Miles on the clock: 25,490
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.
"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".
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.
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.
Shepherds with red headscarves basked lazily on rocks while their flocks grazed around them; pretty women with no headscarves hung out clothes to dry; the incongruously loud speaker systems on minarets screamed the azan (call to prayer) across the otherwise tranquil landscape; nut-brown old men grinned at me over small glasses of sweet tea; young men enthusiastically gabbled at me in German learned during a year or two working abroad; subsistence villages dotted the roadside with ragged children playing while trucks swept heedlessly past.
Each day took me through one big city which looked more and more European the further west I went. One morning, unnoticed be me, my odometer ticked past 24,901 miles; equivalent to one lap of the equator. That night I lay in my tent contemplating this. In my mind's eye I span a globe. It seemed so simple, so quick. But my mind then ran frantically over some of the places and some of the people, some of the low points and some of the triumphs of the last 1,000 days since I left home. It was too much and my head started to spin along with the globe. Twice the length of Africa remained to be covered but I chose to focus on tomorrow. Life is so much easier to tackle when there is only tomorrow.
The last part of the ride took me through hills of olive groves with carpets of purple wildflowers. I enjoyed afternoon siestas and swatted some early mosquitoes in the evenings. There was a pass before I reached the coast and while I climbed I smelled salt in the air. I realised that I hadn't seen the sea for a year; 12 months spent crossing the mountains and deserts that comprise the centre of Asia's vast landmass. I sped down the 750m descent to the port city of Iskenderun and was soon in the water, enjoying the sting of brine in my eyes.
Myself, Matthias from Holland and Matthew from Australia swam in the sea before breakfast each morning and spent the days building dry stone walls, flowerbeds, a patio, a chicken coop, a treehouse, a cobblestone path, a fire pit and scrapwood furniture. Kemal, the owner, cooked spoiling dinners each evening with the freshest market ingredients and lemons from the garden. We lived well and I was feeling re-invigorated when I boarded the ferry back in Iskenderun. Most of the passengers were Syrian refugees and I had a few interesting conversations before we docked at Port Said and, at midnight, I cycled off the car deck and onto the African continent.
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