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Chapter 8: Kurdistan

Khanaqin, Iraq to Kalar, Kurdistan. April 10

For my second day of cycling, I started out from Khanaqin, as the move to Manar's family house had shifted me east from Jalawla. My first day of cycling 160 kilometers was exceptional in terms of distance and nothing I aimed for going forward, especially not when entering a mountainous regions with lots of elevation. Rather, 70-100 km per day of cycling felt doable and sustainable, with every third or so day for rest of body to focus on the writing craft.

The main plan from Khanaqin was to make it into Kurdistan and from there take the main road toward Sulaymaniyah. On the way there were two cities with fair distance for one day of cycling, Kalar and Darbandikhan, with the first leg Khanaqin to Kalar being shorter of about 40 kilometers - a little self-treat as a reward for pushing it to Jalawla in one day. At this point I was thinking that Sulaymaniyah, being a big city, would be my first place to stay for longer than a night. This notion would later only prove how little I knew of what the land, and the people, had to offer.

After a lovely and more than plentiful breakfast, I skipped the temptation of visiting the Irani border and charged ahead for Kalar. In Iraq, map applications do not recognise bicycles as a means of transportation. That means that when navigating by modern means, one has to choose either to go by car or to go on foot. This morning, the car option would lead me a long way around Khanaqin whilst the pedestrian would smoothly cut through town to the main road. I learned that day that being a car, albeit the boring option, is correct in terms of time frustration. The heavy rains from the prior day made this all the more clear, flooding areas where my screen asked me to go. Even so, i had plenty of time for this shorter ride, and soon the beauty of the north started to unveil before me as the road took me closer to the border crossing.

"Stan" is a suffix seen in many geographical names in the middle east, central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and generally refers to "the land of". It is often combined with an ethnic group such as Kurds, Afghans or Tatars. It can also refer to the land of other things such as Rajasthan - the land of the kings. There are four countries that today contain areas that once were known as Kurdistan - Türkiye, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Iraq is the only one of the four that have officially recognised Kurdish ethnicity and culture, and after the change of regime following the invasion of 2003, the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan as it is formally called was recognised in Iraqi parliament.

The landscape faded into green. Seas of tallgrass waved in the wind and beyond, rolling hills foretelling the mountains in the horizon. I had heard of the epic scenery of Kurdistan, and I felt excited that it started to show already. The last stretch in Federal Iraq was a very pleasant one that kept giving me encouraging curiosity from the locals and checkpoint guards, with one truck driver in particular even stopping to film a short interview from up his seat. After skipping the line of patiently waiting Iraqis by the border - an unintentional use of my white card - and changing from my shorts as a border guard was adamant that Kurds were more proper than that, I was in Kurdistan.

I had been working on securing stays for the coming nights. In Darbandikhan for the following day, April 11, I had a local host in Shuan. My three main methods of finding shelter in all of Iraq have been online hospitality platforms, asking local contacts if they know anybody in the area, or simply asking curious looking people. The two former work best in cities, the last is more useful in towns and villages without hotels where people are even more reliant on helping one another.

For Kalar, Shuan from Darbandikhan set me up in a family house of his. It was the house of his late father who had passed months before, now inhabited by friends of the deceased, a family of Irani kurds. So it was that on my first night in Kurdistan i was invited to a home I had never seen, to a family that had never heard of me, people I could not speak with in any language. It was the first night of Eid and the family like all others had guests coming over, but they took me in all the same, cared for and fed me as a guest of honour. Mohammed, the man of the house, could not speak one word of english yet stayed in my presence as is customary to accompanying the guest. I was as safe and looked after as I could ever be, and I fell asleep like a baby.

As my journey through Kurdistan have later gone on (while trying to catch up writing about it), I have found the gems as I have encountered them, or not as I have missed them. This is very different from locations where tourists, domestic or international, are plentiful. I am used to rely on online numbers to give indications. Amount of google reviews tell me about the popularity of a place, and the rating tell me how worthwhile it is. This does not work very well for Kurdistan, as there is not enough data to make good scenery easy to spot, and not enough pictures have been posted to represent what is there. The cities stand out on the map, but it is the countryside and the wilderness that stand out to me and to all travelers i have met.

While this lack of guidance can be frustrating, it makes the feeling of discovery much more potent for those that venture beyond the city limits. Treasures are by no means scarce, either. Kurdistan is full of wonders, adventure, character and magic - invisible on the servers, streams and broadcasts, but by no means hiding from your senses. Every part of the countryside is spectacular to look at from the comfort of the road, and invites adventurous travelers with promise of rewards.

True ring the words that Gandalf the Grey spoke to Bilbo Baggins as he considers the quest for the Lonely Mountain.

The world is not in your books and your maps. It is out there.

Had it not been for my knowledgeable and well-traveled friend Krista, I would have ended here with praise of pristine beauty. But simple is not the term that describe things in Iraq, Kurdish or no. Instead I have to include her sharp reminder with words of warning: IEDs, improvised explosive devices. Land mines. Much of Kurdish countryside still have not been cleared of them and so free roaming without local guide is not recommended. It is a sad fact and I truly wish it was not so. But it is.


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