Monday, 28 February 2011

Day 163 Syria 28/2/2011, Damascus. A trip to the visa office and a lot of sightseeing.

No idea why, but we woke quite early this morning. Breakfast was the fairly standard middle eastern affair of flat bread, olives, hummus, preserves and eggs with plenty of tea or coffee to wash it down with. By the time we had eaten our fill we were ready to face the day.

Stepping out into a fairly sunny and warm day, we headed to the visa office via the northern walls of the old city. The route was fascinating passing through narrow, ancient and often dilapidated streets.

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Eventually leaving the old city behind via one of its ancient gates, we headed into the throngs of people and traffic that seemed to fill every space outside the walls. We were nearly at the office when the heavens opened, so much for the good weather. Fortunately it was only a shower, but the skies did look a little grey.

Finding the right room in the visa and immigration offices was a little challenging. There were people everywhere thrusting pieces of paper at the officers and our somewhat bewildered looks prompted somebody to point us towards an office. Going into the office didn't make things any clearer, there were just as many people in there. Eventually approaching one of the officers, we were informed once again that we definitely have 30 days, and we couldn't extend our visas until that period was over. This was what we wanted to hear, assuming the border guards have been told the same thing, we won't incur any problems.

Leaving the office the rain started again, this time heavier than before. We were invited into a bookshop to take shelter from the rain and given directions to a nearby mosque that we wanted to visit. The rain didn't last long and the grey skies gave way to a bit more blue.

Leaving the bookshop we headed to the Takiyya as-Suleimaniyya Mosque. The mosque was designed by the same person who created the Suleimaniye Mosque in Istanbul, which is my personal favourite of the Istanbul mosques. Like its counterpart in Turkey the mosque was undergoing some extensive renovations, so we were unable to go in. We could however walk round the craft market that now inhabits the courtyard walls and old Madrassa (Islamic school). The complex is certainly not on the scale of the one in Turkey but it had some beautiful pieces of inlay work in the walls and the mosque itself was very attractive.

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Returning to the old city, we walked along the start of Straight street and into Souq Medhat Pasha. Unlike the narrow streets of Aleppo's souks, this was a wide high ceilinged thoroughfare, with more expensive looking stores inset into the walls. Just off the souk we stopped to have a look at an attractive Khan (traders rest stop) and then turned off into a street selling spices and sweets. Midway along the street we came to Khan As-ad Pasha, a strikingly impressive structure built in 1752 with striped black and white walls and beautifully decorated domed ceilings.

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Moving on from Khan As-ad Pasha we reached the Azem Palace. Built between 1749 and 1752 it was the private residence of the governor of Damascus, As'ad Pasha al-Azem. Now it is a truly beautiful building, housing a museum that contains a collection of the most hilariously bad mannequins we have ever seen. Strictly speaking it seems that photography within the palace rooms is not allowed, although some rooms have signs and others don't. Consequently we don't have many pictures and those we do have were taken surreptitiously. For us it was a shame that they didn't leave the building alone, looking round the beautifully decorated rooms would have been enough, without the distraction of historical re-enactments.

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By now we were quite tired of walking round so we returned to the hostel, where we learned a couple of variations on the game of backgammon. Dinner was taken at one of the hostels recommended restaurants, which turned out to be no better than average. 'Old Street' restaurant was alright we suppose, but we have had a lot better, not to mention cheaper, elsewhere on our travels. We grabbed a few Lebanese beers on the way back to the hostel and settled in for the night. More sightseeing tomorrow.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Day 162 Syria 27/2/2011, Maalula–Damascus. 35.04miles/56.44km, 2hr54minutes, Av 12.1mph.

Clearly staying in a monastery/convent agrees with us, as I had the best sleep I have had in ages. Debs watched over by Jesus, had an equally good night.


Breakfast wasn't until 9am this morning so, waking early we had a look at the panoramic view from the convent and then, morning service having finished, we had a look round the ancient church. We were given a brief tour by one of the staff who recited the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic to us. The ancient church was very beautiful with a collection of priceless icons. Unfortunately cameras aren't allowed so no pictures.

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After a walk round it was time for breakfast, where we were joined by Father Thomas. It's not every day you breakfast with a priest. He wished us well on our journey and then having loaded our bikes we headed down the steep hill to the village.


The wind certainly wasn't as strong as yesterday, but there was no chance of us getting away with a wind-free journey. Taking a few photos in the village, we headed downwards to the main Damascus road. The descent and less powerful wind meant that we covered the first 8km in rapid time and we were soon rejoining the motorway. Better still the motorway headed downhill as well.


The road soon levelled out and the wind started to once again play its part. Perhaps driven on by the fact that we were going to be in Damascus later, we managed to maintain a reasonable speed.

The end of the higher ground was marked, rather alarmingly, by a sign warning of dangers for the next 8km.


Despite the fact that it was fairly steep, we never did spot any of the dangers. Had we not been riding into a headwind, we would have been going a lot faster, so perhaps it would have seemed a lot riskier.

A brief break at a garage brought a bit of light relief when one of the staff wanted to take my bike to be pressure washed. Personally I think he just wanted to have a ride, because the cleaning job was rubbish. Thanks to the rest of the staff I wasn't required to pay, despite the best attempts by the lad who had taken the bike to be cleaned. Payment in Syria often seems to come in the form of having to take a picture of the staff and then showing it to them. Perhaps they don't have cameras, or at least they are very expensive.

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Rejoining the road, we were soon in the outskirts of Damascus, where once again we navigated the city traffic with more ease than expected. Cities may not be the ideal place for a bicycle, but we are certainly getting pretty good at riding through them.

Thanks to a city map that we had been given in Hama, we found our way to the right part of the old city and set about trying to find the 'Damascus hostel'. We later found out that hostels aren't allowed a sign, which explains why although we were in the right place, we couldn't actually see the hostel. After getting some help from a neighbour who told us we were in the right place, we were let into a nicer place than the outside suggested. We are staying in what must be the hostel's penthouse suite, because it certainly isn't cheap, but then the room doesn't really make you think hostel. We are in a large oval shaped room that juts out from the old city walls, which is pretty cool. The hostel also has a fireman's pole and rope ladder that you can use to get down to street level. I will give these a go at a later date, Debs, probably sensibly, isn't so keen!

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Going for a brief stroll to get our bearings, what we saw of Damascus looks great. Tomorrow should be a big sightseeing day, although we have to make another trip to an immigration office to check our visa status. We are still concerned about showing up at the border with an expired visa, no matter what the office in Aleppo told us.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Day 161 Syria 26/2/2011, Qarah–An Nabk–Maalula. 34.54miles/55.56km, 4hr58minutes, Av 6.9mph! (It was very windy!)

Sometime during the night the already strong wind got up to gale force levels. We both lay there wondering if the tent was going to survive the onslaught. Fortunately the morning brought sun, seemingly lighter winds and a fully intact tent.

Heading out onto the road, it quickly became apparent that the winds hadn't lightened at all. We were soon riding down the road accompanied by a crosswind so strong that we had to lean the bikes sideways to compensate. The wind slowly changed direction so that it was a full on headwind and that is pretty much how it stayed for the next 50km.

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We can honestly say that we have never experienced anything like it. The open desert landscape meant that we got very little relief from the wind and to make matters worse it was icy cold. Stopping for an early lunch gave us some respite, but then it was straight back into it.

Leaving the town of An Nabk we had to make the choice of continuing along the motorway or taking a smaller more direct road to Maalula. The minor road was 12km shorter but it would mean we would be riding directly into the wind. Eventually we decided that as we hadn't been able to escape the wind all day, there seemed little point in taking the longer route.

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I would love to say that it was nice to be away from the motorway and its traffic, but in all honesty it took all our concentration just to keep going. Despite travelling through some quite dramatic scenery, the day was mainly spent with our Ipods in and our heads down.

It would have been very easy to get totally demoralised, but once again there were enough friendly greetings and a very welcome offer of coffee to keep our spirits up.

In a mad moment we turned down the offer of a lift, our foolishness being repaid by a freezing rain/sleet shower.

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When Maalula came into view, via what ordinarily would have been a welcome descent, two very tired people gave a little sigh of relief. Having turned across the wind to head down to the town, we had the unpleasant experience of riding a bike that felt like it was

being picked up and thrown across the road. It had to be our slowest descent yet!

Not really sure where we were going we turned towards and climbed a short but steep hill to the Convent of St Serge and Bacchus. Built in AD 325, it is one of the oldest churches in the world and Aramaic is widely used.

Knowing that we could hopefully stay in one of the monasteries, we enquired in a nearby café, over a warming cup of coffee. The staff said that we could stay in the convent, which was great news, as bearing in mind the worsening weather it meant we wouldn't have to move far. While in the café the wind showed its strength by knocking over both of our very heavy and, we thought, well propped bikes!

Having met Father Thomas, we were shown to a rather more deluxe room than we had expected. It seems that staying for free, is not an option in the Convent of St Serge, in fact it is quite costly. We are contenting ourselves with the fact that, after the day we have had we deserve it, plus it's not every day that you get to stay in one of the world's oldest churches. Weather permitting we will look round tomorrow and then ride the 60km to Damascus. It can't possibly be as windy tomorrow, can it?

Friday, 25 February 2011

Day 160 Syria 25/2/2011, Homs – Free camp near Qarah 35.39miles/56.99km, 3hr45minutes, Av 9.4mph.

We woke early this morning, had a quick breakfast in the room and then got our bikes downstairs and loaded. Even though it is Friday, we hadn't expected the roads to be quite so deserted. As it turned out, this was a good thing as finding our way out of the city was nowhere near as straightforward as it had appeared on the map. We had only just been commenting on how good the signs had been in Homs, when they vanished on us and we got confronted with a one-way system. We ended up on the right road, just on the wrong side of the carriageway, which involved a sneaky bit of riding the wrong way down the road, something not uncommon in Syria!


The days cycling started quite well, we soon covered the distance to first break and stopped for a coffee. Rejoining the road it became apparent that Debs was struggling, no matter how hard she tried she couldn't keep up. There didn't seem to be any particular reason for it, we have found that some days you just can't get going, obviously for Debs this was one of those days. Despite Debs difficulties we pressed on along the motorway towards Maalula and Damascus.

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The road to Damascus is mainly desert, so when the wind started to get up we were faced with a rapidly toughening ride through a barren landscape with no shelter. To start off it was a fairly strong crosswind, which although tricky didn't slow us down too much. As we started to get into the higher ground, the wind changed so that it was coming directly at us. Any chance of making it to Maalula was pretty much over, the wind was costing us about 10km/h.

Knowing that we weren't going to make it, actually made our next decision easier. We stopped for some water at a small town and then started looking for somewhere to camp. Being surrounded by desert scrub land meant that there were plenty of options. We found what appeared to be an ideal spot, hidden from the road and just far enough from a nearby village. Pitching the tent was a bit of a challenge in the wind, but with a bit of perseverance we managed to avoid it sailing off into the distance.

It has now become apparent, that if you intend to camp in Syria, don't expect to get away without being spotted. Despite the fact that we aren't on any kind of visible track, two lads on a motorbike, a car, and a guy with four children in tow have all gone past! Aside from a few friendly waves we have been left alone though, which from our prior experiences seems very un-Syrian. Perhaps we will have a nice restful evening to ourselves.

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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Day 159 Syria 24/2/2011, Homs. Mosques, souks, churches and some shopping.

The rock hard mattress, cement filled pillow and chilly drab conditions of our room, didn't hinder our sleep at all, we must have been tired!

It occurred to me this morning, that while this is the cheapest place we have stayed, if you add the cost of showering and lack of facilities it is actually one of the dearest. In Hama for example, we had air conditioning, a bathroom, satellite TV, a fridge, towels and someone actually bothered to clean the rooms and hotel, for the huge amount of an extra S£150 (£2) per night. Still location is on its side!

Leaving the hotel, we headed first for Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Mosque, a Turkish style mosque with black and white banded stone walls. Contained within the mosque is the mausoleum of Khaled Ibn Al-Walid, who conquered Syria for Islam in AD 636.

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Having read in the guide book that women had to enter the mosque through a side door, we followed the signs for the women's entrance, which had clearly been put up by a Syrian man having a laugh at the women's expense; having circumnavigated the mosque we ended up where we started from! Even better, we had to twice pass a group of the most unpleasant children we have encountered in Syria. Obviously throwing a stone when the tourist doesn't want to take your picture is acceptable to them.

The atmosphere around the mosque was by no means threatening, but certainly not what we have come to expect. Rather begrudgingly I left Debs, who had decided she didn't want to go in, outside while I had a quick look round. Being so used to people being friendly and receiving greetings everywhere we have been, this was a new experience. I took a few photos, rejoined Debs and we left, bound for the souks.

Fortunately when we got back to the hustle and bustle of the souks the mood lightened. Once again we were amongst the smiling friendly people who we have become accustomed to.

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We spent the morning just wandering, eventually coming out at the 'Church of the Girdle of Our Lady', where a strip of woven wool and silk has been declared to be a belt worn by the Virgin Mary. We visited the small side room that contains the belt, but the main church was locked, which is a shame as it looked quite interesting inside.

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After a cup of coffee, we headed to have a look at the Azze Hrawe, a large Mamluk-era house. Despite the fact that there was a sign advertising 'folklore museum' and the door was open, we weren't allowed in. We were told rather unhelpfully, bearing in mind we wanted to look round the house, that we could go to the Homs museum instead.

We strolled back through the narrow streets towards the hotel, stopping to buy some fruit and vegetables at the market on the way. So far it has been a strange and occasionally frustrating day.

The strangeness and frustration continued later on, when the coffee sachets that Debs bought earlier vanished. For once I wasn't involved in the loss, although she did frisk me to make sure I hadn't taken them. Toad did seem a little hyperactive later on though, so perhaps the mystery is solved!

Later this afternoon we went for a last look round the souk and bought some more coffee sachets, as well as some eggs and some new insoles for my trainers. The shoe repair people are terrific in Syria, they seem capable of repairing just about any shoe while you wait. Obviously selling me some insoles was only a minor task, even if I did have to give it some thought before I parted with my S£15 (20p)!

It will be an early night tonight, as we are going to try and make it to Maalula tomorrow, a distance of approx 120km.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Day 158 Syria 23/2/2011, Hama – Homs. 28.34miles/45.66km, 2hr36minutes, Av 10.8mph.

Leaving day and we both wake with slightly upset stomachs, not the best preparation for a days cycling, albeit a short one. Getting our gear downstairs wasn't as bigger chore as it might have been, although Debs having another puncture in her rear tyre didn't help matters. The hotel member who tried to help me fix the puncture didn't make things any easier either. I know he thought he was being useful, but Rohloff wheels have to go in a specific way, plus trying to force the rear view mirror into a position so the bike would stand up is only going to end with it breaking. Thankfully the mirror survived and it was with some relief when we actually got going.

Riding out of Hama was easy and we were soon on the motorway heading south. Unfortunately Debs really wasn't feeling very well, with a total lack of energy, so progress was difficult. I eventually persuaded her to put her headphones in and listen to some music to take her mind off things. It seemed to help and we were soon getting along quite well.

By the time we stopped for a break at a mobile coffee stall, she seemed to be feeling a little better, cappuccinos obviously have healing properties.


With Homs about 20km away we were beckoned over by some men to join them in a drink. The odd herbal tea that I had tried in Aleppo was on offer, which I have to now say, probably doesn't contain anything untoward. The guys were pleasant hosts and like everyone we have met, thought we were mad to be cycling. A few photos and several refills of tea later and we were ready for the final push into the city.


Riding into Homs was pretty straightforward, as was finding the hotel. It seems that despite Homs being Syria's third biggest city, it is tiny compared to Aleppo and Damascus.

The 'New An Nasr Hotel' has to be the most basic place we have stayed. The options in the city appear pretty limited though, you either go cheap or spend a lot more and head for one of the more upmarket hotels. The best I can really say about it is that it is a bed and the bikes are safe enough in the reception area.

Homs apparently has one of Syria's most attractive souks, so after settling in, that is where we headed. The souk was certainly bustling, it was also much lighter than the souks we saw in Aleppo with high bright ceilings. Heading into a clearly older section, I went to have a look at what some people were eating at a snack stall. I was soon asked to join them in eating some kind of boiled bean (possibly broad) which you dipped in a selection of spices and then washed down with a drink made from the juice. The drink had lemon juice and some spices added and was actually quite pleasant. Very kindly one of the customers paid for ours and we went on our way to explore more.

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Everybody we met seemed to want their photo taken, or have a photo taken of someone they knew. At one point a guy told me to take a photo of a stall holder and then a picture of one of the photos in his stall. Whether the photo was of the stall holder in his younger days or of a Middle Eastern icon, I have no idea. It caused a lot of shouting and hilarity amongst several of the stall holders though. The rest of our wander round followed much the same pattern. One stall holder wanted to wear my sunglasses, an old guy posed holding a lemon and a real character posed while twirling a stick. People certainly seem very friendly in Homs.

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Having had a short wander we returned to the hotel, where we found out we had to pay and give notice to use the shower, I told you it was basic!

The city certainly seems interesting, so we will spend tomorrow doing some proper sightseeing and then press on to Damascus. With any luck we should get there within two to three days, stopping in the Aramaic speaking town of Maalula on the way.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Day 157 Syria 22/2/2011, Hama. Four norias, some shopping and some blogging.

With better weather than our first day in Hama, we went for a look around the town. We decided to walk along the river to see a group of four norias (water wheels). The ancient water wheels are an impressive sight, it would just be nice if they were moving. Considering the amount of rain that has fallen recently, you would think that the rivers would be high enough for them to be turning.

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Walking back along the rather litter strewn riverside, three children ran up to us to say hello and ask to have their photo taken. It is funny watching their faces light up when they get to see themselves on the screen, especially as afterwards they always say thank you and run off.

Back in town we bought some food from the market and on the way back to the hotel we stopped so I could try halawat al-jibn, a cheese based dessert. The raw cheese is soaked to remove the salt and then melted and stretched to make a dough. Once rolled out it is filled with kashta a creamy dessert filling. It was pretty good, but had a slightly strange texture.

Back at the hotel we attempted to upload some photos and to get the blog up to date. Alas we are really struggling with the internet in Syria. Yahoo, Google and Facebook keep dropping out and the connection seems to come and go. It looks like we will have to keep trying every time we stop.

Our last dinner in Hama was spent in the room, once again dining on a whole roast chicken. We have a comparatively short ride of about 50km to Homs tomorrow; all we have to do is get our bikes and luggage down the eight flights of stairs!