Palmyra - decidedly surpassable

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
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Trip End Mar 21, 2008


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Flag of Syria  ,
Monday, July 23, 2007

Two nights in Damascus is plenty and early on Monday morning we take the bus out to Palmyra.  This is supposedly the place to see in Syria, if the guidebooks are to be believed.  The Lonely Planet raves about its "unsurpassable magnificence" and describes it as "one of the world's most splendid historical sites."  Quite a billing to live up to.
 
We check into our hotel and stride out in the hot sun with some excitement and high expectations.
 
"I think one day might not be enough time to see everything", I wonder out loud.
 
"Well, let's get as much done as we can today and then decide if we want to stay longer," says Jane.
 
Most of the Palmyran ruins we can see were built by the Romans in the first and second centuries AD and cover an area of about 50 hectares.  As it pans out, two hours is more than enough time to see Palmyra, let alone two days.  For a start, it is almost all ruins - crumbly bits of columns and one-walled buildings make it tricky to imagine it in its full pomp.  It has one main 'street', a collonade of stubby columns, that links a temple at one end with the start of a path up the hill to the Arab castle.  It has none of the mystery or charm of Petra and, in my opinion, comparisons with that other ancient city are unfair.  Perhaps Palmyra would have been something special 1700 years ago but now it isn't much more than a collection of rocks.  With free entry, at least the price is fair.
 
Also it is boiling hot again, the hot air stings our cheeks and our icy cold bottles of water become hot and undrinkable in no time. This is not Palmyra's fault of course but it doesn't encourage us to spend the whole day strolling around.  One blessing is the almost complete lack of tourists.  We aren't sure if this is due to the heat or a general unwillingness of the world's tourists to visit Syria but we literally only see one carload of Europeans and an Italian guy with an English accent during the whole time we are exploring.
 
"Had enough?" asks Jane, putting into question form what all of us are thinking.
 
"Yes," we all confirm.
 
"Wait," I say, consulting my little guidebook map, "it says there is an oasis nearby.  I've never seen an oasis."  So we trudge off across the desert towards the area marked on the map with little palm trees and springs of water.  The closest we get is when we wander into some private property that has trees on it.  A little man in a sweat-stained singlet pops out of somewhere and says "welcome".  Fadi asks him in Arabic if we are at the oasis and might possibly do some swimming. 
 
"Swimming?  Yes!" cries the little man enthusiastically.  He points towards a concrete basin about the size of a bed covered with a slimy green moss-like substance and filled with murky water.  We wander around some more but without luck.  It seems our desert oasis was merely a mirage.  
The town of Palmyra that has sprung up on the back of the tourist trade is clearly struggling from the complete lack of tourists.  We count probably a dozen hotels in the centre and none seem to have a single guest apart from our one, which has eight people staying there, including the four of us.  And this is the high season.  The main street has a cluster of restaurants, all with eager, semi-desperate owners standing out front vying for our custom.  Unlike in places like Luxor or spots in India, where there is a constant stream of tourists for the touts to annoy, I feel sorry for the merchants of Palmyra.  Jane, Fadi, Yoshi and I are the tourist trade and once we pass by one restaurateur, he slumps back down in his chair knowing his evening is done.
 
The place we do settle on to eat at is called the Traditional Palmyra Restaurant Pancake House, or something like that, and we end up eating all our Palmyra meals here.  The owner is friendly and plies us with free tea ("My hospitality! No charge! My hospitality!"), realising he has struck gold with us choosing his place.  After dinner he pulls up a chair and leans in close.
 
"My friends.  Do you want student card?  I give you good price."  Jane and I have actually been on the lookout for fake ISICs (International Student Identification Cards) for a while now and decide to put out the US$30 for two cards, and Yoshi gets one too.  You are supposed to actually be a student to qualify for the card and it gets you all sorts of discounts of as much as 90 percent on entry fees and travel, among other things.   As long as we don't get busted (and we shouldn't, it looks pretty real)the card will easily pay for itself many times over in discounts.
 
With our new purchase as an excuse for celebration, we cross the street to Palmyra's one upmarket hotel and partake in their three-for-two happy hour until it is time to stagger around the corner to our own hotel. 
 
One day in Palmyra is certainly sufficient, despite the hyperbolic adjectives of the guidebooks and the pleas from shopkeepers for us to stay longer.  Our next destination is Hama, the best town to stop in when you want to see Syria's other prime attraction, the great Crusader-era castle Crac des Chevaliers. 
 
The young Italian guy who we met yesterday joins us.  His name is Giulio and he has been living in England long enough to have picked up a pommie accent but with a few Italian tinges.  Our new group of five walks the two kilometres to the bus station, a tiring enough walk at the best of times in this head but with our big backpacks it feels like five kilometres.  We drop our packs on the ground in the shade of the bus shelter and are immediately set upon by six ugly and aggressive men trying to convince us to go in their minibuses instead of wait for the scheduled coach.  They are persistent and loud and get right up in our faces.  However, we are possibly in the market for a minibus if the price is right, so Fadi gets in the thick of things, arguing in Arabic and then translating back to us. 
 
Meanwhile, the dirty half-dozen drivers is closing in on us, waggling their fingers and, somewhat disturbingly, grabbing their crotches.  Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I don't believe it represents anything sexual, or that they are even conscious of it, it is just a scratch or readjustment.  Whatever the motivation may be, the effect is quite off-putting, to put it mildly.  We are not overly receptive to the men's advances as it is but the juggling gets on Jane's nerves.
 
"Can you please stop playing with your balls?" she says sharply to one particularly active fiddler.  He either ignores her or cannot understand and continues talking to Fadi, and continues scratching.  He is only a couple of feet away from us now and he is standing while we are sitting, positioning his itchy midsection right in our faces.  Jane stands up and interrupts Fadi's earnest negotiations by yelling "Could everyone please stop playing with their fucking dicks and get our of our faces.  We are taking the bus at 10 o'clock.  So piss off."
 
Her sentiment is completely understandable to everyone in our group, except Fadi who had been too busy bargaining to notice all the unspoken goings on. 
 
"Guys," says Fadi, "if we want to get a good minivan price, we need to bargain."
 
"We never said we want private transport, Fadi", Jane says curtly.  Fadi is a very gentle guy, not comfortable with any conflict and he recoils immediately. 
 
Jane and I are very used to arguing with locals, whether it is over a restaurant bill, over-aggressive selling, lousy service or queue-jumping, and we have no problem raising our voices in public.  Fadi had commented a couple of times recently that we are a bit harsh on the locals.  Maybe there is some truth to that but we are so used to people trying to rip us off that we tend to shoot first and ask questions later.  Jane didn't mean for Fadi to bear the brunt of her frustration but we think he takes it quite personally.  He goes quiet and hardly says a word for the rest of the day.
 
Two hours in a cramped, sweltering bus later, we arrive in a town called Homs and are immediately thrown back into chaos.  Homs has two bus stations and the one that has the bus to Hama is a twenty minutes taxi ride away from the one we arrive at.  Because there are five of us now we have to take two taxis.  The boys rush away in one and we follow in another but we lose them in the traffic.  Our driver drops us somewhere but there is no sign of the other taxi.  Some locals tell us we have to walk 200 metres down the road to yet another bus station, which we do and, being unable to find the guys, assume they are at the other station and we buy our own tickets.
 
I am confident that we will meet up with them in Hama as there are only a couple of hotels recommended in the guidebook we are all using, and they are right next door to each other.  Sure enough, Fadi, Yoshi and Giulio are all at the hotel we try first and we all end up in the same room.
 
As I have mentioned, Hama's raison d'etre from our point of view is as a base for a day trip to Crac des Chevaliers.  TE Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, described this as the greatest castle in the world.  It is located atop a mountain in a strategic pass that links the Syrian mainland to the sea so it was frequently under siege from would-be conquerors.  It was, however, never breached, but its knights did eventually surrender the castle in exchange for safe passage when it lost some of its political significance in 1271. 
 
Our new fake student cards save us 95 percent on the entry fee (15 Syrian pounds as opposed to 300).  The castle is fine but is showing its age and the effect of so many sieges.  It is understandable that a true castle, one that has defended its people in battle, should show more scars than one that was purely for decoration or to house some wealthy ruler.  Those decorative castles, however, are usually much more attractive for that very reason.  Many European castles are in great shape and still have the furniture, paintings and other artefacts that they displayed in their glory days.  Crac des Chevaliers, for all its stubborn resistance and historical importance, is really just a rubbly old shell.  If you know the history it would make for an interesting visit but otherwise it is a little dry.  Nonetheless, it is fun to explore the dark corridors and imagine you are a twelfth century knight looking out over hordes of invading Mongols.
 
The whole visit only takes about five hours, three of which is spent travelling to and from the castle.  As soon as we get back to the hotel, Fadi checks out and leaves without saying goodbye, after two weeks of travelling together.  We still aren't sure why he became so quiet and isolated himself from us but maybe we'll meet up with him again somewhere else.  
 

Fortunately, for the sake of the rest of the day, Hama is a pretty little town, by Syrian standards, and offers a nice walk along the river.  The river features a series of ten metre high water wheels that in the old days were powered by the current and used to grind wheat.  Now they are just for the tourists but continue to roll around and make a creaky, mournful groan.  There is even a semi-attractive inner-city park with benches, leafy trees and strolling families that feels very un-Middle Eastern.
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