Day 4 Sulaymaniyah via Rawanduz (Rawandiz)
Today we were off the map for three quarters of the trip, not because this was some grand off road adventure but because the Kurds are building so many new roads that the cartographers cannot keep up. The road system is superb and billions must have been committed to such extensive upgrading, with fast, two lane highways built across steep mountains
We passed dozens of new villages, some of which look to be semi derelict or only half built. Are these being built for Kurds living abroad or is this land speculation? The buildings were sometimes colourfully painted but most were grey. Few had gardens or outside space.
Sadam bulldozed thousands of settlements in this area in his bid to eradicate Kurdish resistance. It’s now coming back to life, embracing both local and foreign tourism.
We followed the River Zaib, past the ancient battleground of Alexander the Great and Darius, noting at least a dozen tells from the 3rd and 4th centuries BC. The fertile valleys are planted with walnut groves, high up into the mountains. We also passed through a tunnel built by Saddam, now left to dangerously disintegrate. It took 15 minutes to pass along the pot holed, dark structure. The ceiling and walls are unplastered and rocks have fallen onto the unlit untarmacked road. Compared to the rest of the road system, this is strangely untouched – it’s as though no one wants to repair it.
Rawanduz was once an ancient caravan town but it’s now a mini Blackpool on acid. The waterfalls were jam packed with holidaying Iraqis and Kurds, enjoying themselves amongst concrete terraces, shopping complexes and restaurants. I was amazed at how many young women were bare headed, wearing shorts and sleeveless tops.
The stalls were full of cheap Bermuda style shorts, and a lot of the men have obviously been taken with them, as they paraded around in floral, riotous examples. There were also very odd nylon Mohican wigs, punk pink and black striped. Garish mini dresses and flimsy see through nightgowns hung in rows above the shops.
We ate lunch in a bizarre concrete complex built into the rocks under the waterfalls. Water gushed around our feet, channeled by deep gutters, and throngs of people stepped across them as they wove in and out of the gaudy souvenir stands. Children were clamoring for giant water pistols which they then filled from the water channels and fired indiscriminately at passers-by. Loud music pounded from numerous competing stands which were selling sexy underwear, popcorn, fried chicken and T shirts.
This is an obvious honeymoon destination. Great fun and I wish we could have stayed longer but we hit the road again traveling South, past the Dohuk Dam (out of bounds to all foreigners except Iranians) and into Sulaymaniyah.
We hadn’t prebooked any accommodation and our poor driver had to hop around the busy town while G tried to find a hotel willing to take foreigners. We eventually settled for one outside town and paid double the rate of 3 years ago (a result of Sulaymaniyah now being a boom town).
Amongst the expensive high end cars (including one Ferrari) clogging the streets, I watched young women wearing tight jeans, extremely high heels and sleeveless tops. Our bell hop explains that local Muslims “tolerate them because they are Christian” girls but it’s a potentially explosive situation. I noted that men can’t take their eyes off them when they pass by, though no one calls out to them or approaches.
During dinner at our hotel our Maître D introduced himself to us as a Syrian Kurd from Damascus. When we expressed our sorrow at what was happening to his country, tears filled his eyes and he abruptly left our table.