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The ins and outs of Kurdistan

Some have suspicions about three Americans held by Iran after apparently straying across the border. But for those who've been there, the story isn't far-fetched.

August 10, 2009|Lionel Beehner | Lionel Beehner, formerly a senior writer with the Council on Foreign Relations, writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.

To get into Iraqi Kurdistan from Turkey by taxi, as I found out a few years back, requires a lot of patience.

At the first border checkpoint, a customs official eyed us suspiciously, then grudgingly let us pass. At the next checkpoint, the guard was out to dinner. My fellow passenger in the taxi, an older Kurd, and I killed an hour drinking chai and smoking before the official returned and waved us through.

At the next stop, I was motioned into an office by a burly border guard clutching a Kalashnikov. I told him I had come to write a travel article, but he seemed unconvinced that I was a journalist, as I had no press credentials or proof of lodging. He offered me tea before pulling out a picture of a familiar mustachioed man in a fez and putting me to the test. "Who's this?" he asked. "Ataturk," I responded, staring at the photo of the Republic of Turkey's founder. "Yes. Ataturk is No. 1," he beamed and allowed us to pass.

The next checkpoint was manned by Iraqi Kurds. Once again, I seemed to be the problem. I was shown into a squat office and offered tea again. The guard liked America, he said, but he was not buying my story. The tea seemed to help. He finally signed a flurry of paperwork, then asked: "Who are the best -- Turks, Arabs or Kurds?"

Hmm, I mused, staring at the Kurdish tricolor flag hanging on the wall. "Kurds," I said. "Kurds are the best." He smiled and stamped my passport. We were waved through the final checkpoints quickly, but by then hours had passed and it was very late.

I did things the hard way. Getting in and out of Kurdistan officially can be grueling, but crossing the border unofficially is a breeze.

You can literally walk through a hole in the wall in a dusty border town in the northeast of Kurdistan and find yourself in Iran. There are no guards, no customs officials barking for your passport and visa. And if you were hiking, say, in the mountains, you could mistakenly cross into Iran without having any idea you'd done so. The region is not exactly navigable by Google Maps.

I was therefore unsurprised to read about a group of backpackers recently detained after crossing into the Islamic Republic.

I don't know the three young Americans taken into custody in Iran, so I can't say for sure they were simply lost hikers and not undercover journalists or worse. But I have heard the speculation that they must have been doing something sinister, that no one would think of vacationing in the region. That is absurd.

I was amazed by the variety of tourists who venture to Kurdistan. I met Middle American retirees, a young Brit bent on biking across Iraq, and a pair of Swedish hippies. I met religious tourists and history buffs, anthropologists and archaeologists. Western travel agencies offering guided tours of Kurdistan say they cannot keep pace with growing demand.

Kurdistan is a region teeming with cultural treasures. It has mud-caked ruins and former palaces of Saddam Hussein. Alexander the Great tamed the Persians on its plains. And the mountains east of Sulaymaniyah rival the Rockies for great hiking.

There are also incongruent oddities: giant Ferris wheels, 18-hole golf courses, glitzy new shopping malls -- even a roller coaster. When Iraqi Kurds talk about their region being the next Dubai, they mean it.

Iraqi Kurds are remarkably welcoming and pro-American. When I told a barber I was from New York, he practically hugged me. And a ratty row of kiosks selling U.S. Army surplus gear is a popular destination for the locals.

Of course there are dangers and inconveniences you wouldn't encounter in Paris or Cancun. The electricity in my hotel in Zakho went out after Turkish warplanes shelled a nearby town. The fancier hotels are wrapped in concertina wire, like a federal penitentiary.

The mountains are also spooky. "See those lights up in the hills?" a Kurdish journalist asked me one night. "The Turkish army." The news wasn't exactly comforting, because the Turks have threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan. Along the eastern border, the Iranians have shelled Kurdish villages.

So yes, Iraqi Kurdistan isn't your typical tourist destination. But I, for one, am very glad I paid it a visit. And I'm betting the three Americans didn't intend to leave it so soon.

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