Storming the Castle
11.03.2010 - 12.03.2010 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.