Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Beirut, Lebanon

I got myself into a share taxi from Damascus and got promptly adopted by 2 Palestinian Lebanese women who kept me fed and coffeed during the 3 hour trip. This made for a pleasant journey where, in between shoving snacks into my mouth they gave me advice to stay away from anywhere that Hezbolah dominates and never to show fear if I happen to run across one of the "ninja turtles".

The border crossing got me a bit edgy as the Lebanese visa man wanted to refuse me entry. Middle Eastern officials like crisp and intact passports and don't like putting their precious stamps on the shoddy and barely legible sponge I carry. A combination of grovelling (me) and shouting (my new Lebanese mums) eventually managed to secure my entry to the land of the Cedars. We were on our merry way to Beirut with no incidents except a bit of shouting as we drove through Sabra and one of the ladies decided to give our Syrian driver some viewpoints about what Syria is up to in Lebanon.

Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. In a way I can see how this lazy cliche works. The Paris side can be seen in the omnipreesnce of French street names, swanky eateries, grandiose buildings and hordes of annoyingly fashionable people. The Middle Eastern aspect is revealed by the odd bullet riddled building, armed soldiers on the streets and a smattering of tanks and APCs. It takes about 2 hours for the newcomer to stop marvelleing at the common sight of some new shiny building next to one that has had the machine gun and rocket urban renovation treatment. Some of these buildings display patched up holes next to more fresh ones courtesy of the IAF in 2006.

Another sport the tourist has to try in Beirut is hassling the locals as to where it is safe to go in the city or elsewhere. This sounds, and is, a bit pathetic but it is not completly useless. A couple of days ago there was a protest in a Shia area about electricity cuts that ended in gunshots and some arsehole lobbing a grenade and killing 7 people. What constitutes too much risk is up to the individual backpacker to decide. My personal benchmark was that the moment I heard gunfire over the din of my fellow drinkers I would skedaddle to the safety of Syria. So far, so good.

Lebanon is smaller than some American cars and just as expensive to be in so my time here is short. The plus side is that you can daytrip nearly everywher from Beirut. Wikitravel has an excessively paranoid warning about some parts of Lebanon. It even advises an armed guard. This is complete tosh but it makes me feel all brave about heading down south.

After a brief lookse at the ancient cities of Sidon and Tyre it was time to enter the Party of God's stomping ground. Neocons and other rightwing fools might portray the Hezbolah controlled parts of Lebanon as the Heart of Darkness but to me it seems almost banal. Almost.

There are a few signs that the South is a smidgeon different. The first one is that you need permission from the Lebanese Army to go there. You can also spot some subtle differences in the roadside literature. Gone are the sales promotions and billboards with scantily clad models. It's all black flags, yellow flags, Nasralla's chubby face and posters of deceased martyrs. Beyond that the locals are nice and the snacks are good.

One interesting sight in the UNIFIL area is the prison of Al Khiam, a detention center once run by the IDF and their Lebanese miltias. It is now run by Hezbollah as some weird tourist sight. Most of it is rubble and the tales of Zionist cruelty must be taken with a pinch of salt though they shouldn't be written off as complete bullshit either. One strange display comes Hezbollah's bright idea to put fake (hopefully) Khaibar rockets on a site a few miles away form the border. Makes for fun photos but you can't help but wonder if today is the days the other side is going to make sure these are not a threat.

Slightly more moving are the plaques with the names of the 4 UN peacekeepers killed by an Israeli bomb in 2006. The Hezbollah guys see this as a testimony of Israel's contempt for international law and human life. I saw these plaques as yet another result of the UN's complete inability to grow a pair and have real clout. There are still blue helmets around and I wondered what it feels like being a peacekeeper knowing that the UN did fuck all in 2006 even after 4 of their own got killed.

A really strange sight outside the camp is a bullet riddled BMW. Someone really went to town on the car but I could get no explanation as to why this example of Lebanese tuning was there. It looks somewhat recent though as the bullet holes had only started to rust. BMWs are a wanker's car so maybe the locals did their equivalent of keying the doorpanels.

Nearby there is the hilltop fortrees of Beaufort castle. Hezbollah kindly put up an informative sign with a brief history of the place. It starts off quite normally with the usual history of the place (since Roman times, Arabs, Crusaders etc...) but then goes off on a long spiel with piccies about the operations ran against the IDF who were the last to use this place and its fantastic views over the area. One again Lebanon provided some symbolic overload to the effect that foreign belligerents have been using this area as a playground for centuries.

Conflict tourism done it was time to return to Beirut for more daytrips, visits to my new Lebanese mum and her family and lots of boozing. Syria makes pissartists hunt for their tipple but not so here. There are many trendy bars and the hostels don't have an issue with pre-barcrawl bevvies iether. The bars are more Paris than the Middle East as the beer is pricey, the music ethnic and the patrons trendy and blase. They even outdo Paris in the totty department. Lebanese girls out on the town are one of nature's greatest sights.

The flip side of this leery coin, as some local lads bitterly explained, is that it's all show and no go. The cruel irony is that, with marriage, the headscarved chicks are attainable but the drool inducing bar babes of Beirut have made it their mission to make menfolk understand just how much they are below them. So cruel yet so luscious.

I have already pointed out the difficulty of being bladdered and getting home in Damascus. Not so Beirut. The omnipresent soldiers are a really sound bunch who will direct you and guide you at any time and regardless of the state you are in. To me these lads were also a very interesting sight in themsleves.

I had noticed that some were armed with the ubiquitous AK while others toted the all American M16 rifle. When you see this it becomes tempting to dismiss the Lebanese miltary as a fucko outfit who can't even get their small arms supply sorted. The problem with this is that it ignores what these chaps are there for. It's painfully clear that they cannot fulfil the traditional miltary role of keeping foreign khaki wearers out. They know full well that they haven't got a prayer against the Syrians or the Israelis. What they really are is a guarantor of stability.

The army is here to avoid a repeat of the 80's when Beirut was a synonym of chaos, destruction and death. Worldwide, soldiers have to bear many burdens but the Lebanese troops are tasked with nothing less than keeping the lid on Pandora's box. The old rivalries are still there and bigger neighbours are still all too willing to use the place as a battleground by proxy or otherwise. The politicisation of religion is, if anything, much stronger than the bad old days and the recent spate of killings of politicians show that the ballot hasn't completely replaced the bullet as a method of gaining power. With this is mind, the squaddies get some serious respect from this tourist especially as they still manage to be nice to wandering pissed-up idiots.

The above shows that politics are not some bar counter abstraction in Lebanon. Over here, lenghty discussions about the state of the Middle East are a bit like the food; of very high quality, unavoidable and part of the experience. Lazy journos might claim to know what the Lebanese street is thinking. Less idle but equally misleading ones wil try and categorize the opinions of Lebanese people in a few neat categories.

In the short time I have been here I have chatted over beers with Lebanese Christians and secular Muslims, I have drank coffee in the homes of Palestinian refugees, I have swapped ciggies with guys from Hezbolah and I have killed time chinwagging with various expats. Politics was always discussed and, suprisingly, the opinions differed from individual to individual. I tend to feel uncomfortable when reading about the state of mind of the Lebanese. Putting people into categories and assigning viewpoints makes this place look quasi tribal when it is anything but

The journalistic instinct to simplify things and the complicit desire of readers/viewers for easy answers have led to a slightly patronising redux of this place. The politics of Lebanon are unbelievably complex and, unless you want to read a dozen heavy books, the best thing you can do is accept that you can't fully undertand it. You can also assume that these well-educated multilinguists can use their brains and make up their ownmind regardless of what subsection of Lebanese society they nominally belong to.

As for the tourist in all this? What should he do beyond shooting the shit? In this case nothing. Frankly I have nothing to add to the debate. No viewpoint of mine is going to be fresh and radical in this place. No fact brought forth will be unnown to the locals. I have decided to treat Lebanese politics as a lapdance. It's what you are here for so relax and enjoy what you get. However, as tempting it might be, do not get involved.

Lebanon has been fantastic and I will certainly return here. Hopefully, other nations will leave it the fuck alone. It's about time.

My next stop is again undecided but, due to budgetary constrainst, I am going turn Japanese. Not in the sense of wanking over seriously fucked-up cartoon porn but in the sense of seeing a lot of places in a short amount of time.

Take care,


Friday, January 25, 2008

Damascus, Syria

It's tempting to start the post on Damascus with what everyone does and make some pun on taking the road there. My chosen allegory comes from a more powerful source than religion; the silver screen. Specifically David Lean's wonderful Lawrence of Arabia.

There is a specific scene that put Damascus in my head as one of the great destinations of my trip. At some point in the flick Lawrence and his boys come across a straggling Turkish column and TE is tempted to give in to the bloodthirst and attack. Sherif Ali tries to convince Lawrence to go round the Turks and ignore the dark mutterings of "no prisoners". His final plea is the name of this mystical city. " Damascus, Lawrence, Damascus!".
With Omar Sharif's words in my head I finally made it to this town and find myself in a bit of a pickle when writing about it. It's getting more and more tricky to describe legendary places when there are countless books, TV shows and films that can do it better. The imaginary readers I write for can be put in 2 camps. Either they have the same wanderlust as I and will doubtless have their own knowledge and idea about wherever I am or they couldn't care less and I would need to seriously work on my writing skills to give them a desire to come here. The best I can really do is give instructions of sorts to the former group if and when they come here. See below:

The best of Damascus is of course in the old city. Avoid the temptation to go straight to the biggies. Circle it then enter at dome random point away from the souvenir stalls. The city is lived and worked in so you can just get lost in the narrow alleyways and dodge the microtrucks that somehow get around the streets to deliver stuff. Areas tend to have specialties from the predictable coppersmiths to the slightly more practical ones like boilers, nappies and stationery. Enjoy the noise and chaos then head to the Citadel.

Next to the Citadel enter the huge covered market and keep going. Look up at the iron roof. It's peppered with bullet holes (the source of these is uncertain. By asking around I was told it was either the work of the French when they suppressed a rebellion, of the locals celebrating when the French fucked off or of the trigger happy Bedouins marking their entry into Damascus during the Arab Revolt) and the effect is that of a constellation of stars. Continue until you reach one of the most beautiful houses of worship in the world. The Omayad mosque. Remove shoes and enter the courtyard. Gaze at the murals and at the minarets. Take a few pics then start hopping. It's snowy here and the combination of marble floor, melting snow and no shoes policy will give you very wet and cold feet hence the hopping. Walk out and ask to go to the mausoleum of the ultimate infidel basher; Saladin. Find out that it's been renovated/beautified/upgraded and that it's closed for visitors. Whinge a bit

After that just wander again and take in as many churches, mosques, madrassas as you wish. Pop in to a museum or 2. If you speak French nip in to the one consecrated to Arab medicine. Give Syrians due cred for not pointing out that when they were developing medicine and pharmacology as sciences us ferengis were still drowning or burning old ladies foolish enough to reveal their glancing knowledge of herbs.

It's evident from the above that even a good effort on my behalf will sell Damascus short. There are better accounts out there and some of them are from bloggers who aren't too lazy to put pictures up. To distinguish myself I will have to write about some of the more funky day trips that can be done around Damascus. Here follows a wee set of instructions for going to Quneitra, a deliberately untouched set of modern ruins in the UN zone next to the Golan heights. The Israelis nabbed it after 67 and when the UN told them to give it back in the 70's they decide to hand back a pile of rubble and trashed the place. However, first things first.

Disclaimer: The Arab-Israeli conflict has the strange effect of polarizing people to ridiculous levels. Even a brief mention of it can transform a dinner party into a rabid shoutfest. I know full well that any info given locally in the Middle East will be partisan. When relaying that info I should go websurfing for other versions but I can't be arsed to trawl through endless amount of demented websites for a counterpoint to what I have been told. It's too time-consuming and depressing so I will simply write what I have been told and anyone wanting to see what the other side can google at their leisure. Good fucking luck.

This disclaimer holds until I leave the Middle East and applies to all countries. Feeble attempts to give balanced opinions will be clearly marked as such.

Now that's out of the way please see below for how to enjoy a fun day out at one of the Middle East's potential flashpoints.

First go and obtain a permit to the area. Make your way to the HQ of what is locally translated as the Secret Service (this is in the British sense of shadowy and sinister enforcer of the government and not in the American sense of highly visible, ineptly named praetorians with squiggly earpieces). Unsurprisingly it's in an unmarked building but you will know your are close by the large amount of chaps in civvies toting weapons. Drop off your passport and wait for half an hour. Get bored and decide to build a small snowman with your fellow trippers. Nickname it Spooky the Snowman and take piccies. Get a bollocking for taking photos in front of a highly sensitive building. Get given permits and passports.

Find out which of Damascus' many fecking bus stations serves Quneitra. Get there and realise that, strangely enough, ghostowns don't have many residents so you have to go to the closest inhabited village and take it from there. Hop in and out of a few minibuses until you arrive to the entrance. Hand over passport and have one of the guards take you for a tour. Think this is way cool of the Syrians until you realise they are making a point plus unsupervised tourists wandering off into the minefields won't exactly enhance their international image.

Get taken to the old hospital and see the wonderful sign on it: "First destructed by the Zionists then made into target practice". Go inside where every last square foot of the place has been pockmarked with ordnance of varying sizes. Continue to the ruined town and make you way to the border. Walk past UN barracks full of Austrian soldiers and barracks with Syrian squaddies. Have a little snowball fight with the latter group. Be careful not to make iceballs or aim too well for, however friendly they might be, it is a bad idea to hit armed men in the face with cold projectiles.

Keep walking up to the border post. Gaze across the razor wire and the minefield at the Beersheba apple orchards. Get told they are worked on by, of all things, Irish Jews. Spot bitch and little puppy trying to suckle. Point this out to the females of the group. Wait 15 minutes as they get distracted from conflict politics and coo over canine cuteness.

Walk right up to the last barrier. Wander what the point of having a movable barrier when no one has been able to cross for a long time. Squint and try to read the "Welcome to Israel" sign on the other side. See a UN SUV go through and feel sorry for the poor sods whose lodgings are in No Man's Land between 2 belligerents who are known for not giving a toss about the sanctity of the blue helmet. Get invited to take pictures of the opposition and have a niggling doubt in the back of your head that if you keep doing this kind of tourism this might be the closest you'll ever get to Israel.

Walk back the few miles to the entrance to in the hope that some microbus will pass by. Kindly get invited into the guardhut for warmth and have a wee chat. Look at your surroundings and spot the AK on the wall next to a shelf with baby formula on it. Have a fellow traveller take a photo of you and this oh-so incongruous and symbolic display. Get another camera related bollocking.

Hitch a ride back to inhabited places with the missus of the curator of the local museum that was closed for the winter. Learn that there is shedloads of ancient and apolitical history to the place. Admire the balls of the people doing archaeological digs in an area full of mines and UXOs.

Get back to Damascus in time for dindins and a night out in a Damascene cafe where the hip youth go for shisa, music and good atmos. Thanks the stars that the place is one that has an alcohol licence so that ferengis can get bladdered. Walk back very late to the hostel. Get lost for a while and reflect that labyrinthine streets make for great daytime ambling but not for getting back home when pissed. Use compass a lot.

Well there you have my Damascus entry. My next stop will be in Lebanon. Politics compel me to make haste and get in and out of the Land of Cedars sooner rather than later. In a couple of weeks the Lebanese parliament has to elect a new president and I reckon that if things go to shit it will be after rather than before that date. I know that there was another bomb in Beirut yesterday but I still reckon I am safe. The recent bombings there have all been targeted assassinations and since I don't get to schmooze with the Levant's political players (to my regret) I should be OK.

I say this to reassure my family and others who might care about my wellbeing. Going to Lebanon, like my foray into Northern Irak, is not a sign of recklessness on my behalf but of resignation. Middle Eastern politics being as they are, it is impossible to go anywhere in the region with zero risk. In my mind, there is no such thing as total safety as my odd rant about the destruction of civil liberties by cowardly politicians back home shows.

I don't decide to go somewhere on a whim and with a Devil-may-care attitude. I might laugh in the face of danger but I make bloody sure that Danger is in a good mood, has only had a few pints and understands that I am laughing with him and not at him. When I return to the West I will of course be very keen to impress to naive women that I was gambling with my life when I was in the 'Rak and the Leb'. What I won't say is that the odds were heavily stacked in my favour. A simple test will show this.

By this time tomorrow I should be in Beirut. Any reader who is based in a large Western country will be able to scan the national news and the chances are that someone was murdered there. The reader could then look the international pages and see what has gone on in the Middle East over the same period. What is very unlikely to be there is a report that a Western tourist was killed (and you can be damn sure that it would be in the news if it had). I don't know about Gott mit uns but the stats are on definitely on my side.

Next stop, Beirut

Take care,


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Haleb aka Aleppo, Syria

Once again the backpacker grapevine has proved far more reliable than the guidebooks or official websites. For Brits, the consular route to Syria is a long and arduous one with obligatory stops at one's own consulate for letters of recommendation. For Americans it is a month long road to Calvary strewn with refusal slips. Even more fun for the seppoes is that the US government will not give a letter of recommendation but will give a letter to this effect.

The wily traveller decides not to wake the consular Cerberus and goes straight to the border where the guards will set you up in less than an hour. It's a half day wait for Americans but there has to be some penalty for that silly Axis of Evil nonsense.

I got here and found that there are two things I hadn't seen since Cappadoccia; daytime warmth and other backpackers. I teamed up with some Italians to go pressganging and we quickly rounded up a minibus and a minibus worth of fellow gawkers to go and have a look at the sights around Aleppo.

There are some deserted cities where one can climb and duck into ruined buildings and guess what they were. To be fair they weren't completely deserted as I found out after scuttling into a hole to find myself on all fours in a donkey's stable. Donkey was less startled than me.

More grandiose is Apamea where Seleucus the First built himself a city with a still standing huge central avenue. The bloke was one of Alexander the Great's generals and, after boy wonder's death, was competent enough to twock himself a piece of Big Al's conquests and start a wee dynasty. No donkeys in Apamea but loads of sprogs herding goats and sheep.

Weirder are the ruins of the St Simeon Basilica built around a pillar where this chap ended his days after a few decades living on top of this and other assorted pillars. Why he did this is unclear and there is even more mystery about how he went to the bog atop his pillars. But then these were the good old days were smelly religious nutcases were canonised not institutionalised.

In Aleppo there are a smattering of churches, mosques, souks and, the Middle East being as peaceful a millenia ago as it is now, a large and well fortified citadel. Of these the souks were my favourite for no better reason that Allepians are as fond of the hard sell as they are of bacon sarnies. Unlike Turkey, a quick "no thanks" ends the commercial part of the interaction but not the conversation itself. The best of these was the blacksmiths area but they get a little minus point for not letting me burn myself and fuck up their labour by having a go.

It's the chats that have made me get very enthusiastic about Syria. Whether in the souks, shisha joints, streets or fruit juice stands the locals seem to enjoy having a chinwag about everything and anything with foreigners. So far I have discussed local, geo-, Brit, French, Chinese and American politics. I have also blathered about travelling, mechanics, food, booze, women, religion, Koreans, visas for Syria, visas for Azerbaijan, visas for the UK, setting up a shop in Shoreditch, reasons not to live in Devon, Shakira's arse, Britney's tits, the tits and arse of some Arab pop singer unknown to me, green tea, black tea, builder's tea, Turkish coffee and homosexuality.

The last was a tad strange as it took me a while to realise what we were talking about. A vendor in the souk wanted to go to the UK and he told me he had a girlfriend there and was thinking about a civil partnership. I corrected him when he referred to his girlfriend as "he" but then he told me it was a he because he was a vegetarian. I didn't quite get what he was talking about and only twigged when he asked me if I was "vegetarian, normal or AC/DC".

A bit more disturbing was when a guy at a felafel stand asked me if I could help him with his English. I accepted and he showed me a list of words and asked for provide definitions, some help with the phonetics and some sample phrases for context. The list included: salvation, signs of the end of ages, resolution, credit transfer, I'm not interested and (Ave Borat) rape and rapist.

Creepy offhand English lessons aside I have decided that me likey Syria.

The next stop is still undecided. Most places being half a day's travel away I don't feel the need to plan too much. Also, if I head south, I am faced with a difficult choice as there are 2 places that were high on the must-see list for myself I jotted down nearly 3 years ago. These are the Krak Des Chevaliers and Damascus. What should I see first? Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Take care,


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Antakya, Turkey

In places as evocative as Antioch I am tempted to use the old name to start my post. Here, however, I must use the current name. Whatever images the name of Antioch can conjure up are better than this place. You can dream of Seleucid courts, Roman orgies, saintly Christians a' preaching, crusaders slaughtering or Arab grandeur but you won't find much trace of it here.

It's not an unpleasasnt place but it is just a smallish Turksh town with an old church. a few bazaars and an OK museum. It's current role on the trail is to provide a few comforts before the entry into Syria.

As such I won't say more about the place but will do a little Turkey post. See below:

From a travel perspective Turkey reminds me of Thailand. It's a pleasant place with lots to see and everything is easy to figure out and generally works. I say generally since this is the third time I have had to log on again thanks to electricity cuts. As a hub Turkey is even more important than Thailand. It is on the southern end of those doing the Eastern Europe trail, the jumping off point for a lot of Central Asian trippers and the entry/exit point of the Middle Eastern lot.

For all its gems and overall pleasantness, Turkey for me shares another distinction with Thailand. It's interesting but not truly fascinating and it's nice rather than great. Snobs like me who want to be the only person in the pub to have been to XYZ are blase about Turkey before even getting here. The internal ponce can't help but whine that everything is too easy.

I don't want to short change the place either. Turkey has a lot to offer to tourists and is intriguing in many ways. For a start, Turkey is important and its woes, triumphs and debates should be watched closely.

The biggie issue about Turkey is, of course, whether or not it should enter the European Union. The prospect of membership has been dangled in front of the Turks for a while and many hoops have been jumped through yet they are still out of the club. The Turks themselves are getting a bit tired of this and I reckon if some sort of definite timetable doesn't emerge in the next 5 years they may decide to sod it and do something else.

I have given an incredibly succint and ignorant explanation of the positions of European supporters and opponents of membership in my Armenia post. I am just as lazy and ignorant in Antakya as I was in Yerevan so I won't expand on it. Instead I will quickly lay out what I see as the pros and cons of letting Turkey into the Beethoven 9th club.

If we let them Ottomans in Europe we gain a large source of cheapish labour which we need badly. We also get a growing internal market and a nice big fuck-off army in case the EU gets its act together and decides to acquire some true clout. Economically Turkey is more or less ready ready to join and anyways we can't use
that excuse anymore. Not after we let Romania join.

The cons are having a new and very big border with poorish countries/ Turkey's Human Rights record is improving but still shit enough that it will mkeep a lot of European bureaucrats very busy and at out expense (at the moment they are off the hook for they have learnt to do as the Romans and use terrorism as an excuse for any nastyness they feel like inflicting). It will also take some work to convince the Turkish army that they are now just cannon fodder and don't get to play kingmakers anymore. The cheap labour thing wll only work for a short while until Turkey catches up which is why they want to join in the first place.

I haven't mentioned the Islam issue in either pros or cons as I think it's a red herring. Talking about it makes right wing xenophobes and dippy multiculturalists believe they matter but it's not really a problem. Europe already has a large Muslim population and they are expanding quite well on their own. A European Turkey will not become the great EU communicator to the Muslim world and neither will it be the main champion of an Islamic Europistan.

The last point is truly important as some of the more frothy mouthed chaps on the right rant the dangers of integrating so many million Muslims into our oh so secular Europe. This argument is complete bollocks. Turkey is one of the most secularist countries on earth.

In front of one of the unis in Diyarbakir I saw a thriving wig shop. Its success is due to the fact that, in Turkey, you can't even use government services if displaying any sign of religion. The shop sells the wigs to female students who want to abide by their custom without breaking the law. No tiresome French debate about "laicite" in Turkey and no silly gestures by reusenik headmasters in Turkey. The whole shebang is solved by a bit of ingenuity and entrepreneurship.

The fear of a post Erdogan Turkey going all fatwa happy has shown itself to be groundless. Just because some of the more strict Muslims felt they could have a little more leeway didn't mean they got their wish. TV's are ererywhere in Turkey and they are a nice way to kill time while waitng for a bus. I remember seeing an investigative report on the screen that amused me greatly.

The program used the standard tradecraft of journalistic dramas. There was the scrambled faces, the hidden cameras, freeze frames and arrows to highlight the misdeeds, the dramatic music and the inevitable confrontation of the heinous villain by the brave journo and the familiar running away. What was more uniquely Turkish is that the target of this sensationalist investigation happened to be a bunch of nurses or kept their veil on while working. Ataturk still trumps Mohamed in Turkey.

That's it for Turkey I'm afraid and tommorow I will be in Syria; insh Allah or more accurately insh Syrian border guard. Syrian visas are supposedly a pain in the arse to obtain but the backpacker grapevine has it that showing up at the border sometimes works. We'll see.

Next stop Aleppo?

Take care,


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Ying and Yang. The Chinese notion that opposing forces will balance each other and reach a desired equilibrium. A lot of Chinese medicine works on this principle and the symbol of the black and white disk is well known. You might have seen it tattooed on the shoulder of some bint who thinks she's spiritual.

My chi has been upset of late. It has struck me that flying home to see the parents for Xmas was not the most adventurous decision I have ever taken. This little psychological thorn in my side grew larger after a few days of waving toys in front of my niece's face. My little foray into what is essentially a perfect honeymoon destination did not improve matters.

The inner feminine was taking over. I had done too much cute and sensible stuff of late and balance had to be restored. How could this be done? Simple. All I had to do was to harness the stupid in me and bring back the inner man.

Being in the Turkish part of Kurdistan I decided to void my travel insurance and go to a country that is often in the news. My 2006 Middle east Lonely Planet has a tiny, uninformative section on this country which includes a few gems such as "currently one of the most dangerous places on earth", "not safe for independent travel" and "Solo travellers: You'd have to be mad". I was off to the sunkissed paradise of Iraq. My passport was going to get the backpacker equivalent of a gang tat.

There is stupidity and then there is suicide. The fundamental difference between palying with guns and palying Russian roulette. In order to be able to show off about getting into Iraaq I had to get out alive. Hence I decided to stick to the Kurdish controlled area of Iraq which is the one place in that country that isn't a complete clusterfuck.

This was made a tad complicated by the recent Turkish commando forays and bombing runs of Iraqi Kurdistan. There had been a large bomb in Diyarbakir a week before I got here and Turkish TV news was full of scenes of the aftermath. To make things worse, the Turkish PM Erdogan had gone to Washington to see Bush and they both babbled on about terrorism. Erdogan because he probably wanted permission to enter Kurdistan in force and Bush because he hasn't got anything else to say about anything.

I spent a couple of days in Diyarbakir asking Kurds about how safe it was and, suitably reassured, I made my way to the bordertown of Silopi. The area has a border with both Iraq and Syria hence watchtowers every 200 metres for bloody miles. The closer you get tp the border the heavier the concentration of tanks and trucks. The tanks are there in case Turkey decided to have a pop and the trucks are there because of the huge amount of trade.

I crossed the border without any fuss except for the giggles of the Iraqi Kurds when I declared myself as a tourist. I went to the taxi station (the main form of intercity transport in Iraq) where I met the some Yank soldiers of some tranport Corps or another. They were a friendly bunch and quite chuffed to be in the north but conversation through razor wire can be tricky so I bid themn farewell and got into a taxi for Arbil. They were the only regular US soldiers I saw in Iraq.

Arbil is quite safe but unfortunately the road there goes via Mosul which most certainly isn't. As one Iraqi told me "You go there, you don't come back". The taxi driver had no more wish to die than me or my fellow passengers so, like most vehicles, he got off the main road just north of Mosul and started to take the backroads. This was the only time I was nervous in my little trip.

In less than 3 hours in the taxi I had already got used to that wonderful feature of Iraqi roads; the checkpoints. Mainly these were manned by regular soldiers (I presume Kurds) and these were quite chummy and all offered the same advice of sticking to Arbil and not going to Mosul or Bagdad. Near Mosul though the checkpoints were supplemented by groups of armed blokes. I was told these guys were local militia who spend their evenings at the entry of their villages now that the road there has become a major highway courtesy of the insurgency.

I was tense but mainly I was a bit saddened by these guys. What kind of fucked up world do they live in where they spend their evenings with an AK on their backs, freezing their nuts off and shining torches into strangers' faces and vehicles?

Anyways we went through several of these villages then rejoined the main road. The rest of the journey was uneventful except for when I we crossed the path of another depressing Iraqi staple; what I mentally called the mercenary traffic hold-up. We passed a convoy of large SUVs with flashing plod lights. 500 yards behind them followed a long queue of Mercs and Beamers.

These are fast cars who usually speed along the roads and overtake averyone. In this case their speed was limited by the sign on the back of the last SUV to the effect that coming within 150 metres of the SUVs would get them shot. A freaky bubble of death serving as a speeding deterrent. I wondered what genius thought that things will improve in Iraq if you have enough unregulated and unaccountable mercs who feel that it is justifiable to kill someone if they get too close?

Finally got to Arbil and then had the joy of finding a hotel in the dark as electricity is usually out at night and the streets are nearly deserted after 7. Luckily there were a few Iranian Kurds street sweepers with fantastic English to direct me to the general area and then I was again lucky to be spotted by a tailor leaving his work late who helped me out. Ahmed was to become a good pal in Arbil and the next day fed me and gave me more tea than I really like.

Arbil is safe but that does not mean travelling there is a good idea. There is no hot water or heating, electricity is sporadic and few bother to run the gennies after 9 (this is actually a good thing as they are louder than the muezzins). To boot my usual assumption that there is always a shop or restaurant open was wrong. Hence my first night in Iraqi Kurdistan was a dark, cold and hungry one.

The next day I nipped off to see Ahmed who gave me an ample breakfast and sourced some hot water for my morning coffees and then I went to see one of Arbil's few sights; the citadel. The old walled city is not really amazing but I did get to meet a few interesting characters. I ran into a bunch of American mercenaries who were not the friendliest bunch. Their interpreters were sound though and sent me off to, of all things, a French cultural outpost of sorts.

After chatting with the folk at the Arbil Centre Arthur Rimbaud I went to take some snaps of the city. I found a high spot at the South Gate and took a few piccies. The very short Iraqi soldier (mental name: Pocket Peshmerga) I salaamed might have though I was one of the mercs as he saluted me. A cigarette and assurances of my status as harmless fool relaxed me and we were joined by another chap in uniform who pointed at himself whilst repeating "Captain".

More ciggies were exchanged and I asked if I could take a Photo of them/ They accepted but Captain insisted I took it from the wasit up as he was wearing flipflops. Being consumate pros it took me about 4 seconds to coax the AK off Pocket Peshmerga for a silly poser pic.

I make Pocket Peshmerga and the Captain sound comical but in a sense they are the reason I could go to a country at war, get the stamp and leave with nothing worse than smelly clothes and greasy hair. They were both Kurdish and they are the guys who make sure Kurdistan does not sink into the barbaric chaos of the rest of Iraq. I could make a pun/point about the fact that the one area where the coalition is absent(or at least discrete) is the one place where life is more or less normal. I'll get back to this later on.

I walked around Arbil and then decided to get out. My dwindling stock of dollars, my desire for something better than a cloth wash and my angst at being away from the Turkish border made me backtrack towrds the border to the town of Dohuk.

Dohuk is a thriving trading town an hour or so from the border. It's lively and this means that people are on the streets up to 9pm. It felt quite Turkish to be honest and its only highlight was a large dam and the fact that the Iraqi Kurdistan flag was painted on the surrounding mountains. The hills around looked like prime hiking material but since these mountains were the area where the PKK hide out and the Turks bomb I decided to follow the advice of a soldier and not stray from the road.

The next day I made my way back to Zakho and had the joy of getting back into Turkey. Getting to Iraqi Kurdistan was a piece of piss but getting back involvedd no end of hassle. The military, customs and passport people all feel the need to ask shitloads of questions (usually the same bloody ones) and search absolutely everything. I was quite pleased with myself as I had sent the poser pic to mates as a backup (and to show off) and deleted it from my camera which the fuckers took 10 minutes looking at. To make things worse the taxi driver had tried to use us to smuggle ciggies. I told him to fuck off but the other passengers accepted. Of course customs caught them hence lots of shouting and disappearing round corners for bribes.

I managed to go a bit faster than others thanks to a large Central Asian stash of passport photocopies but this was in vain. I was sharing a cab with 2 Iraqis from Bagdad and the Turks were not going to let them in without a fuss. visa or no visa. Later I tried to repay the kindness Iraqis had bestowed on me by helping the couple once in Diyarbakir.

The Turkish zeal is due to the situation with their own Kurds and the PKK. This also illustrates a point about how tricky Iraq is and why Bush's ignorance is so destructive. At a glance Iraqi Kurdistan looks like the success story of the invasion. This quasi autonmous region was quite chuffed when the risk of Saddam moving back in was removed for good. They then ran the place quietly and made bloody sure the jihadis stayed out. Pats on the back all round.

However a closer look reveals the bind the Yanks have put themselves into. After 9/11 much noise was made about being with us or against us. What happens when those with you are against each other? This is the case here. Washington can't afford to destabilise the one part of Iraq that works and they can't afford to piss off their best Middle East ally after Israel. Do they annoy the Turks by refusing them permission to mount large scale ops or do they risk alienating the small part of the Iraqi population that likes them by letting Turkish troops rampage around? A classic Catch 22.

I could use my very short stint into Iraqi Kurdistan to justify adding yet another opinion on the Iraq war to the blogosphere. It's tempting but it's difficult. Difficult because in a sense I haven't been to Iraq.

I haven't been to a country ripped apart by the foolishness of men from far way. I haven't been to the horrible illustration of the notion that however bad things are they can always get worse. I haven't been to a country where the fear of a cuntish tyrant has been replaced by the equally justified fear of everyone. I haven't been to a place where hundreds of thousands have died because of an experiment in geopolitics. I haven't been to where the Anglosaxon West lost any moral highground and, possibly even worse, the perception of invincibility. I haven't been to a country that serves as a rallying cry and argument for any nutcase bent on killing for Allah. I haven't been to the country that is in the grip of one of the most pointless and stupid conflicts ever.

I apologise for the rant above but let me explain it. Usually I would look back on to what I wrote and delete a chunk of it. What usually happens is that I read what I have just typed out and let loose my inner censor on it. This little chap asks me if I want to sound like yet another armchair general. He asks me if I truly believe that I know better. He tells me it's easy to pontificate from the sidelines and with the benefit of hindsight. This little voice sounds of the killer question: "Do you think you could have done better?".

In this case the answer is Yes. If I had been in Bush's, Rumsfeld's or Btemer's undoubtedly expensive shoes I would have done better. My mates could have done better. Randdom people with a smidgeon of sense could have done better. A team of school debaters could have better. A fucking monkey using sign language could have done better.

Bush has said he will let history be the judge of the War on Iraq. History is not a sentimental judge. Utter bastards are legion amongst those we see as great. Even seriously degenerate monsters sometimes get a grudging respect for what they achieved in the long run. There is a tiresome debate about why Hitler is seen as the incarnation of evil when Stalin, who probably killed more, gets off lightly and is actually admired by some. Many arguments are put forward by I suggest a simple one. Hitler blew his brains out in a bunker whilst outside a once powerful country was being reduced to rubble. Stalin died in his bed at the helm of the world's second most powerful country.

History forgives a lot but not incompetence. A tragic fact is that suffering will be forgotten and the deaths will become just a numeral (that is once a serious bodycount is done as the Geneva convention demands). What will not be glanced over is the stunning collection of mistakes made in Iraq starting with the decision to invade in the first place. No one will give a toss whether or not the Bushies (and I include Blair in this instance) meant well. People will wonder if they were drunk when they took their idiotic decisions.

Historians of the future will probably name Iraq as a possible cause of whatever topic they are writing about. There will be a Before Iraq and an After Iraq. The Vietnam analogies will not be seen as shrill but as understatements. We haven't even begun to see the consequences of the Iraqi conflict. How America votes in November might mitigate things but only a truly exceptional being can solve the Iraqi problem.

Anyways I have now added my penny's worth on Iraq. My blog is now one of the many ill-informed rants on a horrible disaster. I however, have got the stamp to prove I went there and you may be sure I will wave it around when a drunken late night discussion doesn't go my way and I need some add some gravitas to my incoherent discourse.

Off to beg the Syrians to let me in with a quick stop in a city that, coincidentally, was quite important in a previous disastrous and misguided attempt to change the balance of power in the Middle East.

Next stop Antioch,

Take care,


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Goreme, Cappadocia, Turkey

This place is one of Turkey's foremost tourist destination which might seem strange as there is not a beach or an Ottoman grandeur in sight. What's special here is the geology and what people have done with it.

Volcanic stone and shedloads of erosion have created a stange landscape of gorges, ravines and above all fairy chimneys. These are monoliths of sorts that vary in size and shape from the mini mountain to the flint spearhead shape and some that look like the can opener on a swiss army knife. Some have been coyly described as looking like mushrooms as no travelguide likes to use 20 metre cock as a simile. It's snowing here hence making for even more gigglesome sights.

Beyong making me regress, the snow and the shifting light coming through the clouds give this place a, well faerical quality. The fairy name comes from (according to one source) the mystics who used to light candles around the chimneys. Locals believed these lights were fairies. At least those who couldn't be bothered to check out nightlights 500 yards away from their homes did.

The mystics were amongst many Cappadocians who carved into the chimneys. Homes, stables, churches, monasteries and strongholds were dug into the soft rock over the ages. I reckon because it's easier than to actually build a home since the rock is easily carved.

The local fetish for digging spread around the area and those who weren't blessed by cool rocks simply went straight down hence the smattering of underground cities in the region. These started as simple hidey holes for peasants in case raiders showed up and then got expanded by various people particularly the early Christians who needed somewhere to lay low when they had pissed off someone. The end result is a huge network of caverns on 8 levels connected by narrow tunnels.

These cities are one of the reasons Cappadocia gets my thumbs up. The sights are big playgrounds with a bit of culture thrown in. As the prospect of freezing myself on a rented scooter didn't appeal to me I hopped on a tour bus full of Koreans. The guides were 2 youngish girls one of whom was doing a bit of on the job training. I kindly helped her training by giving the chance to deal with the reckless cretin amongst docile Asians.

I started to annoy the lass by diving and crawling into any tunnel, cave and crevice in the underground city that didn't have a grill on it. I got more annoying in the open where the sight of any byzantine scribbling sent me scrambling up the rocks. Underground cities and troglodyte churhes have too much of an Indiana Jones appeal not to be jumping in, under and above them,. My concession is that I got the Koreans to witness a declaration from me to the effect that any breakage suffered as a result of my childishness would be my fault and mine only.

Playing the mountain goat was not just as a result of a Turkish coffee and baklava induced hyperactivity but was also part of a self improvement process. In a way it was aversion therapy.

Somewhere around Kyrgystan I acquired something that I never had before. A fear of heights. Before that I had the normal heightened awareness when on unsure footing at breakneck heights or above. Now I get all queasy when I am on sure ground at merely breakleg levels. This will not do.

Not that I have anything against vertigo. Some of my bwst freinds are scared of heights. I recognise and celebrate the many achievements of those with vertigo throughout history and the valuable contributions they bring to our community today. It's just not my thing hence lots of climbing and ledge walking on snowy fairy chimneys. Therapy made fun.

Anyhoo it's time to leave the cute and beautiful side of Turkey and and go and visit the grimmer, if more politically interesting, one. Off to say hi to the Kurds.

Next stop, Diyarbakir,

Take care,


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Istanbul, Turkey

First post of 2008. It's been a couple of weeks since the last one so let's make this one a bit different.

This lapse could be explained with an amazing tale of the road complete with quirky natives, arduous travel, strange alcohols and exotic places. It could but it won't.

From Batumi I bussed to Istanbul, crashed awhile and flew to mysterious Brighton for Crimbo with the family. As pleasant as it was for me, Xmas with the folks makes for poor storytelling. Suffice to say I stuffed myself and enjoyed doing naff all in a comfy home then flew back to Istanbul.

Istanbul, f.k.a Constantinople is one of the true gems amongst the many destinations of the Asian traveller. It has the ease and comfort of a European city, enough Oriental character to feel like a stranger in a strange land and many, many awesome sights.

I could harp on about the vast Topkapi palce and its many beautiful, if dubiously attributed treasures. I'll give them some leeway on the claim thqat they have Mahomet's sword but I get suspicious when some stick it purported to be Moses' own sea-parting rod. I could also write about the Mosque that was once the great Byzantine church of Hagia Sofia or the Blue Mosque or the Basilica Cistern or the Grand Bazaar or any of Istanbul's famous sights.

I won't do so because I was distracted. What could make this city's beautiful relics of an amazing past only worth a cursory glance? How could I not be entralled by the Orient's foothold in Europe, the city that warrants so many cliches of East meets West? Simple, I met a girl.

The be precise I met the coolest and cutest girl ever; my niece. My elder sister has kindly produced this welcome addition to my family and I got the joy of meeting her on my travels, Cue several days of being a gaga uncle. Highlights include some fun crawling on the floor, being with her went she went to another continent a couple of months shy of her first birthday and great smugness when my compass and bottle opener keychain was deemed more worthy of being played with and chewed on than her own toys. Istanbul just can't compete.

Anyways, the little bundle of joy has departed this city and so will I. I will try to revert to my blase ways from the cooing idiot I have enjoyed being the past few days. Hopefully the next time I roll around the ground, grinning inanely and making silly faces will be because of the more traditional reason of trying some local method of getting shitfaced.

Off to Cappadoccia,

Next stop, Goreme

Take care,