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.............