December 2013: One of the reasons why I have been able to travel to most of the countries of the world with a full-time job is because I never let any time off go to waste. With this in mind, I didn’t want the long weekend with a Christmas holiday to go to waste so I decided to use it to fly out to Erbil, Iraq for Christmas and then cross overland into Easter, Turkey where I would travel to Mount Nemrut in winter. I had no idea how I would reach Mount Nemrut from Erbil, but this was all part of the adventure. 

 

 

Asbout Kurdistan

Location of Erbil, capitol of Kurdish, Iraq

Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq. Despite having some autonomy from the Iraqi government, they are still part of Iraq. The main ethnic group is Kurdish, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country. The Kurds are one of the most ancient ethnic groups and can also be found in large populations in eastern Turkey, northern Suria and norther Iran. Kurdish forces, PKK, YPG, etc.) in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq have been fighting a separatist war with the Turkish government for decades and Turkey has launched numerous cross border attacks into northern Iraq to target these forces.

I flew into Erbil at night from Istanbul after a long flight from the USA. I was traveling alone and excited about entering Iraq for the first time but also a little nervous. At the time of my visit, ISIS firmly controlled Mosul, which is near Erbil and there occasionally was a rocket or suicide attack in EI flew via Pegasus Air and landed early morning-2am of the day of Christmas Eve. There were no foreigners on my plane and when I was processed into Erbil by Kurdish immigration, they welcomed me with a smile. It was very clear to me when I arrived in Erbil and tried to arrange a taxi that no one spoke English. I had the name of my hotel written in Arabic, and I thought I left little room for confusion but the cluster of taxi drivers outside the airport could figure out what I was trying to say to them. Then a Kurdish man from my plane approached me, and very kindly offered to help me. he spoke perfect English and when I explained to him what hotel i was going to, he offered to go with me in the taxi to my hotel on his way to where he was staying in Erbil. I was able to get to my hotel and get a few hours of sleep and start exploring again late morning of Christmas Eve day. I chose a hotel near the old city of Erbil intentionally so that I could explore it.

 

About Kurdistan

Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq. Despite having some autonomy from the Iraqi government, they are still part of Iraq. The main ethnic group is Kurdish, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country. The Kurds are one of the most ancient ethnic groups and can also be found in large populations in eastern Turkey, northern Suria and norther Iran. The Kurds were viewed by Saddam Hussein as a threat and as outsiders and were heavily persecuted by his government killing atleast 100,000 Kurds, including with chemical warfare. When Saddam Hussein was overthown by US and NATO forces, the Kurds became a close ally of the US and are a vital ally in the war against ISIS.  Additionally, Kurdish forces, PKK, YPG, etc.) in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq have been fighting a separatist war with the Turkish government for decades and Turkey has launched numerous cross border attacks into northern Iraq to target these forces. 

Arriving In the Middle of Night

I flew into Erbil at night from Istanbul after a long flight from the USA. I was traveling alone and excited about entering Iraq for the first time but also a little nervous. At the time of my visit, ISIS firmly controlled Mosul, which is near Erbil and there occasionally was a rocket or suicide attack in EI flew via Pegasus Air and landed early morning-2am of the day of Christmas Eve. There were no foreigners on my plane and when I was processed into Erbil by Kurdish immigration, they welcomed me with a smile. It was very clear to me when I arrived in Erbil and tried to arrange a taxi that no one spoke English. I had the name of my hotel written in Arabic, and I thought I left little room for confusion but the cluster of taxi drivers outside the airport could figure out what I was trying to say to them. Then a Kurdish man from my plane approached me, and very kindly offered to help me. he spoke perfect English and when I explained to him what hotel i was going to, he offered to go with me in the taxi to my hotel on his way to where he was staying in Erbil. I was able to get to my hotel and get a few hours of sleep and start exploring again late morning of Christmas Eve day. I chose a hotel near the old city of Erbil intentionally so that I could explore it.

 

Exploring the Old City

Erbil’s old city that sits on top of a hill sorrounded by citadel walls is one of the ildest cities in the world dating back to about 2300BCTo enter the old city I had to climb to the top of the citadel walls where there were a few shops selling souvenir items. I bought one cermaic plate with the image of Saddam Hussein on it and some old Irawi dinars with Saddams image on it from when he was in power. Beyond the shops, there was nothing but ruined city.  I wandered freely inside old abandoned buildings, ducking in and out of corridors exploring ancient crumbling buildings that have been unrestored. I came to one section of the wall, where I could sit on top of the wall and look out over the city.

 

View from Old City on Christmas Eve with a Bright Christmas Star Above

View of the fountains and gardens of Erbil from the citadel

Alleyways inside the old city

Entrance into the old city

Saddam Hussein plate I bought at a shop selling all kinds of antiques, and items left over from the Saddam era

Exploring abandoned buildings in the old city

Exploring abandoned buildings in the old city

Old City

Everywhere I went in Erbil, I would be greeted by friendly locals and by locals, I mean men, since it was mostly men in public and not women and asked for my name, country and invited for tea.  Most people asked for my email and phone number to stay in touch and one guy even gave me a wallet sized photo of himself to remember him by, which I thought was a kind gesture. I drank so much tea from all of the tea invites I had during the few days I was in Erbil, that I started to have heart palpitations from all of the caffeine.

 

friendly Kurdish Locals I Met

Smoking Sisha with the locals

friendly Kurdish Locals I Met

Some shopworkers jamming out to some traditional tunes. I followed the music and they performed for me. 

Man selling Muslim prayer beads

Kurdish men is traditional clothing and turban worn by many older men in public

The market near the old city was bustling with lights, noise, and people selling everything from exotic nuts, abayas for women to jewelry. Even thought it was Christmas Eve, there were no indications of this anywhere except for a booth where some children were selling Santa Claus masks.

 

Souq near the old city

Souq near the old city

Souq store selling womens abaya 

Boys selling Santa Clauss masks

Boy who were selling Santa masks posing for me

I admit being away from my girlfriend and my family on Christmas was a little lonely but on Christmas, my new Kurdish friend who I met at the airport stopped by the hotel to check on me and invited me out for dinner. We ended up going out to dinner in the Chaldean, Christian part of town to a restaurant with a Christmas tree. The Chaldeans being Christian had Christmas trees and decorations in their neighborhoods. The restaurant we were at also had a Chaldean wedding going on with loud Arabic techno music and boisterous dancing and hollering.

 

Christmas tree in Chaldean part of town

Bus to Turkish Border

On my 3rd day I needed to catch a bus to the Turkish border. My Kurdish friend met me at my hotel and helped me purchase my bus tickets and get on the right bus. The bus was a small minibus jam packed with people. The drive to the Turkish border took almost all day since there were so many military checkpoints. The Kurdish military officers never hassled me and were very polite. At one point we were only miles away from areas of Iraq that were held by ISIS, but the separation was maintained by a military line of Kurdish, and Iraqi soldiers as well as by US military assistance in the air.

The drive through northern Kurdistan through snowcapped mountains and small, picturesque villages was beautiful, and I would love to return in summer to hike them and meet the people in small villages.

On the bus ride I made a friend on the bus, a middle-aged Syrian man who was living in Iraq. The man spoke English and befriended me, sharing his story over tea at every one of our stops. Like all people I have met in Kurdistan so far, they had a fierce sense of hospitality and would be offended to ever let me pay for anything whether it be a meal or even tea so I wouldn’t argue. The man traveled with a briefcase full of 100-dollar bills, which I thought was suspicions. He claimed to be traveling into northern Syria from Turkey to pick up his 3rd wife, who is stranded in Syria. He was proud to show me all of the money he was carrying, and I didn’t want to know what the money was for. For the bus ride to Turkey and hours into Turkey, the Syrian man became my protector and looked out for me and in a way became possessive over me, demanding I sit next to him even when there were open seats on the bus. My first thoughts were that he was a little overbearing, but I realized that this was just his way of trying to show kindness to me. The border crossing into Turkey was long and complicated and my Syrian friend was instrumental in helping me sort out all of its craziness. In Turkey I happened to be traveling in the same direction as my Syrian friend so we both caught the same bus and somewhere in the middle of nowhere at night, I was dropped off by the bus at night in the winter cold at an intersection for the road traveling into the direction I needed to go to Mount Nemrut. My Syrian friend was not happy that I was exiting the bus at such as place. He thought it was too dangerous. I waved goodbye to him, and he seemed oddly mad at me for leaving him. 

 

 

Kurdish Mountains

8 + 11 =

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