x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Now that violence has ebbed, take a satisfying trip to Kurdish Iraq

Ask the Expert The two main sights are Erbil and Halabja, which offer two very different experiences.

Now that the Kurdish part of Iraq is settling down, I'm thinking of going on holiday there. What is there to see? Are there any sights that are truly unmissable?

While it's true that Iraqi Kurdistan escaped the anarchy and bloodshed that afflicted the southern part of the country, not all the region is safe and the southern town of Kirkuk, administered separately, is still best avoided. But much of the rest of it is worth visiting. The two main sights are Erbil and Halabja, which offer two very different experiences.

Erbil is based around a steep-sided and thus defensively advantageous plateau, which explains why people have lived here for at least 8,000 years and it vies for the title of the longest continually inhabited city in the world. An old citadel sits atop the 10-hectare plateau and is being renovated, while at the base is the atmospheric 13th-century Qaysari Bazaar. The town is undergoing a boom as investors build malls, offices and hotels.

The other destination considered to be unmissable is Halabja, also known as the Kurdish Hiroshima because this is the town which in 1988 the then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered be bombed with a cocktail of chemical weapons - Tabun, Sarin, VX and mustard gas. The attack was to punish an uprising by the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, during the final months of the Iran-Iraq war. About 5,000 died immediately, 7,000 were seriously affected and the town emptied overnight, with many fleeing over the mountains into nearby Iran.

The Halabja Memorial, opened in 2003, acts as a museum to commemorate these events and some of the guides are survivors of the attack. It is a very sobering experience. Also dotted around the town are several mass graves where the victims were buried. Halabja recovered and is now a busy market town.

In 2006, a group of locals attacked the memorial to protest against what they claimed was the Kurdish leadership capitalising of the tragedy without improving the living conditions of those who survived and repopulated the town.

Infrastructure in the region is slowly rebuilding after decades of neglect, and travel between towns requires frequent stops at checkpoints where soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs check the documents of passersby.

The mountains nearby make for pleasant hiking but pay attention to your navigation: this is the area in which three American hikers wandered into Iranian territory in July 2009 and were arrested on charges of spying. All three have now been released but spent up to 26 months in Tehran jails.

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