Across the Syrian Desert
Suddenly I found myself in the desert. I know it sounds strange but for days the journey has been working itself slowly down through Europe; across Germany and Austria, the edge of Slovakia and then the length of Italy before crossing Greece. The big country was Turkey, but so vastly modern compared to where I was heading, it was like an add-on to the west, when, suddenly, everything began to change.
When the change happened, it changed quickly, like a freight train, but before it got up speed, the journey happened in Aleppo in the north of Syria. Everyone said ‘Welcome to Syria,’ and that has not changed, and the ride down to Hama was still ordinary. There I saw the ‘Waterwheels of Hama’ and they were extraordinary, but now I am somewhere completely different and I don’t just mean physically.
Actually, I am in a restaurant in Palmyre (or–myra), an isolated desert town, as in ancient times an important city of central Syria, located in an oasis 215 km northeast of Damascus and 120 km southwest of the Euphrates. It has long been a vital caravan city for travellers crossing the Syrian desert and was known as the Bride of the Desert. Palmyran merchants owned ships in Italian waters and controlled the Indian silk trade. Palmyra became one of the richest cities of the Near East, it was said and that they had really pulled off a great trick, they were the only people who managed to live alongside Rome without being Romanized. They simply pretended to be Romans. The monuments here are famous for being some of the finest preserved Roman ruins in existence.
Less of that. I have just arrived. It is 9.30pm, dark and when I arrived at my budget accommodation, chained my bike to railings and discharged it of it’s meagre but precise luggage, I looked in the mirror in my room and saw how strained was my face. Some days you wonder not just what you have done, but what you still have to do.
Geographically, I am in the heart of the Syrian Desert, 100 miles from the Iraqi border, an hour from the Euprhates. This is the desert side of the Middle East. Or is it all desert? Signs for Iraq have begun to mark a different route, one of which I cannot take.
When I left Hama for the desert route it felt good because I like deserts and perform well in the way such a landscape expresses itself. I like a deserts charm but also the critical environment within which, once in, you cannot easily escape.
33 kilometres south and east I rode through Assalamyeh, fuelled up with red leaded which made my engine pink whenever I accelerated too quickly. I few minutes out of town I saw a conical shaped hill with a citadel on the top and the words w-e-l-c-o-m-e laid down large with stones. I rode over a field to take a photograph and then met a shepherd and took a photograph of him. Time passed as I recorded the moment but when I went to leave, back on the country lane leading to a small main road, an irate man on a small bike tried to block my way. I switched past him easily but further up another man stood in the middle of the road waving me to stop. I thought to switch past him but children were nearby and what if I misjudged which way he would go, what if he were to fling himself at me? What then? I stopped. He held my arms and tried to grab my keys. ‘Not likely, you peasant bastard,’ I thought, ‘I won’t run you over, but you’re not havin’ my keys.’ Besides, they were the only set I’d got. Without them I’m stuck, with them I can speed off if I got the chance, but I didn’t. Both men were at me, holding me down, one on the phone, bikes blocking my way. The police were called and the army and I decided to wait it out.
Little-Thin-Man’s children were all smiles so I smiled back. They didn’t really want their daddy arguing with a foreigner, so I said to his wife to please maybe bring me a tea? Even in a self-made crises I knew how to manipulate the Arab way. They are amongst the most hospitable and kindest people in the world, this just needed a little judiciousness, something where face and honour was not to be lost, or denied. The tea arrived and we all sat down to drink, but still I could not go. Fat-Scruffy-Man in his cheap suit was more compliant, but a man in army fatigues arrived on a small motorcycle followed a few minutes later by an army truck full of soldiers. I stood up for the Captain and offered him what was left of my tea, which he politely refused. Scruffy-Man said I was a spy and Thin-Man warmed up to the conspiracy. The Captain asked me to accompany them to the military camp which was at the end of the road I had ridden along to take my photographs. This was taboo in Syria. Even though it was probably an insignificant camp full of gorse bushes that could be counted from space, honour had to be upheld. Led to the camp in convoy I was still welcomed. They then made me coffee. They asked me what I was doing, examined my photographs, chatted for an hour and then said I was free to go. No one over-reacted, I never stopped smiling once. I looked into everyone’s faces and said thankyou for making me so welcome. How could they go back on their word….?
Thin-Man was back in the field and Scruffy-Man was waiting at the junction. I got off my bike and shook his hand as if to say ‘no hard feelings’. I wanted to stitch him up with a video blog, but in the distance I could see the army truck coming towards me in the distance so skidadled. He had offered me a coffee, but I said I had to get on.
Soon the desert appeared. I passed dudes in shades on bikes that couldn’t mow a lawn. It got hotter, the gas stations grubbier. And then, the wilderness. There was nothing just nothing. A horizon of small rocks turned to sand. The road narrowed and as I bumped my way across third-rate asphalt, I began to feel feint. I had no water. The incident had made me forget to take provisions for the short crossing and halfway I wanted to lie down and sleep. My head was pounding and I couldn’t add up simple sums. Unclear thinking is a sign of sun-stroke and whilst it wasn’t as bad as my time in Hyderabad when I rode around the world three years ago, it hurt. I dry vomited in my helmet – such a nice AGV Ti-tech – covered in dry spew. It went dark and still I wasn’t home, and on I rode. No great drama, just a little discomfort. No complaints, just felt a prick for not following simple maxim’s that make such a crossing alone, as safe as it can be.