Day 27 – Petra, Jordan

We woke up early this morning hoping to do most of Jordan in one day.
We are starting to feel the pressure of the making it to Aswan, Egypt
in time to catch the ferry to Wadi Halfa, Sudan by next Saturday. The
ferry only leaves once a week on Sundays. Despite getting up before 7
AM and leaving last night’s hotel in Amman shortly after, our (naive)
plan of swimming in the dead sea, hiking around Petra, and motoring our
way through Lawrence of Arabia’s Wadi Rum was not to be. We had planned
on heading straight west to the Dead Sea from Amman. However, we ended
up on a twisty canyon road (thanks to me leading us slightly off track)
that seemed to descend indefinitely before spitting us out into valley
containing the dead sea. It was much more fun that the straight road
would have been, I am sure.

We passed a few hotels and one public beach, but we were intent on
finding our own private cove to go for a swim. The road was carved into
vertical bluffs so there didn’t turn out to be many places where we
could get to the water. When we got to the southern end of the sea and
still hadn’t found a place to go in, Tom and Jerry were in agreement
that we try to find a way to get close to the water from the salt flats
that we could see on the southern shore. I have gone swimming in enough
prairies lakes to know that what they were looking at were mud flats.
But they would have to find out for themselves.

We would our way down rough gravel roads, and with the help of a few
locals pointing the way around washouts, we finally got to the mud.
Away from the shore it was actually dried out and somewhat firm (or so
I thought). After successfully descending a challenging hillside full
of loose boulders, I parked my bike on the dried mud for a photo op.
While the bike was in the viewfinder, she went rubber side up for the
first time this trip. And I wasn’t even within ten paces of her. The
kick stand, which I had even placed on a rock, managed to push the rock
into soft ground until the bike fell over. Bah.

Riding around on the mud flats was a lot of fun. I even caught some air
when I rode through a ditch. The ground was too soft and the shore too
steep to get the bikes much closer than about a kilometre from the
shoreline. Tom and Jerry wanted to go into the water here. I tried to
persuade them how much nicer it would be to jump into deep water from
the rocks on the east shore. They just told me to “ditch the comfort
zone”. At first I was reluctant to go in at all. I thought it was about
the worst place they could have possibly picked. Then Ted appeared in a
mirage and told me to “man up”.

I was expecting the mud squishing between my toes. What I wasn’t
expecting was how scalding hot it was. I probably should have guessed
it when another person (there were only us three and a couple of Arabic
tourists on the entire coast) came running back after taking a few
steps into the mud screaming and grasping his feet. I had mistakenly
assumed he had cramped up, and that the yelps of Tom and Jerry as they
plodded towards the water had more to do with sinking in to their knees
than the temperature of the mud. Even after running into the water 10
paces it didn’t get any better. The water might as well have been
poured from a whistling tea kettle. Neither was I expecting the salt
crystals to lacerate my feet as they sunk a foot into the quicksand.
Nor was I ready for the sting of the extremely salty dead sea on my
wounds. Still there is no feeling like floating effortlessly on top of
the surface of the water without any effort at all. I guess that makes it all worthwhile.

After the dead sea we rode the King’s Highway to Petra. The suffocating
heat of the dead sea valley was replaced by a cool mountain breeze as
we ascended to heights that I had not imagined existed in Jordan. The
desert scenery was breathtaking, with deep valleys strewn with boulders
the size of houses stretching into the distance. Despite the chaffing
from the salt and having skipped both breakfast and lunch to try to
accomplish too much in one day, I had a grin on my face. I was riding
my motorcycle through stunning desert vistas.

My smile faded every time we rode through the dusty rubbage-filled
towns, however. Then it was time for evasive action. Packs of kids
would run in front of you to slow you down while their buddies throw
rocks at you. I avoided most, but one big one rung off the side of my
helmet. They would also throw sticks on the road right in front of
you. Then you would go around the next corner and a cute kid would be
smiling and waving (as opposed to shouting and throwing things), and
instead of waving back, you’d be ducking behind your windshield. It’s
strange because without exception the kids in Syria were all of the
smiling waving type. What is different about Jordan?

Overall the people of Jordan have gone out of their way to help us.
Last night a policeman who was on foot commandeered a van to lead us to
a safe place to park our motorcycles in downtown Amman. Today when we
stopped to ask directions to the dead sea, a friendly motorist lead us
to the right road. With the exception of the stone throwing brats, we
have been treated exceptionally well in Jordan.

I am looking forward to tomorrow – we get to spend the first half the
day hiking through Petra and the second half riding through Wadi Rum.

I have managed to upload a few trip pictures from Turkey and Syria. They can be viewed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/14077797@N06/sets/72157605843603639/

Updated with Tom’s photos now!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/tdsmith/sets/72157605843004857/

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Day 25 – Damascus, Syria

Since meeting up again with Tom “The Kid” Smith 5 days ago in Antalya,
Turkey, we have taken a leisurely course along Turkey’s Mediterranean
coast towards Syria. Turkey has a special place in all of our hearts.
One day we were offered tea 3 times (twice when we stopped to fill up
with gas, and once when we stopped to ask for directions in Antioch).
It is a country of spectacular natural beauty, uncongested roads, and
friendly people who all seem to want us to feel like honoured guests in
their country. To top it off, there is abundance of ruins, some of
which are in dramatic settings such as the tops of mountains or
overlooking the ocean.

One day I emerged from my tent, pitched next to the Mediterranean,
before the others had awoken (or so I thought). We were camped next to
the Mediterranean. I went hiking through a vast castle that we had seen
the previous evening just down the beach. I thought I was the only one
there until, from the window of a tower, I saw Jerry wandering around
the courtyard below, taking pictures every few paces. After exploring
the castle, we went for a morning swim in the Med. How many places in
the world can you explore a 2000 year old castle and swim in the ocean,
without seeing anyone else, all before breakfast?

We crossed the border from Turkey to Syria 3 days ago. The border
crossing took several hours during the heat of the day. The heat has
been oppressive, with temperatures regularly reaching 40 degrees
Celsius or more. It makes it hard to stay hydrated, even with our
camelbaks. The hydration problem has been compounded by the fact that,
apparently, the vaccine against travellers diarrhea that 2 out of 3 of
us took seems to have made little difference. We’ve all been suffering
the consequences for the past several days.

The first day in Syria we rode to the old city in Aleppo, an area that
has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our health related
issues prompted us to stay in a luxurious hotel deep in a maze of
narrow streets that would have basically looked the same a millenia
ago. Our room, accessed through a vine covered inner courtyard, was
richly decorated with tile floors and walls of intricate wood carvings.
The ceiling was two stories high and covered with artwork as well. With
the *ahem* air conditioning and large two room tiled lavatory complete
with fluffy towels, we were hardly ditching the comfort zone.

It’s hard to say whether Turks or Syrians are friendlier. Everywhere we
stop in Syria, as in Turkey, we are immediately approached by people
offering to help. In Syria, we’ve become so used to it that when we
want directions to a hotel or ruins, we just stop and wait (never more
than a minute) for someone to approach us and help. If they don’t speak
English they will shout out to people passing by until someone can
explain it. Failing that, they will often just lead us there in their
vehicles. Last night when we arrived in Damascus, we stopped outside of
a car washing business. They told us they got off work in a few
minutes, offered us tea, and then hopped on the back of our motorcycles
to direct us to the hotel.

Since leaving Aleppo we’ve gone on a tour of some of Syria’s
archaeological sites. In the same day we rode our motorcycles through
two ancient cities. We rode down the main street of the ruins of the
ancient city of Apamea, 2 kms long and lined by 600 giant columns on
either side. We also rode our bikes through Serjilla, one of eerie the
“Dead Cities”, built by the Byzantines, that dot the Syrian Steppe.
That night we stayed in Hama, a major tourist destination because of
its famous wooden water wheels.

Yesterday we rode to Croc des Chevaliers, a castle perched on the top
of a mountain, guarding a narrow corridor leading to the Syrian
hinterland of old. I felt like I had slipped into a fantasy world. This
is the castle of childhood imagination.

Last night we stayed in Damascus, the longest continuously inhabited
city in the world. Today we are heading out into the blistering heat
with the intention of crossing the border into Jordan.

Day 19 – Olympos, Turkey

Turkey has quickly become one of my favourite countries in the world.  Since leaving Istanbul 5 days ago, we have been slowly making our way towards Antalya where we are scheduled to meet up with Tom (who had some work related things to take care of back in London).  It’s a shame because he’s missed the best part of the trip thus far.  Istanbul was worth visiting, but it is the country’s small towns and natural beauty which define it for me.

The people have been incredibly friendly.  It seems like at least once a day someone offers us Turkish tea.  Today we were filling up at a gas station ın a town too small to be on my map and a gentleman came up to us and offered us tea.  He took us next door and we sat outside and had a conversation made interesting by the fact that he didn’t speak English.  Luckily Jerry’s German came to the rescue yet again (He’s used it throughout Turkey).

Yesterday we stopped to use the internet in a small town on our way to Pamukkale.  It was a hot day (we’ve hit our first 40 degree Celsius weather here) and we were immediately served water.  Someone ran home and came back shortly later with Turkish tea.  When we tried to pay for the internet, the young guy working there refused to take any money.  All he wanted was to get his picture taken with us.

We’ve been camping next to the beach almost every night (the only exception was Pamukkale which was in the mountains).  First we camped next to the Sea of Marmara, then the Aegean. and tonight the Mediterranean.  We’ve adopted a routine where we swim twice a day – once in the morning before breaking camp and once in the evening at around sunset.  We broke that today when we stopped for a dip in a crystal blue cove too inviting to pass up.  We stopped the bikes and made a run for the water.  Jerry didn’t even take off his riding pants, apparently unconcerned with possible chafing.

The other part of the routine is regularly get off our bikes to explore the abundance of ruins.  Today I felt like Indiana Jones as I hiked among the olive trees shading vine covered ruins on the hill that was once the site of Xanthos, the ancient capital of Lycia.  We’ve seen Troy, the Acropolis, Ephesus, Xanthos, and Olympos. 

We’re also getting used to starting our day with a Mediterranean breakfast consisting of meat, a variety of cheeses (now I know what good feta tastes like), sliced cucumber and tomato, bread and nutella or fig spread, and of course olives.  Again, now I know what good olives taste like.  Sometimes they even include an omelette.  And it comes with Turkish coffee which is so wonderfully strong it leaves a layer on the bottom of your cup.  Turkey has been about as much in the comfort zone as I have ever been. 

As a result of the proper breakfasts (sorry Tom, you won’t find cornflakes in restaurants here), swimming, and playing Indiana Jones we have averaged less than 300 km per day.  This is despite being up around 7 AM every day.  The days are not long enough to do everything we want to do.  Despite going at a slow meandering pace, we feel like we are leaving so many places way too soon.  For example, we didn’t even have a morning bath in the thermal pools of Pamukkale this morning.  Luckily we spent a good deal of time there the previous evening.  Pamukkale is one of those places that expands your imagination.  The white walled thermal pools on top of a mountain surrounded by Roman ruins with a spectacular view is not a setting I had thought could exist.  When the sun set, the light reflecting off the mirror-like pools floating above the valley below, with a mountain range in the background, I must have taken 100 pictures.

The road that took us along the Mediterranean coast today is my favourite of the trip so far.  The mountains plunge directly into the frothy blue ocean and the road feels like it ıs hanging above the water hundreds of feet below.  It was hard to concentrate on the road because the eye kept getting drawn to the coves which periodically appeared between the rock faces.  I felt like I should stop and take a picture at every turn – a feeling I’ve had ever since leaving Istanbul.



Day 14 – Istanbul, Turkey

We have covered a lot of ground over the past week, passing through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the European part of Turkey.  Our fırst night in Hungary we camped next to the Danube in a postcard town surroundıng a majestic church perched atop a hill.  Hungary was well worth riding through.  From its vibrant small towns full of beautiful architecture to the tasty food of Budapest’s sidewalk cafes, the country made for great touring.

There was a stark contrast between Hungary and Romania.  For the first time, it felt like we were in a different world.  Horse-drawn carriages shared the road with Audis driven by maniacs on congested twisty roads, producing some of the most dangerous riding conditions I have ever seen.  And I have ridden through Lima.  Although South America still holds the title for having the worst drivers on the planet, Romania ıs a more dangerous country to ride through.  What made Romania so treacherous was not only were the drivers reckless and impatient, but they had incredibly fast cars to go with it (unlike South America).  It is important to adjust your own riding in such conditions because you cannot assume other drivers will behave in the way that you are accustomed to.

Romania had some great stretches through the fırst mountains that we had encountered on the trip.  Unfortunately, finding free camping was extremely difficult in Romania.  It seemed like every side road I explored looking for a suitable site was instantly alive with angry barking dogs chasing the bike as soon as I entered.  My guess is that they have had a long time to hone their defenses against Gypsies like us.  The only two dog-free sites I found were both thwarted.  The first because the road leading was challenging for a Mule let alone a Fıreblade, and the second because a police offıcer stopped us.  Apparently he didn’t think it would be safe for us to camp a few hundred metres from a mega hydro plant.

After the congestion on Romania’s roads, Bulgaria was motorcycle paradise.  We had the road along the Black Sea in the northern part of the country virtually to ourselves.  Rounding a corner overlooking the turquoise water, visor up and my sunglasses on, smelling the sweetness of the countryside, I was reminded why I love motorcycling. Bulgaria also offered a wealth of free camping opportunities and I was able to quickly sniff one out in a wooded area right next to the sea. 

Last night we stayed in a hotel in old Istanbul.  Turkey was playing the Czech Republic in a soccer match to decide which country would advance to the elimination round in Euro 2008.  Late in the second half, the Czechs had a two goal lead.  Istanbul was silent.  People sat morosely in cafes and bars staring blankly at one of the many flat screen TVs that were set up every few paces on the street.  Suddenly the city erupted: a goal for Turkey.  A little later, at the 88 minute mark, the tying goal went in.  Now the people were in a frenzy.  People drove past the sidewalk cafes honking their horns in cars and motorcycles sporting oversize Turkish flags.  People walked by beating drums.  When the winning goal was scored in injury time there was pandomonium.  The celebrating went late into the night.

My first Turkish encounter was Kids throwing what I thought were handfuls of rocks at my head.  When we stopped, it turned out that it hadn’t been rocks but rather large mullberries which we were smeared on the side of my helmet.  There was even some unbroken ammunition remaining on top of my luggage.  I wondered if it had been considered rude that I didn’t stop to return their greeting with a volley of my own.

The Turkish people have been incredibly friendly.  We were trying to find a bank machine ın the very same town where the kids greeted me with mullberries.  When we failed to find one we pulled over to figure out our next move.  Almost instantly people were stopping and asking us where we wanted to go.  Eventually we made our way to the centre of town (Kirklareli) where our parked bikes drew a crowd and conversation.  Someone even bought us cherries.  We ate lunch in a small restaurant where the owner charged us less than the very reasonable quoted prices (2 lira for a donar sandwich) and refused any sort of a tip.  In contrast, I just paid 3 lira (which is close to 3 dollars) for a small expresso in Istanbul.

Today we plan on seeing the sights in Istanbul.  Tomorrow we will set off for the Aegean coast and hopefully a campsite on a nice beach.  Sadly, Ted’s time with us has come to an end.  He will set off on his own tomorrow on a route through Greece and Italy on his way back to the UK.  From there he is not sure where he will go, but he has 2 weeks and a bike that has been confirmed to go 180 mph (the Fireblade enjoyed the Turkish toll highways).

Day 6 – Prague, Czech Republic

Last night we spent our first night in beds since leaving the Smith residence in the UK.  We stayed in the heart of Prague, which is a Medieval maze.  We paid way too much for a midnight meal outside on a square with an evil-orange glowing castle leaning over our heads.  We deserved it though because for the previous 4 nights we have managed to find free places to camp.  The first night we made it all the way to Belgium, where we ended up camping in the parking lot of Westvleteren brewery.  The brewery is actually inside the abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren, whose resident Trappist monks brew what many (including ratebeer.com) believe is the best beer in the world: Westvleteren Abt 12.  It was certainly the best beer I have ever tasted.

The next day we used the Garmin GPS unit (with a map of Europe installed) to avoid toll highways and plot a course towards Germany, which gave us a great view of the countryside on a route that would not have been possible to figure out otherwise.  The GPS is a double-edged sword, however.  On one hand you can save a lot of time and hassle by having it plot a course for you.  You know you are not going to get lost or go off track – and even if you do it will recalculate another route for you on the fly. 

However, on the other hand, it takes some of the serendipity out of the trip.  So many experiences that were trip highlights last year happened when we were lost (we didn’t have GPS).  Being lost is part of the adventure and it leads to so many pleasant surprises.  The whole big circular tour of Colombia that Ted and I enjoyed so much last summer happened because we got lost trying to get out of Bogotá (we had been aiming for Medellin).  When we finally emerged from the city after spending most of the day going in circles (seemingly) in heavy chaotic traffic, neither one of us wanted to go back in.  So when a gas station attendant recommended another town to the east near the colonial gem of Villa de Leyva, we shrugged our shoulders and headed out in that direction.  It would be days before we finally circled back to the northwest to Medellin, and we enjoyed every minute of our detour.  We even found ourselves on the most spectacular paved road I have ever had the pleasure of riding.

Still, the GPS has helped us quickly get out of cities and effortlessly navigate complex road systems to get to the scenic roads that otherwise would have been too difficult (and time consuming) to find.  We have been taking mostly scenic routes (with a few stints on the autobahn to satisfy the needs of the Fireblade).  From our campsite in a wooded area just outside of Bonn, we followed the rhein south for the better part of a day.  The road followed the wide smooth ribbon of meandering river through a deep green valley made surreal by castles clinging to the hillsides.  The route along the Rhein has been the most scenic ride to date.

The next night we found a wooded are off the beaten track south of Mannheim.  The next days as we made our way east towards the Czech border, we found another stretch of road (with the help of the GPS) that was as fun as it was beautiful.  It swept its way through small Bavarian villages and through lush forests and farms.  It felt like a trip backwards through time.  It was also the first time that we had a full day of sunshine.  What a glorious ride.  That night we camped in a forest on the side of a mountain.

The next day (yesterday), we rode into the Czech Republic and followed narrow curvy roads through the hilly treed countryside all the way to Prague.  It felt strange to ride effortlessly (we didn’t even have to stop to show our passports) across the former Iron Curtain.  I was thinking about what my dad’s family went through to escape from behind the Iron Curtain and make it to Canada.  Looking at the peaceful countryside on both sides, I found it hard to imagine such a different time.

Day 0 – London, England


A mule and a Fireblade – The Smith Residence, Eltham, London, UK.

It feels like I haven’t slept in days – probably because I haven’t.  But now exams and the madness of last minute packing and cleaning are behind me.  When the jet lag clears (hopefully by tomorrow), I will wake up and realize that the adventure has truly begun.  I am writing this entry from Casa Smith in Eltham, London.  I have just finished a Sunday feast consisting of bacon-wrapped stuffed roast chicken and assortment of veggies followed by wine and cheese.  Tom’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, have certainly been gracious hosts.  I realize that soon these luxuries will only be memories.

Tomorrow the other two members of team CanUk, Ted and Jerry, will arrive in London.  The day after that, we will make for the ferry to Calais, France, and our motorcycle journey will be underway.  Three of us will be riding mules.  One of us will be riding the fastest bike I have ever had the pleasure of riding.  By far.  (Sorry Ted – Tom and I just wanted to fill your new Honda Fireblade 900RR up with gas but we took a wrong turn and somehow ended up in the English countryside).  When I first rode the bike, I thought the speedometre was in km/h.  I would soon discover that it was in fact in mph.  Still, even thinking I was travelling at speeds measured in km/h, the bike felt like it was barely moving.  In fact, if one wasn’t careful, it would be easy to set a new personal speed record (eclipsing the old one by an order of magnitude) without even realizing it.

Now that I’ve tasted speedbike ecstacy, riding my mule (the name affectionately given to KLR650s) will feel like I am riding…well, a mule.  Although I wish Ted was able to come the entire way, I am happy that he is at least going to have an awesome ride for the leg of the trip for which he will be joining us (the UK to Turkey).

I also had the chance to ride “The Nimbus”, Tom’s Honda CB400 Superfour.  It is a nimble, responsive bike that was fun to throw around the corners on the green tunnel-like roads of the English countryside.  You just have to be careful because you can’t see around corners (because of the hedge rows and trees) and the roads are so narrow that a car and a motorcycle barely have room to pass by each other.  My only complaint with the Nimbus is that it was way to short of a bike and my knees were up around my ears.  And the Fireblade can effortlessly make the Nimbus look like it is stationary even when it has reached it’s top speed.

Tom “The Kid” Smith and his Nimbus.

When I arrived in London, I discovered that recently Tom has become somewhat of a local celebrity after receiving press coverage of the trip as a front page story in his local newspaper.  He was even being recognized as “The Cape Crusader” by neighbours.  I have scored myself a signed copy of the paper, and I am willing to part with it – for a price.  This could be worth something when the Kid is elected Prime Minister one day.  If you would like a signed copy of Tom Smith’s front page story, please make a donation to either (or both) of the two charities we are promoting on this trip: Dignitas (the charity being promoted by the Canadian members of team CanUK) or Riders for Health (which Tom has been raising funds for).