Monday, July 24, 2006

Driving Through Arbil Province (II)

Note: I've been trying to upload the pictures from this part of the trip, but the internet connection in my trailer is preventing me from doing so. Check back in a few days, and hopefully I'll have them posted.

Back to Kurdistan.

After lunch, we drove to Jundyon(sp?), which roughly translates as the "Magic Spring." The convoy stopped at a small park where hundreds of Kurdish families occupied shaded tents by the spring, listening to live music. As we waled uphill toward the source of the stream, the Kurds burst into spontaneous applause as Barzani passes. At the top of the hill we come to the point where the spring suddenly emerges from the side of the mountain. Our party sits for water and fruit in a small cafe that is built into the rocks and open on two sides. We sit below a thatched roof with a pink cloth below that gives the cafe a pinkish glow in the afternoon sun. Water from the spring has been diverted through the tent so that it flows over the cobblestone floor. And of course, we were surrounded by a platoon of Pesh Merga and KDP bodyguards facing outwards toward the crowd.

Our next destination was to the top of a cliff overlooking a gorge known as "The Valley of Death," the site of a famous battle between the Ottomans and the Russians in 1877. Behind us a 450 unit housing complex was under construction. The developer, a Swedish Kurd whose name I miss, sees our motorcade and the VIPs, and bounds over the approach Ambassador Khalilzad about investing. As we leave the complex, we pass what appears to be a go-cart track in the middle of nowhere, although the carts on train tracks rather than loose.

After some more driving, the convoy suddenly stops at the bottom of a valley for no apparent reason. I get out of the vehicle and instinctively begin to follow the flow of the crowd. I don't see any other Americans around, and for the first time I am out amongst Iraqis without a sheet of armor between me and them. It feels oddly liberating. I follow the crowd through a covered market filled with stands peddling disposable cameras, children's clothes, hats, shoes, and ice cream. KDP security spots me and ushers me to our destination, a small cafe at the base of a waterfall that emerges out of the middle of the mountainside. This is "Bekhal," a famous Kurdish Kurdish landmark, apparently. Surrounding the cafe is a crowd of about 500 Kurds, who stand and watch Barzani, Ambassador Khalilzad, and Allawi sit and take in the scenery. Once again, the tables have been stocked in advance with bottled water and plates of cherries, nectarines, and plums.

When the VIPs stand up to leave, the crowd bursts into applause and begins chanting "Baba, Baba, Baba" (father) for Barzani. I've commented before that travelling with Ambassador Khalilzad is like being in a rock star's entourage, given the way he is mobbed by Iraqis wherever we go. But this is nothing compared to the adulation that Barzani receives from the Kurds whom he led to freedom.

As we walk on a bridge that crossesover the rapids, I'm hit by a blast of the coolest, freshest air I've felt since arriving in Iraq.

I'll conclude with some random observations made on the final drive from Bekhal to Doure:
- We loop around and follow the smae stream we saw before lunch. There are more than 100 stalls for families to rents and have picnics by the water on the opposite shore. Across the road are food stands and roadside cafes.
- I never figure out what they are, but as we go along I begin seeing more straw huts with a single pipe in the center of the roof.
- Everywhere we drive, there are numerous cows grazing or even walking by the side of the road with no apparent owners, as if they were just commuting.
- Halfway up one mountainside, nowhere near a village, we pass three little girls (ages 5-8) sitting atop a concrete barrier by the side of the road. They are adorable, albeit somewhat randomly placed.
- In sum, we spent roughly eight hours in that SUV. The whole time, the driver played Kurdish CDs, which to be honest, wasn't that bad. Although I couldn't understand a word that was sung, I could tell differences between different styles of music, including Kurdish jazz, traditional tunes, and something approaching Kurdish funk/hip hop.