Iraqi Kurdistan

In July 2017 I spent a few days in Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent tourist.

I got my visa on arrival without any concerns (Irish passport). I flew into Sulaymaniyah and departed from Erbil.

Sulaymaniyah

Accommodation: I stayed at Dolphine Hotel (basic but recommended) in the middle of Sara Square market (which is an experience in itself).

Amna Suraka (Red Security): I’m generally not into museums, but this place is definitely worth checking out. It is housed in one of Saddam’s old torture facilities and the buildings are pretty much bullet-holed shells. It’s also free entry. Be sure to walk around the entire compound as it’s not well sign-posted and seems smaller than it is. Incredibly well-preserved; it’s very intense here.

Azmr Mountains: These mountains are fantastic and where I spent every evening. So many locals hang out here drinking, smoking and eating. It’s definitely a popping spot and the views are unreal. Some areas of the mountain are infamous for certain activities, which many people laugh about!

If you walk a couple of kilometres along the road you will eventually reach a place that sells drinks and has a cable car down to an amusement park, which is close to the centre of town again. The amusement park is without a doubt; amusing.

I loved Sulaymaniyah and it was the highlight of my trip to Kurdistan. I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable.

I also spent some time in Park Azady walking around. It is near lots of popular sheesha places where I spent a huge portion of my time.

Erbil

Accommodation: Couchsurfing

I only had a short stay in Erbil, however I really loved my time there. I got there by shared taxi from Sulaymaniyah (departs from a station called Baghdad station). It was slightly difficult to organise this as communication was challenging, but I eventually managed. Note: people refer to Erbil as “Hawler”. It took about 4 hours (stopping mid-way at a restaurant, where I was questioned by some smiley official briefly). I asked to be dropped off at Erbil Citadel (with my basic Kurdish/Arabic!).

 

I was there in early-mid July; a few days before the referendum and although tensions were high, most of it was positive.I was greeted by this demonstration the day I arrived in Erbil. My bag was checked numerous times and it was chaos! It was a family event though and did not really feel threatening.

Some snapshots of the vegan food I ate in Kurdistan:

Kurdistan is an extraordinary place to visit and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It is a very misunderstood nation. I made a lot of true friends there. I did not take photos of the best moments as I was too busy enjoying myself. Good luck!

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PAKISTAN

In July 2014 I arrived in Pakistan as a solo tourist and travelled around for a couple of weeks.

Islamabad

I landed in Islamabad mainly to organise my trip up to the Northern areas of Pakistan (car + driver + making friends via online social networking). I visited some hidden historical sites (probably illegally) and some couchsurfers took me swimming in a local bust dam which I had to leave due to attention/crowd-gathering of others (mainly due to my tattoos). I didn’t do much else in Islamabad, I just ate out a lot and walked around freely. I also attended a crazy party one night, stories of which I won’t write about online. Like most South Asian countries, there is a great underground nightlife! You will generally not get access without befriending a local.

Murree:

Road trip to Murree! Pretty cool place with lots of (Pakistani) tourists.

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Gilgit-Baltistan & Hunza Valley

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The Northern area of Pakistan is the most beautiful and amazing place I have ever been to in my life. The journey took two days by car from Islamabad and it was the most unreal route I have experienced. I had some ‘dodgy’ moments en-route (e.g. not being allowed out of a pit-stop hotel, and being followed by a car), but everything worked out. For some parts of the drive, an armed guard hopped into the car and (it was mandatory) stayed with me for a while. I also had to hand out copies of my passport to every police officer I met, and register with local police stations (in rural areas). I was in traditional dress of shalwar kameez from the moment I arrived in Gilgit-Baltisan (and continued into Hunza Valley) and although people stared, they just assumed I was Pashtun (apparently), so I wasn’t bothered. I was also with a Pakistani national who I met in Islamabad and shared travel costs with, so translation wasn’t an issue.

Lahore

I grabbed a bus back to Lahore. Lahore is fun! Definitely the more happening city in Pakistan. There is a lot to do and the place is buzzing.

As I am writing this very brief account almost three years in retrospect, the details are fuzzy.

I had no significant negative experiences travelling around Pakistan. I was in Iran before arriving and it is very different, so you will have culture shock if you expect similarities. It is also very different to Afghanistan where I hopped over to after.

I was there during Ramadan which was tough, but an interesting and fun experience! I am atheist, but told people I was Christian when asked about my religion (much easier)!

The security situation in Pakistan is ever-changing. Ensure to check recent, local and reliable news before travelling (although the situation can change in an instant). Bring $USD, and have fun!

 

Eritrea

Pre-trip:

I applied for my tourist visa at the embassy in London (I am an Irish passport holder). The process was easy: I dropped off my application in-person and had an informal interview (e.g. why do you want to go to Eritrea? What do you work as?), and collected my passport with visa a week later.

Landing:

All flights arriving/departing Asmara International Airport do so during 02:00 – 03:00 generally. When I arrived at 03:00, I got a taxi outside the entrance of the airport to Harnet Avenue for 300 Nafka, which is a reasonable price (bargained down from 400 Nafka. If there’s more than one person the driver is unlikely to drop the price).

Accommodation:

I stayed at Crystal Hotel which was about $73 per night. The internet there was generally good 75% of the time* (*for Eritrean standards this means 5 minutes per whatsapp message). Pretty standard hotel / nothing special. Hot water in the mornings only. Request room with a balcony overlooking the street (I recommend room 301). There are hotels on Harnet Avenue for half the price (but they are… even more basic).

ASMARA:

I spent a week in Eritea and Asmara was my favourite place. It’s not like other African capitals – it’s peaceful, quaint, small, and quiet. For pastimes I just ate injera and drank tea all day. I visited one nightclub on a Wednesday night (it shut by midnight) which was interesting… you’ll find them by the music blaring on the streets (and the fact that there are approximately two, usually filled with men sitting down in groups). They’re very tame and nobody is overly drunk (so don’t overdo it as you will just look ridiculous and completely socially insensitive).

MASSAWA:

Massawa is about a 3 hour drive from Asmara, which is a cool enough road. Massawa is hot and there’s not a lot to do there. Do not photograph the industrial actions i.e. building developments taking place there at current. I went on a Tuesday and it was very quiet – I was one of the few guests in my hotel (Red Sea – no internet and extremely basic but also very cheap). Also make sure to stop at Ghinda, a cool little village en-route to Massawa. They have a busy market on Wednesdays and I hung out there for a while eating fruit!

KEREN:

Keren is known by Eritreans as being a diverse (multi-ethnic/multi-religious) area of Eritrea (with a heavy Islamic influence). Therefore I expected Keren to be quiet and conservative on the surface, but I was very wrong! I was heckled at, hollered at, laughed at, shouted at, and screamed at. I felt way more self-conscious and ‘sticking out’ here compared to other areas in Eritrea. I didn’t really take any photos inside Keren itself as I couldn’t be bothered with that saga. Keren has a few more ‘tourist’ sites such as British/Italian cemeteries, paintings/wall murals, a tree that you can stand inside which fascinates everyone…

Travel Permits: 

The famous travel permits: The Tourist Office is located next to Asmara Sweet Cafe on Harnet Avenue (cross the road from the church with the steps, and walk up the street for about 1.5 minutes until you reach the cafe, and it is next door with a small entrance). When I arrived on my first day, I was simply told that I could not arrange them myself, as I did not have a car driver registration number etc.. I was told to contact an agency (the advice seems to differ depending on how the staff member feels, as other foreigners were in the room and we all got different ‘advice’). Anyway, after being refused to even apply for the permits, I went to Oasis Travel Agency (located next to Crystal Hotel) and (long story short) organised my permits through them. It cost almost $800 total for the trips to Massawa and Keren alone (permits, driver and driver’s food/accom., my accom.). Extremely overpriced but that’s basically what Eritrea is going to cost you.

I was asked for my permit when staying overnight in Massawa by the hotel staff. When I went to Keren, it was asked by a worker on the road right before entering the city. If you are lucky enough to be able to blend in as Eritrean, and money is extremely tight – maybe you will be able to get the bus for around 15 Nafka (!) without a permit (hint).

Money:

There are no working ATM machines for foreigners so you are stuck with the cash you bring. Advice: Change minimal money at the airport when you land. All accommodation and private car rentals will be paid in USD $. You are unable to exchange Eritrean Nafka to any other currency once you have it! The black market is also an option, but I did not personally risk it here.

  • Eritrea is expensive. My total trip cost was $2000 [1 week] (budget and basic). Driver rental costs from city to city are the main culprit.

General:

I was never asked about this so-called money-register thing; where your money is counted all the time and has to be accounted for, to be given to the airport upon departure. I also was not asked to pay $20 ‘leaving tax’, which I read so much about beforehand.

Leaving the country was generally straight-forward however do arrive at the airport early as the queues can be long.

I didn’t take photos of any of my most memorable moments whilst in Eritrea.  I also have decided not to write about these moments, as Eritrea’s political situation is uneasy and I do not wish to get anybody in trouble.

I stayed in Eritrea for a week and I saw about 10 other obvious foreigners the entire time I was there.

Tips (recommended in October 2016):

  • Your phone will have NO network signal from the moment you land (wifi is your only possible form of communication on your phone). You need to be Eritrean to purchase an Eritrean sim-card (very difficult and expensive to get on black market).
  • The vast majority of locals will not discuss politics with you (obviously). Ignore people who approach you to discuss politics on their own accord (common sense).
  • Turkish Airlines land in Taif airport (Saudi Arabia) en route to Asmara to drop off some passengers (on my occasion, without even saying). Don’t be like me and get off in Taif thinking you’re in Asmara… but that’s a whole other story for another day!
  • I did not take anti-malarial medication and I got no mosquito bites (my experience only – follow your travel Doctor’s advice).

Nigeria

In March 2016 I spent 9 days as a tourist in Lagos, Nigeria.

The Airport:

ARRIVAL: Upon landing, it was slightly hectic (I was asked to come forward, then go back to the end of the queue, then join another queue…). This went on for about 45 minutes until eventually my passport was stamped and I was allowed through. No bribe requests although I was asked for yellow fever certificate upon landing (flight London via Dubai) which I imagine was just an opportunity for a bribe if I did not have it on my persons.

Everything I read strongly emphasised the importance of having someone wait at the airport for you no matter what. I landed at 14:00 on a Monday, knowing nobody in Nigeria, with no pre-arranged transport. I walked out of the airport, turned right (following everyone else) and someone offered me a taxi (yes, I know these are commonly scams / dangerous / over-priced) for a fixed price of N7,000 K (my accommodation staff had told me to expect to pay around N10,000 K before I arrived). The taxi driver underestimated how far away my accommodation was, and did not request for more money; my lucky introduction to the country. I stayed at Air BnB budget accommodation (which actually turned out to be a hotel) and it was ideal.

DEPARTURE: Bags will be searched many times. I was asked ‘do you have anything for me?’ 2-3 times. I just said ‘ummm no :)’ or ‘next time :)’ and it was no problem whatsoever. Most of the staff laughed and joked with me; ‘cool hair, rock-star!’.

Lagos:

On the first couple of days, I hired a taxi driver all-day and visited all the typical tourist hang-outs that Google recommends: Nike Art Gallery (had a power cut and I bought a small over-priced painting), a local ‘international’ market-place (bought a shirt for N2,000), the Lagos Conservation Centre (walk the cannopy bridge – apparently the largest in Africa), road-trip to Badagry town to visit the Slave Route (including boat trip to ‘The Point of No Return’) – this took all day – ensure to bring passport if you look foreign as you will be noticed and stopped by immigration officials en route (who will also ask for bribe regardless: ‘my officer wants coke’. Response: ‘next time’).

Definitely spend a weekend in Lagos – I went partying on a Friday (Club 57 on the Island and the bar across from it, which is much better) and Saturday night (was taken out by a friend I made through online social networking and his friends – we did a pub crawl to a few more ‘local and African’ places including Pecker’s (an experience in itself), the Waterslide off Bourdillon in Ikoyi, a place in costain followed by a bar in Surulere, and finally ended up in a couple of spots around Ikeja. I went to New Africa Shrine on the mainland on a Sunday night and although there was no show, it was popping. I also went to Freedom Park on a Monday afternoon to check out the only current Vegetarian / Vegan restaurant in Lagos.

I am a white (Irish) 23 year old solo male and I had no negative experiences. I’m a tourist who is heavily tattooed (I wore long sleeves at all times during the day because I couldn’t be bothered with extra attention, although locals whom I did show apparently loved them. I wore t-shirts at night when at bars / clubs and nobody even noticed), and vegan (everyone was understanding and did not question it). I got a lot of stares and attention, but all felt friendly. I walked around care-free; Lagos is a very trendy, easily safe, and happening place. I love Lagos and I hope to return to Nigeria again sometime to explore further.

Good luck, and have fun!

  • This (very brief) blog entry includes only some of my moments/memories of Nigeria. The best moments were not caught on camera, or they are personal 😉
  • This blog entry is of my experiences only! Please do not rely on the information as current, as the situation changes constantly.

Afghanistan

Travel for tourism to Afghanistan is increasing, in spite of the past and current situations existing within the country. In August 2015, I spent a week as a tourist in Afghanistan: split between Kabul and Panjshir Valley vicinities.

Kabul:

Kabul is a pretty interesting place (cultural context considering), although it has a reputation for being boringly hectic. Although Kabul is the most accessible city, it is definitely very unsafe, as is most of Afghanistan, unless you’re as prepared as possible to visit (obligatory disclaimer). I enjoyed my time in the city, and I explored the typical tourist spots. Sure, I spent a lot of my evenings alone in my dingy room unable to go outside after dark as I knew nobody, but I still enjoyed my outings.

Unless you know people in Kabul, it’s going to be pretty boring. My guesthouse hosted one other foreigner, who was there for work purposes. I spent about 3-4 hours a day driving around Kabul with a taxi driver, visiting some of the following:

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Shrine of Hazrat Ali, Kabul – Apparently a pretty close copy of the Mosque in Herat. It was fun to visit for a photo, and it has cool mountains behind it.

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Qargha Lake, Kabul – This place was “closed” (aka the restaurant being closed) when I visited as it was during Ramadan. It did still rent out peddle swan boats though, if that’s your thing. There were also some Afghan tourists here.

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Darul Aman Palace, Kabul – Probably my favourite place that I visited in Kabul. This picture doesn’t even attempt to do the place justice, so visit it for yourself. I had to stand outside it for 1 hour while my taxi driver convinced the guards on-site to let me in.

Nobody ever really batted an eyelid at me during my time in Kabul. I seemed to blend in pretty well (I am 100% Irish, and I wore the above outfit basically every day). People spoke to me in local languages and according to my taxi driver, just assumed I was a rude odd local. I walked around the streets/markets relatively stress-free, and I genuinely felt like nobody noticed me. Obviously, that’s probably not the case and I stuck out like a sore thumb. However, when I did actively interact, every move was scrutinised.

Panjshir Valley:

After a few days of Kabul, I linked up with a local (via online social networking) who invited me on a road-trip to Panjshir Valley with his ten friends. That was my best day in Afghanistan (besides the extreme sun-burn I suffered). All of them were incredibly polite to me, even catering to my vegan dietary requirements like it was no big deal (which it is in Afghanistan).

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On the road to Panjshir Valley – quite impressed with my iPhone-while-driving-fast photography skills.

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Road-trip! – Yes, that’s whiskey and coke. Yes, we were listening to the Spice Girls and Rihanna blaring out of the window the entire time.

Panjshir Valley! 

All in all, my week in Afghanistan is incredibly difficult to capture in words. This blog entry is purely meant to promote Afghan tourism, as it really is a country that has a lot to offer. It is definitely a dangerous place to be, and that should not be underestimated. However, with some common sense, cultural sensitivity, and some luck, you will have a recipe for a successful trip.

Negative experiences: I didn’t really have any negative experiences in Afghanistan. I really don’t have anything too bad to say, as it is Afghanistan after all. I did once experience an explosion at 02:00, on the street outside, which was incredibly scary. These things are common (I witnessed the aftermath of many in Kabul), and they did shake me up a bit at the time for a few moments.

Tips: Open-mind, listen to advice of locals whom you trust using your intuition, answer yes if asked “do you believe in God?” (it happens!), and bring $USD and a flashlight. When you land at Kabul airport, fill out the foreigner registration card and give it to the staff right by the door to sign. Nobody will prompt you to do this. Keep this card safe, as apparently you need it to exit the country later on (I wasn’t asked for it though). When you exit the first door of the airport, you’ll enter the foyer. Here, purchase a sim-card from the kiosks selling junk food and cigarettes. You can also change some cash here. Following that, go outside and hop on a bus to the car park (it’s free). I just got on the first one I saw. When you get to the car park (about 10 minute drive), whoever-you’re-waiting-for will pick you up.

If I can do it – you definitely can. Be prepared for plans to change (don’t make plans); I wanted to go to Bamiyan but all flights cancelled and the drive was too risky at that time. Whatever vision you have of your upcoming trip there will not be accurate ;). I’m a tourist who is heavily tattooed (I wore long sleeves at all times, although locals whom I did show apparently loved them), vegan (everyone was understanding and did not question it), and gay (subsequent stories that I will only exchange in person!). I always felt “on-edge”, much more so than I did in neighbouring Pakistan. Regardless, this buzz is one of the reasons I travel to such places.

Good luck, and have fun!

  • This blog entry includes only some of my moments/memories of Afghanistan. The best moments were not caught on camera, or they are personal.
  • This blog entry is of my experiences only! Please do not rely on the information as current, as the situation changes constantly.