Deir ez-Zur, Syria
Good nights sleep and I was woken by the 8:30 and 8:40 banging on the door - I just ignored it today. I was soon up anyway for another nice hot shower. Set off just before 10am paying for another night on the way out. Quite wet again outside but the skies are clearing with some blue showing through.
Walked up towards the minibus station and bought some water, "where from", England, Inglaterra, Brittania "ah, Brittania, welcome, I'm from Mattre", I thought he must have said Masr (Egypt) but after some to-ing and fro-ing we established that he was from Malta. I told him I was born in Mtarfa, Malta and showed him my passport. He said "ahh! Mtarfa!" and I couldn't understand if he had lived there or just knew it well but he was over the moon and we had a "chat" about Malta. Small world!
I carried on and grabbed a 10SP felafel sandwich breakfast on the way. The minibus station is huge and I was pounced on as soon as I walked through the office area. I told them I wanted to go to Dura Europos, they took my passport and we walked to a minibus where they filled out some paperwork with my details and I got on. We were soon on our way, 50SP for the 100km journey south. My mind was filled with the idea that I was getting a lot closer to Iraq and I was wondering what sort of reception I might get - given my dubious welcome in Deir ez-Zur. It was a while before I realised how much the landscape had changed.
The road runs alongside the Euphrates and the surrounding land is well irrigated by water pumped around a network of half-pipes about a metre of the ground. It wasn't all that green now, most of it having been recently harvested, but it was vastly different to the arid desert I've got used to seeing. Quite an interesting journey through agricultural land, scruffy villages and settlements of just a few houses and/or tents. We went through a few checkpoints but nothing too serious.
After an hour or so we came over a rise and I was looking at a low flat mountain that seemed to have sprung out of nowhere. A bloke behind tapped me on the shoulder and said "Dura Europos" and I realised that I was looking at the city wall - it was an impressive site.
We stopped at a serious looking checkpoint. A young 6'4" brick-shithouse soldier was swaggering about in the road and slinging a big machine gun - I hope he's one of the goodies! They checked a few documents of the other passengers and then disappeared with my passport. We waited 5 minutes and people were starting to cough and look at their watches - I tried to look apologetic. I got out and wandered towards the soldiers, maybe I can clarify something for them, and was told to get back on the bus. Then they gave me my passport back and I was dropped off there anyway.
This feels mad, 30km from Iraq at a heavily armed military checkpoint in the middle of nowhere, and the deserted and desolate-looking ruin is 1.5km across empty desert. Oh well, may as well start walking. I had a bit of a laugh to myself about the ludicrous situations I keep finding (putting) myself in.
I walked across the empty desert and actually saw some people leaving the site and disappear in a big tour-bus but they were much too far away to see where they were from. I got to the site and there wasn't a soul about. It's supposed to be a 150SP ticket but I walked straight in. I don't mind admitting that it was a bit creepy walking round there. The book jokingly says "look out for the armed guard on his motorbike - armed to take care of the wild dogs". Hmmm no guard - and I've just seen a bloody great dog that actually looked like a wolf! - and I'm not entirely certain it wasn't one. But it seemed to run away so . . . . And I've picked up my own personal cloud of midges from the nearby Euphrates.
Dura Europos dates from around 290BC. It was built to defend the trade route and the Euphrates. The romans took it in 164AD and expanded it. The persians took it in 256AD and largely destroyed it. It was thought to be an unremarkable arab fortress until british soldiers, digging trenches here in 1920, uncovered some well preserved wall paintings. It's a reasonable size area, maybe 1km x 1km, but most of the buildings are lost above waist height so it's full of little mazes of low walls. Still interesting though and nice views across the Euphrates and the better preserved New Citadel that the romans built. After a while I saw one other person there, an arab in western clothes, but we never got close.
I'd decided that if I got back to the checkpoint before 2pm I'd go on to see another ruin, Mari.
I was keen to see Mari so headed back at 1:30. The other bloke left about the same time but was in a car and went the other way up a little road while I crossed the desert. Back to the checkpoint and I asked if it was ok to get a minibus from here to Mari. I also hoped they might help as I wasn't certain that minibuses would stop for me - being a bit unpopular. They said ok.
A minibus soon pulled up at the checkpoint and while they were being checked I asked "Mari?" but the driver blanked me and looked away. I tried again and got no response so I wandered off to look for the next one. Then the military called me back and pointed me into the front seat. The driver was very non-committal to them too and just mumbled while looking straight ahead. The guy in the other front seat seemed to be complaining to the soldiers and eventually I got out to let him out. I could only think that he didn't want to be in the same minibus as me. A few in the back had nodded and smiled at me so it wasn't all bad. We set off about 2pm.
Through a couple of very rough villages and on for another 20km. About halfway I asked the driver how much - but he just mumbled and kept looking straight ahead. Then we came to a big brown tourist sign "Mari" pointing left. I asked "Mari?" and he pointed further up the road - didn't seem right to me. We stopped about a km further on where there was just a farmhouse and another village 0.5km further on. He gestured for me to get out - but where the hell are we? which way is it? was that it back there? He obviously wasn't going to tell me. I wasn't very happy about the situation - we're now only 10km from the Iraq border, I don't want to be wandering lost around here.
Then a Ford Fiesta pulled up beside my door and a soldier told the driver to take me back to where the sign was. Are they following me? He muttered and we turned round and went back - he dropped me off by the sign and just mumbled when I tried to pay - so I didn't. One of the passengers in the back called me and was pointing directions out the window for me - thanks mate.
I set off up the very quiet sidestreet with a few butterflies in my stomach. Some kids called hello and waved and I waved back. I heard something in the road behind me - the Fiesta was 100m behind, stopped on the side of the road, engine running. I carried on towards what looked like a tourist sign in the distance. The Fiesta rolled along behind me at the same discrete distance. Got to the entrance and paid 75SP to get in.
Walked up a lonely path towards the ruins on a hill. Someone was soon following me - seemed to be something to do with place and I hoped we weren't going to get into "special guide - baksheesh, baksheesh" routine. He stayed away but mostly kept me in sight.
Mari is a much older site dating back to 2900BC, and is a Mesopotamian site so is from a different culture to everything else I've seen. It reached it's peak in 1760BC under Zimrilim, it's most famous ruler, but was mostly destroyed when the Babylonians sacked the city in 1759BC. As with Dura Europos most of the significant finds are in museums elsewhere in Syria and around the world. What's left is excavated crumbly walls of houses and temples. The main Royal Palace though is in surprisingly good condition. It's been supported and resurfaced in some areas but it looks like protection rather than reconstruction. The Royal Palace is protected by a modern shelter, some of the exposed excavations show signs of rain damage (washing away) that must be recent. Whole rooms and courtyards have been uncovered in the palace and you're free to walk around as you please.
I saw/heard a couple of spanish(?) girls on the site but they seemed to avoid eye contact so we never spoke. The guide seemed more interested in them than me so that was good.
I left the site about 3:30 and walked back towards the main road - my Fiesta was back behind me. Got to the main road and started looking out for minitaxis. The Fiesta was right up with me now but when I looked over they looked away - it was quite comical really. When the passenger got out I recognised him as the "guide" from the ruins. A minibus came along, I stuck my arm out and it sailed past. 10 minutes later another came along, I put my arm out, the driver waved and smiled from his half-empty minibus and drove straight by. I was afraid of this - I'm too much potential trouble for them or maybe they just don't like me. The sun was getting low and I wanted to be on a minibus before dark - maybe in the twilight they won't notice my white face until they've stopped and it's too late. One more sailed by and the next one stopped. Before I could ask "Deir ez-Zur?" my Fiesta friends were talking to the driver - we eventually clarified "Deir" and I got into the empty back seat.
I couldn't see properly out the rear window but I knew the Fiesta was following. We charged along and I paid my 50SP. The sunset was terrific over the vast open plain. A very bright orangey-red sun disappearing and reappearing in thin stripes behind distant low clouds. Then one of the women on the seats in front of me leant over and threw up on the minibus floor. The driver was shouting and moaning at her and she was shouting back - it was pretty surreal. All the windows opened and I put my jacket on as it was cold.
At a couple of stops the driver jumped out and ran behind the minibus - it could only be to talk to the Fiesta men - I couldn't understand what was going on. We'd left the main road too and crossed to the east of the river - we didn't come this way. We picked up some people from a village and headed back to the main road where I started to relax again. I was joined on the backseat by 2 girls who were covering their noses and gagging and laughing uproariously about the sicky-smelly minibus - I couldn't notice it anymore.
Reviewing the day I realised that the "Mari guide" in the Fiesta behind was also the other bloke I saw in Dura Europos - I remembered the car outside. I'd not taken any notice at the time, I couldn't really see in the car because of the sun. I could see someone else in there but just assumed it was his wife or whatever. We finally got to the minibus station in Deir ez-Zur at about 6:30pm and I climbed over the pukey floor and got out. No sign of the Fiesta.
I really don't think my Fiesta shadow today was for my protection, I'm certain they were keeping an eye on me to make sure I was just the simple traveller I claimed to be. There was no sign of any "protection" for the spanish girls - though they may have been on an organised tour, and it was all a bit cloak-and-dagger.
I walked back to the hotel picking up a felafel sandwich, nuts, seeds, fruit and some giant biscuits still hot from the oven along the way - back just after 7pm.
I've struggled with eating the very popular seeds throughout my journey - it seems like too much work for too little reward. But I think I'm starting to get the technique at last. They're extremely popular throughout Egypt, Jordan and Syria and presumably the surrounding countries too. Anywhere where people might stop, bus-stop, park bench, café chair, minibus seat, etc. etc. is usually surrounded by discarded seedcases.
It's 9pm, I'm writing my diary, and I can hear the arab version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" on the tv in the lounge area - identical theme music and format. I wonder what the top prize is - a million SP is about £11,000!
An exciting day - and a monster diary entry. I knew it would be a challenge, I knew it would be a bit nervy, and it was both. But I was keen to see these ruins and I'm glad I went. They were both very interesting in their own way.
Back on the road tommorrow - my book describes all the places north-east of here as charmless modern towns so I'll give them a miss. Heading north-west is charmless modern Raqqa - I'll probably skip that too and pass straight through to Aleppo - about 350km.
High: I'm a little ashamed to confess that I enjoyed the adventure aspect even more than the very good ruins Low: I was a bit concerned when we kept going beyond Mari
Deir ez-Zur, Syria
Up with the 8:30 bangs on the door - still no real idea what it's all about. Had a shower and then got invited to join a few of the other guests and the manager for shay. The Al-Jazeera channel on TV seemed to be showing fighting in Beirut - it may be good that I didn't buy that plane ticket. The next article seemed to be claiming that Bush had/has a plan to bomb Syria - pictures of smiling Bush and cheshire-cat Blair virtually hand-in-hand. Bloody hell - that's all I need! Maybe time to review the plans again - internet tonight I think.
I checked out at 10am - had to pay 50SP for showers. Taxi to bus station - he was so keen to charge me fairly I gave him double - 50SP. 135SP bus ticket, passport checks, forms filled in, on the bus and moving by 10:30. Pretty comfortable journey with varied scenery of agriculture, the Euphrates, scruffy villages and settlements, the dam and Lake Assad it formed and plenty of desert. One stop on the way.
We got to Aleppo at 3:30 and I was getting the predictable hassle from taxis, I wanted to stretch my legs so started walking. A local from the bus was keen that I follow him - he'd show me the way. We walked a km or so and he was rabbitting away despite the fact that I couldn't understand him. I wasn't entirely certain we were going the right way so I stopped to check my map but couldn't figure out where we were. I decided to get a taxi, at least it would get rid of my friend. Hailed a taxi, asked for Baron Street - we drove about 300m around the corner and we were there! I gave him 25SP.
I tried a hotel from the book - no rooms, not this again. Tried the next one, Zahert Al Rahib, and they seem like really good people. It's a hostel really and I'm in a 185SP 4-bed dormitory room with an american, an australian and a japanese. There's a cosy little lounge area for the usual travel chat. I nipped straight out and got 2 felafel sandwiches, I'm starving having eaten nothing all day. Back to the hotel to eat and chatted with the australian bloke for a while.
Wrote some quick diary 'cos I want to get out to the internet soon to find out what's been going on in the world. I may be in a bad place heading towards a worse one. No trouble today though, everyone's been fine - and Aleppo seems quite ok, there's certainly other travellers here.
Went out and walked all around the town before I found an internet café - 200m from the hotel! It definitely seems friendlier here, just a few mutterings in the odd passing. Checked the news - the Bush story was about an alleged scheme to bomb Al-Jazeera, not Syria. The Lebanon fighting was just a minor border skirmish caused by an israeli hang-glider overshooting the border. No need to change my plans.
Back to the hotel and sat around chatting with a few - mostly listening to Didier, a belgian, who talks incessantly.
High: the News was a lot less of an issue than I thought it might have been Low: frustratingly bad connection and nosey neighbours in the internet cafe
Up at 8:30, lounged around chatting and having a few shays and out at 10. Walked around the new town area - nice square with a statue and fountains.
Walked back across town and went to the souq. Absolutely brilliant place, twisty dark little alleyways full of stalls selling all the usual stuff and blissfully free of hassle. It's the first souq where I really wanted to stop and browse around the stalls - 'cos you can do it without someone pushing stuff at you all the time.
There's still a few hustlers of course. One latched onto me and claimed to have an english girlfriend, yeah yeah yeah, "she's very beautiful", yeah yeah yeah, "she looks like Jack Straw, but without the moustache". That did make me laugh - I laughed about that on and off all day.
The women's clothes in the souq are really nice - I could imagine the women and girls in my family spending a month walking around - and they'd still have to be dragged away kicking and screaming. The prices for most things are pretty good too once you bargain them down. I'm probably going to do some shopping here and maybe post a parcel home to save carrying it.
After a couple of hours in the souq I visited the citadel. High on a hill near the centre it's quite a sight - 150SP ticket. It was pretty good but was suffering from some unsympathetic ongoing restoration that had robbed it of some of it's character. A big group of young teenage schoolgirls were visiting and every single one said hello when we passed. A couple stopped and chatted in broken english - they were really sweet. I clambered around and took a few photos but only stayed an hour as it just didn't have much of an atmosphere.
Wandered slowly around and back through the souq looking for ideas - I'll be in big trouble if I don't buy some presents soon! Back to the hotel about 5pm.
Sat with a shay and guidebook for a while until Didier turned up. He's ok and is an interesting bloke - very well travelled - but he talks so much he makes my ears ache. We went out for something to eat about 7:30 and ended up in a very nice restaurant he'd been recommended. Very nice meal of mezze starter and grilled lamb main course, plus a couple of shays for 360SP - not bad at all for such a nice place. I wanted to go back to the souq and maybe buy a few things but it was all closing up for Friday. We stopped and had pomegranete juice from a stall - very sharp and very nice. Then into a locals café for a shay. I was getting weary of the non-stop jabbering and headed off on my own after 20 minutes there. Didn't find much of interest and ended up back at the hotel about 9:30.
Didier showed up about 10pm - we'd talked about maybe doing an organised tour of the Dead City area tomorrow but the trip is now full. I said I'd go anyway - I'll find my own way around, it's more hassle but I prefer to be independent anyway. Didier was whingeing about the trip and asked if he could join me - another day of earache but I suppose he's ok really. We're meeting at 8am.
High: the souq is excellent - I can't wait to get back there Low: Didier's rabbiting and tactless/patronising dealings with the locals