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January/February 2011 -- After a few hours on the border, I am being greeted by three sunny boys: President Bashar al-Assad, his deceased father, and Hezbollah leader Nasrallah wave welcoming from a giant billboard. The Turkish-Syrian border separates two different worlds. I did not expect that.The following days I drive from Aleppo via Hamah down to the fortress of Krac des Chévaliers. A little loop takes me to the Mediterranean coast and the Lebanese border, and then I make my way to the capital Damascus. Finally, after a visit to the Golan Heights buffer zone, I leave to visit Jordan.On the way back from Jordan to Turkey I cross through Syrias dry East, passing the antique desert metropolis of Palmyra and on to wintery Southeast of Turkey.
Oriental FeelingSyria gets you in a truly oriental mood: Chaotic traffic, the biggest Souks (markets) of the Middle East, and extremely hospitable people.If you need any help or assistance, locals will do their utmost to help you, the foreign guest. Including guiding you through the Souk for half a day, so that you finally get your broken zipper fixed.Nearly every day I get an invitation - for food, for tea, for small talk, for a walk around town.Because of this you don't only profit in a culinary way, it also widens your horizons on other points of view. Favourite conversation subjects: Israel and Palestine, women, Hitler, life here in Syria and life there in Germany.The prevailing opinion about Israel in this region should be known. Still, it renders you helpless when Palestinians speak of their experiences. Half a million of them live as refugees in Syria, many more millions in Jordan, Lebanon and around the world. They feel left alone by Europe and the US and share a deep hatred against Israel. From Germany, too, they expect more, never mind - or rather because of - our history.
AleppoProbably no other city in the world has been housing people as long as Aleppo (Damascus being the only other challenger). It boasts giant, authentic Souks, where life hasn't changed much since its beginnings centuries ago: Characteristic vendors sit in their three square metre shopping emporiums, behind piles of fruit, leather or metal ware, performing the traditional (and mandatory) art of bargaining. Meanwhile, however, new products have shown up on the markets, mostly cheap plastics from China.The old town with its wooden balconies, ancient building structures and (for me only architecturally) interesting mosques has its very own historical yet timeless charme.Besides living quarters (of nowadays rather not-so-rich people), the Medina also hosts Madrasas (Quran schools) and the Khans, kinds of medieval specialized shopping centres.Aleppo's famous citadel rises from the sea of houses like a giant rock, theoretically offering 360° panoramic views - if only there was no smog.Unfortunately Aleppo's January weather is rather cold and grey. Basically the city is full of mud, with huge dirty puddles. The grey-brownish socialist style architecture of the new suburbs doesn't really evoke holiday feelings either. Rubbish is everywhere, either as a decent carpet or as solid piles which get set afire every once a while. A few minutes later, a group of people circle around the fire to warm up.For three days the van is parked right in the city centre, but in a big brown lake, a decent carcass under the front axis. It might have been a sheep.
DamascusThe capital seems big and confusing at first, with little sign posting. After a while though, it becomes clear that the interesting quarters are easily discovered on foot. Its impressive Umayyad Mosque and several Christian churches are part of the city's cultural heritage. Damascus' old town feels quite cosy - if not as authentic as Aleppo's - and adds to the lively flair of the Syrian capital.The city of two million is significantly more cosmopolitan than its larger rival Aleppo. There's the international press, neon lit high rises, foreign embassies and a wild mix of nationalities on the street: pilgrims from Iran, business people from Europe, tourists from the Emirates. Away from the old town, palm trees line 16 lane avenues cutting through the oasis city. In Syria, 16 lanes mean that there's space for at least 25 cars.When you realize that only 30 years ago petty criminals were hanged on what are now some of the city's big traffic roundabouts, the huge water fountains in their centres become even more enjoyable today. During the pro-democracy demonstrations in spring 2011, however, president Assad has had protesters knocked down (or shot) again.While some more sophisticated districts of Damascus might as well be Paris or Madrid, others are shanty towns that may be taken for green houses at first glance. It's worth noticing that since 2003, Syria, with only 21 million inhabitants itself, accepted more than 1.5 million refugees from neighbouring Iraq - in addition to the Palestinians from the Israeli occupied West Bank.
Change in SyriaSomething's happening in the country - politically, socially, economy-wise. Officially at war with Israel, a state of emergency is still in place. Furthermore Syria is having disputes with Turkey over the river Euphrates' fresh water resources and Antakya province, with the Kurds on more autonomy, and with Lebanon on pretty much everything: Syria claims Lebanon as an integral part of its territory. Military spending therefore is extremely high and Syrians fear nothing more than Assad's secret service (nobody is allowed to talk to foreigners without a license). Corrupt police add up to a certain frustration.President Assad wins any elections with spectacular 99.9 per cent of the vote and - after, sticking to socialist ideals in the past, now wants to give social market economy a try. Even though he is popular among large groups within the Syrian population: To many, things are moving way too slow.Since 2001 the internet is legal to use, but YouTube or Facebook remain blocked. Satellite dishes, also recently legalized, spring up like mushrooms. With non-state run independent Syrian networks broadcasting from Egypt, official propaganda state tv is losing influence since the day the satellite dish ban fell. The big winner and main player though, comes from Qatar and is called Al Jazeera.But still, frustration over limited freedom and a lack of opportunities seems to be on the rise, especially with young Syrians - not even helped by legalizing Pepsi and Coca-Cola.In general Syria is much less westernized than its neighbours Turkey, Jordan, Israel or (parts of) Lebanon. You notice that for example when looking for an ATM: Very few banks exist, while Turkish city centres, on the other hand, are full of them. Nobody accepts credit cards. Mailboxes are all out of service. And then there is the Arabic language and writing. If, for once, there are prices written on the products, you can't read them. So a little language course pays off, literally speaking.The way people dress also reflects their cultural heritage: Hardly anybody is running around in T-Shirt or sweater, it should at least be a buttoned shirt. An arab cloak including hood or turban (as worn by the Saudis, too) would be even better. The legendary black and white scarf, trademark of the Palestinians, is nearly omnipresent, especially in the country's South. Youngsters like to strike a fighter's pose, pulling the cloth in front of their face, shouting something.Women - if you can spot any - pretty much always wear the headscarf, some might even cover up their whole body. A snapshot at a crossroads in central Aleppo reveals: Among 100 people on the street, maybe five are women. In cafes, even less. Rarely do they sit behind the wheel either. Other than in Saudi Arabia however ('Letting the woman drive the car is like letting the monkey fly the plane'), women are not banned from driving a car.
Speaking of driving...While I do know how to change a cars light bulb, I could still learn from Syrians how to wire the lights in order to flash strobe-like in red, green and blue: It's disco time on the highway.They also know how to keep old cars shiny like new and in good shape which have long since died out in Germany. This, by the way, in Syria is true as well for the cheap Chinese cars that fail to pass Europe's technical tests even when new.Apart from that I'm sorry to say: They're bad drivers, lacking risk awareness, discipline and respect. They overtake as slowly as a snake, forming three lanes in spite of oncoming traffic. They keep a safety distance of one metre, drive with headlights off at night (because they hurt the eyes, they say) and send the kids to play on the highway.And every now and then, things end badly. While driving on the motorway, shortly after hearing a sudden bang, which at first I interpreted as a fallen bottle in the fridge, a truck crashed through the roads central barrier. I am very thankful for this barrier. That was close. The truck driver, barely injured, got out of his cabin, now ready for the scrap yard, shook off the dust and could not believe his eyes.Even though I try not to drive at night whenever possible, short winter days sometimes make it unavoidable. But here's the trick: Wait for a local who is moving quickly but not racing along and who follows basic road rules. Follow that guy and you're unlikely to hit any speed breakers, you'll notice every police checkpost, and - in shallah, and only slightly touching that wandering sheep - you'll reach your destination.
The answer to 'So, what's this Syria like?'It's a cultural gap from Turkey to Syria. Standing at the border, Turkey clearly feels like orderly Europe and Syria like the Middle East. Standing at the border with Lebanon, Syria feels like a nice travel destination and Lebanon like one big muddy refugee camp. Standing at the border with Israel, you get told who's the good and who's the bad here. In between Austrian UN peacekeepers, wearing their reflective Terminator sunglasses and sipping on their Red Bulls, keep both sides at a distance.Fortunately the world does not consist of borders but of people. And Syrians are world-class hosts, even though they might get a little nosy sometimes.Regarding nature and landscapes, Syria can't keep up with its southern neighbour Jordan. Syria's coast and the hilly inland is not of extraordinary natural beauty. The great Syrian Desert in the east is mainly flat, rocky shrub land. Jordan's desert and mountain sceneries are way more spectacular.From Syria I cross the border at Daraa/Ramtha to the Kingdom of Jordan. Later I visit Syria's east on the way from Jordan to Turkey and Iran.
Landmarks of Hama: its 13th century water wheels (Hama)
So called 'Baghdad Route' (near Khunayfis)
Huge desert area full of Roman ruins (Palmyra)
Palmyra's Tetrapylon (Palmyra)
In the Souks (Aleppo)
UN buffer zone Golan Heights(Al Qunaitra)
Remembering the enemy: In a pre-emptive attack Israel occupied Qunaitra in 1967 - and levelled it to the ground upon leaving. Today it's under UN control. (Al Qunaitra)
Watching you (Palmyra)
Front line: arch enemies face each other on the Golan (Al Qunaitra)
Impressive colossus in the middle of the city: Aleppo's Citadel
Thanks to satellite dishes, Syrians have access to more than the dictatorship's censored news. (Aleppo)
Reception hall inside the Citadel's entrance gate (Aleppo)
Courtyard of Umayyad Mosque (Aleppo)
Church in Djudaide quarter (Aleppo)
Another Umayyad Mosque (Damascus)
Only a few years ago, petty criminals were hanged on what is now the country's most important crossroads. (Umayyad Square, Damascus)
Christmas decoration in the Christian quarter (Damascus)
The Syrian capital eats its way into the surrounding hills. (Damascus)
Old town houses in decay (Aleppo)
Hijaz station is lacking railway tracks today. (Damascus)
Contemporary buildings look rather pathetic in comparison to Roman architecture next door. (Palmyra)
Welcome stop in the desert: 'Baghdad Café 66' (150 km southwest of Palmyra)
'Baghdad Café 66'
Road cruiser (Aleppo)
Greetings from Hamburg (Dayr Atiyah)
Shiny like new Golf (Damascus)
Really nice guys: My homies from the parking lot (Damascus)
Giant statue of ex-president Hafez al-Assad (Dayr Atiyah)
Grocer in the Souks (Aleppo)
Wonder whether this is an American's home who likes to drink too much... (Damascus)
A busy market day comes to an end. (Aleppo)
SYRIA (updated 01/2011)Route1. Bab al Hawa (from Turkey) - Aleppo - Hamah - Homs- Al-Hamidiyah - Homs - Damascus - Daraa/Ramtha (exit to Jordan)2. Jaber (from Jordan) - Damascus - Palmyra - Deir ez-Zur - Al Hasakah - Al Qamishli (to Turkey)Exits to Lebanon at Ad-Dabbusiyah (Hwy 9) and Masnaa (Hwy 1, Damascus-Beirut)Entering/Exitingvia Bab al Hawa (from Turkey), Al Qamishli (to Turkey), Ad-Dabbusiyah (Hwy 9, to/from Lebanon), Daraa/Ramtha (to Jordan), Jaber (motorway, from Jordan)Entrance procedures for immigration and customs are not standardized. A Carnet de Passages may sometimes be required. Even upon entrance with CdP, the car will be noted in your passport (no exit without the car). No entry with Israeli stamp. It's best not to mention Israel at all. Time to cross: 2h at Bab el Hawa, 1h at Ad Dabbusiyah, 2h at Daraa/Ramtha, 5h at Jaber, 5h at Al Qamishli.Entrance fees: Road toll EUR 8, vehicle insurance (VW camper, 30 days) EUR 60. Upon entry from Jordan and Iraq officially a chip card (EUR 100) is required for customs clearance. But: This was only mentioned at Jaber border (motorway crossing with Jordan) and may be a scam. A fee of USD 100/week applies to Diesel vehicles but I (petrol engine) did not notice any check. Exit fee: EUR 8. The border to Israel is closed. Check the security situation before crossing into Lebanon or Iraq.FuelPetrol and diesel are always available. Diesel costs EUR 0.30/L, petrol EUR 0.65/L. Lots of stations (best to prefer modern ones), queues only in Damascus. In the east the distance between pumps may be up to 200km. Beware of diluted diesel.RoadsConditions vary from bad (mostly in town) to acceptable (overland routes). Speed breakers at most stupid places (out of town, gravel roads, motorways). Avoid driving at night. Many roads are prone to flooding (water/mud). Signposting in towns hardly exists, on highways it's okay. CampingOnce I got motivated to leave with a steel bar by an alleged police man (no uniform, no ID), but apart from that I had no problems. You'll find a few camp spots in my Camp Spot List.MiscellaneousMany websites are blocked, wifi networks usually password protected, low bandwidths. Credit cards are only accepted with few luxury hotels and ATMs. Border posts accept Syrian Pounds and USD. Prices are low (groceries, restaurants, public transport). Police, customs and military rarely wear uniforms, expect misunderstandings and remain sceptical.All information subject to change (note time of writing).
ForewordRight after me leaving the country in January 2010, the waves of the Arab Spring made landfall in Syria and the borders were closed to foreigners. In reaction to protests, the dictatorship regime began to gun down its own people. Hundreds of thousands have died.Since the beginning of the war I havent heard from most people I met during my stay. May they be in safety and their home country one day face a peaceful future.As this text and these photos represent my impressions during my visit, I left them unchanged. Bear this in mind, especially with the additional information chapter at the bottom of this page.
A big thanks to Rowan Fookes for proofreading this translation!