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9/1/2011 – Tartus to Tripoli – 3 days was it?

March 1, 2011
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Sun beats down in the morning making camp a lazy relaxed affair, we’ve put in the kms and should easily make the border today so breakfast in the sun and i try to evaporate some of the arak from my body, last night got a bit indulgent…

In the distance an alien form sits between the trees, its graceful, sleek and truly beautiful. I’m captivated by its presence, it has legs and looks like it could just walk towards us. Do a few sketches and try to work out what it might be, i think its a water tower. On the other side of camp there is a man waving a small flag on the end of a stick at the top of an apartment block, he rotates the flag for a minute or so and then pull it down only to repeat it a few minutes later. After watching for a bit a flock of birds become apparent, they fly in formation in an enlarged circle above the man – he must be training them. After a while most of the birds descend, some remain defiant and continue to circle but after a while all of them land on the roof of the apartment.

A man approaches followed by a motley crew, he asks if we’re camping here, a little reluctantly we reply that we did but that we’re on our way. We’re told its an archaeological site, which we agree and point down the road. He tells us that this is also part of the site and underneath all the dumped rubbish are examples of ancient pottery. We leave and apologise, he’s fine with it and lambastes the local government for not doing a better job of protecting it from fly tipping. Pushing the bike through i did notice a few bits of pot, nothing worth bagging though 😉

Road to the border is warm and lined with makeshift tents and herds of animals grazing under the sometimes watchful, other times nonchalant view of the shepards – I’m not sure these are Bedouin as the structures looked quite permanent and Bedouin are transient, although i could be wrong. The road is lined with large reeds swaying in the light breeze and the shimmering sea sits just on our right, very relaxing.

We pick up some supplies for lunch, amuse some children then head to the border safely within our time limit, phew! The place is pretty chaotic and we queue for 1/2hr whilst everyone else pushes to the front, puts their hand right under the glass partition and confidently slaps their documents on the table above the passport officer who is completely unfazed by this behaviour – its obviously the norm and we need to pick up to this pace or we will out stay our visa. Someone from behind the glass spots we’re not from these parts and tells us we need to go and pay the ‘leaving fee’ – yes in Syria you pay to enter and you pay to leave and then return. So we march over to the next building pay our $10 or so and get the stamp, i even manage to push in much to the displeasure of the guy next to us.

So back to the first building and our passports are confidently placed with the others under the glass – Never in England would you dream of putting your hand through that threshold, it would be swiftly dealt with and probably filed under the anti-terrorism acts book under the counter. In Syria your space is my space. So we wait around for a while until we’re summoned to the head office, not the directors office which has one way glass but one down, we’re not that important.

And so we’re told we’ve overstayed our visa by a day – slightly confused the pieces begin to fall into place. Despite us categorically asking the guard if the visa began from the moment we got the stamp (i.e 8pm on the 6th) and last for 72hours (3days) the date stamped in the passport was the 6th and so that counts as a day even though we passed into Syria at 8pm in the night. So we effectively had 2 days to get to the border! we explain our situation with a simple diagram of

20:00 on the 6th us SYRIA
20:00 7th – 1 day
20:00 8th – 2 days
20:00 9th – 3 days

He gets the point and says its fine "Welcome to Syria" he smiles – Amazing, this country is lax beyond belief! Lebanese visa is free for 30 days and he even recommends us a hotel in Tripoli

We enjoy our sandwiches on the beach on Lebanese soil whilst some novice fishermen attempt to catch their dinner. What happened once we’d finished lunch and had set off down the smooth paved road was a very surreal sequence of events. As we approached a beachside refugee camp which forms part of Nahr al Bared [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nahr_al-Bared] a large group of people had formed a massive circle and we’re singing songs and dancing as we passed they noticed us and we returned the dancing and singing as best you can on a bike about 50 metres down the road we then watched a man in a 4×4 stop his car at the side of the road, retrieve a gun from his boot and then aimed and fired at two dogs getting busy on the beach. Unfortunately we don’t know the fate of either canine but safe to say if one of them died im sure they were happy.

Lebanese are more lairy than Syrians who tend to drive at a more relaxed pace, probably because their old cars can’t go any faster. You could sense this in the air as we approached Tripoli – In the city we were harassed by small kids on scooters who wouldn’t shut up and bugger off despite harry’s best insults, i think the best was ‘You look like a girl." I forget why we wanted to stay in Tripoli but we found an internet cafe and found a highly recommended guesthouse with the picture of someones grandma on the front page, perfect. The map to it was far from useful and we left the cafe with the light fading with little idea of where it was other than we knew it was near to a pentagon space with a park in the middle. Hoping a cab might be able to help us we followed their less than convincing advice to go up the steepest busiest hill in Tripoli in the dark. At the top the smells coming from the restaurants were superb, Lebanese cuisine is amazing and looking forward to dumping the bikes and venturing out a filling our bellies.

Luckily we’re led to the place by and English speaking mountain biker – its back down the hill and way back where the internet cafe was! There’s no space at the desired one but we find a cheap place for about $5/night run by an initially friendly lady that spoke french. The hotel looked like it needed some serious renovation or just ripping down but the room was huge and big enough for us to store our bikes in comfortably so perfect for our needs. So after numerous back breaking trips up and down the stairs we pop into a family’s house that we met on the street, just around the corner from the hotel and have a cup of coffee. Hungry for food we say our thanks and leave with the husband, who wants to make sure we’re safe here – we walk for a while, past some very decent looking establishments, to a kebab place he painted – the kebab was really good so we say our thanks and venture out for a beer. We spotted a small place beneath the first choice hotel so we go back there and are immediately pulled back by our Tripoli guide. Apparently this place is no good, thankful for his help a little tired of people telling us whats good and not, its nice to just go with your nose sometimes so we venture in.

A quick beer and we’re feeling hungry. The following hour was then spent eating, no gorging, on kebab after chicken kebab after falafel after chicken kebab with chips. Its like we had all been possessed by somekind of junk food demon that was forcing us to eat more, we knew we weren’t starving anymore yet we continued. But that wasn’t enough we then went in search of some sweet treats and fell onto some baklava (Honey based middle eastern sweets). Feeling quite gross we rolled back to the hotel room and washed it all down with a good glass of Arak and then went to bed.

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