Thursday, June 21, 2012

Into Iran - Kermanshah

After leaving the cemetary in Halabja, while waiting for a taxi to take me back to the station to leave I was stopped by a jeep full of security police that ID'd and questioned me and then made sure I got in a taxi to the station. I'm not sure if they were being helpful or I was being run out of town, but they are obviously not used to seeing tourists running around. A couple of quick shared taxi rides later I was in Penjwin, the final town before the border where I got into the final taxi and met a very nice Iranian guy also heading across the border. This was the first Iranian I'd met on this trip and somehow, before I even knew what was going on I already felt more relaxed and comfortable.
He spoke a little English, worked in Iraq as an engineer and was heading home to see his family for a week. He definitely didn't need to help me as he was going north and I south, but he wanted to make sure I was totally organized and so he crossed the border with me, got us a ride to Merivan (the first Iranian town), bought me lunch, organized and bought me a local SIM card, helped me change money, organized our onward transport to Sanandaj (where we eventually split up) and put me on my last ride to Kermanshah. He paid for everything and refused my attempts at such. The SIM card was particularly useful as Iran has some sort of restriction on selling them to foreigners easily but he talked the salesperson into selling it to him, so he could give it to me and I wouldn't have to jump through any hoops. Needless to say, I was immediately impressed and liking Iran much better than Iraq, though technically I was still in the greater Kurdish area.

The road to the Iraq/Iran border near Penjwin.

My first friend in Iran.

In Kermanshah I was picked up by my next host, Bayan and driven another ½ hr east to a small village near Saneh, where his parents lived. Bayan was Kurdish and his family members of a minority religious group by the name of Ahl-e Haqq. I won't even begin to attempt to explain it as it is quite an interesting mix of old eastern religions, but it just shows the diversity still found today in Iran. By this time it was 11pm (I'd lost 1 ½ hrs to the time zone change when crossing the border) and they'd stayed up to meet me and had even postponed dinner until I arrived. Bayan had hosted before in Tehran, but I was the first guest ever brought to his parents home. There were all really kind and I spent the next day getting to know the surrounding area with Bayan and his cousin, having lunch cooking kebabs in his cousin's garden.

The village area near Saneh.

Making kebabs in the garden.

The park along the river in Saneh.

Sunset over Saneh.

We also spent time visiting the UNESCO site of Bistoun where you can see reliefs carved into the side of a mountain, the most important of which is from Darius the Great and dating back to roughly 2500 years ago though there is a wide range of dates to all the things to see there, from prehistoric to relatively modern. Unfortunately that most important and famous relief is completely covered with scaffolding and can't be seen at all, so the site was a little disappointing overall. We also saw some more rock reliefs, Taq-e Boston, on the northern edge of Kermanshah itself, those dating from about 1700 years ago.

The view from Bistoun.

Taq-e Boston

Taq-e Boston

A couple of first impressions of Iran. The driving is completely psychotic, especially the taxis. I have no trouble believing that Iran has one of the highest traffic death rates in the world. I will try to avoid share taxis and stick to buses in the future. Transportation costs are much much cheaper as the fuel is almost free, though there is a system here where the fuel is rationed out to people at fixed maximum limits over a set period of time. There is also a very high uniformity to the cars here as almost every car on the road is one of the local makes or a Peugeot.
The people are really nice and have been much more friendly and curious from the first minute than they were in Iraq or the gulf states. I was expecting that to some extent from what I'd heard from others that had been here before. A lot of the people are very light-skinned and I am often thinking that I'm seeing other foreign tourists when in fact it's just locals. Europeans really must be descended from some of this stock. There is also a high diversity of ethnic groups as I'm meeting Iranians that are Arabs, Kurds, Lors, etc in addition to Persian. Personally I like the word Persia more than Iran and so do many others here, so I'll probably often call them Persian instead of Iranian.
The food is also really good so far. I don't know why it surprises me other than I have come to generally not expect it much while travelling but they actually eat a lot of salad here and like their vegies.

Monday, June 18, 2012


The other 2 couchsurfers I'd met were hitchers and tried to convince me to do the same. They were headed north to Turkey while I was heading east to Sulymaniyeh. I considered doing it, knowing from previous experience that it can be quite easy to hitch in the middle east, but walking down the street and realizing that half the cars were taxis, nobody was even looking at me and seeing a sign showing that it was 45C at 10:30am definitely encouraged me to not do it but jump in a shared taxi instead. Transport in Iraq is surprisingly expensive and the shared taxis, which as far as I know are the only real option, run at about $5/hr. This is actually kind of high, though it might not sound expensive. I'd say the really cheap countries cost about $1/hr and anything over $3/hr is definitely not a “cheap” country. The difference adds up quickly when you are constantly taking 8hr rides. As an example, even in Germany with the rideshares I was taking, the cost wasn't really much more than 6 euros/hr for many rides. In Iraq the price of fuel is $1/L, which is stupidly high for a middle eastern country that has so much oil. None of the other major oil producers nearby charge that much within their own country. Fortunately in Iraq the roads are pretty good and distances not far so the rides are short. There are checkpoints but for the most part they just wave the cars through and I was only ID'd a couple of times total in Iraq. It's much worse in many other countries.
$5 and a little under an hour later I was in Koya. I had to go to Koya because the faster and more direct route to Sulymaniyeh goes via Kirkuk which is generally considered to be best avoided at all costs. Kirkuk and Mosul are disputed cities of Kurdistan but are currently controlled by the Arab part and a often unstable still. The Koya route takes a little longer but is more scenic, travelling though the foothills of the region's mountains. Koya is a small town and I figured I'd have better luck securing a lift so spent a little while hitching before getting a ride another hour and half further to Sulymaniyeh.

The road to Koya.


It was a nice drive and in Sulymaniyeh I was dropped off at a meeting point arranged by a last-minute host referred to me by Divan, who had shown me around Ainkawa since my other pre-arranged host had had to cancel. I made a terrible first impression when meeting this new host, Sako, because the driver that had given me the lift, upon seeing Sako, immediately pulled out a business card, claimed to be a private taxi and wanted a huge sum for the ride he'd just given me. Curses upon all taxi drivers and their sons unto the 7th generation!! You can imagine my reaction and the driver is lucky Sako was there because Iraq or no Iraq I was going to kill him for such a stunt. Hitching is a relatively unknown concept in Iraq but I would hope scamming the non-existant tourists would be too. He may have been an off-duty taxi driver, but he was not in a taxi and nothing about his vehicle or our interaction suggested at a private hire of any sort. Sako talked him out of an immediate confrontation and said he'd deal with it later. To be honest I'm not sure what ended up getting resolved but having to explain my way out of that and the prospect of someone forking up money to the guy soured both of our moods instantly and made everything thereafter awkward between us... I don't think I'll try hitching again for a while.
Sako wasn't actually going to host me but was simply a contact for Sulymaniyeh since I no longer had any idea what I was doing there. He was technically still working (as a technician at the main internet provider) so took me back to his office where I chatted with his coworkers until he was free. In that time I managed to get an invite to stay with one of the other guys at his home for the night. After work Sako drove me around a bit, gave me a view over the city from one of the nearby hills and we walked and chatted in the park for a while before I was dropped off at the other guy's place. Interesting to me, is that the area immediately surrounding Sulymaniyah is where wheat and many other vital cereal grains were first domesticated.

Arriving in Sulymaniyeh.

Overlooking Sulymaniyeh.

The guy's room turned out to be the converted office rooms above a still-functioning warehouse but good enough for me. There is a lot of Korean presence in Iraq with tons of Korean products, from cars to household products to Kurdish-dubbed Korean movies on tv. Funny. Anyway, it was a one-night kind of invite, thus accelerating my plans for Iraq, and the following morning, after a quick breakfast I was dropped off at the Red Prison museum while he went to work. The red prison is now a museum about the Kurdish genocide by the previous regime and the prison was a notorious torture and holding site. There actually isn't much to see, but the few buildings were shot up quite a bit during the 1991 rebellion and have been empty since, as far as I know. There wasn't any information and the guide that took me through simply opened up rooms with a key and said “This is holding cell.”, “This is torture room.”, “This is memorial.” so I didn't learn much. There is a memorial room set up with broken glass walls and small lights on the ceiling. 180,000 shards of glass to represent the Kurdish killed, and 4500 lights to represent the villages destroyed.

Red Prison.

Memorial of glass and lights in the Red Prison.

From there I took a shared taxi to the small town of Halabja. It's famous as the site of the chemical weapon massacre of March 16th, 1988 when Saddam Hussein (or more specifically “Chemical Ali”) attacked his own people by dropping chemical weapons on the town, killing ~6,500 people and injuring many more. In typical international fashion there was very little initial outcry as we had much more important political things to think of and yet later conveniently used it as one of the reasons to justify deposing Saddam Hussein and effecting “regime change”.
Today there is a monument to the deceased, with many graphic photos and a central room listing the names of the dead, sorted into family groups, so you can immediately see and understand that entire families were wiped out and not just random individuals. There are obviously not a lot of visitors out to such a remote place and for now the staff are friendly and give visitors a lot of information in the form of a large picture book and CD's about the event and general genocide. Nearby there is also the cemetery memorial where the dead are buried and remembered. How many more genocide memorials do I need to see??? There are far to many in the world.....

Halabja genocide monument.

Using the original bombs...

Halabja cemetary.


Erbil, Iraq

The thought of Iraq brings up all sorts of horror stories in people's minds. It gets a lot more media coverage than most other countries in the world these days which in my mind means media bias and exaggerated preconceptions. I've seen first hand how that has affected my expectations of other countries I've visited, Ethiopia being a perfect example. It also means that if I say something contrary to what you expect to hear, then I get accused of being a know-it-all after only a couple days in country and discredited or completely ignored. Sky did 3 tours in Iraq and spent over a year total in the country. His experiences (and purpose) were completely different and while we may contradict each other, each is a valid perspective on the country. At best all I can give you are my basic and quick impressions and compare them to my impressions from other places.
The reality is that we both went to different Iraqs, and they are night and day. The Iraq of the invasion, occupation and major media exposure is the southern Arab Iraq. The Iraq I was in is the northeastern autonomous Kurdish Iraq, aka Kurdistan. In many ways they operate as 2 different countries and it seems that they eventually will be. It seems inevitable and probably not even very far off. This is a region of the world with bizarre politics and there is a ton for them to sort out, but it wouldn't surprise me if it became the next recognized country of the world as I can't think of any other serious contenders at the moment.
The Kurdish people live in the region covering northeastern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, western Iran and northern Syria. In Turkey they are oppressed, the militant Kurdish PKK is considered a terrorist group and constantly gets into skirmishes with the Turkish military. During Saddam's reign the oppression and persecution of the Kurds hit genocidal levels. Despite being a major ethnic group in the region they have never had their own recognized country as a people though they have had great leaders and significant cultural influences on the region. One of the most famous historical Kurds was Saladin, the great Muslim warrior who was victorious over the crusaders on many occassions. During the US-led invasion, the Kurds were the most supportive group within the country and there was really no fighting or major instability in their areas. Many people told me that they never even considered fleeing the region for their safety while many others eventually moved there from the more troubled south.
Thus it has been more or less stable and safe for visitors the entire time and a trickle of tourists has always continued to cross from Turkey for quick visits. So with that in mind I feel a little bit like a cheater saying I've been to Iraq and it feels a lot more touristy than a lot of other places I have been, especially recently, like Chad or Somaliland.. The current reality is that Kurdistan is very open to foreign visitors and development and will allow me to enter visa free for 10 days into its region. Less than an hour away, past checkpoints I can't cross, with a visa I can't get, I could get myself killed in Mosul or Kirkuk, very dangerous cities for westerners in Arab-controlled Iraq (though both are disputed regions of Kurdistan). .
How is it that it can be safe here and not there? Well, there is a lot of security, but to be honest, running around in Erbil, the “capital” of Kurdistan, it doesn't feel like anywhere close to a war zone compared to some other places I've been. Apparently the people are quite multi-ethnic here and although very racist (the Kurds hate the Arabs and Turks), they hate intolerance more. I was told by a western guy living here that one of the reasons there is no conflict is that officially they don't tolerate trouble makers and people like that don't exist here long. Whatever that might mean.... Iraqi's from the south need special permits to be allowed into Kurdistan also, presumably to prevent trouble from heading north and also to prevent internal refugees from hiding out somewhere safe. I'd gone to visit this guy with my host the night I arrived and he had a loaded pistol sitting on his desk as we relaxed and chatted. I'm told everyone has a gun, or many, from small to very big which might sound scary, but the atmosphere and vibe was definitely one more of tolerance than violence.
The Kurds simply have too much to lose by being stupid. They are sitting on a massive amount of oil and other natural resources. Everyone, and really everyone around here has told me that Erbil's stated goal is to become the next Dubai, and they could potentially pull it off, though it's still a long way away. There is money flowing into here in disgusting amounts and it's immediately obvious. They are also on a path to a creating a legitimate country they can call their own. The last thing they need is instability.

Having said all that, the whole thing is still a giant mess. I flew into Erbil International Airport. It was opened in 2005 and is very modern, clean and organized and has the feeling of preparing for something bigger. There are now direct flights from several locations in Europe with more opening up all the time. My flight from Amsterdam had only just started a month or 2 before. The people on the flight were mostly Kurdish diaspora going back to visit family. Many of the women were not wearing headscarves, many of the children had light-colored eyes and I even got an invite to stay with one of the passengers at his family home in another town a few hours away.
My flight was a little late and landed at 9pm. I was lucky. Most international flights are scheduled to arrive after midnight so the passengers are forced to take the very expensive airport taxis into town. My host, a Tunisian, had forgotten about me and was working when I called him but he arranged for a friend to pick me up and bring me to his work. He's the manager of Carrefour, has been here for a year and had very little good to say about the country actually. It's corrupt, it's chaotic, nobody knows what they are doing, etc, especially in comparison to other gulf countries that he had worked in previously. The store just opened, 4 years behind schedule, but then the entire mall had been 2 years behind as well. But it was a real, modern shopping mall. You'd never know you weren't in America. It had fashionable women walking around unscarved and alcohol served in it's restaurants. They are much more liberal in Kurdistan (at least in parts of Erbil) than most of the rest of the middle east, feeling much more like Lebanon or Turkey than Afghanistan.
Chad was expensive and war-torn and maybe starting to get its act together a bit but not overly optimistic except maybe in a relative sense compared to it's own history. Somaliland was cheap and war-torn but a little more optimistic, but with no money not a lot was getting done in a hurry. Erbil is expensive and while not exactly war-torn itself we still think of the country that way. But with oil money coming in, development will come fast and furious. I asked the same western guy why he'd come here for the long-term, and his answer was simply that Kurdistan is the richest and fastest emerging market on the planet. A quick look around supports that thought. Everyone says that 5 years ago Erbil was little more than a neglected town. Now it has a new airport, wide, newly-paved roads, half-finished construction projects everywhere and everyone seems to be driving a new car. Reminiscent of Kuwait and the other gulf states where there is more money than sense, the people are obsessed with nice cars, buying big SUV's or new Dodge Chargers of all things and driving them around to show off. Of course this also means that the driving is very, very undisciplined.
The following day, with my host at work again, I ventured off to the city centre to see about some history. Erbil is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and right in the middle is the “citadel”. Erbil is flat, but the citadel is a collection of ruined buildings sitting on a mound 30m above the rest of town. I couldn't help but think of “The Source” by James A. Michener as I walked up there to contemplate all the layers of history that I was surely standing on top of. The citadel is now a big restoration project which means that all the little side streets and ruined buildings are off limits and you can only walk along it's one central street or admire the view over Erbil from the 2 gates, but it's presence is still remarkable.

The citadel.

The citadel.

Below the citadel is the central market area so I had a wander through there as well until emerging blisters forced me to quit for the day. I saw a couple of other western visitors at the citadel so I must not be much of a novelty but I was not expecting to be completely ignored by all the locals the whole day. People were friendly if I interacted with them, but nobody approached me first. This also reminded me of the gulf states.

View from the citadel.

Covered market.

Muslim graveyard.

That evening I met with another local couchsurfer to go out for an evening walk around Ainkawa, the neighbourhood I was staying in. This was when I learned why it seemed so liberal. It turns out that Ainkawa used to be an entirely Christian neighbourhood and is still about 80% Christian. This local, Divan, was neither Kurdish nor Arab, but actually an Assyrian, the descendants of ancient Mesopotamia, speaking Aramaic as his native tongue, and practicing Chaldean Catholicism like most of the people in Ainkawa. I'd been to 1 of the 3 Aramaic-speaking villages of Syria before (and they speak a purer Aramaic apparently) but had not realized that there were more elsewhere. He showed me some of the churches (one dating back to 350AD though rebuilt), a cemetary where they recently uncovered mummies dating to 1500BC and signs written in 4 languages, Aramaic, Arabic, Kurdish and English. Aramaic has it's own ancient alphabet (also written right to left), while Kurdish and Arabic use the same script. Unlike other eastern Christians, the Chaldeans are not Orthodox but are Catholic and follow the pope in Rome though they have church services in Aramaic, a practice which predates the Catholic church.

My neighbourhood in Ainkawa.

The next day, a pair of couchsurfers arrived from eastern Iraq and invited me to join them at a football match in Erbil that night. It was actually the final match of the Viva World Cup, a competition between non-countries. The final match was between Kurdistan and North Cyprus, with Kurdistan ultimately winning and the fans being very noisy and excited about it. It wasn't particularly good football but the energy of the crowd was quite fun and we ended up meeting 2 American CS girls teaching in Erbil as well. We all ended up going straight home after that though as we all had to get up early to leave the following morning.


Sunday, June 03, 2012

Another video of Chad

Great news! James has finished another video from the trip to Chad. This one is from our time in Moussoro setting up the computer learning centre. I was cameraman again but make a very, very brief cameo (see if you can find me).

I am flying into Erbil, Iraq on thursday to start my next trip. Stay tuned....