Desert to the Euphrates: A Bike Touring Route From Damascus to Deir-ez-Zor and Halabiayh
Leave Syria’s capital city for the desert. It’s a remote route, but not one without a strong sense of history.
You’ll need to plan well in terms of water and food, but you’ll be rewarded with plenty of adventure and a bike route through places tourists rarely venture.
Duration: 7 days
Terrain: Very flat aside from a slight climb out of Damascus and another gentle ascent just before the road turns towards Palmyra.
Accommodation: Hotels in Damascus, Palmyra and Deir-ez-Zor. Chance to camp on the grounds of the Baghdad Cafe. Wild camping for the rest.
Highlights: Desert scenery, the incredible ancient city of Palmyra and the surprisingly good museum in Deir-ez-Zor.
Lowlights: Busy roads leaving Damascus. Very little shade in hot weather.
Tips: Carry extra water as services are spaced far apart. If you run out, most dump trucks and other large lorries have whole tanks of drinkable water and any driver would be pleased to refill your bottles. He may even make you a cup of tea!
Section 1 – Damascus to Abu Shamat (70km)
Follow the motorway straight out of Damascus towards Homs. The turnoff for Palmyra appears some 25km out of the city to your right, also signed as the exit towards Iraq! You pass shops as you come off the motorway, giving you the chance to stock up on food and water before things really thin out past Dmeir. Once out of the town, there are only a few scattered houses. There is a regular stream of traffic on the road. In an emergency, you could flag down a passing car. Abu Shamat is marked as a town on the map but the petrol station is abandonned and in fact the whole village is desolate. Only a small military post remains, which you can see from the main road because of the trees and wall surrounding it. We were granted permission to camp on the grounds of the abandonned petrol station, just beside the military post, for the night. We could refill our water bottles here too.
Section 2 – Abu Shamat to Al Busayri (100km)
Now the desert really begins, with the landscape getting increasingly barren as you cycle on. There are no stores on this stretch of road but you can collect water from the police about 40km past Abu Shamat, where the road splits left towards Palmyra and straight on for Iraq. Once you reach Al Busayri, there are a few shops selling the essentials. There are also three Baghdad Cafes in the area, the first appearing a few kilometers before you reach Al Busayri. Their quirky décor is designed to attract tourists and any of the three will be happy to serve you a cup or tea or a cold beer. You may welcome to camp on the grounds if you ask. The original Baghdad Cafe is supposed to be the one at the main intersection of roads leading to Homs, Palmyra and Iraq and is run by the friendly Sultan.
Section 3 – Al Busayri to Palmyra (90km)
Another day alone on the road awaits. Traffic has calmed quite a bit by now as many of the cars turn towards Iraq but do still pay good attention when trucks come flying by on the narrow road. A small village could provide some supplies, about 15km after Al Busayri on the left although it’s set off the road so you’ll have to venture into the heart of the village to find the shop. There are occasional houses where you could seek water before you reach Palmyra.
Section 4 – Palmyra to As Sukhnah (75km)
The road out of Palmyra is blessed with a wide shoulder so you don’t have to dance with the trucks as much as on the Homs side of Palmyra. There is plenty of land to camp on but finding a suitable spot is tougher than it might seem since the landscape is very flat and there are few hiding places. We managed to find a dip between a couple small hills, just big enough to hide our tent. There are no services between Palmyra and As Sukhnah but once in As Sukhnah the locals are friendly and getting food is easy from the many shops.
Section 5 – As Sukhnah to Deir-ez-Zor (150km)
The last stretch of road before you reach the Euphrates retains its desert character for most of the way, although villages become more frequent as you approach Deir-ez-Zor. Once settled in, feed your hunger at one of the many kebab restaurants and don’t miss the great museum!
Section 6 – Deir-ez-Zor to Halabiayh (60km)
A nice route out of Deir-ez-Zor is to head north along the river towards Raqqa, taking in the ruins at Halabiayh. Walk your bike over the suspension bridge and go straight until you reach the main road. Turn left and you’re on your way. The road starts out flat, with farming fields on both sides. We had a few encounters with farm dogs on this stretch. After going through a town, and having pulled away from the river a bit, the road to Halabiayh goes left back towards the river. You can see the ruins on the other side and a floating bridge gives you access. There is no entry fee, wander around as you wish. A military checkpoint is at the end of the bridge on the banks of the Euphrates and we were welcome to camp there, one of our most scenic camping spots in all of Syria.
One word of caution: we were given a police escort in this area, which continued for a few more days. We’ll probably never know the real reason for our escort but it seems that they do occasionally tail cyclists here. Be prepared for this possibility.