Excerpt: "I soon discovered . . . Kurdistan’s natural beauty — its rugged mountains, breathtaking valleys, ravines, lakes

Excerpt: "I soon discovered . . . Kurdistan’s natural beauty — its rugged mountains, breathtaking valleys, ravines, lakes and waterfalls. That is why Western soldiers and diplomats went there for rest and relaxation during the worst years of the Iraq war. Be warned, though; the Kurds’ national pastime is picnicking — and leaving their litter behind."


Excerpt: "If you choose to ignore Kurdistan’s recent bloody history there is not too much left for the conventional tourist. The country is beautiful, but it is not yet geared for hiking, riding and other outdoor pursuits. There are some archaeological sites, but nobody seems quite sure what they are. Saddam killed off traditional crafts like rug weaving, so the bazaars are now filled with tacky Chinese goods and there is little worth buying." 


65 years ago the independence of British India resulted in its partition into Muslim Pakistan and secular India. Ironically, though secular, the new India had more Muslims than Pakistan, more than any Muslim country with the sole exception of Indonesia, even more Muslims than all of the Middle East.

But the really odd effect of that partition was Muslim Pakistan being divided into two parts, East Pakistan and West Pakistan, separated by hundreds of miles of Indian territory.

Same religion, but different cultures. East Pakistan was mostly ethnic Bengali and spoke Bangla. West Pakistan was mostly ethnic Punjabi-Pushtu-Sindhi and spoke mostly Urdu. And there were significant economic and social differences.

25 years after that independence, about 40 years ago, East Pakistan went its own way and became today's Bangladesh, a country with half the population of the United States in the area of only one of its 50 states (Wisconsin).

And, if that's not enough, Bangladesh is delta country where the great rivers Ganges and Brahmaputra join up to flow into the Bay of Bengal. During the monsoon season, these rivers swell up so much you can't see the other sides; they flood about 30% of the country.

A little later after Bangladesh's independence, the caption on a poster with a beautiful scenic photo said, "Come to Bangladesh before the tourists".


The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is indeed great outdoor country. Now is the time to come, before the tourists, to explore and discover, especially during this spring time of the year. It's gorgeous - greener than ever, cool temperatures, wildflowers everywhere, melting snows with streams and waterfalls flowing at their fullest.

A SUV (sport utility vehicle, LandCruiser and the like) will get you deep into the high mountains where shepherds roam with their flocks of sheep and goats, and cellphones. Motorable roads and tracks go most everywhere among hundreds of small rural communities. (But where do visitors go to rent or hire SUVs and knowledgeable drivers/guides?)

It's safe. Precautions? Stay within the Region, don't wander south too far. Best not to get too close to some border areas. And seek advice regarding landmines, especially in areas around former Iraqi military outposts, and border areas that were engaged in the 8-year Iraq-Iran War. Stay on well-traveled roads and paths. Go where local people go; don't go where they avoid going. Many landmine areas have been demarcated, but not all. Local people, especially shepherds, know where to go, and where to stay away from.


Ancient sites to discover are located all across the Region, but the stories behind them are not well known and understood, yet. Since the 2003 war the Kurdistan Region's universities have yet to focus on the Region's rich cultural heritage that goes back many millennia. What's the future? Look to the past.

World agriculture, as opposed to hunting and gathering, likely began in the Region. So, too, elaborate underground irrigation systems that were expertly engineered over 2,000 years ago. A lot of very interesting and important field research waits to happen.

All Iraq is an archaeological and anthropological treasure house sitting, waiting to be opened to discovery and explanation. There are over 12,000 known archaeological sites yet to be examined throughout the country. More than 3,000 are in the Kurdistan Region. Iraq is where writing and the rule of law may have originated - with the Sumerians, Nebuchadnezzar, Hammurabi, and cuneiform, which is perhaps the earliest system of writing.

Archaeologists and anthropologists from leading universities are coming to the Kurdistan Region where it is safe, friendly, and accessible. They are applying some of the latest exploration technologies.

For example, water for the Erbil Citadel - the oldest continuously-inhabited human settlement in the world - once came through an underground canal from a source many miles away. And not far from the Citadel was a well-watered plain irrigated by elaborate, underground karez water systems. Remote sensing techniques including satellite imagery are being used to locate thousands of collapsed air shafts and other indicators of underground karez.

In the meantime, the Kurdistan Region's priceless archaeological sites need to be protected from damage and destruction against a regrettable prevailing mindset that says "old is useless." Trafficking of artifacts needs to be prevented. All this takes a specialized security service.

The 5,000-year old, 8.3cm (3.25 in) statue in a private collection known as The Guennol Lioness, discovered near Baghdad over 60 years ago, was sold at a 2007 auction in New York for US$57 million! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guennol_Lioness

Some ancient sites have already been leveled to make way for "modern" structures. Others are being damaged through ignorance or neglect.

Some archaeological structures, including ancient churches, have been unscientifically "repaired" and renovated to a point where, arguably, their cultural heritage value has been forever lost. From what is likely the oldest aqueduct in the world, stone blocks with cuneiform writing were removed to be used for other purposes.


About litter, yes, rapid progress since 2003 has also meant rapid trashing and plasticizing of the countryside. Plastic bottles and aluminum cans are everywhere. Picnic rubbish is left right where it is produced, in beautiful picnic places including very remote areas.

A Belgian couple who rode their specially-made tandem bicycle from Thailand to Kurdistan (via India, Nepal, China, Turkmenistan, Iran) spontaneously remarked that the first thing they noticed when entering the Region was all the roadside rubbish.

Belgian couple's hybrid tandem bicycle (front recumbent, back upright), made in Germany.


Some municipalities responsible for solid waste management too often choose very scenic places to unscientifically dispose of rubbish. Recycling is limited, almost nonexistent. Many urban areas and most villages have not been cleaned since the Region began running its own affairs over 20 years ago.

A municipal rubbish dump along a main road.

But measures are beginning to be taken to address this situation. Signs and colorful billboards respectfully request that areas be kept clean. At least one local television personality has gotten involved and public service announcements urge picnickers to bring their rubbish home.

A roadside billboard in a popular picnic area.

"clean environment

beautiful nature and good health"

A government sign

"dear citizen

please maintain the cleanliness of this area"

Picnic rubbish collected by volunteers at a remote site 3,000 meters above sea level up

on the side of Halgurd, the commonly accepted highest mountain in Iraq (3,600 meters).

Many urban areas are regularly cleaned by municipal workers, rural areas much less. It is not unusual to observe contracted workers contracted collecting rubbish along rural roadsides. Rubbish bins are now available in many, but not all, picnic areas. More picnickers are collecting and bagging their rubbish, but often leaving it, not bringing it home to be properly disposed of. Students at all levels, and others, occasionally participate in cleanup campaigns.

This is only the beginning and is still limited in scope. More education, awareness and consciousness raising, and encouragement is needed to keep Kurdistan clean.

Ironically, one of the cleanest areas in the Region is a very scenic roadway and valley maintained by an outside (non-Western) group that rigorously upholds an ethnic of never throwing anything on the ground. They have placed silver-painted rubbish barrels along roadways at regular intervals, and regularly empty them.

Many older Americans can well remember when they threw rubbish out the car window. It was "normal." To change that behavior, among the most effective efforts made were those by the non-profit organization Keep America Beautiful (KAB), the largest community improvement organization in the United States.



KAB offers solutions that create clean, beautiful public places, reduce waste and increase recycling, generate positive impact on local economies and inspire generations of citizens who exercise responsibility in taking care of the land.

Among KAB's more successful efforts were the very short Crying Indian TV commercials.




About traditional crafts. Efforts have been made for quite sometime by the Kurdish Textile Museum in the Erbil Citadel to reinvigorate traditional tribal weaving. In the Hawraman area a unique kind of traditional outdoor shoe is made without any animal parts or synthetic materials (natural, organic, pure vegan) with thick, pounded cloth soles and crochet tops. In Duhok, a home-based cottage industry produces a fine-quality, home-spun cashmere-like fabric worthy of unique fashions found in The J. Peterman Company's artistic catalogs of "uncommonly good stuff". www.jpeterman.com/


Hiking? Unlimited, especially in more mountainous areas. For openers, in Shaqlawa, only 40 minutes from Erbil, try hiking up to the cave of Rabban Boya (about an hour) and to the top of Safeen Mountain (maybe an additional hour). Rock climb up or rappel down in the same area.

Or, get some friends together and leisurely walk from the 5-dinar waterfalls in Gali Ali Baig up through the canyons to the gushing spring at Baikhal.  It's only about 8 kilometers and will take less than 2 hours. It's an awesome, scenic walk!


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