THE BOSFOR EKSPRES LEFT AT 2pm on it’s nineteen hour journey to Istanbul, and before we had even found our sleeping berths we’d been befriended by Marcel and Florin from Turgu Mures, already well into their routine of getting plastered for the duration of their fortnightly business trip to Turkey. The carriage attendant, Ali, was the next to extend a hand of welcome, offering us his every assistance for a pleasant voyage, though ridding ourselves of the drunkards could only be done by us when our compartment was awash with cheap wine and we could no longer stand Marcel’s meaningless banter.
It was only 60 kilomteres to Giurgiu, the Romanian border post, and after we had been processed out by local officials, the Bulgarian control boarded, and our details were radioed to the immigration post for approval to enter before we were stamped in.
We rolled on across the Danube and into Bulgaria, a country whose soil we didn’t actually set foot on. The sun set over the hilly country to the south of the border and we sat glued to our window watching villages and small stations drift by until there was only a starry night to look at and it was time for sleep.
Ali had looked after us well and we were the only two people in our six berth compartment, so we spent a comfortable night until the 2am wake-up call, “PASAPORT!!”. All was straightforward at Dimitrovgrad on the Bulgarian side, and we cruised on for a while before reaching Kapikule, the Turkish post, at 3am.
Everyone had to leave the train to be processed and, like entering an amusement park, foreigners had to buy an entry ticket for twenty US Dollars which was pasted into our passports before immigration stamped us in. Fortunately we had changed our Romanian Lei into US Dollars before leaving Bucharest because the amount had to be paid in cash and there were no changing facilities whatsoever. We paid, others tore their hair out…
We went back to sleep, only disturbed once more by a passport and customs check with a probing flashlight before finally chugging off into the Turkish night.
We were woken in the morning with a softly spoken “gunaydin” at our door for another ticket check, and by the time Ali came along enunciating “buna dimineata – Istanbul” to motivate everyone out of bed we were already up, glued to the window, studying the dry Thracian landscape studded with mosques – our first glimpse of a world untainted by communism since we left Sydney almost eight months earlier.
WE ENJOYED EVERY MOMENT OF our arrival in Istanbul. Our train crept in through the suburbs offering us views of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and Topkapi Palace, finally taking us to Sirkeci Station near the heart of the old city with the domes and minarets of the great mosques dominating the skyline. The place was familiar and we immediately felt at home as we stepped out onto the street looking for our first taste of Turkey.
The Lira had devalued enormously and dazzled us with two extra zeros, our humble Aussie Dollar buying more than a million Lira, and our breakfast simit costing only 300,000 each. We set off to look for a hotel, munching our simit and revelling in the culture shock. We were no longer anonymous faces in the crowd able to be mistaken for locals. A casual stroll revealed scores of hotels to choose from, and we settled on Hotel Erenler where, for 15 million Lira we got a room painted lollipop pink and a cheerful smile from Salib downstairs at the reception desk.
On our first day in Istanbul we achieved nothing but to celebrate the re-awakening of our taste buds. There was a folly to Tesvikiye in search of the Jordanian embassy which had long since moved, but in between we tracked down some of our favourite Turkish foods. Tavuk ekmek with ayran for lunch, some icy cold limon and crunchy apples for an afternoon snack, and for dinner we found our way back to Hocapasa Sokak, our old lokanta haunt from six years before. There we had mint-flavoured mercimek corba, patlican musakka and a fiery chicken dish with green chillies. Afterwards we gravitated to Mustava Hafiz Baklavalari for some honey-dripping dessert.
The next day we managed to find the Jordanian embassy in between our snack-tracking which led us conveniently to the Golden Horn in time for a much-longed for lunch of balik ekmek. Sunshine shimmered on the waters of the Bosphorus, seagulls squawked and ships sounded their horns as we ate succulent fish sandwiches with finger-licking appreciation.
The rest of the week was just a matter of filling in the time between each meal. We browsed in the bazaars, inhaling the aromas of spice and Mehmet Efendi’s famous coffee, marvelling at the contrast to a flourishing market economy and buying some momentos. We joked with the good-natured carpet sellers, leather merchants and travel agents, partaking in the odd cup of cay, and went to the post office to entrust three kilos of accumulated treasures to the postal system, including the beautiful Peles etching gifted to us by Petre…
Suddenly it was the end of the week and we thought we should give some consideration to what our next destination would be. Typically indecisive, it took us an entire day of toing and froing to finally opt for a long haul bus to Antakya, over one thousand kilometres away in the region of Hatay.
The next day we bought our tickets for 35 million Lira each at a small agency near our hotel and that’s where our journey began. At 3pm the Nur servis dolmus collected us from the office and we embarked on an Istanbul city tour which culminated in us arriving at the otogar in a completely different vehicle crammed full of amiable Arabs and their voluminous baggage.
Our bus left at 4:30pm, somehow finding it’s way out of a bus station so big that it had suburbs. We skirted the city and crossed a bridge over the Bosphorus, a sign welcoming us to Asia as we ploughed on into Anatolia.
We had climbed up onto the plateau by nightfall, and then had to suffer an appallingly bad American film thankfully dubbed into Turkish. After a dinner stop which saw the more portly lady passengers scoffing boxes of locum and pismaniye, a snoring passenger was ridiculed into silence, and we were sent to sleep to the sound of a Turkish-speaking Jean Claude Van Dam. The highways were smooth, and I only stirred yogi-like to re-arrange my limbs occasionally.
Dawn broke just before we reached Adana, and as the sky began to colour, sharp hills rising from the flat landscape were revealed. Ripe cotton fields and a crusader castle were bathed in the pink morning mists. When we hit the Mediterranean coast the mountains rose more dramatically, there were citrus and olive groves and the houses were topped with grape trellises.
Our bus arrived in Antakya eight minutes ahead of schedule, so by 9am we were already comfortably ensconsed in a room at the Otel Seker Palas right outside the otogar.
ANTAKYA, THE BIBLICAL CITY OF Antioch, was a pleasant stopover. We wandered the laneways of the old quarter, and found our way to Saint Peter’s grotto where we saw ancient tunnels and remnants of a city wall hidden up a deep gully behind the grotto.
The food was also good, we didn’t have to venture far from our hotel to find great tavuk doner, served by a practised young man, on durum (stretchy hankerchief roti) with a plate of mint leaves on the side. Further down the road was a bakery with tasty peanut and coconut bread, and we also sampled some excellent dondurma, all natural ice cream, banana, chocolate and pistachio flavours served with a smile.
We left the next morning for Syria. We changed our deflating Turkish Lira into US Dollars with a roving money merchant at the bus stand, then found out that the 8am bus was just wishful thinking – we waited for the 9am bus…
The countryside east of Antakya was open and dry. By the time we were driving alongside the rolls of razor wire which marked the border there was barely more than stone and brown tufty grass. Trucks lined the road for several kilometres and the Turkish border post was an office next to a vast expanse of bitumen covered with rows of lorries. Our passports were taken and we waited next to a scrum to eventually get them back with a Turkish exit stamp, then we found our bus amongst the trucks and continued for two kilometres up a narrow rocky valley littered with ancient ruins to the Syrian outpost.
A row of welcoming palm trees broke the monochrome and we disembarked from our bus to wait inside the immigration building for an entry stamp, then our possessions were rifled through by an overweight official who was unable to tell the difference between a smuggler and a tourist. He even unravelled our sleeping bags, looking for ??… A sign welcomed us to “the cradle of civilisation”.
Within an hour we had left the post of Babal-Hawa behind, and found ourselves entering a land unlike any we had experienced before.
WE WERE IN ALEPPO BY lunchtime, having driven through an undulating but arid landscape dotted with flat-roofed stone dwellings and sparsely planted olive groves. The city was wonderfully chaotic, and we walked through the streets illiterate to the Arabic squiggles as people rushed around us in flowing robes and head scarves, the ideal attire for such a climate – we had finally caught the sun!
We found temporary lodging at Zahrat ar-Rabie Hostel, our cosy room was above a tyre shop, and our window gave us a prime view of any streetside brawls…
Our first task of the afternoon was to buy some Syrian Pounds, and the disinterested staff at the Bank of Syria eventually deigned to trade with us, though getting every last Pound out of them was excruciating. Thus armed with currency we headed off to buy some food. A hole-in-the-wall eatery on Sharia Zaki al-Arsuzi run by a darling old man named Hamed provided tasty felafel in khoobz arabi for 15 Pound, and we ate hungrily grinning at the two men we sat face to face with. They wore flowing jalabiyyas, red checked keffiyeh, and grinned back at us through thick black eyelashes.
Next we headed to the fruit and vegetable souq to buy grapes and apples, and after an afternoon stroll, found a suitable dinner venue on Sharia Bab al-Faraj for some rice and bamiye (okra and tomato soup). Then at a juice bar just around the corner we finished our day with a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice for 25 Pound.
Even in a city of three million people I woke to the sound of roosters crowing the next morning. Our day began with a scout around the neighbourhood for alternative lodging, and Hotel al-Baba was better for us. Every time we came home we were beckoned to sit and drink tea with Halil, Sharif or Mohammed, and we could sit on the roof to feel the city throng around us. The noise of Aleppo came into our 300 Pound room through the balcony door, and it didn’t stop – the city never slept.
We had to return to the bank for a longer term finance solution. This was a land forgotten by ATM machines, and the teller reeled back in horror when we waved two travellers cheques at him, but they were able to be cashed in due time. Then we could relax and explore some more of the city, and we headed straight for the souq, a treat to every sense. The stone-vaulted ceilings were over five hundred years old, and beneath them the laneways pulsed with the rhythm of life. Vendors loudly spruiked their wares, arranged captivatingly to catch the eye of the myriad shoppers, from housewives veiled in purdah to men browsing for a new keffiyeh. The throng parted only to make way for mini trucks squeezing through, and heavily laden donkeys delivering goods as fast as they were being purchased. Smells drifted to us as we moved through the alleyways, spices, coffee, laurel and olive oil soaps, and the stench of sheep fat proudly on display with carcasses imaginatively eviscerated. We ate spicy manaeesh for lunch, and were invited to drink coffee with Sa-mer, a very sweet young wool merchant whom we sat and chatted with for some hours, his family had been trading from the same stall for over two hundred years!
In the evening we ate foul (fava beans in a spicy yoghurt sauce with tomatoes, cumin powder and olive oil) and hummus smeared decoratively with chilli powder across a plate at Hamed’s place.
The next day we got out of the city, taking ourselves on an excursion to Qalaat Samaan. We headed off in the cool just after 7am, buying sweet buns from a street vendor along the way. At the minibus stop we asked to be taken to Daret Azze, and a driver munching on felafel scooped us straight into his vehicle, gave us our correct change, and whisked us out of the city, picking up his regular passengers along the way.
In Daret Azze he pointed us in the right direction and we walked for no longer than five minutes before being offered a ride in the back of a utility. We rode along with the wind in our hair and a talkative boy keeping us company as we sped on through the gibber desert marvelling at our surroundings.
The 1500 year old ruins of Saint Simeon’s basilica were evocatively perched on top of a rocky hill in the middle of the nothingness. We were there early and sat gazing at the view with two canine escorts before shuffling through the gate under the guise of English tourists who we ditched as soon as they’d served their purpose.
The basilica had been immense, and beneath the remaining facades, arches and columns we wandered amid pine and fig trees imagining the presence of the pilgrims who had already ceased coming one thousand years before us. Colourful bee-eaters flittered against a backdrop of distant desert mountains to the west which slowly disappeared into a haze as the morning progressed.
We made our exit down the back of the hill past villagers picking olives along the ancient pilgrims way to Dier Samaan, the monastery and hostel complex of the basilica, home of modern day residents living in houses made from the ancient building blocks. We hitched another ride back to Daret Azze, and on the minibus to Aleppo I sat with the veiled womenfolk chatting with two university students while the baby boy behind me grabbed fistfuls of my strange blonde hair.
Back in town we ate a thin herbed omelette with tahini and salad wrapped in khoobz arabi for lunch, and a giant fruit shake saw us set for the afternoon which we spent relaxing in the park, chatting to young Aziz who remembered us from the minibus ride!
In the evening we strolled around the al-Jdeida district, getting lost in the warren of alleyways of the women’s clothing market. But nothing could be found to fit me, even with the help of friendly Alexander who commiserated with us the defeat of our ‘Mr Mark’, and the 70% majority win to our ‘Mr John’.
We made our way to the citadel, and as was usual, every person that we met made us feel welcome, smiling, shaking our hands, calling out to us “welcome to Syria!”. We even had our picture taken with a couple of tourists at the clock tower, one from Iraq, and one Russian! Walking back through the souq, we greeted everyone who remembered us from yesterday, and making new friends for tomorrow. We bought figs and laurel soap, and I practised my phrase of the day on everyone I met, “shu ismak?”. We finished the day with a bowl of foul at Hamed’s, we were his regular customers now and he was pleased to see us!
Wanting to take another excursion, and instilled with confidence at the success of the previous day, we again made an early start heading off to the bus station at 7am. Dave joined a scrum around a popular felafel vendor and came out smiling with a mountain of food which we munched on as we searched for a vehicle going to al-Maara. At the third bus stand we struck gold and were soon lumbering south along the highway, past settlements the same colour as the stony desert.
In al-Maara, finding our onward transport was made easy by Qalat, who walked with us to the other end of town and put us on a minibus to Kafr Nabl, disappointed that we didn’t have time to visit his home. The sun was fast getting higher in the sky over the hot, dry wilderness which we still had to travel through.
In Kafr Nabl everyone said ‘hello’ to us, and we walked out of the village trailed by children like the Pied Piper. Before long we got a lift in the back of a pick-up, and just past the point where he dropped us off, we got another lift with a couple of Spanish tourists also going to Serjilla.
We all drank tea with the ticket sellers, then set off to explore the ruins which lay around a small valley in the never-never. Deserted fifteen centuries earlier, we saw single and two storey buildings of giant blocks still standing in silent streets. Lizards scurried away as we wandered, looking into ancient inns, hammams and houses, some still with intact arched ceilings, some taken over by giant fig trees thriving inside the shade of the dwellings. The ticket seller watched us with concern as we peered inside old tombs where the baked earth was sprinkled with purple desert flowers – the last of the three vehicles visiting the site had left, taking with them our only chance of a lift back to the main road. He came over to talk with us, there was a new road with more traffic which we could return directly to al-Maara on, and as he spoke several vehicles cruised by in confirmation. So we set off in the opposite direction to which we had come, across the grey shimmer of the desert.
But the cars which had been pointed out to us strangely evaporated as we strode off into the heat, and we walked for many kilometres, only being offered a ride on a motorcycle with no pillion seat. The rider was so concerned about us that he kept us in his sights until a pilgrim bus happened by, and he made sure that they gave us a ride to al-Maara! There we were escorted to the minibus stand, and soon we were on our way back to Aleppo at breakneck speed.
On the highway we were going so fast when we passed the sign reading ‘MAKE LIGHT SPEED’ that our driver read it as ‘MAKE THE SPEED OF LIGHT’. After playing ‘dodgems’ at 150 kilometres per hour for the fifty kilometre ride, we vowed to avoid the front seat of minibuses in future. We rested at al-Baba after our white knuckle ride, telling the lads about our day, then went to visit Sa-mer.
The souq was at fever-pitch on the eve of the month of Ramadan, and it took twice as long to make our way through the frenzy to the wool merchants quarter. We sat for hours chatting, enjoying the very essence of Aleppo’s souq…
The next morning the streets were eerily quiet and deserted. The coming of Ramadan meant everyone’s lives were turned upside down, including involuntarily, ours. After an hour of combing the streets for anything at all which might pass for breakfast we had not turned up even a crumb until we passed a foul joint crammed with a group of Christians unashamedly stuffing their faces and crossing themselves in explanation. We joined them, and as the day wore on we found other Ramadan non-participants – at al-Baba only Mohammed, the owner, and Sharif were fasting.
By lunchtime some iftar vendors had appeared, and in our room we ate manaeesh with spiced ground meat and sultanas, and from the confectioner we bought delicious pistachio nougat and chocolate.
The evening was really nice, we sat on the rooftop with Sharif at the maghrib call to prayer. Fireworks exploded around the city to mark the beginning of the iftar breakfast, and then the whole city fell completely silent as everyone ate. Sharif read to us his poetry as darkness fell, and then we went to say goodbye to Hamed over a plate of hummus. I felt inexplicably sad seeing he and his brother Wahid waving to us from the door as we left, they were so kind-hearted…
The following day we were up earlier than we thought. We planned to catch the 8am bus to Lattakia, but time had altered by an hour at the start of Ramadan, and we didn’t realise until we worked out that we were on the 7am bus to Lattakia! We managed a few sly bites of some sweet sesame pretzel bread while no-one was looking and then watched the world go by for four hours as we made our way on a gaudily decorated Pullman across the mountains to the Mediterranean coast.
WE STEPPED OFF OUR BUS in Lattakia and could feel a trace of humidity in the air as we walked into the city along Sharia al-Ghafiqi, past tin smiths and poultry merchants reducing the footpaths to a colourful obstacle course. We meandered along to Saahat al-Sheikh Daher, where a sign to ‘Hotel Zahit – comfort cleanly’ caught our eye, and we were soon sipping tea with Nabil, the proprietor. Nabil, like most of Lattakia’s residents, was not observing Ramadan. Up and down the main drag life went on almost as normal, the streetside coffee shops weren’t doing much trade, but we found shwarma for lunch, and drank pomegranate and sugarcane juice from a vendor without turning heads. The majority of women were unveiled, even wearing tight jeans with tank tops, and accordingly the men were respectful, with not a lecher in sight.
However, the al-Ajan mosque had a speaker positioned outside our window and loudly beseeched the pious to pray, with the 4:10am fajr call being particularly disruptive.
Beside experiencing the laid back atmosphere, our motive for visiting Lattakia was to make a side trip to Qalaat Salah-ah-Din. Laurence of Arabia had pronounced it to be ‘the most sensational thing in castle building’, so we thought that we ought to check it out.
Early the next morning we found our way to the minibus station, and for a mere ten Pounds each we were taken to the village of al-Haffeh in the beautiful hinterland region of low forest clad mountains. From there we intended to walk the six kilometres to the citadel, but halfway there a group of workers in a utility offered us a ride, so we enjoyed the views with them!
Qalaat Salah-ah-Din was indeed a nine hundred year old masterpiece of architecture, built on a high ridge cut off from invaders by a deep man-made chasm once protected and accessed by a drawbridge. We made a thorough exploration, from deep inside the castles enormous cisterns, to the very top of the keep. We held our breath peering down into the chasm, and looked across to the opposite ridge top imagining the scene of a battle between Muslims and Crusaders in the twelfth century. Huge catapult stones still lay on the ground inside the walls – weapons of mass destruction…
On our way out we sat with Mohir, the administrator, in his amazing office inside the gate tower. He had been born inside the castle and made an excellent patron, quizzing every man as he left as to whether his ‘madam’ was tired. Dave answered that I was strong, “good” he replied, “otherwise I would advise you to take a Syrian wife!”.
We began the walk back to al-Haffeh, but hadn’t even made it to the bottom of the gorge before another pick-up offered us a ride, and we didn’t get a chance to linger in the village before we were scooped into a minibus and delivered back to our starting point in Lattakia.
In the evening we ate a delicious bamiye of okra, eggplant, lamb and tomatoes in a pomegranate sauce, then washed it down with ayran at the Alexandria Coffee House. There, watching the world go by was an artform. At tables on the footpath men sucked on nargileh and sipped coffee enjoying the balmy Mediterranean evening and the passing parade of people. From the back stalls we also got to watch the watchers!
The next morning we hit the road again. we ate freshly baked bread filled with sweet date paste for breakfast, and walked to ‘The Pullman Terminal’, arriving just in time to fill the last two seats on a minibus going toward Hama – we were on our way within seconds!
It was a very enjoyable ride over the mountains to al-Ghab, the animated conversation next to me only interrupted to wish us welcome to Syria, and Dave making friends with Yasser from Lattakia down the back. Once we reached the plains our vehicle terminated it’s journey at a nameless junction, and we transferred with some of our fellow passengers to a minibus going on to Hama. A toothless old man wearing a keffiyeh smiled at me sweetly while engaging Dave in a conversation condemning George W to an unceremonious death for his war crimes.
IN HAMA WE WERE LOST AS soon as we stepped off the minibus, and asked directions of a friendly baker who not only pointed us in the right direction, but posed for a photograph and gave us some fresh sesame cookies. We liked Hama straight away!
We walked on to the Riad Hotel being welcomed to Hama all along the way, and escorted to the door by another well-wisher, “we like to help people in Syria!”. And so they did.
In the Riad Hotel we stayed in comparative luxury for just 350 Pound per night, and excellent food could be had in the street outside. We thought the felafel at Ali Baba Restaurant was good, but in the evening we had a feast of hummus, foul and salads, followed by halawat al-jibn (a sticky pancake filled with clotted cream and topped with honey, ice cream and pistachios) at al-Afrah Cafeteria across the road. It was the best thing since patti shapta! The next night we went back for mahalabiye (a delicately flavoured milk pudding) and a plate of sorbets and sticky ice creams.
The city of Hama was set on the Orontes River which flowed at a snails pace, giving life to the region by means of ancient wooden waterwheels and stone aqueducts. Sitting at sunset by the olive green water lined with elephant grass, watching the coots and kingfishers, listening to the creak and groan of the wheels was an infinite pleasure. The Ramadan evenings in Hama were very quiet, at 5pm there was a pre-iftar frenzy as everyone raced to be home in time for the breakfast feast, then a cannon fired over the city, mosques sang out the maghrib call to prayer, and walking the streets was playing out a scene from Day of the Triffids.
Our day adventure from Hama was to Krak des Chevaliers, a castle fortress guarding a strategic pass between the Anti-Lebanon range and the Syrian interior. Our journey began at the minibus stand from where we took a thirty minute ride south to Homs. There we changed to another vehicle eventually going to al-Hosn, but it took a painfully long two hours to amass enough passengers to leave. Once we were on our way again we were there in no time, standing beneath the imposing outer walls and guiltlessly masquerading as geriatric Germans to slip past the sign demanding that foreigners pay a whopping ten times the local entry fee – danke!
As soon as we’d breached the fortress we broke off from our incapacitated group, and with the help of our flashlight explored high and low. There were secret passageways leading deep down beneath the outer wall, and spiral stairways taking us up to the top of every turret. The surrounding countryside spread away beneath the extraordinarily well preserved castle with it’s thick walls and intact vaulted chambers.
We managed to re-trace our steps to Hama with precise connections.
We had planned a pleasant stroll in the park and a leisurely breakfast before our departure the next morning, so we didn’t take the easy direct bus which left at 7am, instead we ambled down to the river. But alas, it had been somehow drained to a muddy drizzle and the gate to the park was firmly locked. As for the leisurely breakfast, we combed the streets without finding so much as a felafel or a sweet bun.
We went back to our room and packed, at least able to find a pastry near the bus stand which we tried to eat discreetly. We took a minibus back to Homs, and were then packed into the mail van going to Palmyra, 160 kilometres out into the desert.
The hardest part of the journey was getting out of the bus station which resembled a grid-locked parking lot. A brawl had also developed in front of our vehicle, but we blasted our way out, our driver gesticulating wildly all the way to Palmyra.
THE DESERT OASIS WAS THE site of the magnificent ancient city of Palmyra, it’s two thousand year old ruins set dramatically in the desert. Rows of gigantic columns and walls of stone building blocks backdropped by rose brown mountains of solid sand, and a sky above impossibly wide and blue. We roamed far and wide from early in the mornings to late in the evenings.
One day we rose at 4:30am to enjoy perfect solitude and a beautiful sunrise, the whole world coloured pastels of blue and purple. At the other end of the day, sunset was spectacular from the heights of Qalaat Ibn Maan, a moated perch haloed by pink and orange clouds.
We ambled down the great porticoed thoroughfare, and delved into the depths of the multi-storied tombs out in the moonscape valley beyond Zenobia’s Wall, mostly having the scene to ourselves, although children would sometimes spring out of nowhere, unravelling concertina postcards taller than themselves with practised flair, and shepherd boys would pop up, able to say ‘caramello bon bon’ in twenty different languages. We were also surprised to meet the Spanish couple whom we had hitched a lift with to Serjilla!
For a change of surroundings we spent another morning wandering through the adjacent oasis. The fertile gardens of date palms, pomegranate and olive trees were divided into lots with mud brick walls, between which we followed pathways occasionally taking in views of the ruins and the desert through the lush greenness.
Our evenings we spent watching the passing promenade of tourists and locals along Sharia al-Quwatli. At the Spring Restaurant, Mohammed added some words to our Arabic vocabulary each night, and young Anwar never gave up hope that we would buy a string of postcards.
Though at lunchtime much better food was available at Taeba Restaurant, we had to buy our hummus and foul takeaway-style due to Ramadan sensitivities and eat in our room at the nearby Hotel Baal Shamen, where the proprietor, another Mohammed publicised as a ‘mountain of mirth’ had partied himself into a jaded shadow of fatigue. Still, he was a nice guy, maybe Ramadan was taking it’s toll. And the neighbourhood children were very sweet, on our last evening Dave became the street badminton star!
When we left for Damascus the first step of the trip was to find a bus. At 7:30am we went to the nearby Karnak office, but they had no Saturday service to the capital, so we decided to go and look for the Qadmous office, reportedly on the far edge of town, and strode off with Pek, a Chinese Singaporean in tow. She trailed a hundred metres behind us, disappearing to a dot and coming back into focus each time we stopped to ask directions. We were there waiting when a luxury bus en-route from Deir ez-Zur pulled in at 8:15am to take us on southwest through the desert.
Instead of the usual Arabi music we had in-house film entertainment, a crusader melodrama from Egypt lasted the full duration of the two and a half hour journey which passed only two forks in the road, both labelled ‘Baghdad’, and was still going strong as everyone climbed off the bus in Damascus, where we ran the gauntlet of taxi touts and sussed out the public minibus into the city centre.
ONCE WE GOT OUR BEARINGS we delivered Pek to her hotel of choice, then found a place of our own. Al-Saada fit the bill, our 400 Pound room overlooked the ivied courtyard, the big windows curtained with heavy damask…
Organising a visa extension was our first task, but we found no joy at the immigration office. At the window marked ‘VISAS FOR ARABS AND FOREIGNERS’, they were very nice but he closed our passports saying “one month – no problem”, even though our visas were clearly marked for a stay of fifteen days only. We tried the Ministry of the Interior – “come back tomorrow”.
We went back the next day and after just ten Pound and forty five minutes of jostling with Iraqis and Iranians, shuffling back and forth from ‘General Ali’s’ office, we had our visa extension granted.
Now we were free to check out the city, and spent the next five days getting to know Damascus, which felt like a gigantic open air market. The souq stretched for kilometres inside the walls of the old city and we spent several hours each day exploring to the far corners marvelling at the range of goods on sale. One could find anything from fine Persian carpets and nargileh running the full gamut of gaudiness (one had a battery operated fountain built in!), to strings of dried okra and keffiyeh (one of which we bought from a nice young man named Abdul.
We met some interesting characters along the way, in Straight Street old Hassan sat us down and told us his life story, and we bumped into the guide of our two Spanish friends from Serjilla – again! Near the fruit and vegetable souq we also found a bird market with not only feathered exotica like budgerigars, hoopoes and owls, but other prospective pets for sale like tortoises, monkeys and a Van kitty.
One afternoon we visited the Umayyad Mosque, a pillar of Muslim worship. In the main courtyard there were beautiful mosaics in gold and green of Mohammed’s paradise; in a sanctuary to one end Shi’ite’s prayed to the holy remains of Hussein; and even in the prayer hall a relaxed atmosphere prevailed with children playing, people sleeping, and blind Sufi’s bestowing blessings. At the asr call to prayer hundreds of men lined the southern wall as the muezzin extolled the greatness of Allah.
In the other direction from our Souq Saroujah neighbourhood we wandered up to the Salihiyya quarter and climbed the lower slopes of Jebel Qassioun for a Mohammedian panorama of the city. Although the prophet probably didn’t have to deal with a smog-shrouded view, or local disaffected youths throwing rocks.
Dave’s thirty-seventh birthday was full and interesting. We began with an excursion to Maaloula, a village forty kilometres away to the north. Again finding the bus was a challenge, and we flagged every minibus passing the stop near our hotel until one nodded positively to our “garaj Maaloula?” request. We rode for several kilometres but the garage that we were deposited at was not ‘garaj Maaloula’, and we walked on asking directions every hundred metres or so, the responses getting more enthusiastic the further we walked until finally we were beckoned into our chariot with a wave of the hand.
The scenery of the Jebel Libnan ash-Sharqiyya was desolately beautiful, and Maaloula was tucked into a small remote valley. The houses, painted powder blue, were stacked up a cliff face. We were dropped off at the Convent of Saint Tekla, and behind it we followed a narrow canyon, legendary escape route of the sixth century heroine, up to the top of the cliff. There we sat in the peaceful Church of Saint Sergius with it’s beautiful iconography and friendly priest. We found our way on through the steep winding streets of the village, echoing with the sound of the ancient Aramaic language still spoken there.
Retracing our steps was easy, and we ended up back in the Damascus souq for an afternoon of browsing entertainment. Fine quality Bafka chocolates were our only purchase.
In the evening we settled ourselves at the al-Arabi Restaurant in al-Merzeh, and had a delectable meal of Aleppo kebab in a rich tomato sauce with fattouch, lentil soup and ayran, thought I’m sure that the ‘sheep’s testicles’ or ‘sheep’s brain with salad’ would have been equally good choices. Right across the road Patissier Ilwan provided scrumptious kadayif stuffed with pistachios and clotted cream for a birthday finale.
Other food exploits weren’t so remarkable. Breakfast was usually thin, crispy flat bread encrusted with onion seeds; we could always manage to find felafel for lunch; and after the iftar cannon sounded the Damascene foul was a tangy concoction without the creamy sauce but laced with copious quantities of minced garlic.
On our last afternoon in Damascus the clouds which had been building up for three days finally sputtered out a dozen drops of rain, ruining our record of perfect weather in Syria! And in the evening we met Pek again, just back from a side trip to Lebabnon(!). She decided to follow us the next morning to Amman, “I w’l come w’ you!”.
We were up early to make the fifteen minute walk to Baramke garage, Pek took the minibus…
Our Karnak bus pulled out of Damascus at 7am and took us south through a relatively fertile region planted with olive groves, tomato patches and eucalyptus trees.
After one hundred kilometres the Syrian border post of Nasib materialised, a large building in the middle of nowhere with a few Saudi busses parked askew outside, and a graveyard of impounded cars marking the periphery.
We charmed the border guard with our few phrases of Arabic then proceeded to the grand duty-free shop in no-mans-land, before continuing on to the Jordanian border. A sign welcomed us to the Hashemite Kingdom, and replacing the omnipresent posters of the Syrian al-Asad dynasty we were now met with the smiling faces of the new young King of Jordan and his late father.
We were stamped in without fuss and proceeded past a group of devotees praying in the bus park, and on to the capital…
AMMAN, ANCIENT PHILIDELPHIA, APPEARED in the middle of the semi-desert we’d been driving through. A tangle of flat-roofed concrete buildings cluttering a series of valleys and hills. Our bus made it’s way to the Jett office and we bade farewell to our companions, the Serbian woman with her Jordanian son and their well-travelled dog, and the Japanese couple who suddenly found themselves with a Singaporean contingent – “you go to cheap hotel, okay I come w’ you!”.
We looked around for a telephone and called our Hospitality Club contact, Samir, a gentle old man who came immediately in his car to collect us. We drove to his office in the upmarket district of the Fifth Circle, and he made us comfortable in one of the upstairs apartments which was unoccupied. Mohammed, the Egyptian guard, was put at our disposal and the television was tuned to al-Jazeera and CNN.
Samir, a doctor of political science, and his lovely wife Surraya were Palestinian and had lived in Libya and Saudia Arabia after being evicted from their homeland, finally settling in Amman for their semi-retirement years. We were honoured to be their guests and they helped to make our short stay in Amman especially memorable…
We spent five days exploring the region around the capital, surprised by the hardships Ramadan imposed upon us, but keeping very active and social. We managed to work out the bus system to make a wet half-day trip to the old Ottoman town of Salt, but much more enjoyable was the excursion Samir and Surraya invited us on after a very pleasant evening at their palatial home near the Seventh Circle.
We fit a lot into one day, from the old town of Madaba we drove up to Mount Nebo to gaze down on the promised land from the legendary spot where Moses supposedly enjoyed the same stupendous view on the edge of Siyagha. The 1500 year old church complex, built as a memorial to Moses was filled with amazing mosaics preserved by the sands of time.
Next we dropped down into the view on the road which snaked it’s way from 800 metres above sea level to 400 metres below, down through layers of millennia to the shore of the Dead Sea, then across to Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan. There we walked in the footsteps of Jesus to the place where he was baptised by John, a beautiful spot nestled in a sweet-smelling forest of strange pine trees, near the banks of the Jordan River which flowed muddy brown through the reed beds marking the Jordanian border. Palestine was just a few metres away, and Jericho only three or four kilometres distant. Surraya looked excitedly at her hometown, her mother so close, yet so impossibly far for her to visit…
Wanting to spend another day in such an amazing region we ventured back to the Dead Sea the following morning. We got up early and caught a city bus (an adventure in itself) to downtown, then hiked a couple of kilometres to Abdali bus station. No busses went from there to the Dead Sea, so we took one to Madaba and changed there to another going in our direction. But once we hit the highway turnoff we were on our own again, with no choice but to try and hitch a ride. That was no problem actually, the first car to pass stopped and took us to within a kilometre of our aquatic target, we were only surprised that a young man driving a new BMW would beg money from us for the lift. With raised eyebrows Dave offered him a Dinar note, too little for him to accept, but enough for us to express our feelings.
We walked the short distance from our drop-off point to a new bathing resort set on a yellow sand beach with palm trees and shade huts, and after some gentle negotiation at the ticket office it was agreed that we would pay the Arab entry price of three Dinar!
Not only was the setting spectacular with the bare mountains of Palestine’s West Bank rising out of the haze on the opposite shore and the salt crusted aquamarine water of the Dead Sea before us, but the sensation of floating in such thick and salty warm water was fantastic. What a place! Four hundred metres below sea level with desert hills all around us, we bobbed like corks in this saline solution which made our skin feel soft and our lips tingle.
After an hour or so, other bathers started to arrive and we began to wonder how we would get back home…
It was relatively easy, we hitched a ride on an out of service minibus which kindly dropped us off at a point beyond Suweimah where busses to Amman passed by. Before we knew it we were wheezing up to the plateau past the bizarre sight of a marker high up in the desolate valley showing the point of sea level.
We jumped off the bus near downtown and fell into our Amman routine of joining the pre-iftar rush. We lined up for fresh khoobz arabi, found a shop dispensing the delicious mashed fuul and hummus in take-home pots, we hid out of sight behind a juice bar for a quick fruity refreshment, then ploughed our way into the vegetable souq next to King Hussein mosque. Out of the chaos we emerged with apples, guavas, tomatoes and chillies, some of the vendors giving us our small purchases in gestures of goodwill. It was the first day that we had come close to observing Ramadan ourselves, we had eaten nothing more substantial than some grapes as we lounged by the seashore, so we were feeling quite virtuous as we made our way home on a bus to the Fifth Circle – a great day!
We had planned to leave the next morning, but Surraya invited us to iftar at her home, so we quickly reconsidered to stay another day. Pek, also a Hospitality Club member, had gotten in touch with Samir since we parted company, and we were surprised to find her camping in the room adjacent to his office! She was invited to iftar too!
So we had another day of fasting, with just an apple and some fresh dates to tide us over, but it was a pleasure thinking about what might be in store! At 4:30pm Samir collected us and we arrived at his house to find Surraya and the Sri Lankan maid busy in the kitchen, the smell of heaven in the air. They had prepared a Saudi dish of chicken and fragrant rice with roasted nuts and sultanas, and savoury morsels like kibbeh and sambossa. After the meal we then spent the evening chatting and sipping mint tea. Surraya’s sister and nephew called in, and at 11pm another meal was had with the leftovers and traditional iftar tidbits – sweets, dates stuffed with almonds, fruits and laban. It was a really nice evening, and our Ramadan highlight, our new friends had hosted us at the most difficult time of year, but had made our stay all the more special because of that effort.
The next morning we were up at 5:30am to begin our bleary-eyed search for Wahadat bus station. We took a city bus, walked a few kilometres, took another city bus, tore our hair out, then walked several kilometres more to arrive only minutes before the daily bus to Wadi Musa departed.
It was a three hour ride covering most of the length of the country, the scenery unchanging desertscape.
ARRIVING IN WADI MUSA WE could already see the impressively eroded mountain range which was to be the focus of our visit. But first to find a place to stay. In the lobby of the Hotel al-Anbat I sat chatting with Mohammed while Dave scouted. Mohammed told me that he had nine children, I commented that his wife must be very strong, “I am strong, my wife is broken…” he gestured with his hands, “I’m looking for a second wife…”.
Dave returned with tidings of a more suitable option and we moved into a bright room at the Saba’a Inn where we slept all afternoon, this day fasting again only because we didn’t have the energy or inclination to go out to eat. But over the next four days we more than made up for all that laziness, covering between ten and twenty kilometres each day as we explored the ruins and environs of the ancient city of Petra.
The site had THE most climactic approach down as-Siq, a kilometre long gorge just a few metres wide and a hundred metres deep. In the silence of early morning it was a magical place, especially finally reaching the two thousand year old al-Khazneh, the treasury carved into the rock face towering forty metres in pink sandstone. Each morning we admired it afresh taking our breakfast there in the peaceful hush.
From there we roamed in every direction. To the colossal amphitheatre carved into a bowl of pink and purple sandstone, up to The Place of High Sacrifice, and down the valley of Wadi Farasa which was nature’s art gallery full of swirling patterns of coloured rock, black, pink, purple, yellow and white eroded into smooth shapes and contours. Like the tombs of the Nabataean royalty, which were wonderful to explore in the morning shade, and a path leading up behind them culminated at an excellent viewpoint high above the treasury.
One morning we made an alternative approach on the other side of Jebel Umm al-Amr. We followed Wadi Muthlim, the Nabataean water diversion channel which led enticingly through an enormous carved tunnel and continued for forty-five adventure packed minutes down a natural watercourse. A flash flood would have been spectacular, and even though the sky was clear, imagining a wall of water carrying debris which we could see up to five metres above us, was enough to add an element of fear. Instead of the canyon widening, it narrowed, sometimes only wide enough for us to walk through, doglegging through deep chicanes of fantastically coloured rock, and plunging down would-be waterfalls. Into Wadi Mataha we emerged from a crack which one wouldn’t dream led anywhere so interesting…
At the far end of the city we made our way down the valley of Wadi Siyagh for a siesta in the shade. There were springs, oleander trees and bulbuls beneath the vertical orange walls. The city centre itself was comparatively uninteresting, the nicest thing to do there was to rest under the four hundred and fifty year old pistachio tree watching the comings and goings, Bedouins peddling jewellery and trinkets, donkey and camel taxis. High above on al-Habis we could watch the same from a peaceful distance.
To the north of the city centre, a path with ancient steps led up a beautiful gorge to the monastery of al-Deir, a goliath carved in yellow sandstone, and just behind it was a viewpoint affording sweeping panoramas of the mountain range, and inspiring us to climb the southern peak of Jebel Haroun the next day.
This hike was to be our Petra highlight. We followed a path behind Qasr al-Bint up a valley hemmed by wildly eroded walls, past Bedouin encampments toward the mountain topped by a white-washed tomb. A path snaked up the rocky slopes past tufts of bushes and views of mountains striated with layers of iron and coloured sandstone.
Near the top we climbed stairs up time-worn gullies reaching the peak after two hours of magnificent hiking. The tomb was believed to be the final resting place of Aaron, and the outlook was of biblical proportions. We could see in the near distance the monastery of al-Deir sitting in it’s magnificence, while to the west the valley of Wadi Araba stretched across to Israel, and away to the south swept wide canyons disappearing in shades of blue.
For several hours we contemplated this incredible scene in perfect solitude, just us and the holy brother of Moses.
Our lunchtime picnic scenery varied each day, from this mountain top, to a ledge high up the face of a canyon, but the cuisine was always the same – hummus on elastic hankerchief bread, our supplies always gotten the evening before from Wa’el’s grocery and the Sanabal bakery. Choice of venues for an evening meal was limited, but we made do with a simple buffet at Ashraf’s Cleopetra Restaurant, where we dined al fresco on clove scented rice, aubergine stew and a range of tasty fasooliya dishes.
The only other people staying at our hotel were a couple of Japanese girls and two Koreans, so our evenings passed chatting with them and any of Nagee’s friends who happened to be around.
After much contemplation we decided that our next destination would be Aqaba, and our early morning bus followed the King’s Way which wound spectacularly through the barren mountains above Petra, then down through apricot coloured desert sands punctuated with isolated hills of jagged brown rock.
Finally the wide valley of Wadi al-Yetum led us down to the coast and the finishing point of our journey across the kingdom.
IN THE TOWN CENTRE WE found a place to stay at the Petra Hotel. Seven Dinar bought us a big room on the fourth floor with a balcony overlooking the Red Sea, and the squawks of caged parrots drifting up from the street below. The people weren’t particularly nice, but Aqaba itself was immediately appealing.
We found our way around, and paid a visit to the Egyptian consul where we spent a social couple of hours procuring our visas along with a handful of other Aussies and a melee of locals.
By late afternoon we could resist the lure of the sea no longer. Dave went for a swim at the palm fringed public beach, and with our new pals Kerry and Craig we watched the sun set over the sparkling water, cargo ships and the arid mountains of Egypt’s Sinai across the gulf.
The next day we packed a picnic lunch, hired a mask and snorkel, and jumped on a Saudi bound minibus which dropped us off along the south coast. The road hugged the shore, and south of the port we could look down on coral gardens in the clear water as we drove along!
The Bedouin Garden Camp marked our destination, a wide beach with a few strategically placed palm trees and thatched umbrellas, but what we’d come to see was submarine, and we splashed down on the dive site known as ‘Gorgonian I’. The reef lay between twenty and fifty metres off shore, and harboured a variety of hard corals, notably an enormous stand of yellow fan coral and sandy-bottomed pools with swim-throughs and loads of fishes – clown, parrot, butterfly and wide-eyed coral trout, as well as sea urchins, schools of small peppermint coloured fish and a seething mass of white bait which swirled like a single entity around this inquisitive snorkeller.
All of this beauty and life seemed in impossible juxtaposition to the arid mountains surrounding the sea which one glanced up at from time to time to gain bearing. The water was warm and sitting in the shade on the beach was pleasant, despite the attentions of a few local lads who made a life for themselves as ‘guides’ on the reef. The campsite there didn’t appeal so much, we preferred our room with a view, and the energy of Aqaba. At night the street below pulsed with post-iftar action, and the lights of the Israeli city of Eilat twinkled across the bay where the Valley of Araba visibly sloped downward toward the Dead Sea depression, making the head of the gulf look like a dam wall.
We got to enjoy it for a day longer than planned, because leaving Jordan wasn’t a straight forward exercise. Our information sources had advised calling the port on the day of intended departure to find out what time, and if, the boats would depart. We called at 8am, and the fast boat was full, the slow boat not leaving until after iftar – ugh! Dave went to the port, no we couldn’t buy a ticket in advance. We had one more day until our Jordanian visas expired. “You come here tomorrow… at 9 o’clock”. The system was obviously complex.
We returned the next morning at 7:30, hitching a ride with some road workers, and the passenger terminal was buzzing with activity. We watched tempers fray at the non-system of the system.
At 8am the ticket window opened but, “sorry, the boat is full!”.”Come back in an hour, then maybe…”. In the meantime the slow boat tickets were selling like hot khoobz. After three hours we still had no tickets and the fast boat was due to depart so we caved in and opted onto the slow boat, reportedly leaving at 1pm. We bought our overpriced tickets (for 22 US Dollars each!), cleared immigration and wandered out to the pier, looking longingly at the fast boat as we disappeared into the bowels of the ‘F.P.Pella’ already choked with passengers staking out their territory. We climbed to the upper decks and settled ourselves in the first class dining room – the only place that we could find to eat our lunch without upsetting the fasting masses.
The promised departure time of 1 o’clock came and went, we chatted with Han, Ung-Keong, Rosemaree and Marie, and looked expectantly out the window at the azure water, corals and fishes right beneath the ship which was slowing loading it’s cargo and two thousand passengers.
We set sail at 3:30pm, gliding out across the smooth waters of the Gulf of Aqaba on a three hour cruise without the slightest hint of motion. The sea rippled like silk and as the sun set we watched dolphins in the distance, filled with expectation about the journey ahead to another new land…