Published: December 22nd 2005December 16th 2005
We were in Halab/Aleppo for around a week despite planning on only spending a couple of days there. Syria is a great country to visit and I would urge you to completely ignore all western propaganda to the contrary. The Syrian people are without doubt the friendliest we have met on this journey and I suspect they will remain so for some time. Prices are ludicrously cheap and nobody even seems to think of trying to overcharge you as a dumb foreigner - unlike here in Lebanon or in Turkey where you should always question every price and usually end up getting things for much less. Even in fairly smart hotels!
If we thought Istanbul was crazy in terms of traffic, noise and general chaos then we had some serious re-thinking to do. Halab is by far the craziest city I have ever been in but after 10 minutes I loved the place - crossing the road aside. We stayed in the Spring Flower hostel which is a dive but apparently the best of a bad bunch and it was where all the other foreign travellers seem to stay. We ended up hanging around with a good bunch of people
Krak de Chevalier
The massive inner walls and 'control tower'
including Ben - another cyclist on his way to South Africa, and who has just arrived here in Tripoli too, and Hala - a British/Egyptian girl on a major round the world tour who had just arrived from Iran. Sadly we both got ill within a day of arriving in Aleppo - Erika with dodgy guts and then as she got better I got some kind of flu bug. It seemed nearly everyone in the hostel was ill and the fact it was a damp, unventilated hole with few windows can't have helped. Usually one of us felt Ok on a certain day and went out with other people to wander the streets and occaisionally we both manged to go out together. Other days we sat in our room feeling bad, not even knowing if it was day or night outside as we had no window!
The main sights in Aleppo are the ancient Citadel built on a huge man made mound in the centre of the city. It is a bit of mess due to collapse and restoration works but the views from the top of the sprawling city and the dirty, smog filled haze above it were
Why? "Because his mind is yellow"
worth the climb. Surrounding the citadel are the souks - Aleppo has some of the largest souks (markets) in the middle east with over 10km of covered alleyways where you can buy just about everything. We spent hours getting lost in only a small part of the place. Despite the alleyways being totally crowded there are still guys trying to drive donkeys, motorbikes and even small vans through the middle! Not really wanting to buy anything we just wandered around enjoying the banter of the salesmen - some of whom have a surprising collection of english phrases. One guy tried to entice us into his shop telling us he had "only poor quality merchandise at very high prices" then quickly correcting himself to say it was actually "cheap and nasty"!
For me just wandering aimlessly around the city was the best thing - everywhere there is some craziness going on. Near the hotel was a line of juice bars and falafel stands where we would regularly go to get food - a falafel sandwich costing a wallet busting 10 pence. On the corner here was a little music shack where they played the same tune over and over again all
day long for the eintire 6 or 7 days we were there. I can still hear it in my head now. A small crowd was always gathered here except on the rare occaision the guy tried to change the tune. His customers instantly dispersed so back on it came...
This to a constant backdrop of blaring car horns and vendors yelling in arabic. The pavements are covered in people selling things from tables or the ground - including clothing, cigarettes and pictures of scantily clad girls!
Syrians are quite a varied bunch and you see a lot of pale faces and lots of blue eyes. Many women are totally covered so that you cannot even see their eyes while others walk around in western style clothes with no head covering. Unlike in Turkey though you do see women eveywhere. There is a large christian population of many different sects and also several different islamic groups within Syria and unlike in Turkey nobody ever asked what religion we were. It seems there is great religious tolerance and freedom.
After getting a lot of negative attention for having long dreads I took to hiding them under an arab headscarf as most Syrian
men seem to wear one. Few people looked at me twice after this and several times guys approached me in arabic assuming I was a local. Sadly our illness prevented us from sampling too much of the local arabic sweets although Erika did eat over a quarter kilo of Halab Baklava one night - promptly making herself ill again in the process!
Finally the day came when we both felt well enough to move again and with the time ticking away on our 15 day visa we were keen to get out of the city and see the rest of Syria. Fortunately even our later than planned 9am start meant the city was still quiet - it seems the traffic doesnt crank up to full chaos level until mid morning although it does stay there until midnight! So we had a fairly quick, quiet and easy ride out of the city onto the main highway to Damascus before turning off towards Idleb and cuycling through open plains that are heavily farmed with little villages scattered around. After a small climb up into a village I stopped to wait for Erika and was instantly surrounded by guys asking where we
were from etc. The most senior invited us for food but we declined as it was only 11 o'clock. He then invited us for tea so expecting to be taken to a nearby tea house we accepted, only then to be led to his house to meet his family. His house was plusher than Jasim's and consisted of a series of separate rooms leading off a central, green courtyard area. We sat down and started explaining ourselves and while they introduced the whole family - all of which takes some time with only limited english on their side and even more limited arabic on ours. As we wondering where the tea was his wife arrived with an enormous tray of different dishses and so it appeard we were going to have an early luch after all. The food was delicious though and there was indeed lots of very sweet tea - the Syrians put even more sugar in their tea than the Turks. Of course they wanted us to stay for the night and it was a bit delicate refusing but it was only midday and we had hoped to get much further.
We cycled on with full stomachs
to Idleb and promptly got totally lost as we entered the city. We stopped to ask directions and were then told - follow me. We ended up being led through the city by two different guys seemingly in competition as to who could help us the most - one on a motorbike and the other in a Syrain specialtiy - a three wheeled pick up truck. They did lead us to the right road before competing again to invite us to their houses or for coffee. We thanked them both and set off again towards the hills and the dead cities to the south.
The 'dead cities' are a series of ancient ruined towns and cities from various past epochs - though mostly from the Roman/Byzantine era. We had imagined them to be out in the middle of nowhere and so had planned to camp surrounded by anceint ruins. Turns out most of the ancient 'dead cities' have a perfectly modern and very much alive counterpart right next to them though and the hills turned out to be more populated than the agriculatural plain we had just left. Everwhere in Syria you also get guys on motorbikes who slow down
and ride alongside you to welcome you to Syria and say hello. This gets a bit tiring sometimes especially when they nearly run you off the road in an attempt to be friendly and also when you are trying to find a quiet palce to camp. We did eventually shake off all our campanions and find a camp in a pistachio orchard with views across the ruins of Al Bara.
Unfortunately I woke in the morning with a raging fever again and was in no state to move. The owner of the orchard arrived on a motrbike but was happy to let us stay for the day. I spent most of it asleep in the shade of a big pistachio tree, eventually feeling alive enough to sit up in the evening. I probably wasn't really up tp moving the next day but we didn't want to camp there any longer and we had to make some progress south on our rapidly diminishing visa. We spent an hour or so looking around the ruins at Al Bara, an old roman/byzantine settlement. There are some particularly impressive pyramid tombs and lots of walls and archways made from enormous blocks of stone
scattered over an large area that is now covered in olive orchards. In the middle of the olive trees rises a 2000 year old archway or wall at randomn. The farmers must turn up all sorts when they plough the ground under the olive trees....... Many of the stone walls dividing different orchard plots also had some very large square cut stones in them that had clearly once had a different function. It must be an archealogists dream (or nightmare) as there is an enormous area that has never been excavated from what I could tell. And Al Bara is only one of literally hundreds of such sites in Syria. As we cycled south toward Afamya/Apamea we saw lots of other smaller ruins beside the road and many signs to other sites just off the road. We could easily of spent all day stopping and looking around just a fraction of these places but with me feeling bad we pushed on south while I felt well enough to cycle at all. Fortunately the road was flat and fast so we could cover the 40 miles to Afamya even feeling ill, though I really didnt have the extra energy or patience
for dealing with regular motorcycle companions.
The modern town of Afamya is a string of shops along a busy road with a museum and a very dodgy hotel. We checked into the hotel after halving the guys price - he hadn't reckoned on me being able to read the prices in arabic on his sign! - the only time in Syria someone tried to rip us off, before heading back out to the museum. For 5 pence student rate we were able to look around many of the mosaics they have taken from the ruins to preserve them. Most were very dusty though and could have done with a clean. The museum itself was much less impressive then the ruins of Afamya. Above the modern town is a huge hill with a citadel on it that is still a living town/village. Beyone this citadel hill rises a steep escarpment up to a high plateau. A km or two across the plateau, with a commanding view of the sky and west across the deep valley to the line of high mountains before the coast, lies the ruins of Afamya. They were mind blowing. I had no idea what to expect
but certainly did not expect a mile long collonaded street with many of the pilars and columns still standing and intact. There were few other people around and in the fading afternoon light it was beautiful. Beyond this street lie fields and fields of ploughed land with the odd huge stone sticking out suggesting the enormous scale of the ruins that lie buried all around. At one end an excavation was slowly revealing a villa or bathhouse with the undefloor heating syastem and pipes all clearly visible. I guess there are several lifetimes work for archealogists here too, although sadly several guys on mopeds approached us trying to sell artefacts, stauettes and coins they had looted from the ruins, and I guess a lot of 'treasure' has already gone this way. Most of the site lies under 5-6 metres of soil but it wouldn't take long for this to be deposited with so much dust flying around the country.
As it got dark we returned to our hotel where we had to spend 2 hours getting the mangement to fix the hot water (a pipe neded to be installed between the hot tank and the taps) and actually find the
TV that was supposeed to be in the room. It was worth it though as we could watch the middle eastern football championships final in Doha between Syria and Iraq. Quite a good game once they started playing football and not kicking lumps out of each other. Syria equalised in the 92nd minute and so it went to penalties - with it all tied on the last penalty the Iraq goalkeeper took and scored a penalty before taking his place in goal to save Syria's last pen and win the tournament for Iraq.
I was totally wiped out after cycling for 40 miles while still not fully healthy and so spent the next day resting and sleeping a lot in the hotel.
With only 3 days left on the visa it was time to move again and we had a long ride into and through the mountians towards Krak de Chavalier - a crusader castle not far north of the Lebanese border. The road was flat most of the way to Musyaf - an Ismaeli town with another huge citadel in the middle. Musyaf was home to the ultra-violent Ismaeli sect called the Assassins, or Hashashins due to their
Best Castle in the World
Krak de Chevalier above the modern town.
habit of consuming vast quantities of hashish, and the citadel was their military base. We did not have time to stop and look around though and so continued south into the high mountains. The mountains themselves were beautiful and it was good to be in cleaner, less dusty air and to have a cool breeze. The villages up here also seemed much tidier and cleaner. Whether this has anyhting to do with them being predominantly Christian I couldnt say but it felt very different to elsewhere in Syria. My energy was failing again and after a long steep climb we camped in a orchard on a ridge on top of the mountains. The next morning we rode along the ridge in bright sunshine and then steeply downhill through green forests and more tidy, well ordered christian villages complete with christmas trees and decorations in the village squares. We then had a steep climb up to the top of a hill to the castle of Krak de Chevalier or Qala'at al-Hosn.
Lawrence of Arabia decribed it as the best castle in the world and it is certainly very impressive - from the outside huge vertical stone walls rise up from
Krak de Chevalier
View of Syrian mountains beyond the castle.
the hilltop with tall towers at various points. Once inside the main gate you realise there is a second set of equally huge walls with fragments of a moat remaining in places between the walls. The castle dates from the 13th century cruasades and was built by French crusaders (probably Templar knights) to control the only low passage through the mountains from the coasts of Lebanon and Syria. Unlike most castles of a similar age in Britain this one is still largely intact and the maze of internal rooms and passges is quite confusing. There are passageways everywhere so that nearly every room as some sneaky back door. The views from on top of the ramparts and towers are amazing and the wind whistled in through windows and narrow archer slits, howling down twisting passageways inside the walls. We easily spent several hours there and met some of the travellers we had stayed with in Aleppo who had arrived by bus. We eventually tore ourselves away for an easy downhill ride to Tal Kalakh and then camped in another terraced orchard in a steep sided valley not far from the border with Lebanon. It was shame we had spent so much of our time in Syria ill and unable to explore more fully but at least we could console ourselves that we would return again from Lebanon and now also knew it would be easy to extend our visas when we got back if we wished to.