Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dead Cities, Roman Ruins, and Waterwheels in Syria

So much for writing less in these. Those last few were long. My hope for my second real day of riding in Syria was to visit a couple of the dead cities and end up in Apamea for the night.

The sixteen headed sunflower monster!

It felt great to be out riding. My legs were having none of it though. I suspect that had to do with a serious lack of food. Call it a hunch. I am not sure what inspired me to try to ride on no food. I guess I just figured I would eat along the way. I ended up doing 88km.

A random dead city.

Getting to the dead cities was relatively easy. I couldn't find the first one because it had the same name as the real town next to it. Whenever I asked for the dead cities site by name, they just pointed to the town. I eventually gave up on that one because there are hundreds in northern Syria. They were used in the Byzantine period, but then abandoned. No one really knows why. It is assumed that trade routes shifted. I made my way for Serjilla, which does not have a current city counter part. On my way there, a curious thing happened. A girl smiled at me. After four or five days in the conservative Aleppo area, I didn't really realize it, but no women engaged me in eye contact or conversation. I know married muslim women are only supposed to talk to their husbands, but I thought it was different for single women. I'm not sure. I just know it was a fantastic smile that her family did not see her give from the balcony.

Serjilla, Syria.

Having been deserted for 15 centuries, Serjilla is still looking pretty good. There were a couple stone buildings that still had their second stories. They may have been rebuilt. I am not sure. You can even make out the arches of an ancient hamman, but no one was around to give me a good scrub down. On my way out, a few men called me over. This was a reoccuring theme in Syria. When traveling, you dream of these experiences. However, as I was on a bike tour and trying to get somewhere, the number of invitations in Syria was a bit overwhelming. Some people just want you to sit. Some want to share tea. Some want you to stay the night. They are very, very welcoming.

This might have been the tavern.

Another great ruin at Serjilla.

I chose to join these guys. They were teachers who wanted a quiet place to spend their day off. We had tea. We chatted. They wanted me to know that the main message of Islam is peace. I asked him about the extremists. He said they are out there, but they are not the majority of muslims. It is a good answer that I believe in, but that answer doesn't convince people in power. After spending way too much time chatting, there was no way I was going to make it to Apamea. I chose to camp where I was which turned out to be my best, and only, campsite in all of Syria.

This ferris wheel is the smallest I have ever seen.

The morning mist across the northern Syrian countryside.

The next morning, I was out the tent door and on the road early. I wanted to get to Apamea early to beat the heat. The ride there was not particular memorable. It just kept getting hotter. The ancient Roman site of Apamea sticks out. It is a 2km road of columns on a plateau. There is nothing else around. I remember two thoughts while running around the site. They rebuilt it. It used to just be a pile of stuff. I asked if this was a good idea about things like the Stari Most in Mostar. That bridge was rebuilt, but with new material. I like the idea of rebuilding the Roman ruins if they are just going to leave all the stuff there. It might as well look pretty if it is going to be there. My second thought was that that I really don't like the touts. They were riding their motorbikes through the ancient site harassing everyone to buy their crap. It took away from the site a little bit. The guys who tried to overcharge me for my ticket don't say a word to them. They make sure to yell at every tourist though. There are very few people there. You can really sit back and enjoy it (if you get away from the guys on the motorbikes).

The street of ruins at Apamea, Syrian.

I am amazed thees columns fell down and the finer stonework did not break.

After leaving Apamea, I decided to catch a bus to Palmyra. If you had asked me to name anything about Syria before planning this trip, I would have said Palmyra and rogue state. Since Palmyra was the one thing important thing that I knew, I wanted to make it happen. I had hoped it would be my first desert riding, but since I got stuck in Aleppo, I just didn't have the time. To the mircobus!

There were a lot of trucks painted like this. I have no idea why, especially with the PC-World.

The microbus was interesting. The guy strapped my bike to the top and charged me double. I wasn't thrilled, but it was cheap so I went with it. While he was tying my bike up, these two 12 year old-ish girls were asking for money. One was in a full burka. I said no. They would not leave. I told them to go away. The people who spoke arabic told them to go away. I almost hit one with my bike while I was lifting it. They would not move. They just kept gently prodding you with their open faced palm that had a few coins in it. I don't think I have encountered that level of persistence before. I don't give money directly to any beggars anymore so I really didn't like it.

The noria of Hama.

I had to bike across Hama to get from the microbus station to the big bus station. If I was an urban planner, I might put them next to each other, but I'm not, ccertainly not in Syria. On my way across town, I checked out the huge 4th century norias or waterwheels that can be as big as 20 meters. All of them have been refurbished or rebuilt, but you would not have guessed based on how old they look. Some look like they are about to fall over. Unfortunately, the water was so low that none of them are turning. When they do turn, they make a loud groaning sound.

Another 5th century noria in Hama, Syria.

After a quick visit along the river, it was on to the bus station. The bus was almost an ordeal. The driver didn't want to take the bike. I am not sure why. He through a fit. The salesman came out and told him to shut it and load the bike. He did. I got dirty looks. I do not know what the issue was. I never do though. On to Palmyra, the jewel of Syria.

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?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cappadocia, Turkey

I think I have fallen off the slippery slope. I am 13 blogs and around 24 days behind. I have 11 blogs of pictures uploaded, but a lot of writing to do. I was falling farther and farther behind. I think I am starting to catch up, but 11 blogs? That is a lot. It might be time to write a lot less and not grammar or spell check these. I won't like doing it, but I don't know if I can catch up any other way. Anyway.

Rose valley formations.

Cappadocia, Turkey is fabulous. It is a geological wonder with some great cultural stuff thrown in. The geological part is all of these crazy rock formations in a few valleys. If you move one valley over, there might not be any crazy formations. The cultural part is that the same thing that let these rock formations be created allowed for people to carve caves out of the rock. The caves allowed the people to hide in them when marauders were passing by. Cappadocia is also rumored to be a film location for Star Wars, but it isn't. George Lucas wanted to use it, but the Turkish government was worried about difficulties from civil unrest (I assume from the Kurds) and turned him down.

Rose valley house?

My bus to Cappadocia (pronounced, Cap-a-do-kya, the kya is not kia..its more one syllable than two) didn't actually go to the main tourist town of Goreme. It went near by. My ticket agent had just written Cappadocia which isn't a set place so I had to beg my way into a transfer to the town I actually wanted to go to. The bus drivers were great and set me up. Unfortunately, putting my bike in and out of so many buses in Turkey caused my bike computer wire to break in half. I think they over rotated the handle bars when the wheel was off. Amazingly, I was able to wire them back up. This is an incredibly easy fix for some people, but I tend to stay very far away from wires.

I can't remember which valley this is, but I love this photo.

Red Valley.

Anyway, finding a hotel was not as easy as getting there. The place I wanted to stay as was very unhelpful. He said there were no openings, could not put me on a wait list, and did not know if there were openings for the following day. I don't understand how a hotel doesn't know if they have openings for the next. It was frustrating. After checking out 7-8 other places that all did not take credit card, I finally just chose one that I would have to pay cash at. I had wasted too much time. I almost left this hostel because one guy said I could use the internet for free and another guy later said I couldn't. When I said I was checking out if there was no free internet, he suddenly changed his tune. Grrr.... Luckily, their attention seeking, hike leading dalmatian made up for him.

Red Valley.

After checking in, I immediately settled in for a nap. Then, I went out for a hike in the Rose and Red Valleys. In among the crazy formations are a bunch of caves that you can explore. Some were being used for storage. One had a couple tents in it, so I wonder if it was being lived in or just camped in. There was no protection for the formations. You could just walk in and out as you pleased. There was even an old church with a fresco that you could visit. In one valley, the formations would be similar. When you switched to another valley, there would be a different type of formation. It was neat. One valley that I did not visit was called Love Valley. I believe it was named (from the pictures I saw) because of its phallic rocks.

A fresco in a Rose Valley church.

In Cappadocia, they had an Indian naan type bread that was delicious. I think I snacked on it once a day. That was because it was cheap and filling. On my first day, it was really important because the town had lost power and no one could accept my credit card. I was really worried since I was paying cash at the hostel and running about of money. Eventually, the power came back on and I had some fabulous Turkish hummus for dinner. So, so good.

A hot air balloon over Goreme.

Getting ready for the morning balloon launch.

Balloons away!!

My first night's sleep was wonderful. I was in the roof top dorm and there were only 3 people in the 24 mattress room. There were no bed frames. It was cold. I loved it. In the morning, I woke up, heard the call to prayer, and then was given the unexpected treat of seeing maybe fifty hot air balloons in the sky. It was amazing to see that amazing scenery with the balloons being illuminated by the rising sun. The rides cost $200 which was too much for me. I was happy just to walk to the highest hill and see the balloons. I think they were the main attraction then.

Overlooking the Goreme Valley.

I liked how the figurines almost look like a topside view of the rock formations.

After getting myself some breakfast, I joined a bus tour that would explore the 'Star Wars' sight, a couple valleys, the Ihlara Gorge, and an underground city. The Gorge was the big draw for me. It was pretty far away and I was enjoying the rest that my legs were getting. On the tour, was a French-Dutch couple living in Spain. They eventually asked me if I was on a bike tour and had been in Croatia a couple months ago. I said that I was and I had. They remembered me from a 5 second interaction where I excused myself to reach past them to get my bags and leave the Fresh Sheets hostel in Dubrovnik, Croatia. In the time since they first saw me, they had finished that week vacation and gone back to work for a month. This was a completely separate vacation. I cannot believe they recognized me. That is some cognitive ability.

Underground passageway.

Stuffed into an alcove as another group passes by.

Underground church and prison.

The tour took us to an underground city that every other tour seemed to be at. It wasn't the busy season, but it was still very crowded. We had to wait time and time again as other groups went through passageways that were only big enough for one person. The cities were huge, but only smart parts are open now. They held up to 1000 people, went down up to 10 levels, had full kitchens, churches, stables, and ways to hide smoke for when they were cooking or needed heat. Yet, as extensive as they were, they were only used to hide. They preferred to live above ground.

Ihlara Gorge.

The Melendiz River that somehow ran fast enough to form the gorge.

A house inside Ihlara Gorge.

Ihlara Gorge.

From there, we went to the Ihlara Gorge. Steep walls. Small river. Caves. It was a wonderful stroll. We walked half of it. Even though being rushed and herded around reminded me why I don't take tours usually, it was nice to be able to see so many spread out sights in a short time.

Selime Monastery.

Selime Monastery cathedral.

The possible Star Wars site.

Another view of the monastery.

A video tour of Selime Monastery, Cappadocia.

Selime Monastery.

Our last two stops took us to a monastery carved into the side of a hill and an onyx factory. The monastery wasn't used anymore, but was still impressive. The other caves we saw you really had to use your imagination, but this one seemed more complete. There were halls connecting the different rooms and levels, but none of it was far off from sunlight so you could always see where you were. This is also the spot that was almost used for Star Wars. I can understand why. It definitely looked like it was from out of this world.

The town of Uchisar.

Raw onyx looks like marble, but lets a little light pass through.

Different onyx colors.

Silent assassin sales team.

The onyx factory is notable for one reason. At the end of the tour on how they shape it into jewelry, they take you to the showroom so you can buy their stuff. While the woman was giving her final 10 minute talk, 15 sales people quietly slipped in the door behind us and spread out around the room. I felt like I was in an action movie and we were slowly being surrounded for an ambush. If you were focused on the woman, you never would have heard or seen them. Silent assassins waiting to sell you stuff. Once the tour was over, I spent time in the show room, but all the sales people accurately sized me up and left me alone. I was more than happy to drink their apple tea meant to keep us there a little longer though.

Cavusin rock fortress

Rocks in Zelve Valley.

That night, I had another great dinner at a place that accepted credit card. I can't actually remember what I had, but what a lot of other people had was super neat, if not a little wasteful. They use an oven and cook food inside pottery. To get to your dinner, you have to break open the pottery container. I am not quite sure how this works. Maybe they harden the clay a little before the food is put in so it doesn't mix and then put the whole thing in the oven to bake it. It was super neat, but it seemed a little weird to be throwing away a 9'x5' vase every time you had this particular meal.

Rocks in Pasabagi Valley.

More rocks in Pasabagi Valley.

My next day, it was a blog and biking day. I went to visit a bunch of the sites that were a medium distance away. I biked about 25km and my legs were pretty happy about it. It seemed like it might be time to get back on the bike. I visited the mushroom formations in Pasabagi Valley, the fairy chimneys in Imagination or Devrent valley, the rock fortress in Urgup, and finally the local formations near the Goreme open air museum. I think this was my favorite day. I was on my bike again. I had the freedom to stay as long as I liked. I wandered. In the one area, I was biking up where people were hiking. I had to walk the bike a little bit, but it was funny to see the looks I was getting from people because they didn't realize that you could possibly get a bike up there.

Sleeping in a cave really isn't as glamorous as it sounds.

On my last couple nights, I switched to a new hostel that would let me use my credit card and I'd be sleeping in a cave. I had not intended to stay in Cappadocia so long, but my next stop was Syria and my ATM card had not arrived. I did not want to enter Syria without any money. While I was pinching, I would reuse my leftover breakfast bread for lunch. On one of these days, I was a couple wraps in before I realized the bread had mold on it. A little bit of mold, a little bit of penicillin to take care of any diseases I might have. Yum! In the end, my card didn't come. My brother wired me money and I trusted that Syria would be fine. It was.

We call this one Camel.

Devrent Valley.

My bus out of Cappadocia towards the border was another overnight bus. When I was checking out my hostel owner and I had a difficult chat. He was saying I checked out late and wanted to charge extra. I had told the cleaning lady I was leaving because he wasn't around so she could change the sheets. I was also irritated because he had guaranteed the internet was free and available 24 hours. I said great because I wake up super early and want to use it. However, he sleeps in the room where the Internet is and locks the door. That really isn't 24 hours. This happened a lot in Turkey where the employees sleep in the lobby of the hotel. I assume it is part security and part availability. In the US, I am used to someone working the night shift and being awake. These guys were definitely not night shifters. They worked during the day and this was their bedroom.

Rock caves in the Goreme Valley.

Rock formations in . . . .

No one wanted to deal with the bike going on a bus when I was looking to leave. One guy said he was willing, but wanted to double the price (to line his own pocket). I eventually bought a ticket and got on the bus no problem. They, took me to the nearest city where I could use a credit card to get down to Antakya. My bus ended up breaking down before it got me. The ticket salesman made a point to track me down and put me on another company's bus. It was above and beyond customer service. It was great. The disparity between the touts and those helpful guys is huge. OK, on to Syria.

I think I broke a law by putting this dog up where it drink from the fountain instead of what was drying on the sidewalk.