A Travellerspoint blog

Syria

Before the rebellion

sunny 41 °C

If you have been reading the other parts of my blog you will know that it has taken me a long time to get round to writing and publishing the details of this trip. It has been 18 months since I was travelling through the Middle East. Since then there have been uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya Bahrain and Syria. Having lived and worked through the Egyptian rebellion, I have seen changes in the country but nothing too noticable in the foreign tourists' eyes. But now it is nearly a year since the rebellion in Syria began, and I can't help but wonder whether the country I describe below is or will ever be the same again.

Syria

It was a long drive to the Syrian border and all the more quiet, with only 7 people remaining on the truck. We were meeting up with a guide at the border, who was going to help us with the group visa for Syria and then travel with us to our first destination, Aleppo.

As soon as we crossed over into Syria the change in environment was instantly noticeable. We were clearly back in the Middle East. Dusty, bumpy roads, with crazy drivers and streets lined with rubble and broken or unfinished buildings. I wasn’t ready to be back in that environment so soon after leaving Egypt and it was a big disappointment to me. Everyone else was wide-eyed and interested in everything they saw and how different it was to home.

We arrived in Aleppo around late afternoon and dropped our bags off at the hostel before heading out to a restaurant for dinner. The food was really good and I rather adventurously tried a piece of sheep testicle that my friend had ordered. For reference it has an intensely lamby taste, very rich and not very pleasant.

After dinner we had a quick drink in a very old hotel that was reportedly where Lawrence of Arabia had stayed. We then returned to the hotel for an early night. The following day was spent on a tour of the old city. The souk was particularly atmospheric and clearly held a lot of history within the dark archways and cobbled paths. We visited an ancient bath house (still in use today) a soap factory and an old psychiatric hospital. We would have gone to the citadel but it was closed on the day we were there.

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Aleppo is a fantastic place for shopping and since it is relatively untouched by tourism the shop keepers are less aggressive with their sales techniques. There was a lot of fantastic jewellery, pashminas and scarves, spices, coffee and Syrian Laurel soap.

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We left Aleppo early the next morning, and set off for Krac de Chevaliers. This Medieval Crusader castle is one of the best preserved in the world and stands 650-metres (2,130 ft) high up on a hill east of Tartus. We approached the castle on a windy road, with beautiful views over the countryside.

We were met by our guide, a local who spent his childhood living in the castle grounds with his family. He was a great source of information throughout the tour and had a good sense of humour. Each section of the castle was impressive and the stalls (selling souvenirs) along the arched hallways made it easier to imagine a community once lived there.

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We ate lunch at a cafe overlooking the steep valley below the castle. Then we set off for the desert, where we were going to camp for the night. There’s always something so liberating about being in the middle of nowhere. The vast expanse of sand and nothing but the sound of the wind blowing, helps me clear my head. We spent that evening drinking punch and dancing to the sound of the truck stereo. We slept on mats out in the open.

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Our destination the following morning was Palmyra, to see the Roman ruins there. We arrived early, before the sun was at its hottest, but we were all tired and a bit grimy from our night in the desert. The ruins of the theatre and temple were very well preserved, and it was possible to imagine how the settlement may have looked in Roman times.

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From Palmyra we drove a further 250km to Damascus, for our final couple of days in Syria. We were staying in a city campsite in a very run-down part of Damascus, a good way from the city centre. We were dropped off by the truck in town and our driver gave us an informal tour round the streets and bazaar. We all ate at an extremely ornate restaurant, off a tiny alleyway in the bazaar. A couple of people started to feel unwell at this point, and so we cut our afternoon short and headed back to the campsite.

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The next day was Sunday, a day of complete rest for Syrians! Only three out of the 8 of us, hadn’t succumbed to an awful attack of food poisoning the day before, so we decided to head into town. We visited a beautiful mosque (Ummayad mosque) in the old town and then went looking for somewhere to eat. To our disappointment, almost every building, shop and restaurant was closed on Sundays. We were lucky to find a small street bakery open, where I bought a Syrian-style pizza for lunch. We were starving at this point and were happy to eat anything! After a final, sweaty walk through the main streets we took a taxi back to the campsite, where we sat watching our fellow travellers, while they lay uncomfortably on the grass in the shade, trying to sleep through their stomach cramps. By evening, they were starting to feel a bit better.

We left the campsite the next morning for an approximately two hour drive to the border. We were due in Jerash, Jordan by about 9am, where my husband was rejoining the trip.

Posted by lucid 05:39 Archived in Syria Tagged damascus syria palmyra aleppo Comments (0)

Turkey

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View The move to Egypt on lucid's travel map.

Istanbul

My husband and I arrived in Istanbul after a pleasantly short flight from Cairo. We were met at the airport by the hotel pick up service and started the 40 minute drive to Sultanahmet. I was instantly impressed by the well maintained roads, sensible drivers and European styled buildings. The taxi driver pointed out some interesting geographic features and informed us about some events we could attend while we were in town. We stayed at the Hotel Turkoman, which is only a stone's throw away from the hippodrome and Blue Mosque. As we found out later we were also only a stone's throw away from the speaker for prayer call!
The hotel was quiet, with old style furniture and quaint rooms. It provided breakfast and you could buy a beer in the evenings and sit out on the narrow roof top area, which overlooks the Blue Mosque. The hotel was in a great location and within walking distance to many of the tourist spots.

My husband and I were impressed with the cleanliness of the parks and public areas and there were some great shopping areas and restaurants.

We had a pre-departure meeting the evening before the overland trip started. We were hoping that the tour leader would have some information from Kumuka about our visa situation but he didn't know anything about my husband's visa problems for Syria. the other American guy on the trip had managed to get himself a Syrian visa from the embassy in Washington DC, but at a cost of over $300!
The trip started early the next day after we loaded our things onto the truck and left Istanbul. It was a long, but scenic drive to our first night's camp on a beach outside the 'Boomerang Bar'. It was a difficult night's sleep, on a windy and rough beach, not helped by the bar owner and his local customers' attempts to sing kareoke at 2am. This was pretty much the worst place we had to camp during the whole 35 day trip.

Monday 19th July 2010

Day 2 of the trip, sitting on a car ferry, crossing over to see Troy. It's been an uneventful few days, which is why I haven't written until now. I've also had two nights of extremely bad sleep so that's not helping things.

Going back then to my first evening in Istanbul. We strolled down to the local shops and restaurants and had a really good meal at a place up one of the narrow alleys. After that we had a drink on the roof of the hotel and then had an early night. The next day was very busy... We saw the Hagia Sofia (an ex-Christian church turned mosque) followed by the Grand Palace, the Grand Bazaar and finally we walked around the spice bazaar. The Agia Sofia was large and impressive, with beautiful mosaic pictures and stained glass windows. My first thoughts however, were that it had been invaded and spoiled. The huge Islamic wooden discs that hung over the Christian art made the whole church feel like Christianity had been thrown out but only a feeble attempt had been made to convert it into a mosque. It was very damp inside the Agia Sofia and many of the art works were being removed to prevent further decay.

The Middle East is not high on everyone’s list of holiday destinations and with the multitude of revolutions happening across the region this year; it seems surprising that an overland trip through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt was even possible a year ago. It’s taken me 9 months to get around to writing about my trip. The reasons are that I’ve been busy, parts of the journey did not fill me with a need to write about them and somehow I seem to collect my thoughts better when I’ve had a while to ponder over everything.

So the trip began early on our fourth day in Istanbul. We had had a pre departure meeting the evening before to let us know what we would be in for and to meet our fellow travellers. At around 5am we met at the truck, put our bags away and climbed onto the vehicle that would be our transport, living room, kitchen and dining room for the next 5 weeks. My husband and I had done it all before in Africa and this journey was set to be a bit more luxurious than our last overland trip, since we would be spending a fair proportion of our time in hostels rather than camping.

We said goodbye to Istanbul and set off on the first of many long drives to a beach campsite near Gallipoli. That afternoon we set off for Gallipoli, an area I knew nothing about before I went. During the first World War there had been a battle with the Turks vs. Brits, Americans, Australians and Kiwis. Many people died and the graves of those killed are preserved and maintained today. If I’m honest, the story of Gallipoli did not interest me much but the view high up in the hills was worth seeing.

After a two and a half hour guided tour we returned to the beach to prepare dinner. That was probably the worst place we had to stay for the whole trip. We had to camp on a stony beach, near to a ‘bar’, run by a guy who liked to drink and play loud music into the early hours of the morning.

The next day we set off to catch a ferry across to the area near Troy. The archaeology for Troy is pretty simplistic and most people seem to find the fake wooden Trojan horse the most exciting part of their visit. As a former Ancient Historian I should have been more fascinated by it all but Troy merely reinforced my belief that archaeologists have creative imaginations.

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After Troy we continued on our way to the pleasant town of Selcuk. We stayed in a nice hostel (although my husband and I ended up with a room we imagined must once have been a cupboard!) and had two nights to explore the area and catch up on some well earned sleep. Our first morning was spent at the amazing Roman site of Ephesus. I had heard good things about this site before but until you see it for yourself it is hard to understand the magnitude of the settlement. Ephesus comes alive as you walk down the cobbled road past a theatre some shops and a bath house on the way to the beautiful library façade. Our guide was full of information about the site and pointed out many small but interesting details.

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That afternoon we had free time to ourselves. We had a kebab for lunch, walked around town, took a nap and waited for dinner at the hostel. That evening we went out for drinks at the local pub and played some ridiculous game with the group that involved us having to make animal noises and hand signals!

From Selcuk we continued South to a town at the base of a huge valley called Olympos. The vibe of this place was completely relaxed and unpretentious. The main road was lined with wooden cabins, shops and restaurants, interspersed with trees and greenery. As soon as I looked up at the mountains here I felt sure that the ancient Greeks had imagined this place to be the home of the gods, not the unimpressive town in Greece of the same name.

After dinner on the first night at Olympos we played our biggest game of ‘salad bowl’(a game where you write down words beginning with the same letter, and spend different rounds describing, acting out or using one word to help you team guess the word). Some of the others went out to a club that night but we went back to our wooden hut and had an early night.

About 15 minutes walk from our accommodation was a pathway and a little stream to the beach. The next morning we all decided to go sea kayaking so we set out from this area along the coast for what turned out to be a mammoth 10km excursion! I had never kayaked before and it was not easy, especially at the pace the others had set. On the way back we were rowing against the current. When we started to hear thunder we all became a little worried and mustered what little strength we had left to make it back to shore before the storm came.
We were all miserable and aching after the kayaking and spent the rest of the day and night relaxing in the cushioned gazebos back at the hostel.

We set off at 9am the next morning for the next part of our journey, which took us down the coast to the pretty town of Kas. We camped at a nice campsite with good facilities and a rocky beach. Access to the water was from the rocks or a small jetty. It was really picturesque but not for poor swimmers. We ate at a good seafood restaurant that evening and I went for a walk through the shopping area with some of the girls from my group after we had finished eating.

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Kas is a very touristy town and shows obvious signs of investment. The shops here are great although the budget traveller would not be able to afford to buy much of the beautiful clothing, shoes and jewellery on sale. A pleasant evening stroll turned into a rather eventful evening.

One of the girls I was with started to get pains in her stomach so we started to walk back to the campsite. By the time we got there she was quite sick and our tour leader decided to take her to the hospital down the road. At this hospital the doctors and admin staff spoke no English and my friend had to use a phrase book she had with her to communicate with them.

As time went on the girl’s pain got worse but without receiving the results of a blood test the doctors would not treat her with anything. The hospital was smelly and unhygienic which did not help the girl in pain, who was getting gradually more hysterical. After 3 or 4 hours the doctors diagnosed the girl as having kidney stones. They gave her some pain killers but couldn’t do anything more to help. She travelled on with us until Cappadocia, but then she cut her trip short and flew back home to Canada.

Our final destination in Turkey took us East into Cappadocia and a town called Goreme. Cappadocia has some of the most striking stone formations I have ever seen. Every part of the landscape is beautiful and the stone houses, that were lived in for thousands of years are amazing.

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We stayed at a lovely little hostel called Flintstones. We were all crammed into the musty cave in the basement of the hostel but what it lacked in comfort it gained in charm. Over the next two days we went on excursions to the pottery workshop, underground city, Winery and to many beautiful vistas, overlooking the strange rock formations. Many of the rocks have a rather phallic shape which prompted many jokes and some interestingly posed photos.

On the final morning some of the group went ballooning at dawn before saying goodbye to some of the people leaving the trip, including my husband who had failed to get a visa for Syria, and was heading back to Egypt until we met up again in Jordan.

Posted by lucid 04:36 Archived in Turkey Tagged cappadocia goreme cas troy Comments (0)

Istanbul in three days

sunny 28 °C
View The move to Egypt on lucid's travel map.

Istanbul

My husband and I arrived in Istanbul after a pleasantly short flight from Cairo. We were met at the airport by the hotel pick up service and started the 40 minute drive to Sultanahmet. I was instantly impressed by the well maintained roads, sensible drivers and European styled buildings. The taxi driver pointed out some interesting geographic features and informed us about some events we could attend while we were in town. We stayed at the Hotel Turkoman, which is only a stone's throw away from the hippodrome and Blue Mosque. As we found out later we were also only a stone's throw away from the speaker for prayer call!

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The hotel was quiet, with old style furniture and quaint rooms. It provided breakfast and you could buy a beer in the evenings and sit out on the narrow roof top area, which overlooks the Blue Mosque. The hotel was in a great location and within walking distance to many of the tourist spots.

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My husband and I were impressed with the cleanliness of the parks and public areas and there were some great shopping areas and restaurants.

We had a pre-departure meeting the evening before the overland trip started. We were hoping that the tour leader would have some information from Kumuka about our visa situation but he didn't know anything about my husband's visa problems for Syria. the other American guy on the trip had managed to get himself a Syrian visa from the embassy in Washington DC, but at a cost of over $300!

The trip started early the next day after we loaded our things onto the truck and left Istanbul. It was a long, but scenic drive to our first night's camp on a beach outside the 'Boomerang Bar'. It was a difficult night's sleep, on a windy and rough beach, not helped by the bar owner and his local customers' attempts to sing kareoke at 2am. This was pretty much the worst place we had to camp during the whole 35 day trip.

Monday 19th July 2010

Day 2 of the trip, sitting on a car ferry, crossing over to see Troy. It's been an uneventful few days, which is why I haven't written until now. I've also had two nights of extremely bad sleep so that's not helping things.
Going back then to my first evening in Istanbul. We strolled down to the local shops and restaurants and had a really good meal at a place up one of the narrow alleys. After that we had a drink on the roof of the hotel and then had an early night. The next day was very busy... We saw the Hagia Sofia (an ex-Christian church turned mosque) followed by the Grand Palace, the Grand Bazaar and finally we walked around the spice bazaar. The Agia Sofia was large and impressive, with beautiful mosaic pictures and stained glass windows. My first thoughts however, were that it had been invaded and spoiled. The huge Islamic wooden discs that hung over the Christian art made the whole church feel like Christianity had been thrown out but only a feeble attempt had been made to convert it into a mosque. It was very damp inside the Agia Sofia and many of the art works were being removed to prevent further decay.

Posted by lucid 04:34 Archived in Turkey Tagged overland turkey kumuka Comments (0)

Waiting for a visa from the Syrian embassy in Egypt

No more visas at the border for US citizens!

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View The move to Egypt on lucid's travel map.

I wouldn't normally blog on pre-trip preparation but the situation my husband and I were in, forced us to plan for the possibility that my American husband wouldn't be able to enter Syria at all during our overland trip from Istanbul to Cairo. Our travel company gave us information about obtaining visas for our trip and after looking on the appropriate country's visa pages, we were confident that we would be able to obtain visas at the airport in Istanbul and at the borders of Syria and Jordan. We already had resident visas for Egypt. We paid the balance of our trip before the 60 day deadline, but found out a few weeks later that Syria had changed its mind about US citizens and the only chance of getting a visa was to apply in advance at the Syrian embassy in Washington DC. Since we live in Egypt, this was clearly not a viable option so my husband approached the Syrian embassy in Egypt. They told him that his application would take a minimum of 6 weeks giving us a 2 day window before leaving for Istanbul. After the six weeks and numerous trips to the Syrian embassy, my husband was told that the embassy still had no answer about his visa. At this point we realised that my husband would need to find a way to travel from Cappadocia in the South East of Turkey, back to Istanbul, fly home to Egypt and then wait 5 days before meeting me again at Jerash in Jordan. Our tour company (Kumuka) did absolutely nothing to help us with this situation. We contacted them 2 months prior to the start of the trip to check the visa situation and were told that my husband would be able to get on the group visa no problem. All in all this 'hiccup' cost us around 700 pounds sterling! We were not reimbursed for the 5 days of the trip my husband didn't use and I was even put in shared accommodation during my time in Syria! Suffice to say we will never travel with Kumuka again!

Posted by lucid 08:36 Archived in Egypt Tagged preparation kumuka Comments (0)

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