Albanian Alps part 1

 

Ciao to my good friends Adam and Molly, they treated me like family!

Ciao to my good friends Adam and Molly, they treated me like family!

Departing Montenegro I climbed back into the interior and pedaled the coast of Shkoder lake. Leaving the sea, the interior was warm and humid. Spring is in full swing over here; frogs, snakes, and fireflies mate in the luke-warm, reed infested waters and tourist flock to the waterside hotels. Near the lake train tracks began to parallel the road and the scent of creosote brought back youthful memories of playing basket ball with my brother. This is Montenegro’s fertile region, I pass farm after farm and the warm moist air warns me that the mosquitos at dusk will be more than friendly. After spending my last few euros on some bread and burek I ride a dirt path to explore my camping options. Girls out here a so shy that they can’t even talk to me, when asked directions or information, they usually giggle for a few minutes followed by blushing before I give up and pedal off, almost like being in China already.

Albania is fascinating. This is the only border I have crossed in Europe where there is a distinct difference between countries. Farmers guide horse-drawn carts, donkeys plow barren fields, and farmers along with fishermen sell live fish and produce on the sidewalks. There is a huge Mercedes-Benz presence here. Word has it that Albanians are exempt from certain fees, and early census is that 7 out of ten cars here are Mercedes. The small towns have a very West Bank feel, where most of all good are sold in open stalls or on the streets. The sidewalks are packed with locals going about their business, and I am constantly whistled at.

I have been getting by on my limited Croatian vocabulary.  No one speaks English or any Arabic, and when I speak Croatian, they respond in Italian! I guess neither of us have a good grasp on a diplomatic language, but it works. Food has also changed quite a bit, pilaf is the local favorite, which is rice cooked in lamb fat, spices and onions, topped with lamb sausage, super tasty!! The other popular dish is beans served on top of spaghetti noodles. I remember cooking this dish for my girlfriend in Santa Monica and she told me that no where in the world was this acceptable…Go to Albania.

My mission to the Alps begins today. There is over 2 meters of snow on the road, so my proposed plan of hiking between the villages of Thethi and Valbona is out of the question. Thethi is the most remote village in all of Europe, and although I will be making a roundtrip it is worth the effort to see the cultures of remote regions. There is also a ferry that travels on Komani lake, north to Valbona. The trip takes about 6 hours and passes through Albania fjords! This is my rough itinerary for the next few days, I am carrying 3 times my normal amount of local currency because I may need to sleep indoors if it gets too cold. All in all I am excited to pedal into the remote, today will be over 1,500 meters of climbing in the snow.

Will write again soon, I hope without the pictures you could draw a nice picture of the country. If not part 2 will be loaded, To be continued with good vibes!               Insha’Allah -Julian Wong

DCIM101GOPRO

 

From Sarajevo to the Coast of Montenegro

Long, desolate roads of central Montenegro

Long, desolate roads of central Montenegro

I feel so alive! I have just climbed through the remote central mountains of Montenegro and have arrived in the ancient capital city of Cetinje. Wandering through the limestone paved promenade I befriend two beautiful women, and am invited to jazz and drinks at the local bar. We lounge together in the park and smoke spliffs in the afternoon sunlight.

Mountains don't move for roads up here

Mountains don’t move for roads up here

Earlier while climbing out of Sarajevo I passed the historic “tunnel spasa”, a 1 km tunnel dug during the Bosnia war, connecting the UN territories in the south with those under siege (north). The current tunnel goes right underneath the international airport, and is one of Bosnia’s most nationalist sites. The southern entrance was turned into a museum, with artifacts, pictures and plaques depicting the use of the tunnel in 1993-95. The northern entrance however, is underneath an abandoned house, with nothing but short chain link fences to keep curious visitors from entering.  I visited both, and found the abandoned northern entrance to really capture the image of a war-time, safe house. Humanitarian aid, weapons, family members, children and the wounded passed through this tunnel for close to 2 years and was the Bosnian lifeline in and out of the capital city.

Northern entrance to spasa tunnel was below the floors of this abandoned hardware store

Northern entrance to spasa tunnel was below the floors of this abandoned hardware store

The tunnel was dug directly underneath the airport and was used to transport weapons and aide to the brave Bosnians holding on to their capital city

The tunnel was dug directly underneath the airport and was used to transport weapons and aid to the brave Bosnians holding on to their capital city

DCIM101GOPRO

The daily rain, hail and wind storms stopped briefly and gave me a small window to cross the mountains into Montenegro. I had three days to get to the coast before another storm came in and I advantageously pedaled through the mountains with new gear supplied by local Bosnians met while living in the city. I was quickly replayed for my medical services preformed on the Bedouin in the remote deserts of Jordan, and met a Muslim man who worked with the hospital who refilled my first aid kit . He taught me two important Arabic words: Sadaqah a virtuous deed, considered proof of ones faith. Nafaqa Something given as maintenance, friendship, consolation or monetary support for loved ones.

Dirt roads heading to the Montenegrin border

Dirt roads heading to the Montenegrin border

A few km into Montenegro, the source of the Drina river

A few km into Montenegro, the source of the Drina river

How interesting it is to be back in Europe, pedaling through thick forests and winding rivers. After my two month tour of the middle east I have become accustomed to vast deserts, rampant dogs, chasing children often throwing rocks, and the ever so present stare while passing villages. In Bosnia there is no such attention or commotion and I can often pass un-noticed. People are beautiful here, they have many characteristics of Arabs, dark skin, brown hair, and high cheek bones, with piercing trance-like green eyes. Some women look like Pashtuns and I reflect on my mysterious route that will pass through central Asia, Western China and Pakistan.

Pashtun looking girl in eastern Bosnia

Pashtun looking girl in eastern Bosnia

The mountains are rocky, and it is almost as if I am back on the Croatian islands where I spent Christmas and New Years. Trees sprout out of the rock, and years of rain and snow have carved valleys and streams within. Although beautiful, most of the eastern Bosnia wilderness remains untouched due to the high volume of unclaimed landmines. The mountains around Sarajevo is the most problematic and still have over 100,000 uncharted mines. Signs often warn hikers and visitors of the dangers when traveling in these areas but every year somewhere between 20-30 people die, and close to a hundred injured. Locals seem to have an interesting perspective on the mines in that to them it dampens development and construction in the rural countryside and forests. Many have told me that if it weren’t for the mines there would be little countryside. After learning the Bosnian dialog for the detailed conversation, many Bosnians would explain to me that there weren’t any mines on their land or in the forests near their homes, but that I could camp, fearing that this could lead to future development.

The rocky coast of Montenegro. In the summer you can swim in 60 degree waters and view snow capped mountains

The rocky coast of Montenegro. In the summer you can swim in 60 degree waters and view snow capped mountains

I entered Montenegro and followed the dirt roads along the Drina river, a very popular area for river rafting. The water is supposedly potable as well, but after my experiences in Norway and Poland, I decided to stick with the tap or fountains in and around the local mosques. The Islamic procedure for washing before prayer is called Abdest (Bosnian) or Wudu (Arabic). The fountains are a great place to defrost your hands after long, cold descents as well as replenish your water supply. I am slowly learning the customary prayer etiquette and should be proficient to visit mosques throughout Turkey, Central Asia and the middle east as a practitioner soon.

The city of Kotor, trapped within a huge bay

The city of Kotor, trapped within a huge bay

I experienced a big difference in culture between the Montenegrins and Bosnians at the border. Rain clouds had covered the sky, and I asked the Bosnian officials if they knew the report, their response “Akobogda” also known as “Inshallah” in Arabic, meaning “God willing”. About 20 meters down the road talking now with the Montenegrin officials I was told the exact weather report for the next three days, including the high and low temperatures in the mountains and valleys. I think I like the Bosnian response better, I thought as I, after drinking close to a half bottle of Rakija, (Explained in more detail in the youtube film) pedaled up steep mountains toward the Adriatic sea.

I have had several opportunities stay on the Balkan coast, photo very similar to Krk island in Croatia

I have had several opportunities stay on the Balkan coast, photo very similar to Krk island in Croatia

Montenegro is more like Norway than any other country I have visited (other than Norway). Mountains scarred and corroded by centuries of storms have become worn to sharp peaks defining the horizon. Roads unable to climb and descend the rough terrain tunnel through the rock and travel over streams hundreds of meters below. Tunnels however, are a bit different from Norway, with no alternate bike routes, and little if any lighting, making the journey a lot like pedaling into a black hole. I choose roads that see little traffic, and often are unpaved and un-kept. I sleep in the wilderness and listen to the sound of the wind bringing the rain and the echo of cow bells in the distance.

I have become no stranger to snow

I have become no stranger to snow

Cetinje, the ancient capital of Montenegro, has some of the best Feng Shui in the Balkans.  Snow capped mountains give way to a rich, fertile valleys covered with oak trees and pieced by ice-cold rivers. The modern capital of Podgorica is no more than 30 km to the south and the destination, summer beach city of Budva is only 25 km to the west. Cetinje also has a very small town feel, two art and music academies bring concerts and galleries to the city and the countryside offers lots of hiking, camping and outdoor activities. Put Cetinje on your list if you plan on visiting Montenegro.

More clear skies and beautiful water than I have seen I a long time

More clear skies and beautiful water than I have seen I a long time

Pedaling down to the coast a storm blew in and I traveled through periods of snow, hail, rain and the infamous “Bura” cold northern winds. I literally froze making braking an extremely arduous task, but I arrived safely to meet up with my new friends. The world is a small place, I have connected with tow Californian friends, Adam and Molly, from Escondido and am now staying in an apartment overlooking the ocean. It is nice to reminisce about So-Cal culture and argue about where to get the best burrito! Moly is a fellow banana slug (UCSC college graduate) and Adam went to University of San Francisco, the Jesuit school in the hills behind Haught and Ashbury. Last night we talked for hours about the Jesuit practice and Adam shared several interesting stores about his education experience. Jesuits are fascinating, historically known as violent priests, they have more recently pushed Catholicism in a more progressive direction and devote most of their life helping humanity rather than trying to converting it.

Sveti Stejpan resort south of Przno

Sveti Stejpan resort south of Przno

We are staying in the beach city Przno, 10 km south of Budva. There is little more than a small grocery store and several small apartment buildings situated in a secluded cove. The largest building is the Casino which awaits the warm tourist season to generate most its revenue. South of Przno lies a small island resort called Sveti Stejpan connected to the coast by a sandy causeway. The private island, which looks more like a facility/institution from shore, offers rooms for several thousand euros a night, and has a clientele varying from ex-presidents to porn stars.

Going strong, this was a pretty bad storm, but I sure felt alive

Going strong, this was a pretty bad storm, but I sure felt alive

I am now drinking Arabic tea, with Egyptian sugar, sheltered from the rain and wind in the cove of Przno, overlooking the Mediterranean…..Sunsets soon so Ciao from Montenegro!

 

 

 

Life passing like a train

Skakavac waterfall, just outside of Sarajevo

Skakavac Large waterfall outside of Sarajevo

Spring awaits exploration

Spring awaits exploration

I am strong again. The hole in my ear drum has fully healed and I no longer wake up to pus and blood stains on my pillow. This sickness was pretty bad, and I would have to rate it as one of the worst I have experienced. There was a period of about 10 days where I thought I might never hear out of my left ear again, and I quickly realized how many things in life I take for granted.  I am so thankful to be able to travel the world again. While recuperating I wondered Sarajevo through and through. I would often find myself glancing up at the remote mountains or snowed peaks always dreaming of camping in the countryside. Life on the road is hard, but I thoroughly missed it. I have met lots of interesting people here in; bars, restaurants, wilderness trails, and bus stops, all of them seem excited to talk with me and offer interesting perspectives on life. There is no limit to the amount of human interaction one can experience while traveling alone, all borders are self-imposed. I at times grow weary of the recurring conversation of my trip, and at times decide to remain quiet. We are fearful of leaving the current in the stream, and it is so much easier to continue the path that pulls us.

Abandoned and destroyed by the war, Olympic hotel on Mt. Ingman

Abandoned and destroyed by the war, 5 star hotel built for the 1984 Olympics on  Mt. Ingman

Common warning throughout the Bosnian countryside, "Danger Land Mines!"

Common warning throughout the Bosnian countryside, “Danger Land Mines!”

DCIM101GOPRO

As early as I can remember, I have looked at the palm of my right hand. In some way it has been a sort of recurring obsession, not unlike the portrait of Dorian Grey. Palm reading is rather popular in Asian traditions, and since I was a boy I had healers foretell the creases in my hand. My “life-line” has a large gap in it, meaning “that I will choose or change directions in my life, or will have a short life span”. This has always been a sign of some concern to my father and at one point he even told me to start closing my hand in a different way, hoping to change the lines, gradually get them to intersect. No amount of technique could change the lines, and it has taken me close to 25 years to really understand what it all means: Get over yourself and your fucking ego. Thoughts, fears, feelings, insecurities don’t make you a unique snow flake, these are things that we all share. I have too often made the excuse that ” I am special”, but the rest of the world feels the same way. We are not as important as we want to be, we are all just pieces of thread from the same clothe. I felt like the Bedouin in Egypt and Jordan were way ahead of me with these ideals, and were able to take life less seriously because of it.

I am changing gears. The last 4-6 months have been spent wandering, awaiting warmer conditions to pedal east. It is now the time…Asia awaits. Thank you all for the “Get well soon” wishes, and I now ready to pedal out of Europe.

More human than a human

My first thoughts while pedaling out of the Sarajevo international airport were “What happened to the Middle East”. Where are the dusty dirt roads, filled with muddy pot holes? Where are the Arabic men squatting on sidewalks smoking cigarettes and drinking sweat tea? Or the hordes and hordes of spice and tobacco shops? I am ready to get back to a different culture than the one I came from. My thoughts as I drifted through the midnight streets were that I needed to quickly pedal out of Europe, the sooner the better. It seems that the more countries I pedal through, and the more people I meet only increases my appetite to continue wandering the world.

I have become sick. My body, once strong and fearless is now surviving on one meal a day and close to 14 hours of sleep. My ear infection became worse, and there were few days where I thought my head was going to explode. The accumulation of pus and mucus in my inner ear was so voluminous that the doctor had to make a small incision to relieve the pressure. The process of making a hole in my inner ear was one of the most painful experiences I have been through. It took three nurses to hold me down while a needle was forced into my ear, slowly with the use of a vacuum, the fluid drained from my head. The whole time my body was tense with pain, and the loud sound of the instruments echoed in my head.

The healing process is slow and painful, I am experiencing vertigo for the first time. I once had a religious yoga practice and the fear of losing/dislodging crystals within my inner ear (Vertigo) always scared me because it would keep me from doing many of the balancing poses in my practice. Now just looking up at the sky and back down to the ground makes me noxious. The noxious feeling is the same feeling when one drinks too much alcohol, and is on the verge of vomiting. So daily it feels as if I am close to vomiting. Also, to make matters worse, while the ear heals I am left with an almost unbearable ringing sound day and night. Some nights I wake up and ringing is so loud that I start to cry, I remind myself to be strong, strong, strong and to have patience. I think of my father and his struggle with heart disease, and how calm he always was.

I have taken up painting as therapy, some nights when I can’t sleep I paint water-color pictures of the middle east or the Dalmatian coastline. I don’t know how long I will be off the bicycle, but I am patiently waiting for my return to adventure. I have found a nice quiet spot to rest and rest I do. This is by far my most depressing post to date, but my will strong and there is nothing that can keep me from pedaling the rest of the way to China.

I put together a few videos, one from my adventures to Feynan village. I hope to be back to this level soon :)

 

 

Farwell to the Middle East

Yasser Arafat mausoleum Ramallah, Palestine

Yasser Arafat mausoleum
Ramallah, Palestine

The last few days have been absolutely crazy, and now I am going on close to 48 hours of no sleep. Israeli security at the Tel Aviv airport is so difficulty that I almost wasn’t able to catch my flight back to Bosnia, for anyone who plans on bicycle touring Israel fly in and out of Jordan, and don’t wrap your headscarf around your fathers ashes. The marathon 48 hours began when I departed Hebron and pedaled the expressway into Tel Aviv. It was the day before my flight to Bosnia and I needed to get bike box and find a place to sleep somewhere close to the airport. The road into Tel Aviv was busy and I met a bike messenger who invited me to stay with him and his friends in his apartment downtown. Pumped, I decided that I would go all out and figure a way to pedal to the airport the next day.

My Rabbi host for the Purim festivities, Danny Cohen, Hebron West Bank

My Rabbi host for the Purim festivities, Danny Cohen, Hebron West Bank

Tel Aviv has a very Pasadena like feel. Riding around I could feel the ocean breeze, and was thankful to be away from the deserts of the east. I befriended the owner of a pizza restaurant, and was quickly invited to drinks and food. I go so carried away that I almost forgot about getting the box and barely made it to the bike shop before closing.  Planning on returning to the shop en-route to the airport, I stashed the box in the recycle bin, then pedaled to my new friends house.

Islamic art found on the Jewish only settlements in Hebron

Islamic art found in the Jewish only settlements in Hebron

Great company and lots of interesting conversation, hours passed while we talked of religion, politics, psychology, and even touching the subject of woman’s Buddhism in Burma! We stayed up till sunrise and smoked the local tobacco. I has been an ongoing challenge of mine to figure out a way to get to the airport under bicycle power, I had several attempts in the past but always got intimidated by the size of the bicycle box.  I first thought about carrying the box under my arm, but with all the luggage on the front rack it takes too much muscle to keep Gaby straight. With a little jerry rigging I was able to figure a way to rope and bungee the box to Gaby and pedaled an insanely busy  30 km on the expressway to the airport.

DCIM101GOPRO

It is possible to get to the airport with a box under pedal power, even in Tel Aviv

It is possible to get to the airport with a box under pedal power, even in Tel Aviv

A slow ride, it took me over an hour to get to the airport riding mostly on the shoulder of the busy highway. On several occasions I had to merge through traffic, on busy interchanges, but all in all I was never honked at or the subject of any rage. To keep my mind off of the traffic,  I would constantly remind myself that everything would be easy and stress free once I arrived at the airport, but things turned out quite the opposite. Pulling up to the departure terminal I was the only man with a smile, and it quickly faded. On suspicion that I was carrying a bomb, Gaby was quickly confiscated and I had to wait close to 30 minutes for the police to go through all my stuff, then… I left Gaby unattended for close to 30 seconds while I tried to get some tape, and had her confiscated a second time. After 10 minutes of verbal abuse, she was given back to me a second time, “You can not be more than 5 meters away from your luggage”, these guys were so strict about their rules I wouldn’t be surprised if security walked around with tape measures. While packing Gaby my Allen wrench tool broke, and I was in despair for close to 45 minutes!! None of the security or personnel would even talk to me anymore, and when I asked them to call maintenance to see if they had any tools, they refused and gave me the cold shoulder. To make things worse I was literally guarded so that I could not walk away from the bike and gear, I was trapped with a half dismantled bicycle in the Tel Aviv airport. Finally I borrowed a cellphone, and was told by the airline that the next available flight to Bosnia was in 3 weeks and that I would loose all my frequent flier miles if I missed my scheduled departure. I took a deep breath and accepted the fact that I was pretty much screwed, without proper tools I could not get Gaby to fit in the box, and I only had 30 minutes to check the box before departure. I called my bike messenger friends and then said they could bring tools but it would take them close to an hour to arrive. My thoughts returned to Saudi Arabia, if I don’t make this flight, I told myself I will just pedal to Saudi Arabia and forget about ever returning to Israel. Just then a Bedouin man passed driving a floor waxer and strangely enough…. he had a few Allen wrenches with him.

Mihrab, place of prayer in the Abraham cave, Hebron

Mihrab, place of prayer in the Abraham cave, Hebron

I raced, taking off the fender, front rack, stem, front wheel and pedals and packed everything together in the box. I dragged the box, my bags and panniers through the busy airport to the check-in counter, but before I could check in I was met by a different team of security guards.

-Where have you been? “Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank and Israel”

-Have you had any relations with Arabs or Palestinians during your visit?  “No” (I lied)

-Are you Muslim? Why are you flying to Bosnia? “No”, “Vacation”

 By far the best thing in Jerusalem, Temple Mount hanging with my homie Ariel

By far the best thing in Jerusalem, Temple Mount hanging with my homie Ariel

They let me pass and I was able to get my ticket, however just before checking the box  security steeped up and wanted me to open the box and remove all the contents out. Fuck!! I took me close to ten minutes to tape the shit out of the box and now you want me to unpack!! I humored them, what else could I do. They went through everything and even asked me why I was carrying Egyptian products, tea and spices.  The flight was to have already departed but the head of security made a phone call, (This was the best thing other than the Allen wrench from the Bedouin that happened to me all day). Finally done with the bicycle box I proceed to security, and put my bag through the x-ray machine, just as the bag comes out I hear the words “Keffiyeh” (Headscarf). Damn, this never ends!! I had slipped, and I was either too tired or my brain just wasn’t functioning because I wrapped Baba’s ashes, out of respect, in Jordanian headscarf, and now nothing was more suspicious the contents of my bag. Again, the same interrogating questions, “its only ash”, I said, “there is nothing dangerous in my bag”. Three separate chemical tests are done, and I wait, “I am never flying into or out of Israel again” I tell myself. Security asks me again about the contents found wrapped in the Keffiyeh. Inside the box of ashes there are several images of my father and an image of the Buddha. I am tired and ready to give up, I just want to go home!!! I look them in the eye, my eyes are watering from frustration “This is religious ash sacred to my belief in Buddhism, it is not dangerous or harmful in anyway, and I am ready to board my flight”. They spoke amongst themselves for a few minutes, then let me go.

Border between the Muslims and Jews, Hebron

Border between the Muslims and Jews,
Hebron

I was the last one on the plane, and everyone was a bit frustrated about waiting for a sole person. Fuck it, I made it!! I quickly stopped the stewardess and ordered a whiskey on the rocks and passed out!

Earlier on: I had a great time partying on “Purim”, the Jewish equivalent to Halloween. In January, I connected with a Rabbi in Hebron and was invited to join his family and friends for the holiday. Hebron, a city in the West Bank (Palestine) has a small settlement of about 800 Jews. The city has a history of violence and I knew that by staying in the settlement I would get an interesting perspective on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Arriving at mid-day, I pedaled through a parade of orthodox Jews dancing and swigging bottles of wine and whiskey.  Huge meals of chicken, meat balls, hummus, egg plant and bread were prepared. Women and men sit at different tables, and it is improper for me to shake hands with a women.  I felt very welcome, and got an interesting view of what it is like to live in a settlement. The Jews here are very close with one another and at times I almost felt like I was staying with a sort of tribe. Not a common site in California, everyday I watched them wrap their arms with tefillin and pray. Prayers are done in the direction of Jerusalem, and many bob side to side and front to back when praying, almost as if listening to dance music.

Mor

Morning prayer

The drinking went on for two straight days, and I had several heated debates about the treatment of Arabs in Israel. It is not surprising to see civilian men carrying guns on their belts and automatic rifles stacked in the corner of the room. Israeli checkpoints are found throughout the Jewish settlement and randomly cars with Arab license plates are pulled off the highway for inspection. Neither Jew nor Muslim is allowed to cross into the other territory, and there is very little communication between the two groups. On one situation, while departing the settlement I was asked by a Palestinian boy what it is like in the settlement. The cave of Abraham (one of the most religious places to both religions) lies between the two districts, and a retaining wall splits the building into Synagogue and Mosque.

Bethlehem is the hilliest city in Israel, and pedaling to a remote monastery in the desert I constantly climbing steep hills only to find myself descending and climbing again. I camped in a valleys and listened to Hyenas and Kalashnikovs throughout the night. I really enjoyed visiting the St. Saba orthodox monastery, and when visiting the Nativity Church I lucked out and was able to visit the place of Jesus’s birth without waiting in the long line.

I am back in Bosnia and headed for Northern Montenegro and on to Kosovo. Currently resting an ear infection and hope to be on the road again in the next few days.

Location of Jesus' birth, Bethlehem

Location of Jesus’ birth,
Bethlehem

Entrance to the cave of Abraham, Mosque Hebron

Entrance to the cave of Abraham, Mosque Hebron

Banner in the Jewish Settlement, Hebron

Banner in the Jewish Settlement, Hebron

Another blocked walkway between the Muslim and Jewish districts in Hebron

Another blocked walkway between the Muslim and Jewish districts in Hebron

A modern day apartheid, rooftop in Hebron

A modern day apartheid, rooftop in Hebron

Stone work in the Mosque of Araham

Stone work in the Mosque of Abraham

Secrets of the Dead Sea (Qumran, Ein Gedi, Masada, and Jerusalem)

DCIM100GOPRO

Worst mosquitos ever!! I am camping about 20 meters from the Dead Sea, and can’t for the life of me figure out why there are so many mosquitos. Their appetite rivals the mosquitos in Alaska, and by the time I set up my tent I have bites on top of bites. Too scared to leave the tent I eat a cold meal of cucumbers and pita bread and fall asleep to the buzz around me.

Gethsemane Church, Mt. of Olives Jerusalem

Gethsemane Church, Mt. of Olives Jerusalem

I am pedaling the beaches of the dead sea again, this time on the Israel/Palestinian side. The northern beaches are long a flat and mostly fenced off by the Israeli military, fearing that Jordanians will swim across to the Zionist state. Border checks are ever so present, as it is illegal for almost all Palestinians to leave their home city! (Literally an open air prison). After being stopped and interrogated about why I am carrying a bag of tea with Arabic writing, I head south to the historic city of Masada, the last Jewish settlement during the second temple period.

Ancient Mountain city of Masada, this is the location where the Romans lay siege to the city

Ancient Mountain city of Masada, this is the location where the Romans lay siege to the city

The historic story of Masada as told by a recently sponsored archeological study: It is the middle of the first century C.E, Jerusalem is in flames and the temple has just been destroyed by the Romans. The Sicarii, one of the last groups of Jewish rebels, fled the holy city and relocated at the top of a nearby mountain city, Masada, built earlier by the Roman leader Herod the great. 30 km north of Masada, on the coast of the Dead Sea, lay the famous Roman Perfume factory of Ein Gedi. The Perfume produced in the factory during the time was world renown, and so famous that even Cleopatra had commissioned her own scent from the perfumer. It is hypothesized that 1/3 of the entire Roman Empire fortune came from the sale of Ein Gedi perfume! In an attempt to incur as much damage as possible to the Roman empire the Masada rebels burned down the factory and kidnapped the perfume maker . Rome then sends over 100,000 soldiers to attack the small city and return the perfumer. It takes the Roman’s several weeks to engineer a method of attack for the mountainous city of Masada. Completely surrounded and outnumbered, (the total rebel population at Masada was about 1,000), the Jews decided upon mass suicide. When the Romans breached the city walls in 73 CE there was no one left alive.

Salt beaches on the Dead Sea

Salt beaches on the Dead Sea

Hiking to the top of Masada, I spent several hours exploring the ancient city and returned to my bicycle to find a nice Bedouin admiring my “smock”. He invited me to dinner with the owner of the restaurant and I spent a nice evening listening to stories of the middle east and central Asia, (I am completely pumped on cycling through Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Stans). After dinner, Gal, the owner, gave me two large grocery bags and told me to “loot” his buffet and restaurant. I ended up pedaling away from Masada with fresh pomegranates, grape fruit, curried potatoes, sweet rice, bread and humus. Thanks Gal! I pedaled to a local hangout on the dead sea, and soaked in hot springs and floated in the saturated waters of the sea. What a strange feeling being in the Dead Sea, I felt like I was the oil in a salad dressing mixture, never really able to mix with the water. When floating, I felt like I was sitting in a bean bag chair, or lying in a recliner chair. The beach had more salt than sand, and while walking to the deep sections of the sea I discovered islands of salt in the shallow waters near the shore. Cutting your feet on sharp salt rocks hurts!! The water was cool but lacked any sense of refreshment.  The hot springs were just as salty as the sea, but the warmth felt better on my skin. At 400 meters below sea level, I was too far from the sun to get burned. Without any fresh water to rinse off I was covered in a thin layer of salt for the next few days.

Popular local hangout, Thermal pools near the Dead Sea.

Popular local hangout, Thermal pools near the Dead Sea.

I then pedaled to Qumran, the city where the dead sea scrolls were found, and slept near a large canyon. Later in the evening, a storm flew in and a flash flood began. I huddled in my sleeping bag for 45 minutes, during the biggest rain storm I have encountered while camping. During the down pour, it was as if I had pitched my tent under a waterfall! The next morning the road was washed out and traffic was halted for a few hours on the Dead Sea highway.

Palestinian girl loves my headscarf!

Palestinian girl loves my headscarf!

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Crosses carved into the stone during the Crusader period.

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A long step climb of over 1,500 meters brought me to Jerusalem. Arriving in the late afternoon I planned to sleep in the Jerusalem forest, but met some locals at a bike shop who invited me to stay with them. Jerusalem is a fantastic city and it is amazing to have so many district cultural districts in close proximity to one another. Tonight I walked through the Jewish Orthodox district only minutes after being in an Arabic neighborhood. In the 3 days I have been here I have visited almost all of the religious sites, from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jesus’ Tomb) to the Western Wall (Jewish holiest of holies) to the Dome of the Rock (3rd holiest place for Muslims). Today I marveled at the Dead Sea scrolls in the Israel Museum and talked with the Curator about the difference/similarities between the scrolls found in the Dead Sea and those found in Nag Hamadi.

Tomb of  Jesus

Tomb of Jesus

Crucifixion site, this stone was repeatedly kissed, every 10 minutes a lady would wipe it clean with a rag and disinfectant

Crucifixion site, this stone was repeatedly kissed, every 10 minutes a lady would wipe it clean with a rag and disinfectant

I am now headed north to the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin before pedaling south to Bethlehem and Hebron.

Last days in the middle east

Byzantium mosaic of the middle east, map includes Nile, Jerusalem, Jericho and Hebron, circa 2nd century

Byzantium mosaic of the middle east, map includes Nile, Jerusalem, Jericho and Hebron, circa 2nd century

the laden lorries frequenting the route. Within 30 minutes my panniers were filled with eggplant, garlic, onions, and tomatoes. Enough for a few days minus the water. The road flowed, then climbed around the sea and I looked into the distance for shade. I stopped near the police station and rested under a road sign, and was invited for tea and coffee with the chief of police. Police in Jordan are athletic and the chief even demonstrated this by carrying Gaby up the stairs into the main office. We joked for close to an hour about Americans and fast food, then hit the road again.

Roadside anise

Roadside anise

The Dead Sea is 400 meters (1,400 feet) below sea level, and as I left the sea and pedaled up to the city of Madaba, I climbed for close to 4 hours. My plan was to get some Bedouin clothes, see Moses’ burial site, then camp in some remote location before dark, but due to the endless climbing I ended up sleeping in the remote mountains, too tired to go on to the city.

Not so fun of a climb with 6 litters of water

Not so fun of a climb with 6 litters of water

The next day, upon entering Madaba, I asked a few locals about Bedouin shops, and met a nice man who was once a taxi driver in New York. Gazi was now baker, and owned a thriving  bakery in the city center He invited me to his house for lunch, introduced me to his family, offered me a shower, and gave me new clothes. He then gave me a trash bag and told me to “throw away” all my current clothes. Later his son took me to the local Bedouin shops, and taught me to make bread. After a long day they gave me a room in their house, and I slept well until the morning call to prayer at 5:30 am. If you wake up to the first call, you might as well get up because the second call is fifteen minutes later.

Gazi and Mohamad my Jordanian family in Madaba

Gazi and Mohamad my Jordanian family in Madaba

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Legendary bread skills

Makeshift roadside sandal repair thanks for the string Carolina

Makeshift roadside sandal repair thanks for the string Carolina

I ate breakfast with the family, filled my panniers with bread and jumped on Gaby for the long road to the Palestinian border. I stopped for lunch at Mt. Nebo, Moses’ burial site, then coasted down the mountain returning again to the Dead Sea. I met some really nice Saudis at Mt. Nebo and as I pedaled towards Palestine I contemplated making a left turn to Saudi Arabia, “In Shala” (if god allows) I said to myself and said good-bye to Jordan.

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It took me over 6 hours to cross into Palestine! Stranded between the two countries I sat in a room full of Palestinians and other Arabs, and watched them pray twice before being called to the interrogation room for the final time. Finally, at close to 9 pm, I was give back my passport and welcomed to the West Bank. It was dark and windy when I pedaled away from the border and I found a hidden nook behind a mound of dirt to pitch the tent.

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I have spent the first half of the day in Jericho, and will be heading to the western side of the Dead Sea to sleep tonight. I fly back to Bosnia on the 21st, and I will write again from Jerusalem, In Shala!

Here’s one from the archives: