Ouirgane: out into the desert scrub - Have this woman washed and brought to my tent - CycleBlaze

Ouirgane: out into the desert scrub

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THERE ARE two million people in Marrakech, the taxi driver had said. They're called to prayer by amplified chants from elegant, tall, square towers beside each mosque. The towers are sandy coloured and topped by two golden balls on a slender spike, like a sparse but dandified kebab. Alongside each spike is a vertical wooden pole with a horizontal, reinforced arm. It looks exactly like a gibbet but the purpose seems to be to fly a plain flag from the wire that hangs to the top of the tower. Some mosques have flags and others don't, and those that have them don't have them all the time.

The call comes from loudspeakers poked through holes in the tower. The voices are strong and those behind them would make good opera singers. Or they would if they weren't, as I suspect, quite so elderly. Their breath is getting short. A certain lack of microphone technique means the city gets not only the words of religion but a fair bit of gasping, a bit of coughing and what sounds like but doubtless isn't the muttered Arabic equivalent of "I don't think I'm up to this any more."

"Blow me," the loudspeakers seem to say, "I haven't got the puff I used to have, that's for sure."
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The main prayers are at noon, especially on Friday, the most religious day of the Islamic week. We watched people hurry through the streets to reach the mosque in time. But we saw many more who took no notice at all. They just got on with what they were doing. We looked for little compensation signals or acknowledgements, perhaps the equivalent of the way Roman Catholics cross themselves, but no. Nothing.

While the dominant, indeed the official religion is Islam, our outsiders' observation suggests it's akin to western culture being founded in Christianity: that many acknowledge the roots without plucking the bloom. Religion, as a sage observed, is often more a product of

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where you were born than what you believe. We have seen customers politely refused when they asked for beer in cafés but all the same it's not hard to buy alcohol here. We were offered one in our hotel, for instance. Wine and spirits are on open sale where tourists are prone to gather. Which is many places. Another phenomenon is the sale of cigarettes. Many people smoke here. To help them, shabby salesmen walk through cafés or sit on low walls and click coins to advertise the cigarettes they are prepared to sell singly. They are nothing if not enterprising: they have also cornered the market in single sheets of sudoku puzzles.

Where all the two million people are here in Marrakech, I don't know. The airport is four kilometres from the medina in one direction and it took us no more than 15 minutes to ride out of the city, alongside its thick, rounded, ochre walls, in the other. The built-up area ends quickly. Unfinished walls and silenced cranes confirm the incomplete arrival of hotels and golf courses. We can't decide if it's the recession or because it's Sunday - even whether Sunday has much relevance here.

A Moroccan Spice Girl
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The hinterland is desert scrub. Small, wiry sheep with legs too thin for probability stand or fuss beside the road under the supervision of long-faced men in heavy, ankle-length gowns with lowered hoods. They look as though they are auditioning for Wee Willie Winkie. A long water channel less than a metre wide parallels the road at just above ground level. Muddy, slightly orange water runs busily within it. Occasional small waterfalls confirm what we feel but can't see, that we are rising steadily.

They look so Wee Willie Winkie but they're warm, they're easy and they're comfortable. I was tempted to buy one.
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The traffic is busy. Everyone who cares to toots his horn before overtaking. It sounds aggressive but it's a warning: stay where you are because I'm coming through. Most drivers are respectful and leave a decent distance.

Ahead of us we see the snow tops of the Atlas mountains. In two days we'll cross them on a pass that rises the height of the Tourmalet. The countryside grows discontent as a result and rears suddenly. We've left the main road for a smoother lesser way and the world seems

Through the gorges of Moulay Ibrahim
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unhappy about it. The wind has started blowing hard and cold and the road has thrown us suddenly up to 1 200m. We ride through the raked, contorted mounds of the gorges of Ibrahim but they're not at their best.

The wind is hard now. We top the col at Asni and fall the remaining 13km at, thanks to the headwind, little better than 20kmh. It's been a hard day.

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