Iraqi Kurdistan was a special trip for me that has had a lasting effect. The combination of such a beautiful place with a rich cultural background added with a bit of uncertainly (at that time) really made it an exciting and unique experience.
Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region that has its own distinct government and military. Despite being a part of Iraq, the vast majority of people in this area are ethnically Kurdish and speak their native language – Kurdish; more similar to Farsi than Arabic.
You can explore ancient towns and culture, or enjoy outdoor adventure activities in its mountainous landscapes. Everyone I met was welcoming and while the war with ISIS was continuing in parts of Iraq and as close as Mosul I still felt safe and didn’t have any close encounters. Thankfully the only time I saw an ISIS flag was in a museum in Sulaymaniyah.
Iraqi Kurdistan Highlights
- Rabban Hormizd Monastery
- Erbil Nightlife
- Erbil Citadel
- Amna Suraka Prison & Museum
After spending a few weeks in Iran I was ready to get out and see something new. I got the bus over to Marivan via Sanandaj then a taxi to the Penjwen-Bashmakh border. ISIS were still holding Mosul and other areas but I’d heard that most of the Kurdistan region was ok for foreign travellers. Some people would say that I was stupid going to Iraq at that time and they may be right, but I decided to take the risk and I didn’t expect any support from the government or anyone else to get me out if something did go wrong.
Arriving at the Penjwen-Bashmakh border crossing I was getting a lot of stares, not the uncomfortable type stares but the stares of confusion like wtf is he doing here. Australians need a visa for Iraq but I’d heard that we can get into the Kurdistan region without a visa, so I decided to give it a go. I booked a flight from Erbil to Kuwait and went in hoping for the best, I knew that there was a chance I’d miss the flight. I also wasn’t sure if they would cause me problems when leaving Erbil if I didn’t have a visa for Iraq.
There wasn’t any issues at the Iraqi border and again I received the same looks going into Iraq as I did leaving Iran. I got my passport stamp and started walking across the border. There are no public transport options so I didn’t really know what I was going to do. Also, there’s no ATM’s so getting cash out to pay for a taxi wasn’t an option. I still had some USD notes but I didn’t want to use them just yet, I also had some Irani Rial but no Iraqi Dinar.
I continued walking from the border and saw a group of people so I approached them to try to figure out how I could get to Sulaymaniyah. Unfortunately, none of the spoke English and I wasn’t making much progress, one guy did say taxi but when I showed him the Irani money I had left over he made it clear that wouldn’t get me far. Suddenly a man approached me and gestured away to where he was walking, I said Sulaymaniyah and he nodded.
Tip: You should be able to hitckhike from the border town. However, bring some small USD notes if you’d prefer to get a taxi.
I can’t speak any Kurdish or Arabic but learnt a few phrases in Farsi before going to Iran, I asked ‘how much’ in Farsi thinking he wouldn’t understand but he responded “nothing”. I followed him and we arrived at a semi-trailer, he was a truck driver transporting something from Iran to Erbil. I climbed into his truck and we started driving. About 15 minutes into the journey he stopped and went into a corner shop, to my surprise he came out with a 6 pack of Coronas. After spending 3 weeks in Iran without a drop of alcohol it was amazing.
We drove for an hour and a half before we reached the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah, at that point he told me I’d need to get into the back and hide behind the seats. I wasn’t sure why but I assume it was to do with security, he seemed concerned for his safety too. He pulled over to the side of the road and dropped me off on the highway. After giving me his Instagram details he insisted I take the Coronas and wished me a safe and happy holiday in Iraq. The incredible hospitality of the Iranian people continues outside their borders.
I walked to the Dolphin hostel, checked in and soon realised I was the only person staying in the hostel…I’ve never been the only guest a hostel before. I arranged to meet some locals through Couchsurfing to understand the local life and see what there was to do in Sulaymaniyah. I met up with a local from Sulaymaniyah and also an Iranian couple travelling in their van. We went to a bar and walked around the gardens.
Amna Suraka Prison & Museum
The museum covers the atrocities inflicted onto the Kurdish people by Sadam Hussain and the Iraqi government. Chemical Ali was an unknown figure to me before entering the museum but learning about what he did was disturbing and tragic. The museum has two parts; the torture prison where Sadam would torture his enemies and an indoor museum which has informative sections about the history of Kurdistan and the suffering inflicted by various groups over the years.
Walking around the old torture museum as the only person inside was daunting, it certainly added to the experience being along in the cells, integration and torture rooms. The top floor was especially impactful as the lights weren’t working so I used my phone light to walk around the prison but occasionally would see something and s#!it myself.
The Museum of Anfal and Hall of Martyrs offers a solemn commemoration that honours the victims and survivors of Iraq’s genocidal campaign against its Kurdish population. There are exhibits featuring mannequins recreating torture techniques used in prisons, as well as a hall with 182,000 shards of broken mirrors to symbolise those lost during the genocide; while 4500 lights represent destroyed Kurdish villages. Another section displays photos depicting exhumed remains alongside names honouring prominent Kurds killed or disappeared. Learning about the 1988 Anfal Campaign was heartbreaking.
Towards the back of the museum I saw an ISIS flag on display which surprised me. My first thought was that we’re now at the stage that the war with ISIS was transitioning from real life to a past tragedy on display in a museum. It was likely the first time I’d ever seen something in a museum which I was alive to remember the unfolding and duration of the war.
Rabban Hormizd Monastery
Rabban Hormizd Monastery is an ancient Christian monastery located at the top of a hill near the town of Alqosh. Walking around the monastery was a highlight for me in Iraqi Kurdistan as it is impressively built into the mountainside and you can access most parts of it going through narrow pathways into the tiny cathedral area. The monastery was built by Rabban Hormizd, an Assyrian monk, during the 7th century.
Rawanduz, a small mountain town next to the Rawandiz River, surrounded by imposing mountains and lush green hills. Rawanduz also has many historical sites, including ancient churches and monuments. There is also plenty of natural scenery and outdoor activities like white water rafting. I went to the Rawanduz Gorge which provides amazing views no matter what time of the year you visit.
Bekhal Waterfalls are close to Rawanduz and although touristy are a nice place to have lunch. The falls are formed by three streams of water which form a waterfall surrounded by high rocky cliffs.
Syrian refugee camp
I was interested in going to a refugee camp to meet the people and hear there stories but it was important for me to do it in a respectful and genuine way. My guide said he used to have a contact at one of the camps but things had changed and I may not be allowed to enter the camp. I decided to go anyway but before going we went to the market so i could buy some balls, toys and drawing pencils and books for some of the kids.
Arriving at the camp was a sombre experience, thousands of people inside the fence with little hope and tragic stories of how their life in Syria was ripped apart. We arrived at the front gate and my guide spoke to the guard who instructed us to head to the Camp Directors office. Once there we were suspiciously greeted and taken into his office. He was a stern man who was very confused and concerned as to why I was there. I informed him that I was I was just a curious traveller who was in the region and interested in doing anything I could to help, even if it was a basic discussion. The Director interrogated me and things became very uncomfortable, he didn’t believe my story. I didn’t know what he thought my purpose was but he was pushing me and I started to regret coming. He continued his questions but I continued with my story and then suddenly he smiles and says thank you for showing an interest in these people, they will greatly appreciate your visit. However, he informed me that it would be a short visit as it wasn’t safe for me to walk around the camp other than the highly secure places like the school. I thanked him and understood his concern about safety, I wasn’t prepared to push my luck. After that he was a very open, laughable character who was curious about Australia and my travels.
We left the Directors office and my heart had slowed down to a normal pace. We arrived at the school and I was introduced to the teacher who informed me that most of the children there that day were orphans who’d lost their parents in the war. We chatted about the impacts the war is having on both sides of the border and if there is any end near. I was also interested to know what comes next for those people in the camp, do they return home, stay or move on elsewhere. While chatting I let her know I’d brought some soccer balls for the kids and asked if I could give them to them. She had a huge smile and said they would love that. She instructed the kids to gather in the room and greet me, she also asked if they’d like to perform the dance they’d been practising and they were very happy to do so. So I sat there and watched these kids dancing with their smiles and yet again realised how lucky I was to be born in the place I was born, nothing to do with my own effort, just luck.
After the dance I thanked the kids, we had a chat and played some games, they were excited to receive the balls although I did feel a bit guilty I hadn’t gotten anything specific for the girls. I left the school and we made our way back to the car, I was interested in chatting to some of the people staying there but i followed the Directors advice and only visited the school.
Another highlight of my time in Kurdistan was a trip to the ancient village of Lalish.
Dating back to the 12th century and is considered a holy site for the Yazidi religion. It consists of several courtyards, temples and shrines. While i was there i saw a … named Baba Cawish so started speaking to him and also grabbed a photo. He is very knowledgeable about Yazidi culture and i felt very appreciative that he was willing to have a chat with me. You can see an interview with Baba Cawish as well as some footage of Lalish in the resource section below.
Lalish is a sacred site for Yazidis, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. Though the exact date is unknown, some scholars think Lalish has been around since at least the 12th century.
Sadly in 2014 during the Sinjar massacre ISIS kidnapped, raped and tortured thousands of Yazidis in the city of Sinjar. The atrocities were felt around the war and a catalyst for the West entering the war with the US, UK and Australia providing aid via air support.
Getting from Sulaymaniyah to Erbil
There are shared taxi’s at the bus station that go from Sulaymaniyah to Erbil, however at that time if there was ever a foreigner in the taxi they would have to go via Dokan to avoid Kirkuk. Both routes take just over three hours and the other passengers were happy to go via Dokan and grateful that I was visiting their country.
As public transport is limited in Iraqi Kurdistan and I only had 6 days, I decide to hire a guide for a few days. I was also interested in visiting a refugee camp which wouldn’t be possible without someone who knew a connection at one of the camps. I managed to find a guide who was able to show me the Kurdish region outside of Erbil who also had a contact at a Syrian refugee camp. Here you can read about my detailed guide to Erbil.
Travelling on from Iraqi Kurdistan
From Erbil you can travel south towards Baghdad by bus or plane. If you’re flying from Erbil to Baghdad you can get a visa on arrival which isn’t possible if you’re flying from outside of Iraq.
Buses leave regularly into Turkey and you can also take a bus to the border with Iran.
I took a flight to Kuwait where I stayed in a rooftop tent. Did you know that Kuwait has the strongest currency in the world? Read about my trip there soon.
Travel Resources for Visiting Iraqi Kurdistan
Viator – Huge selection of activities, tours and experiences with great cancellation and price match policies.
Get Your Guide – Great selection of experiences from sea, land and air.
SkyScanner – The best place to start looking for flights. They compare prices from a huge amount of airlines.
Hostelworld – Thousands of hostels with millions of reviews. You can also contact other travelers before you arrive.
Travel Insurance – None of us plan to fall off motorbikes or break a leg snowboarding but if it happens make sure you’re covered.
Booking.com – One of the best accommodation booking pages available. This is my benchmark before searching for a better deal (which often can’t be beaten).
AirBnB – Huge range of home to rent across the globe and discounts for longer stays.
RentalCars.com – The best site for renting cars while travelling, they find the best rates and provide great insurance options.