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Syria

Much of this stuff is obviously now merely of 'historical interest, but hopefully we will be able to continue enjoy Syria's wonders in peace...

 

The experience:

image of flag of Syria2000kms over a month in October 2001

Distances between towns aren't great except in the east. Most days on the road involved 50 - 100 kms with a couple of big days around 200kms but even these bits of the ride could have been done in more manageable chunks

 

Getting ready to go:

Maps:   I used the Freytag & Berndt 1:800, 000 map of Syria. This map has pretty good city maps of Damascus and Aleppo (tho I still got lost in Aleppo and in the end rode the wrong way up a one-way street, no-one cared, not even the traffic cop who held up oncoming traffic for me so I could pass some roadwork)

Some of the smaller (good biking) roads are not so clearly marked, expect to get lost in the backblocks

Visa:   Everyone needs a visa for Syria. Tourist visas are valid for 15 days and must be used within one month of the date of issue but getting an extension is reasonably easy - I extended mine in Hama, it took about half an hour and cost £50 (Syrian) and I was asked how long I wanted to stay, there seemed to be no problem with extending the visa for four more weeks

Getting the initial visa in Oz was easy, if expensive. Seems each office sets their own fees, in Sydney I paid $110 (Oz dollars) but apparently the same visa cost $45 (Oz) from the Melbourne office

In theory, for some, visas are available at the border, but crossing the Lebanon-Syria border I met some very disgruntled (visa-less) travellers...

B/trike:   Bikes and planes don't always mix well so the bottom line is to check, check and check again before you hand over your hard-earned and if possible get everything in writing

I flew EgyptAir and while they made me box the trike, they weren't fabulously concerned with the weight of the bike box, but it took a heap of phone calls and emails to make sure that my trike arrived in Syria on the same flight that I did

Of course, there are those who swear by just rocking up to the check-in with bike...   somehow they seem to lead charmed lives and their bikes survive the tender mercies of airline baggage handlers

Anyway the Greenspeed GTO trike can be deconstructed easily and is meant to fit into a couple of suitcases, an ordinary bike box from the local bike shop is easier - if a bit bulky. I was able to leave the box at a hotel in Damascus and simply reused it for the return flight. The box ended up pretty bashed about but the trike was unscathed

Vaccinations:   The list of recommended shots is scary. Hepatitis (both A and B) , tetanus, typhoid, rabies and on and on it goes

My hep and tetanus shots were OK but I got typhoid and rabies shots. I wouldn't bother with rabies again even tho rabies is s'posed to be common in Syria

 

Once you're there:

I spent a few days just being a tourist in Damascus, to acclimatise to the time-zone (Syria is a tiring 24 hour air haul from Oz) , the food, the water and to life in general in an 'Axis of Evil' state

Accommodation:   I took camping gear, used it just once when I was too tired to do that last 30kms. I was invited to pitch my tent on a grassy patch out back of a mosque (and to use the loo + ablutions facilities)

Hotels are cheap and cheerful, only one had the dreaded bedbugs - a very early start next morning from that one! The cheapies started around £150 (Syrian) but another hundred pounds more bought better rooms/beds

Out in the backblocks I was often invited by folks I met on the road to stay with them overnight, when the invitation was pressed the requisite more than thrice, I sometimes did. These were unforgettable experiences

Food:   You'd best like chicken cos it's ubiquitous. In general, food is cheap and filling

If you have a sweet tooth, you'll be in paradise with honey or syrup soaked pastries filled with nuts or creamy sweet cheese. The 'ice cream' is pretty good too

Bottled water is available cheaply, everywhere as are fresh fruit juices including lemon, orange, banana, apple, pomegranate, watermelon (depending on the season) . Beer and wine - of reasonable quality - are also widely available

Money:   Changing cash or travellers cheques into Syrian pounds (also known as lira) wasn't hard but there was always a red-tape process with travellers cheques (not a problem, just takes time)

Credit cards are OK in more upmarket places but cash advances just weren't worth the hassle (or cost) as advances they could only be made thru the more, ummm, we'll call them, entrepreneurial, merchants

ATM's just didn't seem to exist - tho as of July 2003 there are apparently ATMs in Damascus and perhaps elsewhere

Roads:   Syrian roads were mostly well paved and often there were nice verges but there were also plenty of times I had to ride with the traffic on roads with no verges and pretty rugged pavement edges. Of course out in the backblocks the roads are more like a collection of patches and can be pretty rugged - just like in Oz actually

image of heavily laden car As for cars, Syria has some amazing survivors from a long lost age, 50s and 60s Benzes, Opels, Peugeots - Pugs are the venerable workhorses of Africa and the Middle East - but the most spectacular are the chrome heavy 'septic' land barges, Chevys, de Sotos and the like, invariably pretty heavily laden.

Traffic:   Roads are pretty good; traffic pretty so-so

Even so, compared to Sydney drivers, Syrian drivers were mostly mannered and polite: yes, even the taxi drivers. Still discretion was called for, the car overtaking the car overtaking the car on a blind bend was all too common

In the towns and villages, there were plenty of bikes and drivers were accustomed sharing the road. Traffic cops were unbelievably friendly, I lost count of the times entire intersections ground to a halt just so I could cross in safety and also there were a few times when motorbike cops provided an escort for me, lights flashing and sirens wailing

The bits I didn't like? I even think about nite riding. Half the vehicles don't seem to have functioning lights plus the edges of the road are littered with rocks and glass that's hard enough to avoid in the daylight

Smoke belching vehicles of all descriptions were too common, not pleasant when you're sucking down air trying to pedal up an incline

And those inclines? In the mountains, some are just about impossible, but then on the other hand I'm not good at hills anyway

 

The most frequently asked questions:

By folk outside Syria:   Is it safe for an   - insert your nationality -   to go to Syria?

October 2001, remember that time? Just after what we're told is 911? I found absolutely no problem with solo travel in Lebanon, Jordan or Syria. What I did find were friendly, open people and a safe secure environment - maybe there is something to be said for a police state?

Of course, things change. Again, do your own research and bear in mind that Syria is included on George's 'Axis of Evil' list of places to bomb back to the Stone Age.   Opps! That was a different US President wasn't it? Not that the incumbent seems to have a different view

By folk inside Syria:   Why?   Why ride when a bus/train/taxi is so cheap?

Yes, yes that's two questions...   but they were always run together

Indeed, why?   Well because b/trike touring is a great way to combine two passions, travel and riding. It's also a great way to see a place, to get involved in the day-to-day life, to travel (and stop) at your own pace and timetable, to meet folk and so on and so on   - hey I'm probably preaching to the choir anyway...

Copyright © 2003 - Grant Walter   Version: 1.0 (September 4 2013)

 

Backgound image: EuroVelo 6 bike path near Ehingen, Germany
Banner image: Citadel, Aleppo, Syria