Baghdad, Iraq

*For the past 10 days, I’ve been backpacking through Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in the north of Iraq. For five of those days I was joined by Anil Polat of, a fellow adventurer and a most hilarious traveling companion. I have a lot to write about my time in Iraq and so much has happened that I find it quite difficult to actually organize my thoughts. So in the meantime, I’m just going to write whatever comes to mind, and I hope you’ll excuse me for the randomness that may result!

At the end of the day, I can speak of human interactions, life lessons and that first-hand education that travel provides all I want, but I’ll be completely honest with you, there’s something else that excites me even more than any of these aspects of travel.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that my happiness reaches its highest peaks whenever I find myself wandering through a part of the world where few or even no other foreign travelers tend to visit. It is these instances when I really feel as if I’m doing something truly unique in life and I have to admit that it’s quite a satisfying feeling.

So you can imagine how I felt ten days ago upon crossing the land border from Turkey into Iraq, a country that has not exactly proven to be a tourist hotspot as of late. However, with that said, it was actually not until four days later that I was able to fully realize how unique this trip was going to be.

Here’s what happened…

Anil and I were on our way from Erbil, the regional capital of Kurdistan, to the town of Sulamainiyah, another Kurdish town some 2.5 hours to the south. At one point in the journey, the road between these two places left the relative safety of Kurdistan for about 30 minutes while it passed through the outskirts of Kirkuk, an Iraqi city that is considered one of the most dangerous in the world.

Crossing into this area of Iraq felt like traveling into a completely different country as the final checkpoint we had to pass through was by far the most heavily guarded checkpoint I have encountered anywhere in the world.

When we approached it, a Kurdish soldier immediately directed our vehicle (we were traveling in a shared taxi with two other local passengers) to a secure area behind a steel wall so that soldiers could perform a thorough inspection of us and the vehicle. Within seconds, Anil and I were required to hand over our passports to an another soldier who then motioned for us to step out of the vehicle for some questioning.

Then, before we knew it, a heavily-armed US Marine strolled up to us and began flipping through our passports. Anil and I both remained silent as we were not quite sure how this situation would unfold. And then, upon realizing that we were US Citizens, the Marine suddenly looked up in shock, and in his deep Texan drawl, broke the intense silence by yelling out,

“Holy shi*t, what the hell are you guys doing here?”

Anil and I could barely contain our laughter as we tried to explain that we were simply traveling through the region, a reason that led the Marine to shake his head in disbelief and repeat,

“You’re traveling here?”

He then chatted with us for a few minutes before handing us back our passports and wishing us the best of luck. At this point, we hopped back in the taxi along with the other passengers and continued our journey south.

For the remaining two hours of that journey to Sulamainiyah I must admit that I felt a strong sense of achievement. If a US Marine expressed such shock at seeing two nutty backpackers passing through his checkpoint, then we must really have ventured into a part of the world that few travelers visit. After all, this Marine had been stationed at that border for two months so far and basically acted as if we were the first travelers he had yet to come across.

Of course, whether or not it was complete stupidity for us to travel to Iraq is an entirely different matter and to be honest, even after 10 days here, I still don’t have an answer to that question. I can only hope that by the time I finish writing posts about my time in this country, we’ll all have a better idea of how wise or unwise it truly is to embark on an adventure to Iraqi Kurdistan.

I highly recommend checking out Anil’s posts on Iraq as well as I have no doubt that his insight will help provide a more complete picture of what it truly is like to travel in this region of the world.