A Travellerspoint blog

Heading towards Iraq

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large_5550_12790260041858.jpgAshmamis citadel.
So, after talking to my hotelier Abdullah yesterday, I traded my trip to Lattakia and Aleppo for a town near the south-east border crossing into Iraq! He (along with other travellers) said that Lattakia wasn't nice and I could instead have a cool dip in Lake Assad while having a view of an ancient citadel!

Along with Ammi and Salome (South African couple) and our driver Abdul Kader, we left at 7am.

We stopped briefly at Qalaat Al-Shmemis (Ashmamis Castle) where I hiked up to the remains of the moat. This was followed by a brief photo-stop at some beehive houses.

Our major sight was Rasafa, a huge ancient walled city. Most of what we see now is left over from the Romans 1500-1800 years ago.
Next was Jaabar Citadel.large_5550_1279026004990.jpgAshmamis citadel.This was a Mesopotamian style citadel but the difference here is that since a dam was built across the Euphrates (with Soviet assistance), the citadel is surrounded largely by beautiful turquoise water. Very pretty.

After lunch, it was getting a bit late and it seemed like too difficult to have a swim ... the usual reasons ... changing, shoofis (staring squad), changing back, carrying wet clothes .... so we bundled ourselves into a bus bound for Deir Al-Zur.

A couple of hours later, we started seeing signs pointing towards Iraq. And shortly after, we were in the town of Deir Al-Zur. It sits by the Euphrates river, with its lush banks. The icon of the town is a pedestrian suspension bridge across the Euphrates.

It is a remote and conservative town with few visitors. During our stay, Salome got a lot of stares and eventually resorted to wearing a headscarf.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Day off!

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large_5550_12786878023239.jpgMuch of old Hama was destroyed in the 1982 shelling to dampen a religious rebellion. There's a few old buildings left.
I feel like I need a day off. I had the option of going to Apamea [Apamea-travel-guide-1321315] or Palmyra (for late morning departure in time for sunset). Both are fabulous Roman Ruins ... both have columns standing on the side of the main street giving visitors a good feel for the scale of the place.

I’ve been to both before ... at the end of the day, it’s just a pile of rocks right? Chatting, eating and meeting people is all part of travel too! So I’ll settle for that instead. It is Friday today, the town is nice and quiet ... some eating places are open so I should be fine!

The time off allowed me to review my plans based on discussion with other travellers. No one liked Lattakia ... it is characterless and the only good beach belongs to 5-star hotels ... using the beach and pool requires payment amounting to a night at a budget hotel. Abdullah at the hotel suggested that I take a trip to the Euphrates instead ... this would mean skipping Aleppo as well as Lattakia. Skipping Aleppo was fine as I had been twice already.

We will leave at 7am tomorrow by private car taking in a few sites before reaching the Euphrates. Then we'd track south along the river by public transport to stay a couple of nights. From the town of Dayr az Zawr, we could make day trips to ruins close (20km) to the border with Iraq.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Day of Three Castles

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large_5550_12786725651659.jpgMusyaf Citadel.
Today is the reason I came back to Syria (apart from the fact that I had expiring Emirates Skywards miles to use up). I wanted to re-visit Crac de Chevalier, which is the most impressive crusader castle!

The Riad Hotel organised a trip for SYP1100 (about EUR17) for nearly 11 hours (including waiting) use of a car and driver shared with four other people.

Musyaf Citadel

We started with a stop to Musyaf Citadel which has its origins with the Crusade down the region in the 1100s but most of what is seen is mixed Ismaili sect and Ottoman construction.

Marqab Citadel

Next was Marqab Citadel which was built from black basalt rock by the Crusaders in the 1100s, adding on to an earlier Muslim citadel. The Citadel eventually fell to Muslim hands later in the same century.large_5550_12786725663396.jpgMusyaf Citadel.The citadel is close to the coast and gave us a sweeping view of the Mediterranean sea.

Crac de Chevalier (Qalaat al-Hosn)

TE Lawrence described it as the finest castle in the world. The sheer size of it is sure to wow any visitor.

It was built by the Crusaders in the 1100s based on an earlier local structure. It was taken over by the Ottoman in 1271 and the mixed history is reflected in parts of the current architecture seen now.

It is an incredibly intact castle but some reconstructions have been reconstructed done “too nicely”.


After the long day of walking and climbing (broken only by a delicious mezze lunch overlooking Crac), I was shattered. Chase, a fellow traveller, treated me to a well-earned beer on the rooftop of our hotel overlooking Hama city.

My dream home will have a flat roof ... for evening drinks ... and a courtyard for the hot afternoons. Dream on!

Sin Taxes

Despite a conservative country, beer is cheap in Syria. A tall tin of beer costs a little more than a standard soft drink. Likewise a packet of cigarettes is about the same price as a soft drink. There’s no sin-tax on these items here!

Due to the diverse religious mix here, alcohol is available quite readily. Unlike some countries, one doesn't need to own a license to buy alcohol.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Crossing into Syria

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large_5550_1278660638204.jpgFour Norias (water wheels) in Hama. Kids and adults ride up and jump off the top of the stone wall. Those who chicken out ride down on the wheel too.
Tasty Start

I started the day with breakfast in a hole-in-the-wall cafe ... Turkish coffee, OJ squeezed in front of you and the most beautiful croissant. It was warm and not too buttery or flakey, with a cavity inside that had been filled with salted butter that' been melted away. Being the pig that I am, I had to followup with the chocolate filled version which was equally nice. We need more Vietnamese and migrants from former French territories in New Zealand to make these goodies more commonly available!

Border Crossing

I walked one minute into the square adjacent to the hotel and was quoted SYP500 (about EUR8) for my crossing into Hama [Hama-travel-guide-1185297] in Syria.[http://images2.travbuddy.com/5550_12786606399195.jpg]Wedding car.It was far more than indicated in the guide so I got a second quote which was even more at SYP600. Well, times must have changed ...

Compared to old Mercedes Benz previously, we now have a Hyundai Sonata with hardly any dings ... equipped with curtains and the obligatory cushion to convert the front centre armrest into a makeshift seat.

The trip took under 3 hours including some stops:

1. Firstly on the Lebanon side for my companions to buy some bread ... it's supposed to be better than Syrian bread but I can't tell.
2. Then for my companions to buy crockery ... they're big on glitzy gilded ones here. I suppose this would have been an outing for them and they want to come back with something for the family.
3. Then about 45 minutes at the border checkpoints. I had to apologise to the rest of the taxi for delaying them.large_5550_12786606391057.jpgNoria in the central park of Hama. Very pleasant at night as families come out to enjoy the breeze.

Virgo Immigration Officer

The Lebanese exit officer was a bit slow (presumably a Virgo ... we're known for being picky ... or possibly new a his job):

1. He went each field of the card and checked it off against my passport then beautified my handwriting as he saw fit ... adding serifs to my capital "I", extending the stalk of my capital "Y" etc. Can you believe it?
2. Then he flicked through and saw the word "Israel" in my passport. He couldn't read English (they read Arabic and usually French), so didn't understand that it actually said that the passport was not valid for entry into Israel (rather than anything to suggest that I have been). So he had to get a supervisor to clarify.
3. I just couldn't believe the fuss for an Exit procedure. Fortunately the Syrian officers were much more efficient and experienced.

Like a Homecoming

Intercity taxies are no longer permitted to drop off willy-nilly so I had to take another taxi to the Riad Hotel where I had stayed twice before. It was like coming home! Abdullah working there truly makes the place ... he is cheerful and obliging, and organises fantastic trips for guests.

Unfortunately prices in Syria seemed to have skyrocketed. The hotel price is triple the rate indicated in the guidebook and I had to go to another hotel to check on their pricing (later) just to make sure no one was being shifty. Talking to other travellers, it seems like a sad fact that inflation been high especially in the accommodation sector.

I spent the afternoon and evening chatting to fellow travellers over drinks and meals.

Later at night, I went for a walk in the park with a Syrian guest from the hotel. I practiced my Arabic with him (he spoke no English). He picked up strangers' toddlers and kissed them and bought them snacks. I kept expecting the parents to call the cops! He said they're like his own kids back in Aleppo [Aleppo-travel-guide-1185271].


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Little Australia in Lebanon

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large_5550_12784369545900.jpgThe Qadisha Valley looking out to Bcharre, with its stone houses and terracotta roofs.
This morning I took the bus up into the hills and the Qadisha Valley, which is the stronghold of the Maronite Christians. The bus was meant to be a fraction the price of the shared taxi but as the driver was on the phone when I boarded, I couldn’t confirm the price ... so he overcharged me at the end ... but it wasn’t by much in the scheme of things. It was a very Christian mix of passengers and a very Christian bus with its adornments ... so how very Christian of the driver too! But the need to make a living (or sometimes greed) overrides any religious belief.

I hopped off the bus at a village called Bcharre [Bcharre-travel-guide-1041276] which is the home and resting place of Khalil Gibran, a famous poet (things like that are lost on me).large_5550_12784369552335.jpgAnother view of Bcharre.But I didn’t do a second visit to Bcharre for him.

On board my flight from Dubai to Beirut, I sat across from a 71 year old Lebanese Australian (Pat) who invited me to his village Kfar Sghab. From Bcharre, there were no shared taxis so it would have been a private taxi only ... the driver wanted too much so I tried hitching. I soon found that I didn’t have the right assets for the job.

When I had given up, I TXTed Pat to say that I wouldn’t be making it but he picked me up from Bcharre. After a stop to have his car washed and valet’ed we proceeded to his holiday home ... it was a stone, concrete and marble mansion.

His grandson was with him and his brother was coming up with another family member from Sydney tonight. What impressed me what the Lebanese in Australian try their best to maintain their culture:

* Some come to visit annually and escape the Aussie winter.large_5550_12784369567663.jpgKhalil Gibran.
* They own homes here.
* The second generation born in Australia (ie. grand children in this case) visit too ... and they can even speak Arabic still.
* They’re still strongly religious, (Maronite Christian in this case).

There is a Parramatta Road in Kfar Sghab. About 15,000 Australians trace their roots to this town!

I’m grateful for the hospitality ... I was offered lunch, arak, to stay, shower etc. After nice long chats on the balcony overlooking the Qadisha Valley, I was dropped back to the lowlands on the side of the motorway to bus back to Tripoli (they had to head to the Airport to pickup bro). I didn’t leave empty handed as I was given a goody bag of Lebanese sweets (I refer to them as cakes).


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

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