Posted by Max on Saturday, November 27, 2010
In Syria, resistance is futile. All daily normality and forward planning must be abandoned, and cyclists must submit to wonderful non-stop chaos. Since leaving the relative tranquility of Turkey, strange and unpredictable events are becoming the norm. A couple of days ago I found myself sitting in the desert on my tarpaulin 'picnic blanket', about 100 miles from the Iraqi border, making banana and nutella sandwiches for lunch. Only now in retrosprect, from an internet cafe in Damascus does this seem like a slightly odd thing to be doing. At the time, it was just the latest in a stream of surreal Syrian experiences. The only constant has been the people. I can honestly say that they're the most pathologically friendly people I've ever come across. The extremist form of hospitality that pervades their culture is humbling, charming, and a wee bit unnerving all at the same time.But before I get on to that, I'll pick up where I left off last time, in Turkey, as we set off to cross the Taurus mountains and head for the border. The long climb up to 1720 metres (a new altitude record) was made up for by the scenery, and when we set up our tents at the foot of the tallest mountain in the range having reached the pass, we were confident that the worst was behind us. But, we didn't realise how cold it would get up there and even wrapped up in sleeping bag, hat, gloves, and mutiple layers, it was the coldest night I'd ever spent in a tent. In the morning I felt half dead, and crawled out of the tent to find it had been encased in shell of icy frost. After scraping it off and packing up, we rode away with a grizzly determination to get out the mountains and spend the next night in warmer weather. 12 hours and 143km later (another new record), we were in a different world. We'd cruised all the way down to sea level, to the ancient roman city of Tarsus, near the shores of the Med. But as we raced to get there before dark, I hit a pothole and my inner tube blew up dramatically, leaving us to mend it and cycle the remaining 15km in the dark. Needless to say, the tent stayed in its bag that night, as we sought out a hotel with room service, and collapsed.The remaining few days to the Syrian border went quickly and somewhat disappointingly.
There probably won't be a country that we spend longer in than Turkey and we loved every [dog-free] minute, so it was sad to spend our last few days rushing through nasty industrial heartland on busy smokey roads. However, we never get much time to dwell on things and the excitement of crossing a new border soon took over. As we cycled through a long winding valley of no-mans land between the Turkish and Syrian borders, we weren't sure what to expect as we approached the notorious 'rogue state'. After a lengthy battle to persuade the border officials to let us in without registration numbers on our bikes (consisting of lots of men in uniform shouting 'BISSICLAYT' and other stuff in arabic at me for 20 minutes), it was almost dark when we eventually crossed the border. We stopped at the first place we came to - a restaurant - to try and camp. There were no customers and the chef was shooting small sparrow-like birds in some trees out the back. They staff insisted it was too cold to camp outdoors (a reccurring theme in Syria) and we were shown into the restaurant storeroom which we quickly converted into a bedroom. It was a lovely warm welcome to Syria but we were annoyingly kept awake all night by a swarm of hungry mosquitos and a man who was screaming in arabic at the top of his voice until about 2am, because he kept losing at cards (I know this because I was spying on him through a window to the restaurant).When you only travel at 20km per hour, things usually change very slowly, but when we set off into Syria the next day, the terrain seemed immediately unfamiliar. The awesome natural beauty of Turkey had transformed into a hazy and stereotypically middle- eastern landscape of low, dusty, rocky hills and plains, with sandy coloured settlements dotted around the place. Fortunately through, the lack of natural wonder was made up for by the historical wonders. It's impossible to cycle for long here without stumbling across some kind of magnificent ancient ruin, from Crusader castles and Byzantine ghost towns, to Roman temples, and places where biblical stuff supposedly happened. Cycling through them has the same effect as looking up at a starry night sky. You forget that you're hungry and sweaty and wearing the same socks for a third day in a row, and realise what an awesome bigger picture we're all a part of.On our first day in Syria, we went past the 1500 year old church of St Simeon, once the biggest church in the world. Simeon apparently found the locals so intense that he built an 18 metre stone pillar in the middle of nowhere to live on top of, just to get a bit of peace. After spending a couple of weeks here, I can kind of sympathise with him although I'm not sure he deserved to become a saint just because he was really anti-social. We pushed on from here to the city of Aleppo where we met up with Yorg (German), Gregoire (French), and Richard (english), a few other cyclists we met in Turkey who were also heading toward Egypt. We decided to carry on together for a while and cycled out of Aleppo en masse. Having been quite disciplined in the distance we were covering in Turkey, it's all gone out the window in Syria. This is partly due to all the 'must see' attractions, and partly because of the logistical delays of cycling in a bigger group, (or the four P's as I like to call them - punctures, poos, phood, and photos). Most of all though, we've been waylaid by the astounding friendliness and hospitality of the locals. Whatever the US Department of Homeland Security might say about Syria, all I can say is that it's felt like the safest country we've been to and we've been treated like royalty. We've not needed to pay for a single hotel (outside Aleppo and Damascus), and I've regulalrly been in serious pain after all the food that's been forced down my throat by the well meaning families who've taken us in for the night.It happens like this: In the day, we're bombarded with shouts of 'Welcome to Syria', and flagged down time and time again by people inviting us for tea and a chat. Sometimes we also get shot at by kids with BB-guns, and I get to do my shouty grown-up act. Then as night draws near, we start to look for somewhere to camp. The wild land that we've seen in Syria is generally dusty, exposed and rocky, and therefore unsuitable for camping. Olive groves however are plentiful, sheltered, discreet, and have nice soft ground. These are Syria's camsites par excellence, but the trouble is, out of courtesy you have to ask the owner / farmer before pitching there, and once that happens, there is almost no chance you'll be allowed to stay outside in 'the cold', or eat your own food (however much you just want to chill out with the nutella you've just bought, and not eat more olives and yogurt and cheese and bread).On the first night out of Aleppo we stopped at an olive grove owned by the Baroums, an extended family of crane drivers and olive farmers consisting of six brothers, and their wives and kids. The family home was a few kilometers away and Ahmed, one of the brothers, was fast asleep in a little farm house with the TV blaring in the background. We stomped around loudly for a while trying to 'accidentally' wake him up but soon lost patience and gave a few clanging knocks on the open metal door. Ahmed woke with a start, and before we knew it we were sitting on cushions, glugging down tea and trying out the local cigarettes. Because there were five of us, it was dark, and their home was far away, Ahmed had no choice but to let us camp that night, but in the morning we were escorted by car to meet the rest of the family (all 25 of them). Emily was shooed off through a door to the womens quarters (not the only time this has happened!) and the rest of us were led into a large men-only living room to sit down with the other brothers and their kids. A lavish breakfast was soon brought out which we devoured, and more cigarettes, which we had to refuse (smoking seems to be a national pasttime in Syria). The Baroums were so excited to have guests from Europe, and we were delighted to be there, so the morning dragged on and it was a very late start when we finally got going. At sunset that evening, we arrived at the town of Al-Barra which lies next to a ghostly and ancient abandoned Byzantine city, now overgrown with olive trees. The plan was to camp in the ruins but when we stopped to ask a local whether it would be ok, that was it. We simply had to come home with him - It was apparently much too cold to camp. The head of the household spoke no English and looked like a giant teddy bear with a huge beaming smile. I never worked out what he did for a living but he worked in Lebanon and was definitely more well off than most Syrians we met. Up on his roof terrace we sat down and tea was brought out with plates of fruit, nuts, and chocolates. As we polished of the nibbles, one of the kids lit up a pile of wood and started BBQing skewers of freshly slaughtered sheep (there was festival on at the time where everyone in Syria kills and eats their sheep!). Soon, more plates were arriving - houmous, salads, bread, falafel, cheese, rice - and the meat was brought over. The family weren't eating. It was all for us and we were the centre of attention for the whole night. After dinner we were taken inside and given tea, coffee, and more fruits and chocolates. I couldn't believe it. I wondered do they do this whenever a traveller comes by? Haven't we totally ruined their evening plans? Are they doing this out of a sense of obligation or are they genuinely pleased to have us? (I decided the latter was true). The next day, we had an enormous breakfast and a morning of guided tours of the local ruins. It was a magnificent experience and the only slight hiccup was when I got out my map late in the evening to ask what he thought of cycling to Lebanon. The giant teddy clearly thought Lebanon was great, and as he mused over the map he got suddenly excited when he came to the border area between Lebanon and Israel. Smiling, he waved his fists in the air shouting, 'Hezbollah, Hezbollah' whist making missile noises and pointing to Israel. I laughed nervously and swiftly moved the conversation on to road conditions. We couldn't have asked for a better reception from the Syrian people, but the the constant attention was also quite exhausting. On the following night, a tummy bug had started to go round the group, and we wanted a night out of the spotlight, to lounge in our tents and get to bed early. It wasn't easy though. It took a long time to persuade our next hosts - more farmers - that we wouldn't be cold and that we really love sleeping in our tents. The remaining days to Damascus continued in this way, alternating between spending the nights in family homes, and desparately trying to persuade them that we just wanted to camp. Even though it all got too much at times, I will never forget the way we've been treated here and will always regret that we can't can't even speak enough Arabic to thank properly.When we finally rolled into Damascus after our whistlestop tour of Syria, I needed two things: My first wash in 5 days, and some peace and quiet. First stop, Nureddin Hammam - Damascus's 900 year old traditional (i.e. men only) bath house - but as I should have guessed being in Syria, there were surprises in store and no chance of the relaxing soak I had been dreaming of. I was shown into a big domed marble room filled with thick steam and the door was closed behind me. Stumbling to the wall, I had to sit down on the floor to find breathable air, and also found that the room was lined with marble bird-bath looking thingys filled with water. After steaming myself and sloshing some water around the place, I emerged and was led into a room where a big hairy man gave me an 'abrasive' rub-down with a sandpaper-like glove. Then into a room where an even bigger, even harier man 'massaged' (read: 'beat the shit out of') me. Finally, I was given a soothing cup of tea and ejected back into the hubbub of Damascus's medieval souk. I felt relaxed and invigorated for the first time in quite a while.The souks of Syria are magical places of winding alleyways and bustling covered streets, filled with everything imaginable. Each bit has it's own niche speciality. There are areas for having stuff welded to other stuff, one section devoted solely to caged tropical birds, and places to discreetly grab some kinky lingerie for your burka clad wife. Sadly, I can't afford to carry any more crap than I already have, so I had to studiously ignore all the intriguing Arabic treasures...with a couple of exceptions. I couldn't resist a kilo of peanut brittle, and half a kilo of dates, both of which cost next to nothing. With my front bag full of this energy giving goodness we'll soon be setting off to the Jordanian border, 110km south of Damascus to begin cycling our last country before we officially reach Africa!!Stats so far:
Days on the road: 88
Kilometers: 5282Average Distance per [cycling] day: 79kmAverage Distance per day including rest days: 60km% of total distance done: 29%Most days in a row without washing: 5
Longest day: 143km (In Turkey, from Cukerbag at in the Tauruses, to Tarsus at sea level)Highest Poınt: 1720 metres (Taurus Mountain pass)Top Speed: 64km/h
Weirdest Food: Turkish Chicken Pudding (rice pudding but with ground chicken instead of rice)Most impressive fellow cycle tourer we've met: Bill, a retired Chinese power station engineer travelling the world on a fold-up Brompton style bike with hardly any luggage.
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