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Falling in Love with Damascus

The next morning we woke up in our room at the Ziad Al Khabir Hotel and hopped right on the cycles to head out in search of new experiences in Damascus. We wheeled directly out of the Sudanese flophouse district, near the old city, and into the newer, richer, flashier, university district.

We ended up selecting some food from a “Chicken from the Machine” joint, and supplementing it with a few salads from a nearby salad joint. While Scott and Claudia dealt with the chicken, I headed over to the salad place, to make our selection. While I was waiting for the diligent chaps there to put together our order, I chatted with the owner, who had spent the last 15 years working and living in Saudi Arabia, in the kitchen of a similar salad place.

When I asked him about his views on the country, he described it as a clean place, with lots of money and opportunity. “It is a place for good Muslims and rich Muslims,” he said. When I asked him what brought him back to Syria, he commented, “Damascus is my home,” and added with a chuckle, “and I must say I was neither a rich nor a good Muslim.”

And with that he handed me my salads. We bid each other farewell. He assured me that if I returned, he would happily call his friend to hold down the shop for a few hours so we could drink tea and talk more about the world. I thanked him warmly for the offer and walked back out into the dry warm air and the sunshine. I was falling hard for Syria as I walked back toward the park where we’d all agreed to meet.

I found Scott and Claudia setting up shop at a picnic table. A group of schoolgirls had gathered round them, and were in the process of queuing up to take the Speed TRs for a ride around the park.  While they took turns riding the Dahons, we dug into our little picnic feast.

With that done, we headed out in search of coffee and a little wifi, which while it had been nigh on impossible to find in Jordan, proved quite plentiful here in Syria. We decided to have our first cup from a roadside espresso bar ,which we cycled past. The coffee was delicious, and the fellow who owned the place was a delight to interact with, humming little haunting bits of melody as he pulled the rich frothy shots.

We ended up more fully setting up shop at a café a few blocks down the way, where we were able to, for the price of a few more cups of coffee, connect to the Internet and finally begin to make a more serious dent into our long neglected electronic lives.

After working for a few hours, we hopped back on the bikes and began pedaling once again through the fascinating streets of Damascus. We stopped on a large triangular median so Claudia could ask a couple of fellows, who were sitting on plastic chairs watching the traffic, for directions. They were supremely helpful, if somewhat boisterous, and we hung with them for a while discussing our trip to date, and our quickly growing infatuation with Syria.

Back on the road, we quickly found ourselves engulfed in quite the traffic jam, which encouraged us to head out on a more atypical route, attempting to avoid the smothering exhaust of the gridlock, and bringing us, somewhat unexpectedly, back around to the other side of the old city. So we decided to work our way through the old city, riding through the tiny streets, and reveling in the richness of our surroundings.

Suddenly it was time to eat again, so we picked up a few 30-cent shawarma wraps on the street. Here in Syria, the shawarma comes with the most delectable garlic mayonnaise. In case we had not underlined it in previous posts, AsiaWheeling has a real soft spot for mayo, and this was certainly some of the best mayo of my life.

Armed with the sandwiches, we headed a block or so down the road and leaned our bikes against the ornate doors of a museum.

However, no sooner had we begun to eat than, low and behold, the great iron doors began to open. We hustled to move our bikes in time to let a team of grunting and sweating fellows move some giant panes of glass into the place.

On our way back, we headed to the large covered market, to give it another once over. It was certainly an impressive concentration of buyers and sellers, and thanks to the giant patchwork of tarpaulin that covered it, the midday heat and sun had done little to slow the rate of commerce.

On our way out of the covered market, we passed a couple of fellows with this modified bicycle.

It had been modified so that it could be powered by a tiny little deafening gasoline engine. They offered us a ride on the thing, but, not confident in our ability to pilot the beast, and fearing for our lives, we declined. Instead, we just settled, rather, on a demonstration of the starting of the motor.

From there, we headed out of the old city, and found ourselves briefly getting trapped in a large and smoggy bus terminal.

Navigating out of the byzantine overpasses, we stumbled upon a quite ancient looking courtyard, where a number of people had set up touristy shops.

As soon as we got off the bikes to poke around, we were swarmed by children interested in taking the Speed TRs for a ride.

We obliged, and while we wandered around, the kids raced in circles through the courtyard, whooping, yelling, and generally exhibiting the common response among individuals first exposed to a folding cycle.

From there, we headed back out onto the streets. The sun was growing low now, and we paused outside a large unsettling-poster vendor, while Scott wandered around through the Syrian rush hour pedestrian traffic, chatting with his parents on the phone.

From there, we found ourselves unexpectedly wheeling into a mechanical components dealership part of town. When we caught sight of an NSK bearings dealership, we immediately called a waypoint. NSK is our favorite bearings manufacturer, and we decided we might as well indulge in a few spares, in case one of our wheels started eating bearings again as Scott’s had in Laos and Cambodia. The fellows in the bearings shop seemed very interested in our ridiculous look. We attempted to flatter them by complimenting their bearings, but they would have none of it. They knew their bearings were the best in the world, and no amount of flattery could do any more than beat a dead horse.

Outside of the bearing shop, we ran into a German man, living in Damascus and studying Arabic.

He was quite the gearhead, and we spent the next 40 minutes discussing bicycle engineering and in particular the Speed TR’s SRAM internal planetary transmission.

Planetary Transmission Diagram

We had been quite happy with ours, and as it turns out he was in this neighborhood looking to buy a planetary transmission for his own bike.

We bid him farewell, wishing him luck in his search for the perfect planetary transmission, and headed back to the Zaid Al Khabir. At the advice of the front desk, we hauled our bikes up to the lobby, where they would be safer from vandals and rapscallions.

We paused for a moment to admire the front desk’s phone before heading back to the cozy confines of our somewhat crumbling room.


  1. Mark/Dad | November 30th, 2010 | 10:14 am

    Quite the motorbike–if you don’t mind a scorched leg! Tell us about the person in the mouse suit and the pair of orange cats!

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