Category: Middle East

Nov 18 2009

Mashhad 2nd day, Iran

Went to the Turkmenistan embassy again this morning. It’s supposed to be open at 8.30am but they only opened the window at 10am. The embassy wanted the application to be typed, so had to go to a photo shop to fill up the application again.
Finally, got my Turkmenistan transit visa after paying USD$55. It’s a huge relieve for me because that’s the main road block for my trip and I needed to pass Uzbekistan by end of this month.
Most travellers agreed that Turkmenistan visa is the hardest one to get.

Turkmenistan Visa
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Vali who is the owner of the homestay brought me and Harold, a german traveller to a cemetry at the north part of Mashhad.
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With Vali
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Took bus 86 with Harold to Koohsangi. Koohsangi is a nice park at the Southern part of Mashhad. There is a hill which provide a nice overlook of the city.
Koohsangi Park
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View of the city
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Mini waterfalls
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Vali’s son, Reza brought me to Sajad which is at the North Western part of Mashhad. Sajad is a richer neighborhood and it’s slightly more liberal than the center part of Mashhad. There are less girls wearing Chador and I see some more colourful head scarfs here.
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Iranian friends at a coffee shop.
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There aren’t many coffee shops around. Coffee shops are usually hidden inside some buildings and not easy to find.

Had the 3rd Kebab from the same shop the third time today. One for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Kebab is cheap (9000 Iranian Rials~USD$.90). Since I am low on cash and not sure when can I find an ATM, I had to watch my budget carefully.
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After 10 days in Iran, I just spent USD$170 on food, accommodation and transportation, USD$55 for Turkmenistan Visa and USD$250 for my camera.

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Nov 17 2009

Mashhad, Iran

Arrived in Mashhad at around 7am.
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Mashhad is the second largest city in Iran with around 3 millions people and is considered one of the holiest place for Shiites. Imam Reza shrine is the resting place for the 8th Imam, Imam Reza. There are around 20 millions people who visit Mashhad for pilgrimage purposes every year.

Took bus 83 to Vali Non-smoking homestay (50,000 Iranian Rials~USD5). The place is hard to find since there wasn’t any sign and a trailer is blocking the entrance.
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Walked to the Turkmenistan embassy since it’s not far away.
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Like before, the embassy opened late. Then the embassy staffs asked me to come back tomorrow without any reason. Turkmenistan visa is the hardest visa to obtain.

Street in Mashhad
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Then walked to Imam Reza Shrine Complex
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The big courtyard
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Since Non-Muslims weren’t allowed to go into the Shrine, they provided an English speaking guide to escort me around the courtyard. A summary of what I learned from him is, the main difference between Sunnis and Shiites is that Shiites believe in Imam whereas Sunnis do not. After the last prophet died, (Prophet Muhammad) Imam were sent to interpret the Quran. Most Imams were buried in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. If I remembered correctly, 6 were buried in Iraq. The only Imam who is buried in Iran is the 8th Imam. The 11th Imam dissapeared 1100 years ago and Shiites believe that when the 12th Imam, which is the last one appear, all problems in the world will be solved.

Visited the museum (5000 Iranian Rials~USD$.50) in the Holy Shrine so I can get rid of the guide.
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Money was donated to the mausoleum
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Nov 15 2009

Yazd, Iran

Took a bus to the terminal and got on the 8am bus to Yazd.
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Yazd is a city 175 miles southeast of Isfahan and has a population around 500,000. After the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia, many Zoroastrians fled to Yazd from neighbouring provinces. Arrived Yazd at around 12pm and took a cab to Silk Road hostel (50,000 Iranian Rials ~USD5 12 beds dorm room).
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Masjid Jameh
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There was a tour of the Zoroastrian temple and cemetry organized by the hostel at 3pm (120,000 Iranian Rials ~USD$12). Joined the tour since some of the sites are a little far off from the city and also I had time constraint because I plan to leave for Mashhad tomorrow.

Zoroastrian temple
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Tower of silence is the place where the dead is carried up and for the sun and vultures to decompose the human flesh.
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Zoroastrians’ structures
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Night View of Masjid Jameh
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Ate Dizi (Yazd local food 20,000 Iranian Rials ~USD2) for dinner
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A square
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Next day,

Walked around the city.
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Ate Camel burger (13,000 Iranian Rials ~USD1.30)
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Old houses
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Fesenjun (50,000 Iranian Rials ~USD5), a type of Iranian food cooked with pomegranate and walnut. It tasted a little sour and bitter.
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Since Yazd is a desert town, they have to dig tunnels to get underground water.
Water Museum (10,000 Iranian Rials~1USD).
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Took a 5pm bus (120,000 Iranian Rials~USD12) to Mashhad. It’s around a thousand kms and will take 14 hours.
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Nov 13 2009

Isfahan, Iran

Arrived Isfahan at 6.30am. Tried to find my way to Hostel Amir Kabir by walking but finally I ended up taking a shared taxi because I didn’t know it’s that far away. Isfahan is the 3rd largest city with around 2 millions people. During the Safavid dynasty, it was the capital of Persia and is famous for its architecture.

Hostel Amir Kabir (60,000 Iranian Rials~USD6) is considered the backpacker place in Isfahan.
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There are many trees and parks around Isfahan. The city looks very welcoming.
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Chehel Sotoun (The Palace of forty columns), built in 1647
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Naqsh-e Jahan Square also known as or imam square was built in the 1600s. It’s the famous landmark of Isfahan. There are mosques and bazaar at the square.

Imam Square
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Old part of the city
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Si-o-Seh Pol (The Bridge of 33 Arches) – 1602
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Iranians love to picnic
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Met some Iranians on the street. Iranians like to practise English with foreigners.
Friendly Iranian girls
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Next day,

There was a guy who mentioned that he wanted to show me around but instead he brought me to his friend’s shop and asked me questions about about my country. Not really sure what his motives was. I had met some random people on the street and this is just part of the experiences.

Met up with 2 guys I had known on the street from yesterday. They were quite nice, showed me around and helped me get an Iranian sim card (USD5).

Isfahan is famous for its Beryooni. This dish is made of baked mutton & lungs that are minced and eaten with bread.
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Iman and Peyman
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Vank Cathedral
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at Jolfa which is a neighborhood of Armenian Christians.

Night view of Imam Square
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Another Bazaar
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Met Najma for a drink and then got some lonely planet softcopy from Guru, an Indian friend who has been traveling for 2 years.

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Nov 12 2009

Tehran 3rd day

Tehran Bazaar
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Got on a motorbike taxi and weaved thourgh the road to Tehran University.

Tehran University
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Took the metro to the North to Midarmad station then took a cab (30,000 Iranian Rials~USD3) to Tochal Telecabin. Tochal Telecabin is at the Northern part of Tehran and has a cabel to the Mountains.
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Chatted with the receptionist at Hotel Firouzeh. Since credit cards and ATM cards don’t work in Iran because of santioned and embargo, the receptionist mentioned that he can help with transferring money. Just an info for travellers who are strapped for cash.

Took the metro to Argentine square and got on an overnight 12.30am bus to Isfahan (95,000 Iranian Rials ~USD9.5). There are 2 kinds of bus, one which is the normal one and the other one is the more comfy one. It’s around 400km and 6 hours bus ride to Isfahan.
VIP bus
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Tehran is a big city but there weren’t a lot to do. Since Iran is an Islamic Republic, venues of entertaintment were not encouraged. There were not many malls, no bars, clubs, cafes and even the internet café closed early. There weren’t many places for food in Tehran which is surprising for a big city. However, Thursday and Friday are considered the weekend and there were many people walking on the street. People here are hospitable and sometimes strangers paid for the shared taxi I was on, which is around 20-30 cents.
Business people and younger generation dislike the government because the government rules like a dictatorship. However, people who are more religious and some middle class are actually quite satisfy with the government and mentioned that the president is a brave and good man who help the poor.
Almost 70% of the cars on the street are Kia and Peugeot. Gas is pretty cheap but there’s a quota for every vehicles. There’s a limit of 300 liters of gas allowed for 3 months. It’s 10 cents per liter within quota and 40 cents if exceed the quota. Gas is subsidized by the government so that’s why transporation is cheap here.

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Nov 11 2009

Tehran 2nd day

Got up early in the morning and got to the Turkmenistan embassy again.
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Tried to apply for a transit visa so I can cross Turkmenistan soon. There were quite a number of people applying as well since the embassy was closed for a week. Even though I was the 3rd in line but still waited for 2 hours. The person at the embassy just took a photocopy of my passport and Uzbekistan visa, then asked me to come back in 5 days for the visa. The 5 days process was considered an express service and cost USD$55. I will try to get the visa in Mashhad.
Went back to the hotel at 12pm and changed to a dorm room (Iranian Rial 50,000 ~ USD$5).

Transportation in Tehran is inexpensive. The metro is subsidized by the government and cost around 15 cents each trip. Taxis here are not that expensive and usually passengers take shared taxis which cost around 3000 Iranian Rials or 30 cents. There are also many motorbike taxis as well.

Imam Khomeini square
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There are some sign boards with verses from the Quran along the street. I thought this one is interesting.
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Visited the Palace Complex
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National Library
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Iran National Museum
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Some Iranian school kids
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The museum is not very big and the Islamic museum was closed for renovation.

Went to the old US embassy with Ralph. The old embassy is just right beside Taleqani metro station. It’s also called the Den of Espionage because US conducted some spying operation here during the 70s. There were many anti American slogan written on the wall.
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Surprisingly there is a greek church just opposite from the old US embassy
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Non alcoholic beer
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Walked to Valiars street, a street with many shops
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Across the street from Hotel Mashhad, there is Hotel Firouzeh which provide internet access for USD$3 a day. In Iran, many websites are blocked such as facebook, youtube….and internet connection is slow here.

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Nov 10 2009

Tehran, Iran

Got to the Tehran west bus terminal around 5.40am,
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the bus arrived earlier than scheduled. Waited for daylight
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and then walked to the Tehran metro station.

Morning rush hour
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Got off at Mellat station and found Hotel Mashhad at Amir Kabir street. The dorm was full so took a single room. (100,000 Iranian ~ USD10).
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Went to the Turkmenistan embassy straight away since that’s the number one concern for me. Took the metro to the North and got off the last station at Golhak. Then took a taxi to the embassy (40,000 Iranian). Unfortunately the embassy was closed and it has been closed for a week and will only open tomorrow.

Took a shared taxi to Tigrish and stopped by the Malaysian embassy at Valenjak street to register.
Noticed that my camera was acting weird and was taking in too much sun light. I should have gotten a new camera earlier but kept procrastinating in order to find the right one. But now I have to. Went to Pai Tak, a mall that sells electronics and got an Olympus. The camera cost USD250. Since Iran was under sanctioned, credit cards and ATM cards don’t work here. This is an unexpected cash outflow and to survive in the next few countries, I would have to watch my budget carefully, else I would be stuck here without money.

Met a Chinese guy on the street, he was sent here to sell heavy machineries by a Chinese company. Caterpillar is one their competitors. Chinese companies are trying to establish themselves in the middle east in more complex products.

Golestan Palace
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Walked around the bazaar.
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Night View of some buildings
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There weren’t a lot of food place in Tehran. It’s hard to find even one restaurant. Since I am low on cash, I just ate ice cream and some cookies for today.

Tehran is a very conservative Islamic country. There are separate section on the bus and metro for woman. Every woman has to wear the hijab at all times. This is unlike Turkey where woman wasn’t allowed to wear the head scarf in public university.

Got back to the hotel, met some interesting people and we went for shishah.

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Nov 09 2009

Piranshar, Iran

Got up early this morning and went to the police station to get my passport. Haji Omran is a small town with some amazing sceneries
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with Then walked to the border crossing which is around 2km away
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and got there around 7.45am.
Was driven by a soldier to another room and waited for a short period. There was a roomful of soldiers and I didn’t know what’s going on because no one speak English. One guy turned on Tom and Jerry on the tv this is the only time I appreciate the brilliance of the cartoon. No language was spoken but the joke was understood universally.
Another soldier brought me to another room to photocopy my passport and then finally got the exit stamp on my passport. The soldier was pretty nice, I didn’t have to queue and didn’t have to pay for the photocopy because of him. Had another short interview at the border before allowed to get to the Iran side.

I didn’t have Iranian visa because I read that Malaysian doesn’t need one for 2 weeks stay in the country. However not many people know about it and the border guards on the Iranian side needed some time to make sure. I was a little tense because if I wasn’t allowed to get in, I will be stuck and won’t be able to get to Uzbekistan in time.

Finally got an entry stamp and got to the Iranian side of the border
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Took a shared taxi to Piranshar, the closest town at the border. Passed by some wonderful views of the mountains.
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Piranshar
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Got to the bus terminal at 10.30am, Iranian time is half an hour faster than Iraqi time. There is an overnight bus (100,000 Iranian ~ USD10) to Tehran at 6.30pm so I have some time to kill.
A Kurdish guy (Saadi) wanted to show me around and invited me to his house.
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He brought me to more than 10 of his friends and relatives shop, introduced me to everyone.
Had lunch at his place
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With Saadi’s brother and nephews. I noticed that Kurdish kids are quite well behaved.
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and spent a few hours there.

Went to an internet café to get the address of Turkmenistan and Malaysian embassy. The connection here is very slow.

Got a hair cut (25000 Iranian, around $2.50) at one of his Saddi’s barber shop since I have an extra hour.
I got a lot of stares the whole day and when I got back to the bus terminal, everyone wants to take a photo with me. I guess probably there weren’t many Asian looking people around here.
They forced me to take a photo at the manager’s seat.
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At the west part of Iran, majority of the population is Kurdish. In Piranshar, almost everyone is Kurdish. From Turkey to Iran, I had a fantastic experience with the Kurds. They are so nice and everyone smiles all the time, like the Brazilians. Some people even offer me money for cabs, it’s incredible.
Took an overnight bus to Tehran
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and the bus ride will take 12 hours. At one of the military checkpoint, I had another short interview about the purposes of my visit. Kurds would love to have their own country since they have their own language and culture. They consist of the majority of the population in most cities surrounding Northern Iraq (Turkey, Iran and Syria) but without a country.

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Nov 07 2009

Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

My host Jalal prepared breakfast for me and he told me that he was in Saddam army for around 10 years since 1979. During the war in 1991 March, Saddam moved his tanks into Sulaymaniyah and the city was emptied. People who had car drove to Iran and people without car ran into the mountains. People here were glad that the American army came and toppled Saddam, else he would still be in control and terrorize the people. Many Kurds were killed in Anfal (genocide) and they were buried alive.

Took a bus from Sarchnack to Amna Suraka (Red Security) museum in Sulaymaniyah in the morning. During Saddam’s regime, many Kurds were imprisoned and tortured here. Many were simply vanished. Outside the museum there were many soldiers. The reason was because there were some VIP there so I couldn’t get in.

A park in the city
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Walked around the bazaar area.
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Newer part
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The bazaar is pretty big and were flooded with Chinese made goods.
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Chinese made motorbike
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Chinese rice
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From an economic point of view, China has a lot of stake in the economy in Northern Iraq by supplying low cost products to the people. In many countries I see Chinese goods penetrating the local market and almost everything is made in China now. It’s hard to find things made locally these days.

There are even chinese restaurant and chinese massage parlour here.
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Stopped by a shop owner for a chat.
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It’s hard to communicate because almost no one speak English. He was pretty nice to offer me sweets and cookies from his shop, I couldn’t accept it so I just paid him for the cookies.
Went back to Amna Suraka again at 2pm and the security looked even tighter. There were soldiers on the roof and maybe some even carried sniper. The guards allowed me to see some tanks
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but I wasn’t allowed to go in. I found out later it’s because the wife of the Iraqi president was there.
Took a cab (3000 Iraqi Dinar) to Halabja garage
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then took a bus to Halabja (3000 Iraqi Dinar, 1.5 hours ride).
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Halabja was the place where Saddam released chemical weapon and killed 5000 people, mostly Kurdish in a few minutes.
On the road, I saw many soldiers coming from the other side and there were soldiers stationed at every 50 meters. Some trucks have big machine guns mounted on top of the roof. Probably it’s because there were some VIP coming to Sulaymaniyah. I didn’t bring my passport with me so I got panicked and was afraid that I couldn’t get back to Sulaymaniyah. There were many checkpoints and it’s random on how the military singled out people. On one of the checkpoints, a soldier asked me for my passport and I just showed him my New York driving license. I signaled that I left my passport in Sulaymaniyah and he just shook his head and finally let the bus go. Once I got to Halabjah, I just took another shared taxi went right back to Sulaymaniyah since it’s a little dark. I didn’t go to the Halabjah museum and just passed by it.
Halabjah still look quite poor.
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There was another soldier sharing the taxi with me back to Sulaymaniyah and his AK-47 was on his lap the whole time. I guess probably it’s because there was a soldier in the taxi so we passed all the checkpoints without any issues.
Managed to find an internet café (2000 Iraqi dinar for an hour). Did some research about my trip and then took a taxi back to Sarchnack. Kurdish people have been very nice, I don’t have to bargain hard here and no one really tries to rip me off. There are money changers carrying stash of cash on the street without any worries.

Next day,
From what I read, there are 2 border crossings to Iran. One which is only 75km away from Sulaymaniyah but sometimes they don’t allow foreigner in. I decided to go to another border crossing at Haji Omran which is more popular but further away. From what I read is that Malaysian citizen don’t need a visa to Iran. Sometimes border guards are not aware of all the rules. So to be safe, it’s better for me to take the more popular border crossing. Also the road to Haji Omran will pass by some great scenery. I have 2 options to get to Haji Omran, either I had to go back to Erbil first or take another route with few transfers. I picked the second option.

Got to the garage at 10.30am
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and took a shared taxi to Rania (8000 Iraqi dinar, 2 hours).
Passed by some beautiful mountains.
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Saw a few Proton (Malaysian made car) on the street
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Took another shared taxi to Soran/Diana (8000 Iraqi Dinar, 1.5 hours). Waited for another 2 hours for the taxi to be full.
Honeydew seller
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Since there are not many Asians around, everyone tried to talk to me. There is a guy who started to take a pic with me and then everyone wants to take a pic with me.
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Mountain View
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Arrived at Soran/Diana around 4.40pm.
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Took another shared taxi to Haji Omran (10,000 Iraqi Dinars, 1 hour). The taxi driver drove like a race car driver. His average speed is around 100km/hour driving around the mountains.
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Arrived in Haji Omran around 6pm and the taxi driver signaled that the border crossing is close for the day. I was a little frustrated because I wished to take the overnight bus to Tehran so I can apply for my Turkmenistan visa the next day. I have a time constraint because my Uzbekistan visa is just valid until Dec 1st so I need to move fast. Especially since the Turkmenistan consulate is famous for their bureaucracy.
Haji Omran is pretty small with many trucks and oil tankers waiting to cross the border
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I had to share a room at a crappy hotel without bed (10,000 Iraqi Dinar).
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Someone knocked on the door around 8pm and there were 2 guys wearing military clothes with machine guns. No one speak English here but I guess they wanted to see my passport and then I had to walk with them to a police station. It’s pretty dark and I thought if they were just some bogus military officer, they can just shoot me and nobody will know. There were 2 other Iranian guys that went with us so that made me felt a little better. We went into a dark old building without sign and there were another military officer who signaled me to leave my passport and come back and collect the next morning when I want to leave. It’s hard to communicate because they don’t speak English. He gave me a paper in Arabic and I guess that’s the paper to retrieve back my passport.

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Nov 06 2009

Dohuk to Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Met a few American soldiers on the street and tagged along with them for a walk. American soldiers are like super heroes here, everyone loves them.
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a street in Erbil
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Tried to find an ATM because I will need to withraw more cash for my next few destinations. I read that there is only one ATM in Erbil which work half of the time and it’s inside Hotel Sheraton. Found my way there but the ATM only accept VISA card. I left my VISA card at the Hotel so I wasn’t able to get cash. The security is pretty tight here and the hotel was surrounded by a thick wall
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and everyone needed to pass through a security checkpoint before allowed in.
Walked further down on Iskan street and found 2 more ATMs. I was surprise to be able to get USD from the ATM of Bank Karwa.
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This Is quite a surprising discovery because on Lonely Planet and many travellers forums, no one ever mentioned this and some travellers had to go back to Turkey in order to get cash.

There are a lot of constructions and rebuilding going on in Erbil
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Today is Friday and it’s a weekend here so many people go out to shop. Cars toward the bazaar and citadel.
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Met Nabil, an Iraqi living in Dubai at the hotel. He wanted to visit his family in Baghdad and stopped by Erbil.
We visited the Citadel.
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Took a taxi to Sulaymaniyah Garage (3500 Iraqi Dinar) and then took a shared taxi at 1pm to Sulaymaniyah (15,000 Iraqi Dinar ~USD13).
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Guys in Kurdish pants
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It’s around 200 km to Sulaymaniyah


and again we passed by many military checkpoints. My bags were spot checked a few times. Almost no one speak English here and many people can’t read romanized alphabet. Even though they had my passport, but they kept asking if I am from Korea or Japan because they weren’t able to read romanized alphabets. The ride to Sulaymaniyah will pass by the suburb of Kirkuk. Like Mosul, Kirkuk is one of the most dangerous city in Iraq so I was glad nothing happened.

Arrived at Sulaymaniyah around 4pm and the family I was with from the shared taxi invited me to stay with them. The father of the family speaks some English so I was able to understand what he is saying.
Kurds are very nice people.
Jalal, my host
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Jalal’s family
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Itadakimasu..Iraqi Kurdish food
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Then watched Korean soap opera because there’s the only Asian channel they have on cabel.

From Diyarbakir to Sulaymaniyah, most people I met have been very friendly. Even though Northern Iraq is still part of Iraq and is only an autonomous region but they are more Kurdistan flag than Iraqi flag here. People here speak Kurdish which is a different language from Arabic and everyone is very proud of their heritage after being prosecuted for so long.

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