24.06.2010 - 26.06.2010 27 °C
We left Madaba on 24 June and caught two taxis to the Jordan/Syria border - destination Damascus. The three people without Syrian visas, Alan, Karyn and Ben, were in the front taxi with Brendan. New Zealand doesn’t have a Syrian Embassy so Alan and Karyn are eligible to get a visa at the border but Ben was another story. Ben has a US Diplomatic passport (his wife works at the Consulate in Istanbul) which he put in for a visa at the Syrian Embassy in Turkey. They kept hold of the passport and didn’t issue a visa. He was travelling with his normal passport and hoping that he would be able to get a visa at the border. Unfortunately a law had been passed in the last two weeks denying US citizens the ability to obtain a visa at Syrian borders but, regardless, Ben was hoping that he might get lucky. Today was not that day. We all went through with no issues (incluing Alan and Karyn who had to buy their visas with Syrian pounds – they had to exchange some money at passport control and got stung on the exchange rate). We had all filled in an Arrival Form and the Border Agent had taken this and Ben’s passport, telling him that he wouldn’t be getting a visa. Still, we thought it was a good sign that they’d taken his passport and thought they might be checking to see if there was any alternative. The Border Agent asked Ben where he lived, what he did and why he wanted to enter Syria. He should have just said he was a tourist but he told them that he was living in Turkey, his wife was at the US Consulate, etc. The Border Agent then rips up his Arrival Card right in front of his face. Not a good sign. We were joking around saying things like, “Is this a good sign or a bad sign?” and “Maybe he didn’t do it on purpose” and Ben should ask him if he’d like some sticky tape to put it back together. He did do it on purpose, of course, and his passport was returned a short time later without a visa. Ben wouldn’t be coming into Syria with us. Thankfully he had worked out a contingency plan and caught one of the taxis back to Amman where he stayed with a friend at the Embassy for the night before catching a plane back to Istanbul the next morning. We were going to miss his company in Syria.
We continued on with our journey towards Damascus.
We had been warned that our drivers (who’d we’d had all the way from Madaba) would probably be slightly out of control, talking/texting on his phone while weaving at a high speed in and out of traffic. Thankfully our driver wasn’t like this at all – unlike our next driver…. Turns out that it is an agreement that cars from outside the city can’t work within city limits and Damascan taxi drivers take over from a certain point. As we got closer to the city we were dropped in the middle of nowhere on the verge of a highway. There were cars lined up and Brendan did some bartering with them until we found two who would take us into town for an acceptable rate. We all agreed that it was the most hair raising journey we’d taken in a cab (well, except for that particularly memorable trip I had in Egypt) – our driver was mentally unhinged. He turned around, while driving at some incredible speed, to shake hands with Ely and Dustin (not me, though – I’m female) veering off the road and swerving across three lanes. Then he got his phone out and called all his mates to let them know that he had these foreigners in his cab. After this he put his arm around Dan’s shoulder (Dan was in the front seat) and took a self portrait of the two of them with his mobile while he was pelting along. All the while he was smoking his head off – the back window was open and ash was flying in and burning Dustin. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so terrifying. We were afraid for our lives and literally fell out of that cab quicker than you can say ‘lock that guy up’.
I was so excited to be in Damascus, the capital of Syria, and said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. The earliest references to the city confirm its existence as early as the 3rd millennium BM and still today the city landmarks trace its long history through many eras. The Persians, Greeks and Romans all had their hands in the history of what the Arabs call ash-Sham, until the Muslims and Mongols took over, only to eventually give way to the Ottomans and finally the French before Syria finally gained independence in 1946.
Brendan took us on a guided walk through the city. We started at the new city where many of the back packers are located and some great cafes and juice bars.
If you thought you'd just lost your remote down the back of a chair - think again. The Remote Control Fairy whisked it away to Damascus to live another day.
Damascus is well known for its covered souks (markets) built during the Ottoman period. The most important and popular is Souk al-Hamaidiyya which is where we headed next and where we spent the majority of our time. We started off by walking through the main thoroughfare and then continuing into the labyrinth surrounding the covered area where there were special sections of spices, food, material, etc. I stopped every so often to look at the stalls - it was great people watching.
Where's Wally? Brendan ruining my photo....
The beautiful Umayyad Mosque greeted us after we’d walked under the Roman Arch at the end of the covered part of the souq. Even though we were both modestly dressed Karyn and I had to put on really lovely robes to enter the mosque.
The open courtyard was stunning – the marble floor almost like water reflecting the dome and minarets above.
The area is used kind of like a park with kids playing and families eating food. The male and female sides of the prayer hall were divided by a chain (I started out on the men’s side and it took me a second or two to work out what was wrong with this picture, back track and make my way along the narrower women’s side). There was an ornate tomb like structure in the middle of the mosque which a lot of women were congregated around - reaching out and touching it. We think it held the remains of the daughter of a prophet but can’t be sure. All I do know is that black is the new black as far as fashion goes.
We continued on through the ancient alleyways...
Our next stop was the Muslim Shiite mosque which was a different kettle of fish altogether. Men and women enter separately and the women were more covered (if that’s possible) with even more black going on – here we had to wear black robes with Arabic script on the back. I have no idea what it said – probably ‘BEWARE! TOURIST!’ Shoes were removed (usual practice when entering a mosque – hence the foot washing facilities at the entrance). The mosque itself was over the top bling – lots of mirrors, flashy chandeliers and incredibly ornate mosaics and tiles.
Men and women seemed to be able to come together in the mosque but there were also areas where they are separated – particularly the prayers area where there was another ornate tomb like structure which the women were clustered around, some crying, doing anything to reach out and touch the golden bars. It was hard to get in close with the amount of women – the ones closest to the ‘tomb’ were standing but everyone else was on their knees, with a small coin shaped disc on the floor in front of them. When it came to a certain point in their prayers they would put their head on this disc, all the while continuing to chant the words of the Koran, verses of which were in frames on the walls. I really did feel like an ignorant alien in that environment – time for me to do some more reading, me thinks.
We continued on our journey through the labyrinth whose walls seemed to lean towards each other, their balconies putting them off balance, so they nearly touch at the top.
I held the group up – distracted by kids and life in the Old City.
We had dinner that night at the wonderful Al-Khawali, set in a grand old Damascene house. There were pictures on the wall as we entered of the various politicians who had been bought here – it is considered one of Damascus’s top restaurants but it’s cheap compared to eating out at home. We were seated in the middle of the vast, ornately decorated interior courtyard with the smell of freshly cooking bread wafting over us. They bake their own bread on site and it was delivered warm to our table.
Sharing is the way to go when eating in the Middle East and we went for a set menu which offered a variety of beautiful selection of mezze to start. The warm bread is torn into chunks and dipped into the various dips. In a country that is known for its food, this was the best meal I had in the Middle East but it is the memory of their hummus will have me drooling for years to come. They seem to have perfected the combination of chick peas, spices and chilli, drizzled with a splash of good olive oil, to make their dip the best hummus I’ve tasted. And that’s no mean feat for a dish that originates from this region. In fact, the recipe is kept so secret that they refused to give it to King Carlos of Spain until President Bashir Al-Assad had a quiet word.
The mezze would have been enough but then the main courses arrived – chicken in a thick sauce, kebaps, etc. It was all so so so so so good! Desert was sliced watermelon and just picked cherries. You can’t get better than that. All in all it was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had – so much so that I returned the following day to get some photos. I had a lovely chat with Bahar, the house manager, who bought me a cool fresh lemon and mint drink on the house. It’s like another world and a lovely escape from the hustle and bustle of the souq right outside Al-Khawali’s front door.
Brendan, Dan, Dustin, Ely and I headed down Straight Street and into the Christian Quarter to seek out a bar which was playing the World Cup. We set ourselves up at Zodiac which had unfortunate green lighting - didn’t do a thing for our complexions! Two for one drinks until 11pm helped alleviate our concerns about looking like leprechauns and, drinks in hand, we settled in to watch the football. I can’t tell you who played but I seem to recall that it was a pretty uneventful match – the two Greek brothers who owned the bar were disappointed though so maybe Greece lost. Hey ho.
I had mentioned over drinks that I liked the idea of crossing the border to Lebanon on a day trip to visit the Roman ruins of Baalbek. Dustin and Ely both piped up and said they’d be up for it too. We started looking into it and Dustin, who works for a US government agency, discovered that he could potentially be putting his job in jeopardy by attempting it. Ely and I had no such restrictions and we both had multiple entry on our Syrian visa so there were no problems there either. I spoke to our hotel reception about whether they could organize something for us – they could but everyone gets a cut of commission here and there and the price quoted was hefty. I did a comparison with what travelers on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forum had paid for a similar trip and we were being quoted around four times the usual rate. In the end we decided not to do it for a number of reasons: cost – not just of trip but for visa into Lebanon and then return into Syria again, concern re getting visas at the border and processing time and, most importantly for me, I didn’t feel like it left me enough time in Damascus.
But if you’re considering doing a day trip from Damascus to Lebanon, it is absolutely possible. Ideally you would have two days thereby giving you the chance to visit and overnight in Beirut too. And if you’re doing this specific Cairo to Istanbul (ESV) trip with Intrepid then I would especially recommend it if your free day in Damascus falls on a Friday (which ours did) because Friday is the equivalent of the West’s weekend and nothing is open. Just make sure you do your planning well in advance – not the night before! I’ll just have to visit Lebanon another time.
25 JUNE - Damascus
I decided that I’d had enough of the bacteria in my tummy which had been causing me grief for over a week so I put myself on antibiotics today – I’m pleased to report that it knocked it on the head sharpish. Don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner – for some reason I had thought to myself that I should save my antibiotics in case I got something more serious but I’m pretty sure things were about to start looking more serious so I was pleased to deal with it. I don’t know about you but when I think of bacteria I imagine something like Louie the Fly, a grotty cartoon character, slouching and skulking around in my stomach, reveling in the fact that he’s causing me discomfort. Well, ha ha, Louie – guess who got the last laugh my dirty little friend!
Today was a free day but, as mentioned above, it was a Friday which is the equivalent of the West’s weekend so pretty much everything is closed. I still took advantage of heading into the Old City and wandering around at my own leisure, snapping photos here and there, getting lost and chatting to some of the friendliest people going around. Lonely Planet has a section at the front of their Middle East guidebook which lists their top 20 – right up there, with all those incredible sites you think of (Petra, Pyramids of Giza, etc), is Syrian people. They’re right too – you’ll be walking along and someone will just smile at you and say “Welcome to Syria”. They mean it too! Syrians are truly hospitable and proud of their country – they want you to enjoy it. As an example, I stopped in front of one of the many, many sweet shops and was just admiring the honey soaked goods on offer (baklava, etc) when a young Syrian woman came over to me and offered a sample from her plate! This was typical and I can give you so many examples of this happening to me. For some reason the generosity often revolved around food with vendors constantly passing me things to eat or drink, even if I hadn’t glanced in their direction (Brendan started calling me the food magnet!) I loved it and accepted each offer with a smile and a chat, sampling things I would never have eaten otherwise. It was fantastic but I’m sure you now understand how that bug came to happily reside in my stomach! Still, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
So today was spent doing what I love best – wandering far away from the tourist beat and chatting to the people enjoying their day off, kicking a ball with a group of young boys, following the masses as they head to the mosque for midday prayers (Friday is the main day and many of the men dress is their best robes), helping a woman shell peas, coffee shops where animated games of backgammon were being played, picking up Arabic language tips from a man walking his dog and playing peek-a-boo with babies. All the time I wandered and wondered – head up, eyes and ears open, a song in my heart and a smile on my face as I glimpsed one of the many minerets peeping over the top of the buildings, listening to the prayers being chanted out over the loud speakers. It was just wonderful.
I also took the guidebook’s advice and visited some of the traditional Damascene houses with their distinctive black and white brickwork and central courtyard. A couple of the houses have now become hotels so were relatively easy to have a look at (and if I were ever fortunate enough to return to Damascus I would want to stay in one of these places in the Old City) but there was one place which was still a private residence. I found the place, after quite a search, and rang on the doorbell as suggested. A lovely lady answered the door and told me she had an appointment so only had 5 minutes to show me around. Unfortunately, being a private residence, she wouldn’t allow photos but it was a beautiful place. The four sided courtyard (complete with fountain) had a big open room on one side, two stories high with a high Arabian inspired lamp swinging from the roof. The floor was covered in cushions and low tables - perfect for lounging. Another side had a big long room which was filled with antiques from other Damascene houses (had a quick look) and the rest, I assume, was taken up with bedrooms, kitchen, etc. Really quite something.
Even though it’s exciting to see the souq at its frenetic best it was also fantastic to see the market buildings when everything was shut and have the chance to appreciate the beautiful architecture.
I passed a couple of huge doors and poked my head in – they were khans where the camel caravans that travelled the old Silk Road used to stay. Large courtyards, generally with a fountain in the middle for watering the humans and animals – rooms on the bottom level for keeping the animals and rooms above for the traders to sleep in. I guess a khan is like today’s motel – except these khans were also used for trading their exotic goods.
A couple of small stalls opened in the late afternoon. It seems that Damascus is where all those left overs from the shopping channel end up - many street corners there were men demonstrating how to cut that carrot or zucchini into a piece of art, or a quick an easy way to make hash browns.
I came across a guy with the worst job in the world – using one of these bizzaro machines to demonstrate how to cut up an onion. I mean, honestly, constantly cutting up onions for a job. I don’t like it when people use the term, “There’s nothing worse than ……” but in this case I don’t think there is much that’s worse than cutting up onion after onion after onion after onion, day in, day out. Ok, sure there are worse things but you know what I mean. No fun. I don’t want that job.
We went to grab a falafel sandwich for dinner at a local juice bar.
Then wandered back to the hotel, stopping off at a bottle-o on the way where you could buy take-aways in plastic cups mixed in front of you - just like a bar!
After a couple of drinks we headed back into the Old City to a coffee shop just behind the mosque. We were going to listen to the Last Storyteller. Naturally the words he spoke were in Arabic but that didn’t seem to matter as he read the book to a packed room, whacking a table with a cane for emphasis and getting the audience to “ooooo” and “ahhhh” at the appropriate times. He was quite the showman and it was a great experience for us.
Heading back to the hotel we stopped in at the famous Bakdash ice cream palour. This place hums morning, noon and night – there is no such thing as a weekend for Bakdash which is lucky for us because it has to be the most memorable ice cream I’ve had. It’s not the pistachios that are smothered all over it, or the glue like consistency of the ice cream – it’s the enthusiasm and showmanship of the men who make up the towering cones who make this experience so memorable.
26 JUNE - Palmyra
We had until midday in Damascus so I grabbed a falafel sandwich for breakfast, along with a banana smoothie (which became the drink of the trip for us – Dan has promised to perfect the recipe and send it to me. I’ll be sure to share). Then I went to the small artists market just around the corner from the hotel. It had most of the things on offer in the souq but on a smaller and less intimidating scale. I bought a little something.
I bumped into Dan back at the hotel and we went to a pizza joint which had been recommended. The pizzas aren’t like the pizzas you imagine – they’re small, like pikelets, with very different toppings. I had one fresh out of the oven with cheese on it. Yum!
Then it was time to jump in a cab which we took to the Damascus bus stop – there we caught a local bus through the desert to Palmyra. Syria's great leader was leading the way - as a flash sticker on our windscreen.
It was a long trip through desert which wasn’t very exciting and the roads weren’t very good – we passed a horrible accident which had recently happened between a bus (just like ours) and a truck. I don’t know if anyone was hurt (although looking at the damage to both vehicles it is hard to imagine that there weren’t injuries) - there were scores of ambulances and police.
We arrived in Palmyra in the late afternoon. The bus stop was just on the side of the road next to this sign.
We were picked up by another bus which I think belonged to the hotel we were staying in. Have you ever seen anything like it?!
After we dropped our bags I waited outside for the others when a little cart came along bearing all manner of deep fried loveliness - naturally, when I expressed an interest, the gentlemen gave me a large sample of each with no expectation of payment. In fact, he was almost offended and brushed away my small token of thanks.
Off we jumped back in the decrepit bus which took us three quarters of the way up the hill to the Arab Castle (it just wouldn’t have made it the whole way). We walked the remaining distance and then to the top of the castle where we watched the sunset over the modern oasis town of Palmyra, the wonderful Greek and Roman ruins of the ancient city and the large tombs which dotted the valley below us. Stunning.
Afterwards we had dinner at Pancake House which was surprisingly good – lentil soup to start and a chicken with veg and rice dish to share for main.
We wanted to find a place which served alcohol and was showing the World Cup – no mean feat in a muslim town in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We thought we’d found what we were looking for in a spot which was just inside the oasis - Bedouin tents were set up on the outside, tables set up in the middle and a large flat screen playing the football. Unfortunately no alcohol but we made do with nargile instead – Dustin and I sharing a very good apple pipe. With this one I couldn’t taste the tobacco at all – it was just like inhaling apple pie!