I’ve been living and traveling in my self-built Van for 2 years now, most recently expanding my adventures to include a vanlife journey in Iraq’s Kurdistan.
After spending the summer of 2019 in Lyon, I decided to continue my travel east on the silk road, with my first target being Iran. I knew I would probably continue further, but also knew there were many amazing countries to explore along the way. So, I began what became my vanlife journey in Iraq’s Kurdistan.
**All text and photos provided by Benjamin of @call_it_living_vanlife, a 34-year-old French solo Vanlife and Traveler.**
After a month and a half in Turkey, I thought I would head through Georgia, Azerbaidjan, and Armenia before reaching Iran. However, as we all know in vanlife, a simple thing can change everything. One of the most determining factors in traveling? Timing. It was already mid-November and I knew the weather would start becoming a heavier factor.
Wonderfully enough, some vanlife friends of mine (@sautedanslevan) were already in Georgia’s mountains at the time. Their adventures were taking place under meters of snow and, while I knew this would inevitably be part of my vanlife journey in Iraq’s Kurdistan, I wasn’t quite ready for that cold yet. Instead, I decided to join some other backpacking friends (@de.voyages.et.deau.fraiche) who were in Iraq’s Kurdistan in October. My decision was a quick one.
Before I knew it, I was driving to the extreme south-east of Turkey. I decided to spend my last night here, in between three countries: Turkey, Syria, and Iraq’s Kurdistan where I planned to cross the next day!
I’ll be honest: the first time I saw this road sign I had a strange feeling throughout my body, even just by seeing the name « Iraq »!
Making the decision to go somewhere is one thing, but getting closer and realizing that you’re actually there, is another. I believe this strange feeling is due to everything we’ve ever heard about this country and region! Yet here I was, one last night in Turkey, and preparing the cross the border in the morning. Pro tip: I always try to cross borders early in the morning, especially in this part of the world, as you never know how long it can take.
Leaving Turkey and getting to Iraq’s Kurdistan usually only takes three hours. I arrived through the Ibrahim Khalil border, which leads to a city named Zakho. I spent my first afternoon there, just in time to get adjusted to the atmosphere, change cash (as credit cards are not an option there), and get a SIM card. These are the basics that I always recommend when visiting a new region.
Fun fact: out of all the famous overnight parking applications (park4night, VanlifeLocation, etc..) absolutely zero were added in Iraq’s Kurdistan !
So immediately, I made myself a promise: I would always figure out where I was going to park that night by 4:00 PM at the latest. Since sunset is around 5:00/5:30 PM, this allows me to feel out the area first and make sure I feel safe. These were all very important to me, as this lifestyle is not as common here so people might get worried about seeing me arrive in the dark.
Now if you ever want a vanlife journey in Iraq’s Kurdistan, I would recommend finding awesome spots like this…
Kurdish people are often spread in between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, being the biggest community worldwide without an officially recognized country.
At this point, I had already met Kurdish people in the southern part of Turkey, before arriving in Kurdistan. As an independent part of Iraq, it was obvious from day one that seeing foreigners isn’t a super common occurrence in Kurdistan, especially not a foreigner traveling in a van with French license plates.
After just a couple of days traveling in this area, one thing was sure: I could already say and feel that my trip was taking on another dimension. It became clear that I wasn’t able to just go anywhere I pleased and that it was best for me to stick to the Kurdistan Region. Throughout this area, there were so many checkpoints on each and every road. Each checkpoint took about an hour to go through, but not for the obvious reasons you might think of. Passport control usually only took about five minutes. Then, the other 55 minutes were usually spent with the authorities, talking about life and often leading to a photoshoot!
After about ten days there, it was getting harder and harder to capture the amazing wonderfulness of the areas I was experiencing. No picture would be meaningful enough or capture the wonderful landscape or people’s kindness.
I received so many invitations for dinner to people’s homes, allowing me to park overnight, and making themselves totally available if I ever needed anything. Since the region, people, and authorities in this part of the world are not used to seeing a vanlifer, this trip led to some amazing experiences that I don’t think would happen anywhere else. For example, I arrived near a river to spend the night one evening, and around 10:00 PM I heard a vehicle approaching. This obviously got my attention since I was 30 minutes away from the nearest village. When I looked out my window, I saw red and blue flashing lights and immediately knew it was the police. I quickly got dressed and opened the doors, preparing myself for the interaction. As most vanlifers know, the first minute of these interactions can be tense but usually end up fine.
Communicating is hard in Iraq’s Kurdistan, as most don’t speak English and google translate isn’t much help.
This time, the authorities handed me a phone so I could speak with a translator. And what did the translator ask me? You’ll never guess…They asked if I was alright, if I had enough food and water, and if the authorities could get me anything! After 20 minutes, the three officers left and wished me a good night. Then, believe it or not, they returned in the morning at 9:00 AM and brought me breakfast! They wanted to check on me again and make sure I still didn’t need anything. In the northeast of the country, about 15 km away from the border of Iran, I met somebody named Omer. I spent two days with him, his wife, and their lovely daughter.
The surroundings of Choman were beautiful. I spent many nights in remote areas, no phone service, and nothing else.
However, it’s important to note that this particular part of the country isn’t exactly the safest. One spot, in particular, led me to two very unusual experiences…
The first experience happened just before sunset when a 4-wheel drive vehicle approached me and two men got out, first waving at me. Quickly after, they opened their trunk and pulled out a sniper! In the United States, seeing guns is much more common than in France, so I was quite surprised. I looked at them hesitantly and asked what they were doing. The answer they gave me was, « Game Game, come ! » So, I followed the two guys 50m away and they started shooting the other side of the valley! After a few dozen rounds they turned to me and asked if I wanted to try. Well, I’m all about the experience, so…
The second experience happened late at night. Once again, I heard a vehicle approaching. This is always an odd experience when you are parked out in a remote area.
I looked outside again and I could barely see a vehicle with its lights off. All of a sudden, I was able to see flash flights and five guys walking towards me, wearing balaclavas and carrying AK47s. In just a few seconds, my mind ran through all the possibilities. What should I do?! I have no idea how nor why I did this, but all of a sudden I opened my bed window, put my arms out to show my hands and said: « Hello Hello Hello ». I’ll admit it, I was pretty scared. They asked me to get out of my vehicle and hand over my passport. Almost immediately, the tension went away as they realized I was a traveler. This time, however, they asked me not to stay there for the night, as it could potentially be really dangerous. Instead, I followed them to their station and spent the night in their parking lot.
After just over three weeks of my vanlife adventure in Iraq’s Kurdistan, I experienced so much with so many people!
One of my best moments was in a school in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan. The best word I can find to describe this special day is unity. I had the opportunity to be welcomed into a school, where I spent the day in various classes with so many kids, ranging from ages 3 to 14. The kids were Kurdish, French, British, Syrian, Turkish, Iraqis, all together to learn. I head a wonderful time being a « teacher » for a day. I got to show them how I drove from France and gave them a tour of my home on wheels! It was, by far, the most people I’ve ever had in my van at a time. Seeing their innocent eyes, amazing and wide open, was so exciting. I am so grateful for this special experience.
While driving in the mountains, finding petrol would often become an adventure of its own…
After three weeks, it was time to leave Iraq’s Kurdistan and cross to Iran, where I’m currently traveling.
To be honest, I never planned to visit Kurdistan.
Once I arrived, I thought MAYBE 7-10 days would be enough. But I ended up loving the area and staying much longer. What an unexpected journey in an unexpected region! From the moment I arrived, Kurdistan took my hand and walked me through its beautiful landscape, heavy history, and wonderful people. For that, I am eternally grateful.
I’ll end with this:
A lot of people asked me if traveling the vanlife journey in Iraq’s Kurdistan was dangerous, to which I reply: no! Don’t get me wrong, this region may not be the safest nor the most stable in the world compared to others. But I came here knowing what could potentially happen and what I might expose myself to. I’ve been more careful than I usually am and maybe got scared a few times, but I never felt in danger. Cheers to an amazing adventure!