Baghdad, Iraq

The Thrill Of Traveling To Iraq

Derek Iraq 103 Comments

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 FoxNomad.com, 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.

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Comments 103

  1. adam height

    I backpacked in Iraq in November/December 2003. I went there by car from amman, Jordan. wasn’t that bad. it was before the insurgents had really moved in. all atm’s were looted and most shops were closed, but didn’t feel in danger at all.

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  3. Alvin

    very interesting… had my own tour in Iraq back in 2009-2010, as a military personnel (US ARMY). Wasn’t a pleasant one. I would like to go as a tourist with no reservations and restrictions.

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    1. Earl

      @BangkokBlogger: I stayed in Iraq for 10 days, which is the maximum stay allowed for a tourist. I wanted to stay longer but my attempt to receive a visa extension was not successful!

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  11. Priyank

    Hi Earl! That was thrilling just to read, I cannot imagine for real! I feel this constant need to be challenged and I bet you do the same. So after Iraq, which place would ever take it to the next level? Afganistan? North Korea? I’d personally would like to go to Pakistan some day. 😀

    1. Earl

      Hey Priyank – Thank you so much for the comment! I think I’d have to list Somalia as the country that would take it to the next level for me at this point. So hopefully I’ll travel there during 2011 🙂

      And I highly recommend Pakistan. I’ve still yet to experience anything close to the indescribably magical scenery and atmosphere that’s found in the Hindu Kush Mountains. I think back to that trip and even today, I’m left speechless!

      Have a great New Year!

  12. T-roy

    Earl, for sure i know what that solider was thinking! lol And did he tell everyone in his unit, you bet! Did he tell his family, you bet! You should have given him a business card so he can later not have to say “Well i don’t know if they made it out alive or not but i like to think they did!”

    After spending time there military and later on as a civilian, i know Northern Iraq very well… but i guess at the same time not really, as you would have seen a whole new side then I would ever of had. Though I said the same thing to myself when I heard you were going there and have to admit i was worried for ya man but was glad Anil tagged along with you, as i couldn’t think of a better team to be one of the 1st travel bloggers to actual go there. I know I am jaded for that country and have my issues (or fill) of it but i hope one day I’ll return when things are more on less shaky ground but was SUPER happy to read your adventures there and that ya made it back.

    1. Earl

      Hey T-roy! Thanks for adding your perspective and I think it would be fascinating to travel there with you these days given your earlier experience in that country. So let me know when you’re ready!

      And as for the soldier, it was a shame because after we eventually passed through the checkpoint, Anil and I kept wishing that we had spoken to the Marine some more, took a photo with him, exchanged details. It would have added a little more depth to the experience. We didn’t even ask his name! Although, in our defense, it was such a bizarre situation that we didn’t have time to collect our thoughts, and there were other passengers in our taxi who wanted to continue the journey.

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  14. Jeff Titelius

    What an incredible story and experience! Forget the marine, YOU are the brave soldier here…venturing into Iraq, of all places, to “experience” the land. I think I would have been scared out of my wits! Like I said, you are the brave one! God’s speed to you my friend!

    1. Earl

      I appreciate the comment Jeff! The good thing about Iraq is that you really don’t have time to be scared as the first impression is of a place that is so normal. Although, once you start approaching checkpoints further south, you may be reminded that this is not exactly a danger-free region of the world!

  15. Jason

    Your a freak Earl (and Anil). After you get to North Korea, you’ve got the Axis of Evil covered (lol). I just hope people understand that you are unique in the world of travel, and we don’t have a swarm of Gap Year travelers flooding the Iraqi border and hopping on the wrong bus, and ending up on Aljazeera for all the wrong reasons. I enjoyed your post, and completely get that feeling you describe. Stay safe man. Happy Travels….

    1. Earl

      Hey Jason – Yeah, not sure I’ll be visiting North Korea anytime soon! And I don’t think there’s anything to worry about as far as travelers flooding the Iraqi border. Despite my own experiences, I definitely want to make it clear that such a trip is not for everyone and so far, I don’t know of too many people who have actually been inspired to visit Iraq now that I’ve been there!

  16. AdventureRob

    Wow, Iraq? Maybe you’ll lead the way to turning it to a tourist hotspot of 2011 😉

    Can’t say it has appealed to me, I didn’t even realise people could pass through at the moment, I’d love to give it a go though.

    1. Earl

      Hey Rob – For anyone that makes it to the Middle East region, there’s no reason why Kurdistan shouldn’t be a part of the itinerary (actually, there’s plenty of reasons, but for those interested in such an adventure it makes sense). And I don’t see it becoming a tourist hotspot but a few people I spoke with told me that they see ‘a lot of travelers’ these days, even though Anil and I didn’t really see any others at all!

  17. Federico

    Earl, this is one heck of a trip too. I like that you travel to unusual destinations such as Afghanistan and Irag…and enjoy it very much too! Would you venture to visit central Iraq if you could? I can’t wait to travel somewhere where I can experience adventure again…I just hope it doesn’t take me more than a few months!

    1. Earl

      Hey Federico – Anil and I discussed the idea of traveling further south but it’s really not the best of ideas in the end. Although, we did hear that the far south of Iraq is much safer. So it’s really just the central third that should be avoided at all costs. Maybe one day we’ll consider a visit to the far south of the country!

    1. Earl

      Hey Michael – Even if it is hot then, it will be worth it. And actually, much of Kurdistan is quite elevated, so there are always spots to visit for some cooler weather. I highly recommend Amediya (a village about 1 hour out of Dohuk) for such an excursion!

  18. Margo

    Thanks for making me LOL this morning right along with you when the Marine from Texas opened his mouth in shock. Great storytelling, Earl – taking us right along w/ 🙂

    1. Earl

      Much appreciated Margo! Glad you had a chuckle. As soon as Anil and I arrived at our destination that day, we couldn’t stop laughing about the situation for hours!

    1. Earl

      Hey Scott – Haha…you never know, you may end up there one day! Perhaps it will take a couple of more posts to convince you to go!

  19. Iran Travel Blog

    You pointed to some very important points at your post, which are the most valuable things you can gain during a trip:

    1) Human interactions

    2) Life lessons

    3) First-hand eduction

    You can get such experience when you travel to some unknown part of the world. Having some information from the people who have traveled there before or insider experts could give you some very useful insight. Thanks a lot for providing this helpful information.

    Rahman Mehraby
    Destination Iran Travel Blog

  20. Andrew Murray

    I love travelling through these far out destinations where few others tread. As I said to Anil though, I think Iraq would be a step too far for me in my current circumstances! When I can’t throw myself into an adventure, the next best thing is reading about one. Thanks to you both.

    1. Earl

      Hey Andrew – As I believe Anil mentioned, Iraq definitely is not a destination for everybody, despite our relatively safe travel experience. But like you said, sometimes it’s just better to read about a place, especially depending on your circumstances! Although, I know that when I read about a far-away land, I can’t help but suddenly want to go there myself 🙂

  21. Migrationology

    Another incredible story Earl! I also appreciate the feeling of traveling to a destination that has not been ventured to. Even doing something that few foreigners have done. Yesterday a few friends and went to some Nairobi back alleys for some grilled meat, never before visited by white folks…for sure!

    I think you guys hit the ultimate off the path spot! Keep safe, and good luck with everything!

    1. Earl

      Hey Mark – You definitely know what I’m talking about then. And it’s true, it doesn’t have to be visiting a non-visited destination, but something as simple as walking down a street or eating somewhere that is simply not at all accustomed to seeing foreigners. Usually, the resulting experiences are well worth it in the end! (I hope the grilled meat was worth your back alley adventure!)

  22. Maria Staal

    I read about you being in Iraq yesterday on a random tweet that came by, and thought ‘He didn’t, did he…? Wow, that is so cool!’.
    Like all the other people have said before, I can’t wait to read more. It must be truly amazing to be where you are now. Be safe and have fun.

    1. Earl

      Hey Maria – Haha…I guess it surprised a few people that I ended up there! But we were safe (or as safe as one can be) and in the end, experienced not a single problem at all. And I don’t think I’ll forget even a single minute of this trip 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Michael – Well, that sure must have been one interesting visit! Clearly traveling here was a bit more risky back then than it is now, and you’re probably quite lucky that you were simply forced to leave the country in the end. I don’t see such an incident happening these days and hopefully more travelers will decide to visit this region…

    1. Earl

      Hey Natalie – You are very right, I should have asked for a photo. But the checkpoints are quite intense and photos technically aren’t allowed so I didn’t want to push it. If I did it all over again though, I would have pulled out the camera anyway!

  23. Mom

    As your mother, I am not as exited about your recent destinations as your fellow explorers are. Of course you didn’t tell me where you are however you were shocked to learn that I knew. I too, can follow your tweets !!! Be safe and enjoy the world. Ok..you can be my hero also….but it is time for you to go somewhere that I can take a deep breath….

    1. Earl

      To my wonderful Mom – I must say that I am truly impressed that you managed to figure out Tweetdeck and follow along with my tweets 🙂 To be honest, it never even occurred to me that you might see those! And you’ll be happy to know that I am about to head to a different part of the world (Thailand), one that will allow you to breathe easily and not have to worry at all…

      And perhaps you’d like to visit?

    2. Theodora

      Hi Earl’s Mom,

      I just wanted to say, congratulations on having such a talented son…

      And, at the same time, commiserations on having one in the digital age. When I was doing very dangerous things, it was before email and the worldwide web, so my mum didn’t know about things until they were done.

      I’m travelling with my son (just turned ten). And your comment here may just have decided me not to go to Papua New Guinea with him unless the entire family are happy for me to do so. I’d never really thought about family and friends worrying as we travel. So your comment’s been really helpful to me.

      Theodora

      1. Earls Mom

        Theodora
        I am always proud of my son, although it is a little scary for a mother to follow his travels. It is his fault that he set up tweet deck on my laptop !!!I have been fortunate to travel with him to destinations such as India, Thailand, Italy and Australia. I am also envious of the experiences he has and I continue to live through him vicariously. What a great experience your own son must be having as well! When you travel, just remember there are those at home that are holding their breath and just want you to be safe..and happy.

        thanks for the comment

    3. Forest

      Hey Earl’s Mom,

      Your son is awesome and one thing I can say….. The Middle East is far safer than New York City or London or Paris yet we don’t worry when people go to those places. The chances of having one of the terrible events that can feasibly happen to you in the middle east I would guess are far far lower than getting robbed at knife point, beaten by a gang for no reason, being shot, having your house broken into and all those scary things that happen in familiar cities.

      I grew up in London and I am amazed at the amount of people that find the idea of me living in Egypt scary especially as we had to live with bomb scares and even bombs on a very regular basis. Ok that happens in certain parts of Iraq and Afghanistan these days but generally very concentrated areas.

      After living in Cairo I am a little scared to return to a real dangerous city (aka London or NY).

      1. Theodora

        Forest, that’s a great perspective! I’m from London, which is *far* more dangerous than most places one visits as a traveller, however exotic they may seem. Plus I’m female, which means that if I meet a messy end it’s likely to be at the hands of a partner or ex-partner…

      2. Earls Mom

        Forest

        Your comment is ever so true. My daughter just got her apartment broken into and she lives in St. Louis, right in the middle of the US. Sometimes I worry more about her than I do Earl. The media has clouded our perspective of other countries and that is why we do need folks like you guys that can give us an entirely different and potentially more accurate view.

        Just remember though, moms always worry, no matter where you go!

        Earls Mom

    1. Earl

      Hey Anil – Yeah, I keep thinking that he told everyone he knows in Kurdistan about us and then called home that night to tell his family and friends as well!

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  25. Jodi

    I can understand that thrill of going somewhere different and feeling like you’ve really accomplished something by doing so. All the better that you go to go with a good friend. Looking forward to reading about it here and on Anil’s site and hope you stay safe on your way back to Turkey!

    1. Earl

      Hey Jodi – I agree fully that such adventures are much better when shared with a friend. Now whenever I think back to this trip I have someone I can call who will understand exactly what I’m talking about. Otherwise, it can be quite frustrating when there’s noone to share such experiences with!

    1. Earl

      Hey Alan – Sadly, there are no Indian restaurants in Kurdistan, at least none that I found. And I did ask around. I was hoping there would be one in Erbil but no such luck, so we ended up with German food instead one night (which was a mighty fine meal I must say).

    1. Earl

      Hey Ayngelina – Well, I hope that nobody follows in our footsteps or else we’ll have to find somewhere even crazier to visit! And that will really piss off my mother!

  26. Nate

    Hi Earl –

    It’s been awhile and I apologize for not commenting or writing in so long. I was going through my RSS reader this morning and all of the sudden I’m like ‘holy crap, Earl is in Iraq!?’ Just awesome.

    I can’t wait to hear about more of your experiences and the people you meet while you’re traveling through the country.

    I had to smile at when I read your encounter with the US Marine. Not too surprising that he’d have that reaction. I’m sure there are no ‘tourists’ traveling through that region, let alone American tourists.

    Have fun and more importantly be safe and take care!

    1. Earl

      Hey Nate – Wonderful to hear from you! Yeah, the Marine was quite surprised. I think that there are a handful of tourists that visit the capital Erbil, but apart from that, not too many venture to the other cities or towns in the region. But it was well worth it of course.

      Thanks for commenting and hope you’ve been well as of late!

  27. Bessie

    Ditto what Juno said, I could totally hear his voice saying that to you and imagine the scene. I can’t wait to hear more about your travels in Iraq – so great that you & Anil met up for it!

    1. Earl

      Hey Bessie – It did work out perfectly that Anil and I could travel together for a while. And it would have been frustrating if there was nobody else around when the Marine made his comment 🙂

      Now I have someone else to back up the story in case I start to doubt it as time goes on…

      And by the way…see you soon!

  28. Audrey

    I was following your tweets from Iraq and so excited for you. I completely understand your feeling of going to places where few travelers go – we’ve been there a few times and there is an inexplicable thrill that goes with it. Can’t wait to hear more about your experiences, conversations and just impressions on how Kurdistan and Iraq have emerged and where people believe things will go in the future. Safe travels!

    1. Earl

      Hey Audrey – Actually, one of the topics I want to write about is the optimism that was so detectable throughout Kurdistan. It just seems that nobody knows what to do with that optimism given the relative instability that is still present below the surface. Anyway, more to come about that!

      And you’ll definitely get another taste of being in an non-touristy destination once you arrive in Bangladesh!

    1. Earl

      Hey Andrea – If you’re jealous you can always visit Kurdistan yourself 🙂 And I’d be up for that trip again if you need a travel partner!

  29. Amanda

    I look forward to the next handful of posts out of Iraq! I’m not sure if it’s somewhere I would ever consider going, though I can definitely understand that thrill of going somewhere truly off the beaten path.

    Be careful, and be safe! And, whatever you do, DON’T stray over the Iranian border like those poor hikers!

    1. Earl

      Hey Amanda – We actually visited a village that is quite close to the mountain area where those hikers wandered off. But we had no intentions of getting any closer than that!

    1. Earl

      Hey Andrea – Thank you for following along! And safety was a priority of ours, even though there wasn’t really a single moment that we felt unsafe at all…

    1. Earl

      Hey Anthony – Fun indeed! We had fun all the time, such as when relaxing in the evening at a shisha bar…it was an absolute highlight of my decade of wandering!

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  31. Randall

    You are the Steven Segal/Indiana Jones/Chuck Norris of travel!

    Can’t wait to see where this take you. Just be careful, for selfish reasons I still want to read your posts!!

    Going to tweet this!

    1. Earl

      Hey Randall – I’m not sure if there is a greater compliment than what you wrote! And your selfishness is perfectly acceptable as in the end, I too, would like to continue writing…and there’s only one way to do that…survive!

    1. Earl

      Hey Jill – Thank you for reading as always! And with the amount of stuff I plan on posting, this might turn into an Iraqi travel site 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Leslie – Hiking along the border with Iran was not part of my plan at all. If I were ever able to get a proper tourist visit than I would gladly go there in an instant, but until then, staying away from the border seems wise 🙂

  32. Juno

    Oh my!!!! What an experience! I almost hear that soldier’s yelling. I can imagine how he felt though. Wow. Once in a life time experience for sure. Thumbs up Earl!

    1. Earl

      Thanks Juno! I’m glad you can hear the soldier yelling because I can’t get it out of my head at all. I’ve been replaying the scene at least 20 times every day since 🙂

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