Monday, April 20, 2009

postcard from syria

After a spate of people trying to overcharge us in Turkey, it's safe to say that we're on our guard as we enter Syria.

In both countries so far we've had a 'baptism of fire' moment where we find ourselves walking through a new city within a brand new country, with our heavy backpacks, everybody looking at us, and we have to get our bearings and find where we are going to stay that night. We very quickly find out about the national psyche of a country in that time.

So we are cynical about early offers of help. In Turkey people (commonly children) would request money after such favours. We find the time though, to speak with two liberally dressed women in their early twenties that stop us in the street. They are English teachers, and are delighted to meet us. Afer conversation they explain that they would love to invite us back to their house, but that we are men and there are Islamic customs that must be adhered to. They then detail that we will need a taxi to get to Qamishle train station, inform us not to pay more than 50 Syrian Pounds for the journey, then change our 500 pound note for us so we can offer the driver exact change.

Hailing a (tiny, clapped out) taxi, we ask to go to the train station, and explain that we will only be paying the going-rate for the journey. He is a nice man, but he shakes his head continuously each time we try to state our price. This is a situation we are already all too familiar with. Concerned, we persist for a while, before moving on to talk about other things. At the train station the driver explains fully: this journey is free, and it is an honour to have met us and had us ride in his cab. We are bowled over and feel more than a little guilty.

At the train station we discover that we have a five hour wait until our train. It's no real problem and we've been in this situation before, so we settle down to entertain ourselves as we are used to, for the duration. Not long after, and a crowd of 15 people has formed around Simon. They are fascinated by the sight of a young western man slumped in their train station, knitting a scarf. They point and discuss with each other this most curious of sights.

People occasionally talk to us, and 20 minutes later one particular young group of men strike up conversation. After a while they invite us to their house (an offer we've been told to accept should we be fortunate that it ever be made), and we walk through the mud tracks (Qamishle has no middle class to speak of, it isn't a wealthy town) for 15 minutes to their house.

At their house we chat and our entertained for four hours, and the women of the house (who are kept from our view throughout) prepare tea and a fantastic evening meal for us. We try our best to adhere to the many rules of eating we've read (e.g. never with your left hand, never double dip anything) but inevitably slip up along the way. Not that our hosts would ever mention when we did. Although they are poor they have mobile phones, satellite TV and shared internet access. They are amazed to have such company in their house, and several times apologise for the meal they have put on for us. "Had it not been dark we would have slaughtered a lamb for you" they say.

Later they put us on the night train, and we ride to Aleppo attempting to recover from such an overwhelming day. Aleppo is far more used to tourists, so the welcome is inevitably not as sweet, but it is still a strong, honest one. Whilst it is not a thrill-ride of a city, we find entertainment in the twisting Souqs (marketplaces), and beautiful ruins at Qala'at Samaan 40 minutes drive out of town. Simon also bumps into an old workmate from Winchester (!), and we spend an evening as guests in their hotel.

You know that beeping sound big vehicles make when they're reversing? In Syria that doesn't happen. Some cars, however play a tune called Lambada that I haven't heard since I was 14.

From conservative Aleppo (female dress code: a veil) we travel to liberal Lattakia (female dress code: skinny jeans), but leave the next morning as miserable weather ruins our dreams of a beach day. From there to Hana, where the 12th century castle of Crac Des Chevaliers is the highlight of Syria. It's a brilliant castle for exploring all day, as if it's come straight from dreamland.

I can't lie, part of the appeal is that if this was in the UK it would be constantly swarming with visitors (think: Stonehenge), and railings and safety warnings would be placed everywhere in a paranoid health and safety frenzy. Here it is a beautiful structure left untouched and untarnished, and there wasn't more than 100 people exploring it's huge innards at any point during the day.

Then to Damascus, which may just be my favourite city I've ever visited. Despite receiving a not-inconsiderable portion of tourism, the Syrian welcome still runs strong through the city. Getting lost in the tiny twisting alleyways that cover much of the centre would feel threatening in many lesser cities. Here it is enchanting.

Damasus combines all the fine characteristics of Islamic cities (the culture, the people, the mosques with their nightly green glow and 'call to prayer' musical harmonies that ring out across the city), with youthfulness, character, and even a christian quarter where it's possible to enjoy a night out.

Night activities such as exploring Damasus's winding back-alleys would be precarious, often ill-advised in other countries, but everybody seems to agree: Syria could barely be any safer to travel in. It's just one more example of the Syrian welcome, and it is truly humbling. I have thought several times about what welcome our hosts would be given should they ever visit the UK, and it's a depressing thought.

Keen to not misrepresent, we do have a few hard-fought battles over money, almost all of which are with minibus drivers. One such occasion is on our final Syrian excursion - to the desert town of Palmyra. The town is graced with a castle high on hilltop, which we undertake a treacherous speed-hike to the top of in order to catch the sunset. Palmyra also has Roman ruins, the likes of which we were getting a little bored by at this stage, but we took the time to explore them at both midnight and sunrise, with beautiful results.

The ride back from Palmyra took a curious turn. All the coach companies were charging 200 Syrian Pounds to get back to Damascus, but one older gentlemen requested just 150 to ride in his rickety old Japanese bus, a vechicle with character to spare. It was an opportunity we jumped at. We must have been offered various food and drink by everybody on board during that journey - each person wanted to meet us and make us feel at home.

All that remained after that was to get out of the country, and as the minibus is about to set off the driver asks if we would mind storing some mystery goods in our bags as we cross the border. We remember our not-getting-thrown-in-jail training and politely decline. It would be a shame to have the trip cut short at this point.

Wish you were here,

Syria rating: 8.4/10
Friendliest person met: Ahmed and his friends in Qamishli
Scariest moment: Not once were we unnerved.
Most beautiful sight: Crac Des Chevaliers
The Soundtrack: Elbow - Leaders of the Free World
Still to come: Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

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