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Click to see detail of route in map, part 1


As with most countries in this region Syria has had a checkered past. More recently and after many years of successive coups, the Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970 and ruled until his death in 2000 when his son Bashar took over. Wherever you go there are billboards and pictures of young Bashar usually alongside a picture of this father. This subliminal brainwashing must work as most Syrians seem to like their leader.


Many women in Aleppo still wear the chador in public, but they also want to dress in sexy lingerie for their husbands.


Somehow the disturbing thought of these obedient women wearing the chador even in this heat is easier to handle if we imagine what the black cloak conceals!!! Haydn reckons we can squeeze one of these into the pannier.




We saw more shops here in Aleppo selling 'elegant' ladies clothes and shoes than anywhere else in all our travels and can only conclude that while the women appear to be conservative, shy and pious, in reality they must be real party animals in the privacy of their own home or at private parties.


Midday prayers in the Mosque


A typical modern young Syrian couple, happy to have their photo taken...
...in contrast to this typical older Arab with traditional head dress.



The women of Aleppo


Healthy fruit drinks are the way to go.


Throughout Syria market stalls sell a variety of French and Syrian perfumed oils. It was great fun trying them all out.


We watched sunset over the sea on the local beach, just north of Lattakia, where the females, even the young girls, swim fully clothed while the males reveal almost all.

SYRIA


The birthday boy enjoying his seafood lunch with a view.


Riding around the walls of the ancient city we have sweeping views over the high grassy moors.

Syrians love their sweets, and so do we. This one is covered with pistachio nuts and is particularly nice.


Good looking dude and an ugly Arab. You guess who's who.


Locals getting the run down on some of Jack's hi tech equipment. I thought I'd impressed them but then this one fellow pulls out a remote control key fob and remotely starts his $450.00 Chinese bike! I think BMW need to know about that little gismo!

This woman has a hard life with long days working her fields in the desert but she takes time to welcome us into her world, the knife is for the plants!


Child labour is a problem in Syria. These kids should be at school not shining shoes.


We had a guide for an hour and then we found out that getting lost in the complex citadel within the walls of Crac Des Chevaliers was great fun.


"Welcome, would you like a cup of tea" – perhaps little has changed for some in these small ancient desert towns, just the strange visitors.


Small roads are, as always, a good option and here we enjoy the desert scenery as Jack glides over a good road surface.


Don this cloak and don't be such a hussy if you want to visit the Mosque...

...The magnificent Umayyad Mosque built in 705AD, converted from a Byzantine Cathedral. After Mecca this is the most significant Muslim pilgrimage site and the place is like grand central station with so many visitors, many from Iran.


Famous pistachio encrusted vanilla ice cream. Just what we need after a hard day's sight seeing.


Presentation is everything when it comes to promoting your sweets. How can we resist?


Are you my mother? Many women still completely cover themselves both inside and outside the Mosque.


On most street corners in the cities throughout Syria one can get a refreshing sweet drink from these fellows.


Click here for info on Syria

Click here for a timeline of Syria

Click here to see the waterwheels of Hama

Click here to see our favourite tourist

Syria –"Welcome"

Part 1

Aleppo (Halab)
We expected to have an uneventful ride from Turkey to the Syrian border. It's a good straight 4 lane highway from Killas and we were cruising along thinking about what we needed to do at the crossing and still hoping we would be able to get a Syrian visa, when just 2 kms from the border we were pulled over by Turkish police. They didn't speak any English but we soon got the idea that they claimed we were speeding. 'No no' I said, 'I haven't gone over 100kph'. But... the speed limit on this excellent road is apparently only 70kph!!! even though there are no signs. They claimed we were doing 98kph, I disputed it, but they showed me the video with the speed. 'How about giving us a break, we're going to Syria?' 'Oh no' they said with a smile and wrote out a ticket. Well just give us the ticket then we thought, we're not going to pay it anyway and I snatched it from them and scrumpled it into my pocket. 'We'll see who has the last laugh' I chuckled as we road off.

Customs and immigration on the Turkish side went smoothly just the final boom gate to go and then onto Syria... but there is a problem. The guard checks his computer and says again, 'problem, problem, go back'. Well, to cut a long story short it seems the police had contacted the border and we have to pay the fine before they will let us pass. This is obviously a money making racket as they even have an office where we can pay, and we queued up with several other unfortunate motorists and begrudgingly paid our dues –about $240. To say we are pissed off is an understatement and that experience has sadly tarnished our impressions of Turkey. We have to wonder how the hell we are going to complete a tour of north/west Turkey traveling at 70km an hour?

'Welcome to Syria', the immigration officials bellowed, 'of course you can have a 14 day visa, just fill in this simple form and you can be on your way'. The carnet for Jack was quickly processed and insurance purchased and we were on our way within 30 minutes, a record for a border crossing. We're always excited to enter a new country and our senses are attuned to the differences. Syria seems immediately poorer, the cars and trucks are older and there is more rubbish laying around. The people are friendly though and give us a wave and even as we ride past we hear them shout and wave, 'welcome welcome'.

Our destination for tonight is Allepo, a big city of 4 million only 70km from the border. The roads into the city are wide but polished with use and quite slippery as we soon found out when a car did a U turn in front of us and I hit the brakes. Jack's brakes are excellent and normally this would not be a problem, but on this occasion he slowed initially and then just continued on even though I was squeezing the leaver hard. What had happened is that the ABS had kicked in to prevent the wheel locking and reduced braking on the slick surface. We were able to swerve around the car but it was a bit of a reality check and we'll have to watch out on these slippery roads.

As always, one of our biggest challenges of the day is finding a suitable hotel. Our guide book has a recommendation and we're close, but we can't find the right street. Remember street names are written in Arabic script and it's one of those languages we never mastered. As usual though in this part of the world, someone noticed our predicament and offered to help. Turns out he is Syrian but has lived for more than 30 years in Australia. He offers assistance and we find the hotel, but it's fully booked. No worries and we soon find another nearby and settle in. Hotel al-Gawaher is clean and comfortable enough with a great roof top view of the city but the best news is that prices are reasonable again, $20 a night.

Aleppo is apparently more conservative than other cities in Syria and most women choose to wear the chador.

The city is also famous for it's souqs (coveredmarkets) and there are several hectares (dating back to the 13th century) of bustling passageways.
Needless to say we spent many hours wandering about the old city, castle and huge Mosque and chatting to the friendly locals, who for many, say the only word they know in English, 'Welcome' and perhaps offer us a glass of tea.

It's our anniversary today, 29th May and Dianne tells me we've been married for 32 years! Anyway an opportunity to show my appreciation to a wonderful woman, best mate and number one wife by getting her a necklace at the market and dinner at the nearby Sheridan Hotel.


The citadel inside the castle walls.

The following evening the Australian/Syrian we met earlier, Mark and Adel his Syrian wife took us out for dinner at one of Aleppo's best restaurants housed in a beautiful old house with an atmospheric courtyard. A memorable night, we had a huge choice of tasty mezze and great company and an opportunity to find out more about life in Syria.

After the usual three days in Aleppo, everything felt familiar and we had worked out the lay of the land, a sure sign that it's time to move on and this time we head west to the Mediterranean city of Lattakia, passing through fertile valleys and over some quite high hills. There are several Crusader castles from medieval times in this area as well as 'dead cities' from the Roman era, all providing an insight into the complex history of this region.

West to the Mediterranean sea

Syria

Syria
We rode over rolling hills to Qala'at Samaan a well preserved church built in 459AD to commemorate an early Christian who spent 36 years atop a pillar here. Some sections are remarkably well preserved and we enjoy the wonderful view of the surrounding countryside.

Syria

If there is a choice we always take the smaller roads through the villages. This one leads down to the fertile valley before crossing the mountains on the way to the port city of Lattakia...

...These smaller roads pass many bedouin camps...

The bedouin are nomadic tribes who move with their flocks of sheep and goats to fresh grazing pastures.

Syria

SyriaOn the way to the coast we explore the Dead Cities, ancient ghost towns dating back to the Byzantine period – not to be missed.

31st May and it's my birthday and Dianne is trying to out do my efforts on her birthday so she booked ahead to what sounds in our guide book, to be a 'nice' hotel. Suffice to say it did not not live up to expectations but nevertheless gave us an opportunity to people watch from the terrace on a popular street near the port. Syria is a land of contrasts and here in Lattakia some women wear the chador, but the majority it seems have 'sprayed on' jeans, low cut tops and brazenly, for a muslim nation, flaunt their sexuality.

Syria

The next day we pass by the more littered beaches near Lattakia and rode as far north as we could soaking in these spectacular views with blue skies, the turquoise ocean and white cliffs.
We do not want to spend another night in Lattakia so after a good seafood lunch it is time to leave the coast and go back over the mountains, through the fertile valleys to reach the ancient city of Hama on the highway to Damascus


The colonnade, Apamea.

Just 60kms west of Hama is Apamea. Founded in the 2nd century by Seleucus 1, one of Alexander the Great's generals. It survived the Roman period, the Byzantine period, was destroyed by the Persians in 550 AD before being seized by the Muslims about 650BC. Sadly it was virtually flattened by an earthquake in 1157, but walking through the remaining colonnaded street on the original paving we can still get a feeling of just how great this city must have been in it's heyday when it was on the silk road.



Hama is famous for it's huge water wheels (some up to 20m in diameter) which creak and groan as they revolve bringing water to the elevated aqueducts which then channel it to the countryside to irrigate the crops.

We enjoyed Hama, it was just different, and we soon felt at home at the Riad Hotel near the clock tower. Dianne was allowed in the kitchen to cook a meal and after shopping in a near by market she made a healthy stew and spaghetti. It was just as well we were so comfortable as I have again been struck down with diarrhoea. It's been one of these on and off things that has dragged on for too long and Dianne decides I need to get tested. Fortunately there is a laboratory nearby and they soon identify the bacteria and we get antibiotics from the chemist. The test and the drugs cost about $5.00. Makes one wonder why we have to pay so much in western countries.

An easy ride east from Hama takes us through Beehive villages in the desert (below) and more impressive ancient ruins – Qasr Ibn Wardan and Ash'Shamamis.

Another major attraction SW of Hama is Crac Des Chevaliers and if there is only time to see one castle in Syria, this is it. The fortress, standing largely intact, takes one back to a time of knights and round tables. It is described in our guide book as "the epitome of the dream castle of childhood fantasies." and TE Lawrence simply called it "the finest castle in the world". Built by the Crusader knights around the middle of the 12th century the castle was never breached and could hold a garrison of 2000 men with supplies to last up to 5 years. That didn't help the Crusaders though when they were surrounded by the armies of Islam. After a one month siege they agreed to surrender the castle in return for a safe passage.

Crac Des Chevaliers

The highway south to Damascus is hard work with strong side winds but we turn onto minor roads to pass through the interesting desert towns of Maalula and Seydnaya.


The small houses and churches built into the rock face in Maalula
The convent at Seydnaya

Damascus


Damascus

It was 39 degrees C when we arrived in Damascus and the traffic was heavy. Our guide book gave the Al-Rabie Hotel a good rap but the one way streets made it difficult to find and get to. We eventually found it down a small dead end street and settled down in the wonderful court yard where we met many like minded travelers. Here we again met Michael, a Swedish bloke who has ridden down from Sweden. We saw him last in Aleppo and just by chance he was walking past the hotel and saw Jack.

While the city is an interesting mix of the old and the new we felt it actually lacked atmosphere and after two days of wandering through the souqs, old city and famous Umayyad Mosque we were ready to move on. Perhaps we are traveled out? Sighting a small clay tablet with the first known alphabet in the National Museum was a highlight for Dianne. We did have great expectations (which is not a good idea when you travel) as this is reputed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world with an amazing history. Located on the Silk Road, Damascus had a strategic position and has over time been occupied by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Mongols, Turks and French. Did I leave anyone out!!!


Roman ruins ...

...and the ancient narrow streets of old Damascus.

The people

Here are a few people shots. We enjoyed Syria, learnt a lot from its history (in what is regarded as the cradle of civilization) but for us again it was the people's smiles that made us feel so welcome in their country that made the journey worthwhile. We look forward to the return trip through Syria after Jordan.




There should be a good market for these Prayer beads, devout muslim men carry them and continually move the beads in their fingers to remind them of their commitment to their religion.

Click Next page to continue our journey in Jordan

Click here to go to Syria part 2

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©Haydn and Dianne Durnell 2008