Snow-capped mountains. Soaring castles. Lush green valleys. Raging rivers through canyons as grand as the Arizona Grand Canyon. Modern shopping malls and hotels. Friendly, welcoming people who embrace Americans. Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan.
I recently had the opportunity to backpack across the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, on assignment for Lonely Planet travel guides. Castles and canyons are not images that most people have in their minds when they think of Iraq. But as the regional motto fittingly proclaims, Iraqi Kurdistan is "The Other Iraq." This is not the wartorn, desert Iraq the world has come to know from the nightly news. Iraqi Kurdistan is a relatively peaceful region and it's now open for business and tourism. It is Iraq in name only. For all intent and purposes, it is practically a separate country. The semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has it's own parliament, own military, own languages and culture. It is a naturally beautiful part of the world that is ripe for tourism.
I traveled overland into Iraq: flying first to Istanbul, Turkey, then flying to Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey (the defacto capital of the Kurdish people), took a bus to the border town of Silopi, then crossed into Iraq by taxi. Traveling through Iraq was a unique experience to essentially witness the birth of a country. Traveling in Iraq is not without its risks, and therefore I'd only recommend it to seasoned travelers with street smarts and a taste for adventure. The thing that probably surprised me most about Iraq is just how expensive it is! There is no real public transportation system, so every trip involves hiring an expensive taxi. Hostels are non-existent, and budget hotels are far and few between. Mostly I got around through the kindness of strangers. I don't think I've ever met such a welcoming, friendly people. Iraqi Kurdistan may be the last place on Earth where having an American passport is a GOOD thing!
Check out the recap story posted today on Lonely Planet.
Meantime, here are a few more of my images from The Other Iraq. Click on the Flickr icon at the top-right to see more images of Kurdish Iraq.