Around the world in 125 days
In Syria, five more new members joined our group. Two Scottish and two Australian ladies plus a young guy from Switzerland called Luke. So we had a bigger group now. Syria has at least five important sites that we planned to visit: Palmyra, the Aleppo Citadel, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, a Crusader's Castle, and the Saladin Fortress.
The first thing you notice about Syria is all the pictures of Assad, their prior president who died recently, and the pictures of the current president, who is Assad's son. They are everywhere, at every major intersection, on every major building, even on the windows and windshields of some cars. For some reason, the pictures of these two gentlemen always looked very serious. That is a big contrast from the official pictures of Jordan's King Hussein. He smiled cheerfully in all his posters.
Compared to Turkey, Syria has less high-tech stuff. Our Australian tour leader in Turkey carried and used his cell phone all the time. Here our tour leader could not afford a cell phone. And forget about the Internet. This was the only country where we were kept off the Web.
Syrian is very anti-Israel, and is anti-West in general. Rumour has it that nobody is allowed to mention the name 'Israel' and consequently, tourists use 'Disneyland' to refer to Israel. As for the U.S., I heard a story that someone was about to open a chain of KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). At last minute, he had to change the name to Kuwait Food Company because of the anti-US sentiment.
Going from Turkey to Syria turned out to be the most exciting border crossing during our entire trip. Our tour leader Rochie in Turkey dropped us at the border and found a 'border taxi' that would take us from Turkey to Syria. He told us that the Syrian tour leader Mohammed would meet us as soon as crossed into Syria. The no-man's land between Turkey and Syria is over 4 kilometers wide and it is impossible to walk from one side to the other - besides the weather was incredibly hot that day. It was almost like 40C. Five of us crammed into an old car. But first we had to do all the exit paper work at the Turkish side, then continue on to the Syrian one. We must have spent almost an hour inside that old taxi with pieces of suitcases piled on our knees and with no air-conditioning. We were melting inside the taxi. When Mel, the South African, showed his passport to the Syrian immigration officer, he was not sure where South Africa is. Mel then said he was from the country of Nelson Mandela. Rightaway, the officer knew exactly where the country is. Here you have a guy, Mandela, who is in fact more well-known than his whole country.
After we made it to the other side the taxi just kept going and did not stop at the border at all. Instead the driver drove for another half-hour, right into the center of a small town and wanted us to get out of the car. At this point, we realized that there must be a mistake, since there was nobody to meet us and we were obviously no longer at the border. So we asked the driver to take us back to the border. Unfortunately, the driver did not understand a word of English and we of course could not speak any Turkic, Arabic, or Syrian. There was just no way for us to communicate. But it was clear that the driver wanted us to leave the taxi. But we really did not want to get out until we could see our contact or be taken back to the border. This made the driver rather upset. Meanwhile a crowd of local people started to gather. Frustratingly, we could not communicate with them. We were hoping one of them was able to speak some English. But that was not the case. We tried to tell them we were supposed to meet someone called Mohammed. The crowd kept pointing us to a nearby mosque. Actually, saying you want to meet someone called Mohammed in Middle East is like looking for someone called John in North America, rather useless for sure, because there are so many men called Mohammed. Not to mention the most famous one, Mohammed the Prophet. No wonder they pointed us to the mosque.
Eventually we had to get out of the taxi because the driver was getting upset and trying to pull Mel out. Now we all were on the sidewalk, thirsty, tired, and hungry. We did not have a chance to have lunch during the crossing. Since we could not communicate with the locals at all, the situation was pretty bleak. At one point about 30 locals surrounded us. It was starting to get a little bit scary. We realized that we had to get in touch with the travel operator somehow. Luckily, we had the phone number of the tour operator in Damascus but making a call turned out to be not easy. The phone required you to buy a phone card first. Carolyn decided to take charge. She went to a corner store and bought a phone card, using US dollars, as we had no Syrian money at all. With the help of a guy from the store, she was able to get in touch with someone in Damascus. She was told to wait, that the tour leader's car had broke down and he would be late. About 15 minutes later, a mini bus pulled up and there was our tour leader Mohammed, wearing his official The Imaginative Traveler pullover shirt.
Near the Grand Seraglio are the restored Roman Baths. Mohammed was a young blue-eyed Syrian, a very nice guy, very attentive and accommodating. You could tell he was trying his best to keep the group happy. On the way to Aleppo, he opened his brief case and took out stacks of brand-new Syrian money. He passed stacks around and told us to help ourselves. Take 10 of this, 20 of that. That was the advance from him. The unusual part was you could exchange money from him any time with either cash or traveler checks. In other words, he was a mobile bank. Even better than an ATM for sure. He also happened to be a devout Muslim, stopping to pray five times a day, and he also loved to sing since he had a beautiful voice. In one of the Roman amphitheaters, he demonstrated his talent.
In Syria, instead of using a different local guide at each city, one guide would travel with us everywhere. Bus drivers in Aleppo wore white shirts with gold-striped epaulettes that reminded me of airline pilots. I suppose the more stripes you have the bigger vehicle you can drive.
At Aleppo, we stayed at a beautiful and elegant hotel, which had been once a wealthy merchant's mansion. The hotel is called Martini Dar Zamaria. The rooms are all newly renovated with marble everywhere. The mansion is a striking expression of the Aleppian architecture dating back to the 17th Century. That night our group had a nice meal on the roof top restaurant with Mohammed. It was a very lovely setting with cool air, bright moon, and, of course, excellent food.
The most dominating site in the city is the imposing Citadel. The whole place was built with massive stones, and surrounded by a deep moat. Toward the narrow front entrance, there is a stone bridge that provides access to a narrow entrance. As we toured this fortress built by Saladin's son, we could see the design would make it very hard for attackers to get in. To confuse and slow down the attackers as much as possible, the entrance is not a straight line, rather it requires one to turn left and right a few times. Some sections are very dark, so attackers could be blinded by the sun if they survived all the way to the inside gates. The Crusaders besieged the city twice but could not conquer it.
Even though the Aleppo Citadel was built with thick stone walls to protect it from being attacked by an invading enemy, it does not mean the residents inside the castle were ready to give up great meals and eat only army food. People later discovered that some high-end restaurants outside the castle had hidden tunnels to their basements, so that even when the castle was under complete siege, those inside the Citadel could use these tunnels to come out and have a delicious meal before going back inside. And if they happened to be too busy defending the castle, they could even order take-out deliveries if they liked. What an amazing arrangement! We actually went to one restaurant's basement and looked at the tunnel entrance.
That afternoon, we went to see the Archaeological Museum. On display were many artefacts, statues, manuscripts, and ancient jewelery. In general, I was not particularly interested in seeing all this old stuff, so-called antiquities. The guide was explaining in great detail some of the pieces. I lost interest rather quickly. As usual, I just left the group and did a quick loop of the whole place, then went to the courtyard to wait for the group to finish. I even went outside the museum just to look at the neighborhood. While waiting, I ran into Mohammed and we talked about women covering their faces and how much they should cover. Mohammed said when he married he would want his wife's face covered completely like some of the women we ran into. I was a bit surprised since Mohammed was young and clearly fairly well educated. Yet his views are rather on the conservative side. On the other hand, I should not be too surprised, after all he was clearly very devout.
One indoor bazaar in Aleppo is pretty impressive. It reminded us of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or the Old Medina in Fez (Morocco). It even has caravanserai and quite a number of mosques. You could even imagine you were back in ancient times, especially when you see many of the women covered head-to-toe except for a small slot for the eyes. At one store, I bought my 'Arafat' headgear (keffiyeh). I bargained with the vendor. The price started with 8 dollars. Eventually I paid 2 dollars for it. After I bought it, I went outside to try it on. At that point, a group of Aleppo ladies happened to pass by and saw me. A couple of them could not help but giggle. I suppose they have never seen an Asian guy wearing such headgear. I certainly have never seen anyone like that myself. I figured when you visit a country you should respect the local tradition and dress like locals if possible. They probably know how to dress for the climate anyway.
Such an indoor bazaar is also called 'souk' or 'souq' in the Middle East. Typically it is labyrinthine and has stores selling everything under the sun, like fruits, spices, carpets, clothing, cookware, etc. The smell of spices and the sound of the bustling shoppers bargaining for better prices all make it very exotic.
Next morning, we went to visit the remain of the San Simeon Monastery, which sits on top of a small hill. San Simeon dates back more than one thousand years and was designed to be the largest church in the world. Saint Simeon was an early Monophysite who spent 36 years on top of various pillars. The church remains were very impressive, with amazing arches to form an octagonal design, with supporting columns and vaults. It could last for so long because so much it was built with big stones for that day. The exception was the roof which had been made with wood.
One night, six of us went to a Turkish bath (hammam). The place is called Yalbougha Al Nasery. It is one of the most important Syrian baths and dates back to the 15th Century. Inside it was of course nicely decorated. After the bath, wrapped in white robes, we were led to a rest area to have some tea and relaxation before going back to our hotel.
Aleppo is a big city and thus offered us opportunity to see a Whirling Dervish performance, something we could not do while in Konya, the birthplace of this dance. We went to a restaurant where the performances were done with live music. There were three dancers; one of them was a young kid, an apprentice I guess. To me, whirling around and around would certainly make one very dizzy. A hard part also would be keeping your head tilted to one side and also always holding up one hand.
After the show, some middle-aged Lebanese ladies went to the dance floor and danced among themselves. Clearly some Lebanon people were more westernized. The local custom was that residents would never do such a thing as public dancing.
Ugarit is where the first alphabet known to archaeologists had been excavated. The site is now just piles and piles of rocks. Hardly anything standing and not much to look at. What we could see were mostly outlines traced on the ground. It was there that I got sick for the first time and the only time in the trip. What happened was in the morning, Estrella put some tap water into a plastic bottle to be used for wetting her towel. (One way to beat the heat is to put a wet towel around your neck). I mistakenly drank some of it. At the site of Ugarit, my stomach started to feel funny and soon I was throwing up. To avoid embarrassment, I made sure I was away from everybody when I did it. Still, I had to apologize since I ended up ruining the thousand years old ruin a bit. The problem is when I throw up, I tend to make so much noise that usually it would wake up the whole neighborhood. When Mohammed heard it, he was very concerned. He got some fresh lime juice for me but that did not help. That night, I had to stay in my room and had Pepto Bismol for dinner and also for breakfast next morning. I did not dare to eat anything. Of course Pepto always does wonders for me. I was okay next day. For upset stomach, I highly recommend lots of this pink stuff.
On our way to Latakia, we visited the fortress of Saladin. It was called Saone when originally built by the Crusaders in the 10th century on a forested ridge surrounded by ravines and was thought impregnable by them. But Saladin's army was able to capture it within a short time. The present government renamed it to honor the anti-Crusade and Islamic hero. The most extraordinary part about this place is a deep channel about 18 meters (60 feet) wide and 140 meters (450 feet) long, chiseled out of the solid rock to form a moat on one side of the castle. In the middle of this channel, they left a tall pillar to be used for a temporary bridge pier when necessary. This castle rivals the Crac des Chevaliers (a Crusader castle) as the most impressive in all the Middle East.
Latakia is a major seaport for Syria. Syria does not have the same coastal access to the Mediterranean Sea as Turkey or Labanon. So the area around Latakia is its only gateway to the Sea. As a result, it is also a beach resort where Syrians go vacationing.
At Latakia, we headed to a beach located inside a nice hotel. From the people there, you could tell this is the place where the young, wealthy, and trendy Syrians hang out. The most amazing thing is you actually saw some local girls wearing bikinis. It is amazing because in the conservative Middle East, you mostly see women covering their whole body from head to toe. As for the beach and water, it was not as nice as some other beaches I have seen. Several in our group went there and were pretty much the only foreigners on the whole beach. While at the beach, Carolyn took out a Frisbee and tried to play with the local kids.
Near Latakia, the bus broke down a number of times. Some tour members were quite concerned and asked for a new bus. So before we headed to Palmyra in the desert, we got a new bus and a new driver who looked exactly like Robin Williams. Mohammed also showed us a video on the bus TV. It was an episode of the Lonely Planet travel show, called Pilot Guide, hosted by our favorite travel show host, the funny man Ian Wright. The episode was about Syria and it showed Ian Wright interviewing Mohammed. There now we found out Mohammed was a 'celebrity' appearing on international TV.
On our way to Palmyra, we visited a Bedouin home, which was built like a beehive with cone-shaped roofs. We went inside their tent and talked to them. They were very hospitable. Answered all the questions we had. They also served us tea and melons. It was a very nice experience.
Before reaching Palmyra, we visited the Crac des Chevaliers (Crusader Castle), among the more famous medieval castles in the world. Crac is exactly as one imagines a castle should be. The walls are massive and it is actually a fortress within a fortress. It was so well built that Saladin, after taking a good look, decided to give it a pass and not attack. He knew even his mighty army would not able to crack this nut. Today it is extremely well preserved, and if someone is going to make a Crusader movie today, he can probably use it just the way it is.
Outside the main gate, I saw a big truck parked outside. It belonged to one of those overland tour companies. They certainly operate very differently from a typical tour. They do not go with a nice big bus and stay in nice hotels like the tour we took in Europe. They also do not operate like our current so-called 'adventure tour', which has small group and stay in smaller inns. From what I read, they are definitely much more seriously adventure-oriented. First they limit the participants to those between 18 to 35 years old. Usually they do not stay in hotel. Instead, they set up and stay in tents, sometimes in campgrounds, or sometimes in the middle of nowhere. Food they get from local markets and take turns to do the cooking. The big truck they use would carry not only some passengers but also all the cooking and camping gear they need. This type of overland trips is of course quite a bit cheaper than hotel tours, because hotel is no doubt a big expense. Some of these tours go as long as three or even six months. I remembered talking to a German tourist one time. He said it was a lot of fun but it was also very tough. Even if they would let us join, I was not sure if Estrella would be ready for this kind of trip.
Palmyra is a small oasis town in the center of the Syrian Desert, hundreds of kilometers from anywhere. But it had some of the most impressive Roman ruins and necropolis. Without doubt, the most outstanding sight in Syria. The city became prosperous because its strategic location on the route of the ancient Silk Road, when merchants trading in silk and spices from Asia to the Mediterranean, or curious travelers like Ibn Kaldun, had to pay taxes as they passed thru this area to refresh their water supplies. The city became incredibly rich and was able to build many grand buildings. It later became part of the Roman Empire, and then around 268 CE, this region was ruled by an Arab-Nabatean queen named Zenobia, who attempted to take over control from Rome. Unfortunately, her army was no match for the skilled legions of the mighty Roman Empire. She was defeated and taken to Rome, where she committed suicide.
The hotel we stayed in Palmyra was rather small and the construction was the flimsy side. We unpacked our stuff and went out for a walk. On the lobby, we ran into Kay and Carolyn. Carolyn told us that we should be careful about what we said in our room because apparently they could hear very well in their room what we said. Not sure it was thru the walls, door, or the windows. Good thing they told us. And it reminded me that often people check into a room, think they are in their own house and say whatever they like. This of course could be potentially embarrassing if you say something not intended for other ears. Even if you stay at a nice modern hotel, you still have to be careful. In fact, often walking down a hotel's hallway, you can hear people talking inside their rooms. The wall may be fine but not the door for sure. So the rule is you should definitely keep your voice low if you have to say something that is private, like making comments about other tour members.
As our hotel was conveniently located right next to the ruins, we were able to walk over to look at the magnificent remains.
If you look at what is left of the ruins, you can easily envision how grand and massive the original buildings must have been. You got to be in awe realizing how the ancient architects and engineers were able to construct such spectacular structures. The Palmyra ruins spread over an area of 6 square km and include ruins of the: Baal-Shamin Temple, Bel Temple, Arch of Triumph, Amphitheater, Baths, Straight Street, Congress Council, and Cemeteries. We also went up to see the hilltop fortress of Zenobia.
In the old day, people here built vertical family cemeteries. It is kind of like small condominium with slots or units for each family member. And in front of each slot, there was a stone sculpture of the person inside, plus the name and a short bio. So you knew exactly how that person looked and who he was.
After visiting the ruin, I was dying to find a pool that I could go cool off in. Mohammed told us "Yes, there was one in another hotel", and he wanted to go too. So a few of us took a taxi to this nice big hotel to use their pool. Having a swimming pool in middle of the desert is always kind of amazing. But it is something that tourists like me would definitely like to have. To me, there is nothing like jumping into a refreshing pool after a day in a hot desert. What a luxury, I got to admit. The lobby of this hotel was really impressive with its high ceiling. I think our whole low-rise hotel could easily fit inside that lobby. Even for the afternoon sun I put on some sunscreen. But Mohammed did not bother so he was burned quite a bit. As they say, human being is water-proof but not sun-proof.
Palmyra is not too far from the Iraqi border. On our way to Damascus, we saw a big road sign pointing the way to Iraq, we could not help but stop the car and took a picture. We also came across a roadside tent with some costumes that you could try on, so we decided to make ourselves look as Syrian as possible for photos.
After Palmyra, we eventually arrived at the famous ancient city of Damascus. It is supposed to be one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. Since this is the Middle East, you could not really buy anything without bargaining. I heard that even if you just want to buy a toothbrush in Damascus, you have to be prepared to spend two hours haggling for it. The storeowner would never let you get away without haggling. It turned out it was, of course, not true. Our hotel was right at down town and you could just walk to the souq or old market to do some shopping. Damascus is a big city with a lot of buses and people. It is just as noisy and crowded as other major Middle Eastern cities, and the streets in some places were in need of cleanup. I did see a few western backpackers here. Other than that, there were not that many obvious tourists. They seem still very rare in Syria. It is also the only place that I did not see any Japanese tourists.
That morning we went to visit the magnificent Eighth Century Umayyad mosque. Saladin's Tomb is located inside this mosque. It is also said to house the head of John the Baptist. In the courtyard of the mosque we met a family from Saudi Arabia. The guy was a Win/NT system administrator for a Saudi bank. He said if we had a chance, we should visit his country. Not sure if he was aware that unless you are a Muslim, you are not usually allowed to visit his country.
Visitors to this mosque were given a long and hooded poncho-like garment. This way ladies could have their hair covered. And the guys also had their legs covered if they happened to wear shorts. So it was convenient for everyone.
After the mosque, we went to visit the old market. As usual, we did not buy anything there since we really did not have room to carry anything more. That day Mohammed kept saying he would have a surprise for us that night after dinner. Finally, after dinner he took the whole group to the top of a mountain to see a panoramic view of the whole city at night. It was quite a sight. Damascus did not have many skyscrapers. Actually there was none, other than a few Western hotels. But there was a lot of what looked like space shuttle rockets illuminated by blue nights. They were spread out and scattered thru the whole city. They turned out to be minarets that attached to mosques. By looking at that number of mosques they have, you know this is definitely a Muslim country. We had two days in Damascus. But we decided to spend the second day in Lebanon instead.
Bosra is our last stop in Syria. This city has a stunning Roman theater. It is extremely well preserved. It was here that Mohammed finally had the opportunity to show us his beautiful voice. He happily sang us a song in the center stage of the theater. We were thrilled, so were other tourists that were there. Here we also said good bye to Luke, two Scottish ladies and two Australian ladies. They were only for the Syrian portion. The Scottish ladies told us they were going to Cyprus and spend a week by the beach first before going back to Scotland. They also invited us to visit them if we ever go to Scotland. From Bosra, Mohammed took us to the Jordanian border. Similar to the Turkish situation, Mohammed would not cross the border with us. Our group would be met by a new group leader on the other side.
© Dave Cheng 2000