Thursday, November 19, 2009
IRAQ TOUR - OCTOBER 2009
This journal documents my activities, observations and thoughts on a tour of the Middle East with a group organized by Adventure Travel and Tours, Poway, CA. Cathy and Bob Prada designed the tour and made all the reservations and accompanied the group on the tour. They are the owners of Advantage Travel and Tours and were the same couple that organized my Five ‘Stans and Gulf States tours in the fall of 2007, my South Pacific Islands tour in 2008 and the South American Island tour in January 2009. As a result I had previously traveled with most of the people in the tour group. This tour was the first group of Americans to tour Iraq since September, 2001.
Overview of the trip route:
• Fly from LAX to Istanbul, Turkey via ORD
• Fly from Istanbul to Baghdad, Iraq
• Drive from Baghdad to Erbil via Samarra
• Tour Nimrud
• Tour Erbil and return to Baghdad
• Tour Babylon
• Tour Baghdad
• Fly from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan via Istanbul
Oct 13, 2009 (Tuesday) Fly Los Angles to Istanbul via ORD
I awoke at 0600 and decided to get up rather than get a full eight hours sleep (I figured I could sleep on the plane). Judy was already up – the dog had awakened her at 0430 and she couldn’t get back to sleep.
I packed my carryon bag and zipped up my large bag, then ate breakfast and did some more packing of small items.
After showering and shaving I checked email and updated my Outlook contact list and calendar and then synchronized my Palm Centro and my Blackberry. With that complete I finished packing my laptop bag and got dressed for the trip.
The Go Sedan driver arrived about 0950. He was a local resident named Leo. Originally from Jakarta, he had lived in Woodland Hills for nine years with his wife and son. He had been driving for Super Shuttle and just started Go Sedan three months ago which is why I had never had him as a driver.
It had rain hard and just let up when we loaded my bags in his car. Judy was out at the car ready to close the gate after we left. Just as we were leaving a young woman approached her telling her that her cat had just had kittens but she didn’t know where and she was looking for the litter in all the neighboring yards.
The ride to the airport was a little slow due to the first rain in LA for the season but as we left the valley it was dry and the traffic sped up until we got close to the airport where there was construction on Sepulveda. As result it took an hour to get to the United Terminal.
I had my bag checked through to Baghdad and got in the Security line. It was slower than I had experienced at United. Only two x-ray machines were in operation. Just as I got to the machines they opened a third line. I put my cpap machine in a separate bin and they had to give it a secondary check. I guess it is too dense on the machine to enable them to confirm that it is OK. It took a long time for a male TSA Agent to check me but the female TSA agent that performed the secondary check on my CPAP machine moved my belongings off the belt to another area so I didn’t hold up the line too long.
I was finally checked and went to the Red Carpet Club at 1130. They had some vegetables, cheese and crackers, and apples available. I ate a little of each and packed the items I had to remove for security check. I called Judy and she told me she helped the young lady look for the kittens but they did not find them.
I checked with the agent in the Red Carpet Club to see if I had been upgraded. She told me I was number three on the list and 11 had not checked in. At noon I walked to my flight’s gate 74 which is at the end of the terminal. When I got there my name was not on the upgrade list screen so I checked with the agent and she had already assigned me to seat 5C and exchanged boarding passes.
While I sat in the boarding area a heavy rain shower hit the airport. The gate agent informed us that due to the storm passing over the airport our inbound aircraft from Boston had to delay its landing and would make our departure late.
I called Marc to say good bye and tell him about the Bermuda cruise. We also discussed plans for my 75th Birthday family gathering next August. He informed me that Sean was going to be laid off the end of this week and Darren is taking odd jobs. They have really been hurt by the poor economy. Construction engineering and architecture work have dried up in their areas.
Our aircraft finally arrived and we took off at 1330, fifty minutes late. My seatmate was a lady from Vermont who had grown up in Canoga Park in the area that is now West Hills and attended El Camino High School when it opened in the late 1960’s. She graduated from UCLA and attended grad school in Vermont, fell in love with it and stayed. She was in LA to attend her father’s 80th birthday.
The flight was a little bumpy with the Fasten Seatbelt Sign on most of the way. For lunch I had a chicken salad and a bowl of spicy tomato soup which I managed to spill down the front of my shirt when we hit some turbulence. The movie was “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”. I attempted to watch it but I had not seen the previous two Ice Age films and didn’t have the background on the characters to enable me to understand the point of the action so I started listening to a book on tape titled The Tipping Point.
When the seatbelt sign turned off I attempted to remove the soup stain from my shirt with a “Tide To Go” pen and soda water. It basically worked to remove the stain.
The flight arrived at ORD Terminal C, ten minutes after the scheduled arrival time, so the late departure didn’t impact us. My flight to Istanbul was on Turkish Air departing from the International Terminal 5. I had to walk through Terminal C and over to Terminal B to exit security and board the air train to Terminal 5.
When I got to the Turkish Airline check-in counter I saw Bob and Cathy Prada checking in. They seemed to be having some trouble. I was in the line when Ed Herrman, a member of our group from Las Vegas that I had traveled with to the Gulf States in 2007, approached me to inform me that he was not given a boarding pass because he didn’t have a visa in his passport. Just then Bob Prada came over and told us it was straightened out. The group was on one visa and it was filed with the airline and Cathy helped Ed and I get checked-in. Edna Erspamer and Bob Ihsen arrived from their LAX to ORD American flight (Ed had flown in from Las Vegas). The west coast gang was all accounted for. My seat was changed to a middle isle with two empty seats next to me and I was given a pass to the VIP Lounge. I got a guest pass for Bob. Edna and Ed went off to get something to eat and the four of us proceeded to security. I had the same hassle as I had in LAX where they had to do a secondary check on my cpap machine. My personal body check went faster than LAX but since I had to use three bins my belongings held up the line until someone figured out that since I was in a closed area I couldn’t retrieve my belongings.
I was presently surprised to find free WIFI in the VIP Lounge and I was able to hook up, check email and write in my journal. We boarded on time at 2140 and I settled in. Itr was nice to have an empty seat next to me and I had no trouble stowing my carry-on in the overhead. The aircraft was an A-330 and was about 80% full. They had seatback entertainment screens.
We took off early on our scheduled push back time of 2220. The served a meal shortly after take off. I choose the Chicken Cacciatore and had a couple of glasses of wine. I had taken my evening pills before takeoff and they include Midlothian which helps me sleep so right after my meal I dozed off. I attempted to watch a TV show of Everybody Loves Raymond but I never saw the end. I awoke about six hours later and read until they served breakfast an hour before landing.
Oct 14, 2009 (Wednesday) Istanbul, Turkey
We arrived 35 minutes early for a total time in the air of 10 hrs and 50 minutes.
Our early arrival made us eligible for a free stay at a local hotel. To get that voucher we had tostand in a long line to purchase a Visa for $20 and then stand in another long line for Passport Control. After that we exited the Baggage Claim Area and proceeded to the Turkish Airways Hotel Desk. We had to wait in a Starbuck’s Coffee Shop next door as they secured our rooms and ordered a shuttle bus. While we were waiting Bob read out the ground rules. We are traveling on a Religious Group Visa. Some of the things we need to plan for is there will be no rest stops along the way so we will have to hold our bio urges for many hours. Security will be tight entering and exiting the Hotel. Edna with two metal knees and with my knee we will most likely take time processing the entrance to the hotel.
Eventually, the Turkish Airline Agent told us the bus was ready and returned our tickets and we proceeded to a bus and a ride in evening rush hour traffic to the Akgun Istanbul 5 star hotel. I had a nice although dated large room where I dumped my bags and proceeded to the Hotel Restaurant for a light meal. They had a buffet and as I went looking for a table I saw Neal Pollock who I had traveled with last year in the South Pacific, sitting by himself. I joined him and he told me that Laurie Campbell and Bill Boyd had arrived from JFK with him. I ate a large plate of tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, sliced meat and a mixed salad. The bill came to $25. Bill arrived as I was leaving to see if I could buy a cheap razor which I found in the Gift Shop for $3. Back in my room I plugged in my toys to get them recharged, showered and shaved and wrote in my journal and took a nap. At 2330 I checked out of the room. As we were waiting for the bus to arrive I struck up a conversation with a young man that had been on my Chicago flight. His name was Hidel and he was an Iraqi that grew up in Detroit and served three tours with the US Army. He discharged in January and joined a Security Contractor and was on his second “home leave”. He works 72 days in country and gets 15 days off. I discussed the use of a laptop in country and he told me he has one and that it is no problem. When Bob Prada arrived I introduced to Hidel and had him repeat the laptop situation in country and we came to the conclusion that it was OK for me to take it with me.
Oct 15, 2009 (Thursday) Fly Istanbul to Baghdad, Iraq
The shuttle bus to the airport left the hotel a few minutes after midnight. I sat in the back row with Hidel in front of me and Bob and Cathy Prada across the aisle. Bob asked Hidel a lot of questions and we were feeling a lot less anxious over the security in country. Hidel said he felt the mood of the Iraqi people toward Americans was positive and they people were upbeat and confidant about their future. There are still unsafe areas but the Security Forces know generally were they are and we would be steered away from them.
At the Istanbul Airport we had to go through a Security Check Point to even enter the terminal. It was easier than the US. I had to remove my laptop but not my shoes. When my knee set off the alarm I was given a quick pat down but no wand. Our group walked to the Turkish Check-In counter and discovered that it was closed. Hidel approached us and told us that since we already had boarding passes we should go directly to Passport Control. I was surprised that at 0030 in the morning that the concession stands were open. Three Passport Agents were checking passengers and we breezed through the check. Once inside the terminal we dropped our bags at a departure gate area and Bob Prada held another meeting for the three East Coast members of the group and told all of us what Hidel had told him on the bus.
I then repacked my carry-on and laptop backpack since I was not going to check it in Istanbul and was my original plan. I had a lot of emails on my Blackberry so after a walk around the terminal to see if there was any jewelry that Wendy or Judy would like that I could buy. There was just some large beaded jewelry and I returned to our waiting area without finding anything to buy and read my emails.
At 0140 Bob checked with an agent and although it wasn’t posted as yet he was told our gate would be 301 so we gathered our bags and walk to the gate. Along the way I saw Hidel at a gate and told him the gate number and he joined our group walk. Gate 301 was a bus to the plane gate and was down stairs. When we got there we had to go through security again. My bags and I had no trouble. Edna had a lot of trouble with her makeup items and groused that she always checks her bag in the US to avoid such hassles. Hidel had to get a secondary search because of all the electronic equipment and cables he was carrying.
At 0210 the bus to our flight arrived. I was one of the first to board the plane and took my assigned seat 4A. Hidel was assigned 4C and soon a large man took 4B. It was the first row in coach and we had the monitor right in from of 4B and curtains on either side. We were cramped and Hidel was eyeing seat 4F which was empty. Unfortunately additional buses arrived and the plane filled up. We took off at 0325 and were served a hot breakfast at 0355 of scrambled eggs, turkey ham and cheese, on toast, chicken sausage and a grilled tomato.
After breakfast I finished reading a Sports Illustrated and then wrote in a journal. Laurie was sitting in back of me and at one point she went to the bathroom and when she returned the man in 5B had fallen fast asleep and she could not get him awake and had to climb over him.
It was still dark when we crossed the border into Iraq at 0500. I could see a lot of lights below. At one point we passed over a well lighted highway, most likely Mosul and then it turned weird, no lights at all for miles. Off in the distance I could see a city, most likely, Erbil and the lighted villages returned again. There was a row of gas flares heading towards Baghdad, and at the end of the flares and on both sides of the line of flares it was dark until we reached the area north of Baghdad.
Baghdad was a large lighted area after so many miles with no lighted villages. On the outskirts of Baghdad were many farms with plastic covers over their crops. The sun was just starting to appear and the light reflecting off the plastic gave the impression the area was flooded with water.
We landed at Baghdad International at sunrise. The airport terminal is surprisingly large but there were very few planes at the gates or on the ramp. We arrived at a gate at 0550 and had a rather long walk to Immigration and Passport Control. Bob and Cathy collected our passports and to them to the Visa office. We were traveling on a Religious Group visa with one set of papers approved in advance to get the actual visa in country.
We waited a bit and were told the original visa approval was not on file. After a number of phone calls Cathy discovered that the Ministry of Tourism had the original and was sending a representative to the airport with it. After waiting two and a half hours our group was ushered through three baggage and personal security check points to the Transit Passenger waiting room on the upper floor of the terminal. It was a large room with No Smoking signs in both Arabic and English around the room but many passengers ignored the signs. We set up camp at the end of the room as far away from the smokers as possible.
I was not getting email messages on my Blackberry but I was getting Facebook messages. I exchanges messages via Facebook with Judy and Wendy and then checked my Blackberry settings with Bob Proda who was receiving emails on his Blackberry. I connected to the same settings he was using and the emails started to flow.
Out the window I could see C-130 and C-17 military aircraft taking off and landing and parked by our window was a Lear Jet with Turkish Government markings. We were able to buy food and drinks in the terminal and I had a form of a burrito with spicy beef in a wrap.
Cathy and Bob had arranged our tour through Geoff Hann, Hinderland Travel in the UK which had been arranging Iraq tours through the Iraq Ministry of Tourism since March 2009. Geoff had a small group from the UK in country at the same time as when we arrived. Calls to Geoff finally gave us the picture. The jet from Turkey had carried the Prime Minister of Turkey who was being met at the airport for a meeting with the Prime Minister of Iraq and the roads to the airport were closed. After the meet concluded the roads opened and the representative from the Ministry of Tourism finally was able to deliver the Visa approval form and our passports were processed. We had been in the terminal for eight hours!
When we left the terminal we could understand the difficulty the Ministry of Tourism representative had encountered. There is limited parking by the terminal and it is only allowed for a select few vans. We had to board one of the vans and be driven to the outskirts of the airport to a large parking lot where we were transferred to the bus we would use during our stay in Iraq. It was a 30 seat bus made in China.
In the right front seat sat Capt Amjad from the VIP Protection Police. He wore civilian attire but under his shirt carried a hand gun. Behind the driver, Aemad, sat Sergeant Mhson from the VIP Protection Police also in civvies packing a handgun. Behind the Sergeant sat Saadi, our tour guide from the Ministry of Tourism.
The airport is about 8 miles southwest of the city of Baghdad. It didn’t take us long to arrive in the bustling metropolitan area of the capital and largest city of Iraq with over three million inhabitants. The city is divided in half by the Tigris River and connected by several interesting bridges. During the 8th and 9th C, by some accounts, it was the richest city in the world. My first impression was it looked similar to many other large cities I had visited in the Middle East and Asia. The roads were wide with wide sidewalks and the shops were generally open air fronts. The city could use a good hosing down and fresh paint. There was a sense that at one time it was a more modern city that had fallen on hard times. We saw no battle damage but there were vacant buildings and many buildings under construction, some partially finished with no workers or activity around and others with a lot of building activity.
The boulevards had a number of speed bumps and traffic circles at major intersection. At some intersections there were traffic tunnels under the traffic circles to speed the flow on the major highway from the airport. Vehicles on the streets included bicycles, bicycles with attached cargo beds, motorcycles, motorcycles with attached cargo beds, Japanese, German and American autos, and heavy trucks. At each bridge and traffic circle there were police with armed Humvees at checkpoints. Most waved us through but at some the driver and or our escorts had to show their ID before we were allowed to proceed. We were cautioned to not take pictures where there were soldiers or police in view which greatly limited our picture taking because they were all over the city. We did not see a single US or Multi-National soldier or vehicle. Saadi told us they are only seen when the Iraqi military requests their help and that has been rare in Baghdad for quite sometime.
When we arrived at the outskirts of our hotel at 1340, there was a narrow path with high concrete barriers ringing the hotel complex and “Jersey” barriers on the road side of the path. We had to disembark the bus remove our luggage and open it for a search by the guards and then be padded down by the guards before they would let the bus into the complex.
Two modern looking high rise hotels were in the complex: The Palestine which is where CNN had operated from during the early days of hostilities and the Ishtar Hotel, a former Sheraton hotel where we were staying.
The hotel was large with 17 floors and an open atrium of six floors. It had four elevators and only two worked. There was a large beautiful statute of Ishtar the ancient Sumero-Babylonian goddess of love and fertility in the lobby. But the public rooms were rundown and dingy. My room was large and had a balcony with a set of shutters on the balcony to protect the glass from an explosion outside the building. The hotel complex was across the street from the square were Saddam Hussein’s statute had been torn down in the first days of hostilities. Across from the square was the blue domed 14th Ramadan Mosque, often used as a backdrop for TV reports from Baghdad.
We boarded our bus again to visit the Kadhimiyra Mosque but as we drove close to the area of the mosque the traffic jam had halted all traffic because it was close to prayer time. After a discussion between Cathy, Bob and the Saai they decided to postpone the visit and instead we visited a shrine to one of the Muslim Prophets. Traffic was light in the area but all the signs were in Arabic and I wasn’t able to get the name of the site. The sun was setting and Saai decided to show us the Tigris River up close. The bus stopped at a park that runs along the river and we were able to walk to the edge in the glow of yellow lights. There were nicely laid out sidewalks curving through the park and several areas to sit and statues of poets. As we returned to the hotel I noticed that many of the concrete barriers had fine paintings on them. Iraq is coming alive with art and beauty where it can.
Dinner was buffet style in the dimly lit main restaurant. Our group was the only people eating and appeared to be the only people in the hotel until after dinner when a wedding party flooded the lobby.
I retired after dinner. It had been a long day and it had been several days since I had slept in a bed.
Oct 16, 2009 (Friday) Drive to Erbil via Samarra
I awoke to my alarm at 0500 after a solid 8 hour sleep. After a shower (the water was hot and had strong pressure), I rearranged my luggage to take just the carry-on bag to our trip to Iraq Kurdistan.
At 0630 I went to breakfast at the scheduled time but the restaurant staff was not ready for us. They didn’t take long. The breakfast offing was a strange because at dinner they had bowls of fruit for dessert but had no fruit at breakfast. I had a boiled egg, raw tomato and cheese with hot tea.
When I returned to my room Laurie joined me in the elevator (different than the one I had taken down to breakfast) and it was filthy with cigarette butts all over the floor. The elevators have an up ride ashtray in each one and someone had knocked this one over. Apparently there had been a wedding party in the hotel after I had gone to bed.
At 0730 I lugged my bags to the lobby and checked my whole baggage and laptop bag with the bellman to hold while we stayed two nights in Erbil. We loaded the bus at 0745 and drove out of the city. It was Friday and the traffic was light (Iraq observes the Muslim week (Sunday to Thursday as work days, Friday and Saturday as the weekend). About ten minutes from the hotel we stopped at a roadside stand and bought bottled water and exchange money. Twenty US$ returned 23,000 Dinar.
We passed through many checkpoints as we headed north. Each district, village or city has a checkpoint entering and one leaving. We tasked Bill to count them on his runner’s watch. Over the city of Baghdad there was a balloon on a tether and we were told that it was one of many ringing the city with up to 32 cameras covering all areas of the city.
At 0930 we stopped at another road side stand where Saai bought us some bananas, grapes and figs. We each ate a banana and several of us ate a fig after we washed it in bottled water. As we approached the outskirts of Samarra we were met by a two Police pickups with armed men in the back. They escorted us through the area.
Samarra is about 90 miles north of Baghdad and one of the four Holy Cities of Iraq.
We stopped at the Spiral Minaret Complex which is part of what some archaeologists believe was the largest (area wise) ancient city in the world. The 170 ft minaret is part of the Great Mosque, believed to have been built by Caliph Al Mutawakkil in 852. It was the largest mosque built of brick in the world at the time. The mosque itself was nearly 800 ft by 525 ft with walls 30 ft high. The police escorts were very jovial and joined in our picture taking of this impressive Minaret. It was a sight to see in that it is much different than most minarets that are tall towers built like light houses. This one has a huge base and tapers to the top with the stairway on the outside spiraling to the top so the stairs are at a gentle slope.
We visited the Mosque restroom and it was the worst I have ever seen. The facilities were Eastern style holes and the running water was not working and a lot of them were full of empty water bottles and thick dust.
From Samarra we drove to Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown and the location of many of his 15 palaces. We drove past several palaces and the mosque where he was buried. The highway splits at Tikrit and we turned towards Kirkuk and Erbil. The country side was farmland and desert, much like driving from LA to Las Vegas or Palm Springs. At one point we drove over a high ridge but for the most part it was flat desert land with a very straight highway. We passed several areas where new villas were under construction but few were completed and occupied. With the exception of the check points and escort vehicles we did not get a sense that the country was in a war. People were going about their daily activities, shopping, constructing buildings and working in the many light manufacturing shops and auto repair shops we saw in the villages. Typical third world activities.
At 1300 we exchanged escort vehicles. As we drove through the hot dry area the bus air conditioner blew a circuit breaker and the driver did not have a proper replacement. At a small village before Kirkuk we left the main highway and stopped at a auto parts store to get the proper circuit breaker. When we reached the checkpoint of Kirkuk the escorts left. We stopped for lunch at Abdullah Rest, the equivalent of a US highway truck stop. Saadi ordered the lunch and it was a large meal with spiced beef and chicken kabobs on rice with humus and flat bread.
At 1620 we stopped at the Kurdistan border checkpoint, similar to the US Immigration Checkpoints in California. It was a large parking lot with covered areas to inspect trucks. We parked and walked to a set of trailers for processing. We were ready to show our passports when the Ministry of Tourism Kurdistan guide (Salih) arrived and after a discussion we were released back to the bus while they processed only our driver and guards. It took 25 minutes to process them into Kurdistan. After starting out again we had to stop at another check point and after a discussion among our guards, guides and the check point police it was decided that they needed to see our passports after all. They collected them in the bus and took them to an office and returned in 15 minutes.
My Blackberry stopped receiving when we entered the city of Erbil. Erbil is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and was a major stop on the Silk Road. It is the third largest city in Iraq as well as the capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region which was established in 1970. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Kurdistan adopted even greater autonomy and its own flag. The Iraqi constitution of 2005 explicitly recognizes the Kurdistan Regional Government and its separate, parallel administration. Historians often associate the city with the 331 BC Battle of Gaugamela where Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia. This is considered the first time a European army defeated eastern forces.
By 1730 we arrived at the Hotel Shahan in central Erbil across from the Citadel. The hotel was located in a small shopping mall and we had to pass by several stores to get to the entrance and walk up flight of stair to reception and the dining area. The hotel had no elevator and I was assigned a room on the second floor at the end of the hall. It was small with two metal beds side by side, a bedside table with a broken cabinet door. An armoire with a broken door, and a TV that worked over a small refrigerator that worked. There was a window that faced a ventilation shaft.
It took me some time to find the light switch to the bathroom because it was behind the TV. The bathroom was all tile with a squat type toilet under the shower. It served as the only drain for both the shower and the air conditioner. Fortunately the shower figures could provide a handle to help me steady my squat. As I was trying to use this contraption there was a knock on the door and they wanted to check my refrigerator contents. There was no towel or wash cloth but there was soap and a box of Kleenex. The floor was dirty and had a cigarette pack top. Fortunately there was an electrical outlet on the wall near the bed and I was able to hook up my CPAP machine.
At 1830 we assembled in the “lobby” and boarded our bus to drive to dinner. The sun had set and the streets were brightly lit with many modern western style stores.
A little about Erbil (also known as: Arbil, Irbil, Hewler and Howler): It is the capital of Iraq Kurdistan and is a thriving city with wide boulevards, many stores, car dealerships and well maintained buildings. It is considered safe for tourists to walk around and has many fine hotels. To some extent it reminded me of Hong Kong or Dubai. It was a major contrast to Baghdad. The stores stayed open until 2300 and there were no check points in the city. They did have a lot of speed bumps on the wide boulevards which had wide sidewalks and modern bus stop stands. We passed brightly lit parks with colorful lights and outdoor restaurants. Since it is the bright, safest spot in Iraq, many conventions and meetings are held there, thus the inability to get western style accommodations for us.
Eventually the guide found a two story restaurant that they determined could handle our size group. It was the Istanbul Restaurant and we were seated on the second floor. The meal started with several dishes of cold vegetables (tomatoes, carrots and cucumber), a hot chick-a-pea soup then big baskets of flat bread. Each of us was given a dish of hummus and olives and cucumber. The main entree was spiced beef roll from a shish kabob, BBQ chicken wings and hunks of white chicken meat from a shish kabob on a bed of rice.
The post meal tea is served at another table. Everyone moves to a second table while the waiters bus the dinner table. We left at 2030 and the drive to the hotel was quick. It turned out that after driving us all around the city looking for a restaurant they picked one right behind our hotel.
The air conditioner had kicked off in my room but after a bit I was able to get the switch reset and retired to my firm metal cot. The mattress was just a large piece of foam rubber.
Oct 17, 2009 (Saturday) Erbil, Iraq
Our schedule was changed. Initially we were to tour Eril and then on the way back to Baghdad visit Nimrud. After a discussion between Bob, Cathy and the guides they decided to switch and visit Nimrud the first day and tour Erbil the second before driving back to Baghdad.
This necessitated an early start. Breakfast was delayed until they got the bread delivered but they had fresh fruit and boiled eggs and hot tea.
We boarded our bus at 0700 but had to wait for the Kurdistan guide to arrive. He told us that he had been held up in traffic which was not believable since it was the equivalent of their Sunday and traffic was light leaving the city. There was a small park next to the hotel and it had several people sleeping in it. I guess despite its appearance of prosperity it has its homeless.
At 0830 we reached the Mosul checkpoint and stopped to pick up an Iraq Military escort. The Army Captain spoke English and told us he was very serious about our safety. I think he was concerned that if anything happened to us during his escort that his military career would be over.
Our first site was Saint Benham's Monastery (also called Deir al-Jubb - the Cistern Monastery) on the Nineveh Plain, where Nimrud flourished, dates to the 12th or 13th century, a unique place of pilgrimage, in the 4th century AD, an ancient Christian structure. The Monsieur gave us a 40 minute guided tour of the Monastery. It was in beautiful condition and he was very proud.
From the Monastery we drove on to Nimrud to tour the ancient complex of Calah. As we arrived at Calah we spotted an American patrol on a road down the hill from the complex. It was the first American forces we had seen since arriving in the country.
Nimrud (Calah in the Old Testament), lies on the east bank of the Tigris river 37 km to the south east of Mosul, it was the 2nd capital of the Assyria Empire founded in 883 BC, and had been a well-settled place for a thousand years before it was built as a center of the kingdom of Shalmaneser I (1273-1244 BC). While evidence at Nimrud indicates that people probably lived in its vicinity beginning as long ago as 3000 BC, the first town-sized population was located there in the 13th century BC. The capital city of Nimrud was built by the Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal II [who reigned between 883–859 B.C].
In antiquity, the town was known by the name Kalhu (Calah in the Old Testament). The Arabs called it Nimrud after Nimrod, the biblical mighty hunter, father of Ashur (Assur), the Assyrian hero whose name explains why Assyrians are called Assyrians.
The city has a four-side wall measuring 8 km, and several buildings raised on mud-brick platforms as much as 12 m high above river-level. Some of the buildings are: the temple of Ninurta, the north western palace (Assurnasirpal II's) and the south western palace (Esarhaddon's), Sargon's palace, and others, notably the ziggurat which looks rather like a conical hill with its remains rising to a height of 17 m. It originally had a square base, with most probably a spiral ramp like that of Samarra's spiral minaret (Al-Malweyya), leading to its upper levels.
We entered the palace through a couple of doorways, between impressive statuary showing two hawk-winged lions with human heads in the well-known Assyrian style. These huge sculptures were meant to be the guardians of the city. The buildings inside included the Esida chapel, the temple of Nabu, god of wisdom, arts, and sciences, son of the Babylonian god Marduk, built in 798 BC by the famous Queen Semiramis (Samuramat), mother of Adad-Nirari III (810-782 BC).
The World Monuments Fund lists Nimrud as one of its most endangered sites. There have been no funds to maintain the site and we were some of the few visitors and only Americans to visit the site in recent years. It is a shame because the hawk winged lions and other murals were impressive considering their age.
We spent an hour touring the site mostly on our own taking pictures. The Iraqi Army Officer escorting us gave us some details on some of the areas of the site. It is a real shame that this ancient site is deteriorating.
On the way back to Erbil we stopped to buy a quick lunch. Saadi and Bob Prada bought the spicy beef in a soft bread wrap. Very tasty and not the large meal we had on the previous day at the rest stop.
We dropped our escort at the Tigris River and returned to Erbil. The road to Erbil was through desert in some areas but I was surprised at the many new houses under construction. I stopped counting at 100. They were very similar concrete and cinderblock two story homes unfinished in the desert or outskirts of villages.
When we arrived back in Erbil we visited the nicely manicured Minare Park with the Mudhafaria Minaret, also know as the Choly Minaret, a 36 meter high column built between 1190 and 1232 during the reign of Muzaffar Al-Din Abu Sa’eed Al-Kawkaboori, the king of Erbil at that time.
The minaret is composed of a high octagonal base and a tall cylindrical shaft, with a balcony located between the base and the shaft.
It’s built of baked bricks; the base is decorated with two tiers of niches with pointed arches, two on each of the eight faces that are inscribed in rectangular frames. The balcony parapet is carved with twenty-four small niches; the access door to the minaret steps is on the eastern side of the octagonal base and leads top to the balcony. From there a small door gives access to steps inside the cylindrical shaft that led to the second balcony now collapsed.
The shaft tapers inward and is decorated with several bands of interlocking diagonal Hazar-Baf motifs that are separated with thin bands. Peculiarly splendid "Kufi", which is a type of Arabic handwritings, calligraphy can be seen, the names of Muhammad and Mas'oudi Muhammadi the builders of the Minaret were inscribed.
Across the road from Minare Park was the Shanidar Park, another beautiful garden park with a large round fort type building. We walked through the gate across a foot bridge with an arbor of flowers and up a walk to the building. I was very surprised when I entered the building to find a round room art gallery of local artists paintings. It was very impressive. After viewing the art work I exited the room and walked up stairs to the roof of the building with a beautiful view of the parks and the city. We spent about an hour visiting the two sites and then we returned to our hotel.
Back at our hotel we discovered that the hotel staff does not make the bed or clean the rooms but does change the soap. I made my bed with fresh sheets I obtained from a table at the top of the stairs.
Saadi then took us on a tour of the local stores, very interesting. We then boarded the bus at went to diner. It was not as fancy as the restaurant we dined at the night before but it was deliciously adequate.
After diner we took another tour of the local shops and I retired early.
Oct 18, 2009 (Sunday) Drive to Baghdad
I arose at 0500, showered and packed. Breakfast was ready a little faster than the previous day since it was a workday and they were able to get the fresh bread earlier. We had boiled eggs, sliced cucumber, fresh tomatoes, yogurt and hot tea.
After breakfast we boarded the bus and drove up the street to the entry of the Citadel. Even though the site claims that it is the most continuously occupied buildings in the history of mankind there were few people in the area except for a troop of military. We were told that some of the houses were occupied to keep the string going but we didn’t see any of the people. Since we were the first people in the site we had the run of most of the facility. The military did stop us from visiting some of the back alleys.
We spent about an hour taking pictures of the area. Outside the walls of the Citadel there was a good view of the city and at the south gate is a large statue of the 12th century historian Mubararek Ahmed Sharafaddin. After taking pictures of the scene and the statue we reentered the Citadel and discovered the shop had now opened. We pursued the shop and I was impressed by an old 1920’s era Victor (later known as a RCA Victrola) with an old Nat “King” Cole 78rpm record titled “I’m Gonna Laugh You Out Of My Life” on it. The store had several other antique items.
When we reassembled and boarded the bus, we exited the Citadel and started on a quest to find post cards and stamps. After Saadi asked several people we stopped and walked to the post office where we believed that we could buy both the post cards and the stamps. It turned out they didn’t sell Post Cards but directed us to stationery stores a block or two away. After walking about six blocks and visiting many stationary stores we returned without finding any post cards.
We boarded the bus to drive to the Erbil Museum. We drove out of town stopping many times to ask for directions and calling our Krutistan Guide who was no longer on the bus for directions to the Museum. Our Lonely Plant Guide had the Museum marked on the map of Erbil and we showed the map to Saadi but they were not able to find it so we departed for Baghdad.
We took a different route, more direct and a better highway bag to Baghdad. Along the way we stopped briefly to buy spicy beef wraps for lunch and to get gas for the bus.
Iraq has several types of gas dispensing stations. There are the traditional gas station with several pumps on covered islands; there are above ground tanks with a single hose; road side bootleggers with bottles of gas (primarily sold to motor cycles and motor scooters); and an interesting sort of portable gas station in a shipping metal container. The later can then lock up the pumps when there is no one to man them. The containers are painted bright colors.
On this road we passed by the banana grove where Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's the top al-Qa’ida in Iraq was found and killed by a strike from an RPV. During the long drive we engaged Saadi in many discussions about how he judged the situation in Iraq and what he thought the mood of other Iraqis was. Saadi expressed extreme dislike of Saddam Hussein. He initially had done a lot for the country building a fine network of highways but soon focused too much of the country’s resources and men on pursuit of war with their neighbors and a stubborn resistance to the blockade and sanctions. He, his family and cronies lived a wealthy life while the country deteriorated around him. Saadi claimed that Iraqis are proud people and don’t like to feel they are occupied by coalition troops but he didn’t think the American troops should leave until there has been a stable election and the outside elements that have been generating the bombings subside. He said many of his countrymen like the security that the Americans are no longer visible but are ready to assist the Iraqi police and military when needed. Saadi disliked the Iraq voting process that has people voting for parties rather than individuals. The result is that people that they don’t want in the Assembly get in because of their party loyalty. Saadi told us that there was a bill to change the election procedure to allow people to vote for individuals rather than a party. He said if the bill is passed next January’s election will have a greater turnout.
One observation our group had is that the Iraqis express a proud independence of their people but do not show respect for their physical country. The country is littered in plastic bags, empty plastic water bottles, cigarette butts and general trash. It needs a good cleaning, coat of paint and trash pickup.
When we entered Baghdad we drove past the Ministry of Finance that was bombed in August. The whole front of the building was gone and a highway bridge was damaged.
Back in the Ishtar Hotel I checked into a different room. One of the two elevators that were operational two days earlier had now stopped working. Dinner was the same as we had the previous night at the hotel.
It had been a long bus ride so I crashed right after dinner without recording an entry in my journal.
Oct 19, 2009 (Monday) Tour Babylon, Iraq
I awoke to my alarm at 0530 and went to an early breakfast before our 0730 departure for Babylon. When we exited the compound the bus had to maneuver about several concert barriers and this time it scraped one of the barriers along the right side damaging the whole panel. We learned that the driver will be required to pay for the repairs himself. He was a good driver and we felt sorry for him.
Traffic at that time of day was heavy in the city and along the way we stopped to get an estimate on the damage to the bus. We had not driven south of the city before and there were a lot of check points along the way. At the edge of the city we picked up two armed escort police vehicles that lead us to the outer gate to Babylon.
The Babylon complex had been closed since 2003, but the site was officially opened again in June, 2009 despite some concerns about preservation still in progress. Historians disagree as to the exact site of the magnificent Hanging Gardens, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, built by King Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife in the 6th C BC. However, many of his other sites remain such as the Summer and Winter Palaces, Street of Processions, Lion of Babylon and the Ishtar Gate. It is arguably the most famous ancient city and was the Mesopotamian capital starting with the dynasty of King Hammurabi in the 18th C BC (known best for his Code of Common Law).
We were met by the Chief Archaeologist who was very happy to see American Tourists and he took us on a lengthy tour of the complex. He had been restoring the site since the 1960’s. We walked the Street of Processions and the Summer and Winter Palaces which have been restored. Our guide showed us walls that he had restored in 1988 and 1989. Outside the restored area were many excavated areas and many areas that still need to be excavated and restored. We walked through some of the excavations and got a sense for the massive effort it will take to completely restore the complex. In an open area we were able to get close to the famous Lion of Babylon. It took us almost two hours to tour the site and we could have spent the whole day if we had wanted to tour the un-restored areas.
Overlooking the complex Saddam had built a palace which he visited only once during his reign. The palace staff would fix a lunch for him every day and when he didn't arrive, they would throw the food in the river. After the tour of the complex we drove up to the palace. It is a three story building on an artificially constructed hill overlooking both the Babylon complex and the Tigris River. The views were spectacular of both the complex and the river. The palace had large rooms with marble floors and wall panels and huge windows.
It had been ransacked by anti Saddam Iraqis and possibly American troops. All glass was gone, there was graffiti in Arabic on the walls and a basket ball hoop had been installed on the wall in one of the grand halls. There was also some graffiti in English. On the walls of a narrow hallway “Saddam is not here” was written and on the opposite wall “You are here”.
From Babylon we drove to Borsippar, an important religious center dedicated to their patron god Nabu, it is the site of the Ezida Temple, built during the time of Hammurabi. The ruins of a 150 ft ziggurat are perhaps the most famous site along with other excavations and the shrine of the Prophet Abraham. We were scheduled to visit Hilla and Kish but the security team decided they were not safe to visit.
At 1300 we headed back to Baghdad and along the way stopped to buy lunch at a road side stand. I had spicy beef in pita bread with lettuce and tomatoes. We were told to close the curtains on the bus and at the stand only Bob Prada and the guide bought the lunch. When we returned to the highway the escort vehicle instructed our bus driver to drive fast down the center of the road. They were a little nervous that bad guys may have become aware that we were in the area.
At 1600 we were safely back at the hotel to refresh and start out again to visit the Kadhimiya Shrine and Mosque, the second most important shrine in Iraq. It took a long time to maneuver through the traffic and find a place to park the bus near the Shrine and Mosque. We were met by a guide from the Mosque and were ferried in vans to the Mosque. The street leading to the Mosque was a ten block boulevard lined with brightly light shops selling everything from food to clothes and hardware. It was a stark contrast to the dark area we had driven through to get to the outer gate of the mosque. The number of people considering it was a weekday night was surprising both along the boulevard, in the shops and in the mosque.
The mosque guide produced a gray hooded garment for the ladies and we had to surrender our cameras and shoes before we were allowed to enter the large square structure. The many people inside the mosque were mostly sitting in small groups and talking. Only a small percentage of people were praying. Our guide appeared to be an important official and he had a young man in a business suit following us and taking pictures. We were not allowed to enter the shrine area for two important Shiite imams, Musa al-Kadhim and Mohammad al-Jawad. We could see the two tombs through the doorway.
At one point the guide directed us to a side door that led to another vast area under construction. He was very proud of the area and told us how it would expand the mosque to hold thousands of more worshippers. From there he led us up a flight of stairs to an administration area that had many fine 3 dimensional wood carvings on the wall. There were several young men wearing aprons in the room. The guide explained the process that the wood carvers used. They would work from photographs of the area. Next door was the workshop with an unfinished piece on the bench. We then stood for group photographs.
When we returned to the area outside the mosque our shoes and cameras were returned and we stood for more group photos with the guide.
We were ferried back up the boulevard to our bus. I rode on the back seat on the return to the hotel and felt nauseous, either from the bumpy roads or the diesel fumes.
Back in the room I spent some time on my journal and retired for the evening.
Oct 20, 2009 (Tuesday) Tour Baghdad, Iraq
I awoke at 0530 and before going down to breakfast I decided to explore the upper floors of the hotel. The elevator indicated 17 floors so I rode it to the top where I found a former nightclub area in disarray. I was able to get out to a terrace which provided spectacular views. East of the hotel I was able to take a picture of Firdos Square (actually a traffic circle), where Saddam Hessian’s statute used to stand. Beyond the square was the blue domed 14th Ramadan Mosque that served as a backdrop to many CNN Broadcasts. Looking west was a view of a park along side of the Tigris River and on the other side of the river was the International (Green) Zone. Looking down I could see that the hotel had a large round pool which appeared to be full and clean although the Cabanas around it were in disrepair.
At breakfast I learned that I was not the only curious one to visit the 17th floor and that Laurie had found a stairwell that enable her to get to the roof and even better views.
We boarded the bus at 0700 and drove to the Iraq National Museum for a visit. Saadi served as our guide. The museum building is quite large and had many rooms and several floors of displays. The displays for the most part did not fill the rooms. It was hard to determine how much had been stolen during the first days of the war. Museum docents pointed out displays that had been recovered from countries around the world during the last several years. Just recently coins from the museum where returned from South America. We were able to take pictures in the museum. During the tour my nausea returned and I had to leave the group with one of our guards and seek a Men’s Room where I tossed my cookies. I felt much better but I missed some of the tour.
We spent about two hours in the museum and then drove on to the entrance to the International (Green) Zone. Getting through security into the zone was time consuming. Saadi and the Ministry of Tourism and obtained clearance for us to tour the zone but there was a mix up as to which gate we were supposed to enter.
We finally were met by USAF Captain Fred Saunders, from the American Embassy Economic Development Office, a civilian consultant to the Embassy and a young Iraqi lady from the Office that had grown up in Arizona. Just like the night before we had to leave our bus and be ferried in vans into the zone.
Our first stop was the Swords of Qadisiyah (Hands of Victory). They are immense and impressive pairs of massive hands emerging from the ground, each holding a 140 foot long sword. A small flagpole rises from the point where the swords meet, at a point about 130 feet above the ground. The arms rest on concrete plinths, the form of which make the arms appear to burst up out of the ground. Each plinth holds 2,500 helmets of, what Saddam claimed were Iranian soldiers killed during the war between Iraq and Iran.
The Swords mark the two ends of the Zawra Park parade ground. We took pictures and tried to capture each other in a pose that would appear that we were holding the swords. The direction of the sunlight made it difficult and I was not able to get in the correct position.
Adjacent to Zawra Park was the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. It is large area shaped like a small hill with sloping terrace steps leading to an area 820 feet in diameter. Above the flat area is a 137 ft in diameter structure shaped like a warriors’’ shield. It slopes at a 12 degree angle.
A cube beneath the shield is made of seven layers of metal, said to represent the seven levels of Heaven in the Islamic faith. Inside the layers of metal are sheets of red acrylic, said to represent the blood of the slain Iraqi soldiers. The cube itself is connected to the underground museum by a long shaft with windows that allow light to shine in from above. Inside the museum, visitors can look up at the ceiling and see through the openings leading to the cube above. It is very difficult to describe.
Walking with Capt. Saunders we learned that his major activity was arranging for Japanese to invest in the Basra area. He planned on retiring at the end of this tour and returning as a contractor. He was very enthusiastic about the future of Iraq.
We boarded the vans again and the Captain drove us around the zone and along the Tigris River where we stopped near the American Embassy, the largest American Embassy Building in the world. We were told that the Embassy staff was not aware that we were in Iraq and if they had known days before the Captain could have arranged for us to tour the Embassy. After picture taking of the Embassay from a distance we exited the zone.
It was a hot day and it was a little past noon when we exited the zone and awaited for our bus to pick us up. We were standing along an Iraqi Army vehicle. They had constructed a shade over their gun mounts and had a cooler of ice cold water which they gave us and posed for pictures.
Once we boarded the bus we headed south with two armed police escorts. The escorts helped us get through the traffic and on to the town of Salman Pak to see the ruins of the Arch of Ctesiphon. The site of the Arch is 20 miles south of Baghdad.
Ctesiphon was one of the great cities of the Persian Empire and in the 6th C it was possibly the largest city in the world. Sacked several times by the Romans during the 2nd C, little remains of the legendary White Palace except the Arch and some surrounding structures. Parts of the Arch which is thought to be the largest brick arch in the world still stand. The arch is 80 feet wide and 110 feet tall. We were given a rare treat because 10 days earlier they had unearthed a statue of a Persian Queen is remarkably good shape. Outside of the walls and parts of the arch is was all that remained of the once great city.
A short distance from the arch, Saddam Hussein had built a diorama of the ancient city. The building had been heavily damaged and the diorama destroyed. The sun was setting as we drove back to Baghdad. It was interesting to see how our escorts protected us. At first I didn’t understand why the would drive at bicyclist and try to force trucks to the side of the road and then Saadi told us that they were intimidating those bicyclist and other vehicles to attack them rather than our bus.
We arrived safely back at our hotel and dinner was at 1900. We were joined at diner by Geoff Hann, from Hinderland Travel, the UK Company that arranges tours through the Ministry of Tourism. Geoff has been arranging tours of Iraq since the 1970’s and was allowed to start back with tours in March 2009. He served as the go between the Ministry of Tourism and Advantage Travel & Tours. He was in Baghdad with a group from the UK that had just returned from a tour of the Basra region.
We had an early flight scheduled the next day so I retired at 2030.
Oct 21, 2009 (Wednesday) Fly Baghdad to Amman, Jordon via Istanbul
I awoke to my alarm at 0330 to pack my CPAP machine and other electronic goodies. I spend time rearranging my luggage to support the first two nights in Jordan in my carryon bag. My activities were slowed by my diarrhea but I was finished and wheeled my bags to the lobby by 0535. I was the last to breakfast but I had eaten an orange, banana and an apple in my room and didn’t plan on the hotel breakfast.
We loaded the bus at 0600 and headed for the airport. The traffic was light and some of the check points were not manned with Humvees since the city didn’t start work until 0900 and the traffic didn’t start getting heavy until after 0700.
When we arrived at the parking lot on the outskirts of the airport we had to unload our bus and bid Saadi , our VIP Protection escorts and our driver farewell. Sabah, from the Ministry of Tourism, Airport Office took over guiding us. He had two mini vans and after attempting to crowd into them he changed his mind and arranged for us to board a Greyhound size bus.
As we left the parking lot we came upon our first checkpoint. A guard checked that we each had a passport and an airline ticket. The bus then drove a short distance and backed into a parking spot where we had to get off and remove our bags which were lined up in a row and a dog walked the row sniffing for I guess explosives. After reloading the bus we drove to another checkpoint where we had to get off and walk through a body pat down area. Back on the bus we were soon stopped for another passport and ticket check.
At last we arrived at the terminal and were greeted by a crowd of porters. We were not allowed to push our own baggage cart. We had to stand in line outside the terminal entrance and only a few were allowed in at a time. When my turn came I entered a room and had to remove my bag from the cart and have it pass through x-ray while I got another body pat down. Soon they directed the group I was with to put our bags back on the cart and I was directed to another door to the terminal where my bags had to go through another x-ray.
Sabah was waiting inside for us to complete this time consuming process and he told us that they had called our flight. We regrouped and walked to another terminal with the check in counters. We again had to send our bags through an X-ray machine and be patted down before we got to the Turkish Airline counter. Bob and Cathy went to the counter to get our whole group checked in. The luggage tags to Amman had to be had written and it took about 20 minutes to get us all checked in. Our departure fee was $13.
From check in we went to Passport Control and the waiting area. It was then 0815 and we still had an hour before boarding our flight. I sat near the gate and fell asleep and an agent woke me to tell be they were lining up to board the flight to Istanbul. We had to have another Passport check and the Turkish Airline Agent took half our boarding card. Next we had to have our carry on sent through an x-ray machine and receive a body pat down. My bag had to be opened because the x-ray saw a pair of scissors in my toilet kit. When they saw that they were blunt nose I was allowed to keep them.
I was assigned to seat 11D with Bill in 11E and Bob Ihsen in 11F. When the door closed, Bill moved to an aisle seat. The plane pushed back at 0914, one minute ahead of schedule and took off at 0928.
We were served a breakfast of spinach quiche, and a grilled turkey ham and cheese sandwich with cheese and olives. I had tea to drink. The flight arrived on schedule at the gate at 1210.
I had safely toured Iraq with the first all American group of tourists. Our focus had been on history and archaeology. We had visited sites and been given tours that US troops have not experienced. The Ministry of Tourism is attempting to rebuild the tourism that flourished in the 1970’s. We visited many places that are mentioned in the bible as the start of the world’s civilization. It was an unforgettable adventure that I am glad I was able experience.