79km Ura to Mhajjeh
Our lunch break today got a dose of excitement when three gun-carrying soldiers and two sergeants marched towards us for a visit. The conversation started like most do in this country with a hearty “welcome to Syria” but we knew this was no ordinary welcoming party and soon we were informed that we’d actually been picnicing on military land. Whooooops. Maybe if we’d looked around a bit before stopping we’d have noticed the large checkpoint a few hundred meters in front of us and the smoke rising in the distance from army exercises but hunger had taken over our brains. Our focus was only on the concrete base of an unfinished house that seemed the perfect spot to sit and eat. After some more friendly chatting and directions to various tourist sites in the area, the army troop took note of our passports and asked how long we’d need to finish eating. “Is fifteen minutes okay?” the only English speaker in the group asked. Yes, that would be fine. “The sergeant will stay until you leave,” our translator added and true to his word the official and his foot-soldiers paced up and down on the road until we left a few minutes later.
Just a short distance down the road we discovered word of our arrival had spread when two men stopped their motorbike alongside our bicycles, got off and followed us as we went to buy groceries. They stood outside the store as we shopped, sending away any locals who came within a few meters. As we emerged we waved at our protectors, trying to get a response from these mystery people and hoping for a clue as to how long they planned to track us. Our greeting was returned with an icy stare that seemed to confirm they were under official orders to keep an eye on us. Well, we had to admit it was rather nice to do our shopping without thirty or so curious people forming a crowd around our bicycles.
On we pedalled, out of the town and into remote farming land and still the motorbike was keeping watch over us. By this time it was some distance ahead of our bikes, the second man looking back every so often to see if we were still trailing behind. The novelty of this chaperone started to wear off and, more importantly, we still hadn’t had a chance to finish the lunch we were rushed out of an hour earlier. We pulled over, opened a bag of potato chips and after a double-take they had soon turned around to stand guard at our side. This time at least we got a smile as they too noted down our passport numbers and told us they were policemen. We thought we’d lost our guides as they left us munching and headed back to town but they must have only gone to refuel because soon they were back, leading the way to the main road to Damascus. By now we wondered if they intended to follow us all the way there but finally, some 15km later, they waved goodbye and our time under surveillance was over. Thank goodness for that. We were quite tired of our police escort and glad to be rid of them. Besides, by this time the light was fading and we didn’t fancy trying to find a place in our tent for two minders!
Not long afterwards we tracked down an olive grove – they really seem to cover nearly every inch of farmland here – and set up for the night, checking first of course to make sure no bunkers or airstrips were nearby. So far so good