For almost my entire life Iraq has meant war. From the so-called threat of weapons of mass destruction to the media constantly reporting about Bush senior’s gulf war grudge against Saddam. What the media and all those with preconceived notions of the country tend to leave out is the history, Iraq’s incredibly diverse people, some of the most beautiful landscapes in the Middle East. As I looked down a snow capped mountain valley from a medieval castle, it’s hard to believe everything I have heard and seen about this stunning nation. This is Iraq!
Traveling To Iraq: From Iran to Iraq
Tucked away in a mountain valley in Iran is the capital of Kurdistan, Sanadaj City. The Kurds are ethnically different than the rest of Iran’s citizens. Their culture, appearance, and history are all unique. Sanadaj is also the jumping off point to Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan is a new state within Iraq which is also made up of Kurdish people, they are fiercely independent of the rest of Iraq.
I set off from my hotel in Sanadaj in the early hours of the morning. From the capital, it takes only a few hours by minibus to reach the border. The mini bus crosses the Iran/Iraq border and drives directly to Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan’s second-largest city and the first city I encountered within Iraqi territory.
Crossing the border was quite pleasant and simple. Leaving Iran is a cinch. On the Iraq side, you will be interviewed and if there are no issues, most nationalities will receive a 10-day visa on arrival. My last, name having originated from the Middle East, prompted a few extra questions of concern, but ultimately, I was let in.
The first thing I noticed about Iraq was how green it was. Leaving the border, I could see beautiful, green, rolling hills, and flocks of sheep being herded across them. In the distance, large mountains dotted the skyline. After another hour, we were dropped off in Sulaymaniyah.
Sulaymaniyah is defiantly not what you expect the first city you see in Iraq to be like. Sulaymaniyah is modern, clean, and relatively quiet. I met an Iranian, who was working in Sulaymaniyah, named Mohamed. He said he would show me the local nightlife that evening. I checked into the Hotel Mazy Plaza and headed off for shisha with Mohamed first.
The shisha bar was lit by disco lights and pumped Kurdish trap music… it was incredible. After shisha, Mohamed took me to an expat bar where they did indeed serve beer. The customers were a mix of westerners and Kurds, while the waitresses were Filipino. Mohamed explained that this is where he would come to compete in Michael Jackson Dance competitions. Iraq, so far, was quite odd and strange.
Amna Suraka (Red Security)
The next day, I visited the Amna Suraka which was a torture facility that Saddam Hussein used against the Kurds. Now it’s a museum that displays the horrors of Saddam’s torture.
The first part shows some of Kurdistan’s colorful culture, with textiles, weapons, and jewelry. You then get lead through an artistic garden and into the torture facilities, where life-sized sculptures of Kurds being tortured are displayed. Following this is a room filled with photographs of prisoners and war, finally, there is the hall of mirrors, which commemorates all those who were killed during Saddam Hussein’s reign.
Outside the museum in the compound, there are plenty of Iraqi tanks and missiles for you to explore.
Sulaymaniyah’s Grand Bazaar
Tucked in the heart of Sulaymaniyah is its wonderful Grand Bazaar. It is a sight that finally gives you a true sense of being in Iraq. It contains freshly butchered goats, piles of green produce, and exotic spice vendors.
You literally can spend an entire day exploring the nooks and corners of this lively market. My personal favorite spots were the blindingly bright jewelry and gold shops and the vendors selling spices and nuts. The Grand Bazaar is also a great place to spot Kurdish farmers decked out in traditional outfits. You can see plenty of locals in town, but seeing the elders in full Kurdish garments bartering over hunks of lamb makes for a great picture.
My favorite purchase at the market was an Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdistan flag from a little shop that makes them by hand!
Sulaymaniyah’s incredible Slemani museum takes you straight back in time to ancient Mesopotamia. This fine museum’s highlights include a 6000-year-old skeleton which was buried in a clay egg, fine Islamic gold and coins, and plenty of Greek statues dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. The Slemani museum is a great way to kill an afternoon and get some insight into Iraq’s incredible history, which has mostly been destroyed by looters and extremist radicals.
The Road to Kirkuk, Iraq
Next stop in the Iraq detour was Erbil. The transport situation in Iraq is a little confusing. The guide books will direct you to the Erbil Garage, which is a smallish compound filled with taxi’s waiting passengers heading to Erbil. The guide books will also tell you not to take the taxi that goes through Kirkuk, which happens to be outside of the Kurdish borders.
When I arrived at the station, the drivers explained to me that the north passage would take too long and that I must rent a private taxi which would be expensive. They said that the road through Kirkuk was safe. So, after waiting for thirty minutes or so, a few passengers wearing red checkered head scarfs joined us and we were on our way to Kirkuk.
The whole journey takes about 2.5 hours. After an hour, you arrive at the Iraq Kurdistan/Iraq Border. The landscape really changes here from green hills to the harsh sandy desert. At the border, heavily armed Iraqi coalition forces pulled me out of the cab and looked at my passport. They were not satisfied with me being there, but after telling them that I was going to Erbil, they let me through.
Nearing Kirkuk, you feel as if you have entered another country, far from Kurdistan. The towns were made up of sun baked and bullet ridden buildings. Kirkuk itself had many oil barrels filled with burning garbage. Anytime our cab stopped in the streets locals gave a sharp look towards me.
The roads often had Iraqi military road blocks. The road blocks are heavily armed and would aim their guns directly at the oncoming traffic. On the highway, I saw a few American armored trucks, but apart from that, all the forces were Kurdish/Iraqi-led coalition forces.
We stopped for tea at a truck stop somewhere in the Iraqi desert. Upon entering the tea house, the locals here stared intensely at me, but I did receive a few smiles.
Getting back into Kurdish Iraq was easy. The guards were happy to see that I arrived safely through Kirkuk.
The Capital of Kurdish Iraq, Erbil
Often labeled as one of the oldest inhabited places on earth, Erbil feels very different from Sulaymaniyah. The streets are older, and many of the shops are set up in ancient buildings. I often saw shepherds herding their sheep through the streets here on way to the market. Erbil feels exotic and is a great taste of what Kurdish Iraq is about.
The main draw in Erbil is the Citadel. The citadel is perched 32 m over the city and is Erbil’s heart and soul. It is said that people have been living inside its walls for 8000 years! You can freely walk through the neighborhoods within the Citadel. The narrow alleyways make for a great setting. It feels as though you have gone back in time! Keep note that much of the Citadel was under renovations while I was here. Even so, it was an incredible place.
Outside the Citadel, near the new age water fountains, is Erbil’s oldest Bazaar, the Qaysari Bazaar. Here, there is plenty of pro-Kurdish memorabilia to buy, and some other interesting shops to browse. Near to the bazaar is my favorite spot in Erbil, the Mam Khalil tea house. This tea house oozes with Kurdish authenticity, and many of the occupants were fully decked out Kurdish farmers, sipping on a glass of chai before heading to the bazaar.
From Erbil, my next destination would be Dohuk, the largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan’s north. Leaving Erbil from the Taxi Garage lead to another issue. Drivers did not want to take the mountain roads, and if they did, they wanted an expensive private hire. This left me with one option: take the road to Mosul.
Mosul these days is no place to travel. The threat of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and plenty of other extremist’s groups was high. The drivers assured me we would not enter Mosul, but take the ring road far outside the boundaries of the city itself. So, trusting their word, we set off once again across the borders of Kurdistan with Iraq.
The journey was indeed very pleasant and very scenic. We came close to Mosul, and Nineveh, but did not enter any towns. At one point, Iraqi coalition forces stopped us and checked my passport. They were very upset that a tourist was here and threw my passport at me saying, “Not worth my time.”
Apart from this one off-putting experience, the journey was fine. We arrived in Dohuk after a few hours.
Dohuk and Fairy-tale Amadiya
Dohuk is a very pleasant city. Being close to Mosul and the Turkish border, there is a heavy military presence, but it seemed safe. In the distance, you can see the mountains that border Iran and Turkey. This was my reason to come to Dohuk, to venture into Iraq’s famous mountains.
The next day, I hired a private cab to the ancient city of Amadiya. Amadiya is perched up atop a hill 1200 m above sea level, deep in the mountains northeast of Dohuk. There is public transport, but it is not reliable. Renting a car for about $50 US is an easy alternative.
Driving from Dohuk, the road twists and turns into the mountain valleys. Red and purple flowers blossomed all over the green hills. In the distance, you can see waterfalls and white-capped peaks.
Finally, after a few hours, we turned the corner and had our first look at Amadiya. The town resembles a medieval castle. Its tall fortified walls circle the top of a steep, rocky hill in the middle of this outstanding mountain valley. The scene is surreal It is hard to believe where you are!
We drove right to the top of Amadiya via a very steep and winding road. The driver left me and said he would pick me up in a few hours so I would have time to explore the town.
Wondering the streets was incredible. The crumbly buildings had small cobblestone alleyways connecting different districts just as any medieval city in Europe would have. Every corner you turn, you are presented with stunning mountain vistas, creating a picture-perfect backdrop for this fairy tale scene.
The local Imam found me near Amadiya’s oldest mosque and opened it up for me to climb to the top of the Minaret. The view was great! After thanking him I had tea with some locals in one of Amadiya’s traditional teahouses.
I spent the whole afternoon in Amadiya, but I highly recommended spending a night here. I, however, returned to Dohuk and departed the following day to Turkey.
Traveling in Iraq brings up the obvious issues. This country has been at war for quite some time. There are bombings, kidnappings, random IED attacks, ruthless extremist’s groups, and plenty of other problematic issues. In this post, I traveled the Kurdish portion of Iraq. It is completely under their control. This is not me saying it is safe, however. There are still attacks and many issues to be had. Taking the roads through Kirkuk and Mosul are also risky. Now, with the emergence of ISIS, there much more of a threat then when I was there. I would highly recommend renting a private car and taking the mountain roads. By no means in this post am I saying Iraq is safe, I am just stating that maybe one day travel to this incredible place can happen again! Thanks for reading.
Location: Iraq, Iraq Kurdistan
Daily Budget: Not cheap, about 45 – 70 US per day.
Recommended Guide: Bradt Iraq, Lonely Planet Middle East, Lonely Planet Middle East Language
Top Tips: Read the Travel warning and keep up to date with the current security situation.