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The Middle East by Bike

Inspired by a high quality world atlas, I found my attention drawn to the Middle East, a region that had long fascinated me, and began planning a cycling journey throughout Egypt, followed by a northerly push through Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Suddenly previous cycling journeys that I had undertaken in Western countries were appearing somewhat simple, as safe food and water, foreign languages, bad roads and massive cultural and political differences were rarely or never encountered, but were likely to be challenges encountered on a daily basis in the Middle East.

More life on the track

After arriving at Cairo International Airport sometime after midnight, I began the task of assembling my bicycle and trailer in the arrivals terminal amidst a circle of around twenty curious male onlookers.  Here I was given my first tea (“shai”) by a Mohammed and Ahmed, surely the two most common forenames in the Middle East. The numerous daily offerings of shai, and regular offers of free food and accommodation proved to be one of the most consistent and welcomed themes of the entire journey.  Arriving in Cairo at such a “red eye” hour proved to be a blessing in disguise, as I was able to cycle in relative comfort with only a light smattering of Cairo’s notoriously hectic traffic. From the outset, the number of supporting toots and waves eased my trepidation.

The desired option of cycling alongside the Nile from Cairo to the ancient monuments of Luxor and Aswan was not possible because of restrictions placed on tourist travel due to the threat from Islamic militants. The rewarding solution was to ride via the expansive Western Desert, which is essentially unpopulated but for five main oases that are all several hundred kilometres apart. I pedalled almost 2000 kilometres in this region, and between each oasis camped alone in the desert. I rarely bothered with a tent, as most areas had not seen rain in many years, preferring instead to sleep under an expansive night sky filled with more visible stars than I could ever have imagined possible. Usually I spotted several shooting stars before falling asleep. Whilst each oasis had its own intricacies, by far the most idyllic oasis was Siwa, lying several hundred kilometres inland and just 50 kilometres east of the Libyan border. Full of lush date palms and inland waters, the number of donkey carts in Siwa probably outnumbered motorized vehicles.

After a week enjoying Siwa I was finally successful in gaining military authorisation to ride the 420 kilometre desert track from Siwa Oasis to Bahariyya Oasis. The stretch is unpopulated but for a handful of military checkpoints and the odd desert fox. The road was paved decades ago but is now left in a state of disrepair, only navigable via four-wheel drive vehicle, or as I decided, by bicycle.  The undulating track largely comprised jagged rocks and gravel that regularly vanished amid sand dunes that swept across the path, leaving no choice but to drag the bicycle. At its worst, I covered just six kilometres in two and three-quarter hours. The constant dumped remains of destroyed tyres by the track made it all the more miraculous that I suffered no punctures or blowouts. In five days I saw just six vehicles in either direction.

At one point whilst cycling this desert track, I felt the need to relieve myself of more than just urine. Of course the ground is the toilet in the desert and having seen no vehicles for almost two days, I was unconcerned with finding a stretch offering clear visibility. Whilst in the act, and with pants around my ankles, the noise of the wind appeared to increase, becoming a rather loud rumble before it dawned that a vehicle was approaching over a nearby crest. Only a quick save allowed me to retain some level of dignity but I could not help but laugh at the unfortunate irony of it all. Locals in the Siwa and Bahariyya oases believed that I was the first person to ever cycle this desert track, however, I felt somewhat outdone upon learning that a German man had walked the route several years previously.

Another stretch of desert

After 3500 kilometres cycling in Egypt, I crossed into Jordan. As with Egypt and all the Middle Eastern countries I visited, Jordan is blessed with remarkable ancient sites. Most impressive is the ancient city of Petra, which is carved into mountains of rock rather than containing freestanding structures. The mix of geology, with incredibly diverse rock colours, and archaeology, with the ancient human intervention, is truly fascinating.
In Jordan I was most aware of the sharp contrasts in treatment that I received from people. On many occasions children threw rocks at me and even spat on me, and some people, particularly youth, would laugh derisively when I asked for directions. This was particularly pronounced where the Jordan Valley meets the West Bank, an area where many Palestinian refugees live in abject poverty. On one occasion a boy hit me with a rock thrown from the roof of a house under construction. Without thinking, I jumped from my bike, hurtled up the stairs and cornered the stunned child. I have no idea what I would have done, but fortunately did not have to make this decision as the petrified boy jumped around four metres to the ground. On other occasions however, I would pass through towns where children were delighted to see me and would articulate the various English phrases that they had learned in school. Before painting too poor a picture, it must be added that hospitable acts in Jordan overwhelmingly outweighed the hostile. Many times daily, people, usually the older generations, would call for me to join them for shay (tea). In Jordan however, the taste of a new generation (pardon the slogan) is certainly Pepsi, for which the youth and children have an extraordinary appetite. Each day someone insisted on giving me a Pepsi, and at just 20 cents (U.S.) a bottle, I found myself enjoying it numerous times a day. Unfortunately, or so the smiles of the happy faces tell me, Colgate sales are not quite keeping up with the pace.

After a short initial cycle in Syria, including the captivating capital of Damascus, I headed for Lebanon. Whilst Lebanon may be ready for most tourists, I experienced several incidents that demonstrated that cycling is not necessarily the safest means of exploring this country that has been so physically and psychologically devastated by civil war. On my first day in Lebanon I cycled into the Bekaa Valley, which is the stronghold of the Hezbollah (translation: Party of God), and noticed various billboards adorned with pictures of Hezbollah leaders holding menacing machine guns and hand grenades. I gratefully accepted free accommodation in a room behind a service station in this region. I awoke abruptly in the night to the clattering of intense gunfire, and knew that this must have been real combat rather than the regular training gunfire that I had heard earlier in the day whilst cycling. I felt particularly relieved that I was not camping in the neighbouring field, having earlier seen army tanks and anti-aircraft guns disguised as Bedouin peoples’ tents. The following morning I learned that three Syrian army officers, stationed just ten kilometres away, had been killed by Israeli aircraft fire.

Despite visiting some impressive sites, most notably the Roman temples at Baalbek, my feelings of unease were enforced just two nights later in the Chouf Mountains. Having been given permission to camp in a certain area, I was again woken abruptly during the night, this time by three men claiming to be Police officers. A rather intense questioning session ensued, with an excessively bright torchlight never wavering from being shone directly into my worried eyes. My attempts to explain my situation in both English and broken Arabic appeared to be making scant progress when I was asked the chilling question, “What you pretending to do in Lebanon?” Upon my stunned reaction the interrogator fortunately reworded “pretending” to “intending”, and then surprised me further by stating that I had been seen drawing maps of the region earlier in the day. I explained that I had stopped to write in my journal and displayed the writings. Not satisfied, the men proceeded to search my possessions, before they finally left, leaving me with an uneasy feeling through the night remaining.

Ignoring these unfortunate incidents, Lebanon provided a rewarding cycling experience with a varied, picturesque terrain ranging from rugged mountain passes, to rich agricultural valleys, and coastal roads, all regularly interspersed with the usual Middle Eastern hospitality.

The ‘White Desert’ near Farafra

Returning to Syria from Lebanon I continued visiting numerous ancient sites, including the famed castle, Krak des Chevaliers, until a mystery illness saw me bed ridden for over a week. Greatly depleted in weight and strength, the people of northern Syria provided astonishing warmth and hospitality at a time when I needed it the most. For five consecutive days, different families invited me into their homes and fed me lavishly. Across these five days I cycled less than 200 kilometres, only managing 20 kilometres on the first day. With each day I felt my strength returning, both physical and mental, as a result of the sometimes embarrassing kindness bestowed upon me.

Due to the decline in my health, my plan to cycle much of the Turkish Mediterranean and Aegean coasts was substituted for a more direct path through Turkey’s Central Anatolian Highlands to Istanbul. Turkey is blessed with considerable natural and man-made wonders. The two come together in the fascinating region of Cappadocia where stunning rock formations derived from now extinct volcanoes were later carved into cave dwellings and churches. It is difficult to produce sufficient superlatives to adequately describe the combination of geological and archaeological wonder present in Cappadocia.

From Cappadocia in central Turkey, I cycled through the capital, Ankara, before reaching the Black Sea, where I had the obligatory swim to follow earlier swims in the Mediterranean, Red and Dead Seas. I continued to Istanbul, where the European and Asian continents are separated by the Bosphorus Strait. I found Istanbul to be a most beautiful and captivating city, full of greenery, stunning architecture and situated right by the water. From Istanbul I also made the pilgrimage of sorts to Gallipoli, scene of massive Australian, New Zealand and Turkish casualties in World War I.
Due to the wealth of things to see, and the incredible hospitality of the Middle Eastern people, I spent over five months happily idling through the region on my trusty bicycle.  Whilst the abundantly varied landscapes and ancient monuments in the Middle Eastern countries visited were impressive to say the least, what will remain strongest and fondest in my memory is the genuine smiles and wondrous hospitality afforded to me on a daily basis throughout the journey.

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