November 25, 2009

The road goes on forever

On the 19th, Patrick and I jumped on our bicycles and cycled through the streets of Beirut. We cycled along the coast until we reached the road that led to Damascus, at which point I thanked him for all of his kindness and we said our farewells. Then I started climbing what turned out to be one gigantic, nonstop, treacherous hill. When I finally reached the Lebanese border, completely drenched in sweat, I'd climbed some 1800 vertical meters in only 70 km (that's steep!). I was stamped out of Lebanon only 5 days after entering the country.

The no-man's land from Lebanon to Syria was equally as brutal (with an extra 200 meters of climbing), my legs were feeling it but luckily the Syrian border was only about 10 km away. I arrived at the border at about 4:30 pm, thinking that since I had previously waited 3.5 hours for approval from Damascus at the Turkey-Syrian border, they would just issue me another visa sans hassle (after all, I received approval only about a week before). But no....each entry requires unique approval from Damascus and two omelets, three overprices chai's and about 5 Seinfeld episodes later, the sweet Syrian ink touched my passport and I was officially back in Syria. This was at about 10:30 pm. It was pitch black and surprisingly cold, I cycled about 8 km before finding a place for my tent on the side of a rocky hill. This was about 1 am. I slept extremely hard as this was the most vertical elevation I've climbed in a single day this entire trip! There's also this unnerving feeling when sleeping this close to borders, especially when it's classified by our former President as a rogue state.

The next day I arrived at the ancient and charming city of Damascus. I ended up staying with some British students who were studying Arabic and living in a huge flat near the old city. This was my first experience with and I must say, it was quite positive. Their place was in a great location, just above a never ending fruit and vegetable market, away from all tourists except yours truly. The locals were extremely nice and after asking where I was from, would almost always reply with a warm 'Welcome to Syria'. The cost of living is extremely cheap in Syria, I've practically been living on 25 cent falafel sandwiches, 20 cent plates of hummus, $1 kebab (shawrma) and fresh juice.

I'm practically running on these fried chickpea circles with cumin spice

The 24 hour market below the flat

After 3 days in Damascus ('Sham' in Arabic) I headed towards Dar'a, the border town between Syria and Jordan. I absolutely flew through that flat stretch (125 km before lunch!). The next day I said my final farewell to Syria, changed my money from Syrian pounds into Jordanian dinars and once again payed my exit tax to Syria. That same day I reached the fabulously preserved and restored Roman city of Jerash, with ruins dating back to 100 AD! Here's what I found.

Roman Theatre

These are the original stones that paved this area
You could still see chariot tire ruts in the stone

Just as the sun was setting the rain started to fall. There was a small hotel just near the ruins but after the owner quoted me and another traveler a ridiculous price for the simplest of rooms, I was back on my bike, cycling in the rain and pitch dark. I ended up sleeping in yet another partially built gas station.....this time I shared the floor with a younger (<75 yr old) Egyptian man who worked on and guarded the place.

Gas stations have been good to me

I'm currently in Amman (the capital of Jordan), where I'll ditch my bike for a few days and take a side trip to Israel (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, etc). I was also hit by my first Jordanian rock today, which feels a lot like being hit with a Kyrgyz rock, Pakistanie rocks stung a little more (Pakistanies are crazy about cricket). I've also been hit by Syrian rocks and Indian rocks, although the suspects were typically under 8.


Did I mention Beirut was blown to crumbles only 3 years ago

Streets of Damascus

I don't need much...just some floor space

Damascus falafel stand

November 18, 2009

Syria to Lebanon

You know most of the time I share photos of these picture perfect campsites, lovely little grassy knolls with a babbling brook running right beside my tent, like something out of a Patagonia magazine. Well I wanted to point out that it's not always so glorious. Four nights ago it was pouring down rain and I found myself sleeping here.

This is the partially built building I slept in

It protected me extremely well from the downpour outside but the sound of bats and mice menaced me all night.

The next day I visited Krak des Chevaliers, a castle dating back to 1031, expanded by the crusader knights in the 12th century. It provided some 2000 hospitallers (crusaders) shelter from the Islamic armies that besieged the fortress.

The world needs more castles with moats!

These were the archers holes

View of Syrian countryside from the Castle

Later that day I cycled to the Syrian/Lebanon border. When I arrived at the Syria border it was utter chaos; massive ques of trucks, unoccupied cars blocking the gates, tons of people walking across the border carrying gigantic plastic bags (who knows what they were carrying). When I finally got the attention of an immigration officer, he informed me that I had to pay a $10 USD departure tax before I could get stamped out. I've heard of people being charge departure taxes when leaving the airport, but never in passing 11 countries overland have I been charged a departure tax. I started to argue with the officer, thinking he was taking me for a ride, when I realized that ever the local people were paying 10 dollars just to leave the country. It was actually quite the hassle to just get stamped out of Syria.

I cycled right past the Lebanese immigration office first of all, so when I arrived at a gate the officers informed me that I had to get a visa before entering into their country. So I cycled back to the small building that was their immigration office and went to apply for a visa. The immigration officer was as nice as he could be and when he asked how long I wanted to stay in Lebanon, I simply said, 15 days (as that was the cheapest visa available). He flipped through my passport a few times then said, 'I tell you what Mr Hardie, I'll give you 30 days for free'. I shook the man's hand and my departure tax anger quickly disappeared as this immigration officer just saved me about $16 USD.

Money changers at the border

I reached the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon just as the sun was setting.

The next day I reached Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East, an extremely progressive city with no shortage of flashy cars, sexy appeal, or expensive cafes. This is also the first time I've seen some restaurants in over 10 months (TGIF, Applebees, Hardees, Krispy Kreme).

Krispy Kreme in English and Arabic

Just as I arrived in Beirut proper, I pulled out a map and tried to get my bearings straight. Out of nowhere someone said, 'Hey man'. And low and behond, it was Patrick, my American friend that I met in Pakistan 3 months ago. Patrick was studying at the American University in Beirut and invited me to stop in if I was in the area. How he found me in the city was nothing short of amazing.

Beirut is amazing. Muslim women walking around with head scarves next to women with extremely revealing blouses and skimpy skirts. Men completely GQ'd out in their 500 Mercedes with nose bandages implying plastic surgery, passing traditional muslim men with sunni hats and prayer beads. It's an amazingly diverse place, it has completely blown me away and dissolved every limitation that existed for me mentally for the Middle East. What's even more amazing, is that this place was completely blown away, bombed until only crumbs remained only 3 years ago!

And as always the food is great!

Diner last night (Patrick and Alicia)

November 13, 2009


11.09 - Present

First of all, I would like to bring attention to the dates just above this text. I'm no longer recounting adventures from countries I've long since traveled, that's right, I'm now broadcasting Kyle adventures in real time, not quite in the present tense but close enough, keeping you on the edge of your seat.

So I camped about 2 km before the Turkish border (11/8) and prepared for the potential madness that awaited me the next day (like I said, I had no Syrian visa and I'd read that some Americans had to wait 12 hours for the visa approval from Damascus). So the next morning I arrived at the Bab Al-Hawha border between Syria and Turkey. I was once again dressed in my best clothes (Chinese slacks and t-shirt from Thailand....basically what you see me wearing in every picture off my bike) and humbly approached the immigration counter with my passport in hand. I handed it to the officer and after thumbing through my passport 2 or 3 times, he looks back at me and with hands in the air asks "visa?". I replied with "no visa" and was instantly directed to a backroom where a really fat man smoking a cigarette and drinking chai proceeded to ask me a few standard questions without picking up his head. I was told to wait outside and I was most definitely prepared to wait all day, with arabic numbers and phrases to memorize, I had a full day of schooling ahead of me. The was about 8:30 am. At about noon, I peeped my head into the office to tell the men I was going to grab some lunch just across the street, when I noticed the fat man holding a piece of paper. It was my approval letter from Damascus and 15 minutes later I was cycling in Syria with a relieved smile on my face.

The road signs are now solely in Arabic

Written and read right to left

Syria is my first true Arabic country: Arabic music, Arabic people and Arabic dress. I can really notice a big difference in Arabs from their Persian neighbors of Central Asia.

Many men now wear head scraves

So I spent a day wandering through the beautifully historic city of Aleppo, which is a town like no other, an old town with a certain charm that suggests perhaps I could spend the rest of my life lost in the labyrinth of streets, eating falafel wraps and practically living in the fresh juice stands.

The Armenian (Christian) district of Aleppo

But the show must go one, so I began cycling the deserty countryside of Syria. Syria is extremely flat, save the mountains near the coast, so it's easy to log 100+ km each day. However the people are so friendly and hospitable that every 5 km I'm waved off my bike to share a cup of tea, a bite to eat or just a conversation. People in Syria are extremely nice. So the day becomes a delicate balance of logging enough kilometers while still soaking in each opportunity to experience these amazing people and their culture. One things for sure, a foreigner would never go thirsty cycling through Syria. In fact, if Syrians had their way you'd have 79 cups of tea ingested before lunch and your teeth would be grinding together from caffeine and sugar overdose. They are that nice!

Two nights ago, I was cycling through a town when I came to a crossroads and pulled out my map. The sun was beginning to set and I was waved over to a small shop just as the last light was disappearing. Everyone at the shop was extremely interested in where I was from, where I was going, my profession, etc. One of the boys spoke rather good English and he invited me to sleep at his house for the night. An exclusive first hand experience of Syrian culture. First of all, Syrian families are gigantic. Ahmed (the english speaker) and his 8 brothers and sister lived together in a small 3 roomed house with his parents. Next door (literally about 5 feet away) was his uncle's house which housed 14 of his uncle's children (they always referred to his uncle as busy man). Across from his uncle's was another uncle who had 9 children. Then there was Ahmed's grandparent's house. It was like a zoo of kids playing, brothers chatting, elder men smoking shisha and sipping chai. When the diner came, it came on one big round metal tray carried on Ahmed's mother's head. The men all gathered around a rug on the floor and the contents of the tray were placed around the rug. Black and green olives, yoghurt, potato casserole, fresh greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a few other things I had no idea about. No forks, spoons or knives, instead everyone took a gigantic round pita bread and places it on their left leg (sitting indian style) and began breaking off pieces of bread and dipping it into the various dishes. You must eat with only your right the left hand is used for the dirtier tasks in life (i.e. wiping your bum). It was an amazing experience, one that I'll never forget and as I was pulling away from the house and waving goodbye to the family of 100,000 men, women, children and animals, I said to myself....'This is what it's all about!'

Ahmed (hand around me) with brothers and sisters

So I'm currently in Hama, a small city with a charming and kind soul. I'm once again drinking about 6 large glasses of freshly squeezed juice each day. This place is famous for the norias, large wooden water wheels that scoop water out of the river and into irrigation canals and aqueducts that deliver water to the surrounding areas.

Norias of Hama at sunset last night

Friends and fresh juice stands!

Waved off my bike for chai

Syrian catfish....yum

Me and Mr Soap (Aleppo)

Me and Mr Quran (Aleppo)

Waved off my bike for a buffet of free deserts

Countryside of Syria

Friends and breakfast in Aleppo

November 8, 2009


10.22 - 11.09

So I arrived in Istanbul! I was so fed up wıth hasslıng and bargaınıng wıth Delhı rıckshaw drıvers that I decıded to just cycle to the Delhı aırport, dıssasemble the bıke and shrınk wrap the lıvıng crap out of ıt rather than box ıt up and take a cab to the aırport. I trıed to buy an aırlıne tıcket from a Delhı travel agent ın hopes that they could get a cheaper deal than a websıte but that turned ınto a nıghtmare. Delhı travel agents must not get a whole lot of ınternatıonal busıness because they contınually told me that they could not ıssue me a tıcket unless I had a Turkısh vısa. 'There ıs no vısa on arrıval for Turkey'. I went to the Turkısh ımmıgratıon websıte and ındeed ıt stated - 3 months vısa on arrıval. I told thıs to the travel agent but they basıcally shook theır head and called me a lıar. Then I asked how much a bıcycle would cost and they essentıally gave me the runaround by handıng me a number to call at 11 p.m. (11 pm?). It was a fax after 3 days of beatıng around the bush, I decided to retract my hopes from the travel agents and take thıngs ınto my own hands.

So I arrıved ın Istanbul, assembled the bıke and started to cycle away from the aırport. Holy crap, thıs place was clean, cıvıl, European! Cars actually stopped at red lıghts, I saw my fırst que ın nearly 9 months, women were walkıng around wıthout head scarves, for once I dıdn't need to look both ways when crossıng a one way street, ıt was almost too domestıc after nearly 9 months ın Asıa. It felt lıke home...sort of. I almost felt out of place. I stopped at a gas statıon and bought a sprıte and a chocolate bar (gas statıons ın Asıa only sell gas) and I contınued to cycle along the coast untıl I reached the beautıfully hıstorıc cıty of Istanbul (European sıde).

I decıded to 'bomb' my stomach and start a new (lıke I saıd, I hadn't had a solıd poo ın nearly 2 weeks....Delhı had really gotten to me). So on my 6th day of steady Cıproflaxın, I let out an exhuberant cheer of joy from the toılet as my stomach was fınally returnıng to normal (ımagıne the guy ın the stall next to me). I spent my fırst few days ın Istanbul beıng a proper tourıst wıth the masses of westerners beıng loaded and unloaded from buses and cruıse shıps. Thıs was by far the most tourısty place I'd been to...and for good reason. Thıs ancıent cıty was drıppıng rıch wıth hıstory datıng back to before Chrıst. They had a church turned mosque turned museum (Aya Sofya) that was buılt ın 537 AD! Both the Roman empıre and the Ottoman empıre had theır tıme occupyıng thıs cıty.

And the food....the food was the freshest breath of aır I'd had sınce leavıng the states. It actually resembled food, workıng at Papoulıs ın Macon had brought me up to speed wıth Medıterranean food but thıs was no doubt the real deal holyfıeld. Baklava, Döner Kebabs, Stuffed vegetables, Medıterranean Salads, Fresh bread, eggplant casseroles, Turkısh delıghts, Chaı....everythıng was delıcıous, albeıt expensıve. My stomach was smılıng for the fırst tıme ın months.

So I ended up connectıng wıth a Turkısh gırl ın Istanbul through a cyclıng websıte ( and she was an awesome host. She lived on the Asıan sıde of Istanbul so I was able to escape the masses of tourısts on the European sıde and get a closer look at the real Istanbul. She showed me around the cıty, took me to the Black sea, we cooked delıcıous Turkısh dıners together, watched terrıble movıes together. She was an Englısh teacher so she had stellar englısh. It was a prıvıledge to have found such a wonderful host, impromptu guıde and solıd frıend ın Istanbul.


Ebru's famous breakfast

So I took a traın from Istanbul to Ankara (the capıtal). I knew I was runnıng out of tıme before the mountaıns of Turkey were completely covered ın snow and cyclıng turned mıserably cold. So I started cyclıng from the traın statıon ın Ankara. I couldnt fınd a good road map ın Istanbul so all I had was a tourıst map wıth only some major towns and the Lonely Looser for the Mıddle East. The only real roads on the map were major hıghways. So ınevıtably I just asked for dırectıons and I ended up on the road wıth semı trucks, loads of cars and dısmal scenery. Thıs was by far the least plannıng I'd done on thıs trıp. I was just kınd of goıng for ıt. Plus the weather was begınnıng to turn sour and freezıng raın mıxed wıth snow pelted me for the fırst 3 days out of Ankara.

I was cyclıng on the hıghway and the sun was settıng at 4:30 (lıghts out by 5) so I spent my fırst nıght sleepıng ın my tent ın the skınny forest (medıan) that seperated the hıghway traffıc (I always wanted to sleep on the medıan). Can you ımagıne what the drıver thought that passed me as I pulled my bıke out of the woods and back onto the hıghway? I spent my second nıght ın my tent behınd a gas statıon, I was loggıng some 150 km each day waıtıng for the cıtıes to end and the country to begın. Up and down terrıbly hılly terraın, I was clımbıng and droppıng some 1000 m each day. The raın and snow came heavy for the next 2 days and I pushed on through, soakıng wet and cold to the bone. I was lucky enough to fınd a cheap hotel on my thırd nıght, and on the fourth day I found the countrysıde, or maybe the countrysıde found me. It was cold, the land was covered ın wet snow but road was fınally down to two lanes and the tractor traılers were much fewer ın number.

I was crankıng through the mountaıns of Turkey, tryıng to reach the coast before I completely froze. I was hot and sweaty whıle I was cyclıng but once I stopped, the sweat turned ınto a chıll and my core temp dropped. I wasn't doıng enough plannıng (nor dıd I care enough) to know how many kılometers untıl the next hotel, lıke I saıd, I was just kınd of goıng for ıt. Thıs compounded wıth the early sunset found me ın some peculıar and desperate sleepıng sıtuatıons as the sun was rapıdly dıssapearıng. Abandonded houses and unoccupıed gas statıons were my preferance, the walls were enough to protect me from the wınd and provıde a good place to cook dıner. One extremely wındy nıght I thought I had found the jackpot (a gas statıon under constructıon) but as I pulled up to steel and dırt pıles, I saw a small lıght glowıng from ınsıde a small glass room. Insıde thıs room was a makeshıft bed of blankets on the floor and a 75 yr old Turkısh guy chaın smokıng cıgarettes, tryıng to stay warm over a small electrıc hotplate. I pulled up to the glass and asked the man ıf I could pıtch my tent behınd a newly constructed wall. He ınvıted me to sleep ınsıde and we spent the nıght hovered around the hotplate practıcally ın sılence. I never dıd fıgure out what he was doıng there....homeless guy, watchman, constructıon worker?

So after 9 days of cyclıng through the beautıfull remote yet brutally cold and wet mountaıns of central Turkey, I reached the Medıterranean coast. And what a glorıous day that was, ıt ınvolved a wrong turn whıch resulted ın me cyclıng through a toll plaza, rıght past the sıgn that showed that bıcycles are prohıbıted on the ınterstate. 60 km wıth truck drıvers honkıng theır horn and gesterurıng for me to get off the ınterstate. I passed another toll plaza and the workers jumped out of theır booth and told me to stop. I got off my bıke and sımply opened my wallet and trıed to gıve them 1 lıra (65 cents). They gave me thıs crazy look and then waved me on my way. I dropped nearly 2000 m that day and ınto a warm and breezy coastal clımate. Goodbye snow and frozen raın, hello warmth and beaches.

I feel like I say this about every place that I've been but here's for reiteration....Turkish people were again some of the friendliest people I've encountered on this trip. It's like being a foreigner on a bicycle automatically places you in a superhero category, cars honking, old men jumping and waving, kids going absolutely bizerk, everyone taking pictures of you with their cellphones. Maybe it's because I like to stay off the beaten path or maybe people are just genuinely that kind. Eitherway, restaurants were constantly giving me free meals, groceries were filling my bag to the brim with all sorts of vegetables, bread, chocolate, and asking nothing in return, a guy even gave me money for diner last much that I started to ask myself, "Do I really deserve this?"

So I cycled along the coast, eatıng Döner Kebabs and soakıng ın the beautıful scenery. After 3 days of coastal rıdıng, I fınally reached the border town of Reyhanlı, only 8 km from the Syrıan border, which is where I'm writing this blog. I dont have a Syrıa vısa and Syrıa and Amerıca arent exactly buddy buddy, so I'm hopıng tomorrow ınvolves a Syrıan vısa and a smıle.

Wrapping up.....Turkey is definitely one of the highlights of my trip. The weather wasn't so great and the interstate riding left a lot to be desired but the incredibly kind people and rich culture juxtaposed the experience into an absolute pleasure and enjoyable experience.

One thıng I've learned on thıs trıp ıs how to be adaptable to any clımate and every weather sıtuatıon possıble. Cyclıng through wınd, sand storms, snow, raın, bıtter cold, blısterıng hot, you really have to be able to fıght and endure anythıng mother nature throws at you.

Here's some stats up to this point:
Total distance cycled: 9,683 km (6,016 miles)
Total elevation gained: 116,099 m (380,902 ft)
Total time my butt has been pressed against the leathery goodness of my Brooks saddle: 605 hr


Turkish kids

Huge mosque in Adana

Almost to the coast!

Doner Kebab shop in Iskenderun

Father son and Kebab in Dortyol

One of my favorite towns in Turkey, Ulukishla

The couple on right cycled from France!