I’m Going to Iraq!

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…

Welcome to Egypt

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….

Kurdistan

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).

Kurdistan Flag
Photo Credit

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:

Safety

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.

Wandering Earl wrote a pretty good post detailing the security situation in Kurdistan.

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.

My Flights

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.

So There You Have It!

Welcome to a quick look at what’s coming up for me. Of course, I’ll be writing about it, but you can follow my real-time adventures on Twitter and Facebook!

Read More About My Adventure in Iraq

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24 Responses to I’m Going to Iraq!

  1. Cathy Sweeney April 25, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    This is exciting, Aaron. You never know what opportunities might present themselves when you talk to a stranger on a bus! I’ve been very interested in the subject of travel in Iraq. Don’t know if it’s quite for me yet, but I can’t wait to hear about your trip.

    • Aaron April 25, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

      Thanks Cathy! And it’s so true! Before the end of December, visiting Iraq wasn’t even on my radar, even after reading Earl and Anil’s accounts of their time there. Just amazing how things can change in an instant. The more I learned about it from my friend, the more fascinating it sounded! A friend of mine just met someone in Ireland who had just come from there and he said it was an incredible perspective on current events. I’m pretty excited!

  2. Matt April 25, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

    Awesome, the A380!

    • Aaron April 25, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

      Haha that part excites me too! Have you flown on one before?

  3. Maria April 26, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    Hurry up! Get there already – sitting on my hands so I’ll stop drumming the tabletop waiting for updates! *grin*

    • Aaron April 27, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

      Hahaha! :-)

  4. Leigh April 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    Sounds like a true travel adventure. What a lot of interesting, well off the beaten path stops you have in your future. Good luck. Sorry I’ll miss hearing about it in person at TBEX this year but I’ll be reading about it.

    • Aaron April 27, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

      Thanks Leigh! Figured I had to live up to the “Unlikely places” part of my tagline… :-P Shame I won’t get to see you again at TBEX this year!

  5. Dani April 30, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Exciting news, Aaron! Looking forward to reading about your trip. You also have to write about your flight – Singapore Airlines AND an A380 – that’s pretty awesome!

    • Aaron April 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

      Haha thanks! And yes, I’m SUPER stoked about the flight! The airline geek in my is going nuts!

  6. Laura April 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    What a cool trip! Even though it seems short to you, it’s quite a bit of time to take off so it sounds like it’s going to be a fun trip! Looking forward to hearing about it :)

    • Aaron April 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

      Well, I freelance, so the length of time I take off is all relative (of course, I don’t get paid time off…that’s the trade off. But yes, I’m pretty excited!

  7. Ali May 6, 2012 at 7:33 am #

    Sounds exciting, can’t wait to read about it! I read some of Wandering Earl’s posts about being there, and it was so interesting. Also, I think it’s hilarious you were able to use miles to book a flight out of there but your ticket doesn’t even show the city! I’m guessing this isn’t one of the places that will have a problem with your Israeli stamp?

    • Aaron May 6, 2012 at 11:36 am #

      Thanks Ali! And while the Israeli stamp is problematic to enter “real” Iraq (aka the South), it’s not a problem to enter the Kurdish-controlled region. Odd, I know, but it legitimately operates as a completely seperate country.

  8. Natalie May 7, 2012 at 12:54 am #

    I wanted to go there but everyone said I was mad including the Turks. Would be nice to read your posts about your time there so I have something to show them.

    • Aaron May 7, 2012 at 1:00 am #

      From what I understand, the Turks and Kurds don’t get along so well, so I’m not surprised people there told you that you were mad! I had dinner with Earl (of Wandering Earl fame) a few weeks ago in NYC and he told me about his experience going. He mentioned when he crossed from Syria into Turkey, they asked where he was going and he said “Kurdistan.” He said the border guard threw his passport in his face and said “No, it’s Iraq!”

      Of course, the Kurdistan issue is something else entirely, but I’ve met Turks in NYC who have even advised me against visiting Eastern Turkey on the grounds that it’s not safe. It’s all relative, right?

  9. Natalie May 7, 2012 at 1:15 am #

    Even my husband told me I was mad and he is Kurdish, refused to let me go.

    TBH – I have had enough of the Turkish- Kurdish issue. I was sitting in a taxi in Istanbul last week, and the taxi driver started on about Kurds. I told him to shut up. Then the Kurds start on about Turks. I realise it is important to them but there seems to be no signs of the issue resolving itself.

    I understand the Kurds being passionate because it is their identity but I also understand that Turkey is never going to give up part of its country despite what has happened in the past. I would love to write an article on it from my point of view, but the Turkish government is iffy about what you can and can not write concerning Kurds.

    I think you have some interesting posts coming up and I will be following for sure.

    • Aaron May 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

      Wow… Yes I agree it’s a complex issue with no signs of resolving itself. And having just spent some time traveling in Israel, Egypt and Jordan, the notion of what land belongs to who was front and center. Gives you a different prespective on things. I’m also not surprised that the Turkish government is iffy on writing about the Kurds. One things for sure… it will be a FASCINATING experience!

  10. Jeremy Branham May 7, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    Dude, this is awesome! I look forward to hearing more of your stories in Denver but this is incredibly exciting. Iraq has definitely been in the news here and there over the last few years. The Middle East is a fascinating area and not one many of us understand very well. I hope you have an awesome trip. Will be fun meeting up with Pete and Dalene as well. I look forward to reading more about this area. You are traveling to some pretty awesome places right now!

    • Aaron May 7, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

      Hey thanks! Iraq certainly has been in the news. A friend of a friend just visited the Kurdish region and he said it’s a “fascinating perspective on current events.” And I agree that the Middle East is fascinating and I think it’s largely misunderstood. The media slant we see at home doesn’t really help things… Yes it’ll be great to see Pete & Dalene again. They stayed a block away from me here in NYC! And I look forward to seeing you in Denver!

  11. Waegook Tom May 13, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

    Aaron, this is awesome! Make sure you stay safe in Iraqi Kurdistan – don’t want any stories that are too nerve-wracking haha! ;)

    • Aaron May 16, 2012 at 2:28 am #

      Hehe thanks for your faith in me Tom… :-P

  12. EDGYMIX-TRAVEL FOR FASHION August 28, 2012 at 11:23 pm #

    Great. I plan on going to Iran for my upcoming Trans-Africa trip and my friend told me I should include Iraqi Kurdistan also. He said it’s absolutely safe and I just need to be NON-American.. which will be easy for me:P…

    • Aaron August 28, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

      That is not true. I’m American and I went. You can just show up and get a visa if your passport is from the U.S., Canada, EU or Australia. Anything else, you need to go through an Iraqi embassy to get a visa in advance. What country’s passport do you hold? That said, I loved my time in Kurdistan (you can read more about that here: http://www.aaronswwadventures.com/2012/07/travel-in-iraq/).

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