A “helpful” friend sent me this last night, reposted from the Iraq Travel Advisory on the US Department of State website, updated January 10, 2018:
Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism and armed conflict
U.S. citizens in Iraq are at high risk for violence and kidnapping. Numerous terrorist and insurgent groups are active in Iraq and regularly attack both Iraqi security forces and civilians. Anti-U.S. sectarian militias may also threaten U.S. citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq. Attacks by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) occur frequently in many areas of the country, including Baghdad.
The U.S. government’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iraq is extremely limited.
U.S. citizens should not travel through Iraq to Syria to engage in armed conflict, where they would face extreme personal risks (kidnapping, injury, or death) and legal risks (arrest, fines, and expulsion).
Well, all that did was to make me worry for no reason, because I’m was going to go anyway. Thanks for the concern, ‘merica. Here goes nothing.
Let’s start over on a more positive note: remember when I was in Amsterdam for a layover a little over a month ago where I met up with Rik for a quick beer?
Well, I didn’t know at the time that I would see him again today in Iraq, having another beer no less!
About 2 weeks ago, I was given an extra few days off for having worked an extra few shifts earlier in the year, which led to a possibility of another monsoon. However, I needed a place to go to fast and having remembered that beer Rik and I had back in Amsterdam discussing various trip ideas, I messaged him for suggestions. He then informed me that Young Pioneer Tours was already co-leading a trip in Iraq with Kurdistan Iraq Tours around the same time as my new days off, AND that visas for USA passport holders were free on arrival to the Kurdistan region of Iraq — I had no excuse not to go (well, other than a recent 103F fever 48 hours ago that required 4 liters of IV fluids in me while I toughed out 4 consecutive overnight shifts, I’d say I had no real excuse not to go)!
2 weeks later, here I am.
What’s even crazier is that as I was introducing myself to everyone in the group that Rik was apart of, a person named Chris was able to finish my last name for me: “Calvin…Sun?” WTF?!
Apparently Chris and I had met for only a few minutes back in a summer night in NYC 5 years ago when he was visiting a mutual friend…and that he had been slightly inebriated then so it was remarkable that he would even recall that night in the first place. We never exchanged contact information, so it was uncanny to consider at the time that we would ever see, run into, let alone recognize each other ever again…in Iraq of all places!
I had been too busy to lead that one personally so Carol and I never met, but I had no idea until today that she would be on this trip and we would finally meet in person so soon…in Iraq of all places!
Finally there’s Shane, a longtime founding member of the original Young Pioneer Tours family with Gareth. He was the leader of this YPT trip and although we both have heard of each other for the past 5-6 years, it would once again — “be in Iraq of all places” — where we would finally meet in person.
So dearest readers, I have just arrived into Iraq. Yes, the same Iraq that’s the second “I” in ISIS or ISIL. The one with Baghdad and Mosul, which is only 53 miles from where I am right now. But as you can see, here I am feeling safe and in the company of trusted companions (at least for my first night — I’ll be alone for the next 4 days). And I don’t know exactly how to explain all the random factors that led me here, but it takes finishing a string of 4 consecutive overnight shifts in the ED, a streak of 5 days off, choosing a visa-free destination that you’ve never been to before, and not having any excuses not to go.
After all, I’m actually in the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq; the part where the Pershmega resides and where you truly can get a free visa on arrival at the airport. It’s another world here than the rest of Iraq, as having acquired the free visa-on-arrival into Kurdistan I still can’t go into Baghdad just yet (I would need another visa for that).
Speaking of visas, here’s the official scoop: Citizens of the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey and any member state of the EU are automatically given a free 30 day entry stamp on arrival. All you have to do is step right off the plane and get your passport stamped. As long as there’s nothing sketchy in your bag (like weapons and military stuff), you will not be interrogated at all about what you intend to do in Iraq or anything. Even if they do find any sketchy things in your bag (when they x-ray your bag at customs) they’ll confiscate it temporarily and give you a ticket which you can use to get your stuff back when you leave. The only thing I had were trauma shears from my hospital, but nobody cared about that except for the airport security back in Vienna.
So what ended up happening for me was one of the easiest and quickest entry into a country I ever experienced:
After finishing another overnight shift in the Pediatric ED at Jacobi yesterday, I picked up my bags and crashed at my colleague’s place next to JFK airport for a few hours before boarding an uneventful 7-hour 5:40pm Austrian Airlines flight to Vienna for a 2 hour layover. Then I chilled at VIE’s Air Lounge for an hour before boarding the 3-hour 10:15am Austrian Airlines flight to Erbil. The whole journey took about 12-13 hours in total.
Let’s just say my flight from Austria to Iraq wasn’t the fullest one I’ve been on:
This allowed me to hop around the plane and get great views of Iraq outside my window:
We landed in Erbil International Airport on time at 3pm.
We disembarked promptly after landing, where I walked for about 5 minutes through an empty but beautifully modernized airport terminal to get to passport control.
I thought at first I needed to wait in a separate visas line behind passports control to get my free visa on arrival, but was told by the agent in the booth that with a USA passport I didn’t even need to bother: “No visa!”
He meant “you don’t need a visa — you automatically get a stamp for a one month stay at the regular counter!”
Well that was easy.
Even going through customs took not even a few seconds!
Before I knew it, I was already outside the airport catching an airport shuttle to my hotel.
I got to my hotel, , which I was able to book easily on Booking.com, as early as 3:40pm. After a few minutes settling into my room, I walked out towards the city center, aka the Citadel.
At 7000+ years old, Erbil’s citadel dates back to the 5th millennium B.C. and is one of the world’s oldest continuously occupied human settlements. Beginning with the neo-Assyrians, this historical struture has witnessed the reign of many historic civilizations — Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Achaemenian, Seljuks, and Sassanians — before being finally conquered by the Muslims.
The fortification walls aren’t really walls but rather facades of houses that have been building side by side on top of a mound formed by successive layers of settlements that include the aforementioned Assyrians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks. Many families who had once lived there during the present day were moved out to make way for restoration projects after it received a UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Eventually the goal is to have 10 families reside here once restorations are complete.
In front of the citadel lies Shar Park: a lovely fountain park for families to get together and stroll around. Flanking the citadel is a series of bazaars and souqs dating back to the Ottoman period, selling everything you can imagine including frozen drinks with abnormally tall plastic straws.
To enter the citadel from the south side (where the fountain is), walk towards the western side for the ramp up to the entrance.
Once you’re at the top of the citadel, you’ll get the classic views of the fountain park and the bazaars flanking it.
Within the citadel are a few restoration sites, some museums, and a mid-sized mosque open only in the mornings from 11am-2pm.
The north side of the citadel has these views of the city:
At this point I ran into Shane’s YPT crew and that’s when all the run-ins and reunions that I had already mentioned at the top of this post began materializing.
As I got to know the rest of the group as well as their amazingly helpful local guide on behalf of Kurdistan Iraq Tours, Balin, we headed into the labyrinth of atmospheric bazaars back on the ground level.
Within the bazaar Balin got our group some nice afternoon tea:
The citadel and the surrounding bazaars are the main and probably only sight to see in Erbil. The rest is a sprawl of city streets that extends out from the citadel like a hive, where even if you get lost you know that all roads eventually lead back to the citadel.
I also happen to notice a ton of campaign flyers everywhere: looks like I dropped in right in the middle of campaign season for parliamentary elections.
Speaking of which, apparently an electoral official was assassinated in his car here 2 weeks ago. So it’s not all safe in this city.
And where do I begin with the people: so friendly everywhere. I can’t count already how many times we’ve had our meals, drinks, shisha, and even souvenir gifts paid for in full by the sellers themselves, simply as tokens of appreciation that we’ve come to visit.
If you’re really looking for other things to see or do, you can check out Minare Park, which houses the Mudhafaria Minaret. 118ft or 36m high, the minaret was built in 1190–1232 AD by the Kurdish prince of Erbil during the reign of Saladin.
From here you can either walk another 20-30 minutes or take a cable car to nearby Shanidar Park:
After the Citadel, YPT and I headed back to our hotels to freshen up.
I then met up with them an hour later for dinner, where Balin and his driver drove us a few kilometers northwest out to Ankawa, the Christian district of Erbil.
Yes you can find Jesus here too. We passed by the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral of Saint Joseph:
And even though I was joining the group only for their last day, I felt immediately taken in as part of the family with the likes of other wonderful kindred spirits and travelers such as Sean (from Ireland and Australia), Venla (from Finland, who’s staying here another month), Jenna (a fellow American and 6 countries ahead of me!), Milan (from Sweden and Utah), and others, as we enjoyed bantering about our travels over an open-air dinner with kebabs, beer, whisky, wine, and shisha.
Afterwards it began to thunderstorm, so we headed back to YPT’s hotel and spend the night drinking away as I witnessed the group say their final goodbyes to one another over Green Day’s “Time Of Your Life” and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time To Say Goodbye.”
I have a feeling we have very similar travel styles…
I eventually walked back to my hotel alone at 2:30am, stopping once to take out tens of thousands local Iraqi dinars from an unguarded ATM (yes, my American bank cards work here!) a few doors down from my hotel.
So far it’s been a few hours and I not once yet have felt unsafe.
–EDIT: Just heard explosions/shots outside, so I looked out my window to see …fireworks. —