A little side trip to Iraqi Kurdistan

I often look at Google maps when travelling, as most of the time I have no idea where I am in relation to other countries. While in Turkey I realised how close I was Iraq and thought there must be something interesting to see. It transpired the Northeast region of Iraq is controlled by Kurdistan and although it’s part of Iraq, they have their own government and is considered safe to travel... the idea had legs. I knew very little about Iraq-Kurdistan before I crossed the border so here are some facts:

  • It’s a fully autonomous region with their own government and language.
  • Visa is free for 15 days and does not allow you to travel to Iraq (although I had to travel through Mosul and Kirkuk which are Arab controlled and considered to be among the most dangerous cities in the world).
  • Security is not an issue – I felt safer wondering the streets alone at night in Kurdistan than in Leeds on a Friday/Saturday night.
  • The Kurdistan government provide free food, utilities (gas and electric) and subsidised petrol for all its residents.
  • You can find Kurdistan regions in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Kurdistan was broken up during World War 1.
  • Residents of Iraqi Kurdistan are confident they will have their own country in the next few years. I’m sure this will help tourism.
  • This region has arid landscape like you imagine when you think of Iraq but between March and June the rolling hills are a lush green.
  • Oh, the people are super friendly and generous.

Getting through the border was surprisingly easy, no questions and free cups of tea while everyone waited for the glorious entry stamp. I arrived in Erbil, my first destination, at 23:30 and dropped off at the side of a road outside the city. Not knowing where the hotels were I eventually flagged down a taxi however a massive language barrier existed – he spoke Kurdish and Arabic and I spoke neither of those! After trying numerous words and hand signals we eventually found we both understood ‘Bazaar' and hoped this was the city centre. It was and I began the hunt for a hotel… this proved rather difficult. It reminded of the time I made the journey to a tiny island on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, inhabited with only a few buildings to then discover a huge rave was going on, only this was Iraq and it was getting past midnight. After losing count of the number of hotels I tried, I got a lucky break… a hotel guest spoke a few words of English and offered to help me. He was an Arab visiting from Baghdad and along with a member of the hotel staff we marched through dusty and dimly lit alleyways in search of a bed, I had a passing thought that this situation wasn’t ideal but laughed it off – I didn’t really have any other choice. The hotel was, in a word, shit… dirty, overpriced and full of people shouting. I was forced to pay for the night and with only US dollars and unaware of the exchange rate, I hoped the change in Iraqi Dinars was fair, and it was… I would learn that the Kurds are extremely honest.

Erbil is the capital of the Kurdistan Region and there seems to be a lot of wealth here; upmarket malls, brand new taxis with TV screens in the headrests and fancy new buildings. The parks here were the real highlight for me… 4 beautiful parks of varying sizes all within walking distance of the city centre.

BBQ breakfast, fit for kings.

Fountains at one of the parks in Erbil.

The huge bazaar in Erbil.

The Citadel in the background which is built on layers of archaeological ruins, the first being 6th millennium BC.

I was told that street lights like this weren't present in Kurdistan until only a few years ago. How different will this place be in another 3 years?!

Shanidar Park -  a cable car links 2 parks together.

Sense of humour as well.

Parki Shar - the city park, great place to meet locals and drink tea on the warm evenings.

Overlooking the city park.
 After 2 nights in Erbil I took a shared taxi to Sulaymaniyah, the most southern city in the Kurdistan region and considered the most liberal in Kurdistan. The main attraction here is ‘Amna Suraka’, previously a prison during the Saddam Hussein Regime now a museum with excellent English speaking guides and all completely free. This prison was used to incarcerate and torture Kurds who threatened the Regime. In 1991 there was a successful uprising from the Kurds - the bullet holes and broken walls lay untouched, a testament to their effort. Although upsetting, I really enjoyed my time here and learning more about a tragedy I knew little about.

Hundreds of Kurds were confined in small cells, tortured, raped and killed.

The final room on the tour around Amna Suraka and a great way to finish. Each piece of glass represents one of 182,000 Kurds to be killed during the Saddam Regime and each light represents one of the 5,400 villages destroyed. I'm not sure if the picture captures how beautiful this room was.

Walking back from the museum I saw this... Yes, life is very nice.

The next day I travelled to a town called Halabja near the Iranian border today the destination of yet another horrific act of violence. On March 16th 1988 Saddam Hussein made an example of the Kurdish population and released a gas attack that turned out to be the largest-scale chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history. Over 5000 people died that day and tens of thousands suffered long term effects and continue to do so.

I was lucky enough to meet a local, Azad, who survived the attack by chance because he left the town a few hours before the attack, other members of his family weren’t so lucky. We spent some time walking around a memorial and museum while Azad recalled stories of the people he knew from the graphic photos, all in a matter a fact way. These images containing so many children were horrifying and even more so when personal stories were attached, I was seriously holding back the tears and was thankful we didn’t stick around too long. Azad was then kind enough to spend the entire day with me, driving me around his town, introducing me to his friends and even taking me pomegranate picking at sunset. 

The cemetery for those that died on March 16th 1988. 

Just like the Kurdish people themselves - beauty in spite of tragedy.

On the right my excellent host, Azad, and the very kind farmer who let me eat an unhealthy amount of pomegranates.
When I say I’m from England, I often got the response “You’re most welcome here”. I’ve met several refugees who have been given UK residency during the darkest times of Iraq, now the Kurdistan region is autonomous, safe and a thriving economy they are returning to their homeland. It was so nice to meet these people and hear how much they love England and how the country has been so good to them.

I went for an ice-cream and an Iranian Kurd tried explaining the crippling inflation rates in his home country. Nope, I have no idea either.

The hospitality of this region is what I will remember the most… I was told you can knock on any door in Kurdistan asking for a bed and they will help you, I can imagine this to be true. You won’t go to many places were kebab owners give you free food, newly found friends fight over who pays for your taxi and families are honoured to host you for an evening.With no lonely planet, no backpacker infrastructure, little English spoken and curious but friendly locals this is how imagined world travel might have been in the 60s and 70s and I was so thankful for this experience. I came away with my stereotypes altered, a head full of new information and was lucky enough to meet some inspiring people along the way.

 “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” - Aldous Huxley


  1. Hola Matt! i love this post it sounds like a special place, how cool you chose to venture there. I like the way you're teaching others to break geographical stereotypes :)

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