Traveling in north Iraq is akin to seeing a shark swimming in an aquarium. The semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which comprises primarily the cities of Duhok, Arbil, and Sulaymaniyah, is protected from the volatile south by a precarious border.

arbil iraq citadel

Iraq is certainly not a country that is, or should be, on most travelers list of places to visit. Having spent the past 5 days in the region with Wandering Earl, I’d like to give you a glimpse into the world within a war zone.

erbil international airportConfusion Of Visas

The northern Kurdish region is nearly completely autonomous; so much so that it issues its own visitor visas upon arrival at the Turkish border and Erbil International Airport. Good for 10 days, the stamps are completely separate from the business visas issued by the central Iraqi government. (Business visas are, for most nationals, the only way to enter the rest of Iraq.)

A Lack Of Basic Infrastructure Tourists Are Accustomed To

One of the first things most travelers would notice when making travel arrangements to the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq are the missing large hotels online. The prevalence of small and independent lodging options makes it nearly impossible to book online ahead of your stay. Most of the hotels in Arbil and Sulaymaniyah are of the one or two star variety and require some footwork in order to find one with a vacant room.

arbil iraq

Also, much like everything else in northern Iraq, hotels are cash only. In fact, any trip into the Kurdish region will force you to carry enough cash to get you through your entire stay – there isn’t a single ATM within the borders of the Kurdish-run north.

Digital nomads should also be prepared to find wireless Internet very difficult to come by. Bumming a wi-fi signal is pretty tough when there aren’t many connections to be found in the first place.

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Sulaymaniyah market at night“I Love George Bush”

The Kurdistan region as a whole has benefited greatly from the removal of Saddam Hussein and “I love George Bush” is a phrase almost always following the word “America” in northern Iraq. Northern Iraqis, in general, love America and are vocal about it.

  • Strangely enough, despite there being very, very few foreign travelers in Iraq, nobody takes notice of people who are obviously from way out of town.
  • Blending in within Iraq’s borders for any appreciable amount of time isn’t easy and the universal language English is hard to come by in northern Iraq. Kurdish and Arabic are most common with many people also knowing a fair amount of basic Turkish.

The sound of a foreign language or sighting a tourist, while exceptionally odd in this part of the world, is barely noticed by locals. Despite the attention one might expect to draw, no foreigners (including large Fijian UN workers) seem to draw any additional notice.

Eggshell Security

One might expect there to be armored vehicles, tanks, and military to be abundant within the cities of northern Iraq. The structure of security in the region, much like an eggshell (hard outside soft inside) suggests that the primary threats to Arbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Duhok are external. Safety is maintained by police forces in each city and evidence of instability is nowhere to be found – except when entering or leaving the Kurdish north.

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  • The airport is surrounded by a large buffer zone of about 2 kilometers where unofficial vehicles may not enter. Once within the secured perimeter however, the experience is not too much different than many other airports around the world.

Checkpoints between the cities of northern Iraq are frequent however and passports are routinely checked. As was in my case, Kurdish police and military seemed concerned with Arabs using foreign passports to move within Iraq. Cars, taxis, and other vehicles are routinely checked and tourists are questioned nearly at each stop.

The Important Northern Distinction

While there is a thrill of traveling to Iraq, it’s important to note how quickly and dramatically the security situation changes just beyond the southern Kurdistan regional border, right outside of Kirkuk. Although the north is no real safe haven (there are still attacks within the Kurdish borders), everyone Wandering Earl and I came across strongly told us it was extremely dangerous to head further south.

street food north iraq

The Kurdish north, for all intents and purposes operates as a separate entity from the rest of Iraq. Situated in a volatile country and having strained relationships with both bordering Turkey and Iran, northern Iraq is strangely normal – even if all else suggests otherwise.