From the forthcoming Lonely Planet guide to occupied Iraq:
If you’re looking for sheer luxury, it’s hard to beat Balad Air Base, the “Jewel of Iraq.” A short helicopter ride northwest of Baghdad and Taji, Balad (affectionately known as “Mortaritaville” to the locals) combines the comforts, cleanliness and up-to-date facilities of a U.S. Air Force base with the Oriental mystery and slight sense of mortal danger that makes Iraq one of today’s most popular overseas destinations for Americans.
Before You Go
If you’re traveling alone — say, on leave — then pack light, since you’ll have to move everything onto and off of aircraft by yourself. If you’re traveling with your unit, you’ll all move the gear as a group, which means there’s no benefit to packing light, since other people will just pack heavy anyway. (Economists call this the “tragedy of the commons.”)
One of the best things about traveling to military bases in Iraq is that you don’t need a passport or visa — your military ID is sufficient to get you where you’re going. Balad takes this fact to something of an extreme — it’s a common observation, and only half a joke, that once you get to the Balad passenger terminal, you can go pretty much anywhere — Kuwait, Qatar, Europe, America — whether you’re authorized to go there or not. This is less true now that most units have representatives at the airport, but it used to be pretty much a free-for-all. Keep in mind that for your return trip, this means you’ll have to advocate strongly for yourself in order to (a) find out where you need to be and (b) actually get on a flight.
There are several ways of getting to and from Balad, which, in descending order of misery, are as follows:
C-130: The worst form of transport known to man. The “seats” are nylon slings fashioned in bench-like forms — it’s impossible to sit upright in them, but also impossible to spread out and relax, since you’ll be strapped in facing, and unpleasantly close to, another passenger. When the plane swoops and dips, you’ll discover that everyone gets motion sickness sooner or later — yet there’s no lavatory. Meanwhile, the crew chief is passed out in serene comfort on top of the luggage pallet.
Convoy: Not bad, apart from the small but nonzero chance of being attacked. Humvees are a little cramped for tall people and hard to get in and out of gracefully, but otherwise all right.
C-17: Another type of military aircraft, this is only slightly worse than flying coach. The center of the plane is usually lined with rows of seats far too close together for comfort, but the seats on the sides of the plane, facing toward the center, have plenty of legroom.
Chinook: Basically a school bus with propellers, this is the Army’s utility transport helicopter, and lots of fun. If you’re seated near the side or rear gunner, you can fantasize about an emergency in which you have to jump in on the 240B machine gun and mow down attackers on the ground. But you still won’t get to wear one of their cool bug-eyed alien helmets.
Blackhawk: Yeah, they fall out of the sky a lot. But they also fly superfast — so fast that you can travel on one during the day, which means you’ll get to see a lot of nice scenery, reminding yourself that there is a genuinely pretty side to Mesopotamia.
Where To Stay
Many first-time travelers to Balad make the mistake of letting their unit rep or someone at the passenger terminal book their accomodations, which often means ending up in the fleabag tents across the street from the terminal. This is good for your unit — it makes it easier to find you, and makes it less likely you’ll get lost before your flight — but it’s decidedly lame for you. Not only is the pax terminal far from everything you’ll want to do and see in Balad, but those tents are frankly a little creepy.
You’re better off nodding politely to whatever they say and then going outside and getting on one of the buses marked “PPC Annex.” This will be easier to accomplish if you’re traveling by yourself or in a small group — if you’re on a unit move, you may not have a choice. But the PPC Annex is on all the best bus routes, is within a short walk of the base’s largest dining facility, and features tree-lined avenues and charming Quonset-hut-style housing. Air conditioning is generally solid, but there are signs warning you not to plug electronic devices into the wall sockets. Everyone does anyway. If possible, test your bunk before settling; the mattresses are of wildly differing vintages. Bring a lock to take advantage of the wooden storage cabinets provided.
Where To Eat
Don’t be the Ugly American, eating freeze-dried sandwiches from Burger King. Balad is home to a friendly “Turkish Cafe,” located behind the movie theatre, where you can get authentic Middle Eastern food, probably the closest you’re going to get to local food unless you’re asked to dine with a local sheikh. It’s a little pricey, but it’s mostly fresh and its atmosphere is homey and offbeat.
Or you can try Balad’s other “local” cuisine, the military dining facilities. There are four, all free, operating on slightly staggered schedules. All feature a main line with two or three “entrees of the day,” a short order line where you can get fried favorites, and, uh, a salad bar. Exploring the different DFACs on different days will help you figure out which one is for you; each has certain features unique to it. DFAC one has the largest dessert bar; DFAC three has the strictest weapons policy, etc.
What To Do
Balad has many of Iraq’s best amenities, including the country’s largest and best-equipped movie house, where you can see recent films as well as the occasional comedy or musical act. It’s also one of the safe places to hide on post when the mortars start falling.
The same can’t be said of Balad’s of clean, modern outdoor pool, whose nearest “shelter,” the changing room, is mostly glass. If you can hold your breath, you’re probably safer just diving down for a while. But the volleyball net, two free swim lanes, and free sunblock make up for that.
Shopping is a mixed bag in Balad. The PX is minimal but functional. The bazaar, on the other hand, seems tailor-made for Americans with too much money and not enough to spend it on. Leather goods and earthenware are neither all that interesting nor cheap enough to buy on whimsy. But the handcrafted Tibetan Buddhist paintings are worth checking out — I saw one of a Buddha surrounded by tiny repeating Buddhas that felt like a pious Warhol.
If sightseeing is your thing, try the “C” bus — it goes all over post, meandering through far-flung airfields and maintenance areas. The pyramid-shaped bunkers may have you thinking you’re in Giza.