Mediterranean Cycopaths

Life is a Rollercoaster (and we’re riding it)

28 March 2007

After spending so many days kicking around enjoying the good life in some of the Middle East’s best cities and sites, we reviewed our progress and realised it was time to grind out some serious distance on the bikes to put us right back on track for a few rendezvous’ organised in Western Turkey and Croatia.

As always, we set our sights high and drew up a tough schedule.  The conditions proved to be some of the most challenging we have encountered so far – characterised by poor, resistant road surfaces and lots of big mountains to climb.  Our fortunes and spirits over this period rose and fell as regularly as the undulating terrain …

  • UP – We arrive at the Turkish border.  It’s been uphill all the way from Lattakia (Syria) so we are glad to make it.
  • DOWN – Oops.  Our eagerness to whittle away all our Syrian Pounds has left us with no money to pay for the Turkish visas and there is no bank at the border. Sean rides to the next town (while they keep me as collateral) but the ATM is out of action.
  • UP – After a couple of wasted hours we finally convince one of the dodgy blackmarket money traders to lend us some coin and we will pay him back in Antakya.  We’re on our way again with a long descent!
  • DOWN – A big, big mountain to climb. We’re hungry, tired and the sun is falling.  We have to dig deep.  The lights are strapped on.
  • UP – A long descent into Antakya (aka Hatay / Antioch) we pull up at the first shop and annihilate a couple of Snickers bars.
  • DOWN – We call the guy to pay him his money back (with Interest) and agree to meet him for a beer.  His wife has been spewing at him for lending money to strangers and he is blind drunk.  He spills beer everywhere and we have to pay for a taxi to get him home.
  • DOWN – We set off the next morning and get 15 kms down the road before we realise that we have left the passports back at the hotel.  Idiots.  I jump in a local service taxi and head back to get them.  Get back an hour later and we’re on our way.
  • UP – Summit a big mountain to catch sight of the coast again.  While Sean is cautiously negotiating the descent into Iskenderun (observing the 50 kph speed limit and stopping every now and then to help old ladies cross the road) I decide to cut loose and launch an assault on his land speed record.  Break it!  New record 81.75 kph.
  • DOWN – Just as I top 80 a big black bug (similar to a Christmas Beetle) cannon’s into my face, most of it ending up in my mouth.  They don’t taste great.
  • UP – We turn left and start heading west for good along Turkey’s D400 road which we will follow all the way to Marmaris.  Brilliant camping spot at Snake Castle.
  • DOWN – Good progress to Kizlakesi but driving rain and logistics curtail plans to wash cycling gear, socks and jocks.  Have to pull them on again the next morning as we set off into a gale force head wind for the most mountainous stretch. This continues for 2 days. Our clothes stink and saddle sores are a burgeoning problem.
  • UP – The spectacular coastal scenery is a big consolation for the slow progress and the wind turns as we get out of the mountains.  We cover 200 kms in a day to get to Antalya – where we are finally able to wash all our clothes.
  • DOWN – Cycle to Olympos the following day.  Descend a very steep and slippery road.  My back wheel slides out and i’m on the ground in an instant.  Minor damage to the bike, I escape with a few scrapes and a bruised ego.  I had it coming having gone out of my way to scare a herd of goats a few corners back.
  • UP – The goats didn’t get to see me crash.
  • DOWN – We had taken a wrong turn anyway and should never have been on that road.  Finally get to Olympos after carting our bikes over a beach and through several streams.
  • UP – After another undulating ride we have a breathtaking descent into Kaş.  Rest day coming up and we are weary but elated.  We have covered 1300 kms in 10 days straight on the bikes since leaving Beirut.

So there you go – It’s not all beer and skittles being a member of Team Cycopath.

Jon

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March 30, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Dashboard – Week 10

  • Days Cycled – 7
  • Distance Covered – 953km
  • Cumulative Distance – 5790km
  • New Land Speed Record – 81.75kph
  • Crash Total – 3
  • Have you just discovered you earn more than you thought? Perhaps a donation to FHF is in order?  Our donation page tells you exactly how to do it.  Please make sure you quote our Community Fundraiser ID – 000811.

    Thanks to those who have already contributed.

    March 29, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

    Left of the Middle

    22 March 2007 

    Our departure from Beirut, a day later than planned, saw us cycling on the Mediterranean Coast for the first time since Alexandria.  It was good to be back and the abysmal state of the roads failed to detract from the magnificent setting – snow capped mountains, to our right, plunging dramatically down to the sea where we had the the wind at our backs and the sun on our faces as we wound our way North.

    The sights from our excursion to southern Beirut and Sidon the previous day contrasted starkly with the affluent seaside towns, such as Journieh Bay and the ancient Byblos, that we now found ourselves riding past – as pleasant a place to live as you would find anywhere on the coast if not for the minor political issues which plague the area.

    Our smooth progress was a little bit too low profile for Sean, who decided to try a few tricks he’d been working on – the first involved planting his front wheel into a drain and performing a headstand for some locals in the streets of Byblos (one of whom then kindly straightened the back wheel for him) before he moved on to the bigger stage of Tripoli where, as he weaved in and out of the slow moving traffic, he ran into the (very recently opened) passenger door of a taxi, bending his gear shifter and brake in the process.  Eager to keep moving, I made him ride in front of me from then on so I could keep an eye on things.

    We were out of tiny Lebanon that afternoon and back into Syria, where we paid a visit to the “World’s finest” crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers, the next day (these are major attractions in Syria which has several of them, but one was more than enough for us).

    A day and a half later and we were leaving the Middle East for the last time.  It is such an interesting place to travel – we have had amazing experiences and met many zany characters (who will potentially get a dedicated post of their own at some stage). 

    So, another milestone in our trip (read ‘excuse for a beer’) and some relief for our Mum’s. First impressions of Turkey from a bicycle – people seem to obey the traffic signals.  Well the locals do at least – we’ve got into some bad habits over the last few months … 😉

    Jon

    March 26, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

    Living on the Edge

    19th March 2007

    Edgy. This is the best adjective I have come up with to describe Beirut. Or perhaps it better describes my reaction to walking around this much ravaged city. This feeling began as we were diverted around bombed out bridges on entry*, increased as we passed frequent military checkpoints and reached it’s zenith upon stumbling across a Hezbollah Camp nestled amongst the mosques and cathedrals of downtown. The camp was clearly demarcated by bright yellow barrier tape proclaimıng ‘The Divine Victory’ (the slogan applied by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah leader, after the Summer 2006 conflict wıth Israel).

    The Divine Victory

    This camp in particular appears a shrewd politıcal tool: Wıth Lebanon split down a fragile divide between Shia Muslims and a Christian/Sunni Muslim alliance it’s Parliament is in a stalemate wıth the Hezbollah (Shia) opposition threatening to bring their supporters onto the streets if they are not given the right of veto over Government legislation. Instead, the true refugee camps – Lebanese and Palestinian – can be found as you venture southwards from the city centre.

    Beirut is plagued with many physical scars – a legacy to 15 years of civil war and last years bombardment by Israel. But more tangible than both these conflicts, in downtown at least, is the scar left from the 2005 assassination of twice former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri when 23 people lost their lives in a massive car bomb explosion. The huge crater in the street remains, as do thousands of images of the Sunni leader, some powerfully depictıng a sequence beginnıng 5 minutes before the attack and endiıng wıth over a million Lebanese floodıng into the streets in mourning. Visual space is however another ideologıcal battleground – Nasrallah and the Hezbollah Coat of Arms are also very popular (as they were ın Syria).

    People we met were equally blatant. Christıans, Sunnis and Shia, although universally friendly towards us as Australians, were quick to indicate the demographic with which they held grievances (Muslims, Syrians and Israelis respectively). At least for their part the Muslims (both Sunni & Shia) expressed a desire for all Lebanese to live together in peace and harmony.

    These physical scars are not, however, without attempts at healing. Hariri was controversially at the forefront of downtown’s mostly tasteful, if somewhat contrived, re-building. Unfortunately with checkpoint numbers that must rival Baghdad’s, and other streets completely blockaded by concrete and razor wire, traffic flow is greatly stymied, robbing the new cafes and restaurants of the atmosphere, and thus business, that they are desperately craving.

    An added side-effect of the checkpoints – manned by soldiers, riot police, private security personel or Hezbollah sentries – is that it is extremely difficult to create a camera angle which excludes all sensitive material. As a result, taking a photograph in Lebanon has become virtually impossible!

    Despite all of this, it seems the palpable tension has done little to diminish the legendary Beiruti appetite for a good time. Whether it be the communal singing and drumbeats emanating from the Shia camps or the glam clubs and bars** favoured by the Sunni and Christian populous, any guidebook will tell you ‘Paris of the Middle East’ is all about the nightlife.

    So in the interest of cultural research we threw ourselves into the fray, leading to a night of revelry with the locals which culminated in a 4th floor scaling of the hotel’s face when we found ourselves locked out at daybreak. Needless to say we paid the price for such shameless debauchery with the first Team Cycopath Hangover Day being quickly sanctioned and causing Jon to wittily coin the phrase:

    ‘Beirut-ed’

    Sean

    *see previous post

    **located outside the militirised cıty centre

    March 23, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

    Dashboard – Week 9

    • Days Cycled – 3
    • Distance Covered – 342km
    • Cumulative Distance – 4837km
    • Hezbollah sentries agitated – 5
    • Digits frostbitten – 3

    March 23, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

    A Day in the Life of… Team CYCOPATH

    Thursday 15th March 2007

    8.00am Awake in Damascus, Syria (ecstatic to have survived another night deep within the Axis of Evil).

    9.00am Newspaper over breakfast. Team Cycopath has hit page 4 of english language daily, The Syria Times.

    10.00am Visit blackmarket in order to exchange Syrian Pounds for US Dollars – Banks will not make this exchange.

    11.00am Depart Damascus in driving rain, heading west for Beirut. Water on the roads is a foot deep in places and we are soaked to the bone before escaping the city limits. Begin climbing almost immediately and snow starts falling 10kms out.

    12.00pm Snowfall intensifies flying straight into face and making it difficult to see; hands now aching due to cold which necessitates retrieving gloves (relegated to the very bottom of the largest bag).

    1.00pm Summit the Anti-Lebanon mountain range to reach Syrian Border. Obtain exit stamp.

    1.05pm Stopped and questioned by bored Syrian Military Personel 500m further up the road with insightful questions like:

    • “What is your nationality?” (Whilst holding our passports)
    • “Where are you going?” (Stopped on a road passing through deep snowfields – with fully laden road bikes – with no turn offs, 2km shy of the Lebanese border)
    • “It’s bad weather – aren’t you cold?” (Yes, we’re freakin’ freezin’  so please cease this ludicrous line of questioning and let us go!!)

    2.00pm Enter Lebanon.  Accept offer of shelter from the fearsome Lebanese Military who share our jubes, make jokes, read the Syria Times article (nothing like a little self-promotion) and offer us dry socks. Soldiers assure us ascent of next mountain range is very gradual.

    3.00pm Jon’s slow release punture (has been riding with all day) warrants attention and we attend to repair at base of Mount Lebanon Range.

    4.00pm Begin ascent of range and quickly deduce riding bicycles over this range has not been a part of standard military training in these parts (gradual my @rse!).

    5.00pm Summit Mount Lebanon Range. Begin 30km descent to Beirut through patches of snowfall. Jon’s hands have lost sensation.

    5.15pm Take detour off main highway to avoid gaping hole in bridge created by Israeli Military in Summer 2006 conflict. Detour road characterised by steady flow of melt water, potholes, heavy traffic and large but barely discernible mounds in the tarmac.

    Bombed Out Bridge

    5.45pm Continue descending. Now shivering so much having difficulty steering bike and operating brakes (which incidentally have worn right through so that levers are impacting on handlebars).

    6.30pm Arrive in Beirut at nightfall after 110km (below average mileage day).

    7.00pm Check in and meet fellow guests – one of whom is the first New Zealander to be charged under UK Terroism Act.

    7.30pm Commence thawing process via the medium of Turkish coffee and boiling hot showers.

    9.00pm Dinner and drinks with aforementioned Kiwi and an Iranian BBC Correspondant on assignment in the Middle East.

    11.00pm Hit the sack for an early night after another day at the office.

    Sean & Jon

    March 16, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 9 Comments

    Syria – So, So Evil

    14 March 2007

    After spending an extra day in Amman where we received such warm and generous hospitality, we set off for Syria. With the assistance of a hearty breakfast, packed lunch (courtesy of M.Kerr) and a surprisingly efficient border crossing, we managed the 210kms to Damascus in 1 day.

    With Syria infamously labelled as part of the ‘Axis of Evil‘, we entered the country knowing that we would need to be permanently on guard against evil behaviour.  As we crossed the border, we were immediately approached by two uniformed customs officials … what depraved agenda were these guys operating off we wondered?  Their questions were answered cautiously and every attempt to provide us with ‘assistance’ politely declined.  THEN they smiled, shook our hands and said “You are very welcome in Syria”!  What to make of this?  Sarcasm? 

    We moved on with a higher degree of vigilance knowing that we were dealing with very crafty people that have refined their wickedness over many years.  We cycled the 110kms up the road to Damascus with our heads down, refusing to acknowledge locals or be drawn into any correspondence lest we become unwilling pawns in some sort of scheme involving a “Giant Laser”.

    This proved difficult when we arrived in the Capital at dusk and had some trouble finding our hotel – dozens of beastly people were eager to ‘help’ and the fact that we found the place was surely due to the fact that it just happened to be on the same road as some other iniquitous establishment they must have been directing us to in their ‘broken’ English (“Why don’t you get it fixed then? That’s right, because you’re evil”).

    The modus operandi appears to be gaining the subjects confidence by either engaging them in ‘friendly’ conversation, complimenting them or their home country, asking if they have ‘everything’ they ‘need’ or simply saying “Welcome in Syria”.  It is then that the unscrupulous plans are slowly rolled out – “I’ll post that for you”, “Why don’t you and your friend come back to my place for dinner?”, “If you need anything, please just ask”.  Unbelievable.

    We could write a book on all the schemes (Sean did fall victim to one when a ‘complimentary’ bowl of nuts was placed on our dinner table – they had sneakily disguised a pistacio to look like a peanut and the Team Cycopath stud was lucky to escape without a chipped tooth) but our cautious approach saw us avoid getting caught out too often.  They somehow made me roll an ankle though (which will be rigorously tested on the way to Beirut tomorrow) and gave Sean a stomach bug, not too sure how they managed that. 

    I did get one guy back when I spilt some orange juice in his taxi.  The cup was over half full (as it always is with Team Cycopath) and the stuff went everywhere.  Of course, as he helped me clean it up, the kindly rhetoric continued (“Oh, don’t worry”, “It’s old carpet anyway”) while he was secretly contriving a way to exact revenge.

    Through it all we manged to explore the labyrinth like alleyways of what is one of the world’s oldest cities – particularly enjoying the souqs and the grandiose Umayyad Mosque – and also visited the Roman ruins of Palmyra on a day trip.  It is difficult to continually do justice to such world class ruins as we’ve seen so much over the last two months, but they’re all a bit different I guess (or so Sean keeps telling me).

    Jon

    March 14, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

    Dashboard – Week 8

  • Days Cycled – 3
  • Distance Covered – 471km
  • Cumulative Distance – 4495km
  • Land Speed Records Broken – 1 (79.7kph)
  • National Newspaper Interviews – 2  
  • March 14, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

    Brushes with Royalty

    Not content to just share the opening pages with King Abdullah II in Jordan’s national papers, our time in Amman was also spent being very generously hosted by our old school’s sport director Jim Kerr and his wife Maura who are grooming the children of the Royal Family at a prestigious school established by the current Queen Rania. 

    You can check out the Jordan Times article on the link below- meanwhile I’m off to determine our position in the line for the throne…

    http://www.jordantimes.com/sun/homenews/homenews5.htm 

    Sean

    Photo Link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46593233@N00/ 

    March 11, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

    Arabian Knights

    10th March 2007

    With tickets secured for the 3pm “super-fast” Nuweiba to Aquaba ferry we had lusty ambitions of a 4pm Jordan arrival. Alas like Ying with Yang, my ruggedness with Jon’s soft touch and all other twinned, yet converse elements it seems in these parts any “super-fast” service must be coupled with man’s most inefficient bureaucratic processes in order to maintain some unseen natural balance. Thus, heading into town well after nightfall we were grateful at least that we hadn’t arrived at the ferry terminal at 11am like some of our fellow travellers.

    Wearisome entry procedures aside, Jordan has a much more relaxed and familiar feel than any of the countries we have visited so far. In the cities most people are decked out in Western attire and it is possible to visit bars with all the chic and pretentiousness of London. In addition, I am receiving significantly less offers of a herd of camels in exchange for Jon by the infatuated local men.

    Similarly I am hoping Jon sheds some of his adopted Arabic behaviours and returns to his ‘Western sensibilities’. Whilst usually an advocate of the ‘when in Rome’ mindset, his mastering of the ‘hiss for attention’ and his constant attempts to kiss my cheek, hold my hand or link arms in the street are respectively annoying and just plain wierd.

    It would be remiss of me not to mention at this juncture that 99% of the Arabs we have met – 98% of them male – have been extremely pleasant, generous and hospitable folk. For the 1% that consider throwing stones, spitting, grabbing and aiming their vehicles at us as a means of roadside greeting we have attempted to express our displeasure via the means of a tirade of universally comprehended adjectives and suggestions.

    For us the Jewel in Jordan’s Crown has been twofold. Giddyingly beautiful panorama’s (of Lawrence of Arabia fame) greet the eye at Wadi Rum, where the red’s, orange’s and yellow’s of the desert contrast starkly with the bright azure sky. A desert of mountains it appears a climber’s paradise with innumerable faces rising from the sands in glorious weather conditions – perfect for a night under the stars as we found at a local Bedouin camp. The other of course is Petra, where intricately decorated facades are carved straight out of the pink-hued canyon walls to create the temples of this ancient Nabatean City. A dip in the Dead Sea en route to Amman completed our abbreviated sight seeing ventures and brings us to an important Team Cycopath Tip: Do not dive head first into the Dead Sea – not only will the intense salinity ricochet you straight back onto the shore but you will feel as though you have just snorted chilli powder.

    Wadi Rum

    This Crown however is not without it’s thorns – namely in the form of a huge mountain range. For our part we have possibly chosen the most undulating South-North route. Climbing from sea level to its Eastern flank for desert scenery, we then summited before dropping down the other side for Petra. Subsequent days cycling then took us above 1500m (again) followed by a sheer exhilerating descent to Jordan’s Rift Valley, 400m below sea level, where we set and reset our much vaunted land-speed record. Finally to reach Amman we ascended in excess of 1600m in one continuous 30km uphill slog. The most soul destroying aspect of forward progress over this topography is the need to descend only to begin climbing again once you have reached the valley floor. This energy sapping feature was never more tangibly demonstrated than when we were outpaced by a tortoise crossing the Kings Highway at 1400m (I jest not – check future photos).

    Amman now reached we plan to rest, recover and re-hydrate. Following this we point our trusty steeds north and plunge further into our Arabian adventure as we pick a path through Syria and Lebanon. Our Jordanian experience though regrettably short is truly memorable and highly reccomended – just leave the bikes behind.

    Sean

    Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46593233@N00/

    March 10, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment