A while back I posted on the merits of vegetarianism. While not becoming a strict veggie, I decided that drastically cutting down my meat intake was probably a good thing, having the bonus effect of making occasional meaty treats more enjoyable. I said I was looking forward to eating a kebab for 50 pence without feeling guilty afterwards. And I’ve just had that kebab in Aleppo, a historical city in the north of Syria.
Getting here has been an experience in itself. I left the UK exactly two weeks ago, hitching for 5 days and bussing/training for 2 to get to Istanbul and my bike before getting an overnight bus to Antakya near the Syrian border before my visa expired. Now I’m sitting in an ‘Internet Coffee’, with an imam wailing in the background from a nearby mosque and an assortment of Arabic-gabbling men in a room that looks like it was lavishly decorated 60 years ago and hasn’t seen a handyman since.
It’s not too much of a shock to the system, as Syria obviously has elements similar to Turkey and Iran. What’s refreshing is that there are no big brands dominating the commercial end of things. Small, family business thrives here. People get on with their livelihoods without constant pressure to outdo the competitors or expand the business. Things work, and they work without the ridiculous health-and-safety culture I’ve left behind. People are allowed to use their common sense and an organic system emerges in what might, to the untrained eye, look quite a bit like chaos.
I was invited in for a glass of delicious sweet tea and a chat by the owner of a furniture shop in a small town amidst the low hills and olive groves of north-west Syria. He, his brother and his two cousins worked there, and his nephews helped out when they weren’t at school. The cabinets, wardrobes and other articles were made next door by a young carpenter who spoke enough English to translate my words. I was interested in everything. (“Ma bekhki Arabi. Btekhki Inglizi?” is my new favourite phrase.) What grows on all these trees? Why are these oranges so delicious compared to the ones in Tesco? Who’s the guy in all the posters? The president? Is he popular? Yes?! And so on. The people I have spoken to so far have been happy with their circumstances, and, in a novel twist, their government, who they praise for the current safety and stability of the country.
The ride was 115km from Antakya to Aleppo, and it took me yesterday afternoon and this morning to do it. Evidently my leg muscles haven’t atrophied too much. It’s strange to think that exactly one year ago I was arriving in Yerevan in a bitter Armenian winter, just a few hundred kilometres north-east of where I am today. How much has changed in that time! A new love, a new road, and the great unknown… exciting times.
I’m feeling good to be back on the road, though I miss Tenny an awful lot. I don’t feel lonely, though, and I feel that I have the determination and desire to give this trip a bloody good shot. It’s also a powerful motivator to think that my planned route will take me back round to Iran where Tenny and I will be reunited. That thought will help me through the tough bits, and with a fair amount of burning desert on the horizon, I don’t think they’ll be in short supply.