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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)