The best rides aren’t always the longest or the hardest – they’re the ones you remember. I’m glad I remember this ride, because it’s one you definitely can’t do it anymore. This ride started in Aleppo, Syria, more or less.
By spring of 2001, I’d had enough of school and more than enough of exams. I scoured the calendar for courses with no exams and got to leave school 3 weeks early after handing in a stack of essays.
I wanted to use my extra freedom, and the best answer was an adventure. I headed across the bridge from Halifax to a bike shop in Dartmouth and bought an aged Schwinn mountain bike with a dented top tube for $190. I got panniers to carry my stuff, and some SPD clip pedals and shoes. I got a multi-tool and an issue of Bicycling Magazine with “482 Tips” on how to tune and repair my bike. That seemed pretty likely to cover anything that could happen.
482 maintenance tips; zero advice on international diplomacy
The bike shop gave me a cardboard box and I flew with my Schwinn from Halifax to Istanbul, via London. My general plan was to ride to Jerusalem, via Syria and Jordan. However, Turkey turned out to be really big, so my specific plan was to skip most of that and just ride the interesting parts.
After a few days in Istanbul, I bussed the 1200km to Aleppo, Syria. I explored Aleppo for a couple of days and decided to leave on April 10. I was going to ride south-west down the Orontes River Valley to a town called Jisr-al-Shogur and get a room at one of the many hotels they would surely have.
I wanted to ride out of town, but Aleppo’s network of tiny, identical-looking streets and Arabic signage were more than I could handle. The big roads were straighter, but full of industrial trucks that didn’t appear concerned with my welfare. I put my bike on another bus and got off in the town of Idlib, to the south-west. I started for Jisr-al-Shogur from there.
I rode through dusty olive groves for the first hour. It was hot and I drank all the water I was carrying. I had used all my desert adventure-riding experience to select my other supplies for the ride: a kilo of salted pistachios in the shell and a small bucket of the kind of black olives that look sort of like raisins.
I stopped in the first little town I saw looking for water and a military guy approached me and said something that sounded like “polis”.
“Police?” I said.
He wanted me to come in for tea.
I’d been in town for about 20 seconds and I had my first invitation. I went into his little office and he introduced me to a few other men. Nobody spoke English or French, but they made me feel welcome. Using friendly charades, they also helped me understand that even baggy cycling shorts are not a thing in rural Syria. Once I had put on pants, they gave me the only chair in the room and we drank our tea and ate little sour green nuts as I tried to explain with the world map in my travel book where I had come from and how far Canada was. For 45 minutes or so, I was the main attraction in town. A crowd of little kids stared at my Schwinn like I had rolled up in a McLaren.
Along the rural roads, kids waved at me from front yards. Some raced me on their bikes or ran alongside for a bit. Soon, I got to the edge of a big decline and saw the branches of the Orontes River below me in the afternoon sun.
I had read in a travel book that some claimed the Orontes Valley was where the Garden of Eden had been. It looked it as I descended for a few kilometers toward farms of lettuce, peas and melons. There was a lettuce stand every 500 m or so for miles. As I rode, I pondered who could be buying all that lettuce, since everyone appeared to be in the business, but this was not my problem to solve. I was just thirsty, so I stopped to ask for water at one of the stands. They had none, but kindly offered me a head of lettuce at no charge, amplifying the mystery of the lettuce-based economy. Maybe it was just that I’d been riding all day in the desert sun eating salted nuts, but the watery lettuce was as good as anything I’d ever eaten. I ate the entire head on the spot.
I got to Jisr-al-Shogur as the sun was setting behind the mountains on the west of the valley. I stopped at the edge of town and asked where a hotel was.
I was nervous my Arabic wasn’t working.
A guy pointed at his little kid on a bike and gestured to follow him. The boy led me a few blocks to an official-looking building with a security wall. He said something to the guards outside and hurried off on his bike. The guards invited me in, but not with my bike. I didn’t want to leave it, since it had everything I owned packed on it, but they assured me it would be fine. Since they had AK-47s I decided to trust them to either guard or steal my stuff, whichever they preferred.
A guy inside spoke a tiny bit of English. It turned out there were no hotels in town. At all. At least not for strangers who didn’t have a good reason for being there. I explained where I was from, but we soon got to questions that couldn’t be asked or answered with a few words of English and charades. They asked for my passport and politely ushered me out.
My bike was already in the back of a Chevy Suburban and they drove me to a scarier-looking office a few blocks away. There were electric gates and more guys with machine guns. They kept my bike and bags and brought me into a large office with a man around my age behind a big desk. He spoke pretty good English and kept leafing through my passport and asking, “Why did you come to Syria?” I explained I had just finished school, I had heard Syria was a beautiful country and I wanted to travel there and meet Syrians. Every few minutes he pressed a buzzer and a lower ranking soldier ran into the room for a whispered instruction.
He was suspicious, but it was clear the soldier asking the questions was genuinely curious why on earth I was sitting in front of him. He and everyone else I met had asked the same question: “Where is your family?” As in, what is a man in his late twenties doing riding a bike through rural Syria on a Tuesday night in April when he should be home with his wife and several children? Solo bike touring wasn’t an easy thing to explain in this place and time.
After hearing my best explanation a few more times, he seemed to conclude I was a harmless but somewhat interesting idiot. The questions got more civil, and he asked me about what I had studied. It turned out we had both just finished law school. He wanted to talk about the “Anglo Saxon” legal system where judges make the law, so we discussed the relative merits of the common law and Roman law traditions. He asked me about American television, which he considered “culturally imperialistic.” He was up to date on current events like the WTO protests in Argentina and Seattle, and the US/China spy plane scandal happening at the time.
After about an hour, his curiosity was satisfied. Abruptly, but warmly, now, he said, “You are most welcome in Syria,” and returned my passport.
An officer escorted me back to the first building. It was dark, and I still didn’t have my bike or bags. I was dehydrated and long past hungry. They took me up several flights of stairs. Each landing had a poster of a giant eye. The pupil was the face of Hafez al-Assad, the recently deceased Syrian president.
The top floor was a big room where 20 or so men sat in chairs against the walls smoking and drinking tea. They ranged from 30ish to elderly. Some were dressed in business or work clothes and some were in Bedouin robes. A man in a nice suit sat behind a desk. He spoke excellent English. Above his head there was a framed picture of new president Bashar al-Assad with bare fluorescent tubes around it. When someone entered or left the room they would shake hands with the man in the suit first and then everybody else’s in order around the room.
I was presented to the man in charge and seated beside his desk. My story had preceded me, and he began by congratulating me on finishing school. Then he skipped directly to the delicate stuff. What did I think about “The Arab-Israeli question” and the Golan Heights?
“Difficult question,” I said.
“No, it is a simple question.”
The room listened as I explained that where I came from, it was easy to cause offence when discussing this subject, and I didn’t wish to insult anyone. I assured them that I believed it was tragic that so many in the Golan Heights had lost their homes, but that others had also suffered terribly and needed land, too. They agreed, but still thought Israel should give the land back, since it was part of Syria.
The man at the desk reached behind him and pulled out a vase of red and yellow plastic roses.
“Please choose one.”
Yellow roses are for friendship, right? Yellow, for sure.
“Welcome to Syria,” he said.
I was no longer the centre of attention, but I was still a guest. I sat in a chair against the wall as they chatted in Arabic about other things, occasionally translating and asking my opinion. The man behind the desk told me he had done a year at Florida State University.
Every few minutes, servers appeared with large carafes and two tiny cups. They poured a shot of tea in one cup and while you drank would pour one for the man in the next chair, continuing with the two cups all around the room. Everybody drank each time. There was black tea, tea that tasted like flowers and powerful Turkish-style coffee. The men were all smoking and offered me cigarettes every time they lit up. Eventually, I accepted and smoked with them. I was trying to hold it together, but with the unfiltered cigarettes, the lack of food, the ride, the dehydration, the caffeine and the generally hallucinatory day I was worried I’d pass out or throw up in front of them.
Maybe they saw I was getting the fantods, because at about 10:30 they announced it was time for me to go and invited me back for coffee the next morning. They walked me out past the Eye of Sauron in the stairway and loaded me in another Suburban. We were shortly at another institutional building where I was overjoyed to see my Schwinn in the lobby.
As we walked down a hallway, little kids poked their heads out of every doorway, staring. “Babies,” said the gruff man escorting me. “No problem.” It was an orphanage.
They brought me to the hammam (the bathing room), where I washed off the grime of the day, and then to a room where I was to stay for the night. It was a bare cell, except for two little beds and an ancient, pedal-powered sewing machine. I was delighted to see my bags on the bed. As I prepared to eat my remaining warm olives the gruff man knocked on the door and passed me a huge plate of fresh pitas, hummous, olives, tomatoes, cheese, and boiled eggs.
I nearly cried with relief as I ate the meal, writing in my diary and listening to Billy Joel on the Voice of America. At midnight, on the same frequency, the Voice of the People’s Islamic Republic of Iran came on: “We now listen to the beautiful song, The Power of Love . . .”
The next morning I rejoined the man behind the desk and the others. After many cups of tea, I thanked them for their hospitality and told them I had to get going. I shook hands with the man behind the desk and then each of the rest and said “salam alaykum.” The man behind the desk kissed me goodbye and I rode away on my Schwinn with my yellow rose.
By Jacques Laracques, a keen cyclist, and Mariposa club member.
Ed.: I asked Jacques why he chose to ride in Syria and he explained:
I wanted to go around the whole Med, inspired by Paul Theroux’s book The Pillars of the Earth. I didn’t have enough time or the budget, though, plus most of north Africa was a problem (plus I knew nothing about cycling). I had 20 days and I figured Istanbul to Jerusalem was a continuously trekkable section. The route was Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel. I just kind of rode what looked interesting and used the bike to explore the places I got to. It was a great way to see Cappadocia in Turkey.For Syria, I think I had just looked at the map and thought it looked like a nice ride down from Aleppo down towards Krak de Chevaliers (a Crusader castle) and Palmyra, which I wanted to see. It was a spectacularly beautiful area. I wish I could ride it again, but that doesn’t seem likely. A lot of Palmyra has been intentionally blown up by ISIS. Jordan and Israel were also incredible, and would still be fine to ride, I think. Maybe one day.