So, I Took 16 People to Travel to Iraq
I was a fake, a fraud. I had become the guy that I used to call out online. This whole ‘every country in the world’ thing can get complicated, and a little competitive, and I was now as guilty as the people I accused. I had visited ‘Iraq’ before, but it was northern Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan to be precise. In essence, it’s a separate country, it had its own border, it’s own visa, its own government, and if there was a fair referendum, they’d be recognised as independent in the morning, and I knew all that but I went there, ticked by Iraq box and moved on. Deep down I knew it was false, I was lying to myself. I explain a little more about it here actually.
Why go to Iraq as a tourist?
So when I finished my 197/197 countries, and the media picked up my story, and I went viral, I had this truth gnawing at my integrity, it was eating me up. I had to put it right. Just like visiting Somaliland as Somalia, I had to go to Mogadishu to right my wrong (that was a scary trip!), it was time to enquire about going to Iraq PROPER.
So I did some digging, and some more, 6 months of it to be precise. Most companies ignore you, most emailed remain unreplied. Eventually, I found someone willing to help with the visa, and take me to Baghdad, and Babylon. Adam, my contact, turned out to be an absolute gentleman, and now i consider him a friend. So everything was perfect and good to go? Not quite. I was keen to go with one of my best buddies, Anthony from ManVsClock.com, but the quote for 2 of us to attend a 3-night trip was pushing $7kUSD, ouch. After some negotiating, we worked out that if we have a larger group, the price drops considerably. I have around 300,000 social media followers across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, so I reached out on there – a few IG stories, a FaceBook post, and I scrambled a blog post together with my idea to go to Iraq.
Who would want to come to Iraq?!
Realistically, who would want to come to Iraq? Anthony and I were both in, my crazy mum 69-year-old mum, who has had a new lease of life since I started my travel escapades, was keen too (not surprising since she loved the time I took her to Kabul, Afghanistan). We needed 6 people ideally to bring the cost to under $2k a head. So I blasted the Insta and blog post out once. Then another Insta post 3/4 days later. To my absolute shock, about 40 people applied to come, with genuine, legitimate interest. The trip was quite short notice, around 2 months in advance, and it was pricey! I told people it would be $1999 I think, and they had very little time to book flights (also expensive) and sort visas (for Iraq, another huge issue), but a batch of crazy adventurers were keen. I still can’t believe it.
The 40 or so people finally whittled down to 23 with about 2 weeks to go. A couple more drop-outs due to security fears, a few stopped replying emails. All completely understandable given that Baghdad and Babylon isn’t your standard 4-day city break. Finally, there were 16. 16! WOW. With such a large number, we managed to get the price down further still to $1850. Furthermore, I managed to get all UK and Ireland travelers their visas myself by meeting my contact in Manchester, while the American’s and other nationalities got there’s in their various embassies overseas. Crazy stuff. 2 weeks later we were in the Hotel Palestine lobby in Downtown Baghdad. All 16 of us, most of us meeting for the first time.
4 days in Iraq
So here we were, in Baghdad. Our legend of a guide, Adam, there every step of the way, along with his brother, Moussa, another top guy. We had a rough idea of our itinerary, but naturally, in Iraq everything is subject to security clearance, so it was time to find out definitely what was on the itinerary for the next 4 days. So the itinerary was set out as follows:
Day 1: Baghdad: Al Tahir (Liberation) Square, Al Shaheed Martyrs Monument, Gates of Baghdad, The Golden Domes of Al-Khadimya Mosque
Day 2: Babylon: The Ancient City of Babylon, Saddam Hussein’s Palace of Babylon, Borsippa
Day 3: Baghdad: Iraqi National Museum, Armenian Church, British Gentleman Club, Shahbender Coffee Shop, Copper Market, Dinner at Karrada Shopping Precinct (where the blast when off)
Day 4: Departure day: Baghdad Mall
DAY 1: Baghdad city tour
Some of the group arrived the night before and settled into the hotel, the rest of us took an early morning flight from Dubai, so by the time we got going on day 1 is was lunchtime. It was amazing to chat to the people who had thrown their hat in the ring for such a crazy trip. Group travel can be a sketchy thing, and I used to hate the idea of it, but since running our GiveBack GiveAway trips, and now this crazy adventure travel, I realise how wrong I was. If you travel in the right pockets, within your niche, you attract pretty awesome people, and so it played out. New friends everywhere, and even a few of them have signed up for our Nepal charity trip in February (See you there guys, if you’re reading this!).
We were straight into the bus, and off to Tahir Square (Liberation Square), built to commemorate Iraq’s independence in 1958. This was our first real action in Baghdad, we popped out of the bus and went for walk about. Security, army and police all approached us to see what a random group of foreigners were doing wandering the streets of Baghdad, but Adam had all our appropriate paperwork so we were given the all clear, slowly crowds formed as rumours of foreign tourists spread. When we tried to get back on the bus, we weren’t allowed back on with a group pic, and the girls must have felt like celebrities with the amount of selfies required before they were free.
After we were free of the masses, we were off to the Al Shaheed Martyrs Monument, the thing I was most looking forward to on the whole trip. When I had asked people to join our trip to Iraq, this was the photo I had been using to show the beauty of Baghdad, but I had been inundated with messages telling me we can’t get close to the monument anymore due to security fears. And so when we arrived, we weren’t allowed in. But after negotiations, we fast forward 10 minutes, and our group of 16 have the whole place to ourselves. And this place is beautiful.
The monument is dedicated to the Iraqi soldiers who died in the 8 year Iraq-Iran War. However, now it is generally considered by Iraqis to be a commemoration of all of Iraq’s martyrs, especially those allied with Iran and Syria currently fighting ISIS, not just of the Iran-Iraq War.
We had a quick stop off at the ‘Gates of Baghdad’, essentially a rebuilt castle, before we finished our first evening off at The Golden Domes of the Shiia Al-Kadhimiya Mosque. The mosque is packed, as our the streets leading up to it, you have to dress appropriately which was tough for the ladies in the group as it was 40 degrees or so, and there is very little room to wander with the sheer density of the population (compounded by one of our travelers having $200 pickpocketed within the Mosque itself, eeek!)
The reality of traveling in Baghdad can set in when we’re in these situations. The Mosque was beautiful, the people were friendly, but there have been 10 terrorist attacks here in the last 15 years, with the most recent in 2016, where a triple car bomb killed 21. A stark reminder of the damage religion has done and continues to do globally.
DAY 2 Babylon and Saddam’s Palace.
Today we were off to see one of the original wonders of the world, the Ancient City of Babylon, and the famous Hanging Garden’s of Babylon (which are no longer), which is about 2 hours or so from Baghdad. The ancient city was a real favourite of Saddam Hussein, and he spent a lot of time rebuilding the city, but not without printing his name on about 10% of the thousand of bricks he used! Megalomaniac in every sense. The new build is still impressive, but no respect has been paid to traditional building etc, so it’s all very new looking, but in the distance, on a man-made hill, Saddam has built one of his summer palaces, overlooking the ancient city. In all honesty, that was much more interesting than the city in my eyes.
After a couple of hours walking around Babylon, and its ruins (With 2 guides who barely spoke any English, but were hugely enthusiastic) we made our way to Saddam’s Palace. A weird, morbid highlight of our entire Iraqi trip, truth be told. The whole group were excited about the prospect of visiting one of Saddam’s haunts, to get a feel for the lavish life he led, while his country suffered. As we approached, as usual in this trip, we were completely alone – the place entirely to ourselves.
We hopped out of the bus, and instantly you see Saddam’s mark. His face is carved above the entrances, and the palace has the most spectacular views of the ancient city of Babylon. From here, we were free to roam about his palace for an hour or so, with the top floors blockaded by American and Iraqi military. We wandered from room to room, huge spectacular ceilings, a gorgeous swimming pool, a throne room, until finally we reached his bedroom, complete with hottub:
The whole experience was super strange. It felt a huge privilege to be able to explore Baghdad, and Babylon, as some of the few tourists to make the journey each year. But equally, it’s a harrowing thought, the damage both Saddam, and then the American’s have done to both Iraq, and the region in general. So much bloodshed, so much suffering. We are lucky indeed in our civilised societies, with free speech, education, healthcare. I hope Iraq can rise again.
We had one last stop off at Borsippa, an ancient temple and we hit the sack after a long day.
DAY 3: Baghdad old city
The days go fast in crazy destinations, already our 3rd and final full day. We were back in Baghdad for a little cultural morning. First off was the Iraqi National Museum, which in fairness has been really well done. Me though? I hate museums. Old pottery in glass boxes is not for me. 2 hours or so there, but I was done after about 15 minutes, but I accept some people love this stuff! Our group though? They were on the same page, so we were itching to leave. Next up, Armenian church, which again was something similar, although that being said, it’s genuinely nice to see some form of religious freedom in Baghdad.
The rest of the day was great though. We had a walking tour through Baghdad old city, through little souks, bustling squares, and atmospheric coffee shops. I was actually surprised how much freedom we were granted walking around. In my Mogadishu and Kabul experiences, I had armed guards following me around, but in Baghdad, we were much freer. We came across the old British Gentleman’s Club, opposite the former British embassy, and again we’re faced with the brutal history of relatively recent Baghdad. Around the corner from there, we entered the Shahbender Coffee Shop, where we all drank local teas/coffees and some shisha. The locals were enamoured with our presence, offering conversations and coffees every corner we turned. What was supposed to be a 10 minute break, turned into over an hour pitstop, soaking up the atmosphere.
Finally, we visited the souq, and the copper market, where our group was snapping up antique keepsakes from one of the best trips of our lives. I never buy touristic stuff, but this was Baghdad, so even I felt obliged. I bought a 60 year old copper jug, and it’s now sitting proudly in my apartment in Bangkok, a memory of a brilliant group, in a very rare country.
And so we headed back to the Hotel Palestine (decent wifi there, amazing) to freshen up. It was our last night, so we had dinner as a group. We walked about 25 minutes or so, with our guide, to a local diner. People were chatting, the group had bonded, and the atmosphere was really beautiful actually. About an hour into dinner, Adam our guide spoke to me quietly. There had been a double explosion on the outskirts of Baghdad, and we shouldn’t walk back to the hotel. We hired a local bus, and told the group to eat up, pay up and leave. Without breaking the bad news. Ushered on to the bus, we drove back to the hotel.
Once back to the hotel, we broke the news. People called their loved ones, let them know they’re safe. Reports of 117 dead were hard to hear, and again, it was a sobering reminded of where we were in the world. So day 3 was up, our last night, but there was still time to toast to a trip where we got to see a place most never do. There was a ‘gentleman’s club’ attached to our hotel. So most of the group headed in there. It was apparently more of a strip joint without the stripping, fully clothed Iraqi gypsy women, and groups of Arab men in corners. And a dance floor in the middle of the room for the girls to tempt the men. Our group commandered the corner area, whiskey, vodka, beers and wine ordered at extortionate rates and the next 4 hours were dedicated to signing off Iraq in style.
DAY 4: Departure Day
And so it was time to depart. People were shuttling back and forth to the airport, for those of us flying later, we got to see some of new Baghdad. Lunch and a spot of shopping in Baghdad mall. Feeling as if we were in Dublin or Bangkok for an hour or two. Iced coffees, Rayban stores, and WiFi. Let’s hope it’s a sign of things to come as Iraq begins to manage its own borders. Good luck to them.
THOUGHTS ON TRAVELING IN IRAQ?
My first thought would be if you’re on a mission to every country in the world, then it’s kinda compulsory. You’re cheating if you don’t. For others, it’s quite an adventurous trip. Not one without risk, that’s for sure, but generally speaking, you should be fine. It’s also pricey at $3k minimum of 4 days with flights and tour costs. That all being said, it was an epic trip. We got to see the main sites in 2 historical cities, both from modern times and ancient. To see Saddam’s footprint, and then the Americans. To feel the hospitality of the Iraqis, but then to be confronted with the dangerous reality of life for them thanks to the explosion on our last night. I’m happy we went, and I’m delighted to have met some truly awesome people. I’m also proud of the group for having that adventurous soul to undertake a trip like this. So guys, we did it! See you ALL on the road soon I hope. Thank for trusting me.