This is going to be a bit of an epic blog post, so perhaps you'd like to get yourself a cup of tea first.
From the outset, I have to say that adventuring in an Arabic speaking country is made all the easier by adventuring with an Arabic speaker. So for that reason, I send a big thank-you to Yassmin for (a) being an awesome adventurer, and (b) being an Arabic speaker.
Our adventure started slowly on Thursday morning, with a three hour wait at the border crossing, as people with American passports have to wait a long time for the immigration dudes to get in touch with Damascus, maybe drink some tea, smoke some cigarettes, and by the looks of it, pissfart around with well practiced ease. So by the time we actually got into Syria half the day was gone, but we were in high spirits. We jumped in a minivan and sat in front of a gypsy family whose children provided some entertainment for those who speak Arabic.
We'd been told to check out Krak al Hossan (also known as Castle de Chevalier) and the minivan driver told us that he'd drop us off at the base of the hill it sits atop, and we'd be able to jump in another service minivan to take us up.
So there we were, sitting by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere
watching cars and vans speed by, some of them dodgily pulling over saying "taxi?" when they obviously weren't. I saw a tourist bus approaching and said to Yassmin how nice it would be if they pulled over. It drove past us, but then miraculously stopped and reversed up to us. Spanish tourists, we love you!!
The castle was pretty impressive, with a fantastic view over the countryside (which from my research comprises a lot of rocks and greenery)
Our next adventure came when we had to get back down the mountain and to a town called Homs to catch another bus to Aleppo. The Spanish tourists were still somewhere inside, and the taxi drivers out the front of the castle were being very unreasonable. We ended up jumping in a minivan, and the driver told us that if he picked up more passengers he'd take us to Homs, or otherwise drop us somewhere to get another minivan. We got about 5 minutes down the hill and he gave up and dropped us at a crossroads. We had no idea if and when anyone would pick us up, but just when we were debating getting an ice-cream, a van came along and in we jumped. Success! It took quite a while to get to Homs and then another couple of hours on the bus to Aleppo. By the time we got there and found a hotel to stay in, the sun was setting. The guys at the hotel/hostel were all very nice, and were used to tourists. Particularly Australians...there were two other Aussies there that night, and more to come the next day.
We decided on Friday morning to go and check out San Simeon, a church dating back to the 1500s. Yassmin negotiated a good fare with a taxi driver, who gave us tidbits of information about Aleppo as we drove.
I thought the ruins were pretty cool. Apparently Simeon was a very pious man, who decided that this spot was a good place to pray. It took 40 years for the community to build this church (which is actually four churches laid out in the shape of a cross) in his memory.
We wandered around, musing how awesome it would be to be a kid able to run around and play in these ruins. While we were stopped to take some photos, an English speaking guide leading some Germans came past, and saw me preparing to pose for a pic. He came up and asked if I would mind him adjusting my scarf. "You'll look like a princess," he said as he wound it around my head...
I'd noticed flocks of sheep and goats on the way, and so we asked the driver to stop on the way back, so I could get another Travel Tail. Yassmin led the way through a field right up to the herd, and the shepherd was delighted to have us. His wooly sheep and rams were quite interested in us too, and they all came wandering over, the bells around their necks ding-donging as they walked.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, stopping for a coffee in a small cafe where there were some interesting men.
Later that afternoon, one of the guys at the hostel volunteered to take us to an internet cafe. We thought he'd just drop us off, but no, he then took us on a big walk through the old city, and the famous souk, which was quite atmospheric at night with no people around.
We ended up by the town citadel, which looked majestic all lit up. We said a forceful goodbye to the hostel guy as we got the impression he wanted to hang out with us all night, got ourselves a shwarma (2 other countries have proven that Shwarma Man reigns supreme) and sat and watched the masses of people enjoying the balmy evening.
We'd been told that Aleppo souk was the cheapest place to shop, so on Saturday morning after fortifying ourselves with some coffee with hit the market. While I did manage to pick up some scarves, the prices weren't as cheap as we had expected and we just weren't impressed. We ended up jumping on a bus to Damascus earlier than expected, which was good since it took over 4 hours.
A word here on Syrian roads: they're wonderful!! So smooth, with marked speed signs that people seem to obey, as they do the lane markings, and the traffic lights! Remarkable!
After finding another cheap hotel to stay in near the Souk al Hammoudin, we wrote a list of the things we needed (wanted) and hit the souk. I'd spent a couple of hours there in 2008, and remembered how crazy it was. We got there around 7pm and it stayed that crazy till 10ish.
My goal was to find a traditional coffee pot, and we got a good deal early on. A reward was in order...
Bakdash is famous across the Middle East for its ice-cream. Again, I'd been here a couple of years ago and had been dreaming of it ever since. You find yourself a spot at the long tables, and sure enough, minutes later, a man comes along and plonks a bowl of vanilla ice-cream with pistachio nuts down in front of you.
The sugar rush gave us the strength to carry on. The cute little girl sitting behind me didn't have the same luck, she was falling asleep with her ice-cream cone in hand, and every time her eyes closed and her chin fell down, she'd wake up again and take a lick. It was adorable, though how she could fall asleep in there is anyone's guess - not only is the place always packed, but they make the ice-cream right there...
The shopping continued with more and more success, and I just loved looking at all the shops as we dodged the other shoppers. There have been news articles and books of late about the lingerie produced in Syria - while we didn't see any of the crazy stuff, as we didn't want to go in ask since we weren't going to buy, I was highly amused by the selections on display, and the hijab-covered women looking at pieces with their husbands.
Sunday morning came all too soon, and we set off to find a women's hammam to get massages. Talk about adventure! We walked and walked and walked, and asked and asked and asked. We ended up at a men's bathhouse and they provided some directions. Yassmin stopped to ask a man on the street, who told us he'd take us there.
It felt like we walked for about half an hour, through tiny alleys, past a Shi'ia mosque, through markets. Finally we got to a point and asked another shopkeeper where it was. He pointed at the curtain we were standing in front of. After thanking our guide profusely we rang the bell and were let inside. Unfortunately, the price they wanted to charge for a massage was outrageous (damn my white foreigner skin) so we chalked up the adventure to getting to see the tiny streets of Damascus and headed to the Umayyad mosque.
We had to go into the "place to change special clothes" to pick up a long robe (and for me to pay a small entry fee) and then into the mosque.
It's absolutely beautiful, and took ten years to build in 705AD (so quite early on in the history of Islam). The tiles were cool under foot, and the engravings and decorations were stunning.
We'd heard there was a bus to Beirut at midday, so grabbed our (heavier) bags and headed for the bus station. Arriving right on the dot, we were told that the bus would actually leave at 1pm. It took us about an hour to get to the border. Then about half an hour waiting around for various people to do various things. The bus driver actually left at least one person behind! We were a bit nervous after this, but were pretty confident he wouldn't leave the ajanib (foreigners) behind. We then stopped again to get more stamps and approvals. The no-man's-land between the two borders took about 10 minutes to drive, and then more stamping, more waiting.
By this stage, we were so happy to be back in Lebanon because we knew how things worked, that we'd be able to get our passports stamped easily with our residence permits in hand. Of course, not everyone on the bus had that luxury, so for a change, we were the ones waiting. We drove a few minutes then the bus driver pulled over again. Food break. We'd already stopped just before the Syrian border for people to buy food, so we were getting frustrated. So close, yet so far from home. We got to the bus station in Beirut just before 5 and had to wait till half past for the bus to Tripoli to leave.
Tired, sweaty, and smelly (the blurriness of the photo above is an apt display of how we felt!) we got home around 6:50pm, and were delighted to find two beers in the fridge. A wonderful end to a wonderful adventure!