Up later than planned as usual - this bed's way too comfy, I've slept like a log every night here - up at 9am. Sorted and finished packing etc. and checked out at 10am - got charged for 5 nights, I thought it was 4 but didn't bother to argue, I lose days all the time. Bought my jacket to stop myself wasting any more time on it - 20JD, and it's pretty good. Jammed it into my pack which is getting big again - I'm gonna have to lose some stuff, get rid of some read books perhaps.
Walked up to Abdali station, a heavy climb with my heavy pack and I had to stop for a rest half way. My giant pack is causing some amusement again, it doesn't bother me greatly but I could do without it. Quickly found a bus going to Rhamsa and jumped on. I'm running blind here as Rhamsa's not on any of little electronic maps I've grabbed off the internet - but the hotel misfits assured me it's close to the border.
Nice journey out through Amman and through the flatter north Jordan. During the journey I counted my days in Amman, it was only 4, the buggers overcharged me. Got to Rhamsa about midday and they waved me off the bus to a bloke who seemed to be waiting for me. He said "Syria?", I said "yes" as I wrestled on my big pack, he grabbed my small pack and took off beckoning me to follow him. He was obviously a taxi, we got to his car and I asked how much - 5JD. I haven't the faintest idea how far it is but said no, he said 4, I said I'd go for 3JD and he said ok.
It was only 2km or so when we reached the Jordanian border post. I went in, filled out the departure form, paid the 5JD departure tax and got a stamped piece of paper. Straightforward enough, but getting out of Jordan was never my concern. We stopped at a duty free shop in no-man's-land and Mr Taxi bought 800 cigarettes, I bought 200 Marlboro Lights for 11US$. Mr Taxi slid out his car stereo and as we crawled the 2km to the syrian border he stuffed most of his 800 cigarettes into the dashboard, big cartons going out the window, and then replaced the stereo.
We pulled up at the syrian border, I took a deep breath and went into the Arrivals office. They asked for my passport and carefully went through it. They're looking for Israel stamps - a definite goodbye if they find one. He looked up, puzzled, "visa?". I said no, I was told to get it here. "La, la, la, no, no, no" and he shook his head and passed my passport back towards me. I said I'd been to the syrian embassy in Amman yesterday and they told me to get my visa here. "la, la, la, no, no, no". There was a big sign on the wall clearly saying that I wouldn't get a visa here, there's a Syrian Embassy in the UK, I must do it there. He hesitated, sighed, tut-tutted and withdrew my passport and went to talk to one of his colleagues. Then he told me to take a seat and he disappeared out of the building with my passport and form. 10 minutes went by and Mr Taxi kept popping in and out to see what the delay was - I'm not sure if he was worried about his time or his contraband.
The border bloke came back and marched straight into an office where he was talking to someone senior and then they were both on the phone - well at least they seem to be trying.
He came out of the office and went back outside again for another 10 minutes. When he came back he nodded at me and beckoned me back to the counter. "Where you go?", Damascus and Aleppo, "where stay in Damascus?", I don't know. He sighed and look down at his shoes, "which hotel Damascus?", er, I don't know yet, I'll just find one, "is it the Palace Hotel?, or Meridian Hotel?, or", yes, Meridian Hotel, "ok" and he finished filling in the form. He gave me a piece of paper with 52$ written on it and I went to the nearby bank, changed most of my JD's into Syrian Pounds, went back to the counter and paid him. I paid the taxi at the same time - giving him 4JD, for his trouble. He stuck some stamps in my passport, stamped it and gave it back to me. I'm in!!, I can't believe it, I'm bloody well in!! I've bloody well done it!!
We went through customs and they wanted to see inside my big pack - jacket out, big jumper out, new shay glass (wrapped in jumper) dropped on the floor and smashed. "this?", guitar - he looked disdainfully at me and dismissed me, unworthy of his time. I quickly bundled the pack back into the taxi boot and we entered Syria. I wanted to shout and punch the air but kept up my dumb, bewildered tourist act and behaved as though the whole process had been a complete mystery to me. Mr Taxi didn't take much convincing - he clearly thought I was some kind of idiot.
I was expecting to be dropped off just inside but we kept going. I said "bus?, Damascus?" and he nodded. But we kept going, I was beginning to think he was trying to take me to Damascus but we got to a big bus station and he dropped me off - maybe the extra 1JD softened him up a bit, or maybe he thought that a fool like me needed all the help I could get! Good on him - he was a good bloke, and helped me out, 4JD well spent.
I had a private little celebration in my head and went for a syrian shay. Chatted with some very friendly lads in the café with a little english and my miniscule arabic. The tea was 5SP and I only had a 100SP note so they let me have it free - I like Syria already! 1SP=1.1p, 93SP=£1 - so 100:1's close enough, 1SP=1p will do fine.
So, I'm in Syria, but I haven't the faintest idea where. I went to ask but didn't bother as it wouldn't mean anything to me anyway! Went to look for a bus to Damascus - I saw from the taxi that it's 110km away, and I at least know it's roughly north. The first one I asked said yes, we stowed my big pack and I hopped on. A nice clean bus in good condition, 50SP for the journey. The landscape was flat, part barren and part cultivated. Then it got hilly and surprisingly most of the roadside hills had a sort of pine/fir trees growing on them. I guessed they were cultivated and was soon proven right when we passed acres of nursery fields with young trees. Nice enough journey though and then we joined the Damascus traffic - pretty heavy - and arrived at a bus station.
I collected my gear and had a little wander but there was no sign of any hotels. I asked a taxi to find me a cheap hotel "fundu rakhees". This is always fun, because of my poor pronunciation they always think I want the Hotel Rakhees - and they've never heard of it - but we got there and he dropped me off in the hotel area - 50SP. I tried 5 hotels and was told "full" at all of them, and I don't believe them - they're too sheepish about it, they just don't want me. The 6th said yes, and I've got a pokey little 1 bed room for 300SP in the Beirut Grand Hotel (but Beirut's in Lebanon innit?!).
Quick sort out and straight out to find something to eat. I seem to be right near the centre, there's a tremendous bazaar/souk only 500m from the hotel. A long walkway with really interesting, bright, colourful shops down each side and a high arched roof covering. Side alleys lead off to market stalls selling everything, clothes, toys, stationery, linen and silks, perfumes, shishas, you name it. I walked down the main walkway, it was great except you have to wrestle away from some hassling. They shake your hand and then won't let go - asking, then pleading, then begging, then dragging you to visit their shop. Went down a side alley away from the glitz and found a little café, had an ENORMOUS felafel sandwich for 30SP - should do me for about a week!
Decided to wander back to make sure I could find the hotel before I roamed too far. Looked out for a bank and internet but saw neither, found my hotel ok. Wrote some diary so I can share my great news - assuming I can find an internet café tonight.
Well, it's been an exciting day. I'd all but given up hope of getting into Syria having heard so much discouragement the past few days from people who know about these things. I had to try though and it's paid off - and it was so much easier than I'd expected in my wildest dreams. My most optimistic well-wishers and I were reckoning on 24 or probably 48 hours at best, but most likely just a straight no. And I was all done in about an hour - total cost roughly £5 to leave Jordan, £28 to enter Syria, £0.05 glass smashed at customs.
I'm assuming my visa is a 1 monther, it's illegible and I didn't dare ask. Ideally I would have got a multi-entry visa to cover a week's nipping in and out of Lebanon but that's trivial really. I'm told that once you have a syrian stamp it's much easier to get another - the precedent is set.
I still want to go to Lebanon as well but I haven't worked out a route yet. My first priority is to find out where I can fly home from, Syria? Lebanon? I'm not sure about either - it might even make sense to make a dash for Turkey. I need the internet again!
Asked at reception about internet, "all closed, tomorrow". Walked round the corner and found one open - 100SP/hour. Quickly did the website and spent a while looking for flights. To my surprise it's cheaper from Lebanon - that's good, I'll spend a while touring Syria and then go into Lebanon for a little while and fly home from there - £188 is the going rate. No worries and expense with getting back into Syria.
High: I'm in Syria!! - I bloody well made it!! Low: bit nervewracking waiting at the syrian border, but exciting too
Totally crashed again last night, I don't know where all this tiredness is coming from! Decided a decent guide to Syria would be a good investment now I'm here, if I can find one, so I went shopping.
Found a bank and an area of bookshops though most only had arabic books. Finally found one with a good selection of english books including the Rough Guide to Syria - 1200SP, the extortionate cover price - I bought it. They had several other interesting english titles there too and it stretched my self control to walk out with just the one.
Wandered around some mainstreets and backstreets and back through the bazaar and souq, the souq seemed to twist and turn going on forever, it was much bigger than I'd realised. Some of it looks a bit touristy but there aren't many western tourists - I've seen 5 or 6 non-arab faces all day and 2 of those were japanese.
Bought a cheesey pastry and a mini pizza and sat in the sun in the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque and ate them while flicking through my new book. The Umayyad Mosque, built in the early 700's, is one of the most famous monuments of Islam.
Went wandering again through the maze of the souq and out the other side. Walked through markets definitely there for the locals, fruit, veg, meat and fish and all the necessities of life. Stopped in a breezey open air café for an excellent fresh orange juice 25SP and read some more of my new book - a plan is forming.
The general air of Damascus is similar to Cairo but the pace is slower and gentler, the traffic only just so. The people vary widely from fully covered and veiled young women to westernised trendy young women with heavily powdered faces and too much make-up on top. Some of them look ghostly they're so white. The men too range from gelebaya and full moslem beard to trendy westernised jeans, tight jumpers and gelled hair. As with Jordan and Egypt there's a strange tussle going on between traditionalism and the modern world. Jordan was by far the most "western".
I couldn't help noticing the popularity of padded bras and bra inserts in the souqs - I guess big boobs are in. I can't help laughing at the idea though, if a girl attracts someone because of her artificially impressive chest it can surely only end in disappointment!
I'm not sure that I'm completely welcome here, everybody I've spoken to has been polite and courteous and has seemed pleased to talk with me, but there's been quite a few hard stares, under-breath grumbling or tutting as we pass in the street, and some mocking politeness from young men. Something, a clothes peg(?), bounced off my head in the bazaar - whether something fell on me or someone threw it I don't know - I just ignored it. It doesn't feel unsafe though so I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. According to the internet there's a fair bit of anti-american feeling here, I think most US officials have actually cleared out, and I suspect a few think I might be american. The british FO just advise caution on their website.
I wandered up towards the "new city" but it was dull and I soon cut across back towards the hotel. Picked up 50SPs worth of pistachios and headed back to my room about 4pm. On the way back I noticed how some of the buses are heavily decorated.
Spent some more time with my guidebook - a good investment, I've got a much better idea of the country already. I've decided my best route is an anticlockwise tour of Syria, bringing me back to Damascus in 3 weeks or so, then into Lebanon for a 1 week or so whistlestop tour. I'm tempted to book my flight while it's available, Dec 19th just beats the Christmas price-hike, I might do it tonight.
Went out for something to eat about 8pm. Stopped at quite a nice looking restaurant at Martyr's Square. Had a great lentil soup, and a chicken shish kebab with chips and humous. Not quite as healthy as I wanted but choice is very limited. There was some salad with it and at least it was a proper meal - my first for several days. My digestion wasn't helped by the tv - on the Al-Jazeera channel showing the latest US atrocities in Iraq, that I later learnt on the internet was regarding their use of white phosohourus.
The manager who was walking up and down, glued to the tv and tutting, asked me where I was from. I said England and he said "welcome". I shook my head to indicate that I wasn't part of it and didn't agree with it - which is the truth. The article went on and on and I couldn't understand a word, even when an interviewed whiney american official spoke it was loudly overdubbed and I couldn't hear him. When I paid 300SP and left the manager said "goodbye my friend" and shook my hand - that made me feel a lot better.
Went to the internet café, updated the website and caught up with the news. The people in the internet café are great, they welcomed me back like an old friend and kept me supplied with shay for my hour. I didn't book my flight - 5 weeks is a long time around here. I'll keep an eye on the availability and wait a while. I don't want to pay for a flight I then can't take if I have to change my plans.
Back to my room, kicking myself for not buying a replacement shay glass today - no in-room shays again. Finished off today's diary, read my book a while and crashed out for a reasonably early night. I'm hitting the road tomorrow - 200km north-east to Palmyra/Tadmor in the desert.
I like Damascus, the old city is great with it's never-ending souqs. The odd funny look or whatever has not been worrying and the majority of people are very friendly. I've found in most places that usually you are judged for who you are, not by the actions of your government and it's allies. I'm looking forward to coming back in a few weeks and might even do a bit of shopping as the end of my journey will be approaching.
High: "goodbye my friend" in the restaurant - kind words Low: my progress with lightening/reducing my load = +1 book!