Whereas I don’t think that Kurdistan is a particularly challenging destination and it is very safe, we can’t forget that it is a highly volatile region that still belongs to Iraq, which is a war zone. The following article is a compilation of different personal travel stories, so you will get an idea of what is it like to go backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan. For practical information, don’t forget to read my 50 Useful tips for traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan
The story begins on a lovely April afternoon, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
I was hanging out with Karez, a twenty-year-something local dude who picked me up in his fancy BMW while I was hitchhiking.
We had stopped by to the road to admire the sunset, not without first stopping at the Christian district of Soran to buy some ale.
We were just having a surprisingly banal conversation, not very different from the convo normal people would have at the bar in my home village, but very different from any convo I would expect to have with an Iraqi.
Karez: Do you like my car?
Karez was completely obsessed with his car, so we spent the whole afternoon talking about his car, about whether I like cars or not, and about an Italian girlfriend he claimed to have, even though he had never actually seen her but, apparently, they talked via Skype quite often.
Karez: Would you like to talk to her?
Me: Not really.
But he still grabbed his phone, started dialing and, in less than 2 minutes I was looking at an Italian girl in her pajamas through the screen of his phone.
Karez: Say something.
I didn’t really wanna talk to her and I didn’t know what to say but. luckily, she hanged up immediately after she saw my face.
Karez: She is very shy – He said kind of laughing.
Karez was the typical village guy from this part of the world, like all the ones I met when traveling in the Middle East, but he was a nice guy and we were actually having fun.
However, our happiness was suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a random dude who looked like a real asshole and began to argue with Karez in Kurdish. I didn’t really know what was going until he told me:
Me: Why? Who are you?
Asshole: Give me your passport
Me: I am not giving you my passport. If you are a cop, show me your ID.
He didn’t want to show it, so I also didn’t show him my passport.
Me: When you prove you are a policeman, I will give you my passport.
With an extremely loud sigh, like if it was such a big effort, he went back to his car and came back with his ID, looking so pissed off.
I gave him my passport and, after seeing he couldn’t do anything to me, he tried to make some trouble from the beer I was drinking.
Drinking was legal, especially if we were outside of the village and I knew it because the locals told me and because I had been doing it for the last week. Nevertheless, it only needs one asshole police to ruin your day and, according to Karez, that guy was a real dick.
Cop: Why are you drinking beer?
Me: As far as I know, it is completely legal and, in fact, I just bought it in a shop 5 minutes from here.
Cop: Give me your camera.
He took my camera and went back to his car for around 10 minutes. I approached him and he told me not to move.
When he came back, he made me scroll all the photos one by one.
Me: Seriously, what is your problem? For the last week, I have only been meeting awesome people and you are the first and only one who is looking for trouble.
Karez: He is saying that you are a suspicious person.
Me: Come on, this is bullshit.
After checking all the photos, he made me hold the beer and started taking pictures of me from different perspectives. Yeah, it was so weird.
Then, he wanted to check my backpack, so he started emptying it, also taking photos of me holding most of the things that were inside.
The funny part came once he opened my notebook to read my notes and found like a tiny piece of candy stuck to one of the middle pages. I seriously didn’t know where that came from.
Cop: Oooh, oooh, what’s that?
Me: What is what?
No kidding. He smelled it and said:
Seriously, besides being a dick, he was stupid.
Me: Of course not. This must be candy or something similar.
He kept checking all my stuff and, to be honest, I was very worried that he would eventually find my drone, because I knew he would give me some trouble for carrying it.
And did he ever!
When he found it, he didn’t hesitate to call I don’t know who over the phone and, in less than 15 minutes, 4 military peshmerga showed up in 2 military cars. They looked quite serious but, unlike the other fool, they were kind, even though they didn’t speak English.
Peshmerga: Why do you have a drone? – The policeman translated for me
Me: Well, as you can see on my passport, I have been traveling for a long time and, the same way I also have winter gear which I am not using here, I also have a drone which I didn’t fly in this country.
It was absolutely true. I never flew it in Iraq and wasn’t thinking of doing it, no way.
Peshmergas: So why you have it in your backpack and not in the hotel?
Me: I never leave my valuable things when I stay in cheap hotels.
They didn’t really believe me so, supposedly, they arrested me and I was taken to a military base.
Usually, this kind of adventures is pretty cool but not this time, as I was so pissed off by that guy and was afraid of losing my drone.
We went into a room with the peshmergas, all standing around a desk where an old military man, who looked like the one in charge, was sitting.
The stupid cop was finally gone but here nobody spoke English, so I was talking to a translator over the phone.
Again, they asked me the same questions:
Why did I have a drone and, if I didn’t fly it, why it was in my backpack.
I gave them the same answers, but they were a bit skeptical.
The translator told me that, most likely, I would be gone shortly, but they would keep my drone.
Translator: The drones are used by the Islamic State, so we have a pretty strict policy with this issue. I am sorry but you need to leave your drone.
I told them again the same story but adding that I was a long-term traveler, as they can see on my passport. I showed them my blog, all the photos I have taken and invited them to check the drone’s SD card, as well as my laptop and everything they wanted, because I had absolutely nothing to hide.
It took me a long while but I managed to convince them and they let me go with my drone and, on top of that, they apologized for the police attitude towards me.
Then I realized that backpacking in Kurdistan was not as easy as I thought it was
That was my second visit to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The first was in 2015, when I still belonged to the corporate world and could only travel during my short vacations.
Therefore, since I only had a couple of days, I decided to stay in Erbil and do day trips from there with the help of a driver.
It was so easy and, since then, I had been promoting Iraqi Kurdistan as if it was an easy and comfortable place for backpacking.
But I was wrong.
Iraq is a military country and an actual war zone and, although Kurdistan is a safe and autonomous region, we can’t forget that it still belongs to Iraq and it is highly unstable, with no tourist infrastructure and a huge military presence.
On the other hand, the good thing about traveling to a country with such a military context is that you meet incredible people who have lived incredible first-hand experiences, hence have awesome stories to tell.
The day I met Ramzi
I had just arrived in Aqrah, a mountain town in the center of Kurdistan.
I was wondering around the bazaar when a man approached me:
Hey, where are you from?
He was a 60-year old man named Ramzi, a little bit eccentric, the kind of people I like.
Ramzi: Do you wanna have some chai?
Ramzi was very hyperactive for his age. He just kept talking and moving from one place to the other. However, he was not annoying at all and I liked listening to him.
Besides being a village Kurd, Ramzi spoke very fluent English and was very smart, so I quickly assumed that he had some interesting stories to tell.
Me: Where did you learn English?
Ramzi had lived in Austria for 10 years but, when Saddam Hussein occupied Kurdistan, the bad regime kidnapped his brother and father and threatened to kill them if he didn’t come back to Kurdistan.
Ramzi: I had no other choice but to come back.
Me: Did you have an Austrian passport? What did you do with it?
I had to leave it. I knew they would register my things at the airport and if they had found it, they would have locked me up for a long time, perhaps even killed me.
His story was impressive but it didn’t end there.
In the last few years, he had been working as a translator for the American Army in the city of Mosul, where one of his brothers was living and working.
Ramzi: Two years ago, when some guys from the Islamic State found out that I was helping the Americans, they looked for my brother and killed him in cold blood, with a gun inside his shop.
Backpacking in Iraq is not about the many adventures you experience but the locals’ stories, incredible tales full of humanity, which are the consequence of the big humanitarian crisis that, somehow, affects the entire world’s population and, in order to emphasize and learn, we need to listen to them directly from the affected person, like the day I met that man living in a Syrian refugee camp.
Me: How did you end up here?
Refugee: The Islamic State took over our village and gave us two options: either adapt to their rules or leave. We chose to leave.
It’s been a long time since I first heard these stories but, when I remember them, I still get goose bumps.
And you also need to be prepared for the worst when backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan
When you are backpacking in Kurdistan, you learn a lot and live exciting adventures but you also need to be prepared for any unexpected event.
Remember that there is no tourist infrastructure in Iraq.
Have you ever backpacked around a developing country where tourism doesn’t exist? Do you know what the main peculiarity is?
Outside of the capitals, where most people have very low purchasing power, there are no hotels and most restaurants serve food low-quality food, that the poor people can afford, which tends to become hugely repetitive and not very hygienic precisely
I can handle that for some days, no problem and, as per the accommodation, whether it is a creepy hotel, the house of a random dude or Couchsurfing, you always find a place to crash.
However, not everybody is willing to face this type of situation and even for myself, things can go wrong sometimes, as it happened to me in Aqrah.
While I was having chai with Ramzi, I told him that I wanted to visit the refugee camp in Aqrah.
Me: Do you know if I need a permit?
Ramzi: I guess that if you bring food, meds or whatever, you will be more than welcome, but you we can ask the director. He lives nearby and is my friend.
He told me that the director of the camp was a local guy who also happened to be the richest man in town. We went to his house, or rather, to his mansion.
Ramzi: This is Joan and he’d like to go and help in the Aqrah camp tomorrow.
Director: OK. You can come with me at 9am and I can show you who are the poorest refugees.
It sounded like a plan.
Director: Where are you staying at today?
Me: I don’t know yet. I left my backpack in a restaurant.
Director: OK, go get it and you can stay here.
Sleeping in that mansion, with good people and visiting the camp with the director could really make my week.
We had some chai and talked for a while before I went to pick up my backpack.
When I came back, Ramzi was still there, so was the director’s family.
I said hello to his wife and daughters but they didn’t even look at my face. I went to my room to drop my stuff and when I came back, the director looked kind of upset.
Director: Sorry but you can’t stay here.
Me: Sorry, why?
Director: You need to leave now.
Me: OK, but I would have preferred you told me this in the first place, not at 9pm when I don’t even know where to find a hotel.
Director: I also called the camp and I didn’t know that you need a permit to visit it, so you can’t come either.
Me: So, you are the director and you didn’t know a permit was required?
I entered to get my backpack and when I came outside, he wasn’t there anymore, meaning that he didn’t even say goodbye. He kicked me out and still today I don’t understand why he did it.
Ramzi told me he was sorry and he also didn’t understand what was going on but it could be related with some disagreements with his wife.
Maybe, but still, there was no need to be angry and just leave me without saying goodbye.
Ramzi said that I couldn’t stay at his house because they really had no space. No problem, he had done enough and he gave me the direction of the nearest hotel, which was 2km outside of town.
However, I walked there, just to find it closed.
I asked around for another hotel and everybody mentioned me the one which shows on maps.me, which is 2km further.
But guess what… It was also closed.
They told me about a third one, which was even further but then I told myself:
Fuck it all. I am going to pitch my tent right here.
There was a small grocery shop and some comfy grass right next to the entrance.
Me: Hey, do you mind if I camp right here?
The supermarket boys: …
Me: camping, tent, here
The supermarket boys: …
They finally got it when I showed them my tent and sleeping bag and said that no problem.
I love this Middle Eastern flexibility.
Well, in fact, it’s not that they didn’t mind but they were so happy about it. They called their friends to give them the news, we took some selfies, they gave me some food and we spent a great night trying to forget the unfortunate incident from before.
Eventually, I managed to work things out but only because I am willing to face this kind of situation.
Now you should ask yourself: Would you?
Personally, I don’t think Kurdistan is a particularly challenging country to travel to, especially if you compare it to more hardcore destinations such as Afghanistan or Western African countries, like Angola.
It is not difficult but, as you can see, it is not like going to Halong Bay in Vietnam either.
You must be prepared, maybe with some experience in traveling to Iran or India, which are much easier.
Many people have emailed me very excited, claiming that, after checking all the photos, they are really looking forward to going backpacking in Kurdistan.
There is nothing wrong with that and I actually love it when people tell me this, but you should know that, depending on where you go, Kurdistan may involve some really hard-backpacking and require a bit of traveling experience.
However, if hard-backpacking is not your thing, this doesn’t mean that you can’t visit Kurdistan.
I know quite a few people who have visited the country with a guide/driver and their experience was equally rewarding.
Kurdistan is really a country for everybody.
It is safe, full of historical sites and outstanding people.
Read more travel tales
Visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq
Sneaking into an Afghan village in Pakistan
Visiting Baikonur without a permit
Tales of the Nubian people in Sudan
The day I was accused of being an Islamic State spy