We heard a lot of good things about Syria, and it's the main reason why we came. We thought it could be good to have a little bit of sun, and that in the meantime, the snow in eastern Turkey would have time to melt.
Here we are at the syrian border. We read that it was possible to have the visa at the border, and that some people had to wait for 4 to 6 hours. For us, in one hour and 21€ we have our visas, and before we know it we are pedalling in Syria. The 'Hellos' and 'welcome to Syria' are the first words we hear. After one hour we are already invited for tea and to stay over. In Sarmada, Abderrahim will be the first of a long list of hosts...
We head to Aleppo. The road is nice, and we slalom between the klaxons of big trucks, the overloaded motorcyclesn and the 'Hello!!!' shouted from the side of the road. With all the shouting, whistling, klaxonning, we don't know where to look and it's getting tiring. The closer we come to Aleppo, the wider the road is becoming, and starts to look like a motorway. The hospitality of syrians is still intense : truck drivers are stopping to offer oranges or this strong arabic coffee with a nice smell of cardamom.
Two nights in Aleppo in a dirty but cheap hotel, just enough time to visit and fulfil a few missions : find a map of the country, and a dictionnary.
Roads are good in Syria, even the small ones. We cross villages where only a handful of tourists must stop. But there are many cyclists in Syria. The proof is that our hosts in Kafr Halep hosted a couple of cyclists 10 days ago! Hospitality is unbelievable and we all experiences are funny and interesting. In Maraat al Numan, we thought we were invited to stay in some young men's house, but we ended up in a 3 stars hotel. It's a very awkward misunderstanding, but realizing that it is impossible to pay for the room, we decide to enjoy it... nice bed, hot shower, breakfast on the terrace.
Fridays in Syria are like Sundays for us... it's the week end! And on fridays, crazy syrian 'picnickers'invade the countryside. Here, picnic is a special family moment. You find a grassy spot, unroll the carpets, cushions, gaz, barbecue, pans, and the teapot of course. One day we thought we were only invited for tea, and we happily stayed for a 4 hours picnic with kebap, shish barak, salads, tea... Vans and trucks full of singing and jumping families pass on the road and spread out in the fields. It became impossible to keep count of the invitations for tea, food, or just talking.
Sometimes Syrian hospitality is a little bit suffocating. We know it comes from their heart, but it is too much for us. Each time we stop, four or five ambushed syrians jump at us to offer their help and take our map to show the right direction. On the roads, motorcycles ride next to us and start to chat in the deafening noise of their chinese machines. And when we want to camp and we go away from the road, there is always someone to say that it's too dangerous because of dogs, snakes, or just cold.
Before we arrive in Damascus, I have an overdose from hospitality. I need calm, loneliness, and to be able to do whatever I want. Despite the fact that we love to meet people and to live with them just for one night, it's exhausting to focus and understand, explain or say that we've eaten enough.
Damascus and the Al Rabie hotel. We found our little heaven. During four days, we walk in the souqs, in the courtyard of Ommayad mosque, in Caravanserails. We start to love this city with black and white walls and thousands years of history. We enjoy the hotel courtyard and chat with the fellow travellers who share the roof with us. That's where we start planning our way through the desert, from Damascus to Deir Az Zawr, and stopping in Palmyra. We will not be alone : Claire from the US and Manu from France decided to join us.
Since our arrival in Syria, I wanted to go across the desert. I had nice pictures in my mind of dunes, but finally we ride across a rocky desert with no sand. The bedouin tents are present all along the road, and the sheep look at us chewing the grass they can find between the plastic bags, or the other way around. It's nice to ride with this new team. A good laugh, we share our previous adventures, we discover other ways to travel. The sky becomes cloudy and the rain pushes the four of us inside the tent and to play dices.
Palmyra opens its sites to uf for a day, but not more. Just enough time to discover the ruins and the castle. Palmyra is Syria's star attraction and buses of tourists transformed the vision of locals. Kids jump at us and shout 'Hello, Bakshish?!', and I am surprised when a dad asks for money because I smiled at his boy.
Eventually we get the hell out of there and flew to Deir Az Zawr. Manu is not going with us because his bike is in a bad mood. Now we are three for 10 kilometers. It was nice but short! Claire had a flat, her pump is not working, the spare tube doesn't fit... evrything's fine! She goes back to Palmyra for repairing and we are hosted by a bedouin family that has been calling us for an hour!
Under the tent made of a patchwork of fabrics, it's nice and warm. There s a small fire burning roots, and the gaz lamp is giving a soft light, much better than the usual neon lights. The nomad has daughters, and one of them has eyes... mamma mia! She could wake up a sheep after the Aid el Kebir's barbecue! The sheeps are in front of the tent when we sleep, and one of them seems to have a big cold. It's the first time I hear a sheep coughing, strange. All night long the bells are ringing with movements of the flock, and we don't sleep a lot. At 5:00 AM, all the family is up while the tourists are sleeping. We decide to take our time in this nice nomadic family that will be somewhere else in one month. Time for us to enjoy breakfast, chatting, lying on the cushions, play the shepherd, and milk the sheep.
The road to Deir Az Zawr is full of surprises. The wind arrived and is pushing us in the back. Eagles are flyiend like kites and yellow and black butterflies compare their speed with my red bags. A man waves at us and tells us to stop to rest and have tea in his tent. With his saudi, syrian and koweit friends they gather a few days for camping, picnics, and tell jokes we can't understand. Fayed speaks english and invites us to stay for lunch. They will sacrifice a lamb and cook it. We decide to stay and to eat it! After the lamb and the evening, we camp near their tent and their big cars, feeling comfortable (or not) that our hosts have guns under their pillows.
Even though I didn't listen a lot during history lessons at school, I remember about the Euphrates and Mesopotamia. The river is flowing towards Iraq and we go up the river to Turkey. The river brings life to the valley and makes the road less monotonous. The banks of the river are irrigated, and the light green of wheat contrasts with the yellow and dust of the desert. Everywhere we hear the sound of water pumps bringing water up to 30 kilometers away from the river. Beyond this it's the desert...
At the ruins of Halabiye, by the Euphrates, we set up camp near a family... they are about 20 men! Again good moments with tours in a small boat on the river, barbecue and dancing!
Syria has been more of a human adventure. The landscapes are not very beautiful to us, but the syrian people is probably one of the most hospitable in the world. On our way, we were lucky to meet syrian arab muslims, syrian christian orthodox, bedouins, kurds. We drank liters of tea, eaten a lot, exchanged looks, smiles and laughs. We learnt a little bit of arabic and a little bit of the traditions. We want to discover more of the arab world, the muslim world or both at the same time. We questionned the universality of democracy in this country, and we met the secret police a couple of times.
Before crossing the turkish border, the good old president/dictator/ophtalmologist Basha al Assad is waving at us, like he did hundreds of times from the walls of houses or from the windchills of cars.