The two cars arrived together, and predictably
Dirk and Nanda sailed through on their Dutch passports. Brits, however, get
They said I should have applied in Amman,
but I said that according to their own rules (there's a notice behind the
desk) I should be able to get it at the border. Only a couple of the guys
spoke English, and one officer spoke French, which made things a little
trickier, but they agreed to fax Damascus for permission, on the
understanding that it would be several hours before we could expect a reply.
Dirk and Nanda optimistically waited for a
few hours, then left for Damascus where if things went well we would meet
up. I got chatting to one of the border guards who spoke excellent English,
and the guy was friendly enough to insist on buying me tea and sandwiches at
their canteen. Eventually, as it got colder, we nipped back to the car for a
tot of good malt whisky, and then I set up my tent for the night. At about
11pm, too late for me to continue, somebody came tapping on my tent to give
me the good news, so to speak.
The next morning border formalities took
about 30 minutes - the "modified" walkthrough was like this:
|1. fill in 2 yellow
arrival cards. Deny ever having been to Israel.
2. Wait 11 hours, but first try to make sense of the sign saying it's a
'cintioruity country'. Deny ever having been to Israel.
3. Pay $52 (Brits) for visa. Deny ever having been to Israel.
4. go to bank and pay:
$100 diesel tax if applicable - you get a bunch of receipt slips.
5. Take slips with you, & keep stamped yellow arrival card for exit.
6. Deny ever having been to Israel.
Dirk and Nanda met me outside the old Citadel - I'd settled down in a cosy
cafe overlooking the main drag, and filled them in on the previous days
dramas. They'd settled in at the campsite, New Kaboun camping (N33° 32.787',
E36° 20.878') . As I'd discovered on my drive through the city, Damascus is
big - 7 million or so and all of them seem to f=have cars. I'd driven around
until I figured I was close to the arranged RV and then just dumped my car
and walked through the souk.
We walked through the souk - a sprawling
but very well organised affair with some excellent ice-cream shops -
continuing on to Saladin's tomb, and the famous Umayyad mosque where Nanda
had to dress up as an Star Wars extra to get in. I liked the old city for
the unexpected surprises that it threw at us - turning a corner you'd
stumble across a Roman archway, a market place, or the delightful little tea
house where I finally got to smoke the strange (but unintoxicating) water
Walking around Damascus is a great
experience - very few tourists, and it seems incredibly safe for such a
large city. Little English is spoken, but when it's encountered it's dished
out with a good measure of hospitality - a very welcoming bunch of people.
This is against a strange backdrop of a
regime that figures President Assad in every shop, in every square, on
mountains, captured in statues and murals - he's everywhere, as are the many
military bases - with old obsolete soviet missiles silhouette on every
hillside, pointing to Israel, Iraq, or whoever else they figure is likely to
invade that day...
Palymra and Krak de Chevaliers
Syria follows the Islamic tradition of
placing campsites right next to mosques, and so it was that we were roused
as is the custom by the early morning call to prayer - 5:00am I think. We
got an early start and, pausing only to photograph the signposts to Baghdad,
arrived by midday at Palmyra. It's the top Syrian site for tourism, an
amazing city dating where the newest parts date back to the second century
AD, but above all it's pretty complete as the new town is a few hundred
It was quiet enough for us to explore in
relative peace - though it was obvious that the touts were desperately short
of tourists to prey on. After a great lunch in town we headed on to Krak de
Chevaliers, a very well preserved crusader castle where we camped next to a
The following morning I wandered around the
many towers and battlements of the castle - it's recognised as one of the
great castes and to my mind lived up to it's reputation. As the tide turned
against Christianity in the middle East castle after castle fell to the
armies of Islam. Finally there remained only this one - an impregnable
fortress in which the last of the crusaders held out against all odds, until
there remained only a couple of hundred men in this isolated outpost,
abandoned far from home. The castle never fell to assault - instead the
defenders recognised the inevitable, and were allowed to leave with honour.
After snaking our way down the winding
roads from the castle we joined the road to Kassab, and the Turkish border.