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

British Museum Highlights Strange Money From Around The World

British Museum
What’s this? A knife? A razor? Actually, it’s Chinese currency dating back to the 5th-3rd century B.C. It’s one of the many rare and unusual pieces on display in the newly reopened money gallery at the British Museum in London.

The Citi Money Gallery looks at world history through money, starting with the Bronze Age and going right up to the Age of the Credit Card. This has always been one of my favorite galleries in the British Museum because it shows the artifacts as dynamic parts of society, not simply objects to be admired. Trade, credit and the evolution of the state are all covered.

The refurbished gallery includes some current events as well, such as the rise of payments through mobile phones in Haiti. The 2010 earthquake wrecked the banking sector, and Haitians quickly adopted a form of payment through phone calls that is a leader in the world.

As much as we travelers want to break free of our everyday lives, money matters are still an essential part of travel. Whether it’s discovering that nobody takes credit cards in that remote third-world town or that your American ATM card won’t work in Europe on weekends, money seems to crop up again and again.

Sometimes that can be amusing, like when you change 20 dollars into Somaliland Shillings and get so many 500-shilling notes that you can’t stuff them into your pocket. Possibly the weirdest travel experience I had was in the early ’90s when I went into a bank in Iran and saw a big banner in Farsi and English reading “DEATH TO AMERICA.” Right under it was a teller’s counter with a sign saying “American Express Travelers Checks accepted here.” The Islamic Revolution is all well and good, but business is business.

Exotic foreign money also makes for interesting souvenirs and gifts. Check out our gallery for a sample of money and its use around the world.

[Photo courtesy Mike Peel]

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British Brewery Campaigning To Save Traditional Pubs

pubs
I’ve talked before here on Gadling about how British pubs are in danger. In 2011, an average of 14 per week shut down, and the trend is continuing. This is due to a number of factors, including the economic downturn, competition from cheap supermarket alcohol and ever-increasing taxes.

Now Wychwood Brewery has started an online petition to “Stop the Beer Duty Escalator.” Taxes on beer go up annually at 2 percent above the rate of inflation. The petition says this adds “considerably more pressure on the British pub, the cornerstone of many of our communities” and asks for this practice to stop.

“Going to the pub is a core British tradition and so is enjoying great beer,” the petition states. In a company statement, Wychwood Brewery said, “Imagine a world without pubs. Imagine communities with no heart. Imagine thousands of livelihoods affected.”

While this sounds like exaggeration, anyone who has lived in the UK for any length of time knows that it isn’t. Pubs really are a cornerstone to the national culture. The majority of people are regular pub goers, either for a quick pint of real ale or to watch a game or to enjoy a Sunday roast. They’re also a great way for tourists to experience the country and meet locals. The withering of that culture is reducing quality of life. I spend every Easter and summer in Oxford and every year I see prices go up and pubs close. It’s depressing.

Wychwood is aiming for 100,000 signatures, which will force the petition to be heard in the House of Commons. So far they have 27,517. If you’re a resident of the UK, I say sign this petition. You’ll be fighting for one of the nation’s cultural institutions and helping independent businesses.

[Photo courtesy Andrès Moreno]

Greek museums face the economic crisis

Greek museumsIt’s not easy being the caretaker of Greece’s heritage these days. Greek museums are facing budget cuts, strikes, reduced staff, even loss of visitors due to riots. The National Archaeological Museum had many rooms closed during the peak tourist season last summer due to budget cuts, and strikes are regularly closing all publicly owned museums.

Take the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. It collects the nation’s Medieval heritage, focusing especially on the glory days of Byzantium. When the Roman Empire split into western and eastern halves in 395 AD, the West fell apart within a century, but the East, known as Byzantium, survived for another thousand years. Byzantium produced a distinct and beautiful artistic style and preserved many Classical works that then became the inspiration for the Renaissance.

The museum was founded in 1914 in the palace of a French noble. For most of the twentieth century the displays didn’t change much and visitors tended to pass it by for the more famous Classical sights.

“It was a place only for scholars,” said Nikolas Constantios, an archaeologist and museologist who works there and showed me around the recently revamped permanent exhibition.

And what an exhibition! Some four hundred icons are on display. Richly embroidered church vestments stand next to colorfully painted manuscripts, gold coins, and day-to-day objects. It’s all laid out in an open, well-lit fashion that reminded me of the new Ashmolean in Oxford. This modern style replaced the old “cases filled with stuff” museum design and helps combat museum fatigue.

This ten-year revitalization project almost came too late. The money, half of which came from the Ministry of Culture and half from the European Union, was already earmarked when the crisis hit.

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“We were safe because we were almost finished,” Constantios said. “If the crisis had happened five years ago we would have had a lot of problems.

The final touches are due to be completed by May and include a public garden, gift shop, and cafe.

While the present looks rosy for this museum, there are some serious challenges ahead. Museum director Anastasia Lazaridou said the Ministry of Culture has cut the museum’s budget by 20 percent. She has had to let some of the staff go, especially short-term contractors whose work is important for their well-known conservation department, which remains the biggest in Greece.

“We will try to find money from the private sector and create a bigger network of collaborations with foreign museums to share expenses,” Lazaridou said.

With the recession, though, the museum has found getting large donations to be more difficult than it used to be. Tickets help–with the renovation visitors numbers are ten times what they were a decade ago–yet many of these visitors get in for free.

When I visited there was a typical crowd for the low season: three other tourists and several school groups. Entrance is free for under-18s. Luckily this situation reverses in the high season. Check out the photo gallery and you’ll see why the Byzantine and Christian Museum is getting on the map.

The Museum of the City of Athens is facing even greater challenges. Housed in the former royal palace of King Otto, the first monarch after independence from the Ottoman Empire, it’s situated close to the municipal government buildings. Several riots have occurred right outside their door and now many tourists avoid the entire neighborhood. Museum director Aglaia Archontidou-Argiri told me visitor numbers dropped 70 percent last year.

Luckily the museum is a private foundation so they are in no danger of closing, yet they’re scrambling to find money for extra programs. Last year they ran a free program teaching Greek culture and history to immigrants. It ran for six months and included students from the Roma, Georgian, Bulgarian, and other communities. Now they have no money to continue, but Archontidou-Argiri remains optimistic they’ll find the money somewhere.

Like with the Byzantine museum, many visitors are school groups, who come to see the displays illustrating the development of their city. While the museum charges them, it lets in kids for free if their families can’t afford the €2 ($2.63) entry fee. With the crisis worsening, this is becoming increasingly common. There is also a popular music and lecture series that attracts many locals, but it is also free.

So far these two museums are doing fairly well. Both have been lucky in their funding, but with the crisis tightening wallets all over Europe, the caretakers of Greek heritage have a tough job ahead.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Athens day trip: Acrocorinth!

Should Greece lease the Acropolis?

lease the Acropolis
Greece has been hit hard by the recession. According to EU figures, it has 18.8 percent unemployment, the second highest in Europe and more than twice that of the United States. Last year it saw its economy shrink by 5.5 percent.

Now former deputy health minister Gerasimos Giakoumatos has suggested a controversial plan to get Greece some quick cash–lease the Acropolis and other famous sights. According to the China Daily, Giakoumatos, who is a minister of parliament and a member of the conservative New Democracy party, said the move would save Greece from bankruptcy.

He said there’s no shame in leasing out Greece’s heritage, and that the real shame is that regular protests against austerity measures keep shutting the sites down. Giakoumatos said the money could go to save the government from having to slash pensions and wages.

Even with the current economic woes, tourism accounts for 18 percent of the country’s GDP and is worth tens of millions of euros each month. While Giakoumatos’ suggestion carries no weight of law, it may be given some consideration because of the huge amount of money that could be earned.

What do you think of a nation leasing out its heritage in times of trouble? Tell us what you think in the poll and comments section!

Photo courtesy Roger Wollstadt.

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