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Asia > Middle East > Iraq > Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan

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Travel Warning WARNING: Travel to Iraq is advised against by most governments. Iraqi Kurdistan is by far the safest region in Iraq, but there is still high risk of terrorist activity in certain areas. The contested city of Kirkuk is not safe for travel, and neither are the disputed areas outside Iraqi Kurdistan's official borders. In addition, do not travel near the Syrian, Turkish or Iranian borders, as these areas are less safe than the rest of Kurdistan.
Government travel advisories
(Information last updated Aug 2018)
Iraqi Kurdistan on world map.png
Capital Erbil
Currency Iraqi dinar (IQD)
Population 5 754 770 (2017 est.)
Country code +964
Time zone GMT (UTC+3)

Kurdistan (Kurdish: کوردستان) refers to portions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, however only the Iraqi region of Kurdistan is discussed here. See the articles on Turkey, Western Iran and Syria for information regarding the other regions of Kurdistan.

Understand[edit]

Having been spared the war of 2003, Kurdistan-Iraq is a very different place from middle and southern Iraq. With a minimal level of terrorist activity and massive economic development, Kurdistan is fast becoming a "gateway to Iraq" with high levels of foreign investment and development of infrastructure and tourism.

Be careful when discussing nationalist issues which many Kurds feel strongly about. Also read up on the Al-Anfal campaign and chemical attack on the Kurds by Saddam Hussein to exterminate droves of Kurds in the late 1980s, an event which has colored the last few decades of Kurdish history. There are several powerful reminders of it, such as the Amna Suraka prison in Sulaymaniya.

And be careful about calling a Kurd Iraqi because they don't count themselves as Iraqi: even though they are Iraqi citizens by record, they say Kurds are from Kurdistan - 'the land of the Kurds' or from Mesopotamia - 'the land between the rivers'. Not Iraq, and recently the president of Kurdistan was claiming to announce the Kurdish State, which is a serious debate in the region. Many Kurds also consider it unjust that there is no independent Kurdistan.

The Kurdish society consists of a variety of religions and beliefs (such as Muslims, Christians, Jewish, Yazidis, Kakayis, Zoroastrians, Yarsanis, Hawaris, Ahli Haqs, etc.) all of which normally coexist peacefully.

In general, Kurdish people are very friendly and hospitable, you can make friends with anybody and start talking to anyone on the street, so be open to new experiences.

Climate[edit]

Spring and fall are the best months to visit Iraqi Kurdistan, because temperatures are mild. Winters can be cold, whereas summers are likely too hot for most outdoor activities. The weather rarely gets extreme though, making Iraqi Kurdistan an attractive year round travel destination.

Orientation[edit]

Iraqi Kurdistan refers to the four northern Iraqi Provinces, which are autonomous of the central Iraqi government and ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). These provinces achieved de facto independence after an uprising in 1991 and their autonomy has now been enshrined into the Iraqi federal constitution. The three Kurdish Provinces are Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaymaniya. The KRG has applied for creating a fourth region around the city of Halabja.

Although the city Kirkuk is largely inhabited and controlled by Kurdish armed forces, the Peshmenga, it is still not under official administration of the KRG. Kirkuk and parts of the Ninaveh and Diyala provinces are disputed. The Kurds claim that these places are originally Kurdish, but were subjected to harsh Arabization by the ousted Ba'ath Party. The Kurds want these areas returned to Kurdish autonomy, something that has largely been realized during the ISIL rebellion in June 2014 after which the Kurdish armed forced took full control over the areas. However, in October 2017, Iraqi government forces pushed into these disputed areas and retook Kirkuk.

Regions[edit]

Map of Iraqi Kurdistan

  Dohuk (Dahuk, Zakho)
The nort-eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan with Dahuk and Zakho, sharing much of its border with Turkey to the north and a tiny border crossing with Syria to the east in Khanik.
  Erbil (Erbil)
Central governorate with the capital Erbil.
  Sulemania (Sulemania)
Raniya and Sulaymaniyah.
  Halabja (Halabja)
City of Halabja and surroundings, bordering Iran.

Cities[edit]

The major cities controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) are

  • 1 Choman Choman, Iraq on Wikipedia
  • 2 Dahuk
  • 3 Erbil — the capital city of Kurdistan, its citadel Hawler is a WV-Unesco-icon-small.svg UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • 4 Halabja — the town that was the scene for Saddam Hussein's gruesome gas attack that killed 5000 people in 1988 now holds a number of memorials, monuments and cemeteries commemorating the event.
  • 5 Koya
  • 6 Rawanduz
  • 7 Raniya
  • 8 Shaqlawa
  • 9 Sinjar
  • 10 Sulemania — is the centre of education and culture in Iraqi Kurdistan. The city features the best museums - the Amna Suraka and Slemani Museum, and a number of pleasant parks.
  • 11 Zakho

Other destinations[edit]

Halgurd (3607 m), the second highest mountain in Iraq, in the Halgurd & Sakran National Park
  • 1 Al-Kosh – a tranquil, 2500-year-old Christian village.
  • 2 Amedi – a 4000 year old town perched on the peak of a mountain, rumoured home of Biblical Magi, and confirmed home to Assyrian ruins.
  • 3 Chemi Rezan — the famous caves in which the earliest human ceremonial burial site.
  • 4 Dukan Lake — a large man-made lake lying at an altitude of 900m. Great for Friday picnicking.
  • 5 Hamilton Road – beautiful mountain road between as a shortcut between Erbil and Iran.
  • 6 Gondik – site of ancient cave paintings.
  • 7 Lalish — valley. The "Holy See" of Yazidi faith.
  • 8 Mar Mattai – 4th century Syrian Orthodox Monastery, the oldest of its kind, overlooking Mosul in its horizon.
  • 9 Halgurd and Sakran National Park Halgurd Sakran National Park on Wikipedia — the biggest national park in the Middle East, located in North Erbil, on the Zagros mountains.
  • 10 Mount Korek — The only ski resort which is open in the region is accessible by a 4 km long Teleferic (cable car) from Bekhal. Has a resort and activities park at 2,127 m above sea level.
  • 11 Erbil Observatory Erbil Observatory on Wikipedia — the largest astronomical observatory in Iraq with a 30 m telescope, staring into the night sky from Mount Korek.

Get in[edit]

Citizens of the EU, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Iceland, Japan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Qatar, San Marino, South Korea, Switzerland, the UAE, and Vatican City are given a free stamp on arrival. This is valid for 30 days after arrival, which can be extended by reporting to the Residency Office within 30 days of arrival. This involves many forms to fill out, around $30 USD in fees as well as a compulsory blood test to check for hepatitis C and HIV. Be prepared to wait for around 2–3 hours throughout this whole process. Citizens of Iran and Turkey are given a free stamp with a validity of 15 days after arrival. Most other nationalities must produce a valid "Iraq – Kurdistan Region" visa upon arrival.

Border control at land borders is fairly strict. If you have a contact in Kurdistan, come armed with their name and address. If you don't, make sure you have a very good idea of what exactly you will be doing and where you will be staying. You are also more likely to get in if travelling with someone else, and if you are well-dressed.

A visa for Iraqi Kurdistan can not be used to travel to other areas in Iraq, which includes Mosul as of 2019. When attempting to cross the Iraqi Kurdistan border, you will be sent back at the first military checkpoint encountered.

Kurdish authorities are detaining for questioning all foreign citizens that have crossed the border from Turkey. You may face deportation. Note that even Arab nationals entering from Turkey will need a "Kurdish guarantor" to enter the region.

By plane[edit]

Kurdistan is served by two international airports:

Carriers such as Austrian, Turkish Airways and Pegasus have daily flights from Europe and Turkey to Erbil International Airport. Pegasus (via Istanbul) and Fly Dubai (via Dubai) are often the cheapest routes.

By ground[edit]

From Turkey[edit]

Silopi, the closest town on the Turkish side, is connected to Istanbul and Ankara by bus. From here shared taxi across the border to Zakho, the closest town to the border on the side. Recently companies have begun running buses linking Erbil with Diyarbakir and Van (about 9-15 hours depending on border traffic) and even Istanbul. From Diyarbakir leaves at least three buses every morning from the otogar to Duhok (50-60TL, 7hrs), Erbil (70-80TL, 12hrs) and Sulaymaniyah. The border formalities may take as little as 45 minutes (entering of Iraq) or as long as 7 hours (leaving Iraq). No papers or photocopies are needed - all you need is your passport. Excellent crossing inbound actually, you get a cup of tea and lounge on a couch watching TV till they finish processing your passport.

Buses to destinations in Iraq are cheaper than the Turkey-bound buses; maybe this is caused by longer queues on the border. Have prepared 30 USD (towards Erbil) or 40 USD (towards Dyiarbakir) and don't be afraid to negotiate.

From Iran[edit]

Iran shares two border crossings with Iraqi Kurdistan: One at Piranshahr - Haji Omaran (at the end of Hamilton Road in the northeast) and one at Bashmaq - Panjwin (also spelled Penjwen) (east of Sulaymaniyah), with the former being the easiest to catch connecting transportation from. These are the only 2 border crossings between Iraq and Iran that are realistic for travellers with foreign passports, since all other border crossings require Iraqi visa which are notoriously difficult to obtain.

  • 3 Piranshahr — convenient for those travelling from Tabriz to Iraqi Kurdistan, ca. 150 km from Erbil. Rawandiz, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iraqi Kurdistan, is encountered underway.
  • 4 Bashmaq — closest to Tehran and most convenient for those already in Iranian Kurdistan. This crossing is the closest to Sulaymaniyah.

There are long distance coach services between Tehran and Erbil crossing the border (ca. 950 km, 10 h), but many travellers also rely of either private taxis or hitching.

The border is very safe to cross, although the numerous trucks transporting oil make it a somewhat unpleasant experience.

From Syria[edit]

There is one contested border crossing in the disputed region of Nineveh, northeast of the Iraqi city of Sinjar. This crossing is continuously changing hands between Kurdish militias, Sunni Islamists and the Iraqi Army. Going anywhere near this crossing is extremely dangerous.

Get around[edit]

By taxi[edit]

Travel between cities is largely done by shared taxis from the garages at each city. Larger cities will have a number of garages. Asking for e.g. "Garage Sulaymaniyah" will usually be enough. Minibuses do exist on routes between major cities, but are not as safe as taxis as they may make stops in Kirkuk or Mosul. Taxis are not that cheap – expect prices ranging between 7000 and 20000 dinar (6 to 18 USD) for a seat, but in most places they are the means of transportation. Minibuses cost about the half of taxis and take about 1½ hour for driving the distance a taxi can do in an hour.

Inside the big cities there are bus services. While confusing timetables are available in shopping malls and major supermarkets – sometimes free of charge. Streets in Kurdistan is often designed in circles, and then named 10 Meter Street, 20m st, 30m st, etc. The bus lines drives fairly often during the day. There are no night buses.

Taxis are everywhere and are either beige or white with a couple of orange squires. Taxis usually charge between 2000 and 6000 dinars for an intra-city trip. Agree on the price before getting in as there are no meters. Most drivers will be fair, but you can often save a thousand dinars or so by haggling. Each driver will own his own car and tips are included in the price.

By plane[edit]

Air travel between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah is available and cheap (around 100$ for a round trip), although this is only a 2½ hour trip by road.

By train[edit]

The railway is not yet operational, although there are plans to refurbish the line Between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Expect this to take a while.

By car[edit]

Driving standards are reasonable in Iraqi Kurdistan. Roads in the cities are in excellent condition. Traffic signals and signs are good and mostly observed. Speed cameras are present on many major roads in and outside the cities.

By thumb[edit]

Because of the low crime rates in Iraqi Kurdistan, hitchhiking is a safe, cheap, and convenient way of transportation between cities. Drivers will rarely ask for any compensation at all, and even make detours to drop you off where you want to be. Although rising in popularity, hitchhiking is not very common yet in Iraqi Kurdistan, so it may take a while before someone stops to pick you up.

Talk[edit]

Kurdish and Turkish are the official languages, of which Kurdish is the most widely spoken. Older Kurds will understand Arabic, but since the language hasn't been taught in schools for over 25 years, the younger generations no longer speak it. Academics and young Kurds in large cities will have a basic understanding of English, but don't count on English if you're leaving the major cities.

A large number of diaspora Kurds have returned home, bringing with them languages as diverse as Swedish and Japanese with German being the most widely spoken diaspora language.

See[edit]

Kurdistan is, at certain times of the year, a land of rugged beauty, characterised by mountains, green rolling hills, waterfalls and natural springs. It has long been famed in Middle Eastern literature as a paradise on earth. So do not expect a trip into the Iraqi desert when visiting Kurdistan. The country is at its most beautiful by spring, but don't expect particularly beautiful landscapes in the dry summer - unless you are fond of the colour yellow.

  • 1 Hawler Citadel is in the centre of the Kurdish capital (Hawler is Kurdish for Erbil), and has been inhabited for at least 6,500 years. This ancient mound is one of the contenders for the longest continuously inhabited city on Earth. Nowadays, the citadel, with the slightly confusing bazaar beneath it, continues to be Kurdistan's most famous attraction and a recognized WV-Unesco-icon-small.svg UNESCO World Heritage site since 2014.
  • Parastaga Zardasht: A recently discovered ancient Zoroastrian/Mithradate temple in Duhok province.
  • 2 Chemi Rezan: The famous caves in which the earliest human ceremonial burial site was discovered by German archaeologists. The area is now carefully protected; however, access is still possible.
  • 3 Tel Gomel: also called (Gaugamela) The site of the famous battle between Alexander the Great and King Darius, is just under 90 minutes’ drive west of Erbil and close to Jerwana (Sennacherib's aqueduct to Nineveh).
  • 4 Mar Mattai: is a 4th century Syrian Orthodox Monastery, the oldest of its kind. It is situated on the slopes of Jabel Maqlub overlooking Mosul in its horizon.
  • Al-Kosh, a tranquil, 2500 years old Christian village in the Ninaveh province with shady streets, an old Jewish grave site and the Rabban Hormizd Monetary carved out of the cliffs high above it.
Travel Warning WARNING: Both Mar Mattai and Al-Kosh are situated in the contested Ninaveh province, and while normally safe to visit it is essential to check the current situation before visiting and by inquiring at the check-points en-route.
Government travel advisories
(Information last updated Jun 2014)
  • Delal Bridge in Zakho is the oldest example of an open arch bridge in the Middle East, dating back to Abbasid times.
  • Gali Ali Bag: The highest waterfall in the Middle East. Just at the beginning of the Hamilton Road in the northeast of the country.
  • Bexal: Another beautiful waterfall is near to the city of Rawanduz.
  • Jundian: An artificial waterfall on top of a Mestirus Cave is near to the city of Rawanduz and also the Call it ( The Magical Eye ).
  • Ahmedawa between Sulaymaniyah and Halabja a resort village good for hiking and yet more waterfalls.
  • Salahaddin’s Castle 11th century castle ruin 30 km north of Erbil. Supposedly build by the famous conqueror’s grandfather.
  • Haj Omaran the ski resort in the north of the Erbil Province is no longer open.
  • Numerous religious sites of especially the Judeo-Christian faiths. Such as the Tomb of the Prophet Daniel in Kirkuk province, the 9th century St. Thomas Monastery and Jewlakan, Jewish quarter of Sulaymaniyah, with its numerous newly renovated synagogues.

Do[edit]

Hiking: There are plenty of hiking opportunities in the Kurdish mountains; however there are few operators or facilities. Be careful of venturing too close to the Iranian border: three US hikers were arrested in 2009 accused of being spies after supposedly having crossed the border illegally.

Picnics: A favourite local pastime, especially on Friday afternoons. Whether it will be in the mountains or in the city parks, locals love to spend their free time eating and conversing with friends and family. Invitations to join the fun are not unusual.

Shopping: Erbil and Sulaymaniyah have had a number of new, modern shopping malls open over the last decade. This is the face of the new Kurdistan and there is no reason not to join in, either for the shopping itself or the people-watching.

Hospitality: Kurdish culture is famous for hospitality and generosity. You can knock at anyone's door and they will welcome you in. The Kurdish people are very friendly people and they often invite you home for lunch, dinner and even sleep-overs.

Weddings: Coming across a Kurdish wedding is not uncommon. Neither is being invited to participate in the festivity. Kurdish weddings are quite big, with a lot of guests. Expect plenty of food and dancing; though only few will include alcohol.

Sports: Football is popular. Many towns have their own football pitch. Bowling and table tennis are also popular recreational activities. Alternatively there will probably a gym.

Eat[edit]

As with many other Middle Eastern people, Kurds are voracious carnivores. Local foods include kebab in all forms and shapes, dolma (stuffed grape vines), yaprax (assorted stuffed vegetables ranging from onions to zucchini, shila u brinc the Kurdish national dish, composing of chicken and rice alongside a soup, which is made from vegetables, the infamous gipa (much like Scottish haggis) and also biryani. The Kurdish cuisine is very much meat and rice based, often quite fatty, and comprising of stews. Red beans accompany most meals, as will flatbreads.

Shawarmas are typical street food, and many food stalls sell it. Many places serving shawarma also sell falafel, which travellers often find the tastier choice on the menu. Kebabs are uncommon and expensive (ca. 10 000 ID). Local eateries, found in the major cities, serve red beans with rice and chicken, but are rarely found in smaller towns or villages.

Drink[edit]

Tea, tea and more tea. Everywhere small cafes and street stalls are providing the Kurds with their favourite drink. Start a conversation with a Kurd and it won't take many sentences before you will be offered the first cup.

Bottled water is available everywhere, 0.5 L. costs 250 dinars - 20 cents. Some locals do drink the tap water, but it is not recommended.

Fruit drinks of every kind are widely available from small shops. Juices, smoothies, blends and other drinks will provide the vitamin C that is rarely part of the local cuisine.

The majority of Kurdish people are Sunni Muslims, so alcohol is not sold or served just anywhere. Larger cities will have a Christian neighbourhood (like Erbil's Ainkawa) where bars are common and a number of smaller liquor stores (Erbil Shorish Street)- typically identifiable by large signs with the names of international beer brands like Efes, Heineken or Tuborg. Kurdish "Arak" a concoction of fermented dates and aniseed is a recommendable - while not necessarily a pleasant - experience, that according to local tradition can "make the driest eye cry". Locally produced wines make up for what they lack in sophistication with character.

Buy[edit]

The official currency is the Iraqi Dinar (ID). Money can be exchanged in major cities (€ 1 = 1300 ID), and ATMs do accept credit cards. Foreign debit cards are rarely accepted however. Shops, restaurants, or hotels also rarely accept debit or credit cards, so always make sure you have cash dinars with you. Crime rates in Iraqi Kurdistan are low, so carrying around several hundred thousand dinar on the street does not pose a safety risk.

Respect[edit]

The Kurds have a strong cultural identity with their own language, cuisine, traditions, and ethnicity. Kurds are closer to Persians than to Arabs, and there has been a long history of hostility between Kurds and Arabs. Many Kurds don't like Arabs, a result of Saddam's legacy. It's best to avoid the topic during conversations.

Kurds are some of the least religious people in the Middle East, and have a liberal attitude towards religion — especially among the younger generations. Most Kurds do identify themselves as Sunni Muslims however, so the same respect guidelines as for any Islamic country apply. Don't assume everyone you meet is Muslim, Erbil has a large Christian community as well as Yazidi and Zoroastrian communities.

Independence is a sensitive issue in Iraqi Kurdistan, and a frequently recurring political debate. As much as 90% of Kurds favours independence from Iraq. A referendum was held in 2017, but under international pressure and threats from Iraq and its neighbours, the independence process was halted, leaving anger and disappointment in its wake. Unless Kurds bring up the topic, avoid discussing independence if possible.

Kurds strongly condemn religious extremism, and may peshmergas have been killed defending the region against ISIS. Voicing support for Islamic extremism will likely be met with resentment and possible reprisals.

Stay safe[edit]

Iraqi Kurdistan is a very safe travel destination, with the last terrorist attack dating from 2014, and the last foreigner being killed in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq by foreign forces. Kurds generally oppose militant Islamic ideas, a result of Saddam's atrocities committed against Kurds in the name of Allah, and condemn religious violence. As a result, extremism is not tolerated by Kurdish society. Kurds are more liberal than the rest of Iraq and much of the Middle East, and the Kurdish people are thus very friendly spirited towards westerners and tourists, often much more than in surrounding Islamic countries.

Since many governments still advise against all travel to Iraq (including Iraqi Kurdistan), regular travel insurance companies typically do not cover travel to Iraqi Kurdistan. Check with the insurance company of your choice, and ask for a written confirmation that their insurance covers travel to Iraqi Kurdistan. IATI is one of the few travel insurance companies that do cover travel to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Crime rates in Iraqi Kurdistan are very low, so your belongings are generally safe and so are you. Travelling to Iraqi Kurdistan is safe for women travelling solo.

With hostile forces occupying territories bordering Iraqi Kurdistan, security is very tight. There are numerous security checkpoints to check passports and vehicles. The Kurdish Peshmerga is known to consider travellers of Arab decent to be suspicious, resulting in additional questioning. Airport security is particularly tight, with 6 - 8 security checks before being allowed to board any airplane. Allow plenty of time for air travel in your itinerary. Do not bring drones into the country, as these are commonly used by ISIS for spying purposes. If a drone is found in your possession — even if you don't fly it — you will be treated as a suspected spy, detained, and interrogated by the peshmergas. The drone may or may not be returned to you, depending on whether your story is credible.

While Iraqi Kurdistan is a safe place, the journey can become dangerous if you cross into contested areas or areas outside the KRG's control. These parts of Iraq are extremely dangerous with bombings and targeted attacks on foreigners. The border is well demarcated by the Kurdish security services. Always make sure that you inter-city taxis aren't taking routes through unsafe territory, and check with drivers and military check-points along the way if you are visiting sights in the contested Ninaveh Province.

Connect[edit]

Wifi access is widely available in malls, shops, and restaurants. It's not the fastest in the world, but more than sufficient to get around.

Mobile data is relatively expensive, and 3G connectivity is limited to major cities. SIM cards are available from Ana Cell for 5000 ID (€ 3.70), with an additional 18 500 ID (€ 13) for 5 GB of data.

Cope[edit]

The following sites can be helpful with information for travellers interested in Kurdistan: The Kurdish Regional Government webpage
KRG produced fact-sheet (PDF) on Travel to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
For more on daily Kurdish life, check the blog ErbilLifestyle.com.

This region travel guide to Iraqi Kurdistan is an outline and may need more content. It has a template, but there is not enough information present. If there are Cities and Other destinations listed, they may not all be at usable status or there may not be a valid regional structure and a "Get in" section describing all of the typical ways to get here. Please plunge forward and help it grow!