Visiting Iraq: The Practicalities

Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
Will Iraq become the next big adventure travel destination?

Short answer: Not yet.

Long answer:

At the moment most of Iraq is closed to solo travel. The Iraqi government has authorized only a few group tour companies such as Hinterland Travel and Babel Tours. These tours have a set itinerary and offer very little freedom for individual movement. This is not the fault of the tour operators. The security situation dictates that the government approves the itinerary ahead of time. Our translator had to carry a ream of official papers to get us into each stop on our itinerary.

In addition, guards from the Interior Ministry accompany each group. I had a bit of friction with these guys. I wanted to stop and talk to people, or wander off on my own when I felt the situation was safe enough. They didn’t like that.

Group travel in Iraq does offer some advantages. The distances are long and having a bus to take you to the far-flung sites is very convenient. Having a translator along was another important asset. Plus the tour company handled all the visas. The group visa is approved ahead of time in Baghdad and the tour company sends you a copy of the approval letter. The visa itself is picked up at Baghdad airport. Anyone who has traveled extensively in the Middle East knows what a hassle the bureaucracy can be. It was nice to have someone else deal with that for once.

The first question on everybody’s mind, of course, is safety. Iraq felt far safer than I thought it would. I ditched the guards and took a solo stroll through Baghdad and went on a beer run in Basra with no trouble. Bad idea? Maybe, but most of my best memories have come from bad ideas.While Iraq was safer than I thought, it wasn’t as safe as I hoped. At times I was glad to have those guards around. In some places like Nasiriyah and the Sunni Triangle we got nasty stares. Only once did we face open hostility, when an old woman at the house of Imam Ali started chucking rocks at us. She was too far away to hit us and the police quickly shooed her away. The incident was depressing rather than frightening.

Our tour leader Geoff Hann says the security situation is improving. He’s been coming to Iraq for years and on our trip he kept commenting that there were fewer checkpoints and fewer troubles with the police. Considering the numerous waits we had at checkpoints (once for two hours) I have to wonder what his previous trips were like. Hann and other observers say there will probably be solo travel in Iraq in the next few years. Of course the security situation could change tomorrow so it’s probably best not to make any predictions.

The one major exception to all this is Kurdistan, which is open to individual travel already. It is far safer and more stable than central Iraq. This is not to say that it’s like visiting Belgium. Travelers should still register with their embassy and use caution and common sense.

Like with most adventure travel destinations, travelers need to come to Iraq prepared. Hinterland Travel provided us with a long list of medications to bring along. The pharmacies turned out to be pretty good, but it’s better to be on the safe side. Mineral water is a must, as is sunscreen. Even in the winter the heat could be punishing.

Those willing to brave the dangers and inconveniences of traveling in Iraq will be richly rewarded. As this series has shown, there’s an incredible amount to see, from famous ancient cities like Ur and Babylon to beautiful mosques in places like Najaf and Karbala. The best, the most important, part of any trip is the people. The Iraqis didn’t disappoint me. The vast majority loved the fact that I was there. Over and over again people came to welcome me to their country. As for the minority who gave me poison stares and that one woman who chucked stones, who knows what they’ve been through? I can’t judge them. Maybe when I pass down their street again five years from now they’ll give me a second chance.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

[Image courtesy Wikipedia]

Ten Random Observations About Iraq

Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
While traveling in Iraq I noticed some interesting things that didn’t fit into any of the articles in my series. Some of these observations may be obvious to those more familiar with the country, but odd first impressions are one of the fun things about travel!

1. The traffic police have these cool kiosks that imitate their uniform. Looks like this guy left his tie at home.

2. Spongebob Squarepants is popular here. The best photo I didn’t take was of a woman in an abaya at Kadamiyya shrine, one of the holiest spots for Shia Islam, carrying a Spongebob balloon. No child was in sight!

3. The TV commercial for Vaseline Healthy Soap shows a mother washing her son in the bathtub. In an almost identical version the child in the tub is a girl and she’s wearing a bathing suit.

4. None of the hotels I stayed at had plugs for the sink, but the caps for the mineral water bottles fit perfectly.

5. There were many imitations of Western snacks, such as Mountain Rush soda and Wrinkles potato chips. Oddly, these were made by Western companies and distributed by regional ones. I suppose that was a way to get around copyright infringement.

%Gallery-170776%6. Most restaurants only serve the same half-dozen meals: lamb or chicken kebab, chicken tikka, roast chicken with rice, and roast chicken without rice. They’ll often have a nice long menu listing lots of other meals, but you won’t be able to get them.

7. The various security services have a bewildering variety of uniforms. Nearly all of them are available for anyone to purchase in the various shops in the Baghdad souk.

8. Arabic music videos have credits.

9. Iraq uses three types of outlets. Most are UK style, some are EU style, and there’s a third plug that’s unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else. You can see one below.

10. No Iraqi I met thinks Obama is a Muslim.

You might also be interested in my ten random observations about Ethiopia and Greece!

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Visiting Iraq: The Practicalities!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

A Solo Stroll Through Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
I am alone in Baghdad. After a farewell dinner and a visit to an Iraqi amusement park my travel companions have left for the airport. Our guards from the Interior Ministry have gone off to other duties and I’m staying unguarded in my hotel. I don’t fly out until tomorrow.

I’m not supposed to leave the hotel. Guards are supposed to be with me at all times. While I understand why the government insists on this rule, I’ve found the guards annoying. They’ve often made me move on when I’ve wanted to linger at a place or continue a conversation, and I get the feeling some people didn’t approach me because of their presence.

Now I finally have a chance to see Iraq without them. I’m not nervous about this. Well, not too nervous. My hotel is in a good neighborhood and I walked in Basra without a guard and had no trouble. Besides, the biggest risk here is from car bombs and I don’t really see what a guard can do about that.

I don’t have much of an area to explore. I can’t go through a checkpoint alone. The best result I could get from that stunt would be a stern lecture and a police escort back to my hotel. The worst result is something better left unexplored. So my Baghdad tour is limited to one neighborhood circumscribed by police barricades.

The neighborhood is a good one by Baghdad standards, shops and apartment blocks and a few official buildings. The main landmark is the National Theater and a couple of swank hotels. It’s considered an up-and-coming and reasonably safe area.

The only problem is that it’s the last day of Eid al-Adha, a celebration of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, known in Christianity and Judaism as the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s one of the biggest holidays in the Muslim calendar and most places are closed.

I pound the pavement past rows of steel shutters. It looks like most people are taking the day off. A middle-aged man and his son come up and say hello. Their English is almost as bad as my Arabic and the conversation soon falters. What I want is to find a like mind, someone with open eyes, a good education, and good English who can explain his country to me. The National Theater seems a likely place. I head over there. Closed.

I continue on my quest. I have a few more “Welcome to Iraq” conversations, each time cut short due to language. I curse myself for not studying more Arabic. One young guy says he’d love to smoke some hash with me but he’s all out. Yeah, pot paranoia on the streets of Baghdad. That would have made an interesting article.

%Gallery-173222%One of the few stores I pass that’s open is a liquor store. The owners, two guys who look to be in their late 20s, wave me inside. “Where are you from?” “How do you like Iraq?” The usual conversation starts, hampered by bad English and terrible Arabic.

They invite me behind the counter and give me a glass of whiskey and some string cheese. String cheese. I kid you not. I didn’t know they had string cheese. Yet another insight into Iraqi culture.

My two companions really, really want to leave Iraq.

“But business is good here,” I say, eying the wad of bills in the cash drawer.

“Yes, but too many troubles,” they say. “Sometimes Muslim militia come here, take bottles, and no pay.”

I shake my head. A lot of the so-called Islamists are actually simple criminals grabbing an opportunity.

They ply me with questions about how to move to Canada, my home country. They’re disappointed to hear that Canada wants people with money who can speak English but seem hopeful about the refugee angle. They’re from one of Iraq’s many persecuted minorities.

As we talk a steady stream of customers come through. None look at me. Muslims always have this guilty look on their faces when they buy booze. It’s the same look Western guys get in porn shops. As a joke I start serving customers. My two buddies think this is hilarious. None of the customers bat an eye. Iraqis act nonchalant when stuck in a strange situation they’re trying to size up. It’s a survival technique. To show that you notice is to become part of the scene, and that’s not always healthy.

One of the liquor store owners runs over to a nearby bakery and brings back some fresh, hot pita. Ah, Arab hospitality! This is followed by a second (third?) round of whiskey, another form of hospitality that isn’t as rare in the Middle East as you might think. As they break out more string cheese I notice it’s getting dark outside. My day of independence is ending. My one real chance to have an immersive experience in Iraqi culture ends with string cheese and an alcohol buzz in a liquor store.

It would have to be good enough. When I told a friend back in Spain that most of my interactions in Iraq were friendly but all too brief and superficial, he replied that Westerners and Iraqis need to have more friendly, superficial meetings. At least it’s a start, he said.

Good point, but I wanted more.

Guarded group travel has insurmountable limitations that one day of partial freedom can’t break. Those serendipitous experiences don’t come on demand. You need time and luck. For me they came a few times on this trip – with pilgrims at the Shia holy shrines, with a child refugee in my hotel lobby, and with an artist on the tough streets of Nasiriyah. Each time these experiences could have – should have – turned into daylong interactions. Each time, though, the group agenda and my guards’ concerns meant we had to move on.

Luckily the security situation is slowly improving and there’s talk of individual travel opening up throughout Iraq like it already is in Kurdistan. Perhaps in a few years I’ll be able to come back and explore Iraq the way adventure travel is supposed to be done – slowly, with no itinerary, and alone.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Ten Random Observations About Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

A Family Night Out In Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
After a long road trip around Iraq, I find myself back in Baghdad. It’s our last night together as a group. For our final dinner we decide to eat a famous Baghdadi recipe at a famous landmark –mazgouf fish at Abu Nuwas Park.

Abu Nuwas park runs for one-and-a-half miles along the east bank of the Tigris in central Baghdad. It’s named after an early medieval poet who was half Arab and half Persian, and wrote poems in both languages. His poetry celebrated wine and sex and made fun of the Arab nostalgia for Bedouin life. This ensured trouble during his lifetime and fame after his death.

In keeping with the Abu Nuwas’ liberal tradition, the park that bears his name is a neutral ground for the city’s warring factions. Everyone comes here to relax, not fight. Of course there’s still the usual cordon of armed guards. Trust is in short supply in this country.

Once inside, though, it doesn’t feel like Baghdad at all. Families have picnics on blankets spread under trees. Kids do cartwheels on the grass. The Tigris glitters with reflected streetlights. A fountain at the edge of the riverbank shoots up water as colored lamps make the jets pulse red and purple. Music mixes with the calls of vendors selling nuts, candy, and Spongebob Squarepants balloons.

We’ve come to dine at one of the city’s most popular restaurants, Mazgouf, named after a large fish found in the Tigris that’s considered a delicacy. The fish is cut in half down its length and stuck on spike next to an open wood fire to slowly cook. When it’s done, it’s pulled off the spike and put on a plate. The scales and eyes on the outside are still preserved, making a sort of bowl from which to scoop out the goopy and incredibly rich insides. The restaurant at Abu Nuwas Park is said to be one of the best.

We find the restaurant and sit outside. As usual, the people at the next table come over and welcome us to Iraq. Mazgouf is made to order so there’s a long wait before we get our meal. Once it comes, everyone digs in with relish. I’m no expert on mazgouf but it’s the second-best meal I’ve had this entire trip. It’s so rich and heavy I can only finish half of it, although I’d love to eat the whole thing. The mood at the table is celebratory. We’ve made it through Iraq unscathed. Everyone is thinking of home but disappointed to be leaving.

While everyone else is leaving tomorrow morning and the guards will go off to other duties, my flight isn’t until the following morning, which means I get a whole day to myself in Baghdad. This worries me only slightly. My time in Iraq has taught me that the country is far safer than most people believe, and my hotel is in a good neighborhood. Besides, staying in the hotel all day simply isn’t an option. I just hope I don’t have any trouble when I go out alone.

After dinner we stroll around the park. The mood is relaxed and festive. So is the dress code. A woman walks by in a skirt and I almost keel over. It’s the first bare female leg I’ve seen in more than two weeks. Young couples who may very well be unmarried walk hand in hand, whispering to each other. I’ve stepped into another world. It’s even more relaxed than Kurdistan. Flashing lights and squeals of laughter draw me down a path and to another gate.

%Gallery-172598%It’s an amusement park. Kids are zipping around on bumper cars in the middle of a pool, or shooting down a giant inflatable slide. Their big brothers and sisters play videos games in a nearby arcade.

Getting in requires going through another checkpoint. There’s a brief hassle as the park’s guards demand that our guards leave their guns behind. Captain Ali, the senior of our two guards, doesn’t like that idea. I’m not sure how it’s resolved but we eventually get through, only to be stopped again.

“What now?” someone in our group groans.

“Photo! Photo!” the park guards say.

“Oh, OK.”

We all line up and take each other’s photos. I still haven’t figured out why Iraqis all want their photo taken. Only one of them has asked for a copy, and he never emailed me so I could send it to him. Maybe they just want to be part of my holiday memories. That’s cool. Memory made.

As soon as we’re through I ditch my guards. I don’t think those kids on the Merry-go-Round are going to shoot me, and after more than two weeks of these guys dogging my movements I’m sick of them. I slip behind some spinning ride with flashing lights and I’m gone.

Swarms of laughing children zip past me as I wander among the rides. I shake my head in amazement. How is this possible? This country is torn apart by war and sectarian bitterness and here everything is just fine. These families are the Iraqi majority, the decent folks who want all the bullshit to stop so they can get some enjoyment out of life. It would be silly to think they’re “just like us”; they’re not. But they’re enough like us that when this whole mess sorts itself out, I know who I want to come out on top.

“Mr. Sean.”

I turned around. Aw crap, Captain Ali has found me.

“We need to go now,” he says.

“Yeah, yeah.”

I turn away and keep walking. He trots patiently behind. This is a game he knows he’ll win.

Families come up to me, asking that I photograph their children or forcing their kids into impromptu English lessons. The kids take it with good grace, as curious as their parents about this strange foreigner who’s wandered into their fun.

Well, almost all the kids take it with good grace. One man drags his toddler over and urges her, “Say hello. Say hello.” She bursts into tears.

“Tired?” I ask.

He smiles and nods.

“Yes, tired. Late night.”

We laugh, one father to another.

Another tug at my arm. It’s Captain Ali again. Go away.

“Mr. Sean, we need to go.”

He leads me off, holding my wrist like a naughty child. I could complain, but he’s the law and even though he still has a reserve of good humor, his patience is at an end. We head for the exit.

Three bombs exploded in Baghdad this morning. More than a dozen killed. The story is already being broadcast by all the major news channels, with the usual blaring headlines and snuff film visuals. I take a last look around at Abu Nuwas park, at the picnicking families and the laughing children and the guys selling balloons. There are no TV cameras here.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “A Solo Stroll Through Baghdad!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Kurdistan: The Other Iraq

Kurdistan, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
Families out for an evening stroll, friends sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes, tourists seeing the sights without a police escort – am I still in Iraq?

Sort of.

I’m in Kurdistan, an autonomous region made up of Iraq’s three northernmost provinces. The Kurds kicked out Saddam in 1991 after suffering years of bloody persecution, and they’ve pretty much been doing their own thing ever since. I never saw an Iraqi flag flying in the Kurdish region, only the Kurdish “regional” flag that everyone seems to look to as their national flag. The region even has its own national anthem. The Kurdish government also acts independently at times, such as making oil deals with foreign companies even though they’re supposed to be approved by Baghdad.

Erbil, the region’s capital, is a boomtown. New buildings are going up everywhere and the shops are full of expensive products and people who can afford to buy them. Auto dealerships, electronics stores, and swank restaurants are everywhere. There’s a relaxed, optimistic mood in the air.

The Kurds have reason to be optimistic. A distinct people with their own culture and language, their population stretches across several international boundaries. Kurds are found in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Being a minority with a strong sense of independence has meant they’ve faced persecution in all of these countries. Now they have their own region and they’re doing well for themselves. Kurdistan has the lowest rate of poverty in Iraq thanks to a booming oil and gas industry.

There’s even a tourism industry. This is the one part of Iraq where you can travel individually, and an increasing number of curious Westerners are doing just that. Kurdistan’s mixture of ancient sites, functioning cities and rugged mountains has a lot to offer.

%Gallery-172501%Like everywhere else in the Middle East, foreign visitors are treated with curiosity and hospitality. Tourism isn’t big enough here yet for visitors to be pestered by carpet sellers like in Istanbul or Cairo. The relaxed vibe extends to everyone. As we visited the impressive Erbil citadel, a medieval fortress built atop ruins stretching back at least 7,000 years, we had a steady stream of people welcome us to Kurdistan (always Kurdistan, never Iraq) and chat with us as much as their English would allow.

We had people coming up to us all through Iraq, but here it was different. The locals were less surprised to see us, less anxious to know what we thought of their country. The Kurds show a confidence not seen in other parts of Iraq.

It’s difficult to judge a region after such a short visit. I only got to hang out in Erbil for a day, plus see some ancient Assyrian sites and an Iraqi Christian monastery. My impressions are only first impressions and I’m sure I missed a lot. The Kurdish hinterland, with its various factions and ethnic groups, is a mystery to me that would require another long visit to even partially unravel.

There’s no doubt that Kurdistan has its share of problems. Not everyone is profiting from the good economy and ethnic minorities complain they aren’t getting their fair cut. Still, I get the sense that they’re better off than in other parts of Iraq. The oil industry is booming and the leaders of the various factions are keeping a lid on the worst of the violence in order to make money. That’s something the factions in the rest of Iraq, intent on getting the whole pie for themselves, just don’t understand. They’re wrecking the very economy they’re trying to control.

Example: on my first day in Baghdad I ditched my guards and went to the market to find my son an Iraq National team football uniform. I nearly got arrested by the Iraqi police and didn’t even get the uniform. The security situation made the cops jittery and the market streets were clogged by a series of checkpoints. This, of course, hurts businesses. In Erbil, I wandered freely through a busy market and after a bit of hunting in a new, clean shopping mall found a uniform in my son’s size. When I paid for it the shopkeeper added my money to a huge wad of notes he pulled from his pocket. Business was good that day.

I was happy, the shopkeeper was happy, and my son was happy. The difference between Baghdad and Erbil really comes down to that – stability brings prosperity, and that’s better for everyone.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “A Family Night Out In Baghdad!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo by Rob Hammond]

Kurdistan, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel