I sat inside of a crowded minivan of sorts, filled with local Iraqi men. The mission: backpacking through Iraq, Kurdistan.

We had just driven along the border of Turkey and Syria for the last hour. Extremely derelict communities lay along the busted down road the left. To our right we watched an endless field of barbed wire, dirt mounds, and high towers with armed guards.

 

Backpacking Iraq Travel

 

Just a few days before, a friend who I would soon backpack Iraq with and myself were trapped in Mardin, no busses were leaving because of riots and fighting with ISIS just a few miles away.

We were both very apprehensive of the journey we were about to take part in, you see we had a side mission in mind. We had set out to accomplish something I never thought I would be a part of, far beyond just a simple backpacking Iraq trip (If you are a regular reader of my blog then you know what that was, if not you will soon find out).

 

Should I Travel to Iraq?

 

“Are we actually going to Iraq?”

We asked each other this question probably 100+ times.

I will say that I was slightly more up for it then my new friend Paul, who I met on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum while searching for anyone crazy enough to come with me.

 

Backpacking Iraq Travel

 

Many thoughts went through our minds while we sat in that stone courtyard in Eastern Turkey…

Is backpacking in Iraq safe?

 

We googled “safety of travel in Iraq” or some such thing. That was a mistake.

All we read were many, many opinions of people who strongly suggested not going.

This was not the vote of confidence we were looking for, but at the same time wasn’t really that off-putting. I can’t explain the feeling, but it was like they were all wrong, and we would be fine.

How much does it even cost to backpack through Iraq?

 

There are no hostels, no ATM’s, very little information on guesthouses of any kind, and not much written about the subject of backpacking Iraq in general.

We pulled out a stack of cash from the ATM in Mardin, and crammed it in our money belts hoping it wouldn’t be stolen away.

If you plan to backpack Iraq make sure to bring enough cash with you. I would suggest to budget $50 a day if sharing rooms.

Are we going to have our heads chopped off?

 

Looking back this seems ridiculous because of how things played out, but we were actually worried. We joked about it, but there was seriousness in those jokes. I didn’t sleep much the night before we took off.

In the end none of this mattered. We were going. We would just find out for ourselves what lay ahead in a country that many would never dream of travelling to.

 

Day 1 as a Backpacker in Zahko, Iraq

 

After crossing overland on the bus from Turkey to Iraq, and a short cab ride from the border to town, we were standing in the city center of Zahko, Iraq.

Zahko was a shock. Not a shock in the sense of craziness, but rather in the sense of calmness and regularity. People were just going about their business. No one seemed to care we were there.

The city was in fine condition, there were no bullet holes in the walls like we imagined, no half blown up buildings, it didn’t feel sketchy at all.

 

Zahko Iraq - Backpacking Iraq Travel

 

We stayed in a hotel right across the fountain in the city center. We walked around eating ice cream bars as they melted down our hands in the middle eastern heat, we ate in a random local place where we had 2 plates of food, 2 cokes, 2 bottles of water with a total cost of less the $2. We wandered through back alleys and back streets, and no one cared.

What the hell? Why don’t these people care we are here!

We were for sure the only tourists, but the citizens of Zakho, Iraq didn’t react as they do in other parts of the world. They weren’t shocked to see us. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit let down.

I wanted congratulations from locals for my bravery. I had gone were no backpacker had gone before. I was truly off the beaten path, and not even a wave from a child! Why were we invisible?

 

Getting on with the Mission

 

We needed to get over the lack of local excitement, for we were on a mission.

You see, when I had met Paul he had suggested that we buy children’s toys in Turkey, bring them across the border into Iraq, find a refugee camp that we didn’t even know existed, and hand out the toys.

This is an entirely different post all together you can read about it here if you like. Today though, I won’t go into that as we are talking about the backpacking Iraq experience as whole.

 

Zakho Iraq Refugee Camp

 

We stood on the roof of the hotel and gazed around the city planning what our next step was.

 

Just Being a Regular Traveller in Iraq

 

We first had plans of coming across the border, handing out the toys, spending a couple of days, and getting the hell out. That quickly changed.

We spent three days total in Zahko and could have stayed longer.

 

travel backpacking Iraq street food

 

We spent an afternoon walking around the city, we happened upon a street food truck of sorts, and had a very strange encounter with the men inside.

A taste of the nightlife in Iraq

 

We ended up meeting an English teacher from the U.S and going to some secret beer garden for drinks in a city that doesn’t even sell alcohol. When we arrived at the “bar” and got out of the cab the driver was angry, he said he wouldn’t have let us in his car if he knew we were going to drink that poison.

We sat on plastic lawn chairs at a plastic table in the middle of a large grassy field. It was myself, Paul, the English teacher, and his local friend. We drank tall cans of beer and talked about nothing.

 

Backpacking travel Zakho Iraq

 

Before backpacking Iraq we had come up with rules, no drinking, no being out after dark, no talking to strangers. We were now getting drunk in a field, with a weirdo English teacher and his Iraqi buddy, at midnight on a Monday.

I have never been that good at following rules, I guess not even my own.

We took a cab back to the city center in the early hours of the morning. We got and out walked around, looked for food just like we would in any city at night after a few beers. No one bothered us, we didn’t get robbed or beheaded, we were starting to realize the worry and apprehension had been for nothing.

Iraq was safe, question answered we thought.

The taxi ride from Zakho to Erbil, Iraq

 

We were getting more comfortable and decided that it was only fitting that we press on further into the country, we arranged a taxi from Zakho to the capital city of Erbil, we would fly out from there. This is the only way to get between the 2 cities and cost around $60 for the 2 of us for the 4 hour drive.

 

Backpacking Iraq Travel

 

At this point we were officially backpackers in Iraqi Kurdistan. We were crossing the desert in no-mans land, through countless armed checkpoints manned by officers who held large guns, but didn’t mind we were there.

Our taxi driver, whos name I now forget, wore an unforgettable denim attire. His button up denim shirt was tucked into his faded denim blue jeans; it was fall and the weather was a bit chilled in the morning so of course he kept warm with a vintage 1983 denim jacket. Let’s not forget his mullet. The first Iraqi hipster perhaps?

We rolled into Erbil and immediately noticed a difference. Zakho was kind of old, a bit scummy, and not much was happening. Erbil was large, full of people buzzing around, slightly more modern with shiny, new buildings and nice cars.

After some confusion about where the hell we were, we made it to the Lord City Hotel, our base in Erbil while our Iraq backpacking trip continued. We stayed in a twin room for $25, probably the cheapest you will find.

 

Having our minds blown in Iraq (in a good way)

 

Erbil is the capital city. It’s supposedly home to many expats (who we never found), and has an actual nightlife scene (which we never bothered to look for).

We took it in a different way. We spent our days wandering around, trying to get haircuts, buying fake Adidas track pants, and eating incredibly cheap amazing street food, just as one would do while backpacking Iraq.

 

what to do in Erbil Iraq backpacking travel

What made it incredible though, were the random people, the humans of Erbil Iraq. Let’s talk about a few.

One of the kindest people we met was a local Iraqi businessman with a heart of gold. Read about him in the list of things to do in Erbil that I wrote while there. We hung out with him and had lunches that he payed for every time and he refused to take penny from us. He imported gold from Dubai and had a nice little store we sat around in and looked at his Facebook photos on his iPhone while he smoked cigarettes behind his desk.

Another interesting character we saw on a daily basis was the man who walked around with the AK-47 around his back. He was always wandering around in the evening, just having tea and kebabs with everyone else. I thought it was best not to take his picture.

The money changers, these guys walk around the streets with STACKS of American bills. They handled currency conversions through the windows of passing cars literally holding thousands of dollars with no concern of robbery.

 

Backpacking Iraq Travel money changer

 

Men, who own the stalls selling clothing, knock off phones or watches, and whatever else you could think of. These trusting souls don’t pack up at night. When they are closing up they just put a tarp over their goods and leave. Someone could just walk up and clean them out, but no one does. They do not overcharge and do not bargain. They don’t try to hustle at all. It’s an extremely honest place.

The arms dealer we happened across who let us hold and mess around with his guns, while posing for pictures with a knife to my neck. He might have been the highlight.

 

what to do in Erbil Iraq backpacking travel

 

Final Thoughts on Backpacking Iraq

 

We never felt threatened while we were there. No one ripped us off or tried to scam us. The food was great and cheap, we had Wi-Fi in the hotel, and it just straight up felt badass to be backpacking Iraq.

Everyone we told our plans to thought we were insane. Everyone assumed we would be killed. Why is that the first thing that comes to our mind?

We see stories on the news of bad people doing bad things and assume that everyone in that country is bad. I didn’t meet a single bad person the entire trip, that I know of. I could have had tea with an ISIS dude for all I know, but I guess he didn’t feel like kidnapping me, maybe his day off.

I am sure something bad could have happened, but that can happen anywhere in the world. Truth is, I felt safer here then in many places I’ve been, even in Europe. There was just a safe and calm vibe in the air.

 

what to do in Erbil Iraq backpacking travel

 

I wish I had time to stay longer and I was apprehensive about leaving. If I didn’t have to get to a travel conference in Greece, I would have stayed and continued to explore.

I get asked all the time if I would recommend backpacking in Iraq, the answer is yes, I would like to go again myself and explore more. Maybe I will, would anyone care to join?

 

Have you been travelling or backpacking Iraq Before? Is there anything I missed you would like to add? Do you have any more questions about it? Let me know or ask away in the comments below and I promise to answer!

 

Would you like some more information on backpacking Iraq? Check out these 7 reasons why you must travel to Iraq.

38 Responses

  1. Tine

    Nice post! I think it will be a long time before people start consider countries like Iran, Iraq and Syria “travellable” because everyone has heard so many bad things about the places in the media (okay, I would probably not visit Syria at the moment…), it is always good to hear a nice story about a country with bad reputation 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
    Tine recently posted…Why I am not proud of being DanishMy Profile

    • Bianka

      Visited Iran in December 2014 – by far one of the safest countries I’ve traveled as a solo female backpacker. Not to mention a stunningly beautiful landscapes and Persians are probably the friendliest people I have ever encountered thus far 🙂 Would love to go back.

      Btw, Alex – amazing story! I’ve been wanting to visit Iraqi Kurdistan for a long time now, but would prefer doing it with a fellow travel companion.

      • Alex

        Bianka thats awesome! I am hoping to get to Iran as soon as they let Canadians in with out a guide!

  2. leandro

    Excellent post!!
    We have exactly the same felling crossing Pakistan in our bike a few days ago!
    We love Pakistan, all the local people, the food, etc!
    “How different is the story if told by the wolf rather than Little Red Riding Hood…”
    Enjoy it!!!

    • Alex

      Man I can’t wait to get to Pakistan. On a bike would be even better!

    • Bruno

      Hey, I just want to ask you where did you got your pakistani visa. I just left Iran and I was told the only way to get the pakistani visa is in your own country. Is that true? Tahnks

      • Alex

        Hi Bruno, I actually havent been to Pakistan, but yes you need to apply in your own country. I have heard stories of people mailing the passport home and having family do it for you

    • Alex

      Good look Andi! I’m sure you could drive in.. the border wasn’t over tight surprisingly

  3. Katrina the Two Week Traveler

    Wow that’s such an awesome experience and I’m really jealous! I’ve read some stuff on traveling through Iraqi Kurdistan and it’s all super positive. I don’t think I’d feel comfortable going anytime soon, but someday! I wonder if the experience would be much different as a female traveler though.
    Katrina the Two Week Traveler recently posted…Diving With Great White Sharks in South AfricaMy Profile

    • Alex

      Hi Katrina,

      I’v met a handful of solo females who had a great time and said everyone was overly friendly. As a male the ladies there would never to us but the solo females who went said they were really kind as were the men!

  4. Gabby @ theglobewanderers.com

    Such an interesting post – thanks so much for sharing your experience of this country…. it’s always niggled in the back of my mind that I would love to visit Iraq – you’ve confirmed it! (and that photo of you with the knife wielding Iraqi is perfection.)

    Funnily enough, only today I wrote a post about 10 rubbish travel tips you should ignore… Number 2 was: ‘Ooo don’t go there you lunatic – it’s not safe.’ Your post is the perfect illustration as to why. 🙂

    Gabby
    Gabby @ theglobewanderers.com recently posted…10 Rubbish Travel Tips you Should IgnoreMy Profile

    • Alex

      Thanks Gabby! I agree with you list totally, make sure to check the news before you go but you can’t believe everything you here 🙂

  5. Julia

    Wow! This is super interesting! I don’t know many people who would consider the Iraq their travel destination. The pictures and the stories are so great. Sometimes we really forget that no matter where we go there are just people like you and me living there. Anyway, great post 🙂 Thanks for sharing the experience!
    Julia recently posted…Vetaretus-6 | Sauerland, Germany – Camping, Hiking and more!My Profile

  6. Dolly

    Hi

    The read was worthwhile. Thanks for sharing.
    Always been fascinated by the middle-east. Being conventional at travel making me not have what I could have.

    Do you suggest for women to travel to Iraq? From your post it sounds like people are tolerant to outsiders. But I couldn’t get a picture of how easy locals are with women travellers.
    Again thanks for sharing a piece of middle-east and take us away from all the negativity shot at us:)

    • Alex

      Hi Dolly,

      I was in contact with other women who solo travelled through Iraq with no problems and said everyone was incredible to her. I didn’t witness any myself but I think you would be ok.

  7. Bruno

    Hey alex, thanks for sharing this. I left Iran today and I regret not going to Kurdistan Iraq. People told me there are no passport checks in the border between Kurdistan, Iran and Kurdistan, Iraq, but I was afraid of that. In case of passport checks I would have find myself trapped in Iraq because I didnt have a double entry visa for Iran. Also, I been told the bus from Orumiye, Iran to Erbil, Iraq, is safe and there was no trouble in Iran, but after I did some reseach I found that the bus pass thought Mosul and near Kirkuk wich are cities where the ISIS was arround.
    So, I want to ask you if the border between Turkey and Iraq is open nowadays because I was told it was closed. How long ago you been in Iraq? Thanks

    • Bruno

      Hey guys, sorry I insist. I am in turkey now. Is the border turkey-iraq open nowadays?

  8. Diako kawa

    If you ever came back here i can be your guide i will take you to place’s that blow your mind and i will do it for free with my own car im travelling alot too … Thats my Facebook.. diakokawa

  9. Aidan

    Hello Alex,
    Great write up mate! Im sitting here now having the same thoughts you had before going? but now im looking forward to getting there and exploring! when did u actually go? what dates?
    Thanks

  10. Greg

    great post, many people are afraid to go to Kurdistan because of what they hear about on the news. By the way, Kurdish people don’t like to be called Iraqi, Zakho and Erbil are both Kurdish cities.

  11. Michelle

    I’m glad I found your Instagram account, and subsequently your blog! You are an inspiration 🙂

  12. Maja

    Wow really, you’re a brave man, Alex. Loved your post about your travel to Iraq, it’s so inspirational, yet I must admit, I’d be way to scared. Probably because I’m female, so it wouldn’t be the same… really good work though!

    Greetings, Maja

  13. caroline

    if you need a travel parner again soon, i am in.

    Caroline

  14. Megan

    Very inspiring post. I am currently planning my second Middle East visit. Teaching in Palestine, hopefully visiting Jordan, Turkey and Iran… but… now, you tempt me with Iraq!! Good on you for going!