Round-the-world cyclist Charlie Walker on a former war zone that is well on the mend
The border post between Iran and Iraq's Kurdistan region was high in freshly snowed-on mountains. The Kurdish customs officers insisted I drink tea with them and then stood waving until I'd disappeared around the corner. The road was potholed and narrow but it was all downhill. Sweet tasting meltwater streams sang by the roadside and a five-mile queue of parked trucks waited to cross the border.
I freewheeled on and, at a small truck stop, met a mechanic who had worked in the UK for ten years. We ate lunch together and he reminisced about England. I didn't catch his name but neither did the immigration official when he arrived at Dover as a refugee with no English language. The officer was asking his name but he couldn't understand and exasperatedly said in Kurdish "Allah, help me!"
"Ali?" said the officer. And so he was registered in the UK records as Ali.
I followed a gushing river through a narrow gorge and was spilled out into an area of lush, green hills. Warm sun beat down and the scene was perfectly peaceful excepting the frighteningly inconsiderate drivers in their expensive foreign cars. The large numbers of imported cars is just one sign of the economic boom the now-autonomous region is enjoying.
In the late 1980s Iraqi Kurdistan was the victim of a three-year genocide that resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 Kurds, the displacement of a third of the region's 3.5 million population, and the destruction of over 4,000 villages and towns.
Saddam Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (better known as Chemical Ali) was in charge of Operation Al-Anfal (taken from the name of a Quranic chapter) which used firing squads, aerial bombardment and mustard gas. Mass graves with up to 1,000 bodies have been found.
In 2003 the Kurds finally won autonomy and foreign investment (particularly Turkish) has poured in. The lure being the estimated reserve of 45 billion barrels worth of oil. Some people refer to Kurdistan as "New Dubai" but their government prefers "The Other Iraq".
My second day in Iraq was a Friday and there were lots of families picnicking on the roadside. Lots of wedding convoys of white, mostly-rented cars sped past in a blaze of honking horns, fluttering ribbons and joyful shouts. After Iran, where I was a novelty, people here showed little interest in a foreigner on a bicycle so I stayed in the saddle and watched the country roll by.
It was on a warm morning that I pedalled into the capital, Erbil. En route to the centre I passed through upmarket suburbs with large glass shopping malls, sports cars and western-style supermarkets. The city centre spreads around the Old Citadel which is perched on a hill and reputed to be the oldest continuously inhabited place on earth. This raised cluster of ancient buildings has accommodated people since 2,300 BC but is now being transformed into a complex of restaurants, shopping galleries and nightclubs.
Erbil is heavily policed and soldiers stand guard on many street corners. I had planned to take a rest day here but was so underwhelmed by what I saw that, after a couple of hours riding around, I stocked up on food and cycled westward.
The road was busy and had regular military checkpoints. Stretching to the horizon on either side was golden-green farmland. When people think of Iraq their mind conjures up desert; when they hear Kurdistan they think of mountains. However, this area looked more like a fecund mid-western prairie.
Close to Mosul (in Iraq proper) I reached the heavily guarded border which I had no visa to cross. I was turfed onto a quiet side road and was thankful to escape the impatient drivers. Two days took me across more farmland with friendly villagers and then onto another busy road. A squat mountain ridge stood before the Turkish border and I clung to one of the raised blades of a tractor's plough which tugged me to the pass. A quick descent through a thick mist brought me to the frontier.
At customs, bulging sacks of confiscated contraband cigarettes were being carted away for incineration. However, the officials merrily offered me a carton before waving me though. I declined and rode slowly along the three-mile queue of trucks lining the road on the Turkish side. Again many drivers flagged me down for tea and bread.
A long winter was now behind me so I took great satisfaction in symbolically cutting the legs of my trousers and the fingers of my gloves. I had my first shower for a couple of weeks and used fast internet for the first time in five months.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.
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