14 October 2007

CYCLING SYRIA - Atakia to Damascus

Atakia – Aleppo - 110km

I left the two Nepalese and cycled off on my own. I arrived at the Syrian border and met 4 guys on the way to South Africa by motorcycle. They introduce me to Ahmed, a tour guide who is helping them getting a visa. Ahmed is extremely helpful and gets all the forms filled in and 3 hours later I have my visa and I'm on my way!!!

Wow, what have I let myself in for!! This is a totally different world, different culture, different language, different scenery!!! I cycled into Aleppo at 18h00 in peak traffic and what a madhouse - cars everywhere!!! It's Ramadan and thousands of very hungry people are on their way home!!!

I found a very reasonable hotel - "Hotel Tourist" - which is centrally located and very clean. Achmad from the hotel is very friendly and offered to walk me around town.

23 September - Aleppo

Spent day in Aleppo, took a walk around the Citadel, Market and museum. Needed GPS to find my hotel - narrow streets, all looking the same. Achmad from the hotel offered to show me some more of the town. What friendly people the Syrians are!!

24 September - Aleppo – Idlep - 60km

After a strong headwind I reached Idlep, just to find that there was no suitable accommodation in town. In the process I met Agmad, who invited me to stay with them. They even invited me to supper with his brother and sister-in-law. What a wonderful experience!!! Somod (Agmad's wife) made various dishes of very tasty food and I left for my room very well fed!!

25 September - Idlep – Latakia - 130km

Into a headwind again and over a mountain range, so all in all, a slow and long day on the road.

Everyone along the road very friendly and helpful, but few can read the map, as it is in English, so it was rather difficult to ask for directions.

Everyone stared in amazement as, firstly I'm a woman, secondly I'm on a bike, and thirdly, I am travelling alone. So, everyone wants to try and communicate and I'm being offered food and drink all along the way. This is just such an amazingly frienly country.

26 September – Latakia

The traffic still amazes me, there are no rules, and if any, I do not know what they are!! Everyone appears to do their own thing, and all this without any accidents - quite amazing. This is also the land of the 3 wheel pickups - strange looking, small vehicles. These cart anything from people to building rubble but not at any great speed. It is quite easy for me to keep up and even overtake them, to the great delight of the children.

There are also surprisingly few tourists around, in fact I hardly see any, with the result that I stick out like a sore thumb.

27 September - Latakia – Tartus - App 80km

Not so far but I feel very tired and my itchy bumps are getting worse - I'm going crazy. By now I am totally covered in terrible bumps - my face, neck, arms and legs. Nothing seems to help and they seem to get more by the day.

I'm so irritated that I booked into an overpriced chalet just to discover that the place is infested with creepy crawlies - just what I need right now.

Although the coastline looks fantastic it is quite dirty with all kinds of rubbish everywhere.

28 September – Tartus

Woke up with a swollen eye and more itchy bumps - this can’t be true!!!! Must find a decent hotel and have a good shower. Cycled into Tartus only about 10 km or so and found a very nice hotel on the beach front, but at a price. I am not complaining as it even has a bath!!! The first bath I have seen since I left home 6 months ago. So this is the perfect time to sort out my things out and to find a pharmacy and get something for the itchy bites.

29 September - Tartus – Homs - 110km

The road to Homes is not that interesting as I followed the high way and it is very busy with plenty of large trucks. I don't have a good map of Syria so it is best to just follow the main roads - at least most of the road signs are in English as well, where as on the smaller road it is only in Arabic. I arrived fairly early due to a good tailwind and what a crazy crazy place!! I still don't understand the traffic rules. Even though the traffic light is red the cars still go and that with the traffic policeman in the middle of the road to help regulate the traffic.

Another interesting evening. I took taxi to a restaurant and the taxi driver stayed and had a meal with me. He speaks no English so it’s all very complicated.

30 September – Homs

As I saw little of the town yesterday I stayed one more day and walked the ancient markets and ate very sweet pastries with small cups of very strong coffee. It is still very hot and I wonder how the local women can walk around all covered in black from heat to toe. The men seem to be better off in their long white robes, or at least it looks a lot cooler.

The cities are a jumble of noise and colour as hooting is part of driving and mosques are calling people to prayer ever so often.

1 October - Homs – Damascus - 80km cycled 0f 160km

As I left Homs on my way to Damascus, the scenery suddenly changed and all I could see was desert. Gone were all the olive trees, pomegranates and figs - just barren land everywhere. And as that was not bad enough, a ferocious wind picked up and all one could see was a grey/yellow haze. I battled on, but knew I would not get very far in a wind like this. I had my head down to try and keep the sand from my eyes and nearly did not see a van parked alongside the road flagging me down. A wonderful French couple stopped and offered me a lift to Damascus - real saviours!!! This was too good an offer to decline so I jumped in and in no time at all we were in Damascus.

We stayed in the backyard of St Paul's convent and I pitched my tent in their herb garden (hope I did not flatten the parsley).

2 October – Damascus

I left the convent quite early as the gardener started to water the garden around me, so I waved goodbye to my saviours and cycled into the city centre in life threatening traffic. I found a really cheap hotel but first had to clean it. Imagine me cleaning a room, and one I had paid for!! Well, I wiped it down and sprayed it as my itchy bumps are just starting to get better, thanks to Nico who sent me a text message with what to take. Well thanks Nico, it worked!!

I stayed in Damascus a few days waiting for my sister, Amanda, to arrive from South Africa for a visit.

By Amanda

Saturday 6 October – Cape Town to Damascus via Doha

Depart from Cape Town to Doha on a day flight. The hotel, transport to the hotel, dinner and breakfast at Doha were included in the airfare.

Sunday 7 October - Doha to Damascus

I arrived in Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, late afternoon where I met Leana at the Sultan Hotel. The hotel is approximately one kilometer from the old city which is now a bazaar. We immediately left for the old city where one can walk among all the shops until late.

It’s difficult to describe the traffic in Damascus, one have to experience it oneself. They don’t use indicators but hoot if they want to turn or overtake and then just turn. Nerveracking if you are the passenger. To cross a street is another story, one just hopes for the best and runs.

Monday 8 October - Damascus

After breakfast (1 boiled egg , Syrian bread , jam, butter, cheese and tea without milk , every morning the same the entire holiday) we took a taxi to Shrine of Saida Zeinab, 10 km from Damascus. Later the morning we took a minibus to Maalula, 56 kilometers from Damascus.

I quickly got used to the lifestyle in Syria. Nothing opens before 10h00 in the morning. Breakfast is usually served until 12h00. From 16h00 – 18h00 the shops close until 20h00. Then they open at 20h00 until late. Everyone is out on the streets and in the shops at night, even the children.

Tuesday 9 October – Damascus - Aleppo

We left early for the bus stop to get a bus to Aleppo where we stayed in the Hotel Norm Islander. Once again less than 15 minutes walk to the Citadel and the Souq (bazaar).

Wednesday 10 October - Aleppo

Visited the citadel and the souq. The souq in Aleppo is incredible busy, big (10km) and everything is under one roof. There were times that one could not pass the people.

Thursday 11 October – Aleppo - Hama

We took the bus to Ham where we stayed in the Raid hotel. We took a taxi to the Crack des Chevaliers castle, an hour’s drive from Hama.

Hama is famous for the oldest surviving water wheels in the world. We saw about 6 of them along the river and they are all still in working condition.

Friday 12 October – Hama - Palmyra

We took a mini taxi to Homes from where we took the bus to Palmyra. Palmyra is so small the bus doesn’t stop at the bus stop, but drops everyone off at their various destination. The driver dropped us at the Sun Hotel, one of the budget hotels in Palmyra.

Palmyra is famous for his pink city (a dead city) where queen Zenobia ruled. Later the evening we went up to the Arab Castle for a desert sunset.

The hotel owner’s mother will make supper for guests if one wants to eat there and we decided to make use of the offer instead of going out.

Saturday 13 October - Palmyra

We left Palmyra at about 10h00 by camel and arrived at a Bedouin camp at 14h00 (±10km). That was quite an experience with no one understanding one another; we stared at them and they stared at us. Later the afternoon we went to a water hole and on the way back to the camp we were in a sand storm. Not too bad, just a taste of a sandstorm.

Sunday 14 October – Palmyra - Damascus

After breakfast we said goodbye to the Bedouins and left for Palmyra by camle and then by bus for Damascus. It was the end of Ramadan and also a long weekend, with the result that nearly all the hotels were fully booked. We found a hotel, Dakara, not too far from where the Sultan hotel is and not too far from the old city for our last shopping in Syria.