“We are not demanders of War and Terror, but we will defend ourselves against War and Terror”
read the sign at the frontier. It was lunchtime and the road was hectic with children laughing and
shouting their way home from school. Their school uniform was a dark green military uniform complete with shoulder epaulettes. The British Consulate in Istanbul had ‘strongly advised’ me not to enter the country. Welcome to Syria.
I met my first scary Syrians, a family of orange pickers who housed me, fed me, thrashed me at chess and waved me on my way the next morning laden with about 40 oranges. Welcome to Syria. I spent the next evening in the company of Monsieur Diemoz, an octogenarian Frenchman who worked as the concierge at an old people’s home. Roquefort for breakfast fuelled me into Beirut where I watched
possibly the worst ever (and hence funniest) performance of Macbeth. My journey is getting surreal.
Post-war Beirut now boasts a stunningly renovated downtown area, classy restaurants and coffee bars,
open-top BMW’s, mobile phones and fat cigars. My muddy shoes, ripped trousers and non-coiffured hair
did not seem very appropriate. It is true that large areas of the city are still laced with bullet holes and
hardship, but the city and its people are looking forward to better times now. I stayed with Raymond, a
Sierra Leone-born restaurateur who had been forced by war to flee the country overnight. Now in the land
of his fathers he has turned his hand to teaching Physics. I stayed too with Sandy and Art. In his mid-50’s
Art had pedaled across the USA without a single day off, putting me to shame! He could afford gallons of
chocolate milk though and I put his success down to that. And him thrashing me at table tennis? I was just
being a polite guest…
Bursting from almost incessant eating and Middle Eastern hospitality I was ready to tackle the biggest
mountains of my journey so far as I turned inland.
Baalbek is an archaeological phenomenon for which the superlative could have been invented. The
biggest Roman temple in the world, the best preserved Roman temple in the world and, my favourite, the
biggest building block ever cut. It measures 20m x 5m x 4m, weighs 1500 tonnes and would need 40,000
men to shift it! The stones at Stonehenge are a mere 50 tonnes. The place is stunning and I had it all to
myself. My jubilation at pitching my tent at the foot of a temple was tempered by discovering I had left
my sleeping bag and mat in Beirut. Idiot! The temperature hovered around zero, I didn’t sleep much and
dawn was a very real relief.
It is Ramadan, the Muslims’ month of fasting during daylight. As I entered Damascus a student I met
on the street invited me home for iftar, the evening breaking of the fast and a HUGE feast. The food was
delightful, the father’s high volume anti-Semitic ranting a little less so. Cycling through Damascus at 4pm
amongst several million hungry Muslims driving home at high speed is my new Number 1, most
dangerous cycling experience.
I nearly quit. Being alone means that there is nobody to tell you to stop being ridiculous when you are
feeling down. The sheer scale of what I was attempting, the feeling of being trapped like a hamster in a
wheel, the loneliness and the anonymity hit me in a wave of terror. I plumbed new depths of sadness.
Only my stupid pride stopped me heading for the airport. But then I discovered Damascus, dark winding
souks, atmosphere and surprises around every tight corner. Kebabs better even than Istanbul convinced
me that I could not possibly go home yet. So I pedalled on and gradually began to cheer up. But I do not
wish to endure (nor will I be able to) too many times like I went through in Damascus.
Bosra is a Roman theatre in Southern Syria capable of seating 15,000 people. It is almost as pristine
today as when it was built 2000 years ago. The place oozes atmosphere and the acoustics are
unbelievable. And again I had the place to myself. I sang Happy Birthday to myself on the stage to a vast
audience of zero. Amazingly 2 Belgian cyclists showed up. We brewed tea on the stage and spent the
night in the theatre (imagine trying to do that in Rome). My high-volume rendition of Jerusalem beneath
a full moon was spectacular.
We pedalled together to Amman. Jordan is my 15th country and I now have 6500km under my
wheels. It is time to recuperate for a while, to do battle with the Sudanese embassy and to enjoy the
unexpected pleasure of a huge Christmas dinner courtesy of my new host: headmaster Phillip.
Arabian kindness and hospitality has been universal, trusting and humbling. The cuisine is fabulous.
The history is jaw dropping. I know I can safely leave my bike unattended in the street. The only bad
thing has been one day of torrential rain as I left Syria. That must have been the reason why the British Consulate warned me so strongly against travel here…