A Homage to Syria – 10 days unplanned through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Prt1

Below is a blog post written in 2008 and was done with a friend Paul Hemming who I worked with at easyJet.  We picked two random locations and had 10 days to travel between them.  We had thought of doing this by train but this was short lived.  You get engineering works everywhere!  I wanted to repost this to my travel blog in part because i’ve done it but also to the fact that very few people will now get to see the sights we saw or experience what we did.  The country was amazingly welcome despite the political undertones and was somewhere i feel i first experienced travelling for real.  It is a location i will always treasure.  I am making a ongoing donation to UNHCR on a regular basis to help the people who welcomed me to their country.
Well, i’m back and in one piece just.  in 10 days myself and Paul travelled from Istanbul in northern Turkey down to Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt.  Everyday was a new adventure whether it be living it up with Bedouins in Wadi Rum to fearing for our lives on a journey through Syria towards Iraq.  Along the way we met some interesting people, similar people on journeys of their own, friends of the British consulate, a Bedouin goat herder and a group a singing Syrian polo player.  All made the journey an adventure.  I don’t think we stuck to the plan at all in the end it went something like this,
  • Day 1, Trip from Istanbul to Adana in southern Turkey
  • Day 2, Crossed the border by taxi in Syria and to Aleppo
  • Day 3, Trip to Palmyra by bus via Krak de Chavelliers
  • Day 4, Down to Damascus narrowly missing a government sponsored anti American parade
  • Day 5, Crossed the border into Jordan, stopping over in Amman
  • Day 6, Drive to Petra
  • Day 7, Second day in Petra
  • Day 8, Into the desert and Wadi Rum camping under the stars
  • Day 9, Desert adventures driving 4wd round the desert
  • Day 10, Boat to Egypt and a night in Dahab chilling by the Red Sea
  • Day 11, Flight home
Through all of this I managed to record the adventure through a series of notes with the hope of writing this up.  Every second happened…. Every wrong step made a right one.  At no point in this story were any trains taken.  Originally it was all by train.
Day 1 Driving To Adana
The plan was always to get a train, in fact even when we couldn’t get the train due to engineering works on the line the plan was to get a train.  So when we arrived in Istanbul we had no clue how we were going to get to Syria.  The option was a 16 hr bus ride which was probably appealing as it sounds or as we decided in the terminal a 800km journey by car to Adana in southern Turkey where we could drop the car.  After deciding on the most fuel inefficient car ever we hit the road in the rain on some of the most dangerous roads in Europe.  I think Paul got the easy leg of the journey with only random lorry lane changing to contend with and lorries dropping big metal barrels into the road to dodge.  We took the E89 to Ankara past mile after mile of newly built or being built flats, down past the salt lakes and into the mountains of southern Turkey.  We reached the salt lakes at sunset, a small cafe just off the motorway was a tempting site with people walking out onto the salt flats silhouetted against the sun as it set behind the mountain range.  We would have stopped but for the road works that lined the road forcing us onto the wrong side of the motorway.  You can see why the roads are dangerous with one sign to send you across the road with no apparent warning to the cars on the other side.  This car dodging continued into the mountains and down for what seemed like ages into the town of Adana.
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With the journey complete, all that remained was to find a hotel and drop off the car. The night was spent at Airport hotel, not overly exciting but  a needed break after a knackering 8 hour solid drive and 4 hour flight.
Day 2 Taxi To Aleppo
With a good nights sleep we take the car back to the Hertz rental place.  This would have been easy if we realised one important thing, not entirely sure what time we got to the car rental but we were pretty pissed to find nobody home.  We had a deadline and a bus to get, cue frantic phone calls to every Hertz dealer in town but no luck, eventually realising that we should use the help number in big bold letters on the rental document.  A quick call reveals the clocks had changed the night before and we had got up a bit early.
With the car dropped we headed to the bus station on foot, this was the first of many bus adventures.  The plan was to catch a bus to Antakyia on the Syrian border.  An historic town once a trading center but after the second world war was passed from Syria to turkey and it passed into obscurity.  A run down border town in the truest sense we were helped by the people we met on the bus.  This was what I read about and hoped to experience, after getting over Paul convincing us both we were on the wrong bus, we settled in to the 2 hour journey.  I think the locals were surprised to find us on the bus and were soon trying to chat with us.  Our language skills were rubbish but luckily a woman who had never been further than Adana spoke ok English (shame on us) and so started the standard bus conversation of who we were, where we were from and where we were going to.  The lady behind shared some of her fruit with me and the English speaking girl with her boyfriend shared their nuts.  Following this tradition i introduced them to the traditional English Chewit, not a bad exchange I thought.
Upon arriving at Antakyia, they help us arrange a bus to the taxi station to get us to the Syrian border, getting a good rate and ensuring we had an idea of how much to pay for the taxi.  The taxi was a beat up car with cracked windscreen and no seatbelts.  Paying above the going rate we start the journey towards Syria and one of the American stated axis of evil.  The site of a car in a skip and the smashed up cars enroute gave us a taster for the journey ahead.  1o minutes in the driver gets a call and turns around heading back to pick up a new recruit to the journey, a polo playing, singing Syrian who we determined from our arabic phrase book was either a teacher at the beach or self proclaimed Syrian wideboy (actually we guessed that from looking at him).  One thing about the phrase book that we quickly gathered was that nobody could understand us and in most cases took the book off us to find their own English phrases to speak to us with.
The border loomed in the bleakness of the landscape with watch towers lining the initial border crossing point from Turkey.  The Turkey exit into no mans land was relatively easy but then came the entry to Syria which consisted of an elaborate series of checkpoints where we were required to present our passport several times, even when I thought we were through we were still in no mans land.  Possibly not the best place to light up the darkened skies with a camera flash.  Luckily we were in between watch towers.  The final checkpoint was odd in that gone were the military uniforms to be replaced by what seemed to be a number of locals with machine guns.  With the border disappearing the polo player broke back into song, yippee.
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The taxi driver dropped us at the rain soaked taxi rank in the center of Aleppo.  The hotel was the only one we pre-booked and was like stepping back 50 years in time.  The Barons hotel has played home to Agatha Christie who lived there for 12 years, T.E Lawerence, and several American presidents.  The atmosphere evoked the old days of colonialism with various ex-pats drinking in the aging bar.  It used to open out into the wilderness but now into the wilds of downtown Aleppo.  We are offered a new room or the room of T E Lawerence, the choice is straight forward.
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  We grab a beer in the hotel bar before  heading out for food.  Aleppo comes across as a conservative muslim town, not once did we see a female walking the streets, it was wall to wall men either tending their street shops or sitting eating together.  Not sure where all the women had gone but with no women the only thing left to enjoy was food and football which we found in a roof top cafe.  After food it was back to the bar for more drinks and a conversation with some Belgian travellers who were celebrating their honeymoon by touring Syria and Jordan.  We actually randomly met them again in the middle of the desert in Wadi rum in Jordan.
Day 3  South from Aleppo
With a good night under our belts we wake to explore the souks of Aleppo.  Utterly amazing, with a 500 meter medieval covered market, with various stalls displaying hanging fresh meet and doors opening into massive Turkish bath houses.  The smell of spices perfume the air as we walk through up to the citadel, emerging from the darkened souk the imposing citadel towers above with huge moat and fortified bridge.  It is at this point I get accosted by a group of school kids after introducing themselves to me and demanding a euro in exchange for a Syrian coin.  Looking around Paul has scarpered and is taking photos from a safe distance, git.  After palming them off with a Turkish coin it’s off back through the souk and onto our planned train ride south towards Damascus.
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The train is at 10.30 and so with an hour to spare we head back to the hotel.  The lady at the desk who I enquired with last night about times seems a bit worked up and say we are going to miss our train if we don’t go now.  she says it will take time to get tickets, so we head to the station by taxi.  On route it dawns with paul that Syria didn’t follow Turkey and the rest of Europe in its clock change.  Getting to the station the train is  already there.  We dash to get a ticket only to find that English queuing isn’t going to work with a mass of people clammering in front of us to get a ticket.  We should have just got on the train but its too late as it pulls out of the station.  We had missed our only train journey.  A quick decision is made to get another bus, the next train is mid-afternoon and we can’t afford to lose any time.
Another taxi to the bus station and then first bus to Hama and then a further bus (with a showing of an epic Syrian film of the stupid French colonials being overturned by the Arabs) to Homms.  We should have taken time out to see the water wheels of Hama but with the lack of time was becoming apparent and priorities would have to be made.  Getting to Homms we enlist a taxi driver in a sting of epic proportions.  This guy meets us off the bus taking us to the bus  to Krak De Chavelliers a medieval crusader fort.  After a brief discussion it comes clear the bus is not going till 6 after the place closes.  The guy offers to take us and then to drop us back for a ‘small price’.  With the day rapidly fading we agree and are taken to his taxi!  stung!  In hindsight it looks like he took us to a stand where he knew they were not going, chatted with his friends who helpfully told us wanted he wanted us to hear and then got us to use his taxi.
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Another cracked windscreen and a taxi built in Iran and Syria modelled on what looks to be an underpowered lada.  The long drive and massive ascent to the castle nearly destroys the car.  The huge castle is hid under the clouds and it takes time for it to loom large before us.  It is an impressive sight, wandering the still intact ramparts and rooms.  Apparently it was never forcibly taken but was captured after the armies of Salindan convinced the crusaders via a faked letter from the Crusade leaders that no help was coming.  They surrendered the castle.  The taxi dude waits with our bags in the car for us. Theft is pretty much non-existent unless it is of money through bad negotiating.  We climb back into the taxi and he takes us back to Homms for the scariest bus ride ever.
Arriving at the wrong bus station, not the big bus station but the local small bus service which basically departs when full we quickly find a bus heading towards Palmyra and then onwards north towards the Iraq border.  There was room for about ten people and we were the last to board as we then set off into the night.  I should have noticed but the mood on the bus changed a few miles in.  I was trying to sleep to avoid a very odd conversation with the man next to me while Paul in the front was seemingly more and more uncomfortable.  As the bus sped into the desert Paul turned to me looking a bit scared, ‘dude, we are going to die!’.  The man beside him was noticeably agitated, not wanting to touch or look at Paul or myself unless giving us the stares of death.  The conversation with the taxi driver earlier in Krak becomes clear, we said we were off to Palmyra and he spent a while explaining how the Americans had attacked or killed some Syrians near the border where we were going (this took about 30mins to try and get across in broken English and Arabic).  Cue racing mind of capture, BBC news, swords, head, rolling.  We pull into a service stop in the middle of the desert and get out to stretch our legs.  The guy next to Paul gets out the van and walks off into the desert!  The bus driver call everyone back and we race off into the desert.  The mood on the bus changes and everyone starts talking and music starts to be played from the radio.  All very strange and possibly the scariest moments of the trip.  We get dropped off near Palmyra where another taxi guy is waiting to take us to a hotel in the town.
Food and a check of the internet confirms that Syria was attacked by special forces killing 8.  A beer is needed and its back to the hotel where we exchange stories of the days events with some newly found friends in the bar, some of whom are also on their travels south towards Damascus.  With an early sunrise start planned for the next day we hit the sack.
Day 4 – Palmyra sunrise to Damascus
We awake to the blaring of the call to prayer, something that was to become a common theme in all places but Damascus.  Breakfast would be after sunrise again each hotel sharing a common them of boiled egg, bread, jam and cheese slices; we head off into the dawn skies to the castle on the hill overlooking Palmyra.  Impressive in itself illuminated in the night sky.  We were pretty much the only ones there, joined by two guys who had done what we would have had we not been hijacked by the local taxi tour guide and walked up through the Roman town and ruins to the fort.  Another two people joined us, Amelia and her mum Anne who were up from Damascus where they were staying with a relative who was part of the British consulate.  As the sun started to rise we got chatting and by the time our taxi driver had got bored and handed over the reins to his mate, Anne and Amelias driver we were to spend some of the day with them.  The sunrise was spectacular but only once we had got back in the taxi down the hill for breakfast.  Kind of missed the point but was till pretty cool for a desert.
After breakfast, came our first glimpse of mass tourism as we headed off into the valley of the tombs.  Huge monolithic buildings sometimes set over a few floors where people were buried in the pre-roman era.  There when tens of these buildings and the main tomb was  actually located under ground in a number of chambers.  It would have been nicer except for the arrival of several tour buses, not to be seen again until Petra.  As the sun rose we were dropped outside the Bell Sanctuary where we started our tour of Palmyra a huge Roman city which once saw much of the silk and trade from the east pass through it.  In fact it took over from Petra which we would visit later in our tour.
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There were few people in the town and we had it much to ourselves.  After having to pay for the hotel in cash rather than on the card due to ‘unforeseen’ problems with the credit card machine (or the fees are pretty high so we’ll make you pay cash).  As we walked round admiring the many columns that make up much of the remaining town we find that our lack of money is the ideal bargaining tool as I manage to get a camel ride down from 1000 syrian pounds to 200.  Not bad really.  With the sun getting up it starts to get warm for the first time on the holiday as we reach the end of the town and a climb up a building to get a clear view over the city.  Paul turns for home to find water while i stay out to explore some more.
Heading back towards the town i pass an old arab man who beckons me into his oasis, no jokes here please.  I thought he was showing me a way through the oasis back to the town but instead takes me on a tour of his garden and the various fruits within.  I get some dates and sharon fruit and after a brief exchange of where we live, number of wives and children (i made it up as is easier than explaining that I don’t).  He points the way to the city and off I go down the winding narrow path that makes up the oasis.  A small stream lines the way feeding each of the gardens.  In each sit people relaxing in the coolness of the oasis, shaded from the hot sun.  Back into the city I meet up with Paul supping a beer by the hotel and we find Amelia and Anne who are to share a bus to Damascus.  At the bus station we meet Ian and Claire also heading towards Damascus on the same bus.
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The road to Damascus was through open desert along the main highway to Iraq.  Bagdad cafes line the roadside and it is a shame we cant get a photo opportunity there, instead we watch the Italian Job enroute (cut to about an hours worth).  There are very few vehicles on the road except for lorries or tankers, no local traffic and it seems that people are not easily allowed to travel or don’t want to.  Haven’t checked this out but maybe there isn’t much need to travel a few hours into the desert.  Hitting Damascus bus station was the standard affair as we are surrounded by people looking to take us into town. A bit of bargaining and we head into the city with Anne and Amelia; Claire and Ian head off to a different part of town to find a hotel they had been looking at.  We as usual had no plan and instead relied on the hotel Amelia and Anne stayed in when they arrived being available in the old town.
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The taxi drops us on a bridge near the old town.  We walk through the bustling streets and then down a side road into the heart of the old town and the christian quarter.  You expect Damascus to be a scary place being the capital of a country with a reputation for support of terrorism but instead it is completely multi-cultural, very safe and friendly.  Anne and Amelia point us in the direction of the hotel and leave us to our devices with the promise of tea at the consulate house the next day.  We get to the hotel and find it incredible.  I’d like to say we decided to stay there straight away but tired and with less cash than expected after the last few days we wander the streets in search of  a cheaper place.  With that place in our minds no other place came close so we head back to stay there.  We had wandered much of the town in the process and had seen the souks, famous straight street and mosque.  I go off to explore the city at night as Paul relaxes in the hotel.  Knackered we hit our beds for the night.
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One thought on “A Homage to Syria – 10 days unplanned through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Prt1

  1. Pingback: Which places can’t you visit anymore? | Biggsy Travels

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