Unless one closely follows Middle East news and/or lives in Middle East, he or she (myself included) may not be fully aware that Erbil and Kurdistan, autonomous part of Iraq, in general are safe. Granted they are located in a volatile region with ISIS committing their terror acts nearby until recently, but in general it is a safe region – thanks to the Peshmerga – Kurdish Army Forces guarding the frontiers with Turkey, Syria, and Arab part of Iraq.
I do not know why I suddenly felt the need to Iraq, but I saw a group trip out of Dubai and I impulsively signed up. Since then, I hid my plans from my family because I was worried they would convince me to change my plans. Everyone living in Dubai that I talked to had the same comment when they heard off my plans – that Erbil is safe.
I had a wonderful time in my three days there, and as a matter of fact, I regretted not doing my own trip and staying for more days.
Apart from visiting Erbil city, we went to Rawanduz region which has beautiful landscape. We drove along the gorges shadowed by snowcapped mountains (one being Korek Mountains which can be visited using cable cars), visited a couple of waterfalls (Bekhal and Ali Begh), trekked into the canyons (Rawanduz Kharand) alongside a river, and climbed up to see an ancient Christian caves and old burial sites, called Rabanboya Shrine.
We also stayed one night in a mountain resort called Shingelbana Resort, which has an amusement park on site. We took a train ride along the resort and over the gorges at sunset. The view is gorgeous and we got to admire the Bekhal Waterfalls from above.
The resort is not a luxury but quite comfortable. The food was horrible. I tried the Kuba there, which is flat bread/pastry filled with mince meat. There will be more discussion on food later.
A. The Trek
Our afternoon trek along the river in a canyon was wonderful. There were a few tricky spots, but never once losing a breath. The view was amazing and at every turns, the sunlights seemed to change. The river is gushing with water. After my trip to Iran with drying up huge lakes and climate change, it was a relieve to see Erbil blessed with so much water.
The only thing that concerned me was the garbage and the clothes that somehow got into the water and ended up on the tree branches and the river banks. The garbage problems in Erbil is still manageable, and I hope someone does something before it is too late.
B. The Waterfalls
We visited two waterfalls. One was Ali Begh, which was featured in one of the Iraqi Dinar bills. This fall is quite smaller and the experience was ruined by the fences and constructions around it housing a few restaurants. One guy on the trip, told me, this was one classic example of human beings destroying nature. I could not agree more.
The second waterfall is the impressive Bekhal Falls. It was not the height that was impressive. It was the sheer volume and power that came out of the middle of the mountains.
Go up the decks of the restaurant to get closer to feel the energy of the water. Be sure also to turn your back and look up. You can see the roller coaster rail from the Shingelbana Resort, where we stayed.
C. The Caves
We climbed up to Rabanboya (aka Sheikh Wso Rahman) shrine, made up of a few small caves. The caves were cemetery, which are sacred for both the Christians and the Muslims. The shrine is a pilgrimage site and pilgrims must climb the steep Safeen Mountain. We can see remnants of colorful candles on the rocks.
Near the caves, there is a flat slab of rock and it is said that any woman who slid down the rock face down can get pregnant. I was not very clear how many times someone has to do it. I heard three times.
D. The City
Erbil city itself is bustling with development, but the old part made up of 8,000 years old citadel and the bazaar are compact and easily explored in 3-4 hours.
Most of the citadels are under restorations or to be restored. Most of the paths have been blocked off. We went to an interesting carpet museum, which also highlights a few Kurdish traditions, such as weaving carpets, agriculture, etc.
In the bazaar, no one harassed us to buy. I did not feel like I was being targeted as tourists. Everyone was friendly and respectful. They were curious, but they never rudely stared, unlike in Pakistan where I just came from. The colors from the sweets, dried fruits, and the clothes are amazing. The gold souk is bustling. We were there on a Thursday (their weekend) and it was busy.
We tried a pastry filled with cream called “znoud el sit”, nicknamed lady’s finger. It was so yummy, and surprisingly not too sweet. I saw sellers selling coffee using Dolce Gusto capsules – somehow I associate that with development and this could be a naive assumption in a “chai” country. People hung out to enjoy their coffee and chai and sweets.
The most interesting guy I bumped into is a tamarind juice seller who carries his ware in a traditional metal jar on his back. He would bend down to fill the plastic cup with juices whenever someone is interested to buy. The tamarind juice was refreshing but I was too scared to drink too much of it in case I get stomach ache – I was not sure how clean was the water used in the juice.
What surprised me was how open the Kurdish are with alcohol and partying. In the Christian areas of Erbil and in Rawanduz, we saw many liquor stores. They are competitively priced too (USD28 for a 750 ml bottle of 12-year Glenfiddich whiskey). We bought Kurdish wine in Rawanduz. It was not great, but good fun.
We also went clubbing in Erbil just to check out the scene. We came too early, but the music was amazing. We could have been partying in Dubai, and looking at the photo, no one would be the wiser.
Food was not the focus of the group I joined – sadly. We had kebabs for three meals in a row. I loved kebabs, especially kofte (minced lamb), but I know Iraqi cuisine is more than kebabs. So I was protesting the situation.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed our first lunch. We went to a restaurant called Tam Dar. Soup (3 types: tomato, meat, beans), yoghurt drink similar to doug in Iran or Laban in the Gulf region), and warm flat bread (khubz) with mixed pickled vegetables (turshi) are the highlights. The actual main course of rice and chicken were not so impressive. The chicken was very dry and tasteless. The rice garnished with vermicelli, however, was buttery good. I was quite tempted to try their local version of Biryani (picture below). The restaurant is uniquely decorated and was full of locals. It was a great atmosphere and immensely packed.
Rice and meats are the main focus of the Kurdish food. Most vegetables are served fresh or pickled on the side.
The best meal of the trip is the home-cooked dolmas. The Kurdish dolmas are made from different vegetables: eggplants, onions, peppers, vine leaves, cabbage, etc. Rice, meat, and vegetables are cooked together and stuffed into the vegetables. It is a satisfying dish and quite healthy. It takes a lot of work to cook it.
Homecooked Kurdish Dolmas
In every meal, there is always flatbread called “khubz” and the bread basket is never empty during the meal. The bread is our utensils and the best kind to soak the goey goodness of the food. At the end of the meals, tea mostly heavily sweetened is served with sweets such as halwas, baklavas, and fruits.
Having spent time in the neighboring countries, it is obvious the many similarities of Iraqi cuisine with those of its neighbors, such as Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. Iraqi main dishes, such as quzi, have influenced cuisines of the Gulf countries.
My trip to Erbil was too short, but it had given me enough introduction to Erbil and Kurdistan in general. I am looking forward to return to learn more about more places and meet more Kurdish people. My most memorable part of the trip is actually the people we encountered. From the Peshmarga we took pictures with to the fun youth breaking into an impromptu dance outside the restaurant, there is a great memory to treasure and bring home.
Please visit my instagram @roaminjuliet to see more photos of Erbil and its flavors.