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Mosque[i] Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country specific advice, tips and info for: The Middle East - Israel, Iran, Kurdistan (Iraq), Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Syria and Turkey.

» It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home head for www.travelindependent.info.

Added: Many thanks to Torgeir Holmen
for supplying the Oman and Kurdistan summaries.


Ramadan

? A quick note about Ramadan. The 9th and most important month in the Islamic Calendar. During this time Muslims abstain from eating, drinking or smoking until after sundown on each day. As a traveller of course you don't need to follow this, but some Muslims appreciate that you don't take meals or smoke in public places. Many restaurants and cafes won't open until after sundown and public transport may be less frequent, shops close earlier before sunset and the pace of life is generally slower. So travel can certain be a bit more difficult, but Ramadan is no major hindrance to travel and certainly not in moderate Islamic areas/countries.

Ramadan in 2014 starts 28th June until 27th July (18th June till 16th July in 2015). Note the festival of Eid ul-Fitr is held after the end of Ramadan and may last several days. Eid al-Adha is the other major festival: 4th October 2014. Exact dates will depend on astronomical observations and may vary from country to country.

Editorial..

Middle East Map

Turkey is a real highlight, but that's only half the story. Heading into the Middle East, whether South into Lebanon and Jordan or East to parts of Iran or  Iraq is not only possible, but (visa hassle aside) easy, safe and ultra welcoming.

Don't buy whole heartily into the 'war on terror', 'anti-west', 'anti-British/America' hype, with due care the countries featured on this page and many others in the Middle East are quite safe, friendly and to be honest, even without the current lack of crowds - amazing.

What needs to be made very clear is where the majority of the Muslim world is ardently anti America based on its foreign policy (much like any sapient person), they are not anti Americans or westerner in general. The way the loony faction of Islam is operating bombing easy targets, terrorism can and does happen almost anywhere in the world and has never been targeted directly at backpackers. On the contrary the majority of attacks are aimed at government/ foreign offices, banks and luxury hotels. Or are kidnap related where a high reward is expected, such as with expat workers. Either way by taking care to follow sensible travel advice you should be far away from the major hotspots. Terrorism can and does happen almost anywhere in the world. You might get some funny looks or snide comments, but these are no more different that being called a gringo in Mexico and are easily ignored or explained away.

We've travelled through this area many times during and after 9/11 and the Iraq wars, have experienced first hand and received several e-mailed updates from travellers, all reporting an amazing lack of crowds, great friendly people and no more problems that you would experience in many parts of Asia.





*   The Middle East, inc. Turkey & Iran (for Egypt see North Africa)

 * Get your bearings.. show/hide map of the region

» Israel and the occupied territories

  • Tourist factor: Depends on current situation, with troubles linked to the entifada long behind the country, tourists have returned on mass and depending on the season it is normally very busy in key sites.

  • What to take: An open mind and a knowledge of the situation that exists between Israel and Palestine

  • Getting around: Very good, but a little expensive public buses. Shared taxis/buses in West Bank and Gaza.

  • Typical tourist trail: Jordan to Jerusalem to Egypt via Eilat

  • Dangers: Terrorism can be a serious danger. Security is excellent, but depending on the current situation, avoid crowded areas, travel in and out of occupied territories and visits at particular times of tension. A stay just in the old city of Jerusalem, plus a visit to Eilat, Dead Sea, Tiberias and Tel Aviv, is not the end of the world and is probably safer (as previously stated) than bus travel in Asia.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Jerusalem gets cold in the winter, as with the rest of the region temperatures soar in the summer making sight seeing on foot uncomfortable

  • Money: ATMs

  • Costs: Israel is expensive, compared to surrounding countries and should be considered on par with the worse of Western Europe or East Coast USA - minimum US$40 a day. Some prices can seem outrageous and it is not always easy to find value.

  • Guide book: Rough Guide or LP

  • Accommodation: Hostels, make sure you bargain and choose carefully, most are full of day labours and have a very lived in feel. Hostels in Jerusalem are the cheapest. Get used to big dorms if you want to save money.

    • Average cost: US$40-60 double room in hostel. Dorms a third to quarter of this price

  • Communications: Brilliantly fast, but quite expensive internet, many international call centres

  • Media:

    • Books: Almost all in Hebrew. Good English newspapers and magazines selection

    • TV: Subtitled TV and films in hostels, many cinemas

  • Food: It is expensive to eat out, your best bet is to cook for yourself in hostels

    • Vegetarians: Wonderful choice for veggies and vegans alike

Avoiding that passport stamp you don't want

By having evidence of a visit to Israel in your passport, you may not enter (on the same passport) all Middle Eastern, Gulf or North African countries, apart from Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia)

There is only one way to not have your passport show evidence of a visit to Israel and that is to fly in and fly out - requesting no stamp on both entry and exit. Entering by any overland crossing, except maybe the ferry to/from Greece or Cyprus, and you will have an exit or entry stamp of the bordering nation i.e. Egypt or Jordan that will be a tell-tale sign. Or in the case of the King Hussein Peace Bridge to Jordan from the West bank, no stamp at all that is equally a give away. You can still request Israeli officials not to stamp your passport at any crossing, it just probably won't do any good, considering the entry/exit stamp from the country you are entering from or leaving to. Don't believe what other travellers tell you about the Peace Bridge crossing or asking for no stamps, it will not work - I have personally seen travellers turned away at the Syrian border with a valued visa for Syria, but evidence of a trip to Israel.

If you have two passports (i.e. you have dual nationality), this can be very handy for many things, but in the case of avoiding an Israeli stamp, you will end up with one passport with an entry stamp from say Jordan and an exit stamp in your other passport and of course the Syrians or whoever will likely notice. The only other way is to get a new passport, but don't try reporting it lost in Egypt since the embassies all know this trick and are less than happy about it. Syrian border officials will find it strange that everybody losses his or hers passport in say Jordan? Don't forget that the Syrian border guards are allowed to search your bag, looking for proof (money, hotel bill, etc) that you have been in Israel.

Sometimes mentioned and likely to work, if affordable/practical, is to fly from Tel Aviv to Amman, Jordan. Thereby getting an airport entry stamp from Jordan. Then take a bus to Damascus, continuing your journey. The only fool proof way to do a grand tour through the ME and include Israel - is to conclude it there. The only route overland is from the North to the south, if you want to conclude Israel in it. Otherwise fly in and out of Israel avoiding stamps you don't want that way.

E-mailed comments

c 'I recently travelled to Israel and was lucky enough to spend 5 weeks there. I travelled from the very tip of Israel, from the Golan Heights, down to Eilat and the border with Egypt. For a county, 1/3rd the size of Tasmania in Australian or roughly the size of New Jersey, Israel was a melting-pot of so many cultures. From walking through the Arab shook in Old Jerusalem, to the visiting the 'Taj Mahal rivaling' Baha'i Gardens in Haifa. I watched the sun rise at Mount Masada, and the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea in Tel-Aviv. For cheap 8 Shekel ($2.50 AUD) shots, visit the Budah Bar in the 'old port' in Tel-Aviv. If your after a truly biblical view of Jerusalem, a city holy to the three main monotheistic religions, head up to the 'Haas Prominade'. Also, while in Jerusalem, for the best 'no-risk to health'  Shwarama, visit Rehov King George (Rehov=Street). However, as a general rule of thumb, the least clean shops usually have the best tasting Shwarama. Accommodation, especially around the Old City is quite expensive. The YMCA there had rooms from around $70US from memory. If you are near the Western Wall (The Kotel) and have a craving for a smoked-salmon bagel, check-out 'Bonkers Bagels' - from memory 15 Shekels will get you a bagel with around 3/4 of an inch of cream cheese and smoked-salmon. Don't be put off by loud Americans questioning the change given back to them, that's just them. Now, if you want to join the Madonna inspired Kabbalah movement and giving charity at the same time, buy some red string from the beggar woman asking you for 'Tzdakah' - meaning 'charity' in Hebrew. Visiting Israel for me was a life changing event. For those concerned about the security situation, you really must asked yourself - wouldn't you feel safer if when entering a mall, you knew that everyone had to pass through airport like security, rather than simply just walking in - which is most likely the case at your local mall. Happy trekkn'!- Stefan, Melbourne Australia'

c 'I have enjoyed looking through this site.  I have one comment - I have travelled twice in the West Bank of Palestine. I have found people there to be incredibly kind, generous, and warm. Families have invited me to sleep in their homes, whether in a city (like Nablus) or in refugee camps (like Balata and Askar) and it's difficult to not spend hours in peoples' homes drinking tea and coffee and just talking. My experiences are not reflected in this site's comments on Palestinians and I want to let readers know'. - Matt

c 'With respect to Israel there are a number of things you neglected to mention. The culture is different in the Middle East, many people confuse rudeness with different social customs. I have travelled the country extensively and have been invited to homes many times by strangers and abundantly fed. You also neglect not mention many of the most fascinating places in Israel to see such as Banias in the north, the Judean Desert with the different Wadis, the Negev, the Dead Sea, Masada, Caesaria. Some of these are not easy treks but if you missed them you missed out. If you did not see tourists I am shocked. There were many tourists around when I was travelling. I heard an abundance of Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, German....' - Benjamin

c There is more to Israel than just Jerusalem. You need to focus more on Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is one of the most laid-back, best beach culture cities I've ever seen. Totally SECULAR, great parties and bars, hot women, great set of hostels, etc. Tel Aviv rivals Rio and Sydney in terms of beach culture. Please highlight Tel Aviv, as there really is more to Israel than just Jerusalem. - Jay

* Miss at your peril: Jerusalem and other Holy Land sites - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

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» Iran

* Miss at your peril: Iran - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

  • Intro: It's amazing that such a traveller's gem can induce such fear in so many people. Give it a try mention you are even thinking of going to Iran to friends and relatives and watch the reaction. Listen to them speak... 'but there are terrorists there' (no that's Iraq (not to mention most of the world)), 'but women are second class citizens' (no that's Saudi Arabia - there are actually more women than men in University education), 'didn't they blow up those Buddhist statutes' (no, that was the Taliban in Afghanistan)... it goes on. The ignorance Iran inspires can almost be painful.

    Even well travelled individuals get slightly nervous at even the name. There is absolutely no reason to be. The problem stems from many sources. First up is that most of us know nothing about Iran other than what we heard about the revolution, hear in the media and what a strict Islamic government chooses to present. The other fault we all make is filling in the gaps ourselves. Iraq to the left, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the right (humm, not exactly the most instantly appealing destinations), it's natural to assume Iran is somewhere in the middle. The reality is that even the most widely travelled and open-minded visitor is likely to have preconceived views shattered and find a country that truly is a marvel.

Expect some of the most welcoming and truly hospitable people in the world (although that term is used far too often, here it is appropriate). Expect open-minded individuals who are about a millions miles away from religious fanatics who will be delighted to further your surprise in finding out the true nature of the place and go out of their way to help you. Expect some of the best value travel in the world. Expect virtually no hassle (this isn't Egypt you know). Expect to feel extremely safe and welcomed and finally, expect to find a country where you can walk beside beautiful mountains streams below towering snow caps (even go skiing) one day, forests and rice paddies the next, harsh deserts the next and historic oases the next... the list goes on.

Safe, civilised, cheap and reasonably efficient Iran is one of the last hidden gems of this nature. There is too much to share in a small intro like this so if you are even thinking about going it's best to pick up the excellent LP for some more reading. To summarise in a few words: 'Iran - there's nothing to be scared of.'

  • Highlights: Esfahan *, Masule, Yazd *, Chogo Zambil, forgotten and well preserved history, atmospheric bazaars & tea shops, the gentle honest hospitality and getting off the beaten track *

  • Lowlights: Food can become trying after a while especially if a vegetarian. Bam can still be visited but most of the old city is in ruins (even more than before).

    The climate can also pose a problem with big variations in temperature through the country, plus (in parts) a baking summer and freezing winter.

Visa strategy

Update 2014: Visa's had been hard and harder to get, but as of 2014 we have reports that unless you are on an organised tour it has become almost impossible. Specifically we have heard that British and Canadian independent travellers should by escorted. Any feedback or latest info welcome.

Getting a visa for independent travel is a hassle, but it's not impossible as internal policies and politics in Iran will dictate how friendly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be (to you and your country). If you are on a tour you should have no problem (Americans will pretty much always have to travel this way), but if possible do yourself a favour and don't visit on a tour - there's no need. Independently there are three approaches you can take. The first a transit visa that you shouldn't have too much problem getting (with some delay) even en-route in a neighbouring country. This gives you five days to transit, which will allow you to see at least something. The days of extending these visas ended a long time ago. You will not get an extension and the taste of Iran you get is more than likely going to make you wish you had a full visa.

Iran VisaMoving on to full visas, you can approach this two ways. One, apply directly to an embassy yourself. Depending on prevailing politics and international relationships with your nationality you may get a visa this way with an extended wait, a few forms and a fairly costly charge. The second method and best (especially if you want to pick your visa up en route), is to use an Iran based agency to give you a reference code. This authorization code will be sent to an embassy of your choice and ensure you get your visa with minimum delay. You still pay the standard fee and there's no 100% guarantee you will get a visa with this method any more than the first. Such agencies would be www.key2persia.com and charge around EUR30 on top of the standard visa fee which varies by nationality. They simply apply to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs domestically - but if they don't want to play ball they don't help any more. The process will take at least a few weeks, and if you get turned down by one agency, try another. Once in Iran visa extensions are possible.

Much is written about visas being easier to obtain in this embassy, harder in that embassy, or about how, because of a diplomatic spat/agreement they are now harder or easier. There is some truth in these reports, but at the end of the day it's a lottery so just buy a ticket. Remember if you get knocked back once, try again.

Women will need to wear a headscarf in the visa photos supplied and not showing loads of cleavage is probably good idea too! But don't worry too much about this, as long as most of your hair, ears and chest are covered. If you are a Muslim and have a Muslim name in your passport, forget all this, you should get a visa with ease.

  • Costs: The cost of travel in Iran has been creeping up slowly over the years and is now much more expensive than it was five/ten years back when one could find a black market exchange rate and when fuel subsidies were greatest. Fuel is slowly getting more expensive thereby increasing costs (mind you, it's still silly cheap). That said Iran is still a bargain and travel on as little as €10-15 is quite possible: however you will live much more comfortably on €20-25. Internal flights cost about €30-50 for a leg like Esfahan to Shiraz. Entry fees are now down to the same level Iranians pay in most places, making them pretty cheap. There is definitely still some foreigner pricing, but it's going the way of the dinosaurs.

  • Money: There are plenty of ATMs in Iran, but you won't be able to use any of them. Likewise travellers cheques and credit cards are no good. It really is a cash only trip with USDs and Euros being best, but you can change YEN, GBP, CHF with no problem in larger cities. Some carpet and expensive souvenir shops will let you use a credit card that they authorise in Dubai or elsewhere. All this changed after the 1995 USA trade embargo and is likely to change again if the sanctions are lifted or tightened. The currency is Rial of which you get a fair few for your dollar/euro. Notes are small denominations. Confusingly, verbal prices are generally quoted in tuman not rials, making things sound one tenth of their real price. If something sounds too cheap it's probably in tuman. 10,000 rial (around a dollar) = 1,000 tuman or normally one finger held up. Having a small calculator on you makes arranging prices much easier and avoids confusion. Arabic numbers are used, but everyone understands Latin script numbers (e.g. 1,2,3).

  • People vibe: It's widely reported and very true that the people you meet in Iran will be amongst the friendliest in the world. However, don't expect to rock up in Esfahan or Tehran and see all smiles and get invited into someone's home straight off. It might happen, but these places see a fair number of tourists. If you want a true Iranian experience, the formula is simple: get off the beaten track. If you have time, both the North East and North West are - despite lacking big pulls - beautiful and interesting. In certain areas you will come across many Afghans and Turkmens. There are very few travellers who will not be totally blown away by the genuine warmth and hospitality of the vast majority of Iranians and even the most open minded are often quite perplexed that their preconceived image was so very, very wrong.

    • Locals: There is little hassle with locals, Iranians on the whole are good tempered and trustworthy.

    • Other travellers: Compared on a global scale, expect very few independent travellers: nevertheless there are still a fair few, who are normally at least over 25 and from European countries. Also, at main attractions expect a lot of large package tour groups, particularly in peak season these groups are normally German, Spanish/Italian, French or Japanese.

  • Tourist factor: On the beaten track 6/10, off 2or3/10

  • Accommodation: Cost of accommodation, as in most places worldwide, depends on your standard. Iran is definitely a country where you can find very cheap places to stay, but you get what you pay for. Hotels will normally always have twin beds. If a couple, expect no problem if you're not married (this is assumed - not having the same second name or a ring makes no difference).

    • Hot water: Hot water and heating is common and works well

    • Average cost: On average €20 gets you something pretty descent. Double this for a good standard. Halve it for a basic place. Most hotels have a dual price lists, one for Iranians and one for travellers, so if a price looks a bit high, bargain away.

  • Communications: Internet is fairly plentiful in most towns, although pretty slow. In the biggest towns you can find call centres if you look hard. Most European mobile phones pick up an Iranian network.

  • Health: High medical standards with most doctors speaking English: consultation fees cheap. Plenty of pharmacies with ultra cheap prices on generic medicine. There is a slight malaria risk depending on the location and time of year. In extreme summer heat, dehydration is of course a danger. On the plus side, tap water is safe to drink almost everywhere.

What to wear: Female dress code

This is the one issue that worries most visitors to Iran - well female at least - and for little reason. Please, please forget ideas of having to cover up totally in black or of locals scrutinising you every time you step out on the street. There's a huge range of what women wear in Iran, from the all black clador numbers to outfits that would not seem out of place in Europe with head scarves barely hanging on. It comes as a surprise to many visitors to discover how far the dress code is pushed in places.

Head ScarfThere are 3 simple rules that are easy to follow and will pose you no problem. 1) Cover your head, neck and ears with the sort of scarf that's easy to find in any high-street store like H&M (you can buy another with ease in Iran). The technical name for this style of head covering is the shayla. It's fine to have a few inches of hair showing at the front. 2) You need to wear a light jacket (although this is the wrong word, really any top that is long), that covers your arms and your arse. In the winter you will appreciate of a thicker coat, in the summer a light cotton jacket (think of it as a long blouse) is better.

These garments are normally black or navy blue, but any colour is fine, They are easily available for about €10-30 and can look fairly stylish. The last kind of rule 3) would be make sure your arms and chest our covered. Showing a wrist or ankle is fine and so are sandals (although not that common). A long skirt is also fine, but not commonly seen, so trousers are better.

Dress code does vary somewhat, with places like northern Tehran and the ski slopes being the most relaxed, to Qom and Mashhad (religious centres), being understandably much more conservative. Okay words only works so far. For some images of what is typically worn by younger women and acceptable in Iran, click here - example 1 / example 2. Understandably this is tricky issue for many, but is no reason not to visit. Any questions get in touch. 

Apart from at a handful of religious monuments there is absolutely no reason to wear a clador (easily borrowed). A clador, for those unfamiliar with the term, literally means 'tent'. It's often black and acts like a cape to totally hide form. It has no fastenings so needs to be held shut by teeth or hands all the time. Not to be confused with a purda (the total veil with only a slit for the eyes), which is rarely seen in Iran (only in parts). For more details on all styles of head covering see this excellent resource.

Getting around:

Getting around Iran is easy and brilliant value. Starting at the cheapest and going up: Buses come in several forms, from the standard Asia battered up type and service (ultra-cheap) to more flashy and comfortable Volvo style buses on key routes. Mini-buses run on shorter routes, but don't leave to a schedule. Taxis around towns seem a little pricey compared to other transport costs, but it all depends on your bargaining skills. For longer journeys taxis can easily be arranged and will allow you to travel in comfort, stop on the way and shave at least 20% off the journey time compared to buses. The going rate seems to depend on your bargaining skills, has been increasing over the past few years, but is still go value. Normally, a hotel can help you with this.

Trains are a welcome luxury. Routes are limited, but tickets cheap (even for better classes). Key routes would be Tabriz to Tehran/Ahwaz. It's worth booking a day in advance. Flights are also good value, but can add up. Getting a handle on what routes are possible is not easy as guidebooks are is little help - visit a travel agent when you first arrive. All major towns are air-linked, flights can get full, but it really depends on the day, time of year (No Ruz) and frequency. If you're on a limited time schedule and not an ultra-low budget, a few internal flights work wonders.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Apart from curious locals and the odd carpet shop guy (although most are pretty nice) in Esfahan, the beauty of Iran is that it is virtually free of hassle and annoyance, 2/10

  • Women alone: There is much less sexual harassment than you might expect/fear and it's nothing like India/Pakistan. The problem is really that it's uncommon for women to travel alone and although there's little danger, it's much better if you are with a friend.

  • Social conventions: When meeting those of the opposite sex shaking hands is not common or considered polite. Generally if you are a couple the male will be spoken to and addressed.

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Cigarettes and water pipes are cheap and easily available. Beer is also readily available (only it's always non-alcoholic and available in a curious array of flavours). Most of Europe's opium passes through Iran and there is a major drug problem, although as a traveller you are unlikely to come across it. Of course this is not the place to go breaking any laws or looking for a good time.

  • Rating: 8/10

No Ruz / Nowrūz

No Ruz or Nowrūz (Nu-ruse) is the Iranian new year celebrated for at least a week in Mid-April (spring equinox). Imagine this week as Christmas in the west: pretty much everything stops, shops close, transport and hotels get booked solid. No Ruz then continues in a fashion for a second week, with schools still off, and many people staying off work and visiting friends/relatives or taking a holiday. This is around the time of year many consider visiting and it's probably best to stay away if you can, but travel is possible especially in the second week (just stay away from Mashhad, Shiraz and Esfahan - unless you have a room booked and don't mind crowds).

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» Iraq (Kurdistan)

  • KurdishstanIntro: You might get wide eyed response when you tell people you’re going to Iraq. After all, since the American invasion in 2003, it has become the symbol of warfare, much like Vietnam was in the 70s. However, the Kurdish province was largely untouched by the war. It’s safe, people are friendly, and it’s going to completely change the image you have of Iraq. This is not Baghdad.

    Beware that the visa for the Kurdish autonomous province is not valid in the rest of the country. And so, if you venture too far south, you will become an illegal immigrant in Iraq. Not recommended. It’s a thrilling experience just because it’s Iraq, and getting that stamp in your passport sends butterflies flapping around your stomach. After that, you will be sent between cities in shared taxies driving so fast you risk getting a heart attack (around 150 km/h, some places even faster).

    All this aside, it’s a very relaxed place, and the Kurds are incredibly friendly. Once they realize you’re a tourist and not an expat, they will get even more exited, and do everything to make your stay more pleasant. It’s not an eventful place though. And it’s not cheap either. The sights are few and far between, and the towns, except for certain parts of Erbil, are largely unimpressive. But you didn’t come here for that. You came because you wanted to break a new frontier and go where other backpackers haven’t gone. And although you will come to realise that this place is just as “normal” as anywhere else, it will be a tale to tell in the future.

The Kurdish province is separate from the rest of Iraq. It is autonomous almost to the extent of being a separate country. They have their own government, their own laws and their own language. Business is thriving and the economy is growing rapidly, all of which can be seen in the skyline of Erbil. And if Kurdistan ever was to become a country, Erbil would be the capital (The local government wants to make Erbil the "new Dubai”, and this development is visible when you go there. Of course, this won’t happen tomorrow, but go before it’s too late).


Dangers

Here’s the inside scoop: It’s not dangerous! That is, as long as you stick to a certain itinerary. Generally the rule is: The more south you go the more dangerous it is. Don’t go to the areas of Mosul and Kirkuk (especially not the latter). The itinerary of Dohuk - Erbil - Sulaymaniyah is safe. Of course, you can travel in the areas surrounding Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, but ask around before you do so. If you stick to this itinerary, the most dangerous situation you’ll experience is taking a taxi from city to city. Did you think they drove crazy in Asia or Latin America? Well, then welcome to Iraq! The highways are full of oil trucks and everyone is a race car driver. Especially you taxi driver. Expect to see the speedometer hit well above 150 km/h several times (probably while the driver is overtaking several trucks simultaneously).

  • Accommodation: There is no "backpacker accommodation.” The main type of accommodation consists of hotels catering to business travellers. The going rate is US$45 to US$70, but the Kurds are really nice and understand that you’re a poor backpacker, so they will most likely give you the room for half price without you even bargaining. The receptionists will try to help you and will give you as low a rate as possible without them getting in trouble with the management. Hence, the actual rate is more like $20 to $35. Hotels normally include a generous breakfast. The price in Ainkawa, Erbil is much higher. So avoid sleeping in this area (it’s very nice though so see it).

  • Communications: Wi-fi in most places, with a descent speed.

  • Food: Kebabs, kebabs and kebabs. You can get anything from a 3 dish kebab dinner at a restaurant to very cheap kebabs in street stands. The price is anywhere from $0.50 to $15.

    • Vegetarians: Not the best place for vegetarians. There’s a LOT of lamb. Of course, anything’s possible, but your options are more limited than other parts of the world.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Minimal. The Kurds are busy going about their own business.

    • Women alone: Perhaps not the best area for a woman alone, but it’s definitely possible. In my personal experience: Kurdistan seems less conservative than many other Muslim countries. Culturally, it’s very similar to eastern Turkey (which is also Kurdistan). Just bring common sense.

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Here’s the kicker: Alcohol in Iraq is dirt cheap! If you want a drink, you’ll find a place in Ainkawa, the christian part of Erbil. They have different venues, including some expat venues, local places, hotels etc. (of course, at fancy hotels, the price will be higher). Cigarettes are cheap and plentiful, like in any Middle-Eastern country. Do NOT even think about drugs. There are local places that serve alcohol. These are normally big halls where people gather to play cards, smoke shisha and have a beer. At these places you might see the occasional woman, but not many.

  • Rating: 6.5/10

Getting In and Around

In: Crossing the border from Turkey, which is a nice experience. People don’t cross on foot. Shared taxies (minivans) are arranged in Silopi, Turkey, which is only 15 minutes or so from the border. You will share this taxi with the local Kurds, who are very nice although they don’t really speak English. This crossing is very pleasant (Turkey to Iraq); small queues; they give you tea while you wait; it’s nice. However, going the other way is a nightmare.

There was talk of opening new border crossings in late 2013. You can also fly to Erbil. There are planes going to and from Istanbul frequently. There is an airport in Sulaymaniyah as well, but Erbil might be a better bet for international fligths.

Erbil old town Around: The common way to get from city to city is by taking a taxi. They run all the time and cost around $10 per person. The taxi won’t leave until it’s full, so you have to share it with strangers (you might have to pay $20 from the Turkish border to Dohuk). These taxies stop at military check points along the way, so have your passport ready. It needs to be said that these taxi rides are not for the light hearted, as is explained in the "danger” section above. The intra-city taxies are not local taxies however. So when you arrive, you need to switch to a local taxi to get around the city.

Added: Many thanks to Torgeir Holmen for proving this summary and the great photos. It is worth noting that the opinions here are that of Torgeir and should perhaps not be compared directly to other summarise on this page or the site.

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» Jordan

  • PetraIntro: Common with many places around the world, Jordan doesn't have that much to offer. It is more expensive than its neighbour (Syria) and its residents are less friendly, but it is the abode to one of the worlds most impressive sights: Petra. That's all that really needs to be said about Jordan.

Most would say, Amman needs a day, Jerash, as set of Roman ruins and Wadi Rum, out in the desert are over priced and the Dead Sea is easier (especially for females, but more expensive) in Israel. But then again there's Petra and a comparatively safe Middle East experience away from the crowds and hassle of Egypt.

Petra

For those of you who don't know the name. Petra, shown left, which was recently highlighted by the ridiculous 'new7 wonders' campaign is an ancient stone city. Petra, meaning stone/rock in ancient Greek. With two highly impressive stone façades cut into rock faces as seen in 'Indiana Jones'. Coupled with the whole area and a long narrow passage leading up to one façade make it unforgettable. If you have some privacy away from the sometimes large hoards that visit daily, the area is awe inspiring. However, don't expect to find anything exciting inside the façade entrances as in the movie!

  • Accommodation: Reasonable accommodation, be sure to bargain. Real over supply with the Middle East's problems

    • Hot water: Fine

    • Average cost: US$15-US$20. You can sleep very cheaply on hostel roofs in the summer months or in nearly empty dorms

  • Communications: Internet fine in Amman, more expensive and slower in Petra

  • Health: Petra requires a lot of walking, make sure you have sun block, tons of water and even a hat

  • Media:

    • Books: Limited, some English newspapers

    • TV: BBC World in hotels and videos shown ('Indiana Jones') in Petra

  • Food: Standard Middle Eastern fair, great BBQs in Petra hotels

    • Vegetarians: Can be difficult if you dislike falafel

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Some hassle, don't let taxi drivers bully you

    • Women alone: Women will get stared at, make sure you cover up and have a friend about

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Everyone smokes, everywhere. Including buses which is not very pleasant for non-smokers.

  • Rating: Without Petra 5/10 with 7/10

Off the beaten track onto the 4X4 track:

For not-too expensive independent travel, if you have 3 or 4 friends sharing and are competent at 4-wheel driving, the best way to have a marvellous time in Jordan is to hire an off-road vehicle (with 2 good spare tyres) and head off on desert tracks. It is NOT too expensive to hire a local guide/interpreter to help out; with a GPS and mobile for back-up, you can see a hell of a lot.

There are painted desert castles, lost Roman forts, pink sand deserts, white salt flats with mirages to explore - and much, much more; a lot off the beaten track, and by no means all of it difficult or dangerous to reach, just a little bit rough. Jordan, especially the south, has possibly some of the most varied and spectacular scenery in the world.

One idea is the route down from Petra, through the Araba mountains, on ancient trails to the Dead Sea Rift. It's a dream. - With thanks, Antonia Willis


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» Lebanon

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» Oman

  • OmanDangers: Virtually none. That being said, this is a Muslim country, and women are expected to dress conservatively. Note: Some areas are prone to flash floods. Beware if camping.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: You don’t have to worry about rain, after all, this is the Arabian peninsula. Summers are very hot and humid, while winters are dry and temperate, with hot days and cold nights. This is probably the best time to visit.

  • Typical tourist trail: For backpackers: there is no trail. With the exception of package tourists from Dubai, there aren’t any other travellers.

Added: Many thanks to Torgeir Holmen for proving this summary and the great photos. It is worth noting that the opinions here are that of Torgeir and should perhaps not be compared directly to other summarise on this page or the site.


The Wahiba Sands

Even if you are not a big fan of tour packages, consider going on a tour in the sands. There’s a handful of agencies online and you can call them from Muscat to set up a time. You will sleep in a nomadic camp in the middle of the desert, go camel riding, 4WD driving etc, much of which would have been difficult to do by yourself (of course, it’s possible. Anything’s possible with the right attitude). For me personally, this was one of the highlights from all my travels in the Middle East, and is worth a look into.

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» Syria

Warning: Until present problems are resolved, it would be better to visit elsewhere in the region.

For anyone reading this whom was able to visit Syria before the conflict, the disruption to the lives of million of normal hard-working and fundamentally hospitable people is tough to fathom. The UNHCR estimates over 2 million refugees. For anyone who can or wants to help the details and the appeal can be found at: http://donate.unhcr.org/international/syria
The original country summary has been left for a date when we and other can return.

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» Turkey

* Miss at your peril -Turkey 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

  • Getting around: Fantastic bus system (some buses big, some small), not so good trains. Ferry travel to Greece is expensive considering you can actually see the islands! Dolmus are small stop-anywhere mini buses. If you want to go to rural areas where inner-city buses don't run, you will need to locate the dolmus stand relevant to your destination. There is a limited rail network, but buses are easier, cheaper and faster.

Good tip: When taking buses, especially at night, walk around all of the operators and ask to look at the passenger lists to quickly gauge how full the bus is and whether you will have room to stretch out. Bear in mind that options are great and jumping on bus after bus is easy. For example there is one crowded over night bus from Istanbul to Cappadocia a night, but simply take any empty bus from Istanbul to that region and get off at Asksaray after a good nights sleep with loads of room to stretch out. Then pick up a bus to Goreme (heart of Cappadocia) no problem.

Ferries to Greece

During the high season-usually from May till October, there areseveral regular ferry services between these Greek Islands and Turkish towns. Ferries depart from around six Greek islands to around ten ports in Turkey.

The busiest, most convenient Turkish ports are Bodrum,Marmaris, Kuşadası and Çeşme;; those in Greece are Rhodes, Kos, Samos and Chios. Departure times change frequently but it is safe to say that ferries usually depart Turkish towns in the morning and Greek Islands in the afternoons. Typically you need to reserve the day before. Ticket prices of course vary and port tax often forms a big part of the cost of the trip.


* Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel' - This whole region is a treasure chest, great people, great sights, easy transport. Apart from other flashing stars on this page: Petra, Palmyra and Ba'albeck should not be missed. Don't be put off by news headlines - check the facts. The Middle East is top draw, reasonably safe and very hospitable.





Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours).

M Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.

 

"Before you criticize someone, first walk a mile in their shoes. Because then you will be a mile away and have their shoes!"




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