42 km, 3.5 hours
Bright and early on Tuesday morning, Becky and Peter were the first to get up. Becky was happy to discover that getting out of the tent in the morning was not nearly as painful as she thought it would be. Even by 6:30 am, it had warmed up a little from the nighttime cold. With the light of day, and an nice hot cup of coffee all was right for the day.
Last night, we had been invited over to the restaurant for breakfast by one of the drivers. After we packed up our gear, we rode over to the restaurant. Unfortunately, the driver that invited us was nowhere to be seen. We were offered chai, but after 30 minutes there was no sign of breakfast. Eventually, we decided to move outside into the warm sun and make our own breakfasts.
After breakfast, we had a short 3 km ride to the Syrian border. Leaving Turkey was pretty easy. We stopped at two checkpoints, first a police checkpoint to ensure we were not wanted for anything in Turkey, and a second to have our passports stamped.
The ride through no-mans-land was beautiful. The hills were very rocky. There were many sleeper tour buses returning to Turkey – presumably tour groups returning from the annual Hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. We received many smiles, chuckles, and cheers as we rode by on our loaded bicycles. At one point, there was a sign saying Goodbye from Turkey. We did take a few pictures in no-mans-land, but Becky was totally nervous about it. She gave Scott the camera, and a few snapshots were taken. Peter and Wendy took many more photos. In the end, this didn’t cause any problems.
The process for getting our passport stamped into Syria is a bit chaotic. There were very few signs and everyone crowded up to the windows – no one was queuing. Someone who spoke English pointed out to Peter where he and Wendy needed to go to get their visas. Since Scott and I had visas already, all we needed was a stamp. It soon became apparent that if you wanted to get your passport processed in a timely fashion, you needed to elbow your way to the front and present your passport to the official when he was looked up from the computer – which is exactly what Becky did. We seemed to cause a little confusion with the border folks, as we had visas already and they were accustomed to processing visas that were obtained at the border. Our passports were soon shuffled to a different person – who was stationed at the empty line for Arab nationals. Becky followed the passports as they were processed and answered a few questions. The entire time, Scott stayed with the bikes. Soon enough both passports were stamped – without Scott ever appearing to the official!
Once Wendy and Peter had their visas and stamps, we proceeded to the next security check. Here a guard asked what was in a few of our panniers and took a very peripheral look in a few of them. Within about 2 minutes, we were allowed to pass through. At the final gate, a guard validated that we had stamps in our passport, and then signaled us through. We had cleared customs and were riding in Syria.
We stopped at the first town to change some money and pick up some food for dinner. Since it was already after 11:30, we did not anticipate riding all the way into Aleppo on today. Riding into a big city is always best done earlier in the day, when you are not too tired.
We stopped at a shop in the first town and asked about changing Turkish money. The person running the store was happy to change money for us, and gave us a pretty reasonable rate (28 Syrian Pounds to the Lira – we knew the exchange rate was somewhere around 30 pounds to the Lira). We had been told by the tourist information guy at the border that we would not be able to change Turkish Lira anywhere except at the border, and his “friend” would give us 20 Pounds to the Lira! After changing a few pounds, the folks at the store offered us a wonderful cup of Syrian coffee.
Looking around, it was very clear we were no longer in Turkey. Syria is not as developed as Turkey and it looks much more like a developing nation rather than a modern nation. There were several garbage bins around the town that were burning. We guessed that if the bins were burning, there was no need for collection. We were to see more burning garbage bins, and massive amounts of litter by the roadside throughout our days ride.
With food for lunch and another night of camping we were soon on our way. As we rode through the countryside we enjoyed the changing views.As lunch time approached, we were looking for a place to stop. We came upon a town (much larger than the border town, but not really a city). As we rode through, we were gawked at by many people. Several smiled and said hello, or Marhaba, but many just stared. There was clearly no place to stop and eat. If we did stop, we would be swarmed by people. It did not take long for some teenagers (or young adult) males on their overloaded and underpowered motor scooter to ride up beside us and try to make conversation. This was amusing at first, but it did not take too long before it became obnoxious. We kept riding, in hopes that they would get bored and move on. Eventually, after we thought we had lost them, we saw a derelict building and a road and pulled over. Wendy and Peter succeeded in getting behind the building for a shelter for lunch, Scott and Becky got found by the obnoxious males on motorcycles. They guys wanted a picture. We figured if we obliged, they would go away. Besides, we did not want to lead them to where Peter and Wendy were sheltered. They jumped off the bike and got a picture with Scott, then they came over to Becky. One of them put his arm around her, and then started to kiss her on the cheek – that was going too far – especially for Syria. Scott grabbed his ear and gave him a cuff in the head to indicate that it was not appropriate behavior. He appeared apologetic, and they eventually got on their bikes and moved on.
That evening, as we sat in our cold tent, we reflected upon the incident. We will need to be more conservative and careful in our greetings, especially when we are being greeted by young males on motorcycles. All our other interactions in Syria have been positive, so this was likely just a case of some bad apples. We have heard from other travelers that satellite television has given some people in the Middle East a very warped perspective of Western sexuality. Either way, we will be more careful to draw the line much sooner. And Becky will try not to smile or make eye contact with young men on motorcycles.
As late afternoon approached, we began the lookout for a place to camp. Both Peter and Becky spotted an olive grove that was protected by a stone fence. There were a couple of open arches that allowed entrance to the groves, and when we did a quick ride by, the land inside seemed pretty flat. After picking up water (we find with the cold that we use about 5-7 L of water wild camping), we headed back to the grove to stake it out for the night. It turned out to be a perfect camping spot, protected from sight and not far of the road. Construction workers were doing some road work just outside the area, and we waved to them on the way in, but they didn’t come to bother us.
As night fell, we climbed into our tents and they had already began to frost over.