Thursday, May 24, 95 k
The alarm goes at 5:45. I'm finally out the hotel door at 7:00 am. The first part of the ride, getting to Ariha, is easy: just follow the signage toward Latakia. Then it gets difficult. That's because I don't actually want to go all the way to Latakia; I want to eventually take one of the secondary roads that drops south to Apamea. Now the good news is that this top corner of Syria appears on both my Turkey map and my Syria-Lebanon-Jordan map. The bad news: the roads south off of the Latakia Highway are slightly different on the two maps. That, plus the language barrier, plus my lack of an odometer, and my hands are full.

At the first decision point, a car notices me stopped at the side of the road, and pulls over. The driver indicates that I should follow the main road to Latakia and not go straight into Ariha. This is supported by the Syria map, but not by Turkey map. Bicycling along I stop to take pictures of cinder block making, and I also catch a fun picture of the donkey with the Styrofoam load. I spot signage indicating Al Bara, another worthy destination to the south, but my map indicates that that's not the route I'm looking for, and I continue.

I come upon a killer drop, mile after mile of steep decline requiring regular breaking, and I struggle to enjoy it. After all - there's usually a climb on the other side of every drop. The signage for the route I want is not to be found. I guess that this makes sense. On the Turkey map, that road doesn't quite touch this road. On the Syria-Lebanon-Jordan map, it does. Apparently, it doesn't. So I'm going to be forced to take the westernmost southern route; the route that that intersects this road at Jisr Ash Shughur.

I reach Jisr Ash Shughur and find myself pedaling through a big stream of water rushing down the center of the street. Some major water main must have broken. My tour bike's lack of splash guards is an issue.

I'm looking for a left, with signage indicating Qal'at Burze, or Apamea, or Suquylibiyah, or Hama, but it's not happening. The few direction signs there are have portions covered by political posters.

I continue straight. I'm climbing again and I'm resigned to the fact that I might end up at the Mediterranean, and the seaside resort of Latakia. I pull over at a cutout in the climb - the view is nice. A motorbike pulls over and we struggle to communicate. He states a few times "café", "one kilometer", "good English" and I agree to follow him.

He leads me to a small cliff-side café where I enjoy the beautiful view, and struggle to chat with the half-dozen men lingering over tea. I learn that the turnoff to Apamea is behind me, somewhere in that town. So that's a few kilometers of climbing wasted! I'm thinking that I will not backtrack-I'll continue to the coast and figure out how to get back to the interior later. After some fun anti-Bush conversation we get back to discussing my route. This time it's clear to me that the Apamea turnoff is only a 4-kilometer backtrack. I think that I remember Lonely Planet remarking that Latakia was nothing special, so backtrack it will be. When it's time for me to continue riding, one of the men indicates that he'll lead the way back on motorbike, and point-out the turnoff. That's great, cause I didn't see any signage coming this may, and I'd hate to miss it a second time. He escorts me back down the hill, stops at an unmarked turnoff, and indicates that it's the route to Apamea.

I study the intersection-there is no sign at all! I start riding again. Per my map, this next leg is a straight run, which takes decision-pressure off of me. By now it's 12:30 and it's baking. Covering my bases, I periodically pull over to confirm that this road will get me to Apamea. One contact tells me that it's 30 k and a later contact tells me it's 40 k. But at least they agree that I'm headed the right direction. It's a nice ride: flat, good asphalt, and nice scenery.

I pass a reservoir and see kids splashing around on the far side. I look around for a restaurant, and sure enough - there's a nice place just ahead. I enjoy a half-hour out of the sun, and my first real meal of the day. Riding on, I come to a left-turn sign "Apamea: 26 k". It's tempting, but this left turn is not on my map. A man sitting on the porch of a small store waves me over. He pours tea for me, a crowd gathers, and the conversation shifts to where I'm coming from, and where I'm going. Actually, "conversation" suggests a dialog, which was not the case. I'm making little pedaling motions with my forearms, while reciting the cities that I've been to, and plan to go to, and he's interrupting me to correct the order, Stating "Homs-Damascus-Baalbek," instead of my "Homs-Baalbek-Damascus," which is the natural path heading south. Another man joins the gathering, and is introduced as an English teacher. I learn that the first man has been trying to explain that I cannot get to Baalbek from Homs as the northern border to Lebanon is closed because of fighting. The English speaker comments that it's possible all crossings into Lebanon are closed by now; the situation is in flux. My plans to drop into Lebanon from the north, and pop-out on the road to Damascus have gone to hell. I chuckle, make bicycling motions with my forearms and repeat, "American tourist, American tourist;" a couple of the guys point their fingers at me, make shooting sounds, and laugh.

Time to knock off the last 26k. I take the left, head due east for ten minutes or so, and eventually find my way to the north-south route that I should have been on a half day ago. As I approach town, a motorcycle slows down beside me and I take the opportunity to ask, "Otel?" "Follow me", I'm signaled, and he leads me to a basically unmarked building on the edge of the town.

I step in the door. The owner, sharing a beer with a local businessman, speaks excellent English and is very friendly. He explains that he needs to finish some deal he's working on, but that his assistant can show me a room. The helper leads me upstairs, shows me a room, and I agree to the $20 rate. As I'm about to step in the shower, I realize that there's no towel. For $20, I expect one, and I throw my grimy clothes back on, and head downstairs. The room's door handle falls off as I close the door. Great… Downstairs, I ask for a towel, and am told that one will be delivered to me in 5 minutes. I head back to the room. A half-hour later, I still have no towel. I've also noticed that I have no electricity. I go downstairs, make a bit of a fuss, and finally get a towel. Electricity will be fixed soon, I'm told.

Back upstairs, my shower experience is less than perfect. That's because no water comes out of the showerhead. So I end up taking my shower under the spigot. Lots of contortions were involved. I mention this miserable shower experience only because half-broken showerheads have been quite common. Today's is just the worst. Oh well, I'm clean.

I head out on the bicycle to explore this small town (Qal' al Madiq is the Arabic name) and I'm disappointed. Then I see signage showing the route to the medieval castle overlooking the town. I bicycle up the steep hill. Two men on a motorbike approach me and flash small antiques. They ask if I'm interested. I say "yes" although I'm not keen on violating the law… especially in Syria. I agree to follow them to their shop. A few hundred meters away they lead me into a courtyard, then into a home. A third man joins us. I'm served tea, and then each man unwraps something special - a marble head, a glass bowl, and something else of glass, with a candelabra on it. There's no way I'm going to bicycle across four more borders carrying things that I probably shouldn't be carrying, and I explain that. The men seem to recognize the validity of my argument, and the sales effort lessens. I ask where the items come from, and one explains that he has a crew of six that digs at tomb areas in the countryside. I'm shown coins, supposedly of silver, and a small crouched lion, carved out of stone, with what look to me like Egyptian hieroglyphics carved in the bottom. Wow - I wonder if their stuff is real. They've lost interest in me, and I want to see what's up here on the hill, so we part ways.

I get back on the bicycle, and continue up to the fortress. Suddenly some kids race over, one grabs the rear rack on the bike, another latches on-I stumble to a halt. I yell at the kids to let go of the bike, and they do, but only after a few long moments. They're small, and not dangerous, but I don't like the vibe. I bike on, climbing in my lowest gear.

Up at the top, the ruins seem Middle Age at the oldest. Funnny - I thought that there were some old ruins here as well. I take a few pictures, get back on the bike, and-Smack. Someone hits the bike with something. A kickball has been thrown at me. I go to get the ball, with plans to send it into orbit, but someone gets to it first. Not a good vibe up here.

I bike down. Back at street level, I really notice the incessant horns, and shove tissue paper into my ears. I bicycle back to the hotel. Later, over a beer, I ask the owner what was with the children and the aggressive behavior. He comments that school is out today and they are just energized. He also half-apologizes for the poor hotel service, explaining that he was closed for a few months while tending his antique shop up in London. A bit later I learn that there is no other hotel for 30 kilometers, so I'm satisfied with what I have. Back in the room, I cut off the top of a Fanta container, so that I can at least pour water on myself during tomorrow morning's shower.

 
 
My maps don't agree!
 
Cynder blocks - being made with a hand-powered press....
 
Most mules in the Middle East have it a lot harder....
 
There was some sort of election going on... and all too often the English portion of the road signs was covered with campaign posters.
 
Nice view of northwest Syria, except that I was climbing the coastal range, when I wanted to be heading south, instead.
 
My friends at the cliff-side café.
 
Once I was heading south, the land was less parched.
 
Up on the hill: a medieval fortress, with homes built into it.
 
The plastic Fanta bottle with its neck cut off, so I could at least pour spigot water over myself - one liter at a time..
 
 
 
 
  Next: Apamea to Hama  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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