The West Bank
10 – 13 April 2013
I wake up in the hay paddock a little before 7am to some vehicle noise. I go outside to pee and see a tractor nearby. Crap. I duck back in the tent hoping they didnt spot me. I lie there nervously listening as the tractor approaches and stops outside the tent. I poke my head out the tent and say ‘Hello, sorry I will be on my way soon’. The driver says hello then asks where I am from. Once he understands I am a tourist on a bike he offers me water and says I can stay as long as I want. All I have to do is move Frankie who is currently leaning against the hay bales as he is picking them up.
As I pack up the tent a little while later he drives back over and promptly explains three things. 1. This paddock meets the border and there are army patrolling there and if they see you they will jump on you. He’s surprised they didnt. 2. There is rabies, the wild coyotes have rabies (that would explain the howling). 3. If I need to camp anywhere I should camp by the gate of a settlement as it is much safer there.
As I walk out of the paddock I think about how that camping spot was pretty stupid but very informative. I reach the dirt track back to the road where two men sit by a car. They invite me to come and sit down and tell me I will see something very interesting. At first I think they have a hawk but soon discover they are collecting various measurements from a barn owl. Apparently there are 300 owl boxes in the area that they monitor.
We end up talking about my trip and Jordan, I refer to some of the trouble I had there and this unleashes some rather casual racist remarks about Arabs living there and here. One of the men, Koby invites me to stay at his nearby kibbutz and explains how to get there, they give me a map in Hebrew. I take all this onboard and though I vaguely had notions of cycling north towards the Sea of Galilee decide I will cycle the country north to south when there is no more occupation and therefore will not be staying at a kibbutz anytime soon.
Taking measurements of the barn owl.
The barn owl and I.
I will admit though it is nice to not be shouted at and feel like I dont stand out anymore amongst the general population. I cycle through Beit She’an and on to the busy roads heading towards the Jalame checkpoint to enter the West Bank. I cross back above sea level on the way. I line up behind the cars waiting at the checkpoint, when it comes to my turn the Israeli soldier standing beside the road tells me I cant go through on a bicycle because it is only for cars.
Another security man standing nearby with dark glasses and a large machine gun quickly marches over and grabs my passport. He repeats that only cars can cross. I ask him then where I can go. He then tells me to wait as he talks into his radio. Hearing the response he then says I can go. Apparently a cycle tourist isnt a security threat after all. As soon as I reach the other side of the checkpoint the road condition deteriorates to become narrow and full of cracks and pot holes. The roadside is noisy with people selling goods, I am yelled at, there is a lot of rubbish.
I make it to the busy centre of Jenin where I attract a lot of attention trying to find the Cinema Guesthouse. I stay two nights in order to visit the Freedom Theatre inside the Jenin Refugee Camp and attend a concert in the cinema the guesthouse is named after. At the guesthouse I meet a German couple Willie and Magdelena. They have just begun a walking trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary though neither of them are religious. Keeping with the theme they are walking with a donkey, which seems to cause them endless trouble as it continually wants to stop and eat rather than walk. It is a nice change to not feel like the only crazy one.
After talking with them I realise since the last days ride in Jordan I have had underlying anxiety from being hit with the rock. When I cycle now I am expecting the worst and this is proving really stressful. I begin to dread cycling through the rest of the West Bank where both Palestinians and illegal Israeli settlers are known for throwing rocks. Its only a few more days ride to Jerusalem though and I want to see and travel this part of the West Bank so forge on.
Fertile lands just north of the West Bank.
Jenin refugee camp.
The West Bank is beautiful in spring, the land is so green and lush in comparison to the other side of the Jordan Rift. South of Jenin the land is flat but progressively gets steeper as I begin to meet the rolling hills that define the West Bank from the Jordan Valley in the East and the flat plains heading to the Mediterranean in the West. I am slogging my way up one of these hills through a small village when I am shouted at “How much?”. My anxiety increases.
Carrying on the main road south towards Nablus, some people kindly stop to ask if I need help. Nablus itself is quite elongated and as I ride through am greeted Hello by some young men, ignoring them I am then sworn at repeatedly. I was planning to stay at the guesthouse here but the listed directions arent very good and I give up trying to find it quickly in order not to cycle round town in circles. Jerusalem is still 60km away and the road is now very hilly so as I continue south I begin scouting somewhere to camp.
Many of the roadside paddocks contain olive trees that provide little cover but the Israeli settlers have planted thick pine forests exotic to the land changing the landscape forever along with there orange roofed gated communities sitting atop hills in the most defensive position possible lauding over their Palestinian neighbours. It is in one of these forests I decide I will camp for the night, it is below the illegal settlement of Eli that was established in 1984.
The forest has various mountain bike trails winding through it and is near a natural spring. I sit at a park bench near the track to the spring to wait for dusk as many settlers come to use the spring. Most of them are from Eli and ignore me completely though a few try to speak Hebrew with me until I tell them I cant. At last they all disappear and I cycle into the forest and find somewhere to put up the tent. As I am sitting outside eating dinner I hear some rustling nearby, thinking some people are about to walk by I freeze. Instead two mountain gazelle run past my tent seemingly oblivious to my presence. Magic.
A plane turned into a cafe, just south of Jenin. Arafats picture is on the tail.
The sign reads: Possibility of mines. No passage on dirt roads.
The surprisingly lush West Bank after the dry terrain in Jordan.
View from top of one particularly long hill.
Green, green, green! You can see why they want to steal it.
The sign reads: This road leads to Palestinian village. This entrance for Israeli citizens is dangerous. Unbeknownst to me at the time this valley road would be one I would go up often in the following months in order to visit the villages of Burin, Madama and Asira whilst volunteering.
Cycling through the settler forest underneath the illegal settlement of Eli.
I head off early the next morning continuing up and down the rolling hills. I am using a UN map of the West Bank from 1992 I found on the internet, finding a useable map of disputed land proving quite difficult. I notice a dramatic difference in the last twenty years in relation to the map, the Israeli settlements have dramatically increased and expanded in size. I dont need to look at a current map to know this, it is clear with the naked eye. The road south of Nablus is also of much better quality with a wide shoulder and good seal now that it is jointly used by Israeli settlers and Palestinians. There are many small Israeli flags along the roadside that have fallen off cars.
I eventually cycle past the wall and through a checkpoint into Jerusalem unstopped by the army officers standing nearby. As I make my way to Damascus Gate I pass a lot of new, large clearly expensive buildings. It is a relief to arrive at the old city full of tourists and locals and finally be finished with cycling in the Middle East. It hasn’t been easy but I have learnt a lot and been to so many beautiful places. 7 months ago I rode out of Edinburgh heading for Berlin. Since then its been over 8500km through 15 countries and three continents. Now though I need to rest.
Trip Casualty List (Istanbul to Jerusalem):
1 rear rim
1 front tyre
1 rear tyre
1 set of rear wheel ball bearings
1 pair of cycling gloves
at least one inner tube
multiple brake pads and tyre patches
That horrible wall. On the outside of Jerusalem.
Damascus Gate, Jerusalem. The end of the road.