Kurdistan is a fascinating place that I will get into trouble for visiting. Yes it is in Iraq, and yes, Iraq contains active war-zones, but Kurdistan is quite possibly one of the safest, friendliest places I have ever been. No, it’s not the most beautiful or most relaxing, but neither is Texas, and both are full of some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
I went to Kurdistan to visit a good friend of mine, Victoria. She works in camp management there with refugees, specifically, internally displaced people. After my time in Congo, camp management was a potential career path, and so I was really looking forward to seeing what life may have been if I had chosen a different path. Also, I selfishly wanted to cross off another country, a more “dangerous” one at that, while I’m still young, and so doing so with a friend who is a local seemed the perfect way to do it.
I only told a handful of people I was going, my family were not a part of that group (except for my cousin in Sweden, because I knew he’d think it was cool. Thanks Daniel!), sorry for that, but I knew that reality and perception were drastically different with Kurdistan. Perception being that every foreigner is either killed or captured, while reality is quite different. In fact, homicide rates (one human killing another, so, including war, murder, etc.) are 8x higher in Baltimore than in Iraq, and Iraq as a hole is only twice as high as the U.S. Keeping in mind that I was in Kurdistan, which is very different from Mosul, or Anbar, etc. just like Dallas is very different from Baltimore (but more similar than Erbil is to Mosul).
Anyways, now that disclaimers are out of the way (if you listen closely, you can probably hear e-mails of disapproval being typed right now), lets get on with the country itself.
Iraq outside of Kurdistan – Spend 0 days here unless you know a “fixer” and if you have to ask what that is, then you shouldn’t be going anyways. Wait a couple decades
Iraqi Kurdistan – Spend 5-7 days here depending on your interests. I was here for 4.
Kurdistan does not require a visa to visit, but the rest of Iraq does. It is mostly Kurdish people, but there are some Arabs as well. People here are generally quite accepting, and overwhelmingly friendly. There is some misogynistic tendencies comparable to other developing countries, but economically, it is beyond what you would consider a “developing” country. In the week I was there I think I saw two Iraqi flags, and so it very much feels like its own country.
There are various militias in Kurdistan, and “Greater Kurdistan” is more than just Iraq. It encompasses Turkey, Syria, & Iran as well, just don’t necessarily ask those countries if they agree. Kurdish people have not been their own nation for a long time and have been oppressed by various leaders, but especially Saddam.
These militias don’t necessarily agree, the Syrian Kurds, Turkish Kurds (a terrorist group according to the U.S. and Turkey), Iraqi Kurds, & Iranian Kurds all seem to sort of dislike one another somewhat, but would side together vs. Arabs any day of the week. Right now, they’re fighting ISIS together, but once ISIS is gone, I fear that they may not be as gentle with one another. Hopefully, I’ll be wrong, but we will see.
Erbil – Spend 3 days here, just as I did.
The capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and home to the Peshmerga militia. Currently, an ally of the U.S. who we fund, train, and support both against ISIS and when dealing with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. It’s a great town, with a ton of history, both recent (Saddam terrorizing the country) as well as ancient, such as Assyrians and foundation here.
Victoria talking to an Assyrian professor overlooking a model he built himself of an Assyrian village
And of course, I brought a little bit of Texas back with me to Kurdistan. I think Victoria liked seeing the familiar things, and yes, I left the flag. Also, it’s pretty cool that you’ll find Longhorns changing the world, everywhere.
Dokan – Spend 1 day here, I spent 0
This is a beautiful area that is the long way between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah and definitely worth the drive. There is a nice lake, beautiful scenery and mountains, and very safe. We went a bit out of our way to go through here though and missed a lot of it, but we did get very close to Iran, and that was interesting…
Kurdish mountains, the fertile crescent, or Scotland, you can’t really tell the difference.
Kirkuk – Spend 0 days here, I spent 0
Kind of a dangerous place. There is a lot of oil here and apparently Saddam brought a lot of southerners in order to build a support base. They’re not exactly welcomed, and they know it. Kind of an awkward situation. Not a very pretty part of the country, a little dangerous, just drive right by it.
Sulaymaniyah (Suli) – Spend 2 days here, I spent 0.5
Suli is a very cool town in Kurdistan. It is smaller than Erbil, more developed (both socially and economically I believe) and is more modern. I liked it a lot and highly recommend it.
We went to Saddam’s torture museum which was fascinating. An example of how nice these people are is after a private tour throughout the museum, for just the two of us, I offered a tip and the guy refused. He said it was his civic duty and that he was proud to share what his people had been through.
Duhok – Spend a day here, I didn’t get to go
I hear it is beautiful and definitely worth a visit. Zawa mountain looks beautiful, and it is supposed to be a great place to go. Victoria lived here for a year and liked it a lot. I’ll have to go back and visit next time.
In the end, this is a great place to visit. Namely, for history, hiking, & meeting interesting people. Taxi drivers gave us money back because we had “paid too much,” tour guides would refuse money, everyone was smiling and happy, and not once did I feel even mildly unsafe. They speak English, it is not very expensive, everyone is incredibly friendly, etc. You should be fine to visit even if you don’t know anyone, and so long as you stay in Kurdistan, as of this writing, you will be safe.
Country level of difficulty – 3/10 (Iraqi Kurdistan)