Cycling - UK to Jordan

The Basics: I cycled over 5,000 miles during my indirect journey from Liverpool, England to Aqaba, Jordan from July to December 2007. I visited 15 countries during this trip and did a lot of couchsurfing and camping to meet people and save money. Along my route I was able to relax for a week with my German friend Niels in his Hamburg apartment. In late August, I had a few weeks stopover at a volunteer camp in Lithuania were I did repair work on a 250 year old monastery. After the camp I decided to go backpacking through Russia using their legendary train system. Russia was my first experience with couchsurfing and it really allowed me to meet some of the nicest people and have the best experiences. I was back on the road in Bulgaria and enjoyed the wonderful hospitality and scenery in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Photo Gallery - Updated December 2008

December 6, 2007 | Aqaba, Jordan

After a strenuous day of cycling through the Wadis (valleys) south of Karak, I found myself in a familiar situation. I had arrived in the small town of Tafila just before
dark and nearly a dozen teenagers and children were huddling around my bicycle as I managed to grab some eggs, bread, and cucumbers from the small grocery store. I had no place to stay and it was getting cold. The kids surrounding my bike were asking me a million questions in Arabic and playing with all the moving parts on my bike. I tried to maintain my cool, but it's hard and sometimes you just wish that people would stop starring at you. After all, I was certainly a spectacle and something that had never been seen in these parts. I answered their questions using my tiny Arabic vocabulary, smiled, and demonstrated the workings of some of the interesting parts on my bicycle. 

Usually in a situation like this an English speaker would be summoned to act as a translator and find out what this stranger on a bike was doing. No translator arrived this time and I went back into the grocery store making hand signals at the clerk to indicate that I was looking for a place to sleep. A call was made and a few minutes later a van arrived and my bike and I were whisked away to the house of Aiman and
his English-speaking wife. We spent the evening talking politics, culture, and sharing our family photos. Family is all important in the Arab world. I learned that Aiman was in the Jordanian military and had spent two years in the UN Peacekeeping forces in Eritrea and was headed to Iraq for another peacekeeping mission within the next few days. 

Farther south, Shobak Crusader Castle was a welcome break from the seemingly endless Kings Highway route to Petra. I was the only tourist at this 1,000-year-old fortification and I certainly enjoyed the off-the-beaten-trail sights like this that are accessible on a bicycle. I realized the full mystique of Shobak when I descended 400 steps into a secret passageway through the center of the fortification. 

I spent three full days exploring Petra with its miraculous rock cut tombs and incredible rock formations. Hiking away from the tourist crowds was my favorite experience and it was a relief to give my cycling muscles a rest. The sights in Petra cover many square miles so it is easy to feel like Indian Jones if you are a bit adventurous. I couldn't seem to get the movie's theme song out of my head. 

From Petra, a taxing, up-and-down route along the deserted King's Highway led me past Bedouin herders and spectacular views of the Great Rift Valley to the east. Descending nearly 3,000 feet in only a couple miles was better than any theme park ride. Truck drivers must have had a bewildering look on their face as I passed them on my bike in the fast lane. They were in low gear to prevent their brakes from glazing. 

As soon as I rolled into the Bedouin outpost Wadi Rum, I was approached by a Swiss couple that are cycling for two years and planning to go all the way to Japan. We had dinner together and exchanged stories: the celebrity status, the hospitality, and how shopkeepers wouldn't accept money for vegetables or fruits in their store Ð all of these were common experiences. Meeting Margaret and Pius was inspiring and gave me hope that I can still go on incredible trips well into my sixties. 

We rented a Jeep and a driver to show us the surreal cliffs, natural bridges, sand dunes, and oases in this land made popular by Lawrence of Arabia. I had planned to stay in Rum for a few more days, but it was a bit touristy. After all, the Bedouin I had stayed with in the previous weeks spoke no English and were certainly unaffected by the tourist trade. The families in Wadi Rum were extremely hospitable, but had definitely lost some of their authenticity as a result of the influx of western tourists in the recent years. 

Margaret, Pius and I rode together to the southern port city of Aqaba on what we all agreed was the easiest cycling day of the entire trip. Camping on the warm Sea
of Aqaba was relaxing and the cheap snorkeling was an unexpected highlight. Gazing on Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and Jordan from my campsite reminded me of the proximity of tensions in this region. As I watched Margaret and Pius' ferry depart toward Egypt, I couldn't help but feel a little jealous and sad that my trip was over. 

I found some plastic at a paint store and the next day cycled 20 km to the Aqaba airport. After wrapping my bicycle in the airport parking lot, I boarded the plane and was 20 hours inbound to Chicago. 

November 23, 2007 | Jordan

It's hard to imagine that stopping for quick eats along the the road can lead to new frienships. But this happens to me on a daily basis while touring in Syria! After ordering a Shawerma at a roadside restaurant enroute to Bosra, owner Alaa and his brother, Omar, invited me to spend the evening at their restaurant and then sleep at their house. Not surprisingly, every patron that entered the restaurant that evening wanted me to join them for dinner. It was a bit overwhelming and my stomach was certainly full by the end of the evening. 

The local population of the village of EmZeitune follow the Druze religion, a small sect of Islam. They are quite liberal by Syrian standards, and I was treated with the local drink, Arak. After the restaurant closed down, we moved on to Ahmad's house for argila and tea. Parts of his home were built over 1,000 years ago and many stone carvings and inscriptions are still visible. 

The next morning I met Alaa's neighbors and their wonderful family. I was finally on my way, only after promising all the gas station workers in town that I would bring American girls back next time for their fast-track green cards. 

I then headed to the ruins of Bosra. The ruins are constructed of black Basalt and the freestanding Roman theater is impressive. People still live amongst the ruins and many of the houses are built from blocks that were once used in the great temples. The only hotel in town was $125, so after a little searching I found a cafe owner who let me sleep in the courtyard. 

I then headed to Jordan. Border crossings are always a bit exciting and the entrance into Jordan was no different. I was quickly granted a visa and chatted with the border guard "general" over tea for nearly 30 minutes. I just can't imagine the border patrol in American being so welcoming to foreigners. I wanted to take a picture to give proof of the hospitality, but the general said he couldn't be photographed. 

On the way to Amman I freecamped and then visited the Ruins of Jerash. Amman is an insane city to cycle through, but I arrived in one piece to my downtown hotel. I met a college friend, Sara Assad, at an up-scale bar, where we caught up and talked about "old times." 

Cycling from Amman to the Dead Sea is one of the best experiences of my journey.
Passing by Mt. Nebo (where according to the Bible Moses died) the views over the Dead Sea are breathtaking. The city night lights of Jerusalem and Bethlehem (25 miles across the sea) were just coming on as I came across a sheepherder and his wife. I spent the evening in their shelter made of feed bags sewn together. That night, I was mesmorized by the twinkling of the cities in the West Bank, Palastine. 

Swimming in the the Dead Sea, at 1,400 feet below sea level, is a surreal experience. I did the touristy thing of reading my guidebook while floating on my back. The salinity of the water is eight times that of the oceans, and fortunately I found a freshwater spring nearby to rinse off. 

The colored cliffs and gorges along the Dead Sea Highway are gorgeous and a tailwind kept my spirits high and my speed rapid. I had nearly climbed to sea level, when two New Zealanders in a rental car offered to give me a ride to Karak. After a climb of 3,500 feet, we arrived in Karak in time to watch the sun setting over the parched valleys and Dead Sea. I now feel a little guilty for cheating with the car, but my legs are definitely thankful! 

A hotel manager allowed me to sleep on the hotel's outside porch for free, as there was no vacancy in the hotel. On Saturday, will visit the Crusader Castle (UNESCO) and begin cycling the shallow path to Petra. 

November 15, 2007 | Syria

A traveler could stay in Palmyra for a week and never get tired of the incredible Roman ruins and dry desert sun. With so many more sights to see, I decided to travel by bus to Damascus, skipping the harsh three day desert crossing by bicycle. 

Damascus is great because there are few tourists here to spoil the amazing souq (market) and the Umayyad Mosque. I have spent the last few days exploring the souq's amazing variety of shops and watching the faithful pour into the mosques. The Umayyad Mosque is the most spectacular, with intricate mosaics and three towering minarets. I ran into two other cyclists from Slovenia doing a similar trip and we exchanged stories of our travels. It's nice to know that other people are out there doing the same thing. 

Lebanon is extremely mountainous, so I left my bike in Damascus and took another bus. I arrived in Beirut and immediately realized that it is a country living on the
brink of war. Brutal sectarian groups have been fighting in the streets here for many years, and sadly there doesn't seem to be much hope for peace in the future. Battle scars from the fifteen year civil war could be clearly seen on the older buildings. Armed military troops posted on many street corners and armored tanks are a common sight in the city and on the roadways. With all that, Lebanon is a beautiful country with friendly and welcoming people just like Syria. In Beirut, Porsches roam the streets and the cafes and restaurants rival those found in Miami Beach or Western Europe. People go about their daily lives even though they know that violence could erupt at any moment. The troops are quite friendly and on a couple of occasions I found myself asking for directions from guys sitting on their tanks at checkpoints in Beirut. 

I was able to visit four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in my three day trip to Lebanon. The Qadisha Valley with is early Christian Monasteries and the famous Cedars of Lebanon combines both history and nature. The sites are set in a huge
gorge with picturesque towns and 3,000 meter mountains as the backdrop. These mountains drop rapidly to the Mediterranean and the next historical site of Byblos, the first city built and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It's now a relaxing place for wealthy Lebanese to wander around the ancient Roman ruins and enjoy an elegant seafood dinner while admiring the setting sun. East of Beirut in the Bekaa Valley, is Anjar, a well preserved example of the 8th century Umayyad architecture. Fifty kilometers to the north are the Baalbek ruins, which was definitely the highlight of my trip. The Roman temples built here nearly 2000 years ago are massive and are constructed from the largest stone blocks on Earth. Baalbek has claim to the largest columns in the world and some of the blocks are over 60 feet in length and weigh 1000 tons. The Baalbek area is a stronghold of the Hezbollah movement, with flags and distant sounds of shooting practice a reminder of the tension in the region. 

I spent 7 hours at the Syrian border waiting for a visa to return to Damascus and making new friends. The Syrian hospitality never ends! Across the street from the immigration building was a small café where I watched TV and was treated with copious amounts of tea. Even the border guards were talkative and helped me to get a car ride to the city after my wait. I'm sleeping at a rooftop hotel tonight and planning to cycle tomorrow to the UNESCO listed ruins of Bosra near the Jordan border. 

November 8, 2007 | Palmyra, Syria 

I can't believe that my last update was in August. 

Time really does fly when you're travelling. I'm enjoying every moment of the trip and especially the fantastic people I encounter along the way. The guide books are
good for planning a route, but many of my best experiences have been the spontaneous encounters with the locals. I have many new friends and I wish that someday I could bring them to my house and reciprocate the amaing hospitatily that I have been greeted with. 

I've had two amazing days cycling through the desert and now I'm in Palmyra, which is the main tourist site in Syria. Along the way I saw many of the Bedouin "beehive houses" and encountered friendly people in the Martian landscape! I'm treated like a celebrity and sometimes it's almost overwhelming. The encouragement from people along the road boosts my morale during a tough day of cycling. 

Last night I slept with a family that spoke no English and at first I seemed to be in a peculiar situation because all the men were asking to see my passport and visa. I think they were caught off-guard that an American can travel freely throughout Syria. They have probably never had a tourist come rolling into their town on a
bicycle. They wound up being extremely friendly and giving me a great dinner, despite their tough living conditions. We spent the evening watching American movies from the satellite and practicing our foreign languages. I think I will eventually learn Arabic if I continue to stay with the locals! 

I rode about 100 km today and I was given a ride over a mountain pass by a guy in a truck. I then stopped at a house to get water and I wound up being treated to a wonderful and much needed lunch. The family begged me to spend the night but it was only 3 pm and I had to keep moving... 

Tonight I'm sleeping on the roof of a hotel with a beautiful view of the surrounding ruins. Food is cheap in Syria and I'm off to find a Falafel for 10 Syrian Pounds (20 cents). 

August 17, 2007 | Kazimierz Dolny,Poland 

Travelling through very beautiful country - like the Ozarks of Missouri. 

Spent the day at an eastern european festival in Lublin, Poland. Arrived in Kazimierz Dolny (on the Wisla River) about 6PM. 

It's a beautiful place - a church and castle on the hill - lighted at night. 

Spent the evening listening to locals singing and playing music at the campground. 

When the volunteering fell-through - Went east to visit Zamosc (UNESCO [wiki] city). Now Lithuania is back-on - heading to Warsaw tommorrow (120 miles) to catch the 12-hour train to Lithuania. 

August 10, 2007 | Sarby,Poland 

Travelling to Krackow then to Lithuania to spend a week volunteering (hopefully). 

I’m planning to work at the monastery of Pazaislis. "It is one of the most beautiful architectural monuments in the country. It is famous for its frescos and stucco moldings. This fascinating piece of baroque architecture dates back to 1664."