Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunny Syria

The sun is shining as we cross the border into Syria. The ride is lively - our minibus driver seems intent on breaking the record for crossing from Antakya to Aleppo - and we cut in between trucks before screeching to a stop at the border. The formalities take only half an hour - so much easier than trying to enter Turkey - and before we can blink our crazy minibus driver has deposited us in Aleppo. It's a big city of about 3 million and the roads are chock full of traffic. Big roads impossible to cross. Narrow streets where taxis tear along at top speed. There are absolutely no women about. We explore the streets and discover the pavement obstacle course - steps, open manholes, broken paving, cars, piles of sand. "Halloo what's your name welcome to our country" is thrown out to us from all about. The streets are busy and eventually we spot a woman - in full black chador, her face completely covered so that it's hard to tell whether she's coming or going. Men are wearing keffiyes, the checked red and white cloths. We are in a new country with new smells and new tastes. Our first meal includes houmous and baba ganoush. Arabic numbers are identified, but no chance with the words. The man in the cafe speaks English so at least we can order food.

Aleppo has a large hectic souk in the old city and on a hill above stands the citadel - a classic medieval fortress surrounded by a moat. This is Crusader country. Once, twice, three times a campaign to seize Jerusalem from its Arab conquerors has left the country dotted with castle complexes. From the Aleppo citadel we can look over the dun-coloured city. Nearly all the buildings are faced in stone, and there are no high rise buildings - it looks miles better than the concrete messes we have been used to in Turkey. Down in the "new city" we roam the narrow shady parts of the Ottoman souk. Here there are hundreds of women out shopping - most, but not all, in black chadors. Despite the public dress code there are plenty of clothes shops selling a mixture of styles. Back in the business quarter it's all men's shoes and suits. In the evening the pavement sellers come out to sell their wares.

Our hotel room is clean, bright and toasty warm - the radiators blasting out welcome heat in the chilly evenings. We can't quite get used to the cost of things - so much cheaper than Turkey with not much difference in quality. Our tea costs us just over two quid and we're stuffed. In the morning we have foul (pronounced fool) for breakfast - big fava beans in warm yoghurt and drizzled with olive oil and cumin - with big mugs of tea. Makes a change from museli. Every now and again we get a whiff of cardamon on the street as we pass a coffee seller. The spice is ground in with the coffee.

After three days we catch a bus southwards to Hama. The two hour bus journey, which would have cost four pounds in Turkey, costs 65 pence. There's no coffee and cake, but water, a sweet and some Syrian comedy show on the TV - women behind us chuckle away gleefully. Hama is a town famed for its huge wooden water wheels that draw water up from the river and feed aqueducts for irrigation. At this time of year the river is too low, although one wheel is turning and groaning. From here we make daytrips out to Apamea - an old Roman city site with a 2km colonnaded high street - and Krak des Chevaliers, one of the best-preserved crusader castles. We visited the castle with James, a young Englishman who is also heading eastwards. The journey there is a bit complicated - we have to take two minibuses and then ask a man in a beat-up old car to take us the last 10km for a quid. He has to stop twice to get water to cool the engine as we climb up to the grand fortress. The castle is huge and built up inside, and I can't help thinking of Monty Python. There are great views across the hills around and to snowy mountains in Lebanon. Our return journey is harder - we end up hitching a lift from a man in a van back to the main highway. Here we are ignored by every passing minibus. It's looking bad until Gayle flags down a small truck. We pile into the cab and James uses the phrasebook to make introductions. There's a crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror. George the driver is typically very kind and drops us at the minibus station to get back to Hama.

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