Shang Hai Restaurant, Sulamainiyah, Iraq

A Chinese Bar, Shisha & Sexy, Sexy In Iraq

Derek Iraq, Travel Tales, Videos 63 Comments

Shang Hai Restaurant, Sulamainiyah, IraqUpon arrival in the southern Kurdistan city of Sulamainiyah, Anil and I instantly found ourselves giddy with joy upon discovering two Chinese restaurants in the vicinity of our hotel. After all, up until that point, the only food we’d eaten were chicken and falafel sandwiches, not because of an abnormal love for such food, but because that was all we could find in other parts of the region.

So as soon as evening approached and our hunger grew, we eagerly wandered over to the larger of the two Chinese restaurants we’d seen and prepared ourselves for a much needed feast of yummy Asian cuisine.

Of course, had we taken a few minutes to properly think this plan through, we might have paused before deciding to enter this second floor restaurant. Truthfully, the sign out front prohibiting us from entering the establishment with any guns or knives should have acted as a clear indication that this was not your typical “lo mein-fortune cookie-free green tea” type of Chinese eatery.

Shang Hai Restaurant, Sulamainiyah, Iraq

And I’m not sure about your friendly neighborhood Chinese restaurants, but the ones I frequented when I was younger and living in the United States, did not require me to be thoroughly frisked by a large, leather jacket-clad man upon walking through the door. Luckily, Anil and I had both decided at the last minute to leave our AK-47s and machetes in our hotel room and so we both passed the security check, after which we wandered over to a table near the windows.

And as we sat down, the first thing that we noticed, as if this shouldn’t have occurred to us before, was that the Great Shang Hai Chinese Restaurant was one seedy establishment. Not only were we the only customers, but it was eerily dark inside, with only flashing fairy lights on the walls, which created an atmosphere that more closely resembled a brothel in the backstreets of Mumbai (from what I’ve seen in films of course).

Regardless of our observations, we were willing to put this sketchiness aside and concentrate on satisfying our hunger with some Chinese food.

But when the waitress, a young Chinese woman, approached our table, we were quite surprised to find ourselves in the midst of a conversation that went something like this:

Waitress: She says something in Kurdish
Us: We stare blankly at her

Waitress: “Kurdish?”
Us: “English?”

Waitress: “You live here?”
Us: “No. We travel here.”

Waitress: “What do you want?”
Us: “Food. Can we see a menu?”

Waitress: “Food?” (with an incredulous look on her face)
Us: “Yes, food.”

Waitress: “Chinese food?”
Us: “Um…yes, Chinese food.”

Waitress: “Kurdish food?”
Us: “Chinese food?”

Waitress: “Chinese food?”
Us: “Yes, Chinese food.”

She then walked away and returned with a menu, although given her reaction above and the dusty state of the menu, it was quite clear that this Chinese restaurant was not exactly accustomed to serving Chinese food. In fact, we might very well have been the first people to ever request a menu.

And when we did read through the menu, the expensive prices listed next to each item finally forced us to change our minds about sampling the local Chinese cuisine.

However, at this point, we were quite fascinated by our surroundings and wanted to learn more about what was going on in this joint and so we handed the menu back to the waitress and ordered drinks instead. We figured one drink would be reasonable before taking off once again in search of some food.

Shang Hai Restaurant, Sulamainiyah, Iraq

Little did we know that the beer Anil ordered would be of the “abnormally large can” variety nor that when I asked for a “whiskey”, I was ordering an actual bottle (albeit a small one) of the stuff and not just one glass. As a result, one quick drink turned into a 2.5 hour session as we sat there in the Great Shang Hai watching the place fill up with other men who also ordered nothing but drinks. And the entire time, Anil and I debated back and forth as we tried to make sense of what was really happening in this peculiar place.

It could have very well just been a bar, but after watching some of the patrons slip wads of Iraqi Dinars into the hands of one of the waitresses and then proceed to beg the bartender to allow the waitress to sit at their table with them (such requests were always refused), I began to think otherwise.

Here’s a short video to give you a better idea of the fascinating restaurant that is the Great Shang Hai:


Somewhat reluctantly, after finishing our drinks (yes, I finished the bottle of whiskey and Anil finished off two large beers), we decided to leave due to the fact that we were now beyond hungry at this point.

And when our bill arrived, it was remarkably cheap, perhaps an indication that this wasn’t a brothel or underworld hangout after all. Usually at such places (again, so I’ve heard), you can’t drink the amount we did for a mere 10,000 Iraqi Dinars ($8.50 USD).

GIVE ME SOME FOOD!

Ten minutes after leaving the Great Shang Hai, we stumbled into a restaurant called “Pizza Plus”, which we were not surprised to discover actually specialized in sandwiches. Although, my eyes did nearly bulge out of their sockets and drool did begin to drip from my mouth upon noticing an assortment of fresh salads as well.

But naturally, since this was Iraq, not even a simple meal of sandwiches and salad could take place without something interesting happening. This time it was the man behind the counter who served us the food, a young Kurdish fellow who informed us that he now lives in Norway. And upon hearing that this young chap lives in Norway, we then asked him why he was back in Kurdistan.

His answer was quick and to the point, although somewhat confusing: “I come back to Kurdistan for money and sexy, sexy!”

Enough said. We sat down at our table and shoveled our food into our mouths in silence.

THE FINAL STOP OF THE NIGHT

Shisha Cafe, Sulamainiyah, Iraq

With bellies full, and the night still young, Anil and I decided to pay a visit to what appeared to be the most popular night time hangout in all of Sulaimainiyah – the Shawany Maliek Cafeteria.

We stumbled inside this crowded, two-level shisha cafe and grabbed two large, comfortable chairs in the corner. And before long, there we sat, taking turns blowing smoke high into the air as we shook our heads in disbelief at the day’s events. (The day began with our encounter with the US Marine who was shocked by our presence in the region.)

In the end, we sat in this cafe for over three hours, simply too content to move.

Shisha Cafe, Sulamainiyah, Iraq

When we finally walked back to the hotel just before midnight, both Anil and I were in agreement that this day ranked quite high in terms of memorable travel days we’d each experienced. And perhaps that’s hard to believe, as I don’t know, maybe it sounds like an unexciting or even dumb story when read here.

So if that’s the case, then I guess next time you’ll just have to join me and experience it for yourself, which you’ll actually have an opportunity to do once I announce, within the next few weeks, the new project I’m working on 🙂

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Comments 63

  1. Pingback: Travel to Northern Iraq – Episode 293 | The Amateur Traveler Travel Podcast - best places to travel

  2. Diary

    Its not your fault its the local authorities fault for sure, they don’t have experience of hosting tourists there must be a guide book for tourists showing them places.. there are many things needs to be done, but you know a country after a war needs to be built again and needs time.

  3. Diary

    Hahaha Earl boy you’re funny! and that restaurant haha ya, I know it, I even don’n know why they named it a restaurant!! its every thing but not a restaurant. Let me tell you what it exactly is. I’m very sure you went there before 8:00 pm in local time, well I can say its a bar and after 8:00 pm they turn it to a small party they bring singers especially female Arab singers that they sing and shake for the drunk men there!! and if you pay her she’ll sit with you for a while and you can watch her partly naked body! Its a strange place actually. And when I first went there I surprised that a big fat man with an angry face wanted to check me!! I bet its the only (Restaurant) in the sity which you’ll be checked haha! And by the way guys if you don’t like chickens, meat falafels, potatoes shawrma rice, so what you really eat in those western countries?!! with my bet regards 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Diary – That’s too funny, I can’t believe you know that restaurant! My friend and I were looking forward to some Chinese food so we were so surprised when we went inside. And you’re right, it was before 8:00am, so we didn’t see any of the singing or dancing! But that does make perfect sense now.

      And I do eat chicken, falafel and shawarma rice, but for some reason, we had trouble finding many restaurants while we were there. I guess we were looking in the wrong places. Next time I’ll make sure I find more places to eat!

  4. Pingback: How Much It Costs To Travel In Iraqi Kurdistan | Wandering Earl

  5. Pingback: A Digital Pocket Guide On Visiting Northern Iraq: Part 1 | foXnoMad

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  7. Odysseus

    You know what, Earl? I also have trouble in identifying seedy places — like when I was in Susukino, I ended up asking a pimp for directions. He was very polite — politeness seems to be a national pastime for the Japanese people, including those who work in the sex industry — and he even, very reluctantly, led me to the ramen shop I was pestering him about. It took me a long while to figure out where the “something’s not right” feeling I had stemmed from. When I passed by the same street corner again, after eating the ramen — that’s when I finally honed in on the, umm, transactions taking place in the area.

    1. Earl

      Hey Odysseus – Nothing like being led to a noodle shop by a pimp! That’s funny stuff. I think the reason I often fail to notice seedy or strange situations is because I’m not bothered by them at all. I don’t want to avoid these situations as in the end, they are all a part of the adventure (as long as I don’t put my life in any real danger)!

  8. Siddhartha Joshi

    It would be quite a dream to visit Kurdistan…let me see if I can ever make it there!

    But if I ever do, I shall certainly visit the Great Shang Hai Chinese Restaurant 🙂 You have immortalized the place here for generations to come 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Siddhartha – I think I’ll forever remain curious about what he was talking about. If you ever make it over there and find out, please do let us know!

  9. AdventureRob

    Great to see you’re enjoying Iraq. Last night I watched the latest top gear episode where they go to Iraq and although initially starting out with bullet proof jackets and helmets, they ditched them and really enjoyed the place – the scenery looked spectacular too outside the cities.

    1. Earl

      Hey Rob – I’m not at all surprised that they ditched the bullet proof jackets. It took Anil and I about ten minutes to realize that almost every fear we had about visiting the region was not at all warranted. And the scenery of northern Kurdistan, right along the Iranian and Turkish borders, is more spectacular than I could ever describe. Well worth a visit if you’re into this sort of adventure!

    1. Earl

      Hey Dina – Anil and I didn’t want to find out for ourselves, so I guess you’ll have to travel there and and track him down to find out!

    1. Earl

      Hey Matt – It turns out you have to check your guns at the door of many buildings in the region so in the end we just figured it wasn’t worth carrying them around all the time 🙂

    1. Earl

      @joshywashington: Absolutely! I personally prefer to be thrown into situations where I am at first clueless as much as possible!

      Have a great New Year!

  10. Forest

    Hey Earl, that is hilarious….. Those places are all over Cairo (although not normally hidden as Chinese Restaurants). Cheap doesn’t mean it isn’t a pickup joint as I have accidentally had to deal with refusing the service of the women before and slipping out.

    We have a pizza plus here too, not sure if it is the same company.

    Looking forward to the new project. Are you having a web cam inserted into your head and having it on Live 24/7 stream?

  11. youngandthrifty

    What an adventurous night (and and exciting read!)

    That Shang Hai place definitely looked kind of seedy, but cheap alcohol is definitely a compensating factor.

    I love how when you travel, you don’t really know what to expect next- this “go with the flow” travel is the “heart” of real travel 🙂

    1. Earl

      @youngandthrifty: I’m quite drawn to the ‘go with the flow’ method of travel for that very reason as well. I love not knowing what’s going to happen each day or even in the next minute! When I have a tight itinerary to follow, it’s too easy to miss out on such rewarding and unplanned moments…

      Have a Happy New Year!

  12. T-roy

    You know as many Arabs i talked with in the Middle East (all men for the most part) they all said the same thing when it came to women in the Middle East… Iraq women are sexy sluts! lol I thought that was funny but this Egyptian guy one time pointed to a music video and said he was almost 75% sure that the girls dancing in it were Iraqi, if not they were from Lebanon. This was confirmed several times later anytime i would see ME Music Video playing and would ask “Hey where you think those ladies are from because thats not normal for Middle Eastern girls, right?” 9/10 the guy would just say “Iraq whores!” and roll his eyes! jajaja

    So no telling where you were that night… but it just might have been a brothel or a Middle Eastern version of it! I think sometimes the local guys go just to watch the waitresses or something. Kind like their version of a strip club because the ladies aren’t all covered up! hahaha

    1. Earl

      Hey T-roy – Actually, that is what I started to think as well. I have a feeling that the men simply go there to look at the women, even though they were wearing jeans and other normal western clothes. There was nothing revealing about them at all but it didn’t seem to matter…

  13. Theodora

    At some point, I’m going to do a blog post about brothels and their code names around the world. As China exports a lot of young women into exploitation around the world, it could be that Chinese restaurant is Kurdish code for hostess bar-cum-brothel, as karaoke bar or reflexology in several SE Asian cultures…

    The fact that the women were Chinese and the men were offering money suggests that this is, essentially, a brothel, rather than, say, an illegal shebeen. In many Islamic countries, anywhere that functions as a bar/nightclub also offers sex.

    1. Earl

      Hey Theodora – The strange thing is that this town, Sulamainiyah, actually has a large Chinese population. There are Chinese businesses everywhere, with plenty of Chinese men and women living and working in this town. And while the men were handing money to the women, the women were clearly in charge of this restaurant. We saw plenty of men arrive, drink and then leave and nothing else ever happened, so I still have doubts that it was a brothel in the end! But I guess I’ll never know…until I visit again and try and learn some more 🙂

  14. Ali

    I’m really enjoying the Iraq stories, definitely not boring to read. You write in such a way that I canreally picture what you’re describing & it does sound funny. The Chinese restaurant sounded baffling, totally cracked me up.

    1. Earl

      Hey Ali – Baffling would be a great way to describe that restaurant. And even after spending a couple of hours there, I’m still as baffled as anyone else who hears the story 🙂

  15. Ozzy

    Wow. Sounds like a good time all in all. Though the security check point to get into the restaurant should have tipped you off. Not that it should have deterred you, just that it should have given you maybe tad bit of pause. Glad you are enjoying your trip.

    Ozzy

    1. Earl

      Hey Ozzy – It definitely wouldn’t have deterred us. But I think we were so hungry when we arrived at the restaurant that we couldn’t focus on anything else!

    1. Earl

      Hey Ayngelina – I know what you’re saying. And for this Chinese Bar to be located in Iraq or all places was even more of a surprise!

      Hope you have an enjoyable New Year!

    2. Earl

      Hey Ayngelina – I know what you’re saying and the fact that this Chinese bar is in Iraq is even more confusing!

      Have a wonderful New Year!!

  16. Priyank

    Hi Earl!
    That was hilarious! Looks like you guys had a very eventful day there! A bottle of whiskey without any food eh? Impressive! I had imagined that there’s no alcohol served openly, being Islamic and all.
    Priyank

    1. Earl

      Hey Priyank – That’s the thing about Kurdistan…it’s nothing at all like what you would think. For example, alcohol was sold openly and there were plenty of beer/liquor/wine shops in all of the cities I visited. There was definitely more alcohol available in the Christian neighborhoods of each of these cities, but it was definitely also sold in the Muslim areas as well.

    1. Earl

      Hey Natalie – That’s the thing about a place like Kurdistan. Our curiosity was so intense that seeing a sign prohibiting guns and knives actually made us want to enter the place even more. There was no way we would walk away from a place like that!

    1. Earl

      Hey Kyle – That wouldn’t have been a bad idea. We probably could have just asked the security man at the door to borrow his gun for a brief moment, although he didn’t seem to be the friendliest of human beings.

    2. Earl

      Hey Kyle – That wouldn’t have been a bad idea. We probably could have just asked the security man at the door to borrow his gun for a brief moment, although come to think of it, he didn’t seem to be the friendliest of human beings. Next time we’ll try to smuggle in the guns (that’s probably not a good thing for me to write but I’m going to leave it for now.)

  17. Lauren Fritsky

    This is simply awesome. The whole Give Me Some Food section cracked me up, particularly, “…we stumbled into a restaurant called “Pizza Plus”, which we were not surprised to discover actually specialized in sandwiches.”

    1. Earl

      Hey Lauren – It really was fitting that our effort to eat something different that night led us straight back to the same sandwiches we’d been eating for two days in a row. You really cannot escape those sandwiches in Kurdistan, especially when they trick you into entering a place by calling it “Pizza Plus”! We fell for it every time 🙂

      I appreciate the comment and wish you a wonderful New Year!!

  18. Anil

    I couldn’t stop laughing while reading this, really almost in tears from thinking about the ‘sexy time’ waiter and the crazy Chinese restaurant. So much in one day, I think it will take a long time to top for me.

    1. Earl

      Hey Anil – I don’t even know if I want that day to be topped. Seriously, if I had to stop traveling now, I’d feel that my travel career was complete based upon that day alone, even though I’ll never be able to hear the word ‘sexy’ again without breaking into a long fit of laughter as well!

  19. Maria Staal

    No, Earl, this is not an unexciting or dumb story at all! Quite fascinating actually. I can understand you and Anil rate this high on your travel memory scale.
    BTW, I love it that you add short videos to your posts, now. Please keep doing that, as they give a real insight in what you are talking about! 🙂

    1. Earl

      Thanks Maria! And it’s good to know you like the videos as I tend to record everyday scenes and nothing too noteworthy, so I’m never sure if I’m the only one who finds them interesting 🙂

  20. Audrey

    Hilarious! I wonder whether “Chinese Restaurant” is synonymous with drinking bar in that part of the world. It is surprising that alcohol was that inexpensive and easily available. Wonder what would happen if a woman customer entered that place (thinking of myself here)?

    Still noodling the “money & sexy, sexy” comment. Have to admit that makes me smile as it goes along with the optimism in Kurdistan that you wrote about.

    1. Earl

      Hey Audrey – So you’re already thinking about having a whiskey in Kurdistan?? 🙂

      I think it would be perfectly fine if you showed up at that bar, even on your own. Just the fact that there were four or five female Chinese staff, including the bartender/owner, all dressed in western clothes and clearly in charge, make me think that it would be a woman-friendly establishment (even though they have most likely never served a woman before). Some of the men might stare a bit, but it was so dark in there that nobody would really even notice!

      And the ‘sexy, sexy’/optimism connection you made is so very true. I ended up meeting a few more locals who had moved to Europe but were now returning home for a few months each year to explore opportunities to start a business and live once again in Kurdistan. Although clearly the Norwegian/Kurd from the restaurant knows about an aspect of Kurdish social life that I simply did not notice at all!

  21. Turkey's For Life

    Fully agree with Sabina. Apart from the fact that there were those posters on the wall outside, the stairs should have been a tell-tale sign that not all was going to be as it seemed in the restaurant. We give places like this in Turkey a wide berth – thought Anil would’ve known better. 🙂 But like you said, you’re never going to forget it!

    1. Earl

      @Turkey’s For Life: I think Anil and I were on some invincibility high during the trip as everything seemed so normal that when we did encounter a few places that should have seemed a bit more worrisome , we were barely able to notice. But it definitely wasn’t a frightening place at all, just an interesting one…

      Have a wonderful Fehtiye-style New Year (not sure what that is exactly)!

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  23. Sabina

    I’m very glad to hear of your last-minute decision to leave your AK47s and machetes in your room. This probably saved you a big hassle. This sounds like actually a great night out. I do wonder what the Chinese food would have ended up tasting like, though. If they really had any.

    1. Earl

      Hey Sabina – Leaving the weaponry behind definitely was a solid idea 🙂

      And there were photos of the supposed Chinese food on the menu, so perhaps it was actually possible to eat some, but I guess I won’t find out until I give it another try on my next visit! The key will be to go in without any expectations whatsoever, which proved to be case with all restaurants in Kurdistan unfortunately.

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