Syria. West side

10 04 2011

I think I’ve just about seen enough of Syria. But it’s quite pleasant here, so I’m a little reluctant to leave. Also the latest round of news reporting / troubles in Dar’a has scared away most of the tourists, so in peak season the tourist spots are all but deserted. It really appears that the Syrian government is being given a hard time by the Western press. I’m not normally all that interested in world politics, but it is inescapable here. And it’s getting more difficult for me to be impartial. Perhaps I should stop there.

I appear to have lived through my pneumonia, if pneumonia it was. I was a bit of a wreck for a few days, and then had a few more days coughing up some interesting colours. But it’s all gone away now, thank goodness. I might need my lungs for the climbing that’s coming up in Turkey.

I got the visa! The Iran visa that is. Hurrah! I visited the Iran Consulate every day for over a week. Somehow, someone (I’m pretty sure it was the travel agency that ‘helped’ me get the visa) messed up, and the approval for my visa got sent to the wrong consulate. After 7 visits to the consulate, someone felt sorry for me, talked to someone else and I’ve no idea how many rules were bent, but I left with the visa in my passport. A week to get a visa, that had already been approved, stamped in the passport may seem like a long time, but I was pretty happy with how helpful the consulate staff were – the Iranian New Year had just passed and from the sound of it, the whole of the Iranian government took a couple of weeks off. So I count myself lucky to get a positive result in the circumstances.

With or without the visa I was going to leave Damascus the day after it was finally approved. I had a complicated back-up plan to get the visa that I am very glad I don’t have to try out. But I had been in the hostel long enough to make a few friends, including some other long time travellers from Aus. I was somewhat torn between leaving them and staying for the company, but they sorted that out for me – they decided to move on anyway.

I hadn’t really recovered, but I was keen to get out of town. So I left, got a flat going up a hill and procrastinated by fixing a few minor things on the bike that I had been putting off for weeks. Yeah, I wasn’t really well enough to be cycling. But I persisted, and after 6.5 hours I found a monastery to sleep out the front of. I remember having enough energy to put up the tent, but not enough to eat. Lucky I’d been fattening up in Damascus on that ice cream. The next day I spent all morning in the monastery (procrastinating again), talking politics with whomever would listen. This was the first Friday after the Presidents long awaited speech, and the general consensus was if ‘something’ was going to happen, it would happen today. It didn’t.

I was heading back to Aleppo (for some more of those macaroons), but decided to take the less easy route. So I went out to the Syrian Mediterranean coast, over a small mountain range. This also means I got a full dose of crusader era castles. If I had a decent internet connection I could upload some photos. Think impregnable.

Between castles, I stopped at a bakery to buy some breakfast. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The baker happened to be crazy about bikes. That surprised me. He offered to ride with me to Lattakia (60km away). How could I say no? So he rushed off to get changed and get his bike (the boss didn’t seem to mind him skipping work for the day). He came back on what turned out to be his training bike – the race bike was too good to just ride on the highway with a crazy foreigner. The police took a bit of an interest in this strange couple, but eventually we got away and rode nearly all the way to Lattakia. A thunderstorm came and chased us under a bridge for a while, but it was pleasant and slightly unusual to ride with a local for a while. It also coincidentally avoided a major disaster – the whole way was on the highway, and my MP3 player had died the day before. Highway riding with no podcasts or audio books? Boring! (It’s ok, I managed to find the loose wire and get it soldered back in place).

To be honest I wasn’t all that enamoured with the costal cities, perhaps partly because it rained most of the time I was in Lattakia (a city planner in Lattakia at some point decided that a great place for a port was right in front of the city, so the city now has a superb view of a large wall, containers, and ships instead of the Mediterranean). I won’t go on about the demonstrations that have recently happened in Lattakia, only to point out that when I was there, there was a very heavy army presence but a remarkable absence of guns. Some tourists I met got scared away by the army, but I couldn’t see any reason for concern. I was concerned by the traffic though, on my way out of town I had to take a breather to calm down at one point. There are many positive attributes one can talk about with the Syrians, but the standard of driving in the cities is not one of them.

The costal hills are quite pretty and very green, at least at this time of year. The wild flowers are out, mostly in the olive groves. I think I’m lucky to see the flowers – they must have a very limited life span, the olive farmers rush to plough the delicate plants back into the soil, using everything from hand tools, to ploughs pulled by oxen or tractors.

I must have been spending to long gazing at the flowers (or trusted the GPS just a little too much), because I managed to take a rather large detour in hilly terrain along the Turkish border. I had to make a strange shaped loop to see some abandoned cities. I’m still not sure why I went out of my way to see another pile of rocks, but perhaps that shows that I’m reluctant to leave the country. But eventually I got here; to Aleppo. Back in the city. I’m going to spend (err, waste) a few days here, then move on.

Turkey, and it’s mountains, is just around the corner, or rather, just past the castle.


26 03 2011

In most of the Middle East, but more often in Egypt, one of the first questions I might get asked is: “What book are you?”. I’ve tried explaining that religion is becoming less important in the West, and that being an Atheist is now an (almost) generally acceptable option. Along with my other answers to questions: “I’m older than thirty”; “I’m not married”; and “No, I have no children” and the quite obvious fact that I’m cycling when I, as a westerner, should be able to afford a car, or at the very least a bus, I’m sure I’m often summed up as simply insane. I’m learning to give answers that are expected and avoid the massive follow-up explanations in sign language.

Maybe I should start saying I’m Catholic. I seem to be feeling guilty.

Most of the guilt comes from wasting precious time: I’ve been in Damascus, on my second visit this trip, for four full days and I’ve barely left the hostel. The day I arrived I visited the Iran Embassy to find out that they couldn’t issue me a visa (come back Sunday), and then yesterday I went out and sedately watched some of the protests / pro-government celebrations (which are being very strangely reported in the world media compared with what I have seen). And that’s pretty much all. I guess it hasn’t helped that the “cold” I developed in Aleppo has migrated into my lungs and I’m gasping for breath after climbing a flight of stairs. I’ve met a few travellers who’ve developed pneumonia in Syria and Lebanon. I hope that’s not what I’ve got, or it eventually goes away by itself, and I’ll be right to ride off when I get this visa!

And I guess I aught to feel guilty about my dinner tonight. Chicken Shwarma followed by an ice cream from Bakdash, an ice cream shop somewhat famous in the region for it’s pistachio covered vanilla ice cream. The ice cream was good, so I wandered back to the hostel, gathered some support, and went back for another. I might even go again tomorrow (although I’m not quite as keen as my room mate who was serious about going for an ice cream breakfast until he found that they opened at 11am).

In Aleppo I was unstoppable. They have many, many different types of sweets,and for some reason I had a large sweet tooth when I was there. The best was a sugary, pistachio filled roll thingy (which was divine although you wouldn’t want to have too much of it, lest your teeth fall out on the spot). But the most consumed was some largish coconut flavoured soft biscuits, which I’ve been calling macaroons, incredibly sweet, reasonably cheap, available everywhere and stupidly addictive. If I go back, I know what I’ll be eating. Damascus: Ice cream. Aleppo: Macaroons. And there is much more of this to experiment with in the next few thousand kilometres…


Sorry, no photos. Internet too slow for that.

Man vs Wind

20 03 2011

I don’t think I’ll have any more votes. I thought I’d put the “come home” option exclusively for my mother and, unless she has found a way around the IP filtering, it seems there are others are not giving their full support. Well, despite that option being equally in the lead as I write, I’m not going to. If only because I’ve had my visa for Iran approved (but it’s not yet in my passport).

I think I left the story last time in Damascus. I had, I thought, arranged to collect the Iran visa in Damascus but I got there too quickly, before Iran had a chance to think about my application. So I visited a few embassies mostly to pass the time between showers and established that the next lot of visas can’t be got in Damascus. Where ever I end up going. I was a bit indecisive, do I wait here, or go for a bit of a look around Syria? Lebanon? I decided that so long as it rained, I would stay, but a break in the weather came too quickly (my legs were enjoying the break and I was enjoying the food). The weather report said nasty things about Lebanon (and I could see the snow on the closer mountains), and less nasty, but not terribly nice things about western Syria. I figured it would be warmer and dryer in the desert.

So I rode for a day with a beautiful tail wind, along a desert road that had an alarming amount of heavy transport and conspicuous signs to Iraq and Baghdad. I (wisely I would suggest) turned off the Baghdad road before my options were too limited. To cut a long whinge short, I then battled a headwind for the next week, even though I changed direction several times. I’ve spent a long time in the company of that wind, but I can’t work it out. When I stop moving, I can barely notice the air moving, but as soon as I start, it feels like a strong wind. I know, I know, rain drops keep falling… At least it wasn’t raining as well.

So what about Syria? I figured I might be here for a while waiting for the Iran visa, so I took a loop that went way out into the desert, toward the Iraq border, and joined the Euphates River. I’ve followed the Euphates, upstream, to the huge Al Assad Lake, and then cut across a large expanse of flat, irrigated, ex-desert to Aleppo. So I’ve ticked a lot of sights:
Palmyra; Smack in the middle of no-where, desert-ville, an ancient city.
Syrian Desert; Flat and warm and surprisingly green with even some flowers. I imagine this is just good luck, there must have been some rain recently, a few days gave me the impression that this stretch could be like a furnace later in the year.
Euphates; One of the cradles of civilisation, damned and tamed nowadays, but I found it more pleasant that the other biggie I’ve seen recently (the Nile). Possibly that was the influence of the people.
Halabiyeh; A thumping great castle, that was clearly greater in the past (the Euphrates has covered the lower part of it with mud over the years).
Qal’aat Ja’abar; Another castle
Rasafeh; I had to back track to see this one, but it was worth it. More ruins in the desert. I still don’t understand why they built this one 30km from the river. I know it was at the intersection of the trade routes, but couldn’t they just move the trade route? Surprisingly well preserved ruin with (so I’m told by those who should know) some interesting architecture.
Syrians; quite simply the nicest people, as a group, I’ve met. I was slightly concerned after the first few days of being in Syria that I wouldn’t get anywhere – Day 1 I stopped to buy something and couldn’t pay for it until I’d eaten beans (lunch) and drunk tea with the shop staff. Bakers were giving me bread (is this heaven?). Luckily the overt friendliness has reduced, and I’ve learnt how to ride past with a wave, but quite often I will be called over to have ‘chi’ (tea) at three or four places in one village. Needless to say if you accepted all the offers, you’d never get anywhere (and I tend not to accept many because I feel rather ridiculous when I can’t say much more than my name and where I come from in Arabic, still). Everyone is curious about the biker. I can get the whole village worth of children following me to buy oranges (wether I want to or not).

So that brings me, around a 1000km later to Aleppo. It has a castle, and souqs. And other things I’ll find out about tomorrow. And it had an email waiting for me that talked about my Iran visa being ready for collection in Turkey. The agency should be able to get it sent to Damascus, so that means I can head back south again soon and then untangle my route toward Turkey. I’m glad I didn’t try to see Lebanon now – I’ve bumped into some other travellers who were just there and say lots of bad things about rain and snow in the mountains.

Desert and headwind beats mountains and rain (in this case – mountains + snow would normally trump desert, but not when there’s a bike involved).