Kurdistan-Iraq (Nov 2021)

 

It was a very spontaneous decision to go to Kurdistan-Iraq and to be honest some months before we did not even know that it is both very easy and safe to travel there. Kurdistan is an autonomous province in Iraq and there is a huge difference to the rest of the country which is Arabic. While we always felt very safe in Kurdistan-Iraq we had to pass many checkpoints and were often stopped to show our passports.

The border crossing was a bit chaotic but then on the other hand this was our first „real“ border crossing since Morocco.

After entering the country, we drove rather directly to the city of Duhok. The main reason was that we needed to get money and you can only find ATMs in big cities. And even there the number of ATMs is really low. Also in each country we buy a local SIM card. After a couple of relaxing days near Duhok Dam we continued our journey.

We continued to Alqosh which is quite close to the border between Kurdistan and the Arabic part of Iraq. At the nearest checkpoint to the city, it took some time and convincing until we got the permission to continue to the town.

After lunch and some interaction with the locals we visited the monastery close by. At the parking lot a guy jumped out of his car and the first thing he said in (Swiss) German was: “I know your car”. As it turned out he had seen a posting from us in the “Kurdistan Region Travel” Facebook Group and recognized our car. We explored the monastery together and as we really liked them exchanged numbers and would meet them again one week later in Erbil.

open air museum in Alqosh

We continued towards Lalish where we found a very beautiful and quiet spot to camp in nature for several days. On Friday two families came there to picknick and we were invited to join them. We ended up spending the whole day with them with lots of food, conversations and laughter 🙂

Lalish – the holiest place for Yazidis
Friday picknick with two lovely families – we were invited to join them for lunch, tea and dinner

After visiting Lalish, Khenis and the Jerwan Aqueduct we continued to Erbil. We really liked the lively atmosphere of the city and we enjoyed two very nice days together with our friends. Sitting in the Machko Café, drinking a delicious tea and eating sweets while having good conversations was wonderful. We walked through the beautiful Bazaar, visited the very impressive Jalil Khayat Mosque and strolled along the streets.

Bazaar in Erbil
Erbil

We visited the city of Akre, did a nice autumn hike near Gali Sherana and enjoyed the landscape at the horseshoe bend in Dore valley.

Akre
near Gali Sherana

A week later we returned to Erbil. A lovely Swiss guy – who we got to know only two weeks before on the Internet – was kind enough to bring us important car documents for entering Iran (Carnet de Passage) from Switzerland to Erbil. This was the last missing piece to be able to enter Iran which just one month before started to issue tourist visa again.

After the bustling city we did a little hike in the Rawanduz Canyon and drove up deep into the mountains close to the Iranian border. Unluckily Felaw Lake – a nice photo spot to have the mountains in the background reflecting in the water – was empty. Nonetheless we did a nice hike up to a mountain peak where we saw some remains of the Iraq-Iran war roughly 35 years ago.

mountains close to the Iranian border near Choman

In Kurdistan-Iraq we realized that in Turkey we had traveled too fast and that it was time for us to recharge our batteries. We found an amazing, lonely spot at Lake Dukan were we spent many days relaxing and sorted and processed the huge amount of photos we had taken during the last weeks. Some days later our friends, who we had met in Bulgaria and had not seen for almost one year, joined us at this spot. We had long conversations and enjoyed some delicious self-made cinnamon rolls.

Dukan lake. On the little hill with the trees was our overnight spot

As usual in regions where Tourism is not common people are always very friendly and welcoming and they are so happy that you chose to visit their place. There might not be so much information about the country on the internet or something like travel guides but there will always be someone who will help you find something or translate for you. This is why we like going to unknown places so much because this really feels like an adventure and “proper” travelling!

 

NOTES & ANECDOTES

 

Very few ATMs for Visa or Mastercard and only available in big cities. It is also very difficult to find one which does not charge high fees. In the end we found out that Kurdish International Bank had relatively low fees (1,50 Euro to withdraw 500000 IQD = 300 Euro)

There are many checkpoints along the roads in Kurdistan but usually it is no problem, sometimes we have to show our passports.

This was the first country where we couldn’t go everywhere we wanted. Some checkpoints will say that it is dangerous to continue and will send you back.

Wild camping was more difficult if you want to be invisible; there is not a lot of vegetation

long queues at some gas stations

We have a feeling that existing car lifts (German: Hebebühne) never get used; they prefer to use car jacks… (this is not Kurdistan-Iraq specific; we observed this in many other countries)

the countless speed bumps are so ineffective (brake – accelerate) and so so annoying. We sometimes wondered: what was there first: speed bump or shop? (explanation: very often there was a shop or street vendor right after a speed bump)

This was the first country where it was a bit more difficult for us to find water sources with good quality. As we usually use our Steripen to treat water we would like to have the water as tasteless (chlorine) as possible.

80% of all cars are (white) Toyota Pickups; 90% of all old cars are Opel

We saw an unusual amount of geese in the street.

On Friday it is very difficult to be alone – everyone is out picnicking

we drove 3 times forth and back between Dukan lake and Sulaymaniyah because the car mechanic was in Sulaymaniyah, but the only steep enough road to test our car was close to Dukan lake 😀

We were told that Kurdistan has 1,2 million government employees who consume 80% of the countries’ budget. That’s more than a 1/4 of the population. But we have also been told that people don’t like to work for the government because they don’t pay reliably.

You can think what you want about social media but when you travel far abroad in not so touristy countries you will miss out on many unbelievable good stories without it. Here are some examples:

Through a Facebook group we got to know a Swiss person who was flying to Erbil soon and was so very kind to deliver us our „Carnet de passage“. Through that we saved the trouble of shipping it with DHL and had two wonderful days together in Erbil😊

Through another FB group called „Kurdistan Outdoor“ run by the lovely Arazu we joined an organized “Friday Group Hike” from Sulaymaniyah. We were told it’s only a small group – it was only one bus with approximately 25 people😄 apparently sometimes up to 90 people join… The hike was a very nice experience. At the turning point we made a long break with lots of music, singing and the obligatory picnic.  Thanks for us being a part of it!

Through Arazu we also got to know Kristen and Hama. Hama was so kind to help us find a good car mechanic in Sulaymaniyah. With Kristen we spent two wonderful days together. She offered us her flat including a very welcomed shower, a washing machine and some cuddle time with her recently rescued cat😻

 

NUMBERS

we spent 5 weeks in Kurdistan-Iraq

Exchange rate: 30.10.2021: 1 Euro = 1700 IQD (Iraqi Dinar)

we wild camped 32 nights and spent 4 nights in hotels

diesel price was around 0,40€ (700 IQD)

we drove approximately 2000 km in Kurdistan-Iraq

we spent 15 Euro per person per day. We are surprised it was rather low as Kurdistan is not a very cheap country. The daily costs do not include fixed costs like car insurance + taxes and travel health insurance.

a visa for one month cost 61 Euro per person and you can get it at the border (Visa on arrival). A visa extension was only possible for another 30 days and cost 66 Euro per person.

SIM card: Korek. Good 4G reception – we were really satisfied. 20GB for 11 Euro.

we went to a mechanic 3 times

road condition: ranging from 5 to 8 (out of 10 points). The speed bumps were so annoying…

driving style / manners: a bit wild in the cities. On overland roads OK. A bit maniac overtaking.