Iraq? Why on Earth Would We Want to go There?
Travelling In Kurdistan, Northern Iraq
Though it was always considered a maybe destination for our current (not the best time to visit) Cairo to (almost) Istanbul trip, we only settled on heading to Iraq when it became the cheapest way to get from Beirut to within range of the east of Turkey.
Iraq? That’s the place on the TV isn’t it? Are you mad?
It is and no we’re not. This is the ‘other’ Iraq.
The other Iraq?
Yup. Home to the Kurds, Northern Iraq is all but independent. The region has its own flag – flown everywhere – and army, loves America and uses the US Dollar as much as Iraqi Dinars. It’s green, rains a lot (in April anyway) and no one shows an interest in cutting off your head and posting the footage on Youtube.
So it is completely safe then?
Nowhere can be considered completely safe. Random violence can happen anywhere in the world but we considered the chances of this happening in Iraqi Kurdistan were remote and felt assured there was adequate protection against the sort of targeted violence still prevalent in the rest of Iraq. No foreigner has been killed, wounded or kidnapped in Kurdistan since the Coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003.
We expected the downside for ensuring our safety would be having to pass through numerous checkpoints, have to continually show our passports and our bags searched frequently. The reality was no one touched our luggage, checkpoints were minimal and we only had to show ID a handful of times.
Two days before our flight 50 people were injured in riots in Sulimaniyah. Though we hadn’t planned to go there we were told, in a broken English/Turkish conversation, this was a ‘big problem’. As we didn’t go there we can’t say whether it would have been safe to do so or not.
Our biggest concern was in travelling between cities our driver would take the fastest route and go near somewhere thoroughly dangerous like Mosul. The throat cutting gestures made by taxi drivers were enough to suggest Mosul would be the last place they would think of going near.
We can now say that even though we considered the region safe enough in advance of our visit we still overestimated the danger. Nothing came anywhere close to the anxiety I felt when three guys tried to follow me into a toilet cubicle in New York because they didn’t like my skin colour and/or accent.
How do your family feel about your visiting Iraq?
Erm, we didn’t tell them. With members of her family having already been affected by a hurricane in Australia and Japan’s earthquake and nuclear crisis, Deirdre felt her mum might prefer to be left in the dark on this matter.
That’s a bit hypercritical isn’t it? You say it is safe but you are not willing to let your family know
Perception and reality do not always match. Despite featuring in the New York Time’s 41 Places to go in 2011 word even among backpackers is spreading slowly that Northern Iraq is a safe destination. It was unlikely our families would think anything but the worst.
So no ‘I went to Iraq and all I got were this t-shirt and a limp’ souvenir then?
After leaving the airport it took three days before we heard our first western accent. Though we did see ‘Alan, 2008’ graffiti scratched into a wall in Erbil Citidel and had read reports by bloggers such as Foxnomad, tourism is clearly still in it’s infancy.
The good news for whoever is in charge of promoting Northern Iraq to the world is we did meet a few people in nearby countries who suggested they might head there. Even so on a rainy day in the capital Erbil I had the city’s major tourist attraction to myself.
How much does it cost to visit Northern Iraq?
We were given a ten day visa free on arrival at the airport but once leaving the terminal we soon encountered the main drain on our finances: taxi drivers. We rejected the $50 bullshit prices to travel to the city centre and, unable to get any sensible prices, instead walked for about 20 minutes away to a main road, hopped into a passing car and paid around $6. As our shopkeeper driver explained: every car in Iraq is a taxi.
Travelling from city to city is done by shared taxi. Prices are per person but expect to pay for each person absent if you want to go somewhere and no one else does. Travelling late in the day increases the chances of having, and paying for, a cab all to yourself. Wandering Earl’s post, How Much It Costs To Travel In Iraqi Kurdistan, was a great help in fixing taxi rates amongst other things.
Erbil to Akre: ID10,000 (4 people in the car)
Akre to Dohuk: ID10,000 (2 people)
Dohuk to Amadiya: ID10,000 (2 people)
Dohuk to Zakho: ID8000 (2 people but charged for a third after a bit of a row)
Iraqi side of the Border to Silopi (Turkey) 20TL each (4 people)
In Erbil we stayed near the bazaar and citadel in Hotel Rayon. We paid ID12,500 each (based on three nights), had a TV and aircon and shared a bathroom and fridge with the next door room. It took a while to get across what we required in our Tarzan Turkish to Hamed, the manager/receptionist, but once he got it he was very helpful and always friendly.
Centrally located Hotel Parleman was our home in Dohuk for ID10,000 per person, per night. The room was small, the staff generally friendly, if not always effectively helpful, and the two resident cockroaches were hosed down the squat toilet. The TV worked, the fridge didn’t.
Food and Drink
Falafel or Shwarma (sandwich): ID1000
Kebab (plate): ID4000
Syrian shish kebab (including free soup, salad and 7 other starters): ID8000
Pizza meal (including free soup and salad and tea): ID8000
Small bottle of water: ID250
Big bottle of water: ID500
Efes beer (take out): ID1000
We saw or visited parks, waterfalls and a citadel and didn’t pay an entrance fee anywhere. Otherwise we just wandered around cities and towns.
* Take up offers of hospitality: the Kurds are an extremely hospitable people and you may be invited to stay in a Kurdish home.
* Not much English is spoken. In Dohuk many people speak only Kurdish but elsewhere in the country Turkish can be as useful as Arabic. At the very least learn your numbers in Arabic, both written and spoken.
* If crossing into Iraq from Turkey, or vice versa, avoid using the K word. Always refer to the region as Iraq: Turkish officialdom is extremely sensitive on the issue of Kurdistan.
* Take enough money, preferably in US$, to cover your stay in the region. If there are ATMs in north Iraq, we didn’t see them. Euros and Turkish Lira will also be useful.
* We were without internet for much of our time in Iraq. In Dohuk, we discovered we could buy TarinNet cards and log in to the wifi signals floating around the town. Prices were ID1000 for one hour. Other companies offered similar services.
* In Dohuk, there is a big supermarket near the Dream City amusement park. Though surprisingly expensive for most things (except water) prices are in US Dollars. We bought a token item with a large Dollar bill and asked for our change in Dinar. Result: we exchanged our currency at the official rate and paid no commission.
The exchange rate was around $1 to ID1200 (£1 = ID1950) during our visit in April 2011.
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This piece was first published in an older version of our blog which included the following comments:
said: “Awesome stuff! Glad to hear you went and didn’t have any problems either, not that I expected anything to happen of course.
Reading about Kurdistan really makes me want to return. There was just too much to try and squeeze in the first time considering we’re only able to obtain that 10-day visa!
Your advice is spot on as well. And thanks so much for the link”
– we replied: “Hi Earl, I’m glad we went. Deirdre took a bit of persuading especially as it took about six attempts to book the flight. It seemed fate was saying we shouldn’t go but in the end she is glad we did and should now bow to my wisdom on the matter.
said: “It’s nice to see someone give the REAL story about traveling to Iraq. Perceptions in the news about any number of places from Mexico to Japan can often deter visitors. Taxi drivers seem to make a killing all over the world. Even just in Belfast, I was cautioned how much drivers will rip off Americans.”
– we replied: “Not all taxi drivers are scum, it just seems that way. Within minutes of arriving in Beirut I chased one of the buggers down the street with the serious intention of inflicting GBH.”
said: “Glad to see you made it into Iraq. After reading your account of Kurdistan I feel a lot more at ease about adding a 10 day visit into my itinerary. That Erbil citadel looks really neat.”
– we replied: “I hope you do make the addition. It is a fascinating place worth going just to experience the hospitality of the Kurdish people as they build their country. The citadel was cool – I rampaged around the place like a ten year old.”