This is the blog of journalist, Lonely Planet author and photographer Stuart Butler. It features news and travel updates from the regions in which Stuart works, including northeast Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan), Yemen and Sri Lanka.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Holidays (almost) in Mosul

And today in Iraq we went to church, made wishes by tying knots in sheets and skirted along the edge of Mosul, arguably the most dangerous city on Earth (yeah this bit was quite scary).

Driving south out of Dohuk we travelled through flat arable land and semi-desert to the small village of al-Kosh which is unusual in Iraq in that it’s 100% Christian. The village itself was simply lovely and one of the only places we’ve been here that has actually felt genuinely old thanks to its mud wall gateway, narrow streets, houses with little courtyard gardens. I was walking a little ahead of Toby and Marion and was basically kidnapped by an old couple who forced me into their house to drink coffee and eat biscuits. It was a struggle to escape without having lunch there. The highlight of the village though was the old monastery built into and around a system of caves high up on a honey coloured cliff face above the village. The amazing thing about this small island of Christianity in Iraq was that despite being just 30 odd kilometres from the violence and mayhem of Mosul where killing Christians is almost a hobby, the war hadn’t touched the village at all.

It was somewhat reluctantly we left here and continued onto Mar Metti or St Matthews Monastery, which at 1650 years old is the oldest church/monastery in Iraq. Like the one in al-Kosh this one was also set like an eagles nest way up on a cliff face. Unlike the al-Kosh monastery though this one was huge and once (well 1000 years ago) it housed over 2000 monks - today there are seven although this is up on the two Monks of a few years ago. Getting to Mar Metti was something of an adventure. We had to pass very, very close to the suburbs of Mosul - in fact we could have walked from the road we were travelling along to the city outskirts in about 5 minutes. Had we realised the road went quite so close to what is possibly the most dangerous city in the world we probably wouldn’t have bothered; as Marion kept saying “What are we doing? Driving by Mosul just to see a church. I never even go to church at home”. She did have a point! The security through the area we drove through was shared between the Kurds and the Iraqi army and was outside the full control of the Kurds. The look and atmosphere of the place was radically and instantly different. It was immediatly much poorer, much dirtier, much more desperate and, frankly, much, much more scary. This was exactly the Iraq you see on TV. There were road blocks everywhere. Driving through one town there were army road blocks on almost every street so they could check who went in and out of each and every quarter of the town. Everyone at the check points said we were safe here, but stopping for a kebab for lunch just didn’t seem all that appealing when you could see down the hill into Mosul itself. Things weren’t improved much by the fact that the driver hadn't been here before, didn’t seem at all certain of the security situation himself and was a little worried he'd take a wrong turn and in a kilometre or so end up in Mosul itself.... When the road finally turned north again and re-entered areas fully controlled by the Kurds the people of Mosul could probably have heard the sigh of relief! That was definitely a close enough view of the 'real' Iraq!

From Mar Metti we drove north into an area of lovely hills covered in olive trees and grape vines to a place called Lalish, which is the holiest place in the world for followers of the Yazidi faith. There were several pyramid shaped temples here and a number of cave like chambers below them. As there are only 500,000 Yazidis in the world and it wasn't a holy day there were few people around but a nice man showed us around and explained how we could make a wish come true by tying a knot in a sheet. I think we all wished not to have drive back the way we came! Our wishes came true because it was a simple drive from there back to calm and collected Dohuk!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Taking the high road in Iraq

Think Iraq is all desert and sand dunes? Think again. The last couple of days have been spent up in the Zagros mountains bordering Iran and Turkey and you’re more likely to see a snowman up here than a camel. Actually, if the truth be known we didn’t see any snowmen or camels but we did see big wheels. Lots of them. Take any beauty spot and you can be certain than an Iraqi will have tried to improve on nature by building some monsterous hotel or theme park. Of slightly more interest to most western tourists we did see a ski resort they were in the process of building – though they did seem to have picked the rockiest and most snow free mountain slope around on which to build it. Away from the tack though the scenery was truly beautiful; huge snowy mountains and deep valleys and gorges. In another time and place this could be a major trekking and winter sports holiday destination.

As public transport is limited up in the mountains we hired a taxi and driver for three days – the driver is a funny guy who has taken great pleasure in playing practical jokes on us like pretending to take the wrong road and drive into Mosul (which would be very, very bad) and other such hilarious antics – this proved a wise decision when we couldn’t find anywhere to stay in the mountains and so were able to carry on last night to the city of Dohuk. The city had something of a surprise for us this morning (and no, it wasn’t yet another kebab – well ok we did only have kebabs but that wasn’t the surprise) - an art gallery. Now I don’t want to sterotype but I wouldn’t imagine a place like Iraq to have art galleries. Even bad ones. But Dohuk had an art gallery that wasn’t just not bad, it was really good. And it’s not just Dohuk. In Sulyamaniya the other day we visited another almost equally good gallery. Yes another unexpected side to Iraq.

After the human art we went off in search of more natural art. Back into the mountains we drove into scenery that was possibly more stunning than yesterdays. Huge mountains seperated by a wide fertile valley in the middle of which the small town of Amadiya was perched atop a table top shaped mountain rising out of the valley floor. The weather was gorgeous, we sat in a restaurant in the sun and had a big lunch (kebabs - again....) looking out a stunning mountain vista. Who would imagine that Iraq could actually feel like a holiday destination? I’m surprised to say it but I’m really enjoying this place!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Park Life Iraqi Style

Another great day here in Iraq. We returned to the regional capital Erbil and being a Friday, which is a holiday here we did what Iraqis do on a Friday and went to the park. When I say park I don’t mean a grotty little bit of grass with some trees and a few people kicking a ball about (though there was that as well). Oh no, I mean a park that has a train to get about on, lakes with dancing, multi-coloured fountains, fake caves filled with Mona Lisas’ (I rather suspect these were fake too), the biggest and best childrens playground I’ve ever seen (yes, better than any in Europe), a cable car that must be a kilometre or so long, a skate/BMX park (seriously!) and zillions of very noisy and very colourful wedding parties most of whom wanted us to come and join in (and if we’d hung about any longer we may have been expected to marry a relative or two). Yes, no matter how you look at it, not just are the Iraqi’s amazingly friendly (the amount of times people ‘forget’ to make us pay is amazing), but it’s also the tackiest place I have ever been – and that’s just great with me!!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Iraq day three

Today something amazing happened! The sun came out! Oh yes, you think Iraq is all sun baked desert well not so. Up here in the north it rains, and it rains and then it rains again. So taking advantage of this rare glimmer of sunshine we started the day with a walk around Sulamaniya’s souk where we saw cute fluffy bunny rabbits about to be be-headed, chickens being cooked with flame throwers and posters of Adolf Hitler next to ones of Che Guevara which frankly was a little strange. We also found a fantastic tea shop with pictures of Kurdish freedom fighters all over the walls and about a hundred old men playing dominoes and backgammon and Marion, the only girl in the vicinity, wishing she was a man.

A cheery afternoon was spent in prison looking at people being tortured and gassed. The Amna Suraka is an old Saddam era prison/interrogation centre/torture chamber. The current authorities have left it much as it was the day they over ran it and took control of it over the Bathists. The huge complex was littered in bullet holes and inside were very graphic pictures and models of the results of Saddams gassing of Kurdish villages and people being tortured. The odd thing was the reaction of the visiting Kurds and Arab Iraqis who presumably all know people killed in the Saddam era and yet treated it all like a big jolly carnival. Oh, we’re in a torture chamber where people I knew may have died ho ho ho, let’s take some photos, joke about and lock ourselves in the prison cells and climb on the tanks! What family friendly fun all this is!

In the prison cafĂ© (with Wifi may I point out) afterwards we met a big group of Iraqis from across the country who were in town for a conference on blogging and media freedom in Iraq. We had no shortage of invites to Baghdad, Kirkuk, Mosul and Najaf amongst others and they said we could bring friends so if anyone wants a lovely (but possibly quite short) holiday in Mosul do let me know and I’ll pass on your details.

Then we went for a walk in a park and got married! Well, ok that’s an exaggeration but we did get an invite to join in a Kurdish wedding celebration in the children’s playground. All I can say about that is thank god only the women were dancing as I’m not totally sure Iraq is quite ready for my caterpillar dance yet….

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Iraq diary

Today we drove east from Erbil to Sulamaniyah via the very small town of Koya. The driver of our share taxi obviously thought we looked bored so tried to liven things up by killing us all with his crazy driving and then giggling to himself at every near miss. Who said it wasn’t dangerous here?! The driving meant we didn’t have much time to watch the scenery which was possibly a plus because it couldn’t have been any more grey and bleak. It started as gentle hills and then got more and more rugged and through the rain and grey you could see huge snow capped mountains in the distance. Koya was just a small town with an interesting souk and an old castle. Some woman from the council was dragged out of her office because she spoke English and made to give us a tour of the town. She looked really happy about this. She did get quite excited when it came to showing us the museum but unfortunately it had been so long since anyone had asked to see it that all the locks had ceased up and nobody could open the door. Frankly this was something of a relief.

Sulamaniyah, when it came, was a surprise. For a start it’s huge and really spread out with massive four lane highways that are impossible to cross, shopping malls by the dozen and lots of stuff that may once have been buildings but are now just crumbling wreaks. Basically a typical Middle Eastern city. We asked someone what the best thing was to do in Sulaymaniyah. They said to go bowling so that’s what we did. Yes, Iraq is not exactly how I imagined it!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


Wow, what a day! Finally after many, many adventures with Air France strikes (they really are a crap airline!) and snow we finally made it to Iraq!

I’m in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and have therefore naturally spent the day ice-skating! Oh yes, the zillion year old citadel was interesting, the museums were, well actually they were quite dull, the souks were, well like souks anywhere else in the Middle East and so I went to the Family Mall, a huge shopping complex with everything you’d expect to find in Iraq – coffee shops, wireless internet, Mango, Adidas and other chain shops, a fun fair complete with roller coasters and big wheels and a 5D cinema (that’s 3D plus movement and water spraying over you) where I watched a ‘horror’ movie and a 9D cinema – though I have no real idea what the other 4D’s are, an amusement arcade full of Iraqi children playing shoot, kill, death computer games, a large train chugging children about and, of course, an ice-skating rink. Now if only all shopping malls were such fun

Tomorrow I scoot eastwards to Sulamaniya for a day or two before returning to Erbil for a couple more days.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Off to Iraq!

Well I never thought I'd find myself halfway to Iraq and actually be looking forward to it! But, for the next 10 days I'll be travelling around Iraqi Kurdistan partially for Lonely Planet and partially for some photographic projects and my own mere interest. Ok, so to most people the word Iraq means guns, desert, death and other nice stuff but Iraqi Kurdistan, in the far north of the country on the border with Turkey, Iran and Syria is something of a different face of Iraq. The area is largelly autonomus from the rest of the country and has been since a UN No-fly zone was imposed 20 years ago after the first Gulf War. Today it has it's own government, security and police force, borders. visas, flag and everything else that makes up a seperate country - except that it still remains a part of a greater Iraq. It's also safe (compared to the rest of Iraq anyway) and has seen very little of the violence that has engulfed the rest of the country. And not just does it act differently to the rest of Iraq but it looks different. It's got mountains. The Zagros mountains and they're really, really big mountains and it's got rivers, lakes, snow, water, forests and everything else that doesn't look like a desert.

I'm going to be flying into the Iraqi Kurdistan 'capital', Erbil, very late tomorrow night and will spend 8 days travelling around the main cities and through the mountains both updating the Iraqi Kurdistan chapter of the Lonely Planet Middle East guide and just seeing what Iraq is like - very exciting!

However, first I have to get there and that isn't going well. I should have been in Istanbul tonight but am instead in a hotel in Paris after snow in the south of France grounded my first flight and meant I missed the connection (hey there was almost a centimetre of snow you know!). With luck I now fly onto Istanbul and then Iraq in the morning but a four day air traffic strike begins in France tomorrow and nobody can tell me if my flight will actually leave. All going well though I will try my best to update this blog with words and photos  each day whilst I'm away. On the other hand you might just hear about my train ride back home when tomorrows flights are cancelled!