bedouins, bikes and brats
Cycling in the Sinai, Jordan and Syria
26 February 2009
Total kilometers cycled: 50,083
Specific country info on routes & roads/food & accommodation/the locals available here.My first vision as I popped out of the tunnel linking the African part of Egypt with the Sinai, was that of young soldiers peering down from the cliff top pointing their rifles at me. Tensions run high in this part of the world and the situation in nearby Gaza meant everyone was on edge. Next, the long line of lorries came into view. The authorities had conveniently shut down traffic in both directions so we could peddle through the tunnel in complete safety and traffic was backed up. Thankfully, I wasn't wearingconspicuous lycra cycling shorts. My bare elbows seemed to provide enough thrill for the men.
After the mayhem of Cairo, the solitude of cycling through Sinai, surrounded by rugged red granite mountains, was soothing to the soul. But, boy was it cold. St. Katherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai lies at about 1,600 meters above sea level and in the morning a thin layer of frost covered the tent. It was with some difficulty we dragged ourselves out of our snug sleeping bags to face the elements.
After plummeting back down to sea level, we arrived in Nuweiba, a coastal resort cum ghost town on the Red Sea. Tourism has all but dried up with the renewed troubles between Israel and Palestine. Shops are boarded up, hotels lie empty, there are no full moon parties and Bob Marley doesn't blare in the bar. I loved it.
A modern ferry boat with air-conditioning (I was freezing and had to put on my hat and gloves) and cheesy Egyptian videos (luckily I could block them out the sound with my MP3 player) whisked us across the sea to Aqaba in Jordan. Supposedly the boat leaves at 2PM, but it's notorious for being behind schedule and, true to form, we didn't set sail until well after sunset. Arriving at a port, at night, in a foreign country could be a disconcerting or even scary experience in many places. Not so in most of the Muslim world. Sure, you might have to dodge car bombs and snipers in some Middle East hot spots, but personal safety isn't an issue in most of the region. Nobody's going to knife you in the parking lot just to rob you of your cell phone or hijack your bike at a lonely intersection. We rode through the dark trouble free in to Aqaba.
My first impression of Jordan was that of a very developed country. The roads are smooth and well-lit. The local Safeway supermarket offers 20 types of imported breakfast cereals. Plenty of Land Rovers, BMWs and Mercedes flood the highway. Power cuts are as likely as snowstorms on the sea. Nobody begs and we're the worst dressed people on the streets.
The ancient rose city of Petra is Jordan's biggest tourist draw and even though it meant a climb up the King's Highway to over a thousand meters, we didn't want to miss it. The King's Highway is the world's oldest continuously used trading route and passes by many historic sites including imposing crusader castles and Roman ruins. Unfortunately, this stretch of road also has a nasty reputation for stone throwing children. With all the low-flying stones we'd dodged in Ethiopia, we were confident we could take anything they dished out. But the Jordanian kids make the Ethiopians look like amateurs. Kids on the King's Highway don't waste their time with low-flying stones. They go for rocks and aim for the head. The welcome in Jordan is a case-study in polarizing extremes. On the one hand, there are the kids with the rocks. Who might even start off being quite friendly to you, saying hello and asking your name. Till you turn your back and start peddling off only to be pelleted. On the other hand, there are the smiling shopkeepers who won't let you pay for bread. The families who wouldn't dream of letting you spending a night in a cold, damp tent and welcome you into their homes with a meal and a soft bed. Bedouins who invite you to drink tea with them in their warm, cozy tents. The truck drivers who honk and wave and shout out a hearty 'Welcome to Jordan'. I just don't get it.
Petra was amazing. We arrived early enough to have the place almost to ourselves as we gazed up at the 40 meter high al Khazneh (the Treasury)and marveled at the way it had been carved into solid rock. Then we climbed the rough steps up to the monastery to be rewarded with spectacular views over the valley and wandered around the expansive site for the rest of the day.
Back on the King's Highway, we continued to climb before dropping down into a spectacular deep gorge only to climb out again. Up and down, up and down, up and down and then finally down, down, down all the way to the Dead Sea.
We were lucky to find a secluded camping spot near this beautiful body of water some 400 meters below sea level. After a stormy night when Jordan was sprinkled with the first rains of the year, the sun started to peak out from behind the clouds the next morning and we could fully appreciate the beauty of the surreal landscape.
More climbing (ugh!) and some stormy weather were in store for us on our way to Damascus. We were thankful to cross over into Syria because we'd never heard of any hostile kids propelling dangerous objects at innocent tourists ion that country. Syrians have a reputation amongst travelers as being some of the warmest and most generous people in the region. We can now confirm that the reputation is well-deserved. If you want to meet friendly and hospitable locals, visiting countries on the US State Department's travel warning list isn't a bad idea. Within limits. I'm not suggesting you book a flight to Somalia or Afghanistan, but we've certainly enjoyed or stays in Travel Warning countries such as Sudan, Sierra Leone and Syria.
We were about 60 kilometers outside of Syria's capital city and looking for a place to spend the night. We'd turned off the main highway into a small settlement and were scouting around for a large property where we might ask to pitch the tent.
Suddenly a friendly voice called out, "Welcome, you are welcome. Come. Come". And of course we did because we were cold, wet and hungry. Our host, Salah, whose deeply lined face was the result of a long stressful stint serving in the army stationed in Lebanon and years under the harsh sun tending his large tomato farm, showed us to his home and motioned for us to rest in front of a roaring fire. Slowly family members emerged, shy daughters hiding behind their veils who served us tea and sweets and excited sons eager to practice the English they'd learned at school. His wife, a matronly woman who had borne him 11 children, insisted on washing our muddy clothes and I spent the evening in one of the daughter's hot pink track suits. After a while Eric was escorted into another room where he spent the evening with the men talking politics (Bush got a thumbs down and a grimace) and watching satellite TV while I hung out with the women looking at wedding albums and cooing at babies. Sleeping was also segregated just like in a boarding school dormitory and I was given soft cushions and thick blankets to spread out next to the girls. All the excitement and energy expended entertaining the family took its toll, and in the morning I was suffering from a pounding headache. When I decided to go back to sleep, an older girl kept watch beside me and brought me tea and aspirin. I continue to wonder at the warmth and kindness of the people I meet while traveling. It's an amazing planet we live on.
Damascus is the oldest city in the world that has been continuously inhabited. The vibrant Old Town is a labyrinth of narrow alleys filled with pastry shops selling baklava and other Middle Eastern sweets plus everything to delight Western tourists such as chocolate croissants and cream-filled buns, bakeries turning out fresh flat-bread, hole in the wall restaurants serving up falafel sandwiches and tiny pizzas topped with thyme and olive oil, and mom and pop shops selling everything imaginable to meet a family's daily needs. I never tired of strolling the streets and I never made it back to the place we were staying without asking directions at least a dozen times.
From Damascus we continued climbing up to the Lebanese border. Strong winds kicked up, rain started falling and, as we gained elevation, that rain turned to sleet and finally to snow! We were chilled to the bone but still exhilarated at the sight of the mountains dusted in a brilliant white blanket. Road conditions were treacherous at the pass and we ended up spending the night in a Mosque reserved for women. It was warm and cozy and we were only disturbed a few times by burqa-clad women coming into pray.
We're in Beirut at the moment, a place I never dreamed I'd ever be visiting and which I fear causes my parents great concern. It's exciting to be in sophisticated Lebanon, but we'll have to save those stories for next month's update.
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