Iraq

Transport
Accommodation
Border crossings
Visa/extension
Things to see and do
Tips

Note: It is not advisable to travel in Iraq at the moment on account of the recent war.

However, Iraqi Kurdistan seems to be enjoying its hey day and appears to be very safe for the moment regardless the situation in the rest of the country. Though the current stability and safety of Kurdistan is a subject to political change.

Therefore, I am going to start with the description and travel advice concerning Iraqi Kurdistan first and deal with the rest of Iraq at the end of this section.

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Iraqi Kurdistan

Transport

Buses:
Are almost non existent in Kurdistan as is railway.

Shared taxis:
Are the cheapest and nearly the only way to travel around Iraqi Kurdistan. There are little stations (garages) where it is possible to find these taxis. They depart when they are full but I never had to wait more than 20 minutes. Drivers are mad suicidal maniacs! (They overtake on blind spots and especially when other vehicles are coming from the opposite direction. Perhaps, they do it on purpose to see if they can make it..??).

Here are some examples:

From Turkish/Kurdish border a taxi costs 5 dollars (5000 DIN) to Zakho the closest city.

Zakho to Dohuk: costs 5000 DIN (in Zakho a taxi from a hotel in the city center to garage costs on average 2000 DIN).

Erbil to Slemani (Sulaymaniyah): costs 8000 DIN

Taxis within cities will usually cost between 2000 and 3000 DIN. That is to take you to whatever garage you need to get to. Occasionally if you want them to take you to the nearest military check point just outside of city limits they will ask for anything between 3000 and 5000 DIN. (Why should you want to go to the nearest military checkpoint is explained in the next section).

Hitchhiking:
Is without a doubt the best way to travel in Kurdistan. (The usual warnings and potential dangers apply here as for any other country). So, I am not encouraging it but if you are adventurous enough this would be your best bet. The trick is to get out of town first by either walking (could be a bloody long walk) or by getting a cab to drop you either at the outskirts of a city or the above mentioned military check point. The check points are all over the place you will come across at least a couple of them within every 100 km. However, they are usually the best places to hitchhike at. I’ll explain: the soldiers themselves hitch for you. As every car has to stop for a routine check they ask drivers where they go and if it happens to be your destination they will ask the driver for you whether they could take this poor dumb foreign tourist. (They will be pointing at you standing yonder and saying something in Kurdish. I always thought they made fun of me). The point is they usually get you a ride pretty quick. Note: it might happen that soldiers will tell you off for hitchhiking and won’t allow you to hitchhike there let alone getting you a ride. It happened to me once and it was no big deal. Simply walk off in whatever direction you intend to travel (they can’t stop you walking) and once you are out of sight start hitchhiking good old style. There is almost no waiting period in high frequented areas but it can get pretty lonely on those forgotten rural roads. Not to worry, you will always get a ride eventually.

Here is a story: I hitched a ride from Sulaymaniyah to Halabja. Or more specifically the driver agreed to take me to the nearest check point as he was going only thus far. He lived in a village just near by. At the check point we were told there was to be no hitchhiking around here. My driver (a very nice person speaking good English) got quite angry and argued with the soldiers about letting me hitch a ride from there. They wouldn’t hear none of it. So, my good driver who was on his way home no more than 5 km from where we were turned around and said to me: ‘Ah, f..k it!! These people are disgrace to my country. I’ll take you to Halabja!’. (100 km journey!!!). And true to his word he did just that. He drove me 100 km all the way to Halabja. I was spellbound. Kurdish hospitality is quite a thing but I will write more about this a little later.

Accommodation

There are no hostels as such. The only option is to stay in a hotel. Some are quite expensive but I found a few that were almost affordable so to speak. Kurdistan is not the world’s cheapest country. Here is a list of some of the hotels I came across. The best deals I could find:

Zakho:
I stayed in Hotel Sham which was considerably expensive at 20 dollars a night, breakfast included (after months on the road I couldn’t say no to a nice place like that). The place was splendid. I had two bed room with my own toilet, shower, TV, AC, fridge and a big window with a street view.  The staff couldn’t have been friendlier. I first arrived there at night and all I wanted was to sit down, relax and drink some beer. One of the staff member run for me to a designated bottle shop to get me some (for a price of course). What a service.

There are money changers all over the main street not far from the hotel. The exchange rate is not bad. I got 795 DIN for 1 TL (Turkish lira). In Zakho it is possible at some places to pay with Turkish money.

A cheaper alternative to the Hotel Sham would be another hotel called Pra Delal (10 dollars/night and open to negotiations). Much simpler but definitely good enough. I didn’t stay there as I really liked Sham (even at twice the price). Hotel Pra Delal is situated right next to the historical Dalal bridge which is about ten minutes walk from Hotel Sham (city center). For some reason the people at the reception in Sham told me it was 6 km walk. Don’t trust everything you hear.

Dohuk:
Hotel Birayeti in the Bazaar area is 13000 DIN/night which equals to about 13 dollars. I had to bargain for it a little though. Simple room with shared bathroom. Darya hotel is next door at 20000/night (about 20 dollars) and right opposite is Hotel Bircin at the same price. Hotel Gara no longer exists and Hotel Perleman wouldn’t go below 20000 DIN (20 dollars) at all. No amount of bargaining helped. Nice place though.

Aqre:
Hotel Sepal costs 25 000 DIN/night (25 dollars) and is a little way out of town. Taxi to and fro costs 1000 DIN. I was told by a man who gave me a ride into the town there were no other hotels here. This sounds obviously a little far fetched although I never bothered to clarify that information. Anyway, Sepal was good for me at the time so I stayed (it was only a one night stop).

Erbil:
Sarsang Hotel was full and others didn’t go below 20 dollars/night. Some others like for example Hotel Kandeel (Quandil) asked 30 dollars/night. How ungodly!! Now I did manage to find a good and reasonably priced place in the end but this is going to be no good to anybody. My journal says “hotel in Erbil ………… 15 000 DEN/night for shared room (6 beds). Other hotels too expensive”. So the name of the place is forever lost to me. I remember it was somewhere around the citadel.

Sulaymaniyah (Slemani):
I couchsurfed here. A lot of foreigners and expats live in Gundi Almani (German village). Some of them welcome couchsurfers. That being said, there are local people who will welcome a couchsurfer too be it in other parts of the city or even the rest of the country for that matter.

There are other places all over the country where it is possible to stay. I only mentioned the main biggest cities here. Also, other ways exist as to finding alternative accommodation, though, these are usually incidental and cannot be relied upon. I stayed once with Slemani students in their Uni dorm, was offered to stay over night in Lalish and spent a night in the barracks with Kurdish soldiers at a military outpost on the Iraq/Iran border. There is always somebody somewhere offering to stay at their place. Such is Kurdistan…what a hospitable country.

Border crossings

From Turkey (via Ibrahim Khalil):
The crossing is easy and straight forward. Take a minibus from Silopi in Turkey (costs 20 TL) to the border (Ibrahim Khalil). Driver does all the paper work. Foreigners get 10 day visa without much questioning and it’s free.

From Iran:
The border is open and passable without much hassle. Crossing into Iran is a bit more complicated as you need to sort out your visa beforehand. It can be collected from Iranian consulate in Sulaymaniyah at Farejdul Abdukader street in Gerdi Zagrata area. (Just say that to a taxi man and he will know where to go). More on this in Iran section.

From Syria:
There is no crossing between Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. Only between Syria and actual Iraq. As mentioned before in the Syria section of this guide the border crossing between Iraq and Syria is closed to all foreigners. Moreover, it is not advisable to travel into Syria at the moment due to the raging civil war.

The rest of Iraq:
Travelers need to acquire different visa to travel in Arab Iraq. Traveling in Iraq is dangerous and generally discouraged. However, should you already be there or planning to go notwithstanding, there are roads leading from Arab Iraq into Kurdistan. They are subject to numerous military check points and it is possible to smuggle yourself either way should you really need to. (It is costly).

Leaving Iraq for Iran:
Here’s just a little story. I got to what I thought was customs military police outpost just outside of Penjwin. It was late and the officer in charge said he didn’t want to let me go to the border so late at night. He said it was dangerous, what with all the guerrillas and thieves in the surrounding mountains. He promised to get me a ride first thing in the morning. I didn’t object. There was no point. I was treated very well and the big boss seemed to enjoy my company. He constantly asked me questions about how to say things in English. He didn’t speak it badly but thought he did. They put me up in the barracks with other soldiers. I was given lots of blankets and thank God for it. It was cold at night in those mountains, I can tell ya! That night Talbani was reelected and Kurdistan became one big party place. There was gunfire coming from everywhere, the surrounding mountains as well as from the soldiers within the outpost. I woke up and thinking we were under attack I run outside to see what the hell was going down. (Now, in the corner right next to where I slept was a machine gun leaning against the wall, box of ammunition and all. I did consider for a split of a second grabbing it and doing a Rambo on the oncoming enemy. Good job I didn’t, I would only make myself look silly and probably get shot). I soon realized it was a celebration, seeing people dancing and shooting in the air. I was given AK-47 to make some noise myself. The assault rifle was quickly taken away from me when the soldiers saw me shooting and realized I had probably never held Kalashnikov before. (Which was the correct assumption). Anyway, long story short we had a great fun that night and as promised I had a ride waiting for me in the morning. Took me all the way to the Iranian border. How can you not love this people?

By air:
There are two international airports. One in Erbil and other in Sulaymaniyah.

As previously mentioned Iraqi Kurdistan issues visa for 10 days and it is free of charge. In case you have to/want to stay for longer this is what has to be done:

Visa/extension

Normally you’ll get 10 day visa upon arrival in Iraqi Kurdistan. The process is fast and straight forward. No hassle.

Visa extension:
I read some terrible stories about how people tried to extend their visa for Kurdistan in Erbil so naturally I was a bit concerned about the whole business. I needed extension (will explain why in Iran section) for only a few days and this is the way I went about it. I turned up at the Residency office in Sulaymaniyah at 9 am. Immediately, I made my way to the room number 11 (see information board when entering the building) where I waited a couple of minutes. It didn’t take long and one of the counters became available. I explained to a pretty Kurdish girl who spoke considerably good English that I needed to extend my visa. She said: “I have two stamps, one for 7 days and the other for 14. Which one you like?”. Not knowing if everything was going to go according to plan I opted for 14 days extension, lest something goes terribly wrong and I’d have to come here again. She explained I needed to go for a blood test and then come back to her. I tried to talk my way out of it but it seemed she was pretty much set on the idea. There was no way out. She comes with me to a little office by the entrance (just approach the little window there) where I gave them one passport photo and receive some paperwork in exchange. Then we took the paperwork to the door marked as ‘lab’ its the first door in the hallway. Here I receive some more paperwork and pay 26 500 DIN. Then it is off to the very next door surrender the paperwork and sit down. The girl left me here and said to come back and see her once the blood test has been done. And so at length blood is taken, results given. I am heading back to the pretty Kurdish girl again. She smiles, I hand over some paperwork, she reads it, stamps my passport, I am off. Two weeks extension and Bob’s your uncle.

The whole affair took 40 minutes and was very straight forward. In my opinion it couldn’t have been easier.

Things to see and do

Zakho:
There is the aforementioned Dalal Bridge which is a nice historical structure worth of seeing once in Zakho. The city is clean, small and friendly. There is a good energy all around and pleasant walks around the town are a good way to meet welcoming locals.

From my journal:
In Zakho I told the taxi driver to take me to a cheap hotel. Now I don’t know which part of the cheap he didn’t understand but I found myself at the reception of a nice hotel called Sham being asked to pay 20 dollars/night. I was just about to say thanks goodbye when I checked myself. ‘Come on Vlad, you haven’t stayed at a nice place for a while perhaps even since Allepo. Your budget’s fine you can afford it. You don’t want to walk around Zakho in the middle of the night looking for a cheap place. It is your first night in a new country…..treat yourself’. I checked in and the room was beautiful. Hot shower, nice toilet, cozy place with a TV and a window. I was glad to be there. And even though I found a nice shitty cheap hotel called Pra Delal on the next day I decided to stay at Sham for one more night. Breakfast included in the price and semi English speaking staff (very rare) made all the difference.  Pra Delal hotel is right opposite the Pra Delal bridge and cost 10 dollars a night possibly less with some bargaining. I walked around the city and enjoyed its quite atmosphere and cleanliness. The Pra Delal bridge is worth of seeing and it is not far from the city center. People will tell you it is 10 km away…don’t take any notice of that.

In the evening I purchased some beers for my hotel room. I wanted to take it easy and relax. As I was walking out of the liquor store I met a character called Shah. He was a Christian Assyrian. Sash was born in Baghdad and lived in Kurdistan and Australia. We talked for a minute and agreed to meet up a bit later on to have some drinks. We did. He took me to some special place where there is allowed to drink alcohol and there was his brother and cousin and some other people too. They spoke English to me and Assyrian among themselves. I didn’t know all the Assyrians were Christians. They are sort of a native people for the area but they make only 2% of the population. Well respected and left alone by others. ‘We were respected before Saddam, during Saddam and after Saddam.’ they explained.

After they were all pissed as pigs they jumped in their cars and sped off. Me and Shah went to visit another cousin, a liquor storekeeper (I am not sure if they really are all cousins or just refer to themselves as cousins) to drink some more beers and smoke some argila. This was my first experience of hospitality in Kurdistan even though it came from the Assyrians.

Dohuk:
It is a vibrant city and perhaps the most interesting thing within it is the Bazaar area. Go explore.

From my journal:
Next morning I woke up with a terrible hang over and went to Dohuk. I took a shared taxi for 5000 dinars (din). Checked in hotel Birayeti in the Bazaar area for 13 000 din after a bit of bargaining. Iraq was quickly making me realize how expensive it was. My room was simple with shared bathroom. (A quick note: traveling in a pair is very essential in Kurdistan. It will save a lots of money as at most of the places you get double room.)

Dohuk is a vibrant city but I only intended to stay for one day. Next morning I walked to the outskirts of the city. Silly. Could have got a cab for 5000 din as it was a long walk. Hitchhiking is easy I got a ride to the first military checkpoint after five minutes. There are checkpoints everywhere in Iraq and they are very useful too. Once I managed to explain to the soldiers what I was doing, they hitchhiked for me. They told me to sit down and they asked every driver going my direction whether he would take me. In the meantime I was joking with other soldiers who were almost always ready to laugh – the young ones anyway. Didn’t take long and I was sitting on the back of a pick up car going in the direction of Lalish. They dropped me off somewhere and showed me the way in which to continue. I got another ride for another part of the journey. There I coupled up with a Kurd hitchhiking my way. We got a ride together and I got to Lalish at last.

Lalish:
Is a wonderful place and a definite must see. People who live here are extremely friendly and quite different to the rest of the Iraqi population. They are Yezedi and as they themselves say: “Yezedi were here long before Islam”. Walking around is only allowed barefoot. It is also a place of pilgrimage and worship for all the Yezidi people from near and afar.

From my journal:
People of Lalish the Yezidi. Quoted from wikipedia: ‘are members of a Kurdish religion with ancient Indo-Iranian roots. They are primarily a Kurdish-speaking people living in the Mosul region of northern Iraq, with additional communities in Transcaucasia, Armenia, Turkey, and Syria in decline since the 1990s – their members emigrating to Europe, especially to Germany. Their religion, Yezidism, is a branch of Yazdanism, and is seen as a highly  syncretic complex of local Kurdish beliefs and Islamic Sufi doctrine introduced to the area by Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in the 12th century. The Yazidi believe in God as creator of the world, which he placed under the care of seven holy beings or angels, the chief of whom is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel.’ I just thought Wikipedia explains it so nicely, why bother.

Lalish for Yezidi is what Mecca is for Muslims. People are only allowed within the complex barefoot. Friendly and hospitable people living in simple and humble dwellings. Some were trying to persuade me to stay over night and I wanted to and I should have but for some reason I declined. I don’t know why. They showed me around and tried to explain their religion. Then I left. It took a few rides again. From Lalish to dangerous Arab area of Shekham and from there to Cher. By 7 pm I reached Aqra.

Aqre:
The town built on a hill side. Small and colorful with narrow streets and nice people into the bargain. All in all I think Aqra is a good place to stay for one day unless you have some business there. A good idea would be to explore the narrow streets on the hillside or walk all the way up to the top of the hill for stunning view. People are as usual very hospitable. Not a bad place to stop for a day or two if you have nothing else to do.

From my journal:
The guy who gave me last ride took me to a hotel there a little bit off the town center and said this was the only Hotel in town. I was a little skeptical but in the end I took his word for it and didn’t even bother to check if that was true either. The hotel was called Sepal. Cost 25 000 den (way too much for what it was). Taxi ride to the town center was 1000 den either way.

The next day I enjoyed the town and talked to almost everybody I met while negotiating narrow streets. I came across two traffic police officers who were so curious about me they even invited me to have a lunch with them during their brake. Obviously they insisted that they pay for everything. After a bit of easy chatting they instructed me about the way I should take to get out of Aqra in the direction of Erbil the capital city of Kurdish region. I took a taxi to drive me to the town border but it took almost an hour to explain that to the taxi driver. When he finally understood what I wanted he just couldn’t figure out why would a foreigner wanted to go only just outside of the city and then be dropped off in the middle of nowhere on the road. Poor sod he wasn’t getting anything of what I said…

When I finally did get there I managed a hitch to the nearest military check point where two lieutenants in civil clothes gave me a ride halfway. God knows where that was but as I hitchhiked onwards I was picked up by another military car and again brought to a station of some kind. I met some important looking official outside and he ordered me to empty my backpack so they could have a look at everything I carried. He also asked a lot of silly questions but I didn’t mind I was getting used to this by now. My answers, again, seemed completely irrelevant. They searched my backpack, luckily I had the knife on me as always when hitchhiking. I was worried they might take it away from me should they find it. These people were easier than the ones before (Check out my blog ‘Iraqi CIA‘ for full story) and didn’t make much fuss about me. After they were sure I didn’t carry any weapons or explosives they send me on my way again.

Erbil:
Historical city which is also the capital of Kurdistan. The most impressive and interesting thing here is by all means the Citadel. Historic structure dating back 6000 years. It is possible to enter and see all that is within. The whole thing is very astonishing. There are other things to see and do in Erbil like the Great Bazaar or the museum. If you are into that sort of thing then a few days in Erbil will work wonders.

From my journal:
I got another two rides and reached Erbil in the late afternoon. I started to look for a place to stay at around the city center where the citadel is. These people are crazy! They ask such a ridiculous prices everywhere…it is unchristian! Most ungodly behavior. The only cheap place the Sarsang hotel outside of the main entrance of the citadel was full. Others were not below 20 dollars. Hotel Kandeed (Quandil) which I heard was supposed to be cheap was even 30 dollars. Not a penny less. The capital was expensive that’s for sure and I didn’t want to hang around for too long. Finally I managed to check into a hotel (can’t remember the name) for 15 dollars but it took almost 30 minutes of hard bargaining and persuading on my side. I walked around and inside the citadel, went into a few parks around the city and I saw the Kurdish parliament (no taking pictures allowed there). City center is a good place to people watch for a while while enjoying tea in one of the local side street tea shops. All in all two nights in Erbil were more than enough and I wanted to leave the place. From Erbil city center it was 3000 den to Slemani garage (bus station) and from there a bus for 8000 den to Sulaymaniyah. By taxi all the way would have been 30 000 den. I opted for a bus as I didn’t feel like hitchhiking.

The bus ride was a bit scary as I think the driver was a little retarded or a psycho. Either way we passed through Kirkuk (supposed to be a dangerous place). I didn’t mind. A lot of Kurdish people throughout assured me that Kirkuk was relatively safe unlike Mosul (where people disappear within 15 minutes of their arrival).

On the bus I made friends with two young Kurdish guys. Students of English at Slemani University. After some talking they invited me for a dinner at their uni dormitory. I kindly agreed and the rest of the journey passed uneventfully.

Sulaymaniyah (Slemani):
There are lot of museums and galleries to see. But the city has so much more to offer. Markets and bazaars to be explored at night time. Local cuisine is a thing to try here. Meet the Slemani University students. I met them by chance and hung out with them for few days. They are definitely the best guides. They specifically asked me to tell all the travelers going that way to look them up. They love improving their English language and interact with foreigners from around the world. Beware, they are likely to hold your hand when you walk with them. Just tell them it’s not your thing :) and they will understand. Anyway, if anybody’s interested in meeting them I am happy to refer via email.

Halabja:
Is a nice town with a sorrowful history. In 1988 the place was attacked and most of its population killed. Chemical weapons were used. There is a monument that you can go and see. The entry is free and the experience incredibly intense. I would be surprised if it didn’t make you want to cry as you leave the building. Nothing for the soft-hearted.

Amadiya:
Small mountain top town with great view. Worth seeing but only as a day trip.

There are many other things to see and do in Iraqi Kurdistan, though the highlight of the country is definitely its people, their never ending, omnipresent hospitality and willingness to help and make a visitor feel at home.

Tips

Don’t attempt traveling to Arab Iraq. It is dangerous. I went to Mosul for half a day and never knew how lucky I was to make it out of there alive. I found out afterwards that Mosul was the second most dangerous city in Iraq and foreigners were usually kidnapped withing 15 minutes of arriving. Similar goes for Kirkuk, though local Kurdish people maintained it was much more safer than Mosul. Anyway, the bottom line is don’t go, don’t try. You’ll get yourself in trouble.

Northern Iraq is strictly a cash country. You won’t get much chance to use ATM so make sure you have enough cash on you. Alternatively, you can get money send to you via Western Union.

Learn to pray to Allah and get a real good life insurance when driving in shared taxis. Drivers are suicidal to the point where it ceases to be funny.

Don’t go hiking in the Iraq/Iran border area or do go but make sure you know exactly where the border line is. You’ll get in trouble if you accidentally cross it. Best not to even go near it.

Watch out for land mines. Leftover of the Iran/Iraq war. There are still many of them around so watch your step.

Use police and military people at the checkpoints to hitch you a ride if you intend to hitchhike. Be friendly to them.

If you are detained by strange looking people, hauled into a vehicle and driven far away into a dodgy looking building for interrogation, don’t worry you are not being kidnapped. That is Iraqi secret police and they do this from time to time. It happened to me three times while in Iraq. The first time was real scary but it got better after that. Have a chat to them, show them passport and eventually they will let you go. However, I appreciate that it is hard to tell whether you being kidnapped or merely temporarily detained in the country that is infamous for kidnapping cases. This is a tough one. The bottom line is if you are scared, don’t go wandering into the woods! (For the whole story about Iraqi secret police, see the article ‘Iraqi CIA‘ in my blog).

Drink pomegranate juice. It is available everywhere, it is cheap and it is the best drink you will have ever tasted.

Talk to people whenever you can. They will treat you like an honored visitor to their country. In fact, most of the time they will pay for whatever it is you are trying to pay for. Be it a drink you have just ordered or a cab you intended to go home with. They will come with you to make sure you arrived safely. Then they will pay for your taxi and take another one home. Things like that. They never cease to surprise you so treat them well and be respectful.

Drinking is only allowed at home and alcohol is available for purchase in designated shops. Not to worry there is plenty of them and they are open till late.

As it is usually the case in Middle Eastern countries the bargaining is not unheard of. Most prices in Iraq are subject to negotiation.

Arab Iraq

For the moment travelers are highly discouraged from traveling into Arab Iraq.

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