Monday, January 17, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 4)

28 December, 2010

Yesterday we went to the agency to book the bus and were told it left at 6:30. At 5:50 this morning my phone rang, a frantic guy speaking Turkish sounding panicked on the phone, I spoke what Turkish I know back a hitm and told him we would be there in 5 minutes. What they didn’t tell us, is that we would be getting the bus about 30 or so kilometers from where we were staying and that we would need to be driven from the office to the actual pick-up location. We were soon heading down the mountain while the driver in his very limited English began a conversation with Preston about Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson and other assorted celebrities and then, in the middle of nowhere with a great view towards the old city of Mardin, we waited for the bus and I enjoyed the sunrise.

The bus came, we loaded up and settled in, books close at hand and iPods fully charged. Then it hit. We were going to Iraq. We were on our way. It was finally happening and each second took us closer. I felt nervous, excited, and full of anticipation. I was also a bit scared that perhaps I expected too much? But I didn’t and don’t really expect anything.

The question that always gets asked when people hear you are going to Iraq, is “why?” For me, the “why” of it all is simple. I want to see this country that is so often in the news, and I want to see a different side. I am sure there is a side that is not about war, killing, bombings, machine guns and all of the other horrible things that go with war and that dominate the news every time Iraq is mentioned. What little information I have been able to find suggests a place of friendly people, beautiful landscape and tons of history. Yes, war is a part of the past and present, and unfortunately at least for now, the future, but I want to find something else, something different and I just want to experience it for myself.

Meanwhile, back on the bus…  The route we took between Mardin and the border crossing followed the border between Turkey and Syria. To my left was Turkey, and to my right, Turkey, barbed wire, 100 meters of dirt field, security tower, barbed wire, Syria. Preston read his book, I stared out the window trying to get pictures that did not also have my reflection in them. Then we stopped so passengers could have a bit of breakfast and the bus, a little wash. Now, I had a problem. Since I was a little kid, I have always been just a little impatient when it comes to travel. Not impatient in a bad way, I just want to get there and get there now. When I fasten my seatbelt in the airplane, that means we should be taxiing down the runway, not waiting for others to board. Delays for any reason are not acceptable and always unforgiven. Thirty minutes later and we were on our way and before long we came across a line of lorries that stretched for a few kilometers. Cargo trucks waiting to cross the border. Finally, after 3 hours, we were there, ready to leave Turkey and enter into Iraq.

Leaving Turkey is pretty simple, it just means waiting in the car or bus queue for one or two hours. We would get off the bus, get on the bus, get off the bus, get on the bus, just following what everyone else was doing, but not understanding the what or why. Once we were out of Turkey, the next part was getting into Iraq. We drove about half a kilometer or so and stopped at the gate, where we all got off the bus and went into the passport control office. And what a place it was. Black leather seats and flat screen TV. Our passports were taken and we sat down and a waiter of sorts brought us hot tea. Once we were done with the tea, our passports were done and we got back on the bus. Best border crossing ever! And best part of all? We were officially in Iraq.

We were not far into the country when we had our first security stop, which consisted of little more than the bus coming to a stop and a soldier waving us one. There were lots of little outposts along the road, which ran through beautiful hills. Most of the little outposts were often just a little hut or shed, some sandbags, and soldiers with their AK-47s.

For three hours, we watched Iraq go by from a bus, but had yet to step out, the feel it and touch it and then suddenly we were in Erbil, getting off the bus on a non-descript road and being taken into the office of the bus company. First order of business, find a place to sleep. We had our trusty Lonely Planet printout and decided on the Bekhal Hotel, described as “impeccably clean with Western toilets” – two things we were eager for. W got the room that was not so impeccably clean and a squat toilet. No problem for me, I am used to them after India. I am not sure Preston was so keen, and I had to give him a lesson how to use one… Where the feet go, making sure clothes are out of the way, and equally as important, maintaining balance while in a squatted position.

Checked in and having answered the call of nature, it was time to explore the city. Our hotel was in the bazaar and we were in the mood for some good food, shopping and walking around as we had basically been sitting most of the last 12 hours. It was only 7pm and we were ready for anything…

But we were not ready for everything to be closed. Shutter after shutter in the market was pulled down and locked. There were a few street places to eat, but after such a long trip, we were in the mood for something more like a restaurant. The first place we saw? A sandwich place named Istanbul which we decided to skip. We wanted something a bit more local, although we weren’t sure what that was or where to get it. Finally, we spotted a poster with pictures of food dishes and went upstairs. We asked for the menu using a variety of sign language, pointing, grunts and speaking very slowly, and after a few minutes, we were escorted out of the restaurant, across the walkway and into the kitchen, were we pointed at what we wanted (kebaps) and held up the correct number of fingers to indicate how many. We pointed to the bread we wanted and then headed back upstairs. Helped ourselves drinks and soon the soups and everything else were delivered and we dug in. Not only were we hungry travelers, we were also the entertainment for the rest of the restaurant. It was like being back in India all over again, people watching how the foreigner eats, what he drink, what he does. But unlike India, Iraq doesn’t really see a lot of tourists, and the people in Iraq were are much less intrusive about it.

We finished our delicious dinner, paid the bill and left. With our knowledge that the city was all closed, we decided to head someplace for a beer. We decided to go to the Deutscher Hof (gotta love the Germans and their beer gardens) but it was on the other side of the city. Lucky for us, we met a guy who offered to take us to a beer shop. We tried to get out of it, but he seemed insulted and so we went with him. Walking around for what seemed like ages on dark and empty streets. 8pm and there were almost no people out, the city was like a ghost town. For a place that is supposed to be one of the most modern and developed cities in Iraq (according again to Lonely Planet, which describes Erbil as a Dubai in the making) it seemed amazingly deserted and lifeless.

We got our beer and since there is no Iraqi beer, we settled for Chang, from Thailand and walked back to the hotel and now we are drinking our beer and discussing the fact that we are here, really here.

Tomorrow I will get up early to take pictures, explore the Citadel and have a walk around the city.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 3)

27 December, 2010

We flew from Istanbul to Mardin and landed at what is probably one of the smallest airports I have ever been to. It has one runway, room for 2 planes and a building with a maximum capacity of about 300 people. Mardin itself is a gorgeous town built along the sides of a  low, rocky mountain, with buildings that date back 4000 years or more. There are a couple of roads, but most navigation through the town involves walking up and down uneven ancient staircases, the view changing with each step. Because of the amount of stairs, which in many ways reminded me of Santorini or Neemrana in India, donkeys are used to transport good though the old town. It is not tourist season, so apart from the locals, we pretty much have the place to ourselves. But, as there are not many tourists, a lot of the historical places are being renovated and repaired, so there were several places we just could not get into. We stopped for a great lunch the middle of the old bazaar that extends about half way around the city and you can buy everything from brooms to pans to groceries and pretty much anything you can think of.  At the restaurant, which was large enough to fit about 5 people, we met a local with a café and before long, we were sitting in the sun, having a cold beer, looking over the plains toward northern Syria. I saw Syria today! And of course, we talked about going to Damascus in the near future. Travel is like heroin. Not that I ever tried heroin, but the more I do, the more I want.

As beautiful as Mardin is, it seems equally boring at night. We walked and walked to find a single restaurant for dinner and finally we came across one just around the corner from our hotel. The adventure has already started and in a most un-Robb-like action I ate what seemed to be a local delicacy, stomach stuffed with rice, veggies and herbs. I didn’t want to do it, but hey, I am starting a big adventure, so what’s a little stomach in the stomach?

Out hotel is next door from the bus company that will be taking us to and across the border tomorrow morning and instead of the high costs I had been getting from blogs and other limited information on crossing the border, it is costing us a mere $50 per person to go from Mardin to Erbil – Our information told us it would be double that, so we are already under budget! Time for sleep as the alarm goes off at 5:15. The water has been out in parts of Istanbul for 2 days, and I am in need of a shower and good scrub down.

Tomorrow Iraq! It’s finally going to happen!!!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 2)

December 26, 2010

Finally got my hands on some Lonely Planet info on Iraq, which is about a 35 or so page chapter from a much bigger book on the Middle East. The chapter begins with a few paragraphs about the glorious past, being home to the Garden of Eden,, the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Then come the warnings. “Iraq is a war zone” is how the next page starts, before going into the risks of terrorist attacks, military combat operations, suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), land mines, sectarian violence, kidnappings, highway robberies and petty crime. It also explains how foreigners are primary targets of militant groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and that attacks can occur anywhere, at anytime. Of course, it is speaking of the Iraq we all hear about, the one in the news and on the front pages of magazines. We are going to a different part, the “safe” part. Mountains, lakes and vistas. Ancient towns and developing cities, the past and the future merging together.

And tomorrow, the big adventure starts. We leave my house at about 4am. The original  plan has changed a bit. We will be spending the first day in Mardin and then head into Iraq first thing on Tuesday morning. All the information I could find told us we needed to take a complex series of buses, taxis and other transport to get from Mardin across the border. As it turns out, we can take a single bus from Mardin to Erbil, in Iraq in just about 6 hours which means we should be there in time for a late lunch. That is all thanks to one of Preston’s student. And while the Lonely Planet and other sources suggest we take private taxis, we were told by relatives of Preston’s student not to take the private taxis due to the risk of kidnapping and being turned over to Al-Qaeda or perhaps worse. He told us it was fine in the cities, but should be avoided otherwise. But from what I have been reading, it seems safe enough and we will have to take one for at least a part of our journey from what I can work out so far…

I have also received information from a blogger I discovered in Iraq who has provided tons of great information for us, and hopefully we will all be able to meet up and have a face-to-face conversation and hopefully some tips on some great local cuisine and a chance to experience new customs. Of course, I will be armed with my camera and so excited about all the pictures waiting to be discovered.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part One)

December 18, 2010

In just over a week, Preston and I are leaving for our New Year’s trip. The idea for the trip started in August, in Istanbul, while having a few drinks outside our favorite cafe in the summer heat. Somehow, we quickly came to the same conclusion that we wanted to do the same trip by the end of the year and within minutes, we made a commitment and since then there has been no turning back. Now, finally it is less than 10 days away. Our destination: Iraq. Or to be more precise, Iraqi Kurdistan, a “safe” area of Iraq in the north of the country.

I love adventure travel, but this trip is beyond anything I have ever done. And of course, everyone is telling us we are crazy, but at the same time, they are waiting for all the stories when I return. Planning a trip to Iraq is not so simple, There aren’t really that many guide books filling up shelves in bookstores, in fact, I have yet to find one, and travel agents have no clue. They, as well as anybody who happens to find out, look at us as if we should be put in straightjackets and sent to the nearest mental institute and then try to steer us in other directions. And we did look a bit: Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Israel., Egypt. But we kept coming back to Iraq.

So planning the trip has meant scouring blogs and internet pages of those that have gone before and come back in one piece to tell about it. We have some current information – There are ATM’s in Iraq, but we should not plan on them working as many of them only accept Iraqi issued bank cards. There are internet cafés, so we will be able to stay in touch and let people know we are alright. We have decided to keep it a secret from most people so they wouldn’t worry, but a few are in the know, just ın case. There are supposedly daily power outages ranging from 20 minutes to over 10 hours, so we will need flashlights and extra batteries for essentials like cameras. Hot water in hotels is supposedly hard to come by, so I will have a good long shower and proper scrub down before we leave, cleaning behind the ears and in all those hard to reach places and then we will hope for the best for the week.

Getting into Iraq is also easier than we imagined it would be, at least what I have read. Getting to the border has proven to be a bit complicated, but we now have that sorted. We leave on the 27th from Istanbul and go via plane to Mardin, near the Iraqi border. From there, we take a bus to Silopi and then either another bus or a taxi to the border. Once we cross the border, we get on another bus or taxi that will take us to Dohuk, from where we can arrange further taxi transport. We are also hearing from one of Preston’s students, that his uncle runs a bus from Mardin into Iraq, going perhaps as far as Erbil, one of the cities we will be visiting. So, we will get across the border, just not yet sure how. At the border, we will be given a 10 day visa that is good for Iraqi Kudistan, but not for Arab Iraq, where all the violence and war is happening. The closest we will get to Baghdad is about 300 kilometers. I have heard of people trying to sneak down into Baghdad and other places, but we will not be doing that. Taking a risk is one thing, asking for problems is something else, and I am not interested in being a news story. At least not a war story.

I have been looking at places to go and I am a bit disappointed that two of the places I really want to visit are just inside the Arab part of Iraq. I really want to go to Nineveh, a town from about 1800BC, mentioned in the Bible and there are still good remains of the walls and the city. From the information I am getting online, we will drop into Arab Iraq on the way between Dohuk and Erbil. Nineveh is just across the river from Mosul, arguably one of the most dangerous cities in the world, making it just a bit inconvenient and a lot too dangerous. Not sure if that info is at all outdated, but we will check that out once we can speak to someone who knows the current day situation. Again, as much as I would like to see it and explore, I am more keen on keeping my head attached to my shoulders. Another place I would love to go is Hatra, an even older city that is definitely out of our reach as it means getting quite close to Baghdad and even further into Arab Iraq. I have heard there are guards every few kilometers on the road, turning people back that don’t have the proper visas or no business there.

So, it looks like our cities will be Dohuk, Erbil, Sulayimaniye and Halabja, a small town just a few miles from the Iranian border. The rest, we will figure out. As of now, it looks like New Years will be spent in Erbil, coming back into Turkey on January 1, as we have a flight on the 2nd in the afternoon.

There is a lot of information about road travel as well, not to follow too close to a military convoy as they are targets for suicide bomb attacks and IED’s, not to overtake any military transport no matter how slow it is moving. And of course, paying attention, being very careful and just making sure we keep our wits about us in the event anything should happen.

For now I am excited. A bit nervous, but more than anything, excited. I can’t wait to just be there and see it all for myself. It is supposed to be amazingly beautiful, the people beyond friendly and of course, it is the adventure of a lifetime. In my opinion, at least.