Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraq Travel Blog

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Şırnak Şerefettin Airport near Cizre in SE Turkey, just over the border from Syria and Iraq

In March 2010, I had the idea of going to Iraqi Kurdistan, and despite a lot of people telling me it was a very bad idea, I spent almost two weeks there. On returning home, I wrote the following:

""Sorry but I won't be able to teach that day, as I'll be on holiday."

"Anywhere nice?"

"Iraq"

I tried to sound as casual as possible, but the word Iraq set off the alarm bells. "Iraq?!!! You're going to Iraq?! Why? You're crazy! You'll get yourself killed!"

That was a fairly common reaction, and was why I didn't tell my parents of my exact plans, just that I'd be landing in Istanbul and heading south east from there. But yes, I did holiday in Iraq, albeit not the Iraq that makes the headlines practically every day due to bombings, beheadings, suicide attacks, kidnappings and random acts of violence.

Zakho's Pira Delal stone bridge over the Habur River
I went to the "Other Iraq", otherwise known as Iraqi Kurdistan, a mountainous region in the north of the country which has almost become a separate state. Kurdish Peshmerga welcomed me at the border with free tea on plush sofas, sugar from crystal sugar bowls. Kurdish flags flew overhead. Questions were asked first in Kurdish, then in English, then begrudgingly in Arabic, and finally I was stamped into KURDISTAN (Republic of Iraq in tiny letters). It didn't feel like Iraq at all...until I went to change some money and was handed a huge wad of Iraqi dinars.

Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the few places in the world to be relatively undiscovered by tourists, but we are beginning to trickle in. Over two weeks, I saw maybe half a dozen others, each one as surprised to see me as I was to see them.
Dohuk
But nobody was as surprised as the locals. Everywhere I went, it was, "Why did you come to my country? Kurdistan is good, no? Welcome!"

"But is it safe?" friends at home asked. "Weren't you scared?"

OK, I'll admit, arriving in Zaxo, the first town over the border from Turkey, in darkness did unnerve me a little. The first thing I had to do was go and find a moneychanger, meaning walking down a potholed road through a crowd of people and returning with a big wad of cash, with the FCO's travel advice of staying away from crowded places ringing in my ears. But it lasted for just a few minutes, until I'd had my first conversation, my first invite to drink tea, my first photo taken...then I relaxed. Aside from a few isolated incidents, Iraqi Kurdistan has largely escaped the violence that has wrought havoc on the rest of Iraq, and is a very safe part of the world in which to travel.

Old door in Alqosh
As long as you stick to Kurdish areas (and there are checkpoints to make sure you do this), it's as safe as anywhere else.

But what is there to see?

Well, mountains for a start! Turkey is flat as you approach the border, but as soon as you get across, the mountains leap out at you, and they are stunning. This region has become a holiday destination for Arabs from the rest of Iraq wishing to escape the heat, and several mountain resorts offer hotels, cafes and manmade waterfalls (a Kurdish speciality, it would seem). Amedi and Akre are both historic villages in spectacular locations. Then there are the cities...green and mountainous Dohuk, historic and ultra-modern Hewler (Erbil), bustling Slemani with its bazaars and museums.

Yazidi temples in Lalish
And of course there are the extremely sad genocide memorials at Halabja, where thousands died instantly in a chemical bomb attack.

However, I ought to say that the attractions of Iraqi Kurdistan can't really be compared with other Middle Eastern destinations. The bazaars are nothing like Istanbul's Grand Bazaar...ancient monuments are in much worse states than places like Palmyra, Ephesus or Persepolis...museums are free to enter, but for a reason, as they don't really contain an awful lot...historic towns have been neglected and left to decay...hotels for those on a budget tend to be overpriced and filthy. Travel in Iraqi Kurdistan is not easy...it's not really all that hard either, but perhaps not a destination for a newbie to the region.

Amedi, spectacularly located on a mountaintop

But despite the drawbacks, it's a very rewarding destination with incredibly friendly people (yes, I know...cheesy stereotypes, but really, I felt very welcome). It's also a place where you can freely immerse yourself in Kurdish culture...not something you can always do elsewhere."

Four years later, it was time to go back. On my first trip, I hadn't seen much of the mountains the region is famous for. I'd missed out on Lalish, the centre of the little known Yazidi faith. Most of the ancient citadel in Erbil had been fenced off, undergoing restoration work, and maybe it would have been completed this time, the museums reopened. I also had the feeling that it was a region undergoing a lot of change, and wanted to see what had been happening.

Fountain Square in Erbil
 

January 2014. Not the ideal time to travel anywhere really, but that's when I get time off from work, so that's when I travel. Iraq would hopefully be a little warm, and I might get some sun. I bought a bottle of sun cream at Edinburgh Airport just in case. Arriving in Istanbul and being greeted by sub-zero temperatures, biting winds and snow, I felt a bit foolish. After a few days with friends in one of my favourite cities, I took a bus down to Ankara for a day, before hopping on a flight to a brand new airport in the south east of Turkey, Sirnak Serefettin. A Turkish Airlines shuttle bus whisked me past nearby Cizre and along the border with Syria to Silopi where I connected with a minibus over the border.

The first thing that had changed was how easy it all was. The border took very little time to cross, and I was given a free 15 day visa, 5 days longer than on my previous visit.

Inside Erbil's Citadel
Within no time, I was in Zakho on the Iraqi side, and found a hotel on the main street which surprised me by offering fast free wifi, something that I found in every hotel no matter how shabby. 

Over the next two weeks, I retraced my steps to Dohuk, where a new archaeological site had been opened on top of a hill; Erbil (Hewler), where the citadel was still being renovated and access was even more restricted than before; and Suleymaniyah (Slemani) where the Amna Suraka security museum was still "between exhibits". I did discover new things though. A museum on Syriac culture in the Christian quarter of Erbil, cafes serving proper coffee and wifi in Slemani, and the Assyrian Christian village of Alqosh as well as Yazidi Lalish with a local taxi driver in Dohuk who didn't have a clue where he was going.

Akre's old town
I also explored the strange city of Cizre over the border in Turkey before getting another flight from Sirnak Airport back to Istanbul. 

I meant to go back either that summer or the following year, as the region was fast becoming a favourite of mine. My interest in Kurdish language and culture has grown, and I've made some attempt at learning Kurmanci Kurdish from books, youtube videos and a Kurdish friend. Bad weather and lack of transport had stopped me from going to the mountains again, so I still needed to visit the famous Hamilton Road up to the Iranian border. 

But then something happened.

ISIS overran the Iraqi Army and took over Mosul as well as much of the Nineveh Plains, a traditionally Christian and Yazidi area of villages between Dohuk and Erbil, just south of the line of Kurdish control.

Booksellers in Slemani
Refugees poured into Kurdistan, a region already struggling to cope with hosting refugees fleeing conflict over the border in Syria. Erbil briefly came under attack, and the border with Turkey closed to foreigners soon after. Alqosh, the village my taxi driver took me to by mistake, lay perilously close to the front line and its inhabitants evacuated for some months. Cizre in Turkey spent weeks under siege from the Turkish army during a crackdown on the Kurdish PKK, many killed and buildings bulldozed. 

Three years on, ISIS haven't been able to keep hold of the vast swathes of territory they managed to take, and Mosul looks as if it is about to fall, with already half back under the control of the Iraqi government. The Kurdish Peshmerga have retaken most of the Nineveh Plains, and now also control most of Kirkuk.

Halabja's Genocide Memorial commemorating the 1988 chemical attack on the town
Things are looking up, but maybe now is not the best time to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan, maybe it's best to wait a while. But I will go back one day, soon hopefully.

This blog will combine my two trips, 2010 and 2014, and will roughly follow the itinerary of the 2014 trip, with some additions (for instance I didn't revisit Akre, Amedi or Halabja, but will still include them here). Journal dates are meaningless, and are just used to keep blog entries separate. The reviews attached to this entry will be about Iraqi Kurdistan in general, whereas location specific reviews will be attached to later entries. 

Photos are from both 2010 (taken with a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera) and 2014 (taken with my rubbish Samsung Galaxy mini phone), so the quality is not the best. 

HORSCHECK says:
Michael, fantastic blog. A well deserved feature on the homepage.
Posted on: Mar 03, 2017
DAO says:
Now on the homepage!
Posted on: Mar 03, 2017
DAO says:
Awesome photos.
Posted on: Feb 12, 2017
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Şırnak Şerefettin Airport near …
Şırnak Şerefettin Airport near…
Zakhos Pira Delal stone bridge ov…
Zakho's Pira Delal stone bridge o…
Dohuk
Dohuk
Old door in Alqosh
Old door in Alqosh
Yazidi temples in Lalish
Yazidi temples in Lalish
Amedi, spectacularly located on a …
Amedi, spectacularly located on a…
Fountain Square in Erbil
Fountain Square in Erbil
Inside Erbils Citadel
Inside Erbil's Citadel
Akres old town
Akre's old town
Booksellers in Slemani
Booksellers in Slemani
Halabjas Genocide Memorial commem…
Halabja's Genocide Memorial comme…
Kırmızı Medrese in Cizre, just …
Kırmızı Medrese in Cizre, just…
Pira Delal stone bridge in Zakho
Pira Delal stone bridge in Zakho
Kurdish teletubbies in Dohuk
Kurdish teletubbies in Dohuk
My taxi driver in the Christmas H…
My taxi driver in the "Christmas …
Akres old town
Akre's old town
Fountains below the Citadel in Erb…
Fountains below the Citadel in Er…
Erbil
Erbil
Jalil Khayat Mosque, Erbil
Jalil Khayat Mosque, Erbil
Qaysari Bazaar in Erbil
Qaysari Bazaar in Erbil
Slemani
Slemani
Erbil Citadel
Erbil Citadel
Erbil Citadel
Erbil Citadel
Bazaar in Slemani
Bazaar in Slemani
Slemani
Slemani
Crossing the Habur River from Iraq…
Crossing the Habur River from Ira…
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