Friday, October 29, 2010

Aleppo, Syria

Sunrise over Syria.

The bus ride to southern Turkey was uneventful until I woke up and saw one of the most amazing sunrises that I have ever seen or dreamed of. I took it as a sign that good things were coming since I was finally getting back on the bike.

Approaching the border.

When the bus dropped us off, the border was still a good 50km away. The next drivers were very eager to take us there. One guy did not ask me anything about my plans. He asked for my passport. I told him he didn't need to see my passport and asked him why he wanted it. I knew he was a tout and I just was happy to be difficult. He moved on without answering. One person gave me a well done because they knew what was up. On the way out, some of the drivers got in a pushing match. I suspect it was over passengers. I was happy to be riding away from the nonsense.

No man's land.

There were ruins in between the two border crossings.

Welcome to Syria!!

The ride was a lot longer than I suspected, but I was so happy to be on the bike again. When I reached the border, I was loving it. There were hundreds of vehicles waiting in line and I just followed the motorcycles past them to the front. Yeah!!! At the border, you have to go to one place for one thing, then to another, then to another. I almost said you have to get in one line and then another, but you don't. They just shove their way to the front. I felt like I was in the front row at a concert defending my space. It was crazy. At first, they did not want to accept my visa because it didn't have photos. Apparently, the Washington DC office isn't talking to the border guys. While passing through, I met a guy named Kareem who was on his way to India. Kareem was trying to help a German guy who was going to be taxed 1,000 euros on a 250 euro car he was delivering to his daughter. It let me know that I got off easily. Anyway, I cleared the border and kept pushing until I found my way to Aleppo. The traffic was pretty hairy. The noise was worse. In Turkey, they honked a little bit. In Syria, almost every single car did it, sometimes multiple times. I am not exaggerating.

It took me a couple looks to figure out what the bottom cut out was of.

My first Syrian town was not much to look at.

My second Syrian town had a little more.

Part of my hotel courtyard.

The rest of my hotel courtyard.

When I finally made it to the Old City of Aleppo, I was anxious about not being able to use my credit card at most places and about finding the place my brother wired money too. I pulled into the first hotel I saw and, luckily, they accepted credit card. It was $100 which is a lot more than I usually pay, but I wanted to get right to finding the wire transfer place. It is amazing what a sense of urgency can do to priorities. However, I will say that the hotel was phenomenal. It is probably the best place I have stayed so far. It was a converted courtyard house. Also, since it was an expensive hotel, they had people who spoke English reasonably well and could call the wire transfer place and get me directions. They did. I got the money. There were no problems except I had to figure out how to break up and hide this wad.

A very thick stack of money. Great, if you have no ATM. Bad, if you have to carry it.

Ride through Aleppo streets.

Afterward, it was time to explore. I wandered the souqs (markets) and explored the Citadel area. The souqs were similar to the bazaar's in Istanbul, but seemed bigger. I think it was because they were longer (not as much sideways sprawl). Finding my way around was tough though. Lonely Planet thought it would be a great idea to only put Roman spellings of the streets on their map. The city of Aleppo went with Arabic spellings. Big surprise. The Roman names are useful to ask where they are, but even more useful would be both.

The fruit and vegetable market.

Old city, Aleppo.

A souq.

In the souqs, I was considering getting a khalifah or Arab scarf to bike in. I thought it would be a functional souvenir since I heard they are great at keeping the heat away. The touts were all over the bazaar, but I finally found one I was willing to deal with. We talked for a while and he said he would sell one for 75, having come down from 200. I decided to look around, just in case. Another guy was trying to sell one for 500. When I walked away, the price dropped to 50. Another guy, said he had better ones than were not on display. I compared them and they looked the same. He showed me a stamp. I found the same stamp on the display one. He kept saying things were different when they were actually the same. I called him out and walked away. He tracked me down to shake my hand and say welcome to Syria. That irritated me. It was his way of moving forward, but I saw it as him trying to rip me off and a 'haha, the joke is up, hand shake' wasn't going to make it go away. If I had been willing to buy it, the joke would never have been up. Perhaps the most positive experience in the souq was a stall selling smoothies. You just grab your flavor, mine was mango, drink out of the glass, put the glass back, and keep walking for 25 syrian pounds, which is about 75 cents. Yum!

The smoothie shop!

The citadel in Aleppo.

After the souq, I headed to the Citadel for some night photos and dinner. I had been all around the city and all I could find were kebab joints. I was amazed at how many there were. I just wanted a sit down restaurant and the only places I found that were the tourist areas. I should have gone to the kebab place because I ended up getting and eating meat anyway. I am still not sure how. I ordered three things and two of them definitely should not have had meat. The third was a crap shoot. Those of you who know me well, know that I'll eat meat if it is otherwise going to go to waste, so I ate it. I didn't get sick. I didn't enjoy it. On my way out after the meal, I saw a waiter clear half eaten food and a dirty napkin off the untouched half of a sandwich for a coworker. Leftovers were not going to the garbage. I should have just sent it back. Oh well. Off to my hotel where I intended to read, but just fell asleep on top of the covers with my hotel room door into the courtyard wide open with the light on. Getting back to biking was tiring.

The citadel . . . at night.

On my first day in Syria, I was biking. I was learning and using a few Arabic words. (This is more than I did in Turkey. In Turkey, I just was not mentally there.) I was loving Aleppo. I was loving Syria. I was really excited for part two of my trip.

Morning bread in the Christian quarter.

Part of the square in the Christian quarter.

Picking up their bread.

I woke up to rain. I realize that it rains in Syria, but I can't believe a place that gets so little was getting it on my second day there. Oh well. To pass the time in hopes of waiting out the rain, I headed over to the Christian quarter to try to find a map. The rest of the city was pretty much closed because it was Friday, the Islamic holy day. I didn't find a map and the rain didn't let up. I considered staying another night. I had really enjoyed Aleppo so far. However, my hotel didn't have any room so I decided to finally hit the road. I was told to follow the signs to Turkey and then turn left for Idlib.

The empty souq on Friday.

A statue in Aleppo.

On my way out of town, I stopped at a grocery store. When I came out, my tire was flat. A guy gave me a ride 5km back to a gas station so I could get it fully inflated. After getting it taken care of, but before I made it back to that grocery store, my front tire got a flat. My front tire had never had a flat this trip. Ugh. I got it straightened out and continued on. Then, I got a second flat in my back tire. I decided that it might be time to replace the tire. It had started thin and been getting thinner all trip. I just wanted to make sure to get the most out of it. I decided it would at least last until the next town. I didn't make it to the next town. I stopped to ask for directions and was pointed in a direction that did not seem right. The signs I had been following to Turkey were not taking me west as planned, but straight north. I was going completely the wrong way. I decided to head back to Aleppo to sleep and get a new tire. I got a 3rd flat in my rear tire, fourth for the day, on my way back. When I pulled over, seven people crowded around while I fixed it. As I was going to quickly learn, almost everything is a community event in the Middle East.

This is the flashiest mosque I saw.

I love this tea cup and kettle fountain.

In Aleppo, I went toward the nice hotel section, but found a cheap hotel at the last minute. So cheap that the door handle almost came off at every use. However, it had a bed and hot showers, at least during the day. Good enough. The next day, I woke up in a world of hurt. My digestive tract was not happy. I didn't eat breakfast. I actually went back to bed. Then, I tried to find a bike shop. In the middle of about fifty tire and car shops, there was supposed to be a bike shop. After three trips to find it with naps in between each trip, I finally found it.

My bike tire.

This bike shop was like nothing you have seen in the states. There were used bikes everywhere. The new bikes were piled together, but good luck getting one out. One adult ran the place and he had three capable kids working for him. By kids, I mean under 16. They got me a new tire. Again, everyone was crowding around for the change out. Some of the people worked there. Some were just having their bikes fixed. I didn't know having a tired changed out was such a big deal. My back rack had busted one of its lower supports. It was fine, but I figured I would see if they had a new one. My English did not convey that. He welded the old one instead. He also scrounged up two water bottle cages that I think I busted on the cobblestone of Goreme. I am not sure why he didn't try to weld those.

A view of the rooftops of Aleppo.

With my bike fixed, I was ready to go. Unfortunately, my body wasn't. It was getting worse. It was around noon. I went back to my hotel and spend the rest of the day between sleeping, reading, and visiting the bathroom. I didn't eat. I didn't tour. I didn't anything.

This is the first mosque I saw with a green dome. No idea why, but I'm a fan.

The next day I felt a little bit better and hit the road. I was determined not to lose a third day (one to the north, one sick) to Aleppo. Also, I was not loving Aleppo as much as I had my first day. I think the noise levels were getting to me. I wish I had stayed in the fancy hotel because it was quiet there.

Olive trees?

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