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

American arrested for stealing 299 stuffed birds

Here’s a new low in the annals of crime. An American man has been arrested in England for stealing 299 stuffed birds from the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, England.

The unnamed 22 year-old has been arrested in connection with a break in at the museum back in June. The birds that were stolen were all rare and would have fetched a fair amount on the black market, showing that the unnamed suspect knew what he was doing. Most of the stuffed birds have now been recovered.

The Natural History Museum at Tring is famous for its collection of more than 750,000 preserved birds, 95% of all the world’s species. If you’re not in the neighborhood, you can still check out their species of the day, a feature running throughout 2010 in celebration of the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. Today’s species is the Welwitschia mirabilis, a plant that can live for up to 1,500 years despite living in the harsh Namib Desert.

This seems to be a mixed year for museums. Hundreds of historic treasures have gone missing in Pennsylvania and the Met had to fork over some stolen Egyptian artifacts.

On the bright side, museum attendance is up as people try to save money by visiting sights close to home. Hopefully none of these folks are stuffing dead critters into their coats.

[Photo courtesy Sarah Hartwell]

Could global warming solve Greenland’s problems?

Melting icecaps could turn Manhattan‘s streets and avenues into canals someday, but why focus on the negative? This could be a real perk for the 57,000 people who live in Greenland. For now, the Inuit are stuck hunting seals and freezing most of the year. As the permafrost recedes, though — thoroughly screwing up their environment — the locals are finding oil and mineral resources. So, the hunting trips are getting more dangerous, literally putting the Inuit on thin ice at times, but at least they can make some real cash!

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, more than 18 billion barrels of oil and natural gas can be found under the sea between Greenland and Canada, with another 31 billion barrels off the coast of Greenland itself. The same situation exists in the North Sea, and Norway hasn’t been shy about tapping into it to make a fortune.

For Greenland, which is at best quasi-independent from Denmark, finding some natural resources could help it sever the $680 million-a-year umbilical cord that connects it to the mother ship. But, we’re not there yet. So far, no oil has been found in the waters around Greenland, and the optimists don’t see that happening for at least another 10 years. It will take time to develop the infrastructure, but that’s only part of the problem.

Greenland still has to pierce the ice.

Eighty percent of Greenland is covered by a sheet of ice that can be up to 2 miles thick, effectively preventing oil and mineral exploration. This is where global warming comes into the equation. As we pump out our fossil fuels and change the climate, we’re helping Greenland melt that slick coat of ice and access its key to financial independence. Again, the heavily populated coastal cities of the United States may get screwed, but we’ll be able to access oil and minerals in Greenland.

In all seriousness, Greenland has struggled with economic growth. Mostly hunters and fishermen, they lack the skilled resources needed to kickstart just about any operation. Alcoa is thinking about building an aluminum smelter and two hydroelectric plants, but it would need to import construction workers from Europe or China, because Greenland lacks the appropriate labor. Engineers would have to come from other countries, as well.

Further, the small population is continually battered by a variety of social problems. It has the world’s highest suicide rate, according to the World Health Organization (100 per 100,000 residents). Residents over 15 years of age drink an average of 12 quarts of pure alcohol a year — a bar in Tasiilaq now sells only beer, since liquor was banned. The ban has helped, according to local officials.

Is global warming really the answer? That might be a stretch, but something has to give.