Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

Ain’t no valley low enough

I like to think that this camel in Jordan realised the comic potential in standing under this sign post. If you look closely you can see him smirking.

The approach the Syrian male takes to driving is akin to that the great white shark takes to lunch, and in Syria I felt like the seal pup. The ‘right of way’ is not a given, but instead a hard won battle involving lots of horns, aggressive manoeuvres and even nudging of bumpers. Mirrors are treated as functionless accessories. I knew Damascus, like other big cities, would be an exit fraught with near misses. But before I leapt into the tumultuous mayhem I had to find some inner tubes with a Presta valve, a rarity in the Middle East. It took me two hours to find the bike shop, half an hour to explain what I needed and then an hour following the proprietor around before being told to come back in an hour. I did. He had forgotten about our rendez-vous. He wandered around some more, kicking his way through rims, spokes and various cycle-related shrapnel on the shop floor. If the A-team were locked inside that workshop they could have constructed an aircraft carrier. He told me to come back tomorrow. I did. More meandering about the wreckage, another ‘come back in an hour’ and eventually a “tshh” and raised eyebrows. I’ve come to recognise this as “no” in the rich and frequently befuddling language of Arabic Sign. I walked away with a puncture repair kit and prayed that my patchwork held up until Amman.

During the usual faff at the border I started up a conversation with a motorist and mentioned that my plan was to cycle to Jarash and then Amman, the capital. “Oh my God!” he said with an American lilt and in a fashion that suggested I had just told him I was planning to throw myself off a tall building. “The road’s like 45 degrees man! And the heat! No way!” I’ve grown used to people I meet exaggerating features of my road ahead. It’s often too cold, too steep, too dangerous or sometimes mysteriously just “not possible by bike”, with no explanation offered. I reassured him and cycled off, wondering what happened to all the optimists.

I visited Jarash, allegedly home of some of the best Roman ruins in the world, outside Italy. I was impressed, but then I found some lizards in the rocks, lowered my camera and snapped away for half an hour. Some older tourists watched me with tilted heads and frowns, but I didn’t care. Nature’s glory has always outshone man’s achievements in my book. That night I slept on the floor of the tourist information centre, adding to my growing list of opportune and curious bedrooms. The next day I moaned a bit to myself as I climbed the hill into Amman, but at this point I hadn’t considered the Jordanian monster around the corner, at least five times the size of this amateur incline.

I rode into Amman after some swerving and hard pedaling to get away from a group of young boisterous misfits who chased me up the hill, throwing stones and shouting “hey you donkey! You crazy donkey!” I went immediately to meet Nick, a mate I’ve known from my years spent in Liverpool and who now lives and works in Jordan’s capital. We went out for a curry. A rubicund light had fallen across the city and Amman basked in a surreal, Martian glow. “Dust is coming in from the desert” said Nick. We left the restaurant and entered a strange, ghostly world. People rushed along the street, breathing through handkerchiefs and surgical masks. Within minutes Nick’s car had become coated in a layer of the fine dust and I realised that my respiratory tract would be suffering a similar fate. Visibility was plummeting. Amman can feel like a very Western city, complete with posh shopping malls and multiplex cinemas, but when the desert suddenly encroaches you quickly remember where you are.

For the weekend we were joined by Nick’s friend Jad and went on a jaunt to Wadi Rum in southern Jordan, an arid national park where sandstone and granite rise out of the red desert. Nick and Jad are avid climbers and went off to scale one of the surrounding cliffs whilst I did some trekking and then a bit more of my David Bellamy impression, gallivanting around enthusiastically after local wildlife. Afterwards we drove out into the desert. I’ve never owned a driving license, or even driven a car, so I was chuffed when Nick threw me the keys to a 4 by 4 Toyota and gave me the nod. After some enthusiastic ragging around on sandy tracks we decided that there was more than a strong possibility I had inadvertently driven us across the frontier and into Saudi Arabia, so we turned back. We slept in the desert, tent-less and under a full moon.





I had plenty of time to play with in Amman. I could have taken a day trip to the Dead Sea, leaving my bike behind, and then afterwards cycled from Amman south down the King’s highway. But continuing this journey’s theme of making my life more difficult than it needs to be, I decided it was important that I cycled to the shores of the Dead Sea itself. I felt there was something significant in bringing Belinda down to the lowest point of dry land on earth. This of course meant cycling back up again, a near continuous ascent from 400 metres below sea level to 1300 metres above, to roughly the height of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. It would be serious hillage, at least a fifty kilometre, more or less continuous, climb. Factor in forty degree heat, 55 kg of bike and gear, few places to top up with food and water and this would be tougher than my efforts in the Italian Apennines, The French Alps or the Montenegrin fjord. It would be a test like no other.

I camped on a hilltop overlooking the Dead Sea, I could see the lights of Israel on the other side, Jerusalem just out of view. The night that followed was a lesson in the ills of procrastination. The two small holes in my groundsheet, holes that I’d persistently told myself I will repair later, became the front door to a stealthy nocturnal arthropod invasion. I woke in the early hours to an ant infestation after inadvertently setting up camp on their home. They had found my food and were dropping, like ants, onto me from all over the tent. The day after my restless night I sped downhill, reached the sea and floated and splashed about in the salinous waters.



The shores of the Dead Sea, 400 metres below sea level
The air felt thicker here, the atmosphere cloying, humid and heavy. My mosi repellent is excellent, potent stuff and has consistently kept the blighters at bay, but around the Dead Sea I could have been wearing Plutonium and I would have maintained my beard of fly. I felt violated when I caught an amorous pair in the act on my forearm. More followed suit. They seemed to have a preference for having it off on my nose or forehead. I had become an unwilling participant in an insect orgy. I opted to put up the inner of my tent, just so that I could have lunch on my own. Twice people stopped to offer me and my bike a lift. When I tried to explain I must travel only by bicycle they assumed I hadn’t understood their offer. Then, when they realised that I had, I got the “you must be a crazy nut” look. Getting this reaction makes every painful vertical metre worth it.

After the epic climb my appetite for sleep won over my appetite for food and I drifted off into a blissful slumber. I should have known better. The next day, with no food available to buy en route, I had to haul my carb-depleted ass uphill for almost twenty kilometres to the other side of a gorge. Luckily there were Bedouin around who kept me topped up with water. The next two nights I found some great but vertiginous spots to rough camp. I hoped that I hadn’t developed a habit of sleep walking during the night.



Night one


Night two
Tourism in Jordon is an expensive or lucrative game, depending on which side of the fence you’re on. Prices are escalating exponentially. Cheapest no frills beach on the Dead Sea – that’ll be ten quid please Sir. One hour hike through a national park – fourteen pounds minimum. Petra, as of next month, will cost fifty quid to enter. Jordan has a huge amount to offer, but I feel I have missed out on quite a bit due to my budget, and I’m not talking camel rides and hot air balloons, just access to some of the natural features of this varied land. If money was being ploughed back in and services were improving it would sting less, but the fact is that they’re not, not in any substantial way. There are good examples of money going to local people, the Bedouin in Wadi Rum is one, but I can’t help but think that someone, other than the King, is getting drunk, rich and fat on tourist cash. In fact if you look at the proportion of GDP earned from tourism, Jordan gets a good whack. If you discount islands like the Seychelles or the Maldives then Jordan proportionally is one of the highest in the world. Greedy touts will start to turn travelers away and then Jordan’s riches will be out of reach, especially to backpackers, and that will be a shame.

So it was after some deliberation that I reached deep into my pocket for the entrance fee to visit the Dana nature reserve, one of the cheaper tourist attractions in Jordan. Whilst there I ran into a bunch of ten and eleven year olds from Amman Baccalaureate school. They were a bright and inquisitive bunch. I particularly enjoyed it when, after some conferring with a small group of friends, one young lad reported “we know you said that you’ve cycled from England, but some of us here don’t believe that’s possible”!

After Dana I made my way to Petra, one of the New Wonders of the World, a place I must see before I die, another one to tick off my Lonely Planet checklist (its hard to convey sarcasm adequately using the written word). But it was magnificent, undoubtedly. Highlights included venturing down the dim narrow gorge known as the Siq, the entrance to the city, but also meeting an ostentatiously eccentric gentleman from Borneo who gave me his unique take on everything from politics and history to religion and international relations. My Lonely Planet didn’t mention him. He said his name was Ivanhoe (he noted that his Chinese name wasn’t well remembered by English speakers so he changed it after reading a well known book). He drank stone water and wore magnetic bracelets for their health giving properties and to give him energy.




The Treasury, Petra

So far I’ve visited the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, the Dead Sea (although technically a lake) and now it was time for the Red Sea. I cycled to the resort town of Aqaba. On the way two young lads tried to steal stuff from my bike after I declined to give them the money they had demanded. They retreated, after I got off my bike and did my best to look menacing, but I cycled off to a volley of stones.

Aqaba has some great reefs. Diving is definitely not compatible with my budget, but I decided snorkeling was, so I hired some kit and spent the day swimming in the corals and admiring the spectacular Red Sea marine life. I decided against the campsite next door to the beach, with its inflated tax for a small patch of land, and opted to sleep for free on the beach itself.

My al-fresco free bedroom

The following day I took the ferry to Egypt, with nasty feeling that every border post from here south was going to be a more and more frustrating venture. At the end of the ride the boat’s passengers were asked to surrender passports to the ship’s crew. In exchange we were given a slip of white paper with some uninterpretable Arabic scrawl, and then we were deserted. I was told the passports were no longer on board. I cornered someone looking official. “One minute Sir”, and with that he was gone. This would happen a lot over the next half an hour. I realised that if you hear “One minute Sir” you will never see that person again. Eventually we worked out the procedure which involved trekking between banks, police stations and immigration offices. It was a DIY arrival into Egypt.

In Egypt I cycled south down the Sinai Peninsula to Dahab, a small town that had been dubbed the hippy capital of the Middle East, but now bigger corporates had started to move in to compete for backpacker cash and resorts of the ilk found in neighbouring Sharm El Sheikh were beginning to surface. But Dahab still feels laid back and easy. There are more reefs to explore nearby and it sounds like a good place to vegetate until I hit the mountains again on my way inland to Cairo. I’ve already noted the ‘Churchill’s Bar and Grill’ complete with a photo of Sir Winston, the availability of fish and chips, the red and white striped Brits abroad and the Egyptian response to telling someone you’re British (“Lovely Jubly” in a Del Boy stylee) but I’ve got time to kill and here seems a good place to spend it. Nyomi flies out on the 20th of October and together we will begin the next chapter… all of Africa. I can’t wait.

Finally I leave you with a few images I managed to capture of the desert wildlife of the Middle East. I’m off to a Dahab nightspot where I’ve heard some DJ called “Dave the rave” is playing. Lovely Jubly.

A ladybird taking off






A Giant Painted Agama lizard

The last thing I expected to see crossing the road in the desert… a chameleon


A relative of the Wasp spider

The stunning male blue Sinai lizard, unique to this area
Statistics:

Punctures: 20
Distance cycled: 7656 km
Countries cycled through: 16
Top speed: 75.4 km/hr. Taurus mountains, Turkey.
Longest continuous ascent: 1700 vertical metres
Days on the road: 172
Lifts offered: 4
Lifts accepted: 0

ps. Contacts for Cairo are much appreciated! Please email me if you know someone who would like to meet up or to host us. As usual I will exchange tales from the road for a small piece of floor to sleep on.



Doctor, soldier, vagrant, priest


I left Cappadocia the day the weather changed. A soft breeze began blowing south towards Syria and the temperature dropped by seven degrees overnight, right on schedule for the start of September. I had some downhill to look forward to, and it felt like a freebie. I was almost a kilometre and a half up in the East Anatolian plains but I had hardly noticed the gain in height as it had been earned so gradually on my ride across Turkey. Soon enough I found myself cycling through the stunning Taurus mountains which were covered in pine forests and sprinkled with deep valleys and craggy outcrops which looked fit for Simba from the Lion King to be stood aloft. I cruised down the side of valleys at over 70 km/hr and when I made it to a small town high in the hills another stranger, Fatih, clocked me with my bike and invited me to join him and his family break the fast. It was still Ramadan and only when the Imam’s call sounded from the local mosque could we demolish the sumptuous grub.



Before I left they gave me a warning of wild pigs and snakes in the surrounding hills. As long as I get a good photo, I thought. Before long I encountered some of the local wildlife in the shape of a family of large blue lizards. I leaped around for over an hour like Steve Irwin, trying to get them into the open to capture a descent image.



I cycled down and out of the hills and through arable land with few settlements in sight. As night approached I encountered what appeared at first glimpse to be some ruins, but then not just ruins, a castle, on a hillock a few kilometres ahead. Deserted, eerie and daunting in the dusk. With a penchant for scaring myself and the long unfulfilled desire to spend the night alone in a castle, I decided it was the perfect place to settle down for the night. I turned up a rough track and pedaled up towards it, the view became more and more foreboding as it’s outline loomed over me in the fading light. My mind raced with thoughts of what might be lurking within it’s walls. Heart thumping I peered into every nook and cranny, found a good spot and put my head down. Once the adrenaline had run its course I got a little shut-eye, but more often than not one eye remained open. By morning I didn’t care about my fatigue because I was king of my own castle. From the crumbling turrets you could see the surrounding land for miles in every direction.



The heat returned with a vengeance as I lost altitude. I began to relish the times when trucks came zooming close by. The warm breeze and slight escape from the heat became an easy trade for their noise, their stench and the obvious threat to my personal safety. I have to admit for the next few days I was tired. Tired of the heat and tired of the insects. Tired with people asking me the same questions and tired of giving the same answers. Tired of noisy trucks and their noisy novelty horns. Tired of people staring. Tired of bread and cheese. I cheered up when a lorry driver chucked me a lemon from his window. Why a lemon I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s all he had to chuck. Turkey had taken longer than I had anticipated to cross, not for the distance, the weather or the mountains, but because it’s hard to get far without the invitation of “chai and a chat”. I developed slightly selective hearing towards the end. If I had stopped for every shout, whistle, wave or “Hello my friend!” I would still be somewhere close to Istanbul.

At the border the Syrian guards seemed a little confused that my bike didn’t have a license plate but they waved me through anyway and announced “Welcome to Syria Sir!” and I was excited to be here. A new nation to roam but now a new language and alphabet to contend with. I high fived kids on the street as I rode towards Aleppo and watched them playing in the irrigation ditches in the countryside to escape the heat. There’s no better feeling than waking up in a dilapidated hostel in a strange new city with time off my bike to explore. Aleppo beckoned.



The tourist guide produced by Syria’s Ministry for Tourism was beautifully optimistic and full of random embellishments…

“Syria always has a pleasant Mediterranean climate”

“Most Syrians also speak French and English”

“Every cultured man belongs to two nations… his own and Syria!” (owing to Syria’s reputation as the ‘cradle of humanity’)

I noticed young men in Syria often drove cars with a large photo of Syria’s president, alongside two high ranking companions, in the back window. I tried to imagine yoots in south London proudly displaying large photos of David Cameron and Nick Clegg from the back of their suped up beemers. I couldn’t. Here the media is often state run and there is a ban on Facebook in internet cafes. I couldn’t even access my blog without the cafe owner adjusting the settings that are applied in case government officials come in to make an inspection.




I wondered around and purposefully got lost in Aleppo before I realised it wasn’t just me that was lost but also all of my credit and debit cards. It was the eve of a festival called Eid which marks the end of Ramadan and in one hour everything would be shut for three days. I had no money of any sizable denomination in my pocket. In amongst some running around in an attempt to find them, a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to reach home and get money wired and then lots of calling myself a numpty, I met a tres gentil French girl called Charlotte who chilled me out and lent me money. Of course I immediately realised I was on to something, blew the cash on champaign and caviar and then went on the search for more gullible French tourists to sell my sob story and take advantage of (just joking Charlotte, thank you).

I realised that on the road to Damascus it would be my 30th birthday. Quite apt I thought, the term “road to Damascus”‘ has come to stand for a sudden turning point in a person’s life, after the story of the conversion of the Apostle Paul on the road from Jerusalem. Birthdays are perhaps a good time for some resolutions. I scribbled down a few ideas…

Don’t stress about things you cant control
Try harder with the local language
Eat more fruit
Apply more sunscreen
Drink much less beer. Or at least buy cheaper beer.
Buy a new stove

Always have a achievable one at the end, in case you fail at the rest. I would also like to advise anyone thinking of buying an MSR WhisperLite stove not to, unless you have a degree in mechanical engineering or would relish the opportunity to repeatedly beat yourself in your own head.

I couldn’t find a decent map of Syria anywhere in Aleppo, despite it being a city of two million people, so I opted to put my trust in my compass, point my front wheel south and start pedaling. Slowly, as I rode out of the tourist bubble, I became more and more aware of the environmental catastrophe on Syria’s doorstep. In Albania I was shocked to see the pure volume of roadside rubbish and junk caste aside. In Syria it was staggering. In every city I passed, and for almost sixty kilometres into the countryside, litter was sprawled in every direction. In southern Aleppo people lived in it, children played in it and dogs scavenged in it.

Eventually I made it into the desert. Here people seemed astonished to see me. Men gawped and children chased. I passed the legendary dead cities where people up and left their homes over 200 years ago and the settlements still stood, unused and abandoned.


Soon I began to feel ill. Something I had eaten in Aleppo was having a heated debate with my digestive system, and the dodgy kebab was winning. I had to stop and rush off my bike to find toilets every half an hour, cycling was no fun at all. Syria wins the Cycling The 6 Award for most invitations in one day. Seven invites for a meal and a bed in one afternoon. I had to decline the first six, my stomach was in knots, but perhaps all the goodwill helped tame my angry belly and soon I was feeling better. When a young Arab called Tariq invited me into his home I jumped off my bike to join his clan.

The strange thing about traveling alone is that you start to believe that every seemingly fortuitous occurrence is due to right decisions and good judgment whereas every bad night, every problem and every obstacle is your own fault. In reality luck probably has more of a hand in it than anything, but the four nights I spent on the road between Aleppo and Damascus illustrate how the collision between good decisions, bad decisions, worse decisions and chance can impact on the experience. The four nights ranged from the luxurious to the frustrating to the frightening and to the magnificent. Here’s the tale…


Night 1 (the eve of my 30th birthday)

Tariq had a large extended family all living close to each other in the village. As soon as I hopped off my bike they began to pamper me. First off a large cooked meal, prepared just for me. A shower, with optional aftershave and hair gel. Some tea. More tea. Arabic spiced coffee. Let us wash your clothes. Would you like to watch English television? When they found out it was my birthday the following day they even offered to throw me a birthday party. In the evening I discovered why Arabic families are so big. Whilst we were sitting around chatting a slightly rotund gregarious man arrived. The women suddenly scarpered making room for him on the rug. People stood to embrace him. Here was Mustafa, the head honcho. Quickly I learned through Tariq (the only English speaker and so my translator) that Mustafa had four wives (the most a man can have under Islamic law) and eighteen children. He proudly told me that he usually fathers two sons every year. The gathering grew and soon Tariq’s cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were plying me with questions. Whilst they learned a little about me, I tried to extract a little from them. It was interesting to find out that for a man to get married he must pay the prospective wife’s family upwards of 4000 US dollars. These were not rich people and that would be a small fortune. And what if you have no job, I inquired. “No job, no money, no wife” came the reply. The family erected a sheet tent in the garden for me and again I was waited on hand and foot. I slept peacefully in the open air and woke up refreshed and now thirty whole years young. 




Night 2

Tariq’s uncle got me up and after breakfast he decided my clothes were no good. They dressed me in traditional Arabic garbs. Feel free to chuckle at the photos below. I straightened my shemagh and joined his uncle on a local tour. He paraded me in front of his friends, from village to village and from people’s homes to ramshackle tea houses. Each time I was introduced as “The English Doctor”  to murmurs of approval and Tariq’s uncle would then give an account of my journey by bicycle from the UK to Syria. It began fairly accurate but as we visited more people my host’s description became more elaborate and he would throw in more and more exotic locations “Mongolia, Tanzania, Vietnam!”. I could see those who knew a bit more geography scratching their heads, perhaps wondering how I had cycled from London to Syria via southeast Asia. Twice my medical opinion was sought. A large lady wanted to know the secret to weight loss and an elderly man wanted a cure for his arthritis. After a meaty lunch prepared in my honor I waved goodbye and realised that I now saw Syria and it’s people suddenly in a different, more familiar, light. Before I had wondered what people were thinking as they stared at me when I rode by, now I felt I knew and understood a little more and I felt more at ease. I rode the thirty kilometres to the highway after deciding that I had to give up on the small roads and make up some time so that I didn’t overstay my 15 day Syrian visa. I thought about how, at least to me, it looked like a strange juxtaposition to see Arabs sitting in Starbucks in Heathrow or Gatwick nursing a Mocha in traditional dress. Here they looked completely at home, with their shemagh wrapped tightly around the face, sunglasses on and riding speedily by on motorbikes. I stopped to ask a roadside caf for somewhere I could pitch my tent. Instead I was offered a old bed, lying at a jaunty angle in a car park. I took it. I was kept awake all night by the superimposed gabble of lorry engines and horns, loud Lebanese pop music and nearby television sets on full volume as well as by the bright white lights overhead. The next day would be an effort.




Night 3

The following day I ploughed on, covering 130 kilometres down the motorway. The small fur trees by the road lent south, pointing towards Damascus, ushering me towards my next stop.


I found myself in the outskirts of a Syrian city and somewhere I wasn’t too chuffed to be camping. I’d run out of light but had found myself a pine forest near to some tower blocks. It was almost pitch black as I erected my tent. Suddenly I could hear some mumbling from the bushes. A silhouette was stumbling around, groaning and muttering. I shone my torch into the darkness and a figure came into view. Bearded, bedraggled and wretched looking, he began to shout in an unintelligible dialect, he sounded angry about something. As he lurched towards me I caught the stench of alcohol. Then I saw two torch lights shine out from behind him. It was couple of his boozy chums. They shook my hand and signaled to me that their friend was crazy. At first their presence put me a little more at ease, until one raised his right hand, protruded his tongue from the corner of his mouth and swiftly moved his hand across his neck to indicate his throat being cut. Or my throat being cut. I didn’t know at this point whether this was a threat, or if he was just warning me about the area I had planned to sleep. Either way I packed up in haste and moved on. I found some Syrian soldiers outside their base a few kilometres away. Eagerly they invited me in and let me camp. I was soon having tea with the Syrian army. Army barracks were the last place I thought a British tourist would be made welcome in Syria, the “rogue nation”. Proof, if any were needed, of the chunky divide between people and politics.


Night 4

The next day I had an agenda. My goal was to reach Ma’lula, an ancient settlement high in the cliffs fifty kilometres from Damascus. I got as high as I could, admired the prehistoric caves, passed by some of the oldest Christian monasteries in existence and finally found a small church up on the cliffs. I asked to camp near by. You must find Brother Tophias, I was told. Brother Tophias was a polite, confident, mirthful man but when I asked if I could camp nearby I got a “no, no, no”. I was disheartened until he grinned and announced “you will sleep on the panorama!”. This sounded right up my alley. He showed me up to the terrace, an open space with a staggering vista of the valley, cliffs and landscape below, a view better than any hotel in town, and I had it all to myself. That night I looked down on the town and to the myriad of luminous crucifixes on people’s houses, up to the stars and then across the town to the firework display and congratulated myself. Which was a bit silly, as it was mostly just good fortune.



The next day I breezed into Damascus with a nice tailwind and lots of downhill. I made it there in the time it takes a Syrian Taxi driver to check for other vehicles at a busy junction, in no time at all. So a few acknowledgments this month… thank you Tariq, Jocelyn and Byron, Fatih and your respective families for all your hospitality. Thank you as well to the Syrian soldiers, Brother Tophias, Charlotte and anonymous roadside cafe dude. Onwards to Jordon.