The Middle East
January 08, 2010 GMT
Some readers of these tales will know that I've often sung the praises of the books of Anne Mustoe and her adventures.
She rode a bicycle around the world after retiring in her late fifties, hardly having pushed a pedal before. This was followed by an inspiring book of her journey. Then, in her sixties, she did it again in the opposite direction followed by an even more impressive book.
Not satisfied, she cycled bits of the world in much more detail, followed by books on those explorations in South America, India and Europe.
Well, life has strange twists and turns and I was pointed the other day to an obituary in The Times.
She set off on another one-year bicycle journey in May 2009, and sadly became ill and died in Aleppo, Syria, on 10th November 2009, aged 76.
By some twist of fate, this little band of three were staying in Aleppo, exploring its impressive souk, on that very same day...........
Anne Mustoe, Headmistress of Saint Felix School
Posted by Ken Thomas at 04:15 PM
December 15, 2009 GMT
Middle East Photos - Update
So many photos, so little time for updates.
Photo just added to earlier entry:
The Roman Amphitheatre at Bosra, southern Syria.
Latest Photo update 17th December:
Three Riders outside Krak des Chevaliers.
Spaceman sighted at Palmyra
Spacemens' and spacewoman's crafts sighted at Palmyra.
Nomads' workshop outside Bedouin tent, Palmyra.
Beau tries out the sand outside Palmyra.
Down to the Dead Sea.
In, or on, the Dead Sea.
Entrance to Petra.
Up above The Treasury.
Shadows at Rum.
Beau of Wadi Rum (with Caroline).
Beau shows us the breakfast bar, Softbeach Camp, Nuweiba.
(Latest update, 17th December:
We departed the Softbeach resort yesterday for a ride through super-dramatic scenery across the Sinai desert to St. Catherine's Monastery and Mount Sinai. There was a sand-storm on the coast to contend with as well.
So, we have just returned from climbing Mount Sinai. But big disappointment - we have no space for the Tablets of Stone, so left them up there.....
A new entry later with photos).
Posted by Ken Thomas at 07:19 AM
December 05, 2009 GMT
Again, the grandeur and atmosphere are difficult to adequately describe.
But it draws you in incessantly.
We camped in Rum village, and I intended firstly only to walk to the end of the tarmac at the edge of the village. No camera, water or anything.
Here, there's a gentle slope of large boulders at the base of the massive rock edifice to the right, which I climbed a little way to get a better view into the desert wadi ahead.
Magnificent, but the view ends at a low ridge in the distance. Two camels carrying visitors and led by a child on foot go past, and after a while reach the ridge and disappear. It didn't take long to get there so I follow, into the sand which varies between soft and difficult to walk on, and hard and easy.
I arrive at the ridge, and a different massive rock outcrop has risen on the right which I climb a little way.
Now I can see in the distance a group of Bedouin tents, some camels with tourists, and a couple of 4WD pickups. I arrive there a while later and find this is the site of 'Lawrence's Spring'. So I've walked about 4 kms, only having intended to go to the end of the tarmac.
I get tea in one of the tents. "One dinar for one cup, two cups, however many you like. Where you from?"
So I have three cups, the vendor looks pleased and explains that the spring is next to a solitary tree visible a third of the way up the cliff side. After observing it a while, I'm drawn on and climb up to it.
The spring is a pool of water held in a large horizontal crack in the cliff. Lots of greenery around as well as the tree. It's impossible to see any flow, as the water just soaks into the surrounding vegetation, so it's not possible to judge how much water this spring produces. But two steel pipes run from it, down the cliffs into the area of the tents below.
So my tea must have come from this spring.
It's quite high up here, maybe two to three hundred feet, and the view further into Wadi Rum truly stupendous.
I'm lucky enough to have the thought: When you've seen the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, and this view of Wadi Rum, there's not much more to see in the world.
Definitely a bit fanciful, but I'm definitely struck by the similarities, and stark contrasts between the two places. Ten-mile-wide rivers of sand between bare angry mountains here, ten-mile-wide rivers of ice between bare angry mountains there. The sun hanging above glowing amber sand here, above glistening ice there, imparting subtly different colours onto the sky above.
Seemingly endless, and barren. A strange human-like groan from the wind, no whispering here, as it fills the bare crags and pinnacles, the only sound to be heard. Sand dunes here, glaciers there, leading on and up to infinity, distant mountain peaks, endless sky, all desert.
Lawrence and Scott, they both must have felt the call of these landscapes, calling you to continue on and on through the barrenness up to the hidden horizons.
So after quite a while of contemplation I turned back to camp, specially when I found the tea-seller had gone, no longer to be seen.
No tea seller - just like Antarctica.
Approach to Wadi Rum.
Camp at Rum village. "The walls were precipices, like all the walls of Rumm."
"Shall I ride on this time, beyond the Khazail, and know it all?"
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
The Three Motorbikes of Madness.
The Leaving of Wadi Rum.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 10:36 AM
December 02, 2009 GMT
'Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as time.'
Those words, and these photos, will have to suffice. There's not much I can say, other than it's a magnificent place, huge. We visited over two days and only saw maybe a third of it, the best being the climb up to the monastery and the ambience at the top.
While I was up there, sitting in the teahouse opposite, two young women entering the monastery were obviously struck by the acoustics inside, and sung Barber's Agnes Dei in two-part harmony. Magical. And the something else afterwards that I didn't recognise in the way of an encore.
Amazing, as that's the second time that's happened in this sort of place. The first was at the Roman amphitheatre at Leptis Magna, Libya, where a young female visitor wandered onto the stage area like all visitors, but decided to sing a complete opera aria then and there. I was lucky enough to be up in the seating at the time. Amazing!
Anyway, the Petra guide leaflet suggests other climbs are even better, but more days are needed.
And, having seen the place, my photos and all the postcards on sale don't do it justice.
For me, a much better impression of the city and its atmosphere is conveyed by the 1839 lithographs by David Roberts, many of which were on sale in the teahouses and are often seen in art shops back home.
The elephant in the room. Wind-carved rock shapes in The Siq, pointing the way to the Treasury.
Inside a Petra room-with-a-view.
On the climb up to The Monastery, a souvenir seller takes a break to make a phonecall.
Inside The Monastery.
P.S. Further confirmation of our rate of progress.
While in Dalyan, south-west Turkey, a young Dutch couple stayed at our campsite. They were hitch-hiking to Egypt, taking almost the same route as us, and using buses where hitching was inadvisable.
Well, firstly, five minutes after our arrival at our hostal at Petra, Bertrand arrived on his bicycle. Followed five minutes later by the afore-mentioned Dutch couple. And what's more they had made the considerable detour to visit Cappadocia in Turkey as well, which we had missed.
So another official statistic - we are travelling more slowly than hitch-hikers right across Turkey, Syria and Jordan.
- I'm just glad that we haven't yet met anyone walking our route....... Or has he/she already overtaken us and is just crossing into Sudan??
Posted by Ken Thomas at 10:04 AM
November 30, 2009 GMT
Some Hot Springs Incidents
After Wadi Mujib we reached the hot springs at Wadi bin Hammad for the night, where we almost sparked an international diplomatic incident.
When travelling through strange places in the manner that we are, you can never predict what the effects of your presence will be, other than there will be some effect, however subtle. And it's really necessary to be aware of it.
When we arrived at the springs the warden showed us a small spot to camp with our bikes alongside. The spot also included the bonfire patch.
A large group of spirited schoolboys were herded away onto an adjacent concrete area by means of some loud and forceful shouting by the warden.
Today was the Saturday of the Jordanian New Year holiday weekend, and later, among other visitors, a group of young men arrived in a car with a full barbeque's worth of food, firewood and cooking gear. There was some animated discussion between them and the warden, whereupon one of them, speaking good English, came over to introduce himself and explain.
He said that because of our presence, the warden was not allowing them to use the bonfire area.
We spoke to the warden.
His English was not quite so good but was adequate and he explained that it was National Parks policy that foreign visitors are given priority for camping spaces and that Jordanian visitors are kept segregated from them. This policy was enforced by the police. He had already forced the schoolboys onto the separate concrete patch through threats of calling the police, so it would be pretty awkward if we accepted the local men's kind invitation to join them in their barbeque cooked on the bonfire in 'our' camping patch.
Oh dear again.
Well, the schoolboys by then were fully occupied in the waters of the hot springs, and the local men had some more negotiations with the warden and some of the boys before going ahead and cooking their barbeque for us and themselves on 'our' bonfire. The warden seemed pretty worried saying it would be tricky for him if the police turned up on a routine visit, but he could call them straightaway if we wanted him to. All we could do was to stay strictly neutral and insist we had no problems with anything.
As it was, all was OK, the barbeque was huge and the schoolboys kept to their area. Except their use of the hot springs was an all-night affair with an outstanding amount of loud singing and raucous night-long noise in general.
Local lads put on a huge barbeque. Hubble bubble smooths over international incident.
So we were a bit tentative when arriving the next evening further south in an area of at least three hot springs and deciding where to camp.
There's another hot spring down here somewhere......
Two were free, the usual arrangement, and one was gated with a substantial charge for entry and camping.
One of the free places was on the edge of a tomato-growing operation of industrial proportions, with most of the patrons seeming to be temporary workers on the tomato farms.
The other, Hammamat Burbayta, looked more conventional and was crammed with families for the holiday weekend, who we deduced, as far as we could, would all be leaving by nightfall.
Also, being families, there were lots of women present. In this, a moslem country, we had seen no women at any hot springs or camping areas, and we had discovered that the hospitality of all-men groups can become somewhat forceful and overbearing at times, a bit tricky if all you want after a long ride is your sleeping bag.
So we parked our bikes and just hung about, waiting for space to become available for the tents.
Tentatively, a few of the younger women approached, all in the usual Islamic headwear, discreetly examining us. Eventually one of them was bold enough to exclaim, "Yes, she is a woman!" staring Caroline in the eyes.
Immediately Caroline was besieged by all the women, children and babies on the site, practicing as much of their English as they could to find out all about us.
They had hardly ever seen a motorbike in their lives, let alone a woman riding one!
Cameras were produced, children and babies plonked onto motorbikes, and scores of photos taken of bikes, visitors, children and mums. For once the men stayed away - it made quite a change!
Tea and coffee flowed, although what they descibed using the English word 'coffee' was really a herbal tea made with dozens of strange ingredients.
Out of nowhere, while Caroline was being mobbed, two little girls, about five or six, decided they wanted some of the action and ran up to me. There, they proudly recited the western alphabet, a to z, in perfect musical time, and then dashed back to their parents somewhere in the field.
Once it was completely dark all the families departed, leaving us yet more 'coffee' and greetings. During the night small groups of Bedouin arrived, some on donkeys, to use the springs.
Later, speaking to a Welsh couple we had previously seen a few times travelling the same route as us in a Land Rover, we learned that we did well to avoid the gated hot springs with the entry charge. They had looked inside and found it to be crammed with a huge all-male party determined to make this one of the noisiest new-year weekends ever.
Our next night was one of the quietest, and despite our two previous 'free' nights, about the cheapest.
We headed yet further south to Dana Nature Reserve, billed as the most ecological and well-managed reserve in Jordan - one of the 'must-see' places. We had heard that camping was possible in the carpark, with hostals in the village if the altitude, over 3000ft, was too cold for camping overnight in December.
Well, the reserve was closed for the winter, not unexpected, but the rangers are still present 24 hours per day for protection against poachers.
And there's non-stop hot tea for out-of-season visitors like us.
What's more, said Khalid the warden, we could camp for free.
24-hour hot tea at Dana Nature Reserve
And if we got cold in the night, he had a heater in his little room which we were welcome to share "after 10pm when the head ranger goes home."
And, "I'm a very good chef, so I'll cook you dinner."
And, "You'll want breakfast in the morning, there's plenty for all of us."
And, "The toilets are over there, you can wash clothes there if you like."
And, "There's no electricity here."
So that did it. We installed our tents amongst the trees ignoring the hostals in the village, although we did pop in for a visit.
What's more, Bertrand, a young French cyclist riding the same route as us, turned up and confirmed something I had long suspected.
We first met Bertrand in Palmyra, Syria. He stayed in the same Bedouin tent and left the same morning as us. We had seen him a couple of times since, and now here he was pedalling into Dana the same day.
"So there you have it," I thought. "It's confirmed. We three are travelling at the speed of a bicycle, even across the mountains of southern Syria and Jordan!"
(That was later re-confirmed, a few hundred miles of mountains further south, when we greeted Bertrand yet again, on his arrival at Wadi Rum. Hats off to Kipling for observing:
"Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.")
So, Khalid cooked all four of us a magnificent dinner which we just about finished. And the more of his tea we drank the happier he was.
Khalid takes a break from feeding us dinner.
Then started the intensive evening-long Arabic lesson. He was a very talented teacher, using lots of imaginative animation to bring the lesson alive. And it didn't stop there.
The next morning, Khalid clocked off to go home when Ahmed arrived for his shift. Over a long breakfast, most of the morning in fact, the lesson moved on to the advanced subject of Arabic writing.
Ahmed (centre) takes a break from feeding us breakfast. One of the Rangers on the left.
He was very skillful in demonstrating the phonetic nature of Arabic script. We had already seen this at the border crossings where the immigration man, customs man, insurance man and passport man all need to write your name down in Arabic. And it's no good showing them your name in your passport. That means nothing. You have to say it out loud, they need to hear it, so they can then scribble it, in Arabic, in the appropriate box.
Never are you asked "How do you spell that?"
And it works. When you are passed to the next window at a border, the official behind it, reading from the form written in Arabic by the previous official, calls out your name with exactly the same pronunciation as you yourself originally said it. Amazing.
If I remember, in the frenetic activity of the next border crossing, when the insurance man asks my name, I'll say "Cholmondely Featherstonehaugh." Just as an experiment ..... in how to be thrown out of the country .....
And Ahmed's lessons didn't stop there.
One of the Rangers arrived, (in the above photo), in full Arabic headdress, for a cold morning on the Reserve. So Ahmed got to work teaching us the art of donning the Arabic Kufiya......
Lesson 1 - The teacher puts it on for you.
Eventually we departed Dana for Petra, having had a night's camping, tea, dinner, breakfast, Arabic lessons oral and written, headdress lessons, a bit of laundry, endless entertainment, all for free.
(Well, we did leave a donation for the Wardens' Benevolent Fund).
Only time will tell if history repeats itself.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 08:22 AM
November 28, 2009 GMT
Dead Sea Scroll
Throwing common sense to the wind, and being a regular swimmer, McCrankpin dived into the Dead Sea as though it were his local pool, attempting the impossible: to get under the water.
And here he learneth today's biblical lesson: incredibly salty water in eyes nose and mouth is verily an uncomfortable sensation. Yea, it hurteth like hell, and requireth an emergency rinse from the bottle of water brought along for his after-Dead-Sea-swim mini-shower.
Verily it is a strange experience, standing halfway out of the water, both feet a foot above the sea bed.
We had arrived a couple of hours earlier, dropping like a stone on the panoramic road from Madaba, from 2800 feet to minus 1200 feet in a riot of scenic hairpin bends.
Above the Dead Sea, the Panorama route plunging downwards. At this point, the GPS showed zero feet above sea level.
The Dead Sea.
Our search for a camping place then took us along the coastal road, a rocky fifty to two hundred feet above the water. At the Wadi Mujib nature reserve, which was closed for the winter, a conservation worker suggested we ask at the nearby police checkpoint.
There we were welcomed and directed to a large area just outside the fence of their compound, perfect, and full of firewood. And a few minutes walk from the water's edge.
Later, with fire going and food underway, the chief of the checkpoint and one of his officers came over for a chat. It was an eye-opener. He had one wife, was looking for another, and his dad had two. He had four children, his dad eleven. He couldn't fathom why in England we only have one wife.
"Why, why you only have one wife? Where is the problem??"
Our Arabic and his English were altogether insufficient to explain, so he remained puzzled by our strange English custom.
Then he noticed Beau's late-evening speciality - jar of Marmite and a bread roll. Let's face it, Marmite soldiers is an English custom even stranger than only having one wife, and again our attempts at explanation failed completely. So he took the plunge, and a man-sized bite.
Immediately it was plain to us that this was even worse for him than a headlong plunge below the waters of the Dead Sea. His face screwed up. "Sorry! So sorry!" As he quickly but carefully spat the whole lot out.
"Why, why you eat this horrible stuff??"
But it was an interesting aspect of our contacts with Jordanians. Unlike all the previous countries, whenever we explained our journey, its route, destination and duration, we received, "Why? Why you do this thing??"
Up until now it had only ever been wide eyes, incredulous looks and a hearty handshake.
We stayed the next night in a 'Resthouse' high above the other end of Wadi Mujib, well east of the Dead Sea.
Above Wadi Mujib
Breakfast above the Wadi.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 10:36 PM
November 24, 2009 GMT
Arrival In Jordan
It was a funny thing, but our entry into Jordan was similar to entering Syria. Irish weather.
Rain clouds loomed in with no warning, giving us a good, or at least a bit, of a soaking. So we stopped for the day earlier than planned, making a quick halt at the ancient ruins of Jerash and skirting around Amman, before heading to Madaba via Mount Nebo and a first sighting of the Dead Sea.
Through the mist is Moses' Promised Land, beyond the Dead Sea, from Mount Nebo. 5000 miles from Whyteleafe by our route.
A bit clearer to the south.
After a night in Madaba we press on to the Dead Sea.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 08:18 PM
November 22, 2009 GMT
If You Want To Know The Way
Ask a Policeman.
Here's one for Grandson Oliver:
Where's your Dad when we need him?
Signpost on the Road to Damascus
This one gave us some difficulty in deciding. So, no messing about, no easy option, we turned left.
Not exactly in our plans.
One hundred yards down the Road to Baghdad was the first petrol station we'd seen since leaving Palmyra.
All filled up, it was, I'm afraid, back to the easy option and west to Damascus.
There had been a filling station before here, at another major crossroads, but for diesel only. It was lunchtime and was full of huge trucks taking a break. We received a few invitations from the drivers to join them for a full-blown meal which we would have accepted if it had not been dark by 5pm, but it was an eyeopener anyway. The driver would nip round to the righthand side of his 40-ton-plus unit and pull out a huge compartment on runners. There on a table was laid out a four course meal, upon a damask table cloth, plus chairs stored below. Three of his buddies joined him for the magnificent feast and they called us over as well.
It was, for all the world, as though a 5-star chef lived in the engine compartment and had prepared this spread while the truck was on the road. I couldn't quite work it out!
We had to hurry on, trusting there'd be petrol at the Baghdad turn-off.
Years ago there was a remote and solitary café near this junction, The Baghdad Café, that became a legend amongst travellers in this area. It led to copies springing up, and in about 6 miles we passed four 'Baghdad Cafes'. We had no way of knowing the genuine thing so we hurried on.
Arriving in Damascus we camped in a northern suburb and took the bus in.
What a NICE place Damascus is.
A very pleasant and peaceful mosque, with westerners invited to enter the prayer room during prayers, which we had never encountered before.
And a wonderful series of souks, with wide alleyways (wide for a souk, that is), the usual amazing range of merchants; rope makers next to book shops, engineering machine shops next to incredibly colourful fabric merchants, and an atmosphere of calm peacefulness we had not yet encountered in Syria. Electric bicycles, quite common in Syria, silently whizzed up and down the alleys.
Outside in the Old Town the atmosphere continued amongst old French colonial style buildings squeezed up tight against each other, mixed up with Arabic mosques, Christian churches, Syrian tea houses and people and architecture from many other cultures, making this whole area simply a very nice place to be.
After a couple of days here it was off to Bosra, home of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world, followed by the Jordanian border and the next country on the list.
Magnificent Roman Amphitheatre at Bosra.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 07:58 PM
November 20, 2009 GMT
Syria - Continued
Travelling south from Aleppo we spent a damp day in Hama, the home of many old wooden Arabic water-wheels or Norias, wondering whether to dodge the showers and head for Krak des Chevaliers, or not bother and stay in the dry.
In the end, with the sky brightening, we headed east on a minor road just to see where it went. But the heavens opened sending us scuttling back to the hotel.
So the next day it was off Krak des Chevaliers, rain or no.
Well, no actually. We determined to take the back-country route, expecting to find some dirt roads to explore, but got hopelessly lost with our inadequate-for-the-back-country maps. With it being dark by 5pm, a quick retreat to Homs was necessary to find a place for the night.
But we made the magnificent Crusader castle the next day, well worth the wait.
Photo time at Krak des Chevaliers
Then the serious stuff, the ride across the desert to the ancient Roman ruins at Palmyra.
Well, not officially desert, but near enough for us, for now.
The desert at last
Fork in the desert track
With the sun low behind us, we reach the Roman city of Palmyra.
There are a couple of well-publicised camp sites adjacent to the walls of the main Roman temple. In one we were offered a complete Bedouin tent to ourselves so we moved in. It's actually a reproduction for tourists but nevertheless was traditionally furnished and elaborately decorated and had an entertaining wood-burning stove inside.
Interesting visitor to our Bedouin tent, size L or XXL, depending on your outlook.
It seemed a handy sort of place to do an oil change, so we did three, cleaned three air filters and whipped the carburetor off of Caroline's Serow. It had run fine back home in SE England, but here on roads above 2000 feet the mixture was far too rich and was affecting the little engine's performance. We lowered the needle as far as possible, which improved things a little, but further adjustment is definitely necessary.
As usual we had the problem of what to do with the old oil. We always pour this back into the container that we bought the new oil in and then look for a solution.
But we never found a proper one.
Back in Turkey we bought oil in a petrol station, did the oil changes on a patch of grass next door, then took the old oil, in the container we had just bought, back to the petrol station for advice.
First off, the attendant was very surprised, and we quickly realised that he thought we were bringing it back because there was something wrong with it.
No. We explained we needed to dispose of the old oil from our engines. His face lit up. "Follow me," he beckoned. To the rear of the filling station and his wheely dustbin.
He opened the lid, took our can of old oil and threw it in.
"There - job done!"
This time we thought we'd try the campsite warden. We explained we had a can of used motor oil and a bottle of dirty petrol (used to clean the air filters), and guessed that he would know someone who could use it. He was bound to know, we thought, a local Syrian farmer with an old tractor needing lots of both.
Bingo! He gave a big smile and gladly took both containers.
Maybe the most authentic thing about that Bedouin tent was the dust inside it. Every single thing that you touched, however lightly, emitted a thick cloud of it. When we finally vacated and were ready to leave, the site warden took a little electric blower inside to blow our three days of occupation around. After a while I looked inside. He was hardly visible in the dense clouds of dust marshalled up by his blower as he coaxed it towards the door. Outside I watched for a while, and when he came out, satisfied the job was complete, not a single speck of dust had left the tent. It was all still inside, just re-arranged.
We departed for Damascus
Posted by Ken Thomas at 06:24 AM
November 13, 2009 GMT
A Syrian Motorway
- or -
The Road To Damascus
(As far as Hama)
Our journey south from Aleppo has shewn us some unique and redeeming features of Syrian motorways.
Most noticeable are the tea stalls dotted along the hard shoulder, complete with coloured flourescent illumination so you don't miss them. Tea is never far away.
If you do miss your favourite stall, no matter, these motorways have handy U-turn points every few kilometres, with neither underpass nor flyover to make your manoeuvre longer than necessary. Just a clearly signposted extra lane to the left of the third lane, turning directly across the grass divide into the third lane in the other direction.
Then we see a feature even better. We spy quite a few motorbikes coming the other way along our hard shoulder, so clearly we don't need to use those dangerous U-turn lanes, we can just flip round to the right and nip back to our missed tea house along the hard shoulder. Keeping well to the left of course to avoid oncoming cars having a breakdown. This is all facilitated by there being absolutely no white lines anywhere, except those marking the U-turn lanes. Good to see basic safety features in place.
There are more useful features. Up ahead at the turn-off for Anno'Oman is a bus stop. Very thoughtful of the road planners to put the bus stop right there making the walk into town as short as possibly.
Then we are a little deflated. Coming the other way on the hard shoulder is a tractor, pulling a tilling attachment so wide it takes up half of the righthand lane, which we just happen to be in. So we don't, after all, have exclusive use of the hard shoulder to go back whence we came.
But what's this coming towards us? Something to retrieve the situation?
A 125cc Honda is making valiant progress towards us in the outside lane. Hard up against the central reservation making plenty of room for the 160 kph Land Cruisers overtaking us. So there's a good chance that we have exclusive use of the outside lane to go back the other way, if not the hard shoulder.
The number of times we've forgotten stuff and had to go back a considerable distance for it (twice so far) that'll be very handy, thank you very much.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 08:43 AM
November 12, 2009 GMT
Pandemonium Of Cars
We spent longer in Aleppo than we first planned.
Circumstances made sense to undertake a major laundry session, (sleeping bags) so while that lot dried we investigated more of the souks. Including the one selling leaf tea where we bought a couple of handfuls from the box with the most elaborate Arabic description on its label. We'll try it when we next pitch the tents, probably at Krak de Chevalier.
We also had time to visit the main mosque in the middle of the souks.
I had been struck by the difference in the sound and tenor of the 'call to prayer' broadcast from the minarets in Syria, as compared to those in Turkey.
In Turkey they sounded quite severe, not very musical and always seem to be recordings, of variable, sometimes crackly, quality.
Here in Syria those calls sound much more like an invitation, more tuneful and the voice, in a way, suggesting something far more welcoming.
We were in the main Aleppo mosque just as the call was being made, and just happened to be in the corner of the courtyard under the minaret. After a short while we realised that in a little room close by with an open window and door was a man singing with great gusto and physical expression. It was the Immam that we could hear from the minaret's many loudspeakers. It looked like he was enjoying himself quite a bit and it showed in what we could hear. A welcome opportunity to make an interesting observance of an Islamic tradition. When he had finished he left the little room and headed over to the prayer room, and we could see quite an array of studio sound gear that fed all those speakers.
Eventually we returned to the underground parking garage to retrieve our bikes and depart. Now this is a small garage that is a very busy car-wash business during the day. At night with no washing going on and all the cars squeezed up together it could hold maybe twenty-five cars. Less during the day with four jet-washes operating. Manoeuvring the cars around, getting them into the jet-wash areas, squeezing them into the drying and polishing bays and then into a position where the returning customers could drive them away, looked like a precision operation requiring great skill. These cars were mainly expensive high-end and largish SUVs, and one of the drivers doing the precision manoeuvring in all the tight spaces was a lad of about thirteen years. Quite a way to learn your driving and parking skills!
Well, we arrived to retrieve our bikes at about 1pm, which must be the busy hour for cars being dropped off and picked up. There were cars filling every available nook and cranny, facing all ways, and two abreast on the narrow and steep entrance ramp, which blocked it completely as it was only two cars wide. And a flurry of jet-washing was going on as well. All the staff welcomed us as though we were intrepid explorers as we loaded up our bikes in a tiny corner at the far end of the garage.
There's no visible way out for us through this lot.
"Let us know when you're ready to leave."
It looked just like one of these child's sliding-tile puzzles
- with a single empty space for moving everything else around.
The tiles in this case were large shiny cars, far too many, and the empty space just big enough to squeeze our three bikes into. It was a pandemonium of cars - if that's the right collective noun.
And at our word - ready to leave - cars were moved here and there, into and out of tiny alcoves, around obstructing pillars, spun right round with microscopic three-point-turns, so that a space just big enough for three bikes moved slowly but surely across the garage to the bottom of the ramp.
But then one final ceremony - everyone wanted to get a photo of themselves and us and our bikes on their mobile phone.
That done we were off into the heart of Aleppo and its manic traffic, praying for an early sighting of the word 'Damascus', in those familiar letters, on a signpost to get us on the road to Hama.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 08:41 AM
November 10, 2009 GMT
We are in Aleppo for a couple of days, mainly to obtain Syrian cash from ATMs (not many outside large cities) but it's also an Islamic city worth seeing.
Firstly, in the area of the city with the cheap hotels, parking is tightly controlled so we have to find paid underground parking for the bikes. That's done now, and ATMs found (only about four, even in a city this size), so we have been sampling the wonderful cafe life and street foods of the city.
And a nice Aleppo interlude crept into our day.
We visited the souks, recommended as being among the least touristic in the Arab world. And so they were. Very pleasant to wander through with all Aleppo life to observe, and no hassle from touts and hustlers in the little alleyways.
Souk scene in Aleppo
In a corner of the textiles area we found stalls selling Chinese laundry bags of all sizes which caught our eye.
It's generally accepted by travelling motorcyclists that a bike covered up while parked overnight out of doors is a lot more secure than one not covered. I have a cover for mine, super lightweight material and packs up really small. I bought it maybe sixteen years ago and it looks like they aren't made anymore. At least, Caroline looked everywhere for one before departing on this trip, and drew a complete blank. Plenty of huge heavyweight ones, but nothing small anymore.
Well, it occurred to me, entering the lands where textile shops are simply everywhere on every street, it must be possible to find cheap suitable lightweight material to cover three bikes.
So we investigated the laundry bags. But even the largest wasn't motorbike-size.
No matter, a few stalls further along was one selling sheets of the material, with a customer inside unfolding some of the sheets to check the size.
They were enormous, so we bought two for less than a pound, that when sewed together would be plenty large enough. And they rolled up pretty small too.
But where to get them sewed? The stall owner couldn't help us there.
We had seen no dressmaking places nor shops for alterations or repairs, only the compact area housing all the sewing machine shops which we walked through on the way to the souk.
Returning the same route we investigated those alleys a little more closely, and at the end of one found what looked like two sewing workshops. But completely empty of staff. So we looked here and there confident that someone would appear, and they did. And after some sign language we could see that this was just a sewing-machine repair workshop.
"Come next door", gestured the owner.
Next door looked more like a sewing workshop, but it wasn't. We still don't know exactly what it was but concluded it must be a place making industrial sewing work-stations out of secondhand machines, tables, attachments and motors etc.
The two lads there immediately understood what we wanted and one of them dug an old hemming machine out of a cardboard box. He made a tiny bit of space on the corner of a table cluttered up completely with sewing machine paraphenalia, and held it in place by hand while his workmate fed in the edges of our two pieces of material. Beau and I manouvred the two large sheets as necessary.
In pretty short order we had a single huge sheet of lightweight bike cover to fit three bikes.
Now the tricky bit of sorting out the price when neither they nor us could speak any common language.
Well, I have to say the price was completely outrageous......
Instead of us paying them anything, they insisted they brew tea for us!
The Middle East - where tea truly lubricates all life!
We plan to move on tomorrow out of the big city to places smaller - don't know where yet, wherever the road goes!
Posted by Ken Thomas at 08:03 PM
November 09, 2009 GMT
We have gained the fabled Syrian border, where visas are indeed available on request, at least for Brits and Canadians.
So we enter the Middle East, that area of the world, I think, most mis-reported and mis-represented in the British press (and maybe in the rest of the western media as well for all I know).
So I can't resist the lazy option of using a couple of favourite quotations.
First, by Humbert Wolfe, Italian-born English poet:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to.
(Apologies to any truly independent journalist reading this).
And, seen on a noticeboard in an Andalucian mountain retreat, author unknown:
Exultation is the going
of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses - past the headlands - Into deep eternity -
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand,
The divine intoxication
of the first league out from land?
Exultation and intoxication are good ways to describe the first experiences of Syria, its land border crossing and our first halt for the night in the Middle East.
We were pretty nervous entering the no-man's land between Turkey and Syria. All the Syrian consulate services state that the likes of Europeans and North Americans must obtain visas before arriving at the border. And the implications of refusal at the border would be a long, long ride all the way to Ankara with the world's most expensive petrol, and winter now firmly in place in central Turkey. (And the outrageous £68 fee for the standard pro-forma letter from the British consulate).
But our first contact with the country as we parked at the bottom of the grand stairway leading to the entrance of the immigration hall was a barage of "Welcome to Syria, enjoy your stay," from everyone we passed.
Inside, another welcoming soul pointed us straight to the first window of the many we would be visiting over the next two hours.
It went something like this:
Police window - "Welcome to Syria! You don’t have visas?" He checks passports for evidence of any Israeli stamps. "Well, don't wait out there, come in the office, take a seat." Passports were checked again and the visa price written down for us to take to the bank cashier to pay.
Bank cashier - pay the visa fee, receive receipt, no waiting.
Visa window - a clerk in the office calls out, "Don't wait in queue, come round to this window." We pass over visa receipts, receive the yellow copy back. "Now go over there to vehicle insurance, pay insurance and come straight back here."
Vehicle Insurance - "Welcome to Syria! Come round to this window, there's no queue." We explain we need motorbike insurance, hand over log books and receive bill to take to bank cashier to pay.
Bank cashier - "Hello again! Welcome to Syria." We pay insurance bill, receive receipt.
Visa window - "Hello again!" We hand over insurance receipt, receive back yellow and pink copies, hand over passports, receive visas. "Now go over there to customs window, hand over the pink copy with your Carnet de Passage (the super-expensive international import permit certificate issued by RAC, required for Mid-East and Africa).
Customs window - Clerk makes sign of chopping off his own arm. This is sign language for "Hand me your Carnet please," derived from the cost of the Carnet, roughly an arm and a leg. The Carnet is actually an A4 book of 25 import/export certificates, plus a few pages of explanation. The clerk stamps the top section of the first certificate. "Now take all this to the next window."
Second customs window - Clerk instructs a computer to print out an insurance certificate, stamps the bottom section of the first certificate in the Carnet and retains it.
Now we have visas in passports, bike insurance, and Carnets stamped. We're pretty sure that's everything, but the customs clerk says, "Go to next window," which is labelled 'Photocopying'.
Photocopying window - "Welcome to Syria! Don't wait out there, come round here inside." "Now, we need a copy of your logbook and passport but first of all the Director of the Customs Service would like to welcome you to Syria properly and have tea with you, so his assistant here will take you upstairs."
Office of the Director of the Customs Service (large, wood-panelled, well furnished) - "Take a seat (big leather armchairs). "Welcome to Syria, we all wish you a wonderful visit. All the paperwork is done. Now, would you like tea or coffee?" Tea and mineral water arrives, we learn about where the assistant lives and his favourite bit of his own country. The director asks if we're a family group, how long we'll be in Syria and where we'll go afterwards. They recommend places to stay tonight. It all seems so different to arriving at Dover docks from Calais........
"Is this your first visit? When you reach Jordan you must visit Petra. But don't miss Palmyra first." "My assistant will take you back downstairs, everything is done, he'll see you off. Have a wonderful visit."
Downstairs - We collect documents from photocopying office and Mr. Assistant does indeed see us to our bikes and waves us off.
So we are now really in Syria, and it is indeed different to arriving in Dover.
And all without filling in a single form or needing a single passport photo.
There's an immediate change of terrain from Turkey's mountainous south. It's flat, the ground a rich red colour, and very stony and rocky. Stones and rocks used for everything, house building, fences, and to mark the edges of the roads. There are signs to ancient monuments everywhere which I suppose you'd expect in the 'cradle of civilisation'.
We have a recommendation for a campsite on the way to Aleppo which we find in about an hour. Which is just as well as it's dark before 5pm. The owner shows us where to camp. "Here, away from the Italians, they're so noisy."
He has two large groups of motorhome tourers staying, one Italian, the other French. But it's quiet. "They've all hired a coach to take them on a tour of Aleppo."
Then he offers us dinner in his home. "In about an hour."
Dinner is on the magnificently carpeted floor of his lounge, around a huge circular polished steel platter, accompanied by his two small children playing here and there. After dinner, in the Moslem tradition as I understand it, his wife (unseen up to now) brings in tea. Then the owner goes off to attend to something and we are left alone in his lounge with his wife. It feels like quite an honour.
Exultation and intoxication, our first day in Syria.
Entrance to our first Syrian overnight stop
(Sharp-eyed readers of a certain profession will spot the Sleeve 13A
near the top of the telephone pole - an improvement on the lemonade bottles of Romania.)
First camping in Syria
Posted by Ken Thomas at 07:50 PM