Sunday, December 30, 2007

Neomi's Granola recipe

2 or 3 tablespoons of oil
100 gm broken nuts (pecan and walnut are ideal)
100 gm sunflower seeds
100 gm pumpkin seeds
50 gm sesame seeds
50 gm linseed
500 gm oats
200 gm wheatgerm
50 gm bran
5 tablespoons honey
100 gm raisins
50 gm crushed dried coconut
dried fruit to taste

Line a shallow baking pan with a baking sheet and pour on oil. Mix in nuts and seeds. Roast in a medium oven for about 15 minutes - don't over do it.
Then mix in oats, wheatgerm and bran and return to oven for 15 minutes - toss/stir occasionally.
Remove and pour on honey, return to oven for 2 to 3 minutes for honey to warm
Remove and mix in honey. Add fruit and coconut cold.

It might be some time before I taste cereal as good as this again.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

It's very complicated

We're off to meet Neomi and Uri who live in a small place called Klil in the north west of Israel. We met them in the Kackar mountains of Turkey in the summer and they had given us an invite to stay with them. We take a bus to Tel Aviv and hop onto a train going north up the coast. The public transport is heavily used - both bus and train are full. There are a lot of youngsters in uniform, some with guns. It's hard to get used to seeing them. Uri meets us at the station and drives us back to their house in the countryside - set amongst olive groves with a view of the sea in the distance. We are put up in one of their comfortable chalets. (They run a guesthouse with two chalets and a yurt.) Neomi has prepared a wondeful meal, the first of many, with home-grown vegetables. We talk a lot. I mean a lot. We talk all afternoon. Of course we want to hear what it's like to live here, to live the Good Life out of the rat race, to live in a country overshadowed by the conflict with the Palestinians, to live in a country made up of such a mixture of peoples and opinions, to live in a pretty valley within rocket-range of Hezbollah. Neomi explains many things to us in a careful and thoughtful way and Uri adds acerbic and witty comments. They are trying to give us a balanced but honest account of things. Later we meet their eldest son who has just finished his national service - two years community service and two years of guard duty, checkpoints, observation posts etc. He's an intelligent and sensitive young man who has experienced and seen things first hand and he's obviously happy to have completed his duty.

The next day we are given the "Zionist Tour" (as opposed to the "Religious Tour") of northern Galilee and around the Sea of Galilee. We visit Rosh Pinna, one of the oldest settlements of the zionists who began returning here at the end of the 19th century. A quick detour across the River Jordan and around the foothills of the Golan Heights and down to the first kibbutz, set up by intellectuals and idealists from Russia before the Revolution, who were determined to work the land and produce something with their labours. As one poet put it "We wrote with our spade and painted the earth". This kibbutz eventually split into two over support for Stalin. The kibbutzim have drifted away from the early socialist days, and are now more like mini-production units. They still have schools, communal dining, housing, shops and sometimes medical facilities, but there are also now Thai immigrant farm workers too. Our interesting day ends at wonderful hot springs several metres below sea-level on the border with Jordan - we are on the great African/Syrian divide here.

Christmas Day is spent out on the coast at Acre - the Crusader's port. The old town can't match the hyperbole of our guidebook, but we have a pleasant day meandering around and also ring our families at home - which leaves us with mixed feelings. At first we can't get a phone card to work, and a man stops and offers us his mobile to ring the UK with the phonebox number. We catch a bus back up the coast and Neomi kindly comes to pick us up. We wait at a road junction. There are lots of people hitch-hiking on their way home, some with ready-made cards with their destinations. It seems refreshingly normal. We have another leisurely day in Klil ending with a beach walk up by the Lebanese border, before we say goodbye to Uri and Neomi and their family. It feels like we might have been asking them questions ever since we arrived, and we are offered stories and opinions aplenty in reply. Inevitably, whenever we talk about the situation here, the phrase "it's very complicated" crops up. No surprise really. We head back to Jerusalem via Tel Aviv and visit the holocaust museum in the capital. It's a depressing story that bears retelling and gives plenty of clues to the current national psyche - although there's clearly more than one at work here. The next day we visit the Dome of the Rock - a lovely building and, as they say, it's in a great location.........

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jerusalem and the little town of Bethlehem

We like Jerusalem. Our first view of it as we came out of a tunnel from the border, is of the Dome of the Rock glinting in the setting sun. It's spread over many hills, and there are trees all around. The Old City is a warren of narrow streets that can suddenly open up onto views across the rooftops, and there's plenty to see. On Friday we got caught up in the crowds on the way to morning prayers at the main mosque which sits on Temple Mount, next to the Dome. Mainly men and boys, all rushing up the hill and through the cemetery by the city gate, reminding me of going to a football match. There was a big crowd as it was the end of Eid - a bit like a Boxing Day game. The Rock is where Abraham is said to have brought Isaac to sacrifice, and it is the third holiest site for Muslims and the most holy for Jews. In the afternoon we walked along the Via Dolorosa, the route that Jesus is said to have carried his cross to his crucifixion. The route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here we observed Christian pilgrims, mainly Russian, lighting candles, putting hands through holes to touch a rock, and numerous other rituals, all caught on camera by friends or relatives. The large building is divided up between different denominations - Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic etc. and since they often have disputes about the upkeep, the caretaker is a Muslim. It was a dark miserable place and I still don't know what a sepulchre is. It must be a tomb. Our day ended at the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, which is the only accessible remaining part of the temple built by the Jews (the Romans destroyed it, and now the Dome stands in its place). There was a good crowd, all dressed up, including the orthodox Hasidim in various funky headgear (fedoras or furry Licorice All Sorts style) and along with a bit of wailing there was singing and okey-cokey to usher in the Shabat. You have to pass through a metal detector before you can enter the plaza in front of the wall, and like other parts of the city we noticed youngsters, not always in uniform, carrying semi-automatic guns casually slung over their shoulders. It's a conservative city, so chow that night meant shwarma in a cafe in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian side of town. Thank goodness for multi-culturalism...........

A brief history: Everybody who was anybody in these parts has been here - beginning with the Israelites and Philistines (therein lies a tale), followed by Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines,Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans (still flogging their furniture, I dare say) and ending with the British before they bailed out. In 1948 Jordan took control of the Old City and in 1967 Israel seized it from them.

The city is in very good nick, despite the history, and a delight to wander around after the crushed streets of Amman and Damascus, although in the souk you still have to shove a bit. On one day we took a minibus to Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. We were dropped at the crossing point in the new 8 metre-high wall. It twists and turns up and down hills and around clusters of houses and on the Palestinian side has attracted a lot of graffiti. In fact, the wall has become a bit of a tourist attraction. Bethlehem felt like a nondescript little town to me, and the Church of Nativity another sad scruffy place. The streets were lively though with shoppers and Christmas decorations. Across the valley, on the other side of the wall, we could see a modern settlement perched on a small hill, like an old citadel. On our way back through the wall we had to queue to pass through the checkpoint. The buildings had the feel of a border crossing, which one day it may be. After 45 minutes, we reached the metal detector and could see the guard in his booth who had been shouting instructions through the tannoy. We watched as a little girl went back and forth through the detector, with less items of clothing each time, until the device stopped beeping. Her mother couldn't help her because she was on the wrong side. The guard waved us through when he saw our passports. There was then a secondary documents check and a device on which the local Palestinians had to place their right palm. This was a two-way barrier, so we took it in turns with people coming the other way. It was an eye-opening experience, but one that the locals seemed wearily resigned to.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Stamp and the Security Check

The problem:
We're off to Israel, Jerusalem to be precise, and then to meet friends we made in Turkey. But we have a problem. Our journey along the Silk Road will take us through Iran, and you cannot get a visa for Iran with an Israeli stamp in your passport.

The theory:
So, like many other travellers, we have to leave Jordan at the King Hussein/General Allenby bridge across the Jordan river and enter Israel through the West Bank. We then have to ask the immigration officers not to put either exit or entry stamps in our passports, but on a separate piece of paper. We also have to leave by the same route and repeat the process in reverse order, within 14 days.

The reality:
8.45am A shared taxi gets us to the Jordan border post in good time.
9.45am We are still waiting to buy an exit stamp from an official who is not where he should be
10.15am We have our exit stamp on a piece of paper and board the service bus to take us to the Israeli border post.
11am Waiting for service bus to fill up
11.15am The bus is full. We are now waiting for a border guard to check everyone has an exit stamp
11.45am Arrive at the Israeli border post where we wait to hand over our backpacks to baggage handlers.
12.05pm We wait to pass through a metal detector and then a Star Trek transformer device that blows air under our clothes. Oooooh.
12.30pm Queue to present our passports to Israeli immigration officers who are all female soldiers, and the one in front of us is shouting at someone so we change queue.
12.45pm We present our passports together and ask for an entry stamp on a separate piece of paper. After giving an explanation for the reason, the soldier indicates that this is okay, and then asks a few questions. I get my passport back, but Gayle is asked further questions. She blanks when she is asked for her paternal grandfather's first name.
1.10pm After several more questions, Gayle is asked to take a seat while they process a security check based on the questions they have asked.
2.30pm Gayle is called by a police officer who has her papers. Which hotel is she staying in Jerusalem? The Citadel. What is the full name of the hotel? The Citadel Hostel. That is a hostel, not a hotel, she is informed, before being asked to return to her seat.
3pm Chatting with many other travellers who have all visited Lebanon and Syria too.
3.40pm Gayle is called again and presented with her passport and separate entry stamp and an apology for the delay.
3.55pm Board minibus to Jerusalem and wait for it to fill up
4.35pm Arrive.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Eid in Amman

Our plan was to travel from Amman to Jerusalem today to avoid Eid al-Adha but it has come a day sooner than we expected and there is no public transport. So we have an enforced rest day with little to do but read and chat with other travellers and wander the empty streets of Amman. It's not the most picturesque of cities - the Salford of the Middle East I guess. It has grown quickly from a village under Ottoman rule to a capital city of just under 2 million people - most of them immigrants from neighbouring countries. I didn't actually realise that the Palestinians outnumber Jordanians 2 to 1, and there are large numbers of Iraqis who have moved here to escape the conflict at home. There is no sense of a large city, partly because it is spread over many low hills and valleys and there are only short views. West of the city are the hills overlooking the Jordan valley and east is the desert stretching to Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

We head out this way to visit a handful of buildings - forts, a caravanserai and two hammans. Yes, hammans in the desert. These were built by the first Islamic rulers in the 7th century - beside deep wells. It is thought they were used by the wealthy as hunting lodges, or by pilgrims on route to Mecca, and one features risque frescoes - not for the Faithful. One fort had been used by T.E.Lawrence during the Arab revolt against the Turks. I'm reading his 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' at the moment but haven't got past the introduction........... We pass several new 'forts' - American military bases for Iraq. No photographs, no stops.

desert hamman

Jerash is just north of Amman and is an impressive site of Roman remains. There are temples, churches, baths, a forum and agora, a hippodrome and more columns than you can shake a stick at. We take a minibus with Harry, a young New Zealander and criss-cross the sight in the warm winter sun. To demonstrate the acoustics of the amphiteatre we are treated to 'Scotland The Brave' on bagpipes played by a soldier in bedouin uniform - looking the part in long skirt and red and white keffiyeh. Quite bizarre. Gayle is keeping a tally of Roman amphitheatres we have visited - this is number 9 and in good nick. On our way back into Amman we pass several makeshift pens at the roadside full of sheep for sale. A man is trying to shut the boot of his car on a purchase. Eid al-Adha commemorates Allah/God saving Ibrahim/Abraham from sacrificing his son Ishmael/Isaac. The father slaughtered a lamb instead, and the carnage is to be repeated at Eid. We will be celebrating at Hashem's Restaurant - with felafel, houmous and foul and a glass of tea. Yummm.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Familiar places, familiar faces

"Beirut?" " Damascus?" "Beirut?" " Damascus?" "Beirut?" " Damascus?"
We are standing at a junction on the main road between guess where and surrounded by taxi drivers. We shuffle sideways in the direction of a traffic cop to seek his advice about passing buses. Our new-found friends accompany us. The policeman's advice is to take a taxi. We have just enough Lebanese Pounds to get us a shared ride in a huge old Chevrolet. We are joined by a young Palestinian student and an old woman with her grandson. The ride across the border is quick and uneventful and we are able to buy a new Syrian visa without any rigmarole. Damascus is noisy and busy as usual and we barge our way along the crowded pavements back to our old hotel. We end up in the same room and after unpacking it's almost as if we hadn't been away.

Out on the streets we meet James, the Englishman we had travelled with to Palmyra, and another English fella who is driving a Landrover around the Mediterranean with his wife and baby. We had met them in Hama. Suddenly Damascus, a city of 6 million, seems a small place. There's the whiff of coffee and cardamon, and the sweet smell of nargile pipes (hubble bubbles), from the open cafes. The souks are busy as if everyone is trying to do their last-minute Christmas shopping, even though they aren't - Eid begins on the 20th December. James is off to the Ummayyad Mosque in the centre of the old city and we recommend he checks out the tomb for one of the many heads of John the Baptist (apparently there are a few around). When we visited there had been many people going to say their prayers and kiss the glass enclosure, which had had money pushed inside it through the cracks........

The next day we wake early. Our plan is to visit ruins at Bosra in the south with James, but Gayle gets an early morning call from her bowels, and feels so rotten that she spends the day in bed with her books instead. James and I take the bus in the rain. Bosra was capital of the Roman province of Arabia and has a well-preserved theatre because the Ummayyads built a fortress around and on top of it. The rest of the town has also been covered over the centuries and now there is a slow process of recovery going on. There is a new town and people have been relocated so that houses can be pulled down and excavations to take place. The whole of ancient Bosra is built from black basalt - quite striking in the desert. Luckily we have some sun but unluckily all the buses back to Damascus are full. We have to find a microbus but it's Friday and there's not a lot happening. Rain clouds darken the sky and time ticks on. Finally we try hitching and manage to get three lifts in relatively quick succession along the road to the next main town. As we climb out of the last car we see a bus heading our way and flag it down. It's going to Damascus and there are two seats left. Phew. In the evening we go to a hamman for a steam clean, scrub and massage. It's men only - but Gayle is happy tucked up in bed. The hamman is a small clean 12th century bathhouse that has been wonderfully restored. It's busy but well organised and very relaxing after a long day.

We visit the National Museum on our last day in Damascus. It's possibly one of the most depressing we have been in, despite having a good collection of exhibits. There is a reconstructed 3rd century synagogue from the Euphrates full of frescoes. It is locked and we have to ask the attendant for the key. Past a Do Not Enter sign we take the stairs to a reconstructed morgue-like underground tomb from Palmyra featuring a collection of carved portraits of the interned. A handsome bunch they were too. In a dim room of glass display cases were pieces of Chinese-embroidered silk which had all also been recovered from 1st century Palmyra tombs. They were small and tatty but it gave us a thrill to think that we haven't strayed too far from the Silk Road after all.

Phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp
"Is that your stomach, John?"
Phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp
"Is that your stomach?"
"No, it's their nargileh pipe."
Phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp.............

Bosra local

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Souk to souk

"Hungry? What do you fancy?"
"Maybe a falafel wrap"
"Mmm, I was thinking about a chicken shwarma."
"How about a falafel and chicken shwarma?"
"Or I might just have some houmous with falafel."
"We could get a shwarma each and share a houmous?"
"I think I'd prefer just houmous"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. No, wait, I'll just have a falafel wrap"
"Ooh look, they've got kibbeh and coleslaw over there......."

Despite being famous for its quality restaurants, especially in Beirut, our diet in Lebanon has tended to be based on the standard cheap eats on the street. There are plenty of hole-in-the-wall places serving fresh food - but not so handy if it's pouring with rain, which it seems to have done every day except one since we arrived here. We have been desperately looking for a bakery like the one we found in the Damascus souq - another hole-in-the-wall with a mob around the window all crowding round for fresh croissants filled with chocolate that were disappearing like... well, like hot cakes I suppose. They were justifiably in demand and we have been keeping our eyes peeled for more. Other bakeries seem to specialise in savouries like mini-pizzas, spinach pasties, thyme and olive oil bread, etc. The joy of eating food like this is a combination of several factors. It's cheap - and so are we. It's fast - no hanging around for some kitchen wallah to marinade the mutton. It's fresh - this stuff is chopped, mixed, fried, grilled, wrapped in front of you, you can even see if the man preparing the food has dirt under his fingernails (most likely, but so what?).
Holiday Inn, Beirut
We have been up the coast to Tripoli, doubling back through Beirut. The coastal journey was sleep-inducing. It is built up and scruffy. Lebanon is the most crowded country in the Middle East, with a population of about 4.5 million plus up to half a million Palestinian refugees. We read that there are an estimated 10 million Lebanese now living abroad. There are plenty of Western Union offices around, so there must be money being sent home to families here. We've also been told that there are many Syrians also living here - they moved here whilst Lebanon was "occupied by Syria". We have wandered the souqs in Tripoli - now a regular pastime with us. They are always crowded and busy and alive and very entertaining - although it could be argued we are easily pleased. I hope we don't lose the thrill of people watching. I'm sure there will be plenty more markets on our journey. Here people call out "Welcome!" every fifty yards or so. Young men, who in England would be wearing shaved heads and hoods and probably only offering a series of adjectives to the foreign visitor, come up and ask us how we are liking Lebanon ("very much, thank you"), where we are from ("England, near Manchester") and why we are here ("er... we're on holiday") before finishing with a Welcome to Lebanon. These conversations are repetitive but invariably cheering. We found an internet cafe here run by women and where women pay half price. Instead of the usual noisy pubescent males of all ages playing wargames it's busy but quiet.......

From Triploi we took day trips into the mountains and along the coast to Byblos. The countryside is dramatic - rising sharply from the coast up into snow-capped ridges. However, it's covered in concrete buildings in various states of construction and habitation and is simply spoiled. Our day in Byblos was far more satisfying - better weather helped. It is one of the ancient Phoenician cities, and there are a heap of corresponding ruins on a hill above the old harbour. There's been a settlement here for 7000 years so the archaeologists have had a good run for their money. Apart from knocking out cedar trees to all and sundry, the locals also came up with a linear alphabet and invented glass blowing. The site has a range of finds from neolithic houses, to Roman temples and Byzantine churches, surrounded by Persian, Mamluk and Crusader fortifications.

Our last stop in Lebanon has been a visit to Balbek - which lies in a high valley between two mountain ranges. Here there are remains of a Roman temple complex deicated to Jupiter and Bacchus. The Jupiter temple was enormous - but there's not much left of it these days. However, six enormous columns still stand defiantly. They are the largest in the world, according to our guidebook. Others were shipped off by the Byzantines to use in the building of Aya Sophia in Istanbul. The Bacchus temple is still almost whole, although shorn of much of its decoration. Balbek is in Hezbollah country. Instead of being offered Roman coins being offered to us by touts, some wags were selling Hezbollah t-shirts........

coffee on the streets of Baalbek

In every place we have stayed there are signs of the civil war. The whole country seems to be a building site as reconstruction continues. Old buildings are being restored, souks smartened up, new appartment blocks going up. But the country is also facing its worst political crisis since the end of the war. The main political groups cannot agree on a new president. The last one has just stood down. By an agreement made at independence, the president must be a Christian Maronite. (The prime minister must be muslim, the chief of staff a Druze, etc.) The country is so finely divided that it needs a compromise solution. Mind you, it seems the war has continued on the roads - the driving here is so aggressive and dangerous. We now do not blink when we see someone reversing backwards down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, or someone going round a roundabout the wrong way because it's quicker, or the minibus driver accelerating to squeeze through a gap between two trucks.

Of course, what the country probably needs is women running more than just a few internet cafes.........

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Purple people

The bus stops again. This time it is to let the passengers fill out their entry cards to Lebanon. Then, after coffee and fags are consumed as well, the bus zooms off up the road to the archway indicating Syrian border control. It is cold and bleak. We all pile off the bus, collect our stamps, and pile on board again. The bus zooms up to the Lebanese border control. Here we have to buy a visa. There's a friendly multilingual money exchanger eager to facilitate the transaction. When he smiles you can see the shark teeth. We get our visa stamped and join the Syrians on the bus and begin the slow descent to Beirut. The road twists and turns and diverts around a high bridge that has been neatly bombed by the Israelis during last year's war. There is heavy traffic in both directions. Fortunately our driver is fearless and shows no nerves as he overtakes a truck which is already overtaking another truck, as we approach a blind summit. Gayle reads, oblivious to it all.

Beirut finally comes into view as the road winds down a narrow ridge and we enter the city. We emerge from the bus and try to work out the route to a hotel whilst men invite us to board buses going goodness knows where. A soldier waving an automatic weapon around approaches us and gives us directions in perfect English. Unfortunately we have to cross a road. Now after Damascus our senses are attuned and reflexes primed for such an occurrence, but maybe we are not quite 'match fit'. There is a story that Beirut wishes to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix, but the joke is that they already have it daily on their roads. It is ruthless. We make it to the other side......just.

We are staying in an old neighbourhood by the docks that is full of old French colonial buildings, trendy bars and restaurants. To the west is the rebuilt city centre - stylish buildings with warm stone facades. The streets are empty though and the area around the parliament building is fenced off. Now and again we come across an army personnel carrier parked up on a crossroads. There are soldiers directing traffic at hectic intersections. In the west of the city there are more shops and a couple of universities. The buildings are more modern, usual concrete sprawl. Now and again we spot a survivor from the civil war, shot up and shell-damaged, hiding behind a brand new tower block of appartments. Along the seafront is the corniche - but it's a cloudy day and there are not many people around. We are both surprised by the signs of wealth - the Mercedes, BMWs and 4x4s, the designer clothes shops and expensive restaurants. One evening we go to the cinema and the lobby is full of people chatting away in French, English and Arabic - it feels very European.
We journey south to Sour/Tyre and Saida/Sidon - the two most important Phoenician cities. Sour was the main port from where the Phoenicians sailed. Their boats were made from the famous local cedar trees. Now there are some Roman remains, including a complete hippodrome. The city is close to the Israel border and has suffered in the past. Hezbollah flags fly around the city. There is also a large Palestinian refugee camp here and a big UN presence i.e. lots of shiny white 4x4s with the letters 'UN' on the sides. We stay at a pension in Saida that used to be a convent. When it rains heavily the water comes in through the windows and forms a pool under the beds. The shower is pretty feeble. No wonder the nuns cleared out. The convent is in the middle of the old town souk, built by the Ottomans. A local billionaire has been renovating the buildings in the souk and it's a great place to wander around. Gayle gets chatting to a man who explains that he is a Palestinian whose family moved here in 1948 from Haifa. The Palestinians moved in to the old houses whilst the local Muslims moved into the new town and the Christians went to Beirut. Katia who runs the pension is one of the few remaining Christians. We ask her about the wars, and she explains that people in Lebanon have different enemies depending on where they live. For her, it is the Syrians. She is critical of Hezbollah for provoking the Israeli attack last year. She also explains that before the civil war, nobody was labelled by their religion and now they are. This echoed something we were told in Bosnia.

In Phoenician times, back when the Pharoahs were having it out with the Hittites in Syria, Saida was the centre of the production of purple dye, after which they were named by the Greeks. The dye was extracted from seashells and used to produce purple cloth. The shells were harvested to extinction and all that remains is a small hill beside the old town made up of discarded broken shells. The real tourist highlight is the Soap Museum - explaining the original process of soapmaking from olive oil. The craft continues in some places - Aleppo in Syria is the most famous.

I'm typing this from an internet cafe in a barrel-vaulted room in the old souk - decorated all over in brown paper to look like a cave. Thankfully no-one is smoking......... The power cuts out once a day, as in most of Lebanon, but the cafe has a back-up generator on stand-by. It is still raining outside.............

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Watch out, Bashar's about.

I'm having a chick pea crisis at the moment. We are eating them every day in some form or other but they're wreaking havoc with me. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em, I suppose. We have found a decent internet cafe in Damascus, but although we can post to this site we can't actually look at it ourselves. It would appear that blogspot is a banned website. However, I can still get the footie results and read e-mails. All around Syria there are posters of Bashar the President. There are still plenty of his dad too. It's a strange feeling - he is always looking at you when you walk down the street, when you ride in a minibus, when you eat in a restaurant. Today we met an old communist who reckoned that Bashar is a bigger dictator than his dad was ("He's an optician but he has no vision"). It must be hard for the ex-opthalmist though. In some of the images we have seen he is wearing aviator glasses, a military cap and some stubble - and it just makes me think of George Michael - not quite the Tough Guy image that is intended. And in all our time here we have never felt like we are riding on the 'axis of evil'.

We met the comrade, Riaz, outside a carpet shop in the old city. We were invited in to look, not buy, and he translated for us. He had lived in exile for many years, including a stint in Scarborough, which puts a new slant on the meaning of exile I guess. We liked the carpets a lot - they were all from Iran, and when we explained that we were going that way, Riaz immediately said "Don't buy anything here!", so we just chatted and drank tea and said thank you. The old city is extremely relaxing - lots of narrow streets, and a large souk, and very peaceful compared to the mayhem on the roads in the rest of Damascus - we have almost been flattened twice by minibuses shooting red lights. There is a wonderful old mosque here built by the Umayyads on the site of a Roman temple. The courtyard was once covered in mosaics - but thanks to the mongols, earthquake and fire it is no longer in its full glory. However, it's still impressive. Gayle had to don a gown to enter - as in other mosques - a preparation for Iran.We are also enjoying the street food - lots of pastry shops and bakeries aside from the ubiquitous doner. We also found a wonderful Indian restaurant in the upmarket side of town - what joy.......

We arrived here from Palmyra, Syria's prime tourist attraction, the ruins of a Roman city in the desert. We had travelled there with James, a compatriot who is taking a similar route to us, and who was very good company. The ruins are impressive, spread over a large area, and overlooked by an arabian fortress on a hill. It was misty and cold as we wandered around, but there was plenty of walking so we didn't mind so much. The town itself is a sad place, full of touts and touristy restaurants overcharging for lousy food. We stayed in a cheap and not so cheerful place but it all added to the atmosphere of the place. On the bus journey to Palmyra, we passed a road sign to Baghdad, which felt a bit odd. James has headed on down to the Euphrates whilst we plan to cross into Lebanon for 10 days or so. We were waiting to see the outcome of the presidential election there before deciding to go. Fortunately we are meeting lots of other travellers coming and going which helps to get some up-to-date information.

contemplating the majesty of Palmyra