Lifestyle

Wednesday 23 July 2014

I cycled through the Middle East

Maxine Jones on the eye-opening journey that pushed her out of her comfort zone

Amid the Baalbek ruins in Lebanon.

I wanted to get a handle on the Middle East by going to see it. Nazareth, Bethlehem, Damascus were names charged with meaning – as, through the news, were the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai desert.

Syria was a mystery, with a frisson-inducing border with Iraq; Lebanon, Israel, Palestine – small neighbouring areas fraught with tension. Yet these places curl round the Mediterranean, within spitting distance from Cyprus package resorts.

I wrote the above in March 2010 before Syria also started appearing in the newsreels. I was planning a journey that was to take me from Europe, through Asia to Africa, crossing six countries, in five weeks, by bicycle and bus.

My bicycle had spent most of its life propped against my Dublin home, with the occasional jaunt to the supermarket if the sun broke through. For this trip, I had to take off the front wheel and detach the brakes, saddle and handlebars – a fraught process completed with the help of the local bike shop, who provided the cardboard box it travelled in.

A little uncertain, I wheeled the box out at Gaziantep airport. Six airport police immediately flocked around it and reassembled the bicycle in seconds, as if they'd been waiting to all day. I then had to fend off invitations of a bus lift into Gaziantep. Part of me wanted to accept. But I cycled the 20km to my hotel easily enough and, on reaching Kilis, had 82km notched up on the speedometer.

Cycling is a good way to travel. It is easy to engage with the countryside and its inhabitants, easy to stop and stay hello, yet possible to cover reasonable distances. Even in the early summer heat of the Middle East, once you're pedalling there's always a cooling current. Up hills, I slowed down to 7kph, then sped up to 50kph on the other side. Few sensations are more thrilling.

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Maxine Jones emerges from the Dead Sea

Along the road to Kilis, cows tied by the side of the road eyed me warily and one gave a quiet, interrogatory moo. On the outskirts of the town I bought water at a service station and sat to eat a sandwich. The owner brought me out a cup of tea, the first of many unasked-for offerings I was to receive.

I breezed into Kilis, to find the hotels full. In the last, I got the only remaining room. A toilet and sink were shared with the other rooms, where a woman and her son were laying out their prayer mats. I wondered where they came from. They are Turkish, the hotel manager told me – pilgrims doing Hajj.

A large coach awaited them in the morning as they gathered together their plastic bags and finished breakfasts of salad, hummus and pitta bread. The coach driver was eager to help me lift my bike over their luggage on the pavement. As he did so, my helmet, which had been balanced on the saddle, rolled off and under the tyres of a passing van. I became convinced of the value of helmets just when I no longer had one.

It was a straight road to the border, which came earlier than expected, after only 6km. Cars queued up and I cycled past them. "Licence plate number?" asked an official. "It's a bicycle," I told him. Obviously cyclists aren't the norm. My passport was stamped and I crossed into no-man's land. On the left was an abandoned mosque. The road was bordered by loops of barbed wire and signs in three languages warning of mines. There were empty lookout posts. I passed young shepherds who waved, and a few sparse houses. Cars were old American ones like you'd see in Cuba.

I'm surprised, then, as I reach the outskirts of Aleppo to see new car showrooms. The traffic intensifies, there are grand parks and elegant buildings – a Paris vibe.

I spot the stately old lady of the Baron Hotel. I dismiss it but after trying two dives and a sterile new place that wanted US$50 a night, I decide to check it out. "We only have a suite, which you can have at the reduced rate of US$110," the receptionist tells me. I turn to go. "There'll be a single room available tomorrow at US$65." Then she notices my bicycle and her tone softens. "Or there's one of the older rooms you could have for US$50."

I go to look at it, up the wide stone staircase that Lawrence of Arabia and Agatha Christie would have used on their stays here. A bird flutters in through a hole in the shutters and batters against the window pane. The Baron is definitely trading on its reputation It's also a tourist ghetto, resounding with American, British and German accents. By staying here I'm putting off getting to know Syria, but for my first night – I end up staying three – I enjoy it.

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Maxine Jones's bicycle as she enters Lebanon

I'm fascinated by the black-veiled women. Faces completely covered and wearing gloves, they are jaunty, flirty and fashionable. They sit in groups round cafe tables, smoking nargilehs, water pipes, which I find faintly shocking. They carry extravagant handbags and wear fashion-victim shoes. The women hold on to the arms of boyfriends or husbands. I spot what I take to be a mother and daughter, the younger woman elegantly veiled, the older one not.

Leaving the Baron Hotel, I decamp to one with an Arab clientele at a quarter of the price. Here, I'm forced to get to grips with my phrase book and the Arabic script. The non-alcoholic beer is fizzy apple juice. Non-drunken revelry goes on until late.

The Dead Cities beckon next, the ruins of villages abandoned in Roman times, their names alone enough to warrant a look. .

I take another idyllic bike ride to the Roman ruins of Apamea. In this high, windy place, I'm alone apart from shepherd boys and goats. Palmyra, the rebel Queen Zenobia's old haunt, is a resort town in comparison, but the tourists and the tuned-in touts can't dispel the wonder of the desert setting.

Damascus draws me in, but Aleppo remains my favourite. I cycle from Damascus to the border crossing with Lebanon and the town of Zahle.

None of the places I stop for water or a tea break will take money from me. When I reach Zahle, my hotel is at the top of a steep 3km hill. I push the bicycle. The hotel could be a Parisian mansion from the 1930s. My room is bright with a balcony and French windows.

I stay three nights, using it as a base to visit Baalbek (impressed) and Beirut (less so). I have a memorable lunch served in style by two bent and toothless waiters at the Palmyra hotel in Baalbek.

I leave Zahle early in the morning to get back to the Syrian border and catch a bus south to Der'a, a short cycle from the Jordanian border.

The bus from Damascus to Der'a goes through desolate desert, with little in between. To my right are the Golan Heights. The 20-year-old student of English sitting next to me fires questions for the whole journey. She films me with her mobile phone. Her English isn't great and she whispers for fear of being overheard talking to a foreigner. Nobody seems bothered but she is convinced the men on the bus will disapprove. She goes once a week to the university, where she must not talk to any boys, then brings back work to study at home. She shows me a text in convoluted English about the West's attitude to the Iranian nuclear programme and another about the imperialist treatment of Man Friday by Robinson Crusoe.

She wears heavy make-up, high heels and a headscarf. She is engaged to be married to a young man who saw her in the mosque and approached her family. "I love him very, very, very much," she says. When she is married she might be able to stay longer at the university as her husband has promised her more freedom than her parents give her. I tell her about my country and she looks long and hard at me. "You are very lucky," she says.

In Jordan I stay in Jerash, immediately struck by the hike in prices since Syria. The best cycle ride of all is down into the Jordan valley and the border with Israel. I can't wait to see the Jordan river, but never do. I don't know how I could have missed it, especially as the border crossing into Israel is across King Hussein bridge, which spans it. I vow to be more attentive on my way back. In parts, due to mismanagement, the mighty river Jordan is now just a polluted trickle.

Jerusalem strikes me with its unfriendliness and the rudeness of the soldiers. After several weeks in Arab countries this is more of a shock than if I'd come direct from a European city. I cycle from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a short distance. After the Israelis, the Palestinians are a breath of fresh air. In Jerusalem, backs are turned when I ask the way and bus doors are deliberately closed on me when, demurely dressed, I visit the orthodox area.

I'm glad to regain Jordan, which now seems cheap, and head for Petra, a real highlight. I enter Egypt via Aqaba and fetch up in the resort of Nuweiba. Its bamboo huts line up along a fantastic beach, once filled with Israeli holidaymakers, now mostly scared off by terrorist attacks. I share my beach hut location with an Israeli woman leading an anti-stress group. They stand waist-deep in the sea shouting in unison.

For three days I endure the chaos and grime of Cairo, slightly more won over each day. I take a desultory trip to the Gaza pyramids. On the bus a middle-aged man offers to show me the entrance. He takes me to the entrance for tours on horseback and makes a hasty retreat when I refuse to buy one. I'm told it's miles to the principal tourist entrance, but it's just round the corner, and a fraction of the price. I smiled in recognition of the iconic Sphinx but didn't stay long.

The bike stood up well, just needing a shot of air the whole journey. A cracked chain guard was expertly stitched with copper wire by a Cairo hotel janitor, unasked.

The Middle East is less unknown to me now. The souks of Syria, Jordan's desert routes and the divided land of Israel have lodged themselves in my brain. So, sadly, have the cities of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Damascus, now lying in ruins as their people live in fear.

My bicycle again just takes me to the shops and back. Sometimes I glance at the Arabic writing on the remains of worn luggage stickers on my panniers and the wire 'sewing' and am grateful I went there.

(Halcyon)

Irish Independent

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