After wanting to try mountain biking for years, I can't believe I finally get to ride in Palestine. And coming to think of it, the terrain in the region is ideal for beginners (like me) as well as experts (like my host Moe).
Moe contacted me through the website to ask if I could add mountain biking to my list of activities, which I was more than happy to do, but only after experiencing it myself. What I learned on our outing was that a) I could quickly get over my fear of slipping and sliding up and down hills b) there are many more beautiful trails waiting to be discovered, and c) I wish more Palestinians would be like my host Moe.
We started at 6am to avoid the heat and be done by late morning, and Moe was kind enough to lend me his super duper bike. He claims to be the only Palestinian to get a loan for a bicycle. I have a good road bike at home, but this mountain bike is really something else! Please also note the creative paving in the background, I just love it!
My host also graciously offered me some delicious cereal and a view over Ramallah before we set off on our bikes through town. Luckily it was early so there were not so many opportunities for people to frown upon my unladylike behavious... especially when cycling through town with padded lycra shorts. I also got to meet his cat and his turtle before leaving.
The first part of the ride was easy - 5km downhill on asphalt, and I tried to ignore the fact that we had to come all the way back up again at some point. We then turned onto a path and I took this photo to commemorate the start of the real mountain biking session while we were still fresh... here is Moe on his spare, not so flash bike.
He explained some basics to me but really I just had to get on the bike and try it out. I was quite cautious at first and tried not to slip, but the tyres are so fat that chances of falling are quite low.
The downhill part finished quite quickly and then we were onto our first climb - also very different compared to what I am used to. The scenery was beautiful and the weather was perfect.
A little while later we came across Moe's friend - an energetic young man who is in charge of a property nearby. He invited us for tea, which meant we had to go back uphill!
Back uphill, we discovered a really special place: a property of about 10,000 square meters, which the owner has converted to a conservation area that anyone can visit. He has planted all kinds of native plants on the property, all even labelled them with a QR code for more info. There are free bbqs, picnic tables, a toilet... really everything you need for a day out. Our friend has also recently completed building an open air theatre on the property.
It was quite inspirational to sip tea in this wonderful place overlooking the hills... as well as... you guessed it... illegal settlements. The photo below shows a settlement built on top of a hill in Area C (60% of the West Bank but controlled by Israel for now. According to the Oslo peace process, this area would be given to Palestine upon successfully becoming a state in 1999). The remnants of a construction site lie beneath - this is a Palestinian construction site that was not allowed to be completed because it did not receive a building permit from Israel.
In fact, Israeli settlers are responsible for most of the mountain biking trails around the West Bank. Being enthusiastic riders themselves, they encourage the Israeli institution responsible for maintaing paths, to extend their services to the West Bank. Which is great in principle, but not when you then consider the politics that come with creating and maintaining paths for settlers, that are not to be used by Palestinians.
Moe makes the best out of the situation and I found him to be quite an inspirational character. He has only been riding for two years and has found not only a hobby, but also a way to connect with his land on a deeper level. Two years ago, rather than spending his time in cafes smoking and playing cards, Moe and his friend decided to buy cheap bicycles to ride around Ramallah. For Moe this quickly turned into a passion: he set up a facebook group, got a better bike and now even guides groups. His ambition is to have his own company at some point, renting out bikes and guiding more groups. Through his work he also has access to a permit to visit Israel, which he uses on weekends to meet up with Palestinian bikers based there. He now has a huge network of friends that travel around the country exploring different biking paths. It is so great to see his face light up when he speaks of how he has discovered his country through mountain biking, and he hopes that more Palestinians, including girls, take up mountain biking.
He shared many horror stories with me about the challenges he has faced as a West Bank Palestinian mountain-biker. Not surprisingly, there are no proper processes for dealing with bicylces at check points into Israel, which in many cases just results in the soldiers sending him back home rather than trying to work out a solution. His bike does not fit into scanning machines and he has been threatened with machine guns when he has tried to retrieve his bike after crossing the checkpoint. For international visitors, travelling with a bike is not a problem. But despite the complications, he maintains a positive outlook and is quite creative in getting around these barriers.
So overall I had a great time, and hopefully next time I will be able to join Moe and his group in the hills near Jericho. The photos look amazing (see below for some photos that I borrowed from his facebook page):
Please check out the Palestine Riders facebook page and get in touch with Moe for more information on how you can join and experience Mountain biking for yourself.