"Shish kebab. If you go through Mosul you will be shish kebab - ha ha!"
Former journalist Muhammad Jambaz, who is arranging my trip from Erbil to Duhok, shares my fears about our proximity to one of the world's most dangerous cities. He assures me that we won't be going there - and if we did, I'd be arrested. As we approach the heavily guarded border post, my Christian driver Landie takes a swift and deliberate right turn, bypassing the city by just a few kilometres.
Mosul sits on the other side of the de facto border between the autonomous zone of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq proper: my 10-day tourist visa, handed out free to Western travellers on arrival in Erbil, the capital, won't allow me outside of this bubble. It's a flat, dusty and rather bleak bubble, but right now I'm happy to be in it.
We cross the River Tigris, heading north towards Turkey, and stop at a roadside cafe where my 22-year-old guide Mohamed, a Sunni, ex-Peshmerga fighter from Khanaqin who claims his father taught him to use an AK-47 at the age of 8, treats me to Iraqi guss, a kebab sandwich of grilled beef and sliced tomatoes in samoona, a half moon-shaped bread.
It's around here that in 331BC, at the enormous Battle of Arbela, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king Darius III, leading to the fall of the vast Achaemenid Empire. Not that Mohamed knows or cares about any of this: he is too busy focused on rap music and "getting to America. That's my dream".
The two-lane road rises slowly across flat rolling plains that in a few months will be green fields.
"That road is the biggest danger you'll face," a British oil worker at the Erbil Rotana hotel had told me that morning at breakfast. "There's no air ambulance, so it will take them three hours to reach you and then three hours to get back." Then I remembered a friend telling me that Top Gear had filmed here for the programme's 2010 Christmas special: "Jeremy Clarkson is the BBC's cash cow. I don't think they'd risk him."
On the drive to Duhok, Mohamed, who works in the planning section of the tourism board, rails constantly about corruption, the violence he's seen, living under sanctions, the cost of living, the stupidity of war, Al Qaeda and how Iraqis in this part of the country are trying to move forward. Given the number of casualties of the 2003 US-British invasion and the chaos that followed elsewhere in the country - some NGOs have put the number of dead at more than a million - I'm not at all convinced that the cost of getting rid of Saddam Hussein was worth it. Yet this part of the country, which sits on 45 billion barrels of oil, is now booming, with businessmen pouring in from all over the world. Ironically, Iraqis from outside the Kurdish zone are now flocking here because it is so much safer.
Sulaf, a pleasant resort village in the wooded mountains 30km north-east of Duhok, and only 17km from the Turkish border, is crowded with Iraqi holidaymakers from Baghdad, Kerbala and Najaf. I experience some stares, but no hostility.
We then reach Amediya, a striking, 1,000-metre-high hilltop town dating back 5,000 years. The town has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times there are few ancient monuments to see, but it's still very much lived in, making the Badinan Gate, a pre-Islamic stone structure with some carved figures and inscriptions, perched on the side of the hill, all the more evocative. On our way back to Duhok we stop at Ashawa, a scenic spot in the Zawita valley with a dammed lake and lush riverbed. In one section, hundreds of Iraqis are gathered along a stream lined with restaurants, eating, bathing and smoking shisha to the sound of loud pop music. We have a delicious meal of chicken tikka and soup before heading back to Erbil.
Even though most of its parts are closed for renovation, the Erbil Citadel (free to enter) attracts around 7,000 visitors per month. That's one for every year of its existence. According to Unesco, it's the oldest continuously inhabited settlement on Earth and "one of the most dramatic and visually exciting cultural sites not only in the Middle East but the world".
The ongoing restoration project, started in 2008, has removed all but one family from the site, which was divided into three distinct areas.
The drama of it is undeniable: some 500 buildings, rebuilt countless times over the years, are clustered on top of a circular, 30m-high mound that dominates the centre of the city. The brick-built exterior walls vary in the authenticity of their appearance, thanks to wanton destruction and ad hoc renovation work. We visit the hammam of Qasim Agha Abdullah Agha, built in 1775, and the ruins of several grand houses, known as diwan khanas, featuring courtyards, columns and balconies overlooking the city and Shar Garden Square.
As the sun sets over the southern gate - tragically demolished in the 1950s and renovated in 1979, with a giant statue of the 12th-century historian Mubarak Ahmad Ibn Al Mustawfi - we wander down into the city. Notwithstanding the less-than-exciting exterior appearance of the souq, as we stand beside the citadel mound with the call to prayer echoing and the hawkers setting up their stalls, it feels a bit like a cross between the old cities of Damascus and Sana'a, though on a smaller scale.
We buy some crunchy, fresh dates and return to our hotel via Sami Abdel Rahman Park, a large, attractively landscaped area filled with people out for an evening walk. "This was an Iraqi Army training camp and detention centre under Saddam," says our guide in Erbil, Mustafa. "It was bulldozed after he went."
There is a monument to Kurdish resistance with a simple banner reading "Freedom is not free". We move on to Minaret Park, built around the ornate 12th-century Mudhafaria minaret, 36m high, and Mustafa points out several dozen stone busts of Kurdish martyrs, including the student Layla Qasim. "Saddam killed her," Mustafa adds bluntly as the new Erbil Telefrique, or cable car, moves slowly overhead.
Back at our hotel, the Erbil Rotana, one of just two five-star hotels in the city, is full of businessmen pitching construction ideas to a large trade fair. To get into it, we - and all our bags - are scanned by security guards. Although security in the city is tight, there is a rightful sense that complacency shouldn't become the norm. The hotel's rack rate is a hefty US$450 (Dh1,650) a night, though Maulawy Jabar Wahab, the head of the general board of tourism, hopes that "competition" will bring prices down. Currently, Hilton, Kempinski, Sheraton and Marriott properties are either planned or under construction.
Wahab says tourist numbers have risen sharply since 2007, although most visits come from elsewhere in Iraq. Most foreign visitors are travelling on business, but the Kurdistan regional government recorded more than 132,000 foreign tourist arrivals in 2009, a 150 per cent increase on 2007. "In 2007 we only had 106 hotels, now we have 412," says Wahab. "We hope that next year tourism will bring in $5billion [Dh18.3bn]."
Ironically, with regional turmoil stopping visits to counties such as Lebanon and Syria, and business continuing to boom, Wahab could well get his wish. The existence of new shopping malls and roads full of new cars - mostly white Hyundais but also Hummers, Bentleys and the odd Lamborghini - enhances the general sense of affluence.
Donna Osment, an American who visited her husband on business with their 17-year-old son over the summer and toured Erbil and Shaqlawa, said she found the history and culture "fascinating".
"There are no real tourist maps or brochures but there's so much to see and do. The food was awesome, shopping and driving were adventures and there was not a time when I felt unsafe."
Although the US State Department still advises against travel to the whole of Iraq, much lower security costs for businessmen make it a more viable base than elsewhere in the country. The UK's Foreign and Commonwealth office says "there are no restrictions in place against travel to the Kurdistan region, as the risk of terrorism is markedly lower than elsewhere in Iraq".
Kamyar Salavati, an Iranian architecture student on holiday with his sister and mother, was less effusive about the area as a tourist destination. "I guess Erbil is going to be a small Dubai but, right now, it hasn't much to offer. Maybe in eight or 10 years. The people are hospitable, but public transportation isn't that good, it is hot and there is a lot of dust in the air. There isn't much to see, only the Citadel, which wasn't very special in comparison to Iran or Turkey's architectural masterpieces."
When we visit the Pank Resort near Rawanduz the next day, it certainly seems like a long way to go for a small fairground in the mountains. The Rawanduz Gorge, however, is striking and I enjoy the drive, though I imagine it will be more scenic during winter, from November to April. The Suleymaniya-based travel company Kurdistan Adventures, which offers an eight-day guided tour, stresses the importance of a knowledgeable local guide. Shannon Skerrit, its managing director, adds: "We believe Iraqi Kurdistan has so much to offer the intrepid traveller - the region is practically unspoilt by mass tourism. The landscape is incredibly varied, with fertile valleys, stunning waterfalls, rolling green hills and snow-capped mountains."
For Stuart Butler, a co-author of the Lonely Planet guide to the Middle East, one of the region's main selling points is that it's new.
"For decades Iraq has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Most people would regard a visit to anywhere in Iraq as potentially suicidal. This might sometimes be the case for the rest of the country, but Iraqi Kurdistan is different. There's no doubting that actual physical tourist attractions are somewhat lacking, but right now Iraqi Kurdistan offers a rare chance to see nation building in progress."
As I sit down that evening to enjoy a fabulous dinner at the vast Dawa restaurant, next to the Erbil International Fair Ground, and later smoke shisha in the garden of an upmarket cafe called the Marina in Ankawa, it's hard to get over the fact that we're just 320km from Baghdad.
Leaving the next day from the new $400-million, state-of-the-art airport, it's heartbreaking to see that domestic flights listed on the departures board include UNHCR and Red Cross departures to Baghdad. Nowhere does the gulf between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country feel more real than now.
IF YOU GO??????? ?????
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Erbil from Dh3,060 return, including taxes.
Kurdistan Adventures (www.kurdistan-adventures.com) has an eight-day, fully escorted 'Highlights of Kurdistan' tour of Erbil, Lalish, Duhok, Sulav, Amadiya, Koya, Dukan, Suleymaniya, Ahmad Awa and Halabja from around US$3,000 (Dh11,000) per person, full board, including accommodation, transport, a guide and entrance fees