I arrived in Erbil not knowing what to expect. I knew there weren’t many tourist attractions, but I wasn’t here to be a tourist. I wanted to learn more about Iraq and Kurdistan.
I caught a taxi from the bus company’s office to the center of Erbil (also written Arbil in English and in Kurdish it’s called Hawler). I was dropped off next to a big square with a fountain. It was 9am and as soon as I got out of the taxi the sun and heat hit me unexpectedly. I am no stranger to heat and welcome it, but I had just started to get used to cold in Georgia when I arrived. The warm, 90F/32C desert heat took me by surprise. I forgot what the desert sun felt like.
In the square was a big fountain spewing water in many different ways. I couldn’t believe how much cooler it felt walking around the fountains than it did otherwise. I was right next to the central market and just in front of the Citadel, the ancient fort that towers 30m/100ft above the city. I walked through the market trying to find some breakfast and also trying to find where I can exchange money. I found the money changers and was surprised to find that the rate in Kurdistan is higher than for Arab Iraq at 122,000 Iraqi Dinar for $100 instead of the expected 116,500 for Arab Iraq.
My goal the first day was to catch my breath after such a long journey and get a sim card. I had saved on Google Maps where the company’s office was and walked there. I got there and it was destroyed, completely under reconstruction. I found a guy who said to go to the office in another part of the city, Ainkawa – the Christian neighborhood in the north of the city.
The taxi had a hard time finding the office but we found it in the end after asking a few people. I got my sim card, having to provide quite a bit of information and them taking my picture inside the store. Telecommunications here is far more expensive than most places I have been. The guy told me since I could only get the sim card for tourists, valid for 15 days, the length of the tourist visa, I couldn’t get data on my phone. I didn’t believe him and later I called the customer service phone number and set up the smallest data package so I could be in touch with my parents while here. There were worried, as you can imagine.
The first day I walked around Ainkawa, looking at churches and taking in everything I was seeing. Ainkawa was full of alcohol shops as it’s an enclave for Christians. I don’t think alcohol shops are permitted in the rest of Erbil (which is Muslim). I may be wrong that there aren’t alcohol shops in the rest of Erbil, but I didn’t see any if there are.
Ainkawa is home to some beautiful cafes serving coffee and tea from all over the world, local pastries, and of course shisha. It seemed to be a hangout spot for young locals and expatriates. In one such café I learned how to go to Sulaymaniyah using shared taxi, the normal way of getting between cities here if you don’t have a car.
The churches had a very different design from what I’m used to. You can see some pictures of them below.
I couchsurfed with a Czech guy working with a local start-up company to start a chain of supermarkets here. He had a huge, company-provided apartment. It reminded me very much of my life and lifestyle back in Qatar. I guess my situation was worse since I was always offshore, but socially I had a bit better situation since there were so many foreigners there and it was easier to meet people.
He lives on a street that has an apartment complex called English Village. While walking back one night I saw a truck parked in front of the entrance gate to English Village. I hadn’t realized it before, but in the back of the truck was a security guard and the biggest machine gun I have ever seen. Though this place is very safe, you do find things like that here.
The first night he cooked some German sausage that a friend of his smuggled in for him. Though alcohol is readily available, apparently pork isn’t.
I made it up to the top of the Citadel the following day. Unfortunately, it’s completely under construction. The security guard would only let me walk around right in the center of it and it was all rubble, as if it had just been bombed. I couldn’t get a view of the city from up there, and it’ll be a few years before visitors can get an idea of what the Citadel’s splendor looked like back in the day.
There is a water park in Erbil though I didn’t visit it. I did visit Sami Shahid Park and it was amazing. It was so green, so calm, so unexpected in the middle of the desert. There is a climbing wall, lake, gardens, playgrounds for kids, statues, monuments, and more. It was serene.
Erbil is home to the Sheikh Choli Minaret, a 9th century minaret.
Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, but it won’t soon win any awards for tourism. It’s not a very touristy city. But I came to understand this place and I wonder if this is what you expected to see of an Iraqi city?