Damascus to Palmyra
It was the question most asked of me, and today, after 200 kms of pedalling with the sun already sinking below the mountains to the west and my destination still 20 kms away just over the ridge that dominated the skyline in front of me, I asked myself the same question
Why was I doing this?
I had started out at dawn from Damascus, bound for Palmyra some 210 kms to the northeast and now almost twelve hours later I was still pedallling. The day had started out pretty well, long distance cycle touring is something of a novelty to most Syrians and my Greenspeed GTO recumbent trike even more so, as I left the city I attracted the by now usual stares, waves, and whistles. The cop at the busy five way intersection strolled over for a chat and inspection of the trike, he too asked why I was riding to Palmyra when a nice air-conditioned bus could whisk me there in a few hours for less than $5. With a bemused smile and a shrug he marched into the swirling traffic blowing his whistle, waving his arms and yelling until at last the traffic flow ceased, he then solemnly escorted me across the intersection and pointed out the road to my destination
The undulating road was wide and well surfaced and although there was no verge, after riding in Sydney, managing the heavy traffic was easy. As the sun rose, so did the temperature. By midmorning it was low 30s and the 7 litres of water I'd started out with were quickly emptying. Still there were enough petrol stations and wayside 'restaurants' where I could both top up the water and indulge in yet another glass of strong sweet tea. As I was to do more than once during the month I was to spend cycling through Syria and Lebanon I marvelled at the amazing restorative powers of strong sweet tea. The traffic thinned as I ventured further into the stony desert, every now and again a loaded pickup would slow down and crawl alongside me while the driver and/or passenger(s) chatted. Many stopped for a closer inspection, inevitably pressing a small gift of welcome, an orange, a pomegranate or a sweet on me before leaving me to resume my journey. One of the nice air-conditioned buses gave me the usual long horn blasts as it sailed past and then suddenly braked to an unsteady halt in the centre of the road. The driver and passengers got out and stood in the road waiting for me to cycle up to them. A protracted discussion followed; Where did I come from? Where was I going? Did I like Syria? And of course the inevitable Why? My fractured arabic necessitated slow and patient questions, the quirks of my pronunciation and my limited vocabulary meant that I often had to repeat my answers until understanding dawned on my audience after which my answer was rephrased and repeated until it rippled to the edges of the crowd. A few brave souls eased themselves into the trike seat and pedalled up and down the road much to the amusement of their fellow passengers. We all stood in the centre of the road for half an hour while other traffic inched its around us or just stopped too, joining the throng. After refusing various offers to put the trike in the bus or in one of the fleet of pickups that had stopped, I eventually hit the road again loaded with even more fruit, sweets and bread
And so the day wore on and as it did I was wearing out. There were no more places to top up water and even tea at the occasional lonely farmhouse wasn't hitting the spot. With about 30 km to go I was waved into a bedouin camp, very soon I was throwing back a couple of the small cups of liquid dynamite that pass for coffee. I literally felt the caffeine kick in; it was enough to push me back to the road and onwards. As the sun sank lower I was keeping an anxious eye on the computer, calculating how much further I had to go and what speed I needed to maintain to arrive before darkness fell. I'd been on the road for twelve hours; I'd never gone so long. At least it was getting cooler, but all the water was gone by now, thank goodness for those gifts of oranges and pomegranates
I was really tired when I eventually crawled up to that ridge and sat there for a few minutes. Down below was an oasis looking just like you'd expect; lots of date palms and low buildings in the very centre, golden coloured in the setting sun
Nothing like a nice downhill coast to finish the days ride
As usual, the children spotted me first and in no time a throng of incredulous children was running alongside and a few young cyclists soon joined in, these cyclists were always great; they would cheerfully guide me through the maze of small streets to wherever I asked to go, calling to friends as they went. Often, as I would find later, we'd end up taking a very circuitous route. Today though I pulled up in the centre of town. By now it seemed the whole town had turned out. Again, I went through the usual questions and answers, and again I found myself amidst some of the warmest and friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. Now, I told myself, this is why I'm doing this
I was looking for a hotel, I had all my camping gear on the trike but in Syria a few dollars bought a fairly decent room and today I felt I'd earned a sleep in a real bed. It wasn't to be though, as was to happen again and again, I eventually found myself sitting shoeless and cross-legged on a carpeted floor drinking yet more tea and accepting an invitation to stay the night with my host
Palmyra was just awesome, the ruins of a roman style city spread over some 50 hectares complete with temples, a theatre, a bathhouse, and monumental arches framing a column lined street that stretches almost a kilometre. The whole place shimmers with pink colours in the early morning light. A whole day just flew by, just drifting around the unfenced site, climbing up to a nearby ruined castle and wandering around the new town. Before I knew it, I was sitting on the terrace of a hotel built almost on top of the ruins sipping a cold beer as the sun set in the evening, watching a pink and orange glow settle briefly over the ruins. It was reward in itself for the rigors of the preceding day
How quickly the memory of those rigors faded with a day of restful sightseeing, good food and pleasant company. Early the following morning I was off on the trike again, heading toward Homs the next town - only 160 or so km to the west!