Erbil Iraq 2012
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Istanbul Turkey
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Mardin Turkey

Erbil Iraq
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Istanbul Turkey

After Kurdistan trip
Las Vegas, Nevada USA



Shahmaran(Kurdish: Şahmaran, Şamaran, Şa:maran) is a mythical creature from the folklore of Kurdistan, today's southern, central and eastern Anatolia, Iran and Iraq. The name of Shahmaran comes from words "Shah" and "Maran". "Shah" is the Iranian title for a king, primarily the leader of the Iranians and their land and "Mar" means snakes in Kurdish. In plural "Mar-an" means "snakes". A Shahmaran is often depicted as a wise and benign woman with the features of a woman above the waist and those of a serpent below the waist. She is held to be queen of the snakes.

Erbil- A sign on one of the restoration projects. I have no idea what it is all about.

Erbil- A typically dressed Kurdish man walking the plaza at the base of the south entrance to the Citadel mound. It seems old guys like us like to slowly stroll around everywhere in the world.

Erbil- Along the spoke road from the 100 meter Ring Road I see a lot of new construction.

Erbil- Close up of that typically dressed Kurdish man walking the plaza at the base of the south entrance to the Citadel mound. Notice the expression on his face; he has seen continual lifelong turmoil for his people.

Erbil- Close up of the kids who took an interest in me on the Citadel mound; at least one of them spoke a little English and used it on me.

Erbil- Close up of the sign sitting by the statue of Mubarak Ben Ahmed Sharaf-Aldin at the south gate into the Citadel.

Erbil- Close-up of newly manufactured yellow bricks to be used in the restoration of the buildings in the Citadel

Erbil- Close-up of one of the posters explaining the restoration of parts of the Citadel

Erbil- Little snack shops like this one are found throughout the city. Notice the selection of healthy snacks.

Erbil- Looking down into the city from the south entrance to this elevated fortress-city.

Erbil- Tea sellers are everywhere in the city, including here in the plaza at the base of the south entrance to the Citadel mound .

Erbil- Close up of the tea seller in the plaza.

Erbil- Near the sculpture at the south entrance is a popular place to take pictures.

Erbil- On the way back to the south entrance of the Citadel I spotted this lightening damaged tree. It intrigued me so I stopped to study it for a while... from every angle. My odd behavior didn't go unnoticed!

Erbil- Soon, something totally ignored by everyone became the object of fascination by everyone! First, these ladies stopped to see what I found so interesting, then ...

Erbil- Next, these guys decided there must be something they had missed on the way in and paused to look. As more and more people stopped to check out my great find our crowd attracted yet more curious people. No one passed without pausing to have a look!

Erbil- This guy's wife pushed him into the cavity so she could take a picture of him in the natural frame.

Erbil- Eventually everyone moved on leaving me to admire alone this wonder of nature, mostly overlooked by so many others interested only in the ancient ruins of our ancestors here at the hilltop Erbil Citadel. We humans are a peculiar lot.

Erbil- One of the partially restored streets in the Citadel

Erbil- I couldn't resist taking several photos of this interesting tower with no identifying sign, but later learned it is the famous Mudhafarea Minaret .

Erbil- During one of my walks I came upon this interesting tower with no identifying sign. So, I took some photos anyway. It is the Mudhafarea Minaret, a major landmark in the city.

Erbil- Outside the Citadel some of the fortifications become obvious, like the vertical slit in the wall to the left.

Erbil- People leaving the south entrance after their visit to the Citadel

Erbil- People snapping photos around the sculpture at the south entrance is a popular place to take pictures.

Erbil- Shoppers mob the stalls along the bazaar isles in the center of the city.

Erbil- Signs describing the project to restore the structures on the Citadel mound .

Erbil- Signs describing the project to revitalize the structures on the Citadel mound.

Erbil- The first building I saw along the spoke road from the 100 meter Ring Road toward the center of the city.

Erbil- The north gate of the Citadel is named the Ahmadi Gate.

Erbil- These kids took an interest in me on the Citadel mound. One or more of them spoke some English. That jungle-Jim contraption sitting in front of the entrance uses a construction technique similar to that used to create the more elaborate tower sculpture on the grounds of the airport... probably by the same artist.

Erbil- This is the first building I found on the spoke road from the 100 meter Ring Road. Notice the name of the directorate.

Erbil- This is the north gate of the Citadel from the outside.

Erbil- View of the south entrance to the Citadel from an arbor in the plaza.

Erbil- Wandering the old streets of this ancient city I try to imagine what life must have been like 6000 years ago for people living on this elevated fortress-city.

Erbil- Wandering the old streets I try to imagine what life must have been like 6000 years ago for people living on this elevated fortress-city... and then a car appears and breaks the spell.

Erbil -Vendors sell these sweet pretzel like pastries all around town.

Erbil - Looking at the Citadel on the central mound now being restored to its ancient configuration.

Erbil - Prayer beads are big business. Buying and selling strings of prayer beads is taken very seriously.

Erbil - Water pipes and a good chess game with a friend in the plaza; life is good.


21 December 2012

Dicey Greetings from Erbil Iraq in "Kurdistan,"

After a lifetime of curiosity about the cradle of civilization known as Mesopotamia located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq, I am finally here as of 16 December 2012. This is the northernmost part, but still rich in ancient historical significance. Since the discovery of the 8000BC Gobekli Tepe site in southern Turkey there is some question about where the actual "cradle" is located, but this area definitely holds remnants of some very ancient civilizations.

Also spelled Irbil and Arbil, the Kurds call it Hawler! Here in northern Iraq are the three provinces which together form what is known to the Kurds as Iraqi Kurdistan and to the Iraqi government as Iraq - Kurdistan Region. But I jump ahead; the adventure actually began back in Mardin Turkey where my passengership was sold by the Marses Turizm bus company agent, Ali to another bus company: Cizre Nuh. Apparently the Marses bus scheduled to take me to Erbil ran into trouble and the agent just flagged one of the other many buses going there and passed me on to them. I watched as some sort of financial transaction transpired when the Cizre Nuh bus stopped and Ali from the Marses Turizm agency from whom I bought my two tickets, motioned me over to board this other company's vehicle. Ali went ahead and had a woman and her child move out of my reserved seats to other vacant seats, with no apparent rancor.

With a snow storm predicted for Monday night in the Mardin area I felt some urgency to get moving on. A single sunny day window in Erbil offered in the weather forecast meant I'd have most of the day following my night time arrival to hotel shop, assuming I could find someplace to sleep that first night in Erbil. Seated across the isle from me, a young mother struggled to calm her year old daughter who incessantly demanded attention between screaming fits and bouts of wailing. To make matters impossible, the young woman in her early twenties periodically became car sick throughout the eleven hour trip. Her husband mostly remained aloof, handing her tissue and plastic barf bags occasionally. Why he never offered to take the kid for a while remained a mystery to me. The poor woman certainly would have welcomed the relief, I'm sure.

Scheduled to depart Mardin at 11:30, we actually left closer to noon for the four hour leg to the Iraqi border. The entire trip hugged the Syrian border with armed guards stationed in bunkers every mile or so facing the fence separating the two countries. The bus stopped briefly in Cizre where I witnessed an aggressive taxicab driver's attempt to intimidate a group of bus passengers into using his service to cross the border. I'd read about this scam, but here it was being played out before my eyes. Several people got off the bus and followed the taxi guy over to his vehicle. His pitch included a promise to make the visa process faster and easier for the travelers going to Duhok on the other side and then to take them into the center of the city where the bus didn't go; of course anyone could just hire a waiting cab where the bus paused on the outskirts of Duhok. While only stopped no more than ten minutes there in Cizre, gangs of elementary school boys pestered the passengers who had stepped off the bus to smoke, begging and pushing their shoe shining services on reluctant would be customers relentlessly.

Cizre is about twenty-five miles from the actual border which we reached an hour later. Part of the delay must be attributed to the unbelievably long queue of waiting cargo trucks, sometimes two lanes wide and mostly not moving or creeping at best. Our bus continued to move in the left lane slowing only occasionally for an errant truck moving briefly into the lane reserved for passenger vehicles. At the actual border points buses obviously get preferential expedited treatment.

Immigration has never been easier or more enjoyable. Exit visas for Turkey were obtained effortlessly for us by the bus driver who collected all of our passports and took them in to the Turkish immigration office. A few minutes later we climbed off the bus and filed into the Iraq-Kurdistan Region Immigration Office where a surprise awaited. Finding a comfortable chair I waited for something that sounded like my name to be called with all the other strangely pronounced names of other travelers. As we waited two young men in white shirts passed among us handing out Styrofoam cups of tea and spoonfuls of sugar. I took the tea and declined the sugar, but not before getting up and wandering around the room to inspect every visible detail. Spotting the scrolling announcement banner I fumbled with my "phone" snapping several photos before the distracted border guard spotted my clandestine activity and waved at me mouthing "no photos." Most or all of the other passengers on our bus got there visas before me, but finally I heard my full name announced in perfectly pronounced American English: "Fred Leonard Bellomy?"

At the window a beaming Kurdistan Immigration officer handed me my passport and started a friendly conversation: "Welcome to Iraq; welcome to Kurdistan; you have fifteen days. Your first time to Iraq? I hope you enjoy your stay. , etc." With that I bolted out the door hopefully to find my still waiting bus. Of course I needed not to worry as the bus company does this several times a day and never (rarely) looses a passenger... I assured myself.
Now the real waiting started... continued, this time a block or two past the Immigration Office and actual border where our bus stopped and sat for forty-five minutes with no explanation. When we did finally start moving again we seemed to be racing with a rout of snails, mostly cargo trucks, crawling, creeping, pausing, inching forward until finally after nearly an hour the traffic jam cleared and we approached Dohuk (also spelled Duhok... go figure) some twenty-five miles from the border where I assumed we would encounter the Iraqi Customs Office with vicious dogs and ever alert customs officials wanting to search our belongings for contraband. But... we did not even stop, so were never searched! Considering the miles and miles of ten wheelers backed up waiting to be cleared for entry into Iraq I expected a virtual inquisition, but we were not even detained for passport checks again.

Carefully managing the battery use with my Galaxy Note to conserve the GPS feature, I periodically checked our location on the Google map using the "My Tracks" application which recorded our actual route.
After pausing briefly near Dohuk to let some passengers out we headed south... on the only major highway leading directly into Mosul! Readers no doubt are aware Mosul has been in the news frequently as sectarian insurgents almost daily carry out deadly attacks against groups and individuals perceived as enemies, including Christians. After arriving in Erbil and checking the local news I discovered there had been a major explosion only a few hours earlier on the very highway we traveled. That must be the explanation for the circuitous detour route our bus followed as it wound its way over bumpy "county roads" crowded with truck traffic in both directions skirting even the outskirts of Mosul by a wide margin. (The International Crises Group presents authoritative studies of hot spots around the world, including Iraq.)

(During my research I came upon this extraordinary propaganda site maintained by the Kavkaz Center the ultra-radical destabilizers are better organized than I imagined!)

To their credit, Google Maps show faint traces of the back roads we used, but I still had a difficult time following our progress on the hand held device. Safely ensconced in my hotel the next day I learned the secondary roads we had used to skirt trouble also had been the location of another horrific explosion only a few hours after we passed through the area! Snuggled in my comfy double bus seat I naturally remained oblivious to all the drama taking place not far from our route, though in retrospect it now looks like some of our strange detours must have been in response information being received by the bus conductor during one of his frequent cell phone conversations followed by urgent consultations with the driver as the bus paused by the side of the road.

Eventually bright lights appeared on the horizon as we approached our, er... my destination as the bus would continue on to Kirkuk and beyond. When it made its Erbil stop at the Cizre Nuh agent office located in the sparsely inhabited outskirts of the city, the conductor called out something in Turkish which did not include anything that sounded like "Erbil" and most of the other passengers got off. Uncertain what he had said and expecting the bus would make more stops closer to obvious business activity I remained seated and watched the conductor who eyed me questioningly. When the bus moving again started to retrace its route I suspected I had missed the only Erbil stop and frantically gestured at the conductor yelling "Erbil? Erbil?" One of the other passengers in limited English confirmed this is where I should have gotten off. Now a mile or so down the road to Kirkuk the conductor understood my need for a hotel in Erbil at this late hour with rain threatening. He got the driver to stop at a cluster of buildings and pointing announced: "Hotel!" gesturing for me to get off the bus. So, that describes my unceremonious arrival in Erbil Iraq.

As I stepped off the bus street lamps provided enough light to see the Bella Roma Hotel in the dark and its five stars sign. With no Iraqi dinars and earlier being warned few hotels accept international credit cards, I hoped the five star designation might mean they would be among the minority of houses taking plastic. I still had nearly three hundred dollars in Turkish lira and of course, my emergency hundred dollar bill secreted deep in my luggage. Never mind everyone reports outrageously high hotel rates in Erbil; desperate times call for desperate measures and near midnight in a strange land where few are expected to speak any of the languages I can use to negotiate hotel registration, with no obvious way to pay for lodging and with rain eminent, this certainly would be a time that qualified for desperate measures! As there seemed to be only this one hotel, I cautiously entered the "interesting" lobby. Decorated in bad taste period French furnishings, under other circumstances I would have immediately walked out. But... Behind the registration desk a startled young man brightened considerably as I approached and flashed one of my irresistible "hello" smiles. "Registration?" I asked. Fortunately that word is always understood to mean the same thing everywhere I've been in the world!

In quite understandable, if quaint English he replied: "Yes. May I help you?" and waited expectantly.

Relieved, I replied: "You speak English! That is a great relief as I speak no Kurdish... or any of the other languages likely to be spoken by people around here. I hope I am able to stay in your hotel as the bus from Mardin Turkey just dropped me off here without any alternatives." As I noted his friendly nodding head I looked around for a credit card terminal and continued: "I hope you can accept a VISA credit card for payment because the only cash I have is Turkish lira."

Shaking his head he replied: "Sorry. We only accept cash. Don't you have dollars?"

"No, just the Turkish lira. Is there an ATM machine near here; I need to get some Iraqi dinar anyway and that would solve the hotel payment problem. By the way, what is the rate here?" I asked while studying the $120 rack rates posted behind the desk.

Pointing at the posted rate chart he noted: "This is a new hotel and the usual rate is $120, but I can give you a room for $100." I thought to myself how predictable was his response.

Under the circumstances $100 sounded like a bargain so I continued: "As I only have Turkish lira, can you accept that for payment? You can check the exchange rates on the Internet. By my calculations one hundred US dollars would be 180 Turkish lira." I watched as he tapped a few keys, mumbled a few words about not being sure if he could do this and finally agreeing to accept the foreign currency. As I pulled my wad of Turkish currency out looking for 180 lira I could see I didn't have the  exact amount and offered him 200 lira, noting I'd need about 20 lira change and that Iraqi dinar would be great as I needed some local currency anyway. Financial transactions completed, he selected a room key and summoned the lackadaisical bellman who took me up to a second floor room facing the highway, unlocked the door and promptly hurried away without even looking inside.

What I found shocked and irritated me: the room clearly had been previously occupied and not serviced since the last guests departed. Back down to the reception desk I trotted calmly explaining the disappointment I'd just experienced. Unbelievably, in limited English the receptionist interrogated me accusingly about the condition of the room as if anyone could mistake a room left messy with dirty towels, empty soda cans and bedding on the floor by a prior guest! Finally convinced by my unbelievable assertions, he selected another key and directed me to follow him personally up to his new choice, all the while berating the housekeeping staff for such serious neglect of their duties. "Someone is going to be fired for this." he assured me as compensation, I presume.

The new room faced the back ally with trash piled in clear view and the rest of the room suggested the work of an amateur architect: nothing located where one would expect it to be and lighting designed for a love nest with furnishing selected by an amateur interior decorator. But, the foam mattress proved comfortable enough and the cantankerous shower the next morning got me clean. The included breakfast in the mezzanine dining room in this "five star" hotel is insulting - I've had better in the Hong Kong YMCA. But, now rested and fed more or less, a new city beckoned and I eagerly departed to start my hike of discovery, GPS display in hand.

The bus had dropped me out on the 100 meter ring road at about the 290 degree point meaning I had about four miles to hike into the center of the city to the ESE direction where the landmark Citadel Mound is located. On the walk I noted quite a lot of new construction in the outer ring areas which are mostly vacant lots at the moment.
One building I passed attracted my attention with its peculiar sign designating it as a directorate for sewage and tourism! Curious beyond casual I timidly ventured in to see what could possibly be the connection. My arrival caused a minor commotion in one of the offices where a half dozen men sat conversing. As I nosed around inspecting (and sniffing) everything in the lobby one of the men came out of the office and inquired first in Arabic or Kurdish and then in limited, halting English: "May I help you?"

Explaining honestly in simple English my presence in this unusual government office, I asked about the connection between sewage and tourism. My question or my English confused him and he summoned others to deal with me and my inquiries. Soon, an older very serious fellow appeared introducing himself as doctor
Habeeb (not his real name) and offering his hand for a shake. I naturally I declined with my "virus vector" routine touching my heart area and inquired: "Medical doctor or science?" thinking if a medical professional, I'd ask why he still engaged in the filthy habit of shaking hands. Taken aback by my social oddity and question he frowned and stammered, clearly confused by... something. After a few embarrassing moments he abruptly excused himself and retreated indignantly having answered none of my questions. The rest of the gathered staff, now a dozen or more, some with limited English loitered in confusion and I could see making a hasty retreat might be my best course of action. So I slinked out to continue my walk of discovery toward the very center of all the concentric road rings.

My last postcard from Erbil ended with the observation that the 60 meter ring road is a major landmark and demarcates the start of the densely built area of the city. Now my GPS map really came in handy as I repeatedly referred to it to know my present location on spoke and ring roads. With such an early start I ambled around the circular streets slowly working my way toward the center using "spoke" streets from time to time to get ever closer. This is a delightful city to explore on foot if you can navigate by the sun. Watching the time and the direction of the sun you can pretty much know where you are in the circular pattern.

The map of Erbil city

As my main mission this first morning had to be finding a good value place to spend the next week or so, I stopped at many promising hotels only to depart disappointed. None of the affordable places could meet my now elevated minimum standards and the five star houses all were located too far from the central part of the city. Initially paying attention to the star designations posted on hotels, it soon became evident property owners selected any number of stars they felt might attract new guests without any relation to the quality of their house! A better indicator of value from the outside is the level of obvious attention to maintenance practiced by owners and the age and quality of construction.

I had seen many favorable references to the Erbil International Hotel and planned to check it out. Back in 2003 around the time the UN mandated "no fly zone" began protecting the three three predominantly Kurdish northern provinces the Sheraton Hotel owners decided to exit this risky market and sold the property to an organization who renamed it the International. Now surrounded by a twelve foot high blast wall of thick concrete slabs all positioned at least a hundred feet from the hotel structure itself, the Erbil International is clearly a well protected deluxe property. Several security guards armed with automatic weapons scrutinized everyone wanting entry into the grounds behind the high walls and several "guns prohibited" signs marked the walk up to the hotel building itself.

Inside the marble floors and walls, I blanched at the $220 rack rate and even the more realistic $176 offered to all walk-in guests. Spending that much for lodging would mean a considerably shorter stay in Iraq than planned. So, I continued looking that first day. By the afternoon it became clear I'd need to bite the bullet and fork over nearly $200 each night for a place to camp out for a few days and then make an early retreat out of the capital city to somewhere more affordable. BTW, this is the low winter season; during the high season with more pleasant weather, guests can expect to see most hotel rates double!

When later that day I finally returned to register, hang dog expression firmly contrived, a friendly female receptionist and I played the negotiation game, finally settling on a "rock bottom" offer of only $156 authorized by her boss for this elderly charity case. I prepaid for two nights thinking I'd use the time to plan my next leg, or possibly locate something more affordable in the mean time.

The second evening in the hotel, Tuesday I met Anwar Dawood, another of the reception staff, but one who spoke pretty good English and who obviously enjoyed telling me about the city and its attractions... and leading me to decide to stay at least a third night even at the unaffordable rate I'd be paying. When I confessed my pecuniary limitations and casually asked if there might be any possibility of a further reduced room rate he shrugged and said he didn't know.

What an extraordinary day Wednesday turned out to be! After an early breakfast I hurried over to the Erbil Towers Hotel I'd discovered earlier which would accept International credit cards to see the quality of the breakfast buffet. Everything else about this hotel located at the base of the north side of the Citadel mound made the $50 room rate more than an excellent value. Unfortunately, the selection and presentation of the food for the breakfast buffet left much to be desired, especially compared to the lavish spread offered by the Erbil International and I decided on the spot to pass on this budget friendly house, though it is definitely an excellent choice for the rock bottom budget traveler in this expensive city. In retrospect it occurs to me I could have found a good nearby restaurant for my meals and still have come out ahead, but that is for another day.

I had a relaxed walk back to the Hotel Erbil International, pausing now and then to admire the local color and upon arriving had another chat with that very helpful, English speaking receptionist, Anwar Dawood. We discussed my disappointment with all the expensive hotels I had investigated, how even the Erbil Towers failed to meet my minimum requirements and that I would need to start thinking about an early departure from Erbil. I quizzed him again on the possibility of an even lower room rate without much hope of a positive answer. To my surprise he indicted he would look into it, but could make no promises... naturally.

A short time later back in my room working on moving new photos into the website I received a call from him to the effect the general manager, Mr. Hilal had agreed to extend a $110 rate for the remainder of my stay through the Christmas holidays. Oh Joy! I could now plan to stay for the rest of my visa period in this comfortable five star hotel with its scrumptious breakfast buffet and get some work done on the flawless Internet connections available in both the business center and with WiFi.

Later that day with the lodging problem solved, I went out to a small eatery, the Chrakhan Restaurant favored by a bunch of Kurdish military brass and several city policemen about two blocks from the hotel. Well armed personal security military guards wearing bulletproof vests kept an eye on things from their posts outside the restaurant while the generals ate. All of these fellows chain smoked cigarettes despite the "No Smoking" signs posted on the wall directly in front of them.

I had a fabulous dinner of lamb kabobs, deeply orange juice marinated carrots, slightly spicy humus, huge piles of chewy flat bread, several salads and tea. Total price? 5,000 dinar! or about $4.30. In America it is not uncommon to end a meal with an after dinner mint. In this part of the world a glass of sweet tea is common and I have learned to like it. After that filling lunch I visited the bakery I'd seen earlier next door and selected a half dozen chocolate cookies for an evening snack and when I tried to pay, the owner said "no pay, free samples."

All in all Wednesday was a very good day... until I returned to my room late that afternoon and discovered it had not been serviced. A quick visit to reception fixed that promptly while I went out for yet another circumambulation of the hotel block. But... on returning to the hotel I discovered the card key failed, finally working after six insertions... only significant because the card key again failed twice the next day, requiring reprogramming with trips down to the reception desk both times. Adding insult to injury, that same day both soiled bath towels left over the tub edge the previous two days had been refolded and placed on the towel rack like clean towels. Perhaps just coincidences I thought, but the irritations continued.

Starting Friday the complimentary bottle of water never arrived and that is a serious health problem in a hotel where the water from the bathroom tap is dirty and the hotel offers no pot for boiling water! Friday is also the day I discovered my netbook computer being hacked - debugging I found I had neglected to check the "Don't allow exceptions" box in the firewall setup allowing hackers in, which I immediately fixed.

Then Saturday, again no water appeared; another trip to the reception desk and later that afternoon two bottles arrived delivered by a surly room service waiter. All of these aggravations might have been overlooked considering the 50% discount the General Manager had extended, but on top of all the little annoyances I became aware of less subtle unwelcoming staff behavior. I'm going to speculate some of the staff accustomed to serving well healed big tipper business guests, considered serving anyone without a coat and tie traveling on a tourist budget beneath them. Whether that is true or not, some of the staff definitely gave me that impression. Over the past thirty years I have stayed in well over a thousand different hotels, many of them deluxe and know most try to make every guest feel like a VIP. Some of the staff at this one did not.

Sunday provided the final insult. Because the Internet connectivity has been very good, I have been doing a lot of work using both my equipment and the terminals in the Business Center (Access being free according to the receptionist when I checked in, with no distinction between WiFi and Business Center use). That evening when I left the Business Center after a 45 minute session the woman watching things (and a male boss?) interrupted my departure with the announcement: "Computer use isn't free." and presented me with a bill for 5,000 dinars or about $4.25 for my 45 minutes of use. When I protested and confessed to having been using the terminal for extended periods almost everyday for the past week under the impression it was free (and noticing other guests doing the same!) she said "for a few minutes to check email there is no charge, but longer sessions are not free." Following that encounter my entire impression of the Erbil International turned cold and I longed to be gone.

All of my wandering around Erbil has had the Citadel as a focus. As it is the center of the city, it is hard to ever be very far from it. The focus of community life is a sparkling plaza at the base of the south entrance to the Citadel full of fountains which must be refreshingly cool in the summer time. The crumbling ruins of the structures built on the mound above are undergoing a major restoration program. People, including old men in their baggy trousers called shalvar, walk the park pathways and enjoy conversations in one of the many little cafes around the periphery while smoking hookahs,  playing chess, negotiating clothing purchases, comparing the qualities of each others prayer beads and just loitering... like me.

Much of the city is still bare dirt so the slightest breeze leads to a virtual dust storm. Where pavement has been laid down, there is a good chance parts of it have been torn up for utility lines into the new buildings being built. With all the dust, people are constantly hosing down the pavement around their shops. It is unlikely to walk a block without having to dodge the mud puddles created by so many people's cleaning efforts. Scrub brushes and squeegees with long handles are used on the marble walkways so abundant in the downtown area.

The Citadel sits on a man made mesa, at least that is what the aerial view of the "mound" looks like to me. It definitely doesn't look natural. Archaeologists continue to speculate about the origins of the dirt hill created so many millennia ago, but most agree it is at least six thousand years old, some guess as much as eight thousand years and continuously occupied all that time. As I walked the periphery of the old mound I could see loose aggregate at its base
, just like a big pile of dirt, a really big pile. After six thousand years or more I'd expect more compaction from what little I learned in my two recent geology courses.

Myths perpetuated in any region of the world add an interesting dimension to one's understanding of a culture. File:Şahmaran.jpgEveryone knows they are made up stories, but each one suggests peculiarities about the people and their origins. For the principle Kurdish myth people invented the Shahmaran, a creature with the head of a woman and the the head of a serpent where her feet would be and possessing complex symbology. Everyone here I have asked about the myth has had their own incomplete telling and interpretation, but all knew of the myth itself. I tried to imagine a parallel situation in our own culture, say some of the common childhood fairy tales; how many versions of Rumpelstiltskin from memory would we get by asking a dozen people?

There are a surprising number of Christians here. Anwar in reception says he is an Assyrian Catholic. As I have run into many Christians working in the hotels visited, I joked with him that the international hotels seem to be the only place Christians could get jobs in this predominantly Muslim country. To this he noted his female coworker standing next to him is Muslim. When I have learned someone is Muslim I always ask: "Sunni or Shi'a?" To my repeated surprise, all have answered "neither" and then proceeded to name some other unfamiliar tradition such as the Yezidis (hour long 2 part YouTube video).

Yezidis is a distinct version of Islam with apparently no relationship to either of the two main branches or Sufism and it is a common form of Islam practiced by the Kurds in Iraq and something intimately connected with their unique identity according to some articles. My subsequent research has led to conflicting information about the religious practices of the Kurds living in greater Kurdistan. For example, see: Ref1, Ref2,  Ref3, Ref4. Apparently political correctness varies from one region to another and controversial information obscures the difficult to assess reality.  The many mosques appear architecturally similar to those in Turkey, but the calls to prayer do sound somewhat different to my untrained ear, and only occur three times a day like the Shi'a. These people have an amazingly rich cultural history, of which I have learned only a smattering.

Defensive driving is obviously not taught in this part of the world. Drivers race up to any obstacle, including pedestrians stopping inches short of a collision, horns blaring. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, racing around corners without regard to the possibility of something blocking the way around the turn. Gasoline costs hover around four dollars per gallon in this oil rich part of the country, about half that in neighboring Turkey, providing a big incentive for smugglers. Gas stations have an unusual layout with pumps located around the periphery of a "parking lot" rather than in islands like most other places in the world. Taxis are commonly used by visitor and resident alike; most rides around town costing about 3 dollars, so I am told as I rarely use them.

When I asked about public transportation out to the airport five miles from the center everyone insisted the only way to get there would be by taxi. As far as I'm concerned, them's fighting words, so one day I started the five mile hike from the hotel to the airport passenger terminal checking for buses along the route. Sure enough, there is no public transportation that goes all the way there and even trying to walk into the terminal from the adjacent highway proved problematic. Stopped five times by security people wanting to know what I was doing on foot on this road so obviously meant for vehicles, they finally flagged one of the passing cars and commandeered a ride for the last couple blocks.

Leaving also caused a similar commotion and again one of the guards had a passing truck pick me up for the mile ride out to the highway. Security around the airport is excruciatingly tight, with well armed military police stationed within sight of one another. The airport terminal building itself is overstated minimalism. One large warehouse room with rows of cushioned chairs and a single small counter selling snacks to one side is supposed to serve all the needs of travelers arriving and departing. I had hoped to investigate the schedules of airlines using the airport, but there were no airline representatives in the terminal. Off to the side of the terminal building in the middle of a vacant lot stands an unusual towering sculpture made from bundles of white tubes. A similar tubular decorative construction can be seen in front of the south entrance to the Citadel, likely created by the same artist.

The location of the Erbil International Hotel is probably of more interest to tourists than the business travelers who are the hotel's primary clientele. During my first morning in the hotel solemn faces and starched shirts added a seriousness to all the suits gathered around breakfast tables full of ashtrays doing more negotiating than eating. On the way to refill my coffee cup I passed one table full of Texas oilmen and overheard them delivering a pitch for their services with an unmistakable Texan drawl. At another table some Middle Eastern businessmen discussed a document with much nodding and pointing. The few elaborately dressed women in the dining room for the most part sat silently next to their men so preoccupied with important business matters.

I saw very few guests likely to have been tourists during my entire eight days stay, not more than a dozen and later more obvious since the coats and ties pretty much disappeared for the holidays. The up side of so few guests is that inclined staff had more time for my annoying questions. Several people working at the Reception desk and Guest Relations desk probably have never been asked so many questions about their city, the unique aspects of Kurdish religious practices or transportation options. Through it all they remained friendly and helpful.

My review of experiences at the Erbil International Hotel could have been much more complimentary given the luxurious, though now aging facilities, the manageable special rate authorized by the General Manager, the excellent location a few blocks south of the Citadel mound and the extraordinarily helpful Reception and Guest Relations staff.

Problems with the business center, housekeeping and complementary amenities plus all the oblivious smokers encouraged by the hotel with ashtrays on dining room tables marred an otherwise pleasant stay. With no other viable hotel choices found in the city it looked like a good time to explore other parts of northern Iraq. I'd read in one blog that Dohuk, a small town some three hours north of Erbil and that much closer to the Turkish border might be an interesting place to spend a few days.

So, abruptly Monday morning after breakfast I checked out of the hotel and started walking toward the Best Van Tur bus agent office where I'd previously determined the best service back to Turkey would start sometime before noon... and that the same bus could take me to Dohuk. As Dohuk is only about twenty-five miles from the Turkish border it seemed like a good choice for more time in Iraq before my fifteen day visa expired.

"Two seats, side by side for Dohuk." I gestured and paid my thirty thousand dinars. With tickets in hand I began the inquisition regarding onward travel to Mardin or Urfa in Turkey when I got ready to leave Dohuk.

"No bus. Taxi." The clipped responses soon made it clear the only way out of Dohuk across the border would be by taxi and that on the other side in Silopi Turkey there would be no big bus connections to the west either! Without a doubt, much critical information got lost in the mangled use of each other's languages and gestures, but one thing became clear: the Dohuk option carried more risks than I felt comfortable taking. So, I persuaded the ticket agent to refund my Dohuk tickets and sell me a pair for the Urfa bus leaving almost immediately. Each ticket to Urfa is $55 so I paid a total of $110 for my two seats. This time there was no double booking or confusion about passenger's assigned seat conflicts. (I had to recall the advice Media at the hotel Guest Relations desk had offered: "My friend says the Best Van Tur company actually has the best service of the several companies going to Turkey.")

With a full battery I watched our progress using the GPS feature on my Galaxy Note "phone." For all practical purposes the return trip in daylight retraced the same detour route used by our arrival bus at night nine days earlier, skirting Mosul by a wide margin. However, there were no reports of bombs being set off during our passage out of the country like there were when we arrived after dark. Exit visas from Iraq proceeded much like the entry process, but without the tea. The bus conductor collected our passports and took them in to the immigration officials who handed them back to those of us waiting. The room full of other anxious groups also waiting for their passports vacillated between bedlam and eerie quiet as buses and other groups came and went. When my passport finally appeared I grabbed it and wandered in the dark back toward where I thought our waiting bus would be more than a block behind buildings and gates. But, I found it and settled down waiting for what I expected would be a perfunctory Turkish immigration and customs formality.

That's when our trip across the border had its moments of excitement. The bus company staff got caught smuggling a large container of illegal Iraqi gasoline in the bowels of the cargo compartment of the bus by the Turkish custom officials. Jalal, a Kurdish student doing graduate work in a university near Urfa who spoke several local languages as well as English overheard the drivers speaking among themselves and learned of the smuggling fiasco and its consequences.

First, the bus company pays a fine equal to more than the value of the smuggled fuel which is confiscated. Next, the bus is held in quarantine for more than an hour, thus delaying its schedule. Third, a punitive search of of the bus and everything on it including second searches of passenger luggage followed by two more lengthy passport checks for everyone. Finally, a third search of passenger luggage using an x-ray machine followed by an intrusive search of every "suspicious" bag... including mine, though less intrusive than some others. Many passengers lugged enormous oversize suitcases full of various things purchased in Iraq and most of these seemed to pass the customs inspection. But, one guy had packed three bottles of expensive perfume more than the legal limit and these were summarily confiscated as I watched on while repacking my my own mess created by the rushed customs agents.

I don't know how much gasoline the bus guys tried to hide, but the most "profit" they would have been able to realize from their booty would have been about $5/gallon ($8-10 per gallon in Turkey verses $4-5 in Iraq)! So, a fifty gallon drum would have netted only about $250 for the caper. I have heard that such activities go on all the time with bribes persuading government officials to look the other way. In this case the customs officials apparently were incorruptible, but I speculate. After an interesting two hours cooling our heels at the border we finally entered Turkey and the rest of the trip through the night to Urfa proceeded without incident, arriving at about 8AM Christmas morning.

I plan to hang out around here for a week or two to work on the website and make plans for the next leg of my adventure. More when there is a new tale to tell.



Fred L Bellomy

PS: The full collection of 165 photos is now available for a slide show at Shutterfly here.


Iraq: As we approached the border with Iraq this many miles long queue of ten wheelers sat waiting their turn to clear customs and enter the country. Within a mile of the actual border this queue swelled to three or four lanes! There must have been thousands of waiting trucks. On the other side of the border the trucks again waited in a comparable line for I know not what. I have read some drivers are stuck here as much as a week before getting authorization to continue their delivery journey!

Iraq: fumbling with my phone camera I snapped this Welcome sign before the distracted guard to the left could indicate photography is not allowed... I knew that!


Erbil- Good shot of the fountains in the plaza from the south entrance to this elevated fortress-city.

Erbil- I asked the kids anxious to demonstrate their command of English who the dude in the statue was and they conferred among themselves and finally one replied "THE MULLAH."





Iraq Map with 18 Provinces or Governorates
Map of Iraq: click on map for a scalable version.

 Kurdistan Map with Kirkuk.jpg
Northern Iraq is the location of the Kurdish controlled region they call Kurdistan.

Areas of northern Iraq with a Kurdish population majority plus the green area now controlled by the Kurds themselves. Erbil is the defacto capital.

Erbil- Another good shot of the fountains in the plaza from the south entrance to this elevated fortress-city.

Erbil- Another poster explaining more about the restoration project for the Citadel .

Iraq: Weekly Security Update from for December 2012.

Erbil- Another poster explaining the old street layout of the Citadel .

Erbil- Another poster explaining the restoration of parts of the Citadel .

Erbil- Another poster explaining the restoration of streets in the Citadel .

Erbil- Kurdish family leave the south entrance of the elevated fortress-city.

Erbil- Looking down into the plaza and fountains from the south entrance to this elevated fortress-city.

Erbil- Families enjoy the plaza at the base of the south entrance to the Citadel mound .

Erbil- Looking down into the plaza from the south entrance to this elevated fortress-city.

Erbil- Looking down to the NNE at the city below from the north gate of the Citadel .

Erbil- Magazine seller displays his goods on the sidewalk.

Erbil- Open air book and magazine seller displays his goods on the sidewalk.

Erbil- Open air news stand operator displays his goods on the sidewalk.

Erbil- During one of my walks I came upon this interesting tower with no identifying sign, but later learned it is the ancient Mudhafarea Minaret .

Erbil- Newly manufactured yellow bricks to be used in the restoration of the buildings in the Citadel .

Erbil- Newly manufactured yellow bricks to be used in the restoration of the buildings in the Citadel . With so many yellow bricks maybe they will also have enough to lay a yellow brick road.

Erbil- Poster explaining the restoration of parts of the Citadel .

Erbil- Shoppers at one of the numerous bazaars check out the merchandise; one guy spots me and watches.

Erbil- Shoppers at the same bazaar look over the merchandise.

Erbil- Sign explaining the statue as a famous historian and minister of Erbil.

Erbil- Statue of a famous historian and minister of Erbil, at least that is what the sign says.

Erbil- Statue of a famous historian and minister of Erbil.

Erbil- The area around the sculpture at the south entrance is a popular place to take pictures

Erbil- The plaza at the base of the south entrance to the Citadel mound attracts mostly men at all times of the day.

Erbil- The plaza at the base of the south entrance to the Citadel mound is cooled by all these fountains during the hot summer months.

Erbil- The plaza at the base of the south entrance to the Citadel mound seems to be a popular gathering place for men passing the time of day.

Erbil- This is the tall flag pole in the Citadel . I took many shots trying to get the flag design to show.

Erbil- Waiters at the chicken and kabobs place I enjoyed for lunch a couple times. Kurdish bread is used as a hot pad to handle the hot chickens as they are taken off the spits. Bread is chewy.

Erbil- Waiters at the chicken and kabobs place I enjoyed for lunch. Kurdish bread is used as a hot pad to handle the hot chickens as they are taken off the spits... and to keep grease off fingers.

Erbil - As I paid my bill after a light lunch the owner handed me a button! Pointing to a tea stand he mumbled something in Arabic. At the stand I traded my button for a glass of free tea.

Erbil- Waiters at the Tjaryan restaurant handle hot chicken. Kurdish bread is used as hot pads as cooked chickens are taken off the spits. Darned good food here.

Erbil - Jabbar Palace Hotel has a lot going for it, but $50 cash only. Good Internet in lobby with terminal and WiFi. Badly patched carpets suggest the place has maintenance issues.

Erbil - Fish on display by a sidewalk vendor.

Erbil - The sidewalks are kept clean by hosing them off so many are wet like this section.

Erbil- Money changer preoccupied with his loot doesn't see me... but his nearby friend does and grins.

Erbil - Some restoration work in progress is obvious.

Erbil - Standing in the median of a busy freeway, this inaccessible sculpture reminded me of Entera, my horse loving artiest friend back home.

Erbil - Beads are big business in this part of Kurdistan. Buying and selling strings of prayer beads is taken very seriously.

Erbil - Buying and selling strings of prayer beads in this part of Kurdistan requires concentration.

Erbil - The Citadel mound appears to be made of aggregate, leading me to wonder if it was man made before the buildings were erected.

Reference photo: author
 August 2002

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