Around the world by bike
(570km - 23days)
22/9 - 14/10 2007
22 - 23 September - Atakia – Aleppo – 110 km
On my arrival at the Syrian border and met four guys on their way to South Africa by motorcycle. They introduce me to Ahmed, a tour guide, who was helping them in obtaining a visa for Syria. Ahmed was very accommodating and got all my forms filled in, and 3 hours later I had my visa and was on my way to Aleppo, Syria. Sometimes I cannot believe my luck, and I realised that I was extremely fortunate to have met the motorbike riders as well as Ahmed.
My first thoughts cycling into Syria was, wow, what have I let myself in for! This was an entirely different world, different culture, different language, different scenery! Not only was it a conservative Muslim country it was also a desert country. Syria is one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world, archaeological finds indicate human habitation dating back 700 000 years.
I cycled into Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in Syria, at 18h00 in peak traffic and what a madhouse - cars everywhere, I had no idea Aleppo was such a large city. It was Ramadan, and thousands of very hungry people are on their way home! I found a reasonably priced hotel - "Hotel Tourist" - which was centrally located and very clean. Achmad, from the hotel, was very helpful and offered to walk me around town. I spent the following day in Aleppo, and took a walk around the Citadel, Market and museum, but needed a GPS to find my hotel along the narrow streets, all looking the same. That evening Achmad offered to show me more of the town, and we walked around and had supper at one of the local eateries. What friendly people the Syrians are!
My first full day of cycling was from Aleppo to Idlib about 60 km straight into a stiff headwind. On arrival at Idlib I enquired about accommodation and in the process met Ahmad, who invited me to stay with him and his wife. I was given, an entire apartment for the night and was asked to supper with his brother and sister-in-law. What a pleasant experience, not only did we sit on the floor but we use no utensils just our fingers! Even although it was Ramadan, Somod (Ahmad's wife) made various dishes of delicious food. It was a lovely evening even although Ahmad was the only one who spoke any English, we still communicate and enjoy each other’s company. They taught me how to sit correctly while eating and laughed jovially at me struggling to eat with my fingers. I left for my room very well fed!
25 September - Idlib – Latakia – 130 km
From Idlib to Latakia was 130 km. The road led me over a mountain range, coupled with a headwind it made for a slow going. Everywhere I went people were very accommodating, but few could read the map, as it was in English, making asking directions slightly tricky. Everyone I met along the way looked at me in utter amazement; firstly I'm a woman; secondly, I was on a bicycle, and thirdly, I was travelling alone. Just about everyone was keen to communicate, and in the process, I was offered more food and drink that I could consume.
26 September – Latakia
The traffic astounded me, there appeared to be no rules, and if any, I do not know what they were! The driving seemed aggressive with everyone doing their own thing, and all this without any accidents - quite astonishing really. Syria was also the land of the 3-wheel pickups. They carted anything from people to building rubble. It was quite easy for me to keep up or even overtake them, to the great delight of the children.
27 September - Latakia – Tartus - 85 km
The fact that there were surprisingly few tourists around, in fact, I hardly saw any, made me stick out like a sore thumb. Another strange thing was that I came out in lumps and bumps which were terribly itchy and instead of getting better they seemed to get worse. I was irritated and tired, it was hot, and I was itching from head to toe. I booked into an overpriced chalet just to discover that the place was infested with creepy crawlies. It was a day I felt incredibly sorry for myself. Although I was next to the coast, the coastline was dirty with all kinds of rubbish. I thought better of it to go for a swim, not because of the garbage, but I was afraid of offending the conservative Muslim Syrians.
28 September – Tartus
The following morning, I woke with a swollen eye and even more itchy bumps - this could not be happening.
29 September - Tartus – Homs – 110 km
I still could not make head or tails of the traffic rules as even although the traffic lights were red the traffic did not stop and that with a traffic policeman in the middle of the road to help regulate the traffic.
It turned out a rather interesting evening as I took a taxi to the restaurant and the taxi driver stayed and had a meal with me. He spoke no English with made it slightly uncomfortable.
30 September – Homs
As I saw little of Homes the previous day and I stayed one more day and walked the ancient markets and ate very sweet pastries with small cups of very strong coffee. It was still incredibly hot, and I wonder how the local women could walk around all covered in black from head to toe. The men seem marginally better off in their long white robes, or at least it looks a lot cooler. The cities were a jumble of noise and colour as hooting is part of driving and mosques are calling people to prayer ever so often.
1 October - Homs – Damascus – 80 km
As I left Homs on my way to Damascus, the scenery suddenly changed, and all I could see was desert. Gone were all the olive trees, pomegranates and figs - just barren land everywhere. And as that was not bad enough, a ferocious wind picked up and all one could see was a grey/yellow haze. I battled on but knew I would not get very far in the wind like that. I had my head down to try and keep the sand from my eyes and nearly did not see a van parked alongside the road flagging me down. A sweet French couple stopped and offered me a lift to Damascus! This was too good an offer to decline, I jumped in, and in no time at all, we were in Damascus.
They parked their van in the backyard of St Paul's convent, and I pitched my tent in their herb garden (hope I did not flatten the parsley).
2 October – Damascus
I left the convent quite early as the gardener started watering the garden, I waved goodbye to my saviours and cycled into the city centre in life-threatening traffic. I found an inexpensive hotel but first had to clean it.
In Damascus, I waited for my sister Amanda to arrive who was coming to Syria for a short holiday. We relied on buses and travelled both Syria and Jordan. I also made the discovery that my passport was nearly full and that it was not possible to order a new one in either Syria or Jordon. Another lesson learned. I stared myself blind at the expiry date and never considered the number of pages left in the passport. There were very little I could do but return to South Africa, order a new one and then be on my way again. A costly lesson!
We visited places like historical Maalula, situated 56 kilometres from Damascus where houses are clinging precariously to the cliffside. Maalula is also one of the only places in the world where Aramaic is still spoken, a language presumably spoken by Jesus Christ.
We quickly got used to the lifestyle in Syria where nothing opens before 10h00. Breakfast is usually served until 12h00. Shops closed between 16h00 – 18h00 and remained open until quite late.
We bussed back to Aleppo where historical records indicate that the area has been occupied from around 5000 BC. We visited the covered souq-market which was situated in the old walled part of the city. It was said to be the largest covered market in the world. Hundreds of long narrow alleys run for approximately 13 km, all jam-packed with people and goods. We strolled around the old citadel dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. We visited the Crack des Chevaliers castle, said to be the most preserved medieval castle in the world, first inhabited in the 11th century by Kurdish troops.
We popped into to Hama famous for the oldest surviving water wheels (norias) in the world, dating back to the medieval Islamic period. We saw about 6 of them along the Orontes River, and amazingly they were all still in working condition.
Then it was off to the oasis town of Palmyra, another ancient city founded in the 3rd millennium BC. Famous for the place where the queen of Sheba ruled and for the ruins of the “Pink City”, a city that was once one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. In those days Palmyra was a wealthy caravan oasis due to its very prominent location on the trade route between Persia, India and China. One of its main features was a collonaded street measuring 1 100 metres in length. Today the ruins of Palmyra still rise out of the Syrian desert revealing the remains of the streets and the temple of Ba’el, considered to be on of the most important religious buildings of the 1st century AD.
Palmyra is also the place where we got chatted with a local man who invited us to visit his family living in the desert. The trip involved a camel trip to a Bedouin camp. We slowly rocked along until we reached camp with sore backsides. No one understands one another; we stared at them, and they stared at us. Later the afternoon we were taken along to the waterhole give the camels a drink of water and on our way back to the camp ran into a sandstorm. One could see it rolling in from a long way off, and once it reached us, you could hardly see anything at all. I was surprised at how protected we were in the tent. The tents were beautifully decorated with woven carpets on which we also sat and slept. We (as visitors) sat with the men in the main tent, while the women lived and cooked in smaller tents outside. Once the food was done, it was brought in on big trays. Traditionally the men eat first and the women what is left over.
Our visit to Syria came to an end, and we headed to Amman, Jordon, another fantastic country steeped in history. We visited famous Petra and could squeeze in a trip to Aquba before heading back to South Africa.
I flew from Amman, Jordan, back to South Africa with my sister Amanda, as I was in desperate need of a new passport. All thru my travels I have always been amazed at how things can happen at random. To my utmost surprise Ernest Markwood, whom I started travelling with, was also back in Cape Town for different reasons (his mom had a heart attack and was very ill). He, however, left most of his belongings in Addis Ababa.
Saturday 6 October – Cape Town to Damascus via Doha
Sunday 7 October - Doha to Damascus
I arrived in Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, late afternoon where I met Leana at the Sultan Hotel. The hotel is approximately one kilometer from the old city which is now a bazaar. We immediately left for the old city where one can walk among all the shops until late.
It’s difficult to describe the traffic in Damascus, one have to experience it oneself. They don’t use indicators but hoot if they want to turn or overtake and then just turn. Nerveracking if you are the passenger. To cross a street is another story, one just hopes for the best and runs.
Monday 8 October - Damascus
After breakfast (1 boiled egg , Syrian bread , jam, butter, cheese and tea without milk , every morning the same the entire holiday) we took a taxi to Shrine of Saida Zeinab, 10 km from Damascus. Later the morning we took a minibus to Maalula, 56 kilometers from Damascus.
I quickly got used to the lifestyle in Syria. Nothing opens before 10h00 in the morning. Breakfast is usually served until 12h00. From 16h00 – 18h00 the shops close until 20h00. Then they open at 20h00 until late. Everyone is out on the streets and in the shops at night, even the children.
Tuesday 9 October – Damascus - Aleppo
Wednesday 10 October - Aleppo
Thursday 11 October – Aleppo - Hama
We took the bus to Ham where we stayed in the Raid hotel. We took a taxi to the Crack des Chevaliers castle, an hour’s drive from Hama.
Hama is famous for the oldest surviving water wheels in the world. We saw about 6 of them along the river and they are all still in working condition.
Friday 12 October – Hama - Palmyra
We took a mini taxi to Homes from where we took the bus to Palmyra. Palmyra is so small the bus doesn’t stop at the bus stop, but drops everyone off at their various destination. The driver dropped us at the Sun Hotel, one of the budget hotels in Palmyra.
Palmyra is famous for his pink city (a dead city) where queen Zenobia ruled. Later the evening we went up to the Arab Castle for a desert sunset.
The hotel owner’s mother will make supper for guests if one wants to eat there and we decided to make use of the offer instead of going out.
Saturday 13 October - Palmyra
We left Palmyra at about 10h00 on a camel trip and arrived at the Bedouin camp at 14h00 (±10km). That was quite an experience with no one understanding one another; we stared at them and they stared at us. Later the afternoon we went to a water hole and on the way back to the camp we were in a sand storm. Not too bad, just a taste of a sandstorm.
Sunday 14 October – Palmyra - Damascus
After breakfast we said goodbye to the Bedouins and left for Palmyra and then per bus for Damascus. It was the end of Ramadan and also a long weekend, with the result that nearly all the hotels were fully booked. We found a hotel, Dakara, not too far from where the Sultan hotel is and not too far from the old city for our last shopping in Syria.