When we started travelling, Craig and I never thought we would be coming to Iraq. We joked about how it would be hilarious if we ended up in Iraq after a visit to Iran and after a quick Google search, the joke turned into a hell bent mission to make the journey a reality. When you picture Iraq, you think of a scorched wasteland, rebel forces and constant social paranoia. If I’m honest this isn’t entirely a million miles away from the truth for a lot of Iraq but the autonomous region of Kurdistan in the North means it’s possible to get in and there are some regions safe enough for you to explore.
We were parked up in Marivan, a town 30 minutes from the border of Iraq staying with a body builder who was currently doing a Phd in Genetic Engineering. Having spent the night chatting about the differences in Iranian and Irish women, a quick sleep on the floor and we set off to find a currency exchange office to rid the last of our Iranian Rial and pick up some Iraqi Dinar. Aided by our host, he pointed out a large group of men standing 100m ahead of us and shouted “Money Change”. Assuming this is where the bank was, we approached the group curiously only to realise that the large group of men were the currency exchange office. Pulling out a large bundle of notes, we were quickly swarmed by 40-50 large Kurdish men all glaring eagerly as I counted.
Having spent a lot of intimate time staying with the locals and not paying for a hotel once, I understood the curiosity and embraced it with a smile. One giant of a man was roaring “all Kurdish people are good”, several times in my ear while a small Dumbledore-esque man pulled out the tiniest imaginable calculator and began mashing several buttons with fattened fingers. After much heated discussion, everyone seemed satisfied and so began the wave of selfie taking, hand shaking and Instagram adding before we bundled in the back of a car with a heavily moustached old man, a fully cloaked woman and hurtled towards the border at a speed that left me wondering whether or not the antique of a car would hold.
Dropped at the tail end of freighter trucks placed back to back and getting the through shakedown, we walked towards a huge gated compound. Here I have to apologise for the lack of photos, mainly due to them being fiercely prohibited at the border. We are approached by a guy who looked like an average dude but soon pulled up his vest to reveal a military grade walkie-talkie. Moments after grabbing our passports, we are rammed into the back of a taxi, spun deep into the compound and led to a small stuffy room with two chairs. Told to wait, our captor is soon joined by two other men, one of which was a translator. Half an hour of questioning about our whereabouts, people we made friends with, who they are, where they lived, what we did and forced to recount our actions of the previous 28 days seemed to never end. Having satisfied their answers and bewilderment as to why we were going to Iraq in the first place, they stamped our passports to let us out. Repeat this process three times and we finally leave Iran.
Half way there and now left in limbo wondering why it was so hard to leave Iran and would it be more difficult to get into Iraq. Passed from security, to army, to office clerk we finally found ourselves in a metal hut with a small camping bed where we had to buy insurance for $5. Not asking any questions, we forked the cash over, smiled and backed away. Shortly after, we were ushered to another metal shack to get our immigration papers before heading to another clerk who asked several questions, snapping photos and let us out! Checked by two border guards with puzzled expressions (who also wanted selfies) we were finally in.
Walking into the desert for 20-30 minutes past fuel tankers and abandoned buildings, a red car came roaring by. Eagerly swinging my sign for the nearest city savagely at the side of the road, our man came swerving to a halt to our side. Covered in faded tattoos on his face and arms, he smiled widely and gestured us in. Kick starting leaving the wheels spinning, we went through the usual questions of where we are from and what are names were. Having exhausted the full spectrum of his english, we managed to use gestures to figure out he was bringing several things into the country he shouldn’t be. We shouted the equivalent of “Viva Kurdistan”, receiving massively warm smiles and moments later dropped at a bus station, rammed in a mini van (windscreen cracked open thanks to a bullet hole) and parted with $4. Dropped just outside of Sulaymaniyah, we trudged through endless mechanics and kebab shops safely inside the country and allowing our nerves to settle!