Middle East Destinations International
I first went to Jerusalem at the age of 19 and although I haven't been back since, I hope to go again one day. I travelled there with a company called McCabe travel that specialises in running pilgrimages to the Holy Land but was lucky enough to have my place paid for by McCabe (as I was travelling with someone who works as a Guide for ... McCabe). I took this trip in about 2004 and I believe the cost of a week's tour of Israel (including a few days in Jerusalem) was about £1000 for the other people who were paying. This did include, though, your flights, your accommodation, all your meals and bus travel and guides to take you around Israel.
Of course, Israel in general is in a state of unrest and a lot of this turmoil is centred around Jerusalem. Three major religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) have invested interests in the city and there can be a lot of tension. You will see people carrying guns and you will see soldiers and there is a risk of terrorism/bombs etc. It is best to always check travel guidance before travelling and to travel with a group and a guide wherever possible.
I visited in the last week of October and it was very warm. I'm not sure if this is entirely typical, though, as apparently they were having a bit of an Indian summer the year I visited. The heat was quite humid and stifling, though, and I hate to think what it would have been like in the middle of the summer!
We arrived in Jerusalem during Ramadan and started to unpack at the hotel. No one, however, had told us that a cannon situated behind our hotel would go off at sundown to mark the end of fasting for the day and as we merrily unpacked and then heard a loud bang, we all had a bit of a momentary panic. We had a few guides. The trip itself was being run and guided by an Anglican cannon named Paul who had been to Israel many times before and most of the people in the group were members of his church. He was going to be doing a lot of the leading of the group, taking us to places to visit and holding church services for us.
We also had, however, a man from McCabe travel who was based in Jerusalem who stayed with us for our time in Jerusalem and another guide named Oliver came with us each day on the bus. He was French but with British parents and had moved to Jerusalem when he married a Jewish girl who lived there and was fluent in Hebrew. He guided us around many of the sites giving us historical information.
On the first night, we all went en masse to a high vantage point to look out over the city. A very insistant Arab with a camel decided to follow us offering us camel rides (much to the dismay of an older woman in the group who had somehow became convinced that camels gave you syphillis)! We then went into the old part of Jerusalem. Our hotel was situation in between Herod's gate and the Damascus gate and we entered the city through the Damascus gate. It was dark outside and the Islamic revellers were out in force celebrating the end of fasting for the day, letting off fire-crackers and generally being in fine spirits. It was a bit of a manic circus and if I hadn't been part of a group, I think I'd have felt a bit intimidated.
We walked round parts of the Old City, taking backstreets as well as more main routes since we had two people with us who were very familiar with the city, before heading back to the hotel.
Obviously, Jerusalem is a city steeped in religion and so the majority of the sites of interest here are religious sites. Early the next morning, we headed off to walk the Via Dolorosa (The way of sorrow) which is the path Jesus is meant to have carried the cross down. We visited the Wailing Wall (which is part of the remnants of the great Jewish temple that was destroyed in AD 70). The wailing wall has to be accessed through a security check point due to terrorist activity in the area. Also, if you are a female, you will only be allowed access to a tiny portion of the wall but it is best to follow the rules no matter how much of an ardent feminist you are! We visited the beautiful church of Dominus Flevit (Jesus wept) that looks out over the city and is small but perfectly formed into a tear drop shape. We visited the Mount of Olives for views over the city and we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is meant to be built on the site where Jesus was crucified and also contains the place where Jesus was buried.
As for the city itself, we obviously spent a lot of time in the Old City and I am certain that the newer part of the city is undoubtedly more like a normal modern city but the beauty of the Old City lies in the fact that it feels almost untouched by history.
When you enter in the Damascus gates and see all the stalls and vendors vying for your attention and smell the herbs and spices for sale, it really feels like you've entered the scene of a film. I think tourism for most of the sellers isn't as reliable as it once was due to all the troubles and terrorism and when I was there, some of the vendors and shop owners were truly desperate and trying to get you to buy something or enter their shop was not just them being greedy but them genuinely struggling to make a living. We saw quite a few tears and shop keepers begging us to come in and obviously, it just isn't possible to buy from everyone, so it was quite sad.
I was advised as a young, Western female to not go anywhere myself in Jerusalem and when I did get get split from my group by accident at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I foolishly decided to turn down the kind offer of a Greek Orthodox priest to walk me back to my hotel and decided I was a big girl who could take care of myself. Well, very soon, walking down the Via Dolorosa on my own, I instantly regretted that decision! It was a very intimidating experience and when a passing priest saw the terror on my face and offered to walk me home, I definately did not turn down an offer like that again!
Technically, the currency is the shekel. I don't know if things have changed since I was there but when I travelled there you weren't able to get shekels here and take them over with you. You had to get them over there. My hotel did have a currency exchange facility but, to be honest, they seemed to accept anything and in fact, seemed to prefer Sterling or Dollars to shekels. I'm not sure whether that has changed since the global economic crisis, however. It was quite hard to keep a track of your money, though, because of this. For example, I saw an item in a shop that I wanted to buy. The price on the item was in shekels but I didn't have any on me at the time, so asked if I could pay in Sterling. The man in the shop was happy to accept Sterling and gave me my change in US Dollars! So if you go, make sure you have a good mathematical brain, or a reliable currency convertor! There were occassionally people on the street trying to exchange money, also, and although in Europe you would steer well clear of these sorts of people, our guides in Israel actually advised us that these street exchangers usually offered a better rate of exchange than the hotels.
Would I go Back?
I love travelling and have been to quite a few places but Israel was truly magical and I would love to go back at some point! However, I'm not sure I'd be comfortable going there without being part of an organised group. Of course, there is a huge religious aspect to Jerusalem and Israel. I am religious so this didn't bother me but I imagine atheists would find it quite annoying! Also, there are a lot of myths and legends associated with the place where people say Jesus might had done this or been there etc. and a lot of it has to be taken with a very large grain of salt but this is part of the charm of the place, in a way.
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Had it not been a brand new flatscreen television, I would have thrown a cushion at it. Or perhaps something a little heavier. A mug of coffee maybe. Or a rock. Top Gear. Driving sports cars through Iraq on the BBC on Boxing Day. It got me so mad. There they were, wearing bullet proof vests and cowering under helmets that ... looked as if they were leftover props from Allo Allo, thrilling audiences with tales of danger. Would they be shot at by a terrorist around the next corner? Would they be blown up by a roadside bomb? How long would it be before one of the idiotic trio would be kidnapped or beheaded? Would filling the car doors with sand make them bullet proof? After all, they were in Iraq, which, as Jeremy Clarkson felt he needed to remind us every few seconds, is one of the MOST DANGEROUS COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD!
It had me spitting feathers. It had me clenching my fist. It got me so worked up that here I am, barely a week later, writing a review on dooyoo.
You see, the programme gave the impression that they were entering a warzone, somewhere so perilous that it would be a miracle if any of them got out alive. But this was not Baghdad, or Mosul, or Basra. This was filmed in Erbil, the main city in the almost-breakaway region of Iraqi Kurdistan, a place where Americans are more likely to be greeted by handshakes and offers of tea than a shower of bullets. In April, I spent two weeks backpacking through Iraqi Kurdistan, and spent several days in Erbil, so was quite keen for my family to watch Top Gear in the hope that it might go some way to convince them that it really wasn't the stupid idea theytold me it had been. Unfortunately, it took Jeremy, Richard and James a good 15 minutes of the programme before they mentioned Kurdistan and removed their costumes, declaring it to be beautiful and safe, by which time Erbil had been left far behind. It was almost like an afterthought, and my mum did not pick up on it at all, still utterly convinced that Iraqi Kurdistan is a hostile place in which to backpack.
Time to try and put things right.
Erbil (or Arbil, or Irbil) is the largest Kurdish city in Iraq, and goes by the name Hewler (or Hawler or Hawlar...who cares about spelling, really?!) in Kurdish. You won't see many Iraqi flags, if any. No Iraqi soldiers either, and the only US soldiers you're likely to see are in Erbil on r&r. Instead, you'll see the red, white and green stripes of the Kurdistan flag with a big yellow sun in the centre, fluttering above every building, lining every street, appearing in windows, on cars, even on carpets in the bazaar. Kurdish songs blast out from tea shops where customers in traditional Kurdish baggy trousers chat in Kurdish, not Arabic. In fact, you're hard pressed to find any evidence you're actually in Iraq, other than the moneychangers with their makeshift tables in the streets and their mountains of Iraqi Dinars waiting to be exchanged for a few dollars.
Top Gear tried its best to find the most derelict corner of the city to film, all broken doors, piles of rubble, and barbed wire, but really, Erbil isn't like that. They somehow managed to miss the Citadel, quite a feat as it stands on a mound in the middle of the city, visible from nearly everywhere. At the entrance, you'll be greeted by Mubarek Bin Ahmad Sharafaddin, also known as Ibn al-Mustawfi, a famous Kurdish historian reading a historical tome on a plinth, busy ignoring the kids climbing all over him. At the gate, a soldier with a big gun checks your bag, says "selam" (hello) and opens the way for you to enter the oldest continually inhabited urban area in the world.
Built on top of ruins dating back millennia, Erbil's citadel looks impressive from down below, but as soon as you enter, you realise the last few decades have not been kind. Up until a couple of years ago, this used to be a densely populated slum area, overcrowded with families fleeing the violence in other regions of Iraq, slapping up makeshift walls and roofs inside ancient mansions, allowing the original structures to fall down around them. Then the Kurdish Regional Government and UNESCO stepped in, moving the refugees out to purpose built houses on the edge of the city, leaving just one family behind to keep the record. Nowadays, most of the narrow lanes and collapsing mansions are fenced off, but you can still walk through the middle of the citadel and enter one or two restored buildings.
On the right as you enter is a surprise, a sign that someone is thinking of tourism. The kurdish Textile Museum is a well-kept display of traditional carpets and rugs in a beautifully restored mansion. Free to enter, it was packed on the day I visited. A busload of excitable Iraqi women from Baghdad happily rubbed shoulders with half a dozen American soldiers on a guided tour. I wasn't even the only tourist, as an Australian girl wandered in looking for postcards. We couldn't find any in the museum shop, so tried our luck next door in perhaps the most optimistic shop in all of Erbil, one choc-full of souvenirs...old maps of Iraq, old notes with Saddam's grinning face, a few carpets, lots of antique silverware and jewellery, some dusty books in a dozen languages, but sadly no postcards.
Back outside, I sat for a while by the statue, taking in the view of the chaotic city streets down below. To my right, the covered Qaysari bazaar, to the left an outdoor extension of the bazaar, and right in front of me, a grand square with crowd-pulling fountains. In the distance, the low rise bazaar area gave way to taller, more modern structures. A shopping mall here, a 5 star hotel under construction there. Erbil is undergoing a lot of development, cranes popping up all over the city.
A Kurdish student came over to chat, unable to control his curiosity any longer. Where was I from? What was I doing there? What did I think of Kurdistan? Could he take my photo? I stood by the statue, feeling very self-conscious and awkward as he snapped away with his camera phone, and soon a small crowd had gathered, young men taking it in turns to photograph their friends with the foreign tourists. Even the soldier manning the gate abandoned his post to take a quick snap.
It was all very odd. I tried to kid myself that they mistook me for Brad Pitt, but alas, every other tourist I met in Iraq experienced the same phenomenon. Down in the square, brand new fountains proved to be a magnet for photographers, both amateurs with the latest iphones, and professionals with ancient polaroids advertizing their prices on pieces of card hung round their necks. In the late afternoon, families swarmed all over these photographers, the women arranging their kids and their ice creams in groups within spraying distance of the fountains, the men sloping off to the tea shops on the edge of the square for a glass of chai, a smoke and a gossip. It was about as far removed from the rundown dangerous Erbil of Top Gear as possible.
The Qaysari Bazaar, a maze of alleys, passageways and hidden staircases, could well be one of the oldest markets in the world, although most of it looks fairly new nowadays. Instead of feeling the pressure to buy unwanted bits of tat, I actually had the opposite problem in the spice section. First it was a handful of raisins, then someone pressed a walnut in my hand. "Bashi?" Is it good? Here, try these dates! Have you tasted pomegranate nectar before? Here! Mister, Erbil honey! I tried hard to pay for the little bag of roasted chickpeas I'd been handed, but the stallholder was having none of it. "Welcome, welcome. Kurdistan is good, no?"
The citadel was one area of the old city, but surely not everyone can have lived in such opulent palaces. I wanted to find the old Erbil outside the citadel walls. My search began in the busy streets surrounding the Qaysari Bazaar, but I wasn't having much luck, as anything old seemed to have been torn down to make way for glass and steel, cement and breeze block. I spotted a side street leading behind a restaurant, and decided to investigate. Around the corner, concrete was replaced with mud brick, a row of old Erbil houses each with ornate patterns in the brickwork and a balcony hanging over the street. More prominent than the balconies were the electricity wires, thousands of them twisting round lampposts like nightmarish birds nests, each one a different colour as the neighbours attached themselves to the power supply using ingenuity and a lot of masking tape. I wouldn't like to be an electrician in this city!
Similar streets can be found all over Erbil if you look hard enough, but the handsome characterful old houses are in a sad state generally, many seemingly abandoned and probably slated for demolition unless someone steps in to save them. It will be a shame if Erbil's old neighbourhoods are lost completely in the rush to modernize, but unfortunately that seems to be what is happening, little by little.
But it isn't just new offices and apartment blocks, shopping malls and hotels that are mushrooming in Erbil. Parks are a speciality of Kurdistan, attracting hordes of families and groups of friends on Thursday evenings and Fridays. Foreign visitors won't go unnoticed for long, and the constant photo shoots by fountains and lakes can get a little tiresome, but as a place to meet new Kurdish friends, the parks can't be beaten. Each one has its own centrepiece. The Shanidar Park has erbil's one and only art gallery in a bizarre structure resembling a cave on the inside with stalagmites and stalactites strewn around among the artwork, a fake waterfall cascading from the roof. The Minare Park is big on water features too, all lit up in different colours at night, but they can't compete with the centuries-old Sheikh Chooli minaret, marooned in a bed of roses in a quiet corner of the park, another reminder that Erbil is an ancient city.
The queen of parks, though, is Martyr Sami Abderrahman Park, out by the international airport (Top Gear must have driven past this at some point, as it is huge, but obviously it didn't fit the image they wanted to show...). Acres of well-thought out gardens, two lakes, fountains galore, quiet lawns, noisy adventure playgrounds, statues hidden in flower beds, cafes serving tea and popcorn, a stage for traditional dancing on Fridays, one of the city's top restaurants...it all happens here, especially at weekends when many of the park-goers dress up in their traditional clothes to parade up and down and generally show off. There's even a little noddy train. Hell, there's even a speedboat offering thrill rides around th big fountain in the middle for a handful of dinars.
It's a happy place now, but not so long ago, this was the site of one of Iraq's most notorious prisons where political prisoners were tortured. Another reminder of the country's troubles is a sombre monument at the centre of the park, a hundred or so names carved into a black slab of marble. These were the victims of a 2004 suicide bomb attack, the last attack of its kind in Erbil and hopefully something that will not happen again.
On my last day, I trekked out to the brand new Jalil Khayat Mosque, as advised by some new Kurdish friends I'd met in a park. They'd told me it was modelled on the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and from the citadel mound, it did indeed look a little bit like it. However, up close, it doesn't look anything like the Blue mosque. I'll concede that there are blue tiles, but that's about all. Instead, this is an amazing piece of modern islamic architecture, incorporating traditional brickwork and adding bright blue tiles and almost phallic domes, and decorative doorways that hint at Iranian influences. I made the mistake of visiting on a Friday when the mosque was busy with worshippers, so I was unable to enter, but just to see the outside was worth the long walk.
PRACTICAL DETAILS: Tourist visas for Iraq are almost impossible to get, but luckily you don't need one to visit Erbil...the Kurdish Regional Government hand out free 10-day visas to most nationalities at border crossings and airports, valid only for travel within Iraqi Kurdistan. Erbil's international airport is attracting more and more airlines from around the Middle East and Europe. Austrian Airlines were one of the first to offer direct flights, and they've now been joined by Lufthansa, Air Berlin, Royal Jordanian, Gulf Air and Turkish Airlines.
However, flights into Erbil are very expensive for the region, so most tourists (read backpackers) arrive overland from Turkey. The border crossing is Habur, between Silopi (Turkey) and Zaxo (Iraq), a well-used crossing with hundreds of lorries queueing on both sides. Taxis from Silopi take you over the bridge to the Iraqi side, guiding passengers through all the formalities, and it all takes about an hour to enter Iraq. In the other direction, it can take several hours, as every vehicle is checked thoroughly for smuggled goods...I was stuck on the bridge in no-man's land for 7 hours.
From Zaxo (stay long enough to see the beautiful old bridge, Piro Delal), it is just over an hour to Dohuk, the first major city and a nice place to spend a couple of days. Transport to Erbil is easy to find, as shared taxis ply the route all day long, but you have to check the route the driver is planning to take, as some take the risky road through the outskirts of Mosul, not somewhere you'd like to break down. Make sure your taxi will be taking the slightly longer but much safer route via Ain Sifni and Baderash, which stays firmly within Kurdish held territory. A similar dilemma faces the traveller hoping to continue onto Iraqi Kurdistan's other major city, Sulaimaniyah (Slemani), as one route takes you very close to the unstable city of Kirkuk...the American soldiers on duty at the Kirkuk checkpoint were surprised to say the least when I turned up in a shared taxi, but were happy for me to continue once they found out we'd only be using the ringroad to skirt around the city...it was a nerve-wracking 15 minutes though. The other safer route is via Koya and the spectacular mountain road to Dukan, but transport connections aren't great and I had to wait a couple of hours in Koya for onward transport.
North of Erbil is the even more spectacular Hamilton Road, winding its way through the mountains to Haji Omaran and the Iranian border, passing several waterfalls and summer resorts. If you saw the Top Gear episode I've been referring to, you'll know the road I mean, and even the presenters had to admit that it is spectacular.
To the south, taxis and buses leave for Baghdad, but you'd be a fool if you tried to board one. Don't even think about it!
Checkpoints are a frequent feature of roads in Kurdistan, but they are generally not a problem. The soldiers on duty were always polite and friendly, and English speakers were often brought out to speak to me, usually to ask me questions about football or politics rather than to look at my documents. They are quite thorough when searching through bags though, so be patient, and remember, it is because of these checkpoints that Iraqi Kurdistan hasn't suffered from the indiscriminate attacks that have plagued the rest of the country.
Hotels are plenty in Erbil, ranging from the former Sheraton, now called the Erbil International Hotel, and a handful of business class hotels in the posher suburbs, to US$5 a night fleapits down by the Qaysari Bazaar. I stayed in three hotels during my time in Erbil, all in the bazaar area: a sleepless night at the filthy and noisy Hotel Qandil (15,000 dinars); a slightly better night at the cockroach infested Hotel Shahan (30,000 dinars); and a great few days at the friendly and spotlessly clean Hotel Bekhal (25,000 dinars).
Foodwise, Erbil is hardly a gourmet's paradise. For the first couple of nights, I found it very hard to actually find any food at all once the sun had gone down, except for ice cream, fruit juice and a lone kebab grill in the street. Then I was introduced by some new friends to Souk Iskan, a street of kebab shops, lahmajoon parlours and burger joints. Lahmajoon is a pizza-like bread with just spicy minced meat as a topping...served fresh and hot, it is delicious, and also very cheap. More upmarket restaurants are to be found in the suburbs, especially the Christian quarter of Ain Kawa out by the airport, where there is even a German restaurant and bar. Alcohol, by the way, doesn't exactly flow freely in Erbil, although there are quite a few bars tucked away down side streets, and plenty shops sell Turkish beer and stronger stuff...most hotels do have notices banning alcohol on the premises, and public drunkenness isn't tolerated, so I'm not sure where you'd drink it though. Tea is the drink of the streets, and chaikhanas are everywhere...mainly male-only though, so women should expect to cause a bit of a commotion. Juice and ice-cream bars are also everywhere...try pomegranate juice and tamarind ice cream.
Language...well, some Kurdish phrases are very useful! Many older people speak fluent Arabic, although some are understandably reluctant to use it. There's a Turcoman community in Erbil and many investors are Turkish, so Turkish can be useful sometimes too. Many younger Kurds have lived in Europe, so it isn't uncommon to meet fluent English, German or Swedish speakers too.
Safety is a big concern of any traveller to Iraq, and I'm not going to pretend everything is rosy in Iraqi Kurdistan. Mosul and Kirkuk are under an hour away by road from Erbil, so trouble is not far away, but this rarely spills over into Erbil itself...the last bomb attack was in 2004. You can wander around freely in the streets of Erbil without fearing for your safety, but after dark it is probably best not to wander too far and to stick to well-lit roads.
Money can be problematic, as most of the cash machines I found were out of action or suitable for local cards only, but this will change soon. For now, bring cash, lots of it, and change it on the with the moneychangers on the streets.
Well, I think that's probably enough! If you got this far, well done! I could happily talk about Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan for hours and hours, as I enjoyed my trip there immensely, but realise that it isn't a destination for everyone. For now, it would suit those looking for a destination completely off the beaten track, preferably someone with a sense of adventure and an interest in the region...it's not a particularly challenging destination, but it isn't easy either. Erbil is not packed full of attractions, and those it does have are not really world class, but you don't really visit Erbil for museums and monuments. You come to experience a large Kurdish city, a city of parks and fountains and incredibly friendly and welcoming people.
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Doha has often been referred to as one of the dullest capital cities in the world. The majority of it is also a building site. So why would anyone come here? Well, apparently a lot of people do. And the reason is mostly Qatar Airways. If you have a long transit time in Doha Airport, and qualify for a $40 visa on arrival ... (check to see if your country is included), then you can officially enter Qatar, which believe me, is better than waiting around in the airport.
A taxi will cost around 25 Qatari Riyals to get into the city. Make sure the driver uses a meter, and make sure you have smaller notes, as they tend not to give change.
Once in, your usual starting point is the Corniche, which is a waterfront promenade stretching for several miles from the Islamic Museum of Art right up to the newly built skyscrapers.
My advice would be to start at the far end and work your way down. By the time you get to the bottom, you'll be ready to escape the burning sun, and the Islamic Museum of Art is a great place to do that. It is air conditioned, interesting, architecturally impressive, and free!
It's easy to spend a couple of hours there. On the walk out, you'll pass all the old fashioned fishing ships, which makes for a fascinating contrast against the backdrop of the gleaming skyscrapers behind.
Once you've taken the much needed break, you might want to head over to the old Souq, which is a network of streets and alleyways containing traditional arabic shops, as well as some new restaurants, bars and cafe's.
Apart from that, there's not a great deal at this time. Doha is still developing, and as such, a lot of it is under construction. Apart from in the Souq, malls, restaurants and anywhere indoor is hard to come by. A long road separates the Corniche from the rest of the city, and there are very few crossings. This means you either have to walk half a mile in the wrong direction to cross the road, or you have to take your life in your hands. Whichever you choose, it's very inconvenient.
Truth be told, a 6-8 hour jaunt into Doha is about the ideal amount of time, unless you have more time to go into the dessert. There just isn't much more to see, but yet what i've mentioned is very much worth making the effort to experience.
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Middle East Destination International
Country: Saudi Arabia / Destination International / World Region: Middle East - "Mecca (in full: Makkah al-Mukarramah, Arabic: مكة المكرمة) is the capital city of Saudi Arabia's Makkah province, in the historic Hejaz region. It has a population of 1,294,167 ...
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City and state in northern Iraq / Destination International / Alternative spelling: Dehok or Dahok
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Country: Israel / Destination International / World Region: Middle East - An ancient fortified Jewish village in the Galilee, northern Israel.
City: Akko / Destination International / Country: Israel / World Region: Middle East - A city in the Western Galilee region of northern Israel.
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