Cycling the Countries of the middle east: the kindness of strangers and the desperation of refugee camps

The writer is travelling through the region by bicycle trying to understand what lies beyond the bloody headlines

Im very much of the Ranulph Fiennes school of thought: plod eternally and take one step at a time . I began my trip on 29 July last year from my flat in London. Ive now attained it to Jordan, via France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Turkey and Lebanon. Still to come are Egypt, Sudan, Oman, the UAE and Iran. I have no idea where Id be today without men with trucks . My biggest days cycling was a 125 km schlepp to a Bulgarian ghost town called Matochina( population two ). It concluded with a puncture on a pitch-black country lane just as the jackals started to howl. I supposed Id end my days as some crass horror movie charade but was saved by a kind human with a truck. He took me to a guesthouse, where I was resuscitated with tripe soup and a pint of Johnnie Walker.

I was itching for adventure, and cycling seemed ideal . On a motorcycle, you dont speed from one destination to the next, but explore all the fissures in between, where normal, everyday life happens. People want to look after you, as they assume youre in need of food, shelter or a few extra marbles, so you often share an intimacy denied to others.

Cycling

Cycling over the Prokletije mountain range on the way to Turkey

My reasons for doing the journey were both professional and personal. As a journalist, I wanted to turn freelance and specialise in the Countries of the middle east, so I was keen to understand the region better: its fascinating and often misconstrue. Countries tend to be identified in terms of state policy and spasmodic newsworthy events so Tehran becomes a hotbed of fanaticism, Beirut full of bomb explosions. Yet Iranians are perhaps the most westernised of all Middle Eastern people, and Beirut is basically a party town.

I havent yet met a single Muslim with even a hint of empathy for Isis. And Ive met hundreds, from across the social and economic spectrum. Most hate the jihadists and Bashar al-Assad in equal measure. I expended Christmas with a group of Syrian activists, CCSD, who urgently tried to convey the message that the original values of the revolution liberty, democracy, equality are still very much alive for most Syrians.

I visited a Syrian refugee camp in Harmanli, Bulgaria, after nearby residents smuggled me inside. The conditions were appalling: bathrooms flooded and rat-infested; bedrooms overcrowded. In Lebanons Bekaa Valley, where camps are illegal, it was even worse. But most shocking were the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Palestinians have lived there for decades, but still have almost no rights. The camps were makeshift shanty towns, damp, dirty and overpopulated. And the situation is worsening by the day thanks to funding cuts.

Rebecca

Christmas was expended with Syrian activists from CCSD, are stationed in Gaziantep, Turkey
Im a white, middle-class English speaker with a huge supporting network, and Im here by choice . Yet I still find rocking up alone in a totally alien place overwhelmingly nerve-wracking. What it must be like for refugees with no help and no way out I have no idea. You must need phenomenal strength.

Turkey stole my heart not to mention my belly . From day one, strangers fed, housed and pampered me. A human in a truck even stopped simply to give me a satsuma. Elsewhere, the Zelenkovac Ecological Movement( with art, music, accommodation and food) in Bosnia was a treasure, along with Koprivshtitsa, a historic Bulgarian town in the Sredna Gora mountains.

Cycling

Cycling the Taurus range in Turkey
At one point in France I was so depleted I faked a twisted ankle to hitch a ride . It took me about a month to start feeling fit. My thighs began getting bigger around the Balkans and are now reasonably terrifying. Theyll likely soon need separate passports. My craving is extraordinary . I recently impressed my friends son by devouring six Weetabix in a matter of seconds, and could easily have eaten more. Turkey was particularly dangerous as I adore kebabs, and being surrounded by socially acceptable doner meat felt like some kind of a dream.

Puncture

A puncture in -3C ice-fog near the tiny Turkish village Ovacik, simply north of the Taurus mountains

Most male attention has been relatively harmless so far . The one exception was in Harmanli, Bulgaria. A Kurdish refugee misunderstood my journalistic interest in his situation as something more and became drunk and pushy when spurned. After following me back to my hotel, he screamed, Ill kill you and have sex with you! in that somewhat macabre order and subsequently then lashed out at a couple of hotel staff and got arrested. He was the exception, however. Emotional highs and lows arrive thick and fast on the road . I miss my boyfriend, family and friends staggeringly, and it can get very lonely and tiring. You are constantly faced with new people, problems and situations, and can rarely relax. But that is of course the great joy of the journey too, and the exhilaration both mental and physical is addictive. In many styles, for me, its what life is all about.

People want things to be cosy and familiar . Escapade means stepping outside your convenience zone, exposing yourself to ideas that might destabilise this neat, predictable world. But I tell espouse the ailment! Its where the best bits of life are hiding.

Follow Rebeccas journey at thebicyclediaries.co.uk and @reo_lowe

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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