‘It seemed a good idea at the time,’ Rob Neillands on a unique 1,000-mile cycling adventure.
One of the popular laments among today’s travel writers is that nobody really travels any more – the jet plane and the hotel chain have turned travel into tourism – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Adventure is still possible. Take the little band assembled at the start of this article. Patricia, 44, a Civil Servant; George, 67 and retired; and myself, pushing 50. Our departure point, Antalya in Southern Turkey; destination, Jerusalem, 1,000 miles away; method of travel, bicycles.
These are touring bicycles, light, strong, multi-geared, but cycles change tourism into travel. They demand effort and force you to accept overnight accommodation that would be spurned by a self-respecting vagrant. They attract the not-always-welcome attention of the local people, but keep pedalling and they will get you there in the end. As to motivation for the journey, I can only say that it seemed a good idea at the time.
The first two days were on fairly flat roads and through towns where Western tourists are not unknown, a gentle introduction to the rigours ahead. The finest remains of ancient Greece lie in Turkey, so we picnicked in the great amphitheatre at Aspendos and stayed one night among the jumbled ruins of Side. Our tours of the sites were dogged by furtive gents flogging recently-assembled ‘antiques’ and what they described as kointz. ‘You want kointz? I haf Greek kointz, Roman kointz …’
We had little need of kointz, ancient or modern, for the living so far was cheap; pounds 3 a night for dinner, bed and breakfast, in a room with a bath, though Turkish accommodation varies, to say the least.
Fifty miles a day brought us to our first major stop, the marvellous fortress city of Alanya, once a city of the Seljuk Turks. We paused for half a day here to see the galley port, and from a high point in the citadel, the ominously-named Ada-Atagi, the ‘place from which men are thrown’, we looked out at the looming snow-tipped peaks of the Taurus Mountains which lay across our path.
The road here drops sheer away for hundreds of feet into the sea and we narrowly avoided an early fatality when a lorry cut in towards us so that the driver’s mate, yelling ‘My brother, my brother’, could offer me a banana. Fortunately the traffic was light, and the drivers usually considerate. On the other hand, the gradients are steep and the road rough.
It took three full days to cross the Taurus Mountains, sleeping one cold night on the beach at Kalediran, and another in a small hotel at Anamur, a town where a most splendid Armenian castle is set by the sea, with lots of little turtles swimming in the moat. Then came more mountains and at last one long descent, an exhilarating swoop off the Taurus into Silifke and on to the plain of Cilicia. The road ran past the beautiful Maiden’s Castle, which lies just offshore, and a long day’s ride over mercifully flat roads brought us to Erdemli, where the ‘hotel’ was rather more of a hovel.
On now, to famous Tarsus. There is not much left of St Paul’s ‘no mean city’, except the battered gateway where Anthony first met Cleopatra, and here the bad times began. This road is the E5, that great trans-continental lorry route which begins at Dunkirk, a narrow road crammed with clapped-out, overloaded lorries heading for Syria, Jordan and the Gulf. We battled down it to the east, deafened by blasting horns, flinching at the thought of receiving a 20-ton truck in the spine.
At least the country was dramatic, for this road crosses the Plain of Issus, where Alexander the Great thrashed the Persians in 333 BC, through the modern city of Adana, then under the great Crusader castles at Yilan and Toprakkale, and brought us out of the traffic maelstrom at last, into the town of Dortyol. The hotel at Dortyol had been recommended to us by a cheery Turk we met in a cay house, and our arrival was certainly auspicious. We rode in at the head of a considerable procession which included the local policeman, the town schoolmaster, a host of bullet-headed schoolboys and, a fixture on these occasions, the town moron.
South of Dortyol, past Iskenderun, the mountains began again. Another long day, climbing the Red Mountain through the great pass of the Syrian Gates and over the plain brought us to the delightful city of Antioch, the present Antakya, 500 miles from our starting point, and in urgent need of a day off.
Antioch was a great city of antiquity, once a capital of the Selucid Empire and much later a famous Crusader principality. Today, it has a fine mosaic museum and retains the little church where St Peter established the first-ever Christian community in 47 AD. We spent most of our time wandering round the bazaar – straight out of the Arabian Nights and the best one we came across in our travels – drinking endless cups of tea with the traders. We could cheerfully have lingered in Antakya, but we had to get on, over more mountains, past the once-famous groves of Daphne, for a last night in Turkey in the little town of Yayladagi, which has 10 busy barber-shops and not a single working lavatory. The hotel here came second on our ‘pits of the trip’ scale, but worse was to follow.
Syria and culture-revulsion hit us at about the same time. We had now spent two weeks on the road and we were tired of answering the same questions, of headwinds and squalor, of the murderous traffic – we wanted toast, soft-boiled eggs, hot water, and straight answers. Instead we got Arabia.
Arabia got off to a good start. The Syrian border guards were only mildly amazed at our bicycles, the countryside was beautiful and scented with mimosa, and we got through Latakia and down the coast to Tartus without too much trouble. Even so, accomplishing the simplest task, from getting a soft drink to finding the right road could not be done without hassle, often from hostile young men carrying Kalashnikov rifles.
The food was only so-so and we were now shedding weight rapidly; I lost 20 pounds on the journey and we spent much of our time telling each other of great meals we had eaten in the past, or reading aloud the more fanciful bits in our guidebooks. Perhaps it was the bicycles, but we didn’t find those friendly locals or those sidewalk cafes and clean country hotels which these books detail in such abundance.
In Tartus we shared lunch and much arak with some Saudis and in the evening took a boat to the little offshore island of Arwad, getting gloriously lost there in the maze of alleyways and ripped off by the boatman on the way back. Riding the road to Homs gave us a great view of Krak des Chevaliers, that prototype for every child’s sandcastle, and in Homs we took another day off to visit the beautiful, butter-coloured ruins of Palmyra, 60 miles further to the east, before setting out to crank south across the desert to Damascus. After 70 miles uphill, we arrived in the little town of Nebk, where our arrival on bicycles provoked a riot.
Damascus, somewhat to our surprise, was fascinating. We awarded ourselves two days off to visit the beautiful mosque of the Omayads, the tomb of Saladin, the various museums and, best of all, the great covered souks and the ‘Street called Straight’. Once off the bicycles even the people turned pleasant. Besides, it’s hard to feel threatened in a place where the paratroopers walk about holding hands.
And so to Jordan. Jordan, we assured ourselves, could only be better. The bicycles did for us again though, and it took five hours to get across the frontier. The first town, Jarash, although a tourist centre with magnificent Roman ruins, had no hotel, and our 50-mile trek over the hills to Amman lasted until midnight and was enlivened by an attempted mugging and lavish amounts of that Jordanian speciality, stone-throwing.
On the other hand, our trip south to Petra, the rose-red city, almost made the whole trip worthwhile. Twenty-two days after leaving Antalya, with 1,000 miles completed, we left Amman and sailed down the mountains into the Jordan valley where, at the King Hussein Bridge, we hoped to cross into Israel for the last 30 miles to Jerusalem. We had our West Bank passes, our visas were in order, and if all else failed, we had charm, right?
Once again, it was the bicycles. One look at them and the immigration officer went demented. If we attempted to cross with bicycles, it would, apparently, provoke a border incident, retaliation by the Israelis, possibly the Third World War. We pleaded in turn, but to no avail.
Well, we were not the first travellers denied entrance to the Holy Land by Higher Authority. It happened to Moses, so we did what he did; we rode our bikes back up the mountain and round to the peak of Mont Nebo. From there we looked west, across the Jordan valley, over the blue, salt-fringed expanse of the Dead Sea to where, beyond the narrow green slash of the river, we could see our destination, the glinting towers of Jerusalem the Golden, unattainable today by travellers on bicycles.Two days later, having air-freighted the bikes home from Amman, we bumped across the bridge into Israel, where the Israeli baggage-searchers seemed quite unfazed by thoughts of searching a cycle. Too late, we cursed, and took a bus to Jerusalem where, inevitably, there were other problems. But we made it. I don’t think I’ll do it again though.