Day One: Erbil, Iraq

by - August 13, 2012

First view of Iraq
Okay, well here we are in Iraqi Kurdistan.  It has been quite a journey, but has not actually been too painful and we are already in a country that has defied all of our expectations.  We flew with Austrian Airlines from Heathrow to Erbil via Vienna, a journey that took about 7 hours including a 1 hour stop in the Austrian capital.  Erbil Airport is no different to any other airport and getting a visa was easy - no fee, valid for 15 days.  By some kind of strange fluke, the guy at border control stamped my passport with my Iraqi stamp on the same page as my Vietnamese stamp - giving me quite a 20th century conflict collectors item.  A taxi brought us from the airport to the city centre where we found a hotel quite easily - the Hotel Qandeel which charged us 20000 Iraqi Dinar (about 10GBP) per night.

The Citadel, Erbil
One of Tom’s cousins of a friend of a friend, called Sipan, had arranged to meet us in the city when we had got settled.  As it is currently Ramaddan, everybody is fasting (no food OR water) which is very impressive considering that the temperature is over 45 degrees celsius, so there weren’t many people around when we left the hotel at about 5ish.  It was still extremely hot, but we had a little walk around the city’s citadel, perched on a rock above the rest of the city.  Erbil, a city of 1.2 million, is the centre of the autonomous Kurdish government and is arguably the oldest continuously inhabited settlement on earth, at between 6500 and 8000 years old.  Only Damascus in Syria can challenge it.  The citadel is an archaeological treasure trove that has yet to be properly discovered - the government have only just cleared it of the local population in order to undertake the massive renovation and protection work that it needs.  It was deserted in the citadel and you could really feel the history in between the ancient walls.  By this stage Tom and I had been up for pushing 40 hours and we therefore retired to the hotel to get some sleep.

Fountains below Erbil citadel
We arranged to meet Sipan at 8, but left the hotel an hour or so before that to wander around by ourselves for a bit.  We sat in the city’s main square and were soon joined by a young Kurdish man who was studying at Northumbria University and had driven back (3500 miles worth) across Europe to spend the summer with his family.  His English was impeccable (albeit with a Geordie accent) and he had a great knowledge of the north of England (he even knew where my Grandma lived in Stoke).  Having assumed that Tom and I would be totally isolated out here, it was incredible to meet somebody with such a good knowledge of both Kurdistan and England.  We took his phone number down as we are going to his home town later in the trip.  Sipan met us at 8 and we had some dinner together at one of the numerous food stalls.  The city really came to life as the sun went down and people were able to break their fasts.  We walked a little way out of the centre with Sipan towards what appeared to be a fun fair.  There were lots of local families out with their children and the atmosphere was extremely relaxed.  We walked around the park and then looked in an art gallery which contained some surprisingly liberal art work.  We thought that we had finished for the night, but Sipan then took us over to the “family mall” - a massive shopping air conditioned shopping centre on the outside of the city containing all sorts of western brands - Levis, Mothercare, Carrefour to name a few.  We got a coffee at a shop that could easily have been a Starbucks, watching American music on the TV and reflecting that there might be an awful lot more to Iraq than we were expecting.

Family Mall…in Iraq

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