A Travellerspoint blog

Beirut

We arrived in Beirut from Damascus and headed straight to AUB. We used my old AUB card to blag in, and then headed to Mitch's room. He was pretty surprised to see me again. We immediately set about making the most of Beirut's culinary scene, heading straight to Domino's and getting three large Pizzas between us. Then we spent most of the evening arguing over gun control in the US, before going to a student bar down in Gemmaizeh, called Charlie's Bar. We met a Scandinavian there, which had been an aim for ages, so we judged the night to be a success and stumbled back to AUB, where we blagged our way in using a fake name and student ID no. for Kit.

Mitch said it was fine for us to stay a few days in AUB over the weekend, as he could sleep in his friend's room, whose roomate was away. We weren't going to turn down a free room, so we slept there that night.

Next day we lounged about in AUB until the evening. The difficulty in getting onto and off campus meant that we just spent time within the campus. We went back to Charlie's Bar that night. It's an awesome bar, extremely lively with awesome music. It was a Saturday, so everyone was dancing on the bar, us included. First time I've been on a bar :p. Again, we blagged our way back into AUB, and slept there. The next day, however, it transpired that the admin were onto us. They had apparently asked Mitch whether anyone was staying in his room, which he had denied. So, after watching "Seven" with some more Dominos, we hid out on the balcony to avoid detection in any mid-night raids. The Marble floor and nearby vocal Mosque didn't make the night any easier, but tbh it was pretty nice being out in the open, plus the sun always wakes you up nice and early.

As a result of the fact that AUB were onto us, we set off in search of a hotel. We went down to the Chalres Helou area and eventually found "Talal Hotel", which cost 8$ a night if you slept on the roof/balcony/reception. We agreed and slept there that night.

The next day was my 19th birthday, and we set out looking for a relaxed day. We went down to AUB bookstore and Kit bought "The Israel Lobby"-Mearsheimer & Walt, whilst I got "The Three Trillion Dollar War" by Stiglitz + a book on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Then we headed down to the "Rmei l Baidar" beach and lay there reading in the sun, watching the Lebanese couples enjoying the more liberal Beiruti culture. We chatted in French to a Lebanese bloke who was working in the Diamond trade in Africa. Then as the sun went down, we headed back to AUB, and to a restaurant in Hamra where we spent 20 quid on steak and beer.

From there we went to a local student bar to meet Mitch and had a couple of beers. Pathetic though it is, I was pretty knackered, so we began to head back to the hotel. Guess I was showing my age :p.

On the walk back, we had to cross the double-laned road to the hotel. We had only been around the area for about a day, so we didn't realise how fast a road this was. In the daytime it's always completely clogged anyway, so I just thought of it as any other Urban road. Before crossing the road I looked left and saw a car far away in the distance. The decision to cross was completely unconscious, and we strolled slowly across the road. About halfway across, I looked again and caught a glimpse of this vast SUV bearing down on us at some insane rate. I screamed "FUUUUCK". Kit immediately began sprinting across the front of the car. He later told me that he never even looked, he just acted on the panic in my voice.

I hesitated for a potentially fatal tiny fragment of time before I followed him. In hindsight, this was totally the wrong decision. I was a metre or so behind Kit and wasn't quite overlapped with the SUV. I could easily have taken a couple of steps back from the car, allowing it to rush past my front.

But the neurones were in "this-is-fucking-bad" mode, and they were instructing my legs to fucking pace. I guess it seems dangerous to stop in the middle of a road and sit there longer than you initially intended, and it seemed that Kit had made the decision that he could make it. Whatever the reasons, minute electric circuits had me throwing myself in front of a lethal two-tonne American entertainment complex on wheels. For a moment I stared into two giant Xenon eyes before falling past them. The corner of the bumper clipped my foot, and I fell onto one knee.

The car stopped and I began shouting at him. I think he was probably drunk, as he was under 25, driving a rich-boy car at 3-4 AM on the road from one of Beirut's biggest clubs (BO18). He had barely reacted to the whole incident. He barely braked or swerved when Kit started running round his front. He'd also been going probably twice the speed I had expected. He shouted back at us, slapped Kit through the window, then drove off.

Immediately afterwards the adrenaline wore off, and I started shaking. I could barely walk on my foot, but I limped my way to a nearby snack shop, and bought some chocolate and Sprite. I was as shaken as I've ever been, but we met some cool guys, one Spanish and one French, who were pretty sympathetic and cool. They were pretty interesting too. They worked on a boat that worked in wreck excavation, and were in Beirut to work on the Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed off Beirut earlier this year.

We set off back to the hotel. We were actually about 100m from the hotel, but I ended up hobbling a massive 1 km circle before working this out. Then we went to bed. In accordance with sod's law, this was the first time I didn't have the trauma pack on me (I had left it in AUB), so I just washed my cut in water and then fell asleep in the lounge/reception. Eventful birthday at the least! Doubt I'll forget that one..

After that we didn't do much for a while. My ankle swelled up to two times the size of the other one. I went to AUB medical center, and they told me it probs wasn't broken, and to take Ibuprofen and take it easy. They then tried to charge me $200 for the pleasure!

So we didn't do much. Mostly we just read books and watched Max.

Max spent all day insulting everyone in the hostel. His basic activity was to try and get people to rise and argue. Given the setting, the easiest way to achieve this was generally to make some anti-Palestinian comments. Inevitably an argument would ensue in which Max would argue (simply and loudly) against whoever was speaking, regardless of what they were saying. Generally, this meant a lot of pro-Israeli rhetoric.

Of course, the first time we came across him we began arguing with him. However, it didn't take long to work out what was going on, and we generally just sat back and watched him arguing, laughing at anyone who got offended at the things he said, or who took them seriously enough to argue with him. It didn't take us long to work him out, and when he eventually talked to us seriously, everything he said made sense. He was a rich boy from OC, California, and owned a Ford Mustang and Nissan 350Z bought by his parents. His whole act disguised the fact that he was seriously intelligent, knowledgeable, liberal and impressive (he spoke fair Hebrew and Arabic, and composed music for adverts in the ME).

The basic aim of the act was to shag girls. Max himself described the process to us:
"It works to filter out the ones who are going to fuck. Insult them and offend them,
be a total dick. Already you're something interesting to them. Shout at them for nothing, then mumble an apology later. Make them think there's something underneath it all, make them think they can change you. Then you're in. I hate myself for acting like a dick, but I worked out when I was 16 that being nice got you nowhere."

His technique was delivered with clinical precision on every girl that walked through the hostel, and it delivered. Every girl he got with was a bitch though.

The days passed quickly. Not much was achieved, though I managed to file for the return of my deposit from AUB. We spent days watching Max, going to Hamra, reading, and talking to other travellers in the hostel.

One other interesting person we met was Carl, a Canadian studying in London who wanted to set up his own conflict-resolution NGO. He was an awesome guy, and we had a good chat about the Middle East and university.

On Easter day we went for a walk to the Corniche. We came across a Free Palestine rally, and then on the way back through Beirut Souks, we came across an Easter parade. We followed it around and were given the rabbit costumes that all the kids were dressed in. We followed the kids round and round the Souks in rabbit costumes dancing to the music from the band, and joking about how long it would have taken to be arrested in the West.

After the parade ended, we headed back to Talal and chilled. We wanted to go out, but nothing was open, so we gave up.

We only went out once more, to a club called Basement. Initially they wouldn't let us in due to our clothes. So we enlisted the help of a German girl in the hostel who walked in with us, and then doubled back. We win. It was a cool club, though we only had an hour or so there, and never got drunk enough for it to be a properly good night.

Posted by bj_945 13:34 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

From Lattakia to Tartus

Following the Levantine Coast

We set off from Lattakia far too late, as usual. On the way out of the hotel I stopped off at a digital shop to buy a cheap Compact camera to replace the one I lost in Ath Thaura. I didn't want to lose the ability to continue to take photos through the trip.

We had decided to hitch-hike down to Tartus, and as is so often the case the most difficult objective of the day would be to find the correct road to hitch off. We set off walking, and it took us a good 2 hours to follow the coast round to the south of the city. Once here we began to ask for directions towards Tartus.

As usual, it proved totally impossible to communicate our intentions to anyone. No-one understands hitching, so we end up pretending we want to walk to the next place. They inevitably laugh at you for being crazy, and relentlessly explain to you that it's 100 km away.

Anyway, eventually they pointed us in the right direction and laughed at the crazy ajnabes as we walked off into the distance.

Eventually we got a lift in the back of a pick up from a bloke who took us 5km down the road. We set up shop here, on the main highway to Tartus. We had another argument with a guy selling water on the side of the road, who also didn't understand what we were doing and tried to get us to flag down busses. He just couldn't understand why we were flagging down pick-ups and ignoring service busses.

His friend could speak English, but he was simply unbelieving when we insisted that we had hitched from Aleppo to Ath Thaura and back.

Eventually a massive Mercedes truck stopped, and said he was going about halfway to Tartus. We hopped in, and immediately the smell of Cannabis hit us. We looked over, and the guy was smoking a spliff and grinning at us. He drove at about 30 mph the whole way.

We got out of his truck maybe 20 minutes later and resumed hitching. The next ride came almost immediately, in the form of some massive Volvo truck. The guys were wicked, they loved us and we chatted in broken arabic for a good while. Then we lapsed into silence and watched the sun disappear out of the window whilst the Mediterranean flowed past.

The guys dropped us off on the turn off to Tartus, and we were left to find a ride in the pitch black. I was feeling pretty pessimistic, but in the end we got a ride into the center. We drifted about and found a good cheap hotel.

Then we went out looking for some food. We went to an expensive barside restaurant/bar, where we paid a small fortune for an ice cream. But it was a cool place, full of hot young girls.

Then we returned to the hotel. Underneath it was a small ice cream shop. We stopped for an ice cream, and the shop keeper invited us to stop and talk to him. He was a total legend, and we ended up chilling there for a good hour whilst he gave us free ice cream and we talked about England and Syria.

The next day we got up and decided to go to look for a bank for Kit to get money out. Whilst on the lookout, we came across a guy called Hafez who drove us there and invited us to meet with him later. He drove us around town. He had been studying in Birmingham, and had the best English we had heard for weeks. He also gave us the first interesting political conversations we had had for a long time. He was very anti-government. He ran a construction company that was involved in the development of the beach front of Tartus and clearly had to deal with government corruption on a daily basis.

We left him and chilled around the city for a while.

Later on we met back up with him and went for a meal. He took us to a really expensive restaurant in Tartus, so we had a couple of steaks and chatted more about politics, religion and the ME. Afterwards we went driving round the town again, and then in to bed.

Next morning we met up with Hafez again, early in the morning. Hafez showed us a place where we could get our clothes cleaned, and after we dropped them off, we just drifted around the town. Kit wasn't feeling very well, so we had a very quiet day, reading and then checking out the sunset from the beach. Tartus is a busy port town, and the sun set directly behind one of the cargo ships.

We left Tartus the next day, for Homs. Hafez organised a taxi for us out of town, and we started hitching. Within no time we caught a lift from a pick up, and we rode up front all the way to Homs. From here, we could see the Lebanese mountains, and as it happened we got to Homs very early. We decided to keep moving on to Hamah, so we walked out of town and kept hitching.

Our first ride was with a guy driving a massive brand new SUV. He was from Texas, but originally Syrian, and explained to us that he had ran a successful business in America, but had decided to return to Syria since he could live like a King cheaply now that he had retired. He had only been in Syria for a short while: the car still had stickers on it, it had done about 400 miles.

He dropped us off and we hitched a ride for another few kilometers with a Renault driver, and then with a truck driver into Hamah.

In Hamah we were picked up by a family as we walked towards the town. They showed us around the town and even drove us to a hotel. The hotel was in Lonely Planet as being cheap, but it cost loads-around 1000 SYP for the two of us. We were both knackered from covering hundreds of kilometers, so we just crashed out. We went out to get Falafel, then watched Indiana Jones.

In the morning we got up and watched TV til 1 PM. This is the danger of TV. We turned it on to find out whether the US Health Bill passed, then ended up watching the whole of Scary Movie 4.

Anyway, eventually we emerged and went out to have a look at Hamah. We only had one day there, but I think we saw most of what there was to see. We looked at the Nourias, and then went up the Citadel to watch the sunset. Once back at the hotel we had a chat with an Italian, and a Swiss biker who was crossing the whole world on his modified BMW.

Next day we got back on the road towards Homs. We walked out of town. We set up hitching, and the first car we stuck our hand out to pulled over, and said he was going to Homs. It was a pick up, and we hopped straight in the back. We couldn't believe our luck, the day seemed so set. We were still revelling in the success, and waving at Bus drivers when he pulled over after 10 miles at some turn off. He was going off to a little village, so we set back up hitching. Better than nothing anyhow. Shortly after we got another ride in the back of a pick up all the way to Homs.

We decided that we could make it to Tadmur, so we took a taxi across town, and set back up on the road to Tadmur. We got a ride about 1/3rd of the way and then found a pick up going the whole way. We hopped in and sat there in the back of a the pick up, watching the sun go down in the middle of the desert. It was an awesome sight, and we were pretty pleased with ourselves as we rolled into Tadmur.

Then the gypsy driver tried to charge us. This was the first time this had happened to us, but we accepted to give him 200 to diffuse the situation, and then we found a hotel and a place to eat. We ate at "Venus restaurant", but it was pretty expensive and not that great. Tbh the whole of Tadmur was much like this.

Posted by bj_945 11:25 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Lattakia, Continued

Luxury Living

sunny 25 °C

The next day, we got up well late again, and decided to walk the other way from the Rotana Hotel.

We followed the coast down to some little beach, and sat down on some rickety table on a cliff above the beach. Some kid came trying to charge us for the table, so we left, and instead we rocked down to a restaurant a little way down the road. We hadn't eaten anything yet, and had walked a good couple of kilometres, so we settled down to eat. The place we were at looked expensive, but in reality the food was totally grimy. The water tasted of fluoride, burnt chicken. Pretty rank, so when they tried to charge us 800, we flipped out, and argued with them until they agreed to 500. They were well pissed off, but we just refused to give them any more, we just left.

Tbh not very much else happened, we went back to the hotel, then to the internet cafe. Here, Kit found that he'd got into UCL for English, so we went back to the Italian Corner to celebrate. We ate awesomely for 600-odd, and then went back to Cactus at 1 AM for Pudding, since they had a wicked Chocolate Cake on the cheap. Then we chilled back down to our hotel and slept. We had decided that the next day we were going to hitch down to Tartus.

Posted by bj_945 15:04 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Lattakia

Luxury Living

sunny 24 °C

Next day we got up fairly early. We had decided not to bother hitching to Lattakia: the roads looked to small and complicated, plus we were tired of the hassle. We got a taxi to the bus stop and bought tickets to Lattakia for 150 SYP each.

The trip was uneventful, it only took a couple of hours. The scenery was pretty cool, twisty roads through valleys. We were in Lattakia before sunset, and set about looking for a hotel. We got totally lost, and got a taxi who was no help at all. He picked us up in some random part of the city, and dropped us off in some random part of the city, assuring us that Hotel Lattakia was nearby. It just wasn't, but some locals walked us the 15 minutes through town to the correct part of the city.

The hotel was recommended by Lonely Planet (which we long ago began referring to as Bullshit Planet), and this was one of the few genuine steals the whole book has given us. It cost 600 SYP for a proper lush room with TV and Shower. Anyway, after checking in we watched some BBC News on the ensuing Israeli Settlements Debacle, some mild US wrist-slapping and some bolshy Israeli defiance, and then went out for a meal. We got a couple of steaks in a restaurant called Cactus for about 5 quid each. It was quite expensive, but we both wanted steak so badly. It had actually been the main topic of conversation for weeks, so we weren't bothered. Lattakia's restaurants are awesome, and we splashed out a bit.

After this, we went in search of a bar. None to be found. We even went to the extent of asking two Hijab-wearing women on the street where a bar was. Predictably they didn't know what a "bar" was, but asked if we wanted a coffee shop. We ploughed on, tactically deciding to visit the Hotel Riviera Bar. Absolutely no-one was there, but the Guy behind the bar told us to go to the American District. We didn't have a clue where this was, so we got a taxi there. It later transpired that it was literally 2 minutes from our hotel.

There were Restaurant-Bars there, but no bars. We had been discussing this commonly-shared dreamy vision of a proper bar with cheap beer and Scandinavian women, but regrettably we never found it in the whole of Lattakia. In fact, we're still looking. In the end we settled into one of the resto-bars and had a couple of beers and a homous, before rolling home in the early hours of the morning.

The next day we got up ridiculously late, and decided to go looking for a beach. The Bullshit Planet mentioned that you could pay to get access to a private beach owned by a plush hotel a little way North of central Lattakia. We drifted that way, on the lookout for Falafel along the way. We found nothing except a little shop selling rolled up chicken and chips in a wrap. The chips were so greasy they were mushy. I didn't greatly enjoy paying 50 SYP for Coronorary Heart Disease, but whatever, it was all there was around for breakfast.

We rocked up at the plush hotel, which was called the Rotana hotel, and just rolled in. No-one stopped us, so we went straight to the beach. Totally chill, no-one was going to make us pay for anything. We were gonna gofor a swim in their pool, but it was pretty cold, so we just rocked down to the break-water and chilled in the sun. It was pretty hot, total chill. Chatting and Chilling, nothing better.

The hotel was ridiculously five star. It had 2 swimming pools outside. It was totally massive. It had it's own "yacht center", a harbour for docking these millionaires yachts. The webpage for the hotel is here. We decided to have a look inside, so we just rocked into their Spa center.

Here, Kit decided to totally blag our way in.
"Are we allowed to use the spa?"
"As members you would have to pay."
"And if we are staying in a room here?"
"Ah, then you may use everything free"
"So can we just go through?"
"Of course."

The woman there then showed us around the whole spa, and left us to change. We fell about in hysterics and got into swimming costumes. She came back five minutes later, asking for our names and room numbers. I was thinking we should bail, but Kit was sure that they hadn't got a computer system, so we made up two names and a room number and walked up to the desk. All they had was a piece of paper, so we thought we were in the clear. I was "Oliver Stoner", and Kit was "Tom Robertson", of room 108. We picked up our towels, and headed straight to the Jacuzzi. We chilled there for ages, giggling, but slightly paranoid at everyone that came in. The woman did come back in, and asked us to confirm our Room Number. She asked me if we were in room 108,. I said we were, and she looked confused. I was thinking we were foiled. We went up and asked if there was a problem. They said "there is no room 108 in this hotel". Now I was thinking we were definitely foiled. But we blagged our way through again. Kit gave some bullshit about "1st night, probs forgot it", and they said it was no problem. We assured them we would check what it was later and come back with the proper number for their records, then went back to the Jacuzzi.

Our general philosophy was that we were in a place where total wankers come to relax, so the more we acted like wankers, the less likely we would be to be detected. So we bossed the staff around a bit: asked them to turn the heat up, and then to turn the Sauna on. But actually the woman was giving us a weird smile throughout the whole thing: I think she knew what was going on, she was just playing along for the hell of it.

After the Sauna, we got into the first proper power shower I had seen in weeks, and then dried off, walked out (past a Mercedes SL 55 AMG), and then back from 5* to 1* hotel. We had basically spent all day at the spa, and night was beginning to settle in.

That night we didn't do that much, just went to a cheap Italian restaurant. I had two pizzas, and Kit had a Soup, Spaghetti, and two puddings. That meal actually came to quite a lot-like 15 quid, so we were spoiling ourselves pretty bad in Lattakia. Luxury living.

Peace xx

Posted by bj_945 14:08 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Raqqa to Palmyra

Or not

semi-overcast 17 °C

It was further than we thought from central Raqqa to the highway. We probably hiked for 4 miles or so to get to what we thought was the highway. There followed the most confused and messiest session of hitching to date.

We basically began on the wrong road, we were on a medium size Raqqa ring road thing, only a half mile from the main highway, so the map wasn't low-scale enough to tell us that. We stopped like 3 cars, all of whom were well confused. They couldn't understand us, we couldn't understand them. Presumably they were asking why the fuck we were asking for a ride to Hammam when we were on the road back to Raqqa.

Many confused conversations later, we switched sides of the road, which was one step in the right direction. Now we could get a ride to the main highway, but we still thought we were on it. Some local was trying to help us, but was half-hindering us. He was stopping loads of cars, but he didn't get the concept of hitching at all. He was clearly waiting for a car to be going all the way to Palmyra, and couldn't ge the idea that it might be easier just to hitch 10k down the road for starters.

Anyway, eventually we got on a minivan. We realised our mistake when we got to the massive highway, where we got out and started hitching to Hammam.

Basically the plan was to hitch Westwards on the big highway to Hammam, then Southwards from Hammam on a smaller road all the way to Palmyra. This was shorter but involved smaller roads than the alternative route right round the big highway down to the South East to Dayz a Zur, and then Westwards from there.

We walked another half kilometer down the highway and began hitching. Pretty quickly we picked up a ride in another pick up. It had some pretty knarly looking equipment in the back, turned out to be an operating table. This was simultaneously grimey and hilarious. We both lay in it for a bit, pretending to operate on each other, as the world blasted past at 60 mph. We got a lot of weird looks. In the end one of the leg supports actually fell off. We hadn't broken it, but you'd need a screwdriver to fix it, so we stopped fucking around with it and chilled til we fot to Hammam.

The guys up front were legends and they let us out here. We hadn't seen the road South yet, so we started hiking up through the town. This is the biggest shithole we have yet been to in Syria. We saw almost no-one, just dead animals, roadkill, scrawny chickens and dusty, battered homes. We probably walked for another 3 miles through the town, right to its limits, without seeing the road. By now we were getting grumpy. We had covered a lot of ground on foot and were pretty knackered. We hadn't seen the road, but we were failing to communicate what we wanted with anyone and just getting irritable. So when a massive truck pulled up ahead of us and agreed to take us to "the road to Palmyra" when we asked him, we accepted. I think we both knew that he didn't understand and that we weren't going to end up in Palmyra, but we just wanted a ride. In the end we gave up, and asked him if he would take us all the way with him to Alleppo.

Massive ride through the desert with this guy was pretty cool. He drove at around 80 kmph. We tried to chat, but it didn't go as well as it does with some people, with my limited Arabic the quality of conversations varies a lot.

Anyway, we ended up in Aleppo and went searching for a hotel. We went to the place recommended in the Lonely Planet as being cheap (Hotel Hadi), but as usual they were chatting total shit. It was well expensive, so we kept looking and ended up at another hotel (forget the name) for a lot less.

After this not a lot happened. We went to the Internet Cafe to blog, and grabbed some Falafel. We didn't feel too guilty about wasting, since we had already done Aleppo pretty thoroughly. We just went to bed.

Posted by bj_945 13:28 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Qalat Jabar, Continued

Lake Ice and Raqqa

semi-overcast 15 °C

It took a long time for us to getup to waist level. Neither of us had the balls to do what is far less painful in the long run, and jump in.

Eventually it got to the point of no return. Kit had been an inch ahead of me both of the way, but I was the first to go all the way and pull my head underneath. Once in, we cleaned our hair (it had needed doing for a while) and then swam to the other side of the inlet, which was probably 30 or 40 metres away. Once there, we got out, shouted out some profanities, then got back in again and swam back to the other side. By now we were properly cold, and I don't mean pathetic-Brit-whining-cold, I mean muscles-giving-in cold. With our inching in and whimpering we had spent hours in freezing cold water and hadn't realised that we were near-hypothermic. It took us ages to stop shivering, but we rested on the bank in the knowledge that we had at least managed what we set out to do.

We went back to camp, and then set about collecting wood for that evening's fire. Half the time was spent searching for the wood, and the other half commenting on how manly it was to go searching for wood, and how Ray Mears we would feel later on when it lit all over again and we could relax next to our manly fire. We split all the wood up into massive piles until we figured we had enough for hours.

After this, we went back down to the restaurant again. We had what we had eaten before: Chips and Homous, but Abdullah tried to charge us more than last time, so we had a bit of an argument, and left having argued him down to last night's prices. He was bloody pissed off though. Between that and the boat, he must have thought we were totally tight-fisted.

Anyway, with the wolves howling all over again, we made our way back up the hill to the tent. This time we had managed to bring a torch, so it wasn't quite the terrifying experience it had been the night before. At the tent, we laid out the fire with to the wood we had collected, and lit it. We revelled in our Ray-Mearsness as the pines cvaught instantly, and then chilled for hours reading again. This fire was way better than the one before, so we were there for ages.

We listened to some World Service programme on Depression, during which someone wrote in from Cyprus. Hearing this, I suggested that we should go to Cyrpus. We got the map, Kit agreed and that was decided. We've subsequently found that flights there are 120 quid though, so it depends if we feel we can break the bank later on.

Nothing much happened after this. We Chilled, and the wolves were less vocal than the night before. We had to take our first shit in the wild. Then we slept once the wood ran out.

Next day we got up, packed up, and went back down to Abdullah's for breakfast. He wasn't pissed off anymore, so we got some Homous, and then set up for a big hike, as we were trying to get a little way East to Raqqa. In the end we walked probably 5 or 6 miles down the road to get back to the main road. Only a handful of cars passed us in the entire time, but thankfully a Latvian bloke in a hired Ford Mondeo stopped for us and drove us the remaining 4 or 5 miles to the main road to Raqqa. He was pretty chill, on his way south.

Then we waled up to a nearby gas station, got some tap water and wacked some water purification tablets in it. There were some Germans there. Normally we say hello to all the foreigners we see, but they were dressed up in traditional German kit. It was pretty weird, truth be told, so we ignored them and began hitching with a Syrian on the side of the road who was also trying to get to Raqqa.

We got a pick up pretty quick, which took us 2/3rds of the way there, with us just chilling in the flat bed at the back. We had wanted to do this for ages-figured it was such a cliched backpacker activity that it was totally necessary to partake in it at some point. Tbh it's genuinely pretty wicked travelling at 60 mph through the desert in Aviators, standing up in the flat bed of some pick up. We had to get out some way down the road and start hitching all over again, with Raqqa not far away.

I've mentioned before that Syrians don't seem really to get teh idea of hitch-hiking, they tend just to give you confused looks and "what the fuck" hand signals. This time someone did that, flew down the road for a little way, then presumably worked it out, turned around 200 metres down the road, and came back for us.

It was a minivan thing, so we chilled out in the back on the way to Raqqa whilst the Syrian dude got in the front and chatted to the driver. But once in Raqqa, he got out and the driver started talking to us. He drove us to his shop, and we chilled with him and drank some tea. He had pretty good English, and then he drove us to a hotel, which was awesome.

The hotels he dropped us off at cost like $45 a night, so we went back on the lookout. We asked the taxi driver to take us to a street name from Lonely Planet, but instead he took us to the Train Station. When we tried to explain that this wasn't where we wanted to be, he thought we were claiming that this wasn't the train station, so he physically guided us into the station. He didn't understand us at all, but eventually we managed to get him to understand through someone else that we wanted a cheap hotel. Eventually we got there, but the cheapest hotel we found was 1000 SYP for the night in the cheapest shittiest room.

Anyway, we went to check out the town. Tbh one of the few things Lonely Planet's been right about is Raqqa. It's a small, dusty town with no attractions and shit accomodation. Still, tbh it wasn't the worst place to be for the night. Good to see a standard town for one night only. WE got some Falafel for 15 SYP, then bought some junk food and went to watch the whole of Robocop from teh comfort of our beds.

The next morning we packed up, and set off. We bought a couple of falafel and then walked to the Immigration Department in Raqqa to sort out our stamps (you're meant to report there after 15 days in Syria). We had only come to Raqqa because it had an immigration department. Once inside, we were invited into the head bloke's office. He wasjust well friendly and smiled at us. He looked through our passports and told us there would be no problem. From this we concluded that the whole Visa system was probably a total mess (ever person we've met has said something different), so he's probably right and there will be no problem. We hope. So we just left and began hiking to the main road, from which we hoped to get to Palmyra.

Posted by bj_945 12:27 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Qalat Jabar

Storming the Castle

semi-overcast 15 °C

We awoke fairly late the next day, in our hotel room in Ath Thaura. The aim of this day was to get to Qalat Jabar, maybe 20 km away round lake Al Asad, to the North West of Ath Thaura. Once up, one of the guys at the hotel offered to take us to a restaurant before we left. We didn't want to start hiking on an empty stomach, so we accepted.

He took us in his car, one of the most ridiculous vehicles I have ever had the luxury of riding in-a Chevrolet Camaro pick-up. It had the dimensions of a small house, simultaneously managing to be totally cramped inside. The automatic gearbox wouldn't change up until past 5000 RPM, and even then kept missing gears. There's actually a lot of cars like this in Syria: old, massive, automatic American cars presumably imported way back in the 70s and 80s, now held together by bits of wire, glue and tape. Tbh they're awesome, I want one.

Anyway, we had a massive meal for about 400 SYP (like 3 quid each), with Homous, Chips and Chicken. We could barely eat it all, but we took hours over it, chilling in the Sun.

Then we hit the road. We had planned to walk the whole way to Qalat Jabar, which would have meant hiking all day. We set off, and got down to the dam over the Lake (which is 5 km long). However, some Syian army bloke at the start of the dam wouldn't let us go past unless we were in a car. We asked him why the hell they had bothered to make a sidewalk the whole way over only to prevent anyone from walking on it. Anyway, to be fair he hailed a minivan and asked them to take us across for free.

Once over the dam we asked the driver to pull over and get out. For the first time we were now fully in the Syrian Desert, proper middle of nowhere. So I decided to take a photo, and started searching for my camera. As I couldn't find it, I thought back and realised I had taken it out of my bag whilst packing my jacket away in the morning, on the side of the road, and hadn't put it back in due to my haste to get into aforementioned ridiculous American car.

I thought the chances of finding it would be pretty slim, but we hitched back over the dam, returned to where we had been, asked around, gave up, and hitched back the other way again. It was a total bitch because it was a pretty valuable camera, and had some wicked photos on it. Plus now I couldn't take any more photos.

That did ruin the day a little, but we managed to hike and hitch our way to Qalat Jabar before sunset, and found a camping spot on top of a massive hill overlooking the castle. We set up the tent and gathered some wood together for a fire later on. Then we walked down to a restaurant by the castle, to get some food. The guy who runs it is mentioned in the Lonely Planet by first name-Abdullah.

Walking back up the forested hill in the dark with no torch was actually pretty scary, as we could hear wolves howling a few miles from the camp. Kit told me about an account he had read in a book of a wolf eating a person, which was awesome, cheers Kit, and then we got up to the top of the hill and set about making our fire. The tinder was bone dry pines from the conifers around the camp. It might have been easy, but we still felt pretty Ray Mears when we started a fire first time using our breaking cigarette lighter.

We lay there under the stars for a while, listening to BBC World Service, and then reading by Firelight. Tbh, reading by firelight is not the easiest-you have to throw kindling on which flares up to give you maybe 120 seconds reading time, during which you have to totally rag it before the fire dims back down again.

Throughout this time, wolves kept on howling around the woods which was also pretty disconcerting. But we kept on reading until we ran out of fuel, then we got in the tent and went to bed at like 9 O'clock. It's amazing how your natural sleep cycle shifts when you are actually reliant on the sun for light. Once the sun's gone, you just can't do anything. You end up bored into bed by 9 or 10. Staying up past 12 offers nothing. You also wake up well early in the morning sun.

This is exactly what happened next day- we woke up at 7 or 8 as the sun began to heat up the tent to uncomfortable levels. We got up, and decided to trek back down to Abdullah's for some food. After this, we trekked back up the road into the castle. We paid our entry fee to a man armed with an AK-47, and walked into the castle. It's a pretty cool old fort, overlooking the lake. It's a Muslim fort, and even to the untrained eye that's pretty obvious. There's Islamic arches everywhere etc. Anyway, we saw some kids there, who insisted on photographing themselves with us endlessly. Like everyone else in Syria, they were friendly/curious about us, which is cool. However, this did get quite annoying when they trailed us round the walls and kept on asking for photographs and for our bracelets etc. Eventually we escaped the Muslim hordes and chilled out on the fort's walls for a while.

Kit wanted some water, so we walked back out of the fort again and got some drinks. We went back to Abdullah's for lunch and asked him if we could rent a boat off him. In the Lonely Planet, it said we could rent a small boat off him for 100 SYP per hour and go to a nearby island (maybe 1 km away from the shore) . However, he was asking for 100 SYP to get a ride to the island in a fishing motorboat, or 1000 SYP to rent a rowing boat. We had fancied drifting off to the island in a small boat, so we haggled him down to about 500 SYP. We were still thinking this was a hell of a lot to rent a tiny rowing boat he wasn't using anyway, and then he told us we couldn't go far from the shore anyway. After this revelation, we couldn't see the point, so we just stomped off back to our camp.

We wanted to chill back on the walls of the fort, but we couldn't be bothered with paying 300 SYP all over again, so we decided to give scaling the walls a go. The outer defenses consist of an initial steep bank, which we got up easily. After this, there is a bit of a rock face which you have to climb. This was the difficult bit. We scouted right round the castle and eventually found maybe a 10 to 12 ft rock wall that looked negotiable. We had it easier than the Crusaders-no-one was firing arrows at us, though we were slightly concerned about AK man. It wasn't easy, tbh I thought I was in for a fall, but we made it up. After this, it was relatively easy to climb up the remainder of the bank up to the base of the walls, maybe 50 ft above the water below us. The kids found us again during this process-they saw us climbing from the top of the walls. We weren't bothered until they threw a couple of rocks at us. I think this was just them getting carried away as a load of boys out together, and some of them told some of the others to stop. At this point we did feel definitely crusader however, scaling the walls whilst dodging projectiles thrown by the Muslim hordes up above us. Anyway, eventually they got bored with us and we were left to chill, reading on the rocks up in the sky.

We could have breached the walls into the fort proper with no difficulty at all, as they were pretty broken down in places. But we were worried about AK man noticing that the only white people in the whole place had left twice, so after like an hour we just climbed back down (even more difficult than climbing up) and went back to camp.

We had wanted to swim in the lake, so this was next on the agenda. We donned swim gear, and optimistically set off 10 minutes across country to an isolated water inlet. The next hour would be literally one of the coldest experiences of my life.

We got down there, and got into our ankles. Not only was it not as warm as hoped, it was FREEZING. Basically the nex half hour consisted in us creeping inch by inch into the water, screaming, commenting on how pathetic we both were and how the Syrians must get used to hearing screaming from every Brit who had the same stupid idea, just like us. SOmeone had actually warned us how cold it would be, but we had committed now-we couldn't back out.

TBC

Posted by bj_945 08:36 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

On the Road

Aleppo to Ath Thaura

We got up far too late to be hitching and cleared out the room With the help of the receptionist, we made a sign with the Arabic for "Ath Thaura" on it, and left the hotel. We grabbed a Shawarma for the road, and tried to get a taxi to take us to the road Eastwards to Ath Thaura. It was incredibly difficult to get him to understand, but he did eventually take us to a major road where we set up shop and began thumbing for a ride. This was the first time either of us had hitch-hiked. We felt like it was the beggining of something exciting. We stood there for a good 5 minutes until a local came up to us, read our sign, and then explained that we were on a road which went to the airport and nowhere else.

A whole lotta confused conversation and one pointless taxi ride later, we arrived 100 metres from our previous position, but on the correct road. We set up shop once again and waited. We quickly learnt that the Syrians have no idea what the thumb means-they just give you a thumbs up back and flash their lights. Hitchhiking is clearly not that common, as everyone gets about by Bus very cheaply, and as a result many of the locals don't really know what to make of it. They simply wave, smile, flash their lights, honk their horns, do everything except stop. The only guys who do stop are the busses, and each time we had to shake their heads until they finally left, totally bewildered as to why we wouldn't get on the bus that was going exactly where we wanted to go.

In the end, a white pick up did stop for us, and explained that it was going about two thirds of the distance. We wanted to ride in the back, but they invited us up front, apparently interested in us, so we hopped in.

There followed a fairly interesting ride. They had about as much English as I had Arabic, so fluent conversation was not on the menu. However, we did manage to have a few brief conversations:

The first was about cars. The guy kept short-shifting the van and revving the nuts off the engine, exclaiming "Ferrari". There followed a brief conversation which consisted solely in either the driver, me or Kit naming a car brand, saying either "Good/Mneeh" or "Bad/Mish Mneeh" and nodding at each other. "Lamborghini Good; Porsche Good" he would say. "Ferrari Mneeh, Fiat Mish Mneeh" we would reply.

Then followed the simplest of political conversations, in which he said "America and Israel are bad, Iran and Hezbollah good". Nasrallah, very good". Then he said "Britain" and twisted his hand "Hmmm ok". I think he was being nice to us. Far too kind.

Then he showed us various scars on his knee and across his back, and explained that he had got them from an American Apache that had been shooting up Mosul. I've always been a total cliche: that teenager in the CND top next to you on the bus (I don't actually own one, but I certainly could). However, when it's presented right in front of you like that, the war gets a whole lot more real than when you were watching it through your TV set.

Anyhow, the guy was basically a bit of a nutter, he drove like a madman, once trying to frighten people on the side of the road by pretending he was going to run them down, then turning away at the last minute.

Once in his town, he took us on to the bus stop. The sun was going down, so we gave up on hitching, and agreed to pay 100 SYP to get us the remainder of the way to Ath Thaura.

We arrived there in the dark, and sat down at a Shawarma joint on the main road in the town. Basically, it's a fairly small town with nothing of massive interest, but the peoiple were very friendly. After we'd eaten, we tried to set off into the wild to find a place to camp. However, the people simply wouldn't let us go. We were being trailed by kids, and all the locals kept trying to ask us what we were doing. They invited us to tea by the roadside, so we accepted, on the basis that the kids might dissipate a bit, allowing us to seize our moment to disappear down to the lake's bank and find a camping spot alone.

As we were having tea, scores of locals kept arriving and sitting round chatting. Initially it was just us and a bloke called Abdul, but by the end there were about 10 locals all sat round chatting. None of them could speak great English, apart from one guy called Motaz. He had a place in Hamah, and told us we could chill round there later in the trip. He was a really cool bloke, studying Psychology, so we have decided that we'll definitely folllow up on that later. However, none of the others could speak great English. They kept on giving us Tea and Nuts and trying to chat to us in broken English, whilst we tried to speak to them in broken Arabic. One bloke, Pater, offered me a ride on his 135cc motorbike. I rode it around the whole of Ath Thaura with him pillioning and directing me. He refused to let me wear a helmet on the basis that it would look weird and the police might stop us, so I went without. He was clearly massively proud of his bike, as it was Japanese, which is pretty rare out here. Tbh though it wasn't that great. It jumped out of gear a couple of times, and kept missing 5th whilst changing from 4th. The Exhaust Muffler was missing, so it sounded louder than a 1.2 ltr custom, whilst struggling to reach 80 kmph. Still, it was nice to have had a ride on a bike, and massively nice of him to let me.

They offered us to sleep at their houses, but eventually the Syrian police came down, and insisted that we go to a Hotel. The locals appeared to agree, and they eventually took us their in their car. There we paid 800 SYP (around 13 quid) for the both of us. In the adjoining room to ours were quite literally the worst cooking facilities I have ever come across. We battled with a properly dangerous gas cooker for a good hour to make a couple of pot noodles. The pans were so dirty that we decided to use our fresh water in the pot noodles, and boil it by placing them into pans of boiling water. By the end of it, the whole room stank of gas, though the noodles had been cooked to perfection. We retreated from the gas-filled kitchen to the dormitory, ate the pot noodles and then fell asleep to some BBC World Service.

Peace x

Posted by bj_945 13:10 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Aleppo, Continued

The first few days in Syria

-Continued.

The people at the motorbike shop were extremely friendly. They were clearly trying to push us into buying their bikes there and then, explaining that second hand bikes would be difficult to find, and that they have often been illegally imported without papers. We ended up deciding not to shell out so much money for bikes, when they would clearly lose a lot of value. I think that also some of the inner city driving we had seen had put us off the idea of driving motorcycles.

As with many people here, the guys at the motorbike shop seemed to hold a fascination, almost reverence, of the West (which I'm sure is why they were studying English). They invited us to supper later. We accepted and they agreed to call us that evening. However they never did call, so we just got Falafel again and went to sleep.

Next day was one of the least eventful days we had in Aleppo. We got up proper late (like 12:00 late) and vaguely drifted through the streets eating Falafel and enquiring further about second-hand bikes. The district near our hotel seemed to specialize in tyre shops, so we thought that people around here might have some useful information about where we could find bikes. We struggled with the Arab-speaking shop-keepers for a good 10 minutes, all of whom fundamentally misunderstood the nature of our enquiries. They kept asking for us to write down hte tyre dimensions that we wanted, but eventually brought us to an English speaking bloke in a small nondescript shop on the street. We got chatting, and he was a totally wicked bloke. He spoke excellent English, and told us that he had studied in Brighton for a few years. He was clearly another occidentalist, speaking at length about England. We asked him about motorbikes and he said he strongly urged us not to do it, on both safety grounds (he explained that the people here were careless, whereas in England, the driving was "very beautiful"), and once again on legal grounds (he claimed that it is actually illegal for foreigners to drive a motrbike in Syria). After our lengthy chat me and Kit agreed to forget the Biking in Syria and leave it for Jordan, a couple of months down the line.

That night, me and Kit decided to go to a local "Nightclub" we had spied a couple of streets from our hotel. We played some rubbish card drinking game with the Smirnoff I had brought with me to pre-lash, and then swayed out towards the Club.

On the way we jokingly agreed that there was a 50% chance it would be a shit disco, a 45% chance it might actually be alright, and a 5% chance it would end up being a Brothel. We naively sauntered our way in and sat down on a sofa at the back. Every sofa and armchair faced towards the stage, so we (still jokingly) agreed that this might increase the likelihood of it being a brothel. The ratio of females to males present was also suspiciously high for any club (yes, over 1:1!). We were still half-joking about it when a suited guy came over and whispered in Kit's ear "$100, any girl, all night)".

Now faced with the reality of the situation, I responded by drinking as much of the (rough) beer they were serving, in the shortest possible time-frame. "This is pretty weird, but being very drunk will probably make it less so" roughly sums up my thoughts at the time. We chilled and drank for a long time, and talked to a guy at the bar (who still persists in texting us about Brothels in Aleppo to this day). Then eventually the suited guy came back over and offered us any girl for an hour for $35. At this point we were like "what the fuck, why not?" and gave him $60 (we didn't have 70). He went and got two girls to come over and talk to us. This was pretty much the weirdest conversation of my life, interrupted occasionally by me and Kit turning to each other to comment on just how fucking weirdly the night was going so far. It was going so weirdly in fact that I increased my alcohol intake still further in response. I'm not well known for my ability to deal with heavy quantities of alcohol, so I very quickly drunk myself out of the game, and my head onto the arm of the sofa. Kit tells me I fell asleep and stayed that way for a good hour and a half whilst Kit taught his girl the meaning of the word "misogynistic" and danced with her. Mine left after I'd been out for 20 minutes.

Kit stayed there til' the club closed, at which point he woke me up. I remember a couple of flashes of my walk back to the hotel, then nothing apart from a couple of seconds of Kit trying to force me to be sick in the toilet. He tells me that he forced some water down me and then put me to bed.

Next day we woke up even later (around 2 pm). I was pretty groggy from the night before, and still a bit drunk. But, apart from mild nausea for the first few hours of the day, I got away with the excesses of the night before pretty well. This was to be our last day in Aleppo, and we really did nothing other than gor for a long walk around the city. We went to bed nice and early, having agreed to hitch to Ath Thaura the next morning.

Posted by bj_945 12:24 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Aleppo

The first few days in the city

sunny 12 °C

Once at Charles Helou International Bus Station it is impossible even to reach the buses for taxi drivers asking you where you're going and pointing out their cars. The first guy asked me where I was trying to get. When I said "Bus to Halab", he immediately replied "No Bus, Taxi 20$" which seemed pretty cheap so I accepted and got in the Taxi. I then waited around for almost an hour for the Taxi to be filled up with others. In the end they couldn't find a fourth passenger, so asked me for 30$, and then off we went.

The roads in Lebanon are widely reputed to be the most anarchic in the world. I've already stayed in Lebanon for 3 months so I'm used to watching the chaos from a (fairly) safe vantage point on the pavement. However it's all the more dramatic when you're in the midst of it, every driver pushing round each other in the hope of gaining a few inches on each other in the heavy traffic of Beirut. Once out of town, cars drift between lanes, showing no particular preference for any of the lanes, or even for straddling two of them. On single lane roads one might have thought there would be some preference for the lane in which traffic is flowing with you rather than hurtling at 60 mph towards you, but this notion is definitely lost on the Lebanese who apparently select their lanes totally arbitrarily.

Anyway, once past the Passport check in Syria, all the driving calmed down a bit, and the roads seem fine too, so I'm still keen on using motorbikes here. We drove up to Halab at an easy 90 mph and got there around midnight. I found Kit and then we went back to our room in Hotel Syria, which we were sharing with a couple of Germans Kit had met.

The next day we got up around 11 and grabbed a falafel for 20 Syrian Pounds (about 30 pence!), then went up to the main citadel. Truth be told, it is pretty awesome. Occasionally sheer scale can be enough to impress by itself and the Citadel is large enough to dominate the entire city. Once on top of it you can see all of Aleppo, right to the edge of the city where the straggling suburbs give way to countryside.

That done we drifted through some souks, and then into a small Mosque, in which children were running around playing with toy guns. Then we left and drifted about the streets, ending up in one of the more poverty-stricken areas we've seen in Aleppo.

We wanted to see the Capital Mosque, the largest in Aleppo. It's minarets make a definite impact on the whole city-scape. When we arrived, however, we found it deserted. We peeked nervously around the bottom floor. There was some kind of building work going on, rubble everywhere. Marko found the stairs to the upper levels, blocked by a makeshift concrete wall. At the time rushing up it seemed like a definite bad idea, essentially breaking up into hte biggest Mosque in Aleppo. But we had been well up for seeing it, so after some shruggin we decided to peg it up. After totally ragging it to the top, aware this was properly sketchy, we emerged onto the roof of the Mosque. It looked totally awesome up there in the sunset, we took some properly good photos of the minarets silhouetted against the sun, and chilled there for 5 minutes. But we were aware we could be seen from the streets up there, and so climbed down. On the way out we did see one person, but his back was turned to us, so we just ran out.

That evening we had a quick look around teh Christian Quarter of Aleppo. It was worth drifting through, but there was nothing amazing there. After that we went to a cafe, and smoked Arguileh drinking tea. The Germans taught us some card game, and we played for the bill. I lost almost all the games, and ended up paying the bulk of the bill myself. After this we returned to the Hotel, stopping on the way only for a kebab. However, here Marko fainted onto the floor-apparently the hundreds of cigarettes he had been smoking, combined with the arguileh, had worked fairly hard on him.

Whilst trying to carry him back, we met a pretty strange bloke in a car-seemed pretty deranged, properly tried to run someone over in front of us. He asked us whether the food was good and then fucked off. Despite the fact that he was clearly a bizarre individual, we thought nothing of it at the time. We got back to the hotel around 4 AM and went to sleep.

At about 7 AM we were awoken by the sound of someone in our room. In my dazed semi-conscious state, I recognised that I recognised the man, but did not recognise him then as the man from the street 3 hours ago. I just tohought it was someone from the hotel. We told him to go away, and fell back to sleep. Once we were up, Henrike discovered that his wallet was gone, and my mobile had also disappeared. We still don't know what the fuck was going on, but agreed that we probably should have reacted more aggressively to the discovery of a strange man in our room at 7 AM.

After Marko and Henricke left, we went looking for motorbikes, eventually finding a shop, and having a lengthy conversation with the shop-keeper and his son, who were both studying English. They told us that a Chinese 125 can be bought for $550. After this we left and went back to the hotel.

The next two days were equally pretty uneventful. We enquired further about motorbikes, but everyone seemed to think that buying them as a foreigner is problematic.

TBC

Posted by bj_945 12:58 Archived in Syria Tagged motorcycle Comments (0)

Beirut

Back Again

overcast 12 °C

Landed in Beirut yesterday fairly late at night. I Got back onto the American University Campus with my old ID card, then went straight to my old room and found my old roomate Mitch there, who was surprised to see me two months late.

It's good to be back in Beirut actually. Great town, and good to see everyone again.

Today the job is trying to find the bus stop, though by the time I had got up and sorted out all my gear with the clothes I'm going to take+chatted to some old friends, it was getting on in the day a bit. I've worked out the precise location of the Bus Stop using the wonder that is Google Earth, so I'm going to go down that way now and try to find a bus or a cheap Service up to Halab to find Kit.

Posted by bj_945 05:38 Archived in Lebanon Tagged bus Comments (0)

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