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June 25, 2009

From the cloister to the metropolis—من الدير إلى العاصمة

Filed under: Touring — admin @ 7:37 pm

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I woke up good and early—around 4am—to head out toward Damascus.  Luckily, my alarm wasn’t too loud, and I woke up quickly, so it didn’t seem to wake anyone else up.  I got up and moved my knee around a bit and hoped that the lack of pain would continue through the day.  I packed up the few things I had left out to dry (soap & towel) and headed out, applying some more massage cream and popping a couple ibuprofin on the way.  Things were feeling OK for the first few steps, but then the pain quickly returned, and descending those 340 steps (not counting the ones from the dorms) was a bit of torture, and took about 20 minutes.  June 19th [gpxinterval=2] [singlepic id=1089 w=320 h=240 float=center]

I finally reached my bike and changed my shoes and repacked, then headed over the rough, uneven stone road to the parking area.  I took a few pictures of the Frenchmen’s tuk-tuk in the pre-dawn light, and admired the view and the cool air one more time, then spotted a bright Venus in the sky before me.  I sighed and put my feet up on the rack to coast down to the valley.  By the time I got there, it was already past 5am.  I had hoped to at least get to an-Nebek by sunrise (around 5:20), but that was not in the cards, though the sunrise from where I was on the hill was enough to allay my scheduling concerns.  I ascended in the saddle for a while, but the hill soon became too steep for me to bike, and I discovered that, contrary to the day before, grinding the gears out of the saddle was way more painful than pushing up hills in the saddle.  As a consequence, except for a couple short stretches where the road leveled out or I was assisted by a stiff tailwind, I walked the 3km or so to the summit, by which time it was already 6am.  The shallow descent to the riverbed before an-Nebek was also slow, as there was a bit of a headwind that canceled out the downward slope.  The pain was there on the shallow climb out of the river bed, but I calculated that it would not be so painful as to prevent me from making it the few hundred meters in elevation before the long descent into Damascus.

I stopped at one shop in an-Nebek that looked like they had lentils, but it turned out to be a sweets and nuts shop, so I carried on, after a pleasant exchange with the shopkeeper.  I eventually crossed over the main highway to Damascus and into the town of Yabrud, where I spied a foul & hummus shop with it’s door open.  The shopkeeper appeared in the doorway and I shouted across the median to ask if he was open.  “Shuweyya”, he responded, “sort of”.  I turned back and asked what was available at the moment, and I stopped him when he got to the foul.  It took a little while to heat up, but he eventually brought me a wonderful bowl of foul.  Although a couple of the beans were understandably still a bit cold on the inside, it was delicious.  No haggling this time over whether I would be paying him.

The main part of Yabrud was still ahead, and it was a lovely town, with a small mountain with steep cliffs in the middle.  I had to stop a while to relieve myself at one of the parks at the base of this mountain, a task made more difficult by the fact that none of the W.C.s were yet open.  The place where I eventually went to scramble behind some rocks had seen better days, with a large concrete swimming pool, now dry.  Scattered on the ground were the parephernalia of unfortunate life paths: torn open spray paint cans, etc.  There was, however, a pair of working fountains nearer to the road.  In fact, there seemed to be public founains every 100m or so.

As I finally made my way out of Yabrud, the pain really kicked in, and I started to wonder if I would make it to Damascus.  Unfortunately, I was already some 15km away from the main highway, and there were no microbuses on this road (in fact, hardly any traffic to speak of at all, which was nice in its own way, of course).  I carried on, clumsily attempting to take a couple more ibuprofin while pedalling and negotiating space on the road with tractors.

While I waited for the meds to take affect, I tried to distract myself with the beautiful scenery: the rolling hills covered with olive groves and the valley I was riding through, flanked by tall mountains on either side.  The road slowly climbed to a crest, with a lower range of mountains to the left and a higher one—the Anti-Lebanon range—to the right.  On the left appeared a massive gap in the mountains at the ancient site of Ma`loul, the one place on the planet where Aramaic is still a living language (they apparently could only barely understand the dialect Mel Gibson chose to use in his “The Passion” epic).  Not particularly keen to ride down that hill only to have to ride back up, with a bum knee, I passed up the opportunity to visit.

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The beautiful landscape I was riding through and the pain resulting from the effort battled for my attention for some time, and I finally stopped for a significant rest at the town of Hush `Arab, buying a large bottle of water and drinking a good portion of it.  Back on the road, my knee was suddenly feeling better, and, while it still hurt, it was no longer quite such a distraction from my enjoyment of the surroundings.

After Hush `Arab, there were a number of turns, most of them very poorly marked—if at all—that made me glad that I had marked the route previously on Google Earth.  Something changed about the character of the place here.  The few vehicles on the road were no longer pickups and farm vehicles driven by sun-baked, kufeya-wearing men, but late-model passenger vehicles with people in modern dress in the seats.  Tiny real estate offices started popping up on the side of the road in the middle of the orchards, which were turning from olives to cherries, many of them quite young.  A healthy, well-fed kid was selling boxes of cherries on the side of the road while his father looked on proudly in his modern casual wear.  I half expected to see a hand-painted sign with the Arabic version of “Lemonade 5¢“.  While there were a few grizzled old farmers around, the place seemed to be experiencing a sort of rural gentrification, becoming a playground for the Damascene nouveaux riches to fulfill their dreams of a bucolic life in the countryside.

I took a dirt road shortcut through one cherry orchard to reach the main road that crossed a shallow set of ridges separating two parallel valleys.  The paved road was a beautiful winding path through boulder-strewn short hills with green vegetation that separated it from the adjacent valleys.  Shortly thereafter began the only climb since an-Nebek that I might normally have considered difficult.  I walked much of the way to the summit, still unable to tolerate much grinding out of the saddle.  At the top, there was a lovely view across the valley to the next, shorter, road summit, with the rock outcroppings of the canyon beyond visible in the distance.

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After that second summit, the road turned steeply downhill, with hairpin curves and uneven pavement, forcing me to eat my words about how descending is the easy part.  My hands and elbows were beginning to hurt more than my knee from hills so steep they threatened to toss me over the handlebars and the constant need to clutch hard at the brakes.  The bullhorn handlebars I’m using are great for climbing and navigating through traffic, but not so comfortable for steep, technical descents.

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The stress on my hands and arms, however, gave me ample excuse to stop and take in the scenery, which is something that often falls by the wayside on a long descent.  The rocks and canyon were as impressive as I had hoped they would be, towering precariously hundreds of meters above me.  At the base of the huge cliff, there was a public park that seemed like a popular weekend getaway.  The road then climbed a bit to the town of Halboun, sadly one of the dirtier places I’ve seen in Syria, seeming all the more dirty given its surroundings.  The vibe, for lack of a better word, was also considerably less welcoming.  Here, instead of gawking at the weird foreigner or shouting hellos in his general direction, the kids kept to their business while eyeing me cautiously and whistling as if to alert the neighbors.  I felt more like a cop in the inner city of a rust belt metropolis than a bike tourist in a Syrian village.

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After Halboun, the road again followed the canyon floor until it reached a place I believe is called `Ein as-Sahib, a narrow gap in a sheer cliff through which the road passes.  It was quite a sight.  On the other side, it was necessary to climb a steep hill out of the canyon either to the left or the right.  I took the road less traveled to the right, walking the entire 2km.  The road offered some views of what I take to be Roman monuments carved into the face of the mountain.

After the peak, the road then descended through another dirty town (no one whistled here, though), ad-Durayj.  From here, there were a few rolling hills, and then a smooth descent into the increasingly urban areas of Damascus.  After a bit of wandering around the general vicinity of the hotel at which Elaina had reserved a room, I found the place and asked if we could switch the reservation to a double instead of a single (she had originally reserved a single, thinking that she would be arriving before me).  They originally said they didn’t have any doubles, but then somehow discovered one, just as I was about to go look for another place.  I took my bike into the “garden” behind the hotel, then delivered my stuff up to the room, trying not to collapse in my bike shoes, with a suffering knee, on incredibly crooked, off-camber stairs.  I went back down to take care of the paper work, guzzled a mango juice in the fridge they had next to reception, and glanced outside, where I caught sight of Ailred, one of the two tuk-tuk driving Frenchmen I’d met the day before.  He saw me and recognized me at the same time, so we chatted for a bit and I confirmed they were in the hotel just next door.  I suggested we should hang out later, and he went off to meet Sylvain (the other Frenchman) at the internet cafe.

I then napped in the over-heated hotel room for a while, hoping that Elaina would be showing up soon.  At around 6pm, I decided I would venture out on my own and get a sandwich and check the internet in case she had sent me an email.  I walked out the way Ailred had pointed when he mentioned go to the internet cafe, stopped to get some more phone credit, found a juice and sandwich shop right in front of the internet cafe and sat down on the steps for some orange juice and a bland french-fried potato sandwich.  I then spent entirely too long at the internet cafe, processing photos and GPS tracks (I’m currently writing this from Irbid, Jordan, in case you’re wondering why it took so long to post) before heading back to the hotel.

Elaina had apparently already come and gone, with the guy at reception joking that she had gone to the police station to file a report.  I went to wait on the balcony to enjoy the evening breeze (which was not so much reaching our room) and Elaina arrived shortly after.  “Hey sis!” I beckoned.  She had apparently already been in Damascus for half-an-hour when I first left the room, but it took her two hours of riding around, triangulating between multiple sources of conflicting information to find the place.  You can read her blog for more on that.  I told her about the tuk-tuk tourists and she said “I want to meet them,” to which I responded that they were right next door.  Being hungry (that sandwich was wholly unsatisfying), we went to find a place to eat, and hoped that we might find Ailred and Sylvain at the adjacent hotel and invite them to join us for dinner.  As we talked outside the hotel with an employee from our hotel about where to go, the two emerged.  They had already made plans with a friend of theirs who works with disabled kids, doing ceramics, but they invited us along.  We met up with her on the opposite side of the old city, and she invited all of us to the courtyard of her place, where we met a bunch of other people in the building, and they were kind enough to offer us apricots and sweetened rose water.  Another person living in the building was an American, who’s name I’ve now forgotten, studying Arabic.  Apparently, there’s a lot of them.  Our host, whose name we never got in the first place, took us to the Jabri House, a place I’ve now been three times.  It was a Friday night and it was packed, with live music.  No one clapped.  After the band left, one of the players handed the `oud he was playing to one of the restaurant workers, who apparently owned the instrument.  He eventually began to play, without amplification, which did elicit some applause—from us at least, as we were right next to him.  The food was lovely and the company grand, but we soon headed back to drop off our host and walk back to the hotel, this time from Bab Touma and the road just outside the old city walls.  I struggled up the stairs like an old man (only stairs and uphills on the bike hurt my knee) and slept, as they say, the sleep of the dead.


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