2005 Time-out Diary
Wandering around Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon



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17-18 November 2005



Thursday 17th November 2005    day 129     whereami     Satellite view

Damascus, Syria
Had a bit of a rough night, it seemed very noisey in the hotel and I just couldn't switch it out. Didn't get up until late and it was midday time I'd showered, got myself sorted and checked out.

I thought I'd probably missed the bus(es) to Palmyra, guessing they only went in the mornings as it's a pretty remote place. I toyed with the idea of reversing my route and seeing Syria in a clockwise loop rather than lose a day. The buses north are sure to be more frequent and it's less of a journey in any case. The vast majority of the syrian population live in this narrow strip along the western borders, the remaining 75% of the country to the east is largely uninhabitable barren desert. I decided to try for Palmyra first.

Grabbed a taxi right outside the hotel for the Harasta bus station on the west of town. The driver was a doddery old boy and a very submissive driver. We crawled along, giving way to everything - how he makes a living here I don't know. He didn't even seem to know the way but I thought it must be my imagination - give the guy some credit! He dropped me off in a scruffy industrial area and pointed the way to the bus station - 70SP.

There was no sign of any buses and the one yard that had looked half-promising was full of lorries being loaded up. This didn't make sense at all. I wandered around looking for buses.

The golden rule when walking here (and Egypt and Jordan) is to keep your eyes glued to the ground about a metre in front of your feet. It's the only way to avoid the raised flagstones, sunken flagstones, potholes, raised drain covers, uncovered (2m deep) drains, brieze blocks, bricks, rubbish and prostrate locals in your path. Looking around for buses I turned my ankle on an uneven bit of ground and all but fell over - both hands on the ground. My ankle hurt and I'm carrying everything of course. I asked some lads for directions to the bus station and they flagged down a minibus that took me the 2km there for 10SP. Bloody taxi.

I walked into the bus station and was besieged by offers for Palmyra - excellent. I followed one guy to an office where my passport was checked, and bought my 110SP ticket for the 1pm bus. I looked around for a quick shay but couldn't find one so got on the comfy bus. I was soon surrounded by a dozen or so soldiers who made a half-hearted attempt to talk with me but soon gave up.

Once out of Damascus we soon entered the desert. This is not the rolling soft sand dunes of parts of Egypt or the weird wonder of Wadi Rum, it's harsh rocky land that doesn't look welcoming. It's still great though, I never tire of gazing at the immenseness and the barreness of all that open space. To the left (north) there was a mountain range that we followed all the way, to the right it was mostly flat open plain all the way to the horizon. All the way into Iraq in fact. Halfway to Palmyra we came to a crossroads, the right turn was signed "Iraq - 152km", thankfully we went straight on! The only breaks in the landscape were the occasional bedouin settlement (some block houses, some just tents) and a phosphate mine. Took a couple of shots of an interesting(?) mountain.

desert mountain   desert mountain

During the journey I kept moving my ankle about to prevent it seizing up. It felt like I used to get quite often playing football - and I could never tell if it would be fine the next day or the size of a grapefruit. Got a bit hungry too - nothing at all to eat today.

The green trees of Palmyra came into view and I was dropped off on the outskirts about 4pm. I was immediately joined by a lad from the nice hotel opposite - room 300SP. A fair price but it's in the middle of nowhere - I said I'd look in the town first and started walking. My ankle seemed sort of ok, it's not painful but I could feel it was very warm and wasn't sure I was doing it much good.

After 0.5km a lttle motorbike pulled up "hotel?", yes, "get on". I climbed on the back and we zoomed off towards the centre. He took me to Sun Hotel, a little place in a backstreet. It's ok, I've got a room with my own bathroom (first for ages!) for 200SP. I've even got a knackered old table and a plastic chair - I don't feel worthy of such luxury! The only downside is that I've got no windows, I'm boxed in, but never mind. I gave my 2 wheeled taxi 30SP and he seemed happy.

Dropped my gear in the room and joined the young manager for a shay. He speaks good english and we had a good chat. He's a really nice bloke, and I must say that I've met nothing but pleasantness and helpfulness from everyone today. Even the taxi driver was ok, he was just out of his depth - more suited to a sleepy village post office than the wild streets of Damascus - they're not for the faint-hearted!

Sorted out my small pack - found the 2 bananas and packet of biscuits I bought at the bus station for the journey, and forgot about even when I was feeling hungry! I think I must have dislodged a braincell in my fall!

Went for a wander in the semi-darkness to get my bearings and something to eat. Palmyra owes it's existence to a spring. People have lived here for thousands of years, evidence of Neolithic settlements has been found here. From at least 2000BC it was a minor desert outpost but following the fall of Petra to the Romans it became an important caravan city for the trade routes between the Mediterranean and Persia. The main attraction now is the ancient city dating from 2-300AD and mostly ruined since 600AD.

To be precise I'm actually staying in Tadmor, a relatively new town that has sprung up here - Palmyra is just the ancient city. It's a rough and scruffy little desert town though there doesn't seem to be too much litter about. I'm close to the main square where the hotels, restaurants and tourist shops are concentrated. It's got a nice atmosphere about it, most people say hello or nod and smile, the kids all wave and shout hello. The touristy area is all but hassle free and I only saw 6 or 7 tourists. I found a locals market - fruit and veg - and walked through a happy and relaxed throng of locals. I noticed some enormous cabbages in the market that I've not seen before - 6 or 700mm across and flattened like a bowling ball, only more so. And many strange 3 wheeled vehicles clattering around. Some like big tuk-tuk taxis, some like pick-ups, some like flatbed trucks - I've not seen these before either. I'll get some photos tomorrow. I could also see part of the ruins, illuminated on a hill to the west.

Bought a good-sized felafel sandwich for 10SP and headed back - I'd better rest this damned ankle. Saw a nice restaurant that's rated in my book - I'll eat there tonight. It's quite chilly here - I did my diary in t-shirt, sweatshirt and a big jumper. I might even have to try out my new jacket soon.

It's 8pm and I can hear the interesting sound of gunfire in the distance. Apparently they hunt in the desert at night, I saw several people with rifles in the town. So hopefully it's not our iraqi neighbours come visiting!

I'm just hoping now that my ankle is ok, Palmyra is a big site, there's a lot of walking to do in the next couple of days.

Went out about 9pm and had mansaf at the Traditional Palmyra Restaurant - mansaf is a variation on the chicken and rice staple - cooked with big peas and peanuts and served with yoghurt. It was very nice too, a huge serving with a shay for 200SP. A young lad (5y?), I guess the owner's son, came and chatted with me after I'd eaten. We couldn't understand each other and ended up just pulling faces at each other while he ate spoonfuls of sugar from the bowl with my teaspoon.

Back to the hotel and used their dial-up internet - not a bad connection. Checked my flight availability and noticed that it says I must book by the 20th Nov. In that case I'll probably book it on 20th Nov - for the 19th Dec. Also checked how to get home from Stanstead - National Express can get me to M1 J14 for 20 - seems reasonable.

I'm pleased to have made it to Tadmor today, and now at midnight my ankle seems to be ok.

      High: met lots of nice, friendly and helpful people today
       Low: turning my ankle, but I think it's gonna be ok


Friday 18th November 2005    day 130     whereami     Satellite view

Tadmor, Syria
Up for my 9am breakfast after a good night's sleep, back to normal again. My ankle is absolutely fine, not the slightest swelling or pain - brilliant.

Great breakfast of really good bread, cheese, hard-boiled egg, olives, dates, superb apricot jam and a whole pot of shay to myself - 75SP. It was very nicely served up too.

breakfast

Left the hotel about 10am, bought some water and walked up to the ruins. It's very overcast today, not a bit of blue sky to be seen and quite chilly. Went to the Temple of Bel first, 250SP, as it has specific opening hours - the rest is free access. It's the best preserved/reconstructed part of the ruins. It was very quiet when I arrived, I almost had it to myself. There's a great atmosphere about these ruins, few tourists and no big modern city overlooking them. It's only half complete in a lot of places and you're totally free to climb around with no hassling. It was really great.

Temple of Bel   the sacrifial path for unfortunate camels, goats and sheep   Temple of Bel

the 'cella' - rear view   Temple of Bel   Temple of Bel

Temple of Bel   the 'cella' - inside N   the 'cella' - inside S

the 'cella' - front   the 'cella' - front   the 'cella' - front



The whole compound was once covered with a wooden roof. A bedouin village existed here until they were turfed out by french archaeologists in 1929.

Behind the temple were the remains of some old houses and the oasis orchards.

old houses and the oasis

Then over the road to the greater part of the old city. I took way too many photos today but it was all just so great.

Triumphal Arch   Triumphal Arch   the colonnade

theatre   heavily weathered columns

Check out those dark skies - it actually rained! Bloody weather, you can't rely on it, 129 days of blistering sunshine and today it goes and rains - light 10 minute shower. At least it gave me an excuse to try out my new jacket - very warm and dry, and I cut quite a dash in it.

I headed over to the Temple of Baal-Shamin. I was joined by Said who invited me to sit and have some shay. He was a great bloke, very laid back and chilled out in the true bedouin way. He has camels for the tourists and didn't even try to get me on one. We just chatted and drank shay, and he wouldn't take any money.

Temple of Baal Shamin   Said - looking strangely camp here   Temple of Baal Shamin

Feeling refreshed with a few shays in me, jacket back in the pack, I walked around a big area that was barely excavated. There were huge carved rocks sticking out of the ground and short columns that probably went down some way into the ground. Very interesting and very "real".

heavily weathered column   Palmyra

Back across the colonnade for a few camel photos.

camel   camels   camels

Some shots of the colonnade.

colonnade and castle   columns

I was really enjoying myself clambering around everything and soaking up the great atmosphere of the place. You can really feel the history here - I've not felt that as much elsewhere. And there's very few people about - just great.

I was looking in a fairly isolated temple area when another local asked me to sit down with him. He was dressed in western clothes and didn't look like he'd have much interesting to say so I said I was just looking around - and carried on looking around. "come here, sit down", no, I'm just looking around, "come here" - on and on. He was starting to seem a bit dodgey so I had no intention of joining him. When I walked past him again to leave the area he sprawled back on the wall he was sitting on, started rubbing his crotch and said "come here, very good". I'll spare you my final answer!!!!!!!

He really pissed me off. My great mood had gone and the great historical images in my mind were replaced by more immediately appealing images of me pounding the idiot's brains out with one of the many handy rocks lying about. It was a good hour before I was finally able to relegate him to the insignificant piece of slime that he was - and get on with enjoying my day. I've not had to deal with any of this nonsense for some time now.

I walked out of the end of the colonnade and into The Valley of the Tombs. Some are Tower Tombs and some Hypogea, or underground. Diocletian's Camp off the end of the colonnade was a fortified city within a city. Behind the camp was an open tomb with sarcophaguses.

tomb   tombs   tombs

Diocletian's Camp   Diocletian's Camp

tombs   tombs

I climbed the hill behind Diocletian's Camp and took a shot of the main site.

Palmyra

Then around the hill into the main Valley of Tombs.

tombs   tombs   tombs

tombs   tombs   tombs

I crossed the valley and climbed up to some more Tower Tombs - with good carvings and interesting inside.

tombs   tombs

And to the top of the hill behind them for a shot back across the valley and Palmrya in the setting sun.

tombs   Palmyra in the setting sun

While clambering around here I startled a small deer (or whatever?) and it ran down into the valley and disappeared. I spotted it again later on the opposite hillside. A very unexpected bonus and it fully restored my mood.

Did the long walk back as it got dark. It got pretty cold but it was so nice being out in all that fresh air I didn't bother with my jacket. Took a few half-light shots to finish it off.

tombs   tombs   tombs

A great day in a great place - marred only temporarily by an idiot.

Went out for something to eat just after 9pm and took the easy option of returning to last night's good place. Had a kadjar(?), a sort of chicken caserole. It was very nice again but there wasn't much of it. The friendly service seemed quite surly today, I don't know why but I didn't feel particularly welcome there tonight. The bill was 300SP - half as much again as last nights for a lesser meal. I'll be trying somewhere else tomorrow.

I've got a bit more of Palmyra to see tomorrow but not that much, mainly the castle on the hill.

      High: Palmyra - a tremendous place, great atmosphere and no crowds
       Low: the idiot who temporarily stole my good mood




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