A Travellerspoint blog

To the Mediterranean

Ok, fine, we will take the bus

A few things first that I missed out from the last blog as by the time it got to the end of my time I just didn't really care any more, so a few key things slipped from memory. One lift we got from Raqqa to the middle of nowhere which allegedly had a turn off to Palmyra according to the malevolent, malicious and mendacious map was with two guys driving a covered pick up - naturally, as per usual, we rode in the back - live the dream. Anyway, on this particular occasion we saw it slowing down and in the back was strapped down, on first looks, seemed to be a drum kit. Nice, we thought, pump out beats all the way. Approaching, it is little too black-and-silver for that and reminds us both of the dentists chair. Clambering in, we see that it is in fact an operating table - naturally, we played doctors and patients and made jokes about the quality of the mobility of the health service here until we noticed some weird and unidentifiable red stains. Gross. About 2 minutes later though I climbed back on and was at once in the Millenium Falcon (punch it Chewie) nailing the Truck Fighter behind us - that is until I got too into it and one of the leg rests came off in my hand so we hid it and then chilled. Probably the weirdest lift we'll get on the trip all in all.

So, to Latakia. Town on the Meditarranean, supposed to be pretty wicked. We decided, with our new hitching experience, that the road to Latakia had way too many little villages and road connections on it to be worth trying, and besides the bus there was only 150 pounds - or 2.25 - so we weren't really missing out. The guide book told us that as it was the birthplace of al Asad it was pretty wealthy, and as a consequence headscarves were replaced by tight jeans and low cut tops, so naturally we were pretty excited. Upon arrival, the weather was gloomy and we had no idea where we were (navigating the town by compass) until we decided bugger it, we'll take a taxi. As a prerequisite to being a Syrian taxi driver, you cannot speak any English whatsoever, it is always a risky decision and so we ended up in the middle of somewhere and had to be led to the hotel by a kind old guy who was going nearby, about 20 minutes walk away. Good place though, we opted for TV and shower for an extra 200 - definite investment.

We went out in the evening to a restaurant, thinking that we might as well eat something more than just falafel and shwarma (and humous on a day of extreme profligacy) so found a place and went wild. I had what I'd been dreaming of, a steak with mushroom sauce. Mmmmm. We then decided that it'd be cool to just kick back with a beer in some bar but our previous experiences in Syria had informed us that the frequency of such establishments are quite minimal - however, being hardened in finding alcohol in a generally alcohol-shunning country, we resolved that we should go to the local top end hotel, as they always have bars, and besides there are likely to be some foreigners there who we can kick back with and get to know. This started off what was literally an hour long search, leaving the hotel as it was both deserted and expensive in favour of a place that the barman recommended which turned out to be a) not where he said and b) empty as well, as were all the other restaurants / 'bars' in the bar area of town. But we had a couple of beers anyway, despite just wanting to be in bed by then, and then set off in completely the wrong direction so it took us ages to get home anyway. Effort.

The next day we decided to go to the beach, which we were told by the book was controlled by Syria's premier seaside resort and we had to pay 400 to get in. It was only a few miles north so we decided to walk it, and arrived in the height of sun. Huge place, seriously premier. 5* plastered everywhere, chalets, two swimming pools, private beach, private yacht parking in their private harbour. So we naturally sauntered in as if we owned the place and hung out (without paying, of course) on the rocks (which were in fact fake rocks but huge pieces of similiarly shaped concrete..?) for a fair while. We decided to see what else was on offer after deciding that the pool was too cold to swim in so we stormed the health spa. The people at reception were fantastically helpful and showed us around the jacuzza, showers, steam room, lounge, and then asked if we wanted a membership. Assuring them that we were staying in the hotel they apologised profusely and showed us to the changing rooms. Cackling silently to ourselves, we changed and then we stopped in our tracks by the woman, who asked us to fill in the form with room number and names. Knowing also that everything is filled out by hand and never on a computer, I persuaded BJ that we should continue blagging (and I do love a good blag) so I went up and filled out psuedonyms, pseudosignatures and psuedorooms. Apparently my safe bet of 108 didn't actually exist (we took a look, there was a 1221, error) but she didn't seem to mind after I said that it was our first day so we didn't actually know what it was. I suspect that she actually knew what we were pulling but hated working for the elite so allowed us to get away with it anyway. Whatever her mentality, I assured her that I would return the next day with our real room number and then we settled down to an hours jacuzzi session. Aaaah man that was nice, though we did get a scare when a suited man walked in (he's in a suit - here we go) but it turned out that he was just showing round more money-sweating clients. Steam room next, followed by a shower. Best shower I will probably have on this entire trip - really hot, free shampoo, even a choice between two shower heads depending on which way you turned the handle. Luxury is fantastic, especially at that value. I asked about a massage but apparently that's only for women, but I didn't mind. I felt clean for several minutes until I re-donned my browny-greying 'white' trousers and 4-day-used socks. Bloody decadence.

It was dark by the time we got back into town and so decided to reward ourselves on saving money by splashing out again on another nice meal - logic both valid and sound. An eclectic style of ordering, I had a starter, main and two puddings whilst BJ had two mains and a waffle. We kept them on their toes. Note to self - when ordered a beer, don't ask for it mexican as that means they fill it with lemon juice and nail salt around the outside. Ok with tequila, but it just ruins a good Almaza. Good value though, unlike our gypsy meal today where a load of fools tried to charge us 800 for chicken, chips and humous - more than my 4 course meal last night! Charging for tap water, bringing salad when we specified we didn't want any, all hell broke loose. We eventually wangled (not wrangled, Danny) Bill down to 500 by sheer attrition (which was still a god awful rip off - nasty chicken it was).

And so the plan - apparently Cyprus, whilst in the EU, still gives stamps, and that's what it's all about: passport stash. Not sure when though as flights are definitely expensive and accommodation probably is. Egypt before Brazil, but only quickly to see Cairo and the pyramids nearby. In the short term, Tartus tomorrow, hitching down the coast. One straight road there, so should be pretty easy.

Posted by kmaw 12:11 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Back to Basics

And the Kings of Wing

Having left the hotel and eaten, and after a long and picturesque hike and hitch, and a break of an hour when we go back for a fruitless search for BJ's camera which he lost on the way, we arrive about 2km before QJ ready to hike the rest. The lake is beautiful, completely clear and mixing green with blue in that really picturesque way rather than the opaque diseased way of the Thames. The road that we took for the past 22km literally goes only to the castle and then stops, so it is not a massively busy part of the country. Facing it is a hill, about as tall as the castle (on its own hill) but quite a lot bigger. Nice spot, let's camp there. We climb the hill and are faced with fantastic views all around, and as the lake is so huge it is almost like looking out to see, water merging indistinctly into the horizon with a few boats hanging around doing a spot of fishing. Having found the perfect spot to pitch tent, nicely concealed by a couple of trees, we gather handfuls of those little dried pine needles for a soft bottom, and then set it up. What a place, a better one for just relaxing there never has been. We did find a few empty bottles and a full nappy but aside from that, the place looked deserted.

There is nothing manlier than collecting wood. Actually, I take that back - the only thing more manly than that is having a fire using the wood that you have collected earlier that day. We could almost feel our beards bristling out as we did it. Fortunately, it being a tourist attraction, there was a restaurant just at the bottom of our hill so we didn't have to go into the wild for our food. A bowl of humous and another of chips did us fine, but two beers for more than the rest of the meal was pretty sly of Abdullah. He proudly told us he was mentioned in Lonely Planet, which he was, but he was another sly one. We asked for two portions of chips, he gives us one on two plates. We wanted to rent a boat to go to the island, he says ok but it'll cost you 1000 and by the way, you can't go to the island. Apparently, he even charges you 150 to camp if you bring your own tent. Naturally, we told him that we liked the place so much we kept on coming back each day from the village about 10km away, and I think he bought it.

On our second day there we visited the castle, which was pretty wild. It was no Krak de Chevaliers but every boy loves a good ruin. Apparently the Syrians also run a policy of 'you can go anywhere you want on the ruins, but we're not going to put up any fences so if you fall off it's your own fault for going there in the first place', which more or less equates to about three or four near death experiences. There was a big party there who seemed to be on a school trip, and we seemed to be the main attraction for them. It is amazing how many photos there will be of me that I will never see in my life - people asking to pose with us, photos of us by ourselves, even people photographing us on the sly. I've decided there can be nothing worse than being famous, because this sort of thing (which is amazingly widespread) is just tedious. We left for some food, but then decided that we wanted to go back but 150 was too much to pay again (even if the guy taking the money did have a gun (it was an AK (seriously, no joke))), so we went Crusader and scaled the walls. This sounds fun but as the hill and most of the walls were made of some deceptive sandy chalk stuff which looked like rock, it was pretty damn precarious. And then, when we were up, the same bunch of schoolkids (about 3 hours later!) spotted us breaking in and all yelled and chanted, and one of them drew a dagger (I think he was trying to sell it). Muslim hordes, Crusaders sneaking in, Morris would have gone nuts.

Listening to the World Service than night by the fire (our only source of light, we woke with the sun and went to bed at about 9. Seriously good stuff) we heard about a woman who lives in the mountains in Cyprus, and the conversation pretty much went as follows:
BJ: "Cyprus is pretty nearby to the ME"
K: "Yup"
BJ: "You wanna go?"
K: "Ok"
So that's something else to add to the list. Oh, and by the way, we've decided to go to Egypt as well. That was along a similar conversation path, with a similarly good result. One excellent advantage of having no itinerary, because winging things is just great.

We're back in Aleppo as well, but just for today. Mainly because we started hitching the worse way to get to Palmyra so just stayed on our lift all the way back here. Let's to Palmyra at the end, and reverse the order of events for Syria. Ok, cool.

If things seem rushed, it's because they are. With 4 minutes left of internet time I don't want to get suddenly cut off..

Posted by kmaw 11:07 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Syria

No thanks, we don't want to get the bus

0 °C

First things first, text from Ukraine: "Good luck for you! Nise to meet you! After 2 day go back to my family! Be happy!" Cue uplifting ballad, perhaps Shania Twain? Yet to be decided for when the bestselling book of the journey gets made into screenplay.

Second things second, BJ and I have decided that Syria and its people are made up of paradoxes: they are aggressively friendly, uselessly helpful, and an enthusiastic hinderence. I know that the second and third points there seem to be saying much the same thing, but look closelier and you will notice that actually there are subtle differences. The amount of people who devote serious amounts of effort into helping us, despite our increasingly irritated protests, into doing something which they are convinced to be what we actually want rather than the initial plan, is amazing.

I'm torn between writing one mammoth entry now incorporating all things, or splitting it into two so that everyone can rush to the toilet and/or to get more popcorn in the break. We'll see, as yet undecided.

So we decided that as we're not taking motorbikes around, we might as well hitchhike. It's the cheapest way of travelling, by definition, and is sadly looked upon with horror in England and probably most other places in the West. If there were ever a place better to hitchhike than here, well, never mind becuse here is where we are. Writing the sign to Ath Thawrah in Arabic on a table in the hotel as we are checking out, we get pretty excited. The only difficulty would probably be finding the right road to set off on and then after that, easy sailing. Having realised that the permanent marker has gone through the paper onto the table, we say our quick yislamo's and peg it, thinking that it's fair enough for allowing some bloody weirdo into our room in the first place.

It took us about an hour to persuade the taxi driver that no, we didn't want to be driven to the bus station and the end of the highway would be fine. Most people just seem to adore the bus - what could be better than getting from A to B as quickly as possible?! But after we found the right road a lift stopped almost straight away, a big pickup full of guys who clamber into the cramped back seats to allow room for us, with our bags dumped in the back. It was perhaps the most glorious feat of engineering I have ever seen - we were discussing the language and finding out words so the driver pulls the key out of the ignition and asks about that, followed by whacking on the handbrake (which of course makes no difference as we bomb at 120kph past motorbikes going the wrong way down the fast lane). They only found it funny that we were laughing manically at what was obviously quite normal. Conversation moved on to politics, as standard, and after slagging off Blair again he sticks his leg out of the window and rolls up the trouser leg showing us a mean scar on his knee which, along with another on his back, he got from American helicopters bombing Baghdad.

After another lift we arrived in Ath Thawrah after dark and realise, as first thought, it is completely uninteresting. The only reason we're there is as it is on the way to Qualat Jabar, a fort which is on an artificial lake named Al Asad, created to dam the Euphrates. We see the lake (which is 60km long) and having bought a bag of bread and some Dairylee (camping essentials), we are about to set off to find somewhere to whack up the tent when we are swiftly detained by a man who invites us to have tea. We decline politely but he is having none of it, and by now we've become a spectacle anyway with a horde of children gaping at us, so we stay. Soon this becomes quite the party with several guys sitting round drinking tea outside the local DVD shop which is blasting out some Michael Jackson. At one point we are presented with a gift of an Enrique Iglesias cd (?!) and at another the guy inside the shop turns the television out towards the shop window and puts on some saucy channel of belly dancers. BJ goes off for a ride on one guy named Pater's motorbike whilst I engage another called Motaz, who has studied psychology, in a discussion of Western materialism and how he thinks that Western attitudes towards sex will soon prevail throughout Arabia. BJ returns and almost immediately afterwards, the party is broken up by the feds, in this case being a guy in a tracksuit who drives a motorbike with no lights whatsoever (not that they weren't switched on, just that they weren't there). He advises us to go to the hotel, ruining Pater's protests of us staying at his house, and points the way down the road.

We arrive, and having haggled the price in half go into our room, which turned out to almost be a suite. I won't go into huge descriptions except suffice to say, it was a total hole. The bathroom was just contagious, but the kitchen was the best. The whole place is covered in a layer of grime, the floor is pretty much black and all the pots and pans around seem to be soiled with some sort of weird sticky stuff. The hob was the best though - a totally dodgy contraption connected to a gas cannister, with an arbitrary 'off' or 'so much on that you are worried the whole damn place will burn down'. The little button wouldn't even stay in so we had to wedge a few kettles and bottles of water in place to get it to stay in place - to cook what, you may ask? A Pot Noodle, no less. Glorious.

Posted by kmaw 10:44 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Determinism, Chicken, and the Syrian Nightlife

A wild day was had by all yesterday. BJ and I did a lot of research into motorbikes, finding out that buying a new one was going to cost about $700 (no thanks) and the story attached to second hand bikes being far fetched yet each equally viable, such as it is illegal for a tourist to buy one, bikes are only owned by the police and so on. Altogether, we have decided not to motorbike... yet. Jordan is the way forward! One man we spoke to who works in a tyre shop knew English and Russian, and studied English Literature in Sussex, but now works for a tyre import company in Pakistan. Some poeple's stories are so obscure yet amazing, and they are all so interested to know your own.

We decided to treat ourselves to a dinner of something which was not shwarma so we went out to a pretty grimy restaurant, top traveller's choice. BJ puts forward the question of "Do you think it's morally wrong to eat chicken?" and so for the next hour and a half we battle our way through questions of vegetarianism, evolution, earth's natural development, environmental destruction and consciousness, coming to the conclusion that we differ in our views in the fundamentals as he believes in determinism whereas I am a proponent of the old free will. A solid effort all round.

To celebrate our glorious battle of attrition ending in a truce of agree-to-disagree, we decide to go out that night to a club which is next to the restaurant, about 2 minutes from the hotel. Sitting in the hotel having a quick chilling reading session, we ponder what type of club Syria could possibly have. After much pontification we decided that it was most likely to be some western bar which attracts tourists and sells drinks for high prices, or perhaps a place where Arabian girls go who are bored of being 'repressed', and maybe even a strip joint. We arrive after a slight prelash of Voddy that BJ brought (necessary survival equipment) and admire a waterfall which greets us on entry as we go down the stairs to the basement in which the club is. It is quite a small room, maybe could hold 50 people, with lots of armchairs and sofas, all facing towards a raised dance floor. Perhaps it is a strip club, we think, and head to the bar. The bar doesn't work. So we head to a sofa and notice the large doughnut:sausage ratio, something which neither of us are quite used to. So we think it's a pretty cool place, and immediately as we sit down a waiter scuttles over holding two bottles of beer and plates laden with carrots, pretzels, nuts and the such like, charging us $20 for entry with the assurance of open bar after that. We pay him, thinking that it will work out cheaper than a night out in Oxford anyway and so he comes back holding two more bottles of beer, even though we have barely opened the first ones. Slightly more suspicious of the establishment we are in yet still quite enjoying it, we strike up a conversation with a girl sitting nearby who tells us that she is from the Ukraine. Cool place, we think, diversity of nationality. Glancing round again, the decision is that it is probably a strip club, having noticed a pole on the corner of the stage. The waiter comes up to us again and informs us that "if you want, any girl, all night, $100. For one hour, $45". Shit, we're in a brothel.

Well, we reason, every gap year has to include some sort of accidental brothel visit, and besides, open bar suits us fine. Ukraine keeps turning round and giving us the eyes, Turquoise to the right seems to be engaging a party of Japanese and Fat Red is doing her best to get any attention. Neither of us really the seedy experts, we sit quietly, occasionally laughing at the quality of the anecdote that this will provide. And then the entertainment begins - belly dance on stage, pole dancers, some seriously beautiful women and some seriously overweight ones. Perhaps they like that sort of stuff out here. And then we see that a girl is leading a 'customer' up a set of stairs to the left of the stage, concealed behind a curtain. Ukraine at some point goes up for about 20 minutes (yeah, we timed) with a moustached old gent and then returns to her seat and continues to send us glances and indicates that she wants my keffiyeh. I explain to her that it in support of Palestine against their suppression by the Israelis, but she seems to be indifferent and twirls it around her neck. Fat Red turns and gestures that she wants BJ's Kurdish keffiyeh, but by that time we are desperately staring elsewhere.

A man at the bar recognises me and we shake hands, and I realise that he is a guy who we met at the street kebab barbeque after our night with the Germans of gambling for the bill. He tells me that the girls here are not beautiful, and if we want he can show us to a better bar where you can 'sit' with better girls for the same price. Apparently, they have free time between 3 and 6pm so if they like us, maybe we can take them to a cafe or something. Yes, I agree, maybe we can, and then we scarper back to the sofa but not before he has extracted my phone number (cue text, 1.23am "i wayte if you wante goo anthar bare call me").

BJ decides that this is all much too weird and so gracefully passes out, whilst I engage Ukraine in conversation about why she works in this sort of a place in the first place, and why it is not better to be in her own country where she can actually speak the language, have friends and family, and other such sanctimonious arguments. We get talking and she tells me that she is 32 and has a son in Ukraine, yet has left because her husband went with another woman. The hours go by as we discuss how unhappy she is and then she poses the question: if we don't like this sort of stuff, why did we come here? I explain to her that in England, boys and girls go to nightclubs to dance and have fun. She laughs at this sadly, and calls me young, but her eyes slightly well up. She seemed to be on the brink of tears for most of our conversation.

I leave, having informed her in my most pithy, pellucid and pretentious manner to "be happy", tugging BJ by the arm, and we get back to the hotel at about 4am. We waited until morning to discuss the ethics of the sex trade.

Posted by kmaw 07:51 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Departure from Baron

And the arrival of Nic (but apparently we can't call him that as it is a naughty word in Arabic, so it is either BJ (not much better) or Sasha..)

So, Baron is in the past. I'm sure we will go there again soon as it has quite a nice bar - described as 'atmospheric' which means that Vanessa Carlton and McFly (or was it Busted?) are required to give this bar atmosphere..? - but for the purposes of a strong introductory signpost sentence it can stay like that. I did get my final triumph over Walid on departure though, as two German guys were asking in the reception for a cheap hotel, at which the receptionist was assuring them that Baron was surely the cheapest at only $64. I innocently mentioned the place I had found costing 400 pounds (6 quid, or 20 falafels) per night. On that I took my leave, leaving Walid cursing another lost profit in my wake.

The Germans - Marco and Heinrich - pulled up to the cheaper place I'd recommended, and we wangled a deal whereby the would crash on the floor or on another bed, whilst contributing to the cost of the room. Better for everyone, except the hotel, but that's ok.

So BJ arrived successfully, despite all chances of the reverse considering phones not working and not having numbers and so on. I must pause the narrative here - my bloody sleeping bag is too short! Where can a man be happy if not in his bed?! It barely reaches to my chest, it must be for kids or something. Well, that's what you get for spending 15 pounds instead of anything more. But surely, whoever was working there could have had the decency to point out that I was ignorantly buying something fit for children! Unless he is scouring the internet looking for the angry blog of the unfortunate guy who got conned into thinking this thing was a bargain. Bastard.

We (the British and the Germans..) met up with some people that I'd met the previous day, a guy called Ibrahim and his three sisters who are visiting from Turkey. We're supposed to be meeting them again today.. Better call them soon. Having toured round the citadel, which is basically a boyhood dream of big castle on a hill with walls and arrow slots and dungeons and the like, we split up and then stormed the Capital Mosque. It was having building work done at the time, so with our most ninja skills we scaled it and went to the top of a minaret. Pretty damn good except the ensuing punishments from Allah - after having spent the night playing cards and gambling for the bill - we awoke at about 6am to find some random guy in our room (coincidentally, the same guy as some weird man the night before as we were walking home at around 3ish..). Being sleepy and dazed, we politely instructed him to leave and let us sleep, before realising in the morning that Nic's phone was missing, as was Henry's wallet. Man, I hate divine retribution.

Posted by kmaw 05:24 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

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