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Phil’s Travels – Sulaymaniyah, KRI (05.23)


Phil’s Travels – Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan Region of Iraq (05.23)

… The airline for this trip was Turkish Airlines, from Heathrow T2 (it was yawningly, eerily quiet on Sunday afternoon, and only enlivened by a lovely Whatsapp chat with a Norseman). As this was another different country in my congested travel itinerary this month, I tried to check the weather ahead of packing so as to pack appropriately. But could I find Sulaymaniyah on BBC Weather? No. I love the BBC online and World News services, but evidently the BBC was lacking in some global knowledge (even Suli did not work in the search box). Where the BBC failed, Apple Weather succeeded and I packed accordingly (fortunately Apple proved accurate for Suli, unlike when I went to Dushanbe and Apple said it was -20C, when in fact it was +20C).

Weather rant over. Turkish Airlines online check-in was simple, but printing my boarding pass was not. What an absolute brain ache. The default on the website was to print a boarding pass on A3-sized paper, which meant most of the pass was missing when I printed on regular A4. Having reset the website to print on A4 it would not let me print two passes back-to-back on the same sheet of paper. In the end I used up what felt like half of reem of paper getting the boarding passes readable and good to go.

On this trip I lost my second Sunday and second Bank Holiday in three weeks. My family took it well. Maybe they were happy to have their own fun – it was a big week after all, with many landmark dates. The day before was Charles III’s coronation (6 May 2023, a lengthy and tradition-rich spectacle), the Tuesday was Russia’s Victory Day (9 May 2023, a quiet and depleted affair) and the Sunday was Turkey’s Presidential Election (14 May 2023, a close-run race and subject to the first second round in years).

Back to T2. Boarding on Turkish was a slow business and we left late. The flight was far from full. Probably because folk were staying on in the UK to ‘have their own fun’ over the Bank Holiday and to make the most of the emerging warm UK weather.

At Istanbul International Airport, the taxi from runway to terminal was so long that it felt like the plane was taking us halfway to the Topkapi Palace (I swear it took nearly 30 minutes from touchdown to jetway connection, reducing my transit window from a comfortable two hours to less than 60 minutes, no time for a snack) and I must have walked the other half of the way to the Topkapi from one end of D-wing to the far end of B-wing. Our flight to Erbil left late (I could have had a snack), after they binned my painfully printed boarding pass and gave me another one (why did it take half a forest to fly?).

I landed in Erbil in the dark at 03.00. Passport control was a joy (lovely chap in uniform and my e-visa worked a treat). Because of excessive caution by the local security forces (the majestically named, Peshmerga), my host could not pick me up from the arrivals terminal. I had to catch an airport bus and waited 30 minutes for it to fill, at which point it drove us from the terminal where the planes are to another terminal on the other side of the airport grounds, where cars are permitted and pick-ups possible. I was very pleased to be reacquainted with my old friend Happy Haji.

I spent a few hours of sleep in one of Erbil’s many 5* hotels (big room, very small desk crushed into a dark corner, safe too small for laptops, great blackout curtains) and had breakfast with Paul (whom I had only met in Dubai in the previous week) and occupied my day with meetings around the capital. We even had time to quickly drive past the incredible citadel (the oldest continuously inhabited community in the world, over 6,000 years) and its colourful ground level bazar. Lunch was the best meal of my stay (the most incredible mixed grill and salads ever). The restaurant was also notable for its marble-lined Turkish-style WC (not seen one of those for many a year, marble-clad or otherwise).

First day in Kurdistan concluded with a three-hour drive under a glorious setting sun to Suli, flanked by green mountains, verdant pastures and sweeping dales of wheat. What a spectacular country.

In Suli, I stayed in another 5* hotel, somewhat dated, but very comfortable. The room was large, bathroom small (with appalling lighting, making shaving a risky business each morning), stunning panoramic views over the city and to the ring of mountains that crown the area, and offering no luggage rack (I had to put my case on the desk). I spent the next few days meeting a range of local stakeholders, including some great hotel General Managers (people were so friendly and helpful – the Kurdish culture of incredible friendliness and hospitality rubs off on everyone).

On the first day it rained. Yes, it rained in mid-May in Iraq! That was not on the weather forecast back in London. Fortunately, I had a car and Happy Haji with me throughout. The view of the glistening streets from the hotel’s 19th floor bar was a sparkling and spectacular sight at sunset. I had a lovely sundowner in that bar with a wonderful man, who, after a glass or so, increasingly reminded me of the multi-talented and devilishly handsome Christophe Waltz. Thanks again for a great evening.

I had been to Suli before, back in 2014 (see blog history). In 2023, the city was much bigger and extended way beyond the 2014 city limits. The skyline was busy with a huge number of new residential compounds and apartment towers under construction wherever you looked. The Kurds are so special that many Iraqis from Iraq (rather than KRI) were buying second homes in the city so as to enjoy amazing Kurdish hospitality and security (the Peshmerga ensure KRI is perhaps the safest place in the Middle East).

On the rainy day, we had a quick pizza and the most delicious/creative salads in a long time (at least since Erbil anyway) at a first floor joint opposite the iconic Amna Suraka (the Red Security Building, today a museum, but formally a palace of torture during Sadam’s reign), riddled with bullet holes on the outside and stuffed with tales of woe inside.

On my final day, we drove back to Erbil through the stunning landscape, had some more meetings in the capital and checked into another 5* hotel for a refresh, repack and quick respite. This was definitely not 5*. Probably not even international 3*. Among many, the biggest issue for me was the shower screen. It was hung too high, at least six inches above the bath rim, and it kept swinging out over the toilet. So, when showering, the floor became a swimming pool and when needing the WC, the shower screen would intervene. Could have become very messy. Thankfully I was there for only a short time and the mess was contained.

At Erbil International Airport the security measures were crazier than on arrival. Our car was thoroughly checked (including sniffer dogs) before even entering the airport grounds, and we were body searched. At the terminals (two of them remember), my luggage was scanned and inspected three times and my passport and ‘ticket’ checked at every turn. The flight to Istanbul took off late and landed late. Good job I had insisted on a sizeable transfer window.

Istanbul International is the Westfield of airports. It is a shopping mall with a few planes. However, for all its immense scale and wide range of shopping options, I could not find a single decent restaurant. The place was peppered with fast-food outlets and dozens of coffee shop kiosks, but not a single full-service restaurant. In the end I had to settle for the eternally weak Carluccio’s, which turned out to be a super expensive option (Full English at Heston’s place in T2 cost around £18, at IST Carluccio’s it cost £30!) and as disappointing as its cohort in the UK. Note to self, try a fast-food place next time.

Turkish completed the set when my final and return flight also left late. Every single one of my four flights was delayed. That said, we arrived pretty close to on time each time, which made me wonder just how much ‘fat’ they build into their scheduling. I landed back at Heathrow T2, passport control was deserted and I made it home for dinner and a full weekend at home for the first time in a few weeks before my next flight on Monday at silly-o’clock (Berlin beckoned).

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