Introducing Desi Backpacker

Desi Backpacker is a blog created to entertain vicarious travellers, inspire and help future backpackers and provide an account of my own travels.

I am a corporate slave in my late 20s, and after taking a 10-month Round-The-World trip in 2008, I tried to fit back into the corporate way of life (really, I tried). But travel struck a fatal blow to my career path and I once again count down the last couple of months on my job before I undertake yet another exciting multi-continental trip. I still haven’t figured out where I want to go, but for now I will start with converting my pen-and-paper journals from my previous travels into full-length blog entries to share them with the world.

Curiosity killed the cat, but it does no harm to the armchair travellers. Read more About Me, About This Site or About My Previous Trips.

Below are a few important terms for those with a limited knowledge of Hindi or travel terminology –

  • Desi – In this case, Indian. But in general, the term desi applies to anyone from the Indian Subcontinent.
  • Kanjoos – Stingy
  • RTW – Round-The-World

Here’s to a wonderful journey ahead. To join me on my journeys from the past and into the future, simply keep coming back every now and then for updates, Subscribe by RSS or Email, “Like” the Facebook Page or follow me on Twitter!

 

PS: This post was written over a year ago! A lot has changed since then. The trip is now over. Due to various circumstances I haven’t yet finished blogging the trip, but I have my meticulous notes and will finish the trip report soon. Follow the blog for updates!

Posted in Random | 7 Comments

Istanbul and Büyükada: Horses, Cats, Rain and Bullshit

Dates: April 12 – 15, 2011

So, at the end of that long and trying day, I was in Istanbul on the morning of the 12th. I had a host in Istanbul but I needed to wait for her to finish work. I found myself in Kadıköy, which is the center of the Asian side of Istanbul (side note: as I realised later, the Asian side of Istanbul is a lot more European and vice versa!). I could see the Hydarpasa Train Station from where I was so I had 2 options:

  1. Drop my bags at the train station and go do some sightseeing.
  2. Walk around with all my stuff for a while and then duck into a cafe for a few hours and update the blog.

I chose #2.

Istanbul

A view of Istanbul (Image by Félix Polesello via Flickr)

But before we get to that, I should mention that the pictures here are from Internet sources because I have no pictures of Turkey! My laptop was stolen and I hadn’t backed up the pics. But that’s a story for another day.

The first thing I noticed was the number of bagel sellers and tulips all over the place. The bagels are cheap and filling and right versions are really tasty (the one covered with peanuts is my favourite). So I walked around Kadıköy, and after a doner and a chai and paying another exorbitant  amount for a leak, I found myself in a cybercafe, paying a fraction of the cost to use my own laptop. The guys at the cafe were really nice and one of them even gifted me a copy of the Lonely Planet Istanbul! This guy, the other friendly people that helped me out with directions, etc and the bus driver from yesterday made up for the rudeness of the border people.

I then made my way to a cafe as suggested by my host to meet her there, and from there we went home and engaged in a the traditional Ottoman-Era Turkish pastime of playing FIFA on PlayStation 3, followed by a pasta dinner. Even on this first day the hustle and bustle of Istanbul didn’t escape me. It reminded me in many ways of Hong Kong. The water setting, the local transport ferries, the never-ending rush and the organized chaos.

Büyükada

The next day (13th) the weather was good(ish) and two of my host’s friends wanted to go to Büyükada (Big Island) so I joined them. Büyükada is a part of the Princes’  Islands, known to locals simply as “islands” (adalar).

A street in Büyükada.

Buyukada street (Image via Wikipedia)

Now the only thing interesting about Büyükada is that there are no cars on the island and that there are plenty of old wooden houses and people get around on bicycles and horse carts. It was fun for about 45 seconds. Perhaps the charm sinks in if you stay overnight… There were some impeccable views from the top off the hill though, which also hosts a monastery of St George. And guess what? Just like the one in Syria, this was Greek Orthodox too!

The Istanbul “Let Me Buy You a Drink” Scam

Later the evening of the April the 13th turned out to be my lucky day as I very narrowly escaped a famous old Istanbul scam. Here’s what happened: I was walking down Istanbul’s Istiklal Caddesi when two guys approached me and one of them said something to me in Turkish. When I looked confused he said that he thought I was Turkish and then we started talking about this and that, while walking down the road. He told me that he was a businessman from Iraqi Kurdistan and he was staying at a hotel nearby. He was really nice, we got talking about life in Kurdistan, Saddam Hussein, the aftermath of the US invasion etc. We reached the end of the road.

“All right then, I’ve got to take a boat to the other side else I’d be late. It was really nice chatting with you.”

“Come on, let’s go to a bar, let me buy you a beer”

But I felt compelled to refuse. I felt silly. I mean, what kind of a man refuses free beer? Especially when it comes with a promise of intelligent and enriching conversation?

A smart kind, that’s who.

For later the same evening while browsing through some forums I came across scam warnings that made me shiver. It was almost the exact script that was used on me! If I had agreed to the beer, they would have taken me to a conniving bar and the upshot would be a much lighter wallet. You can read more about the scam here.  His entire story and descriptions of life under Saddam were nothing but bullshit. What a narrow escape! But the moral of the story here is not to avoid talking to strangers but to be alert and know about the popular scams.

The Wrath of the Weather Gods

New Mosque (Yeni Cami), Istanbul

The Yeni Cami or New Mosque. New? It's almost 500 years old! (Image by firepile via Flickr)

The weather was really crappy almost the whole time in Istanbul. On the 14th it was raining really heavily but I still decided to go out, and got some good real time advice on the Facebook page! I decided to go to the markets near the Yeni Cami because they are indoors. Problem was: every other tourist in Istanbul had the same idea. I went on to Istanbul Modern (free that day) and it was really beautiful, with some great and interesting art and some incredibly nonsensical stuff, as is typical in modern art museums. After that I went to buy some groceries and cooked chhole and rice for my lovely hostesses. As I sucked on a piece of ginger, I realized that I had cooked the meal as much for myself as for them. I was eating “Indian” food after two weeks and I missed the flavours.

The next day (15th) I first went to stare at the remains of an ancient aqueduct, the Valens Aqueduct. Right under the massive aqueduct on one end is a tea shop. If you are the kind that can resist having a cup of tea under a millennia-old aqueduct I want nothing to do with you. Seriously, go away now. I spent some time there dreaming about its old glory and headed to the Sultanahmet “Blue” Mosque and Hagia Sophia – the crown jewels of Istanbul’s attractions.

Exterior of the Hagia Sophia.

The Hagia Sophia (Image via Wikipedia)

Since the weather was good the crowds were out in full force. It took over 30 mins to get into the Blue Mosque and I gave up trying to enter the Hagia Sophia after about 45 mins of standing in line for the tickets. There was no queue at the Archaeological museum though and I went there thinking that I’d go to the other attractions later, but I got so absorbed that I ended up spending over 4 hours in the museum, and it was almost closing time when I came out. The story of Troy and its discoveries (yes, plural: it was discovered over and over again in multiple layers) especially captivated me. I walked around some more in the old neighbourhoods, took in some incredible views of the Galata tower and the shorelines and headed back for some much needed rest.

The Golden Horn and Galata

The Golden Horn and Galata (Image by brewbooks via Flickr)

Expenses:

  • Transportation (Boats, Buses, Dolmus, Trams & Horses): 32.1 TL
  • Food and Drink: 51 TL
  • Misc (Entrance fees, toilets, phone card etc): 37 TL

Total (for 4 days): 120.1 TL or 3424 INR (76.5 USD)

Posted in Turkey | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Caught In No Man’s Land at the Turkish Border

Date: 11 April, 2011

On the 11th, I woke up with a skip in my step. It was thanks not only to the chocolate croissant that was waiting for me, but to the fact that I would be crossing into Turkey today. Crossing into a new country is always exciting and this time I would be using a land border.

The Bab El Hawa Syrian Border Post

The Syrian Border Post

So as soon as I settled things at the hostel, I headed out to find a direct bus from Aleppo to Antakya (Hatay) in Turkey. That turned out to be slightly complicated, though and I ended up in a shared taxi that cost 10 US$.

The Incredibly long ride between the Borders

The Incredibly long ride between the Borders

At the Turkish border one of my fellow passengers was denied entry for some reason that I couldn’t understand, and he got into a fist fight with the immigration officer! I thought this was the highlight of my day but I had no idea of the impending drama that awaited me at the border. I should explain…

You see, as per a relatively recent policy change, Turkey allows Visa on Arrival for Indian Citizens who hold a valid US, UK or Schengen visa. I had 2 of those so I felt safe. But when I arrived at the Visa-On-Arrival place, they mumbled amongst themselves for a while, looked at me and told me to go back to Aleppo and get a visa from the consulate.

I had a printout of an email from the Turkish embassy in India confirming availability of VOA at the border, and I tried to explain it to them, but to no avail. It was really frustrating as none of them spoke any English and all I could hear was “Hindistan” and “Konsolusuk”.
So yes, I needed to go back to Syria. Sure. Only problem was that I had a single entry visa and I was already stamped out. If the Turks didn’t let me in, I was in no man’s land, unable to get into Turkey and unable to return to Syria. I literally had nowhere to go. And to think that my Canadian visa rejection made me feel like Victor Naborski (of The Terminal)! This was the real thing!

The complex at the border is quite big, with all sorts of offices and I walked around asking people if anyone could speak English. I wanted to explain my situation to someone so that they could talk to the pig-headed immigration people.
After a while someone ran around the building with me and found a guy who could speak a little. He then asked around some more and managed to locate a young guy who could actually have a conversation with me. I explained my situation, they talked amongst themselves and said that if the police say no, there is nothing that anybody can do. They advised me to call my embassy.

Yeah, right. Indian Bureaucrats.

A Barber on the Turkish side of the Border

A Barber on the Turkish side of the Border. A BARBER. Really? How about keeping a translator?

The guy then took me to someone’s office that had internet and found the number of the Indian embassy. He then took me to a phone office where he called up the embassy and had me put through to an official. Now this is where Mr N. of the Indian Embassy at Ankara comes in as a shining hero. No amount of thank yous are enough. He listened patiently to my story and remarked – “Ah so you have yourself in a proper soup then“. He then told me to relax and that he would talk to some people and get back to me on what could be done. This completely took me by surprise and I felt really ashamed about my “Yeah, right. Indian bureaucrats” attitude.

There was some back and forth calling, and I had to use my Indian number which, as it later turned out, cost me about 1400 Rupees. Eventually Mr N. called me and handed the phone to a lady who said something to the immigration police that completely changed their attitude from hostile to friendly.

But even then, they were very reluctant to give me a visa as they were still not sure about the rules. By this time I was quite frustrated. Luckily I had the full address of the exact page on the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. I walked behind to his desk and showed him the URL. This of course was in English which he refused to read. So I found the Turkish version and found the words I needed: “Hindistan” and “Schengen”. I pointed those out to him and folded my hands.

Within minutes I had a visa and a stamp. The whole process had lasted almost 5 hours!

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have sacrificed myself for the benefit of the later travellers. The Hatay border is now open for business to Indians that need Visa on Arrival for Turkey. Anyway, I really needed to pee, so I headed over to the toilet. Please ignore my previous declaration of the toilets in Damascus being expensive. The toilets in Turkey are definitely the most expensive in the world. This one was 1.5 Lira for a piss (1$) and the ones I found later weren’t much better. The least was 1 Lira. I dare you to find more expensive toilets.

It was now after 6, and my “direct taxi” had of course left me behind so I had no transportation, and the border is (as borders tend to be) in the middle of nowhere. So the only option was to hitchhike. I was actually quite excited by this as I had read that Turkey is one of the best countries to hitchhike in and I was already looking forward to trying hitchhiking here.

A truck driver almost agreed to take me but then he saw an empty bus, shouted out to the bus driver who called me over, and said that he would take me to Hatay. Why he was taking an empty bus across the border I will never know.

The free ride to Hatay

The free ride to Hatay

In Hatay I had to hitchhike again, as the bus driver dropped me off at some petrol station. Again, a bus stopped. This was a direct “Istanbul Express” to Istanbul – a journey of 16 hours! I knew from previous research that the bus costs 65 Turkish Lira (42 US$) but as I was catching the bus on the way, I was sure that I would have some negotiation power as my money wouldn’t get me a ticket and would go straight into the staff pockets. So when he asked me for 50 Lira (khamsin. This was an Arabic-speaking area, and by this time I knew what khamsin meant). I pretended to not understand and offered him a 20 Dollar note. After much denying and me pretending to not understand, he finally gave up and left me alone.

The beautiful scenery on the way

The beautiful scenery on the way

Now, the bus was absolutely fantastic. Great legroom, comfortable seats, beverage service and even seat-back TVs with 10 channels, including one with a view of the road from a camera mounted in the front! After Iskenderun, a couple of South-Asian looking guys boarded and sat down next to me. One guy asked me where I was from, and I told him. He said he was from Myanmar. He then started asking me questions about whether I had a visa for Turkey, whether I had a visa for Europe, etc. I realised that they are illegal immigrants and I felt happy for them. Anyone lucky enough to get out of Myanmar is a hero IMHO.

Around midnight the bus was stopped and searched by the police. Everyone showed them their documentation but my two new friends who pretended not to understand and were left alone. I high-fived them in my head. But then I had a “waidaminnit” moment. He hadn’t responded when I said “Mingalaba” (hello in Burmese) and something seemed fishy. I asked him where in Myanmar he was from and he suddenly pretended to not understand me. He had previously asked me where I was from in those exact words! I ignored them after that. I wanted my high-fives back.

A view of the Snowy Road from the seat-back TV

A view of the Snowy Road from the seat-back TV

So I watched some videos on my laptop and managed to sleep a bit. I woke around 6:30 AM to piles of snow outside! The scenery all through was fabulous and the roads fantastic. I reached Istanbul “Harem” bus station and took a bus to Kadıköy, the center of the “Asian” side of Istanbul. After all he hullabaloo I had made it to Istanbul! The city that was the coveted jewel in any self-respecting empire’s crown. The only city spread across two continents, and a true meeting point of the East and the West.

Haydarpasa Train Station as seen from Kadikoy

Haydarpasa Train Station in Istanbul as seen from Kadikoy

The day’s expenses:

  • Taxi: 10 US$
  • Syria Exit Tax: 13US$
  • Calls: 6 TL
  • Visa: 20$
  • Bus 20 US$
  • Food: 5 TL
  • Water: 1 TL
  • Piss: 1.5 TL
  • Calls on Roaming: 1400 INR

Total: 103 US$4600 INR!!!

Posted in Turkey | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Syria roundup: people, places, food, money, revolution.

Date: 10th April, 2011

I was supposed to leave Aleppo on the 10th, along with Cedric, but I decided to stick around for another day, to rest, write and soak in some more of Aleppo. And that is pretty much what I did!

I moved to a dorm (275 Pounds) as with Cedric gone, the room was now too expensive for me. I walked around some more, stayed in a lot and decided that the best thing to do on this last full day in Syria would be to write a sort of roundup of what Syria is like –

Souq Al Hamidiyeh, Damascus

Souq Al Hamidiyeh, Damascus

The Country

Syria is known as the cradle of civilizations. History here goes back further than in most countries, and the list of empires that have fought over, won and lost this land is longer than that of Paris Hilton’s “boyfriends”. Beach resorts, castles, ancient ruins, desert towns… you name it, Syria has it. I visited Damascus, Bosra, Palmyra, Hama and Aleppo, and wanted to see a lot more places (such as Lattakia, the “Dead Cities”, Tartous, Apamea, Saladin’s Castle, etc) but time was a restricting factor.

At the Amphtheater in Bosra

At the Amphtheater in Bosra

Of course, being on the list of the “Axis of Evil” countries Syria doesn’t get nearly as many tourists as does neighbouring Turkey, or even Jordan and Lebanon. Unlike this blog’s readers, however, the tourists have no idea what they’re missing. Unfortunately, the government’s policies don’t make it too easy for tourists to visit the country. The official line of the Syrian embassy in India is – “We don’t issue tourist visas”. Of course, such statements never have and never will deter the truly intrepid traveller.

Travelling around Syria is a breeze, the buses are fast and efficient, and the train system is reputed to be functional, if less popular than the bus network.

Worshippers at the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Worshippers at the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

The People

Syrians have the reputation of being exceptionally nice and friendly, and they didn’t disappoint. From my host Mustafa and his friends – to shopkeepers in the souq – everyone was very welcoming.
In the streets of Hama or the souqs of Damascus or Aleppo, it was always the same. People would ask me – “You from Pakistan? India?”, and on hearing the response, it was always the same – “Welcome to Syria”. The vendors, even after realising that I wasn’t buying anything, were always ready with a smile and a “welcome”.

In most of Syria  people are too fair skinned for me to pass off as a local, but in the Palmyra bus station, the guys expressed surprise (“ajnabi!?”) when I pulled out my passport for identification.

One thing that I noticed early on and initially found quite irritating was the way they express confusion. A lean-in, a rapid shake of the head, with an upward movement of the chin and a light raise of the eyebrows to indicate that you need to repeat yourself. Eventually this gesture grew on me, and I found it quite endearing later on. I found the same habit later in Turkey too.

Another curious observation was the kissing: When guys meet or say goodbye, they place one kiss on the right cheek followed by two kisses on the left cheek. Cheeky!

People on the streets: Damascus, Syria

People on the streets: Damascus, Syria

I had also expected to see most men wearing the “keffiyeh”– the Arab headdress and most women wearing burqas and hijabs. While there certainly were plenty of those, the cities also had lots of people walking around in clothes that wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in the world. I discovered that Syria is actually a secular country.

The mistake we make is that we equate the word “Arab” with the people and places in “The Gulf”. Whereas “The Gulf” is only one small portion of the Arab World. The majority of the world’s Arabs can not relate to (and sometimes even resent) the people from “The Gulf”.

The other Syrian “citizens” I noticed were the camels. They are huge and furry, unlike the bald ones found in India. The Syrian Desert can actually get quite cold as I witnessed in Palmyra, so I guess having all that fur does come in handy.

Camels in Palmyra

Camels in Palmyra

The Money

The currency of Syria is the Syrian Pound (SYP), sometimes also known locally as “Lira”. Syria is a perfect place to start a long trip for two reasons –

1. It is cheap. You can expect to spend anywhere between 20-75 SYP for a good street-side meal (Shawarma, Falafel, etc). In decent restaurants, good meals can be had for around 150. A bottle of water or a can of Coke costs 20-25 and you’d pay 50-75 for a beer in a shop. A tea/coffee in a traditional coffee shop costs 15/25 SYP. A bed in a shared dorm is 250-300 SYP, and the cheapest room with a double bed would cost about 500-600 on average. A 2-hour bus ride costs about 100 SYP, and local buses are 6-10 SYP. Entrance fees to tourist sites are a bit steep by Syrian standards, with heavy discounts for holders of an International Students Identity Card (ISIC). E.g.: The Krak Des Chevaliers: 150 SYP standard, 10 SYP with a student discount!

2. At around 47 Syrian Pounds to the US dollar, the currency is currently is almost at par with the Indian Rupee! So no complicated conversions.

I've forgotten the name of this dish (M something...)

I've forgotten the name of this dish (M something...)

Food and Drink

The food in Syria is really delicious, and as I mentioned before, cheap. As a bonus for many Indian travellers, a lot of the food is actually vegetarian! There are many excellent dishes without a trace of meat – Falafel, fuul, etc. Even the shawarma stands stick to chicken and lamb. One thing that was hard to get used to was the habit of keeping flatbread on the table. The food is in the dishes but bread is kept directly on the table!

Tea (“shai”) is without a doubt the most popular beverage in Syria, and it’s taken milk-less, strong and sweet. Coffee (“kahve”) is also popular and the grounds are left in the cup like in Turkish coffee. Alcohol, contrary to my expectations, is widely available in restaurants, supermarkets and small street-side shops. In fact, when it comes to alcohol, Syria seems to be a lot more liberal than India!

Al Nawfara Coffee Shop in Damascus

Al Nawfara Coffee Shop in Damascus

The coffee shops are a hub of activity, with people gathering and spending hours just chatting, smoking nargileh (the water pipe), playing cards or backgammon and drinking copious amounts of tea and coffee. The newer establishments play host to patrons of both sexes but the older ones are mostly home to old well-dressed men, sitting around and watching the passers-by.

Some signboards have just Arabic and French!

Some signboards have just Arabic and French!

The Language

Arabic is perhaps too hard to even try and learn if you are going for a short trip, but your experience will definitely be much, much richer if you can learn a little bit as English speakers are very hard to find here. Even French is much more useful. A lot of the official tourist literature available at the sites is in French. The labels at many tourist sites such as the Azem Palace in Damascus, Palmyra and others are in French!

I also noticed that there are quite a few common/similar words with Hindi/Urdu (ajnabi, shukran, etc and lot more which I promptly forgot). One interesting word is “Khan” – a khan was a place in the souq where traders could stay. There are lots of these in Damascus, Aleppo and Hama (and I believe in other cities as well) and are well worth a look for their open courtyards and architecture.

A signboard at the entrance to a former Khan

A signboard at the entrance to a former Khan

The “Arabic Revolution” in Syria and why it will never happen

There is a lot of talk in the news of the “revolution” going on in Syria at the moment, and even before I went there, my family and friends were a bit concerned about my going there. I didn’t want to mention this while I was there but now that I’m out, I can freely talk about the three things I noticed which lead me to believe that the “revolution” in Syria is just not going to work out, as much as any of us might want it to:

  1. The “Big Brother” is always watching. I know of two incidents (one second hand and the other I was a witness to) where young men were picked up by the police, questioned intensively and beaten up before being let go, all simply because their profiles deviated slightly from that of the standard working-class male. And in the second incident, I heard one of the guys (who returned from the police station with facial bruises and a limp) describing how the police had printouts of his Facebook updates and Yahoo chats! I also noticed quite a few men with bruised faces walking around in Damascus with pronounced limps. Now this could be a coincidence but I doubt it.
  2. The policy of prevention is very much in place. Friday is  the day that’s the most tense, as the mosques are full during the weekly prayers, leading to the largest gatherings. Now, the two Fridays that I was in Syria, there was no internet between the hours of 11 AM and 2 PM (at least). Coincidence?
    Also, I had set aside one day to visit Bosra, a town in the south close to Daraa, where most of the “action” has been focussed so far. Now, when we passed the halfway point, GPRS internet access on cellphones stopped working, and resumed as soon as we crossed the halfway point again on the way back? Coincidence? On its own, sure. But together with the other two, I’m not quite certain.
  3. It’s all in the family. Bashar al-Assad, the current “president” is the son of the last one, and the constitution was changed to allow him to take over the position from his father, as he wasn’t old enough at the time. The last “revolt” aggainst the Assads was by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 and it led to the brutal Massacre of Hama. Of course, this is just my opinion, but I bet the son would only be too keen to follow the example set by his father. Syria has been in a State of Emergency since 1962, and that means that there are effectively no constitutional protections for Syrian citizens!
Bakdash Ice Cream Shop, Damascus

Bakdash Ice Cream Shop, Damascus. Notice the generous splattering of Assad's pictures. They are literally EVERYWHERE!

Posted in Syria | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Aleppo: Citadel, Hamams, More Souqs and Some Great Company

Dates: 8th-9th April 2011

The Citadel of Aleppo

The Citadel of Aleppo

In Hama I spent the morning of the 8th (a Friday) resting in the hotel and writing, and I really felt like staying another day, but I had to move on to Aleppo. I unwittingly caused quite a bit of amusement at the bus station. Here’s what happened: I got on to the bus that I believed was bound for Aleppo, and just as the bus was starting I asked a guy next to me –

“Does this bus go to Aleppo?”
“No. Haleb.”

Ah okay then, my bad. So I got a little panicky and started to get down, just as the bus started moving. I asked the driver to “stop, stop” and was about to get down when the conductor set me straight, explained the situation to the other passengers while trying to keep his giggles down, and caused general merriment all around.

Because you see, Haleb is what Syrians call Aleppo. The english names and local names here are sometimes quite different. For example, Palmyra is known as Tadmor, Damascus as Dimashq. Even Syria is called “Suriya”. Now, those I knew. But not Haleb. Sigh… Live, get laughed at and learn.

Clock Tower on Bab Al Faraj

Clock Tower on Bab Al Faraj

Another thing is that most of the bus stations in Syria are way out of town! At the bus station in Aleppo I tried teaming up for a taxi with the only other person on the bus with a backpack – a wonderful Australian lady who seemed to have it all together, as opposed to me who was pretty much fumbling around the bus station, believing the taxi drivers when they said “no bus, no bus”. There was, of course, a bus.

Hatab Square-Al Jdeida

Two suits playing football with the kids in Hatab Square, Al Jdeida

In the bus, the fellowship of the backpack was joined by Cedric, A Belgian-Lebanese who’s quite the vagabond himself. He was a bit down thanks to some events in the past few days, and we teamed up to find a cheap room. We saw a couple of places and eventually settled on a 600-pound room at the “Spring Flower” hostel. We walked through the closed souq, around the citadel and back outside the city walls, past the “world’s oldest hamam” and into the Armenian neighbourhood of Al-Jdeidah, where we sat for some time in the gorgeously lit Hatab square for some people watching. This area, being predominantly Christian, was bustling with activity while the Muslim areas remained closed. Sunday would be the opposite, I assume.

Inside the Aleppo Citadel

Inside the Aleppo Citadel

The next day we went into the Citadel of Aleppo, and once again walked around the city and into the souqs. I took a long nap in the afternoon and in the evening I went to the opposite direction where I walked into what looked like a fancy neighbourhood and sat around in a cafe updating the blog.

A nice-looking area whose name I don't know

A nice-looking area whose name I don't know

Later that evening, I met a really interesting German gentleman and the three of us (with Cedric) decided to grab a beer or two at the Baron hotel, which has played host to the likes of Agatha Christie, Lawrence of Arabia etc. It has an old world atmosphere that’s really intriguing. Here we met an American girl from London and carried on the night at our hotel where one of the Syrian guys had long chats with us about Syria, this and that and what not. Some other characters that I met that day include a middle-aged German artist and an Australian guy who is cycling from Spain to Australia!

In fact these conversations will forever dominate over my recollections of Aleppo. We did see a quite a lot of Aleppo in the hours that we spent walking around but these people and their stories really kept my mind occupied and I had little time to take the number of pictures I usually do.

A View Over Aleppo From The Citadel

A View Over Aleppo From The Citadel

But fellow travellers aside, Aleppo is definitely a more agreeable city than Damascus, and this is an opinion shared by many that I spoke to. If you disagree, I will let you argue with huge 20 Pound (Syrian Pounds – money, not weight) falafels. Spoiler alert: you can’t win that argument. Aleppo is also a strong contender (along with Damascus) for the title of “The Oldest Continuously Inhabited City in the World”, and has seen quite a few ups and downs in it’s time. It has seen the rule of Alexander The (what was the word?), the Mongols, and of course the Ottomans (among others).

A side view of Aleppo's Citadel

A side view of Aleppo's Citadel

Expenses:

  • Hotel: 600 (300 + 300)
  • Transport: 160 (Taxi at Hama, bus to Aleppo and local bus in Aleppo)
  • Food and drinks: 490 (Falafels, Shish Kebabs, Coffee, Juice, Snacks, Almond Fruit and Chocolate Croissants)
  • Citadel Ticket: 150

Total for 2 days: 1400 SYP (Approx. 1300 INR & 29.5 USD)

 

Posted in Syria | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Hama: Norias, Assassins, St. George and the Krak

Dates: 6-7th April, 2011

A Noria (waterwheel) at Hama

A Noria (waterwheel) at Hama

After deciding to ditch the idea of spending another night in Palmyra, I decided to head to Hama. Hama is a small-ish town by the Orontes river and is well known for it’s Norias (waterwheels) and aqueducts. It is also a great base for exploring some nearby attractions. I got there around 4 and checked into the nice and friendly Riad Hotel (dorm bed: 300 pounds).

Hama Norias at Night

Hama Norias at Night

Here I ran into some really nice fellow travellers. One of them was an Indonesian guy on a 3 week trip to Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia. In an online forum he had mentioned his plans and I had sent him an email to meet up. He hadn’t replied to that message and yet here we were, running into each other purely by chance. This just goes to show that not even free will dares come between a guy and his desire to practice a language that he has once learnt. Muhahahahaha!

Aqueduct at Hama

Aqueduct at Hama

There was also a very energetic Polish guy and really nice Kiwi couple. So in spite of my better judgement, I joined a tour that the hotel was conducting the next day. It was expensive (800 pounds) and the places could easily be covered by public transport. But I did it mostly for the company, as all of the others that I mentioned were signed up already.

After a cheap Falalfel dinner that night I tried the halawa-bi-jibn which is quite famous but I found that is probably an acquired taste. I then discovered the awesome sweet goodness of freshly baked chocolate croissants. And that too for just 10 pounds each! I also bought some the next day to pack along for the tour.

The Misyaf Castle

Misyaf (Masyaf) Castle: Castle of the Assasins

Misyaf (Masyaf) Castle: Castle of the Assasins

The Misyaf Castle was the first stop on the tour. I won’t go into the history here, but do you remember Saladin (Age of Empires, anyone)? As the “liberator of Damascus”, that dude is big in Syria. He had tried and failed to take the Misyaf Castle, which was at that time held by a tribe called hashashins. These buggers occupied quite a few fortresses in the Syria/Persia region. They were experts in infiltrating behind enemy lines and slaying their leader. And that, ladies and gentlemen is how we got the word “Assassin”.

The Monastery of St George

Inside the Monastery of St George

Inside the Monastery of St George. Notice the dark faces?

This is one place I would never have visited on my own. But here we were and it piqued my curiosity. I saw quite a few Greek lettering and when I commented on it, the priest who was showing us around remarked – “We are Greek Orthodox, of course”. I told him that I was thinking about visiting Agion Oros (Mt. Athos in Greece) and he got so excited!

“You will be blessed for life, my son!”
Another curious thing that I noticed whas that the faces of Jesus, Mother Mary and the Saints here are much darker than those in any other church I have seen before.

“Is it because they were made here in Syria or is this how they should be and the Europeans modified their features to make them look more like themselves?”

He had no answer to that. Oh well.

Krak Des Chevaliers

The Krak Des Chevaliers

The Krak Des Chevaliers

The “Castle of the Knights” is a beautiful and formidable cursader castle. Our old friend Saladin messed up here as well. It is here that I felt really glad that I had taken this tour. Forts/Castles are perfect places for goofing around, and you can’t goof around by yourself. I mean you can, but you’d look a lot more insane. The three of us had a great time rescuing princesses, slaying dragons and keeping the infidels at bay.

Monkeying around at the Krak

Monkeying around at the Krak

In the evening, back at hama I “discovered” a dish called “fuul”. I had it once in Damascus and now again in Hama. Yum. AND vegetarian. After that I really had no energy left and retired to the hotel for the night. Mucking around in Castles is a really tough job, but someone’s gotta do it! Tomorrow: Aleppo!

Jumping at the Krak

Jumping at the Krak

Expenses:

  • Lunch: 100
  • Transportation to Hama (2 taxis, 2 buses): 280
  • Hotel: 300
  • Dinner + dessert: 60
  • Croissant: 10
  • Water: 35
  • Pepsi: 25

The next day:

  • Tour: 800
  • Room: 300
  • Croissants: 20
  • Entrance Fees (150+75): 225
  • Falafel: 35
  • Fuul: 60
  • Internet: 50

Total for Hama: 2300 SYP (Approx. 2140 INR or 48.4 USD) (OUCH!)

Posted in Syria | Tagged , , ,

Palmyra: The Bride of the Desert

Dates: 5th-6th April, 2011

That’s the tagline that Syrian Tourism uses. I wonder how the mating ritual works but well, the line is apt to say the least!

A view of the Nympheum and the rest of the ruins

A view of the Nympheum and the rest of the ruins

I had decided to break the inexplicable hold that Damascus held on me and head to Palmyra, located about 3 hrs away from Damascus (250 pounds by “VIP” bus). Luckily in Syria the distances aren’t that great, and the buses are fast (most speed limits on the highways are around 90-100 KMPH) and cheap. Also (at least now) the buses aren’t too full so you can just show up and get a ticket.

Palmyra has a fabulous history worth reading into. It is built in an oasis in the middle of the Syrian desert and as a stop on the trade routes it prospered in the early AD’s, and maintained a degree of autonomy under the Roman Empire. It was queen Zenobia (supposedly a descendent of Cleopatra) that lead Palmyra to glory and downfall by rebelling against Rome.

The ruins are right in the middle of the desert and it takes quite a lot of walking around to get into their heart. My plan was to get there in the evening, to see the ruins at sunset when they are at their splendid best, hang around till dark and the return the next morrow when the “main” (read paid) sites of the Bel Temple, the Amphitheater and the Museum are open. The admission fee for these is 500 Pounds combined but the rest of the ruins are free for anyone to explore.

The Bel Temple at Palmyra

The First View of Palmyra (the centerpiece is the Temple of Bel)

The first view of the ruins was quite breathtaking. You can read travelogues, see pictures, videos and what not; but nothing can prepare you for your first view of Palmyra’s magnificence. I walked around in a daze for an hour, talked to a Bedouin who approached me with his camel, and just sat there staring at the ruins for some time, wondering how magnificent the city must have been in its heyday. Once again there was a tour group there, but as soon as they left I had the huge area almost to myself, and I started to think how unfair it is that lesser places make so much money and get to charge hefty fees for monuments that are but a fraction of what Palmyra is.

Sandstorm in Palmyra

Sandstorm in Palmyra

My reverie was interrupted by a sudden sandstorm, and I ran towards the road. It wasn’t a major storm but I had no intention of filling my lungs with sand so I was glad when a few guys offered to drop me into town for 25 Pounds, with “We No Speak Americano” playing in their car.

In the hotel dormitory (Hotel Baal Shamin – one of the cheapest options in Palmyra) I met a really interesting English fellow who has been travelling for over 12 years, living on the money he makes by renting out his London apartment!
We walked around the town, talked about this and that, and had a fabulous Falafel with some kind of yogurt based drink for 40 pounds and headed back to the hotel. In Palmyra you can see the tourist hassle, unlike Damascus. And since the tourist stream has died down, they are all desperate for some action.

The Baal Shamin Temple, and the Citadel in the distance

The Baal Shamin Temple, and the Citadel in the distance

After dinner I headed back to the ruins for some more night time vistas of the ruins, which I sadly couldn’t capture well on camera. I walked around for a while and headed back only after I was completely chilled to the bone, and warmed myself with some coffee and internet in a hotel next door.

The next day I woke up early, headed to the ruins and this time, after visiting the Bel Temple, which is the most preserved monument of the lot, walked down right to the opposite end of the ruins at least 2 km away in the fierce sun.

A Colonnade leading to the Palace of Zenobia

A Colonnade leading to the Palace of Zenobia

At the very end of the ruins, beyond the palace of Zenobia stands the Praetorium, also the temple of Signa. I was just mucking around behind it when I saw a small opening. I enterd it, and it turned out to be a staircase leading to the top, and what a fabulous view it was! From there you can see the entire area with the ruins spread out and get an idea of the real scale of this ancient city. And I had found it by accident, all the while cursing myself for going where apparently no one ever goes! It was really the highlight of my day.

A view from the top of the temple of Signa

A view from the top of the temple of Signa

I was really tired from all this walking so I hitched a lift back into town with two really nice truckers who couldn’t speak a word of English but we still managed to communicate a bit somehow. Back at the hotel I checked out, wrote a blog entry on stolen internet and made my way to the bus station to catch a bus to Hama. My original plan was to stay for a couple of days, but the town is completely dead and I had had enough of the ruins so I decided to move on.

Honeymoon Travels

The real life Honeymoon Travels Private Limited?

The Temple of Baal Shamin

The Temple of Baal Shamin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ship of the Desert, next to the Bride of the Desert

The Ship of the Desert, next to the Bride of the Desert

Desi Backpacker at Palmyra!

Desi Backpacker at Palmyra! (T-Shirt courtesy Aditya Mukharji)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Amphitheater of Palmyra

The Amphitheater of Palmyra

The Tetrapylon at Palmyra

The Tetrapylon

 

 

 

 

 

 

The nice truckers who gave me a lift into town

The nice truckers who gave me a lift into town

The day’s expenses:

  • Breakfast: 50
  • Buses: 270 (20 in microbuses to the “Pullman” bus station in Damascus, 250 for the ticket to Palmyra)
  • Taxi in Palmyra: 100 + 25
  • Lunch: 200
  • Hotel: 300
  • Dinner: 40
  • Water: 20

The next day:

  • Entrance fee: 500
  • Motorcycle to the tombs (a total waste of money): 100

Total for Palmyra: 1605 SYP (Approx. 1500 INR or 33.8 USD)

Posted in Syria | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Bosra, More Nargileh and the Problem With Hindi

Date: 4th April 2011

This day I was definitely going to Bosra, which is an easy day trip from Damascus. But I had to finish writing the first blog post so I entered a café and didn’t budge till it was done. Then I walked out of Bab Sharqi and took a microbus to Al Samariyeh bus station. From there it was a very comfortable 2-hour bus ride to Bosra, where you are dropped right in the heart of the old city, in front of the Citadel/amphitheater.

A View of the Massive Amphitheater of Bosra

The Amphitheater of Bosra

Now a word about the amphitheater. The Romans erected these Amphitheaters all over their empire. Many survive, including the most famous one (the Colosseum in Rome), but few are more than ruins. The one in Bosra is one of the most well preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world, and was the primary reason for my visit.

The Seating Area of the Bosra Amphitheater

The Seating Area of the Bosra Amphitheater

I was not disappointed. The theater was huge, with a capacity of 6-9000 people! It’s the kind of place that makes you want to stand in the center of the arena wearing metallic clothing, put on your best Russell Crowe impression and shout – “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”. But of course there was no crowd to sit in stunned silence, except a French tour group that arrived and departed within 15 minutes and left the whole place to myself and what seemed to be a Russian couple whose sole occupation was to take pictures of the girl (who was red-haired: I always include irrelevant details) in various poses around the Amphitheater.

Corridors at Bosra Amphitheater

Corridors at Bosra Amphitheater

The rest of the ruins in town were quite remarkable as well. Jet black locally sourced stones were used for its construction and there are still people living in the few houses that remain intact in the ruins. There is some restoration work going on so I suppose they will be evicted soon. But for now, I guess they provide bragging rights to Syrian mothers.
“Hey Amira, did you know that Anas just got a promotion?”
“Sure, Zeinah, but does he park his Kia under a 2000-year old Roman arch, like Ahmed?”

The Old Town of Bosra

The Old Town of Bosra

I was able to catch the 4 PM bus back to Damascus in the nick of time, and when I got back I met with a couple of Mustafa’s colleagues before heading out to meet Helio, a Spanish guy studying Arabic in Damascus. Later Mustafa and Mustafa joined us at the Rowda, a fabulous and atmospheric old school Arabic coffee shop where locals sat around noisily talking, playing cards or backgammon, smoking nargileh and in general contributing to the genial atmosphere of the place where we ended up spending almost 3 hours just chatting away, drinking strong, sweet tea and smoking grape-flavoured Nargileh.

An Arch in Bosra Old Town

An Arch in Bosra Old Town

We ended the night with a nightcap at a small bar where an English guy ended up buying me some Arak to congratulate me for India’s Cricket World Cup Victory! There again, as always, people asked me what the hindi word for “cheers” was and were surprised when I told them there isn’t one. Yesterday the barber, after the haircut was done, said “Na’ima” and asked me what barbers in India say when the haircut is done. Huh? They have a word for THAT!? And then of course there’s “Good Night”. I mean, of course we have “shubh ratri” but no one in my nearly three decades of existence has ever said shubh ratri to me. “Turn off the bloody TV and go to bed” sounds more familiar.

So you people are cheap with words too? Animesh, it’s okay to be cheap, but don’t be cheap with words. They are free!

Right. I’ll tell that to the buggers who made the language. Now I wonder what’s the Arabic word for “This is the end of the day’s blog; now get back to work!”

Damascus New City and the Barada River

Damascus new city with the Four Seasons hotel on the left and the Barada river in the center

The day’s expenses:

  • Buses: 220 (10 each for the microbus to and from the bus station, and 100 each for the bus to Bosra and back)
  • Falafel: 50
  • Bosra Amphitheater Admission Fee: 150
  • Orange Juice: 50
  • Shawarma: 50
  • Bus: 10
  • Café: 350 (Tea + Nargileh)

Total: 880 SYP (Approx. 850 INR or 19.3 USD )

Posted in Syria | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments