2005 Time-out Diary
Wandering around Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon
30-03 November/December 2005
Wednesday 30th November 2005 day 142
Up in good time, showered, shay'd and checked out before 10am. Set my gps up in my bag and sat in a nearby café to finally get a fix.
Taxi'd to the bus station, it took a while with a few detours for heavy traffic so I gave him 50SP. Quickly got my 45SP ticket for the Tartous bus and we were on our way at 10:30.
Pleasant journey through nice countryside often with a good view of the Med. Arrived in Tartous about 11:30. Great weather again today, blue sky with some light clouds and nice and warm. Tartous looks nice straight away - even the uptown where the bus dropped us looks ok. A local struck up a conversation with me that lead to him sharing my taxi to the old town. He'd told me it was 10km - it was barely 2km, I'd have found a minibus if I'd known - only paid 30SP anyway.
Found Blue Beach Hotel and looked at a very nice room for 900SP - 900!! I asked for something smaller and I've got a really nice clean 3rd floor room with bath and balcony overlooking the Mediterranean for 600SP and 500SP for any further nights - the best I managed to negotiate. It's a lot more than I've been paying but I've been slumming it for a few weeks - I deserve a treat.
Nipped straight out to get something to eat and back for a balcony lunch. It's really great - sitting quietly in the sun, I've even dug my shorts out from the bottom of my pack - I didn't think I'd be needing them anymore. The view is great, little Arwad Island to the south and a small man-made harbour right opposite with fishing boats and little ferries for Arwad. I could easily sit here all afternoon - and I just might.
Tartous is an ancient place founded by the Phoeniceans who already had a colony on Arwad. It remained an important settlement through Roman times. It then became a Christian stronghold and was a popular pilgrimage site when it was controlled by the Crusaders and later the Knights Templars. Tartous was finally taken after years of fighting by Saladin for the Moslems in 1291 - the last Middle East mainland point to fall. The Templars held out on Arwad until 1302 when they retreated to Cyprus - and that was the end of the Crusades. Religious boasts are the cathedral built on the site of the original chapel - claimed to be the first chapel dedicated to the virgin, and Arwad is mentioned in the bible - Genesis 10:18 apparently.
Modern Tartous has a big industrial port to the north that I can see, a fair few trawlers and tourism, mainly syrian tourists. But again, it's well out of season now so it's pretty quiet. There's a lot of fish restaurants along the front and I shall probably find myself in one tonight.
When I can drag myself off of this lovely balcony I'll be visiting the old city, Arwad Island, some Phoenicean ruins at Amrit (8km south) and the mighty Crac des Chevaliers (40km) - supposed to be one of the very best medieval castles in the world.
Suddenly got chilly about 4pm so I was back in sweatshirt and trousers, 4:30 I got the big jumper out. From sunbathing in shorts to woolley-pully in 30 minutes!
With a west facing balcony the sunset photos were unavoidable. Nice sunset though.
Well, after a flying start - I think that was my earliest check-out except when I've had a specific connection to meet - I've not really done much. An easy journey, quickly found a hotel, and spent the rest of the day lounging around on my balcony. It's been really nice though. I like the sociable atmosphere of the traveller's dorms and some of the cheap hotels but it's good to be alone again. A nice bit of sun, a great view, the sound of the sea, some rare privacy, a good book - sounds like a good afternoon to me.
Went out about 7:30 to look for something to eat. The restaurants along the front are all a bit tourist-trendy, not really what I want, and I couldn't find much I fancied. Went to an internet café for the usual stuff - 130SP for an hour and a half. Bought a 35SP kebab sandwich on the way back to the hotel - very nice too and it'll have to do.
High: nice room + nice balcony + nice view + nice weather = nice afternoon
Low: wanted something decent to eat in the evening
Thursday 1st December 2005 day 143
Stayed up a bit late reading back through my diary last night - some good memories there. Slept well in the very comfortable bed and got up at 9:30.
Spent most of the day thinking "Wow, December tomorrow! - today being Nov 31st". Too much sun probably. Wow, December today!!
Paid another night and went for a shay in the big café directly under the hotel. It was ok but had a bit of that strange coffee taste again - I don't know what they put in it here. Different places sometimes add a bit of spice to the shay so you do get local variations. The absolute best was Petra Gate Hotel's spicey shay - I couldn't get enough of it, it had an addictive quality like I used to feel with a good whiskey. Too much time there and I would have been a quivering wreck signing up with Shaydrinkers Anonymous!! 10SP for the shay and I again tried to pay 1SP. The syrian coins all look very alike to the untrained eye, after 16 days here I still have to examine each one carefully before paying, and still get it wrong!
Speaking of alcohol, there's a lot more of it about in Syria - it has a sizeable christian population so it's not forbidden to all, but I get the feeling that it's consided less of a sin anyway. They drink arak, the local version of the turkish raki or greek ouzo. There's quite a few "liquor stores" selling most of the spirits you might find in a british off-license.
Started walking south along the seafront looking for a minibus to the Amrit ruins. Surprisingly hot again in the sun today and there's less of a breeze - a good t-shirt 20C+. Very few minibuses, most empty, none stopped. I thought I'd end up walking all the way - 8km. After 4km I turned inland towards the busier road and a pick-up stopped and asked me where I was going. Yousef said he'd take me there so I got in. He's a good bloke but a little excitable jabbering away in pidgin english. He gave me a strange fruit? to eat - I've no idea what it was, he said it was a mnmnmnmnpotato or something like that - quite bitter and not particularly nice. He dropped me at the ruins and wants me to phone him tonight at 9pm - he'll take me to his home for dinner and to meet his family. It was a bit garbled but I think he was suggesting I could marry one of his daughters - I don't think he realised that I'm probably older than he is! He also wants me to fix his PC.
The ruins were quite interesting and I had them to myself until a big black Mercedes turned up - a guided tour for a posh english couple. I can't begin to explain how much I don't envy their luxury. The peasant mode of travelling is such a complete experience. We just swapped hellos in passing.
The main temple area consists of a once-flooded courtyard and a central cella where icons would have been displayed. It's been a little reconstructed around the edges but most of it looks original. Being a bit out of the way it was left untouched until very recent times. I climbed down into it, watching lizards and frogs darting and hopping about. It was very quiet and quite atmospheric.
I walked up the path to the stadium. It was long and thin and I couldn't quite understand it until a local explained it was for horse racing. This guy seemed to be following me around - I wasn't sure if he was a guide. I'd seen no ticket office and hadn't paid to get in - I think we came in a back way.
The other things to see were 2 "spindles" a km south. I walked back out to the road and headed south. They were soon visible and a track lead up to them. My friend and an accomplice were soon with me - on their little motorbike. Took a few shots and climbed down into the burial chambers. They were quite deep and very dark and claustrophobic - reminded me of being on a good wreck dive - deep inside. My little flat-battery torch just about helped. Unlike most of these chambers they hadn't evolved into public toilets so it made a pleasant change to be able to scrabble around inside.
And a few wildlife shots to finish off.
I carried on along the road towards the main road - to look for a minibus back to Tartous. Time's getting on a bit but I'd like to get out to Arwad Island today as well. Said hello to a few groups of Bedouins(?) herding their sheep. Motorbike not far behind me all the way.
Soon got a 5SP minibus and jumped out in the centre. No food today so I stopped and bought some bread, local cheese, green and black olives, halawa and apricot jam. Walked towards the seafront expecting to emerge near the hotel - I was about 3km south! No minibuses so I marched back as quickly as I could but it was nearly 3pm now - I'm not going to get to the island today.
Back to my room and tucked into my food. The cheese is like a very stringy mozzeralla and it's sold in stringy lengths tied in a knot, quite nice and extremely salty. The halawa is a crumbly sweet paste made from sesame - really nice. After stuffing myself in the sunshine I was suddenly very tired and dozed on the bed for a couple of hours - up too late last night.
Got up and wrote my diary, and I can't decide whether or not to phone Yousef. I'm very comfortable here but it feels a bit mean not to after he kindly gave me the lift and the invitation. Decided to skip it in the end and just enjoy my balcony - got to get my money's worth! I want an earlyish night - I can always phone him tomorrow.
Didn't get as much done today as I'd hoped, it took a long time to get there, it was a long walk around, and then a fair walk back too. But it was a good place and I enjoyed ambling around it. Arwad/Citadel or Crac des Chevaliers tomorrow - need to get going, especially with Nov 31st suddenly being snatched away from me!!
High: nice lift to the ruins from Yousef - good bloke
Low: arriving at the seafront miles away from the hotel - no Arwad today
Friday 2nd December 2005 day 144
Didn't sleep brilliantly so don't feel like treking out to Crac des Chevaliers, I'll take the easy option of Arwad Island and Tartous Old City. It's not just a cop-out, I've also decided that I'll do Crac des Chevaliers on my way to my next destination, Hama. It'll save time but I just have to hope I can stash the big pack somewhere during the visit.
Easy day ahead so had a relaxed breakfast and did some washing while I slowly woke up. Paid another night and stopped for a shay in the café downstairs.
Into the little harbour opposite and straight onto a ferry. Nice enough 20 minute cruise across to Arwad Island. I was looking back towards Tartous when some of the low dark clouds in the south suddenly revealed themselves as mountains, snow-capped mountains. I can't believe I hadn't noticed them - they're easily visible from my balcony. I think they're pretty near, or maybe they are the Lebanese border.
Arwad is a tiny island, only a few hundred metres across in any direction so unsurprisingly there's no roads and no motor vehicles. Tiny Mediteranean island, no traffic, lots of history, remains of a Crusader castle, fishermen sitting on the quay mending nets - sounds idyllic. In fact it's spectacularly ugly! Too many people living in too many ugly concrete houses crammed too close together and festooned with too many aerials and big rusty satellite dishes. Almost every wall is covered in graffiti and every nook and cranny is stuffed with litter. I've not seen anywhere with so much potential put to so little use.
To be fair my book warns of this so I wasn't as surprised as I might have been. The "Rough Guide" is very good, much better than the "Footprint" I had for Egypt.
I worked my way up the grubby path - bought some oranges, 10SP for 500g. There's no indication that you're on the right path except that it's lined with tacky tourist merchandise, mostly seashell and glue monstrosities. I couldn't help remembering Steve again - 10 or 15 years ago in a Southsea market one sunny Sunday afternoon spotting a ridiculous sparkley bambi deer mounted in an open clamshell. "look at that thing!! I'm having that!!". It was on his tv for years.
I came to what looked roughly like an entrance to the castle and went in - 75SP ticket from the disinterested bloke in his too-dark office. I hadn't got far inside when a few minutes later someone came and called me back to the office. They wanted to see my passport and ask me a few questions - 5 mins and I was off again. Into a scruffy overgrown courtyard and up some stairs onto the parapets. The views out across the horrible rooves of the horrible houses were not inspiring. The views in of the neglected and badly part-renovated castle were no better. I wandered around and took a few shots out of duty. I clambered around for an hour but it really wasn't interesting. Quite a few visitors, mostly syrians. I did have a chat with a group of iranians who were interested to know where I was from. I kept bumping into them on the island and we came back on the same ferry. Got me thinking again that Iran would be an interesting destination.
I left the castle and walked around the island a bit but most of the paths are so narrow you always think you might be in someone's backyard. I soon headed back to the harbour. Walked up and down and took some shots, including a great one of an old woman fishing whilst smoking her nargileh (syrian shisha/hubbly-bubbly).
There was nothing much to see so I paid my 25SP for both ways on the ferry and crossed back to Tartous.
Back about 3pm, it's a lot cloudier today but still just about ok with only a t-shirt. I walked up to the old city and felt the same about it as I felt for Arwad. Neglected and with scruffy new buildings on top of the original city. A mess really, I didn't even bother to get my camera out. Quick walk through town but everything's closed as it's Friday. Back to the hotel about 4pm.
Sat eating on my balcony and watched a great sunset - the sky was incredible once the sun had sunk below the horizon. 2 ships moored a few miles out really seemed to be floating in an area of nothingness between the sea and the sky. WAY too many photos here but I like them all.
A disappointing day in some respects but I'm glad I went and saw the sights. I wasn't at my best, feeling tired and ropey, but I think even on my best day these places would have been poor.
Packing up tonight for a potentially tough day tomorrow. At least 2 minibuses to Crac des Chevaliers, possibly to be explored wearing the big pack, and at least 2 minibuses to Hama where I'll need to find somewhere to stay.
High: the photo of the old woman, and the extraordinary sunset sky
Low: visited 2 duff sites
Saturday 3rd December 2005 day 145
Didn't sleep well again - just restless. Seems crazy, perhaps it's too comfortable here. Groggy start, finished off my bread, jam and halawa for breakfast and checked out at 11:30.
Walked into town with my pack feeling heavy and awkward, pulling to one side. Found the minibus station and soon found one going to Homs ("homus"). I took up both front seats and couldn't really refuse the "pay for 2 seats" offer. 70SP journey and I was dropped on the side of the dual carriageway by the signs for the castle. Walked up the sideroad a bit and a minibus stopped offering a 100SP taxi-ride to the castle. Didn't seem like I had much choice so I took it. Quite a climb for 8km or so and I was wondering if the old minibus was going to make it. Got to the castle a bit before 2pm - not bad.
Got my 150SP ticket and they said I could leave my big pack there before I could even ask. The castle was built in 1144 when the Crusaders had control of the area. It's in a very commanding position and is a very sturdy, well thought out, well defended structure. It never really fell, it was under-manned and the demoralised troops surrendered to Saladin in return for the promise of safe passage to the sea - in 1271. Some of it has been renovated but a lot of it looks original - it's in very good condition. I walked all around the outer wall, nosing into rooms and climbing towers all the way.
Then into the inner walls - it's built as a castle within a castle. The inner castle is quite a bit higher than the outer walls. Walked a climbed around taking a few photos of the castle and the tremendous views.
A good 2 hours there in all. I'm only disappointed that I didn't get any views/photos of the castle from a distance.
Into the carpark and got offered a 300SP taxi to Homs. I took a 100SP ride back to the main road - the castle had been pretty empty so there clearly wasn't going to be service taxis running. We got to the main road as darkness fell and he was again saying 300SP for Homs. I'd planned to flag down a service minibus from here but the saving would be minimal, we agreed on 250SP and he took me to the minibus station in Homs. Soon found a 20SP minibus for Hama and we were soon on our way.
Dropped in Hama and felt like walking so ignored the taxis. 2km walk to the centre and soon found the Riad Hotel I was looking for. Very jolly and friendly hotel bloke showed me a 350SP room with bath and tv, I asked for cheaper and I've got a 300SP room with bath - small but clean and cosy. Bumped into a japanese couple that I shared the Aleppo dorm with one night, they told me that David from Aleppo is also here.
Quick complementary shay in a little communal area with a talking parrot for company. It kept saying hello, whistling, sighing and hiccupping. Nipped out to get something to eat, felafel sandwich, oranges, seeds, and back to my room for feast and diary.
Went out to find an internet café and couldn't find one. Grabbed a kebab sandwich and went back to the hotel. Bumped into David and caught up with events. They (him and his japanese wife) love it here and are planning to stay a while. Packed up at midnight.
High: Crac des Chevaliers was great - and great views too
Low: spent a fair bit on transport today ~£4.40!