On my first foray into Iraq, I decided to start with the northern region known as Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Region, as it is also known, borders Iran to the east, Turkey to the north, Syria to the west and the rest of Iraq to the south. The capital is Erbil, and the region has an approximate population of six million. What I found upon my arrival was not what I had envisioned. A rich region due to oil revenues, the infrastructure is not bad and there are construction projects everywhere. My initial days in the region led me to think about the hidden secrets that Kurdistan is keeping.
1. Kurdistan is not Iraq.
Despite its political boundaries lying within the sovereign state of Iraq, Kurdistan is an autonomous region with a distinct history and culture. In fact the lands that form greater Kurdistan extend into both Turkey and Syria. The move towards an independent Kurdistan in the modern era dates back to the 1920s when the British ruled the region following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately for the Kurds, Great Britain did not support this independence partially out of fear that other parts of their land holdings in the region would follow with their own independence movements. A quite complex twentieth century politically, having endured the Iran-Iraq war, several attempts at rebellion, a U.S. secret agreement with the Shah of Iran to secretly fund Kurdish rebels against Bagdad, and the genocide perpetrated by Saddam Hussein, and Kurdistan post-Saddam has at least some measure of autonomy.
2. You don’t need a visa to visit.
If you are a U.S., U.K., or EU passport holder, a free fifteen day visa is issued upon your arrival at Erbil airport. Clearing passport control was among the fastest I have come across. This applies only to Iraqi Kurdistan, as if you are brave enough to fly into Baghdad you will need a visa in advance.
3. The Kurdish people are among the nicest in the world.
In all of my travels, I can confidently say that the Kurdish people are among the most welcoming, curious, and genuinely nice people in the world. Everywhere I went the locals were warm and, despite their lack of English language skills and my lack of Kurdish language skills, they still managed to convey their welcome and their general happiness to meet me. In a region with very little tourist infrastructure, the people are the key to a very pleasant Kurdish travel experience.
4. In Iraqi Kurdistan, you are a rock star.
Given the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan has very recently opened up to tourism, western tourists are a rarity. Accordingly, as a tourist you will be the object of more photos than you yourself take. This is particularly true outside of the capital city of Erbil, where local families will go out of their way to seek you out, say hello, and take photos with and of you. Even the military want to take photos with you.
Given the turmoil this region has seen, it is a wonder that the Kurds are so welcoming and jovial. This is a testimony to their spirit as a people.