My Iraqi Kurdistan Diaries

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Where Is Kurdistan?

Officially Kurdistan is a region in Iraq, unofficially it covers parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. It’s a touchy subject in the country with the region being declared “the land of the Kurds”.

Kurdistan is home to more than 27,000 foreign-owned companies who have heavily invested in the region, tourism numbers had started to increase recently and compared with the rest of Iraq it was declared safe.

Why am I visiting?

When asked the typical work colleague question, “so where are you going on your holiday this year?” I don’t think she expected this response.

“I’m going to be visiting Iraq.”

A profound silence was eventually followed by, “well I’ve heard it’s nice weather there this time of year.” 

Originally when I booked my trip with Lupine Travel, the Kurdish region of Iraq had been excluded from the previous war in 2003 and was declared stable. This unfortunately all changed during the summer of 2014 when the Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL) started taking over parts of Syria and then eventually Iraq.

Although most people would be put off by the threat of extremists, I have enough self belief and faith to know that at the end of the day the decision is mine and only mine. After a long hard decision (several times), I decided I would not back out and opted to go ahead with the trip in October.

As soon as you hear the name Iraq on the news or in the media, you know it’s usually for something negative. It’s a country that has always intrigued me, so when I started reading about Kurdistan I was enthralled and desperately wanted to visit and discover more.

I’ve visited a large number of Middle Eastern countries, I find them exciting as it’s so different from what I’m used to. In 2010 I visited Iraq’s next door neighbour, Syria. I was incredibly lucky as I’m one of the last tourists to see the ancient sites in their original form.

My Iraqi Kurdistan Diaries

I visited Kurdistan during one of the most unique periods, the situation was very fluid and my itinerary had to be changed several times. Whilst travelling I was blogging live from the country, here are my Iraqi Kurdistan diaries.

Day 1: Istanbul, Diyarbakir (Turkey)

Nobody likes an early morning check in. I purposely stayed at Istanbul airport so I didn’t have to take a taxi, but I was amazed when the hotel receptionist told me I’d need to be at the airport at least two hours before my departure time.
I decided to take her advice, however I really wish I hadn’t because I was at the airport way too early doing absolutely nothing.
Good morning Turkey

Good morning Turkey

I’ve never flown with Turkish Airlines before, but my flight from Istanbul to the eastern city of Diyarbakir was a good indication that they are a solid airline with good customer service. It’s only a short flight of one hour 30 minutes but thankfully at that time in the morning I got to see the sunrise as we left Istanbul.
Arriving into Diyarbakir, Turkey

Arriving into Diyarbakir, Turkey

Diyarbakir was the starting point of my adventure tour. It’s always nerve-racking going on a group tour, you never know what people will be like, if you’ll get along with them or whether your roommate will be  normal. Thankfully once my group finally met up, these questions were answered in a positive way.
So what is there to see in Diyarbakir?
Diyarbakir City Walls

Diyarbakir City Walls

The city is on the Silk Road and was a caravan city, it has many churches, mosques and a historical city wall. Several of these are currently under restoration, some of which only started in 2009. The city itself isn’t visited by many Western tourists, however it is the starting point for many tours to other countries including Iraq, Kurdistan and Iran.
During the recent tensions between Turkey and its Kurdish residents, the police have made their presence very visible on the streets of Diyarbakir. I learned not to take photos of military vehicles after a plain clothed police officer stopped me and was adamant that I should delete all my photos. His approach was very heavy-handed, however I can understand why given the situation in nearby Syria.
I love walking around Bazaar’s, they are full of life and this one was amazing, you can buy quite literally ANYTHING! Make sure you try baklava, kebab and Kurdish coffee.
The ancient Silk Road city of Diyarbakir

The ancient Silk Road city of Diyarbakir

Day 2: Diyabakir (Turkey), Erbil (Iraq)

After spending one day/night in Diyarbakir, it was time to move on to the main feature of my trip…IRAQ!

I was warned it would be a long bus journey, however this was an understatement, it took 13 hours from Diyarbakir to Erbil. The journey however was far from dull, upon leaving Turkey my passport seemed to be queried much more than my fellow travellers. This was a bit of a concern, but after providing my visa confirmation the border control officer had no choice but to let me through (phew).

On the left is Syria, on the right is Turkey ... doesn't look like a war zone to me!

On the left is Syria, on the right is Turkey … doesn’t look like a war zone to me!

Along the route I noticed many residents just simply getting on with their normal day-to-day lives, with little care that not far away is the Syrian town of Kobane currently under terrorist occupation. It’s certainly a huge risk to be here, but from what I’ve witnessed so far most people are just getting on daily life.

Driving from Diyarbakir requires you to pass alongside the Syrian border, we opted to do this but only for a short period of time, just to be on the safe side. All that separates Syria and Turkey in the North Eastern region is the River Tigris. Being able to look at a country which has recently been declared one of the most dangerous in the world was certainly very interesting, from what I could see it didn’t seem to be in that much array. However, this is mostly due to this area being controlled by the Peshmerga.

Thankfully all went smoothly crossing into the Kurdish region of Iraq, however you immediately notice a huge number of projects currently under construction with a massive amount being invested in infrastructure, this is a sheer contrast to what we in the West normally see Iraq looking like.

Welcome to the Iraqi Kurdistan region

Welcome to the Iraqi Kurdistan region

Due to certain areas being off-limits due to being declared unsafe, we had to avoid driving to Mosul. Thankfully there are other routes which meant we could simply go around the city, unfortunately this just added to the journey time, but it meant we were safe. The majority of other road users also had the same idea, meaning the road was much busier.

So far my views of Iraq have been limited (it was dark when I arrived) but I’m really excited to explore more, although Iraqi drivers leave a lot to be desired!

Mosul is a no-go area, so on to Erbil

Mosul is a no-go area, so on to Erbil

Day 3 – Erbil (Iraq)

Erbil/Arbil/Irbil (so many variations) is situated in the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq, it’s safe and has a stable economy due to foreign investment. Yesterday when I arrived it was quite late and I didn’t really see anything, so on my third day I was really looking forward to exploring.

Erbil Citadel

Erbil Citadel

Like many other countries the local currency often has huge bills, in Iraq it’s no different. The Iraqi dinar at present is worth 1,800 dinar for every £1, to me it looks like monopoly money!

Monopoly money? No, just the Iraqi Dinar.

Monopoly money? No, just the Iraqi Dinar.

Today I was supposed to be visiting the Citadel in the heart of Erbil, unfortunately due to excavations this wasn’t possible, even after our guide went to see the Governor. However from the outside the building is simply stunning, it really reminded me of the Citadel I saw in Aleppo, Syria.

Due to the unforeseen cancellation of the Citadel tour, we decided to go and visit an Iraqi park. Kurdish people love to take pride in things, which is evident from everything I’ve seen so far in the country. Gardens are tidy, clothes are freshly ironed and their appearance is immaculate.

Would you expect to see this in Iraq?

Would you expect to see this in Iraq?

During my time walking through Martyr Sami Abdul-Rahman Park, I got talking to a local Kurdish man. He was incredibly friendly, spoke good English and was very intrigued to know why I was visiting his country. I eventually discovered he was a Peshmerga soldier, he then proceeded to tell me that we were “brothers” and said as a gift I should take his prayer beads and his watch! I was so shocked, I was like, “I can’t take your watch!”, but he insisted!

So I’m now the proud owner of a Peshmerga’s watch! #random, does that mean I’m now married to an Iraqi?

After this pleasant surprise, I continued to walk around the park and visited a memorial to the Kurdish fighters who lost their lives during the 2004 war. During my time here I noticed four small children running around, they were very friendly and inquisitive. I even taught them how to take a selfie and high-five…

Meeting some kids in the park and teaching them how to take a selfie was fun!

Meeting some kids in the park and teaching them how to take a selfie was fun!

One of them was able to speak a little bit of English, he invited me over to meet his mum and her friends who were sat nearby collecting mushrooms and other food items. My previous experience of meeting women in the Middle East is that they aren’t sure what to say or do when a man say’s hello. However these Kurdish women were very welcoming, they invited me to sit with them and even took a photo of us. I’ve never experienced anything like it, it was truly a memory that will stay with me for a long time.

As it was getting dark my guide decided that we had to visit the “Family Shopping Mall”, I was expecting something like a Bazaar, but I was so wrong! Imagine a Westfield or something similar you’d see in America or Australia, but in Iraq! Well this was exactly what I found, I was so shocked, it was modern, busy and full of Western style clothes, it even had a Carrefour supermarket.

Family Shopping Mall in Kurdistan, so unexpected!

Family Shopping Mall in Kurdistan, so unexpected!

Whilst walking around Erbil I discovered many other amusing sites including a gun shop beneath a restaurant and a fast food take away place called Baghdad Burger, you simply can’t make this stuff up!

Today I learned not just to listen to other people but to go and discover things for yourself to find the true meaning.

Day 4 – Erbil, Rawandiz (Iraq)

My evening was far from normal, I visited an Irish pub…in Iraq!!
This is unusual for two reasons
  1. Iraq is a majority muslim country
  2. Alcohol is not readily available
I’ve never had to make a reservation for a pub, let alone an Irish one. It was so off-the-wall, I literally couldn’t make it up. Many locals, visitors and ex pats were all enjoying themselves on the $10 beers.
After this experience I started my fourth day a little tired, but ready to continue exploring Kurdistan.
Yesterday my tour group tried to visit the Citadel in Erbil, but with no success. Thankfully today we were given some access but only to see the main road at the top of the Citadel. However, It gives me a really good excuse to come back and visit.
Erbil Citadel, main street

Erbil Citadel, main street

Most people when you mention Iraq think of it as quite a poor country with very little in the way of industry, Kurdistan is very different from this image as I discovered today. Near the town of Soran is the Korek Mountain Teleferic, a brand new cable car which was completed in 2011.
korekpano
This was so unexpected, it was modern and had incredible views of snowcapped mountains. Many local Kurdish and Iraqi families were enjoying some of the options when you reached the top including paint balling. Currently they are developing a ski resort, although last year there was no snow, so I’m not sure how successful it will be.
The views from Korek Mountain Teleferic

The views from Korek Mountain Teleferic

It’s well worth a visit and the cable car ride is about 10 minutes, however on my way back down it stalled. If there is one thing in life that scares the hell out of me, it’s being suspended high above the ground not having a clue what is happening! Thankfully after five minutes the car began moving again and within no time I was back on solid ground…PHEW!!
When I got stuck in the cable car at least I had a nice view!

When I got stuck in the cable car at least I had a nice view!

My resting place for the evening is the Pank Resort in Rawanduz. It’s another, “I can’t believe this is in Iraq moment”. It has a theme park, chalets and incredible panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
I imagine if Kurdistan successfully gains independence from Iraq they will continue to invest in projects like this whilst strengthening infrastructure and ensuring a successful and prosperous future.

Day 5 – Rawanduz, Sulaymaniyah (Iraq)

My evening at the Pank resort was incredibly relaxing, it was really quiet (not surprising due to low tourist numbers) but the chalet was also well-kept. At first light I was excited to go and explore what rides I could try out, however the only option at the time was a self-controlled toboggan ride.

Park Resort ferris wheel

Park Resort ferris wheel

Once completed the theme park will have many rides and will be well worth visiting, many millions have been spent developing the site and tourists should definitely help to support the development.

Park Resort isn't yet fully functioning, but is well worth a visit

Park Resort isn’t yet fully functioning, but is well worth a visit

Once we left the complex we drove along the Hamilton Road. Construction of this road started in 1928 and took four years to complete, Archibald Hamilton was the chief engineer of the-then British controlled Iraq. It’s a spectacular drive with stunning scenery including gorges and waterfalls. You’ll notice sellers with local produce such as honey and pistachios along the sides of the road which are definitely worth purchasing.

Beautiful gorge whilst driving along the Hamilton Road, Iraq

Beautiful gorge whilst driving along the Hamilton Road, Iraq

Today’s drive turned out to be quite a long one, so we decided to stop for lunch along the route and we were treated by a local family to a home cooked meal which was absolutely amazing. Not only that, but it was in the grounds of a castle. Koya Castle was very well-kept and had amazing views of the town and local mountain ranges.

Once we were well and truly stuffed by the incredible food we walked over to the Bazaar in Koya to experience local life. This was a fantastic opportunity, one of the best things I’ve experienced anywhere, people would walk up to me and shake my hand, ask me where I was from and welcome me to their country. I’ve had this happen in a few places, but never has it been so genuine. I’m not sure how many tourists visit this place but they certainly love having their photos taken.

It was quite a long drive from here to Sulaymaniyah, arriving in the dark and rather hungry I opted for a coffee shop which really reminded me of Starbucks…but they served pizza! However, they also served cake, so I was happy.

Day 6 – Sulaymaniyah, Halabja (Iraq)

My hotel for the night was in Sulaymaniyah, a city which is now a thriving Western/Middle Eastern styled city with a few Dubai-like skyscrapers. However one place which hasn’t changed is the Amna Suraka (Red Prison).

Red Prison in Kurdistan, Iraq

Red Prison in Kurdistan, Iraq

This place over the years has seen some unbelievable and unspeakable horrors dictated by Saddam Hussein and his regime. Although it’s a very somber experience, it’s also very moving and is a must-see for any tourist to Iraq or Kurdistan.

One of the corridors called the Hall of Mirrors has been designed with 182,000 glass pieces to represent every Kurdish person who died as a result of the horrors. The ceiling was also covered with 4,500 lights to symbolise every Kurdish village which was completely destroyed under Saddam.

Hall of Mirrors in Iraq

Hall of Mirrors in Iraq

On the outside of the original red-bricked building you’ll notice many bullet holes in the walls, this has not been changed or altered in any way and is a symbol of the horror the Kurds went through under the rule of a dictator.

Further east of Sulaymaniyah is Halabja, this town was also the victim of another atrocity by Saddam during 1988 when chemical weapons were used against the Kurds.

Halabja Museum, Iraq

Halabja Museum, Iraq

The attacks killed more than 5,000 people and were truly horrific, the museum stands as a testimony to those who died whilst helping to educate those who haven’t heard the full story. Just like in the Red Prison, it was a very moving museum, it even still has the original barrel bombs which were dropped situated in the grounds outside.

Empty barrel bombs, Halabja museum

Empty barrel bombs, Halabja museum

Although both museums were very “full-on”, they are a must see if you are coming to Kurdistan.

In 2009 three Americans were arrested on the Iraq/Iran border, today I visited a place near there and saw the Ahmed Awa Waterfall. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, it was a beautiful site which was a bit unexpected but the locals were friendly and I found a lady de-fruiting pomegranates ready to sell as juice at the local markets.

A lady de-fruiting pomegranates ready to sell as juice in the local market

A lady de-fruiting pomegranates ready to sell as juice in the local market

Day 7

If you’re from the UK you’ll understand that the word “Chav” means someone who wears sweatpants and a fake Burberry cap, amongst other meanings. However in Iraq they’ve used the word chav and made an amusement park called Chavy Land.

Chavy Land amusement park, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Chavy Land amusement park, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

When I arrived it was approximately 9pm, as it’s now the start of the winter season, unfortunately this meant most of the rides were either closed or closing. However we were quick and had a go on a couple, but sadly I didn’t get a chance to go on the Slemani Eye, their own version of the London Eye.

During the summer months Chavy Land, near Sulaymaniyah, gets incredibly busy with locals and tourists trying out the various rides. It was pretty impressive given the location, I genuinely didn’t feel like I was in Iraq.

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At the start of day 7 of my trip, the morning was spent riding a speedboat around Dokan Lake. Originally formed by a dam in the 1950’s, the Lake now helps families catch fish and provides tourists with the opportunity of a boat ride around it. Some of my group chose not to take part, for me personally when I come away on holiday I always try to get involved in every activity, especially if you are helping local families with an already dwindling industry.

Dokan Lake, Iraq

Dokan Lake, Iraq

It was a fantastic experience, it was also incredibly cheap. For only a few British pounds I took a ride around the Lake which lasts about 20 minutes, well worth it!

dokanlake 10734014_780214432037363_6034108129777387098_n

One member of my tour group, originally from Japan, had brought some colouring books and pencils, just in case we were able to give them to children caught up in the current Iraq/Syria conflict. Whilst driving from Sulaymaniyah to Dohuk we spotted a Unicef Refugee Camp which housed Kobane refugees, the perfect opportunity to give the gifts to those in need.

Seeing the faces of the children when they received the items was precious, they were so grateful. It was only a very brief meeting but it has really made me think about taking part in volunteer opportunities in the future, especially in conflict zones.

My fellow traveller Vanessa meeting Kobane refugees near Dohuk, Iraq and providing them with gifts from Japan

My fellow traveller Vanessa meeting Kobane refugees near Dohuk, Iraq and providing them with gifts from Japan.

Due to the current danger surrounding the city of Mosul, many Kurdish residents, tourists and truck drivers that are passing through Iraq are having to divert around the region due to the threat of attack from ISIS. Thankfully there are other roads enabling people to do this, but it does become rather crowded and with the way some Iraqis drive, it can get a little scary in some places!

Crazy drivers in Iraq, thankfully we avoided Mosul

Crazy drivers in Iraq, thankfully we avoided Mosul

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 17.02.39

Tonight is the final evening of my Iraq trip and I’ve arrived at the city of Dohuk, close to the Mosul dam.

Day 8

As today is the final day of my Iraqi Kurdistan adventure, I can safely say it has opened my eyes to a world of opportunity and possibilities. Many people have preconceived ideas of what they think Iraq will be like from what they read and see on the news, however I highly recommend you visit as your opinion will change almost instantaneously. Although it’s true in places it can be dusty and dirty and full of oil trucks, but explore more and you’ll find some incredibly beautiful scenery which unfortunately the media don’t like to portray.

Zakho Bridge (Delal), Iraq

Zakho Bridge (Delal), Iraq

Before I crossed the border this morning, I visited Zakho Bridge (Delal), originally constructed between the ages of the 8th and 13th centuries in the Abbasside era, or so historians believe. I’d never heard of this place before visiting so I had no expectations, however when I got there it was absolutely stunning.

Sadly it appears that the bridge is falling in to disrepair so beware of getting too close to the edge, unlike the UK, health and safety doesn’t feature as a high priority in Iraq’s list of problems.

After crossing the bridge on foot I discovered a huge refugee camp high above the bank at the end of the bridge. I was immediately confronted with tents saying “UK Aid”. These refugees had recently arrived from Syria after fleeing Mount Sinjar. Given what these people had been through, it’s difficult to know how to approach them, especially when we don’t speak the same language.

The faces of the children were excited to see us, but also unsure of what to do or say, so most of them just ran away, however a few let us take photos. Obviously if every tourist stuck a camera in their faces then it’s a bit much, however if you take the time and try to engage in conversation it will certainly be rewarding.

Leaving Kurdistan, heading towards Turkey

Leaving Kurdistan, heading towards Turkey

Sadly we had a long drive ahead so we needed to hit the road and leave Iraqi Kurdistan. We left and headed towards the border, leaving the Iraq side was a relatively simple and stress-free experience, however as we entered Turkey our bus driver decided to deceive us. Once we had cleared passport control and received our stamp he asked a few of us to give him our passports, we didn’t realise this was so he could go buy cigarettes, enabling him to almost treble the amount that one person can buy. This border crossing was a bit like the Wild West, so many dodgy things occurring, if Turkey ever joins the European Union, the EU will have a field day at this place!

At the start of my trip we entered Iraq from a northern route, mostly avoiding the Syrian border. However this time we decided to drive directly alongside via the E90 motorway, Turkey has many watch towers along here but I only noticed one border crossing. It appeared to be open and cars were crossing, however I read recently that the nearest town called Al Qamishli, was intended to be the next target of ISIS due to be taken over. Thankfully however they were unsuccessful.

It was interesting to see the border for myself and I noticed a lot of Turkish military but unsurprisingly no military from the Syrian side.

These two fences were all that separated me and Syria!

These two fences were all that separated me and Syria!

The last stop on my trip is back to the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, this was originally the first stop on my 9 day tour. After eating my last kebab and pieces of baklava of the trip I’m now look forward to eating something other than lamb or chicken!

Day 9 

Today is the final day of my adventure, I will be leaving Diyarbakir in Turkey and heading home. It’s been an amazing trip, very eye-opening and also inspiring. Having met some wonderful, genuine fellow adventurers I now have the decision of… where do I visit next?!

Visit Kurdistan

It’s surprisingly easy. Kurdistan has two international airports including Erbil and Sulaimaniyah.

Before the problems started in 2014, several UK companies were offering trips to Kurdistan, however these were at really expensive prices. I travelled with UK based travel agency Lupine Travel who thankfully offer budget travel to unique destinations including Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea.

Further Information

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

26 thoughts on “My Iraqi Kurdistan Diaries

  1. What an absolutely amazing journey you had. Iraq and the whole silk road area is somewhere we really want to visit and may be the next area we explore once we finish our current RTW plans. I laughed when you said about telling your work colleagues, I got a similar response when I told people at work we had been to Ukraine and Russia!! I almost pitty their lack of adventure and find their reaction funny… as when they tell me they are off to Benidorm my response is almost identical! ha ha.

  2. Very interesting – I haven’t read many posts about bloggers heading to Iraq. Thanks for sharing your journey it looked like an absolutely breathtaking experience.

  3. Wow what an amazing journey. With all the media hoopla, so many people forget that there are real people just trying to lead normal, happy lives. Congrats on having the ballls to go!

  4. Your adventures make me really jealous 😀 I wanted to go there for a long time, but there are some obstacles on my way.. but after reading your post I’ll try to make my obstacles go away. This region really deserves an attention.

  5. Wow you gave me really a good idea, travelling to Iraq. This really is off the beaten track journey – my kind of journey, I am just a little under wrong impression because of the media 😦

  6. I am stunned you managed to visit all those places which are now under ISIS/DASH occupation. I really hope the new coalition is successful in restoring the region, or at least bringing it to a point where the security situation improves. The problem is that they need to address the underlying problems first.

    • Thanks for your comments. None of the places I visited on my Iraqi Kurdistan trip were or have ever been ISIS occupied! I wouldn’t promote this as a tourism option if they had…Kurdistan is well set up for accepting tourists

    • Hi Jacob, thanks for the comments and I’m glad you liked the article. I highly recommend a trip to Kurdistan, it’s a surprisingly beautiful part of the world and the people are just wonderful. Let me know if you end up going :o) Matt

  7. Hi, I just found your post via a Google search. I’m thinking of going to Kurdistan this summer and was wondering was travel insurance included in your trip or did you have to take out extra insurance? I can’t seem to find companies that cover Iraq.
    Cheers!

    • Thanks Emma I’m glad you liked the article 🙂 Well things have been made much more complicated because of the war, however when I booked my tour the company were able to find a company who provide cover for war zones including Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. I think it was $20, so thankfully not expensive. When are you planning on going?

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