As Turkish forces embark upon a massive offensive into Kurdish-controlled Northeast Syria, memories of my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan are in the front of my mind.
It was 2011 and I was working in Frankfurt at the time for Star Alliance. I really took advantage of my time there and used most weekends to travel. On this crisp October weekend, I decided to fly to Iraq (as one does). At the time, flying to Baghdad would have been too dangerous. Instead, I decided to visit Erbil, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Even during the height of the Iraq War it was a place of relative calm. Kurds, whom Saddam Hussein had tried to genocide, were strongly in favor of the American invasion and the area provided a staging ground for many incursions south.
Lufthansa serves Erbil from Frankfurt and I no trouble securing a last-minute award seat. So without much thought, I woke up, headed to the airport, and boarded a flight to Iraq…
I won’t offer a full flight review, but a few notes on the flight. Business class breakfast really included an eclectic mix of dishes. There were scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, and beans. Fine, that was expected. There was cheese, meat, sliced cucumber, and bread. Also expected. But there was also chicken katsu, sushi, and pickled vegetables. So a Japanese lunch on a breakfast flight to Iraq…
Other passengers in business class appeared to be military contractors and business people. I doubt anyone else was going for sightseeing.
As we neared Erbil, the captain announced we would be doing “defensive maneuvers” as we landed out of an abundance of caution. Again, Erbil (at least up until 2014 when ISIS fighters moved into nearby Mosul) was a quiet part of Iraq. But that did not stop a sudden and steep bank followed by a rapid descent into EBL.
Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Iraq and entrance was visa-free to Americans. I had only my duffel bag and headed right for passport control. An agent, who spoke good English, did not bat an eye when he saw my passport, especially when it was full of stamps and had two extensions. He probably thought I was just another contractor or CIA. Instead, he warmly welcomed me to Iraq.
I stepped outside the arrivals hall and there were no taxis and no touts. In fact, there were no cars and no people. A guard explained that I would need to walk about a quarter mile down the road to where all vehicles had to wait. For security reasons, cars cannot drive up to the airport.
I walked down the road, still not fully knowing what to expect. Soon enough, I came to a parking lot where several mene approached me, asking if I need a ride. I negotiated a price into town ($10) and hopped into a car.
Next up: My Day In Erbil