Coffee in Palestine

Nicholas Carman1 3801

He insists that it must be cold in Alaska.  “Yes.”  I resist divulging any further details.  My computer is plugged into an outlet shared by a machine stirring an iced drink across the plaza.  A plastic bag containing a 1 kg tub of hummus and a pile of pita bread sits on a bench next to my bike.  Small shop windows encircle the plaza.  This public space is borrowed from a Soviet urban planning guidebook, or from community college design.  The man keeps a shop full of junk best described as a hardware store, but he is offering herbs procured from Arabs over there, looking to a rocky grassy landscape beyond a security fence.  This side of the fence is an orderly collection of homes and a managed pine forest.  The herbs are claimed to cure almost anything, he jests, or so they say.  I ask if he ever goes over there.  Only when going to Jerusalem.  It is 40 minutes this way, much longer to go around.  

I ask, in exact words, “What’s going on over there?”  

“They live with the sheep, the goats.”  

Now he’s trying to sell me a bottle of 100% alcohol.  I inquired; my own fault.  I’ve never seen 100% alcohol and I can’t read the Hebrew label and the price is kind of high.  I return the bottle to the counter.  Ethanol reaches a 96% equilibrium with water at standard temperature and pressure, bolstered only by the presence of benzene or other exciting additions, as I recall to myself.

I continue asking, and he continues to describe the life of Palestinian Arabs with an obsessive focus on the animals they tend, as if the practice of our forebears is anymore admonishable in light of microwavable chicken nuggets and foil-sealed yogurts.  At a high point, he exclaims, “they eat the eggs from the chickens!”  Lael and I look at each other knowingly.

We pass an unmanned gate, like a toll booth, just north of Meitar.  The HLC route circumnavigates Palestine.  To Israelis and much of the world, this is the West Bank.  To Palestinian Arabs, especially those living in the West Bank, this area is unquestionably Palestine.  However, Areas A, B, and C are all administered differently.  About 70% of the West Bank is wholly secured and administered by Israel and the IDF.  This is Area C.  Jewish settlements in Area C of the West Bank are rapidly growing and are encouraged by Israel, creating a Jewish majority in a region which is largely off-limits to the Palestinians living in Areas A and B.  Those areas, on the other hand, prohibit Israelis and are administered by the Palestinian Authority.  In some cases, such as with the security of Area B, the PA and the IDF work jointly.  

Every map of Israel I have seen includes the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights without question.  One map included the land area of Sinai, formerly under authority of Israel, although at least that map indicated the area is part of Egypt.  It reminds us of the tourist map we received when arriving in Serbia.  Where is Kosovo?, we wondered     

We continue uphill on a secondary paved road.  Men stand alongside sheep and goats on the roadside as promised.  Unsanitary water flows downstream toward Israel.  Half-built homes, similar but different than those in Israel, stand tall on the hillside.  Certain adornments and features connect them to homes I’ve seen in Egypt.  We pass a steel gate onto a disused paved road.  A dirt mound blocks the road beyond the gate.  I ask a shepherd if this is the way to Dahariya.  He agrees, repeating the word as it is pronounced locally.  

We enter Dahariya past dozens of auto repair shops, men with greasy hands standing in amusement and awe of two tourists arriving from a closed road by bicycle.  Tourists visit placed like East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, but not Dahariya.

Our eyes focus on the light traffic ahead, our minds peer out the corners at fruit stands and homewares sold in small shops.  Mops and colored plastic buckets are remarkably common in Muslim countries.  Cleanliness, especially clean floors, are a homemaker’s obsession.  The camera remains hidden.  When stopped, I make obvious gestures toward beautiful fruits and taller buildings.  I do my best to act like a tourist.  Everyone wonders, suspects, supposes we are Israeli.  I photograph the street and obvious things, and slide the camera back into the pouch over my shoulder.    

At a major intersection a man confronts us.  He is obviously asking where we come from and where we are going, through basic English.  I pretend not to understand several times to decide how to respond.  I first insist I am from Alaska, from America.  He continues with the exact query.  I admit we have come from Meitar, which doesn’t please him but doesn’t surprise anyone.  A group aged from young boys to old men congregate, each and all with a more polite and positive demeanor than our surly captor.  The next question I don’t understand.  Each time he repeats it I hear the word evrit, which I repeat as a question.  Satisfied at my inability to answer, we are told to come inside.  

We cross the street into a coffee shop, a covered open air space nicely kept with far more space than patrons, printed murals of fresh fruits and cooked meats posted to the walls.  We sit, the two of us and the surly man and another man by my side.  I hate it when Lael is cordoned away from me in a group like this.  She and I sit diagonally from one another, each sitting next to and across from strangers.  It feels like a strategic move, but it couldn’t possibly be the case.  We relax into the absurdity of the situation. 

Four coffees arrive in paper cups, boiling water poured over fine grounds with sugar, the smell of cardamom light but present.  The day reminds me of those cool Sundays in autumn when a sweater is necessary.  It is already late afternoon, springtime in Palestine.  As I finish the first cigarette, a second man offers from his pack, offering fire from his lighter.  Two bottles of water arrive at the table.  The older men inform us apologetically that they do not speak English, in English.  We deny any reason to apologize.  Young men near to my age come and go through the door; most are a little younger, carrying smartphones in their hand.  Someone is fishing the stream of pedestrians on the sidewalk to see if anyone can speak English.  A string of unenthused men arrive and politely ask us where we are from.  We exchange names.  “Welcome”, they say before they exit.  It is a pleasant charade which continues for some time, as the third round of cigarettes are drawn.  Two non-alcoholic malt beverages are brought to the table.  A teenage boy takes the place of the man next to me.  The surly man across from me has lost interest and the round of questioning restarts.  The boy to my right opens the strawberry flavored drink and pours it into two plastic cups.  At the wave of a hand, two packs of chocolate wafers arrive at the table. 

A boy, perhaps thirteen or fifteen years old, is given a smartphone to bring to me.  A Facebook application is blank, awaiting my input.  I type my name, selecting the image of me and Lael in front of our bicycles with the subtext listing my high school.  The boy scans the page and reads the title of a past blog post on my Facebook wall, but all I hear him say is the word Israel.

Lael returns from the bathroom and we stand, shaking as many hands as we can find.  Two boys want to ride the bikes.  They throw a leg over, manage not to fall off as the seatpacks wag side to side, and skid to a stop after a short tour.  They point to the bottle of wine rising from Lael’s feedbag and say whiskey.  “Wine”, I reply.  But the word whiskey comes back at me again and I give up.

Into Dahariya. 

Nicholas Carman1 4069

Leaving the coffee shop.  I am Facebook friends with the young man in the black sweater on the right, and with shepherds in Lesotho, young boys who love Mercedes cars in Albania, and a soldier in Egypt who frequently posts selfies of himself in front of sand colored tanks.  One young boy in Kosovo casually tells me he loves me whenever we chat, but I think the translation is imprecise.  

We turn the corner and stop to consult the GPS.  First, let’s ride out of town.  Then, we’ll figure out where to camp for the night.  It may be easiest to pass back into Israel if we can find a gate.

Nicholas Carman1 4070

Rowdy, but friendly.  Lots of skidding tires.

Nicholas Carman1 3802

Nicholas Carman1 3803

Nicholas Carman1 3804

From Dahariya, we descend back to Israel.

Nicholas Carman1 3805

Nicholas Carman1 3808

The unmistakable skyline of a Muslim village, punctuated by the minaret of a mosque.

Nicholas Carman1 4073

Nicholas Carman1 3809

We pass a small security gate manned by two young soldiers.  We show our passports and are allowed to pass.  Just a few kilometers away we make camp amidst ruins on a grassy knoll.  Tonight, Israel is a quieter and simpler place to camp.

Nicholas Carman1 3810

Nicholas Carman1 4074

Sunrise over Palestine.

Nicholas Carman1 4076

Sandstorm out of the Dead Sea on the HLC, Israel

Nicholas Carman1 3929

At 1200ft below sea level, there is nowhere to go but up.  Into a stiff west wind, we depart from the gas station at Newe Zohar, at the south Dead Sea.  The ascent out of this big hole, the Jordan Valley, comes in three distinct parts.  The first thousand feet are a steep hike up a signed footpath.  The second thousand feet are gained slowly up a wadi along a signed cycling route, which often rides above the drainage on a series of camel trails.  Finally, a dirt road leads up to elevation and to the city of Arad.

Leaving in the afternoon from the sea, we top out by the end of the day.  The wind clouds the sky with earthly particulates, concealing the sun.  The wind slows us to a stubborn crawl.  By the end of the day, we camp by the side of a dirt road, sheltered by a barren hillside near a Bedouin community.

Through Arad the next day, the wind intensifies.  We consider out options and consider the forecast for rain and wind next week, when Christina arrives from Alaska.  

We press on through slowly greening hills, past cherry trees, grasses, grazing sheep.  Riding and pushing another couple hundred feet upwards, we reach the Yatir Forest and the border of Palestine.  Israelis refer to is at the West Bank.  Across that fence is Area C, which is described as being under “full Israeli civil and security control”.  There are no trees on the other side of the fence, only rocky hills and grasses and two communities, each centered around the towering minaret of a mosque.

This is a dusty beautiful place.

A group of seniors are walking the entire INT, one day per week.  They offer to take our bikes on their bus and to house us for the evening.  We can restart in the morning.  Aside from severe wind, I remind Lael that everything else is just fine.  It isn’t raining, it isn’t cold.  She glares at me.  We continue.

A moment later large rain drops begin got fall.  Pushing across a grassy field towards a number of unfinished structures, a pair of eyes and hand emerge from behind a tarp.  A Bedouin shepherd invites us into his camp.  We sit, and have lunch, offering an orange, which he accepts.  He refuses our bread and hummus.  He makes mint tea with sugar.  Lael pulls our her sleeping bag and rests until the rain passes.  We continue.

We camp in the Yatir Forest near a large tent which serves young IDF recruits who are staying for the week to utilize the nearby weapons range.  They sit around the fire on the morning of their departure.  We make coffee on their fire, they make coffee on a gas burner.  They offer cigarettes and a kilo of apples.  Several speak English; the feeling is much like being with a group of young men anywhere.  It reminds me of the night spent in Egypt by the highway, mothered by a group of 22 your old boys.  Other than Lael, there is one other girl around the fire.  

The morning air is clear and the technicolor kaleidoscope of Israel presents itself, an exciting change after two weeks in the desert.  Going to Jerusalem.

Nicholas Carman1 4032

Nicholas Carman1 4046

Nicholas Carman1 4033

Nicholas Carman1 4034

Nicholas Carman1 4035

Nicholas Carman1 4037

Nicholas Carman1 4038

Nicholas Carman1 4039

Nicholas Carman1 4040

Nicholas Carman1 3927

Nicholas Carman1 3928

Nicholas Carman1 3930

Nicholas Carman1 3933

Nicholas Carman1 4042

Nicholas Carman1 4045

Nicholas Carman1 3935

Nicholas Carman1 3937

Nicholas Carman1 3946

Nicholas Carman1 3938

Nicholas Carman1 3941

Nicholas Carman1 3942

Nicholas Carman1 3800

Nicholas Carman1 3806

Nicholas Carman1 4044

Nicholas Carman1 3807

To the Dead Sea on the HLC, Israel

Nicholas Carman1 3881

We complete a circle around the Negev desert with Ilan and Danny, connecting new singletrack from Mizpe Ramon with the now familiar HLC route from Tsofar back to Sde Boker.  Moving north from Sde Boker, we eventually descend 3700ft to the Dead Sea, over 1200ft below sea level.  We ascend an ancient Roman road into a forest along the border of Palestine, we cross paved roads teeming with inexperienced roadies pissing by the roadside on Shabbat asking for snacks from their group’s escort vehicle; we sleep in a cave in a forest park outside Jerusalem and push our bikes through the Old City market in the morning, deflecting questions from Arab vendors about “How much, the bicycle?” while we seek the earthy brown bread they make.  Israel, the Negev, Palestine, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, the West Bank, Area A, Area B, Area C; chalky lime wadimakhtesh, savvanafication and desertification, kibbutzim, fences, farms, forests, 4×4 tracks, and so many signs and trails, but one simple GPS track from north to south, or south to north.  That’s only a few days on the HLC. 

The HLC, as you well know by now, is the annual bikepacking race across Israel from north to south, although it really only becomes an annual race after its second running this April.  By now, you also know our propensity to follow existing routes through new lands, using them as backcountry highways and approximate touristic guides as we slowly peel away the layers of a place.  From scheduled off-pavement touring routes like the Traversée du Massif Vosgien in Alsace, France to rough and tumble footpaths across Poland and the multi-day stage race route across Greece, the Bike Odyssey, we like to know that even when our maps don’t entice us in one way or another, we can continue along a charted path.  These routes aren’t challenges to be accomplished and completed, but sometimes-challenging paths of discovery.  Most of the time, just as we set off across South Africa on the Dragon’s Spine, we don’t really know what we are in for.  Two weeks out of Cape Town I wrote about our growing understanding of strongly institutionalized racism only twenty years after the official dismantling of the Apartheid system, “and I thought I was just bikepacking across South Africa”.  There was a lot more to South Africa than dirt roads.  There are many things you cannot learn from the internet, or from others.  Those are discoveries to be made on the ground.

Seven years ago we looked at dirt routes with curiosity.  Several years ago, we pushed onto dirt almost full time, beating around the bush on an old Schwinn High Sierra and a Surly LHT, but singletrack and true all terrain biking loomed.  Our current bikes, a Surly Krampus and Lael’s secondhand Raleigh XXIX enable access to most of the riding we encounter.    Even so –and we have already spent lots of time on fatbikes– there is a proper fatbike tour in our future.  Places like Namibia, Jordan, Finland, Baja California, Australia, Mongolia, Bolivia, Egypt, and Alaska beckon.  How best to use a bicycle to reach new places?  I’m not ready to abandon the bicycle.  Lael talks about walking.  I think about fat bikes and full suspension and ultralight, perhaps not all at the same time.  Having a bike by my side is a strong habit.  Our current equipment is suitable for about 90% of the riding we can expect to find (including pavement, of course), which makes our bikes reasonable, and as close to perfect as one could ask.  But the other 10% is fascinating.  Maybe it is more than 10%, once the lens of a fatbike is properly focused.  A full-suspension bike is a similar extension, although more a difference in degree than in kind.

As for the HLC route, the riding ranks alongside some of the best explorations we’ve had in Europe and uses a similar mix of well-signed dirt roads and walking trails.  The chance to ride in the desert reminds us of the AZT, but is far less technical.  It is like the Divide, with much less climbing, yet more technical than the endless dirt roads which link Canada and Mexico.  The route includes a mix of recently built IBT singletrack, technical jeep trail, sandy wadi, mellow dirt roads, and just a bit of pavement.  

No, the politics of the region do not present themselves significantly along the HLC, especially not in the desert.  The entire route remains in uncontested Israeli territory, excepting the section in the north in the Golan Heights, which is under full Israeli military control.  Israel is extremely safe.  However, it is not uncommon to see young soldiers with automatic weapons over their shoulders, a duty of their combat training to keep the weapon with them at all times.  Otherwise, overpriced gas station snacks, smooth paved roads, an efficient bus system, and helpful but know-it-all Israelis welcome you as in Germany, or America.  

For anyone interested in a bikepacking challenge in the style of the Tour Divide or the AZTR, airfares to Tel Aviv are very well priced including roundtrip rates from NYC for just over $600, and the bike flies free with Aeroflot.  It is rumored that the great Scott Morris will be there, alongside AZ compadre Max Morris who returns for a second year.  Even Lael is thinking about a nice ten-day riding binge back to the Red Sea.  There may be no other bikepacking race in the world that pushes through the crowded marketplace of an ancient city.  The HLC starts April 9.

From Sde Boker to the south Dead Sea.

Nicholas Carman1 3866

Nearing the rim of Makhtesh Gadol, or the Great Makhtesh– The Big Crater.

Nicholas Carman1 3953

Into the makhtesh, a natural non-impact crater found only in this region.  The entire makhtesh drains though a single wadi at the southeastern end.  

Nicholas Carman1 3874

The HLC features miles of mellow dirt roads, sinuous lines of singletrack, and here, some chunky 4×4 tracks.

Nicholas Carman1 3877

Nicholas Carman1 3878

Nicholas Carman1 3879

Nicholas Carman1 3954

Nicholas Carman1 3880

 Nicholas Carman1 3955

Nicholas Carman1 3883

Nicholas Carman1 3885

The Tsin River at -200ft, and still descending.

Nicholas Carman1 3886

Weathered date palms and other salt-resistant flora.

Nicholas Carman1 3888

Nicholas Carman1 3890

Nicholas Carman1 3893

A short lungbusting climb to a high vista above the river, still only at -278ft.  The lowest point in the USA at Badwater, Death Valley, CA is just four feet lower at -282ft.  But I am still on top of a hill.

Nicholas Carman1 3894

Nicholas Carman1 3895

Our route crosses to an adjacent valley, where we ride a gravelly wadi, recently compacted and cemented by rain.  The jeep tracks in the center are softer than the surrounding riverbed, which is often less smooth than the softer tracks in the center.  It is a riddle often without an answer, except perhaps a fatbike. 

Nicholas Carman1 3896

Nicholas Carman1 3897

Into a precise and narrow canyon of soft limestone, down to Ein Tamar at the southern end of the Dead Sea.  Looks like rock, but is soft like fragile dry clay.  Really fun and easy downhill riding, especially when a clear drainage presents itself.  This section is signed as a local MTB route.

Nicholas Carman1 3899

Nicholas Carman1 3900

We arrive in Ein Tamar just after dark and discover a public camp in a spacious town park featuring fresh water and pit toilets.  The local grocery is well stocked and open late.  We often dream about free, legal camping and cold beers at the end of a long day.  The combination usually remains a dream, but is not uncommon in the Negev.  In most communities in the desert you may ask for a place to camp, while some even have simple established places for camping.  Just ask.

Nicholas Carman1 3903

About a kilometer from the town is the southern terminus of the Dead Sea, which is exclusively cultivated for salt production in the south, separated into evaporation ponds.  No floating in the water down here.

Nicholas Carman1 3904

Additional spoils of our free campsite, and of traveling in a wealthy country.  I find 22 strawberry yogurts in the trash at the park, obvious remnants from a picnic on the previous day, discarded alongside plates of Israeli salad and paper coffee cups, and a persimmon.  How many yogurts can we pack on our already loaded bikes?  Well, about 22.  There is always a way.  I ate 14 that day.  Lael insisted on counting.  

Nicholas Carman1 3905

Salt ponds, land mines.

Nicholas Carman1 3957

Shade.

Nicholas Carman1 3906

The HLC follows dirt tracks to the west of the Dead Sea for some time, crossing drainages at the base of the mountains before turning sharply upward and away from the valley.

Nicholas Carman1 3907

Nicholas Carman1 3908

Nicholas Carman1 3909

More chalky wadi riding.  Sublime when dry, miserable when wet.

Nicholas Carman1 3910

1000ft up an unrideable hiking trail away from Nowe Zohar begins our ascent out of the Jordan Valley.  Toward the center of the country, forests and flowers, and Jerusalem!

Nicholas Carman1 3913

Bunyan Velo, Issue No. 5

Nicholas Carman1 3943

For restless vagabonds who explore on two wheels endlessly:

for racers who race without promise of prizes or money, assured only adventure and challenge;

for advocates of bicycles who ride every day, and live and breath by bike;

and for everyone else who dreams of riding new places, Bunyan Velo is back for another year to stoke our passion for riding and life.

Nicholas Carman1 3938

Read it for free.

Buy it for $5.

Donate to support the project, because there is nothing else like it.

Nicholas Carman1 3873

Lael and I have enjoyed every word of this issue in the last few days, reading to each other in our tent to shorten the long winter night.  We enjoyed Eszter’s account from Arizona in which Bunyan Velo editor Lucas Winzenburg unleashes a half-digested burger partway up Mingus Mountain in Arizona.  The accompanying black and white photographs by Glenn Charles are stunning.  Joe Cruz tells stories of South Africa “over rusks and Nescafe”.  Logan and Virginia rustle up sandstorms and singletrack in Morocco.  Read about Iceland and the Lost Coast of Alaska; the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Loop and the Oregon Outback; settle into “Four Seasons in Sweden” with Johan Björklund.

Central Negev Loop with Ilan and Danny, Israel

Nicholas Carman1 3815

The plan is to meet in Ezuz on Thursday night, near the border with Egyptian Sinai.  We’ll ride for two days through a southwestern slice of Israel normally reserved for artillery training and ranging antelope, and not much else save for a single road crossing with a free campground and a water tap.  Israelis call this “the backyard”.  When we arrive, I ask about the terrain even through I’ve studied the GPS track.  “Should be mostly dirt roads”, Ilan says.  

Ilan and Danny are coming from the city, escaping busy lives for fifty something hours of touring and training in preparation for the upcoming Holyland MTB Challenge, a north-to-south cross country endurance race set to depart in early April.  Ilan is, as he calls it, a shadow organizer of the event, who is proud of the route, the website, and the chance for others to ride and race across Israel.  Both Ilan and Danny rode last year– mostly together– and both scratched from the race after five days.  Achilles tendons worn by pushing bikes uphill is the shared excuse, although they weren’t on track to finish the 800+ mile route within the 11 day cutoff.  Both are keenly working to improve several underrepresented mountain biking skills: bike pushing, sleeping comfortably and efficiently outside, and learning to rest and relax while stopped outside gas stations and grocery stores.  

Lael and I plan to arrive in Ezuz by way of dirt roads from Sde Boker, which is a quick ride on hardpacked dirt with tailwinds.  It is Thursday afternoon and the area marked “No Tresspassing!  Firing Area”, is silent.  The Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday.  We arrive in Ezuz four hours before Ilan and Danny will arrive, but just as two other riders depart the cafe.  One rider is named Ilan.  For a minute, I’m confused.  What is your last name?  “Rubenstein”, he clarifies.  Ok, not the Ilan we are meeting, but he knows that the other Ilan is coming.  How is it that on the same day two bikepackers named Ilan are riding across the same desert tracks from Ezuz, a tiny community of only twelve families?  This Ilan assures me that the coincidence was discovered days ago, via email or forums.  Since the route is only passable on weekends, and the desert is only palatable in the cooler months, and the HLC is fast approaching, the coincidence is understandable.  This is our second major introduction to the active bikepacking community in Israel.  The first are the dozens of emails I’ve received from riders who have offered assistance, shelter, and routing through their country.  Lael and I remark that South Africa was supposed to be real hot about mountain biking.  I’d never heard of mountain biking in Israel, but I’ll be sure that you do.  These people actually ride bikes!

Danny and Ilan arrive in the evening as scheduled.  After introductions and a beer, we settle into a nearby grove for an early rise, agreed not to come from an alarm– we’ll meet in the morning when we wake.  Seems logical.  You never know who you’ll meet on the internet.  

Morning brings a casual pedal up-drainage, slowly trending steeper through gravelly wadi and hard dirt riverbank.  The effort comes from the upper legs, from deep muscles, but is not entirely exhausting for us.  That is, Lael and I have been at this for over six months, and we’ve been sucking air tackling steep climbs and gravelly wadi since arriving in Eilat.  Danny and Ilan are more accustomed to the hard dirt trails up north, and probably office chairs, I think.  They describe spacious pine forests and manicured trails in the center of the country.  

Nearing our expected midpoint lunch stop– a campground with water– we split the group in half.  Lael and I ride onward to rest at the campground.  Lael wants to go for a run, so we agree to get there first.  Danny and Ilan rest in the shade of a river bank, agreeing to meet a short time later.  Danny arrives at the campground as Lael is off running.  We talk.  Lael returns.  The three of us talk, fill waters, lube chains.  Ilan is missing.  Danny and I jump on our bikes, now several hours since arriving here for our rest.  The sun is getting low.  We meet Ilan just over the first rise, pushing his bike.  He has pushed for 6km, which accounts for some of the only easily rideable dirt road of our half-day wadi ascent, not that it was easy.  But it was rideable.   

Under the shade of stone walls and palm fronds– a free camp area provided by the Israeli government– we clean out the inside of his tire.  Danny has a tube that doesn’t have any holes in it.  Ilan has been carrying his tube for years– never needing it, until now– discovering it has since been damaged by two years of transport on a bike.  Flipping his Trek Superfly right side up, we consult the maps loaded to memory and agree to ride the paved road to Mizpe Ramon.  There, we eat, we sleep, and restart in the morning.  Most importantly, we alter our course across the desert in trade for some fresh singletrack.  A section of the Israel Bike Trail from Mizpe Ramon to the ruins at Moa (near Zofar) has recently been built and signed, the newest piece in an expansive cross-country trail project which mirrors the Israel National Trail.  And, we’ll descend all day.  At least, we’ll finish the day lower than we started.

The IBT is a delicacy in a land of rough cut 4×4 tracks and sandy wadi.  The modern, durable trail is cut from cliffbanks, sinuous and signed for miles.  Intermittent sections of doubletrack offer mental respite from the trail, although in total, the IBT is suitable for novice to intermediate riders with strong fitness.  This is not the kind of trail that will scare first time bikepackers.  It will embrace them, leaving a smile.  It is a welcomed resource in a country already densely woven with riding and walking.  Israel is a great place to ride, and it’s getting better.  Events such as the Holyland MTB Challenge are working hard to make that fact known.

Swinging from canyon wall to canyon wall, traversing the sandy wadi with spinning legs and speed, the IBT shuttles us back down to sea level, to a series of ancient ruins, to a McDonalds on a paved road, to a bus back to Tel Aviv, and to the end of our brief partnership.  Ilan washes in the public bathroom, exiting almost as if he has showered wearing flip-flops and wet hair.  Lael and I are quick to buy and finish an expensive beer from the convenience store.  Sharing a few more pedals strokes away from the McDonald’s, we turn back upstream toward Sde Boker, now 11 feet below sea level in the Aravah Valley.  Danny and Ilan continue to the bus stop on the roadside.  

Arriving at Sde Boker, about 1500ft.

Nicholas Carman1 3756

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, lies here.  The community also claims a university in an idyllic mountain desert landscape.  Many rural Israeli communities were built in the 1950’s and 60’s, reminding me of the many large university building built during this era in the US.  I think of SUNY Albany.  The designs are efficient, square, concrete.

Nicholas Carman1 3757

Nicholas Carman1 3855

Nicholas Carman1 3758

Sde Boker has a small bike shop, guarded by a tough group of local riders.

Nicholas Carman1 3759

To Ezuz.  They say it rained the week before we arrived.  Nothing but sun for us, although nights are cool and breezy.

Nicholas Carman1 3760

Ezuz.  Singlespeeds, Revelate luggage, and some capable riders.  Ilan Rubenstein, on the right, had kindly contacted me via the blog prior to our meeting.  I just didn’t know we’d meet like this.  We wait for Danny and the other Ilan.

Nicholas Carman1 3761

Pizza and beer in the middle of nowhere, Israel.

Nicholas Carman1 3763

In a stack of National Geographic magazines, I spot a series of issues from 1973 and 1974.  I know what I am looking for: “Bikepacking Across Alaska and Canada” by Dan Burden, May 1973.  This is the earliest use of the word bikepacking I’ve seen in print.

For Velo Orange fans, you’ll be excited to know the article which follows it is about the wild horses of the Camargue preserve in Southern France.  The Camargue is the name of a new Velo Orange touring frame with clearance for full-size 29″ tires.  An unnamed disc variant is soon to be released, although the styling breaks from the traditional European elements Velo Orange has championed for so long. 

Nicholas Carman1 3764

Many Israelis speak excellent English.  Even so, there is a unity in familiar equipment and sleeping on the ground.

Nicholas Carman1 3768

Nicholas Carman1 3770

As promised, “dirt roads”.  Kinda soft for 2.2″ tires, in my opinion.  Thinking about coming back to these parts with fatbikes some day.

Nicholas Carman1 3772

Some riding, some walking.  Good training for the HLC.

Nicholas Carman1 3771

Nicholas Carman1 3778

Nicholas Carman1 3773

Nicholas Carman1 3774

Nicholas Carman1 3776

The track finally climbs out of the wadi onto a hard dirt road.  We ride to fresh water, leaving Danny and Ilan behind.  

Nicholas Carman1 3777

Nicholas Carman1 3779

Nicholas Carman1 3780

Danny and I return to find Ilan, pushing his bike.  The rear rim skips across angular rocks, the deflated tire battered by months of use and six kilometers of pushing.

Nicholas Carman1 3782

Nicholas Carman1 3781

Nicholas Carman1 3784

Nicholas Carman1 3822

A quick tour of the tar road to Mizpe Ramon.

Nicholas Carman1 3788

Nicholas Carman1 3791

Nicholas Carman1 3792

Digital and caloric refuel at the gas station in town, before rolling less than a kilometer down the road to a free public camping area for the night.

Nicholas Carman1 3824

Nicholas Carman1 3795

Nicholas Carman1 3794

The small forest features fresh water, toilets, and trash cans.  A youth groups tends a fiery blaze for a few hours, until bedtime.  Free camping is awesome.

Nicholas Carman1 3796

The next morning, we arrive at the edge of town, at the edge of a cliff, at the edge of a crater, called makhtesh in Hebrew.

Nicholas Carman1 3798

Fresh IBT, all day long.

Nicholas Carman1 3820

These non-impact craters are the largest of their kind in the world, and the Hebrew word is accepted by the geologic community to describe them.  A single water gap drains each crater.  There are three prominent craters in the region.

Nicholas Carman1 3813

Nicholas Carman1 3814

Danny removes a broken spoke which has wound itself into the back of his cassette, hindering the freehub.  Both Danny and Ilan are part of a MTB group– 4 Epic– which organizes local races and rides.  Israelis are organized and efficient.  

Nicholas Carman1 3818

High quality trail, simple and durable, perfect for multi-day rides.  Would you please sign it in the other direction?  The trail is currently only signed north to south.

Nicholas Carman1 3826

“Get off bikes!”  Yeah right.

Nicholas Carman1 3825

Nicholas Carman1 3828

Nicholas Carman1 3830

A gasline road rolls across the basin of the makhtesh.  On their second day from town, and from office chairs, these guys are finally finding their stride.  Less than two months to go!  We talk about new gear choices for this year, and new strategies.  Ilan is walking the 11 flights of stairs to his office, preparing his hike-a-bike legs.  Rubber soled shoes are to be used instead of the hard plastic soles found on many performance shoes.

Nicholas Carman1 3831

Nicholas Carman1 3833

Nicholas Carman1 3834

Some of the trail is “green circle”, which makes Lael grin.

Nicholas Carman1 3836

Nicholas Carman1 3837

Ilan rides a full-suspension Trek Superfly with a mix of Revelate Designs and Nuclear Sunrise luggage.  The framebag space of a hardtail would be nice, he says.  The modular waterproof Revelate Terrapin setbag allows easy gear removal at the end of the day.  An SP dynamo hub powers an Exposure headlight, and soon, also the GPS.  A Lezyne backpack carries extra food and water.

Nicholas Carman1 3841

Nicholas Carman1 3842

Danny is riding a hardtail Trek Superfly with a Jones Loop H-barRevelate Designs luggage, and a Wingnut pack for extra food and water.

Nicholas Carman1 3843

Up, but not much.

Nicholas Carman1 3844

Nicholas Carman1 3845

And down.  Way more flow than the previous day.  

Nicholas Carman1 3847

Finishing with a short downstream wadi ride, we miss the final section of IBT singletrack to Moa.  We’ll have to come back with our Alaskan friend Christina for this piece of trail.  She arrives next week.

Nicholas Carman1 3849

Retro-modern: checking the bus schedule aside several thousand year old ruins.

Nicholas Carman1 3851

The end of our partnership.  Back to our real lives.

Nicholas Carman1 3852

Nicholas Carman1 3853

Nicholas Carman1 3854

Back to Sde Boker, by the now-familiar HLC route over the Marzeva climb.

Nicholas Carman1 3856

Nicholas Carman1 3857

Nicholas Carman1 3858

Nicholas Carman1 3859

Nicholas Carman1 3860

Camel tracks.

Nicholas Carman1 3862

Nicholas Carman1 3863

Back up to Sde Boker, just 1500ft above sea level.  Our next day of riding will take us all the way down to the Dead Sea, more than 1000ft below sea level.

Nicholas Carman1 3864

Thanks to Danny and Ilan for a great weekend on the bike.

Thanks to Tamir and Adi for hosting us in Sde Boker.

Ilan– the other one– we may still see you in Eilat.

Nicholas Carman1 3868

Negev heart, Israel

Nicholas Carman1 3744

Some days in the Negev desert: resupply at kibbutz, riding sandy wadi and rocky trail, sleeping out under a waxing gibbous, a full moon, and not too distant artillery fire.  Thorny acacia trees are the bridge between South Africa and Israel, although shade is far less important in this northern winter.  We love the desert.  Halva, olives, persimmons, wine, pita, cucumbers, onion, hummus, and water.

Nicholas Carman1 3718

Nicholas Carman1 3733

Nicholas Carman1 3736

Nicholas Carman1 3722

Nicholas Carman1 3725

Nicholas Carman1 3735

Nicholas Carman1 3723

Nicholas Carman1 3743

Nicholas Carman1 3726

Nicholas Carman1 3727

Nicholas Carman1 3738

Nicholas Carman1 3739

Nicholas Carman1 3728

Nicholas Carman1 3730

Nicholas Carman1 3717

Nicholas Carman1 3731

Nicholas Carman1 3747

Nicholas Carman1 3719

A bus on the Jordanian border, Israel

Nicholas Carman1 3713

A night on the HLC and IBT routes, which for a time follow adjacent tracks along the Jordanian-Israeli border in the Aravah Valley.  No plan for camp and too much time spent inspecting sandy dates and pomelos on the ground, night falls too soon.  The desert expanse is without features for miles, and a north wind blows.  A bus resides between and beneath two communication towers, within sight of a disused observation structure on the Jordanian side.  Russian and Hebrew graffiti color the outside of the bus.  Passing from Egypt to Israel, we are no longer wealthy tourists but experienced opportunistic dirtbags.  I swear, we haven’t changed.

Nicholas Carman1 3715

Nicholas Carman1 3708

Nicholas Carman1 3709

Nicholas Carman1 3711

Nicholas Carman1 3710

Nicholas Carman1 3714

From Eilat on the IBT and HLC, Israel

Nicholas Carman1 3696

No culture shock, except two-thirds of every road sign is illegible, and one-third is in English.  And, for the first day we don’t know the exchange rate from shekels to dollars, so Monopoly rules apply (try not to spend, but it is not real money so who cares).  The other two languages are Hebrew and Arabic, with Hebrew on top.  

Leaving Egypt, border agents rigorously inspect a few chosen items, ignoring most of the rest.  They seem most curious to fondle the sack of flatbread in my framebag, ignoring the conspicuous 2L steel bottle on the underside of my down tube.  Israeli border agents are far more professional, interviewing each of us separately to determine how we manage to travel with so little luggage, for so long.  “Don’t you stop to see the sights?”  Lael informs her that we are always seeing sights, all the time.  Our bikes are loaded onto the conveyor and sent through the x-ray machine.  

Public bathrooms with sit-down toilets and paper and hot water, and they don’t cost two rand.  Free sugar packets from every roadhouse.  But cane juice is gone and the bread isn’t as good as Egypt, and everything seems really expensive except it’s really just like America.  Local kibbutz communities do produce organic dates, olives, goat yogurt, and wines; although expensive, they are worth the money.  The biggest homecoming to the first world?  Some schmuck who asks too many questions he already knows the answer to, while I am eating.  Don’t interrupt my meal to be a schmuck.  I’m far too familiar with this practice.  Americans do it well.

We connect signed dirt trails straight out of Eilat, linking to the Holyland MTB Challenge race route and the Israel Bicycle Trail the next morning.  The Holyland MTB Challenge took place for the first time last April, connecting the southern border at the Red Sea to the Golan Heights in the north, near Syria.  The Israel Bike Trail will also connect the country north to south, and is currently complete from Eilat to Mitzpe Ramon, included miles and miles of freshly signed and graded singletrack through the mountainous desert.  Thus far, in two days of riding, the two routes coincide for much of their distance.  Thus far, the riding and camping is Israel is great.   

Leaving Eilat and the Red Sea.

Nicholas Carman1 3676

Hiking and cycling trails, signage not seen since Europe. 

Nicholas Carman1 3677

Nicholas Carman1 3679

Designated camping areas minimize impact on the land.  Often provided for free, they do not have water, but offer space and fire pits.  So far, I’ve seen only drive-in sites on dirt roads.  

Nicholas Carman1 3678

Nicholas Carman1 3681

Technical riding on rocky sandy footpaths, trying to find our own way through the mountains.

Nicholas Carman1 3682

Easy cycling routes, mostly on dirt roads.  Camels on wheels are cool.

Nicholas Carman1 3683

The colors of the Israel National Hiking Trail.

Nicholas Carman1 3684

Which provides a shortcut up a mountain.  We choose to hike our bikes to avoid a $12 per person park fee, required by way of the main dirt road and the HLC/IBT route.  

Nicholas Carman1 3686

Nice trail.

Nicholas Carman1 3688

Nicholas Carman1 3689

Which opens up to a rideable plateau up top and a playground of trails.

Nicholas Carman1 3690

Nicholas Carman1 3691

Nicholas Carman1 3692

Eventually connecting to the IBT and the HLC route.

Nicholas Carman1 3694

Nicholas Carman1 3697

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) property and nature reserves cover much of Israel, I’ve been told.

Nicholas Carman1 3698

Incidentally, IBT signage only routes from north to south– no signs coming from the south.  Hopefully the northbound signage is forthcoming.

Nicholas Carman1 3675

Fresh trail.

Nicholas Carman1 3699

And an unofficial wild camp on an east facing ridge.  A campground listed on my GPS turned out to be a commercial quarry.  Instead, we take the opportunity to camp up high, overlooking the Aravah Valley and Jordan.

Nicholas Carman1 3670

Haven’t found alcohol for our stove yet, so a fresh cup of singletrack will have to do.  The imprint of the trail-building machines can still be seen.  Jordan in the distance.

Nicholas Carman1 3671

Switchbacks and countours– modern trailbuilding, durable trail.

Nicholas Carman1 3701

Old trail, and new bike-specific trail, both apparently in use.

Nicholas Carman1 3702

Some sand, not too much, but just enough soft stuff to think that now would be a good time for 29+.  Are those Surly Dirt Wizards available yet? 

Nicholas Carman1 3703

Fresh goat yogurt at our only resupply point for the day, the cafe at kibbutz Neot Semadar.

Nicholas Carman1 3705

More fresh trail.

Nicholas Carman1 3704

Arroyos, called wadi, which is Arabic for valley, usually a dry desert valley.

Nicholas Carman1 3672

We plan to ride a few more days of the HLC/IBT before turning west to meet a group of riders over the weekend, which will lead us back south toward Eilat.  Thereafter, we shoot north to meet our friend Christina in Tel Aviv, who is flying from Alaska for ten days of sun and sand in the desert.  Cool nights, warm days; dry, not too hot, fresh trail– nothing not to like.  

Nicholas Carman1 3669

Facebook and cigarettes; Sinai, Egypt

Nicholas Carman1 3597

I’m taking grainy high ISO photos of soldiers taking pictures of others soldiers standing with their arm around Lael.  The sun has set and we’re standing outside a major military checkpoint on the main highway in Sinai, at the junction with the road up to St. Catherine’s and Mt. Sinai.  They’ve taken pictures standing beside me, but they seem to prefer Lael.  I’ve been in this country long enough to expect that.  Technically, the soldiers are considerate of the way they handle her.  It still kind of disgusts me, but that’s my own projection on their otherwise polite behavior.  Maybe it is the comments in Arabic which are followed by laughs that concern me.  I smile in non-commmital non-agreement, so as not to be standing expressionless when they are laughing.  One of the three men in the group named Muhammad offers another Cleopatra cigarette.  Butane lighters rise from every pocket, each reaching to light another man’s cigarette.    

I’m told to show the photos I’ve just taken.  “You must delete, no military picture”.  They continue the cell phone photo shoot.  Another truck arrives, expected to be our last ride of the day, now past dark.  We sit in the back seat of this vehicle, the first extended cab and the first cushioned seat of the day.  The truck will depart at 7.  Meanwhile, four soldiers including the commanding officer, who compares himself to a tiger, are huddled around four cell phones.  They are focused on the larger Samsung phone with a proper screen.  What’s the chance they’re handling official business via the phones?  Within the hour we’re blowing up the pockets of Egyptian soldiers all over Sinai.  From the last six months in Albania and Lesotho, and now in Sinai, I’m convinced this is “the year of Facebook”.  I wasn’t alive when we set foot on the moon or color television arrived.  But I was in Sinai when Facebook landed.

We’ve been shuttled down the western coastline of the Sinai Peninsula in five different trucks, this our sixth.  Riding from Cairo under the Suez Canal– I surely thought we wouldn’t be allowed to ride through the tunnel– we are stopped at the first checkpoint leading south onto the peninsula.  There, the police confiscate our passports.  We wait in the shade.  A “convoy” will soon arrive.  We begin riding behind a police truck.  Within a kilometer, the commanding officer realizes we are not riding motorcycles and that we will not be able to keep pace at 90km/h.  A coach bus full of tourists is part of our convoy and the driver is yelling about something.  We are forced to load our bikes into the back of the truck, reluctantly, although I quickly relent.  The road is flat, surrounded by mostly flat desert and abandoned hotels and trash.  At each checkpoint, we unload our bicycles and wait for another truck to arrive to cart us across the following section of road.  By the time we reach the second checkpoint no one knows who we are or where we are going, except they ask for our passport and ask where we’ve come from and arrange another ride. I’ve taken the front wheel off our bicycles to pack them into the back of the second truck, leaving room for the two of us and two young recruits with two ancient AK-47s.  By the third checkpoint, it is assumed our bicycles are broken.  Surprisingly, nobody speaks more than a few words of English.  I don’t speak a word of Arabic, yet.  I am surprised, considering the hordes of young men with near-perfect English in Cairo selling services and counterfeit sunglasses and jeans.  Not until we arrive in the city of El Tor do we meet someone that can explain the situation, which doesn’t require much explaining.  They consider the road isn’t safe to cycle, although dozens of private vehicles and tour buses pass.  We’re told we cannot be riding after dark.  I try to explain that we weren’t; we were first stopped seven hours ago.  Another officer insists, scathingly, that we mustn’t ride after dark.  Okay.

After a night in Tor, we are allowed to ride to Sharm el Sheik, the package tourist resort town at the southern tip of the peninsula.  Arriving at dark we camp out in the desert on the way out of town.  In the morning, we are not allowed to pass the checkpoint, and are forced to pay for a seat on the next East Delta bus to pass.  Arriving in Dahab, I spot a dotted line on a tourist map connecting to Nuweiba via the coast.  I ask the attendant at the petrol station if such a road exists.  “Yes, behind the Blue Hole you must carry your bike over the hill.”  This is our only chance to explore Sinai off-pavement.  If we go back to the main road we surely will not be able to ride.

To anyone looking to ride through Sinai, until the situation changes, which it will, you should be allowed to travel from Eilat, Israel to Cairo, but almost certainly not via the road straight across the peninsula.  Rather, you will take the road to the south through Sharm el Sheik.   At the discretion of each checkpoint officer, you may be allowed to ride.  Otherwise, frequent bus services are offered between Taba and Sharm el Sheik, and from Sharm to Cairo, with stops in between.  You may be shuttled into the back of police trucks as we were.  It is not the right time to plan a visit to Sinai, but if you are hoping to continue a long-distance ride through the region (Syria would be a bigger problem), it is possible.  Sharm el Sheik and Dahab are still welcoming a small but steady flow of tourists from Russia, UK, EU, and USA, as well as many Egyptians on winter holiday.   

Leaving Cairo via the main road, decreasingly busy as we near Suez and the Sinai Peninsula.

Nicholas Carman1 3613

Nicholas Carman1 3614

Our first night is spent adjacent a military checkpoint in an abandoned building.  Six 22 year old soldiers invite us in for tea at dusk, sit us in their bunkhouse, and prepare a dinner of flatbread, scrambled eggs, and soft feta.  They close the door and leave us to eat privately.  After another cup of tea and the offer of a cigarette, they show us the building across the road.  While protected from the wind, the sound of passing trucks commands our dreams for the night.

Nicholas Carman1 3615

Roadside stops are nicely appointed, offering hot drinks and shisha.  Cold drinks and packaged goods are available.  Amazing how a cooler full of cold cans and some dusty seating could be anywhere in the world.

Nicholas Carman1 3617

Nicholas Carman1 3598

Sinai at the speed of a police escort.

Nicholas Carman1 3618

Both boys are named Muhammad.

Nicholas Carman1 3621

Nicholas Carman1 3596

Another checkpoint, between mountains and the sea.

Nicholas Carman1 3623

El Tor to Sharm el Sheik.

Nicholas Carman1 3624

Nicholas Carman1 3627

Sharm el Sheik is the kind of place to avoid unless you enjoy the spectacle.  A constant state of incomplete development and cheap tourist tricks mar the otherwise beautiful setting at the southern tip of Sinai.  Many signs are in Russian.  

Nicholas Carman1 3628

Nicholas Carman1 3594

Nicholas Carman1 3630

East Delta bus to Dahab.

Nicholas Carman1 3629

Dahab, a long-haired version of Sharm where divers and Russian beach bums spend the winter.  The Blue Hole is a popular diving attraction.  Not a bad place to kill a few months for cheap.  Reminds us of Baja.

Nicholas Carman1 3632

We’ll come back with fatbikes some day.  

Nicholas Carman1 3631

Nicholas Carman1 3612

We push out of town just before dark, hiking over the hill behind the Blue Hole and camping on the beach for the night.  

Nicholas Carman1 3634

Nicholas Carman1 3611

The trail continues for several kilometers to Ras Abu Galum, where a dirt road resumes all the way to Nuweiba.  

Nicholas Carman1 3604

Nicholas Carman1 3637

Egyptians account for the few people enjoying the simple beach camp at Ras Abu Galum.  The Peace Land Cafe provides simple foods and some drinks, as well as accommodations in the form of simple shelters.

Nicholas Carman1 3638

Other than a few tourists and some Bedouins, there isn’t much out here.  There are two military checkpoints on the way to Nuweiba.  None of the young men at either checkpoint are in uniform, and none are armed.  There is a friendly Jordanian-Italian man who lives in Holland fishing for calamari with an old Bedouin man whom he calls his uncle.  

Nicholas Carman1 3642

Nicholas Carman1 3639

Nicholas Carman1 3640

Nicholas Carman1 3641

Near Nuweiba, local Bedouins are fishing for the day, preparing foods over fires on the beach.

Nicholas Carman1 3667

Nicholas Carman1 3646

Nicholas Carman1 3647

Nicholas Carman1 3602

“Come!  Tea!  Eat!”  Typical Egyptian hospitality.

Nicholas Carman1 3649

Nicholas Carman1 3603

Old Testament.

Nicholas Carman1 3654

Nicholas Carman1 3652

Home for the night in one of many abandoned buildings on the coast.

Nicholas Carman1 3601

Nicholas Carman1 3660

Nuweiba.

Nicholas Carman1 3658

Nicholas Carman1 3662

Nicholas Carman1 3655

Just about a dime a dozen.  Beats the hell out of a baguette.

Nicholas Carman1 3659

Nicholas Carman1 3663

Thankfully, we are allowed to ride from Nuweiba to Taba, and across the border to Israel.

At the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

Nicholas Carman1 3610

Welcoming Russian, Ukrainan, and EU tourists.  Who expects Ukrainian tourists?  You know you’ve found a budget travel destination when…

Nicholas Carman1 3664

Israel claims only several kilometers of Red Sea coastline, as does Jordan.  Both make the most of it. 

Nicholas Carman1 3665

We are not in Egypt any more.  Into Israel to check out the Israel National Bike Trail and the Holyland MTB Challenge race route!  Anyone living in Israel, Jordan, or Palestine?

Nicholas Carman1 3666

Walking to the pyramids; Cairo, Egypt

Nicholas Carman1 3494

Leave the bikes in storage for a few days.  Cairo is a walking city.  It is possible to cycle in the city, although best to avoid late afternoon and evening when Cairo reaches a climax.  Mornings are cool and quiet, as Cairenes sleep late and start slow.  Friday morning is especially quiet as the county is at prayer– also a good time to ride.  After enough sugar cane juice, shisha, and tea, Cairo gains steam by mid-afternoon and charges through the evening.  Fancy buying a watch or a car at 11PM?  It’s available, alongside counterfeit Levis and Adidas, many of which remarkably bear three solid stripes, at one-third the expected price.  Typical two stripe and four stripe models are also available.  Sidewalks flow steadily through the last half of the day, except for blockages near ice cream stands, which are en vogue.  Side streets reveal unremarkable shops selling mops and sponges and repair parts for Indian and Chinese made motorbikes.  The cheapest food in the city is found on these back streets.  Here the proprietor is also less likely to extort a few extra Egyptian pounds for the service, for lack of practice at such things.

In three consecutive days, today our fourth, we walk.  On our first day we walk to the pyramids, twenty miles round trip, with lots of dust and traffic but just as much fresh cane juice to wash it away.  Arriving just before the gates close, we spot the nearest two structures, embrace their presence, and turn around toward home.  There is a golf course just beneath the pyramids.  Some of the most aggressive touts in the city are found here, selling camel rides.  No thanks, we walked here.  Some have to be told twice.

We meet a helpful young man in an all white linen suit who claims to have business in Sharm el Sheik, a popular resort town at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.  He indicates that it is safe to ride to Sharm; that he takes this trip by car weekly.  This is the hopeful answer to a question which we have been otherwise unable to answer.  Is it safe to cycle in Sinai?  Will we be able to reach Taba, at the border of Isael?  He thinks, and we hope. 

On the second day, we walk to the Coptic city, a walled area which encompasses ancient Coptic churches, a synagogue, and cemeteries with names written in French, Greek, and Arabic.  Copts are ancient Christian Egyptians– Oriental Orthodox– who predate the Muslim conquest of Egypt.  They persist as the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and the largest religious minority in the Arab Republic of Egypt.

On the third day we walk to the old Islamic city, in the shadows of the Saladin Citadel.  There are fruit vendors and tea cafes, and a vendor selling tongue, liver, and the skin of a cow’s head, skillfully removed from the animal.  We arrive late in the afternoon, as the mosques and attractions are closing.  No thanks, we don’t need a tour.  In most of the city people look at us with some curiosity, yet mostly leave us alone.  ‘Welcome to Egypt”, they say.  Near popular touristic attractions, it is different.  We’re happy to spend our time walking.

We meet a group of children riding bicycles in the gated lot in front of the Abdeen Palace.  The streets are too busy for children to be riding bikes, although as if by magic there are men delivering loads of bread by bicycle, riding against, across, and with traffic.  They balance long wooden racks of flatbread on their heads.  The boys in the lot are riding the typical fat-tire BMX bikes, the two oldest boys on typical British city bikes.  The boys heckle and holler in Arabic.  So as not to encourage them, I offer only a faint smile.  Three girls are riding bicycles.  Lael and I approach.  They accept our presence with shy smiles, questions and eventually, selfies.  We accept the offer to ride their bikes, wishing we had our bikes to show them,and to explain that we wish to ride across Egypt.  I try to explain, but without props it is hard to convince them of the inconceivable and impossible.  We feign normal levels of excitement to make their acquaintance, but Lael and I look at each other, our eyes screaming “these girls are riding bikes in Egypt!”.  For some context about women and cycling in Islamic countries, check out the inspiring trailer for the Afghan Cycles film, documenting the fledgling Women’s National Cycling Team in Afghanistan.

Check out Lael’s thoughts about Cairo in her post titled Running in Egypt.     

On the fourth day, we walk to the Nile and nowhere in particular.  We take a brief out-and-back trip on the metro.  In each car, men offer their seat to Lael.  We pack our things, downloads maps and tracks to the GPS for Sinai and Israel, including the Holyland MTB Challenge.  We will leave in the morning, after a cup of cane juice.

All images from Fujifilm X100T, purchased in Johannesburg to replace another broken Olympus body.

Check out the Blue Bird Hotel for a cheap place to stay in the center of Cairo.  In a city famous for disingenuous dealings, the young brothers that own this place are refreshing.  We paid less than $18 a night with breakfast.  Secure bike storage was made available.  Cairo is our favorite city anywhere.

To the pyramids:

Nicholas Carman1 3347

Nicholas Carman1 3593

Nicholas Carman1 3348

Nicholas Carman1 3346

Nicholas Carman1 3351

Nicholas Carman1 3349

Nicholas Carman1 3523

Nicholas Carman1 3350

Nicholas Carman1 3356

Nicholas Carman1 3521

Nicholas Carman1 3522

Nicholas Carman1 3527

Nicholas Carman1 3525

Nicholas Carman1 3528

Nicholas Carman1 3531

Nicholas Carman1 3532

Nicholas Carman1 3533

Nicholas Carman1 3534

Nicholas Carman1 3535

Nicholas Carman1 3537

Nicholas Carman1 3536

Nicholas Carman1 3353

Nicholas Carman1 3352

Nicholas Carman1 3354

Nicholas Carman1 3355


To the Coptic city:

Nicholas Carman1 3539

Nicholas Carman1 3541

Nicholas Carman1 3515

Nicholas Carman1 3542

Nicholas Carman1 3543

Nicholas Carman1 3545

Nicholas Carman1 3546

Nicholas Carman1 3547

Nicholas Carman1 3548

Nicholas Carman1 3549

Nicholas Carman1 3550

Nicholas Carman1 3551

Nicholas Carman1 3552

Nicholas Carman1 3555

Nicholas Carman1 3558

Nicholas Carman1 3559

Nicholas Carman1 3561

Nicholas Carman1 3557

Nicholas Carman1 3564

Nicholas Carman1 3563

Nicholas Carman1 3565

Nicholas Carman1 3567

Nicholas Carman1 3568

Nicholas Carman1 3569

Nicholas Carman1 3570

Nicholas Carman1 3573

Nicholas Carman1 3572

 

To the Citadel:

Nicholas Carman1 3600

Nicholas Carman1 3486

Nicholas Carman1 3491

Nicholas Carman1 3492

Nicholas Carman1 3493

Nicholas Carman1 3490

Nicholas Carman1 3497

Nicholas Carman1 3498

Nicholas Carman1 3574

Nicholas Carman1 3575

Nicholas Carman1 3499

Nicholas Carman1 3576

Nicholas Carman1 3495

Nicholas Carman1 3500

Nicholas Carman1 3577

Nicholas Carman1 3501

Nicholas Carman1 3503

Nicholas Carman1 3506

Nicholas Carman1 3496

Nicholas Carman1 3507

Nicholas Carman1 3511

Nicholas Carman1 3485

Nicholas Carman1 3509

Nicholas Carman1 3508

Nicholas Carman1 3514

Nicholas Carman1 3510

 

The Nile and the Metro:

Nicholas Carman1 3516

Nicholas Carman1 3578

Nicholas Carman1 3579

Nicholas Carman1 3580

Nicholas Carman1 3524

Nicholas Carman1 3581

Nicholas Carman1 3582

Nicholas Carman1 3583

Nicholas Carman1 3584

Nicholas Carman1 3585

Nicholas Carman1 3586

Nicholas Carman1 3588

Nicholas Carman1 3589

Nicholas Carman1 3590

Nicholas Carman1 3591

Nicholas Carman1 3599

Nicholas Carman1 3592