Iraqi Kurdistan

Going to Iraq is not an easy decision to make. There are a lot of pros and cons to weigh before you make your “final final” decision. Going to Baghdad and the rest of Arab Iraq is still a no go for tourists without official business. However, the northern semi autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has been pretty safe for the past few years and is generally considered to be a safe place. So I decided to fly Atlas Jet Airlines into the capital of Kurdistan, called Erbil. A funny thing happened in Iraq…it was really pretty nice and very pleasant. Now I am not saying it is the type of place you’re going to buy a vacation home but they allege they are trying to turn it into the next Dubai. They have a long way to go but they seem to be doing pretty well with what they’ve got to work with.

When I arrived at the brand spanking new Erbil International Airport (literally 2 weeks open), I really didn’t know what to expect. I was in Iraq after all and that’s when it kind of hits you where you are after the “OK, now what” thought. The now what was to head to my hotel, the Erbil International Hotel, formerly a Sheraton and the bleeding heart of Erbil’s bustling and shady International business scene (below).
The fortified with bomb walls (below-they’re all painted) hotel has housed dignitaries from all over the world including many from the US including John McCain, Christopher Hill and several others. When I was there, it was filled with people from several nations, all well dressed and carrying tons of cash…US dollars. In fact, I saw one guy with a wad of cash that must’ve been $30,000 in crisp brand new bills. I couldn’t help but stare as he counted out several thousand to pay for his room or whatever shady business he was doing. But this is the Middle East; Iraq specifically, and these things happen.
The hotel has 6 restaurants, two swimming pools, a Turkish bath, massage room, gym and a rooftop restaurant that has the best views of Erbil (full moon at night below) and decent food to match. The lounge act has a lot of work to do but was entertaining nonetheless belting out soft 80’s hits while the Arab businessmen smoke and drink before them.
The hotel is located about a 15 minute walk from the main town square, mosque and the top sight, the citadel. The citadel looms over the city and houses the most visited places in town including the Kurdish textile museum, where I saw a top US dignitary although I didn’t recognize him because by the time I realized what was going on, the group had walked out. There are pictures on the wall of all sorts of world diplomats visiting this museum and posing for photos. The museum however, sucks…in my opinion that is, but I don’t care for textiles much! It also has that creepy statue right outside the walls of the citadel…he was a 12th century historian apparently.
The citadel is also where I saw many US military personnel and contractors taking in the sights or at least getting out of their compounds. They were very interesting to talk to and I ran into some hilarious contractors from Alabama who were great to talk college football with. I must admit the accent was tough for me to understand a lot of what they said, but the color they used when talking made up for it! I love the deep south…and college football for that matter!
The best thing about Erbil is the fountain rich main square (above and below). It’s the gathering place of local men after a day spent doing whatever it is that they do aside from sitting around drinking tea, smoking and chatting. It is always fun to people watch and see their customs and the way they dress and handle themselves. Not to mention they all stare at you, probably thinking what the hell is he doing here!
The streets of Erbil are very clean and well kept. The roads are well paved and there is good infrastructure with a lot of potential. When you leave from the airport it is very time consuming getting in and out of with street blocks everywhere and you get searched 3 times aside from changing vehicles twice. It’s a very strange place to be and I am really not sure what to make of it.
It’s an odd feeling at first, like I had in North Korea, Haiti or Iran but you get used to the nice people very quick in Erbil and once you get over the fact you’re only 20 miles from Mosul, the most dangerous city in Iraq, you relax and realize you’re safe and realize it’s not much different than other places in the region.
I am really glad I went to Kurdistan and had no issues at all and hope to someday get to Baghdad and Babylon, but the visa process and safety issue are too foreboding to deal with at this point. Erbil is one of those places in the world where you’re not really sure what to make of it. However, it was really clean, nice and I felt very safe and accommodated the whole time walking the city without any security or escort. The hotel is a good reprieve as well and I recommend staying there although it isn’t cheap but peace of mind is worth a lot!
I am in Dubai now after a lot of flying, including a stop in Saudi Arabia. I am heading out to see what’s changed here since I was last here 2.5 years ago and head to Kabul, Afghanistan tomorrow then Karachi, Pakistan the following day. I am also trying to figure out what the hell I am going to do with an week in the middle of my trip that opened up because the British Indian Ocean Territory expedition was cancelled. I will have more about this excessively frustrating and costly debacle as the details unfold and we see how it plays out. Should be exciting, stay tuned!

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  1. I know you tried you play poker with the guy at his $30k

  2. Markus Lundgren says

    What did you see in Saudi Arabia? Did you stop in Jeddah or Riyadh?

    I am slowly getting used to Nigeria and constantly being on my gard against cheaters :=)

  3. I tried but he was busy doing other things unfortunately! Riyadh…Nigeria is brutal, I can’t believe you live there!

  4. Hey great pics and report Lee. It’s actually the first good posting I’ve seen on Erbil. I was curious, does the passport stamp say Iraq, or Iraqi Kurdistan? Look forward to your postings on Afghanistan/Pakistan…Hopefully you’ve also made some headway with the Somaliland/Somalia visit (should be much easier getting those tickets in UAE at the airport in DXB or SHJ).

  5. Since you have an unscheduled week on your hands from Dubai, you may want to look into Abkhazia since you’re very close. Not sure if the visa can be worked out in time but it’s worth looking into. Otherwise I’d suggest adding Okinawa and Jeju to the mix while you’re up in that area for Taiwan and Hainan Island. In addition to what you plan to do already, and if you do that, Abkhazia will be all that’s left for you in Asia, and you could always do visit that place directly before (or after) Algeria, Libya and Angola at a later trip. Just an idea.

  6. Wow that sounds amazing, be safe!

  7. The stamp says Republic of Iraq-Kurdistan Region in Englsh on one side and Arabic on the other. I still do not know what I am going to do wth the time as the Chagos trip is still in flux and the tour company is really dragging their feet with the refunds, correspondence, etc.

  8. Oliver Lawn says

    Missed you by about 1 day. Was in Erbil 23OCT. Crossed the border from Turkey and went in overland. Dohuk was a really nice little town and the mountains nearby definitely have lots of tourist potential. Sulaimaniyah was also nice. Getting around in shared taxi\’s was easy and relatively cheap. So long as you avoid Kirkuk and Mosul. Didn\’t see any tourists in the first 5 days I was there just some people from NGO\’s. Ran into an English guy on the last day and that was about it. Have fun on the rest of your trip.

  9. Thanks Oliver, too bad we missed each other and glad you got to see so much of Kurdistan and crossed overland. I have heard that the border is nice and easy as long as you don’t talk too much about Kurdistan as opposed to Iraq in general…safe travels and have a good trip as well.

  10. just found your site since someone left it on hotel computer. i am amazed that you got into Saudi since i thought they only allowed haj visitors, but you seem verly clever. are you going to make a saudi post about how you got in and what you saw in riyadh. i have friends from saudi and would love to visti one day. thank you

  11. Hey Lesley, it’s really not that impressive how I did it but it’s possible to visit Saudi for less than 18 hours without even a transit visa if you have a connection flight-which as I understand it is the easiest and most common way of getting in. It is really pretty unremarkable and a way to skirt the system as you know, the visa is very difficult to obtain if you are not there for business with a Saudi company invite. Many people do visit this way and you are allowed to stay in or to leave the airport with a permit for a short period depending on how much time you have if you ask and say you want to go shopping or something; you can even stay overnight in a Saudi hotel if the layover coincides with night hours if you choose to.

    Additionally, Saudi Arabian Airlines sponsors group tours throughout the year on a round trip flight from New York and I am sure other cities (I am only familiar with the American ones) and you can get a legitimate tourism visa granted from the embassy in DC, however, these tours are very expensive for a week long tour that is very strictly on a schedule from what I understand. However, that is the easiest, most legitimate and really the only way I know to get the Saudi tourist visa legitimately. I do not know if they issue these visas for woman at all though. As I am sure you know, they do not give women visas unless accompanied by their husbands.

    Again, this is my understanding and I am sure it’s not perfect. If anyone knows any different, please chime in. Thanks!

    By the way, which hotel and where were you in that you saw my site? I am just curious

  12. I can\\\’t believe you pulled off visits to Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Nice report on Iraq. What did you do with your 18 hours Saudi Arabia, you always find the best stuff like golf in Afghanistan.

  13. Thanks a lot Thomas, I appreciate the note and golfing in Kabul was amongst my travel highlights all time. I really didn’t do too much on my stopover in Saudi because of the time of day or should I say night I was there and also I was just plain exhausted.

  14. Cloud Mahdi says

    it’s not easy for foreigners to find cool and fun places around Erbil, it’s better to be guided with a normal citizen, I’m from Sulaimani just some Kilometers away from Erbil, crime level against foreigners is almost zero, people are really friendly and eager to start a conversation and a discussion, I hope you enjoyed the trip

  15. It is possible to visit Arab Iraq as part of an (expensive) organised tour. A friend went there in 2009.

  16. You are correct, you can visit as part of an expensive tour. Likely soon it will open up for independent travel. I’ve also heard it’s easy to go from Kurdistan overland into Arab Iraq without too much trouble, especially in the north but I didn’t try myself

  17. Hi Lee,
    I got a question. Would you say its possible for western woman to travel there alone?

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