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Eid in Aleppo

Posted December 23rd, 2007

We’re experiencing a very restful few days here in Aleppo and have developed a bit of a routine as we settle in for Christmas. Scrambled eggs and cappuccino for breakfast. Internet cafe to check email. Lazy afternoon watching trashy U.S. television and an evening of cooking and wine with friends in the hotel. It’s not a bad life and a nice diversion from the rigours of the road, which we will be returning to very soon as we head to Iran for the New Year.

Our quiet days though have recently been punctuated by the chaos of Eid on the streets of Aleppo. Thousands of Turks have come to the city during the Muslim holiday for a spot of cut-price shopping (the shopping phenomenon isn’t unique to Christmas!) and, while the streets are devoid of the usual number of cars and taxis, the sidewalks are full to bursting with people bargaining for huge quantities of rice and sugar. Here’s a video from the streets of Aleppo during Eid.

109km Maraka to Aleppo

Posted December 16th, 2007

Looks like a space colony...It was early morning when we first hopped on our bikes under cloudy skies and completely dark by the time we arrived in Aleppo. The weather had turned for the worse and we felt more than a little grotty after three days without a shower so we had two good incentives to push hard into the city. Throughout our travels in Syria, Aleppo has remained one of our favourite places so we were happy to return here. We felt very much at home as we pedalled the last few kilometers towards the Hotel Al-Gawaher, admiring a suprising number of Christmas lights in stores and homes.

Ahmed, a good friend as well as the hotel manager, met us at the door with a smile and a hug. A great welcome back after 1,700km of cycling around the country. After a shower, we sat down to catch up over a bottle of red wine and Ahmed gave us a possible explanation as to why we were followed by the police so intensely from Deir-ez-Zor. Apparently a tourist had photographed a military installation in this area a few months ago and shortly afterwards Israel attacked the same Syrian site, saying it was being used for nuclear research. We’ll probably never know why we were followed but this idea makes the most sense to us of any we’ve been able to come up with. (more…)

81km from the middle of nowhere to Maraka

Posted December 15th, 2007

Two friendly truck driversOne of the things we’ve always believed is that people are generally good. It’s something we have seen over and over during our trip regardless of nationality or religion but recently we’ve found this basic truth hard to remember after encountering more than our fair share of bad apples over the past week. So it was all the more welcome when we saw a familiar car stop in front of us this morning. Out hopped Misheal, a Saudi-Canadian on holiday in Syria who’d first pulled over to chat as we were cycling in the desert around Palmyra. We talked for a few minutes and then Misheal asked if we needed anything. “Just some water, if you have it,” we said. We were running a little low after camping the night before. There are few villages on this stretch of road. “No, I don’t have any,” said Misheal. “But if I see any I’ll bring it back for you.” (more…)

45km Thawrah to the middle of nowhere

Posted December 14th, 2007

Beautiful sunsetSome days are better than others and this one was on the low end of the scale. Our policemen returned in the evening last night and the first thing we saw as we got out of the tent this morning was a white stationwagon parked a few meters away. Three policemen were inside. It must have been a chilly night for them but we were not so sympathetic; still angry from being lied to repeatedly and having tried in vain the previous afternoon to clarify what was going on. Our night was restless as a result. The stress of not knowing why we were being followed so intensely and having lost all our privacy stopped us from getting any sleep until well past midnight.

Our intention now was to backtrack to the nearest police station, ask for an interpreter and, if that failed, then to call our consulate for advice. A strong tailwind blew us into town and there the same situation we’d seen so many times before repeated itself. There was no translator. No one spoke English beyond “welcome to Syria” and after a good deal of frustration on both sides the police motioned for us to go, saying they would not follow us. This lasted about 10 minutes before the famous white car was again on our trail. We lost it. The car pulled up beside us. “My friend, my friend,” the police officer said. “No friend. Go home,” we said. Our voices rose and the police officer (who by now was surely as tired of us as we were of him) finally seemed to break. “No more police,” he shouted as the car drove off into the distance. (more…)

74km Raqqa to Thawrah

Posted December 13th, 2007

Orange peels on the roadWhat a mess. We handled our police escort in good humour the first day, reluctantly the second day and by today we were fed up. When we first left the hotel this morning we thought we’d been set free but before long a motorcycle was on our tail. “Enough,” we said to him as he pulled up beside us on the edge of town. “No police. Finish,” we added in broken but basic English to get our point across. The only thing we achieved was to make our minder drop back a bit further, a small concession as our frustration grew. It’s hard to be followed everywhere you go on a bicycle. We feel like unwilling contestants on Big Brother. Our enjoyment in exploring this wonderful country is gone now that the police are always watching us, scaring away locals who dare approach and making bathroom stops nearly impossible. There has been no real explanation as to why this started or what the “ground rules” are. None of the police officers have spoken English beyond some rough basics.

We were trailed throughout the day and by late afternoon, as in any bad relationship, we decided a talk was needed. A local football game was on and our minders had driven a small way ahead to watch the action while they waited for us to catch up. We stopped beside them and asked for a translator. A doctor appeared after some time and kindly helped to interpret. We were told we were being followed by the tourism police, that this was a service to keep us safe “just in case” and that we could ask for it to stop if we were unhappy. We made it clear that we were indeed very unhappy and that we would not go on if we were being followed all the time. We were seriously considering abandonning our trip in Syria altogether or at the very least taking the fastest route possible back to Aleppo. The reply came back that they would respect our wishes. No more. We checked again, just to be sure. “Finish,” was the answer once again and we set off on our own, intending to find a quiet spot to camp. (more…)