Grand Palace, the front desk staff, asked me if I was checking in, then immediately said, “OK, Mr. Weichmann.” Great, I guess I was the only American checking in that evening. Between that and the man outside with the AK-47, I felt super secure. I was informed that I had been upgraded to the suite. So that is exciting. Turns out that the room was basically an older room with a sitting area and bedroom. I guess it is fine for an evening. The outlets were the 2-Circular peg, Euro style. I had expected it to be the 3 rectangular pegs like the rest of the Middle East, but no biggie. I have adapters.

Night Out

As I lay on my bed trying to relax a little, I received a message from my friend, Scott, asking me what I was doing that night. “Going to this German bar.” I replied inquisitively. Should I have added that I was in Iraq? He informed me that they were planning on going there too. I guess I had friends in Iraq this weekend. Who Knew, right? It’s a small world after all. I told them I would meet up for dinner at Apaya in like 30 minutes. It was only like 3 KM away, what could go wrong?

Let me tell you… SO MUCH COULD GO WRONG. Apparently, the taxi driver thought I was saying “airport” even though I showed him on a map, with Arabic translation. So we took off… As we neared the airport drive, I asked him what the heck he was doing. I showed him again “APAYA.” He confidently replied that he knew where I meant now… As we turned south (the opposite direction we needed to turn) I became curious again.

“We are going to A-PAY-A, right?”
“Yes, of course, Empire.”
“No, AH PAY AH”
“Empire?”
Showing him the phone again, “No… Mafi Empire… APAYA!”

Showing the map again. He had no clue where it was… I tried to use the map to direct us. But I found that the street layout, lighting situation and overall traffic was beyond my ability to navigate. Exhausted and frustrated, I jumped out of the car. Getting lost and having to wander through dark streets in a new city… in Iraq… no big deal, right? After the initial uncertainty, I found that the people on the street were actually quite nice. I even saw several women walking around unescorted and uncovered. They were very kind and helped point me the right way.

I finally found the restaurant and went in to meet up with Scott, Alex, and Michelle. The meal was underwhelming. I think my mixed grill was the best thing… or maybe the falafel. Granted it wasn’t hard to beat Scott’s “low-carb” quesadilla or Michelle’s weird marinara covered chicken fingers. After our meal, we grabbed a cab and headed to get some authentic Kurdish entertainment. Wait… aren’t German-style beer gardens authentic? Sure.

Deutscher Hof was clearly where all the expats hang out. They were rocking Rihanna and other songs that Scott was loving. They were serving half litres of good German beer. It was a pretty fun time. They even had a fire roaring. We were full from our meal, so we didn’t get to try any of the pork, but I wish I had saved room. After a couple rounds, I noticed that served Das Boot beers. Yes please!

Met up with Scott and some other Epic folks for an authentic Iraqi experience and the German Beergarden
Met up with Scott and some other Epic folks for an authentic Iraqi experience and the German Beergarden
I think they were so pleased with the choice to order a Das Boot
I think they were so pleased with the choice to order a Das Boot

By the end, Michelle was cold, I think. So they left. I decided to stick around and enjoy some more libations and talk with some of the other people there. The first question that came to mind as I talked with people about being in Iraqi Kurdistan was simply “Why?” I met some cute Ethiopian girls, and we discussed some of my travels in Africa. The night pushed on, and we had some fun. Ultimately, I shut the place down with a quick shot with some expats, then made my walk to the hotel. This was a lot easier than the walk to the restaurant.

Day Time

I woke up, showered and grabbed breakfast. I had been told how amazing the breakfast was by the front desk. This led to blown expectations. While the breakfast wasn’t terrible, I think I was expecting something glorious. meh…

I grabbed a cab and headed to see the Choly Minaret. Turns out, you should tell the taxi driver to take you to Minare Park. It is much easier that way.

The entrance to Minare Park in Erbil
The entrance to Minare Park in Erbil

The Park is quite beautiful. I got there right when it opened, so I was the only person in the entire place. It seems like it used to be so vibrant and full of life. The current state was a little more sad. But it was still pretty. I felt like I was in an abandoned amusement park.

View of Choly Minaret as I look over the park.
View of Choly Minaret as I look over the park.

I made my way to the Minaret for a picture, stopping along the way to see some of the other displays. The Statue Alley was quite inspiring.

After the park, I didn’t really have much of a plan. I tried to hail a cab down, but he had no clue what the Citadel of Erbil was… or the Bazaar (these are the two biggest things in Erbil). After two more cabs could not take me, I decided walking was the best option. Unfortunately, the bazaar wasn’t fully open. But the shops I did see were filled with normal objects you would find in Target. I made a nice lap around the Citadel walls and then needed to head back to grab my stuff. Of course, the cab I picked spoke Mafi English… Luckily I could direct him to my hotel.

Getting to the airport has an abnormally high amount of inspections and searches. I guess that makes sense when you realize where you are. At the counter, I discovered that Qatar Airways was suffering from a network outage. Awesome. Manual ticketing process. I made it through customs and immigration and plopped down in the lounge for a quick charge.

Overall

If you get a chance to visit, I would recommend the trip. If nothing else, the trip will give you a better understanding of the situation that is going on in the area. It is very easy to just write the collateral damage from these conflicts as numbers that are irrelevant to you. But when you are walking next to them talking about your evening, it is very difficult to ignore the humanity of it all. This ancient civilization is currently being strangled and beaten to submission by three countries and a terror group. It is quite horrible. This region of the world is the cradle of civilization, yet we discount the conflicts as normal.

While, yes, I went to Iraq. I really got to experience the Kurdish culture. They are truly an amazing people.

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