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.

1 comment: