I'd hoped to do a short day trip out East from Diyana but there was no transport to be shared and I didnt fancy shelling out just for the sake of it. You can however take a Coaster from here direct to Arbil and I was tempted. The attraction of the trip to Choman and the Haji Umran border post was simply the road itself, built by a Kiwi named Hamilton during the 1920s and supposedly an engineering marvel passing through stunning scenery. After a bit of a wait though I paid 10,000 and was heading in the other direction to Shaqlawah, a resort town half way towards Arbil. Straight from Diyana I entered the Gully Ali Beg, another spectacular gorge with a river, waterfalls and intense switchback rises which ended at an unexpected sizeable town I later learned was called Khalifan. The soldiers at the checkpoint were mystified to find a Brit in the taxi but let me go without too much delay. It did cross my mind however that I was in a taxi in Iraq with four guys dressed in army like fatigues I didnt know, they could be anyone or anything. For all I knew I could now be on an extended trip all the way to Baghdad, they just hadnt told me yet. The mountains opened out to big sky country, then descended abruptly in a large series of switchbacks into noticeably more desertified terrain, the first sign of the open Iraqi plain. There was just one more ridge to climb before Shaqlawah appeared on the other side, a small resort town with 3 hotels and a chalet complex which together appeared to be larger than the town itself! The hotels looked expensive and with hardly anywhere open and nothing obvious to detain me I decided to move on against expectation. An attendant Coaster was quicker to fill up than the taxis so I jumped on the bus and paid 3000 to Arbil. We got stopped at 2 army checkpoints where everyone had to get off the bus to be searched. A select few were singled out to be frisked, no surprise that I was one of them.
At a bit of a loss upon arrival I spotted the Citadel peeping through the streets and headed in its general direction in search of a hotel. They were thin on the ground and more salubrious than I really cared for, I eventually plumped for an unfriendly overpriced 2 star joint where I had the good fortune to have Ishmael walk in just at the back of me. Ishmael was a rotund jolly guy, a lawyer who was Kurdish but had lived in the States for 25 years and so felt more Western than local. For economies sake we agreed to share a room and so while he went out to visit relatives he hadnt seen in all those years, I for once found some touristy things to do with a walk out to the bazaar and back via the Citadel. It was quite impressive from the exterior and the ramp leading up to the entrance was guarded by a very large statue of perhaps one of the ancient kings and a gaggle of soldiers. One of them chased after me to check my ID but was even more apologetic than I was, they obviously didnt get too many tourists. It was quite a thought that Mosul and Kirkuk lay only 50 miles away in either direction, full of guys who would quite happily take me hostage or slot me on sight. After another long walk in search of beer I bizzarely came across a sign for Absolut Vodka, if that was all they had I'd be perfectly happy, but I got my statutory tins of Efes eventually. The night was rounded off with a bedtime blether with Ishmael regarding the problems down south, and I got some interesting insights not generally promulgated in the press. A major one was the increasing presence of Iranian "gangsters" in Iraq who were now taking advantage of the power vaccuum, doubtless with the covert support of the Iranian regime. Considered a tad more sophisticated than the Arabs, it was an explanation for why we were starting to see Shia v Shia fighting and thus a full blown civil war.