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Brad’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 11 Jun 2005

Location: Antayla, Turkey

MapI am happy to report to all concerned that I have made it back alive from exotic Syria, and after a 24 hour bus ride from Damascus to Antalya can relate some of the amazing things that transpired.

Picking up from the last real entry, because I spent so long that day writing in my diary and doing the webpage I left to late to get to Ihlara Valley that day, so stayed overnight in Aksaray and effectivly lost a night, which was a shame. I did sort of catch it up though, because I did my 'big' walk in the Ihlara Valley on the 3rd, which ended up taking me about three hours, not the eight LP suggests. I ended up getting on a bus to Adana that afternoon in order to catch up my lost day. Not such a great idea, I got to Adana at about 12:30 at night and was wandering around looking for a hotel feeling rather tired. I ended up paying $20 for the worst hotel I`ve ever stayed at, it was really dirty, noisy and light outside, but I was so tired it didn`t matter. The next day I went to Hatay, where I got a shave and a really bad haircut from a 15 year old turkish barber and where the aforementioned Syrian adventures began...

I decided at about nine the previous night that I would have a shot at getting to Syria for a few days, and so tried to do a bit of online research. The best I could come up with was a 19th century map of Aleppo and some arabic phrases! The next morning I met a British girl (with a visa) who was going to Aleppo so that gave me some comfort that if I got stuck at least someone would know about it. Getting close to the border there was razorwire everwhere and guards with big guns, so you can imagine I was beginning to have second thoughts at this stage! When we got to the border post, the driver found out I didn`t have a visa he rushed me straight out the back, past all the lines, to see what looked like the general! After getting his approval and being ushered around all these back rooms at the border post, I got my visa and we were on our way! Now, while I thought I would have a go at geting into Syria, I hadn`t really considered what I would do if I actually got in, I just presumed I wouldn´t. Seeing the sudden change in everything across the border, I began feeling really excited. Suddenly the land became much drier, the architecture changed, there were people everywhere wearing arabic dress and all the signs were in arabic. We arrived in Aleppo still fairly early, and with the help of the british girl and her LP found a hotel no worries and set of to explore. During my wanderings of the labrinthene souqs I met this guy who showed me around for an hour or two then offered to take me on a three day tour of Syria. It seemed pretty expensive ($300) but I thought that now I`m here I might as well take advantake of my short time in Syria. It was to be just me on the tour and we would see all the major sites, so I decided to go.

The next day he and our driver picked me up (a rather nervous half an hour late) and we set off for the east of the country to where the Syrians have dammed the Euphrates river to see a huge castle. On the way we stopped by at a small village to see an ancient method of construction - beehive houses made from mud. We had tea with a lovely Syrian family then headed off to the castle. It was really cool, it was on an island in the middle of the dam and had this amazing tower\minaret on the top. Standing there alone, with the wind blowing, the tower seemed very mysterious, it seemed to have this incredible drawing power.

We continued along a terrible road across the desert to a ruined Byzantene city. Driveing across the desert was amazing, it`s so dry, a lot like central Australia but much more habited. Every kilometres we would pass a tent of bedouin, arabic nomads who live in the desert. The ruined city too was amazing with a huge ruined cathedral. It was set right in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere. After another hour of driving on the way to Palmyra, my guide, Ahmed, asked if I wanted to meet some bedouin. We drive towards some tents, past ferocious dogs trying to eat the car and met this wonderful family of desert nomads. The woman even had the bedouin tattoos around their mouths, check out the photos. There was one girl who was facinated with me, she stared at me unabashedly for minutes. After tea I gave her one of the kangaroo pins!

Staying in Palmyra, I woke up to see we had stayed in a beautiful oasis in the middle of the desert, surrounded by the most immense ruins I have seen yet. Walking amonst the huge pillars of Palmyra and gazing at the massive tample of Bel, this place has shown the greatness of the Roman Empire more than any other. After entering the arched gate to the main street, ten metre high pillars stretch for well over a kilometre along the main street reaching the main square of the city. Everwhere there are mostly complete buildings. Shrines, palaces, an ampitheatre and on of the biggest temples in the ancient world. We also went up to the Valley of the Dead where the important people were buried. In one of the tombs were the oldest frescos I have seen yet - around 200AD. After an ariel view (and breakfast - at 2:00, not happy) from the castle above the city we continued through the desert towards Crac des Chavaliers, a huge crusader castle where we would spend the night. It was quite a thrill driving towards Homs to see signs pointing the way to Baghdad! We passed heaps of trucks on there way to Iraq with supplies. From Palmyra we were only about 100kms from the border! Just outside the castle we stopped at a really old monstary to see the church. We arrived just as the service was beginning. The whole thing was chanted by these crazy looking monks with huge black beards swinging incense and looking terrifying! I recorded most of it, the music sounded so ancient, I`m sure it was related to Byzantene chant.

The next morning I had a tour of the Crac des Chavaliers, the most complete crusader castle in the world. It was really cool, set high on a hill it is (as LP well describes it) a perfect fairytale castle, complete with a princess tower and a secret passage. From there we drove to Mahlula, an ancient town in the desert which is 90% christian, very unusual for Syria. We visited several monasteries and nunneries and the grave of Saint Thekla. One of the churches had one of the oldest christian alters in the world, dating back to 300AD. The age of everything here is incredible, it seems to be even more ancient than Turkey. After Mahlula we drove to Damascus and I said goodbye to my guide and driver. It was such a relief to be on my own again. My guide was ok, but I found out later he had significantly overcharged me! Then when I met up with Becky, the british girl from the border who had done much the same things as me I got rather depressed that I had just wasted a whole heap of money.

I went out feeling rather dejected and walked to the Omayad Mosque, one of the biggest in the world. It has a huge forecourt, seems to function like a park in Damascus! There were people everywhere having picnics and sleeping, and kids running around everywhere. I met this wonderful family there who fed me some bread and salami for dinner, despite them being obviously pretty poor. I spent a few hours just chilling out in the mosque with them, and felt much better by the time I left. I wandered though the souqs for short while before coming across another, totally amazing mosque. It was pretty unspectacular on the outside, but inside was like being on the inside of a mirror ball. There was light and mirrors and glitter everywhere, culminating at the tomb of a Shiite saint, Lady Roquita, who died when she was four. It was getting really crowded when I was in there, and I found myself caught up in the middle of prayer time. It was really cool though, everyone was really welcoming, no one seemed to mind me being there at all. I met some really nice Iranians, the mosque being Shiite, who gave me their number if I needed any help while in Iran. After feeling pretty dodgy about losing so much money I could have saved by doing things independantly, having such an amazing night more than made up for it.