I am glad we make it to the Syrian border before sunset, but the happynes quickly turns into impatience and frustration. The customs paperwork drives me nuts. Pushing and pulling during two hours to work my way through the crowd to the next counter to connect yet the next stamp. I cant remember how many people I needed a stamp from or had to pay inofficial money or had to ask something but they were a whole lot and all that in one and the same building. Finally we get to ride into Syria… in the dark… And Syrians aren’t really the most traffic friendly people of the northern hemisphere, believe me. We got that panicking feeling over us more than a few times when yet another truck made an unforeseen movement.
It is late already when in the middle of a crossroad I dig for my old mini laptop in order to consult my digital lonely planet. All of a sudden we’re drawing loads of attention. People gather around us and one kindly but promptly informs if we’re indeed married. But as soon as we show our fake rings, everything seems to be ok: we’re no longer seen as major sinners.
The next morning confronts us with a true cultural shock. We have to get used to the chaotic atmosphere in town. It’s all extremely crowded and dense, there is noise everywhere, everyone takes hold of us. And everyone seems to know one another.Women wlak across the straat fully covered in niquab. A mere glimpse of the eyes is visible, if at all. I sometimes wonder if underneath that clothing, a beautiful woman is hiding. I can only guess. Women seem very timid and and tend to turn away as soon as I might make a gesture that could lead to getting my camera. But they all seem to stare at Caro and not in the friendliest way.
We get hopelessly lost in the Souks. This is an extremely crowded place. Litterally everything is sold from tiny 3x3m shops. When we finally get out, we got smacked by the heat. Near the citadel we find a bit of refreshment on one of the terraces. We have dinner at one of the sloppy restaurants and in a very particular way, an Arabic version of Freddy Mercury, but grumpier, throws our plates in front of us on the table. Seen the reaction of the other customers, this seems to be just normal Aleppoan tradition… We try to adapt ourselves…
I have a very strange feeling when we walk through the Souks of Aleppo. Women here don’t show anything. One can only guess how they would look like because you won’t see more than their eyes. Some women even hide that little bit of themselves for the outside world and walk around fully covered. I feel like a dirty slut walking around here. I wear a short sleeved T-shirt, rolled up my pants against the heat and I wear my hair loose. It doesn’t take very long before my pants are unrolled and my hair goes in a ponytail with bandana. I just don’t want to shock anyone but apparently I do seen the fact a local just squeezes me in the bum as he walks by.
I keep on searching for that little bit of humanness in those women. Well, they also poke their noses, get their knickers out of their bum, buy lingery in all possible colors and look at the, even to western standards, trashy outfits that are sold in the Souks. And yet, if they see a photo camera they cover their faces or turn around and walk away. At this moment I am more than happy to be born in Belgium, that’s for sure …
Treasures in the desert
A major section of the road to the south runs through the desert. Because of the speed we are making, the heat is more or less bearable, but it feels like being in a fan assisted oven. Maybe we didn’t chose the right season after all? One has to make a choice somewhere… Along the road we get to know the true hospitality of teh Syrian rural population. The men are very helpful and it’s pretty obvious they are interested in the big motorbikes. They consider it as an honor if you drink tea with them and gesture language helps us a fair bit in something that with a little bit of imagination starts to look like a premature conversation. Unlike European languages that at least contain some parts that can be more or less understood, this Arabic language is just… well … Chinese… Along the road to Palmyra there’s different totally deserted historic sites, accessible to everyone. You can enjoy the historic treasures this country has to offer, far away from touristic crowds. You don’t pay any entrance fee and the notion of conservator is non existing. No ice cream, coca-cola or kebab, no pushy sellers or whole families staring at you. This is culture in a pure environment. We visit Ar Rasufa, originally an Assyrian, later Roman fortress, and Al Hir Al Sharki, a 7th century residential palace of the local caliph.
The road offers loads of opportunities for some off road play and I enthusiastically dive into the sand and gravel. Even Caro shows herself courageous and works her way through the mandatory stretch of off road without any problem whatsoever, albeit still a bit shaky on the legs. In Palmyra we enjoy a delicious meal and the fact that the Stella beer is Egyptian brand (and not the much beloved Belgian gold liquid), also taste wise, doesn’t bother me. An attempt of an American over-social tourist to get on my nerves doesn’t change the fact that this has been a splendid day!
Merkins, whatever… Palmyra!
We wake up before dawn to see the sunrise from the citadel of Palmyra. The American tourist told us the day before that this is a must do and at 4.45 AM we are ready to leave. As we start the climb to the citadel, we meet her as she shouts a very loud heeeeeey hellllloooooooo wooooohoooooo. We turn our heads and cannot stop from laughing as she is sitting on (not really riding) a camel. Oooooh my goodness! This cannot be true! We wave back in a friendly way and continue our climb to the citadel. A quiet morning breeze is the only thing you hear and everything is so quiet and peaceful. We intensely enjoy the sunrise and just as we are about to make our descend, I can see from behind the corner… yeah right: the camel with the excited American tourist, shouting loud and making lots of noise. She is half an hour late and did’t see anything of the sunrise. So far the waking up early and riding the camel…
The historical site of Palmyra is a must do for all who appreciate a very worthwile piece of world cultural inheritage, without the usual commercial circus.The site is rather limited in size but it excels in beauty and composition. It’s a ruin of what has once been an important city in central Syria, dating back to the first century BC. In the background, on the top of the hill, arises the impressive citadel. Breathtaking!
Cooked or fried?
From Palmyra we head further south over sealed road and again we are about taken hostage at the Syrian border where Kafka rules. We finally arrive in Amman, the capital of Jordan, via dark, shiny and slippery roads without any markings. This place is seems a hotbed for bugs and as we stop to read the map, I realize myself we are next to a pile of waste bags that is infested by king size cockroaches. There seem thousands of them and they run around at speeds you can hardly imagine. The map goes under my bum and I open up the throttle as I shiver with the idea of one of them creatures running up my boots … brrrrrr. Amman will just be a place to spend the night, nothing more, and tomorrow we want to get moving as soon as possible.
The road to the Dead Sea takes us about 400 m below sea level and almost 50C above freezing point. The heat is unbearable and there is absolutely no wind. It seems that on the bike speed doesn’t mean a cool wind. It is just too hot and the principle of a fan assisted oven becomes more than clear to me. We arrive at the beach like two fried chickens. Locals rent some kind of a parasol with two chairs and despite my principles, we are more than happy to pay a way too high price for that little bit of scarce shade. I decide to take a go at the magic of the salt water and prepare for a refreshing plunge2E%2E%2E or NOT! I float like the best and I could easily have read the paper, but there is absolutely no cooling involved. The water is hot, so fucking hot! Caro decides not to go into the water as men on the beach, accompanied by veiled women are clearly luring at her. We don’t want to shock too much.
No, today we’re not there yet…
We had hoped to finish the ride to Petra today but what seemed to be a relatively feasible trip on the map, turned out to be an endlessly winding road. It was a lovely ride though, especially at higher altitude and thus lower temperatures. The view is superb, but it is getting pretty late already, also due to again a flat front on Caro’s bike and the typical local gathering that is organized at such an exceptional event. We decide to spend the night in the Dana Natural Reserve and as we are looking for a hotel, we end up in the middle of nowhere. Caro just cannot take it anymore right now. She is exhausted and we decide that I will continue on my own from there over the gravel piste. It’s a shame I have to refuse the invitation of a group of friendly Jordans who camp in the wild and have a huge pot of delicious stew on a bonfire and offer me a chichi and a meal with them. I really feel like staying with them but I kindly refuse their offer and return to Caro to find something more convenient to spend the night, with a hot shower and some good food. By 11 PM, a delicious hot meal is served in a little hotel in the center of the village of Dana and then we hurry to bed.
It’s only in the morning that we realize the beauty of the environment we got into. This is Jordan’s biggest natural reserve on the crossing of 4 bio-geographic zones. Sandstone erosion has formed bizarrely shaped cliffs with the desert in the background. Truly impressive!
We really want to make it to Petra today and as usual we leave a little on the late side. But the distance is peanuts and feasible. At least if I don’t get another flat. I think Tom has had it with them flats. As we are back on the road, after having lost precious time again, we meet one of the few Jordans that speak perfect English. He looks doubtful as we tell him we want to make it to Petra before the night and advises us to stop in Dana. He assures us it is more than worth the stop, but now it’s Tom turn to look doubtful. He wants to get to Petra!
We ride along the lovely twisties: pretty tiring but really fun… until it gets dark! I can hardly see anything and just relying on Tom’s rear light is tricky and in fact also exhausting. The last few couple of days have been pretty demanding. All of a sudden we see an arrow pointing us the way to the natural reserve. We leave the road which means the end of that last little bit of light, and end up on a small gravel road. This is already not really my cup of tea, especially not in the dark and in the state I am in right now. We decide that Tom will continue on his own looking for a place to sleep. I will wait for him, in the dark.
Tom leaves and as I see his rear light going further and further, I am overwhelmed by a sudden fear. I am scared, really really scared. Except the stars you cannot see anything here. Nothing, nada, rien! It’s just black, plain black! I hear dogs screaming in the distance, or maybe they’re wolves? It seems to me the sound of these animals is nearing more%2E%2E& and more%2E%2E& and even more. Holy shit!
My fantasy is driving me nuts. I have visions of starving wolves devouring my body. I see an image of Tom who only finds a skeleton on the place he left me and needs to identify me by the teeth. And I haven’t brushed them since this morning! I am more than relieved as I see a headlight in the distance, hours later (or maby only just half an hour%2E%2E%). As a total nutcase I started blinking my headlight until he is at one meter away from me. What a relief! He has found me back alive.
Petra at last
Barely an hour later, 18 days and 6000 kms after we left Brussels, we arrived at our final destination: Petra! It’s like a burden is lifted off our shoulders and we both feel pretty excited and euphoric. Many people said we were crazy, but we and especially Caro has proven herself, and how? I am really proud of her. We had a well deserved chill on a terrace, went looking for a place to sleep and then, Spanish style, shorts and sandals, on the bike to the entrance of the historic site.
And that site is just … amazing! Impressive! The entrance (Siq) consists of a rock fissure between 3 and 11 m wide, 1,2 kms long and up to 200 m high at certain points. One feels so futile here, everything seems so overwhelming… We pass the huge buildings carved in the rocks. It seems endless and they shape a marvelous panorama. Half a day we walk around on the site and go from one astonishment to the other. We make the climb to the monestary and for Caro, who is afraid of heights, that also is a true challenge. But she does it all! The overwhelming impression of the site makes one silent. There is an extremely peaceful atmosphere up there and we enjoy the late sun before making the decent right before closure. Don’t look down too much Caro… At the end of the day, we had a good meal on a terrace and updated our facebook profile for our friends: Oh yes! We made it! Boy what a lovely day this has been!
And now… back!
Riding to Petra is one thing, but now we have to get back home as well. And we have already spent 17 days of our 4 weeks. It becomes clear that we cannot afford to dawdle. We try to keep a good pace and opt for the main road across the desert to ride back to the Syrian border. I try to make sure we have a couple of spare days at the end of the trip to recover somewhat on a sunny Greek island, so I want to get as far as possible today.
Again the border crossing into Syria couldn’t really be called smooth. There seems to be some military muppet full of stars telling me he wants proof that Caro and I are married. Again I show him our fake wedding rings but this time they want a written proof. I try to explain that document is in Belgium and as he asks where Belgium is, I just tell him ‘veeeeeeeeeeeery far away’. No friendly smile this time but a very doubtful look. I have to go explain my case with the big moufti with even more stars, but the language barrier and the fact that even I don’t understand what the meaning of this all is, leads to a Babylonian confusion. I have the impression he wants me to pay, but I pretend not to understand. He gets irritated and makes gestures that I have to go … Back to the counter, queuing up, pushing, pulling to get a good position and hopefully be able to explain that even the big chief has no solution. After half an hour, with an attitude of ‘whatever makes you happy’ and without even looking at the documents, the assistant moufti puts 3 stamps on our documents and derogatorily gesticulates I have to go away.
We ale flom China
So far so good, but in the meantime its getting dark again and we still have to get through the chaotic mess of Damascus where, as we stop to have dinner, we are THE attraction in town. Everyone rushes to his cellphone and in no time the cousin of the nephew of this friend’s mother in law’s brother and his entire family is working his way through the crowd to get a glimpse of us and the bikes. It’s getting all a bit too crowded for us but at the same time we see the funny side of it all. Where we come from? China! What is? (pointing at our camelbaks) Whisky! One guy lively explains to the rest of the crowd how crazy we are and he tries to explain us whisky might be socially accepted in China, but not so here in Syria and certainly not in traffic! We had a good laugh and a bit later we say goodbuy because we want to make it to China tonight. One guy looks a bit doubtful but the rest waves at us enthusiastically without asking any questions. A couple of 100 kms more in the dark and then it%22s time for some sleep.
A little H on the map turns out to be a, to Syrian standards, exclusive luxury hotel: 85 EUR for a room??? One week ago we paid this amount for a whole week! But we’re running out of time and fatigue has struck us both. We have no choice but paying for the room, but it doesn’t feel comfortable at all …
The next morning we again choose the main road. We get some money from an ATM in Homs and head to the %22Krak des Chevaliers%22, an impressive fortress on a 650 m high hill. It is %22the%22 symbol of the crusades and an ideal spot to overlook the stunning environment. I can’t but strongly recommend this stop, also because of the nice twisties on the way back down. After an hour or two, we are back on the road heading for the Turkish border, but yet another flat front of Caro’s bike decides otherwise. Grrrrmmmmmmblllllll!!!! This can’t be true now can it? The patches don’t seem to stick to the rubber and keep peeling off. So far I have had it with these flat tyres and as the one efter the other without doubt helpful Syrian comes to take a look, I am getting really really pissed. I snap at a pushy guy and he immediately gets it: he takes a safe distance of about 10 m and tells the others to back off. Excellent! Our own personal door keeper along the road! I finally get to swap the inner tube in peace but ot takes much longer to seal it as the tube is now pretty much damaged about everywhere so a repair is becoming tricky. That’s why we can’t but spend the night just before the Turkish border in Lathakia.
This time Caro is responsible for finding a place to sleep and the contrast with the first days of the trip are striking. As she initially wanted a clean and comfortable room, she now tells me with a big smile on her face she has found a room. And it’s damn cheap! It was big, that’s for sure, but it was obvious that the hygienic inspection hadn’t been there since a very long time. Fungus on the walls and in the bathroom and a huge undefinable stain on the wall that seemed like something just splashed open against it. I don’t even try to imagine what this could have been … We sleep in our sleeping bags and take a shower with our sandals on. But it needs to be said: we had a room! Caro is learning to put everything into perspective. Great!