Middle East Trip
By David Edinger, aka Johnny Cool Factory Rider

I packed my riding gear for Lebanon where my wife was working for 2 months. Research showed no motorcycle rentals available and nothing but warnings about how there are no rules for the road, endless hazards and seemingly assured mortality for those on two wheels. Don't even try it. And yet, upon arriving, I was pleased to see that motorcycles were everywhere, though very few were full size bikes. Ninety percent were either scooters or small Chinese bikes as city traffic makes smaller bikes and scooters a better choice.

In Beirut, we found a KTM/Aprilla shop. The manager said there are no bike or scooter rentals in the country. I asked if he could find someone with access to two bikes of any size or brand and a guide that could take me for a ride. He said he would try, and took my contact information. Meanwhile, we took in the city’s sights. Beirut is a relatively safe city with a mix of Christians and Muslims living side by side since the civil war. Most residents are working hard to restore their city to its place as the “Paris of the Middle East” as it was formerly known.

One day we joined a small tour group with the expected international mix of participants into the Balbaak Valley which is Hezbollah country. There were numerous military checkpoints along the way. Once we were stopped and asked for passports. I only had an ATM card and my Missy, had no ID. Luckily, the soldiers changed their minds and waved us on. On the route from Beirut to Baalbek, we passed a number of tent cities where Syrian refugees have made camp after fleeing their country. I noted that most had satellite dishes. Lebanon is a country of 3.5 million of which 1.5 million are Syrian refugees. We got as close as 22 miles from Syria. Their war is at Lebanon’s doorstep.

Leaving Beirut we moved north along the coast to Jounieh for the next week. The electricity in the building we were staying in goes out often, so the elevator is always a gamble and we were on the fifth floor. Part of the ceiling is missing in the bathroom and you have to stick your hand in the tank of the toilet to flush it. However, the AC and hot water works, so it was all fine.

I never go to casinos but made an exception in Jounieh where the casino, in its heyday hosted the likes of Liz Taylor and Omar Sharif. Suit and tie are required and passports were needed to purchase a membership. Everyone at the tables spoke English and it was a great experience for the cost – a loss of $40. After a few days in Jounieh, we went further up the coast to one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Byblos. The walled city has been revived and is filled with clubs, restaurants and shops.
Then I got the call. A friend of the guy we met at the KTM shop had two bikes. If I would give him $500, he would go with me for a ride. I stressed over the cost but knew I would never have the chance again. So, Sunday morning I left my wife seaside and headed back to Beirut.

I met Ali and his fiancé at the shop in Beirut. They showed up on her 200cc Pulsar. They rode her bike two up while I rode Ali's 2006 FLX Police Edition Harley.
Remember the traffic here is infamous. No rules. Use your horn! So we get out of Beirut and into the mountains but not without mishap. While squeezing between two cars going the same direction in a small village, the car to the left made a hard right almost hitting Ali. We both braked hard but as my bike came to a full stop, the front end tucked and I fell over onto the crash bar. Another biker coming up from behind helped me get it standing again. That's one heavy bike! After a brief chat with the other rider who was convinced he had an old Harley but in fact it was a Kawasaki Drifter (I didn’t have the heart to tell him). So off we go to his house on the side of a mountain for some Turkish coffee. Afterward, he rode with us on most of the remaining ride and took us to a famous chicken BBQ place where he treated us to lunch.

Shortly afterward we parted and Ali and I headed back into the Beirut traffic, splitting lanes as well as squeezing through on the right when that's what it took to get through and down the mountain. I have to say, this was the slowest ride I have ever been on. We were passed by everything on the road except for a jogger but I was happy to have gotten a ride in and the slow pace gave me the chance to focus on road conditions and the view.

Once back in town, they offered to take me back to Jounieh, saving me a taxi ride but they each wanted to ride their own bike. That left me to ride passenger on the back of the Harley. I’m not used to being a passenger and not in control. I have to admit it was a bit unnerving especially with the city traffic, but I survived and that made 32 countries ridden on a bike.

The next stop for Missy and I was Jordan. At the airport in Amman, we went to pick up the rental car but I had mistakenly booked it for the 6th not the 5th. The agency had one car left, and the agent said that as long as I could drive a standard I could have it. He was surprised when I said I could. He said most Americans can't. I corrected him, “I’m not an American. I’m a Texan.” We then drove south from Amman to Petra, one of the 7 wonders of the world. Petra is a city carved from sandstone in the 3rd century BC and is said to be the oldest city in the world. Homes, theaters, places of worship and elaborate tombs are all carved into the stone. We walked it the next morning starting early to beat some of the August desert heat. It was 6 1/2 hours of walking and climbing. We were constantly being asked if we wanted to do it on a camel or donkey. We declined and soldiered on. We were drained when we finished, but it was spectacular.

The following day we headed further south to Wadi Rum, the home of Lawrence of Arabia. It is now a gathering point in the desert for camel rides, overnights with Bedouin tribes, 4 wheeling in the dunes etc.
At midday we departed, as Lawrence says in the movie, “To Aqaba!” We reached the shores of Aqaba in time for a step into the Red Sea and a late lunch - far quicker than Lawrence.

From Petra we took the back roads north to the Dead Sea.
The desert and mountains were spectacular en route. We spent two nights at a resort along the sea. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth and has a phenomenally high saline content that allows swimmers to float effortlessly but kills off any marine life. Most visitors also cover themselves with Dead Sea mud, then let it dry before going back into the sea to rinse. They say it's good for the skin.  The following morning we were to meet at the local Harley shop where a friend I had met riding in the Alps two years ago and a friend of his had arranged a 2014 Ultra Glide for us, officially as a demo for the day. They don't rent bikes in Jordan and until 2009, it was actually illegal to ride one. There were no scooters on the streets and virtually no bikes at all until we got into the city.

We were a group of 7. The other riders were either Jordanians or Saudis vacationing in Jordan. They were all great guys, fluent in English and well traveled both with and without bikes. We rode north into an area we had not explored yet. We went up steep grades into the mountains with pot holes and sand on the roads. Not perfect conditions for such a heavy bike, two up, but we managed. The scenery was amazing, mostly mountainous desert but sections of olive groves and forest as well.

Back in the city, driving conditions were better than in Lebanon but people still move from lane to lane without regard or signaling. Across the street from the Harley shop was the Ducati shop. Ducati is my favorite brand so we had to stop for a picture. That made country 33 on a bike. 
I dropped my wife off at the airport the next day. She went back to Lebanon for another month of work and I headed to Israel for my next ride. Due to the missile attacks on the airport in Israel, the airline I had booked with had cancelled all flights but had failed to inform me. Sensing there might be problems with my flight, I had previously arranged to have a driver take me from the Amman airport to the border of Jordan and Israel. This was quite an experience. I was processed through the Jordanian side, paid an exit fee but my passport was held until a bus arrived to take me to the Israeli side. After waiting for an hour, I asked a guy if there was a faster option since I had a driver waiting on the other side. He said I could pay $110 for a VIP service. I happily paid. They processed my passport, tagged my bag and loaded me in a van.

Then the real zoo began. I pushed my way to a window to get a bag tag, then put my bag through security (I would see it again after processing) bypassed 50 people in line, (perk of the VIP service) and went to another person who interviewed me then let me through to the next stage. I passed through a small bag and body screening and then took a seat and waited for my name to be called and my passport to be returned. I asked where to go next. I was told to wait in the VIP lounge. The authorities in the lounge took my passport and left, then escorted me to the front of the passport control line, (bypassing about 35 people), then back to the lounge then to locate my luggage then to another security point prior to claiming it. My bags went through one more screening before I was free to dive into the taxi zoo.

My driver on the Jordanian side could not enter the border area so I had to pay one taxi driver to take me to the other taxi driver on the Israeli side and finally, I was in. With two drivers, tips, VIP service and the ride to my hosts’ home 2 hours away, it was about $550 crossing.

My hosts were Kainan (Kai) and Shiree. They live about 2 hours away from the border. I had met Kai back in March while riding the Baja. He said if I was ever in the area, come ride. Careful what you ask for.

Kai and I left early the next morning headed toward Jerusalem, not far as the crow flies but we took some curvy back roads and then stopped to overlook the Old Walled City from various vantage points including Mt. Olive. Then it was into the Old City itself.

The old walled city is divided into four sections; the Jewish section which includes the Wailing Wall, the Arabic area where the souk (market) can be found, the Christian quarter where the rumored burial spot of Jesus is located and an Armenian section. Kai says that the streets within the walls are generally packed year round, but due to the ongoing crisis in Gaza, tourism is down to a crawl. He had booked us into a Scottish church guesthouse overlooking the old city. A unique choice.

I wanted to buy a map to document our route but that was not so easy. Everyone told me to use my smart phone. Finally we found a bookstore and bought a map in Hebrew and two days later upgraded to one in English. It reminded me of trying to chill champagne for my one-year anniversary in Amsterdam in the 70’s while tent camping. We tried to buy ice to chill the champagne but were asked, “ Why do you need ice? We have refrigerators.”

We visited the Dead Sea again the next day but this time from the Israeli side. We stopped at a marker noting we were at sea level along the way since the sea is the lowest point on earth. We rode along the shoreline to Masada, the place where Jews revolted against the Romans and chose to kill themselves rather than be taken to be crucified or used as slaves. Later in the afternoon, Kai returned to Tel Aviv and I continued on for a bit selecting a route off the main road and up into the mountains. As is oft the case, things didn't go as planned. My map was in Hebrew and once off the main road, the signs were also in Hebrew. The pavement stopped a ways before I reached an intersection. It wasn’t what I expected. It had “do not enter” signs both directions.

There was something in faded English on one sign about 4X4. Reluctantly, I turned around and headed a different way back to Tel Aviv. I went to the Ducati shop for some Desmo Owners Club Tel Aviv T Shirts. From there it was further north for a beer and a much- needed swim in the Mediterranean. I had lunch at a kosher sushi restaurant. I didn’t know there was some sushi that was not kosher.

Day three we headed north, out of town and off road through some fields with loose sand before hitting the highway (a precursor of things to come). First stop was the Roman ruins of a famous seaport built by King Herrod, called Caesarea. Since we had KTM 990 adventure bikes (although not small or light) we headed onto some fire roads up into the mountains for about an hour before hitting pavement again. We stopped for lunch at a Palestinian restaurant (far more food then we could eat), washed it down with a lemonade and had a Turkish coffee chaser. Then we headed toward the Sea of Galilee for a swim. We decided not to go to a public place and deal with the crowds. We took some dirt roads and found a large sign saying ‘no swimming’. That's where we swam. We weren’t alone in ignoring the sign. Apparently, if there is not a lifeguard, you’re ‘not allowed’ to swim.

We spent the night at a guesthouse which was also a working farm. The owner’s son had just bought his first bike, a Honda CRF 250 and was anxious to talk. We did a bit of work and then I had a pre-dinner swim. Dinner was served at the small cabana area in front of our room, including cigars and Israeli wine.

The final day of street riding had a lot of challenging off road riding. At the start, it was fine. Then we got to the top of a mountain and started heading down the steep decline, complete with switchbacks and large loose rocks. It was no problem for Kai but was a real challenge for me with the tall and heavy KTM. The ride continued in a more relaxed fashion along the Jordan River and the Golan Heights (former Syria), which has what is said to be the best road in the country.

We stopped to look out over the Valley of Death. It was in the ‘73 war, in this valley that over 700 tanks from both sides were left burning. There are still a handful left to honor the memory. You could actually see the Syrian border from where we stood and hear shells being fired. After a bit more riding we could see the Lebanese border as we worked our way through the mountains back to the beach North of Tel Aviv for dinner and refreshments. It had been a long, hot, challenging day.

The final day, we parked the adventure bikes and went dirt biking West of Jerusalem. There were nine of us total. Eight were KTM's. A friend of Kai's loaned me a 2009 300 two stroke. These guys were good. The terrain was challenging with nothing but rocks and boulders. All I can say is, I need to get out on my dirt bike more. With the level of difficulty and 100+ degree heat, it didn’t take long before I was done! The others rode on for a bit till one of the younger guys got sick from the heat.

I want to thank my Israeli hosts for letting me stay in their home, loaning me a bike, being my historians and tour guides for a week. It was a great experience in all three countries and now onto country number 34. (Ukraine in October)


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Revised: August 28, 2014 .