Friday, March 9, 2007

Getting into Iraqi Kurdistan

1. From Syria
2. From Turkey
3. Crossing the border
4. Zakho
5. By air
6. From Iraq

The best (and cheapest) way to get into Iraqi Kurdistan is through the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing, which is in the city of Zakho in Iraq, and a few kilometres from the town of Silopi on the Turkish side. Going this way means you don't have to pass through the dangerous parts of Iraq (the non-Kurdish-controlled areas). Alternatively (but much more expensively), it's possible to fly into Erbil or Suleymaniyah from a few Middle Eastern and European cities.

From Syria:

Get to Qamishli, in North-eastern Syria. The 9 hour bus ride from Damascus should cost around SYP300 (US$6). Once in Qamishli, you can walk (10 min) north from the city centre to the border post with Nusaybin, Turkey. If it's too late to cross the border, Hotel Omayya (SYP 300/single, dirty toilets) is a stark little place, in the city centre on the road to the border.

On the Turkish side, in addition to the tourist visa, for which there is usually a fee, there is a small extra 5 lira ($4). Get an overpriced taxi (or walk for 15 min) to the Nusaybin Otogar, from where you can catch a passing bus direct to Silopi (7.5 lira / $6, 2 hours).

From Turkey:

Get to Silopi, the border town on the Turkish side. I would advise that you DON'T waste your money on a taxi all the way from Diyarbakir (as I have heard some recommend), but take a much cheaper bus all the way to Silopi. Buses go there from Cizre (nearby larger city), Mardin, Diyarbakir, Sirnak, and most likely a few other places. Turkish Airlines flies to Mardin a few times per week.

Once in Silopi, the only public transport across the border is by taxi. The local cartel will charge US$40 per taxi for this service (feel free to try to bargain), dropping you off at the taxi rank on the Iraqi side (but should still help you to negotiate your Iraqi taxi fare). The taxi driver should help you at each border check. Before you leave he'll make some photocopies of your passport to give to Turkish passport control.

Crossing the border:

IMPORTANT: Please be aware that the 'Kurdish issue' is very contentious in Turkish politics and it is worth avoiding talking about it with the border officials, or any Turkish security personnel. Also terrorism is a concern for both sides, so don't act suspiciously, or you may end up in trouble.

On the Turkish side it is rather quick for small vehicles to cross- it only took 15 minutes for me. I don't know if my driver bribed anyone or not.

On the Iraqi Kurdistan side, you will sit and wait in a little lounge area, with tea & TV. Kurdish passport control will ask questions about your occupation and reasons for visiting Iraq, and may ask for verification like documents, ID cards, etc. If you have any local contacts they will probably take the name & phone number and give them a call to make sure your story checks out. I have heard that some men travelling alone have been made to wait for a few days at the border- it didn't happen to me but be aware it is possible. Be open and honest, and if you have nothing to hide you should be fine. But it may be easier not to travel alone, and it's definitely preferable to have a local contact to vouch for you.

You don't have to pay for an Iraqi visa if entering by this post, it's just a big fat page-sized stamp in the passport and that's it.

After passport control you might be taken to meet a security official in an office building. He was welcoming to me, and insisted that I contact the local security office if I had any problems anywhere in Kurdistan.

You may change US dollars, Euros, or Turkish Lira into Iraqi Dinars at a small hidden bank office in a customs building. Ask around until you find it.
The exchange rate was about 1,300 Dinar = US $1. Based on that, the Turkish Lira would be around 900 Dinar (February 2007 rate).

Zakho:

Your driver will drive you another half kilometre to the taxi rank, where you can negotiate a taxi to Dohuk or Erbil, or you can stay in Zakho if you wish. There are bound to be numerous hotels in the centre of this city of perhaps up to 150,000 people. All I saw of Zakho was an industrial border town full of trucks- I don't know if it's worth staying, although apparently there is the famous old Delal Bridge (Pira Delal).

From Zakho, a car to Dohuk (around 1 hour) was $45, or $90 to Erbil (3-4 hours). These prices are for one whole car, so if you have 3 passengers divide that by 3. Other travellers will be willing to share a taxi. If you want to get to smaller towns & villages near Zakho, there should be a 'garage' in Zakho where you can find taxis that go to different places, including into the mountains.

By air:

There are flights into Erbil and Suleymaniyah from numerous cities, including Baghdad, Amman, Beirut, Dubai, Tehran, Istanbul, Vienna, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Munich. The flights are not cheap (except within Iraq). One way international tickets are anywhere from $290 to $500, and return is anywhere from $550 upwards.

These airlines tend to be charter operations and some have cancelled their operations to Iraqi Kurdistan. After cancelling its service in 2007, Austrian Airlines will start three direct flights per week from Vienna, starting April 2, 2008, and will increase to four per week in June 2008.

Erbil International Airport is currently very small, but a new, larger terminal is due to open around the end of 2007. Suleymaniyah International Airport was built in 2003, currently with a larger capacity than Erbil, and more information available online about flights, schedules, and prices.

2008: A new air service called IRAQUNA has started recently with flights to/from Athens, and an arrangement with Olympic Airlines for connecting flights to London (Gatwick), Dusseldorf, Amsterdam, and Stockholm. Prices (available on their website) are not cheap.

Airlines flying to Kurdistan (list includes travel agents in Kurdistan)

From non-Kurdish Iraq:

I strongly advise against travelling through Iraq to get to Kurdistan. It is sheer foolishness to go through dangerous parts of Iraq (all areas not controlled by the KRG). Bombs happen, shootings happen, abductions happen, and being foreign will just make you an easier target.

Violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically since June 2007. The figures are something like a 60% drop in violence year-on-year from January 2007 to January 2008. Violent deaths are down from around 2000 per months a year ago to less than 600 in January 2008. So things are much better, but still not great. I urge extreme caution if you are considering travelling outside the KRG's territory.

But if you're already in non-Kurdish Iraq, I presume there are taxis or minibuses from Mosul, Kirkuk and maybe Baghdad to the major Kurdish-controlled cities, as well as flights from Baghdad and Basra.

So, I must stress, STAY IN THE KURDISH REGION of Iraq. Don't be a hero and go somewhere else for the hell of it. It's just total stupidity. But if you're going to, at least avoid Mosul and Baquba, two main centres of violence and terrorist activities.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this Blog. Opens up a new door of possibilitys which I may consider. Your info may come in useful.

Eric Carlson said...

Good info. Went to Iraq during the 2003 invasion, and tried to get in through Turkey at Silopi. Needless to say, border was closed at that time.
Landed in Istanbul, cheapest flight from the states, and took buses the length of the country. Pretty cost efficient if you don't mind the ride, and is better than the train.
Wound up flying to Amman and hiring a driver and doing the "Baghdad 500". Kurds were very freindly and the kids loved the camera.
Just returned from Baghdad (second trip) this week, but flew military air in and out. I'm looking for any other photographers or writers who are looking to take another trip into Iraq in the next few monthes. ejcarlson375@yahoo.com if interested in a travel partner.
Again, thanks for the updated info.

Junge84 said...

wow that's amazing. i was in syria last year and thought about going to kurdistan but i had the time nor money. perhaps during a future trip to turkey i'll dip in to kurdistan. sounds like i may have to budget some time in case i get detained. i heard a story that this dutch guy got arrested for seemingly no reason and was held up for 10 days in jail. an american military personnel came by and noticed him in the cell and demanded to know why he was there. they couldn't provide a reason other than they felt they had to detain him. thanks to that guy, he was freed and continued backpacking and chalked it up to part of his experience and even went back in the future. i'd love to go just to tell people i went to iraq lol.

kekekekekekeke said...

Thanks so much for this blog, I came across it in the middle of my trip and it helped us a lot, I wish I had found it before starting off!

I'll recommend it to other people interested in Iraqi Kurdistan

Adam Jones said...

Thank you for the Blog, Very useful still. I have few friends just they did the same trip through Silopi, but they payed $40 taxi instead of a bus from Mardin an Diyarbakir. form the Kurdish border to any other major Kurdish cities is $30-40 per passenger in taxi or nearly $100 for the whole taxi if don't like sharing.

The cheapest way to Kurdistan is A cheap flight to Istanbul, then from the airport take a 10minute tram to International Istanbul Bus Terminal (Buyuk Otogar) then get a direct coach (27hour) to Kurdish city Hawler (Erbil) for just $120. if you don't mind the long trip and to see some nature.

Flight to Kurdistan is:

(London-Istanbul-Sulaymaniah is £580, with Turkish airline)
(Dusseldorf-Sulaymaniah/Erbil is 550 Euros, with Zozikair.com)
(Munich-Sulaymaniah/Erbil is 600 Euros, with Dokanair.com).
(Stokholm-Sulaymaniah/Erbil is £400-540, with mcaairlines.se).

Feel free to ask any question and e-mail me at(adamjones13@ymail.com).

Have a lovely life :)

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Anonymous said...

I am in Iran right now and plan to travel Iraqi Kurdistan in a few weeks.
According to this blog it doesn't seem to be possible to cross the border from Iran at Marivan or Piranshahr, but I met a couple of Iranians that told me the crossing was without any problems (at least for them).
Does any Western traveler have some up-to-date information about these two border crossings?
Any information would be appreciated.
Thanks a lot
Daniel