Short flight from Cyprus to Tel Aviv. Put my bike back together without a hitch. Always a relief. More of a relief not to get a stamp in my passport. An Israeli stamp in your passport does not go down well with Arab nations. It will deny you entry into Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen. Not many of those countries are exactly high on my bucket list. That said I would love to cycle in Iran. However diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran are so poor at the moment I could only go on an organised tour anyway. I am planning to head down through East Africa and Sudan is en-route. So for this reason I was grateful that Israeli immigration now simply provide you with an immigration slip (blue card) on arrival instead of stamping your passport. Cycled from the airport on strangely quiet streets before hitting the promenade at Jaffa in downtown Tel Aviv. Beautiful morning. Not a cloud in the sky. Plenty of cyclists but not a lot of pedalling. The locals prefer motorised cycles so they can whizz along without trying. Shocked at how expensive everything is in Israel. More expensive than London. It's not often you can say that. I'm going to have to get back on the noodles.
Day off in Tel Aviv. Might seem a bit early for a day off but the trip didn’t begin here. I did a little warm up by cycling across Europe. Just to stretch the legs before the Middle East and Africa. When I left London I was actually heading for Morocco and West Africa. I must have a poor sense of direction. Either that or I have exorcised the perk to make it up as I go along. Cycling down through France I decided to hang a left, went down the leg of Italy, got a boat across the Adriatic to Albania, nipped into Macedonia, through the mountains in Greece, along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey before getting a boat to Cyprus. Some warm-up. I’m exhausted. I figured cycling down through East Africa would be more interesting, safer and less of a visa jungle. Apparently cycling in West Africa you spend as much time in embassies sorting out onward visas as you do cycling. Embassies are dull places. Ask Julian Assange. Spent the day successfully hunting down camping gas, wandering around the back alleys and side streets of the old city of Jaffa and drinking schnapps with Swedish backpackers.
Got going today. Heading for Jerusalem. Ploughed through the suburbs of Tel Aviv but it wasn't long before i was out in the open and winding my way up through sparse forests towards Jerusalem. Obviously there are ethical concerns with visiting a country with such a dubious foreign policy as Israel. We are all well aware of the conflict between the people of Israel and the people of Palestine. To me however it is not a case of placing my principles to one side. I long ago decided to never judge a country by it’s leaders. Nor by it’s government. No government has ever spoken for me. I remember a couple of times in Argentina feeling the need to apologise for my country's actions in the Falkland islands. I remember how irritated I felt with being lumbered with the policies of Maggy bloody Thatcher. Visiting a country is not supporting its regime. Forming opinions on countries from what you read in the news is a dicey business. It rarely leads anywhere close to the truth. I’m here to see with my own eyes and meet the people in the places in between going about their everyday. Or to put it another way I prefer Nick Cave to Brian Eno. Camped in the Aminadav forest close to Jerusalem. Wild camping here is legal and positively encouraged. It is popular amongst the Israelis. There are an abundance of park tables and springs to be found amongst the peace of the pines where you can pitch your tent no questions asked.
A memorable day. I realise how bored I have been cycling across Europe. The cycling is often excellent but everything is so familiar my interest dwindles. Now, in the middle east for the first time, where even the air smells different, I find my interest (and as a result my motivation to cycle) reawakened. Headed straight for the old city of Jerusalem. A fascinating place to amble around regardless of your religion or beliefs. Wandered into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Resting place of a man named Jesus. Before he decided he was the resurrection. Being Christmas Eve it was busy. A couple of hundred people enjoying quiet contemplation. That is until I made a racket with my cleats echoing off the stone floors. I mouthed 'Sorry' in all directions whilst removiing my shoes. Took a walk down the Via Dolorosa. The route a man named Jesus took on his way to the Cross. Falafel shops, currency exchange booths and tattoo parlours. Then to Calvary where a man named Jesus was crucified. I tried not to think of Monty Python but i couldn't help it. For life is quite absurd and deaths the final word. Truly fascinating to wander around the sites that gave birth to a religion. From there I headed to the outskirts of the city along a barbed wire wall that represents the 'border' between Palestine and Israel. Can there be a more depressing site than a border wall? I ask you Donald. I was expecting some rigorous passport check at the crossing but I sailed straight over without a question. There are zones within zones in Palestine each with their own restrictions and security level. Later on I passed through a checkpoint where Israeli citizens are forbidden to travel but i received a warm welcome. I don't think they see many cycle tourers in Palestine. I got a few double takes passing through each village. The kids cheered me along. A man rolled down his window to hand me an orange but I dropped it. Camped in an orchard next to a dried up river.
Christmas morning, West Bank, Palestine. In recent years I have enjoyed Christmas in Guatemala, Morocco, Hong Kong, Patagonia but none stranger than cycling in a dust bowl in Palestine. Difficult to breathe going uphill but with the sun bursting through the dust was tinged with gold as I meandered through the hills. The dust eventually cleared. The cycling here on the West Bank is surprisingly excellent. Not a flat road in sight. Lots of short, sharp climbs with wide panoramas from the top of the rocky wilderness all around. Twice I was pulled over by locals just so they could thank me for visiting Palestine and wondering if they could help in any way. A third guy pulled me over to say 'Rain is coming. 12 o'clock. Crazy rain. Rain for three days.' I was heading to Nablus anyway to Skype the family so I checked the forecast. Not quite 3 days but there was a flood warning for tonight. I didn't want to be camping in that and it is Christmas Day after all. Checked into a hotel in the old city of Nablus. Enjoyed a christmas dinner of bread and humus.
If I meet again the Palestinian who gave me the rain warning I will buy him a falafel. I tend not to bother checking the weather forecast. I prefer to live in blind optimism that tomorrow will be lovely rather than know it's going to tip it down for the next four days. I'm just going to cycle anyway. When a local takes the bother to pull you over and announce 'crazy rain is coming' it is wise to take heed. Also a healthy reminder not to believe everything we see on a screen. The online forecast predicted heavy rain that day but that it would then clear up. The locals kept telling me '3 days crazy rain' and that's exactly what we got. Always trust local knowledge over what you see on a screen. Mind you I asked one of the locals how he knew it was going to rain for 3 days and he just waved his phone at me. Must know a better website than I do. If it wasn't for the good Palestinian I would be a tent in the middle of nowhere, spooning out water, whilst rationing my biscuit supply. The heavens opened overnight and it just kept coming. The hotel owners told me they hadn't seen anything like it in years. They get an occasional day of soft rain but 3 days of it was an event. People only ventured outside to take photos of the rain. Shops closed. At the hotel staff scurried around with buckets trying to stem leaks. The walls rattled, the wind howled and I watched it all from a cafe across the road smoking hookahs, drinking chai and losing at backgammon to a bunch of Palestinian students keen to improve their English.
The rain finally relented a little and I set off heading north to Nazareth. It was a bit of a gamble as it was still very grey but i was getting bored. The gambled paid, it only rained a little, but the roads were a mud-bath and my newly clean cycling clothes were soon caked in dirt. At the border town of Jenin I stopped at a bakery and asked for 5 loaves of kmah (round bread). The guy gave me 15 and refused payment. I had a thorough bag check at the border. There is a lot more security going from Palestine to Israel than vice-versa. Back into Israel I tried to take a short cut along a dirt track but it proved to steep and rocky and I had to give it up. Peaceful camping spot though so I called it a day.
Today was a wholly unnecessary but excellent day. I really should be making my way south but I headed north into the hills in the north east of Israel close to the Syrian border. When your next goal is a thousand kilometres south it can play on your mind to be heading in the opposite direction but the whole point is to explore the countries I go to. The destination can wait. I rarely regret adding on days to my journey and today was no exception. Cycled into Nazareth, had coffee, headed north into the mountains before dropping back down to the Sea of Galilee. Not really a sea. A freshwater lake and the lowest one on earth. It was here that a man named Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. From there I took a sharp climb up with views out over into Jordan before dropping down and following an awesome border road that wound alongside the Jordan river. At the end of the day I headed inland to find a spring marked on my map and set up camp.
My last day in Israel/Palestine. I have enjoyed my short time cycling here. An interesting place to spend Christmas and see first hand places we only ever see on the news and often for all the wrong reasons. I few people on both sides of the fence have spoken to me about the troubles. There is clearly no love lost and with neither side willing to give up the smallest right the road to peace will be loooong.