Traditional Kurdish dressed men sitting in the town center of Al-Kosh for their morning chat, Iraq Kurdistan (Michael Runkel)

When most people think of Iraq, they envision a very dangerous place with lots of segregation and terror, kidnapping and suicide attacks, and a lot of Anti-Americanism. True, it is very dangerous for foreigners to go, but mainly in the Sunni and Shia areas in the center and south. In the north is an area which is a directorate-controlled and dominated by the Kurdish people. There is no violence, no fighting, no suicide bombings. The Kurds keep their half independent state well under control, with a booming economy and real estate.

Huge square with water fountains below the citadel of Erbil or Hawler, capital of Iraq Kurdistan (Michael Runkel)

The first impression you get when you fly into Erbil, the capital, is a brand new stylish airport which was recently constructed. So clean and efficient, you kind of wonder where you just landed. No visa needed- the first 15 days you get a free tourist card.

Erbil is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited towns in the world, but when you arrive you more likely to see new buildings and construction sites. The center, on the contrary is completely traditional and has a great old Citadel, a busy covered bazaar and some lovely gardens. Everything is completely relaxed and you have no impression at all that this used to be a war-torn country.

Traditional dressed Kurdish man before the mountain scenery of Ahmedawa on the border of Iran, Iraq Kurdistan (Michael Runkel)

If you feel confident enough, you can easily rent a car there for around 50 USD/day which gives you a lot of flexibility. You definitely won’t see any other foreigners this way, but that’s what makes this region so attractive. There really are very few places left in the world which are untouched by tourism and I am sure that Kurdistan will be changing soon. Right now, there is a good infrastructure of roads and hotels and in the cities, many people speak English. If you are on the countryside you can be sure that there always will be someone around to help you find your way. The Kurdish people there are definitely top on the list when it comes friendly folks. Everybody welcomes you with a big smile on their face and tries to communicate despite language barriers. Several times the restaurant owners refused to let me pay because they wanted foreigners to feel welcome. The entire time I was there, I didn’t meet one unfriendly person.

Snow capped mountains above the Hamilton road leading into Iran, Iraq Kurdistan (Michael Runkel)

Kurdistan offers a wide range of sights, sceneries and cultures. There is a wonderful canyon along the Hamilton road leading into Iran which has waterfalls and lots of very scenic viewpoints. There are Catholic and Syrian monasteries carved into the rocks, close to Mosul and highly secured by Kurdish Peshmerga. There is the main town Lalish from the sect of the Yazidis hidden in a beautiful valley where the people follow their very old traditions. While in main Iraq, the Yazidis are under threat of being killed, but in Kurdistan they have the freedom to follow their religion.

Yazidi woman in Lalish capital of the Kurdish sect of the Yazidis in Iraq Kurdistan (Michael Runkel)

Scenery-wise, I most enjoyed Hamilton road- a masterpiece of construction build in the beginning of the last century. It reminds me of the Grand Canyon, extremely pretty some roaming waterfalls- something you wont necessarily expect when traveling in the Middle East. Along the whole road you will see a lot of trucks transporting gasoline over the border to Iran (Iran doesn’t have refineries). Just before the border, towering snowcapped mountains give you a complete different feeling than what you might expect of Iraq.

Overall, Iraqi Kurdistan is definitely worth to travel to when you have a little spirit of adventure. It felt completely safe and the people alone were worth the entire trip.


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