The autonomous region of Kurdistam, northern Iraq, to be precise...
A last-minute add-on to my Euro Velo 6 tour, my very short stay in Kurdistan hardly qualifies as a tour but what follows is some stuff about a fascinating place
A lightning fast off-bike circuit around northen Iraq (Dohuk, Erbil, Suleimaniyah) in a week or so in October 2012
Getting ready to go:
Visa: Just about everyone needs a visa and for many, including Oz citizens, a VOA (visa on arrival) is a relatively painless process - a passport scan, a full face photo and then a fingerprint scan carried out at the glacial pace of such procedures in every airport in the world. The visa is more of an entry stamp and is for the Kurdistan Regional Government area only, definitely not for the rest of Iraq...
For those intrepid travellers arriving overland, it appears that a VOA is possible
Vaccinations: trying to find travel info for Kurdistan is a tad fraught
As a reasonably frequent traveller all my shots were up-to-date anyway...
I flew in to Erbil from Istanbul on a red-eye, there seem to be plenty of flights from elsewhere to both Erbil and Suleimaniyah
Overland via Turkey is reputed to be quite easy
Once you're there:
Travelling in Kurdistan isn't hard but there is very little in the way of 'tourist' infrastructure, you're basically on your own. Thankfully, it's a very friendly place!
Accommodation: Accommodation is plentiful, while there are lots of hotels (and motels) where foreigners aren't accepted, there are so many hotels that finding a room isn't a problem - as long as you avoid Nowruz, the Spring Festival. In the big cities at least, out in the sticks hotels become scarcer, but that's so everywhere isn't it? The going rate was US$70/night, including breakfast (olives, tomato, cucumber, cheeses, yoghurt, honey, bread and sweet tea)
Food: The food available to a traveller is pretty basic, soups and grilled meat (and fish) but it comes in copious quantity and invariably includes bottled water and tea. Only in the more expensive places - where a meal could cost US$25 - was fruit offered after a meal. Street food was cheap and the ubiquitous sweet black tea was dirt cheap. Supermarkets in the shopping malls offered every "western" brand you can think of, at a price (think US$6 for a small box of Corn Flakes for example) On the other hand, the fruit & vegetables and other stuff available in the bazaars were relatively cheap and of pretty good quality
Various types of really good (cheap) bread are ubiquitous - and delicious
Good juices are everywhere. Beer is also freely available, if a bit exxy. Local softdrinks and bottled water are plentiful and cheap
Money: Changing money is easy enough - there are guys wandering thru most bazzars with wads of notes
There was a (working) ATM in the Erbil airport
Credit cards? Seems to be a 'cash' economy...
Roads: There are some excellent roads and a seeming blitz of road building/rebuilding, but as for the rest, both urban and rural, sealed and unsealed, the roads can be bloody awful!
Speed 'humps' that force traffic almost to a standstill, 'security' chicanes that force multiple lanes into a single lane and militia roadblocks abound
Signage wasn't too bad, almost all signs were also in English
Traffic: Traffic is Cairo-esque; unless there was a traffic cop on duty, traffic lights, lane marking and the like seemed merely advisory, creating massive traffic congestion throughout the day. Taxis were as anarchic as usual!
In the rural areas there was less traffic but animals (and people) wandering onto and/or standing around on the road were and ever present hazard. Overtaking in less than safe circumstances adds a bit of spice to rural travel, especially when speed limits appear also to be advisory...
Countless wrecks of (mostly) tanker trucks litter the sides of roads, both highways and by-ways
The most frequently asked questions:
By folk outside Iraq: Are you mad?
Kurdistan, as everyone living there constantly re-iterates, isn't Iraq! Sure while it's both geographically and politically Iraq, the majority Kurd population believe themselves to not be part of Iraq. The area is relatively peaceful and while it might not sound like it from the stuff above, it's well worth the time (and considerable effort) involved
By folk inside Iraq: Kurdistan is the new Dubai
Not actually a question is it?
Even those with very limited English said "Kurdistan is the new Dubai" In fact the phrase was repeated so often that it was obviously something of a slogan. Just like Dubai, the place is awash with money and for those at the top there’s nothing that is beyond their reach, luxury brands from Porsche cars to Patek watches and everything between are flaunted. The tribal warlords, their families and clients (including the militias) are doing very very well. As for the rest of the people, well, just as in the "West", they appear to rely on the somewhat dubious 'trickle down' effect