A Tale of two Kurdistans (Iran & Iraq part 2)

This report is entirely taken from my trip-report made in a Reddit /r/solotravel report.

Prelude: In november 2018 I made a two week trip to Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan. I did the typical tourist schedule in Iran, then journeyed to the off-the-beaten path destination of Iranian Kurdistan before finally heading to Iraqi Kurdistan. This post will detail my journeys into two of the four different Kurdistans (Iranian and Iraqi – the other two being the Syrian and Turkish ones). Starting off right as I arrive by bus from Tehran to the capital of Iranian Kurdistan, Sanandaj.

Arriving in Sanandaj I went to a hotel I had found the night before, Hotel Shadi, which is a 4 star hotel located a bit out of the city centre. It’s really nice, and only 20 euros per night for a single room. Only one problem.. The Wi-Fi is pretty much useless. It’s there and you can connect, but the connection is almost non existent. If you crave Wi-Fi over luxury accommodation, avoid this place. But there aren’t a lot of options in Sanandaj.

After checking in, I inquired about going on a tour to a small Kurdish village called Palangan, which is famous for being extraordinarily picturesque, stretching up the mountain sides of a canyon. With a tour settled for the next morning, I headed out for Sanandaj city centre to have a look around and get some dinner.

Sanandaj mainly has some old houses of note, and they were closed at that time, so I just went around checking out the main square and shopping streets. It’s an idyllic little city with mountain villages lighting up in the horizons. For dinner I had some kebabs. Surprise!

Then I went back to the hotel to catch some rest before the big next day, where I would go early to Palangan just to return and then head straight for the border with Iraqi Kurdistan.

One of the hotel staff drove me to Palangan himself, and stopped for pictures whenever I asked. Which was often. Kurdistan is amazing in fall, all the colours are exploding in nuances of red, orange and yellow. Combined with the mountains and mountain villages, it’s some staggeringly beautiful sceneries you drive through.

After 2,5 hours driving we arrived in Palangan. Here I explored on my own for a bit before my driver joined me and showed me a “hidden” waterfall. The Kurdish children were very curious, and so cutely dressed in traditional garments. After about an hour and a half we headed back, and covered the trip in about 2 hours this time due to lack of stops for photographing. This whole tour of about 6 hours with personal driver cost me 2 million rial (13 euros-ish).

After arriving at the hotel around 2pm, I immediately packed up and checked out and took a taxi to the bus station. From there I hopped into a minibus going to the border city of Marivan. It’s a 2,5 hour trip costing a few euros. From Marivan i jumped into a taxi to get me down to the border. Arriving at the border around 5pm, I was lucky enough that only 2 other people made me company to cross the border on foot, so the crossing was very fast. It took 20 minutes tops to go through both sides, including the Iraqi side spending a few minutes deriding me for having been to Iran. In the end they gave me the stamp, and alas I was in the mysterious land of Iraq!

Two nice Kurdish gentlemen who were able to speak English were headed to the same city as me, Sulaymaniyah, so we shared a taxi. There’s nothing like driving on the completely dark and deserted roads of Iraq at night.. After no less than 2 check points in 10 kms from the border, we made it to the highway, where our driver was all too happy to let the machine free and drive us with 170 km/h across northern Iraq.

Arriving in Sulaymaniyah I was a little scared and unsure what to expect. Obviously the media has also affected my perception of reality. But just like with Iran, Iraq is probably exaggerated in the media, especially the Kurdistan region, which for all intents and purposes is a very stable and secure oasis.

The entrance to my hotel was side by side with the entrance to another hotel, I didn’t know this, and since my hotel had by far the biggest sign outside, I just waltzed in through the first door. Which was the wrong one. The receptionist didn’t understand English and just gave me a room. Only after 10 minutes did someone come to tell me that I was at the wrong place (I had left my booking.com reservation paper at the reception).

The manager at the other hotel looked very concerned about this, saying that he has to think about the safety of his other guests, and somehow me having left my booking confirmation paper with the wrong hotel for 10 minutes was a security threat. In the end I still got my room. Welcome to Iraq.

That night I took a quick stroll outside just to sniff around and see what Iraq was all about. Right across from my hotel ran a large street that day and night is a market, but at night more focused on food than items. So that was a pleasant surprise. I walked around, got a shawarma and some sweets and then headed back to the hotel to retire for the night after a way too long day sitting in cars too much.

My first impression was that the Kurds are a lot less friendly and hospitable than the Iranians, granted it is hard to compare to the Iranians on those points. But nobody would greet me in the streets or even give me any attention merely for being a foreigner, and pretty much the only foreigner at that. Meanwhile in Iran you get swamped with people showing interest, asking how you’re doing or what you think about their country etc.

Unfortunately this first impression didn’t change much throughout the trip. The Kurds seem very reserved and indifferent to visitors. It could just be that nobody speaks English, or perhaps the personality/cultural differences on the other side of the border are just that massive.

Other things I noticed on this first night is the insane amount of security forces in the streets and in front of every semi-important building. There’s also regular people walking around with ak47s and other weapons like it’s nothing, and nobody bats an eye. The Islamic law is a lot less restrictive, fx alcohol is legal and readily available, public display of affection is totally ok, no mandatory hijab etc. Despite this, on this first night I saw very few women in the streets. It’s still a man’s world.

The next day I wanted to take my first real rest-day, but it ended up not being much of a rest day since I was on such a tight schedule that that would be impossible. I left the hotel late in the morning and set out to the Sulaymaniyah museum, but upon reaching it found out it’s closed for renovation. On to the next sight and probably the most important place in Sulaymaniyah, the Amna Suraka, or “Red Intelligence” aka a former Baa’th party torture/investigation prison now turned into a museum. It showcases big exhibits on the Kurdish massacres, and posts the names of all the victims of them while also providing background information in a beautiful but respectful and solemn setup.

There is also a section about Kurdish culture, including traditional clothes and carpets. They have a line-up of various tanks and rocket launchers in the courtyard as well. All aiming at the gunshot ridden old headquarters building.

Last but not least they have a brand new exhibition about the fight against Daesh/ISIS. It has extremely graphic images of isis crimes, as well as showing names and pictures of all the peshmerga martyrs. They also have a particularly strong focus on the women-only branch of the forces. Extremely emotional. The actual prisons were closed for unspecified reasons that day.

The last place I went was the Azadi (freedom) park. It’s a huge park in the middle of the city, with 2 lakes, multiple cafes, a few monuments, a giant Kurdish flag and a splendid views of the surrounding mountains on which a big map of the Iraqi Kurdistan region is drawn and “Slemani” (direct transliteration of the kurdish word for Sulaymaniyah i believe) written next to it. Easily visible from the park.

Just like the gardens in Shiraz, the garden is mostly dead at this time of year, but the other sights warrants a visit. After that I ventured back to the hotel to rest a bit, until I went out again in the evening to get some food. I got a pizza which weren’t particularly good. My punishment for not eating local food. I then strolled back to the Azadi park just to find that both it, and the big sign on the mountain side are not really lit up at night.

Next day I packed up early and took a minibus to the Kurdish capital, Erbil. It’s a 2-3 hour drive through some rugged terrain, But mostly excellent roads. At the end you arrive in Erbil, which is located on the mostly flat terrain at the edges of the Nineveh plateau, which is where the cradle of civilization is located. Very exciting indeed.

In Erbil I stayed at a hotel called Dlasa, which while having a great location almost in the heart of the old city, was also a huge let down. The room was not very well-kept and kinda dirty, the bathroom smelled incredibly like sewage, no towels provided etc etc. And all this with a pricetag of $40 /night. Not great. At Least the location was great.

I immediately set out to see the city and ventured the few 100 meters over to the Erbil Citadel, a great Citadel towering up 30 meters above the old city, right in the very heart of Erbil. The citadel is build on top of 7 former civilizations who ruled here, and the current version is very well preserved. There’s free entrance to the citadel grounds, providing awesome views of the city and particularly the main square of the city, with a bunch of fountains, cafes and benches that are always packed. Surrounding this is the local bazaar which also turns into a sprawling market every night.

After checking out the citadel, I made my way over to some of the parks of the city. The first one, “The Minaret Park” is quite possibly the prettiest, as it contains a half destroyed, but beautiful minaret of a 900 year old mosque. The park also contains an open air amphitheatre and a great collections of statues of people. From the minaret park it’s easy to cross the street and go into the next parks. These are nice too but don’t have anything worth mentioning really.

At that point I got some street food and went back to the hotel a bit. In the evening I went out again to soak in the atmosphere some more.

Finally on the last day I went with a private driver to some of the holiest sites for Christians in Iraq, and the holiest site for yazidis. The first stop of the day was the Mar Mattai monastery. It is a syrian orthodox congregation located in the Alfaf mountains further into the Nineveh plateau. To reach this place, you first have to go along the Erbil-Mosul highway for a while, and in fact the monastery is located a mere 35 kms from Mosul. It is in fact so close to Mosul that on a clear day you can see Mosul from the monastery. On this day, the air was smoggy and so we could just see the beginnings of the flat plateau. Still a spectacular view. At the monastery we met some of the congregants, but none of them could speak english, so beyond a courteous nod and hand shake it didn’t bring more with it.

The next stop was further up north a bit further away from the flat plains of Nineveh. Up here in a canyon can be found the holy city of Lalish, which is the most holy site in all of yazidi faith. The yazidis are an enigmatic group of people who generally don’t have any written records of their holy stories, but carries them through the generations by word of mouth. They are accepting of other religions, and don’t mission for new members, as the only way you can become a yazidi is to be born as one – you can’t convert into the religion. They are fairly secretive about their rituals and ceremonies, so not much are known about their religion, not compared to other big religions at least. They garnered infamy when the islamic state attacked them and forced them up the Sinjar mountain, where a genocide was feared, until the international coalition interrupted. Still many yazidis (especially men) has been killed by islamic state, and many women has been kidnapped, married off, raped etc.

Despite their bad fortunes, they still allow visitors into their holy city, albeit the most holiest sites are off limits to any non-yazidi persons.

The yazidis has one cool little ritual inside their churches (or what you want to call their places of worship). There’s several big pieces of cloth. You can make a wish and tie a knot into the pieces of cloth, likewise you can choose to untie an existing knot. By doing so, you will fulfill that wish that was made with that knot.

Again we weren’t lucky enough to find anyone who could speak english, so my curiousity about talking to the yazidi people didn’t get satisfied.

The last stop on our trip – and thus the whole trip for me, was the purely christian city of Alqosh, and the mountain-side monastery located there. Just like the Mar Mattai monastery, this place also offers a great view of the flat Nineveh plateau. This monastery mostly seem to be abandoned, and not in use. But it is much more encompassing, featuring several large buildings, ruins, caves and even a massive crypt underneath the main church building.

The views not just OF the surrounding mountains but also FROM the surrounding mountains can hardly be described by words. I had no idea about what Alqosh was, and hadn’t been particularly looking forward to this stop on the tour, but it turned out to be my favorite place in the whole of Iraq. The atmosphere and scenery were beyond gorgeous, and trekking to nearby caves to have a full view of the monastery complex was entirely worth it.

After that we drove back to Erbil. I got some more kebab for dinner and headed to the airport. The security at the airport is extreme. Before even entering the airport perimeter you are patted down by armed guards, your luggage is checked by sniffer dogs, and your car (or taxi) is thoroughly searched. Then you are allowed to go to a small building, still far from the actual terminal, where a first bag scan is done through a regular bag-scanner machine and you show your passport for the first time (not actual passport control). You’re asked about your flight, etc. Then when you clear that, you have to take a airport bus up to the main terminal. Here upon arrival you go through yet another baggage scanner like at a regular airport, and from there the procedure is as normally in an airport. The only other place I’ve ever experienced anything like this was in Israels Tel Aviv airport. And then a 7 hour wait in the airport for my flight to Istanbul began..

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