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 the Syrian Desert for information regarding the other regions of Kurdistan.
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 80’s, an event which has coloured 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.
Iraqi Kurdistan refers to the three northern Iraqi Provinces, which are autonomous of the central Iraqi government and ruled by the 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 Arabisation by the ousted Ba'ath Party. The Kurds want these areas returned to Kurdish autonomy. Something that has largely been realised during the ISIL rebellion in June 2014 after which the Kurdish armed forced took full control over the areas.
The major cities controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) are:
- Erbil (Hawler) — the capital city of Kurdistan
- Kirkuk (not safe)
- Al-Kosh – a tranquil, 2500 years old Christian village.
- Amedi – a 4000 year old town perched on the peak of a mountain, rumoured home of Biblical Magi, and confirmed home to Assyrian ruins.
- Chemi Rezan - the famous caves in which the earliest human ceremonial burial site.
- Dukan Lake - a large man-made lake lying at an altitude of 900m. Great for Friday picnicking.
- Hamilton Road – beautiful mountain road between as a shortcut between Erbil and Iran.
- Gondik – site of ancient cave paintings.
- Mar Mattai – 4th century Syrian Orthodox Monastery, the oldest of its kind, overlooking Mosul in its horizon.
Citizens of the EU, the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, Pakistan and Iran are given a free stamp on arrival. This is valid for 15 days after your arrival. For extensions you will have to report to the Residency Office within 15 days of your arrival. This involves many forms to fill out, around $30 USD in fees as well as a compulsory blood test to check for Hep C and HIV. Be prepared to wait for around 2-3 hours throughout this whole process. Most other nationalities must produce a valid "Iraq - Kurdistan Region" visa on 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.
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.
Turkey 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 Diarbakir 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.
Iran Iran shares two border crossings with Iraqi Kurdistan: One at Haji Omaran (at the end of Hamilton Road in the northeast) and one at Panjwin (east of Sulaymaniyah), with the former being the easiest to catch connecting transportation from. However none of the borders have any public transport arrangement to do the crossing, travellers must therefore rely of either private taxis or hitching.
Syria 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.
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 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.
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.
The railway is not yet operational, although there are plans to refurbish the line Between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Expect this to take a while.
Kurdish is the official language and most widely spoken. You will be able to find people to understand basic Arabic and English. Also, higher learning institutes produce teenagers eager to practice their foreign language "skills" in many 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.
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 dessert 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.
- Hawler Citadel is in the centre of the Kurdish capital (Hawler is Kurdish for Erbil) have 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.
- Sulaymaniyah is centre of education and culture in Kurdistan. The city features the best museums in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Amna Suraka and Slemani Museum, and a number of pleasant parks.
- Halabja Shahid 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.
- Lalish, the "Holy See" of Yazidi faith.
- Mount Korek The only ski resort which is open in the region is accesible by a 4 Km long Teleferic (cable car) from Bekhal. Has a resort and activities park at 2127 Mtrs above the seas level.
- Parastaga Zardasht: A recently discovered ancient Zoroastrian/Mithradate temple in Duhok province.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 was 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 unheard off.
Shopping: Erbil and Sulaymaniyah have seen a number of new, modern shopping malls spring up 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 attending guests. Expect plenty of food and dancing; though only few will offers will include alcohol.
Sports: Soccer is big. Plenty of town will have their own soccer field. Bowling and ping pong are also popular recreational activities. Alternatively there will probably a gym around.
Meat! 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 courgettes, shila u brinc the Kurdish national dish, composing of chicken and rice alongside a soup, which is made from vegetables, and the infamous gipa (much like Scottish haggis).
Should it all be too much is western style fast food available in the big malls. They have outfits like Church's Chicken, King Burgers, Burger Queens, Pizza Huts, New York Fries, etc...
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 - 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. In other words: they're disgusting.
While Iraqi Kurdistan is a reasonably 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. The Kurdish Peshmenga was strong allies with Coalition Forces during the 2003 invasion and US military strongly relied on Kurds. The Kurdish people are thus very friendly spirited towards Americans and other westerners, often much more than in surrounding Islamic countries.
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.