As we approach the cable car to take us to the top of Mount Korek, I’m stunned by the beauty that surrounds me. Bright white snow-capped mountains are all around. They glisten in the sunshine and despite the sub-zero temperatures give off a warm glow. And all is peaceful. A sharp contrast, I imagine, to 20 years ago, when gunfire must have echoed among these mountains and blood stained the snow.
But this no longer the battleground of Iraqi Kurds and Saddam Hussein’s regime. Thanks in part to a no-fly zone put in place 21 years ago, during the first Iraq war, and the more recent US-led invasion of 2003, some tranquillity has returned. The fall of the former dictator has given a once-persecuted people the security to rebuild and develop this now semi-autonomous region.
Much safer than the south, northern Iraq has even become popular as a tourist destination for Iranians and Turks and those living in the South of he country. The cable car is just one of many new ventures.
As we ascend the steel cable, my guide Dr. Douglas Layton explains how the area has come to be called “the other Iraq”. “So much was demolished by Saddam Hussein” he says. 4.500 villages, 95% of the region. There were no eggs in the bazaar because the chickens had all been killed. Nothing. Nothing, but a little fuel, and a few cars. “
Now though, he says it’s emerging from the ashes.
We are the first to try out the cable car and when we reach the top, the technicians are revelling in their triumph. The generator thawed, the cable car worked and all is ready to receive the first group of tourists. Out comes the celebratory sweet tea to warm us up.
It may seem strange that anyone might choose to go to Iraq on their holidays, but last year the north of the country attracted 2 million visitors. The government hopes that will rise to 5 million this year.
Since it opened the doors to domestic and foreign investment in 2006, billions of dollars have been pouring into the region. A newly-built state of the art airport in the capital Erbil and around 500 hotels now await their visitors. From the viewing platform at Mount Korek, half-built ski chalets line the horizon.
But as Douglas tells me, the outside world is still not convinced it’s safe to come here.
It is not surprising when you consider the continuing disputes over oil and borders. As we sip tea and admire the views, 200 km south in Kirkuk a building, belonging to a group of elderly Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, is blown to pieces by a suicide bomber. Their armchairs were ripped apart by the blast, their playing cards stuck to the blood on the floor.
When such incidents make international news headlines, it does not help the tourist board trying to sell the rest of Kurdistan as a safe and beautiful part of the world. But our drive back towards Erbil IS beautiful. We pass sweet stalls, families barbequeing, couples cuddling beneath waterfalls and children throwing snowballs at each other. Huge icicles hang down from the rocky canyon above us.
Below us we can see the original Hamilton road, built by a New Zealand engineer in the 1920s. Winding its way through the mountains it’s a miracle the project was ever finished. Before even beginning to chisel and dynamite his way through the rocks, Archibald Hamilton had to unite the feuding tribesmen who’d been recruited to work for him.
I wonder what he would make of the melting pot that is Iraqi Kurdistan now. A mixture of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen – Christians and Muslims – who for the most part tell me, they live peacefully side by side.
Ten years after the invasion, this region and its people are moving on.
Perhaps the mountains are not the Kurds’ only friends.. as the proverb says. Perhaps they are making new ones. New friends from the south, in search of peace and friends from further afield – keen to hit the open Hamilton road and discover the place they call “the other Iraq”.