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.
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.
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.
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.