Llama Land

adventures and madness

Iraq, Kurdistan & Qatar (2/3)

This entry covers the second part of the trip, to Kurdistan. We spent time traveling through Iraq, Kurdistan & Qatar over the course of three weeks. You can read about the first part (Iraq) of the trip HERE, and the third part (Qatar) of the trip HERE.

day 9

perhaps it was inevitable, but i got food poisoning. two days ago i started to experience toilet issues. yesterday i started to feel ill, and last night i had muscle aches, chills and diarrhea. i took Imodium and azithromycin this morning. to add to the fun, there is a huge mosque literally across the street from the Erbil hotel, and the 5:35am call to prayer sounded like it was inside my room.

i had a small breakfast this morning, and departed Erbil at 8am. the first stop was the ancient mountain town of Akre, about an hours drive. the roads and freeways are in excellent condition, so we made good time. the scenery is rolling farm land with distant rocky mountains. also there are few checkpoints, and they waved us through. Akre sits at the base of mountains, and dates back to before Christ. we stopped for (sugary) tea and wandered the narrow streets for a bit.

after driving about an hour west, we reached the Jerwan ancient aqueduct (700BC). it was a 40km long aqueduct, made from 5 ton stones. the stones had cuneiform carvings on them. the aqueduct was used to provide irrigation to the plains of Nineveh.

Next we drove up into the mountains to the Yezedi village of Lalish. This village also serves as their spiritual center. We had to remove our shoes everywhere, which meant walking on dirt, gravel, stone and rocks. we saw them going about their lives, worshiping, and even got to enter the temple if their profit. it was pretty cool.

we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch, and i had chicken kabobs.

after that we drove to the Rabban Hermizd monastery, which dates back to the 6th century. its built into the side of the rocky mountain, with stones and caves. it was really cool to explore.

next we drove past a refugee camp which still had occupants from when ISIS attacked Mosul. it was bleak, with everyone living in tents for years.

we finished the drive to Duhoc after that, and checked into the hotel.

Day 10

i was up for the day at 5:35am with the call to prayer. breakfast was ok. i am feeling much better today, so i assume the medication is working.

we departed Duhok at 8am, and drove northeast into the mountains. we slowly climbed a rather poor road that snaked up the side of a mountain to what remained of one of Saddam’s last homes, built in 1991. today it is barely a shell, and is occupied by the Peshmerga militia, with a bunch of cell towers on the roof. the views were really spectacular. we could see north all the way north into Turkey. On the drive back down, the guide (Balin), asked if we wanted to fire a gun. Dylan wanted to try it, and the guide pulled a pistol out of the back of the car. He fired once into the distant hills and decided that was loud enough.

After that we drove towards the hill top town of Amadiyah. Along the way we stopped at the ruins of an old madrassa. it had a few really nice stone arches, but was mostly rubble. The town of Amadiyah dates back to the 7th century. we stopped for tea, then toured the old mosque, which looked sorta similar inside as the one in Bobo (Burkina Faso). last, we saw the original stone gate entrance to the town.

Next we had a 90 minute drive along the valley to the town of Rezan. the road was narrow, twisty and full of speed bumps. lunch was fried fish, and was pretty good. all the scenery today was dry, rocky mountains with spindly trees.

after that we drove another 15 minutes up the mountain to a view point over Barzan gorge. it looks similar to horseshoe point, only with turquoise water in the river.

the last stop was Shanidar cave, where Neanderthal bones were discovered in 1958. getting required a 20 minute hike up the side of the mountain. there wasn’t a huge amount to see in the cave, just a hole with some rocks. the view from the cave was nice though.

Day 11

Last night was rough. I was running to the toilet several times an hour for the first 4 hours, then hourly. Things finally settled around 4am (likely because i was empty) and i slept a bit better until my alarm at 6:50am. i skipped breakfast, and we departed at 8am.

We made a few stops in the Soren area. First was a pretty tiered waterfall. Then we drove along the rim of a huge river carved canyon. then we drove to the original road, built 100 years ago, that ran along the river.

After that, we drove the rest of the way to the city of Sulaymaniyah. the drive took nearly 3 hours. they are midway through building a freeway, so much of the route is still 2 lanes, with a lot of trucks going to/from Iran. The weather the entire day was overcast and windy, and it seemed as if it might rain much of the day. The city is the 2nd largest (after Erbil) in Kurdistan. We got lunch in the old, historic district, at a very popular falafel place. Then wandered the area for a while, including the old bazaar.

Next we drove to Amna Suraka National Museum, which is on the site of Saddam’s torture prison. They converted the site to a museum documenting the plight of the Kurds under Saddam, including how they were imprisoned & tortured. It was a really well organized museum, with English signs.

In the late afternoon, we drove up the mountains overlooking the city. Unfortunately due the clouds, we didn’t get to see the sunset, but it was still a nice view over the city. Afterwards we went to the hotel (for 2 nights).

Day 12

i woke for the day at 6:30am, after sleeping fairly well. I had a nice breakfast and departed at 8:30am. it was raining this morning.

the first stop was the COVID19 test. it cost about $30, and was quite likely the laziest test that I’ve ever had. she swabbed the side of my mouth and barely inserted more than an inch into my right nostril. i should have results via a website in 8 hours.

after that we went to the 2nd largest museum in Iraq, the Sulayminah museum. The museum has artifacts from prehistoric times through ancient times. it is currently about midway through a modernization project, with funds from the EU and US. half the museum has bright lights, and great signs, and the other half is dim, with dusty old wooden display cases. despite that, it was a good experience.

next we drove an hour southeast to Halabja. The weather worsened during the drive, into rain & thunder. This town was occupied by Iran during the Iran/Iraq War. Saddam bombed the town with poison gas, killing 3/4 of the residents. None of the Iranians died, as they had gas masks. Today there is a memorial & museum which documents what happened. While at the museum, we met a crazy Russian who was hitchhiking across the midEast.

Lunch was kabobs. I had two, one was chicken liver, the other was chicken breast marinated in tomato & onion.

After lunch we drove northeast towards the Iranian border. We drove past huge numbers of pomegranate groves, then up into the mountains that formed the border with Iran. Eventually we came to a small village, and hiked up to the Ahmed Awa waterfall. This is the same area where 3 American hikers were captured by the Iranian border patrol several years ago for allegedly illegally crossing the border. the waterfall was pretty, but not amazing. it was still raining intermittently at this point.

We drove back to Slemani at this point. I got my negative COVID19 test result just before 3pm, and submitted my Qatar entry permit application.

Day 13

i woke for the day at 6:15am. i had a nice breakfast, and we departed for Erbil just before 9am.

Yesterday’s storm coated the higher elevations with fresh snow. We stopped briefly at a lake ringed by snowy mountains.

After that we drove for another hour to the town of Koy Sinjaq. It used to be predominantly Jewish. We had tea and then explored the old caravanserai. It was crumbling, and in rather poor condition. Only the stone carved door frames were in good condition. The rest was mostly piles of stones.

For the first time in Kurdistan, we were forced to show our passports at a checkpoint. We arrived in Erbil just before 1pm, and went to a “thai” restaurant for lunch. it was a weird fusion of thai & japanese food. i went with the red curry. Also the place was fully decorated for xmas, and blasting xmas music. the food was fine. not the worst red curry i ever had.

afterwards we drove to the old part of the city, to tour the Citadel. This is the UNESCO walled city. It was ok, but easily the most crowded touristy place that we visited in the country. there was also a textile museum which was kinda nice. next we wandered the bazaar for a bit, which was super crowded. finally we went to a park where the 12th century Mudhafaria minaret stands, at a slight angle.

Day 14

I was up for the day at 6:10am. I had breakfast and we departed for Mosul at 8am.

once we entered Mosul, it was very much like everywhere we had been in southern Iraq, with crumbling infrastructure, trash everywhere, and chaotic driving conditions.

Mosul is technically not part of Kurdistan, and was ISIS capital from 2013 until 2017. We drove we passed their trenches along the side of the road. We also passed a vast UNHCR refugee camp that is still occupied by those who no longer have homes in Mosul. we passed the remains of a bridge that ISIS destroyed to stop the advance of Peshmerga. then we passed entire villages flattened by airstrikes. people were burning garbage everywhere as plumes of black smoke hung in the air.

the first stop was Saddam’s Grand mosque, which remains unfinished. Next we drove west across the Tigris to the side of the city where the most intense fighting occurred. We stopped at the ruins of a 12th century fortress overlooking the river. It was mostly crumbling stones. It smelled like rotting eggs. We could see a modern highway bridge which was hit by an airstrike and was missing a section.

after that we drove through a completely bombed out neighborhood to the Al Nuri mosque, where ISIS declared their caliphate. The mosque was later bombed, nearly to destruction. Little remains, although UNESCO is funding a restoration effort. We drove a bit further to a 19th century catholic church that ISIS was abusing. While much of the outer structure remains, the inside is completely gutted, with rubble everywhere. Pope Francis stopped here earlier this year to launch a reconstruction effort. next, we stopped for tea amongst bombed buildings and rubble. an older man stopped to greet us, shook our hands, then walked onto a nearby pile of debris to relieve himself.

we had a nice lunch that consisted of a huge bowl with flat bread on the bottom, tomato soup on top, and then shawarma & onions on the top.

after lunch we walked through the very crowded bazaar. mosul apparently has a special coffee that has chocolate added. it wasn’t bad.

we left Mosul just after 2pm. we were stopped for passport checks 3 times on the drive back to Erbil. we got back to the hotel just before 4pm.

random thoughts:
* there has not been a day in Iraq that there was not at least 1 power outage. every hotel has a generator.
* people will line up and wait 4+ hours to buy fuel for a slightly cheaper price. often they would save less than $5 to fill up
* food portion sizes are huge. every meal has some insane combination of bread & rice, and often there are pickles, at least 1 bowl of soup, plus the protein.

You can read about the first part (Iraq) of the trip HERE, and the third part (Qatar) of the trip HERE. All of the trip photos are posted HERE.

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