Riding down from the mountains into Arbil you could be forgiven for thinking you’d missed the city and just hit the world’s largest construction site. Everything is in a state of frantic building and rebuilding- Arbil has been declared Kurdish Iraq’s capital and by golly it’s going to look like it. Or at least have enough shopping and hotels to look like it.
The center of the city houses the citadel, one of (if not the) longest continually inhabited urban area on earth. While looking impressive on its hill, it reveals its empty shell when you venture inside. The mostly vacant buildings and crumbling streets are fun for a wander, but quickly become same-old, same-old. The other sites of the city suffer from the same problem- they are just the bones of historical sites and until demand picks up, they will continue to promise far more than they can deliver.
So, Arbil is an administrative centre- busy and alive, but not really interesting unless you are part of the hustle and bustle. The cure is a short ride south-east in Sulaymaniyah. This newish city is the rebellious teenager of Kurdish Iraq- full of life and trying to find itself. From fast food knockoffs (KFG and MaDonals being my favorites), to many young women without veils, to decent chinese restaurants that serve alcohol this city is all about everything new. Mind you, like a teenager, some things get lost in translation…
Beats me what I ended up getting.
Beyond the fun stuff, Sulaymaniyah has turned The old Red Security Building into an excellent museum of Saddam Hussein’s terror campaign against the Kurds. The building has been left as it stood after the Kurds finally evicted the central government- bullet holes, smashed windows, and black smoke marks do more to bring the horror home than any fancy remodeling would.
An hour outside of Sulay lies another, even more poignant testament to the evils of Saddam’s reign- Halabja. The simple museum in the town is mostly filled with photos taken by those first entering the area after the attack and nothing more is needed to bring home what happened. unfortunately the area has never really recovered from the attack and in fact seems almost stigmatized by it- the tragedy now not just taking lives and causing birth defects, but keeping the population from moving on and rising above it.
The ride to Halabja offers some great views (not to mention fun riding) and the mountains seem ripe for exploring, so perhaps tourism may offer the area some hope for future, though this hope does seem very far off.
The road to Halabja.
Riding into Halabja at the foot of the mountains.
Straight ahead is Iran and to the right is Baghdad… Yeah, I think mass tourism will have to wait a while.
Mind you, if ever a place was ripe for adventure riders, this is it!