Iraq- Syria

18 days,  April- May 07




Kind of travel: Alone in a 100% independent travel

When: 20th April- 08th May, 2007

How I moved: buses and shared taxis are the rule, since neither trains nor domestic flights inside Kurdistan are operative. Private taxis are quite expensive and often the only choice (if you want to bypass Mosul or Kirkuk); anyway they get affordable if you can share with travel-mates.

Freezing or baking?: wonderful temperature in April- May when a sweater is enough. In winter it gets below zero (no heating in the hotels!) while in summer it's a furnace. Anyway the mountains can be a fresh relief!

Where I slept: cheap accommodations ranging from 10$ ot 20$: dull and basic rooms with shared bathroom, but furnished with TV and satellite, funny isn't? In some towns just one hotel, but likely you'll be the only one guest

What I liked: the people and their hospitality; it's truly great! To breath the Kurdish pride and see Kurdistan in a unique moment in his history. I loved the non-existing bribery.

What I disliked: what is a hassle is at the same time vital for the stability of Kurdistan and for your safety: I mean check points and questioning wherever you are. We can't blame them though. The worst was the iraqi-turkish border crossing: four bloody hours!

How much daily: Iraqi Kurdistan is not for free!. Accommodations are around 15$, eating is a cheap stuff, but transportation can take most of your budget (Dohuk-Erbil 13$). At the end it turned out hard to live with less than 45$.

Dangers/ hassles: at the time of writing inside Kurdistan it was relatively safe, while Mosul and Kikuk were off-limits: take into account you are likely to pass through or very near them.. Things change quickly up there, so keep updated (LP thorn tree iraqi section) and travelling outside the Kurdish region it's a quick way to commit suicide.

What to bring: your passport always with you and firm nerves when passing around Mosul. Awareness of where you are, where you can go, and where you CANNOT GO!!
Print out the info I collected travelling and in the net!



I flew directly from Wien to Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan. The flight was by Austrian Airlines, but since the end of August 2007 it doesn't operate anymore. Outside Erbil airport a brand new German bus took me for free till the first checkpoint (around 2km). Here I agreed a lift by car to the 15km further city centre. In Erbil I felt at ease and, while hanging around, I got acquainted quite soon with a Kurdish guy. Together we visited the citadel, the parks, the bazaar and finally he invited me at his house for dinner.
After few days I headed south to Sulaimaniyah by minibus (4h). Here, after visiting the bazaars, I arranged with a taxi driver a trip to the Gosha mountain for a great view of the town.
From Sulaimaniyah it took the whole day (and at least 15 checkpoints) by minibus to reach the nice Gully Ali Beg waterfalls in the Zagros mountains along the Iranian border. Here the road enters a several km long narrow gorge whose bottom flows a turbulent river. I spent the overnight in Dyanah, where, when the soldiers came in the hotel to take me to the police station, I had the feeling that travellers weren't a daily stuff here. (read the story).
Next leg was the multiethnic Dohuk: a very safe and nice town (visit the dam!) near the Turkish border, a kind of hub for the trade between Turkey and Iraq. Further I did a daytrip in the green mountains to visit the village of Amadiyah. Again I ended up at the police station to be questioned :-)
By a mix of taxi, minibus and bus I reached the tourist well-known town of Mardin in Turkey, passing the awful border point that took 4 long hours. In Mardin I almost felt at home, since I saw the first western tourist from the beginning of the travel.

[In Syria]



At the time of writing Iraqi Kurdistan was a relatively stable area, at least compared to the turbulent rest of the country. This thanks to the massive presence of the Kurdish army (Peshmerga) that controls the region by hundreds of check points, in particular on the ways entering the three main cities (Erbil, Sulaimaniyah, Dohuk). Iraqi Kurdistan is not the heaven for travellers (definitely not plenty of highlights) and mine isn't a recommendation to travel there. However if you are interested in a population who has been struggling to have an international recognition for years, now it's a unique moment. In Iraq the Kurdish culture, who has been forbidden by the past regime, now flourishes as never. You can breathe an atmosphere of hope and optimism, although the situation is still far from being resolved. The last but not the least, all the area is characterised by the amazing Kurdish hospitality, comparable only to the Iranian one: just this, could almost justify the travel.





If you land in Erbil or enter from Turkey (at the border point between Silopi and Zakho) you can get the visa directly at the border almost for free. If you enter Iraq from the Arab border points, I mean the ones not controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga (for instance from Jordan or Syria), you need a hard-to-be-gotten visa in advance. It isn't clear what you need if you pass from the Kurdish region to the Arab one (for instance going from Erbil to Baghdad).
On the Kurdish visa is written that by 10 days you must register at the "Residence Office", I didn't do it and at the border they didn't seem to be interested in it



The currency is the Iraqi Dinar (1$= 1300dinar). US$ seems still to be the most convenient currency to be changed, but also euros are well known.



I had the usual vaccinations: ephatite A, B, typhus and tetanus but I took nothing against malaria. I hadn't any problem with the food or the drink, anyway I never drank tap water.



Forget having your Lonely Planet of Iraqi Kurdistan! The only dedicated guide existing is the Iraq Bradt guide written in 2002 and reprinted with amendments in 2003. I've bought it and I can tell you that is useless, unless you want some archeological info about south iraq. So far all the best info are the ones I collected in the net and travelling; I wrote a wiki document so it can be updated by anyone. Don't worry, it's for free!!! PRINT IT!!!!



The mountains region bordering with Turkey isn't the best for trekking since it's a relevant militarised area

Speaking arab can turn out useful, but meanwhile, due to the past imposed "arabisation", it's unconvenient. So better avoid.

Kurdistan is a moderate islamic country, but still sensitive as concern the women: don't forget it when you take pictures

The Kurdish soldiers work to keep the stability in the region, so be patient when they'll stop, question, search you tens times per day. I never experienced any form of estorsions, just the needding to know who I'm and where I go.

When passing the Turkish border point never pronunce the word "Kurdistan", but always "Iraq". They are extremely sensitive concerning this and surely you aren't eager to spend the day at that sihtty border.

Funny stories



I wanted to see the Zagros mountains, a mountain range along the Iraqi- Iranian border. In particular the Ali Gully Beg waterfalls that I read to be in several a km long narrow canyon, near the town of Dyanah. From Erbil I took a filled-up minibus that in 4h sneaked in the mountains along the hairpins. The landscape was quite green and the temperature a little chilly. There was no risk to get bore during such travel, since the checkpoints were so frequent that I didn't spend too much time without getting off, showing my document and getting questioned by some agitated militaries.
This part of the Kurdistan is very beautiful but it's also supposed to be the headquarters of the PKK, so quite militarised.
Dyanah is a kind of far-west-town, namely all the shops and the police station spread along one dusty street with just one hotel that besides seemed abandoned, in fact it took 30min to find the owner.
Moreover the town, surrounded by snow topped mountains, was shrouded in the haze.
I was in the hotel when I heard some noises, and suddenly two armed soldiers came up nervously. They couldn't speak English, anyway they didn't seem even interested to communicate with me. They just put me and my backpack on the military jeep and headed to the police station.
There, a bunch of soldiers gathered around speaking in Kurdish. I had a small dictionary, but I didn't manage to explain I was a tourist. For the whole time I felt like a monkey at the zoo:
"Come on people, the show of the day is the Italian in Dyanah! You can even try to throw him peanuts. Don't miss him and buy the ticket now!"
Then the chief came. I thought I could have clarified everything, but his English was worst than my Kurdish.
He was nervously flicking through my passport without even recognising the Iraqi visa. Meanwhile he was keeping on asking something I couldn't understand.
It passed one hour where I tried to convince him to phone to somebody to translate and finally he did.
It was funny spending the time speaking and then passing the phone to each other, as we were doing some kind of game. When he finally understood I was just a tourist he seemed very relieved. I took the chance and I persuaded him to write a sort of permit for the future checkpoints that turned out useful.
Then they took me back at the hotel and I felt a kind of star parading on the jeep through the town; after they greeted me I was so tired I had a great sleep.