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,



Blogger taryl cabot said...

visit Damascus - i'm curious if they have a guide take you to the location of Saul's epiphany on the road to Damascus

Wednesday, January 23, 2008 11:46:00 PM  

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