Middle East Travelogue#5
September 19, 2006
Dear Family & Friends,
Hello from Syria. Today we were within 45km of Lebanon and all was quiet, so the ceasefire must be holding. We are learning lots of stuff about Syria and having very enjoyable travel experiences here, so this is likely to be another long tale. If that is a problem, read it in segments over a few days.
First of all, I think in the last travelogue the computer eliminated the letter i altogether, instead of changing them all to y's, so hopefully you could still read it. Every Internet place presents different challenges! Internet costs more here than in Turkey: between $2 and $1.50 per hour. Still affordable.
Crossing the border into Syria was an interesting experience. Jan, our Turkey tour leader took us to the border where there were big gates and fences and a bunch of trucks trying to cross but absolutely no tourists! The guard there would not let us walk to the next area, where we had to get stamped out of Turkey, so we had to wait for a Syrian taxi to come. Finally, when it didn't come, one of the border guys drove us over in his car but of course, he charged Jan for it ($7). After getting stamped out of Turkey, we went to the Syrian side, but we had to walk there (about 200 yards). Right away the Syrian border guard we first met said "Welcome to Syria", something which has happened with nearly everyone who talks to us, even when we say we are from America. They are very friendly people. They went through every page of our passports with great care because if you have a stamp from Israel in it, they won't let you in. Also, you must already have a Syrian visa because you can't get one at the border. They cost $100. So they spent a lot of time and even called our tour leader on his cell phone, then finally we got our stamps and waited there. Our tour leader, Bashar, came a short time later and we were off to explore Syria.
He had a minivan waiting for us, only in Syria minivan are really much smaller than in Turkey because they drive these little Suzuki type vans. We headed for Aleppo, about 50km away and the driver drove like a bat out of hell, something everyone here does, we quickly learned. Also, they pull right in front of each other and everyone takes it in stride. We did see some cars that had been hit a lot of times, and also quite a few old beat-up ones that run well. They are probably like Mexicans; master mechanics who keep things running with baling wire and chewing gum because parts are expensive and they don't have much money. One surprising thing is that gasoline is very cheap here. It is subsidized by the government and only costs 7 Syrian pounds per liter or about 50 cents a gallon. Because of this, public transport is cheap and so are taxicabs. Also because of this, at 3PM when the boss at the border goes home, there is a lot of traffic crossing the border to Turkey carrying cheap gas to sell there by bribing the border officials.
Our first impression of Syria was that it is much dirtier than Turkey, and after 2 days here, that first impression has not proved to be false. There is lots of litter everywhere, piles of debris and building materials scattered here and there, the buildings look dingy, there are lots of rocks scattered around, and where there are trees and grass, they often need trimming. The houses are mostly all built of limestone or cement and most are not painted. The new limestone ones look pretty but after a while the pollution makes them look dingy. There are not a lot of high rises here, as in Turkey. The buildings are mostly 3 or 4 stories tall. But today we entered Hama and here we saw that high rises are starting to be built. Bashar said this is perhaps a result of the fact that there are about 4 million Iraqi refugees here and 1 million Lebanese refuges, and they have caused a big housing demand, which has caused prices to skyrocket. He says a housing unit in Aleppo costs about $200,000 and this is for an apartment, not a house!
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world because it was on the major trade route - the Silk Road. Estimates are that people have been living there for 8000 years. The year 2006 Aleppo has been named the Center for Islamic Culture and they are very proud of this. There is a huge citadel towering over the town on a big natural hill right near the old center. We didn't go in it because most of the inside is gone. It just has a view over the city. There is also a very large covered market called a souq, which has labyrinthine alleyways full of little stalls selling everything from camel meat to carpets to gold jewelry to tourist stuff. But mostly the locals shop there because there aren't many tourists here. That has been refreshing, especially after parts of Turkey, which we think, are over touristed. On the other hand, when the souq salesmen see us coming, they are really after us to visit their shops and buy something! Most of them ask us where we are from and don't seem to be too repelled by the fact that we are from the USA.
Our hotel in Aleppo was right near the center and on a side street, thank goodness, because the traffic there is heavy on the main streets and they honk at each other all the time. This hotel was a definite step down from the ones in Turkey and our first room was not very clean so we had to move to another one. Also, there were large living room type areas on each floor and every night there were men sleeping everywhere there, making it look like a flophouse. At least the breakfast each day was a little different than the usual Turkish breakfast, something we were getting very tired of.
Upon arriving at the hotel, we met the new people who joined our group for this phase of the tour: Hoya and Sophie, a young couple about 30 from the Netherlands. They are delightful and we are so happy to have their company! Bashar, our tour leader is also great, with a wonderful personality and an easygoing manner. Right away we started learning so much about Syria because he is a native. First thing he walked us over to a falafel stand where we had a delicious wrap made out of falafel, tomatoes, chopped cilantro, and tasty yogurt type sauce in a thin pita bread wrap. Falafel is ground up chickpeas mixed with mashed hummus and sesame seeds, deep fried into little doughnuts which they then smash and put in the wrap. They first served us one of the doughnuts and it was delicious. The cost for this very tasty wrap and a cola was about 60 cents. We changed money and are now dealing with the Syria pound, which they also call the lira, and we are getting 51.6 to the dollar.
That evening, Bashar took us to a local restaurant for dinner. Here we were taken to the kitchen where there were about 8 choices of food we could look at and select as our main dish, then we sat at a table and they brought quite a few mezes, or appetizers for us to eat along with the ever-present flat bread, a delicious salad, the main courses, then fruit for dessert. It was way too much food and it only cost 300 lira per person or about $6 each. Bashar then walked us around the Christian Quarter, which had many old buildings and churches and was charming because most were floodlit. We went into 2 restaurants he knew and descended deep into their basements where he showed us passageways that had been dug so the people could get to the citadel underground when the city was under attack.
Just trying to cross the street in Aleppo was a big deal. The traffic never lets up and they never stop for you so you have to wait for just the slightest crack between vehicles and then start walking and they keep coming at you but somehow swerve around you. When we aren't with Bashar, we just find a local and stand by him and then when he starts to cross, we walk right along with him and we make it safely.
Another interesting thing is that here about 90% of the women are wearing the all black robes and head coverings (they look like nuns) and some of them even wear black veils totally covering their faces.
Politically, things have also been interesting. Bashar says that all the people of Syria support Hezbolla, and you see their flag and the picture of their leader nearly as much as you see the picture of the Syrian president. There was a picture of the Hezbolla leader on one side of our hotel entrance and the Hezbolla flag on the other side. On the back of the bus we took today, there was a picture of the Hezbolla leader on the left, in the middle a Hezbolla flag, and on the right a picture of the President of Syria. Many businesses fly the Hezbolla flag outside their entrances.
Yesterday we had a good tour guide for a trip to a basilica one hour away from Aleppo called St. Simeon. Some religious zealot spent 36 years sitting on a pillar and healing people for the glory of god and they built a big basilica around his pillar. Just seeing the countryside near there was interesting as it was very rocky and barren although they seemed to raise a lot of sheep and goats there. Between the border and Aleppo we could see that they raise olives for olive oil, grains, cotton, grapes, and pistachios. They are selling pistachios everywhere because the harvest has just occurred. Today from the bus we could also see okra, sunflowers, tomatoes, and melons. There were also large fields where there were lots of big tents set up and this is because they still have nomadic people who raise sheep and goats and continually move them for grazing. It was odd to see them camped right between houses of nice limestone with green and pleasant gardens and orchards.
Today we visited the most impressive castle left over from the Crusades called Krak de Chevaliers. It was occupied by over 4000 people in the 11th and 12th centuries until the Crusaders were finally run out of the country. It was never breached by the enemy because it was so well built - they just gave it up a couple of months into a siege because there were only about 200 men left by then. It is in a wonderfully complete state and we took several hours to explore it today. It is huge and way up on a hill so they could see for miles if anyone was coming. Saturday night there was a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet there, so there was a big stage and thousands of chairs set up in the courtyard. We were quite surprised that there was so much litter around inside and it obviously isn't being well prepared for tourists, even though they just had a huge influx of people there for the ballet. But this is something we are seeing all over Syria. There are plenty of employees but instead of doing any work or cleaning anything up, they sit around all day. After the fortress, Bashar took us to a nearby restaurant where we had another great meal, this time grilled chicken which you cover with an olive oil and crushed garlic spread. It came with an amazing number of appetizers again, plus salad and fruit, all for 175 lira or about $3.50. They nailed us on the drinks though.
Now we are in Hama in the best hotel we have had yet and Elaine is happy because there is CNN on the TV and also some other English channels. It is clean and comfy and we will enjoy it. But briefly as we leave early tomorrow for Palmyra. More in a few days, probably from Damascus, which we will reach Friday. By the way, Ramadan starts Saturday so things will get even more interesting. Sending big hugs.
Love, Mary & Elaine