"Akre" `Aqrah by maykal
`Aqrah Travel Guide: 10 reviews and 24 photos
Akre was the highlight of my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, although it didn't seem that way at first. I waited three hours for a taxi to fill in Erbil, and after three hours there were still only two passengers: me, and a young guy who decided that I should not only pay for the remaining seats but for his as well! True, I could probably have just about afforded it, but that's not the point...his attitude was horrible, so I made him wait. He decided to stay in Erbil, so I came to an agreement with the taxi driver who was heading to Akre with or without passengers, and off we sped.
A couple of hours later, we trundled into Akre, a very spread out settlement, almost a collection of roadside villages with no real mountain scenery anywhere in sight. This was not the Akre I was expecting. For ages after being welcomed into Akre by the sign, we passed half-built supermarkets and shops, grand government buildings and concrete shells of unfinished apartment blocks. Gradually the scenery improved as we neared what I was told was the centre, a roundabout with a couple of cafes and a taxi office at the top of a small hill.
Are there any hotels here? No, replied the driver. You'll have to go back to new Akre, he said, waving in the general direction of where we'd just come from. A trek down a hill and up another, followed by a mile or two along a dull highway. Could he take me? Cheeks puffed out as he sighed. OK. Fifteen minutes later we pulle dup outside a modernish building that looked as if it had been shut for some time. I asked if the driver was sure this was the only hotel in town. Yes, yes, this is it, I go now. Oh, thanks, leave me here outside a derelict hotel in the middle of nowhere, thanks a lot.
A nearby shopowner spotted me and pointed me down the road to a supermarket, where apparently another hotel lurked upstairs. Approaching the supermarket, I saw a hotel sign on the far side of the building. A teenager with greasy hair sat on the steps smoking and watching me walk right past him. i got to the door, and he decided to grunt at me. What did I want? I asked if this hotel was open. Why? Ummm...isn't that obvious, I'm a foreigner with a big bag on my back asking after a hotel. I made to enter the hotel, and he grunted again. I asked if there was a problem. uffff, yes, he said, there's nobody inside. OK, so where is the owner? He rolled his eyes, tutted and grunted again. What? Oh, you mean you're the hotel owner? Right, do you have a room? Yes. How much is it? 40. Can I see a room then? He answered with a hand gesture that could have meant anything from "go away" to "stop bothering me", but pushing for a verbal response, I was told I could go up myself and have a look round. He'd just sit there on the steps perfecting his menacing-look, which really did need some perfecting to be honest.
I pushed the door open, waded through a dozen inflatable toys inexplicably filling the corridor, and climbed the stairs in darkness. All the rooms were open, but not all were in a state of habitation, with furniture scattered around as if there'd been a break-in. I checked two or three rooms, before I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Oi, not those rooms! The owner had reluctantly dragged himself upstairs and turned the lights on for me, so I could really get a taste of how bad the hotel was. How thoughtful.
He showed me a room at the back which smelt heavily of tobacco, but was just about passable. the bathroom door hung off its hinges, a dead beetle lay on its back on the bedside table, and an ashtray spilled over onto the floor. Surly greasy owner decided at that point to be almost friendly, and dropped the price to 35, still overpriced for this gloomy hovel, but faced with no other option I agreed to stay.
Hotel found and bags dumped, I set off to explore, there being a good six hours or so before sunset. I reached the taxi station after about 20 minutes, and kept climbing along an increasingly busier street. Still no old buildings, no mountains like in the pictures I'd seen. Where the hell was old Akre? The road got steeper and narrower, and with a mountain appearing around a corner, things began to look up.
That's when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Security police, come with me please. Damn. A apologetic-looking young soldier flashed his ID and led me to the security headquarters over the road. We entered a small room where the officer in charge was having a quick cat-nap on a bed. He seemed very confused being woken up and presented with a real life foreigner to deal with, not something he did with any frequency judging by the questions. What are you doing here? Where are you from? Where did you learn Arabic, Egypt? Syria? Syria. What were you doing in Syria? Studying. He looked at me suspiciously. Studying what? Arabic. Hmmm...this requred opening a notebook and making notes. When were you in Syria? I considered asking what the point in knowing that information was, but stuck to the script. 2000. And after that? Sudan. Why? Work. He started to translate this info into Kurdish for the half a dozen soldiers who had drifted in to have a look at me, each one repeating Syria and Sudan and nodding as if it was all relevant. What next? umm...you want my CV? Yes, what next? Turkey, for study. And then? And then.....I decided to embellish my Cv with all manner of unlikely sounding jobs. Cake maker in Budapest, goat herder in Liverpool, candlestick polisher in Mumbai. All these fantasy jobs were noted in the ledger, but that wasn't enough. He needed to call someone higher in command, and I had to sit there trying not to smirk as he dutifully related every snippet of info I'd given him. The voice on the other end of the phone obviously wasn't happy with that and decided to ask me some proper questions. Where was I staying in Akre? How long for? Reason? Camera?
Ohhhh, camera, you have a camera? Yes. You take photos in Akre? Not yet. In Erbil? Yes. I had to show him a few photos of the Erbil fountains to satisfy his curiosity. Video? No. OK, make the camera work. What? Make it work. I decided, somewhat riskily, to interpret this as he wanted me to take his photo. I did so, and the flash caught him and everyone else by surprise. No no! No photo! Delete! Some of the soldiers began to snigger. Tourist in Akre? Yes. OK, you go now. I can go? I can walk around Akre, no problems? Yes, welcome in Kurdistan! Oh.
So you can see, my arrival in Akre was not the best. But leaving the security police station, I rounded a corner and old Akre spread in front of me. Old multi-coloured houses on top of each other on the slopes of a tall mountain that had somehow managed to stay well hidden up until that point. A stream of veiled women were heading into a narrow alley, so I followed and found myself in Akre's tiny covered bazaar. Passing a teahouse, I surprised a group of old men who dragged me inside to drink some tea and chat.
Shakir was from Mosul, escaping north with his family due to the troubles. He'd seen foreigners before, but had never spoken to any, up until that day. After tea, he decided he wanted to show me the highlights of Akre, and we dived into the alleyways and stairwells of the old town. First stop was the old mosque, with a fountain by the door gushing into the street. I was told to drink from the fountain to bring me luck, then we marched over to the other side of the valley for some amazing views of the town. He told me about the mountain above the city, which is apparently an ancient Jewish holy site, nowadays a popular place for picnics and traditional dancing. On Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, the mountain attracts thousands who come to jump over fire and watch fireworks in the biggest celebration in Kurdistan.
Shakir was in his 60s, and although he hopped up the stairways like a mountain goat, our walk was clearly tiring him out, so we parted company and I decided to climb the mountain. But first I had to find a way through the maze of steps and alleys. Some kids walking home from school "adopted" me, and I soon found myself at an old monastery at the very top of the town. Steps led up the mountain behind me, so even though I was already quite tired, I kept going. Views from the path were stunning, down onto the rooftops, either brown from mudbricks or blue from plastic sheeting. At the top, just as shakir had said, a party was in full swing, with girls and boys hand in hand dancing round in circles to the beat of a drum.
Without warning, a cloud engulfed us, bringing with it a howling gale. Wind threw up dust and litter, and within minutes the town below disappeared from view. Oh dear. I headed back down the rickety steps, trying to avoid being blown off at corners, and made it down to the bazaar for another tea invitation. Suddenly a voice from across the Atlantic stopped me in my tracks. "Hey man, what you doin here?". Azad was from Canada, back visiting family in Akre, and was shocked to see a tourist in his city. "We don't get many here," he said with a laugh. He took my number, promising to call me that night to invite me to his aunt's house for dinner...but stupidly I forgot to give the dialling code for my mobile, so I never got to taste the home-cooked Kurdish food he'd promised me.
Walking back to the hotel at night, I had another tea invitation, and a grocer refused to charge me for my apples and water. On the last hill up to the hotel, a car stopped and a guy ran across two lanes of traffic to see me. It was the guy who'd asked me for directions to the bookfair in Erbil the previous week! "You came to my city! Akre, it is good?"
Yes. Akre, it is very good.
Although Akre is very much a Muslim town now, with a not very visible Christian minority, it once had a sizeable Jewish... more travel advice
At the top of old Akre, the houses start to look older...this was the original village before it exploded downwards.... more travel advice
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