A Travellerspoint blog

May 2010

Palmyra - Rose Tinted Roman Columns


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My next stop in Syria, was Palmyra, an ancient Aramaic city about 215 km northeast of Damascus and only about 120 km from the Iraqi border.

Typical desert landscape along the road from Damascus to Palmyra

The ruins of the ancient city are right next to a newer town of the same name, and it is here where all the hotels, restaurants and stores are located. After jumping off the bus I went directly to a budget hotel recommended to me by an American guy who I'd met in Damascus. Unfortunately, the American guy had been there a couple of weeks before I arrived and since then the high season had started so the amount he had payed for a single room had jumped from 400 to 1500 Syrian Pounds (NZ$ 13 to 47) - that's quite a hike! As I stood at reception considering my options, a young German guy walked in who also received the bad news. He had already been to a few hotels in the area and the prices there had been similar. At this point the hotel owner suggested we might share a twin room thus we could go halvesies. After a brief chat, we both agreed and decided to check-in.

Bed at hotel room in Palmyra - And the prize for the ugliest headboard goes to...

Now the German guy, who I learnt was called Chris, got his second shock of the day: there are no ATMs in Palmyra (quite ridiculous considering it is one of the prime tourist destinations in Syria). He had enough cash for the room but not much left over to live on or even for transport out of Palmyra. The hotel owner told Chris that his only option was to pay a visit to his friend down the road who ran a souvenir store and there he could use his credit card to get a cash advance for a "small" undisclosed fee. We both headed over to the store and Chris was able to get some cash but not without paying an extortionate 20% fee for the privilege.

A slight altercation took place while Chris was getting his money - as the man entered the amount Chris wanted into the credit card machine, he made what appeared to be joke about entering ten times the amount. From where Chris was standing, he could see the screen and the amount on the screen did seem to indicate that the man wasn't joking after all. At this point Chris told him he didn't think it was very funny and that he better cancel the transaction. The man didn't do anything and just started smiling so Chris reached over him and tried to press the cancel button himself but the man blocked him and said, "It's ok, it's ok". Chris did eventually manage to hit the cancel button but it was too late because the transaction had already gone through. After Chris reviewed the receipt, it turned out that the amount was correct. Strangely enough, even though I suspected that Chris was almost ready to punch the guy in the face, the man was still smiling, perhaps not quite understanding how annoyed Chris had been.

After this strange little episode we headed across the road to a restaurant for a late lunch. Not long after we sat down the man from the souvenir store also came over and handed Chris his credit card which he had accidentally left behind. It was good to see the man was nice enough to return it despite him being an extortionist with a strange sense of humour.

After eating, we headed over to the ruins so we could wander around while it was still daylight and be there at sunset, which according to Lonely Planet, is one of the best times to experience Palmyra.

It was nice to see (for once) that there was no entry fee and no opening times to see the ruins (though three of the sites within the ruined city do require a small fee). Chris was only staying in Palmyra one night, so we headed straight to the Temple of Bel which is the largest and most intact buildings in Palmyra. The Temple of Bel is a large complex consisting of a large walled courtyard with the cella (the temple proper) at its center.

The corner wall surrounding the huge courtyard at the Temple of Bel

The cella at the Temple of Bel

The doorway of the cella and one of the local residents at the Temple of Bel

We were treated to an unobstructed view of the Temple of Bel with only a handful of other tourists wandering the area - it was perfect timing because not long after we left, a couple of buses arrived carrying tour groups and they immediately swarmed the area.

Not far from the Temple of Bel was the Monumental Arch which is the gateway to the Great Colonnade.

The Monumental Arch at the start of the Great Colonnade

The Qala'at ibn Maan (citadel) on hill top taken from the Great Colonnade

Sunset behind the Tetrapylon

After the glow of sunset had diminished, we headed back into town to hunt down dinner. The restaurants in the main street were predictably pricey, and a bit of a problem for Chirs who only had limited funds. We decided to walk a few blocks away from the main touristy area in search for food that would be more reasonable. It wasn't long before we found a small local restaurant and we ordered some shawarmas. Shawarmas are a fast-food staple across the Middle East. They come in the form of a sandwhich wrap (usually pita bread) and can contain most types of meat and salad. In Syria they generally contain chicken, salad, chips (french fries) and large doses of mayonaise.

Earlier, when we were leaving the ruins, we'd noticed that some men were setting up some lights around the columns of the Great Colonnade so after dinner we headed back to check out what they looked like all lit up. Only the Monumental Arch and a few columns along the Great Colonnade were lit up, and they did look impressive but it was quite difficult to get good photos.

The Monumental Arch by night

The next day, Chris left Palmyra early in the morning, but I had always intended to stay a couple of nights so unfortunately I had to bear the entire brunt of paying 1500 SP for the hotel room. It was definitely worth staying though because the ruins cover a huge area and there were lots of parts that I hadn't explored the day before. I spent most of the day wandering the ruins by myself trying to stay away from the crowds - which not difficult because everything was so spread out.

The Towers of Yemliko

At the end of the Great Colonnade, near the Funerary Temple, I came across a little girl who tried to sell me a keffiyeh (checkered head scarf). She was very smiley and didn't bother me too much after I told her I didn't want to buy one. She even posed for a photo without asking for money which was good because I didn't have any small change on me that day.

Bedouin girl selling keffiyehs

As I arrived at the Funerary Temple I spotted a Bedouin family sitting on the steps, selling trinkets and other souvenirs. The man walked up to me and persistently offered to pose for a photo. I told him, "No thank you. Have no money. No backsheesh" (Backsheesh means tip/bribe and is actually from Egypt but the word is known throughout the Middle East). So he says, "Ok" and proceeds to pose. I try to make make sure he understands. "No backsheesh. No backsheesh. Ok?", He responds with, "Ok. No backsheesh", but still he proceeds to pose for a photo. You can probably guess the first thing he did after I took his photo. He extends his hand out and says, "Backsheesh?". I smiled and walked away. I wasn't even being cheap, it's like I mentioned before, I really didn't have small change with me.

Bedouin man about to demand backshees at the Funerary Temple

I don't know how many kilometers I walked that day, but it was a lot and I didn't get out of there until it was just about dark. My problem was that every direction that my eyes gazed, looked like a prime photo opportunity. The place was truly impressive at sunset as the light illuminated the columns with a rose-orange tint. I had to stop myself from taking photos after a while otherwise I would have filled my camera with hundreds of similar shots that would have somehow diminished the experience. I'll let the photos do the talking for a while...

A view of Palmyra from tower near the Funerary Temple - You can see the ring of palm trees in the background (Palmyra was built within a desert oasis) - The large structure in the background is the Temple of Bel and the row of columns at the center is the Great Colonnade

Agora (market and meeting place) at sunset

Theatre seen from entrance archway

The Great Colonnade at sunset

Sunset over columns in Palmyra

And so my journey through Palmyra had ended. The place was amazing and due to the large area that it covers, it was never difficult to get away from the tourist crowds which mostly congregated around the Temple of Bel and the Monumental Arch.

I walked out of the ruins just as hundreds of Syrians started pouring in. It was Friday and in the Middle East that is their day of prayers so it's basically like Saturday in the west. It appears as though the ruins were a popular family picknicking spot for the locals during Friday evenings and they were definitely out in force that day.

One strange thing I noticed as I was walking, was that there are lots of ginger haired people in Palmyra - actually, there were lots of ginger haired people in Syria in general - which is not something you'd expect to see in an Arab country.

Well, once again I had been wowed by the Middle East and it was time to get moving again.

Until the next episode!

Posted by joshuag 07:24 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

Damascus - Body Smuggling and the Old City


sunny 18 °C
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My bizzare entrance into Syria begun with a service taxi that was supposed to take me all the way across the Jordanian-Syrian border from Amman to Damascus. The driver turned up at the hostel about an hour late but that's the way things work in the Middle East. I jumped into a large, comfortable air conditioned van which was carring no other passengers. It travelled for about 15 minutes until it stopped on the side of the road where I was told I needed to get off and change to different car with a different driver. This situation felt a little strange but my gut feeling told me this was completely normal. The other car already had two other passengers in it who were either Syrian or Jordanian. They didn't speak English and the new driver only spoke a little, but least they were pleasant enough as they all replied to my badly pronounced, "Salam Alekum"

And so we were off at high speed towards the border. I've been to quite a few countries now, but this was my first land border crossing since I crossed between the Mexico and the US when I was nine years old. The whole process felt rather hectic and convoluted. We first had to stop for passport exit stamps on the Jordanian side where I also made a quick stop at a currency exchange office. As we were about to drive away a man approached the car and a long discussion ensued between him and the driver. At first I had no idea what was going on, but it all soon became clear as the man opened the rear door on my side of the car and I was asked to move over. He was obviously asking for a ride across the border to the Syrian side. The driver then asked for all of us to hand over our passports. I'm always nervous when I'm handing my passport over to someone who's not an immigration officer, but the other passengers did so without hesitation so I complied without making a fuss. At this point it really did start to feel like I was a part of a body smuggling ring, four strangers and a driver crammed in this small car and I couldn't understand anything anyone was saying - in a strange way, it was quite exciting.

Then we made our way through a couple of border gates which were packed full of queued cars and buses. I exaggerate when I use the word queue because it was more like a chaotic traffic jam with cars trying to jump in from every direction (yes, there are even queue jumpers at border crossings). Then I guess we were in that "no mans" land at the border between Jordan and Syria. There was nothing around except for a few small buildings, the large Syrian immigration building and a small duty free shopping complex. We were given our passports back and we all entered the immigration building. I bounced around from counter to counter until I found out I had to pay 4,850 Syrian Pounds (NZ$150) for my visa - which I must admit was a bit of a shock. I didn't know if I was being ripped off or not but I couldn't really argue with them. I was just glad that I was able to obtain a visa at the border which was my biggest concern at the time. I didn't have enough cash on me so I had to walk over to the shopping complex where I luckily found an ATM which accepted my card. Finally I got my visa stamp so I headed back to the car and found all the other passengers there waiting for me.

Once again we drove through a couple more border gates separated by a few hundred meters. I didn't know I was actually in Syria until the driver turned around and said, "Welcome to Syria!". Everyone in the car laughed and I let out a huge sigh of relief.

The last border gate as I entered into Syria (sneaky photo from inside the taxi)

We drove for about ten minutes before the driver stopped by the side of the road behind another car full of people. At this point the driver got out and swapped places with the driver of the other car. I guess we'd been passed over to a Syrian taxi driver and the Jordanian taxi driver could take people across the border in the other direction thus each driver would end up back in their own country. From there we drove all the way to the outskirts of Damascus where I was forced to take a separate taxi to the center of the city (an obvious ploy for them to make more money out of me). Having no idea how far I had to travel in this last taxi nor how much it should cost, I was basically at the mercy of the gang of taxi drivers - all I knew for sure is that they would try to rip me off. Strangely, I came across the first taxi driver who actually ended up haggling himself down. The conversation went something like this:

Driver: To city, 500!
Me: ...How about 400?
Driver: Ok, ok. 300

Finally I had arrived in Damascus, claimed to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world (since about 7000 BC). I didn't have a hotel reservation so I started walking around the area where, according to my Lonely Planet, all the hostels and budget hotels were located. It turns out that the high season had just started and most hotels were full but I was lucky because I had turned up in the evening and I got the last bed in a dorm that had been reserved by somone who didn't show up in time (I felt guilty about taking this other person's bed... for about five seconds).

The hostel had lots of character, with a large central courtyard that had a fountain in the middle, trees and plants everywhere and a glass ceiling. People sat around the edges drinking tea, talking, reading and smoking sheesha pipes.

The central courtyard at the hostel in Damascus

I was only going to stay in Damascus for a couple of nights so I made the most of my only full day there getting up early and visiting the main attractions which are mostly all located within the Old City. The Old City is surrounded by an old Roman Wall and is split into several sections; half of it is the Muslim area where a citadel, palaces, souqs (markets), and mosques are located. The other half is made up of a the Christian and Jewish Quarters. The main entrance to the Old City is via the main market, Souq al-Hamidiyya. This souq is long, wide and covered by a huge corrugated-iron roof which blocks all sun light except for the few rays which pass through bullet holes left by the machine-gun fire of French planes during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.

The Souq Al-Hamidiyya with its large bullet-ridden corrugated-iron roof

Having no desire to do any shopping, it was just a nice walk through the crowded souq where I could smell the spices and absorb the atmosphere. Best of all, because it isn't just a tourist market, I had noone shouting at me or trying to drag me into their stores. At the end of the Souq Al-Hamidiyya, you reach the remains of the western gate of the 3rd-century Roman Temple of Jupiter.

The western temple gate of the 3rd-century Roman Temple of Jupiter

The western temple gate viewed from inside Souq Al-Hamidiyya, the large dome of Umayyad Mosque is in the background

Just past this temple gate is the Umayyad Mosque which is supposed to be the most beautiful mosque in Syria and one of the holiest in the world for Muslims. I was there early so the crowds weren't too bad but in the middle of the day it was crammed full of poeple, both tourists and worshippers alike.

The central courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque

The huge prayer hall of the Umayyad Mosque

Inside the prayer hall there was a large marble-clad shrine of John the Baptist (Prophet Yehia to Muslims). A steady stream of worshippers waded their way around it, looking inside the shrine which is supposed to hold the head of the man himself. The mosque was separated into two parts by a chain cordon, the left reserved for men and the right for women (though women tourists were never stopped from entering the male side).

Woman inside prayer hall of Umayyad Mosque

After the mosque it was time for a coffee and a quick bite at one of the several coffee shops dotted within the Old City. Then I walked around randomly until I ended up in the Christian Quarter and the difference was quite striking - from the more ancient and historical surroundings of the Muslim area everything suddently changed to a more modern and touristy suburb.

Some Roman arches at the start of the Christian quarter

After the Christian quarter, I stopped by Azem Palace which was built in 1750 as a residence for the Ottoman governor of Damascus, As'ad Pasha al-Azm. It is now a museum with a peaceful garden and several rooms with displays depicting typical life of Damascenes at the time. Most of them had scary looking mannequins arranged in somewhat awkward poses.

The main garden fountain in Azem Palace in Damascus

Some scary looking mannequins in one of the museum rooms at Azem Palace - I suspect they ran out of female mannequins and had to resort to the male versions

After Azem Palace, I headed outside the Old City (getting a bit lost in the small side streets in the process) and headed towards the National Museum. I must say that although I didn't know what to expect of Damascus, I was surprised to find what looked like a modern city with decent roads, manicured gardens and clean footpaths. I had a somewhat naiive expectation that it would be a dusty, monochromatic skyline much like Cairo, but in the newer central part of the city, it would have been hard for me to pick that I was in the Middle East if it weren't for all the burkha wearing women and the odd mosque minaret poking out in the background.

The Takiyya as-Suleimaniyya Mosque near the National Museum in Damascus

The entrance to the main building at the National Museum in Damascus (no photos allowed inside...)

The museum was quite large and worth the visit, but I never got a "wow" factor out of it - perhaps I'd been spoiled so far in this trip with museums so the displays here just couldn't grab my attention. More likely, it was all the walking around that I'd already done that day and for some reason my legs hurt the most when I walk around in museums.

After the museum, it was back to the hostel for my last night in Damascus before heading east where I'd visit some truly impressive Roman Ruins in Palmyra.

All in all, Damascus was a very nice city and a great introduction to Syria.

That's it for this installment, next one coming very soon (I'm trying my best to catch up!)

Posted by joshuag 12:54 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Amman and Around - Dead in the Water


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Transport between cities in Jordan is what one might call a little disorganized. One option is to take a service taxi, but they are expensive and in Jordan expensive means expensive (1 Jordanian Dinar = 1 Euro) - it's probably the most expensive country I've been to so far since Japan. The cheaper transport alternative is to catch a mini-bus which entails going to the local mini-bus stand (which is usually little more than a car park) and asking around until someone points you in the right direction. Then you hop on your mini-bus and wait until it's full before it departs.

At least in Wadi Musa it was simple because Nasser, the kind hotel owner, called the the driver of mini-bus service to Amman so I just had to wait at the hotel to be picked up. Once on the mini-bus I sat next to a young Jordanian guy who's English vocabulary was limited to "Hello", yet even without the expectation of a conversation, he shared his snacks with me for the entire trip to Amman; he even bought me a peanut bar at the rest stop. What can I say, Jordanians are truly very nice people.

Amman was never going to be a terribly exciting city to visit, the sights are limited and not nearly as impressive as other cities in the Middle East. I basically went there to use as a base for excursions to Jerash and the Dead Sea. It was also a good place to just hang back without the pressure of having to go sightseeing everyday which I kind of needed at the time after my long excursions in Petra. I didn't really intend to stay too long in Amman, but I found a really comfortable hostel in the middle of Downtown so a couple of days turned into over a week.

After about five months of not watching television, it was nice to discover my room at the hostel had satellite TV. Only a few channels were in English it was nice to veg out and watch random movies and old tv series - even though they were cut to shreds (even kissing scenes fell victim to the sensors). Best of all, I got to watch two live F1 Grands Prix while I was there, albeit with Arabic commentary - I'm still hoping to go to at least one Grand Prix while I'm travelling, hopefully one takes place in a country or near a country where I happen to be at the time.

A fruit market in Amman near my hotel, the view might not look too impressive, but the smells from this place were mouthwatering - I bought some strawberries there which were huge, ripe and juicy - not to mention extremely cheap

Reception at the hostel in Amman - Almost every business in Jordan proudly displays a portrait photograph of King Abdullah II (left) and most also have his father the late King Hussein (right)

On the seventh day, I decided I'd done enough resting and joined a day trip out to the Dead Sea with some other people from the hostel. The group included an Irish guy called Ian, a couple from Chile and a family from Peru. We made a brief stop at Mt Nebo (apparently where Moses saw the so-called "Promised Land", then died) - fortunately I didn't know it was part of the tour until we got there because it was rather disappointing. Just a big hill with a some ruins of a church and a monastery and (surprise surprise) they were in the process of being restored so were covered by scaffolding. It would have been good just for the views of the Dead Sea, the Jordan River Valley and Jericho but it was quite hazy so it was hard to see them let alone take good photos. It was also around Easter when I was there so lots of people were there on pilgrimages, but for someone like me with not much of an interest in biblical sites, it was just another hill.

Then it was the Dead Sea - we went to Amman Beach which is like a public resort where you pay 15 JD which allows you to use their ammenities, like changing rooms, swimming pools and most importantly the showers near the sea front, which you definitely need because the water from the Dead Sea is so salty (33.7% salinity), it not only sticks to you like a layer of slime, it also starts stinging after a while - it was definitely a mistake that I shaved that morning.

The Dead Sea coast from Amman Beach Resort in Jordan - you can see Israel in the background

I know it was cliche, but I had to do it...

Reading my Middle East Lonely Planet in the Dead Sea

It was quite a strange sensation to be floating so high up in the water. I reckon that if you were wearing one of those inflatable pillows around your neck that people use on flights, you could probably fall asleep on the water without drowning. The shores of the Dead Sea are 422 meters below sea level which makes it the lowest elevation on Earth's surface.

We spent the rest of the afternoon taking dips in the pool and lazying around on the deck chairs. The life-guard at the main pool was funny to watch - he had a whistle firmly stuck to his lips and if there was any hint of a kid going near the deep end, he'd chirp away and direct them to the shallow end - he was worse than a traffic cop.

The Dead Sea beach along the Amman Beach resort

The next day was bright and sunny so I went off on my own to Jerash. I opted to go on my own using local buses instead of joining one of the typically overpriced tours hotels usually offer.

Hadrian's Gate in Jerash

Jerash was quite an impressive Roman city, and it happened to be the first one I've ever visited, but after Petra I was a tiny bit underwhelmed. NevertheleIss I did enjoy it a lot because I took it at a very slow pace and it was large enough that I could get away from the large tourist crowds and explore on my own.

The South Theatre in Jerash

The South Theatre with the Oval Plaza and Cardo Maximus in the background, Jerash

large_Oval_Plaza.._Jordan.jpgThe Oval Plaza and Cardo Maximus from the top of the South Theatre in Jerash

The South Decumanos in Jerash

Cardo Decumanos in Jerash

My day trip to Jerash ended up being the end of my Jordanian experience. It was the first country I'd been to in my trip where I stayed less than five weeks but it is a small country and I'd seen and done all that I wanted to do there so it was time to move on.

My final thoughts on Jordan?

Well first and foremost, Petra was out of this world - definitely one of the highlights of my trip so far. For a place with such a high profile in the tourist trail, there were very few hassles. This goes hand in hand with the people of Jordan who are very generous and friendly, hopefully it stays that way and doesn't go the way Egypt has.

Me, Nejmal (the friendly hotel owner in Amman) and Ian the Irish lad who I went to the Dead Sea with

I can't find anything to really complain about. Perhaps the only thing that could have been better would be the public transport. I would have liked to have visited more of the areas around the Dead Sea but public transport there is thin to none-existent. An alternative in Jordan would be to hitch-hike which is supposed to be quite common and relatively safe compared to most countries, but I'm not the hitch-hiking type either way.

Anyway, onwards and upwards.

Until next time!

Posted by joshuag 09:22 Archived in Jordan Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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