Dylan Armstrong
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Iraq, Kurdistan & Qatar

January 26, 2022


I went to Iraq in November of 2021 after my planned trip to Chad fell through. It was a uniquely interesting trip. It lasted approximately 15 days with an additional 3 days in Qatar. I covered the South & North (Kurdistan) including a trip to Mosul.

The remainder of this blog post was written as it happened. It’s verbatim what was written in my notes.

All pictures are available on my photo site.

November 21

Currently on flight to Baghdad, and I’m quite terrified. Worried I’ve made a mistake. So far very not enjoyable experience. Qatar messed up and said we’d be denied so spent all Friday and Saturday worrying too. About to land. Pretty sure my heart rate is over 150 at this point heh.

Got to hotel, it’s nice. Toilet is way too close to shower. Less nervous now. Lots of military on the street. Our driver is insane.

November 22

Woke up at 4, slept decently well. We have a new driver today, his car doesn’t seem to have a working exhaust. We went to the Iraqi national museum. We had to get permission because it’s closed.

Surprisingly large with a lot of exhibits. Our guide was good, she asked us not to post online for a few weeks or she will get in trouble. Quite a lot of reconstruction on pieces which was meh.

Currently heading to lunch and traffic is insane. Lot of military and police, I feel not necessarily unsafe, just very aware.

Our guide told us there are no Jewish families in southern Iraq but there’s 1 in Kurdistan.

Luxury items are a definite thing here. Tuktuk and a car with Louis Vuitton padding just passed us.

Our car doesn’t have seatbelts, and traffic laws are an after thought.

Went to Ctesiphon and couldn’t get in. We went through a gap in a fence and circled entire compound. I guess it was closed due to people actively working on it. When we asked I was walking with guide and a military drone flew overhead. Very terrifying.

Kids asked if I saw blonde man in Iraq, others asked me to play soccer.

Car ride home I slept entire way apparently through a police checkpoint. They were unsure if they should wake me I guess.

Kristian took an armed guard to ctesiphon, no idea why he did or why we didn’t.

November 23

Heading to samara, found out under ISIS cucumbers and tomatoes couldn’t be mixed in salad because male and female. Got stopped at checkpoint, they pulled us over and checked our passports. Fear has decreased, still feel very vigilant. My humor is a bit dark and morbid lately. Not sure what guide was saying exactly but I certainly heard the phrase “undercover isis” which is quite terrifying heh. Control of Samara where we are headed is mixed between local militia and government. The visceral reaction in my gut seeing a sign for Fallujah is certainly interesting. Also saw a sign for Mosul. Got stopped at another checkpoint where they once again take our passports. And now stopped at 3rd checkpoint where they once again check passports.

Climbed miniret spiral in Samara and it was quite nice, the top was a flat circle and seemed quite dangerous. Turns out Lonni is scared of heights.

Went to gold mosque after and had to go through a few pat down check points. Went inside and it was amazing. Whole ceiling was crystal. Gold everywhere.

Lunch was rice and something that tasted like ravioli. Stomach is being ominous.

Had a glorious talk with guide about pirating Netflix and how most Americans are switching to Hulu. Lonni was not impressed.

Went to Sufi mosque, not sure what’s called but another one with a pretty indoors. It has an overpowering incense smell which was annoying. Our guide talked about how he loved the smell, but all I could think was I hope no one steals our shoes we left outside (someone did take them and put them away with others).

Then went to see liberation square. Had an uncomfortable experience with soldier. Now back at hotel.

Ate meh pizza and once again back at hotel.

November 24

Stomach is upset, not sure why :(

Heading to find my doppelgänger in marketplace, I think driver and guide may be sick.

Iraq is an odd place. Everyone I’ve met has been super friendly, but I don’t feel entirely safe. I’m still very vigilant of the people in my space and looking at me. I need a second vacation after this.

Traffic is insane. Lots and lots of military near a place, no idea what’s up.

Ok went to market this morning. Walked through cloth then through copper. Found my doppelgänger which was awesome.

After we went to Islamic school and had to talk our way in, they were not a fan of letting us in. The security guard also asked that we wait 2-3 weeks before posting online. It was quite nice, every room was basically abandoned and very few people lived there it looked like. I’m not sure it’s still active as a school at all.

Went to poet statue and famous cafe that had a suicide explosion mark above the door. Inside the cafe some kids wanted their picture with us. So they took one on Snapchat. I got a photo with them after.

We wandered more markets and also found a Christian book seller down an alley and I was able to purchase an Arabic bible. There was a lot of Santa’s out, which is very odd to see.

Our guide finally asked us to pay him, and we did with an extra $50. Neither of us felt like arguing the point.

Ate decent cheeseburgers and tried once again to get cash from ATM.

November 25

Have a new driver as previous one became too sick. This car has seatbelts which does a lot for my feeling of personal safety. This is our third driver so far, I guess we are just not tipping drivers? I don’t know.

I woke up feeling alright, and I’m starting to feel comfortable being here.

I don’t think our guide knows how to sit in silence. We’ve been driving for an hour and he’s been talking nonstop. Also I think he might be sick with something.

Very thorough checkpoint, removed from car, given pat down and very long check of passport. This was on Kish road heading to Ishtar gate in Babylon.

Stopped and saw a statue, Saddams castle in background. Asked if we can go, so maybe we can.

Stopped at another checkpoint. I wish I’d counted from beginning just how many times we’ve been stopped. And now we’ve given up our passports for the millionth time. Lonni says we’re averaging 2 to 3 times a day.

Ishtar Gate was interesting, almost entirely reconstructed by Saddam, it’s glaring in a bad way. Our local guide was annoying and kept giving me marriage advice. We went to the lower surviving structure to look at the old lions & horses. They looked fake, but they’re very real. There was no dye on them. We also talked to a conservationist who’s been working on the site since 2009 and estimated an additional 10 years on the site.

Ended up getting photos with a lot of university students, they thought I looked like Messi.

After we went to Saddam’s castle on the hill overlooking the site. It was absolutely packed with university students, so many people taking selfies and fancy pictures of themselves. Every wall was covered with graffiti, some of it amusing and in English. There was a nice ceiling painting but it was really only surviving piece.

The university students were fascinating. Big glasses were in, every woman was wearing a hijab, and everyone was dressed in business clothes. Seriously suits and nice pants, everything.

In Hilla, got food and ice cream. First time I’ve gotten ice cream from someone not using gloves. He also wiped his eye right before serving me.

Walla started to talk and I think my brain shut off. Thankfully we got stopped at a checkpoint for them to once again look at our passports. If I’m lucky, I can fall asleep before he gets back in the car. Nevermind, I was not lucky. Also the driver is trying to kill us by farting. This has been going on for 1 hour now. I have to remind myself that I paid for this. Driver took my picture with him because I look like Messi.

I guess I’m 6 hour drive from Syria border. 8 hours to Damascus.

Fell asleep for 30 minutes and woke up at Al-Ukhaidir Fortress. Very, very cool castle. Incredibly large, very dangerous, pitfalls everywhere. We circled the battlements and walked all through it.

It’s in the ~5th day of protests in Erbil and the state department still hasn’t reached out to let me know.

Got to emperor hotel in Karbala and went to nearby shrine. Shrine was packed. At the hotel there was a motion detection light that went off every time we moved.

Guide asked Lonni to be his reference for US state department. Also made a lot of uncomfortable comments about buying my passport.

November 26

Bed sucks at this hotel. The shower is completely open to the toilet and there’s a blow dryer with outlet right next to shower.

We talked to Walla when it was the 3 of us and told him that we looked into being his reference and it’s not possible. It has to be a coworker or family member.

Our original driver is back with his car that has no seatbelts or usb outlet.

Walla has continued to talk about something, I am unsure what.

Protests in Erbil should stop now, the government has folded and will restart student payments, so situation should be fine when we get there. US state department never let me know.

We’ve once again been picked for passport checks on our way to Najaf.

Went to worlds largest cemetery. The flag in background was only middle of place. Women do not have their pictures above their tombs so men do not think improper thoughts of them when they are dead.

I stepped on a man’s orange, after he dropped it in a large crowd of people walking, for some reason he viewed this as my fault rather than his own.

Went to Imam-Ali shrine which was packed. Women and men were fairly mixed which was nice to see.

Then we went to souk market and I tried a local candy, we then walked the entire length of the street.

Walla has somehow become an annoyance. His walking speed is the latest aggravation. My temper is a bit short, I think because of the size of the crowd. It was over stimulating.

We are now in the car heading to Kufa mosque I believe.

Kufa mosque was very large. There were a couple shrines around it, they looked nice. We could take pictures inside which was also nice. Went to a persons house shrine and it was okay too.

I am very tired. Also I think I’m shrined out. They sort of blur together now.

Also, I think on second day, Walla asked us to make a startup with him.

Ok ate food, I feel better. Some meat pie thing in soup. Walla has agreed not to speak on way to Ur, so should be able to get sleep.

We will arrive to Ur after sunset which sucks.

Our driver is insane, he’s been going 100-120mph and no one is wearing seatbelts. I tried to find mine under the seat cover but couldn’t.

Got questioned for 20 minutes by intelligence agents at checkpoint. They wanted to know where we were coming from, where we were going, my thoughts on Biden and Trump, I think about the president of Iraq, a bunch of random other questions, and at the end one of the guys asked for my number. Turns out this checkpoint was right near Abu Gharib* prison, so might be why they weren’t too enthused by us. Also probably explains why they kept asking if we knew where we were right now.

* Note: This was al-Hoot prison, not Abu Gharib.

November 27

Off to Ur and we are not going to Basra anymore.

Lonni is having a fun morning, he strongly dislikes everything in the bathroom at the hotel.

And 5 minutes into our drive we’ve been stopped at checkpoint to have passports checked. They’ve photographed everyone’s id and passports.

So we just passed Abu Gharib prison. It was literally 50 feet to my left. It doesn’t appear on the map. We cannot take any pictures of it, or they might delete my entire trip worth of photos.

We are at Ur now, and I don’t think they want to let us in. They let us in, but kept our passports at gate.

Leaving Ur now. It’s fascinating being somewhere so old with so much history. Birthplace of Abraham. It’s a bit annoying that I can’t tell what’s real and what’s a reconstruction.

We just passed prison again, I will feel better once we’ve left this area and gone back through checkpoint.

We passed through checkpoint leaving the area without even stopping. I feel much better hah.

Wasn’t actually Abu Gharib prison, it was the Whale prison.

Almost got into accident, guy almost t-boned us. That’d have sucked. Got thrown into Lonni. Tried to talk Walla into letting us get seatbelts out. I tried to find it but it wasn’t there. Seatbelts are considered a lack of trust in driver, seems like. Walla doesn’t understand that it’s just safer to use one. So I guess Lonni and I are both making sacrifices. Walla always turns to look at me and talk, and Lonni has to see speedometer.

Stopped for another passport check.

Stopped for another checkpoint, so far they haven’t taken our passports, only Wallas id.

Sitting in wooden building drinking tea listening to a man describe the wetlands area in Arabic. There are a couple western women here, Lonni and I are betting on where they’re from.

We are waiting now for boat I think. I keep forgetting sunglasses.

Boat ride through marsh is going well. Back is starting to hurt from board. We are sitting on pillow. We’ve been told not to photograph local women. I wish I knew how long this was going to take, it’s the same view now for 20 minutes.

I moved pillow to my back and just sat on floor of boat. I thought I was so smart. Discovered pillow is actually to keep butt dry as water seeps in. I now have a wet butt. Still on boat.

We’ve picked up a turtle.

And back on land. Trip was 1h30.

Ate food in a pairing situation on the floor, fish, bread and rice. They provided a yogurt drink that wasn’t so bad. Fish was fresh but didn’t have much taste. Bread and rice were good though. I left Lonni to finish the rest of our meal.

Turns out the V symbol I’m doing with fingers is not peace, it stands for victory here. Thanks Walla..

Ended up talking to a doctor who just graduated. He had a wife who was a dentist.

Lonni repeated request for seat belt and we got them! I imagine he will give very negative review to Haider’s company.

We went to a shrine of unknown marsh victims. People were playing music and dancing.

Walla is not coming with us tomorrow to airport. We are about 20 minutes ride back to hotel now. It’s much better with seatbelts.

Our guide is a fucking idiot and walked us through a protest.

In the car, we were stuck in traffic and we had a 30 minute walk back to hotel. Instead they drove away from the hotel to try and drive. We then got out and phone said 60 minute walk. We then walked 40 minutes and crossed the path of protestors. Then took a cab rather than walk the last 20 minutes. There was a military humvee at corner and the guide moved us between the protestors and the soldiers to cross the road.

November 28

Woke up.

Hotel didn’t have any real food, so had some chewy bread.

Currently 1 hour into drive and I have no idea how fast we are going, but according to google maps, we’ve cut an hour off estimated time.. so probably fast.

We keep passing large herds of camels that are guided by shepherds.

Stopped at gas station. Lonni is drowsy and having chills. I feel fine, but have a small headache from listening to loud music and no coffee.

There is a lot of military on the road to Baghdad.

At airport, I have slight headache which is annoying. I think it’s lack of food and coffee.

It was lack of food and coffee.

I told Lonni I was logging his bathroom breaks so I need to start doing that now. I believe this is his 4th today. He refuses to let me take his pulse. Possibly a zombie. Now 5th time…

Airport took my scissors in final security, the 4th one.

Arrived in Erbil and went and had Chinese food for dinner. I saw a Mercedes g wagon and seems like road laws are mostly followed. Very drastic difference from the south. Also my debit card finally worked at the Erbil airport so I can survive now.

November 29

Woke up in Erbil to my alarm followed quickly by the call to prayer which is from a mosque literally across the street from me.

Cleaned up older notes.

Lonni has food poisoning. We are driving and got cappuccino, they look proper.

Went to a small mountain town called Akre. It had nice views of the mountains. There was an old ottoman outpost that’s been converted into a police station.

Then we went to the Jerwan aqueduct from 700BC. Lots of cuneiform writing on the stones.

Now we are heading to a Yazidi religious temple in Lalish.

The religion believes that Lucifer was in the right to disobey, but they do not worship him. They require taking shoes off in entire town.

One building was a baptism building that we couldn’t enter.

We did enter a temple, where their prophet is buried who lived circa 1200AD. We had to step over thresholds to enter.

Around the prophets tomb they would kiss it and then circle it 3 times counter clock wise. They also tied knots in the green fabric. The next person would untie their knot, making the prayer come true, and tie their own knot.

There was a small 2 hole section where if you threw a rock and it went in the smaller left hole, you went to heaven, otherwise hell.

They collected olive oil and burned it on cotton swabs.

Ate lunch and had kebabs.

Monastery was cool. Very old and bad cave system dug into mountain. It’s called Rabban Hermizd Chaldean monastery.

Stopped to walk around in Alkosh.

Drove through refugee camp. It’s been here since 2014. They fled ISIS.

November 30

Lonni is feeling better, my stomach is a little off though this morning. There was an ISIS attack on the evening of the 28th.

We are off to the mountains where I will be very underdressed.

Ended up not being too cold up at Saddam’s palace. There were really friendly dogs. Great views of the landscape. Ended up having to take the anti poop pill.

Little girl playing in leaves and throwing them in the air while her mother recorded.

Went to abandoned mosque built in 1500s and abandoned in 1950s. Fun little catwalks and nice views of a stream and waterfall nearby. Called a Madrasa.

In Amedi now, a city on a plateau.

Went to mosque in town that has been around too and is still in use. No repairs other than adding electric and painting have been done.

Now at a cafe. Had tea and some local bread.

Went to Bahdina gate, the grand gate, built a really long time ago in something BC.

Had a 2 hour drive.

Ate at fish restaurant where we ate a full trout fish with fingers. It was excellent.

Went to gorge, it was pretty. I’m out of breath.

Shanidar cave used 80,000 years ago and 1 of 3 places worldwide with neanderthals bones, 1 in Africa, 1 in Germany, and here. Another great hike and I’m dying from bad cardio. It’s a large open space, there was an initial excavation in the 1950s but it stopped from funding, and it was restarted in 2012 but stopped due to covid.

December 1

Lonni is sick again. We are getting our tests tomorrow morning.

Went to look at gorge and then a waterfall. Waterfall was in a small town thing and we were the only ones there.

Now driving on windy road that top gear did a race on. It’s really windy and cold this morning and it may rain.

Walked a mile of the old Silk Road.

Been driving a couple hours, now in Dokun for bathroom breaks and tea. Had ice cream too.

Walked around the shops in Sulaymaniyah. Had falafel for lunch and another smoothie.

Went to genocide museum.

Went to mountain to look at city. Very pretty view with sun coming through clouds.

Had pizza for dinner.

December 2

Got covid test this morning, Lonni is better, and my stomach is a bit upset. I’ve taken my 3rd immodium of the trip. Same as Lonni interestingly, just never on the same day.

At the Slemani museum in Sulaymaniyah now. Lots of stuff from 100k years ago all the way up to Islamic period in 500AD.

Now in car for hour drive to another place, Halabja.

Stopped by police to see if we could give them a jumpstart.

Went to Halabja peace museum which is a memorial to the genocide committed by Saddam with chemical weapons against the Kurdish people.

Went to mass grave. No bath party members were allowed entry, although the party itself is now illegal in Iraq.

Now eating kebabs. It continues to rain.

Driving, not sure where.

Went to Ahmad Awa waterfall, right next to Iranian border. In 2009, 3 American hikers were arrested near here for illegal entry into Iran.

Tested negative and submitted Qatar thing with incorrect date.

Now waiting at hotel for dinner then sleep.

Went to fancy restaurant and had too much hookah so had to leave and go be sick.

December 3

Stomach is a little fragile. Took my 4th immodium.

Went to dukan lake’s smaller side to the south.

I’ve now peed on a rock in Iraq, thrown a rock in Iraq, and skipped a rock in Iraq.

Went to nice overhang that looked at lake and snow capped mountains and stood on a rock in Iraq.

Had ice cream.

In old bazaar in Koysinjaq.

Went to caravanserai.

Another ISIS attack last night between Erbil and Mosul.

Just had our first passport check in Kurdistan.

In Erbil getting Thai food at place with Christmas decorations and only playing Christmas music.

At Erbil citadel. I kicked a rock in Iraq.

Went back to Erbil view hotel and got same rooms, room 405.

Went out to eat at Yemen restaurant and it was a 30 minute walk.

December 4

Heading to Mosul now. Same stressful feeling as landing in Baghdad.

ISIS built trenches.

Saw old city gate.

Saw Saddam mosque. They are rebuilding it.

Saw mosque where ISIS declared caliphate, and had tea across from it. Tea made me feel sick.

Saw church. The pope was there earlier this year.

Ate some meat and bread dish, very good.

Walked through bazaar. Had a chocolate coffee drink that is apparently a unique part of Mosul.

Now getting passport checked again at checkpoint on way back to Erbil.

And another passport check.

Went out to nice dinner with Balin and steak was frozen.

December 5

On way to airport now. Just went through second layer of security.

Landed in Qatar and officially in country #46. Just waiting at car rental now.

Went quite far north then west essentially circling entire country.

December 6

Fire alarm went off at 4am then again at 7am. Car park requires talking to front desk and getting allowed out by an employee. Most aggravating country ever.

Went to library.

Went to mosque that was closed and way too big.

Went to Sheiks museum, yeah. Guy bought a lot of stuff.

I’m quite tired of traveling at this point.

December 7

Got covid test. We had negative result before we got tested. They had our names mixed up too.

Walking in Doha is uniquely aggravating.

December 8

Leaving for airport.