Getting into Iraq is a lot easier than you might think. I crossed the border from eastern Turkey into northern Iraq. The whole thing was very smooth. First stop on the Iraqi side was their pimp immigration office. While waiting for our passports to be stamped, some new Iraqi friends and I relaxed in comfortable chairs, sipped tea and watched music videos on big screen TVs. Not long after, stamp, stamp, I have a free (my favourite kind!) 10-day tourist visa. This is a sweet start to one of the most infamous countries on the planet.
At this point it is time for a small conversation about Iraqi politics and geography. The northern section of Iraq is called “Iraqi Kurdistan” and is semi-autonomous: they have their own army, postal service, flag, government, etc. It’s technically still Iraq, but it’s a little different from the rest of the country. It’s sometimes referred to as “The Other Iraq.” There is a violent history that has led to this separation. It’s beyond the scope of this blog, but you can read all about it here.
Most importantly, Kurdistan issues their own visas to tourists like yours truly, which allowing visiting of Iraqi Kurdistan. I couldn’t use it to go to Baghdad, so I can’t tell you what’s going on down there.
When they hear I have been to Iraq, most people eagerly ask, “What’s it like?” Well, it’s notably… normal, for lack of a better word. There are hotels, restaurants, shops, markets, malls and lots of construction. Buildings are going up everywhere. Kurdistan is a place just getting started. There is not an oppressive amount of soldiers, guns, tanks, etc. There were a few checkpoints on the highways in between cities where I would show my passport, then get waved through. No problems.
The Kurdish people are very hospitable and friendly. They loved to talk to me. Sometimes I couldn’t get more than 10 metres down a street without somebody stopping me to chat and welcome me to their country.
As other travellers before me have observed, the Kurds are very honest about pricing. Virtually no one tried to rip me off. This is usually the sign of a place that has yet to see a lot of tourists. Maybe this will change some day, or maybe the Kurdish character will keep it honest. Time will tell.
The only complaint I have about the place is a lack of postcards :) I looked everywhere, but I guess tourism hasn’t caught on enough to justify them yet. But seriously, who doesn’t want to send their parents a postcard from Iraq?? I know I did.
Enough chit-chat. Time for some pics:
For history buffs, Kurdistan is significant. It is in a part of the planet that lays claim to the emergence of civilization thousands of years ago.
Kurdistan is full of juice stands. I love them. In the name of research, I took it upon myself to try every flavour (the things I do for you guys!). The winner? Kiwi.
I had the good fortune to meet and hang with a great bunch of expats that live in Kurdistan. I think it takes a special type of person to move to Iraq to live and work. They are interesting and fun people. I even got invited to a killer Halloween party in Erbil. Two years ago, if you told me I would be cutting a rug and drinking beer at a party in Iraq for Halloween 2010, I would have said you were nuts. I may have personally taken you to get help. But here it is.
I was thinking about the famous hierarchy of needs the other day. If I recall, a few of the most important are food, water, shelter and more Iraqi pics.
I feel like it’s time for a public service announcement about travelling (with a short motivational speech slipped in for good measure):
I have this suspicion that some of you think that the travelling around the world I do is difficult. Although I would love to give you the idea that I am a cool guy and you should be impressed, I need to tell you the truth:
Travelling is very easy.
You can do it. Trust me. It’s much easier than many of the other things you have already done in your life, such as school, work, parenting, etc, etc. To be a traveller, there are no real qualifications at all. There are no tests, no interviews, no credit checks. Nothing. You just need a little sense of adventure. Then pack your bags and go. Easy. The world is waiting for you to come visit.