When I thought of crossing the Turkish-Iraqi border, I got the goosebumps. There was something scary and mysterious about it. After spending an epic month in the southeastern part of Turkey, I made my way to Iraq on 17th October 2019.
I had no idea what it was going to be like. I was still overwhelmed by the terrific time I had in Turkey. But at the same time, my mind was playing with what it could be like to cross the Turkish-Iraqi border. Everything that happened on my way from Turkey to Iraq was nothing close to the ideas my mind had created.
Table of contents
My route from Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan
Gaziantep – Diyarbakır – Batman – Cizre – Silopi – Duhok – Erbil
Visa to Iraqi Kurdistan
As for the visa, I didn’t have to worry at all as Iraqi Kurdistan gives visa on arrival free of charge to European Union citizens. I would need a visa to Iraq but not to Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region recognized by the Iraqi constitution.
Spontaneously found myself on a bus going to Iraq
I was in Gaziantep in Turkey. I went to the station spontaneously to catch a bus to Diyarbakir which is around 330 km from Gaziantep. There were a lot of buses in the morning. The last early morning bus was at 9 am that I missed. I saw online that there was a bus at 9:30 but it was canceled but I hoped it wasn’t true. :D
In Turkey, if you go to a bus station, you don’t have to waste your time looking for things because the guys working for the different bus companies will approach you and ask where you want to go to. Then, knowing your destination they will direct you to the right place.
The guy from the company called Diyarbakir said that the next bus for my destination was at 11 am. All the conversations took place in Turkish. But I will just write them in English.
Me: “Hm, but I want to go to Diyarbakır now. 11 is too late for me.” – said humbly.
Guy: “Alright!” – looking at me like he was going to figure out something good for me.
So I wanted a bus before 11 am. :-) And then what happened?
He asked all the companies at the station if there was a way for me to get on a bus to Diyarbakır earlier than 11 am. Yes, this is Turkish customer service. And he honestly cared about my wish to leave earlier for Diyarbakır. We found out that the company Can Diyarbakır had a bus at 10 am. With this company, I had a reservation the next day from Diyarbakır to Erbil (Iraq). But I didn’t tell them. I sat down to have for my first coffee. The guy comes up to me.
Me: “Come, come! The bus is here!“
Guy: “Oh, really? Already?“
I quickly finished my coffee and we were running to the bus.
Guy: “This bus just stopped for you.”
Me: “Great! Thanks! I wanted to go to Iraq tomorrow but I can go today with this bus.”
Guy: “Oh really, why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
Me: “Oh, I didn’t think about it. I didn’t know it was possible to travel to Iraq from Gaziantep. But if you can change my ticket, I’ll go to Iraq today.”
They just changed my ticket on the bus. Yes, this is what I love about Turkey. Traveling is just too easy. Making changes last minute is totally normal and people can react to it so efficiently. I was excited. I texted my Couchsurfing host asking if he could host me a day earlier. It was all fine from his side. Welcome to the Middle East!
We got to Diyarbakır at 3 pm and I saw online that there was a bus for Iraq from the same company at 5 pm. But my bus was going to continue to Iraq at 8 pm. It took me a lot of time to understand why we were not leaving at 5 pm because they used too many words in I didn’t know in Turkish and I just wanted to leave earlier. :-) The whole bus was entertained by how I tried to figure things out. :-) So, in the end, with the help of my online dictionary, I understood that they wanted to leave at 8 pm in order to avoid traffic at the border.
Many people came up to me from the bus and tried to help me with different things. They always wanted to make sure that I knew what was going on and I had everything I needed.
“What will you do now?“ – asked someone.
Me: “I want to go to a restaurant. I want to write.“
Guy: “Come, let’s buy food over there.“
Me: “Oh, I wanted to go to a restaurant.“
Guy: “But that restaurant is expensive. You shouldn’t spend a lot of money there. We are foreigners. We have to take care of our money.“
Me: “Yes, you are right.“
Actually, when we were on the bus, I didn’t get where my seat was, so I just put myself down somewhere. So I just took a seat. I was surrounded by a lot of guys. And this guy came up to me and said: “Sit there! It will be better for you.” – showing me his seat. So I just stood up and seated myself there. I was, in fact, totally fine where I was but he was just simply thoughtful.
So, we grabbed some snacks. He gave me half of his croissant. Feeling embarrassed I refused it. Then, he just put it in front of me. I also offered half of mine but he didn’t take it. We were trying to get to know each other. It was really cute. Like, two children. His Turkish was better than mine but still felt like two foreign children lost in Turkey who spent their last cents to feed themselves.
I didn’t understand everything he tried to explain about his background. Thus, he took a piece of paper from his bag. It was a piece of paper from the UN Refugee Agency. Aha! He tried to explain to me that he was a refugee. He was from Bagdad.
Me: “Come on, let’s go to a café to drink tea.”
Guy: “I bring you tea.“ – and he stood up.
Me: “No, please. I mean let’s go to a café and drink tea there. I really want to write.”
Guy: “Ok. Fine.“
He didn’t come with me. I actually wanted to stay with him. But I had too much in my mind and I wanted to write them down. I was writing in my journal. In front of me, there was a big screen showing the Turkish operations in Syria. I wanted to ignore it but I couldn’t. I just asked myself: “Why is all this crap happening?”
The operation was going on for almost two weeks now.
The journey from Diyarbakir to the Turkish-Iraqi border
Ready to leave for Iraq
I was back to the bus ready for another 500 km bus ride. Families who just arrived chatted up with me. They all wanted to know what I was doing there and why I was traveling on my own to Erbil. They were super friendly. We left at 8 pm. The bus was full of Kurdish people from Turkey. We were only 3 foreigners.
In Turkey, we stopped several times. Two stops were at military checkpoints. The first one was in Batman at 9:30 am and then the second one in Midyat at 11 pm. I was used to military checkpoints. They are common in the southeastern part of Turkey but I didn’t see them that much.
We stopped a lot at restaurants for 30 minutes. On one occasion, I sat at a table next to a lot of women. They were showing me their son on Instagram. They were happy to hear that I wasn’t married. One of them even called her son and said that she just met a beautiful Hungarian girl.
Old woman: “Do you need a visa for Germany?”
Me: “No, I don’t.”
Old woman: “Mashallah!“ – getting super excited.
She was happy to pass this information to her son. She was totally hilarious.
I asked them whether she was arranging a göröcü. Göröcü is a kind of arranged marriage in Turkey. They were just laughing their head off. At the same time, they were stuffing me with snacks.
One of the women: “You know too much.“ – told me giggling.
We were laughing so much and I felt I was in a Turkish comedy.
Passport control at the Turkish-Iraqi border
Ibrahim Khalil Border Crossing is the name of the border on the map. When we got to the Turkish border, on the bus our passports were checked. I was totally relaxed. I felt safe.
We had to get off the bus and take our passport to a booth. The women were just joking around and laughing the whole time.
As I said, we were three people with non-Turkish passport: Me with Hungarian passport, the Iraqi Kurd with a Canadian passport, and my new friend from Bagdad with Iraqi passport and refugee status from Turkey.
We were urged to go first. Our passports were checked and then we had to go to another place where our documents were thoroughly examined again. The guy with the Canadian passport was quickly done. My friend with the Iraqi passport had to go to another building with all his bags.
My passport took longer. The officers were super serious checking my passport. They gave me the exit stamp pretty quickly but they kept checking my passport and my details in the system for a long time. One of the guys was checking something on his phone. They were talking something and I just heard macar which means Hungarian.
And I just said “Evet, ben macarım.” In Turkish, it means: Yes, I’m Hungarian. That broke the ice. They totally changed. They smiled at me. They were surprised that I understood Turkish.
We started chatting and laughing. Then, they asked me where I learned Turkish. I said, in Canakkale. That made them even happier as the guy checking my passport was from Canakkale. Yes, if you don’t know, I was an Erasmus student at the Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University in 2010.
At the same time, I was wondering about my Iraqi friend.
Turkish officer: “What will you do in Iraq?”
Me: “Just run a marathon.”
Turkish officer: “How many kilometers?”
Turkish officer: “Wau!!!“
They just gave me my passport with a big smile and let me get back to the bus. I was the last one to get on the bus. I was looking for my Iraqi friend. I didn’t see him on the bus. I asked the driver where he was. He just said he couldn’t come with us. I was so sad about it. I’ll never forget him…
Then, we rolled to the Iraqi side. Actually, the way was pretty long between the two borders.
We got off the bus at the Iraqi border. I asked the soldiers whether I could take a photo there. They said yes, of course. We spoke in Turkish. The guy standing the closest even offered me to take a photo of me. How cool is that!!! Surely, border officers and soldiers are meant to be strict. But at the end of the day, they are human beings whose culture is all about making their guests happy.
Photo time before entering into Iraqi Kurdistan
Did you see the welcoming? Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s not simply Iraq but Iraqi Kurdistan. I knew that Iraqi Kurdistan is different from the rest of Iraq but seeing Iraqi Kurdistan instead of only Iraq on the border sign was a surprise for me. And it’s not easy to see in my photos but the flag up there is not the Iraqi flag either but the Kurdish flag.
After the baggage check, we had to go for the passport control to a building on the side. The Stuart from the bus always sent me in front of the Turkish citizens. This time as well.
Iraqi officer: “How long are you staying?”
Me: “I don’t know. As long as I’m happy there… I think with my passport I can stay for 30 days.”
Iraqi officer: “That’s right. What will you do in Iraq?”
Me: “Just run a marathon in Erbil, and look around in the country. I’m a tourist.”
Iraqi officer: “Ohh, very good.”
Me: “Of course, only if you let me go.“ – told him laughing.
He laughed too and gave back my passport. I still had to go to another officer.
The same questions with the second guy. He was checking some paper on the wall for a few a while. Then, a photo was taken of me, I gave my fingerprint and I got my stamp for Iraqi Kurdistan with a big smile. I was so overwhelmed by all these warm smiles. I felt welcomed.
From the Turkish – Iraqi border to Erbil
We left the border area at 2:55 am. We stopped quite soon again in Zakho at a petrol station for like 20 minutes or more. At 3:32 we passed a peshmerga, Kurdish military, checkpoint but we didn’t stop there.
After this checkpoint, we had another 30 minutes break at a shop. After that, I don’t remember what happened. I might have just dozed off at some point and I woke up at 7 am in Erbil.
It was a total 11-hour journey from Diyarbakır to Erbil including a lot of stops. It was the most interesting and cheerful bus ride of my life. All the passengers, bus staff, Turkish and Iraqi-Kurdish border officers, and soldiers were very kind. How people treated me during this journey is pretty much how I was treated the whole time in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan: with care, respect, and generosity.
Yes, this is not how I imagined crossing the border of Turkey and Iraqi, or let’s just call it Iraqi Kurdistan as it’s written on the border sign.
I hope that one day I can meet my Iraqi friend from Baghdad who shared half of his croissant with me. Maybe one day he comes across this blog and he recognizes himself in my story.
Travelers crossing borders into Iraq
Crossing borders in the Middle East is an interesting experience. We all have our own unique story. My story of crossing the Turkish-Iraqi border is only one story.
Here is one inspiring story of a friend’s grandfather who drove from London to Baghdad in the 1950s. He didn’t actually cross the Turkish-Iraqi border. He drove into Iraq from Syria. Have fun reading it!