Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I love Crac

Whatever you thought about Syria before, forget it. Apart from the odd cop or guard (and they are much less common than in most of the other countries we've been to), I have not seen a gun here, let alone been shot at. On the contrary, people here are very friendly, and everywhere you go, you hear people shouting "hello, welcome" It has been a great experience and one of the best countries of the trip. My only problem is that Arabic is a horrible alphabet (the music is nice though) and tehre is very little (or no) translation at critical locations like bus stations. But someone always helps you out...... I knew it wasn't going to be bad but I was very surprised to find that "Arabic" doesn't necessarily mean "Islamic". With its rich history and diverse religious backgrounds, there are sizable minorities here including many Christians and even Jews. Pakistan and Afghanistan are much much more strict. There is no mandatory separation of the sexes, and although many muslim women are covered, there are a lot that are not and it certainly isn't required. There is even a Syrian made beer, go figure. It is like Pakistan however, in the sense that chaos and dirtiness reign supreme again, with insane traffic and a total lack of city planning in many parts. Compared to Turkey, it can be quite backwards. Compared to what you might be expecting, it is quite developed. It is almost the same price as Pakistan too, which is very pleasant. Not many tourists these days as all its neighbours seem to be falling apart. They also have a huge problem with refugees with millions of Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese in the country. Something like 10,000 Iraqi refugees are crossing over per week (or was it day?) which is seriously affecting the economy and prices. The population here is around the 20 million mark, making it quite dense. It is also not all desert as you might be thinking. Yes it is very dusty, hot and dry most of the year but there are nice mountains and quite a few green fields and farms. You can even drink the water from the tap everywhere here. I would never've guessed.
The country is having a strange influence on me. I seem to be doing nothing but talking about sex, politics and religion (as if I am an expert in any of these). The hospitality here is such that you end up visiting and having tea (in some places it is more like slightly diluted syrup) with random people on the street all the time. They don't really understand the concept of polite refusal so I have also found myself drinking coffee for the first time (probably not best to start on this strong stuff), tomatoes (still don't like them) and even ice cream. My diet has mostly consisted of an unhealthy combination of felafels, shwarmas and mixed fruit juice.
After the breakup of the Ottoman empire, Syria (and Lebanon) fell under French control so there is a lot of french spoken here, but quite a bit of english too. Half the tourists they get are from France. I don't really know french but because it is not their first language, they speak slow enough and pronounce it so that I can follow most of a simple conversation or follow directions. Forget my replying though, it's hopeless. The weather has been nice and sunny in the high teens during the day but only a few degrees at night. They don't have central heating in their homes so instead they have these gas furnaces that run off a drip feed of diesel from a little pot. Works well for the room you are in but because it is exposed, you are sucking diesel fumes the whole time. Probably not a good thing. Diesel is less than 20 cents/L. Most homes seem to be made of pinkish stone or grey cinderblocks and cement haphazardly stacked on to p of each other. Internet is slow and relatively new in the country so there are still restrictions. I can't read the blog. The president is a young guy as well and his picture is everywhere. More than Ataturk, Mao or Turkmenbashi. As they say here, he is better and more progressive than his father but there is still room for improvement. Some of these Syrians are very white skinned too. You'd never guess if you met them.
After crossing from Turkey, I arrived in Aleppo, the second largest city of Syria and one of the oldest in the world. The couchsurfing host there made it clear that it would not take more than a day to see the city and that I would be moving on soon. He was eager to be rid of me because of exams and I've learned that Syrian teachers are in demand all over the arabic world because the education system is very difficult and strict with very harsh penalties for cheating. He even knew some guys that were doing time in prison for cheating. Wow, better study then. Not much to say about Aleppo really other than the apartment buildings are really think stone and look like they could withstand several barrages of artillery fire without suffering any damage. It's an interesting style with nice big balconies and the stonework carved very deep and fairly simple. Nothing delicate. The citadel on the hill was closed but is a totally new style for me as well. The mosques all over the country all h ave this eerie green light on all their minarets like soem strange alien video game. Still not sure why.
From Aleppo I went south to Hama, a quiet and pretty, if still large city. It is a popular place to relax and has a handful of ancient waterwheels called norias in the little river flowing through the middle of town. They used to feed huge aqueducts that spread out to the farms nearby. The norias still turn but are non-functional now. The aqueducts are just short pieces now and the water just spills back into the river after a short distance. It was in Hama that I ran into a Dutch guy staying in the same hotel. We saw Hama together and ended up playing football with some local Christian kids on the church grounds. They are always playing here. There are tons of kids here (almost 50% of the population) and most are very curious. When asked if he liked Hama, one of the kids said no because there is no McDonalds or Burger King yet. Oh man. Note to you guys, if you want to be popular wear a football shirt like my Brasil one. They love it. The following day, two friends of his (a pair of Canadian girls from Winnipeg) arrived. They were all studying in Istanbul and are on a short trip through the region. Together the four of us hired a driver with car (a very old Mercedes that looked like India's Ambassador cars) to take us around to nearby sites.
The historical sites in Syria are amazing. They are not as famous as the ones in neighbouring countries like Egypt, Turkey, Israel and Jordan but experts have said that there is probably more stuff here and in better condition. With a student card, entry is 25 cents/site and there is nobody there. Awesome. The people are really nice, the hassle factor is low (though I've heard of some females having problems) and even the annoying touts and beggars leave you alone after only 1 or 2 "no" replies. If only half the cars weren't taxis..... They are, of course, the biggest scam, as always.
First we went to Apamea, a town set up by the Greeks but most important as a Roman city. It mostly consists of one very long street of tall columns. Then it was off to some random citadel in the middle of some ordinary town. Even no-name, small town castles out here are better than the best in most countries. And there are tons of them everywhere. The most famous and impressive is Crac des Chevaliers. Built by the crusaders some 900 years ago, it is still in excellent condition adn might be the best I've ever seen. Nobody there, outer wall, moat, then inner portion and you can roam all over its numerous stories and enjoy its great views as you like. We were there a couple of hours just to give it a once through. Best 25 cents I've ever spent :) The thing was built for 2000 crusaders and built to last and would've been impossible to take. The crusaders surrendered it at the end of the crusades, probably because they knew they wouldn't be beaten and couldn't be bothered to sit there for years when everyone else was going home. In all it was an excellent day, made even better by the excellent company.
Ammon

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