Exploring the unthinkable: Iraqi Kurdistan
Our journey by bicycle makes us challenge the beliefs we hold about the world and makes us see things as they are with our own eyes. We feel very strongly that it is not enough to just live in the world as it is, to just accept reality as it’s generally accepted in our environment and follow the itinerary of other travelers who have done a similar bike tour before. We truly love the idea that everything we have learnt is just provisional and is always open to questioning. That’s how we came up with the idea to cross Iraqi Kurdistan on our way to go from Turkey to Iran.
Before we crossed the border between Turkey and Iraq, we obviously did our homework. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region in northern Iraq. Although it is not recommended by many governments to travel in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is a relatively safe region to travel to since the region hasn’t been impacted by terrorist threats in recent years. Furthermore, according to what we’ve read, there hasn’t been any safety issue registered for foreign travellers for several years. Of course, we didn’t want to take any irresponsible risk. That’s we also contacted other travellers who have been there before and called the Kurdistan Regional Government representative in Brussels. They all had the message: “Yes, it’s safe. You can go there for tourism.”
For most European citizens, there’s no need to worry about getting the visa for Iraqi Kurdistan either: it’s visa on arrival at the border for 30 days. It used to be 14 days, but it recently changed from 14 to 30 days. Very important to mention: the visa is only valid for the Iraqi Kurdistan region and doesn’t allow you to go to other parts of the country, which are not safe enough for tourists anyway.
Border crossings: always a new experience
Full of curiosity and impatience about what it is going to look like, we cycled from Silopi in Turkey to the only border crossing with Iraq in Ibrahim Khalil. We noticed that we approached the border because of a few kilometers long queue of oil trucks waiting to cross the border. Once we reached the border, we got the attention of everyone around us: they weren’t used to see around cyclists here. When we explained them that we wanted to cross the border for tourism purposes, some old men very eagerly showed us where we had to go and collect our stamps. Apart from a Turkish officer who asked for our passenger list since he thought we came by bus instead of by bicycle, everything went well. On both sides, it only took several minutes to get the stamps to start the next chapter of our journey: “Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan!”.
Waking up in Iraq: internet cuts
After having crossed the border, we cycled to Duhok and spent our first night with our Warmshowers host Akiko. It’s always very exciting to wake up in a new country knowing that there are plenty of new things to discover. Yet, in Iraq we woke up and noticed that all WiFi and mobile data networks were shut down. We couldn’t understand why until our host explained that it was the time of the university exams and the government shuts down all internet connections from 7 to 10 o’clock in the morning to make sure that students aren’t able to cheat. Well, welcome in a new country and world!
Guests are a gift from God
Iraqi Kurdistan hasn’t been discovered by many tourists. In 10 days in the region, we have only met one other tourist, who was by coincidence also a cyclist. On the one hand, the good thing of having only few other tourists around is that locals tend to be welcoming and curious about what you’re doing in their country. On the other hand, few tourists also imply few tourist facilities.
After having taken some rest in Duhok, we planned to cycle 107 km in one long day from Duhok to Akre. With quite a lot of elevation meters in the morning and temperatures going up to 45 degrees in the afternoon, we definitely underestimated the difficulty of this ride. Around 5 pm, we took one of our so many breaks to drink water and both felt that we were exhausted. Without having any idea where we would sleep in the evening, we were running out of our energy and were standing with a grumpy face along a big road.
Fortunately, a few minutes later, we noticed a pickup car riding backwards on the shoulder of the big road to ask us if we could use any help. We told them that we were standing there after a long day of cycling in nomansland without much energy left. Lena, Jihad and Shendar were so kind to invite us for iftar and staying at their place in Akre. This gave such an energy boost that we managed to ride the last 20 km with headwind before sunset.
When we arrived at their place right before sunset, we were overwhelmed by the many people who welcomed us in their town. We had a great night with the family and felt very lucky to have met them. This also made me think of what Manon told me earlier: bicycle touring has similar to daily life its ups and downs with one of the exceptions being that the ups are higher and downs are lower.
Cycling in extreme temperatures
Not more than 4 months ago we had to deal with snow and cold circumstances in Europe. That seemed to have been a problem of the past. In Iraqi Kurdistan we were obliged to start cycling very early to avoid the extreme heat in the afternoon. The northern part of the region mainly consists of mountains where it tends to be cooler. The southern part, closer to the capital Erbil, is more a desert-like environment with temperatures going up to 45 degrees in June.
The combination of waking up very early to avoid the heat with Ramadan didn’t make it easy for us as cyclists. During Ramadan, everything comes to life at night. As we tried to wake up around 6 am, we ended up cycling during the day and visiting places with our hosts during the night.
Hitching with the bicycles
Because of the high temperatures, we wanted to hitchbike (to hitch with the bicycles) from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah. As there’s no such thing as public transport In Iraqi Kurdistan, we wanted to find pickup car going in the direction of Sulaymaniyah. We expected it to be very easy to find a car, but it took us much longer than expected. We have spent, at some point even with the help of a local policeman, half a day waving at cars. Fortunately, we found first a small bus and then a small truck going to Sulaymaniyah in the late afternoon.
We really enjoyed sightseeing with our bicycles in the truck.
That night we also had the pleasure to meet the national women cycling team of Iraq.
The queen’s stage of our travel
It’s about 105 km from Sulaymaniyah to the border with Iran. As villages near borders are mostly not nice to stay in, we prepared for the longest cycling day of our travel: from Sulaymaniyah to Marivan, 130 km with 1580 m up in 45 degrees. It’s not to be repeated anytime soon, but it eventually worked out: we left very early in Sulaymaniyah, started climbing before noon, crossed the border with Iran in the late afternoon and reached Marivan around 10 pm.
We made it to the border between Iraq and Iran and received medals and a jersey of the Belgian national team of a shop owner. He already knew that Eden Hazard would move to Real Madrid before it got officially announced!
From a long distance, I’m still very much involved in the activities of Open Knowledge Belgium. Whenever I see a business opportunity, I don’t hesitate to jump on it!
Our 10 days in Iraqi Kurdistan: region full of big contrasts
After having spent 10 days in Iraqi Kurdistan, it’s fair to say that the perceived danger from the outside is more frightening than the real danger inside the region. We have never felt unsafe. Soldiers at the checkpoints were happy to see us coming and provided us with water.
Overall, we are glad to have visited Iraqi Kurdistan. This part of Iraq hasn’t as much to offer as its neighbouring countries Turkey and Iran in terms of tourism, but we are happy to have seen this region with the lack of public transportation (probably one of the most car-friendly places in the world), poor urban planning (mainly consisting of big flat buildings and shopping malls) and its particular money exchange system (tons of money are openly displayed in the streets) with our own eyes. Moreover, our visit also gave us a better, more nuanced understanding of Iraq as a country.
Reading suggestion: Grenade à vélo [FR]
Manon monthly writes an article about our bicycle journey from a gender perspective for the Belgian broadcasting organization RBTF. This month she wrote a piece about her impressions during our visit to Iraq.
That’s it for now, we’re currently exploring Iran. Happy cycling!