We took advantage of the afternoon sunshine yesterday to sit down and record our latest radio show. It’s all about our thoughts on cycling in Iran (fantastic people but crazy drivers) and getting visas for Central Asia (immensely frustrating and time consuming). We’ll also introduce you to two cyclists we met on the road: Tyson, an American we ran into in Syria, and Christian, an Austrian who’s heading for China. Finally, we talk a bit about a new section of our website we’ve been developing over the past few weeks featuring resources for cyclists. Take a look and let us know what you think.
You Are Viewing Syria
Turkey is notorious for being hilly so it wasn’t a surprise when we saw plenty of peaks looming in our path as we approached the border. We’d hoped to reach the crossing point well before sunset but it turned out to be a last-minute dash because we took so long working our way through the rolling mountain roads. It was nearly dusk when the Syrian border guards tried to win the prize for intense questioning:
Q. Where are you going? A. Uhhhh, Turkey.
Q. Where is your stamp for your bicycle? A. We don’t need one.
Q. You need to buy one. A. No we don’t.
Q. What is your name? (asked while looking at passport) A. Fatima Falafel and Mohammed Shwarma
Q. Where are you from? (also while looking at EU passports) A. Canada.
That was the first checkpoint. At the second one we joined the queue for our exit stamps and laughed while three Turks tried to push in front of us by stuffing their passports with money in quite an obvious way and shoving the documents towards the guard serving us. The guard chuckled and ignored them so it looks like all that bribery cash was for nothing. At the final checkpoint all the questions were repeated again by three guards before we were allowed to pass through no-man’s land and into Turkey.
At the Turkish border post we were hoping for some swift stamping of papers so we could get on our way but just as we thought we were free a customs guard came to inspect our baggage. “Can we sleep in there?” we asked, pointing to an enclosed shelter with a stove and benches. “Because if not it’s going to be dark by the time you’re done looking at all our bags and we won’t be going anywhere.”
The threat of sleeping with two cyclists seemed to work. “Any cigarettes, alcohol or tea?” our man asked. We pulled out a jar of camomile tea bags but apparently this wasn’t the tea he had in mind. “Get going then,” he said, waving us onward. We were rather disappointed. The shelter looked a fair bit warmer than our tent was going to be. Luckily for us it wasn’t far to the next olive grove and we set up our tent in record time. The stove wasn’t such a success. We’d replaced our gas and cleaned the line but it’s still burning horribly and we only just managed to cook supper on it. It looks like getting the stove working again will be our New Year’s challenge.
There aren’t many better views to wake up to than ancient ruins all around your campsite in an olive grove. With the sun warming our backs, it would have been a perfect morning until we realised our stove wasn’t working properly. We set to work fixing it, cleaning and replacing nearly everything we could think of, but without much luck. The flame is weak and dirty, leaving a thick coat of soot over all our pots.
This put us in a very bad mood. We depend on our steaming cups of coffee and hot suppers to keep us going in the chilly winter temperatures. After a fair bit of deliberation our best guess is that we picked up some particularly dirty fuel as we were leaving Aleppo. Perhaps the gas station gave us diesel instead? Our plan is to replace our fuel as soon as we cross the Turkish border tomorrow, clean the stove and hope for the best.
Broken stove aside, we had another lovely day rolling through small towns and olive groves. We visited the ancient temple of Ain Dara set on top of a hill and marvelled at the huge statues of lions and various winged creatures. We pushed on and reached Afrin by lunchtime, a bustling market town with a large Kurdish population. The women in their colourful clothes reminded us that we were getting closer to Turkey.
As we were doing our shopping a man came up and gave us a sample of the falafels he was making for his restaurant. Delicious! We went in and ate two of the best falafel wraps we’ve had in all of Syria with fresh mint and two different dressings. We’ll miss those cheap and tasty lunches when we’re back in Turkey. We’d hoped to reach Cyrrhus, the next site on our list, by late afternoon but the hills got the best of us and we didn’t quite make it.
We just managed to get our stove working enough to make supper and then the cold drove us into our tent. The temperatures are warm enough during the day but drop quickly as soon as the sun goes down. Without a way to make hot meals we’re going to put a push on tomorrow to get over the border and into the town of Killis by evening, where hopefully we’ll find clean fuel and a warm hotel.
After nearly two weeks in Aleppo it was time to wave goodbye this morning to our good friends at the Hotel al-Gawaher. We had so many wonderful evenings cooking, chatting, dancing and sipping wine that we really had started to feel truly at home. Time flies when you’re having fun and it was only the expiry date on our Iranian visa ticking ever closer that forced us to finally start making our way north. The countryside around Aleppo is quite beautiful and we truly had a perfect day for cycling as we rolled through tiny villages and past some amazing archaeological sites. It was Friday so the roads were almost deserted and the winter sun was shining surprisingly strong on our backs. Our poor maps were the only glitch we had to deal with. We had three different ones and none of them seemed to match what actually existed on the ground so we flagged down more than a few cars to ask the way.
At midday we arrived at a ruined palace and lunched beside picnicing families. One lovely English-speaking family befriended us and brought us nuts and chocolates while we chatted. After the usual small talk the mood turned sober as the call to prayer rang out over the hillside, its tone and message reflecting yesterday’s assassination of the Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. The previous afternoon we’d heard a particularly long afternoon call to prayer which we were told was a response to Bhutto’s death and the mourning of so many people. (more…)
“The awareness that we are all human beings together has become lost in war and through politics. We have reached the point of regarding each other only as members of people either allied with us or against us and our approach: prejudice, sympathy, or antipathy are all conditioned by that. Now, we must rediscover the fact that we – all together – are human beings, and that we must strive to concede to each other what moral capacity we have. Only in this way can we begin to believe that in other peoples as well as in ourselves there will arise the need for a new spirit which can be the beginning of a feeling of mutual trustworthiness toward each other.” — Albert Schweitzer
Our time in Syria is nearly over but before we roll further east we wanted to share some closing thoughts. Those who have followed our journey will know of our unsettling moments in the desert around Palmyra. We wrote about these because we believe it is important to be honest about our experiences and to inform cycle tourists in particular about what they may encounter. Unfortunately this decision to be completely open has led some readers to conclude that Syria is not worth coming to. A few people have come to the conclusion that it is entirely unsafe and we should hop on a plane back to the developed world instead of taking on Iran.
This makes us feel sad because it misrepresents a wonderful country and in fact an entire region whose people and traditions are poorly understood by the Western world.
We will leave Syria with a very strong desire to return. Never have we been treated to so much hospitality from literally every sector of society. Farmers struggling to make a living off the land and doctors driving luxury cars invited us into their homes with equal measures of kindness and generosity. Ordinary people took hours to show us around their towns and cities and truckers repeatedly stopped to load our panniers up with oranges.
Yes, we were unfortunate to meet some bad apples but we know, and we urge you to remember, that negative things can happen in any country. A relative had his van stolen from the streets of New York but we would not cancel our trip to the U.S. because of this isolated incident. Neither would we avoid all skiing holidays even though Friedel once wound up in a cast as a result of one. Why would we judge all of Syria because a tiny part of our two months here were less than perfect?
We think it speaks volumes about Syria that of all the travellers we have talked to about this country – and there have been dozens in the past few months – not one has had another downbeat incident to add to ours. No stolen passports. No aggression. Just many tales of cups of tea shared and wonderful sights seen. The praise has been universally positive.
From the point of personal safety, we have hardly ever felt more secure. It is interesting to note that when we think of cyclists killed or badly injured while on tour (thankfully their numbers are few) all the ones we are aware of have suffered at the hands of traffic in countries including Japan, Australia and the United States. It would be wrong to assume that we will be safe from harm’s way in a first-world country. There is a strong argument to suggest the opposite. We likely ran more risk cycling to work every day in London than by biking and camping on the backroads of Syria.
As we prepare to head for Iran, we leave Syria urging you not to surrender to stereotypes. Come for a visit and we think you will be more than pleasantly surprised.