129 miles, 13 mph average30 Nov 08Day 1
Aleppo (Haleb) - Mediterranean


Once the centre of the Islamic Empire, Syria covers an area that has seen invasions and occupations over the ages, from Romans and Mongols to Crusaders and Turks. Syria gained its independence from the French in 1946, and whilst officially a republic it has been ruled by the Assad family since 1970.

Bashir Assad, the current president, came reluctantly to power after his playboy brother (and the erstwhile heir) came to grief in his convertible Merc. Bashir had been working as an ophthalmologist. Initially he was reluctantly accepted by the people in deference to his father, but he has gone on to prove his worth making modernist reforms whilst maintaining a popular degree of antagonism to the United States. There are pictures and statues of President Assad Jnr & Snr everywhere in Syria.

Whilst Syria has its own oil, production is in decline and the country spends over half its revenues on armaments - and with neighbours like Iraq, Israel and Lebanon who can blame them? Poverty is hence widespread, according to the BBC average income is less than £1,000 p.a., and the country has no free media.

To quote the UK Foreign Office "There is a general threat from terrorism. Attacks cannot be ruled out and could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers. On 27th September a car bomb exploded at the intersection of the Airport Road and Damascus South Circular Road in Damascus. Seventeen people were killed and many injured". On 26th October American helicopter-borne troops launched an assault on a building in a Syrian border village. A friend of mine quipped encouragingly that perhaps I should pack my mountain biking body armour. Welcome to Syria.

My own experience of travelling through the country was more one of axis of friendliness rather than axis of evil. I was made welcome everywhere, offered countless cups of tea, but never hassled or overwhelmed. If I was lost someone would come to my aid, if they couldn't help they would find someone that could. As well as Arabic, in which I had taken great pains to learn a few essentials, some of the older people had a little French (one moped riding Bedouin I met was, somewhat bizarrely, fluent in Spanish) and invariably a conversation would go like this:

Me: "Murr haba" (Hello)
Friendly Arab Bloke (FAB): "Saba al-khayr, kayf haalak?" (Good morning, how are you?)
Me: "Momtez, shokran" (Great, thanks)
FAB: "Ala fayn?" (Where are you going?)
Me: "err..."

At this point an English speaker was called, tea poured and I would be given a bag of oranges to help me along my way.

FAB: "Afwan en Suuriya". Everyone said that to me. It means welcome to Syria.




I consider myself to be a well-travelled sort of chap, but I'd never heard of Aleppo prior to arriving in Syria's second city. However it's quite a size with a population of three million, who, like the rest of Syria are
in the majority Sunni Muslims. Its beginnings date back to the 4th millennium BC being at the crossroads of two trading routes - west / east from the Med to the Euphrates (the western end of the Silk Road from China) and south / north from India to Europe, and in the old town some of the original caravanserai (the Travel Inn of yesteryear) still survive. The city's name means 'milk' (Haleb) in Arabic as the Old Testament's Abraham reputedly stopped here to milk his cow. Towering above the ancient city is the 13th century citadel - now a Unesco world heritage site.

Women, head to toe in black yashmaks, milled about the plaza, and I wandered down to the souk to sniff the scent of spices, take tea with the traders and stare at the silverware for which Aleppo's craftsmen are famous. The streets of the souk are covered to give the effect of walking through tunnels and having over 10km of alleyways, its thought to be the largest souk in the world. These tunnels help keep the souk at a moderate temperature all year round.

Next stop was the mosque with its polished marble floor and water fonts, some time to admire the traditional overhanging balconies, and enjoy a cup of hot soup from a street trader. The sight
seeing was all a bit too much for some.

I got the wheels turning early, as daylight hours were limited in midwinter, and wrapped up against the chilly dawn. I rolled through a land of olive groves and tomatoes being grown under poly-tunnels. A land of very odd farm gates. It was a quiet dual carriageway, but it lacked the romance I had expected of the Silk Road although in places you could imagine almost biblical scenes (apart from the overhead cables and satellite dishes of course). From time to time a vehicle would trundle up the road towards me on the wrong side of the road. All perfectly normal it seemed, and always a friendly toot and a wave. When the rolling landscape started to roll higher I thought I had better stop for some breakfast and pulled into a bakery
mistaking it for a café. No fuss was made, tea was poured, and the baker produced some delicious honey soaked cakes from the oven. Three cakes later, three teas and a struggle to get the baker to accept any money and I was on my way. I climbed up to a crest and could see for miles down into the Orontes valley below. The river had seen its hey day long ago and now the waters are siphoned off for irrigation upstream in the farms of the Al Ghab, and what remains is used for cooling a line of chain smoking
power stations whose sulphurous fumes rasped at my throat, such that I was glad to be climbing out into the mountains of the Nusayriyah - a northern extension of the Lebanese chain.

At the top of a steep and endless climb up into the mountains about 25km east of the port city of Latakia is Saladin's Castle. Its strategic position goes back in history to the Phoenicians who controlled this site in the 1st Millennium BC, and were still holding it when Alexander the Great arrived in 333 BC. Saladin didn't come along until 1188 but he never took up residence and his name was only given to the castle in the 20th century. The Crusader's nemesis, Saladin was sultan of Egypt and Syria and founded the Ayyubid dynasty that came to rule most of what we now call the Middle East. As a strict Sunni Muslim, even Christian chroniclers maintain that he did not order any of the killing and maiming and putting the heads of his defeated enemies on spikes that is so readily associated with the Crusades. After Saladin had captured Jerusalem, the English crusaders were so eager to retake the holy city that a special 'Saladin tithe' was imposed, although you could avoid the 10% tax by joining the Crusade itself. Tax or death? Plus ca change! The tithe funded Richard the Lionheart's crusade, but all attempts made by Richard to re-take Jerusalem failed. However, Saladin's relationship with Richard was one of chivalrous mutual respect as well as military rivalry. When Richard became ill with fever, Saladin offered the services of his personal physician and Saladin sent him fresh fruit juices chilled with snow, as a treatment. At Arsuf, when Richard lost his horse, Saladin sent him two replacements.

I was enjoying a late lunch overlooking the castle when Claus and Petra arrived on bikes so heavily laden that I wondered how they had ever managed some of the gradients that had had me pushing my lighweight bike. Tourists are very rare in Syria so to meet two cyclists that had enjoyed many similar trips to mine was a one in a million chance and we spent the evening together in Latakia exchanging stories and tips. Whilst their cycling experiences spanned many years and great distances, they couldn't understand how I could travel so light. It had never occurred to them that travelling as a pair they could have been carrying so much less but had doubled up on things like tools, spares, first aid, cameras and so on!



Syria & Jordan
108 miles, 11 mph average1 Dec 08Day 2
Mediterranean - Crac Des Chevaliers


I didn't sleep at all well and got up before the alarm knowing that the day would end in a big climb. After two hours in pitch-blackness I'd passed Jablah and missed any opportunity to properly see the 4th largest Roman amphitheatre in the world and was beginning to wonder if the sun would ever rise. I checked my watch and discovered that I'd misread it earlier and it was still only 4am! Idiot. Now I was not only tired from riding but sleepy as well. I found a bus shelter, put all my clothes on, including a hood and two hats, and fell fast asleep for a couple of hours.

I swept through Baniyas as quickly as possible - it's a major oil terminal so once again the power plants were pumping out the fumes, and headed inland to see the crusader castle at Marqab. It was perched at the top of another sharp climb and by the time I reached the top I was shaking and in a cold sweat. That turned out to be the first symptoms of gut rot and not just fatigue as I'd hoped. A dash into a grove of eucalyptus and a couple of Imodium soon rectified the situation but I was left feeling washed out all day.

A few miles south of Tartus lie the remains of the Phoenician city of Amrit. This part of the Mediterranean coast is known for its ancient civilisations and evidence of the oldest known alphabet (Ugarit) was discovered not far north from here. The Syrian's were also writing music and using coins while we Brits were still banging rocks together.

With the snow capped Lebanese Mountains to my right I started to climb inland and whilst the rural scenery near Safita was lovely, those killer gradients were back. I needed to ask for directions continually and found that the locals didn't recognise the castle's French name but would smile and point when I asked, "Ayn, Qalak al Hoyn?" but I had to refuse the tea stops offered as politely as possible as the sun was starting its rapid descent and I desperately wanted to reach my next destination in good daylight. The signposts were often in Arabic or sometimes were even more confusing.

Guarding the mountain pass between the sea and Homs is the most important and well-preserved medieval castle on earth. Crac des Chevaliers was the headquarters of the Knights Hopsitalier during the Crusades and as a young lad I'd marvelled at pictures of its ramparts and made wooden swords to fight off the dreaded Turk. The castle was expanded between 1150 and 1250 and eventually housed a garrison of 2,000. The inner curtain wall is up to 100 feet thick at the base on the south side, with seven guard towers 30 feet in diameter. Cycling up there on paved roads was difficult enough, so I'm not surprised the castle has hardly ever been captured in its thousand year history.



Syria & Jordan
126 miles, 13mph average2 Dec 08Day 3
Crac Des Chevaliers - Malula


The high ground east of the castle was rough arable land, that seemed to be sparsely occupied by Armenian families with their herds of goats, occasional donkey and women folk dressed in brightly coloured brocade. I met one such woman as she walked along the empty road to collect water. I wanted to take her photo, but as I stopped the poor girl shrieked, dropped her bucket and took flight. I suppose its not every day you see a man dressed like Marcel Marceau astride some strange machine and talking in a language you've never heard before. I spent the next few hours expecting to see a pick-up truck full of angry Armenian men coming after me with pickaxe handles.

Turning south at Homs I decided I'd take a detour into the country to see a large lake. I found the lake alright but it was really just a cooling reservoir for the local power station so I headed off through narrow lanes between vines and almond groves. Farm workers waved, snotty nosed kids stared in disbelief and no one seemed to know where Damascus was! The road became smaller and turned into a track. Then as I came to the end of the track at a large metal gate I heard the sound of gunfire. I'd accidentally wandered into the middle of a military zone and had been merrily snapping away with my camera. I retraced my wheel-tracks as stealthily as its possible to be in luminous yellow lycra and eventually I rolled up to the Lebanese border a few miles north of the Golan Heights and found out from the gun-toting, tea-offering guards that I was nowhere near where I wanted to be. The only way to Damascus was to go all the way back to the lake - the detour had cost me more than 30 miles.

The road south quickly falls into the rain shadow of the mountains and turns to desert. The desert was...umm...deserted, although I did pass a few small towns and some bee-hive shaped dwellings, but food and water were in short supply so I stocked up whenever possible. I relished the empty tranquillity of the desert, its hues changing from golden brown to ochre to calico to white as I moved south, lit by the stark sun and never ending sky.

It was clear I wasn't going to make Damascus that night but I'd been told there might be somewhere to stay in the mountain villages to the north of the city. I passed the caves at Yabroud at sunset and started the climb to nearly 2000 meters in complete darkness. They say the silence of the desert at night can be deafening. But there was one sound I did not wish to hear. Out of the still night I heard the sound I had been dreading - a howl and then a bark. That bark set off more barking from unseen dogs all around. I didn't want to turn around and flee downhill so I resolved to moving steadily upwards, working with breath to spare in case a sudden sprint was called for. I caught the outline of a big grey dog in my front light and as he turned to see me a strange thing happened. As well as the main bike light, I wear a helmet-mounted torch that gives a focussed beam of light wherever your head is pointing. If you look into the beam its so strong that you'll see nothing but green spots for the next minute or so. The beam caught the dog's eyes; two flashes of amber retina reflecting back at me, making him yelp and duck for cover. I repeated the process with the whole pack, zapping them off as if I was some kind of alien with a laser gun. I think I may have even made "dzzoosch, dzzoosch" noises!

At last I reached the top of the climb and flew down from the darkness of mountaintop into the welcome twinkle of the lights of Malula. I arrived in the village square and three local men approached from the shadow of dim streetlight. Having addressed them in Arabic, they immediately switched to English and after I asked if there was a hotel the first said I could stay in the monastery if I wanted. I thought he was joking and explained that even though I was travelling by bike and probably looking a bit shabby I could afford a hotel if one was available. "No, no" he insisted, pointing to a tiny door in a nearby wall "You must stay with us here in the church. Father Peter will be most pleased to meet you." Having already contemplated a night under the stars in my bivvy bag, the offer of a cold church floor didn't seem too bad so I followed Brother Anthony in.

Father Peter was everything you would expect of a Greek Orthodox priest. A giant of a man, swathed in black and sporting a beard big enough to loose a badger in, he welcomed me into the 3rd century building that had been his home for ten years. The bike was parked under the stairs and I was shown to my heated en-suite room. After that the vow of silence and a £10 voluntary donation didn't seem too high a price to pay.



Syria & Jordan
36 miles, 15 mph average3 Dec 08Day 4
Malula - Damascus


Knowing there would be no point trying to ride further south than Damascus that day, I decided to have a day of leisure. Its largely desert south of the city and if I reached the Jordanian border too late it would be closed
and accommodation might be unreliable.

Father Peter invited me for a sumptuous breakfast of homemade jams, yoghurt and baby aubergines stuffed with pickled walnuts, peppers and garlic. After eating he gave me a tour of the chapel that is full of priceless icons and relics and where services are conducted in Aramaic, as the village is so remote it is now the last remaining place in the world where the locals still speak the language of Christ.

After more Arabic coffee, I said my goodbyes and rode though the village to take a last look up at the monastery and back out into the high desert hills. The scenery was epic; sandstone cliffs that soared skywards and a road of glass that stretched out in front of me. I passed Islamic mosques and Christian churches in equal numbers before a high-speed run down into Damascus in time to hit the rush hour traffic. I think the rush hour here lasts from 7am to 8pm, and I wove my way between dented yellow taxis jammed four deep on a two lane highway. Damascus calls itself the 'fragrant city' but the only fragrance I recall was the essence of spent gasoline.

Syria's capital prides itself on being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with archaeological remains that date back to 6000 BC. It was the Aramaeans who first established the water distribution system of Damascus by constructing canals and tunnels diverting water from the Barada River. The same network was later improved by the Romans and still forms the basis of water system to the old part of Damascus and feeding the Hammam in the ancient souk. I took some time out to soak in the souk, get beaten to a pulp by a big hairy masseur, have four day's stubble sliced off my chin and get refreshed with more tea.

It was here in around 36 BC, that John the Baptist fell foul of a canny political plot. After being so delighted by Salome's erotic dance (sometimes referred as the dance of the seven veils) the Roman governor Herod granted the dancer any wish. Legend has it that she was prompted (thus absolving Herod of any direct responsibility) to ask for the troublesome Baptist's head on a plate, and this very head is now said to remain in a shrine within the Grand Mosque of Damascus. The main entrance to the mosque has some of the most fabulous gilt work and inside services, prayers and speeches seem to continue around the clock. One cleric's tajweed (the melodic recitation of the Qur'an) was so soulful that half of his congregation were moved to tears.

Whilst the Romans were good at stomping around and poking people with sharp metal objects they weren't too hot at maths. Have you tried adding up two columns of roman numerals? Meanwhile the mathematicians of Damascus were using the Arabic numerals we use today to great effect for their trading, price negotiations and engineering. It was this advantage that was a contributory factor in the decline of Roman power and it wasn't until the European armies came back to Syria during the Crusades that our current numerical system was adopted from the Arabs.

My day was cut somewhat short as the citadel was closed for repairs as was Saladin's mausoleum and the national Museum was just closed, so I bought some sugared almonds in the souk and took a take-away dinner back to my no-star hotel room. Total cost for the day out - about a tenner.

That afternoon I got chatting to Hatta, a Canadian Muslim journeying south to Mecca on the Hajj with 50 other Canadian pilgrims. He had been many times before and seemed to be the spiritual leader of his group. It appeared to me to be a phenomenal act of dedication to make such a difficult journey combining hours of connecting flights and great cost, but it is the duty of every ablebodied Muslim to make the Hajj at least once in their life. I asked if I could come along and he said I would be most welcome assuming I would convert to Islam and learn the Qur'an in the next three days.



Syria & Jordan
125 miles, 13 mph average4 Dec 08Day 5
Damascus - Amman


As ever I hit the highway out of town before the traffic awoke. A few miles to the southwest of the city is the approximate site (no one knows for sure) of St Paul's epiphany. Saul (as he was then known), a Greek Jew who had been granted Roman citizenship, was on his way to Damascus under the authority of the religious (Jewish) authorities in Jerusalem, to annihilate the early Christian community there. En route he received a vision, was temporarily blinded and as a result converted to Chrsitianity. Ever since this time 'the Road to Damascus' has sybolised a dramatic and unpredictable change for the sake of higher ideals.

At dawn I was deep in the red As-Safa desert and a tail wind blew me along the flats, cruising at well over 20 mph. I was 50 miles into the day by breakfast time. Eating at any grotty roadside joint seems like a recipe for poisoning, but I figured that once anything has been dropped into the boiling fat any germs would be well and truly dead. I survived almost exclusively on omelette, shawarma (chicken wrapped in flat bread) and falafel, as they were the only things I knew how to ask for in Arabic!

By 9 am I made the border passing only a few small towns and the local Viagra factory. Then the trouble began. Two hours of shuffling paper, queues, stamps, exit visas, entry visas, fees and chitties and I was through. All my earlier speed wasted and the prospect of riding into Amman in the dark at evening prayer time was now a very real and very depressing prospect. Somehow the wind had changed direction to blow in my face and the flats had become hills. I gritted my teeth and the blown sand gritted the teeth of my gears.

I finally emerged from a five-mile barbed wire causeway into The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It's a small country with few natural resources, but it has played a pivotal role in the struggle for power in the Middle East. Jordan's significance results partly from its strategic location at the crossroads of what most Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land. It is one of two Arab nations to have made peace with Israel and has a key allegiance with the USA. The desert kingdom emerged out of the post-World War I division of the Middle East by Britain and France. It has none of the oil of its northerly neighbour and yet average incomes are double. The difference is immediately noticeable by the number of private cars on the road and the availability of recognisable brand names in shops and on advertising hoardings.

Exactly 100 km south of Damascus, the ancientcity of Jerash has an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,000 years and lies on a plain surrounded by wooded hills and fertile basins. Taken from the Greeks by Pompey in 63 BC, it came under Roman rule and was one of the ten great Roman cities. Regardless of its magnificence, someone had left their old bike leaning up against the south gate to the city. Under the Romans it was known as Gerasa, and the site is now generally acknowledged to be one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns anywhere. Hidden for centuries in sand before being excavated and restored over the past 70 years, Jerash has examples of the grand, formal provincial Roman urbanism comprising paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theatres, spacious public squares and plazas, baths, fountains and city walls pierced by towers and gates.

Amman, the capital of Jordan, is a mostly new city with a few remnants of its former glory and is situated high on a hilly area between the desert and the fertile Jordan Valley. The climb into the city seemed eternal and the traffic horrendous. By the time I found a hotel I was shaking with fear, cold and exhaustion.



Syria & Jordan
38 miles, 20 mph average5 Dec 08Day 6
Amman - Dead Sea


My last day was going to be a nice easy one. I had a quick look at the second century Roman Amphitheatre and the far more recent King Abdullah Mosque with its dazzzling blue dome. I had the Mosque to myself but that Friday eveing it would throng to the sound of a thousand worshipers celebrating the first night of Eid. Eid al-Adha, to give it its full name, is the Festival of Sacrifice to commemorate the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God. The devil tempted Ibrahim by saying he should disobey God and spare his son, but as Ibrahim was about to sacrifice his son, God intervened and instead provided a lamb as the sacrifice. In the last few days I had seen trucks of sheep and goats on their way to the cities to meet their fate as today these animals would be sacrificed as a reminder of Ibrahim's obedience to God. The meat is then shared out with family, as well as the poor members of the
community.

I rode south where the road still traces the path of the King's Highway, reputedly the world's oldest continuously used route, connecting the Red Sea to the River Euphrates. It was onced used by Muslims on their way south to Mecca (they now fly or go down the desert motorway further east) and is still used by Christians as it connects many holy sites such as Mount Nebo and Bethany (the place of Christ's baptism on the River Jordan) although this is now in an Israeli military zone and somewhat off limits to nomadic
cyclists.

Being so close to the Israeli occupied territories (Palestine), I came across even more Army and Police checkpoints than usual. Armed to the teeth, usually with a tank parked up to the side, the first guard bade me to pull over. "Sporty!" the guard said. "Yes, um, thanks" I said in reply. "You're sporty, sporty!" he said again somewhat impatiently, "Sporty, yes, cycling, yes, good for the heart" I pointed at my chest. A second guard closed in "Your passportee eef you please!". Ooops.

The first major town south of Amman on the King's Highway is Madaba. In the Church of St. George in the middle of town, there is an amazing mosaic map representing the Holy Land and its surrounding regions. Once familiar with the map's orientation (i.e. not the north - south norm that we are used to), clearly visible are Al-Quds (Jerusalem) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Nablus, Al-Khalil (Hebron), Ariha (Jericho), Egypt and the Nile, Turkey and Lebanon. The mosaic was made around 560 BC, originally composed of over 2 million pieces, and measured 95 square meters of which 25m still exist.

Mount Nebo, known as Pisgah in the Bible, is where Moses lived out his remaining days and viewed the Promised Land that he would never enter (Deuteronomy 34: 1-8). Mount Nebo still offers that fantastic view westward, with a vista that includes the Dead Sea, the West Bank, the Jordan River, Jericho, and, on a clear day, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. There are actually two peaks on Mt. Nebo, Siyagha and al-Mukhayyat. During the sixth century CE, a Byzantine monastery was constructed at Siyagha. It was built on the foundations of an even earlier chapel, which was erected by monks from Egypt during the third or fourth century AD.The ride from the mountain down to the Dead Sea should be included on one of those lists of the top ten things to do before you die. Losing 1200m in altitude over 20 miles, the temptation to blast it all in one manic speed-fest had to be resisted and a little time to stop and stare needed to be employed. I passed Bedouin camps with their traditional tents of black goat hair and gave my first camel quite a fright as I freewheeled past at 30 mph.

The Jordan Rift Valley is a dramatic, beautiful landscape, which at the Dead Sea is over 400 metres below sea level and is the lowest point on the face of the earth. The Dead Sea is 50 miles long, 9 miles wide and the northern and larger part is very deep, reaching at one point a depth of 430m. The Dead Sea is land-locked so that water evaporates, leaving behind a dense, rich, cocktail of salts and minerals that supply industry, agriculture and medicine. Because of its extremely high content of salt and other minerals, it is devoid of plant and animal life. Although sparsely populated and serenely quiet now, the Dead Sea area is believed to have been home to the Biblical cities destroyed by God for their hedonism: Sodom, Gomorrah. So, if you ever wondered where the word 'sodomy' came from...

The leading attraction at the Dead Sea is the water itself - some ten times saltier than seawater and rich in chloride salts of magnesium, sodium, potassium and bromine. The unusually warm, mineral-rich waters have attracted visitors since ancient times, including King Herod and Cleopatra. All of whom have luxuriated in the Dead Sea's rich, black, stimulating mud. I'd forgotten how buoyant the water is reputed to be - it's a sensation of floating on an invisible li-lo, but the salts stung my eyes and smarted at those chaffed areas known only to cyclists!

I finished the trip off by treating myself to a visit to a five star hotel and watched the sun slip down over the occupied territories of the Palestinian West Bank. My story should end here but for one last incident. As I was leaving and wheeling my trusty bike across the lobby of the vast hotel, a young and attractive Arab lady approached demanding "What ees these? What ees these!" Uh-ho I thought, perhaps I should have slipped out of the tradesman's entrance, but no, next thing she was insisting on a ride. The porter and I steadied the bike whilst she climbed on board with no hope of reaching the pedals as we wheeled her around the sumptuously furnished marble foyer. Arab businessmen, some in suits, some in Shumag (the red and white checked head scarf) and thoub (the splendid white robes) looked on open mouthed in astonishment. I was enjoying the fun and thinking I was leaving anyway so if I got thrown out now it would be no great loss, but noticed the porter's anxious co-operation, so we hurriedly completed the lap of honour and the young lady sauntered off. I explained to the porter that in more than 10,000 km she had been the only person apart from myself that had ridden my bike and asked if the hotel usually allowed cycling indoors. He apologised unnecessarily profusely saying "I had to do as she requested as she is the owner's daughter!"



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