Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

10 Oct 2013

Cycling in Iraq: top 10 things to know

Posted by Will

I could not have been more surprised by my experience of cycling in Iraq. All the time I felt safe, I learnt so much about the country and its people and was left speechless at the level of kindness and hospitality I saw on a daily basis. I travelled there in November 2012 so please check to make sure specific details are still accurate. And if you would like to read my account of cycling across Iraq you can find it here.

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1. Iraqi Kurdistan is different from the Arab part of Iraq. This is the single most important thing to understand when cycling in Iraq. You have a visa for Iraqi Kurdistan, which is part of Iraq as a whole, but you certainly won’t be allowed into the Arab part. Citizens of Iraq need special permits to pass between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country, as do you. When talking with Iraqi Kurds, do not assume they identify in any way with the Arab part of the country. Kurdish people were heavily persecuted under Saddam Hussein’s rule.

2. Iraqi Kurdistan IS safe. The most common misconception is that Iraq is unsafe for travel. The Arab part of Iraq is very dangerous with high rates of kidnapping, occasional roadside bombs and a population generally suspicious and intolerant of Western-looking people. Soldiers, police, border guards often motioned a finger across their throat when judging my chances south of the perimeter. On the other hand, I had the impression that Iraqi Kurdistan is completely safe. There has been no violence there for many years, the people are extremely welcoming, there is a large, professional military presence in the form of checkpoints and patrols and no one seems to live in fear. The British government gives Iraqi Kurdistan a full-green status for travel meaning there aren’t any travel restrictions.

3. The most hospitable people I have ever encountered. Stories of fantastic hospitality are swapped endlessly between travellers to the extent that trying to work out where you’ll be well-received is unclear. I can say, unequivocally, that the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have been the most hospitable of the 30+ countries I have now cycled through. Too many invitations to say ‘yes’ too, great banquets in my honour, phone calls ahead to relatives to make sure I arrived safely, driving me to historical or natural sights and constant smiles and waves. I spent $4 in Iraqi Kurdistan (10 chocolate bars) because all my food and shelter was provided for and I could easily have come out the other side having made money since many wanted to make donations to my journey. Bear in mind that oil has made many of these people fairly rich and so your food and shelter may be of a high standard. I was even asked if I wanted to drive a Chevrolet Camaro sports car.

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4. English is widely spoken. The recent military presence, a high general level of education and strong links with Britain and the US from the oil trade have left the population with a wide understanding of English. I found few problems communicating when it mattered. The people are so friendly though that a language barrier always amounts to nothing.

5. Most people are Muslim and so act appropriately. It’s obvious really and applies to behaviour in all countries where the population adheres to a Muslim code of conduct: wear modest clothing, use the right hand where possible, take your shoes off before entering a mosque etc… However, do not believe that Kurdish Iraqis live under a strict religious code. Iraqi Kurdistan is not similar to Iran where a Muslim code of conduct is often acted out by law. Many people, especially young people, are heavily influenced by the West, have modern, liberal world perspectives and will almost certainly not make you feel uncomfortable if you make a faux-pas.

6. For cycling, roads are often thin, heavy with traffic and dangerous. The roads I cycled were dangerous due to the volume of cars and trucks and the narrow, winding roads. There are highways, which I didn’t cycle, but I can’t imagine these are much safer. There is often no shoulder to the side of the road and driving standards are fast and reckless (I’ve never been to a country were the kindness of people normally is so contrary to the driving style). If it rains, roads can become gritty from passing trucks making steering straight difficult. Be careful.

7. Take a good map. I say this so that you can choose a good route to avoid the traffic-heavy, dangerous roads, but also because the Kurdish Iraqis are generally awful at giving directions. I’ve never met a collection of people with such a bad sense of direction. Their hearts are absolutely in the right place, but countless times I’d ask a group of men the way and they would start arguing amongst each other. Often when the city I wanted was one of the largest in the country too. Signposting isn’t great either. I didn’t have a map and spent much of my time lost.

8. Iraqi Kurdistan is heavily polluted. The oil trade has taken its toll on the environment in Iraqi Kurdistan. The air is often thick with smog, a thick layer of black sludge lines the side of most roads and the groaning of oil tanker engines is never far away. You could think about taking a mask like the ones people wear when cycling in China if you’re concerned for your lungs. The best you can do is try to find roads that aren’t occupied by snarling, black-fog creating vehicles, but unfortunately, from my experience, those roads are hard to find. The big cities, Suleymaniye and especially Arbil, permanently sit under a black cloud.

9. The visa. There is a visa-on-arrival policy at the international land-border crossings with Turkey and Iran. I received a 15 day visa which is easily sufficient to cover the 700-800km across the country. I have heard some people get only 10 days but still that shouldn’t pose too many problems. The process at the border is simple and only requires the ordinary paper-filling, passport scans and border-official fluffing. As a rare foreigner you’ll probably be rushed to the front of the queue so the wait won’t be long.

10. Getting in and out. There is one international land-border crossing with Turkey (Silopi/Zakho) and two with Iran (1. Sorun/Piranshahr, 2. Penjwin/Marivan). As you can read here, the area around Silopi in Turkey is unsettled and when I went through, dangerous. With the current Syria situation, it is a risk, although you probably won’t have a problem. The border areas with Iran were safe as they lead into the Kurdish part of Iran. Both border crossings with Iran are mountainous (Sorun/Piranshahr is higher and colder) – be aware of the cold.

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One Comment already on “Cycling in Iraq: top 10 things to know”
  1. 8:52 pmpermalink
    14 Dec 2013

    Sam

    Hi, Great reading and good to see the visa is straight forward, I had expected it to be a tough one. Could I ask what passport you’re travelling on?