Belgium - Australia on an BMW R1100 GS motorcycle, solo.
Report #8 - July 20th to 30th, 1998...
I spotted an apartment in Cevlik that would give me some privacy. I didn't wish to be tempted again to let myself in with even more people, who would add to my feeling of exhaustion. Because that's what it started to look like. It seems like I'm overdoing it just a bit every day, and each night and often the next morning that gives me the feeling I have to force myself to get going again. I so much love to ride I can barely stop when I'm on the roll. Despite my intentions of getting myself some shelter before the worst heat of the day I still ride into the horizon, or I stay for a chat with someone while heating up in my motor suit and boots.
For it is the heat that is getting to me. I know this sounds a bit corny, knowing Northern Europe barely produces a couple of warm days a year, but 30 degrees Celsius is a bit too hot for me to be very active. And to be honest, these temperatures are too high to ride a bike. And with 43 degrees (yes, forty-three degrees) I sit on my bike, all dressed up, because otherwise the hot air would hurt going 80 mph. If I stop for just a moment I get all sweaty and then riding with my jacket undone is nice. But when my skin has dried up the hot air is more like a hairdryer. Luckily not everywhere I experience 43 degrees - only when I went for a test drive through the desert between Homs and Palmyras in Syria.
So the first real tests have presented themselves. My rear brake has started to damage my brake disk and the plates didn't arrive in Beirut in time (or Beyrouth, as the French-inspired signs tell me). My left case, smeared with super glue, has ruptured again after my own fix with two components glue, and now some lady in a droptop BMW hit the same case from behind, breaking the support that connected the case to the bike. The BMW distributor in Libanon does not sell motor bikes, nor do the ones in Jordan and Syria. The closest one is in Israel, but it seems more and more sensible to leave Israel be, despite my double passport. The next distributor is located in Dubai (one of the Persian Gulf Emirates, about 1600 miles down the road) or on Cyprus (a 6 hour trip with the ferry from Beirut, but it is unclear which part of Cyprus harbors the dealer). And finally I'm (a little) ill, probably caused by some contaminated water from which I drank over a liter.
Time to open the trick box. After my arrival in Beirut I checked into an expensive hotel to kick back and relax. A clean bed, a clean bath with shower, for once no kebab or falafel, sleeping in the afternoon in an airconditioned room with shading curtains. But I'm getting ahead of myself..
So I intended to get myself a weekend's rest in Cevlik in the southern-most part of Turkey. In itself a nice idea, and more so because it was clouded when I arrived Friday in the evening. I assumed it would't get so hot, but that turned out to be a mistake. It was marginally less hot, but very humid. I don't think I ever lost so much water in one night. Oh well, at least I had my privacy and with that the time to write. I also slept a lot - that always makes me feel better.
I now am so close to the Arabic world, the people start to speak that language here. They understand Turkish as well, but my Arabic-on-tour booklet does a nice job already. The Muslims here are Alawite (the English name) and a lot less strict clothes-wise than the Sunni Muslims in the neighborhood of Kapadokya. This brightens up the scenery considerably. But the people here are very poor. Some live in tents along the beach - at least I don't see signs of people enjoying this camping here. I cannot imagine one would take his goats on holiday as well, or couldn't bear to leave his chickens behind. The proprietors of the various terraces along the beach sleep on the chairs or on the ground with a filthy matras. They don't undress when going to sleep and lie under a blanket without a sheet. The room I rented initially had no sheets, but I requested and received them.
My hosts sleep on the terrace as well. They are real Arabians by the way, no Turks. I do think they are a bit filthy. And they drink so much Raki they can barely talk at the end of the day. I've talked to the owner of the building and the surrounding grounds: the man leases everything he owns here. The hotel and restaurant are leased to my hosts, the land to a little farmer living in a tent, a house at the back of the land to a couple of season holiday goers. My hosts have made a bad deal by the looks of things - they keep on talking about problems with business and indeed customers are few. And so they take yet another glass of Raki (some stuff like Pernod or Ouzo).
The last day of my stay one of the men followed me to the local touristic attraction: again a place to live, cut out in the rocks. So don't think Kapadokya has some kind of monopoly on these things. In Ermenek and Cevlik I saw the same thing purely by accident. It used to be some kind of park, but now it is completely deteriorated. A water transport system devised by the ancient Romans, said to be restaurated by the English, has become unuseable. (I didn't get the bit about the English - does that mean Lawrence of Arabia had conquered this part of Turkey as well ?)
I had reservations about the border crossing from Turkey to Syria, the Syrians are the first to pose difficulties about ties with Israel and the rest of the western world. I've heard stories about travellers having to unpack everything, and getting into trouble with all kinds of stuff: a radio able to receive to much frequencies, many questions about laptops and so forth. I left early so I had enough time for the border. From Cevlik to the border is a nice landscape. It is not used intensively - I see some shepherds with their flocks and some small fields in the vincinity of water. The characteristic concrete water basins forming a kind of river on legs in Turkey are missing here.
The border is a four stage rocket. First I have to leave Turkey: my passport is checked for a valid visum and they check if I didn't overstay. The second stage is exporting my bike from Turkey: customs checks the form I received when I entered Turkey, and adds a stamp. Then there is an end check and I'm allowed to ride to Syria. But I have to change passports, and it so happens one of the Turkish officers sees me doing that. Luckily he doesn't get nervous.
Syria does things in the same order as Turkey. In a jiffy I was admitted and they'd stamped my passport. The bike is more difficult: my insurance is no longer valid here, I have to temporary import my bike here as well, and ... I had to pay taxes! And that's a nice procedure as well: you have to exchange US dollars (or some other hard currency) for Syrian currency at an official Syrian bank, so you can pay the taxes in the local currency. And so the dollars wind up with mister Assad (the strong but old man of Syria).
At first I didn't believe them - and more so when they wanted me to exchange about 70 dollar. At borders every tourist gets conned by these exchange men, and this official bank was nothing more than a shack with a desk and an open vaultwhich apparently couldn't be closed anymore, the money is all heaped up in an opened desk drawer. This official bank didn't impress me and I told the man I wasn't planning on being conned. I first wanted to see the customs officer.
He explained to me everything was OK, but he had to have the official exchange note (from that shack). Furthermore he told me I had to pay about 40 dollar for insurance for my bike. Taxes would be 7 dollar if I could show a Carnet de Passage. I could, so that saved me 20 dollar. I exchanged money at the "bank" and from then on I went swiftly through the other checks. The exchange incident bought me a more respectful treatment. The lesson I learned: don't act timid, but let them explain everything in detail. My attitude from now on: I don't take any crap.
I had read a lot about the friendliness of the Syrians. It is all true. The people at the side of the road wave at me, everybody welcomes you, everywhere you get cooled water or tea as much as you like - they really are wonderful. Just for that you ought to check this place out. The road does get worse, but traffic is lighter. And it seems as though there is a penalty on owning a completed house. All houses are under construction, from all houses pieces of concrete wiring protrude. This looks very shabby. I also see the first lady in full chadors: her face is completely hidden behind a thin (and I expect transparent) black veil. But there are also women with their hair uncovered. Funnier are the men walking is a kind of dress, with red or black headscarf with one of those black ropes. I've really reached Arabia!
The Syrian landscape is different from the one just before the border - there are many olive trees in neat rows. I decide to stay near the coast, although it's very humid here. I first encounter the city of Lattakia. A typical coastal city with lots of hotels. The city itself is not very exciting. Remarkable is the portrait of Assad, prominently displayed on all government buildings, but also on the back of each city bus. Even some of the cars carry this face. The army and the security officers are plentiful. They are everywhere, often carrying those bug rifles. There is even a special bus transporting these men from and to their work.
I'm well rested and don't see any cause to stop here. I continue in the direction of Tartus (a coastal place as well), and from there via Safita to a Crusader's castle.
The signs along the road are in Arabic, with for me readable names below. But: going towards the inlands I reach mountain terrain (and so orientation by compass alone is impossible), and here the European subtitles are absent. On top of that I meet very few people speaking French or English. The elderly people speak French, because until after the second world war these surroundings were under French government. For the first time I find myself in the situation I dreaded: I cannot read the signs, people can't read my map, and I'm starting to get lost. But it turned out to be not that bad: after some practice I mastered the pronounciation of the name "Safita" and by stopping a lot and asking I reached my goal. A couple of times people sent me the wrong way, they are afraid to admit they don't know or they don't understand you.
I arrived rather late (5:30 PM) at the castle, it would close at 6. But I didn't fancy waiting 'till the next morning, I wanted to leave at sundawn. The men at the counter enjoyed the stranger in his motor suit asking for a complete tour of the castle. And more so when I told them I expected lower rates and extra attention - maybe even a personal guide. The admission fee went down (Assad had collected enough this day) and the guide accompanied me for the difference between the official fee and my fee, plus 100 Syrian Pounds (in total about 400 Syrian Pounds, or 10 US Dollar). I even saw the secret escape tunnels in this one hour tour.
The castle was built by the Crusaders. They used it as one of their bases from which they operated. It is beautifully situated: on top of a mountain edge dividing the sea from the inlands. You can look down on either side and if it weren't so very damp you could have seen the snowy mountains of Lebanon in the south, and the Mediterranean Sea in the west. The castle has been damaged by earthquakes, and then it was repaired and improved: the walls of the inner defense perimeter are slanted at the bottom, and the base is about 30 ft thick. The Turks have chased the Christians away after a siege of 4 weeks, the Sultan then had the church converted to a mosque. They now use the church sideways, Mekka turned out to be in that direction.
In 1939 the French have removed all draw-bridges in an attempt to make the castle more accessible for visitors. The local people in the mean time had taken posession of the castle to live in, and they were evicted. (Both of the parents of my guide were born in the castle.) A few towers were restored as well, now you can climb them safely. The castle is in perfect authentic shape: the atmosphere is what one would expect. Even the prison was there: dark and cold. And the holes through which the oil was poured on the attackers were all present. I saw the space where the bakery was situated, the olive oil storage, and the rest of the kitchen. In short, this was precisely the tour I had in mind: swift, talking history while walking, and no digressing.
A few hundred feet behind the castle is a hotel/restaurant "the Round Table" - after the round table the crusaders used in the adjacent castle. The rooms were equipped with those filthy mattresses without sheets. But I was allowed to camp. On the roof, in the wind. "Going to be cold", they warned me. A German family had no sleeping bags, they were forced to use a hotel room... Meanwhile I dug up a luggage belt and had removed all excessive super glue from my case. I fixed it with two components glue and kept the crack shut with the luggage belt. That night I slept like a baby under the stars.
I was not exactly in the shadow lying on the roof - woken at 4:30 AM by Allah calling me for morning's prayers (but I cannot understand the Arabic language, so I just turned around). But at 6 o'clock it was getting too hot already - so on my way. First off to Homs, where there should be a bank. I found it, and exchanged some money (more dollars for Assad, who uses about 60% of the nations income for defense).
I stopped at a chemist's (deodorant has become a necessity for me) but they were out of deodorant. I was however invited for a cup of coffee by a man standing in front of the neighboring store. Spent way too much time chatting with this English teacher who was practising on me; I was introduced to almost all passers-by. The bike was also very happy with all the attention. After an hour and a half (with a spray from a street further down the road - got it in a small parade) I left with a new plan: the teacher had convinced me Lebanon could wait another day.
I've seen the Crusader's castle ('Crac des Chevaliers') already - I had to go to Palmyras. Actually I wanted to enter the Bekaa valley, to Lebanon. Menno said he sent a couple of brake plates over there. The teacher didn't mind talking about Israel and the possibilities of getting there. The Carnet de Passage (of which I only got one) will become a problem. If it has to be stamped, I'm done for. Then Syria and Iran won't let me in anymore. Although persons can travel from Jordan to Israel, one's own transport means will pose problems.
Another plan put forward was the possibility of travelling from Jordan via Saudi Arabia to Bahrein, and take a boat from there to Iran. But it is very hot there, very hot (48 degrees Celsius). I decided to give this a shot right away. And so at the hottest time of the day I went to Palmyras. And that was hot enough: 43 degrees.
Palmyras is an oasis, a collection ruines and a castle on a mountain. I let the ruines be, the oasis was fun, because suddenly there is in the middel of the desert a big garden with (cultivated) palm trees. I didn't want to enter the castle, but I did want to enjoy the view a bit. After reaching the top one of those little boys signalled me to go further. The road leads around the castle, but I didn't expect the entrance would be lower than the road. That was the case and without my rear brake and no place to turn I fell over twice on the steep road covered with pebbles. Leak in my water pouch, busted cylinder protector and of course a signal light in pieces.
To be sure I now was ready for all this heat (the road crossing Saudi Arabia measures about 1400 miles) I returned the same afternoon, now using a really deserted area. I've seen trucks not using the road at all, but driving right through the desert. This part is mainly covered with a kind of small plucks of grass, the only other feature is the rocky surface. The landscape slopes very slightly, and there is nothing or no one to be seen. Very rarely I stumble upon some Bedouine tents - people here keep sheep and goats. Mules are used for transportation. (Camels are only accompanied by a photographer, and the biotope is the common tourist trap.) The heat is bareable - if only you keep riding. And drinking. Often I think about the jacket Marcel Vermeij has: white, with sown-in water pockets, so he can drink while he rides. Sounds good to me.
I ended up in Hama. The Orontes river goes through Hama. That in itself is nothing special - the huge water wheels are. The current of the river is used to lever water (up to 60 feet high) for the irrigation of the surrounding fields. The wheels are made of wood, and so are the axles. They make noises as such a wooden construction should. A bit outside the center of the village I found the biggest wheels: so big a boy could swim up to it, stand on one of the blades, and then, as the wheel completed a third of its rotation, jumps off with a spectacular dive.
The most tedious of the daily chores followed: finding a place to sleep. Tedious, because you are tired (it was about 7 PM on a day that started at 6 AM) and actually you don't want to step off the bike to negotiate some not too clean bed and maybe try your luck a bit down the road. My plan was simpke: I wanted to sleep on the roof of the restaurant on the mountain again. An hour's ride (turned out to be a bit longer), but then I had the perfect place to sleep again.
Travelling through the Mid East is getting popular. OK, the Neckermann coaches aren't there yet , but there is something close to that: a couple of British tour operators organize trips in trucks with chairs mounted in the open loading space. This creates a kind of 4x4 coach and it allows you to camp out with the tourists almost everywhere. But that's not what they do: they visit regular camp sites. I encountered them in Atakoy (Istanbul), and again in Urgup (Kapadokya). And who had taken posession of 'my' rooftop: yes! This very same club. And of course they recognized the solo BMW traveller, more so when (like I lived there) I came rushing around the back and onto the terrace. We drank a beer to this last meeting (an excaption for me). They move on to Jordan, I'm going to Lebanon the next day. Most likely we won't meet again.
Lebanon was a disappointment. Crossing the border was a piece of cake (just one hour), the Bekaa valley is indeed beautiful, the mountain road to Beirut was thrilling. And yet the spark didn't cross between this country and me. The amount of soldiers were nauseating - especially in the Bekaa valley, which used to be a terrorist breeding place, everyone had to stop every 3 miles. They don't check me even once, but still the Lebanese and Syrian (!) soldiers are a nuisance.
Arriving in Beirut I locate the Mariott hotel in the business area almost by touch alone. I park the bike by myself, the guy parking the limousines is afraid to. Menno would send the brake plates to this hotel - they weren't there when I checked in. The plates turned out to be still in Amsterdam - BMW in Lebanon does sell cars, but not motor bikes. The plates would ship from Amsterdam that same day, Tania promised me.
In almost all of Syria the water from the tap is drinkable, but apparently not in 'the Round Table'. Every morning before I leave I drink as much water as possible (usually about 1 liter) to prevent dehydration. Arriving in Beirut my intestines told me the waiter of 'the Round Table' was wrong: my body disagreed with that water. Oh well - a luxury hotel room makes a pleasant stay, and I slept great that afternoon. For a change I consumed an American hamburger that evening, followed by a visit to the movies ('Titanic' - it was OK).
The next day I went northbound along the shore, my target was the big mountains between the sea and the Bekaa valley. The traffic was very heavy, and there were traffic jams. Some people do all kind of things when they are stuck in traffic each day. Comb their hair, tie their neck ties, applying make-up, you name it. The woman behind me was reading a news paper when I had to break for someone who was a bit hasty in crossing from right to left and hadn't seen me. And so her BMW bumped into me and the suspension which carried the case was partly broken. It still hangs onto my bike, but it has become unsuitable for riding in rough terrain. (And the woman thought it best to take off.)
The climb up the mountains was very special: down below there are clouds (all summer long). Atop the mountains the sky is clear and free of exhaust gasses which pollute Beirut. On the way up you clear the clouds: not before had I been riding through a fog with visibility less than 150 feet at 28 degrees Celsius. Totally soaked I cleared the clouds to enjoy the beautiful view. Back at the hotel I spotted a road on a map which would take me all the way into the Bekaa valley, but this road did not appear to be on my map. It turned out to be an unpaved road. I couldn't resist myself, and very gently I entered the mountain cliff at 6000 feet height, until I could see Baalbek (in the Bekaa valley) on the other side. The road was equipped with checkpoints, no less than 3. At the top there is an abundance of hotels, in the winter this is a skiing area. I stayed the night there.
Lebanon disappointed me because I expected the atmosphere from Sarajevo. Although the civil war has ended here about 8 years ago, and the joy of its end wil have settled, I still expected at least a land that was rebuilding. In that sense the presence of the Syrian army and the portraits of Assad were an unpleasant surprise. In a paper I bought I read that phoning with Syria from Lebanon is no longer charged as an international call as of August: dial 02 for Syria. Assad seems to have Lebanon enlisted. The Paris of the Middle East is not repaired yet: many building look like the ones I saw in Bosnia: riddled with bullet holes, fixed grenade holes and abandoned buildings because of the danger of collapsing.
A talk with a couple of kids ("Don't write down my name or address, or else I don't have a name or address anymore") quickly ends up as a discussion about a conflict still simmering at the surface: a civil war about religion. "There is no truce - there is a Muslim winner and a Christian looser." The boys I spoke are Christians and they utter harsh words about Muslims. I share their opinion about the repression of women, about underdevelopment of very religious Muslims (but then again the same goes for the Christians) and about the intolerance of the Islam. "In Lebanon we have a civil war each 10 to 20 years - one is on its way, this situation cannot continue much longer." They dream about the times Lebanon was the pearl of the Middle East and hold the Muslims responsible for its demise.
I try to find the balance and try to talk to others. The hotel manager has Muslim employees and customers, and asks me to change the subject. Someone else cuts off our talk and walks away. People here are not happy - I can feel the cropped-up tension.
Meanwhile the plates have arrived, and I put them on my bike. My rear brake is functioning again! Lebanon fails to attract me any lnger. Quickly on my way to Damascus, Syria. Crossing the border was a snap, although my one-time visum was used up already. Without problems (but for a mere 400 Pounds plus the tax trick for 7 dollars) I got myself a new visum. This time the border took about 1.5 hours. Not bad. From the border to Damascus is just a little trip - I arrived before noon. Time for lunch. I parked the bike at some street corner where I could keep an eye on it, and found a place to eat. I left all my luggage and my helmet on the bike - Syrians don't steal.
After lunch I checked out the market place. The butcher's, for example. Here they have a small box with netting (to fend off the flies) but without cooling. In it there is half a sheep: you point out the piece you want. The box opens, and the piece is cut off. They obviously don't concern themselves about bacteria. The grocery sells tomatoes and onions, but no lettuce or typical cooking vegetables. They do have lots of aubergines and peppers. Fruit is there as well. The neighbor is a small herbs shop (box actually, this here is all measured in square millimetres). A plethoria of odors overwhelms you - I can recognize some scents, others are completely new to me.
Such a market is very unstructured (but still a unity) where the smith is next to the herbs shop, and next to that they sell carpets. This is a wild mix of products and merchants. Tourists are not present, and the merchants are not pushy - merely curious and very proud when you strike up a converstaion with them. I like this market better than the one in Istanbul, where they are used to white faces. The smith actually welds, that is to say, he has a fire burning in a mainly black space in the back, in which he puts the iron. This picture seems to be straight from an Anton Pieck picture . There are more smiths here, they all work in the same old-fashioned manner.
Suddenly I spot an entrance with no sigh as to its purpose. In general the shops are situated directly at the street, but this shop is deep. It turns out to be an Hammam. I enter to look around, and (of course) I'm invited for a cup of tea. They offer me a massage as well, followed by a Finnish sauna, a Turkish bath and a shower like the one in Ermerek (a stone bowl with a small bowl with which you poor the water over yourself).
At first I thought about my bike with the helmet loose placed on top of it. But if they wanted it would have been gone after my first walk - I enter the Hammam. This is a nice surprise - it doesn't look like the saunas we are used to in Europe. Only men are allowed inside, and they don't walk around naked. Even the masseur looks away shyly when I clumsily try to wrap myself in a big cotton sheet. The massage is very thorough, my head is almost torn off in an attempt to crack my neck. My visit to this bathing house is concluded with more tea, while two servants dry me off. Wrapped in many towels I sit amongst other Arabs to recuperate from this exercise.
There is just one camp site near Damascus, and that's where I put up my tent. There are no Arabs here (apart from the manager), but there are a lot of French people, and also one of those English trucks with tourists driving the same route as I do. They are about 2 months ahead of schedule on their way to Kathmandu in Nepal. In the desert there is a lot of wind and dust. This dust blows into the town, and also onto the camp site. Really nothing escapes, the only thing that helps for a while is rinsing with lots of water. Everyone does it: the street in front of the houses, the broken-up roads, the entrance to the gas station, everything is kept wet by the neighbors. The nights start off with a sneezing fit, the dust also enters my tent.
The wind also carries the sounds of the Islam. And so close to a concentration of people there are bound to be lots of mosques. That became painfully clear: around the 5 times of prayer I heard 4 different announcements at the same time. And 2 others kept a different time schedule: 10 times each day the call to keep Allah satisfied....
The trip to Jordan was short, and crossing the border was simple, although the 4 steps were far apart which forced me to walk a lot in my big bike boots. This time it was the first crossing where they showed some interest in the contents of the water bags at the back. Unpacking was not yet necessary.
The scenery is dominated by the desert which is sporadically used for growing crop using irrigation. The pieces not in use are littered with big rocks. It is impossible to drive across the desert here, even for trucks. The road is well maintained, the signs are clear. They do stare after me, I seem to be even more of a spectacle than in Syria. Some brake heavily when they see me coming in their rearview mirror. I spot some Bedouines in tents, but less than there were in Syria. In Amman I notice all buildings have a light color. Sandy colors with white marble, or totally white with chalk paint. Amman is placed on hills, the city slopes on all sides. The hills make navigation problematic. I first traverse the city, only to learn that the BMW dealer is situated where I entered the city.
After the lunch I rode back to the part of the city called Marka, where the BMW dealer is located. He should be able to service bikes. That was a disappointment: there are about 20 BMW bikes in all of Jordan. The palace has 5 of them - the king rides a R110RT. There are no spare parts in stock, there is no GS in the country, let alone a case for a GS. They also lack the device to synchronize the injectors. An oil filter for the king is usually ordered by DHL. We decide that adjusting the valves could wait, it's the only thing they can do (and that's only because I carry the gaskets myself).
Bikes, mopeds, everything on 2 wheels is prohibited in this country, except for the police, the security services and the king himself. Mopeds also fall under that law that is enstated 4 years ago. That explains why people were checking me out.
The computer does work, and very helpfully all part numbers are looked up. They pointed me to Dubai, on the other side of Saudi Arabia. Yes, that plan again. 1400 miles through the soaring heat on an air-cooled bike. I decide to work on this plan. The Duthc ambassy draws up letters of recommendation for me, and I go to the consulates of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
It turns into a fiasco. The Saudi's are bad. They have a couple of counters for visa, outside in the sun. I understand the texts above these counters, all of which with a long line of applicants, are not in English. Saudi Arabia is just as bad as Iran: when you're not Muslim, you cannot go to Mekka for instance, and you cannot enter a mosque. (Isn't it baffling by the way, this German guy that got the death penalty because he was seeing an Iran woman ?) So: no English signs, and they keep sending me to and fro. Finally I find someone who speaks English, and I tell him my story. I have to go to Dubai for some repairs on my bike, through Saudi. And that's why I need a visum. That has to be cleared in the capitol, and it will take anywhere between a week and 2 months. The answer cannot be predicted, nor the time it takes.
The United Arab Emirates are easy when arriving by plane. You check into an expensive hotel which will act as your sponsor. They get you your visum which will be ready upon your arrival. But I don't have a clue when I will arrive and when I arrive it will not be by plane. So I have to get my visum at the consulate. But their employee didn't like things at all. So he asked for a letter of recommendation (which I did have), 2 Xerox copies of my passport (by phone they asked for one, but I carry 10 copies), a picture (I have 20 left) and finally a filled-out application form. One side in English, the other Arabic. You probably already have guessed which side I had to fill out. When all was done (got some help with the Arabic form from a chap who wanted to go and work in Dubai after getting his Masters in Computers...) the application would take about 3 weeks. Whether they would issue a visum is unclear.
Qatar refused a visum. Apparently you can cross the 60 miles of this country with some sort of transit arrangement, but they didn't allow me to write down the name of the man. So I continue my trip to Egypt - when I return to Amman I'll check out the progress of my applications. When I haven't succeeded I can always take the ferry to Cyprus, and from there continue to Antalya or whatever.
And there is another problem: when I applied for the Carnet I had to fill out a list of countries. Touring Belgium has crossed off all countries for which I didn't thought I needed it. 2 phone calls to Belgium tell me the Jordan Automobile Club might be able to undo the crossings for Qatar and the Emirates. (One call here has a minimum of 3 minutes, and costs about 30 dollar for the first 3 minutes...) The longer I think things over, the more impossible this undertaking seems to be getting.
Amman is a Arab city in the process of absorbing an export product of America which is growing in importance: the American culture. Luxury hotels, McDonalds, Safeway - they're all here. And they are flourishing. Especially Safeway is something new. Within some 10 years the people from Jordan can think back with envy at the small scale of the earlier markets. In the Internet cafe I see a couple of young women in black chador chatting furiously on one of the chat channels. (Yes, I'll have to watch myself. I confuse the deeply religious people with underdeveloped people all the time.) These ladies have no problem putting this new medium to use.
Jordan is a nice country - a lot of people speak English here, and they are very internationally focussed. I meet various people who have studied in the US or in Northern Europe.
The road from Amman to the Dead Sea is not very well pointed out. I use my compass to leave the city on the correct side, and after a while I see the main road which undoubtedly is the one I need. The only thing I have to do is to cross the valley in front of me. I cannot read the signs along the road, so I continue on compass navigation. The wide road gets smaller, and smaller, and finally is unpaved. With a broken case this is far from ideal, but I'm nearly at the other side of the valley. The unpaved road turns into a small path and finally becomes a dry river bed. I decide to turn around - there is only the matter of finding a place to do so.
In Syria the gas is of poor quality - a very low octane level. When I stress the engine (wanting a high torque at low rpm's) the engine misfires like a worn-down diesel. When I entered Jordan I mixed my gasoline with the much better super gasoline, but still the engine won't give me the power it should have, and the engine still misfires. So I ride with a higher rpm than usual, and that works nicely.
But now this ends bad. I endup on a very steep part, I shift down to first gear and open up the throttle. The engine misfires and stalls. I tumble down bike and all and I hear something break. I'm allright (I even managed to stay on my feet) but the bike is on its side right in a ditch. The support of the case that was still undamaged has broken off. And one of the hooks of the case has come off as well. I swear a couple of times, but that doesn't lessen the damage. The tank bag is also torn.
With some effort I get the bike upright again and do what I should have done earlier: I let it roll backwards gantly and turn it around. This will teach me to think twice about boldly taking on such a small lump. I start the engine, and now I get really scared: it sounds like just one cylinder is firing - the power is low and the engine shows signs of stalling at high revs. Some taking apart shows the cable of the control of the injector has shifted. The cylinder now gets way too much gas, while the other one is counter-productive. I correct the problem and luckily things work again.
I can still tie the case to my bike using one of the nylon belts. I can continue again. A bit wiser now I select the widest road when having to choose, even if my compass disagrees with me. Within a couple of minutes I'm at the main road on the other side of the valley. I ride on towards the Dead Sea.
Swimming in the Dead Sea is a strange experience. The sea is situated quite low (some few hundred feet below sea level). Many years ago there used to be a lot more water in the Dead Sea. A large part of it has evaporated and that's why the concentration of salt is so high. It also makes it very hard to stay submerged. You really can stay afloat without having to do a single swimming stroke. The water tastes terribly ... salty. And every little wound stings like hell (especially the small scratches of my tumble this morning). You can 'stand' in deep water by keeping your legs stretched: the upward force will lift you above the water from your armpits up.
My target for the day was Aqaba: the southern-most harbour of Jordan (situated at the Red Sea). A place for diving, and for me the place to get one of these smiths to fix my case supports. The route is south through the Negev desert. I can see Israel on the opposite side of the valley. And so the place is swamped with military checkpoints. I had to stop at every checkpoint, remove my helmet, search for my passport, and explain I really came riding all the way from Belgium. After some chatting about the bike they let me pass. I try to see whether they can read my passport, and they cannot. That's why they keep asking my name. I put my passport opened up in my tank bag, and at the next checkpoint I act as if I don't understand I should take off my helmet, and I keep pointing at my passport. The time for each stop is cut in half by this procedure.
The desert is beautiful. There are very few people, I do spot a few camels. Along the Dead Sea the landscape is rather steep, with large rocks at the base of the mountains. There are some small rivers running to the sea. To the south the valley widens and the ground gets dustier. The mountains are very colorfull, the flat part of the valley is carved. The surface seems flat, but there are canal-like lines crossing it. In these cracks I spot the occasional genuine shrubbery.
I leave the road in search for some gasoline. I enter a tiny village of about 25 houses. The people are almost all inside. I see a man and ask him where I can get some gas. He points me to the center of activity: the grocery annex busstop. The bus just arrived, 3 men are drinking Pepsi. Before I had the chance to ask them anything I received a bottle of Pepsi. And they also knew where to get gasoline. All I had to do is follow the bus. After 150 feet the bus suddenly veered off the road into the sand. It bloody well seems like this off-road riding won't let me go! I follow the bus with its dust cloud, we cross a paved road and one of the men approaches me. There is an old pickup truck in the sand, and in the back is a jerrycan with 3 liter gasoline in it. We empty the jerrycan in my tank. The man won't accept any payment! Totally broke, but generous like filantropists.
A bit further down the road more and more dust accumulates in the cracks on the ground. Sometimes this is sufficient to give plants some steadiness and then a small pile of sand and dust builds up. I continue riding, it is getting very hot. (I cannot tell how hot exactly, my thermometer is gone - nicked or lost in Lebanon. But it definitely tops 40 degrees Celsius.) The first real sand dunes come in sight. This is really a desert by my standards. The colors are marvelous - the sand is a shade of reddish pink, the mountains to the east are a dark color at the base and lighter at the summits. There is little vegitation. There is some grass holding out on the sand, the sand will find its own way, sometimes on the tarmac.
I reach Aqaba around 4 PM and select a nice beach resort (with a diving school). Friday's everything here is closed (Friday is for Muslims what Sunday is for Christians) and Saturday I'll have a go at repairing the damage. Then I'll be off to Egypt on a ferry for some more diving.
Greetings from Jordan. (Yes, my Arab is not that well developed.)