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Six Days in Iraq

Six Days in Iraq

Old Jan 7, 2020, 4:58 pm
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Six Days in Iraq

Six Days in Iraq

With the eventual goal of visiting every country, I decided it was time to start sprinkling in some Level 4 - Do Not Travel countries, at least according to the U.S. State Department. With that said, I didn't expect Iraqi Kurdistan (at all) to be the "Iraq" that we all see in the news. That assumption was correct as I found Iraqi Kurdistan not only 'safe' feeling but also clean, interesting and I found the people to be overly accommodating.

The Kurdistan region (in yellow) is an autonomous region in Iraq, formally recognized by the Iraqi government. They operate, for the most part, under their own government and they have their own culture and visa policy. US Citizens can enter Iraqi Kurdistan visa-free, whereas a physical visa is required for the rest of the country, referred to as Arab Iraq when in Kurdistan.

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Bienvenido a Cuba!
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Old Jan 7, 2020, 5:00 pm
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Day 1

The trip technically started in Tampa as usual with a one day stop in Hong Kong, however, due to weather and the protests, I spent most of the day in the hotel and the surrounding area in Kowloon. I headed back to the airport via taxi that evening (train and buses were shut down) for the next flight on Doha on Qatar Airways.

Cathay Pacific The Pier Business Class Lounge.

Tonight's routing to Erbil.

My second time in Qatar's Qsuites, this time on a 777-300ER. A great redemption value at only 40K miles HKG-DOH-EBL.

Champagne and hot towel to start.

Roasted red pepper soup.

Fried halibut and rice for the main.

About two hours prior to landing in Doha, breakfast was served. I started with some fruit.

Some delicious buttermilk waffles.

I fell asleep before dessert during dinner, so I ordered a cheese plate after breakfast.

Day 2

Welcome to Doha, Qatar at 5 AM!

I spent a few hours in Qatar's fantastic Al Mourjan lounge before the next flight to Erbil.

If you had asked me eight years ago when I first started heavily traveling if I would have been to Iraq by age 26, I would've laughed. Well, here I was, not only traveling to Iraq solo, but excited to visit somewhere less traveled.
Boarding the Qatar A320 after a 30-minute (no joke) bus ride from the main terminal.

I lost the Qatar A320 seat lottery and ended up with standard recliners. Not a big deal though on a sub-3 hour flight. I was seated next to an older American man traveling to Iraq as an employee of a security company; needless to say, he looked at me like I was crazy.

Tomato and cheese omelet with a lamb skewer for breakfast.

Overflying Kirkuk, Iraq before descending into Erbil.

A view of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan's capital city while on final approach.

I jumped in a taxi for the short 20-minute ride to my hotel from the Erbil Airport upon arriving. I landed in Erbil three days after President Trump agreed to the Turkish-led invasion of Syrian Kurdistan, which had officially started at this point. It was a situation to monitor, but I didn't feel unwelcome in the region during my visit.

I checked into my room at the Erbil City View Hotel. I had considered traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan earlier in the year, but it never worked out. I ended up confirming this trip about two weeks prior to going, so my plans weren't exactly hashed out by time I arrived. I sat down for a bit and put together a plan for the day.

The view from my 4th-floor room at the Erbil City View Hotel.

Saeed Bahaddin mosque across the street from the hotel. I decided to start the day off with a walk over to the city's largest park. Being from Florida, the dry heat was actually quite welcoming.

Some nice cars around town.

Passing over a pedestrian bridge.

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Old Jan 7, 2020, 5:01 pm
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I reached Sami Abdulrahman Park about 15-minutes later. The park entrance is across the street from the Kurdistan Parliament. As I was approaching, an armed soldier with an AK-47 came jogging up to me (just a tad unsettling). He just shook my hand, asked if I was a tourist and welcomed me to Kurdistan.

The park was massive and it seemed like I was the only one present. This was an ongoing trend throughout the trip.

A nice bit of green space. The park is formerly home to Saddam Hussein's 5th Corps Army Base before the park was built in place of it in 1998.

Sami Abdulrahman Park.


I believe this has something to do with the Erbil Marathon, but I could be incorrect.

Inside the park is a memorial to the livers lost in the twin suicide terrorist attacks in Erbil on Feb 1, 2004. The city otherwise, has been fairly free of these sort of attacks since then and had stayed out of both the US-led invasion in 2003 and the recent war against ISIS.

The memorial.

I then started a 30-minute walk to the city center. On the way, I snapped a picture of this mural of the Kurdistan flag; quite different from the standard Iraq flag.

My first stop in the city's center was the abandoned Arab Quarter. Many of the Arabs fled the area to either more lavish neighborhoods or other parts of the country.

Arab Quarter.

Cemented door.

Arab Quarter.

Arab Quarter.

A friendly doggo.

Dates for sale.

I then hiked up to the top of the Erbil Citadel, which is one of the oldest inhabited places in the world dating back to the 5th millennium BC.

The majority of the Citadel is still under renovation, but parts were complete.

Looking over a part of Erbil.

I then headed back down from the Citadel into Erbil's main square, which is quite a happening place to be.

Erbil's main square and the Citadel.

Kurdistan flags. The red symbolizes the blood of martyrs for Kurdistan, the green represented the beauty of the Kurdish landscape, the yellow stands for the source of light and light of the people and the white represents peace and equality.

I popped into the Qaysari Bazaar to take a look around.

The Qaysari Bazaar is the largest of its kind in Erbil.

I picked myself up some treats to take home to friends and family.



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Old Jan 7, 2020, 5:02 pm
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I also had some souvenir shopping to do for some people, which I got out of the way on my first day.

I sat down for some tea at one of Erbil's longest-running tea houses, Machko.

This hit the spot after having gotten up ~3:30 AM local time.

Looking up at the Erbil Citadel from the tea house.

I hiked back up to the top of the Citadel for sunset for a view of Erbil's main square.

I was in contact with my guide for the next few days at this point and went to some place for dinner at his recommendation. Only a few dollars for a massive chunk of chicken and some rice.

Day 3

I rose quite early to start the day with some breakfast before heading off into the north of Kurdistan. My guide, Rekan (picked him up from Indigo Traveler's videos on Youtube) was picking me up around 8 AM to head into the mountains, including camping for one night.

The original plan was to cover this with 3 days and 2 nights, but we ended up being able to fit it in with only one night but two very long days of driving.

On the road at last. Our first stop involved driving fairly close to Mosul (not part of Kurdistan). The Iraqi military had set up a checkpoint however that they would not allow me through without a visa so we had to go the long way.

Looking out towards Mosul from Mar Mattai Monastery.

Mar Mattai is known as one of the oldest Christian monasteries in existence.

Mar Mattai Monastery.

The monastery is located on top of Mount Alaf and is located only about 20kms from Mosul.

The monastery was established in 363.

You can barely make out the monastery in the center of the mountain.

Although the security situation in Mosul has improved in recent times, it was still a bit disconcerting knowing how close I was to what was recently a major ISIS stronghold. ISIS ceded control of the city in 2017.

On the way to our next stop we passed by one of many refugee camps in Iraq.

The camp was empty at the time we observed it, however, less than a month after my visit the camp now has over 11,000 refugees from northern Syria.

We then stopped off for some lunch.


The local news reporting on the Turkish-led invasion of Syrian Kurdistan.

One of the many oil fields in Iraq. Iraq's oil reserves are considered the 5th largest in the world.

Our next stop was the mountain village of Lalish. It's the holiest temple of the Yazidi people.

Lalish courtyard.

Rekan had me tie one of the prayer cloths and make a wish on this pillar.

Rekan also had me toss a cloth on top of the pillar he's standing next to and make a wish. If the cloth stays put, the wish is granted.

The jars contain olive oil reserves pressed from the groves in Lalish.

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Last edited by ChiefNWA; Jan 7, 2020 at 6:34 pm
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Old Jan 7, 2020, 5:03 pm
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Arabic and Kurdish.

The view from Lalish.

We drove through Duhok on our way to our next destination.

We stopped off at a viewpoint of the Zagros Mountains.

The mountain range split Iraq from Turkey.

Zagros Mountains.

The sun was setting before we made it to our next stop, Amedi.

We were planning on going up to the top of this mountain to visit Saddam Hussein's abandoned palace, however, a PKK (Kurdistan's Worker Party) fighter was blocking the road.

We stopped off for a view of Amedi, a hill city located about 4,600 feet above sea level. Unfortunately, it was sundown by time we got into town so we couldn't visit the city's mosque.

Once the sun went down, we found a spot to set up camp. While setting up, Rekan went silent for a moment and told me to listen as you could hear drones flying way above us overhead. They were likely Turkish drones as they patrol this area of Iraq frequently targeting the PKK.
Making some tea before dinner.

Some simple pasta and bread for dinner.

A quick picture of the night sky before bed.

Day 4

I woke up a bit before Rekan since it got pretty cold out and decided to start another fire to warm up. The campsite was very basic, but perfectly fine for one night. I'm glad we didn't end up camping another night since I had come down with a bit of a head cold overnight.

On the road again looking for breakfast.

We stopped off for breakfast at some local cafe. The patrons were a bit surprised to see a foreigner.


We stopped off at our first location of the day, which were going to be some waterfalls. It involved crossing the river though, which Rekan, unfortunately, slipped in. He ended up slicing the back of his foot on a rock and also lost his iPhone. After spending about 30-minutes looking for the phone, we gave up and, understandably, decided to skip these waterfalls.

The view driving back down from the waterfalls.

Valley view.

Kurdistan flags.

We had spent a few hours driving, so we stopped off for some lunch in a fairly scenic spot.

I ordered some grilled local fish, which was quite tasty.

After another hour or so of driving, we stopped at Shanidar Cave. I hiked up on my own as Rekan's foot was pretty sore from the fall.

The view from the cave.

Remains of Neanderthals were found in the cave dating back to 65,000-35,000 years old.

We continued our drive through the Zagros Mountains region.

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Old Jan 7, 2020, 5:04 pm
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A few hours of driving later, we visited an overlook of the Rawanduz Canyon.

Rawanduz Canyon.

We then visited the nearby Bekhal Waterfall.

The other waterfall involved walking through this restaurant area which had a thin layer of water on the ground. It seemed like a pretty unique place.

Gali Ali Bag Waterfall.

We started the 2-hour drive back to Erbil for the night and stopped for dinner on the way.

A visitor during dinner.

Day 5

We got back to Erbil at about 9 PM the night before, so I went straight to bed. I was up around 6 AM the next morning and took a cab to the "garage", which is where all he shared taxis depart from to various destinations in Iraq. I pretty easily found the shared taxi to Sulaymaniyah, another Iraqi city in the Kurdistan region, and paid by fare.

I had to make sure the driver avoided driving through Kirkuk as there were Iraqi checkpoints setup that I wouldn't have been able to get through.

It took about 3.5-hours to get to Sulaymaniyah on some rather poor quality roads.

The Amna Suraka Museum in Sulaymaniyah is the largest tourist attraction in the city. It used to be a prison used by Saddam Hussein's forces to torture prisoners in the Kurdistan region during the late 80s and early 90s.

The shards of glass and lights represent the estimated 180,000 Kurds killed during Saddam Hussein's al-Anfal campaign.

A Saddam-era tank located on the museum grounds that was left behind when the Kurds took control of the prison in 1991.




Some old trucks left behind.

Bullet holes.

Signs of war.

Bullet holes.

Vice published an article on this museum dubbing it "The World's Most Depressing Museum", likely for good reason given the graphic representations they have present in each room inside the prison.

The next exhibit was dedicated to the ~180,000 Kurdish lives lost during the al-Anfal campaign in the late 80s.

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Old Jan 7, 2020, 5:05 pm
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The very recognizable ISIS flag.

Not exactly a stamp I'd be looking to add to my passport...

Land mines.

After the museum, I walked through the nearby Azadi Park, the largest in Sulaymaniyah. Locals call the city Slemani and Sulay, hence the name on the side of a nearby mountain.

Statue in Azadi Park.

Lunch in Sulaymaniyah.

I also walked through a local market and did some more souvenir shopping.

I also gandered at the Great Mosque, though I couldn't get in at the time.

Back at the garage in Sulaymaniyah getting ready to head back to Erbil. I bought out two seats this time for more space, which cost $30.

I'm not entirely sure what these trucks were carrying (or escorting?) but they definitely had cell signal jammers on them.

One final kebab dinner once I arrived back in Erbil around sunset.

Delicious dessert.

Day 6

My flight out of Erbil was departing around 3 PM, so I spent the first half of the day exploring some places I hadn't visited when I was first in Erbil. I started with the Jalil Khayat Mosque, though I couldn't get inside.

Jalil Khayat Mosque in Erbil.

I revisited the bazaar as I had some more shopping to do, plus I needed lunch.

I grabbed myself a tasty snack.

I picked up a sandwich for lunch.

Some cleverly trimmed bushes.

Shanidar Park, which was within walking distance of my hotel. I imagine this is pretty nice at night if the cable cars run.

Shanidar Park.

Shanidar Park.

Back at the Erbil Airport for my flight to Vienna. Wow, was security taken seriously here. First, the cab had to stop at a bomb detection/car inspection point about 2-miles from the terminal. They had us get out, went through the car, patted us down, had bomb-sniffing dogs around and even removed the floor mats from the car. About halfway to the terminal was where the dropoff was, in which there was a bag scan and passport check. After that, you take a bus to the actual terminal (pictured below) where I checked in. Following that was an EU bound passport/security question check, border control then another round of standard airport security.

A rather quiet terminal.

And with that, the six-day trip in Iraq is over.

I had a great time in Iraqi Kurdistan as it not only met but greatly exceeded my expectations and I'm glad I decided to go.

Next up: Vienna
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Old Jan 7, 2020, 5:14 pm
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Wow. What an adventure and what an amazing trip. Some very nice scenery and the food looks really good. Thanks ChiefNWA.
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Old Jan 7, 2020, 5:36 pm
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Absolutely incredible pictures and trip. Love all the kebabs, and looks like some really beautiful scenery - Erbil also looks very pretty and not at all what I would've expected in that part of the world.
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Old Jan 7, 2020, 5:46 pm
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Awesome TR and great to give folks a look at a region of world that is unfortunately jaded through mainstream media.
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Old Jan 7, 2020, 6:30 pm
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ChiefNWA this trip report is absolutely inspiring. There is no other word for it. The photography and journey are fantastic. Thank you for taking the time to post and share.
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Old Jan 7, 2020, 6:50 pm
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What a fantastic read, truly beautiful photos.
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Old Jan 7, 2020, 7:38 pm
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Awesome review and what an experience.
The photos turned out amazing.
Might I ask what kinda of frame/lens you used? Any special settings to get the colors so vibrant?
Most of my dslr photos from trips turn out rather dull, not popping with color despite the subject being colorful
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Old Jan 7, 2020, 7:59 pm
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Thanks for posting!
Fantastic report and photos.
I would very much like to see Kurdistan at some point in the next few years.
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Old Jan 7, 2020, 8:20 pm
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Thank you!

Fantastic trip report. Youve got balls to visit Iraq under the current political instability of the region.
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