Goodbye to Kurdistan, Iraq, our last night in Suleymaniyah

 Arkan and the Millenium!

It was a little tricky exiting Iraq, as the only possibilities ended up being night bus rides of 20+hours across the eastern Turkish border, so we splurged and bought a one-way ticket back to Istanbul! Except that the flight left at 4am, which meant that we had to be at the crazy (I mean CRRRRRAZY) airport by 2am.

We had bizarre and intensive security searches by sleepy young female guards, who took us into private rooms and gently, respectfully body searched us. (4 body searches, no cars or taxis were allowed to go on airport premises without extra, extra security clearances). There seemed many, too many procedures, and of course, Jan and I were “cutting it as close as possible”), trying to get in the last few shut eyes.

 

We didn’t realize that taxis couldn’t actually take you to the departure gate, they weren’t allowed; that you had to take a bus from the security sector, which is quite a distance from the airport, to the departure area.

The night before we left Suleymanyah, we met Arkan, who was sauntering up the sidewalk, across from our hotel. We stopped him and asked him about the newly built hotel, the Millenium.

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We’d seen it towering above all the other buildings as we first entered the city. It was the tallest, and most outrageous architecture that we’d seen, and wanted to get up closer, maybe even go inside. Arkan knew of it, but wasn’t sure, so asked another man passing, who was also aware of it’s existence, but nothing more.

We then tried to flag down a taxi, but after several tries, we finally found a driver who seemed to be familiar with the name at least. Arkan asked if he could join us on our search, and of course, we were happy to have him along.

En route to the hotel, we found out that Arkan was recently back from the UK, where he had studied computer engineering. He spoke English, I mean, proper English with a northern British accent. We immediately took to him, and he to us. He had a particularly soft manner, and very polite, yet his eyes sparkled with mischief as we all we sped along anticipating having a closer gander at this huge monstrosity which seemed so out of place in Suleymaniyah.

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It looked more like it belonged in, perhaps, the Jetsons, but definitely not here in Northern Iraq. As we approached, it became apparent that it was absolutely brand new, and surrounded by construction rubble. The driver had difficulty finding the actual access to the hotel, so we drove round it searching and finally located it. As we ascended the perfectly smooth, black roadway up, there were two security check points, with men dressed in black suit and ties. They seemed satisfied with whatever Arkan told and ushered us onward.

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We were dropped in front of the fantasy structure, and proceeded to the front desk in order to find our way upstairs, as we had fancied having dinner in the revolving restaurant as a departure gift to ourselves. But we were told that it was fully booked. A few minutes later, we were approached by a dark haired, buxom young woman, also wearing a black business suit who was very curious about us, where we’d come from, why we were here. She was in charge of hotel public relations and had been recruited from Columbia to come to Kurdistan to manage the opening of this hotel. She welcomed us and invited us for a complete tour of the hotel, and hand wrote our names for the 6 oclock seating in the revolving restaurant.

Since we had nearly an hour to spare, we were lead through all the facilities by a young man from Goa, India, who was newly recruited from another Millenium hotel in Oman, he was scheduled for an orientation the following morning, so he was happy to explore with us. He was an absolute delight, and was as fascinated by his new place of employment as we were. As we strolled from place to place, we learned that it had only been open for 2 weeks, and that they had offered a promo deal for not much more than we were paying at our “palace”. Well, actually it was 3 times the price, but it seemed like a bargain to us, and we giddily floated through the tour. Everything seemed magical, and possible in this atmosphere! What a world away from where we’d been only hours before.

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This hotel certainly was state of the art, from every perspective. We were paraded through two beautifully designed (yet to be opened) restaurants, as well as the hotel restaurant in the main lobby. We visited their abundantly outfitted fitness training rooms, where we met the Turkish trainer, who was also very, very warm and hospitable. We saw the spas, with high-low plinths, and exotic décor that made you feel relaxed just resting your eyes on it. We tried not to feel too terribly bad that we’d missed the opportunity to stay here, with two heated pools, that were situated among the stars; and rooms with vistas that were more similar to those of an airplane above the city. The opulence was staggering, we were drunk on it, well before we ever touched our wine with dinner.

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By the time that our reservation time was looming, we were absolutely overwhelmed with the Millenium and its ambiance. I think by the time we were escorted up to the 32nd floor in a high speed elevator, and seated at a large round table, we were feeling glad that we hadn’t stayed in the Millenium. I don’t think either of us could have stood the interminable euphoria.

 

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The restaurant gently turned as the sun set upon the city, and we toasted ourselves and Arkan with a bottle of chilled white Viognier, from Lebanon, at an immaculately set white table lit with candles. However, shortly after our toast, the entire electrical system shut down, as did our spin of the city…and we spent most of the rest of the evening in total candlelight, enjoying our “shared” dinners…..(as the prices were as extravagant as the elevation!). The dinner was nothing special, as the chef and his staff scrambled to put together a meal, in the dark, with who knows what equipment that was still functional.

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Well sated, we strolled through the lobby, listening to piano music and singing along gaily as we departed our mystical tour, arm in arm through the security apparatus and the smiles of the cheery guards, happy that we’d pursued this strange but wonderful adventure for our last evening in Iraq.Image

 

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As we returned to our hotel, Arkan offered to drive us to the airport the following morning. “At 2:30 am?!” we cried! He promised to TRY to borrow his brother’s car and pick us up the following morning at our hotel. And sure enough, while I was sleepily tugging on my clothes the next morning, the phone rang, and true to his word, it was Arkan. He was waiting in the lobby.

 

His brother, who was some sort of high ranking police officer, had lent Arkan his vehicle to drive us to the airport. This was auspicious, because, he had also arranged for the vehicle and Arkan to be granted access to the actual airport, and not just to the outskirts at the security area, where we would have landed if Arkan hadn’t rescued us and driven us right to our departure gate.

We hugged him goodbye as we entered the airport…it was still only 3:00 am and we had that dreamlike state that is somewhere between wearing those heavy metal, deep seat diving apparatus, and that floating sensation, as though we were somewhere on the moon. Though I was sleepy, I was intensely curious about our fellow passengers, wondering if they were Iraqi, or Turkish, and if there were any other Europeans or North Americans on board this plane. We hadn’t met any since leaving Mark and his crew in Erbil. Though I studied them intently, I couldn’t tell if there were any among them who might be willing to have a conversation with me, in English. It was too early in the morning, so I sat alone and sipped from the water bottle I’d been allowed to keep.

I think both Jan and I were sad to leave Iraq, and probably best that we left early morning, so that we didn’t, couldn’t really process all our mixed feelings about our departure.

 

Silk Road RIde

 

 

 

 

 

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Though the road to Kurdistan was fraught with misgivings, we are having the time of our lives, being invited to weddings, and picnics and barbeques and, and. We happened to land here just before the biggest holiday of the year, Newruz, when the Kurdistani families sport their finest clothing, and all gather to celebrate the ritual of fire. They celebrate it like we celebrate New Year, in fact, it IS the pagan new year, the 21st of March, the beginning of the new year, celebrated in springtime. 

We’ve been so busy socializing and accepting the hospitality of so many kind people that we’re meeting here, that it’s easy to forget the heartache and tribulations that these people have faced up until very recent times. We’ve shared so much with them over the past 5 days that it seems as though we’ve been here for months, and have been friends with them for eons. Yesterday we climbed above the city of Duhok to see the dam, and were spontaneously invited to a picnic by some Syrians (Soooryans, as they pronounce it). Jan and I keep pinching ourselves and reminding each other what we might have expected, though neither of us had any fixed idea of what to expect here. The generosity and genuine caring that we’ve received makes us giggle that we were ever fearful of coming here. 

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The optimism and confidence of everyone we engage with, and the deeply held pride that the Kurdistanis have for their families, their heritage and their country (Kurdistan) is ever present in their speech, actions, and everyday lives. We’ve seen countless examples of how strong their family values are. One man told me that though he’d gone to the UK when he was 18, and lived there for many years, he always knew that he’d come back home to Kurdistan. When I asked him if he drank and partied like a typical English teen, he became very serious and told me this: “I don’t drink. I don’t drink for many reasons, for as many reasons as there are generations of my ancestors that are recorded in my father’s home on tablets and scrolls so ancient that they seem made of leather. I have a name, the name of my father, his father, and grandfather…and so on, back as far as time was recorded by man. I have a sacred name and I will always do my best to keep it that way”. He was so sincere when he spoke this that I nearly cried. We were standing in the orchard of his father. I can’t every remember hearing anything that affected me more than hearing this man’s trembling voice as he described how much he loved and respected his family. 

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Mardin Turkey to Duhok Iraq

I was reluctant to leave our comfy hotel, with the opulent runway of brunch delights, to head Southwest to Iraq, where everything was an unknown. We had said a rather sad goodbye to Dan, our beloved travel “guide” (we called him our guide, because he always seemed to know where to go, and so much about where we were going).

We were a little anxious about getting to the Iraqi border in plenty of time to get to our destination before nightfall, but we weren’t able to get much information about the crossing.The hotel staff where we were staying were enthusiastic, and warm, and very helpful, but there was a lot lost in translation.

The only information we could find about how to get through the Turkish/Iraqi border was from a blog from 2009; nevertheless, it provided much valuable information, especially helpful was the historical information about Iraq.(http://jennifersblog85.blogspot.com)

Rereading it after the whole ordeal, we realized how detailed and accurate it still was after all this time. The only other information that we had was from an outdated (2006) Lonely Planet Guide, which suggested that independent travellers “would have to be mad” to go there.

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Leaving the hotel early morning in the drizzling rain, we arrived at the bus depot (of sorts). It was a large dingy pomegranate coloured room, with badly pealing walls and ceiling, heated by a tin wood burning stove. We were told the bus would leave “at 8 oclock, or maybe 8 thirty”. At least that was what we understood him to say It was all very obscure. However, at exactly 8am, the man at the counter waved us a command to follow, and we were herded toward a large, white bus that was nearly empty. It was much nicer than any bus I’d ever seen in North America, with electrically reclining plush velvet seats and massive wrap around windows to enjoy the view. We headed south along bumpy roads that meandered out of Mardin and onto the next uncharted segment of our journey, clutching tightly to the lunch we’d pilfered from the hotel breakfast, and our waning optimism.

After about an hour, we came to the junction of a very, very smooth, newish highway running along the Syrian border, with outpost towers spaced liberally along it. One of them had something that looked like a scarecrow…with a helmet perched on top, that was visible from the road. We moving along too fast to discern the features of the other “guards” and I suspected that they might have also been this sort of unpaid “relief staff”.

Several worrisome hours later, we entered Cizre (pronounced Jezeeray, that had contributed to much confusion); we announced to the driver that we intended to go to Silopi, which was the last Turkish town before the Iraqi border. There was a gentle, smiling, soft spoken man who had moved into the seat behind us who in relatively clear English told us that he was also going to Silopi, to teach school. We inwardly thanked both Allah and Jesus, and actually any other saints or high ranking saviours that we’d read about recently, for our great luck, as by this time we were feeling out of our depth. The driver waved us back into our seats at Cizre, and said loudly, “Silopi, Silopi,” and a few other things in Turkish which we couldn’t decipher, but our new friend in the seat behind us smiled and we figured that we were headed toward the border. What luck! We thought we’d booked a bus ticket only to Cizre, and had fretted needlessly on how we might manage to get ourselves to the nearby tiny town of Silopi.

Once we exited the massive bus at Silopi, we were shown into a dusty room, with a rather tattered counter, though our confidence was bolstered by the enthusiasm of the well-kept fellow who manned it.  He somehow assured us that we were definitely on the right track, and that we could find a way to go to Iraq if we could wait, he held up 5 fingers, five somethings….we hoped he meant minutes. We left our gear with him and hurried off inside a derelict and empty building, and found a desperately needed toilet. Have I mentioned that most of the toilets since leaving home, and nearly all of the Turkish toilets are squatters? And Arab countries use water to cleanse themselves afterwards, so toilet paper is something that one carries and has on hand, or doesn’t use. All those small things about travelling somehow never make it into the guidebooks. They’re usually full of picturesque images of travel to “cradles of civilization”, but forget to mention that those civilizations have existed since time immemorial without the likes of tp.

About half an hour later, a small white van arrived, and we began negotiating with the driver. Actually, there was no negotiation, he just used his hands to tell us the price, and we shook our heads up and down like marionettes. The cost of the ride from Mardin to Silopi, on a giant, comfortable bus was about 8 dollars and took around 2 hours. This didn’t seem like such a good price, since it was 10 dollars and the border was within 10 miles. But we surrendered immediately, and threw our stuff into the back of his messy van, which smelled strongly of diesel fuel.

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He made several more stops before we left Silopi, once to pick up a young woman with an infant, another to pick up a man who looked like a Turkish version of Ichabod Crane, with a thigh length sports jacket and all. As we neared the border crossing, there were trucks parked along the highway for miles and miles. In fact, 2 of the 4 lane highways were taken up by stagnant lines of trucks, most of which were driverless, looking like they’d been parked there for weeks. But the drivers were out and about, looking relaxed. I had never seen such a long queue of traffic. Our driver left the highway and went on the other side, swerving in and out of oncoming traffic. No one seemed to mind that we were driving on the wrong side of the highway except Jan and I, who were determined to take our cues from our fellow passengers. They were completely nonplussed by it, so we managed to relax, too. We drove and drove and drove past the never ending lines of trucks and finally came to what looked like the border, where our driver cut into the queue. I was surprised at the generosity of the truck drivers, who smiled at him and waved us in front.

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At the checkpoint, which I thought was the official border, our driver got out of the van, with our passports and a sheaf of papers, with Mr. Ichabod, and they went inside the building, returning about 10 minutes later, and on we drove. Repeat of line-ups and congestion at yet another kiosk, with more papers and documents to sign. Finally we stopped outside a large, modern building, were asked to all go inside, where we waited while the driver vied for attention from one of the attendants. This took around half an hour, and we were each asked to come to the counter as they called out strange versions of our names. (To verify our photos, I presumed). So at last, we had exited Turkey…all that just to leave!

Another few minutes and we entered Iraq, with a quick stamp of our passports at a drive up window.

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On the other side our driver stopped abruptly at a parking lot full of parked cars and helped us remove our bags. We’d read about the “garagi” the taxi drivers waiting at the border to ferry people into Iraq. The young mother, who was now a good friend, since we’d played and entertained her baby throughout the trip, arranged our transport into Duhok, another hour away. She frowned at us and waved us away when we tried to intercede in the negotiation, so we let her negotiate with the taxi driver and pay, intending to pay her later. I also intended to call Teli, our contact here in Iraq to let him know we were on our way and had passed the border checkpoints, but my Turkish sim card, wasn’t working, so she phoned Teli and organized a transfer point in Duhok. Again, we had much to be thankful for on this foray into the unknown. Teli met us near his office, and we said our farewells to our lovely new friends, and hellos to Teli, who from then on began giving us his rendition of the most generous hospitality that we could ever imagine.