Less than 4 years ago I was invited on a whim to join my friend Rik Brinks for a beer in Kurdistan Iraq. So I went without a moment’s notice, not realizing how easy it was to get in with a visa on arrival.
There I ran into not only Rik, but also befriended the likes of Shane, Carol, Venla, Chris, Sean, Abdallah, Balin…and that was just the first night. What followed was another memorable 4 days of solo travel and it would go on to pay dividends as I later got to know wonderful souls like Duaa because of my trip there.
So when Syria’s interminably long security clearance process continued to drag on and with less than 2 weeks left before our anticipated trip start date, Rik once again came to the rescue by inviting me again for a beer — this time in Southern Iraq — where I would once again be reunited with Shane, as well as Ryan from my Mali trip 1 month ago, both Simon and Michael from my Angola trip 2 years ago, and even Rowan who swears we had met 11 years ago when I went to North Korea with YPT.
Furthermore, Duaa who I had last saw 3 years ago in the Seychelles would be there for the weekend as well as 10 other brave return and new monsooners who decided to continue along in lieu of Syria for Iraq instead. It’s a great group.
First I needed to get to Baghdad. So after a 12 hour shift ending at 9pm, I retook the overnight 11:30pm Turkish Airlines flight from NYC to IST, just as I had done only 5 weeks prior for Mali. Using Chase Ultimate Rewards points converted 1:1 to United miles I was able to snag a free business class itinerary just like last time.
The check-in agent you have may seem a little confused learning from you, the passenger, that Iraq is visa on arrival for Americans… and that’s exactly what happened. I even prepared for this with printouts of the decree from the local Iraq Consulate indicating visas were indeed given on arrival for USA passport holders. As my agent looked this up online and read out the order to me, realizing I was right, she then asked…”you’re not staying more than 60 days, right?” When I said no, she said “ok, then you’re good!”
Turkish Airlines’ onboard food remains their highlight:
Arriving at IST on time at 5pm local time, I headed straight towards “home.”
I didn’t get to do this when I was last here 3 weeks ago as it is only eligible for onward business class flights with layovers over 9 hours.
I was so well rested from getting 7 hours of sleep on my flight here that I even went airport shopping for the first time, and left little post-secret notes to 8 monsooners in my group who planned to stop over at this airport tomorrow before joining me the day after in Baghdad.
To board my 2am TK802 flight to Baghdad, I had to answer that I never been to Israel, provide a copy of vaccination card, and a copy of negative PCR within 72 hours of the departing flight.
After getting in 2 hours of sleep on the flight, I arrived into Baghdad International Airport at 5:05am:
The visa process remains the same for the rest of Iraq; ever since an official decree last year, visas on arrival are now granted to all 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council (USA, UK, France, China, and Russia) as well as up to 37 other countries at Baghdad International Airport.
At least in my case, we waited for about half an hour for everyone else who had visas to be stamped in before they let us fill out the forms for visas on arrival.
After giving you 5 minutes to fill out your forms, they begin the queue where they then ask again if you have a visa. We said “no,” after which they took our passports and forms to a back office for processing. We then had to wait again on the side.
After around 40 minutes (sometimes it can take up to an hour and a half) an officer came out with our passports, calling our names one by one, where we then paid him $77 USD for the visa processing fee. Nobody asked me for a copy of my hotel booking, and they now provide exact change.
Compared to the visa process, it was a seamless breeze through baggage claims and customs.
At arrivals we then hired a taxi from the airport’s own Taxi Al-Mumayaz office to our hotel.
The kiosk is directly to your left when you exit customs.
They might misspell your name especially if you’re Calvin but it sounds like “Caret” to them:
If you’re keen on hailing one on the spot or using a ride share, you’ll have to walk outside of the airport security buffer zones for about 2 miles before being able to find your Uber/Careem/street taxi. Not a great idea if you got a lot of bags on you and the first thing you want after a 5am flight is a bed. Just do the kiosk.
With that, we were on our way! I definitely don’t miss the traffic in Iraq though.
Being that most of us landed at 5am on TK802 from IST to BGW (with my being a day earlier to scope out the city alone), we all took the Al-Mumayaz taxi and promptly checked into our hotel and crashed for a few hours of catch-up catnaps.
At 1pm we began our tour of Baghdad, first with a lunch at the nearby Baghdadi Restaurant by the Tigris.
We then began with a drive by Firdos Square where Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled 19 years ago.
Then we took a quick group photo at Liberation/Tahrir Square, the central square of the city and famous for the Freedom Monument.
No tour of Baghdad would be complete without a visit to Al Shaheed Monument aka Martyr’s Memorial, a grandly beautiful structure commemorating the first Gulf War and the martyrs who died for Iraq.
It’s supposed to represent a heart split in 2, with the spirits of the martyrs in the center.
After a bit of negotiations with the military and even calling in the director of the site, we were able to get inside even during closing.
We were the only ones there.
As in, we literally had the whole place to ourselves.
We then drove onto visiting the Sufi Shrine of Shaykh Maruf Karkhl right before sunset.
And down the road is the Zumurrud Khatun Tomb and Zubaida Minaret, one of the 3 oldest in the Middle East.
You can even climb to the top for spectacular, evocative views over Baghdad, best right before sunset.
After sunset we retired for drinks by the pool at our hotel before dinner back at Baghdidi Restaurant, but this time with their special local river carp (masgood) that takes 1.5 hours to prepare:
And it’s a party here in Baghdad! Ryan and I last saw each other 3 weeks ago in Mali:
Mikhail (center) and I last saw each other 4 years ago in Tuvalu:
Michael and Simon (front center) and I last saw each other in Angola 2 years ago:
Who woulda guessed that of all places and times, it would be Baghdad, at the outbreak of what now sounds like World War 3, that we could enjoy an unplanned 4 way reunion like this?
- At time of posting in Baghdad, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 29% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy