Met Didier at 8am, quick shay and chatted with the people going on the organised tour - Didier regaled them with his tale of woe about not getting on the trip, "it's not the belgian way!" - er no mate, you're in Syria. I'm fed-up with him already.
We walked down to the minibus station and found one going to Daret Ezzeh without too much trouble. It's 6km short of St Simeon but that's as far as they go. I thought he was unnecessarily rude, and patronising again, to a taxi that offered to take us. Good journey out through Aleppo and into the countryside, 30km for 10SP. We got to Daret Ezzeh and the minibus driver offered to take us the rest of the way for 100SP - a bit steep but hassle free so we took it.
We were there at 9:30, 150SP ticket and we had the place to ourselves for the first 30 minutes.
St Simeon / Qalaat Semaan is one of the syrian must-sees. Built between 476 and 491AD it was the biggest church in the world. It was built to commemorate Simeon who spent around 40 years on an 18m pillar - to separate himself from earthly life and think only of god. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Pilgrims came from all over, including Britain, to see him and hear his preaching.
It's a ruin now but an impressive one. We wandered around, I soon separated myself from Didier and saw most of it alone. The column is still there but is now just a lump of rock - enthusiastic pilgrims having chipped away at it for souvenirs. Some of the higher distant hills towards the Turkish border had snow on them.
In one quiet corner I clambered down into an even quietter bit and found some wild dogs - a mother and 4 puppies. They seemed relaxed with me and let me get close enough for a few photos.
We climbed down out the back way to cross an olive grove and see some minor ruins on the next hill. This whole area is dotted with numerous "dead cities" - rocky ruins just left there. It's mostly christian stuff - it's claimed that the term "christian" was first used here. We found a path that turned out to be the original entrance to the church - a big arch at the end. Across the road and into a very quiet and widely spaced farming village. Walking up the track you can see bits of ruins and tombs etc. all over the place - it's everywhere here.
After walking for 15 minutes a local beckoned us over and invited us in for shay. We went into his tiny bare house and had some shay while he poured out a sob story about how his parents had died and left him destitute. He spoke no english but we could understand each other a bit. He was acting as though he was a poor helpless little orphan but he was easily my age - it was a bit puzzling but was obviously a sign that he wanted money. We messed around with his kids, drank his shay, gave him a little cash and went.
We walked up to the ruin of what was obviously a small church, climbed around, took a few photos and left.
After a bit of a twisty walk through and around olive groves and farmland we found the road again. We hitched back and got a ride in one of the great 3-wheelers. A mini pick-up with a motorbike style front end - we were in the back - great fun. He dropped us at the minibus stop in Daret Ezzeh, waved goodbye and drove off - no sign that he wanted money - cheers mate. Straight onto a minibus and back to Aleppo around 2pm. Bought a couple of felafel sandwiches and went back to the hotel. My main objective now is to shake off Didier - he's driving me nuts!
I made an excuse about needing to sort out some laundry (actually about a 5min job) and left him to sort his own afternoon out. We agreed to meet at 6pm for dinner. Sorted out my laundry and just read my book a while on my bed. There's not much else I want to see here and I'm actually knackered. Dozed for a while about 5pm and woke to hear Didier in the communal area doling out advice, correcting anyone elses ideas with his own and generally holding court. I decided that he's a true pain in the arse and stayed where I was. Some others invited him to join them for dinner, he agreed as "I don't know what happened to the english guy". Phew!
Had a shower and went for a wander around town about 8pm - I could do with some money but couldn't find an atm. Picking up some bad vibes in the town again tonight and it was starting to annoy me. When the 15th bloke muttered and moved directly into my path as he overtook me I gave him a little "accidental" kick on the heel - he turned like a shot and glared at me - yeah yeah yeah. Quick 20 mins in the internet café, grabbed a kebab sandwich and went back to the hotel about 10pm.
A new face in the communal area. David, an english bloke from Leeds and a full time traveller - making a bit of money from time to time teaching english. He's a really good bloke and we had a good chat comparing notes, swapping tips etc. - the usual stuff. Read my book for a while and went to bed. Paul Theroux mentions his sons in the chapter I was reading - I'd completely forgotten that Louis Theroux, one of my few tv heroes, is one of his sons.
Quite a good day but Didier didn't help it. It was probably my irritability from spending the morning with him that made me kick the lairy bloke in town - not the wisest move maybe but I don't feel I need to put up with quite so much nonsense. Would I be here - wandering around an arab moslem country on my own if I considered arab moslems to be the enemy? - I don't think so. It's just bloody politics.
High: the ride in the 3-wheeler - great fun Low: Didier - I definitely won't be spending any more time with him
Bit of a quiet day today. Out at 9:30, found an atm with the assistance of a very helpful local - keen for the opportunity to practise his english.
Went to the souk and did a little bit of shopping for a few hours - seemed a little more hassley today. Very busy in there with lots of pushing and shoving. There's also loaded barrows being barged through the crowded narrow aisles - and loaded donkeys. The main track through is just about wide enough for a small pick-up and they also force their way through. Motorbikes and bikes zoom up and down through the masses. It's a pretty wild place but it's good fun too.
Picked up some fruit on the way back to the hotel to improve my diet a bit - I seem to be living on felafel lately.
Back to the hotel about 3pm and sat around eating my fruit, drinking shay and chatting with some others. Studied my guidebook for a while. I was going on to Latakia on the coast but it doesn't look that interesting so I'll probably head straight to Hama tomorrow - about 100km south, should be an easy run.
Went out to the internet in the evening, tried to book my flight home but they seem to want to post tickets to my home. Poor connection was bugging me - try again later.
Back to the hotel and had a good chat with David, a slovak and an iranian.
High: the souk was good, very lively and busy Low: the flight problem could be a concern
Very restless night with a stomach ache from 3am onwards. Maybe I ate too much fruit? I also ate quite a lot of nuts in the evening while busy chatting - more than I'd realised until I noticed the bag was nearly empty. Up late.
Sat around with a couple of shays chatting with a swede who'd just arrived from Turkey. My stomach was definitely not improving and ultimately I decided to stay and have a lazy day - and try and get some plans together for my remaining few weeks.
Read my syrian book, read the lebanese brochures I downloaded from the internet last night and got some ideas together. Also finally got a gps fix for Aleppo.
Played around with my plans, changing my mind a dozen times and still haven't completely decided. And haven't decided whether to post or carry my shopping either. Indecisive, apathetic and unsociable today - I think a minor dose of travel-fatigue took hold.
As it stands I'm going to head to Latakia tomorrow after all. It should be quiet as it's well out of season, I'd like to see the syrian coast and I reckon a good breath of Mediterranean sea air will revive me.
High: kinda nice to have a quiet day off Low: bad stomach in the morning
Fully fit and up for it today. Up and showered, packed and shay'd and took my shopping to the post office. A bloke at the door latched onto me - he's got packaging to sell - and I need some. He put my stuff in a cardboard box and helped me mark it up correctly. He took me into the post office where I filled out a form, then a visit to customs for a cursory check, back to complete the form and pay. I walked here yesterday and enquired about costs/time - 200SP/kg and 2 weeks to deliver. Today it was 400SP/kg and 4 weeks! Cost more to post than to buy - never mind. Posted it to my UK agent - thanks Suzi.
Went to the atm to top up the funds, back to the hotel and checked out about midday.
Walked the 1km to the bus station - pack feels heavy, I'm glad I posted my shopping. It's quite a bit warmer today too - blue skies - so I was hot in my sweatshirt. Asked around for Latakia and got pointed in 10 different directions. A trampy bloke was making a big and useless effort to help me - he clearly didn't have a clue - but when I decided to walk this way he "helpfully" pointed the way I was going. When I found no bus and started off that way he "helpfully" pointed me along. I tried to shrug him off but he was having none of it. I finally found an office where they sold me a 100SP ticket - my helper nodding enthusiastically as we'd been successful. They pointed me to the bus and my mate pointed me every inch of the way and tried to help me stow my pack. As he was no help at all I didn't tip him and he was most upset.
I sat on the bus for 5 mins and was asked to go back to the office - they want to see my passport again for some reason. Quick glance and they gave it back to me. We set off at 12:30.
We were soon out of Aleppo and into the rocky countryside. Then into very agricultural land - not many crops, just ploughed fields, miles of them. Then olive groves, thousands of olive trees in the valleys and up the hillsides, I've never seen so many. Western Syria is very different from the desert in the east. It's very rocky and steeply mountainous with deep ravines. The Orontes River and it's tributaries wind their way through here so there's plenty of water and plenty of green - mostly trees. Some of it almost looks alpine - it's great scenery. I was perfectly happy looking out the window of the comfortable bus and was sorry the journey was probably only a couple of hours. Took some wobbly photos through the bus window.
We stopped for a break and the bloke who'd been sitting behind me and chatting a bit insisted I had one of his cigarettes and bought me a shay. He was alright and we chatted a bit in mini-english/mini-arabic. He pointed north and said that Turkey was only 5km away. Back on the bus and we drove through miles of orange trees - all full of fruit that looked about ready for picking. We got to Latakia about 3:30 so I got a longer journey than I'd expected - great!
A taxi offered to take me to the hotel I wanted for 50SP - we agreed on 30, it's only a few km. Hotel Latakia, they showed me a nice room with bathroom for 400SP, I said it was too much and I've got a simpler room without for 250SP - he wouldn't come down at all - it's ok though.
Checked in, dropped my gear and went straight out to catch the last of the daylight and maybe see the sea. I did see it but only through the industrial port so it wasn't that great. It seems a lot warmer here - the air is warmer. I think, having crossed some big hills/mountains we're now definitely in a Mediterranean climate. Aleppo and the east seems to pick up the cold from eastern Turkey. Walked a couple of km north along the port but it wasn't coming to an end and the sun had set so I turned back.
Latakia is a tourist town popular in summer with arabs from the south escaping the heat and europeans escaping the cold. It's well out of season now though so it's a bit of a ghost town. It looks ok though and there's some ruins (more ruins!) a bit north that might be worth a look.
Picked up some bread, cheese and salad and went back to my room - I'm starving as I've not eaten today. The tomatoes looked a bit odd, and even odder when I cut them open. They weren't tomatoes at all but some kind of fruit, I don't know what. I bunged them in my sandwiches anyway and they were very nice. Washed it all down with some small juicey oranges and some seeds.
Knock on the door - the hotel want to hold my passport. I told him that nobody else in Syria has had to hold it but he insisted that the local police say he must - I gave it to him. Wrote some diary, tried and failed to get a gps fix as I can barely see the sky. I'm off to the internet now at 9pm to update the website and maybe have another look at this flight business.
Found a great internet café, good PCs, good connection and good privacy. Updated the website, did a few emails and got my flight booked - electronic ticket. I'm flying out of Beirut via Prague to Stansted leaving about 3am and arriving about 8am on Dec 19th. So my first day home will be spent mostly in bed!
Back to the hotel about 11pm and tucked into some more salad and fruit? sandwiches and finished off my bag of seeds - much like "the man from Leeds" but hopefully without the same consequences!
High: Great bus journey through terrific scenery Low: No view from my room again - I'm gonna have to treat myself soon
Slept like a log again, totally out for the count until 9am with a brief wake-up for the 5am prayers - loud, I'm very close to the main mosque. Pleasantly surprising hot shower, quick in-room bread and cheese breakfast and out about 10:30. Got to get my visa extended today so I recovered my passport from the hotel.
The Immigration Office is just around the corner, or at least it was according to my 6 year old book. Not anymore, they pointed me 2km north and recommended a taxi but I wanted to walk. Wandered around and eventually found it an hour later. Went in, found the right office and waited while they sorted a local out.
This little office is exactly like one of these offices should be. 2 ancient desks untidily piled with books and partially completed forms, a middle-aged bloke behind one and an overweight middle-aged woman behind the other - both in military uniforms, him chain-smoking. Ancient and battered filing cabinets and drawers line the blistering peely paint walls. The woman hacked and coughed and gobbed into the bin. Everything about it just shouts "beaurocracy" and "inefficiency" and "come back tomorrow". It's perfect, right down to the lingering public toilet smell of piss. Someone should be congratulated on such a good effort.
The bloke beckoned me over and asked for my passport and 4 photos. I said I only had 2 - "come back tomorrow" - right on script! When I double-checked I actually did have 4 photos so we carried on. He gave me 4 identical forms to fill out - all 4?, "yes, all 4". They were marked in arabic and french and I managed ok with the french - filled them out. Back to the bloke and we went over a couple of things he wasn't sure about. Then he produced a 5th form, almost identical to the others that I again filled out. He stapled the photos to the forms, made some entries in a couple of ledger books, stamped everything a couple of times, reshuffled it all, rechecked it all, got me to sign them and pay 50SP and we went to a different office. They entered each of my names into a computer and were looking for matches for my full name - no matches. I think it must have been a database of undesirables.
Another stamp and into a much nicer office to see the big boss in his smart uniform behind his posh desk. I couldn't help wondering if all his medals and ribbons were awarded for his stamping ability. He signed and stamped a few bits and I was done.
My syrian visa's good for another month, and it cost me just 1 hour and 50SP. I actually quite enjoy these beaurocratic formalities when I'm not in a hurry. It's all faintly amusing with everyone trying to look important but only looking insolent and puffed-up with the heady power to dish out stamps and signatures - or not.
An armed guard stopped me on the way out wanting to know what was in my pack. I'd marched in without a problem, and now they want to search me on the way out? It was soon obvious that he just wanted to scrounge a cigarette.
1:30pm and it's a lovely day, mostly blue skies and quite a hot sun - definitely t-shirt weather. Strangely I'm the only one in a t-shirt though - everyone else has a jumper on and most have jackets/coats on too - it must be 20C! I decided to go and find the Ugarit Ruins north of Latakia. A bit of messing about with 3 minibuses and I was there just after 2pm. Had a quick shay in a deserted tourist café outside Ugarit - worst shay ever, tasted like tea and coffee mixed - yuk!
Into the ruins - 150SP ticket. The write-up in my book says it's not great but it's an important site as they found some of the earliest recorded writing here - from 2 or 3000BC. Evidence of a neolithic settlement (7000BC) has also been found. The current ruin is of the city Ugarit that reached it's peak around 3000BC based on trading between Cyprus and Mesopotamia. The city was destroyed by fire during a raid by Philistines in 1180BC. It was discovered by a local farmer in 1928 when his plough hit some large masonry.
I went in not expecting much but straight away I was surprised at the size of the site. It's mostly only a maze of waist-high walls but it looked interesting, and best of all I've got the whole place to myself!
I walked through the less interesting side and up a hill where it extended still further. Up the hill to the acropolis and temple. There wasn't much to recognise but it was really nice there in total quiet amongst all the old walls and scattered rocks that were being rapidly reburied in overgrowing weeds. I sat there and ate the food I'd brought - bread and oranges, so orange sandwiches it was for lunch - very nice. I ate and enjoyed the view and watched the many little birds flitting about, butterflies fluttering about and lizards darting in and out of the rocks. The lizards are quite big and stocky, they get on top of the walls and nod their heads up and down sniffing the breeze - it looks like they're doing press-ups.
I wandered back down the hill in and out and around the maze of walls. It was really interesting and quite atmospheric with it being so quiet. It's all very weedy and overgrown and not overly looked after which helps too. There's lots of wells and water containers and water channels - water was heavily used in rituals, especially funeral rites. Down to the Royal Palace that is the best preserved/reconstructed area. It was easy to make out the gardens and courtyards, and even the various rooms were more clear as the walls were 2m+ high. It was a great place, a great afternoon - I really enjoyed myself.
I left about 4pm and the sun was getting low. Soon found a minibus going back to the centre for a straightforward journey home - 5SP.
Walked around and got called by some boys - here we go, fun-with-the-foreigner time. But no, they politely asked me to check their english homework multi-choice and thanked me very much - another nice surprise. Bought some seeds - I'm suddenly hooked on them - and owing to a slight communication error ended up with much more than I'd intended. Back to the hotel and got stuck into some serious seed-eating - there's a lot of work to do here.
A great day, I got my visa sorted fairly painlessly and really enjoyed my afternoon at Ugarit. The people here are very friendly and helpful - just a few odd looks all day. No sign of any other tourists/travellers here.
I've made a sudden late decision to move on tomorrow. I was going to find the beaches here for a look around but now it doesn't seem like a good use of a day - Latakia's nice but not all that inspiring and there's better places ahead. I'm heading south down the coast to Tartous - about 80-90km. I'm on a bit of a schedule now, I want to be in Lebanon by the 5th-7th of December.
High: peaceful and interesting afternoon at Ugarit Low: "come back tomorrow!" - nearly the first words again, they do make me laugh