|The Kurdistan flag at Erbil's ancient Citadel|
It is with no wonder that people are worried about me being in Iraq. I arrived here last night after an exhausting 30 hours' bus trip that started in Batumi, Georgia, and involved taking three buses. Today I had the chance to walk around Erbil, the country's fourth largest city and capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region. The area, which occupies the northeastern part of Iraq, is the safest in the country and has a booming economy and a promising future.
My first impressions are very positive and pretty much meet my expectations. Despite the terrorist bombings in September this year, in which thirteen people died, including the six attackers, you feel safe here. Not only because there are policemen everywhere, but people are just getting on with their lives, and this is reassuring.
Once you enter the country, you see a lot of checkpoints, but the police always flagged us through. However, on the last one before entering Erbil, an army officer came into the bus to see everybody's passport. All passengers were either Turkish or Iraqi, apart from myself and two Syrians, who were kept at the there with their suitcases for further checks. Some will call it "discrimination". But it shows the Kurdish government will make all they can to keep the region safe.
The city developed around the Citadel, which is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. Traffic, at least in the Old Town, is much better than that in other large Middle Eastern cities I've been to. Not surprisingly, public transport is virtually non-existent. On the other hand, the taxi drivers I used so far seemed to be fair and I managed to pay what I thought was fair - roughly 60% of the initial asking price.
Talking about prices, surprisingly the price of accommodation is very high. Pretty much the same you'd be paying in cities like Dubai or Istanbul. There are a few budget options, but don't expect the staff to speak a word of English, though. If you need to negotiate the rate, don't forget our good old friend Google Translate, so just be creative and the conversation and negotiation will flow!
Just like in the West, people are too busy with their mobile phones and it appears that everyone sells either sim cards or phone credit vouchers! People are very friendly and seem to be happy. Today I was chatting with some Syrians and Iraqis in the main square over some tea and shisha and had a great time and some good laughs. Despite my very modest Arabic, we managed to communicate. When words failed, our smiles spoke for ourselves.
So, what are my first impressions of this part of Iraq? Well, it's still early, but I can definitely say the stereotypes are pretty inaccurate. Looking forward to the next few days!