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

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19-21 November 2005

Saturday 19th November 2005    day 131     whereami     Satellite view

Tadmor, Syria
Up for an identical 9am breakfast and out by 10am. It's much sunnier today, almost a clear blue sky but there's a strong cold wind blowing.

looking back into Tadmor from the main square

I walked into the ruins at the closest point where it's largely unexcavated. Picked my way through some tombs and left the main compound on the north side to see a couple more tombs. Climbed up a fair hill to one and just sat there a while soaking up the view and the atmosphere.

weathered sarcophaguses

Back down and climbed the big volcanic (extinct for eons) cone to the Arab Castle, Qalaat ibn Maan. It's very steep but there's a reasonable path that snakes up so it's not too bad. The castle is much newer than the ancient city, dating from the early 1600's. Traces of older castles have been found, back to around 11-1200. The existing castle was abandoned in 1635 when the Ottomans took control of the area.

Arab Castle - Qalaat ibn Maan

The castle itself is not all that interesting. You're free to clamber around inside it but there's not much to look at and the ongoing restoration work is pretty crude.

The views on the other hand - wow! A shot over Palmyra.

Palmyra - from the castle

I sat on the ramparts at the highest part of the castle, it was sheltered from the wind that had dropped anyway. It was totally quiet there and I just sat there enjoying the view and thinking about how I came to be here and where I might be next year, in 3 years, in 10 years, etc.

view from the castle   view from the castle   view from the castle

I climbed back down the hill stopping for a couple more photos of Palmyra. The craters are excavated tombs.

Palmyra - from the castle hillside   Palmyra - from the castle hillside

The wind had virtually died by now and it was quite warm - t-shirt warm. I scrabbled over the rocky ground and made tricky slip-slidey climbs up some more rocky hills to see some of the more remote tombs. It's quite difficult to get about as the ground and especially the hillsides are covered with rocks - a great place to injure an ankle!

rocky ground

Yet another photo of distant Palmyra from a different angle.

Palmyra - from the far tombs

I walked around some different tombs and spotted this great arch just buried in the ground a fair way from the main compound.

buried arch

And back across Palmyra as the sun set. The obligatory photos.

Palmyra sunset   Palmyra sunset   Palmyra sunset

Palmyra sunset   Palmyra sunset   Palmyra sunset

Picked up a good 15SP felafel sandwich on the way back to the hotel.

It feels like a bit of a lazy day in retrospect, I'm certainly not as tired as usual, but I walked and climbed a good distance over difficult ground in many places. And it's good to just sit and think sometimes, I found the perfect places for it today.

Flicking through my guidebook on one of the hillsides today I noted that the standard syrian visa is only valid for 15 days, so I'll need to extend mine - it's supposed to be a formality. I'll be back around Aleppo at the right time (day 14 or 15), I'll do it there - might cost me a day though.

Also noted that Tadmor is home to Syria's largest and most notorious prison, mainly for political prisoners and islamic extremists. In the 1970's it became infamous when tales of torture, mutilation and general brutality were leaked. In 1980, in retaliation for a presidential assassination attempt by extremists a special unit shot dead around 500 prisoners in their cells.

Went out to eat and ended up back at the Traditional Palmyra against my plans. There's not much else around aside from the very basic locals places that I wasn't in the mood for or the flashy places in the 2 more-expensive hotels that I'm never in the mood for. Had the Mansaf again and it was very good - 200SP. The welcome was back too, perhaps they were just having a bad day yesterday.

Back to my room quite early so played around with the website - it's outgrown it's current format.

Off again tomorrow, to Deir ez-Zur about 200km north east of here.

      High: the excellent quiet panoramic thinking spot at the top of the castle
       Low: didn't manage to get any photos of the peculiar 3-wheeled vehicles around here

Sunday 20th November 2005    day 132     whereami     Satellite view

Tadmor, Syria
Up at 9am for the usual great breakfast, packed and checked out by 10am. Took a 50SP taxi to where the bus stops and had a quick shay while waiting.

Waiting for the bus I managed to get some photos of the great 3 wheelers that clatter and smoke their way about here.

3 wheeler   3 wheeler   3 wheeler

3 wheeler   3 wheeler   3 wheeler

And a superb old Mercedes that the owner was only too pleased to let me photograph.

Mercedes   Mercedes

Got my 100SP ticket and we set off at 11:30. Smaller mountains to the left (north) again, and very empty and open desert plains to the right.

vast desert nothingness

It was very comfortable on the very nice bus and I had the back half to myself. I did a bit more towards the website changes and just watched the desert go by.

Got to Deir ez-Zur at 1:30. Overpriced taxis were hassling me so I decided to look for a bus to the centre. Soon found one for the quick 10SP journey. 20 minute search and I found the hotel recommended in my book and by Mohamed at Tadmor. Hotel Al Arabi al-Kabir - he wanted 350SP and I only managed to get him down to 300SP. Decent enough room but boxed in again.

They wanted to hang onto my passport, presumably to copy a page, and said I could have it back at 3pm. Only an hour away so I decided to wait - I don't like being without it and they owed me change too. 3:30 came along, I'd got my change but still no passport. I went back to reception and an english-speaker told me 9pm - after the police have examined it.

I left it and dashed out for a quick look around the Archaeological Museum which gets a good write up in my book. It's off the streetmap but I headed out the way it said. To my surprise I ended up at the bus station where I came in - miles out. I asked around and got some doubtful directions. It was getting dark by this time and I was wandering around some rough streets getting odd looks from some.

Some kids joined me, boys 7y to 12y or so, and followed me a while then started asking for money. I'd just given the last of my change to a crippled beggar so said no. When they got bored following me they stopped and then started throwing stones at me - good-sized stones were whistling around my head and I wasn't sorry to get out of range.

I decided to head back - it was too late now anyway - and cut back through some sidestreets and walked back to the centre. I rechecked my map at the square in the centre and couldn't understand it until a helpful local pointed out that this wasn't the centre square. Ok - now I understand what happened - I'll try another day. I walked past the real square out towards the Euphrates River. There's a nice suspension bridge here that the syrians are very proud of. It's only a footbridge but it did look quite good lit up. It was dark and dingey around the area though so I left my camera in my pocket - I'll come and see it in daylight. I want to see the Euphrates properly anyway.

My book recommends a riverside restaurant - I found it but it was completely deserted so didn't bother. Walked back to the centre and bought nuts, sweets and biscuits 25SP, 6 very sticky cakes 10SP, a shwarma (kebab sandwich) 25SP and a metal cup 15SP, and back to my room at 6pm for a feast - very nice too. Retrieved my passport.

This part of the world is famous for it's sweet cakes and I've not had that many. These are like mini ring donoughts, soaked in thin syrup for a week, then deep-fried to seal it in, then dipped in icing sugar to finish off. Tooth-meltingly sweet but quite nice. I've been eating more of the nuts lately too, mostly peanuts and they're very good.

Deir ez-Zur is a very old town that has grown quickly in the last 20 years as a result of oil, and more recently gas, being found in the surrounding desert. It's a busy, bustly town with a lot of people and a lot of very chaotic traffic. Crossing the road is a bit of a challenge as cars, bikes and motorbikes seem to come from all directions at once. I'd only be half surprised if one dropped on me from the sky. My book describes it as laid-back and unhurried but I guess they visited in the stupifying 40C+ summer. I don't think it's much visited, I'm getting a lot of attention - similar to that in the Nile Delta / Lower Egypt - and I've not seen any non-arab faces. The reason I'm here is to see the Euphrates, the suspension bridge, some ruins and to have my usual nose around to see what's going on.

Asked at reception for an internet café as I hadn't noticed any in my fairly long wander around. He gave me some rough directions and I set off about 8:30.

I have to say I don't feel entirely comfortable walking around here - I definitely get some odd looks. Having said that everybody I've actually spoken to has been fine. Some of the "lads" are sort of mocking when they call "hello" or "how are you?" but I think it's just laddish lairiness. I'm conscious of the fact that if I'm going to pick up any anti-british/anti-western feelings this is as likely a place for it as any I'm visiting. Deir ez-Zur is the last significant town on the main route into Iraq - the border's about 130km south.

No sign of an internet café but I found a PC shop and asked. A very helpful bloke took me all the way to a cafe. Not a bad set-up and I managed to post all the revised website stuff. Good people in the café too - so maybe I'm being a bit paranoid.

Found a shortcut back to the hotel without getting lost - that's not supposed to happen! where's the adventure? I hope I'm not losing my touch.

Back to my room for a couple of in-room shays in my new unbreakable! cup - very nice.

      High: nice to be a bit off the beaten track again - more adventurous
       Low: being stoned by the kids wasn't all that great

Monday 21st November 2005    day 133     whereami     Satellite view

Deir ez-Zur, Syria
Pretty noisey in the hotel until the early hours and I didn't sleep well. Got woken at 8:30 by someone hammering on my door. I called out but nobody answered so I ignored it. Same again 10 minutes later and I decided that it probably wasn't my door being hammered - I've fallen for that before in these echoey places. Another 10 minutes and my door was hammered again and this time I saw it move. I called out again "hello!", "what?" - no answer. I wanted to be left alone, why don't they bugger off! I got up and dressed and opened the door. One of the hotel blokes called across the lounge area "hammam" (bathroom), "shower", eh? he thinks I need a shower? now? "mishi? anharda?" (go? today?). I said no, I was staying tonight and he wandered off seemingly happy. I don't really know what it was all about. Even if I was going I've got until 12 to check out (big sign on the wall).

I had a shay, sorted my stuff out and went for a shower anyway. Luxuriously hot! - maybe that's what he was telling me - there's hot water. I've only had lukewarm and cold showers for ages so it was a nice change.

Paid another night and stepped out of the hotel onto wet roads, it's clearly rained quite heavily and it's still spitting. Headed out towards the Archaeological Museum, on the right road this time. Found it without too much trouble and paid my 150SP to enter. I seemed to be the only visitor. No photos allowed.

The museum was really great. Well laid out with good descriptions of the displays and the history of each period as the displays progressed from neolithic flints to current times. The highlights were some pre-ceramic stone bowls - cut and ground from solid stone. They were very regularly shaped and had quite thin walls - amazing craftsmanship. Also, many of the items had been reproduced to show what they originally looked like. Weathered and damaged shoulder-high stone statues of human-headed bulls stood next to full-sized pristine plaster replicas. Fragments of clay tablets with barely distinguishable etchings had well drawn representations next to them. It was good to get to see both - I've not seen it done like that before. They also displayed a golden rivet - the mythical object of many an apprentice's false errand! I left about 12:30.

Traipsed back along the wet and muddy roads into the centre and straight through towards the river, as last night. The difference being that today I'm on the road I only thought I was on yesterday, and I marched off in the wrong direction - parallel to the river. It was a while before I realised my mistake, I cut through to the river and then doubled back. It wasn't a great walk, it's a scruffy unnattractive place away from the centre and my worn out shoes leak. I got to the bridge and noticed that what I thought was the restaurant last night was just a public sitting/picnic area. The restaurant was next door and was closed with big heavy padlocked metal gates. I wandered around and took a few photos of the footbridge - built in 1920.

Euphrates suspension bridge   Euphrates suspension bridge   Euphrates suspension bridge

Then over the bridge for some shots of the river. The river's quite wide, maybe 100-150m, with dark greenish water that rolls slowly along and around the several islands near the bridge. There's nothing of interest the other side so I turned back.

Euphrates - north   Euphrates - north   Euphrates - south

Back to the public area to read my guidebook and see what else I could do today. Er, nothing - there's nothing else here.

I decided I might as well just go back to the hotel. I've seen the main parts of the general centre and I definitely don't feel altogether welcome here so walking around for the sake of it seems pointless. Grabbed a felafel sandwich, some more great peanuts and some fruit and went back to the hotel about 3:30.

Quite a few people have wanted to chat along the way today, some of it's just been curiosity and passing the time of day stuff but many quickly get onto politics - do I love George Bush? etc. Americans are definitely not popular here but all the arab countries regard Tony Blair as Bush's poodle so the british are not considered much better. I've tried to dissociate myself from the politics, I'm just a traveller, but it's not easy with our limited vocabularies. One bloke asked if I was american, no I'm british, and he punched his hand to show what he might have done had I been american. The looks I get from most people in the street are a combination of surprise and suspicion, and varying degrees of hostility. Everybody I've approached, shopkeepers, market traders and museum ticketers have been absolutely fine.

I just sat around in my room for the rest of the day doing my diary and reading my book. As I had time on my hands I redrew the scrappy route map I rushed the other day - and made a much better job of it.

Making a shay in the evening I carelessly touched my metal cup while the water was heating - and felt quite a tingle. That bloody water-heater's lethal!

My potentially lost late afternoon and evening was actually ok. I'm really enjoying Dark Star Safari and his tales have boosted my confidence to take on tomorrow's mission. I'm planning to visit some ruins that are quite close to the Iraq border and I've been feeling a bit wary about it.

      High: the museum was great - well worth the visit
       Low: I just don't feel very welcome here

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