Cycling Plus #26:
Syria - Across the Desert With My Brother
Arrival in Aleppo, Syria. Under a hazy sky tinged with pollution, along streets crammed with outdoor trade, I struggle behind a wake of yellow Buick cabs, through back alleys clogged with Suzuki vans. A wave of darkly veiled women bustle past. Old men beckon me over to share tea, calmly puffing on their nargelas - waterpipes - oblivious to the orchestra of car horns and expressive cries around them.
Despite the chaotic odds, I track down my brother Nick, joining me for the ride to Damascus. We set about adjusting our minds to this new land - currency, language, traditions - then lose ourselves in its covered market, the Souq, sampling the lifestyle of one of the longest inhabited cities of the world. Before long, we've unearthed an excellent kebab eatery - chicken roasting over a spit, platters of flat bread on every table and a wobbling fan tempering the hot Middle Eastern air. "Welcome to Syria!" proclaims a large and sweating Syrian, rooted in the far corner of the restaurant.
Away from the city, backroads lead us from village to village; past a child on a decorated bicycle, a knot of men in animated conversation, a Bedouin woman with tattoos gracing her eyebrows. Local people, unperturbed by language barriers, are refreshingly open and unhurried. In Hama, we breakfast amongst men in chequered headdresses, wearing white robes squeezed by leather belts. "Tomorrow I get married," announces the lawyer sharing our table. We ask him about the ceremony. "We will get married in the evening in the mosque, then we will dance. There will be lots of kissing," he assures us.
Our barren surroundings, marked only by rocks, gauzy scrubland and minarets, prelude the desert ahead. We arrive amongst the ruins of the oasis town of Palmyra, a scattering of pillars and archways, tombs and tunnels, hinting to the lost Roman empire that once prevailed. The sun sets, pink film spilling across the surrounding mountains, engulfing the city like the desert around it.
Ahead lies the final challenge: a two day desert ride to Damascus. Supplying ourselves with fresh dates and pistachio nuts we're warned to beware the wild dogs and hyenas. Morning comes; the road unravels like a velvet ribbon into a vast, sandy emptiness. Perfect...until a headwind blusters toward us. It's slow going, and we rest beneath a bridge beyond the baking sun, soberly pondering the task ahead. As morale and water runs low, a rickety bus draws to a stop, offering glasses of sweet mint tea and replenishing our bottles of water. Where else but the desert could we expect such a welcome?
First light sweeps across the land, toasting the desert sands golden, and an unexpected tailwind whisks us past camps, home to nomadic Bedouin people. The kilometres clock up and the signposts count down, until finally we rejoin the highway to Damascus. We're exhausted. It's been a long few days, and a Herculean cycling feat for Nick. "Putting your body through such an ordeal heightens your senses. Orange juice tastes better! Beds seem softer!" I enthuse. I know he'll dream well tonight.
I listen to the heartbeat of the city, its uneven percussion of traffic and car horns. The silence of our desert ride is over. No hyenas or wild dogs, but enough of an adventure for a first taste of the Middle East and the remarkable hospitality of its people.