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Hiking Kurdistan — NOT!

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Some of you might have heard about the trio of backpackers recently arrested for crossing into Iran from Kurdistan, Iraq. These seemingly educated Berkeley people stated that they were merely on a sightseeing expedition. My eyebrows rose to new heights when I read the interview of their companion, the fellow that stayed behind because he felt a cold feet coming on. He said they flew in the day before and asked locals where to go. Being anxious, his friends left at night, (please!) to find the trailhead. He also said that the area of interest to them wasn’t on their map (GPS anyone?). . .

*The interview is in the August 4 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The would-be backpacker’s account of the trip is awkwardly suspicious; at least one is a journalist. It’s hard to imagine with the recent uprising in Iran that an educated person would violate any border in the Middle East. I mean, come on. No one but the local shepherds hikes in Iraq. Estimates are that Iraq has 15+ million land mines.

For the sake of safety, some locations and some identities are not revealed.

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Besides, the Pesh Merga, (like this nice man above) the Asa’Ish Police, and the National Guard, all scout the roads and trails for unwanted intruders. In addition, with the infamous PKK in the mountain ranges, the sighting of an unknown person wandering the outskirts of normal civilization quickly brings out the rocket launchers. No questions asked! Although, no one in his or her right mind would ever consider hiking Iraq, I found it lovely and inviting. It is the most interesting place I have ever visited and the people even more friendly then the Tico’s of Costa Rico.

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Small villages set up their own style of Neighborhood Watch. You can’t go anywhere without someone knowing you are in their territory, at which point, they harass you and want to know what you’re doing in the neighborhood:

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These guys are everywhere! They come out of the woodwork and drag you into their huts, torturing you with food and chai tea.

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As I tour Kurdistan, adults pat their chests with flat hands, blessing me for our American presence. Many plea for the American’s to stay. I visited most of Kurdistan, from the Turkish border south to the Mosul valley. It was too dangerous to drive into Mosul, but I did come within sight of it. A Christian village, centuries old, sits in the foothills of the valley:

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University students were the most outgoing, asking where I lived. When I replied “California”, they shrieked and shouted “Hollywood!” These young women are Yisidi’s. This picture was taken at their temple community of Lalish. Usually banned to strangers, I was invited because it is so rare to have an American woman visit them. I was so honored; very few outsiders have seen the inside of these temple walls.

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If you look closely, we are all barefoot; it is tradition when walking the temple grounds. The little guy on the left followed me the entire visit. The students proceeded to invite my escorts and me to lunch.

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We ate on the roof of a cottage overlooking the temple grounds while they asked us a thousand questions in English! They love Americans! Most of the children in Iraq start learning English in the third grade. They repeatedly asked if we could take them to America.

On the drive back, our interpreter stopped the car. I inquired about the water coming down the rock cliff. He said, “It’s not water, it’s oil”.

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And, it would be centuries before this region runs out of oil. Don’t believe the media on this, it is everywhere! This is a river of oil:

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I saw entire villages that were bulldozed by Sadaam (with people still in them). This town is near the Turkish border. Sadaam had a palace, much like Hitler’s Tea house, in the mountains seen in the right side of the photo.

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The countryside possesses a variety of landscapes where Muslims and Christians live side by side.

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The people are working hard to improve their standard of living and rebuild the infrastructure destroyed by Sadaam and the war. This concrete crew was on their way to work:

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While everyone walks around with a cell phone, some things are still done the old-fashioned way, like propane deliveries. . .

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and power grids.

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The cities have the most interesting shopping districts, from traditional bazaars, to the more contemporary shops like the one below, where I purchased my Tabriz vegetable bag/purse.

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All I can say is that I would go back to Iraq in a hot second! I love the people, the culture and the scenery. I mean, who wouldn’t like a place like this. I instantly had friends who would do anything for me.

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I just wouldn’t backpack!

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Diana Sears lives in Redding and has traveled extensively in the Middle East.

Guest Speaker

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