Sunday, November 22, 1998

Syria - Aleppo to Crac des Chevaliers (1998)

Sipping tea across the road from the Aleppo Citadel

Well it's a Sunday night in Syria, it's only 7:30 PM and pitch black outside, there are dogs howling and barking outside the van and I'm bored. Once night falls, activities are severely limited, and if the mosquitoes are biting, we’re pretty much trapped inside the van. Mostly that's fine, with my guitar or writing or sitting around talking filling the void. But every now and then, after two and a half months of van living, I yearn for something else to do. The daytime is easy, surrounded by new things to see and places to go, but sometimes the fee for new daytime adventures is a bored isolated night or two. On the whole, a very small price to pay for travelling the world, but nevertheless, when these times occur, a pain in the arse.

Lonely Planet recommended hotel
The days in Syria have been excellent. Two of them so far. Yesterday, after waking up next to the factories, with a whole lot of workers sitting nearby taking in the strange sight of our van with the roof up and the bikes on the back, we drove back into Aleppo to look for a hotel. Finding your way around the city proved much easier in the daytime and by around midday we had checked into a Lonely Planet recommended hotel that, by its recommendation, indicated that the other hotels around there must have been pretty shoddy. This one wasn't too bad, but certainly wasn't anything flash. Still, it had a sit down toilet and steaming hot water for the shower which were the main reasons that we hadn't just camped again on the street. After agreeing to pay 400 Syrian pounds (about 6 pounds sterling) we set off for the citadel in the heart of Aleppo. Mostly it was just a pile of bricks and rubble enclosed by an impressive wall on a hill looking down on the surrounding city. The entrance fee was 600 Syrian pounds, a night and a half's accommodation, which seemed a bit of a scam. In fact we seem to be getting ripped off at most quarters. Either that or there is a strange balance of values in this land. A delicious meal of falafel and salad rolled up in pita bread costs only 20 piastres, yet a small glass full of hot water with a Lipton teabag jiggling in the cup costs 25 piastres. Something is going on somewhere. We drank our tea in the cafe across the road from the citadel and watched the people going by and around us. A group of four young guys sat at a table nearby playing cards, each smoking a big hookah pipe, sending the sweet strawberry water-cooled smoke billowing into the air. Men walked by in all manner of robes and headdress, from very elegant pristine flowing robes and bright white headgear, to guys in tatty dress like garments with red and white checked keffiyes on their heads. The women we saw were mostly scarfed, but they also had a good deal of variety in headdress. Some wore colours or florals that just covered their hair, others had similar head covering but in a more conservative austere black, while some women had black veils to completely cover their faces, causing one to wonder how they avoided walking into walls. A minority of the people wore jeans or clothes that would be considered "western". A man led his donkey laden with sacks through the throng of speeding, honking traffic and pedestrians. There was a bustle of activity everywhere. When we finished our tea, we made our way to the old souks, or covered markets, where we whiled away a few hours among the sellers of lamb’s wool, silver and gold jewellery and the obligatory carpets.
Under the ever watchful eye of President Assad's son Bashar.
Other stalls had barrels of various coloured spices, or pistachios and cashews, filling the air with their alluring smell. Then of course there were the fruit and vegetable sellers, loudly hawking their fresh produce, and the meat sellers with tubs of goats heads and trays of testicles sitting alongside the more common cuts of meat, bringing home the reality that this was an animal carcass far more readily than a piece of sirloin steak does. We were enticed into a small jewellery store where we chatted for about half an hour about Australia and Syria while looking at the wares on offer. We ended up leaving with a necklace for Tori made of silver and lapis lazuli (a.k.a. pretty blue stone) and having had some excellent conversation. I have no idea if the necklace price was reasonable for the Syrian market, but it was certainly good by western standards and the fun we had in their store certainly made it all great value. Immediately from there we were solicited into a tea shop by a well-dressed, eloquently-spoken man who told us of his plans to set up a tourist service business and who, I have to admit, I was sure was just looking for us to employ his services in some manner or other. As it turned out, he was just after a bit of a chat. It's hard not to get paranoid in these markets. Everybody seems to have a good angle to part you from your money albeit in an extremely friendly way. We wandered around some more after we left him, past the bridal gown shops, the row of tailors making suits, the potbellied stove stalls and the mosque for when buyers and sellers alike needed to duck in for a quick prayer to Allah. When we finally emerged from the markets and made our way back to the van, night had fallen. We dropped our bags off at the hotel and then drove around the city looking for somewhere quiet to make some dinner. We finally ended up in a quiet street beside a mosque with a tall spire crowned by a green lit minaret. Well it was quiet when we got there but it didn't take too long for a curious crowd to gather. Again the bikes on the back of the van seemed to be the main attraction. Again a common language was elusive. One of the kids on his bike came over and gave Tori and I a biscuit that he had just grabbed from inside his house; a beautiful and quite tasty gesture of friendship. I showed them our bikes, then we packed up the van for the night and proceeded to walk back to our hotel room. At least we tried to, but unfortunately we found navigation on foot to be as difficult as that in the car. After taking 45 minutes to walk around in a circle ending up only 200m from where the van was parked, we decided that it would be more prudent to catch a cab. The driver took us back to our mosquito infested room for 80 Syrian pounds; not too bad considering we couldn't communicate with him, he didn't have a metre, we didn't agree a fair upfront, and I only had a £200 note. He had had a golden opportunity to rip us off blind but declined to take advantage of us. That certainly wouldn't have happened in London with most of the minicab drivers I'd met.

This morning, after taking advantage of our hot shower, we checked out of the hotel and caught a cab across town to where we had left the car. Still safe and sound. We jumped in and began the search for the road towards to Damascus, again going round in circles and ending up once more confused and frustrated. We stopped to ask directions and a young guy who appeared to be a student offered to jump in and direct us to the freeway. We accepted and in quick time he had us on the right road. He jumped out and we drove down the highway, bopping along to some loud tunes, buoyed again by the friendliness of strangers. As we drove we took in the sights of the semi desert with its red clay and sand, and a few scant attempts at olive groves, dotted between villages of concrete blocks masquerading as houses. The wide open spaces were punctuated occasionally by small tent villages of brightly-clothed earthy looking people, perhaps Bedouin. Hitchhikers dotted the sides of the road every couple of hundred metres, mostly men in suits or men in robes and headdress. Occasionally there would be stalls selling fruit or even at one point, house bricks. But always the barren red desert stretching off into the hills towards Lebanon. The highway was excellent once we were on it. Even the signs were helpful for us foreigners, being in English as well as Arabic. The flat straight road was a far cry from the pine forested winding mountain roads of the Turkish Mediterranean coast of only a few days earlier, where a goatherd complete with herd of goats, motioned to me for a cigarette as we were driving past. We had some cigarettes and so stopped to give him the packet and some matches. He was so grateful he embraced me and kissed me on both cheeks. Quite a dubious honour to be kissed by an odorous stubble faced goatherd, but I was glad to have made him so happy.

Chatting with a local donkey while the killer dog lurks in the background
We drove on through the Syrian countryside until we reached Hama, where we stopped for lunch. It looks like quite a picturesque and interesting place with large water wheels (norias) turning on the river, once used to supply drinking water and irrigation for the town, but now purely ornamental. From there we continued on to the ultimate destination of the day, the 12th century Crusade castle Crak des Chevaliers. It sits perched high on a mountain top above the town of Qala’at al-Hosn and is still in very good nick. It is at the restaurant beside the castle (about 100m up the road) where we are camped tonight with quite spectacular views below. We arrived too late to see the inside of the castle today (but amazingly not at night), so will go and have a look tomorrow morning. The only event of any note in the late afternoon was the killer dog in the chicken coop drama, especially as he had pretty much been led there inadvertently by us on our walk into town. If I hadn't have grabbed him by the neck and back and dragged him off, the big white rooster would have been the dog’s dinner. As it was he lost quite a few feathers and ended up in a serious state of shock. I guess the family who own him will perhaps chop his head off and eat him soon enough anyway. 

Camped next to the restaurant for the night
The town of Qala’at al-Hosn from above
View from Crac des Chevaliers over Qala’at al-Hosn
View from Crac des Chevaliers over Qala’at al-Hosn

Inside Crac des Chevaliers

Friday, November 20, 1998

Arriving in Syria (1998)

Aleppo Citadel

Our trip to the Turkish border town of Antakya had been a long one. We had driven some 1500km crisscrossing the bottom of Turkey a number of times in the previous couple of days, not sure whether or not we should travel down through the Mid East, changing our minds on a number of occasions. The alternative was the less confronting option back from Turkey across the south of Europe through Greece, Italy, France and Spain. Our indecision was based on the fact that Saddam Hussein had again kicked out the UN weapons inspectors and Bill Clinton had responded by sending hundreds of planes and men to the Persian Gulf to blow the shit out of Iraq once more. Meanwhile the Israeli government had issued all of its citizens with gas masks in readiness for chemical attack. And there was nowhere that I could find in the Lonely Planet guide book indicating that being doused in anthrax was one of the recommended holiday activities. Eventually after days of posturing, the risk of war seemed to have abated and in any case, the Syrians wouldn't be directly involved even though Iraq was their next door neighbour. So with that, we decided we would indeed venture down into the exotic and historic world trouble spot known as the Middle East.

The Turkey-Syrian border near Antakya is marked by a high fence full of razor wire, with the two sides of the fence providing quite contrasting views. The Turkish side is dotted every 250m or so with a guard tower, complete with an alert machine gun toting soldier. On the Syrian side there is just a vast expanse of desert as far as the eye can see. There is only ever one direction of human traffic coming unofficially through or over the fence it seems and being as though some of that traffic over the years has constituted the PKK Kurdish terrorist (freedom fighter?) group, who have routinely targeted and killed Turks, the Turkish vigilance is no surprise. Once we arrived at the border crossing, passing from Turkey into Syria was no problem at all. Their scrutiny I suspect was reserved much more for people arriving than departing. Entering Syria also proved to be quite easy, thanks largely to the English speaking local who descended upon us very affably and helpfully the second we got to passport control. Without him it would have been quite an ordeal, as not too many of the numerous officials we had to deal with spoke much English. He acted as an interpreter and told us step by step the procedures required. 
We'd been quite nervous about being interrogated by burley uniformed ogres shining lights in our faces, prodding us with hot pokers and demanding to know if our itinerary included occupied Palestine i.e. the unrecognised state of Israel. In fact the man who asked us this question was charming and friendly with an air of "well I know you're likely to go there but I have to ask you anyway and you have to respond in the negative". We responded “no”, that we didn’t intend on going to Israel as required. He did push us a little with a friendly “you mean to tell me that you’ve come all this way and you’re not going to visit the holy land?”, but was satisfied with my answer that we needed to come back home through Syria and knew we weren’t allowed back in, if we did visit Israel. Our visas stamped, a cursory search of the car made by customs, a tip for our interpreter friend and we were now in Syria.

The little van, which was our home for around six months.
Back on our way we could see there was a bit of a deterioration in road markings, even from the low Turkish standards. The signs were all in Arabic and had pictures of President Assad all over them, covering up the essential directional arrows when they were needed most. We had a map of Aleppo, but unable to decipher the Arabic street signs, it didn't provide any help at all. What's more, once again it was night. A new country, a new language, no idea where we were going or where we were going to stay. There was no camping ground as far as we knew. We parked our van in the airport carpark, thinking that may be a good spot to fix ourselves some dinner and bed down for the night. However, we quickly became the focus of attention of about a dozen young boys who were kicking a soccer ball around in the area. They were pressing their little faces up against the glass of the windows and singing cheeky songs at us. I went outside and made friends with them, of sorts, as there was no real commonality in verbal communication. I took their photo which they loved and they all introduced themselves to me. I suspect that they may have been giving me advice like "you’re real poo brain" in Arabic, but it was all good natured enough. Still, there was no way they were going away, and when they started crawling over the van like ants around a sticky bun, and with Tori becoming agitated after a long day, it was time to move on. We bid them ma'a as-salaama (goodbye) and made a hasty departure with their jeers still ringing in our ears. Cheeky little bastards! 
Aleppo kids
We pulled up on a quiet street in a semi-industrial suburb on the outskirts of Aleppo and decided that we would camp the night there. We would deal with the city tomorrow in the light of day. So that's where we are now. In Syria. On the edge of Aleppo with a whole new world to explore tomorrow. Not many people speak English around here so I think we'll have to learn a few Arabic phrases pretty quickly. "Piss off you little bastards" could be a good one to start with.