Crossing the Middle East by train [stage 4]
Tom Hart (left) decided to follow his dream to travel in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. Not the classic trip you see advertised in tour brochures, but the authentic way - overland through Egypt, Jordan and Syria then across Europe back to the UK. As he travels across the Middle East, he's reporting back to GreenTraveller on how he does it. Here's his fourth report: crossing Syria...
When I got to Damascus I was dropped off somewhere on the outskirts at 1AM. I flagged a taxi eventually and managed to get to my hotel. NB: few people speak English - another valuable experience in a world where we assume everyone speaks the same language. I arrived at the Ghazal hotel where I was staying in a dorm. I met some great people who were also travelling around the Middle East. As a lone traveller, staying in dorms is a great way to meat other people. The people in the hotel were very helpful and although the dorm was hot and cramped it was worth it to meet new people. Damascus is a great place to get lost, especially the old city. Walking through endless winding roads, covered streets of shops, it is almost hypnotic. The Umayyad Mosque is well worth a visit if only for the ‘putting on cloths rooms’! The mosque itself is spectacular. Also worth having a look at the Mausoleum of Saladin.
On the bus travelling to Hama I had the pleasure of meeting a Syrian guy who was extremely friendly and I had the honour of being invited to his house. I have often read and been told that despite the Western culture teaching us to be wary of such offers of hospitality, in this part of the world it is quite normal and a true pleasure to accept and be invited into a home to share a family’s food and hospitality. We can learn a lot from such cultures.
Once we got to Hama, Sami took me on two buses to reach his village which was at the foot of the Latakia Mountains. In this small village I was the first Westerner to visit in 20 years. My new friend took me to his home and introduced me to his family and then took me to meet all his friends around the village. He took me up the mountain and showed me the views and we slept on the roof of the house under the stars. I met local people, ate traditional food and it was an unforgettable experience. This is one of the great advantages of travelling alone and using local transport - it increases your chance of meeting the real people and seeing the country away from the well trodden tourist route. Feeling slightly overwhelmed by the whole experience, on arriving back in Hama I booked myself in at the Cairo Hotel where I was given an excellent room (with 3 beds) costing £13 for 2 nights. I then moved to a cheaper single room for £8 which was cosy to say the least but very clean. Hama was a truly magical place where hours can be lost wondering around the citadel and seeing families sitting on the grass dotted about the place having picnics. Just around the corner from the hotel is a great place to eat which does spit roasted chicken and chips for a few pounds, beats the hell out of KFC! The great feature of Hama is the norias - enormous water wheels that scoop water from the slow moving river. Another reason for coming to this peaceful place is its proximity to possibly the greatest Crusader castle of all time, Crac du Chevalier. Although it would be possible to make it there by public transport I took a trip organised by the hotel which really just included a taxi ride for the day around the various points of interest before arriving at the castle in the afternoon. The trip cost around £16 which was quite expensive and it would have be better to visit Crac directly but convenience is often appealing. I shared the day with a chirpy gaggle of three Korean girls that were extremely excited every time I said Crac du Chevalier in my best French accent (sounds best in French). From Hama it was onto my final destination in Syria, Aleppo. I had subscribed to a safety alert system from All Safe Travels. I was soon glad that I had done, as on checking my emails before departing it notified me of some explosions that had happened in Aleppo, news that hadn’t yet reached other major news sites. It meant I could modify my trip to make sure I wasn’t putting myself in danger, a fantastic helping hand. I had already planned in advance to stay at the Baron Hotel which was somewhat challenging to find as I decided as usual to trek on foot from where the bus dropped me off in the city centre in the direction I thought was correct. After wandering around for an hour I reached my destination which, although not the grand hotel it probably once was, is still worth the visit. My room was extremely comfortable, one of the best of my trip, costing £25 but if I had haggled it is possible to get this down to £20. After relaxing in the bar, previously frequented by ‘Laurence of Arabia’, I got talking to two English guys and made plans to get a taxi to the dead city of Serjilla the next day. We hired a taxi from the slightly suspect gentlemen who hung around reception, and after much bartering we paid £20 for the day which was a quite reasonable rate considering the distance.
We left at 7AM to get the best of the day which is something I would highly recommend. These settlements are old frontier towns left over from Byzantine times which hold a peaceful tranquillity but also an eeriness which is rather special. I spent the rest of the day window shopping around the souqs and getting deliberately lost – which ironically is the best way to find your way around a place. It was time to leave Syria and head for Antakya, Turkey. I went down to the international bus station which was within easy walking distance from the hotel to enquire about onward travel. Be warned, buses for Turkey leave in the morning and are booked up early so go the day before you want to travel. I had to get a taxi as all the buses had left or were full. The set up was extremely chaotic and I made the mistake of putting my main bag in the taxi with the guy who I thought was setting off very soon. I waited in the office and the taxi then disappeared which was slightly worrying although he did come back but no idea of when I we would be leaving. In the end I managed to get in a Turkish taxi going to Antakya for about £5. I had problems at the border as they did not seem interested in giving me a visa and waved me on which caused problems when later trying to exit the country – not the first time that has happened. But I had made it to Turkey and the edge of Europe. Now it was time to see if I really had completed the most challenging legs of the journey, or if the hardest part was yet to come - negotiating public transport in Europe...