So What’s it Like to Travel in Iraq?

I don’t think I’d ever been quite so excited to cross a bridge. Here I was, literally in no-mans land, the space between border crossings, and up ahead lay grand mountains. Behind me? Turkey. Finally, the bus passed a sign: “Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan.” This was the moment my whole trip was designed for. The moment where I’d travel in Iraq!

Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan

Welcome sign at the Turkey-Iraq border

As we parked across the bridge, everyone made their way to the Arrivals Hall. I had begun to walk when a Kurdish Peshmerga soldier (literally, “those who face death”) called me back. I gulped. He asked to see inside the daypack I was carrying. And then he did something incredible. He apologized to me for the inconvenience.

Iraqi Arrivals Hall

Arrivals Hall for Iraqi Kurdistan

This first impression stuck with me, as it was a taste of the kindness I’d experience throughout my 10 days of traveling in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. And when people ask me what it was like, I can honestly say that the people I met in Iraq are by far the warmest folks I have ever encountered! From the soldier at customs who took it upon himself to teach me Kurdish, to the young man in Dohuk who had worked as a translator for US troops in nearby Mosul, to the group of college students in sublime Amadiya who “adopted me” for the day and to the Arab young man from Baghdad who invited me to his home in Sulaymaniyah, the people are what absolutely stood out to me most.

A Word of Warning Before You Travel in Iraq…

Me with Kurdish Children

Me with a couple of Kurdish children

You know, before going, I was given a warning: “Prepare to be loved.” Boy was that ever true. See that photo up there of me with a couple of kids? Their father, the owner of a hotel, asked me to pose with them before leaving. On a couple of occasions, complete strangers would holler at me in passing, “I love you!” It was all slightly jarring at first. I mean, I’ve traveled plenty of places where I’ve been stared at before but never anywhere that made me feel a bit like a rock star.

Kurdish Friends in Amadiya

Two of my self-appointed “tour guides” in Amadiya

Think about it, though. Saddam Hussein was not kind to the Kurds. In the late 1980’s, he launched a genocidal campaign against them, killing up to 100,000, including 5,000 in a matter of minutes using a chemical gas attack. The Kurds have largely been autonomous since 1991 (the “no-fly zone” helped there), but they were still a major beneficiary of the 2003 U.S. invasion. In fact, George W. Bush Jr. is something of a hero there.

Kurdish Men in Traditional Outfits

Kurdish men in their traditional outfits

For a people who have been through so much though, I was really struck by their friendliness, particularly folks around my age. Since the U.S. invasion, many Kurds who had fled to other countries have been returning, bringing with them their worldliness and ideals. It would be fascinating to return several years from now to see if that’s changed the Kurdish culture at all, which, for now, remains quite religiously conservative in some ways. Like how men and women don’t socialize together…at least in public.

Should You Go?

Mudbrick Houses in Koya

Mudbrick houses in Koya

If you’re looking for a place to go sightseeing, then I don’t think travel in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region is for you. If you’re used to places that are easy to get around and that have developed tourism infrastructures, then I don’t think it’s for you either. Even if you’re looking for a really cheap destination, you may want to re-evaluate. But if you go, you’ll be rewarded, not only with some fantastic natural beauty, but a taste of a people who can teach you so very much about the world.

Upper Hamilton Road

Some of the breathtaking scenery along the Upper Hamilton Road

And really, you constantly have to pinch yourself in Iraqi Kurdistan, because you’ll have many a moment where you’ll find it hard to believe that the peaceful place you’re in is Iraq at all!

Read More About My Adventure in Iraq

email

, , ,

60 Responses to So What’s it Like to Travel in Iraq?

  1. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy July 8, 2012 at 4:09 am #

    What an awesome experience. It’s great that everyone was so welcoming. I can see why the Kurds would love Americans. I wonder if the rest of Iraqis feel the same way. How did you get around there?

    • Aaron July 8, 2012 at 11:08 am #

      I wonder too and I just don’t know. By and large, the Kurds don’t like the Arabs so there really aren’t many in the northern Kurdish Region (I did meet one who was amazingly nice). Though I did talk to one Kurdish guy about my age who was studying medicine in Ukraine and was home for the summer. He hated the fact that the U.S. troops went in there, but also hated the fact that Obama withdrew them.

      You get around using a mix of share taxis and private cars. I’ll be writing more about that.

  2. Waegook Tom July 8, 2012 at 4:16 am #

    Aaron, what a great post! I’ve been waiting to hear your thoughts on Iraq/Kurdistan since you announced that you were going there. The hospitality of the people sounds incredible. I guess it must be that so many people avoid going there, simply because it’s “Iraq” and don’t differentiate between, say, Baghdad and Erbil. I’ve heard it’s similar in Somalia – Somaliland is a democratic, autonomous, peaceful place, whereas the rest of Somalia is, well, not.

    On another note, your tour guide on the right in your Amadiya photo…ding dong!

    • Aaron July 8, 2012 at 11:12 am #

      Exactly. The fact is that many people don’t make a distinction in their heads at all. Even right as I was leaving their were all these coordinated terrorist attacks all over Iraq, except none were in the Kurdish controlled areas. It might as well be a completely seperate country, especially since many Kurdish people won’t call it Iraq anyways, they’ll say Kurdistan (which is not a word you can use in Turkey).

  3. The Queer Nomad July 8, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    Aaron, thanks for the post! I’m really interested in this part of the world… what’s the visa situation like if you travel overland from Turkey?

    • Aaron July 8, 2012 at 11:15 am #

      Well as with any country it depends on your passport. Americans, EU and Australians (perhaps others as well) get a free 10-day visa on arrival, both at the land crossing with Turkey and at the airports in Erbil or Sulaymaniye. Note though that the visa is ONLY valid for the Kurdish controlled areas. It’s probably feasible to drive yourself into “Arab Iraq” (as they call it) assuming you successfully bribe the checkpoints, but I really would not recommend that.

      • John February 28, 2013 at 8:45 am #

        Hi Aaron. As an american, are you sure I can just fly into Erbil and receive the 10 visa @ the airport? thanks

        • Aaron February 28, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

          Yep, Americans get free 10 day visas on arrival. They’ll stamp in your passport that you need to report to the Directorate of Residence within 10 days, but that’s not actually correct. If you want to stay LONGER than 10 days then you need to, but if you leave by the 10th day then you don’t.

  4. Lisa @chickybus July 8, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Very interesting! Cool that you went. I would go, for sure.

    And I’m not surprised re: how kind the people are. Some of my ESL students have been from there and they’ve been really sweet. Look forward to hearing more!

    • Aaron July 8, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

      Well, I have a sneaking supsicion that a woman would not neccessarily have the same experience I had, especially due to the societal restrictions on male/female interaction. But yes, very sweet people. The more time I spend in the Middle East, the more I learn that governments retoric doesn’t even remotely tend to match the views of the people.

      • Debbie Schroeder July 13, 2012 at 10:03 am #

        Ok rock star, loved the post. :)

        And agree, a woman traveling solo would probably have a different experience. :(

        • Aaron July 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

          Haha thanks Debbie!

  5. Cez July 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Hey Aaron.

    Despite the common belief your story exactly resembles what I thought about this region. Thank you for changing this misconception and well … I’m jealous of your trip :-)

    Enjoy your journey,
    Cez

    • Aaron July 8, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

      Hey Cez,

      Thanks for your kind words! People’s conceptions (or misconceptions) are a funny thing, one I think that’s generally wrongly aided by what we see in the news, which rarely seems to match up to a reality. The more we travel and spread the word, perhaps the more people will realize that human nature really isn’t that different regardless of where you are in the world!

  6. Jaime July 8, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    OMG the guy in the black in the 3rd photo is HOT!!! Sorry I had to say it… okay about your post…lol!!!

    Love it… seriously this is what travel is about. Seeing the unknown and breaking barriers and prejudices. I know you didn’t have any, but it just shows us that the world really is an amazing place. I love that the locals loved you and welcomed you with open arms and were kind. It’s things like that, that remind us how amazing our planet really is. It’s also things like that that you will remember for ever. I’m jealous… I really wanted to visit while I was in Turkey, but it didn’t happen cus it was winter. I don’t think I will be going to Iraq this time around, but know it’s on my must visit list and I know I will make it one day. I actually wanna do more of the Middle East one day.

    • Aaron July 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

      You’re so right in that it’s what I’ll remember forever and it really was the highlight of my time in Iraq. As far as sights to actually see, there ain’t a whole lot. So if you’re looking for blockbuster sites like you see in Turkey, then look elsewhere. But if you want to immerse yourself in a culture then this is absolutely the place! And the more I’ve been around the Middle East the more I’m learning that it doesn’t matter where you are and what governments say. People are people everywhere, by and large warm, wonderful people!

  7. Leslie (Downtown Traveler) July 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    I’ve never been to Iraqi Kurdistan and was surprised to hear you were there. But it seems like a surprisingly welcome place for American travelers. Thanks for sharing this informative post– look forward to seeing your next one :)

  8. Simon July 10, 2012 at 6:16 am #

    I visited Yemen many years ago and that was possibly the most beautiful country I’ve seen. Since then, I dreamed about Iraq but could never figure out how to travel there, especially taking into account that I am mostly a solo female traveler.

    I guess it’s time to re-think the possibility of a journey too this amazing country. Thanks for sharing your story

    • Aaron July 10, 2012 at 11:05 pm #

      You know, I thought a lot about what travel in Iraq would be like for a woman, as I really doubt they’d have the same sort of experience I had. It’s a highly gender-segregated society and men and women just don’t socialize. I made loads of local friends along the way yet didn’t meet a single local woman (say for one or two begging for money). I did meet some foreign women, both married to Kurdish men (they weren’t such big fans of the way women were treated there), and also teachers at a school where a friend of mine taught. The teachers reported some instances of rather inapporpiate advances by local men towards them, as it seems many think they get away with certain things with foreign women that they could never be able to get away with with local women (like a soldier at a checkpoint at one point saying to a teacher that they needed to step out of the car for a pat down, which would be EXTREMELY inapporpiate with a local woman, as women are only patted down by women and in private). They said no and were on their merry way. Just something to be aware of.

  9. Dalene July 10, 2012 at 7:58 am #

    Really love that you had such a fantastic experience there, and I hope this post spreads far and wide, to diminish some of the stigma attached to the region. Super jealous and the next time we are in Turkey (which WILL happen), we will definitely be making a similar trip. And I’ll tell my Mom about it afterwards. :)

    • Aaron July 10, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

      Hahahaha I told mom about it before hand. She wasn’t too pleased… But after a long, long email of resources about safety in Kurdistan she finally came around. Interestingly enough, some of my friends were even harsher on me than my mother was!

  10. Kelly July 10, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    What a great post! I always wondered what it would be like to travel here so thanks heaps for the insight. It’s so lovely to hear how nice people are when you travel to a foreign country because often in the countries that have big tourist infrastructure this is where people are nasty! Great photos too!

    • Aaron July 10, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

      For sure! I had a pretty awful experience in Egypt for that exact same reason! Suddenly everyone wants something from you! There were a few instances in Kurdistan that gave me pause at first, like some guy volunteering to show me where I could change money. But I found that I really could genuinely trust just about everyone, including this guy, who took me to the best place you could change money… some guy with a giant wad of cash! He had a better rate than the offical one!

      • Kelly July 11, 2012 at 12:09 am #

        Yeah so true! I hope that this never becomes one of those places!!! You sound like you have so many cool stories and wonderful experiences from the place which is so fantastic. Thanks for sharing it with us!!

        • Aaron July 11, 2012 at 12:18 am #

          My pleasure! Thanks for reading! :-)

  11. Krista July 10, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    Wow, great post. I was almost in tears thinking about the warmth and friendliness of the people after all of the the awful things they’ve experienced. Ultimately, this is really the beauty of travel. Regardless of the news, or history, or anything like that, you can connect with people on a very human level. I’m really looking forward to reading more of your posts from this trip!

    • Aaron July 10, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

      Awww thanks! And you’re so right! I’ve always found that what I remember most about traveling isn’t so much the places or the cool sights. It’s the really amazing people you meet along the way! And that greater human understanding that comes from you interacting with locals and vise versa tears down boundaries that have been ingrained in us. Sure travel has some real negatives, but it also has some incredible positives, that being front and center!

  12. Teresa G. July 10, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    I am so impressed with this post. I love what you said “You know, before going, I was given a warning: “Prepare to be loved.” It’s so nice to see such a positive story about a place that usually gets so much negative attention. It just proves that you can really go anywhere. If I were even to think about a place I’d never go, I don’t think I could- and I think sending this message out there is truly inspiring.

    :)

    • Aaron July 10, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

      Thanks Teresa! And that’s the funny thing. If you read the news, you’ll see occasional mention of the “Kurdish Regional Government” but most people don’t have a clue that there’s this whole other side to Iraq that is so radically different in so many ways (especially safety-wise) than what you see in the news! And the amazing folks I met along the way just drove home the point that people are people are people…regardless of where they are!

  13. Erica July 11, 2012 at 12:49 am #

    This. Is. Awesome.

    Seriously man. I want to go so badly but for some reason am so scared!

    • Aaron July 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

      Haha seriously what are you scared of? Safety-wise? I’ve got a post in the pipeline on this…

  14. Leigh July 11, 2012 at 11:32 am #

    Interesting read Aaron – and good for you for going and showing us that there are so many decent, kind human beings from all walks of life – despite what one might read in the media.

    • Aaron July 11, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

      Thanks Leigh! So many, and I’d venture to say that the people in Iraq were far kinder than those I’ve experienced elsewhere in the world!

  15. Rojgar July 12, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    Hi Aaron,
    it was my pleasure to meet u in Erbil and thanks for conveying the true picture of Kurdistan to the world, meet u in the next life bro.

    • Aaron July 13, 2012 at 1:05 am #

      It was a pleasure meeting you too Rojgar! And thanks! That’s why I blog…to show people that the world is an amazing place to explore and that there are good people everywhere you go!

  16. Caanan @ No Vacation Required July 12, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    Sorry that it took me several days to read this. I want to be the cool kid who says that I am not surprised by your amazing experience. In my heart I would not expect anything different, but the constant propaganda and fear-mongering has an impact – even on those of us who know better.

    • Aaron July 13, 2012 at 1:07 am #

      I hear you Caanan. I had the advantage going into the experience of having a friend who lived in Kurdistan who could tell me all about what it was like to be there in real time. That helped quell any fears I had, plus, I did my research first! Still though, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly nervous before crossing that border…

      I should also add that parts of Iraq are still quite dangerous. Just not the parts that I went to!

  17. Ava Apollo July 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Yay, I was excited to read this one! There’s nothing as good as feeling totally welcomed by locals. I suppose if I ever went, I’d keep it to myself that I am most certanly not a George W. Bush supporter!

    • Aaron July 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

      Hahaha yes I felt the need to keep that to myself too. I also felt the need to keep to myself the fact that a lot of Americans didn’t support going into Iraq at all… Some things are better not shared! :-)

  18. Lev Wood July 16, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

    Great Post Aaron.

  19. Ali July 18, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    I love this Aaron! I’m so glad you’re showing that people are nice pretty much everywhere. As a female, I’m not sure this destination is high on my list (or even at all for now) but I’m really excited to read more about your trip. It’s rare to read about someplace a million people haven’t already written about. I’m glad you enjoyed your time there!

    • Aaron July 19, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

      Thanks Ali! As I’ve said in response to a few other commenters, I’m not sure if I’d exactly recommend Iraqi Kurdistan as a destination for women traveling solo. It’s a very gender segregated society, and I heard from some foreign teachers I met in Erbil that some local men seem to think they can get away with certain not-so-appropriate things with foreign women, which are highly shunned in local society.

  20. Rease July 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    I like that you are very honest and clear about what to expect from this destination. Personally, I think it would be an incredible experience, but I would really have to mentally and financially prepare myseld to go to Iraq and enjoy it.m

    • Aaron July 19, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

      Haha being mentally prepared is probably the most important thing. There were definitely a bunch of moments where I had to pinch myself because I literally could not believe I was in Iraq. I mean it was so far from the impression that had been ingrained in my head thanks to the news. That’s definitely the biggest shocker!

  21. Sam @ Travellingking.com May 10, 2013 at 12:49 am #

    Wondering article! I see what you mean by a loving country!

    • Aaron May 10, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

      Haha indeed it was!

  22. Torben June 1, 2013 at 1:00 am #

    What a great blog! I’d love to visit there. Did many people speak English? Financially, how much do you think one could expect to spend to fly in and stay there? Travelling from the United States?

    • Aaron June 1, 2013 at 1:08 am #

      Hey there, thanks for stopping by! Yes it was fairly easy to get around in English, as many young people speak it and are eager to practice it as well, which I’m sure contributed to all the friends I made during my time there. They LOVE Americans and in fact idolize George W. Bush for removing Saddam Hussein.

      I budgeted US$50 a day and did not find that to be enough. I spent around $550 in my 10 days there and did not pay for three nights of accomodation that I stayed with a friend. And do note that when I visited last year it was impossible to use a credit card or even an ATM in the country so you have to come prepared.

      As for flights, I used mileage. My particular routing would have cost about US$4,000. It’s probably chepaest to get yourself to Istanbul and then fly from there as they have some low cost carriers. Lufthansa, Austrian and Turkish also fly to Erbil (the capital of the Kurdish region), as do other middle eastern carriers, but those will obviously cost you more.

  23. Joe July 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    I was in the Kirkuk area of Iraq while I was in the army and it was not that nice of a place at that time. I do want to go back and visit, but I just want to make sure that I am not going to get my head chopped off. I do know that the Naqshbandi Army is still active there, and those guys are not nice.

    • Aaron July 7, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

      As far as I know, Kirkuk is still quite dangerous. I traveled in the Kurdish region, about 60 miles (96 km) from Kirkuk, which has a wildly different security situation from the “Arab” sections of Iraq. The tourist visa you get when you visit Iraqi Kurdistan is not valid for travel in southern Iraq. Getting an actual Iraqi visa (valid for travel in the south) usually involves going on a heavily guarded tour and I’d be surprised if those tours went to Kirkuk or Mosul, two of the most dangerous cities in the world.

  24. Tom August 14, 2013 at 6:09 am #

    Great Article, are you able to provide some details on the bus from turkey to kurdistan?
    Thanks heaps!

    • Aaron August 18, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      Tom, I was just working on a post about that! Stay tuned in the next few weeks!

  25. The Roaming Coconuts December 30, 2013 at 10:07 am #

    Wow, what an amazing trip! It seems like it’s those places that are considered the most “dangerous” are always the friendliest. I’m spending some time in the Middle East this summer and have been looking for options besides Jordan and Israel, so this was a really interesting read!

    • Aaron December 30, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

      Absolutely. People’s views of the Middle East are definitely warped by the what they see in the news all the time. But if there’s one thing that travel has taught me it’s that people are the same everywhere in the world. We all want the same things out of life and 99.9% of people out there are good, honest, friendly people who are just like you and me! Enjoy your time in the Middle East (the people in Jordan are just wonderful), and don’t hesitate to let me know if you need any advice (I’d also HIGHLY recommend Turkey).

  26. John T. March 29, 2014 at 7:35 pm #

    Nitpicking, but it’s George W. Bush, not George W. Bush Jr. (his father has two middle names to his one, so he isn’t a “junior”.)

    • Aaron March 31, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

      Duly noted, thanks! That’s right, it’s George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. However, I don’t think that most people think much about the initials, instead considering the elder Bush and the younger Bush.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Do All Muslim Countries Really Hate America? « Third World Paradise - October 4, 2012

    [...] I am alone in my thoughts? Check out  So What’s it Like to Travel in Iraq? by Aaron at Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures on his experience in Iraq and why he deems the [...]

  2. The Best and Most Popular of Travel Blogs | Darn Office - May 24, 2014

    […] Post: So What’s it Like to Travel in Iraq? Iraq is likely not the number one travel destination for many. On the other hand, how boring is the […]

Leave a Reply