Tales from Syria
Tales from Syria in more peaceful times.
Over the last year, in common with most other travellers who have been to North Africa, I have been thinking ‘Blimey! - I sat and had coffee and sweet cakes in that square, now it’s full of tanks!’ The Arab Spring has made all overlanders wary of venturing south of the Mediterranean and now the heat is on in Syria.
Back in 1999 I was meandering around the southern shores of the Med. in my Carawagon on an epic anti-clockwise trip incorporating Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, then across the Red Sea to Jordan. Faced with crossing either Syria or Iraq to return to Europe, I chose Syria as Iraq was then the country considered to be a no-go area for Westerners.
I had applied for a Visa weeks before whilst still in the UK and was somewhat surprised when the Syrian Embassy phoned me at home to ask why I wanted to go to Syria? I have never had this before or since with a visa application and at the time there were no issues with travel through Syria. I explained that their country lay between Jordan, where I expected to be and Turkey, where I needed to go. He was rather dismissive, but agreed and the visa was issued that week.
Jordan had been a breeze and quite European in character under the rule of King Abdullah 2nd who had just inherited the throne from his late father, King Hussein. It was therefore quite a culture shock as I queued at the border crossing to transfer from this sophisticated Arab country back to a less orderly Middle Eastern chaos. I purposefully arrived early anticipating a long wait, but was through within an hour and made swift progress north with the intention of visiting the famous Crusader Castle - Krak de Chevalliers, then on to Aleppo Market which I had been told was far more ‘exotic’ that the bigger one in Damascus. Bottom to top, Syria is only about 300 miles so sightseeing and travel should only require one overnight stop.
On the run and hiding from the Syrian Police in some woods away from the main road!
I was making good progress, until I stopped to photograph some interesting sight just off the main road. With a big camera around my neck I was pretty conspicuous and a truck with three blokes in pulled up to see what I was doing. Through sign language I indicated I was photographing the view and with lots of smiles I thought one of them requested a lift to the next town. As I was heading that way and had a spare seat I agreed. Once back on the road with his pals in the truck behind us he started to indicate that he wanted me to stop at one of the roadside Police Stations. He clearly thought my activities threatened state security! I refused and after building up a decent lead between us and the pursuing truck I slung him out at the next convenient roadside Cafe!
Toby visited the famous Crusader Castle – Krak de Chevalliers
Whilst I felt I had dealt with the situation reasonably well my imagination started to run wild and I thought there was a slim chance he may inform the Police with an exaggerated tale of western spies photographing secret military installations (it was actually an old building surrounded by golden corn set against a background of desert!) Thoughts of Police BMWs chasing me all over Syria called for a Plan B so, as it was getting late anyway, I pulled off the main road and headed out into wild countryside to some distant woods where, much to my surprise there was a small campsite with a French couple in a Land Rover 110! We exchanged pleasantries and discussed our travel plans. They were heading south and I north, so we had much to share, including a decent bottle of red! I had a most enjoyable night and slept well realising my fears were unfounded.
The following morning I continued north to Krak de Chevalliers, then on to Aleppo without further problems. Parking the Carawagon in a side street I ventured into the market area on foot and was not disappointed. It was everything a Middle Eastern market should be. Narrow passages and tiny shops serviced by donkey carts. The heady smells of herbs and spices mixed with the odour of many years of population and as with all of these types of market, I was approached by every stall holder with persuasive invitation to buy their wares - from carpets to falafel!
Emerging into the light I enjoyed a good lunch in the shadow of The Citadel, soaked up the atmosphere before loading my purchases into the already bulging Carawagon and heading for the Turkish Border. It is with great sadness that I watch the violence unfold in the very square I had my lunch and I hope they manage to find a peaceful solution before everything is flattened or damaged beyond repair.
Copyright Toby Savage