A Travellerspoint blog

Bordering a Warzone

My laptop made an almost holy resurrection – so here is my last blog from Iraq before moving on to eastern Turkey: about travelling just a few dozen kilometres from an active warzone.

sunny 46 °C
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While the Kurdish armed forces – the Peshmenga – had placed themselves firmly between my destinations and the unruly, Islamist-controlled territory of northern Arab Iraq I was not completely spared the daily life of conflict – neither in my surroundings nor psychological.

Lalish - Yaziri Sanctuary

Lalish - Yaziri Sanctuary

Safety-wise I did have to take a few precautions. Mainly in the area close to Mosul, where there is both beautiful monasteries, sanctuaries for unknown religions like the Yazidi and rare Christian villages - all sites of interest to the average traveller. The unsure situation basically meant that public transportation is out of the question. Should something happen was it essential that were able to get out of there quickly, hiring our own wheels was thus essential. Secondly there are a lot of check-points to get through – the soldiers are generally friendly, but suspicious, though not totally unfamiliar with foreigners. Most importantly are check-points the best places for up-to-date information about an area: Is area safe? Has there been any fighting here? When? How far are we away from the fighting? Check-points are hence not necessarily places that will turn you back – they are as much places where you decided to go back from. As I indeed had to do on one occasion heading to a monastery a little too close to the action.

Check-Point

Check-Point

I have also been spared to witnessing the gravest of human suffering. Most by products of the war have been little more than small announces given the scale of the conflict. Longer queues at check-points because long lines for refugees tried to enter Kurdish cities to avoid the camps. Budget hotel being sold out or raising prized because the number of refugees who found their way to the cities had raised demand drastically while they were looking for a better place to stay – it is not uncommon that three or four displaced families rent a house together. Public transportation costs raises because petrol had been rationed to favour the Peshmenga, creating lines stretching many kilometers at the few open gas stations.

Gas Queues

Gas Queues

To be honest, while all of this is annoying for the average traveller it is not really something I can the liberty to complain about – so I won’t. The suffering lying at the heart of this problem – the conflicts in Iraq and Syria – is simply to grave for traveller’s complaints.
I did have a change to visit a temporary refugee-camp in the city of Dohuk, northeast of Mosul and not too far from the Turkish border. The couple of thousand people living there were waiting for the UN to complete a new and permanent camp (now that is a depressing term, ‘permanent camp’).

Conversations with refugees <br />(not in the camp)

Conversations with refugees
(not in the camp)

Living in basic tends, having been able to bring very few possessions with them, lacking proper sanitation for such an amount of people and having to endure the blazing dessert sun makes living hard here. Though there were upsides: most were happy to have avoided ISIL as well as government air-strikes, the UN and the Red Cross were making sure there is adequate food and water and the prospects of a move to a better camp definitely improved moral. And with that I would prefer to end with a positive note.

Post Script
Normally I would apologise for not having pictures of the context of my blog, but not in the case of the camp. I did not even bring my camera. It is simply not my job as a traveller – as a tourist – to go out into a refugee camp and shoot away. I will let (photo) journalists show you the stories from these places I will simply not make these peoples suffering a part of my vacation photos.
Nor do I have any particular interest in keeping these pictures around. Most of it is going to stay with me no matter how much I try to forget it. Seeing such a camp with you own eyes makes a far stronger impression that watching it on the news.

Posted by askgudmundsen 10:00 Archived in Iraq Tagged travel iraq war safety safe kurdistan isis current_situation Comments (0)

Kurdish Homestay

Being amongst the most hospitable peoples on earth an invitation to stay in a local home was almost unavoidable.

sunny 46 °C
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Looking for the supposedly only hotel in the small Iraqi town of Koya a car suddenly pulls up alongside me and holds to a stop. “How are you?” the young guy behind the wheel seems happy to see me. Explaining my situation I am instantly offered a ride to a hotel – which turns out to have been closed for years. No matter, I can stay with his family. An invitation I have received multiple times during my travels, and one that never fails to impress me – the scale of trust, mental resourcefulness and hospitality for just offering such an invitation to a stranger have I always found to be extraordinary. It is something I have experience from Latin America to Central Asia, but nowhere as often as amongst the Kurds.

My Iraqi family

My Iraqi family

Leaving two days after I had arrived, it was difficult to get the family to accept that I had to move on. More places to see, a visa that would eventually expire and fear of overstaying my welcome simply meant that I had to leave. My fear of overstaying was definitely unfounded – a number of times I was asked to stay another day, I had to promise that I would visit if I ever returned to Iraq and it was very clear that I from now on could consider myself as part of the family.

Breaking the fast

Breaking the fast

When I was first driven to the door there was impressively not a single second of consideration from the family. Instead I was instantly offered tea and sweets – incredibly because it is Ramadan and I was the only one allowed to eat or drink anything. From here it just took off: I was invited to break Ramadan with the family during the evening and when the oldest son visited with his wife I was invited with them so the town’s amusement park for rides, ice cream and fun.
Further the son was an army officer, so the family insisted on me having his mobile number just in case I ever got into troubles with the police or at the check-points. Something with is basically a get out of jail for free card down here – or at least get past the check-point with not trouble card.

Iraqi amusement park

Iraqi amusement park

The easiest way to deal with the Ramadan is literarily to sleep the day away. So in a household with four teenage boys, two nephews visiting home from Finland and a number of friends in the neighbourhood it made for some very long nights. Most of these were spent in the garden puffing away on nagilas or water pipes. Though I did not hold out for as long they did – which would be to daybreak so they could eat breakfast just before the sun would rise.

Nagilia (Water Pipe) Night

Nagilia (Water Pipe) Night

The day I had to myself, whether I would sit and write or explore the town. But no matter how I spent the day I could be sure there was plenty of ice cold water, freshly pressed juice and water melon being offered me as soon as I show myself in the house’s common room. Again, something I find extraordinary since no-one else was allowed to eat or drink anything during days where temperatures reached beyond 45 degrees. Feeling terrible about this fact they would not hear me out and I was certainly not allowed to sympathy fast – no I had to eat, and often more that I actually could eat.
When I finally was allowed to leave I was given a fresh shirt (whether this was hospitality or a hint of something is open to debate), given a ride to the bus station. The family even paid my 3 dollar bus ticket, brushing aside my protests as they did so.

Sleeping arrangements

Sleeping arrangements

So for anyone who would like to improve or freshen up on hospitality a visit to Kurdistan is highly recommended. Now all you would have to do afterwards – and all I have to do now – is trying to observe this and return the hospitality I have received to others once I am back home where I will be the host. While I probably cannot live up the treatment I have received, I can try as hard as possible to live up to it.

Posted by askgudmundsen 13:20 Archived in Iraq Tagged iraq homestay visit ramadan hospitality kurdistan Comments (0)

Why would anyone travel to Iraq?

It is certainly not for the monuments or a splendid nature. So what the hell am I doing in Iraq then?

sunny 40 °C
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Forget the usual explanations that travellers normally give when they are heading into harm’s way: “The media exaggerate the situation“ or “it’s a domestic conflict, they don’t care about foreigners” or “most locals will rather help you than hurt you”.

The Kurdish Parliament

The Kurdish Parliament

While those explanations above are usually true, Iraq is not normally the place to travel to. Though the media probably do exaggerate the current situation just a bit and most locals are really nice people here. This lesson instead starts with a little bit of political geography. Because most of the surprise and chock I received when telling friends and family that I was heading to Iraq for my summer holiday was based on a fact: The lines of your world map lies.

Studying Global Studies I apologise if this gets too nerdy. For while the map above this blog entry, shows me to be in Iraq, I am really not. I am in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, and this is basically another country. While not recognised as an independent state Kurdistan does have its own president, its own parliament and their own ethnicity and languish. The Kurds speak Kurdish not Arabic, and they would definitely take offence if you call them Arabs. Kurdistan even has its own army, an army that is both better trained and more experienced than the regular Iraqi army. Years of fighting against Saddam and Assad (the Syrian president) as well as changing Turkish and Iranian governments have hardened the Kurdish Peshmerga into a formidable fighting force.

Erbil Citadel

Erbil Citadel

Just to show how different Iraq and Kurdistan actually are: the Kurds have their own visa regime. I would actually need another completely different visa to visit the ‘real’ Iraq (a fact that I am sure my parents celebrate as they read this). The visa I have instead proudly pronounces: Republic of Iraq – Kurdish Region.

Kurdish Bazaar

Kurdish Bazaar

So why would anyone actually travel to and around Kurdistan? First of all is Erbil (the regional capital) one of the best places to sit and sip in the shade of a citadel while watching old men play domino on the neighbouring tea bed, while youths and families hang out on the central square below. Other than good tea spots Kurdistan offers a change to get away from the crowds – almost nobody else visit the unknown travel destination. There are no tourists and no tourist’s infrastructure – Kurdistan is in many aspects untouched – so much that some locals I have talked to do not recognise the idea of tourism, but do understand the idea of a visitor or a guest. And the Kurds are famed for their hospitality – it will be seriously hard to avoid offers of lunch, dinner or a place to sleep depending on the time and places you visit.

Erbil Main Square

Erbil Main Square

More excitingly (and here I mean exciting in the morbid sense of the word) is there something trilling about Kurdistan’s location next to some of the World’s most troubled regions. Places close to the border can be dangerously close to the battleground and there is just something about having to ask ‘Is it safe?’ before going somewhere new. At least for romantics like me who longs for the old days were it was still possible to explorer the blanks of the world map. Back when one could join James Cook’s crew or ride with the Cossacks into Central Asia’s mountains.

The South Gate

The South Gate

Kurdistan truly feels like a new discovery – it is unspoiled, guests are welcomed with open arms and it still got some of the dangers of exploring; while one is actually in very safe surroundings as long as you follow the advice you are given.
And that is at least why I have ended up here, for the time being…

Posted by askgudmundsen 12:52 Archived in Iraq Tagged travel iraq kurdistan erbil arbil hawler peshmerga kurdish_independence Comments (4)

Re-launch: Next Stop Iraq

Or rather Iraqi Kurdistan, which is something completely different!

semi-overcast 19 °C
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In late August 2013 I return home to Denmark after travelling Central Asia for seven months. I had finished my trip in Istanbul, but had also been delayed – something that is unavoidable backpacking off the beaten track. Rushing back to begin my master’s I had to take a direct bus to Istanbul from Tabriz in Iran, skipping both Iraqi Kurdistan and Eastern Turkey in the process.
Hence have I this summer chosen to redeem myself; spending a month visiting what I had to skip the last time around. And hopefully finishing this blog off from where I left it.

“You’re going to Iraq? Of course you are…” was one of my friends instant reacting once he heard my destination for this year’s summer holiday. Followed by a big sigh. To be fair I had yet to tell him I was heading to Kurdistan. And while thing can change fast when you are travelling on the outskirts of war zones like Syria and the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan is a country in its own right everywhere, but on the map.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been relatively peaceful since the establishment of a “No-Fly Zone” doing the first Gulf War. Even during the heights of the starting in 2003 Kurdistan was rarely dragged into the bloodshed.

Even now, with the advancement into north and eastern Iraq by the fanatic Islamist group ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) – a group so extreme they got kicked out of Al-Qaida – have Kurdistan been spared. This is largely explained by the fact that the military force of the Kurdish Regional Government, the Peshmerga is the most experienced and best trained armed force in Iraq.
The Kurds even managed this recent outbreak of chaos in the rest of Iraq to grab the oil-rich region of Kirkuk from the central Iraqi government, as the Kurds sees the region as part of their historic homeland. This last piece of information is definitely what concerns me the most. For if the Iraq army manage to regroup and force ISIL to a quick retreat, might there not be anything stopping them from an assault on Kirkuk. And while I am not planning any visits to Kirkuk any time soon, it would be a conflict that could spread further into the Kurdish region.

Then again, the Turkeys border is never further than a 200 dollars taxi ride away – 200 dollars that I have safely sewn into my pants. So should anything seriously happen can I always abandon everything, throw myself into the nearest car and flee north…

Posted by askgudmundsen 11:00 Archived in Denmark Tagged travel iraq safe kurdistan Comments (0)

One Dirty Traveller

There are a couple of girls I wouldn’t mind to impress with my worldliness when I get back – this is not gonna help me…

sunny 35 °C
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No Shower in the Cave Hotel

No Shower in the Cave Hotel

Travelling often reminds me of attending a festival. I’ve changed my daily routine, I’m absolutely free to do with the day’s 24 hours as I please and the normal rules for when to drink, relax and shower gets somewhat blurred. In fact, they often disappear altogether!
Granted, I’ve never been a freakish about my personal hygiene at home, but I usually take my daily shower, at least on days where I plan to actually leave my apartment. Anyway, I’m sure I have a rather complementary natural scent as my roommates and friends rarely complain. But I know people back home, in comparison, which would shower up to three times a day – that’s just silly.

Bath and Clothes Wash

Bath and Clothes Wash

These people probably won’t continue talking to me once I’m back after they read this. But personal hygiene just isn’t that important when I’m on the road. And I’m not alone to embrace these doubtful standards of cleanliness. Loads of fellow travellers’ standards drop when they leave home on longer trips. I like to think that it’s somehow related to the historic and romantic notions of travelling. James Cook’s sailors, the great African explorers or the first settlers of the Wild West weren’t too concerned with showers in the face of the rather dire odds for survival… But that is hardly an excuse in this day and age.
Or is it? I have, plenty of times, on this trip gone for days without getting close to a shower. Days and days where the closest to a shower I got was when I spilled water on my shirt while trying to drink it… The longest runs have probably been longer than ten days, but I haven’t really counted – that would be too disgusting!

Desert 'Camp'

Desert 'Camp'

Some of my rock-bottom accommodation didn’t have a shower (or what they called ‘showers’ would have made me even dirtier had I dared enter). For nights in a row I have been travelling on night trains or night buses, gone trekking in the mountains or camping in the dessert. Showers won’t be available for days like those, though other times I just haven’t bothered getting clean.

Somehow it just seem to be a good idea to mentally accept that you’re kind of filthy, sweaty and wearing dirty clothes in order to enjoy travelling around on a budget. When it’s not always determined when I’m gonna get my next shower, it’s just easier not to care. And once you’re there, it becomes hard to bother – even if there’s a shower right next to the dorm.

Bazaars Die Down

Bazaars Die Down

When temperatures hit 35+ you’ll be sweaty again minutes after you’ve showered, dust will cover you as soon you step outside and the dirty clothes (I’m only packing two trousers and less than a handful of boxers, which get less washed than me) suddenly feels very disgusting on my clean, baby-powdered skin.
I mean, I still brush my teeth and tongue, I still use my deo and I still splash my upper body in a sink-shower most mornings – but actually taking a full shower? I really can’t be bothered taking the time out of my schedule for that. I get up too late most mornings anyway. There always seem to be a bus leaving soon, a bazaar about to close or an epic sunrise I need to catch.

One Dirty Traveller

One Dirty Traveller

And evenings… If I’m during this travelling right am I often too exhausted – or drunk – to do anything that just flat out on a teabed or in my dorm. Usually discussing the day’s findings, the visa requirements for different citizens (for countries I’m not going to anytime soon) or whether there is an Irish Pub in Kabul (there is) or North Korea (there isn’t) with my fellow travellers. And who can possibly find the strength to get up in the middle of blood racing topics like that?

I’d almost argue that being covered in a layer of old sweat, dust and sunscreen is healthy. At least it makes me very comfortable with all my small shortcomings that people are still willing to share rooms and talk to me in such a condition… And as long as nobody can actually smell me, I really don’t need a shower… Right..?

Posted by askgudmundsen 11:11 Archived in Iran Tagged dirty bath shower clean travelling wash Comments (0)

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