December 29, 2010 – Continued
After a morning exploring a very small part of Erbil, we decided we should head to Sulaymaniya, a city just a couple hours drive away towards the Iranian border and also towards Halabja, where we will go tomorrow. The journey started out easy enough. We got a taxi to the Sulaymaniya garage and once there we quickly secured a car to take us. We agreed a price of 15,000 Dinars, or about 12 USD, loaded our things into the trunk of the car, got inside and then the problems began. Suddenly, they wanted 45,000 Dinar, but they could not explain why. We got out of the car and decided to find an alternative. It wasn’t so much the money, it was the fact that we hadn’t even left yet and were already having problems. I was scared we would get half-way there and then they would try to get even more money out of us. We saw some minibuses a few meters away and within a couple of minutes, we were loaded up and crammed inside. I was stuffed in the front seat between the driver and another passenger, which was great as a I had a great view and Preston was a few seats behind me on a little stool in the aisle of the bus. And all for the price of 8,000 Dinar per person. We were soon on our way.
The landscape on the drive was beautiful with rolling hills covered in golden grass, the occasional trees and small herds of goats and sheep in the distance. It was all so calm and peaceful and I just wanted to get out of the bus and go for a long walk. The sky was the most perfect blue and sun was warm and gentle. It was a perfect day. I watched the land roll by, wondering what adventures lay ahead of us and already wishing I had more time to explore. It was then that we passed a sign that said “Welcome to Kirkuk.”
The visas in our passports were only for Iraqi Kurdistan, which was fine with us as we had and have no intention (although I do admit a lot of curiosity) about going into the more dangerous Arab controlled part of Iraq. We went through a few security checks, two of which required us to get out of the bus, which due to the seating arrangements, required others to get out and then I would have to climb over people to the door. The soldiers were all very friendly, checking our passports and asking us where we were from and where we were going. It never took long, it was just always a bit exciting not knowing if we would be let through or detained. So far, so good. Well, sort of. With the passing of the sign welcoming us to Kirkuk, we realized we were not in Kurdistan anymore.
Kirkuk is described by Lonely Planet as an oil-rich city, a “kaleidoscope of ethnic groups and a tinderbox waiting to happen.” It goes on to say “Apart from oil, Kirkuk has little to offer. Bombings and shootings are common, giving this dismal city a feeling of the old ‘Wild West’.” And it was in this area where we stopped for a break. We got out of the bus and some people had food while Preston and I had out-of-date fruit drinks and some candy he had bought earlier this morning at Qaysari Bazaar in Erbil, which I forgot to mention in my last post, is one of the oldest in the world. The combination of Lemon soda, candy and diet cola had my stomach doing little flips and I was just hoping I would not have any urgent requirements on the rest of the journey. Before long, we left Kirkuk, went though another checkpoint and there was Sulaymaniya in the valley below us. It looked a lot larger than Erbil.
The taxi dropped us and everyone else off in a field which was empty save for several taxis to take us to our destinations. As we had no hotel rooms, we scanned the Lonely Planet info, picked one and were soon on our way. Close to our hotel, which was on the main street, we ended up stopped in traffic and so got out of the taxi and started walking. We saw our hotel and decided to take a chance at another one we read about a short distance away in the middle of the Grand Bazaar. We decided it would be a more happening than staying in the in what seemed a pretty dull area off a main street. We walked up a bit and as we got into Malawi street the place was buzzing. People, stores, kebab stalls, stores selling clothes, spices, nuts, and electronics. Yes, we made the right decision. We were heading to Malawi Hotel, at the end of Malawi street, on a square in what seemed like the middle of everything. Lonely Planet described it as “ageing but clean… with Western toilets. We walked in and were welcomed by a sign declaring “no guns” and they were busy repainting. Or actually, re-splattering paint. We took a room, which is about as basic as they come, dropped our stuff and headed out to the bazaar. It was about :18:30 and we were ready to soak up some local culture. We left the hotel and the place was deserted. What had been crowded and happening just thirty or so minutes before was shut and empty. We walked down the streets looking for food, and all the places were either closed and locked tight, or told us they were closing the second we walked in. All we wanted was something simple, but there was nothing around.
We walked further down Malawi street, back towards the main boulevard and discovered a little places named “Pasha Café.” We were in the mood for a beer and or nargile, so we went inside. The place was small and a bit smoky, with small groups of guys all huddled around water pipes, drinking cola or tea and eating sunflower and pumpkin seeds. We sat down and immediately a small group of young guys strike up conversation. They were Iraqi but had grown up in London and spoke perfect English. They told us to get a “fresh” nargile.
Nargile, sheesha or hookah – depending on where you are in the world – is a water pipe through which flavored tobacco is smoked. The tobacco is put into a bowl, which is covered with aluminum foil upon which hot coals are placed. The pipe is shared and one will last from an hour to several hours. The tobacco flavors range from apple and mint (my favorites) to grape, rose and watermelon, which I have not yet had the desire to try. I had heard before that in some parts of the Middle East, they do not use flavored tobacco, but real fruit to add the taste. I had never seen it before. Not until tonight. We took the guys up on their suggestion. The nargile we ordered would have regular tobacco stuffed into half a fresh grapefruit and then put on top of the pipe, covered in aluminum foil and hot coals. We knew it was either going to be great or disgusting and so we dove in. It was by far the best nargile I have ever had. Not only was it tasty and fresh, but we did not get the weird buzzed feeling or slightly queasy stomach that can happen sometimes. So now we have a goal to figure out how to do it ourselves when we get back home.
After the nargile, we decided it was time to eat and the guys we met suggested an Italian restaurant up the street, near where our originally hotel was going to be. We walked and walked and while we didn’t find the restaurant they suggested, we did find an amazing little place and had piles and piles of salads, humus, olives, meat, chicken and bread, all for about 10 dollars for the both of us. It was amazing and we stopped just short of licking the plates clean.
It was time to head back to the hotel. It was barely 9pm and it was like a ghost town. A bit creepy and odd, but we didn’t feel in danger or scared, it was just the whole desolation of a place that we imagine would be a beehive of activity. Not sure why everything is shut and so deserted at this hour, but it was the same last night in Erbil. Yes, there were a few people out, but nothing at all compared to what you would expect in the middle of the second largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Now it is time for bed. Tomorrow, we will be up early to explore Amna Suraka and visit Halabja. It promises to be a pretty heavy day.