From Erbil, I took a private car to explore three of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest tourist attractions on the way to Duhok: Akre, Lalish and Alqosh.
To read about my time in Erbil check out my post here.
Akre is considered to be one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s prettiest villages and I couldn’t agree more. It’s said to have been founded around 700 BC, although much of the modern structures are from the 19th century. It’s built quite spectacularly on the side of the mountainous region and it’s a steep climb to wander some of the upper streets of the village.
I arrived around mid-morning and, being a Friday, it was quiet and many things were closed. I had a walk around the bazaar which was mostly shut and some of the old buildings laying in decay in the main square area. I had noticed some men sitting to the side of the square drinking tea (of course) and I headed in their direction, thinking it was a beautiful photo. One of them jumped up and in his perfect English asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Akre. He immediately invited me to sit with them and drink tea and eat some fresh figs and I wasn’t going to say no.
His name was Ramzi and he’d spent much of the 70s and 80s living in Europe to escape Saddam Hussein. He even had a partner in Austria and was almost going to settle down until he decided to come back when his family were threatened by the regime. “It was a terrible time, terrible time,” he said, about the Saddam era. There was definitely more hope now he said, however, life is not easy and he said for the younger generation he’s not sure what will happen. Life in the Middle East is certainly unpredictable.
He invited me to have lunch in his home but my driver was insisting that we leave because we still had a long day ahead and so I had to reluctantly decline. I actually really liked Akre and I would have loved to have spent more time there. It is one of the reasons I NEVER do these organised or private tours/drives because the freedom I am used to having is all but lost. But you can’t have everything sometimes.
I got to see a viewpoint of the village before moving on to Lalish.
It’s possible to visit Akre as a day trip from Duhok or Erbil independently by shared taxis. The frequency, however, is unreliable and there are no accommodation options in Akre village, but apparently a couple of kilometres outside there is, you’d have to ask around.
Lalish is the holiest site for the Yazidi minority and is a large temple complex. The Yazidi religion is considered by many to be the oldest in the world and the first monotheistic religion. It’s often described as a blend of Christianity and Islam but is still quite unique in many aspects. The Yazidis are also considered an ethnic group and they inhabit similar areas to the Kurds, in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Being a minority in the Middle East, they have been persecuted for centuries and most recently under ISIS rule. Many of them were brutally tortured, murdered and enslaved by ISIS fighters and it’s remembered as a particularly dark time for their people, often referred to as an attempted genocide. In Iraq, many have now returned to their villages, including around Lalish and the community is steadily recovering.
I happened to arrive in Lalish on a special day marking a funeral for an important person. The entire complex was full of families and it was very busy. The most important thing to remember when visiting is to remove your shoes before stepping foot inside the complex and you must walk around the area barefoot.
A Yazidi university professor was there facilitating much of the event and he spoke fluent English. He took me for a tour of the temple and explained important aspects of the religion. He invited me for lunch with the elders of the community (only men, of course) and I gladly accepted, once my driver informed me that we had time. The men were very friendly, many spoke English and some had even travelled to Europe and Australia to visit the Yazidi communities there. It was a pretty special experience, however, being so busy it was difficult to take photos and wander freely.
I also met a female Peshmerga (Kurdish army) fighter near the main temple. It had been one of my hopes upon going to Iraqi Kurdistan because the Peshmergas are quite famous in the Middle East for being some of the most fearless and respectable fighters and also relatively gender inclusive. Females have been fighting for the Peshmergas for generations and are quite a well-integrated part of their organisation. She wasn’t in uniform and was extremely shy but I was glad to have met her.
Lalish is away from any main road and it’s not serviceable by shared transport. Most people visit on a day trip with a taxi from Duhok or Erbil, although Duhok is closer, and it’s best to combine it with a trip to Alqosh as well.
My final stop for the day was in Alqosh, a Christian town that miraculously survived the advance of ISIS. It’s most famous attraction is the Rabban Hormizd Monastery, built into the side of the mountains above the main town. The monastery was founded around the 7th century and was subsequently expanded over hundreds of years. It became one of the most important sites in the Chaldean Catholic sect until it was almost abandoned in the 18th century during the Ottoman-Persian war.
A new monastery was built in a safer place in the 19th century closer to town and most of the Chaldean Catholic monks moved there. Today, the ancient monastery is just visited by tourists like me and important delegates, although it is still used for mass on special occasions.
A caretaker from the Iraqi army provides free English tours of the monastery and he took me around, through the old tunnels built into the rock and the many prayer rooms that were built from the 7th century up until the 19th century. The view from the monastery back towards the valley was incredible and he told me that in 2016 he watched as ISIS was advancing towards Alqosh. Most people from the towns below fled but he stayed and he said US airstrikes came just in time so that the Peshmerga could make a ground offensive to drive them back to Mosul. It was kind of a surreal feeling to think that just three years ago, ISIS and their twisted brutality were just kilometres away from taking over almost all of Kurdistan.
From Alqosh, we drove onto Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan’s third largest city and my last destination for my time there.
Technically, you could take shared transport to Alqosh village from Duhok. However, the drive up to the monastery itself would have to be done by taxi. It’s best to organise a driver from Duhok (or Erbil) and combine it with a trip to Lalish.
How I got in
I decided to hire a private driver to take me from Erbil to Duhok, stopping at Akre, Lalish and Alqosh on the way. Although it was not how I usually travel, it was the easiest way to see all three places, than dealing with shared taxis over multiple days.
I got in contact with Haval, one of two tour guides in Iraqi Kurdistan, and he organised the driver for me. He is contactable on WhatsApp and Facebook and his details are easy to find on Google and he responds usually within an hour or so. It cost me USD$125 for the entire day. We left at 8am from my hotel in Erbil and arrived at my hotel in Duhok at 5pm.
Where I stayed in Duhok
In Duhok, I stayed at Kristal Hotel which came highly recommended to me by Shah of Dolphin Hotel in Sulaymaniyah and it seems to be the most popular choice for foreigners. They gave me a very nice, large room with a city view for USD$40 per night. The staff were all friendly, although English was limited, and they had free water, tea and coffee all day.
You can read about my time in Duhok and my day trip to Amedi here.
How I got out
From Duhok, I took a bus across the border to Turkey. There are quite a few companies doing the trip and I went with Cizre Nuh which left at 9.30am from their office. Kristal Hotel had called to reserve me a seat but it was unnecessary as the bus literally only had around 7 people on it. I had no idea where their office was but my friendly taxi driver (who spoke no English) did all he could to find out for me where the bus would leave from and I couldn’t help but think that it was a perfect last experience of the Iraqi Kurds; friendly and helpful beyond imaginable.
Read my experience crossing the border here.
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