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Why Overlanders Are Choosing Iraq as the Gateway to the Middle East

Lead image by Olga On Tour

When Swiss overlanders Marcel and Chiara Fuerst drove through Iraq in November 2021, they stopped at roughly a hundred military checkpoints. Heavily armed military escorts were required through certain areas, and they tackled the stretch from Baghdad to Jordan in one go due to the risk of ISIS terrorist attacks. It was obvious the officials didn’t know what to do with a couple of tourists—permission for foreigners to travel in Iraq was totally new.

However, since the Fuersts’ journey into the region, a host of overlanders have steadily trickled through Iraq from Turkey and Iran to access much of the Middle East, including Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. With government warnings advising against all travel to Iraq due to volatile, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous security situations, the question remains—why?

“Traveling east from Turkey is not as easy as it looks on the map,” explains Kira Hak, a Canadian adventure motorcycle rider. She and her partner, Brendon, began their trip in the Balkans on two Hondas, an XR650R and an XR250L, continuing through Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Iraq before crossing into Kuwait. After exhausting all other options, this route seemed the most feasible. “We didn’t want to backtrack to the EU, where there are better ferry options. Everything we looked into involved leaving from Turkey.”


Photos: Brendon & Kira Hak

British riders Matthew Shields and Lucie Vivian, who traveled through Iraq in late August and early September 2022, found themselves in a similar situation. Trying to reach Central Asia by BMW R 1200 GSA motorcycle, the couple discovered the Azerbaijan land borders remained closed as a result of Covid-19. After ruling out a northern route through Russia and Kazakhstan due to the cost of flying back to Britain to apply for a Russian visa, plus snowy winter conditions present on the Pamir Highway past September, traveling through Iraq allowed their adventure to continue to new places rather than returning through Turkey toward Europe.

Shields and Vivian followed two Irish bikers on Instagram, Philip O’Connell and David Seale, who were heading south through Iraq, enabling them to cross the Middle East and reach Africa via Egypt or Sudan. After loads of exchanged messages, the Brits followed suit. “We could see that [O’Connell and Seale] met with the Iraq biker club—they help host and support bike travelers coming through the country,” says Matthew. “This was another factor which helped us make the decision, knowing there were people who would support us.”

Kira and Brendon say information gleaned from forums, Google searches, and chats with other overlanders made up most of their research. “We were in contact with [Nadia and Mitchel of] The Great Ride Along, who, at the time, were planning the route,” Kira says. “But they eventually traveled a lot faster and attempted it before us, sending us updates on what was working and not working for them.”

The Overland Middle East Facebook group is awash with updates on regional crossings, including Iraq, but that wasn’t always the case. On March 15, 2021, the Iraqi government lifted the requirement for citizens of 36 countries to obtain entry visas prior to arrival. This meant citizens of the UN Security Council and European Union countries, and those from Japan, South Korea, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland, could now apply for visas on arrival at Iraq’s airports, land, and sea border crossings—a huge step toward making entry easier for tourists.


Photo: Olga on Tour. Swiss overlanders Martina and Toby Baumeler crossed Iraq in March 2022.

By the time Marcel and Chiara Fuerst crossed into Iraq eight months later, they had been in the know for a while. Marcel says he believes they were the first tourists to enter and traverse Iraq by vehicle after 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, triggering the Gulf War. “We were in close touch with the Iraqi Embassy in Switzerland for about five months prior to our departure,” Marcel says. The ambassador had good contacts in Iraq and hinted that the Iraqi government was about to open the borders to visitors. “One week before departure, he then provided us [with] a letter stating the upcoming decree, but no visa or official papers were given to us.”

Since 2021, most land-based travelers avoiding a return to Europe have considered several options, most of which are complicated, expensive, or impossible due to politics, seasonal considerations, safety, or the effects of Covid-19. Rumors swirl about the possibility of a ferry from Mersin, Turkey, to Haifa, Israel, through Catoni Shipping, but between ferry fares, flights, and port charges, the costs add up. Some overlanders decided to ship their vehicles; some motorcyclists used air freight. The Haks considered booking a ferry from Turkey to Lebanon, which, at $1,250 per motorcycle, $250 per passenger, plus import costs and hiring a guide for southern Syria, put the option far above their financial feasibility.

Photos: Olga on Tour

Regular cargo ferries run between Iranian cities Bandar Abbas and Bandar Lengeh to the United Arab Emirates; however, since Covid-19, passengers are forbidden to accompany their vehicles on these boats, and shipping requires a Carnet de Passage. Overlanders make the trek via a separate passenger ferry or airplane, but many admit leaving their vehicle isn’t an option.

Another difficulty for US, Canadian, and British citizens is obtaining an Iranian visa, which is currently next to impossible due to a history of diplomatic complications and political tensions. “From what we’ve been told [overlanding through Iran] used to be possible with a guide, but that seems to have changed,” Kira says. “Most companies we contacted flat out said it was not possible. At best, with a lot of money, we could attempt a border-to-border escort.”

Canadian riders Kira and Brendon and English motorcyclists Matthew and Lucie eventually chose a complex route into federal Iraq through Iraqi Kurdistan (via Zakho, Turkey). Each part of the country requires its own visa and vehicle import permit paperwork. However, obtaining an Iraqi federal visa required flying from Erbil to Baghdad on arrival at the airport. Both couples left their bikes in Erbil to complete the paperwork, which, fortunately, went smoothly. Shields and Vivian estimate the success rate of this route as “50/50.”


Photo: Olga on Tour

“Sometimes customs officials in Erbil will not let you board the plane because you have entered with a vehicle and are leaving without,” Kira says. “Second, if you do make it on the plane, you’ll have official entry for yourself into Iraq, but not your motorcycle, which can pose an issue when leaving Iraq. Third, the [federal] Iraqi visa is single entry. The moment you leave back to Kurdistan, you’ve technically left Iraq, invalidating your visa.” Kira and Brendon opted to board a bus back to Erbil, rather than fly, to avoid a possible exit stamp.

Obtaining an Iranian visa on arrival is fairly straightforward for most Europeans, though, and entry into Iraq from Shalamcheh, Iran, seems to be the most well-trodden option. “Honestly, with the ongoing political situation in Iran back in fall 2022, we were not happy with any of the options,” says Valeria Pixner, an Italian overland traveler currently touring Saudi Arabia in a 1990 Toyota Hilux with her partner, Lukas. “From the end of summer and beginning of fall 2022, there were a lot of travelers ‘stranded’ in Turkey, Greece, Georgia, and Armenia. All of them planned to spend the winter months in the Middle East, but none of the potential routes/options were as easy as they were a few years ago.”

Crossing into Iraq, and from there, into Kuwait was the least expensive option for Valeria and Lukas. Other than a couple of transit days, and one night spent in a dirty, rundown 3-star hotel in Basra, Valeria admits they can’t really expand on their experience in the country. “The people we met along the way were friendly, but it was very chaotic and exhausting.”

While the Iraqi side of the border was “an absolute mess” with plenty of military checkpoints along the way, they stopped at every single one, Valeria says. Not because of anything serious, but because the officers wanted to look at their ‘tourist car.’ Still, their time in Iraq was positive enough they’ve decided to return in the spring. “To be honest, it’s not a worry-free decision,” she says. “We all know it could be a nightmare, but for most travelers, there is no better option at the moment.”

Robert Czerucki, a Polish motorcyclist, entered Iraq in November 2022 on his BMW GS 1250. He, too, stopped at the numerous mandatory checkpoints overseen by military and police personnel. “They all are very friendly and polite, Czerucki says. “The biggest limitation I experienced [was] in Baghdad city center where it is necessary to have special permission to enter.” There is no curfew imposed on travelers in Iraq, however, military or police escorts are mandatory in certain areas (overlanders have been told by officers that escorts are for their safety), and wild camping is prohibited in others. “It was always professional and friendly,” Kira says. “Most times, we were offered food and water before leaving.” Each checkpoint involved a series of questions, which could take five minutes to an hour and ended with a round of photos at the officers’ request.


Alex Reynolds is an American solo biker and backpacker currently traveling through Iraq on a Suzuki DR650S. Tapping through her Instagram stories provides a glimpse into her day-to-day experience in Iraq, from strolling through the Basra Cultural Museum, taking a boat ride through the Mesopotamian Marshes, sleeping in guards’ spare rooms, and visiting Najaf’s Wadi al-Salam Cemetery—the largest in the world, housing more than six million graves that stretch as far as the eye can see. Clothed in a black chador and hijab, she shares images of ornate shrines where groups of women gather around tombs to pay their respects. Reynolds eats falafel, drinks chai, and is overwhelmed by the Iraqi peoples’ generosity—a common theme amongst overlanders traveling through the region.


Photo: Brendon & Kira Hak

Shields and Vivian say they felt immense support from the Iraqi biker community. “Upon arriving in Baghdad, we checked into a cheap hotel which was selected and arranged by the Baghdad bikers,” they said. “Outside of Baghdad, we were hosted by captains of the Babylon Bikers and Anbar Bikers—they gave us a place to stay and food. The community is incredible.”

Kira believes it will take a long time to process her experiences in the country. “There are some serious surface-level problems that the country faces, and if we had traveled through here and kept our guard up the whole time, that’s the impression we’d be left with. What you see along the roadside is not an accurate representation of the country.”

But, she notes, the Iraqi people are among the kindest she’s encountered anywhere. “Not a day passed when we weren’t asked if we needed help or offered food and water. Never before had we had free fuel, on multiple occasions, or meals and hotels paid for us by someone we’d just met. The kindness and generosity here is on a level of extreme we have yet to experience anywhere else; often, we even felt very conflicted by it.”


Photo: Brendon & Kira Hak

During an interview with the Associated Press on February 26, 2023, Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid said he wants the world to know his country is now at peace, democratic, and intent on rebuilding economic life while maintaining a government that serves the whole country and the region. “Peace and security is all over the country, and I would be very glad if you will report that and emphasize on that, instead of giving a picture of Iraq . . . still (as) a war zone, which a lot of media still do.”

Only time can reveal how long Iraq will be a gateway to the Arabian Peninsula and how the country will respond to the influx of land-based travelers. As border crossing changes, war, seasonality, and the fallout of Covid-19 shape how we travel as overlanders, the answer will likely be a complicated one.

To learn more about overlanding through Iraq, please enjoy Episode 82 of the Overland Journal podcast: Marcel and Chiara of Overland Vagabond.

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Ashley Giordano completed a 48,800-kilometer overland journey from Canada to Argentina with her husband, Richard, in their well-loved but antiquated Toyota pickup. On the zig-zag route south, she hiked craggy peaks in the Andes, discovered diverse cultures in 15 different countries, and filled her tummy with spicy ceviche, Baja fish tacos, and Argentinian Malbec. As Senior Editor at Overland Journal, you can usually find Ashley buried in a pile of travel books, poring over maps, or writing about the unsung women of overlanding history. @desktoglory_ash