When I was in Israel, I took a seat on a bus bound for Eilat, which was apparently a very popular destination at the time. Foreigners packed the back of the bus, where there were not enough seats to go around. Thankfully, I had one, situated next to an ever-so-young Israeli soldier carrying a machine gun (don’t worry, it’s a sight you get used to seeing in Israel…). Across from me sat a quiet solo traveler who I worked up a conversation with.
“I live in Iraq,” he told me. Say what now?
This new friend of mine ultimately convinced me to come to Cairo with him and over the next several days, we became pretty good friends. And one thing from our short time together always stood out to me. His invitation that I go visit him…
It was kind of an idea I put on the back burner. Flights are expensive and I didn’t exactly have a lot of free time coming up. But as my spring schedule became clearer, so did the fact that I would end with a gap in my schedule. And about two months ago, I started toying with idea. I could use some of 128,000 frequent flier miles with United to get myself to Istanbul and get to Iraq from there. Hmmmmmmm….
Flights booked, it became official! I’m going to Iraq! Well, Iraqi Kurdistan to be technically correct. You see, my friend teaches English in Erbil, the capital of the northern Kurdish region, which, for many intents and purposes is essentially its own country from the south (which you may have heard a lot about in the news in the past 10 or so years).
If it sounds a little strange, it’s not quite that far off. Fellow travel bloggers Anil from foXnoMad and Earl from Wandering Earl visited in late 2010 (they also both contributed to my Middle East Travel in a Post-9/11 World post) and had great things to say. But let me address one thing first:
I’ve had a number of folks respond with a certain degree of hostility when I’ve mentioned that my upcoming travel plans included Iraq, particularly from folks who are absolutely convinced that it is not safe. And to you I say, throw your misconceptions out the window and do some research on the subject!
The Kurds were largely insulated from the violence that plagued the rest of the country following the 2003 US invasion, which, for all the conflicting opinions on the merits of it, did the Kurds a great service by ousting Saddam Hussein. You may recall that he wasn’t too kind to them, and the infamous “No-Fly Zones” were implemented for their protection, as they were being gassed and bombed. But since 1991, they’ve had a fair degree of autonomy.
Is it 100% safe? I don’t think any place is. At the end of the day, stuff happens everywhere and there’s not much you can do stop it. Realistically though, Kurdistan is safer than many “safe” European and American cities.
My Travel Plans!
First stop on my trip is Turkey, as I am flying into Istanbul May 14th to 15th. I’ll have about 3 weeks to explore there (yes, that’s not a lot of time) and after Istanbul, the current plan is to head East. Like way East to the border regions with Armenia and Iran for a little off-the-beaten-path sites (yes that means skipping Cappadocia and Ephesus, for now, at least). That puts me where I need to be to attempt an overland crossing into the Iraqi Kurdistan.
Once in Kurdistan (June 3rd), I’ll spend 10 days exploring and visiting with my friend. And then, get this, I am flying from Erbil to Denver (June 12th to 13th) for this year’s TBEX Conference and I was able to book that with my United frequent flier miles!
How? Well, such a flight is not bookable on United’s website as they do not recognize Erbil as an airport. But their phone agents do (oddly, so does their automated phone system) and since 4 Star Alliance carriers fly to Erbil, I was able to get one! One thing that I find rather amusing is that their computer system doesn’t seem to recognize the airport either. So according to my itinerary, I’m flying from [blank] to Vienna (where I get to spend a night) to Toronto and finally on to Denver.
I’m a bit of an airline dork so I’m rather excited to be taking advantage of some of United’s partners on this trip. On the way out, I’m flying Singapore Airlines from New York JFK to Frankfurt and Lufthansa to Istanbul. My grandmother, an avid traveler in her own right, adored Singapore flights and I’m getting to fly one of their new A380’s (the fully double-decker planes) so I’m pretty stoked about that!
On the return I’m flying Austrian Airlines to Vienna and to Toronto, with United on the last leg to Denver.