Laying slap bang in the way of getting to Turkey, we needed to cross Syria to get home but when we turned up at the border Syria said no and turned me away. We had to decide what to do next. The temptation was to turn around and head back to Egypt and take the once in a lifetime opportunity to have the Pyramids and the rest of Egypt’s historical assets to ourselves.
Then we remembered the country we bumped when planning our route. I had thought the Syrians wouldn’t let me in at the border twice without a prearranged visa but now that they had already rejected me Lebanon was on the table again. We flew to Beirut.
We still want to go to Syria another time but what a great decision Lebanon was. We’re still high fiving each other that we went there. We both loved Beirut. The Northern Irish often compared their capital to Lebanon’s so it was slightly karmic that we went there and could see for ourselves the difference between far away perception and close up reality.
Mostly, as we do in most places that we visit, we just walked around, took in the vibe of the place and shoved food into our mouths. Lebanon is a great place for that. A lot of our walking was done along the Corniche, joining in with a pastime popular with high heel teetering Christians and covered up Muslims. While we walked beside the sea in sunny spring weather, snow topped mountains, the location of Lebanon’s ski resorts, could be seen in the background 20 miles away.
Our other favourite open air eatery was the American University of Beirut. With its green grounds sandwiched between the sea and the cheap eats on the appropriately named Rue Bliss, if I could have my time again this is where I’d want to study.
We had plans to travel around a lot more of Lebanon than we did but Beirut kept us happy enough that, despite spending nearly three weeks in the country, we only got out of the city once. We felt we couldn’t miss Byblos but did exactly that. Only 20 miles to the north of Beirut we had the feeling we had been travelling too long on the bus so asked another passenger if we had missed our stop. Unfortunately he was the only person on the bus dumber than us and, following his incorrect advice, we went to Tripoli instead.
Being in Iraq was a surreal experience that quickly got normal. Had we not known the country’s history the combat fatigues of most of our fellow plane passengers would have given away that Iraq isn’t a typical tourist destination. Arriving at night we brushed aside the usual airport taxi driver bullshit, walked through the police checkpoints down to an unopened and deserted six lane highway, and hitched a lift into Erbil from the middle of the fastest and most dangerous road we could find.
Deirdre spent most of the first three days in Iraq sick in bed so I explored Kurdistan’s capital by myself. Other than a couple of parks where I got rained on but am sure would have been pleasant enough in the sunshine, Erbil doesn’t have much to offer the inquisitive tourist apart from the Citadel.
Travelling from Erbil to Dohuk we met British passport holder Rashid who invited us to meet his family and spend the night in his home in Biyuk, near Akre. The big man in the village is Rashid’s brother in law. Each night the former Colonel in the Iraqi army holds court and discusses the issues of the day with his neighbours and the occasional random tourists.
Unsurprisingly tourists are scarce in Iraq. Though we only saw one possible expat in Erbil, met one other traveller in Dohuk and another at the border, Iraqis generally paid us little attention. When they did they tended to invite us for tea or coffee rather than simply staring. The only place we got a few stares was in the mountain perched town of Amidiya.
Away from the bazaar and the central area around the Citadel, Erbil sprawled along wide roads. Dohuk is more compact and seems to keep its character and sense of bustle even away from the crowded covered bazaar and busy central streets. Internal tourism to the dam and the Dream City amusement park lend the place a happy holiday vibe without compromising the feeling that the city also earns its living in other ways.
By now we had started to change the name of this chapter of our travels from the Cairo to (almost) Istanbul trip to the Apocalypse Tour. After God, protests, revolution and war zones the strange orange skies when we crossed the Tigris into Turkey at the wifi enabled border ticked our final end of days box.