September 21st: Meeting up with Nick, Aleppo, Syria
Arrival in Aleppo, Syria. It's hot. A hazy sky tinged with pollution, sand-coloured buildings and the profusion of Yasser Arafat style Arab headdresses fulfill any Middle Eastern stereo types I might have had. Along streets crammed with outdoor trade, I struggle through a wake of classic, bright yellow Buick taxi cabs, through back alleys clogged by Suzuki vans. Old men beckon me over to share tea, calmly puffing on their nargelas - water pipes - oblivious to the orchestra of car horns and expressive shouts around them.
Despite the odds, I track down my brother Nick, who has flown out for two weeks, to join me on the ride down to Damascus. Amidst this mayhem, it's amazing and slightly unbelievable to see him. To realise he really is here, that we've organised our lives to meet up in Syria, of all places, after close to two years on the road. Following a winding staircase, we check into a backpacker hangout squeezed between shops, in what seems to be the tyre and ball bearing part of town. To a background of Olympic Eurosport and Muslim calls to prayer, we settle in, catch up, plan ahead, and chat to other travellers working the same trail.
Hunger strikes and the first Syrian lunch bodes well. Nick's already unearthed an excellent kebab eatery. It's the works - chicken cooked over a spit, platters of flat bread on every table and a wobbling fan tempering the hot Middle Eastern air. A large, sweating Syrian spills over a chair, rooted in the far corner of the restaurant. We set about adjusting our minds to this new land - currency, arabic script, social etiquette. Adam, a wiry Czech backpacker with a few weeks of Syrian experience, helpfully shares his in depth knowledge of prices - taxi fares, falafels, tea, hotels, soap, as much as we can handle. Then it's just a matter of losing ourselves in the trading frenzy of the Aleppo 'Souk,' renowned to be one of the most atmospheric covered markets of the Middle East. Beneath banners of swirling arabic script, under alcoves pierced by beams of light, along thin alleyways draped with goods from clothes to spices to fresh meat, we shuffle our way through this lively, ramshackled shopper's delight.
A wave of darkly veiled women bustle past. Aromas of mystery foods catch our attention, only to be stolen moments later by a shop offering traditional Aleppo soap, stacked like brickwork. Noise levels are high, as traders call out their wares. Syrians are renowned for their hospitality, and we politely decline the invitations to tea with the carpet and chessboard brigade. As well as interest of a different kind from other stall holders. 'Where are you staying,' we're asked... 'and what is your room number?!' Juices provide the perfect liquid refreshment to hours of stomping these ancient corridors, and we soon zone in on one from amongst a flank of identical juice stores. Beneath bundles of bananas, oranges, apples and unrecognisable exotic tastes, we down half litre glasses of fruit cocktails. Freshly blended, laced with honey, we take time out and observe the daily going's on around us, the life cycle of one of the longest inhabited cities in the world.
It's been a long day. Like a thermostat that's been cranked up too high, the whole town feels hot and sweaty. We collapse in our room, already a clutter of bike bags, spare parts, clothes and maps. My mind's awash with a stream of impressions and thoughts, reactions and reflections on this new country. In the hot, still air, it's hard to sleep. I await the morning that lies on the other side of this balmy night.
From here on, the Gilbert brothers adventure really begins...