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December 11th, 2010 | Asia

Ride to Krak des Chevaliers…

The first few kilometres from the Homs turnoff took us through a range of low hills, the road running alongside a railway line… I was beginning to think that I had ridden in the worst of the wind, and that the run into Homs would be quick and easy…

The flat and fairly featureless Cham Desert of central Syria...

I was wrong…!!

As soon as we had cleared the hills and were out into the flat of the desert again, that bastard wind came back… It howled across the sands, picking up anything that was not rooted to the ground and blowing it across the road, including a large cardboard box, that crashed into my left knee before kicking up and over me…!! Had I not seen it coming towards me, I might have been caught off-guard and ended up doing a bit of unplanned dirt tracking…!!

Then a light drizzle began to fall, and this coupled with the wind had me muttering into my helmet… Not that I would have heard the mutters… The wind came through the joints on the visor, roaring so loudly that I could not hear the sound of the motor under me…!!

It never rains around here... It just comes pouring down...!!

Nearing Homs, I realised that I was in a spot of bother with regards to fuel…again…!! Riding into the wind had been hard work for both the Big Fella and I, and the fuel consumption had suffered as a result… Earlier that morning I had checked the distances and was confident that we would make it into Homs without a problem, but 20kms short of my next planned fuel stop, the fuel management system coyly advised me that I now had a range of zero…!!

The rain was bucketing down as I frantically began scanning the roadside for a service station… It took another nail-biting 18 kilometres before I finally found one, lurking behind a screen of pine trees…

Running on empty, we finally found fuel and sanctuary at this service station...

I stopped under the cover joining the pump to the little office, and as I did so the door opened and a smiling young guy came bustling out, squinting through the driving rain, which was being blown almost horizontally by the spiteful wind that had escorted me through the last 120kms of desert…

After filling up, I was invited inside the warm and cozy little office for tea… Five other young men were huddled around a gas heater in the middle of the room, and fired question at me in Arabic, all of which were translated by Ali, the owner of the station…

I sat sipping the sweet tea while I watched the Big Fella being buffeted by the wind… He seemed to be shivering and shaking out there, dripping wet and freezing cold…

An hour later, with the rain letting up, I decided it was time to get back on the road… Ali had advised me to look for a hotel in Homs, which was barely ten kilometres away, saying that to continue towards the coast in this weather was a “dangerous thing”…

“It is cold and slippery… The road up into the mountains where the fortress is, will be very difficult…!!”

I had told him that I wanted to visit the crusader castle midway between Homs and Tartus, before turning south for Lebanon…

Just as I was reaching for my wallet to pay for the fuel, he laid a hand on my arm and told me that the fuel was his gift to me…!! I thanked him profusely for this act of kindness, and told him that this was the first free fuel I had been given on my journey thus far… He seemed quite chuffed with this, and was even more pleased when I told him I would feature a photo of us together on my website…

Ali, the kind-hearted Syrian who refused to accept payment for the fuel... Thank you my friend...!!

On a slick highway, we head towards the Castle of the Crusaders...

There must be a golf course around here somewhere, and a very difficult one at that, where "Par" is "King"...!!

After another 60 kms of riding in light rain, I found the turnoff to the Hosn Citadel as it is known locally… The road took us out of the Orontes Valley that the motorway ran through, and up into the mountains,  running through many small villages, until we crested a rise and there in front of me was the Krak des Chevaliers, the biggest castle I had ever seen… And in such an amazing setting…!!

It sits on a hilltop, overlooking the valleys on all sides of it, and I could immediately see why it withstood the armies of many for hundreds of years…

I would have liked to visit the castle in warm and sunny conditions, to spend a few hours exploring the many sections it is made up of, but driving rain kept me from doing so… At these elevations, the mountains were tickling the dark bellies of the clouds, causing them to release the rain they were holding…

I spent less than hour there, walked along the battlements of the outer castle, got caught in a sudden squall that soaked me from head to foot, found shelter under a huge archway which I shared with a few Japanese tourists, then legged it for the exit when the rain let up for a minute…

It was freezing out there, and despite the many layers of clothing I had put on, was cold to the bone…

We rode alongside the massive walls, awed by the sheer size of them...

One of the many watchtowers that were able to hold off all attackers for more than 150 years...

Entrance to the inner courtyards of the castle is via this steep and dark passage...

I sat in a noisy restaurant across from the castle, and ate a simple lunch while staring up at its massive walls…

A small fort was first built on the site in 1031 A.D. by the governor of Homs, to protect the route leading from his city to the Mediterranean Sea. When the Crusaders overran Syria in 1110 A.D. and after a long siege captured and destroyed the fort, they realised the strategic significance of its position, and began building a far bigger and “impregnable” (or so they thought…!!) fortress, which could withstand a siege of five years…

Castle within a castle... You could spend a whole day exploring the grounds of this massive castle...

Even the great Saladin could not wrest control of the castle from the Knights of St. John in 1188, and went back to his tent in the desert to sulk…!! The castle finally fell to the Sultan of Mamluk, in 1271, almost a hundred years after Saladin had given it his best shot… It was one of the last Crusader castles to fall, and the Sultan repaired and improved the fortifications damaged during his assault…

Walking along the outer battlements, just before another shower of freezing rain came down...

During the time of the Crusaders, the castle had withstood three earthquakes, a testament to its original builders… For over 600 years, the castle was inhabited by the villagers of Al-Hissn, until they were evicted by the French authorities in 1934…

I took shelter in one of the original grain stores while rain lashed the inner courtyard...

A lunch comprising mainly of a cold salad was not exactly the best thing to warm me up...

Grrrr... Another change of plans in the offing...!! Cold, wet, and moody...!!

The rain continued to fall, and I decided that making a run for the border was out of the question… In fact, it would be another 48 hours before I was able to get myself and the Big Fella back on the road…!!

I checked into the Francis Hotel in the village nearby, and stood watching the driving rain make deep puddles in their parking lot…

“If the rain stops, it will snow tonight…!” the manager advised…

“Great…!!” I replied, “and maybe we could have a hurricane followed by a medium sized tornado to round my day off…!!”

Strange how quickly things can change when the weather turns against you…

I had planned to reach Beirut today when I left Palmyra earlier this morning, but the elements had conspired to thwart my plans once again, not even allowing me to reach Lebanon, let alone ride the 120 odd kilometres from the border to the capital…!!

Country No: 62 would have to wait another day or so…!!

The following day, buring a brief bout of sunshine, I took this shot of the Castle... Was it worth riding through the rain and the wind for...?? You betcha...!!

©GBWT 2010

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