Sunday, 5 December 2010

From Istanbul

The days are short now and up on the plateau it is cold. Today a heavy mass of inky cloud covers the sky over Ankara. I spend a day here and walk to the hilltop where Ataturk is buried. A paved avenue, flanked by stone lions, leads through neatly trimmed lawns to a broad courtyard. Stern faced soldiers parade towards a tall flagpole at the compound’s southern edge; marching in unison, with high strides like John Cleese. There are long lines of school children, many clutching single red roses, being led towards the grand mausoleum at the east of the site. They file between the tall spherical pillars, into the high grey-walled chamber, and on towards the coffin at the end of the room. I stand behind and watch them, walking in pairs, and with tiny hands drop the flowers on the steps before the tomb. Beneath the chamber there are a network of vaults whose walls are covered wıth sprawling war panoramas, showing scenes from long-ago battles with the Greeks. There is rousing national music and taped gunfire and booming speeches, and the children file on by. When I leave, rain is falling and all the grey stone seems forlorn.

In the morning I ride west towards Beypazari. It is a good feeling to pass the last of the tall towers that flank the road from the city, and to stare out at the desolate moors all around. The tar is rougher now and whenever I pass a flock of sheep, the Kangal dogs tear towards me and circle the bicycle, barking and growling. The trees stand out like lonely obelisks above the murky green slopes and the wind sweeps over the vales and fills my ears with a roar like crashing waves.

I pass over a long hillside and into a broad valley. Far ahead hills crowd the horizon and thick quilts of bruised cloud roll across the sky. It is nearing dusk as I ride down to Beypazari; a cluster of old Otoman houses crammed beneath a rocky ridge. Many of the buildings have been smartly done-up wıth clear white facades and dark-wooden framed windows. Others are crumbling; the terracotta roods patched up with tarpaulins and walls of bare wooden splints collapsing inwards.

I continue west to Mudurnu, past a wide flood plain encircled by hills. A shallow trail of brown water runs lazily through a vast liver-coloured marsh of soggy silt. Steep slopes of brown and grey rock rise high from the edges of the plain. From the roadside the rock looks soft like putty; the slopes are heavily creased; folded and knotted like the hide of a crocodile’s back. The land is drier further west and the hillsides speckled with deep green pines. Near the road, isolated humps of bare rock stand amidst the pastures. The rock looks to be peeling and serated circular ridges run across the body of the mounds like chain-saw rims. It is very empty here: the only other life far off flocks of sheep.

I pass Nallıhan, and mountains begin to collect before me. There are villages nestled amidst the hills and long lines of wispy trees set back from the road. A man with a backpack and a staff is walking towards me. He tells me he is walking to Jerusalem. I give him a packet of biscuits and tell what I can of the road behind. He begins to laugh and tells me I must climb over a mountain in a few miles.

Soon I am climbing, and then racing down the other side; the wind rushing towards me, carrying the smell of the pines. I look across and can see the lower hills rising and falling like waves before me. I reach Mudurnu at dusk and leave at first light. It is clear today and I cross the last of the swelling hills and valleys of the Anatolian highlands and soon I am descending from the plateau and I know the journey is near its end. I ride on and on, past Akyazi, past Adapazari, past a sign showing 100 km to İstanbul, and on to İzmit. There are wide roads and tall buildings here and the night air is warm; it seems like days ago that I set off in the frosty dawn from Mudurnu.

The road to İstanbul hugs the northern coast of the Marmara Sea. Off the road there are soot-coated factories and warehouses and noisy truck stops. The spaces between the towns begin to narrow and a cramped clutter of buildings stream together into a single conurbation. I am close now and the traffic roars past. When another road joins the highway I am left floating in the middle lanes; the cars careering past and honking and I look straight ahead. I see the steel frames of the Bosphorous Bridge and weave slowly between the standing traffic towards the first high arch. I hear the blast of a siren and a policeman tells me I cannot ride across the bridge. I turn back and pedal round to Uskudar and soon I am leaning over the railings of a boat, staring at rays of faint sunshine splintering through the grey clouds behind the towering the silhouettes of the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

From Ankara

I ride slowly past the tufts of grey rock that rise from the grasslands flanking the road east to Avanos. I pass the cave church at Cavusin; ochre in the morning sunlight, and soon the strange Cappadocian chimneys are behind me. I climb steadily as I head north and a thick blanket of grey cloud forms and sits heavily above the highlands. The land plateaus, and far off I can see tips of black mountains protruding dimly through the fog. By the road a farmer is burning the remnants of his wheat; smoke rises in thin wisps from the fields and the black circles slowly grow as the low flames lap at the retreating stuble.

I stare out at the band of tar reaching out across the plains and look up at the gloomy sky. I hope it doesn’t rain. I see little villages tucked in the hollows of distant hills, and nothing but fields between me and them. I think I would like to follow one of the little tracks that runs off between the fields and camp, but the nights are too cold, and I must reach Kirsehir by dark. I fınd a hotel in town and take a cold shower and put on a big warm jacket and go to a park to write. It is a few hours before dusk and beneath the grey sky the town seems bleak. An old man sits on the bench besides me, and stares at the ground, and runs his prayer beads between his fingers over and over.

The clouds above are black as I ride out of Kirsehir and I know it will rain. Out on the plateau the air rushes in powerful gusts across the highway. I pedal slowly through it, up the shallow hills, and as I race downwards the wheels shake in the wind. I feel unsteady and when the wind bursts across me I think I will fall, and I brake and roll slowly to where the road rises again. And then the climb is harder. Rain begins to trickle from the sky and the square heads of petrol-station signs stand tall and strange between the fields and the clouds. I am forty kilometres from Kirkkale and the rain starts to fall heavily and the wheels kick up streams of murky highway water and the wind drives the spray into my face. The brakes barely hold the wheels now and I must squint to keep the water from my eyes.

The fields sweep across the shallow valleys either side of the road and the sky seems to be sinking; burying the moors in dark. My fingers start to tingle and then I feel them no more, and I pedal on. I look to the side and see an old lady running and stumbling between two big square tents on the roadside. It is strange to see here; I haven’t seen people living this way for a long time. I turn off into town and people raise their heads and stare, huddled beneath gloomy bus shelters. There is a cheap hotel here and I am glad to be inside.

In the morning the rain is pouring down and the wind billows across the treeless moors. I should be racing downwards but the wind holds me back and I must pedal. Ahead I see the road rise up, and curve around a long hill, and disappear above. I clamber up and heavy lorries trundle past and blast their horns and spray gritty water across me. I climb for over an hour and stop to rest and then feel cold and carry on. When the road flattens I stop at a cafeteria and the owner brings me a glass of tea, and then another.

The hillsides outside Ankara are crowded with terracotta-roofed houses, some falling down. Smoke rises from the chimneys and drifts into the streaming rain. In the city pools of water two inches thick sit over the road and hide groves in the tar that I bump heavily over. Cars rush past and send waves lapping against my wheels. As I leave the ringroad the rain stops and faint rays of sunshine pierce the block of grey that has sat above for days. I stop and take off my jacket and head towards Kızılay. There are chain stores and metro stations and new yellow taxis and everyone is dressed for the city. I stop and wheel the bike along the pavement, looking for somewhere to stay. Everyone stares and I look down and see I am wearing swimming trunks and I am covered in grime.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

From Goreme

It is early and beneath the cloudless the sky the air is cold. The metal ends of the handlebars sting my bare hands, and as I exhale my breath forms plumes of condensation. In the morning light the valley floor besides me seems bleak. The soil is hard and bare and the spindly trees silver and lifeless. I stop to put on a pair of gloves and a woolly hat, and ride briskly towards the mountains. I expect to climb, but the road winds flat through the hills, and soon Goksun is far behind. The tarmac is uneven; gravel has been pasted onto the asphalt, and the sharp edges and little gaps between the stones rattle the wheels and slow me down. The sun rises and the mist fades; the fields turn from grey to green and the autumn leaves begin to glow. I take off the hat and gloves and jumper, and my body warms from riding.

There are villages in the hollows between the hills around me. The houses are ramshackle; big squares two stories high, with only the walls of the lower floor plastered. Above the cemented bricks are left bare. Half the windows are glassed; the rest empty frames, and the slanted corrugated roofs are rough with rust. Outside large piles of wood are stacked beneath frail wooden ornings, and rusty tractor parts lie besides rectangular saloons that've been driving since the seventies.

The road climbs up for a long stretch, and although the incline is gentle, it is slow going. On either side of the asphalt the grassland is strewn with outcrops of grey rock. A shepherd, wrapped up in a thick brown coat, sits on a rock besides a large herd of sheep. I hear barking, and I jolt, and watch a tall sand-coated dog rushing across the moorland towards me. These dogs are all over the plateau. They have thick coats and big black jaws, rounded like a St. Bernard’s. Around this one’s neck there is a spiked metal collar, to protect it from wolves. I stop and stare at it and it realizes I am human and walks slowly back towards its sheep. I watch it go and wave at the shepherd. I was told the dogs used to kill bears and still kill wolves if they approach the flock. Further on the hillsides sharpen and enclose above the road and steep ravine walls block the sun. I follow a sharp bend out of the canyon and the road dips and I ease down. On my left there are the remnants of a long-ago abandoned village; low stone walls, crumbling, and overgrown with tall grasses.

I freewheel down for a long time, running besides a thin stream, shaded by skeletal trees. On the banks there are run-down sheds; boxes of grey breezeblocks overlain by tatty tarpaulins. There is litter everywhere and two guys in all-in-one tracksuits bait a pack of scrawny mongrels. The dogs bark and whimper and the guys laugh, and then they notice me watching and yell out in Turkish. I turn away and loosen the brakes and roll on by.

I reach a valley and icy looking streams cross between the fields. Ahead the little road joins a broader highway, and at the junction is Pinarbasi. I pedal slowly through the little streets. All the shops are closed for Bayram and outside the butcher there is a pile of bloody sheep wools and a cellophane bag of the animals’ severed heads. There is a hotel above a petrol station cafeteria on the edge of town and I get a room and read all evening.

The road out of Pinarbasi ıs flanked by rounded hills, which look rose-red in the morning sunshine. In the hollows beneath the hills there are lakes, still and blue. I stop to take a photograph and then see the banks are cemented, and the lakes are man-made, and I put the camera down. Ahead the road dips and then falls onto a broad plateau, and for miles all I can see are fields of wheat. The air warms, and the road stretches on, and ahead I can see a snow capped mountain, rising high above the golden prairies, far in the distance. As I near Kayseri the mountain looms larger and I can see folds and crags of dark rock, where no snow has settled, between the slopes of white. I descend into the city, past a long line of colouful tower blocks that look plastic from the road, and reach the black walls of Kayseri’s old fort just past midday.

I leave early and ride west across the fringes of Cappaddocia, through pale green hills that roll gently into the distance, carved into fields by low stone walls. I reach Avanos and turn onto a narrow road that passes a low ridge of heavily wrinkled orange and white rock. In the grasses between the ridge and the road there are tall outcrops of grey rock with black, basalt tips. Some are shaped like wizard's hats, others like enormous mushrooms. I turn off the tar and ride on dusty paths through the outcrops and stop and clamber up between them. They sprout from the land for miles, like fields of giant termite mounds, impossibly shaped. I ride for hours through narrow valleys full of the rocks and it is only when I see the sun beginning to set, that I join the road to Goreme.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

From Goksun

I stay for two more days in Aleppo waiting for my chest to clear. I am still wheezing, and I cough through the night, but my visa is expiring, and I must ride north in the morning. I go slowly, through the flat scrubland, to the Turkish border. Before long I am riding through the quiet streets of Kilis. The young women are bare-headed here, and wear tight jeans and low tops and walk with head-phones in. The shopkeepers are well turned out, and stand in their doorways, arms folded behind their backs, watching the passers-by. There are old Ottoman mosques and hamams, made from alternating cream and black bricks, and old men walk by arm-in-arm. I am drowsy and decide to spend night and ride the sixty kilometers to Gaziantep in the morning.

It feels good to be back on an open road. The highway in Syria was noisy and clogged with traffic. Here three broad lanes of clear tar stretch out between chocolate-coloured fields, and rise slowly, and disappear between round hills far ahead. The fields are separated into long, thin lanes by lines of boulders, and farmers in rusty tractors plough the dark soil. Where the land is drier, orchards of bare silver trees stand deserted in the light earth. A man in muddy blue overalls flags me down from the roadside and I slow. He takes an apple from his pocket and hands it to me. He talks in Turkish and I smile and eat the apple and he nods. A man shouts from a tractor in the field behind and he runs off. I wave as I ride on and feel sad about all the times I don’t stop and leave those I pass waving sadly behind.

The road passes hills covered with deep green trees, and then the city appears, and the hills are full of buildings. There are rows of brightly coloured apartment blocks, surrounded by green lawns and well-kept playgrounds. I watch all the children getting off the turquoise buses and think it looks like a model. I wonder if Clichy-sous-Bois looked this way once.

In the city I walk by an old fortress and through covered markets where the metal workers are bashing pots. Later I go to a tea-house to watch a football game. The room is full of smoke and fifty old men look up from the backgammon boards and stare. I see a team of red shirts on the screen at the end of the room, and gaze around for a chair. There are big signs announcing the smoking ban on each of the walls and I smile. A young guy with a shaved head, and a metal bolt through his eyebrow, gestures for me to pull up a chair. He is with two friends and receipts are strewn across the felt table. Scores flash across the bottom of the screen and they all rustle through the papers and scribble numbers down. We drink tea and smoke and each time a new score appears Dogan pats me on the shoulder and says ‘Is goal. Is one-zero. I know. Is happy’ and he lifts his bet-slip up like a champion, and then the scores update and he puts his head in his hands and says ‘is life, is life. Robert, is life. I know. No problem. Is smile.’

I meet Dogan at the bakery the next morning, and the baker flattens the dough and sprinkles sesame seeds on top, and gives us tea while the bread is in the oven. On the steps to Dogan’s block of flats a little boy is tying his laces and Dogan ruffles his hair as we walk past and the boy runs off looking happy. His mum is making breakfast and we sit down at a little table. His brother comes in and then his brother’s friend ands his sister and her baby, and we eat omelet and cucumbers and grape syrup with the bread.

In the evening we go to see Gaziantep play Besiktas, and sit on concrete steps in the cold with all the shouting fans. There are policeman with long shields guarding the corner-flags and a man in a leather jacket taking photographs of the crowd.

I wake in the night coughing, and then I’m sick, and I go to the hospital in the morning. The receptionist smiles helplessly at me and I follow a nurse around wards and surgeries looking for a doctor who speaks English. After a while we give up and a doctor listens to my chest and then gives me an injection and puts me on a ventilator. The receptionist won’t take any money and I go back to the hotel and lie down.

I am short of breath as I ride out of Gaziantep, but as I get into the hills the cool air is soothing. I am on a narrow road winding around hillsides dotted with deep green pines, heading north onto the Anatolian Plateau. Long sections of the road are being re-surfaced and I rattle across the bare stone slowly, sending clouds of fine cream dust into the air around the tyres. I stop in Maras and find a hotel and buy some antibiotics for my chest.

The road north climbs steeply into the mountains. In the sunshine I sweat while I climb and when the road runs beneath the shade of a hillside the air feels cold on my wet shirt. I am high up now and I look back at the thin band of tar snaking through the pine forests to the south, and then the mountains behind, which are shrouded in a wintry haze. For miles I freewheel down, through deep bowls full of silver trees, sending crinkled orange leaves down onto the road. It is Bayram and families sit out on the porches eating barbecued mutton. They wave and some hand me charred sides of meat with thick crusts of white bread.

The road climbs again and I am tiring. The sun is low behind the mountains and it is cold. I am still far from Goksun and I wonder if I’ll make it by dark. It is too cold to camp and I try to pedal hard, but my legs are weary. I turn a steep bend and a broad valley of flat brown and green fields opens up before me. The road winds down and down, around the hillside, and at the far end of the valley I see the town. On three sides it is encircled by hills, dim in the fading light. Hills for the morning.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

From Aleppo

It is a good feeling to be on an empty road, heading into the hills. The highway out of Damascus is loud and full of heavy lorries, trundling to Baghdad, Aleppo, Beirut. It is quiet here; there are a few houses set back from the road amidst dusty fields and orchards of olive trees. And I ride slowly up the gently rising hillside to Maalula.

The village sits between two grey-faced cliffs; concrete houses and crucifix-spired churches and narrow lanes are crammed between the walls of stone that overhang the little village. On the ledge of the southern outcrop there is a statue of the virgin Mary, in blue robes, head-bowed. On the northern hillside a gleaming white figure of Jesus, arms outstretched, stares out across the valley.

Beneath the crest of the northern rockface there is a white-bricked convent. I lean my bike against the open metal gates and ask one of the nuns if İ may stay the night here. She looks down disapprovingly at my knees and says İ must speak to Sister Mariam. I follow her through a courtyard, past a small shelter full of icons and candles, past the brass-gilded doors of the chapel, into a brightly lit corridor. Sister Mariam smiles and looks down disapprovıngly at my knees and İ say İ am on a bicycle and she nods and points me to a bedroom.

She tells me that if İ follow a path through the rocks behind, and climb up the hill, I will come to another church. She says it is one of the oldest ın the world. She says the fathers there still speak Amharic. I walk there later, through a narrow cleft ın the rock, which seems to have formed inconceivably; it is just a few feet wide and banked on both sides by shear walls of stone, sixty feet high. In the courtyard to the church a father in black robes stands smiling, staring at two cats playing. He doesn't notice me and I go into the little stone chapel and light a candle.

In the morning I walk down the steps towards the village and Sister Mariam calls me back. She leads me into a dining room and gives me warm bread and olives and boiled eggs and a bowl of walnut jam.

İ coast down the hill and rejoin the highway. The pine trees on the roadside bow towards me; their narrow trunks bent by strong southerly winds. Today the wind flows from behind me and I ride fast. Cars flash past and the endless fields of barren yellow earth roll by. The days are short now and night is already falling as İ reach the clocktower at Hama, 170 km to the north. A shallow green river runs through the town and on the banks old wooden waterwheels are attached to crumbling walls. They are not turning anymore. I sleep on the roof of a hotel and am woken before dawn by all the calls to prayer trumpeting out across the city. I look up, bleary eyed, at neon minarets glowing green in every direction.

There is little to draw my eyes from the tar ahead of the handlebars, on the road to Aleppo. The land is flat and the fields the same. Groups of women in multi-coloured shawls, and shemaghs masking their faces, pick olives from the low trees off the road, and there is litter strewn along the dry ditches beside the tarmac. I think it is a shame that İ must take the highway, but my map does not show the country roads.

Aleppo is an old city and there is a great citadel on a mound at its centre. Near the foot of the citadel a network of enclosed alleyways runs for what seems to be miles, housing the city's souk. The tunnels are full wıth crowds; boys on bicycles, men on scooters, women carrying heavy sacks on their heads, and tea-boys rushing around with trays held high. I spend a morning here, and ask some of the stall-holders if I may take their photographs. Tomorrow I ride to Turkey.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

From Damascus

I ride east towards Syria, down a winding hillside road, through olive groves and forests of low pine trees, shedding their browning needles on the dry earth below. I stop for tea where the land flattens, already far from Amman, and a man in mechanic's overalls sits beside me. He peers over at the map and says Iraq. I point to Baghdad and he smiles and nods. I read Fulluja, Najaf, Basra, and he says yes, yes, yes, after each and smiles.

Every mile I pass fruit vendors, lying behind polystyrene crates of apples and pomegranates and tomatoes. They look up dozily at me and flick the ends off the cigarettes and lean back down. I reach Jerash and go to the old Roman city there. Teachers lead groups of school girls up the long avenue of stone columns and the girls run up to the tourists and say good-morning and what’s-your-name. I ride up a country lane into the hills and camp beneath an olive tree, the whole valley below filled with patches of forest and villages of white stone houses.

It is only fifty kilometres to the border and I stop for some bread and look up, for the last time, at the smiling Jordanian king in the photo above the counter. Here he is playing with his young son. His picture is everywhere; smiling in a suit and tie, in army uniform surveying his troops, standing happily with his seated wife. I leave Jordan and ride the short stretch through no-man’s land, past cement century posts looking out above the fields, into Syria, where I am ushered into an office at immigration. I look up at the Sryian president staring down from above the desk. His eyes are very close together and he has an immaculate moustache. He smiles uneasily, looking embarrassed, as if a puppy had just pee-ed on his leg. I have no visa and the official looks at me curiously. He examines each page of my passport over and over, and asks me to promise I have never been to Israel. 'If I find you have another passport in your baggages.' He pauses and smirks and his left eye narrows to a squint. 'And if I find an Israel stamp there. I will be very angry.' He hands me back my passport, freshly stamped, and waves me off.

I am 120 kilometres from Damascus and I rush across the dry scrubland with the wind behind me. I stop for tea and the tea-man won't accept my money and hands me two packs of biscuits and a handful of seeds. I ride on past shiny new service stations and ragged, shepherd's tents, and as the light fades I see the tall cement blocks of the city's suburbs ahead. It is dark now and I stop and ask for the old town and I am pointed this way and then another. I am on a busy one-way road, cycling against the traffic. I pass white-haired men in blue aprons, working on huge black printing machines, and brightly lit pastry shops, and old men playing backgammon and smoking shishas in dim cafes, and men engraving headstones in enclaves dug into an old stone wall that lines the road. I ride for over an hour, up and down the same streets, staring at everything. I am startled by a horn, and I swerve, and my eyes return to the road, and then drift back to the street sides. Eventually I find a bed in a dormitory off Souq Saroujah and eat and fall asleep.

It is Friday, and in the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque large groups of women in black hijabs sit listening to preachers, under gold-leafed domes that stand on stone stilts across the marble terrace. The facade of the main chamber is gilded with a gold and green mosaic showing trees and fruit, and on three corners of the enclosure there are cream minarets patterned with black and ochre bricks.

I walk down the main arcade that leads into the old city. There is a high curved roof of corrugated metal above the line of clothes stalls and ice cream parlours and epiceries. Ahead there is a large crowd and I hear the beating of drums. Palestinian flags and black flags, branded with white crossed rifles, are waving in the air. Children, in camouflage uniforms and purple berets, stationary-march amidst a crowd of clapping elders. The children slowly leave the shadows of the souq and move through the streets. They join other groups, and policemen block the traffic, and at the front two little girls lead the crowd, dressed like toy soldiers, flags raised, smiling sweetly.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

From Amman

Aqaba is calm and modern and comfortable. There are lawned roundabouts, working banks, smiling Jordanians with bright blue eyes. The town’s white blocks are scattered thickly across the steep brown hills that curve around the blue bay. A giant red, green and white Jordanian flag tugs heavily at the lines of its pole, unfurling grandly across the sky. On the waterfront beneath, men laze around in swim shorts, smoking, and women in head scarves and ankle length black tobes bathe timidly in rubber rings, floating in the shallows.


In the morning I climb from the coast, into the wind, towards gleaming brown hills. The air rushes towards the sea, strengthening as it is funneled between two great walls of dark rock that overhang the road, and I push helplessly against it. For hours I am in the shadows of the shear granite embankments, the pedals faltering beneath my feet. The wheels turn more easily as the great masses of rock fall away into plains of light red dust. Here, the only remnants of the mountains are irregular outcrops, protruding from the sands like smashed teeth, visible for miles across the flats.


There is a camel galloping by the road, kicking up plumes of blood-orange dust as its heavy hooves pound the sands. The cameleer, in a frayed shemagh and flowing grey robes, waves from the saddle, and yells for me to speed up. I draw level and we begin to race. The camel tears forward, and the telephone wires and the ochre rocks and the grains of Jupiter sands, die away behind us. The camel’s strides start to shorten, its rider starts to smile and I leave them panting in the heat.


I ride on, past intermittent plain villages of low stone houses, and sprawling complexes of corrugated warehouses, full of containers and waiting trucks, towards higher land, up into sandstone hills, under the midday sun. The road climbs out from the plains, and the desert below becomes empty and vast; the little villages are swallowed up in the sands; the road behind narrows to a thread; the rocky outcrops fade like freckles on a retreating face, until, from the top, all I can see is a blank wilderness below.


I have no water and I stop at a police post to fill up the bottles. Three men sit in armchairs watching an Egyptian movie. They pull up a chair and give me tea, and when I get up to go, they pretend to arrest me until I have another glass. The King’s Highway branches from the main road here, rolling over dusty uplands, towards Petra. The hills are dry and sparsely vegetated; the only inhabitants Bedouin herdsmen. I see their camps from the road; long tents of heavy, hemp-like cloth sitting in the hollows, a beaten-up Mitsubishi buggy outside, and on the slopes around, men in red and white shemaghs shepherding their goats. As I near Petra the shallow hills condense into dark mounds of bare rock, shedding the scree and scrub that covered the land a little to the south. The sun is dropping from the rose horizon and I ride through a quiet little village, down a steep hill, to Wasi Musa, and the edge of the rock-hewn city.


I spend two days in Petra, amongst the palaces and monastery and tombs of the old Nabataean city. Rough cliffs of deep orange rock have been smoothed and Romanesque columns, stepped sills, winged statues, and terraces decorated with swirling patterns, have been sculpted into the facades; whole cliff faces carved as if they were blocks of wood.

The road gently rises and falls as I ride north to Dana. The village sits on the precipice to a deep sandstone gorge, strewn with pale boulders and thin pine-leafed trees. Many of the houses here are crumbling; their old stone walls collapsing onto the narrow cobbled alleys that wind up the little piece of hillside. I camp on the roof of a small hotel and when I wake the gorge below is filled with cloud. I continue north to Karak, descending into, and rising from, Wadi Hasa, a vast sand-walled canyon. Deep triangular creases are imprinted across the sandstone sides, casting thin veins of shadow, which splinter like tributaries on a map, across the valley walls. There are olive trees growing in the rocky soil between Bedouin encampments at its base. I climb for ten kilometres to where the land plateaus to the north, and reach the towering limestone walls of Karak’s citadel late in the afternoon.

Along the desert highway to Amman the land is more subdued. The tarmac is flat and straight; the only forms on the horizon smoking factories and stale roadside towns. The city is set on a cluster of hills; its slopes filled with wealthy villas; its steep roads thick with traffic.