In October 1999, my partner and I started a trip through Asia and the Middle East. Really we wanted to see the Middle East, with South-East Asia thrown in because all flights out of Australia seem to be routed through there.
We’d bought a guidebook to Syria and Jordan on our last trip two years previously in a second hand bookstore in Indonesia. We both knew next to nothing about Syria before but it sounded different.
By the time we arrived in Syria we’d been on the road for three months, mostly in Iran. We thought we were used to the Middle Eastern thing but we found out Arab countries aren’t like anywhere else. We intended to stay a week or so and ended up hanging around for three.
We’d spent the last sixteen hours lying on the floor of a Turkish train and didn’t end up crossing the border into Syria until around dusk. The first thing that greeted us was a big sign saying, “Welcome to Assad’s Syria”. It seemed that Hafez Assad wasn’t happy just being President for Life, he wanted to claim the whole country as his property.
We proceeded through Assad’s Immigration onto Assad’s bus to Aleppo to be greeted by a Godzilla-sized Assad billboard near our four dollar (US) hotel.
By day we saw that Aleppo is dominated by a huge, medieval citadel, the top of which gives great views. Unbeknown to us it was the first day of a three day public holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. The Syrian version of this holiday involved all the shops being closed and local boys running around firing cap guns and sitting in teahouses smoking water-pipes, pretending to be men.
Today was the day to test our fake student cards from the “University of Khao San Road, Bangkok”. All sights in Syria have a foreigner price of about US$6 to $7 unless you have a student card, in which case you pay just five percent of this. Twenty cents! Our cards worked at the National Museum and our budget starts to look a lot better.
Aleppo again. For people on a similar budget to us (about twenty to twenty-five dollars a day for two people) food in Syria consists of shwarmas, falafels, tabouleh and homous. All of these can range from excellent to terrible, it’s a bit of a lucky dip. Two people could have a good lunch of these for around US$3. We weren’t really complaining.
Got a bus to Lattakia. We’d never visited a Mediterranean seaside town before and Syria’s coast is a long way from the Greek Islands. We ended up accepting a lift from a filthy rich Syrian English student driving a Volvo who wanted to drive in circles around town with us to practice his English.
We did a day trip to the Phoenician ruins of Ugarit. These are about three and a half thousand years old and it was in this city that the forerunner of our alphabet was invented.
From here we went south of Lattakia to Jable to see our first Roman theatre. Like most ancient sites in Syria, we had both totally to ourselves. Our guidebook didn’t think much of either site but we maybe we’re less jaded than some because we really liked both.
Got a bus to Tartus, an hour and a half south. We didn’t realise you’re supposed to pay before you get on the bus and so stowed away. We walked around Tartus, taking in the old city and the Crusader-era Tartosa Cathedral. Being Aussies, we were unused to winter in January and we found it very cold and rainy on the coast here.
Visited a Crusader castle half an hour away and ended up being escorted by an amazingly friendly local hairdresser who spoke Italian and Arabic. We spoke only English.