Published: April 20th 2008April 19th 2008
Apologies for the delay in blogging but we have had trouble finding a decent computer to use!
The title to this entry comes from the lovely experience we had in Syria of every single person we met saying 'Welcome' to us. This is on the street, in shops, on buses, EVERYWHERE. We dont know if the government issues instructions for their people to say this to obvious foreigners or if it is spontaneous but whatever the reason it felt lovely and genuine and we really loved Syria.
Our arrival however was a little inauspicous. We had arranged a private car for ten dinars (or twenty aussie dollars) each from Amman to Damascus, including the border crossing, through our hotel. Our car arrived for us and everything was rosy until we declined to change money with the drivers mate and then he became very aggressive and demanded double the agreed fee and money up front before the border. We stood firm and said "in Damascus" which enraged him. He shouted at us in arabic and english claiming we were cheating him. Ev was a legend and just stared the driver down and kept saying "payment in Damascus". The
journey was punctuated with the drivers constant claims that we were in syria / damascus "so give me my money" despute signs for damascus ahead! Eventually we got to the edge of the city and we were unceremoniously dumped at a taxi rank! We were proud of our firm stance and happy to part company.
Damascus was a delightful discovery. The city is large and sprawling but the best part is the old city surrounding the impressive Umayyid Mosque which is decorated with gold mosaics. Leah had to don a truly flattering monks robe before entering - such a good look!
Behind the mosque is our favourite part of the city - the Christian quarter. Cobble stoned labyrinthine alley ways with doors that offer tantalising glimpses into peoples' houses and courtyards, little cafes that you feel you have 'discovered' around a bend, tiny stone churches named after obscure saints and quite possibly the worlds greatest felafel shop!
A couple of hours was whiled away in a gorgeous coffee shop where we tried nargileh (water pipe) with fruit flavoured molasses tobacco. We can recommend the grape flavour! Then it was felafel time. Mmmmmm felafel! Then shopping in the
Climbing up to the crusader castle at Palmyra
Ev and and John from England who we met on the bus
souq interspersed with sampling the local treat - ice cream with toasted pistachio nuts! Syrian food is to die for.
Although we could easily have easily lingered our next destination beckoned and we caught a bus headed east through the syrian desert - complete with signs for İraq and bagdad to bring home just who Syria shares her borders wıth - to the ancıent city of Palmyra. Built by the exotıcally named Queen Zenobia, the ruins emerge myteriously from the surrounding desert dunes. The site is unfenced and we just wandered to our hearts content and had the place virtually to ourselves. We gamely tackled the arduous and seemingly impossible climb to a crumbling crusader castle that overlooks the site and were rewarded with stunning views.
That night we shared a nargileh and drinks with a lovely english couple in a surreal "cave bar" under the hotel. The basement bars walls have been sculpted to creat the impression that you are dining in an underground cavern. All that was missing was the lava lamps! So kitsch!
After Palmyra we headed west to the town of Hama - famous for its wooden water wheels (nourias) that are the
oldest and largest of their kind. This was our base to explore Crac de Chevaliers the awesome crusader castle. Ev's Travel Tip: Be careful how you pronounce your limited arabic vocabulary. For example, 'Hama' is a delightful town in Syria whereas 'Hamas' is an islamic political/terrorist organisation. Shouting 'Hamas' in the middle of a crowded bus station will not get you a ride to Hama. İn fact no one will let you on their bus at all.
We booked a tour to the castle for the next day and spent the afternoon touring the nourias. Apparently the sound of them groaning is one of the nicest parts about staying here. Naturally when we were there every one was being maintained and instead diesel powered pumps were in use! But still lovely walking along the river.
Finally we were off to see the castle. The winding mountain roads offered enticing glimpses of the castles' profıle but nothing prepared us for the actual size and scale of the building. We have never seen anything like it. Positioned on a high remote hillside it towers over the surrounding farm lands. WOW!!!! It was at the castle that Ev finally
succumbed to the temptation to buy an arabic head dress. This will get a lot of wear in downtown Sydney!
We finished our stay in Hama with pizza and a bottle of local wine. The bottle shop owner tried valiantly to steer us toward a nice red from Lebanon but we were determined to sample a syrian wine. After droppıng a hundred syrian pounds (okay I have to explain that one aussie dollar is worth fifty pounds so you can do the math!!!) we carried our purchase to the restaurant. The waiter could barely contain his contempt for our BYO - clearly not a lot of local pride in the domestic wine industry! Needless to say the first glass was awful but the second and third ones tasted a whole lot better!!! İt was largely because of the lovely local wine that Ev felt brave enough to go under the knife later that night and got a shave with a cut throat razor from a local barber.
From Hama we headed to our last stop in syria - Aleppo. Having been assured by the guide books that the markets of Aleppo were fantastic we had foolıshly left our
big syrian shop til now instead of buying up big in Damascus. BIG MISTAKE. The markets are very disappointing and we are now leaving our shopping for İstanbul.
However, we did have a truly fabulous last meal ın Syria. Serıously, the food in Syria is just WONDERFUL. We chose a french and syrıan restaurant from the guide. Hilariously the menus were only in those two languages so we had fun trying to guess what we were ordering! FABULOUS!!
Ev also had a boys night our with some new friends. Leah was in need of an early night so Ev went for some grilled meat at a local restaurant. He ended up doing some important networking with a couple of Iraqi oil engineers in town on business. After assuring them that he was unable to assist with spare parts for their oil wells they settled into conversation. Common ground was found in a mutual dislike of Americans!
After dinner, which they paid for, they offered to take him out for a drink to which he readily agreed. He was promptly marched over to the nearest fruit juice stand where they ordered three half pints - of straight lemon
juice! They knocked theirs back quickly and pucker faced Ev took so long drinking his that they had to leave, having gained the strong impression that Aussies "can't handle their lemon juice"! Ev's Travel Tip: Beware when your new Muslim mates offer to shout you a drink. They're probably not offering you a beer.
From Aleppo we faced the prospect of crossing into Turkey. We are ınformed that the Turks hate the Syrians and consequently the border crossıng is as painful as possible! We left Aleppo at 5am and got to the border at around 7am and completed the Syrian exit process in about 10 minutes. It was another two hours until we finished the Turkish entry formalities and we are pretty sure our driver had to bribe someone to get through that fast!! The Turks checked the car VERY thoroughly and lifted the bonnet, tapped the roof, checked the wheels and searched all bags.
Later we learn that this is all for show as the drugs and guns come through in cargo lorries and ships and its just to piss off the syrians!! Grow up!
Anyway we fınally made it to Turkey but thats another
There are more photos below