Friendly Welcome in Aleppo

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
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Trip End Nov 18, 2002


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Monday, September 30, 2002

The minute I entered Syria, it defied it's western image of "supporters of terrorism" and of an evil rogue state. The image often portayed of the country by America. Instead, Syria was inhabited by some of the friendliest people I'd ever met. It's usually like that though, governments and diplomats battle it out and reak havoc while the kind, friendly locals continue to live their lives in their own kind ways. My experiences in the country were a mish mash of visits to ancient cities, castles and ruins, countless encounters with kind locals, a short stay in a desert monestary with Syrian monks, a wondefully exotic and lengthy stay in old Damascus and a government escorted visit to the troubled regions of the Golan Heights to see the remains of a once fertile land now torn apart by the Middle Eastern conflict.

Read on for more!

-- Syria

I had only been in Syria for 2 hours but I was already in love with the country. People smiled, spoke english ( mostly ) and, although the city was dirty and loud, coming from Azerbaijan, the hotels seemed clean.

I quickly ran out for some logistics, It was 8pm, but I still had time. I found a backpacker's hostel which sold photocopied versions of guide books and bought one for Syria. Apparently, it was illegal to import Lonely Planet guide books into Syria, a photocopied one would do just fine.

The hotel was having problems with their Internet connection so I offered to help. Something I could have easily fixed back home. After 30 minutes of trying, the situation was even worse then when I had started to "fix it". My God, what was happening to my brain!

In Syria, the government controlled all Internet Access and I stopped my troubleshooting session by chalking up the problems to Government Firewalls.

I made my way back to my hotel where I arranged to sleep on the roof for one night and passed out.

During the night, I awoke, briefly, from sleep to feel a fury round object between my bare back and the couch I had been sleeping on. Tired from the trip, I rolled over, and fell back asleep without thinking much of it.

When I awoke, ready to change to a different hotel, the South African girl sleeping on the couch opposite me, sat up and stopped me.

"Excuse me, before you leave, did you see the mice last night?"

"What? Mice? Really... Shit, I thought that was in my dream!"

"No, actually I woke up and saw a few mice running over you just after they crawled over me."

"Well, I am glad to be changing hotel then!"

We chatted for a few hours, and arranged to meet for a falafel later in the night.

-- Friendly Welcome in Aleppo

A few hours later, I was sitting at the front desk of my new hotel trying, in vain, to use their computer's email account when I heard a familiar voice.

"Is there a Canadian guy staying here? " I heard the South African girl say.

"Yep, there is a Canadian just down here!" I yelled up the stairs.

She had changed hotels, and by chance had stumbled onto the one I was staying in. Along the way, a friendly Syrian tagged along and invited her for tea.

We exchanged wow-what-a-coincidence type chatter and then she asked,

"Hey, this Syrian guy invited me for tea, and a tour of the souq, want to come along?"

"Errr... sure" I was still dazed from my arrival, hadn't figured out the currency or what I was going to do in Aleppo, and in Syria for that matter but decided to take her up on the offer. Later she admitted to not trusting the Syrian's apparently honest invitation and was looking for a little company.

We went off into the Souq, a medieval shopping bazar. Tiny cobble stone streets criss crossed under domed alleys, where slaughtered animals, textiles and local goods could be bought. The souq had ben in use since ancient times and our make-shift guide explained all the history and legends entwined with the mystical looking alleys.

After a long walk through the souq we went back to his family's house, buried in the souq, where his mother made us tea and we gave our sore feet a rest.

Once the brief break was over, Ancilla lead the chase off to the Citadel and the Christian quarter. In one day we'd seen all of the historical sights of Aleppo. I'd never met someone who could walk as fast as me but she not only was more fast paced but also kept on pushing through as I lagged behind begging for a falafel stop.

That night we met up with some of her Italian friends, had a beer at the hotel where Laurence of Arabia stayed and called it an early night.

-- The Dead Cities

Our new Syrian friend offered to take me along to the dead cities dotting northern Syria the next day and I took him up on the offer after debating whether a day for adjustment would be better.

Ancilla left for Hama, the next city south of Aleppo and I went on for the tour. I was tired and had seen my fair share of castles since the start of the trip, which deflated my enthusiasm but I pushed on through the ancient cities, crumbling in the desert like landscape.

By the end of the day I relaxed and was initially set to stay in the charming town for a few more days but changed my mind and decided to head to Hama as well.

Seeing as how small the country was, a nice change, bus distances were small, only 2 hours to Hama my bus ticket announced. Much better than the usual 17 hour buses I was used to as I journeyed across Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Syrian travel would be a breeze!

Still fighting off the constant full-body-itch which my stay on the floating brothel in Baku infected me with, I slept quietly in my pleasantly comfortable 6$US room.

-- Hama

The next morning I packed up and headed to Hama. Hama was a small town south of Aleppo which promised to be a paradise city with a cool atmosphere and a central location for visiting the prime Syrian attractions. When I arrived, I jumped straight to the Internet. I was staying at the Riad Hotel which was a true home away from home. The dorms were spotless, the staff was overly friendly and the satellite TV and Internet was enough to make me want to stay there for a long time.

"Hey, there you are!" Ancilla said as she walked by the desk. She had arrived the night before and was on her way to visit the Beehive houses in Eastern Syria with a few new friends she had met.

"You want to come?" I had just arrived and was barely unpacked, seeing as how Chadee, the Lebanese man who Ancilla had met spoke Arabic, I thought it might have been a good idea to tag along and take advantage of the situation.

Chadee, his Japanese wife Miwa, Ancilla and I took off, letting Chadee negotiate the multi-bus and complicated route out to the desert where the bedouin tribes kept the Beehive houses.

The houses where pretty far off the beaten path, not having a regular bus service to reach them, we made a deal with the microbus driver to return to pick us up after sunset.

The few beehive houses that remained where mostly uninhabited. The cone shaped, mud laced houses were stacked up next to each other. One family still used a well maintained one and invited us in for bedouin food and tea. We sat and let Chadee talk to the locals, in Arabic, for a few hours before heading off for some photos.

As we walked passed the houses and through the village, a family of 15 invited us in for tea and snacks. The men were playing cards, which Chadee and Miwa gladly homed in on, as Ancilla and I made our way to the women's side to attempt discussion with the Arabic phrase book Linda had brought me in Turkey and took as many photos as we possibly could. The eldest women of the bunch had a face which begged to be photographed. Tatoo'ed from forehead to chin, her ancient style of make up painted a unique landscape on her smiling wrinkled face.

After we all took turns dressing up in bedouin clothes, we walked off, stopping yet again at another house for bread and tea before our taxi finally arrived and took us back to the hotel, driving through the desert as the sun set ahead of us.

Back at the hotel, we went up to the rooftop were most of the guests were staying and toked on Chadee's Nargila before calling it a night.

-- Krak de Chevalier.

The next morning, Chadee, Ancilla and I decided to visit Krak de Chevalier together. Krak, a massive crusader castle was a few busses south of Hama and one of the best preserved crusader castles in the world. Massive in scale and ingenious in design, the castle was built to protect Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land during the crusades. The castle, built by the Christian Hospitallier Knights was actually never breached by invading Muslims but rather abandoned after a long siege.

The castle was impressive but I had to admit expecting a castle perched on a hill top surrounded by empty valleys. The Castle was on a hill, but the surrounding village did slightly ruin the experience for me. After 45 minutes of wandering I found a defensive tower and perched myself on the ledge to gaze out onto the hills, listening to my CD player and imagining seeing hordes of Arabic invaders attacking the fortification.

When we returned to the hotel, Chadee offered to have me stay with him in Lebanon when I arrived a week later. He also offered to get me a special permit to visit the UN DMZ zone when I arrived, an offer I quickly jumped on.

Back at the hotel, I was thinking of Logistics. I had decided to fly Jules, my brother, over to Lebanon, to meet me a week later and was worried that all of the passports, visas and tickets wouldn't get done in time. Also, having only 2 months left for my trip, I was starting to think about how to arrange the last of my 9 month trip. "Only 2 months left" I sighed. Although 2 months was longer than any previous trip I had ever taken before, it seemed like only a few days in comparison to the 9 months jaunt I was on. The trip was almost over, and I could feel it.

-- Palmyra.

I was planning on taking my time in Hama, wasting away days before my brother arrived, but that night we sat on the roof, played cards and smoked Nargila. The group had grown, we were over 12 playing that night. All were set to head to Palmyra, some of the best greek/roman ruins in the world, the next day. We all got along fantastically, so I decided to also run down to the reception and book myself on the tour.

The next morning we headed out early and made our way out to the desert, again.

The ruins covered a large area of desert and we trudged through most of the toppled columns and theaters. Although it was impressive, I was disappointed, perhaps because of the large amount of ruins I'd seen on my trip. I decided that I would skip any other ruins in Syria and look for more unique experiences.

To pass the day, we found a quiet shady patch amongst the crumbled stones and relaxed. We spent a few hours at a nearby "Oasis", which was really a pool, and headed back to Hama.

On the way, we spotted a few bedouin tents and stopped for tea. The kind bedouins, bathed in orange glowing light and calm desert surroundings were a more satisfying experience than the ruins for me and it was a great way to end the day.

-- Luc the Monk

I spent one last day in Hama, doing precious nothing with Clinton a south African man who'd toured with us. We walked around, watched movies and idled away back at the hotel.

It was time to leave. I had heard from many people about Mar Musa, an ancient monestary, perched atop a cliff, surrounded by desert and mountains. I had planned to stay there a few nights and made my way through a frustrating series of busses and taxi's to the distant refuge. This would be different. No more ruins!

When I arrived in the last village before the monestary, the mini-bus driver, who had already attempted on many occasions to over charge me, refused to give me my backpack without paying double the fair. Finally, after a heated debate, I pulled my pack out of the bus and headed off. A soldier followed along and invited me for tea. We sat and talked as I slowly defused the tension which I had wound myself up into.

"That man no good, not all Syrians like that. "

"Yeah I know, I'm just a little frustrated that's all"

He bought me breakfast and we chatted for a while. When we finished, he invited me to his house where I could stay but I opted for the monestary instead, thanked him and headed out for the last leg of the journey out to the desert.

As the taxi pulled up to between two giant rocky cliffs, I could see something in the distance.

"Is that Mar Musa?" I asked,

"Yes, now you walk"

I had my giant backpack and my daypack on. Something which I would regret. The sun was scorching down as I began the climb, 1km, up to the monestary. The path was solid at first but slowly deteriorated into a crumbled walk way, which was difficult to navigate with my heavy sack.

Finally I made it to the top.

"Hello," People greeted. I walked into the brick built eating area where people sat around and ate. One man could see that I was new.

"Hello, are you new? "

"Uhh, yeah"

"Excellent, here, have tea, would you like to stay here or just visit?"

"Oh, stay..."

"Excellent, how long?"

"Not sure, "

"Fantastic, follow me."

The man took me to my room, which looked out into the desert and was made of stone.

I dropped my bags and went back to the eating area to relax.

"Luc, this is your home now, do as you would in your own house. "

"Thanks, That's great."

The easting area, which was the main social area was half covered and opened to a balcony which looked out onto the desert, a perfect location.

I walked over, passed the pillow strewn sitting area and sat up on the ledge looking out. I turned to scan the room and saw turtles slowly sliding around the floor passed me, a few dozen day trippers who'd come to visit the church and a few priests squatting to talk to people. I turned back to gaze off to the desert.

"This is perfect" I thought before a loud voice towered over everyone.

"Luc! No sitting on the ledge, please come down!" Everyone turned to look at me. Embarrassed I pulled myself off sheepishly and laid on the carpeted sitting area, with my head on a long, rockhard, pillow. I only laid or 5 minutes, before the loud voice rang over again.

"Luc!" Everyone turned to look at me again.

"Yes?"

"It is not possible to lay down! Please sit"

I sat up, peeved and thought "I thought you said make myself at home?" After only 2 hours there I was already thinking of leaving. I chatted with some Syrians who were slightly peeved at the "Leader's" attitude as well and convinced myself that I should give the place at least one night's sleep before deciding to leave.

Luckily I never saw the leader again. I walked out into the hills finding a quiet spot high up on a rock and listened to music, reflecting, as the sunset.

When I returned to dinner the tourists had left, only a handful of resident Christians remained and a British tourist who'd decided to stay the night.

We chatted pleasantly for a while before it was time for the daily mass. The church was old. A tiny, rock built place built from stone and plastered with ancient frescoes. We all sat on the floor where sheep skins were placed and meditated for an hour before the service began.

After the mass, we ate and retreated for the night. It was quiet, so quiet my ears hummed in silence. That night I slept for 14 hours, the longest, and quietest night of sleep, I'd had since I left Canada. When I awoke I brought my bags down to wait for a taxi to town but slowly rethought my decision to leave. 10 minutes before a group was destined to leave, I decided to stay another day.

I grabbed my backpack, held it over my arm and marched up the stony path up to my room. Walking up the stairs, one of the 3 dogs who wandered the compound was sitting in front of my door step.

"I'm back baby!" I announced to the dog. The dog jumped up, began to bark at me fiercely and snapped at my arm before I could pull it away.

"Easy!" I shouted after jumping back 3 feet and holding out my pack between the dog and me.

"Hmmmm I wonder if that's a sign." I thought
.
I didn't do much that day. I did take advantage of the day to walk out onto the hills and mountains to watch the sunset, but it was a relaxing day which I spent idling around.

After doing the dishes, my duty for the day, we had mass again, I used to the time to meditate and read the bible. Not being Christian, I found the Bible an amusing way to add context to all the holy sights I'd seen over the passed months.

When the day ended, I retired early, ready for my trek to Damascus, the next day.

-- "Do I know you?"

I was lucky, a couple who had come to Mar Musa for Sunday mass were on their way to Damascus and they kindly offered to take me along for the 2 hour drive.

The hotel in Damascus was beautiful. Being an old Damascene Mansion. At 3$US a night, it was a steal. I'd planned to spend 6 days in Damascus, and after only a few hours, I new that it would be easy to hang out in this town. The old city, which sat next to the hotel was a hive of activity. Small alleys, busy markets and mosques, all clustered in a medieval style.

Oddly enough, I couldn't walk 5 paces without meeting someone I'd seen somewhere else in Syria. Every night I had dinner with old friends or hung out with the uber-friendly locals. Syrians were among the most friendly I'd met, it simply wasn't possible to finish a falafel without making a new Syrian friend and exchanging emails. Throughout my stay in Damascus, I was treated to friendly tours of the city, invitations for diner or even to stay in local Syrian's homes, at times even having to decline because I'd been over-booked with other Syrians.

-- The Golan Heights

I had had enough of ancient mosques, quiet churches, crumbling roman ruins and and massive castles. I was looking for something different. I found it in the Golan Heights. The Golan region, was once fully controlled by Syria but long ago, during the Isreali-Arab six day war, the region was taken by Isreal, leaving only a tiny slice to Syria. The highly disputed region still made it's way to the headlines in the western world quite often and once I'd heard that it was possible to obtain security clearance to visit the last remaining town on the Syrian side, Quineitra, I decided to visit.

The journey began as I ventured out into Damascus trying to find the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the permission. The directions I had were limited and the US Embassy, which was supposed to be near the office, was very unhelpful.

I was in the diplomatic section of Damascus, something easy to tell by the large amount of foreign flags waving high and an even higher amount of ak47 totting security guards standing on sidewalks.

I popped into and out of several embassies and consulates before finally stumbling onto the office.

I cracked a giant wide brimmed smile when I received a positive response from the t-shirt clad security guards armed with machine guns.

"Quineitra? Yes!" I walked into the steel box outside the office, hand extended and shook everyone's hand. "A Salam A Lakem" I greeted all.

"A Lakem A Salam" They all took turns replying.

The permit came after only 15 minutes and I was off. Straight to the Service Taxi station to catch a share taxi to the region.

The bus was loaded with Palestinians on their way home. As we drove away from the city, the landscape became more barren and we stopped several times to register my special permit with the UN checkpoints.

We finally arrived, passing a machine gun riddled sign reading "Quineitra".

This was the end of the line for my service taxi. I changed to another service taxi for the last stretch into the ghost town.

As we stopped at the last checkpoint, a man took my documents and jumped into the taxi.

"Hello, welcome!", it was my government assigned "guide", Akmed. He was to take me around the town for 60 minutes and ensure that I didn't step on any land mines in the process.

It was only me, my government representative and the driver left in the mini-van, locals didn't come out here. As we drove passed the last remnants of anything living, a loud clank resounded in the van, the driver slammed on the brakes and jumped out, giving chase down the road.

"What was that?" I asked Akmed peering out of the window to follow the driver down the street with my eyes.

"Heh, just boys. It's ok."

We pressed on.

Some of the boys had thrown stones at our van. The driver was furious and giving chase before the boys vanished.

The town was empty, no one lived here anymore. Only bombed out houses and decaying, bullet riddled buildings remained. According to my Syrian "guide", when the Isrealis entered the city, they had destroyed the town leaving nothing useable. Using dynomite, bull dozers and areal might, the town was reduced to twisted metal.

Not being one to pick sides, I nodded vaguely as my guide made ultra-biased comments on the situation.

UN outposts speckled the city, on the watch for any sign from either side of breaking the cease-fire. Isreal was only a glance away. The view was one of contrast, distant Isreali farms and buildings set behind the collapsed houses on the Syrian side.

We walked around the town, through the remains of houses, churches, mosques and the showcase piece, the hospital which was almost completely destroyed. It bore a sign reading:

"Destroyed by Zionist and changed to firing practice"

We walked quickly, wanting to see as much as we could in the short 60 minute window. As we did I stumbled off the path a few times to get a better picture. As I did, Akmed would pull me back in yelling "Mines!". Best to stick to the road.

When my time was up I headed back to the checkpoint to wait for a service taxi back to Damascus where I met a nice Officer on his way to town as well.

We chatted for a while in the taxi after which he refused to let me pay and asked me to join him for Nargila.

I quietly laughed and accepted. Since I'd arrived 2 days before I had met so many people that my planned coffee, Nargila and drinks evening with one Syrian friend for the same night had grown to an evening with 4 Syrian friends. I could have used a secretary to schedule all of my outings with the friendly Syrians.

-- Nargila Nights.

For the last of my mellow days in Damascus, I visited Damascene friends, sipped coffee with other backpackers and ritually puffed on Nargila at a busy coffee shops in the old streets of the souq.

In all, I hadn't seen all the sights of Damascus, but I didn't care. I'd taken a much more relaxed approach to the city than usual, taking in one sight a day, if I happened to walk passed it. Preferring to bathe in the roman Hammams (Baths) and wander clicking away pictures in the busy Souq.

On day 6, it was time to leave. I said my goodbye's to Kamal, Abdula, Amir and a slew of other new friends and packed in preparations for a trip over to Lebanon. I would be back in Syria in 1 week and would catch up with everyone then.
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