Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraqi Kurdistan could become a great travel destination — "if people would only stop confusing it with the Iraq they see in the news," said Tim Neville at The New York Times. That might be a tall order, given Iraq's bloody recent history. But the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, in the country's northeast corner, is nothing like battered, dusty Mosul. It's "a Middle Eastern Montana with ruins: a cooler, welcoming tableau of crisp mountain streams and scrappy peaks." The local tourism industry was dealt a near-fatal blow in 2014, when ISIS pushed into the region. But following the jihadist group's collapse, Kurdistan is again becoming a place where a traveler can ride a gondola to ski slopes or kayak on a calm mountain lake. What's more, "you can stroll around Erbil, the regional capital, concerned with only how to decline, politely, invitations to drink tea."
I spent a week exploring the region last spring with Balin Zrar, a charismatic, chain-smoking guide from Kurdistan Iraq Tours. At Erbil's bustling bazaar, I stuck my nose into sacks of za'atar and sumac and watched two teen lovebirds — "she in a hijab, he in jeans" — kiss behind a tree in a park. We also visited Mar Mattai, one of the world's oldest Christian monasteries, which clings to the side of a mountain. "On a clear day a visitor can stand against its fortress-like walls and discern far below the winsome farmlands of Upper Mesopotamia." Outside the city of Dohuk, I walked the battlefield where in 331 B.C. Alexander the Great routed the forces of Persian King Darius III, a victory that allowed Alexander to build an empire stretching from Greece to Pakistan.
War will always haunt Kurdistan. My whole trip oscillated between "breathtaking beauty" and "heartbreaking anguish." We danced in shin-deep water at the Gali Ali Begg waterfall, then visited the city of Halabja, where in 1988 Saddam Hussein murdered as many as 5,000 Kurds in a chemical gas attack. Standing in the husk of one of Saddam's lavish palaces, I gazed across endless peaks stretching toward Turkey. Later, I met the 25-year-old founder of a kayaking club who hopes to one day open an outdoor shop in Erbil. "When there is no war in my country," he said, "Kurdistan is the best place."