Meet Kurdistan: The “Other Iraq”

Think of Iraq. What pops into your head? Romanticized visions of Baghdad? Ancient Mesopotamia? A war-torn country filled with cities you’ve heard about on the news, like Mosul or Fallujah? If you want to travel to this Iraq these days I’m sorry to tell you that it sure as heck ain’t gonna be easy. Tourist visas are not readily given out and, short of going on a heavily guarded organized tour, there isn’t really a viable way to get one. Instead make your way north to Kurdistan! “Kurdistan?” you’re probably thinking. Fear not, you’re not alone.

See, Kurdistan is part of Iraq (in fact, the government claims to be the “Other Iraq”), but if you visit, you’d almost never know it was. They have their own autonomous government (that’s rather publicly been disputing with the southern government over making its own oil contracts), military, the Peshmerga (literally, “those who face death”) that guards their borders, including the borders with the rest of Iraq.

All that violence you still here about in the news? Yeah, that’s in Southern Iraq…not in Kurdistan. The Peshmerga do a fantastic job of keeping the place safe! So safe that I felt safer there than I do at home in New York City! Seriously!

Kurdish Flag

The Kurdish flag (left) flies next to the Iraqi flag at the Turkey-Iraq border

Kurdistan, the “Other Iraq,” Borders in Iraq?

Wait…borders? If you look at most maps of Iraq you won’t see a border separating Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. Heck you won’t even see a mention of Kurdistan on most maps. In short, the Kurds control the provinces of Dohuk (also spelled Duhok), Erbil (also spelled Arbil or Hawler/Hewler), and Sulaymaniyah (also spelled Sulamani/Slemani). In practice though, the borders extend a bit beyond this area into southern Iraq (or “Arab Iraq,” as the Kurds call it).

I mean this when I say this… Kurdistan might as well be its own independent country. And for all intents and purposes it kind of is. Just not technically… Your passport stamp, for example, which is issued by Kurdish immigration authorities, states “Republic of Iraq–Kurdistan Region.” And officially, it’s only valid for the Kurdish controlled territory so no going to the south for you!

Iraqi Kurdistan Passport Stamp

Passport Stamp to Iraqi Kurdistan

Getting a Visa for Iraqi Kurdistan

How do you get this visa? Easy! If your passport comes from the U.S., Canada, the EU or Austalia you just show up at the land border with Turkey or at Erbil or Sulaymaniyah airports. (If you don’t, check with an Iraqi embassy and good luck…)

Have an Israeli passport stamp? No problem! You hand them your passport, maybe answer a question or two and there you have it! No fees or anything! And do note, there is a major typo on this stamp. You ONLY have to visit the Directorate of Residence if you want to extend your visa and stay beyond 10 days. If you leave on the 10th day or sooner, you won’t encounter a problem if you don’t visit!

Erbil International Airport (EBL)

Erbil International Airport (EBL)

Iraq or Kurdistan? What’s in a Name?

So what’s in a name and why does it matter? Many Kurds will tell you with pride that they live in Kurdistan and that they are not Iraqi, but Kurdish. There’s good reason for this. Many Kurds don’t trust the Arabs and don’t identify with Iraqis in general. Remember that Saddam Hussein tried to wipe them out and, as we’re seeing nowadays in southern Iraq, ethnic and religious tensions are very strong. Their own identity is big for them as they fought and suffered for the autonomy they have today.

Building at Amna Suraka (Red Security)

A building at Amna Suraka (“Red Security”) in Sulaymaniyah

It gets a lot more complicated though. While in Iraq, you’ll want to say Kurdistan as much as possible, but when you’re in a neighboring country like Turkey, you’ll want to avoid saying it! Confused? See, Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors don’t like the idea of a Kurdish state, as most visions of a country called Kurdistan include large swaths of what are currently Turkey, Iran and Syria. There you tell people you’re going to Iraq. Don’t even think of mentioning the word “Kurdistan” lest you want to experience a potentially nasty reaction.

Turkish Bus Bound for Irak (Iraq)

My Turkish bus bound for “Irak” (Iraq, despite the fact that all the destinations are in Iraqi Kurdistan)

So what’s in a name? Turns out a whole lot! I DID go to Iraq… just not the Iraq you’re probably thinking of!

Read More About My Adventure in Iraq

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22 Responses to Meet Kurdistan: The “Other Iraq”

  1. Talon July 20, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Cool! I’ve been curious about this area ever since I spoke with WanderingEarl who had gone there, and other places in Iraq. He, too, loved the area. It’s on my list. 🙂

    Is it fairly easy to get a visa extension? What are costs like?

    • Aaron July 21, 2012 at 1:53 am #

      Actually WanderingEarl went to Kurdistan as well, but not to other parts of Iraq (it’s not safe nor easy to do so). I don’t know what’s involved in getting a visa extension as I only stayed 10 days (though the immigration guy at the airport when I was leaving tried to convince me I’d only stayed 9). Earl does have an interesting post about his encounter with a bureacratic nightmare when he visited the Directorate of Residence, not for an extension but because your passport stamp tells you (incorrectly) that you have to visit within 10 days. That’s the place where you go to get an exension…

  2. Waegook Tom July 20, 2012 at 10:57 am #

    Aaron, thanks for differentiating the two – Kurdistan and Iraq are two different entities even if in the eyes of the UN, it’s just one country. You’ve made me curious about visiting now – and thanks for the info on the Israeli stamp. Not that I’ve been to Israel, but nice to know that it wouldn’t cause any problems.

    Also, I’m surprised at how modern Erbil Airport looks. The outside, at least.

    • Aaron July 21, 2012 at 1:57 am #

      The Israeli stamp surprised me, as I have 3 of them. And an Israeli stamp will stop you from being able to enter the Republic of Iraq (the south). But Kurdistan? They support Israel, interestingly enough. Consequently they’re not so big on Arabs. I actually learned about this exception because the friend who I visited in Iraq I had met traveling in Israel, and he’d gotten the stamp too!

      As for the airport, yes it’s quite new. And quite empty! They built this rather large airport in anticipation of a big traffic boom and these days it’s a rather sad place. Empty shops and eateries. In fact you only have one choice for food in the airport and it’s repeated 3 times of something like that! Crappy overpriced sandwiches that are hardly appetizing at all!

  3. Rosh July 20, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    Hey Tom,

    Erbil Airport opened recently after a $400 million investment 🙂

    Here is a promo video

    • Aaron July 21, 2012 at 2:00 am #

      Nice promo video there! Just wish it had a bit more variety in terms of shopping and food options though!

  4. Ali July 21, 2012 at 5:59 am #

    Great post Aaron! I remember reading about some of this when Wandering Earl went, but it was a nice refresher. Strange how complicated borders and the concept of a “country” can be sometimes.

    • Aaron July 22, 2012 at 2:30 am #

      Yes it’s definitely strange. When you consider colonial history though it starts to become a little clearer, as many of the boundaries we think of today as national borders were set rather arbitrarily by the British in the Middle East. Not to mention that the Kurds are not alone in not technically having their own state. The Palestinians are in the same boat (though with less autonomy). As the good old LP guidebook points out, the Kurds haven’t produced a figure like Yassar Arafat, who, love him or hate him, succeeded in introducing the world at large to the plight of the Palestinians.

  5. Audrey August 19, 2012 at 5:53 am #

    That’s a pretty cool visa to have in your passport! I’d say that’s one of the best souvenirs you can take away from your time there. 😀

    • Aaron August 22, 2012 at 12:34 am #

      Haha very true! That and a 5,000 Iraqi Dinar note that’s worth about US$4.20. Perhaps one of the old-style bills with Saddam Hussein’s picture on it, but those aren’t so easy to find these days… Ah well!

  6. AdventureStrong January 6, 2013 at 1:06 am #

    Sounds like a good trip. Wandering Earl also seemed to have a good experience other than the visa office (Directorate of Residence). haha

    Are there any places to go hiking in Kurdistan? I was reading about a guy who went hiking/snowboarding in Afghanistan recently and it sounded pretty cool.

    Thanks for sharing info about this place.

    • Aaron January 6, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

      Haha and the best part about Wandering Earl’s story is that you don’t actually need to visit the Directorate of Residence. That’s only for visa extensions. The stamp they put in your passport is misleading (it says you must report to the Directorate within 10 days, but leaves out the fact that if you’re only staying 10 days you’re fine!).

      As for hiking, there’s no “organized” trails like there are in more developed countries, but the north is filled with some incredible mountains. I rented a car and took a drive down the “Hamilton Road” (named for its builder) that eventually leads to Iran. It runs through an incredible canyon and some epic mountains and is just gorgeous. So yes, I’d say there would probably be some hiking experiences to be found. That said, considering the trouble the region had during Saddam’s era, not to mention the Iran-Iraq war, you should always be careful for landmines when venturing off the road…

  7. Samuel January 30, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    Hi Aaron,

    Fantastic page – really very useful! I am considering travelling from Diyarbakir to Erbil in April 2013 with two friends, and am still torn whether or not to go due to security concerns in Turkey. As three British citizens, the British foreign office advises against ‘all but essential travel’ to the region, whilst some of the other western foreign services advise against using public transport in the region (I am not quite sure why?). We have previously travelled in locations ranging from the West Bank to Kosovo so we are relatively experienced in off the beaten track locations, but have never yet been somewhere with a foreign office warning against it. What were your experiences of security in south eastern Turkey (did it feel safe?/have you heard any particularly concerning stories?), and what would be your recommendations? I really appreciate your help and look forward to hearing from you soon! Keep up the fantastic travel writing!

    Sam

    • Aaron January 30, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

      Hi Sam,

      Thanks! I caught a bus that in Midyat that had originated in Diyarbakir and then rode that across the border (I got off in Dohuk, but it went all the way to Sulayminyah, stopping in Erbil). I spent a good deal of time in Turkey’s southeast and never felt unsafe. Turks will tell you its unsafe (as will various foreign offices) because there are Kurdish rebels in the deep, deep southeast (deeper than you’d need to get across the Iraqi border). The border crossing with Iraq is near the Turkish town of Silopi and the rebels are further east than that, generally speaking, so I wouldn’t be concerned.

      I’m also of the opinion that travel warnings tend to be painted with a broad brush and should be taken with a grain of salt. I was in Egypt nearly a year after the revolution and those warnings advised against travel to Cairo, where protests continued. You’d never know anything was happening unless you were in Tahrir Square, a tiny, tiny fraction of a massive metropolis.

      If you didn’t want to take a bus, you could make your way to Silopi and catch a taxi across the border to Zakho and then catch a share taxi to Erbil (you may have to go to Dohuk first, though with 2 friends, you could charter your own taxi without really needing to go to the local Garaj (taxi depot designated to a certain city). Or the bus would take you all the way to Erbil, you’ll just spend a while at the border as the customs folks check out all the stuff the bus is carrying.

      I really, really loved Eastern Turkey and never once felt unsafe (and I never once felt unsafe in Kurdish Iraq). Do yourself a favor and make sure you go to Hasankeyf, which could potentially be on your way to the border (though you’d have to take a creative routing). I have a little blurb about it in my 2012 wrap-up post (full post coming soon): http://www.aaronswwadventures.com/2012/12/7-epic-travel-experiences-of-2012/ Trust me, it’s worth it.

  8. Kevin July 27, 2015 at 2:29 pm #

    Hey, this page has some great information about the Kurdish-Israeli situation, but I was wondering if you could possibly tell me a bit more.

    This fall semester, I will be studying abroad in Israel. Therefore, I will have an Israeli student visa sticker-ed into my US passport (I am an American citizen). Can I still visit Erbil?

    I know you said that Israeli stamps are not a problem for US citizens, but I was wondering if the situation would be a bit different for me since I am actually a legal resident of Israel since I have a student visa (though not an Israeli citizen or passport holder). I want to fly from Tel Aviv to Turkey, check out Turkey for a few days, then take a bus (if they are still running despite the regional political situations) or a flight to Erbil and then back to Turkey. Then, from Turkey, I would take a flight back to Israel.

    Do you think the Kurds would allow this? Also, how do you think the Israelis might respond when they see a Kurdish stamp? Is it possible the Kurds and also the Israelis won’t notice anything?

    Thanks so much for your help!

    • Aaron July 28, 2015 at 11:52 pm #

      I don’t think you would have a problem, but I cannot guarantee that. The Israel policy for Iraqi Kurdistan is not officially listed anywhere which means it’s subject to change at any time, though I don’t think that would be the case. The Kurds have long had “support” for Israel (as in they do not consider them enemies) on somewhat convoluted grounds (The Kurds don’t like the Arabs as Saddam Hussein tried to wipe them out and they like Israel because Israel does not like the Palestinians). So you’d probably be fine, though you may want to ask on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree.

      You would almost certainly have a hard time getting back into Israel though. The whole reason I ended up in Iraqi Kurdistan in the first place is that I met an American on a bus to Eilat who was teaching English in Erbil. From Erbil he could only fly to Amman and had to cross into Israel via the King Hussein Bridge into the West Bank. With an Iraqi visa in his passport he told me it took him a whopping 8 hours just to clear immigration! Now your situation would probably be easier since you’d have an Israeli student visa. Still, my suggestion would be save Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan till the end of your trip and maybe fly home from Istanbul or Amman (or even Erbil, where you could catch flights to a number of Middle Eastern and European cities for your onward journey) rather than returning to Israel, which would probably save you quite a headache with immigration and airport security.

      The immigration stamp the Kurds will you give is almost entirely in Kurdish/Arabic so surely the Israelis will notice that. No doubt you’ll get back into Israel, but I don’t think the process will be particularly pleasant.

      I would also be willing to bet that buses are still running. I have a few friends in Erbil still who report that nothing has really changed for them. Everything you see on the news happens further south and the Peshmerga are very good at defending the three provinces of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. The areas from which they retreated last year were areas they controlled outside of their core area, so I don’t think you have much to worry about.

      • Kevin July 29, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

        Thanks for the information, Aaaron.

        Unfortunately, leaving Turkey and Kurdistan to the end of my semester in Israel is not an option for various reasons, mainly including I already have my flight from Israel to Europe (for another study abroad program) booked and it’s an extremely good deal.

        I don’t mind having to wait 8 or even more hours to get back into Israel, as long as I can eventually get back in. I wonder if I should ask the Israelis about my plans before I leave for the trip.

        And I have a bit of a random question, if you do not mind: do you know anything about the small but supposedly existent underground gay scene in Iraqi Kurdistan? The Kurds are definitely much more liberal than most other parts of the Middle East, yet certainly not at Western levels of progressivism when it comes to gender and sexuality. However, I nevertheless have heard that there is a bit of an underground gay scene in Iraqi Kurdistan (basically just Erbil, I believe). Do you happen to know anything about that or how one might possibly look into information on that?

        Thanks!

        • Aaron July 31, 2015 at 12:23 am #

          Israelis are very likely to tell you that you’re crazy for going… 😛

          Yes I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Israel ever turning anyone away for having visited a Muslim country. They just might make your life a little miserable. And be forewarned, when you DO fly out Ben Gurion you are liable to have a difficult time as well (more on that here).

          Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about the underground gay seen centered around Erbil, other than the fact that a sizable one existed. There’s a large expat community (a German restaurant was the best mean I had in Iraqi Kurdistan) what with the booming oil industry and all. And most countries everywhere (even Muslim ones) have some sizable underground gay scenes. I spotted some in Cairo and Amman (if you make it to the latter, you may want to check out a place called [email protected] if it still exists). Most of the information about gay life in Erbil is pretty outdated, but you may want to ask in that ThornTree forum I linked you earlier.

          That said, I think the situation right now is very difficult for everyone, and the friend I visited there tells me that the scene has gone even further underground for everyone’s safety (if you haven’t already, I’d suggest you read this article). The rule of thumb is be discreet and you may not want to go looking for something that could get you or (more likely) the people you interact with in some hot water. So tread lightly. The folks in those forums may be able to tell you more.

          Hope this helps!

          • Kevin August 2, 2015 at 3:05 pm #

            I have heard about [email protected] and will try to visit there.

            I have decided to take your advice and post on the Travel forum (https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/middle-east/topics/kurdistan-trip-for-university-student) and so I hope I get some bites!

            Thanks for your help!

          • Aaron August 2, 2015 at 9:44 pm #

            You may get better responses by posting a shorter version specifically in the Iraq forum rather than the general Middle East forum (https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/middle-east/iraq). Also I can answer some of the questions you asked there:

            1) Yes. American embassies WILL issue a second passport if you’ve been to Israel. Do be advised, though, that they state that they are secondary passports, which is something that I have heard Lebanese immigration notices. The only circumstance under which someone would have a second passport is if they had been to Israel, so they might still refuse you entry. I don’t think you would have any issues with Iraqi Kurdistan though.

            2) The Kurds LOVE Americans. Remember, despite what any of us may think about the U.S. going into Iraq in 2003, the fact that we took out Saddam Hussein was HUGE for the Kurds and George W. Bush is something of a hero there. So in Iraqi Kurdistan (sticking to the 3 provinces that they control, Dohuk Erbil and Sulaymaniyah) you should be fine. Yes, Syria is 100% off limits. And Iran is impossible for an American to visit without going on a tour (if you do, DO NOT mention that you are converting to Judaism). Diyarbakir and other areas of Southeastern Turkey are fine, just stick to the cities. If you do end up in Southeastern Turkey, though, I would HIGHLY suggest that you visit Hasankeyf, provided it’s not under water yet (it’s due to be flooded by a dam that is under construction).

            3) There are no buses, per say, in Iraqi Kurdistan, so you can’t take a bus from Erbil to Halabja. You get around via share taxis, so ask around for the proper taxi garaj. You would first have to take a share taxi to Sulaymaniyah (which is a nice, “cosmopolitan” kind of town) and then take another share taxi to Halabja. More on Halabja here. As for flying into Diyarbakir, you could do that and catch a bus, though you can also catch buses from other cities in Southern Turkey (Mardin or Midyat, the latter of which is where I caught a bus from after visiting Hasankeyf). Or you could fly from Europe straight to Erbil if you really wanted to. Lufthansa, Austrian and Turkish all provide service. As for your itinerary, please note that visiting Iran independently as an American is not possible and I would strongly discourage you from visiting Syrian Kurdistan as that is currently a war zone.

            4) Yes hotels in Kurdistan are expensive. I did not pay for one in Erbil as I stayed with a friend, but I averaged between $30-$50 per night in Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah. Bring cash as there are no ATMs. You’ll also fare better by showing up and finding a place than you will by booking online.

            5) Yes I agree. And I wouldn’t sweat it too much. U.S. Immigration didn’t bat an eye when I put Iraq on my arrival form. Syria and Yemen would probably raise more questions than any of the places you mentioned.

            6) We already discussed this a bit.

  9. horpec October 20, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    hello…i wanted to ask that is NIgerians banned from entry Kurdistan till now ..or the banned has been lifted?

    • Aaron October 22, 2015 at 12:58 am #

      I had no idea Nigerians were banned from entering Kurdistan. I do know that if Nigerians are allowed to enter Kurdistan, you would need a visa which you would need to obtain from an Iraqi embassy or consulate. They can answer your question far better than I can.

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