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.