September 30th-October 2nd: Palmyra (Tadmur) to Damascus - Out in the Syrian desert, Syria
There's a feeling of silent power amongst the ruins of Palmyra. Incongruously set amidst a desert of rocks, sand and dust, a scattering of Roman pillars, tombs and tunnels hint to a lost empire. An oasis city that once broke the journey between Mesopotamia and the Med, Palmyra is now Syria's number one tourist magnet. Yet despite the continual stream of luxury buses that unload their cargo of tour groups, it's vast enough to retain a lonesome sense of discovery. I trudge around these sprawling ruins, pausing under skeletal archways that block the glare of the sun, clambering over fractured pillars, kicking up desert dust that resettles over worn facades. I watch the sun set, a pink film spilling across the surrounding mountains, engulfing the city like the desert around it.
Nick's two weeks are coming to an end, but we've set ourself one final challenge - a two day desert ride to Damascus. We scour the town for supplies, and emerge laden with fresh dates, pistachio nuts and a wad of flat bread. We indulge in a traditional feast of mensaf - Bedouin style lamb and rice - at a restaurant proudly boasting its 'Lonely Planet' stamp of approval. A hotly debated issue in the rumour books of the backpacking world, LP has the almost divine-like power to draw the crowds, or like a written curse, send them scurrying.
Nick's been doing a little local research into the Syrian outback. A date seller tells him about the desert he experienced during his military service - once hunger drove him to dine on snake, caught with his bare hands and killed with his teeth. Watch out for the hyenas 150km down the road and camp with the Bedouins, is his only other advice. 'I once saw a documentary about hyenas,' comments Nick. 'They stripped a buffalo carcass to the bone in thirty seconds!' We both laugh heartily.
October 1st: The ride begins.
I rouse Nick from his deep slumber as the sun begins to rise. We breakfast on traditional Syrian fare of eggs, olives, bread, tea and dates, then hit the road before the sun turns up the heat. Cycling out of the city, we cast lingering glances to the ruins, empty but for the camel riding fraternity awaiting the first tourists. It all seems perfect. A long road unrolling into the distance like a velvet ribbon. Rocky hills to one side. Emptiness to the other. Perfect, except for...the Wind! Wind is one the forces of nature that cyclists fear most. It can drive the most tenacious to despair, its unrelenting, almost taunting power slowing the hardiest riders to a pitiful crawl. In our case, the worst of it blusters westward, but as our road sweeps round, creeping in from the easterly desert, we find ourselves struggling against its roar. Unlike a punishing hill which offers chances of a rewarding view, a headwind is simply a challenge with no goal.
A town we expect to stop at for lunch offers no more than a mine, billowing dust like a storm. Instead, we nestle under a low bridge, out of reach of the baking sun, munching on fruit and dates, soberly pondering the task ahead. There's nothing to do but ride, and accept this state as best we can. The road rises gently over a range, while behind it extends as far as the eye can see, lost in a shimmer of heat over the horizon. Trucks rumble past with obligatory blasts of their horn - the Syrian hooting gene, we muse. In a fleet of luxury buses, we momentarily catch a glimpse of tourists observing the desert plains from their glass cocoons. They probably never saw us...
But friendly gestures always inspire me on, giving meaning to our struggles. At a crossroads to a train track where a road sign points to Baghdad, we're offered a honeymelon, which we eagerly devour, surrounded by flies. We break in a deserted restaurant, until we're driven on again into the heat by a ruthless swarm. And just when our situation is looking a little bleak, a rickety bus draws to a stop, offering us glasses of chai and replenishing our bottles of water. A Bedouin woman, tattoos gracing her brow, emerges to shake our hand and say a few words of English , to the delight of the bus load of smiling women aboard. Where else but the desert would a bus stop and offer you tea?!
A few kilometres on, we chance upon the Hollywood inspired 'Baghdad Cafe.' Complete with traditional beehive houses, designed to withstand the desert heat, this swish Bedouin-theme setup is more of a tourist trap than a genuine retreat. But the family who run it are fantastically hospitable, inviting us in for the night, feeding and watering us after our long day on the road. Indeed, as we're tucking into fresh cheese and yoghurt from their flock of sheep, a tour bus pulls in, and a knot of brothers rush to their stations. There's a lot more money to be made from tending the tourists nowadays than the sheep... At dusk, one by one the family roll out a mat towards Mecca. Sipping Argentinean tea through an ornate metal straw, strangely popular in Syria, we discuss the West's unfailingly negative depiction of the Middle East, Syrian traditions and the importance of family ties. France seems to be perceived as the epicentre of sexual debauchery, shocking yet clearly intriguing, compared with the conservative attitude to marriage here. Syrians have no qualms in justifying reasons their women remain covered - If she is showing herself to every man in the street, what is she saving for her husband? If they can afford it, men are allowed up to four wives, but again the notion of treating a woman as an object is never entertained by this male dominated society. It's simply another mind-set altogether, and as open and friendly as these people are, it's a chasm between our societies.
As we chat, the television flickers graphic scenes of the latest troubles in Isreal - what is known here as Occupied Palestine. As is to be expected, the story dwells on the death of Palestinian children, and the ruthlessness of Israeli soldiers. Various talkshow muftis - religious judges - are roused to a stream of heated words whose gist I can only imagine. What side of the coin would CNN be recounting, I wonder? Whether a genuine belief, a philosophy to live your life or a tool for people control, I feel like I'm experiencing at first hand the boundless anger and intolerance that religion can incite.
October 2nd: The final push to Damascus
The wind has died down as the sun peeks over the horizon. Thanking our generous hosts, so hospitable to total strangers yet so unlike us in attitude, we enjoy a morning of gentle descent. Unhindered by yesterday's foe, we ride fast as the first light sweeps over the land, across desert tracks and rocky plains, falcons circling overhead. Breakfast is felafel, chips and eggs at the Syrian equivalent of a greasy spoon cafe, where a local insists on feeding Nick half a pack of Middle Eastern cigarettes - Arabi, Arabi - he keeps on repeating, clearly no Marlboro fan, as Nick splutters away.
It's a beautiful road, bound by low ranges, quiet and smooth. Before long, we pass Bedouin camps, where herders tend their flocks of sheep, munching on the few gauzy scrubs that dot this harsh terrain. In this military training area, a jet streaks across the sky, and truck loads of soldiers cheer us on. It's hot, but our heads are wrapped in traditional headdresses to blot out the worst of the sun. And as the hours go by, the kilometres clock up, and the signposts count down.
Finally, we're back on the main highway into Damascus. Buses roar past, a razor width away. Closing in on the city, we pedal through the gritty realism of its suburbs. Factories and workshops line our way, interspersed with the chaos of Syrian road life. Stopping for watermelon, we're invited to tea by some steel workers, neither speaking a word of each others language. Then, as clouds burst with light from the setting sun, it's the final push through to Damascus. No gates to greet us, as we speed through the metropolis, under flyovers, weaving our way alongside maniac drivers, to a quiet backstreet on the edge of the new city. Here, we find the local backpacker hangout, set in a beautiful, old and ramshackle Damascene home, where we spot a few familiar faces from the previous weeks.
It's been quite a journey. 145km today, 250km since Palmyra. It's a Herculean cycling feat for Nick, who's never ridden more than 25km at once and is a devoted Marlboro pack a day man. But its a fantastic sense of achievement - as I remind him - and a sure guarantee that we'll sleep like babies tonight. 'Putting your body through such an ordeal heightens your senses. Orange juice tastes better! Beds seem softer!' I enthuse. He's not convinced, but I know he'll dream well tonight. And sure enough, settling onto our rooftop mattresses next to a dozen other backpacker bodies, he's soon fast asleep.
Back in the city, I listen to its heartbeat, the uneven sound of traffic and car horns. Our desert ride is over. No wild dogs or hyenas, but it's been enough of an adventure to leave an indelible impression in my mind. My first glimpse of a Middle Eastern desert... and the remarkable hospitality of its people.