Crossing the Judaean Desert, West Bank, Israel

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It is HLC season in Israel.

Nowhere else have we engaged the local bikepacking community as in Israel.  America is a big country and there are many riders, but there are miles and miles of trail for each rider to hide.  South Africa is a big country which claims a lot of riders, but most mountain biking seems to happen behind closed doors on private land tracts, only on the day of a race or scheduled ride.  Israel is a small country with a lot of people and a lot of public trails.  The people are active, organized, and committed.  Self-supported bikepacking is rapidly growing out of a foundation of mountain biking and hiking.

We receive the details of a plan on our small yellow phone to meet Ilan Rubinstein at Mitzpe Yeriho at 1800 hours.  We will sleep within the confines of the community, a Jewish settlement on a hill above the city of Yeriho (Jericho) in the West Bank.  We ride at 0600 hours.  Active, organized, committed.

We were first invited to participate in the HLC race last fall, via the blog.  By the time we crossed the border from Egypt I had received invitations for accommodation or conversation over coffee in places further north.  Facebook friend requests flood from serious looking riders, their names masked by Hebrew characters which I still cannot read.  We meet on the trail, partly by coincidence, and they know all about us.  I don’t usually recognize them by name, but we are friends.

The 1400km HLC was organized by a core group of riders in less than a year, and the first race took place in April 2014 from the southern flank of the tallest mountain in Israel, Mt. Hermon, situated at the junction with Lebanon and Syria.  Zohar Kantor, a Tour Divide veteran, conceived the event.  Limor Shany traced a line across the country from north to south, an extension of the week-long supported mountain bike tours he has been operating for years.  Ilan Tevet is the ever-convincing marketing man with a Swiss Army knife of skills to facilitate and promote the event.  He was the one to invite us to Israel and to the HLC last October.

Last year, the weather was hot in April, with two substantial heat waves during the HLC.  April is a month tightly sandwiched between cool wet winter and oppressively hot summers– the weather can go either way, but is most likely to be hot and dry.  The north of the country features a typical Mediterranean climate with wetter winters, while the south is consistently dry most of the year.  In almost any part of the country, substantial rain results in unrideable trails.  Limestone soils quickly clog tires and irregularly shaped limestone fragments– their exterior surface slickened by moisture– are hazardous when wet.  I’ve heard the complaints from last year’s heat, but Lael and I have spent enough time traveling this country during the rains to know which is worse.

The culture of the HLC isn’t entirely new, except for the essential details of being a week long self-supported race across Israel.  Israelis love mountain biking and regularly ride in groups, scheduled one day a week or more.  We’ve met many groups of riders who have been together for as much as a decade.  Ilan Tevet’s group rides very early on Tuesday morning and gathers for a stomach full of hummus at 8AM, before parting ways for their respective professional lives.  Some groups employ a more advanced rider to aid skill building and as a guide.  And the bikes!– we’ve seen more high-end bikes in Israel than anywhere in the world.  Spotting an Ibis, Turner, or Santa Cruz in the wild in America is uncommon, except in high-octane wealthy mountain towns like Crested Butte or Moab, or attached to riders with supreme skill.  Even in the middle of a suburban forest in Israel these bikes are not uncommon, and their association with skill is seemingly at random.  The impact of global marketing has also pressed enduro and all-mountain trends into the Israeli mountain bike culture.  Knee pads and other armor are common.  At the same time, lycra kit mated to Epics and Scalpels and Superflys are all part of the scene.  A few rigid singlespeeders keep it honest.  And on Shabbat, we ride.  Check out the Ben Shemen forest on Shabbat.  Only Marin comes close in my experience.

Bikepacking is growing thanks to the HLC and to the popularity of overseas events like the Tour Divide.  Bikepacking for fun, or mountain bike touring, seems to be missing from the current patchwork of Israeli mountain bike culture, to the point that when we describe to some riders that we are touring the HLC route, they are confused about how this is possible.  American riders often make the same mistake, failing to differentiate touring the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from racing the Tour Divide.

Coming from Jerusalem to Mitzpe Yeriho, we descend 2000ft on paved highways toward the Dead Sea.  We are the first to arrive and take a place at the picnic table outside the small grocery in the community.  Like many small planned communities in Israel, there is a gate surrounding the property and a structural steel gate at the entrance, often kept open during daytime hours.  But this is the West Bank, and even if only in my imagination, it is different here.  The shacks of sheepherding families line the roadside from Jerusalem.  But when we enter Mitzpe Yeriho, we could be in any other community in Israel, from the Negev to Galilee.

Ilan Rubinstein arrives first from Eilat, and quickly unveils a third of a bottle of Johnny Walker.  We’re sitting in front of half-empty pints of Tuborg Red and a tub of hummus, one half of our now-typical dinner.  Ilan serenades us with stories about the “spirit of the trail” and about the life-changing experience of racing the HLC.  It is inspiring stuff and Ilan is one of the greatest students and most sage instructors of the method.  But Ilan scratched from the HLC last year after a monstrous effort to Jerusalem.  The details of the end of his race are never made clear to us.  Despite countless queries, he avoids answering by chasing tangential trail philosophies.  He did the same thing last time we met him on the beach in Eilat.  There is something out there for him yet.  He arrives on a Specialized Epic with a combination of Revelate and Nuclear Sunrise gear.

Omri arrives next, a much younger man on a smartly packed Cannondale Scalpel with Porcelain Rocket gear.  He scratched even sooner in the race last year, but is quick to admit his mistake, with a smile.  The HLC is not like a short-source XC race, where he excels and where he draws much of his experience.  You cannot ride the same way, at the same intensity.  He recently spent several months in Ecuador touring Andean backroads, shadowing some of the routes he’d seen on Cass’ blog While Out Riding.

Nir deboards the same bus as Omri, a relative novice mountain biker (in time, not skills, since starting to ride three years ago) and a first time HLC racer.  He rides a singlespeed Kona Unit packed with Revelate Gear.  Nir is comfortable telling Ilan when he is overthinking, which amuses us greatly.

We’re just along for the ride.

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Awake before dawn, above Jericho and the Dead Sea.  How else could you convince men to wear tights and sleep on plastic house wrapping on the ground in a park?

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Leaving Mitzpe Yeriho, we pass several small homes with large flocks of sheep and goats.  These poor Arab families are increasingly a minority in Area C of the West Bank as Israeli settlements grow at an extraordinary rate.

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A climb ending in a steep hike downhill sets the tone for the day.

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Searching for trails etched by sheep and camels over decades and centuries.

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Unlike many of the official hiking and cycling trails and 4×4 routes we have been riding, this trail likely predates the state of Israel by many years.

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A nearby mountain bike route called The Sugar Trail passes from the hills above Jerusslem to the Dead Sea, once a popular trade route now a popular shuttle run.

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Singlespeed and happy, Nir keep an even keel and an even cadence.  The sign on the front of his bike indicates that he is riding the HLC to raise money and create awareness for Asperger’s syndrome.

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There are a series of wells along the first part of our ride, which makes carrying 7L of water feel a little silly.

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HLC training.

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The Judaean Desert is never this green, locals say.

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Mountain bike traffic– luggage and water uphill, full-face helmets downhill.

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Continuing to the south, the desert becomes increasingly green.

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Short steep hikes punctuate much of the first part of the ride.  Following GPS tracks up and down steep hillsides within sight of rideable trails is amusing, but the resultant ride is absolutely worth it, making connections one would not have seen from afar or from available basemaps.  The combination of local intel and a GPS are irreplaceable.

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A donkey would be a better tool than a bike up here.  Sage is in season, easily identifiable by smell from several meters away.

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Camels and green grass.

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Some flow, some chunk, some hiking, and some technical descents if you choose to ride them– HLC training.

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Ilan, the bikepacking poet from Eilat.  Ilan is well-known to provide hospitality to passing cyclists and has met many riders connecting distant parts of the globe, coming through Israel from Jordan and Egypt.  He has arranged for us to sleep in the aquarium in Eilat on several occasions, where he works as an accountant (with seemingly endless vacation time to go bikepacking).

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Still over 2000ft above the Dead Sea, Jordan in the distance.

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Metsokei Dragot, water refuel.

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Mostly doubletrack from here to the end of the day.

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Morning above the Deas Sea, cool air reminding us that we are here in the right season.  This place is an oven in the summer.

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Our track crosses a series of deep wadis which drain to the Dead Sea.  We can ride into these canyons, but not out.  Local Palestinian 4×4 clubs are out enjoying the day, bumping Arabic electro tunes.

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Lael judging form.  Looking good guys.  Good luck at the HLC!

The race starts from Mt. Hermon on Thursday morning at 7:00.  Follow along on the HLC 2015 Trackleaders page.

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We eventually arrive at an important junction where we can continue toward our planned destination at the Aravah Junction, or ride toward Arad and end the day at a reasonable hour, before dark.  Before the decision is made, minds wander to cold beers and obligations at work the following day.  We finish our crossing of the desert in Arad, where regular bus services take Omri, Ilan, and Nir back to their lives.

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We reconnect with the HLC track in Arad and begin riding north for a second time along this section.  If anyone asks, we live on this off-road artery across Israel, on the HLC.

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Coffee in Palestine

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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. 

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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.

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Rowdy, but friendly.  Lots of skidding tires.

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From Dahariya, we descend back to Israel.

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

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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.

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Sunrise over Palestine.

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