What do a corn farmer, long haul pilot, psychologist, humanitarian and ski bum have in common? Well we all figured out that is it possible to go skiing in Kurdistan Iraq and decided to go for it-despite all the warnings and skepticism, which in someway or another we all encountered.
When you use the words Kurdistan, Iraq and skiing in one sentence, it tends to bring out strong reactions in people.
And there are generally two different types of reactions:
- Is it safe/possible to travel to Kurdistan, Iraq?
- I had no idea that it’s even possible to ski in Kurdistan, Iraq. Are there mountains and snow there?
Kurdistan, because of its history, name and location, is not a very well known travel destination. Most people believe it to be a dangerous, hot, and dry, desert, that does not welcome foreigners or skiers, because it is in Iraq.
The majority of the information we (Americans) have received and associate with Iraq (especially over the past 20 years), has come from the media’s coverage of the war and the US’s military and political involvement.
So, it’s no wonder people were concerned and shocked when I told them I was going on a ski trip to Kurdistan.
We tend to forget/ignore/be generally unaware that the media (and any information we receive) is only part of the story. The media leaves out the information that does not serve and promote the narrative they are trying to cast. And, because this is where we have received most of our information about Iraq, this is all we know about it.
The image that most people have in their minds when they think of Iraq, is of Iraq proper (southern)– the part of the country that is primarily hot vast desert– a place ill suited for skiing. To be honest, I was in the same boat– skiing Kurdistan certainly wasn’t a lifetime dream holding a place on my bucket list. I hadn’t even thought about skiing in Iraq–until I started researching all the places where it is possible to ski around the world. However, I also wasn’t that surprised when I discovered it was an option.
You see, I grew up skiing in New Mexico– a place that most people also associate with vast, hot, dry deserts (not snow and skiing).
I’ve spent my entire life perfecting a series of questions that help break down the stereotype of New Mexican geography, and it goes something like this:
When I say Colorado, what do you think about and associate it with? People will generally respond pretty quickly with “mountains,” and then I ask them, “So what do you think happens at the border? Do the mountains just all of a sudden stop at the artificially made state line? No–they keep going down into New Mexico.”
I watch the light bulb go off in their heads and tell them they are not alone. Most people do not realize this geographic logic, and I don’t blame them. It is really easy and normal to stereotype places based on location and of course the information we are fed. The human brain, is after all, designed to compartmentalize and generalize in order to be more efficient.
However, this means we are unaware of variations in landscape and environment and, most of the time, all it takes is a little change in elevation or topography and you’ve arrived in a new climate.
That at least is the case with both where I grew up in New Mexico and Kurdistan, Iraq, which, also funnily enough, happens to be at the exact same latitude of 36.5 degrees.
Where we skied in Kurdistan is right on the border with Iran, a place more commonly associated with mountains than Iraq. The Zagros Mountains run from eastern Turkey through northern Iraq, into Iran to the Strait of Hormuz. Mt. Halgurd is the highest point in Iraq and goes up to 11,800 feet above sea level– high enough for it to snow throughout the entire winter.
Growing up in New Mexico demonstrated to me how big the gaps can be in common, collective knowledge about the world. It taught me how far a little bit of research or exploration can go to break down generalizations that in turn, can change your perspective on the world. This ranges from simple things like the geography and where it snows to things more complicated like the safety of a region.
Which brings me to the more common response I received from telling people I’m skiing in Kurdistan Iraq, “Are you crazy? Are you sure it’s safe there?”
Well, I might be a little crazy, but I wouldn’t travel anywhere there is actually a major safety risk. It just seems scary because we associate this entire region with war and instability, not realizing there is so much more to the story.
I, however, had a more neutral disposition about the area before I learned about this trip, because I actually knew very little about Kurdistan, Iraq and the current events in the surrounding areas.
You see, after graduating from a “progressive” liberal arts college 5 years ago, I decided to cut out the news and media. I had enough negativity and awful news jammed down my throat for a lifetime, and made an intentional, educated decision to cut it out of my life.
Everyone might not agree with this; they might say it’s selfish or privileged to stop paying attention to these current events and issues that don’t directly affect me. But, the reality is that most people don’t take action anyways, and are just more likely to end up feeling frustrated and hopeless.
By cutting out the news and media, I was not very well informed about the crisis and dangers afflicting the region, which was one of the reasons why I didn’t immediately turn the idea of traveling to Kurdistan down. When I stopped paying attention to the media, I stopped receiving the images and thoughts that would normally have conditioned me to be afraid. As a result, instead of feeling fear when presented with this awesome opportunity to ski in Kurdistan, I was just curious.
I was really excited to find an organized ski trip to a place not many people think about traveling to, let alone traveling to go skiing. I wanted to go on this trip to learn about who the Kurdish people are, taste what they eat, see the landscape with my own eyes and of course most importantly, I wanted to experience what the skiing was like.
Don’t get me wrong, when I stumbled upon this amazing opportunity, my initial reaction definitely elicited a bit of apprehension. But, after just a small amount of research, I found data that Kurdistan is actually a safe place to travel, unlike the the rest of Iraq.
I learned that Kurdistan is a mostly autonomous region in the northern part of Iraq. And, as a traveler, one treats Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq as two completely different places. Kurdistan has its own government, visa requirements (just a quick stamp upon arrival for US citizens), culture and landscape.
In Kurdistan, the majority of people are Kurdish, (which I learned on my trip is a hard thing to define). But, in a nutshell, it means they speak their own language (Kurdish), eat Kurdish food, wear Kurdish clothing, dance to Kurdish music and have that famous welcoming Kurdish hospitality.
In Iraq proper, the culture is mostly Arab, and is where most of the news about Iraq comes from. And, there is a big difference in the safety risks between the regions. For instance, the last terrorist attack in Kurdistan was in 2014 and there has not been a foreigner killed there since 2003. Which, can not be said about Paris or London- places that people don’t think twice about visiting.
In this life – basically everything we do is a risk. And, there is always a chance for accidents and things to go wrong. The chance of something going wrong varies from activity to activity and I’m sure some mathematical genius could try and figure out the numbers and tell you what actually has a bigger risk factor. But, most of the time, we don’t have a statistical analysis to help us make a decision– life is too complicated, which is why we have a built in a system to assess and manage risks, which, is not always 100% accurate. It’s called fear. And, the amount of fear one feels is based on how we perceive the risk. And, how we perceive the risk, is based on our past experiences and knowledge. It’s about our reaction and response rather than a real statistical analysis of the danger.
This is why what’s scary to one person, may be fun for another. Going to Kurdistan was an exciting adventure I was looking forward to, not something that made me fear for my life like others around me did.
For instance, I have friends who do things on their skis and snowboards that I find extremely risky. Like jumping off massive cliffs, sliding over zig zagged rails or not wearing helmets. Which, is why I thought it rather comical and maybe a bit absurd when these same friends asked me to be careful on my trip and expressed how glad they were when I made it home safe. I guess they must feel the same way about traveling to Kurdistan as I do about jumping off cliffs.
Another example of this risk paradox became apparent to me after driving to Bozeman twice a week this entire winter for physical therapy. The drive includes 40 miles through a windy river canyon that is always packed with truckers and tourist drivers going 60/mph, with a side of wild animals, and icy/ snowy conditions. Talk about a high statistical danger. But, most people (including myself) just hop in our cars, turn on the music and head where we need to go without a second thought.
If I had listened to the culture of fear perpetuated by the media surrounding traveling to Iraq, I would never have experienced the part of the narrative that is left out of the mainstream news.
I learned more in the ten days in Kurdistan than I would have from reading a newspaper and watching TV. Besides skiing, I got to eat bread from a place that has been making it for over 10,000 years, watch the sunset over the Mosul dam from a monastery built in the 7th century, have lunch with the Peshmerga, and get my haircut with young ladies living in refugee camps. And, I didn’t end up just learning about the skiing and culture–I learned about what has been happening in the past years and what life is like for Kurdish people. I even learned about some politics. And the thing is, I probably would have never learned any of this, if I wasn’t so passionate about skiing.
When I graduated college and turned off the mainstream media and began focusing on skiing, I was taking a leap of faith. I was hoping that skiing would give me a better and more fulfilling life then the one filled with negativity. There was part of me that felt guilty and selfish about turning my back on so much of the world and its issues that my peers were working so hard to solve. But, ultimately, I knew this was the right decision. I knew with all my being that skiing would lead me in the right direction. And it has. My love of skiing inspired me to start this blog, and go on this trip, which, in turn, has taught me (and hopefully others reading this post) about some of the things I’ve been missing out on when I turned off the news 5 years ago.
And that’s why skiing is the answer.
Korek Mountain Resort
A 3.7Km cable car gondola , takes you up to 1,690m (5,544ft) to the “skiing”. At the top there are two magic carpets, a small shop to rent skis and a restaurant. The resort is more popular in the summer, when the locals seek out the cooler mountain air. Most locals have never skied.
When we arrived it was raining and we were the only skiers there. And the lifty would not turn on the magic carpet for us…so we walked up the carpet.
Closed Rental Shop-through the window
Iraq Ski Rally
Mt. Halgurd is the highest peak fully in Iraq standing at 3,706 m (11,834ft). We never got a good glimpse of the peak( due to clouds), but we did skin up the road, approaching the summit.
Along side the road, there are signs and a map showing the locations of the land mines that are left over from the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980’s.
We stayed in Choman, a town in the Northeast, close to the border with Iran.
Maybe first ever Snowboarder in Kurdistan ?
Lunch with the Peshmerga
I was asked to take a lot of selfies…
Akre was built by a Kurdish prince in 580 B.C. It is one of the few towns in Kurdistan that remained intact after Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Lalish, the holiest Yazidi Temple
Yazidism is an ancient monotheistic religion that integrates ideology from a few different faiths , including Islamic and Zoroastrianism ( an ancient Persian religion) and Mithraism. The majority of the worlds Yazidis live in northwest Iraq and the surrounding area, and have been there for centuries. They are a minority that has been persecuted throughout their existence, most recently by ISIS.
Lalish is the holiest Yazidi temple in the world and Yazidi’s from all over the world go on pilgrimages there to drink the holy water. Followers of the religion believe this is where Noah’s ark docked after the flood.
The cone shape of the temples represents the rays of the sun shining down on earth.
We walked around the temple, which is open to curious visitors of any faith. Just remember to take your shoes off and step over the doorways.
Rabban Hormizd Monastery Built in 640 AD
Erbil is the capitol and largest city of Kurdistan. It is also one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world, dating back to at least 6,000B.C.
Market In Erbil
Apre beverage of choice : Chai
Bread! Served with every meal.