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Cappadocia - Fairy Chimneys and the Underground City


all seasons in one day 20 °C
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Now, where was I? Oh yeah, I entered Turkey.

Crossing the border from Syria to Turkey was a similar experience to crossing from Jordan to Syria. I took a service taxi from Aleppo to Antakya, a relatively short 90 km journey. I was in the car with two other passengers, neither of whom spoke English, neither did the dirver for that matter. We sped towards the border crossing at what seemed like 200 kilometers per hour while Middle Eastern style music blared from the car stereo. At least this time I didn't have to change cars or drivers but I did have to "carry" a carton of duty-free cigarettes across the border for the driver, as did all the other passengers - obviously a nice little money making scheme he has going on the side (I did witness the driver purchasing the cigarettes at the duty free store so I was confident I was not smuggling a block of hash instead).

Sign post to Turkey from service taxi

Once again we aquired an extra passenger at the border - this time a friendly Tunisian woman who spoke a little English and a conversation with her helped to keep me distracted as we sped away from the border at ridiculous speeds.

Eventually I was dropped off in a seemingly random parking lot, with no obvious bus station or tourist offices in sight. When I first started my journey back in November 2009, I was quite organised about where I was staying and how I was going to get there. I even made sure I learnt the basics of the language just so I could at least greet people. Now almost seven months later, I found myself in a brand new city in a brand new country and I didn't have a clue about how to even say "hello" in Turkish, let alone where I was going to stay that night. The best part was that I wasn't in the least bit worried about it. One thing I've learnt about traveling is that the harder something is, the more satisfaction you get from it once you've accomplished it.

I started walking around the streets of Antakya in search for either a tourist office or an inviting budget hotel. While I wandered I noticed how different things appeared compared to where I'd just come from. First of all, there were very few women wearing head scarves and even less that wore burkhas. Not only that but women of all ages were showing their arms and shoulders in public and couples walked hand-in-hand down the street. It felt more familiar, yet strange at the same time. All of this from a country whose population is claimed to be 98% muslim - but then again, once you get to know Turkey and a little bit of its history, it's not difficult to see why it's so different to it's fellow Islamic neighbours.

After about an hour of walking around the city with my backpack digging into my shoulders, I spotted a sign in English which pointed towards the tourist office. I was lucky to have spotted the sign because asking people on the street for directions had turned out to be a fruitless exercise since there was a distinct lack of English speakers.

Center of Antakya near the tourist office

The woman at the tourist office gave me a little map of Antakya and she kindly marked where the best budget hotels were in town. She was the first of many truly friendly Turkish people I met during my travels there.

I didn't stay long in Antakya, just long enough to catch my breath and to get accustomed to a new country, new people, new currency and a new language. The only sightseeing I did was a quick visit to the Archeological Museum as well as several strolls around the city.

Mosaics and Statues at the Archeological Museum, Antakya

The impressive Sarcophagus of Antakya in the Archeological Museum

The Orontes River through Antakya

The morning I left Antakya, I was supposed to be taken to the otogar (bus station) by a free shuttle from the travel agent's office where I bought my ticket, but as the clock ticked, I realised someone had missed or forgotten me. The travel agent's office was closed and my only hope was to ask someone at the tourist office across the road how I could get to the otogar by public transport. Instead of showing me, the man working there kindly offered to take me there in his car - what did I tell you about the friendly Turks?

Unfortunately trains in Turkey aren't particularly fast and they don't have an extensive coverage of the country. This wasn't a problem because Turkey has a top class bus network. Numerous competing bus companies offer reasonably priced modern buses which go almost everywhere you'd want to go. They even have attendants on board who offer snacks and beverages during the trip much in the same way you get on a flight, except more basic. So I took a bus to Cappadocia, a region located in the center of Turkey which is famous for its cave houses, underground cities and the martian-like landscapes.

The first place I visited in Cappadocia was Ürgüp, a small city full of boutique hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and honey-coloured stone buildings. The hills surrounding the inner part of the city were dotted with dozens of vacated cave houses carved into the hill sides. I stayed in a small but comfortable hotel in the middle of town run by a sweet old couple. I felt just a tiny bit out of place there because I think the hotel was more often frequented by couples on romantic get-aways. It was here also where I got my first taste of a typical Turkish breakfast and all the generous helpings of white bread that come with it - it tastes good but by the end of my journey through Turkey I'd regained most of the weight I'd lost in Asia and the Middle East (I'd lost around 4 kgs by the way, which is quite a lot for me)

Typical Turkish breakfast - white bread is their staple and it is always provided at breakfast, lunch and dinner

Cave houses in Ürgüp

The weather was quite fickle while I was in Ürgüp and when I woke up one morning to clear blue skies I took advantage and headed for a long trek to one of the surrounding valleys which according to Google Earth had an amazing landscape consisting of strange looking rock formations. It didn't look far on the map, so I headed out of town by foot. To my surprise, after about an hour I hadn't found the valley, but I did come across what I thought was a small nearby town. It wasn't until I spotted a familiar looking hamam (Turkish bath), that I realised I'd walked in one huge circle and I was back exactly where I'd started. I felt rather stupid at the time, but at the same time I was relieved that I didn't have to walk all the way back to Ürgüp... because I was already back in Ürgüp!

A Hamam (Turkish bath) in Ürgüp - It was located only a few steps from my hotel

The next day I made more of an effort to study the map I was carrying and I actually made it to the rock formations.

Rock formations near Ürgüp

Ürgüp was a nice place to stay, but it wasn't really a backpacker type town. In retrospect, I should have gone directly to Göreme, a smaller yet far more impressive town built within a small valley where most of the surrounding hotels and houses are caves carved directly into the hills and limestone rock formations.

Some fairy chimneys in Göreme

Göreme from outlining hills

Whilst having breakfast at the hostel in my first morning in Göreme I met Natalia, a lone traveller from Canada. We decided to join forces for the day which turned out rather well since we both got to do and see more than if we'd gone it alone. I learnt later that we'd both stayed at the same beach huts in Goa, she'd nearly stayed at the same hostel in Delhi (except she got there late and couldn't find it), hated pineapple on pizza, hated heights, spoke fluent Spanish, she was a computer programmer and was also travelling around the world on an extended sabatical, so you could say we had plenty in common. I also thought she bore a striking resemblance to the actress Natascha McElhone... Ok, I know what you're thinking, but she was married. She even showed me a photo of her hubby to which I regretfully reacted by saying, "Him? Really?"

Anyway, our first destination was the underground city of Kaymakli. Apparently there are over one hundred underground settlements in Cappadocia, but only a few are open to visitors. They were built for protection from wild animals, invading armies and the harsh winter conditions. It was truly impressive how deep and intricate the cave systems were devised. They came equiped with bedrooms, kitchens, cribs, toilets, wine houses, food stores and ventilation chimneys. We opted to forego an official tour guide and instead Natalia took on the duties of explaining what each room was used for using the few signposts and a little improvisation. Her stories usually involved dwarves since the height of the ceilings suggested that the inhabitants were either very short or ended up with really bad backs.

Underground City in Cappadocia

Natalia in Underground City in Cappadocia

After the underground city, we took a bus back to Göreme for a quick bite (and camera battery recharge) before heading to the Göreme Open Air Museum about 1 km walk from the edge of town. We had left it quite late but fortunately it was open later than what our guide books suggested and this turned out to be a blessing considering the small tourist crowds. The open air museum consists of a monastic settlement where some 20 monks lived circa the 11th Century AD. Once again, it was a city consisting of caves built into the rock formations. There appeared to be as many churches in the city as there were monks and each church we visited was decorated with impressive medival frescoes.

Some of the caves at the Open Air Museum, Göreme

Medieval frescoes inside a church cave at the Open Air Museum, Göreme

Natalia stepping out of doorway to one of the caves at the Open Air Museum in Göreme - the doorway was high up and only reachable by a skinny stairway so this was a bit of a challenge for us vertigo sufferers

After the museum, we wandered across the road and decided on a small hike along one of the surrounding valleys. The valley ran in the same direction as the road that led towards Göreme so our goal was to find an alternate way back. Unfortunately, after a while of walking, sometimes squeezing past huge boulders and climbing down small overhangs, we got to a drop that was just to big to navigate and we had to turn back.

Valleys near the Open Air Museum, Göreme

Natalia taking photo in valley near the Open Air Museum, Göreme

Natalia squeezing past a rock in valley near the Open Air Museum, Göreme

Curious looking trees beside road between Göreme and the Open Air Museum - one bears clay pots and the other "wish" ribbons

It was dark by the time we arrived back at the hostel and Natalia went for a Hamam (Turkish bath) for a bath and a massage. You had to pre-book the Hamam plus they were quite expensive so I stayed back at the hostel and hung out a Dutch guy called Sebastian who'd hitchhiked to all the way to Cappadocia from the Netherlands. He was quite young and very enthusiastic about life. He'd taken photos of all the people who'd given him rides and it was quite interesting hearing the individual stories behind each one.

Göreme at night

That was it for my Cappadocia experience, the next day I'd be heading to the southern coast of Turkey for my first glimpse of the Mediterranean. It would also become one of the highlights of my trip and the first time I'd chose to stay in one spot for an extended period of time.

Posted by joshuag 09:57 Archived in Turkey Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Aleppo - New Socks and the Historic Hotel


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As I walked through a busy park in the center of Aleppo, I was greeted by the scrutinising glare of former president Assad. Actually, having had no luck determining my position from various non-English speaking locals, former President Assad's statue became the perfect landmark which I could reference in my Lonely Planet map.

Statue of former President Assad at center of park in Aleppo

Aleppo was to be my last destination in Syria as it was poised conveniently near the border with Turkey - but it wasn't just a convenient stop-over city, it was well worthwhile visiting based on its own merits and I quite enjoyed it. My visit didn't begin without its problems however, as I soon realised that getting a hotel room in the city was going to be rather difficult. I had been overconfident (and disorganised) when I left Hama, so I hadn't booked anywhere to stay in Aleppo. By bad luck it turned out to be a public holiday in Syria and this resulted in a torturous walk through the city for several hours trying to find a hotel that had vacancies.

It was quite a relief when I did finally find a room... until I stepped inside...

My room at Hotel Al-Andaloss on my first night in Aleppo, can't see it in this photo but to the left a rickety old table (no chair) and above me, at least a dozen hovering mosquitos waiting for me to close my eyes - What can I say, beggars can't be choosers

The guy at this hotel wanted to keep my passport until I checked-out and he took quite an offence when I told him I'd rather he didn't. After a lengthy "debate", he finally relented and begrudgingly returned it to me but only after copying down every last detail. I wasn't in the mood to alert him to the fact that he'd mistakenly noted down all the details from my U.S. visa page instead of my main photo page.

That night I stepped out onto my room's balcony (yes, at least it had a balcony) to take in a bit of the city at night and I saw and heard a man standing across the street yelling out periodically while holding what looked like a whole bunch of socks in his arms. There's no better proof to all the walking around I've done on my trip than my holey socks. Almost every pair I had was stricken with at least one toe revealing crater and this was proving to be rather embarassing whenever I had to take my shoes off at mosques or guesthouses. So due to a mixture of necessity and my pity for the poor socks merchant (who hadn't made a single sale for the whole time I'd been watching him) I raced across the road and bought three pairs from him. Even better for the guy, my purchase prompted further business from other passers by and within a few minutes he'd sold several more pairs.

Man who I bought socks from across the road from my hotel

The next day I was on a hunt for a different hotel because the room I'd stayed in the previous night would have driven me to antidepressants if I'd stayed any longer. It was at that point that I decided, for the second time in my journey, to splurge on a hotel (the last time was in Mumbai at the start of February) and what better place stay at but in Hotel Baron, the oldest and most famous hotel in Syria. Apparently the Hotel Baron in Aleppo has witnessed a century of Syrian history and has hosted various political leaders and cultural figures, including kings, presidents, writers, adventurers and spies.

According to wikipedia, these are some of the famous guests of the Hotel Baron:

Lawrence of Arabia slept in room 202; King Faisal declared Syria's independence from the balcony in room 215; Agatha Christie wrote the first part of "Murder on the Orient Express" in room 203. The Presidential Suite was occupied in turn by King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria's former President Hafez Al Assad, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (the founder of the United Arab Emirates), and the American billionaire David Rockefeller. Other notable guests include Dame Freya Stark, Julie Christie, Mr and Mrs Theodore Roosevelt, Kemal Attaturk (modern Turkey's founder and first president), Lady Louise Mountbatten, Charles Lindberg and Yuri Gagarin (Soviet cosmonaut and first human to have gone into outer space), world adventurer Josh stayed in room 315

Yeah you got me, I added the last one - so it's also hosted a lot of nobodies.

The famous Hotel Baron in Aleppo

The concierge at Hotel Baron - I have to admit, she was posing for me while pretending to talk on that awesome antique switchboard

The lounge and bar at Hotel Baron

T.E. Lawrence's signed bill dated the 8th of June, 1914 is framed and displayed in the lounge - apparently the cheeky fellow never payed it

Room 202 where T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) stayed

The bar at Hotel Baron

The banquet hall at Hotel Baron where I had breakfast

The main staircase at Hotel Baron

My room at Hotel Baron - very clean and comfortable and probably my favourite room so far

The hotel was overpriced and the manager tried to sell me tours every chance he got, but it exuded a grandeur (albeit faded) which other more modern and expensive hotels just couldn't match, so I was happy.

Anyway, believe it or not, I did actually leave the hotel to explore some of Aleppo's attractions, including the citadel and what turned out to be my favourite souq so far. Once again I wasn't in the market for spices or souvenirs but it was still nice to walk through souq Bab-Antakya on my way to the citadel. It was yet another souq which was filled with more locals than tourists so the hassle factor from the store people was virtually non-existent... except for the t-shirt store guy. It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out that a stranger who addresses you as "My friend!" should be treated with complete suspicion; yet touts and merchants everywhere I've been to insist on using it in an attempt to gain your trust (Egypt and India were the worst for this). I guess it must work on the more gullible and easily flattered tourists otherwise they wouldn't still use it.

My favourite souq so far in my travels, the labyrinthine Souq Bab-Antakya in Aleppo

The best parts of the citadel were undoubtedly the outer wall, the bridge leading to the main gate and the impressive throne room. The inner area consisted mostly of crumbling ruins and a couple of mosques which would have otherwise been interesting to visit but were instead a little disappointing due to the false promise suggested by the outer shell.

Bridge and main gate to the citadel in Aleppo

The impressive throne room at the citadel

Some of the ruins and a large mosque inside the citadel

Admittedly, the citadel's walls also offered fine views of Aleppo from its high vantage point.

View of Aleppo from the walls of the citadel

There were several undergound rooms and chambers that you could walk around in, some of them attempting to show life "as it was" with the use of the ubiquitous posing mannequins.

Creepy manequins posed "real natural like" at the underground baths of the citadel

Just as I was about to leave the citadel, I met a two young Syrian students keen to practice their English. I learnt they were from small towns not far from Aleppo and were studying English in the city in hope of becoming English teachers. They turned out to be decent guys who weren't afraid to talk about religion and politics (I let them do most of the talking on these topics) though they were also smart enough not to approach these subjects in a preachy manner. We ended up having a friendly conversation right up until the the citadel closed. These guys once again highlighted how friendly the Syrian people really are.

The two students, Edrees and Ahmed, whom I met at the citadel (trust me, they didn't mind having their photo taken. I noticed many Syrians don't smile in photos, even when they're posing for their own tourist snaps)

The rest of my time in Aleppo I spent walking around the city, catching up on my blogs (yes, once upon a time I did put some time aside for these things) and trying to organise my trip north across the border into Turkey.

President Bashar smiling over the Syrian people in one of the main squares of Aleppo (priceless)

Glowing mosque fills the night time view in Aleppo

Alas, I had covered yet another country, this time at a blistening pace (just short of two weeks) and I was ready to move on to yet another country I'd been looking forward to since I started my journey in November. Unfortunately I'd have to learn the basics of yet another language just when my Arabic "hello", "please" and "thank you" were starting to sound intelligible.

So for the last time (in Arabic), Ma-as Salama!

Posted by joshuag 09:58 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Hama and Around - Water Wheels and the Fairytale Castle


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So, I've been reminded by a few people that I haven't posted a blog in a really long time, well don't despair because here begins season two of Joshua's World Odyssey which should quench those vicarious travellers out there.

After my visit to the ancient ruins of Palmyra in the eastern desert of Syria, it was a long trip to Hama where I'd have a good base to visit various sightseeing spots in the west of Syria including the city of Hama itself.

A while out of Palmyra, I started spotting road signs pointing to Iraq, that's probably as close as I get to "intrepid" in my travels.

The east of Syria definitely lived up to the mental image one has of the country, desolate, rugged deserts with its bedouin camps, camels and goat herders. The west on the other hand, came as a surprise, lush green fields and young forests - the change in landscape was quite dramatic. Some of the forests were very young, which leaves you with the impression that they are trying hard to reclaim the desert.

Once in Hama I was greeted at the Riad Hotel by the manager Abdullah, who curiously had a strong Aussie accent, his first words to me were, "Gidday mate". I can only assume he'd been taught English by an Australian or perhaps he'd been watching Home and Away on Syrian satellite TV.

For me Hama turned out to be a nice little town to visit, well I say town but it has a population of 1.6 million, so it's a decent sized city but it felt more like a city of fifty thousand. It is most famous for its creaking wooden norias (Roman water wheels) which were used to deliver water from the Orontes river (which also powered the wheels) up to the top of the aquaducts which in turn delivered water to the town's inhabitants - quite a clever design if you ask me.

I walked along the entire stretch of the river through the middle of town where the norias were located - the biggest one I came across had a diameter of 20 meters.

The Al-Mammuriyya Noria in Hama

The norias have been around since the 4th century AD, but the surviving ones today were built in the 13th century. My favourite thing about the norias was the eerie creaking and moaning sound they made as they turned which was caused by the wooden axles rubbing on the wooden blocks they are mounted on.

Creaking norias in Hama, Syria

Norias next to Al Keilani Bridge and An Nuri Mosque, Hama

Perhaps it was the season or I just chose the right days to visit, but Hama didn't feel touristy at all and even in the Old City I was virtually the only tourist walking amongst the few locals along the narrow cobbled streets.

Old man walking towards small mosque in the Old City

An "arty" shot of my reflection in mirror of small cafe in the Old City

The clocktower in the center of Hama, behind the tower you can see a portrait of President Bashar, his portrait appears all over the place - just like Jordan they are there to remind you who's in charge

A long day of walking around Hama was followed by an excursion to Apamea and some of the Dead Cities. The best way to get around these tourist sites is by doing a tour so I opted to join one organised by the hotel I was staying at. Luckily the tour only included a driver so I didn't have to put up with a guide boring me to death and as a bonus our group was only small consisting of myself and two girls, Cami a Belgian and Iza who was half English, half Moroccan.

Our driver, Abdul, was quite proud to show us a book which had been written about him by an English man. Abdul had been the English man's guide and driver as they toured extensively throughout Syria.

The book which had been written about Charles Roffey's tour of Syria with Abdul

Photos inside book about Abdul - actually, the book was more of a photo album rather than a memoir

Our first stop was the Mosaic Museum of Al-Ma Arra, which we were not expecting as it was not listed as part of the tour - there was a small cover charge so I think Abdul was receiving a small commission - nevertheless we went in and they did have a large collection of ancient mosaics so in the end it was probably worth it... just. We were the only tourists there, which meant we got our own chaperone to make sure we didn't take photos inside.

Mosaic of former President Assad in Mosaic Museum of Al-Ma Arra - yes he's still watching

Next was the Dead Cities of Serjilla and Al-Bara, two of the lagest of some 700 abandoned settlements scattered along the limestone hills that lie between the Aleppo-Hama highway. They date back to before the fifth century B.C. and apparently it's a big mystery why these villages were abandoned (though my feeling is that stone buildings and earthquakes don't mix well - heavy falling rocks hurt!)

Some ruins in the dead city of Serjilla

A church in the dead city of Al-Bara

We saw ruins scattered all over the place as we drove around the narrow winding roads. They appear to lie mostly undisturbed alongside olive, nut and fruit orchards. The feeling I got once we got out and walked amongst them was a mixture of both spookiness and tranquility.

After the dead cities, we headed to Apamea, an ancient city much like Palmyra but smaller and built out of grey granite instead of pink sandstone; it was also built in the middle of lush green hills rather than in the desert which was quite a contrast. When we visited, the site felt deserted with only a handful of other tourists wandering about.

Most of the ruins of Apamea have disappeared, but the 2 km long grand colonnade is still highly visible with columns running from one end to the other. Parts of the cardo (main street) still retain the original paving which are visibly grooved by the wear of chariot wheels.

View from one end of the 2 km colonnaded cardo in Apamea

A column at the center of the grand colonnade

Cami and Iza admiring the columns at the north end of the grand colonnade

View along the deserted grand colonnade

The next day I embarked on my second day trip from Hama to Crac des Chevaliers, a castle built by Crusader knights in the 12th century. I used the same strategy to get to the castle that I employed in my trip to Apamea and the Dead Cities, and that was a tour organised by the hotel. This time I travelled with three French women, Emy, Clemence and Simone. Again, the tour only included a driver and not a tour guide, unfortunately the driver suffered from suicidal tendencies and I couldn't help but tell him off after he overtook a bus on a blind corner at high speed. He just laughed, but his driving became noticeably tamer so I think he got the message - I think the French girls sitting in the back seat were also quite relieved I said something.

To say Crac des Chevaliers is an impressive castle would be an understatement. It was huge and there were plenty of places to explore, both below ground and around the various towers dotted around the outer walls and within the castle proper.

Me inside the main stables - It was a huge room and it was pitch black except for a few shards of dim light eminating from some holes in the ceiling - I didn't really intend to pose like this as I was just positioning myself under the light beam while the camera timer was running, but I think it turned out ok.

The only section of the vast mote around the castle which was filled in with water - the rest of the mote had been filled in over the centuries.

A wall at the baths, presumably the holes were where water was somehow piped in

A view of the filled-in mote along the length of the castle

My biggest problem that day was the wind which was gale force-like - this made climbing up on to the roofs of the tall towers a little tricky, especially since there were virtually no barriers to stop you being swept off the edge. I stupidly decided to climb up one of the taller towers and up to the roof just when the wind got at its worst. Once up there it was so strong I had to hold on to a vertical spire at the center. Then I had to crawl on my hands and knees just to get to a hole on the ground at the edge of the tower which led to the stairway. I must have looked ridiculous from the lower parts of the castle where it was far more sheltered.

Windy day at Crac des Chevaliers, Syria

A view of the roof tops inside the castle proper - it was pretty windy up there so I was quite thankful for my camera's "steady-shot" feature

A large chapel in the castle, it had been turned into a mosque when the armies of Islam took the castle in 1271.

One of the more impressive internal buildings of the castle, the loggia, with a fancy looking Gothic facade was ruined when I was there by some cheap looking Pharoic-era wall decorations. This castle had little to do with the Egyptians and was built over a thousand years after the last pharoah had ruled Egypt, so we all wondered about the out-of-place decorations. It was only a few weeks later when I spoke to another traveller that I learnt that they were actually shooting a movie there.

Some out-of-place Egyptian plywood movie set decorations

A stone bridge to a side entrance of the castle

A view of the entire castle from a nearby hill just before we returned to Hama

Master Cola? Thought it was something else when I bought it

It was a brief stop in Hama, but it was a good one. I still had one more stop to make in Syria before I headed out of the country and that probably deserves a small blog of its own which I'll be posting soon (I promise).

Until next time!

Posted by joshuag 03:45 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

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


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View Around the world on joshuag's travel map.

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)

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