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Friday, 27 May 2011

Syria Part 2 - Palmyra & Aleppo

(Continued from Syria Part 1 - Damascus) 

The following day (Monday 20th December 2010), we left Damascus and made for Palmyra, the home of some pretty impressive ruins. Some ran off to explore and get their snaps whilst others chose to chill and get some grub at a local was after eating lunch here that we stumbled across the chefs hard at work preparing dinner (dismembering a sheep) in the car park.

Pretty surreal build up to the middle of the desert, in a majority Islamic country, Paddy dons his Santa hat in the sun.

Dinner being prepared for the evening punters in the restaurant car park. Thankfully we were eating off the truck that night.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, by this point in the trip, a lot of us were fatigued by all these ancient monuments and ruins, so I’ll let the photos do the talking as I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I would have done had I visited the place in a single, isolated trip.

As Ish, Son, Ronald and I walked around the ruins, Kimbo and Berbs came out of nowhere on this bike.

Herbie Berbie Rides Again

Kimbo Slice


The highlight of our time in Palmyra was actually the place we stayed at: we slept in a Bedouin tent; everybody scattered out on the floor; on mats and in their sleeping bags and with an awesome furnace in the middle. After a nice bowl of warming chicken soup (cooked up by Dan and Yoich) we got cosy huddled in the tent, those that were quick enough managed to secure a place close to the in-tent stove. The chimney poking out through the middle of the tent only did half a job and every so often we had to let the thick smoke out of the door…more for the fear of one of those hands coming out at us like in that movie “The Fog” than anything else.

Our stay there was a very cool experience, albeit slightly marred by one of the slimy members of staff there who tried taking liberties with a few of the girls.

We left Palmyra relatively late in the morning and arrived in Aleppo in the evening for our stay at The Spring Flower Hostel. It was a kind of gothic little place nestled in between hardware stores down a side street. It had dimly lit, stone corridors set at jaunty angles and the communal area at the top of the building had a section cordoned off (by little more than a curtain) which doubled up as a cheap dorm, with even cheaper mattresses for our lot. It was extremely basic, and there was nothing to block out the noise from other guests watching tv or playing cards in the communal area…but we didn’t mind.

The "dorm" we stayed in at The Spring Flower Hostel. Very cheap, very basic.

The communal area - right next to the dorm.

The (locked) hostel library.

What we did mind was the most anal hostel manager in the world (…and yes, I do realise the sort of traffic I might get arriving at my blog having searched for “anal hostel”). He was an apparently educated and well-travelled man who could speak French, English and Arabic (and probably more); he was occasionally pleasant but he ruled his staff with an iron fist. They couldn’t fart without his permission…let alone make us an early morning cup of coffee (careful not to get those two confused)…but how could they, the manager was the only one with the key to the fridge/till/bar/bookshelves/coffee-maker…and he didn’t arrive til 10am every morning anyway.

To be fair, I don’t think his staff minded being repressed as, when they weren’t asleep in the communal area, they were busying themselves yawning. Seriously, back home being thick means you might only have a couple of G.C.S.Es but I don’t think these guys could even spell G.C.S.E.

Our first night in Aleppo happened to fall on Allison’s (31st) birthday so we ventured out for a bite to eat. After the obligatory decision-making calamity that comes with a large group we ended up at a cosy little restaurant with our own room cordoned off from the riff-raff (or, were we the riff-raff being cordoned off from everybody else?).

Our wee room in the Syrian restaurant...separated from the riff-raff. (Photo courtesy of Allison Harvey.)

The food was good there and I’d opted for some kind of cherry-sauced kebab, which despite being very rich, was inhaled in a matter of seconds. Back at the hostel, we all worked stealthily to retrieve Allison's birthday cake (bought in a town we'd stopped in that day and stored in the truck all day) and keep Allison distracted as we put the candles (READ: fireworks) in place.

This was my (blurry) distraction shot. I got Alli to pose for a photo as behind me, the rest of the gang hurried to get the candles lit on her birthday cake.

I spent the next two days (our entire time in Aleppo) pretty much tucked up in a mattress feeling rough. Not sure if it was the food, or the general feverishness that had come and gone every now and then over the past few months, but I was pretty incapacitated. Lying in bed ill for the next couple of days, I came to realise one thing...I was probably born upside down...

My feet smell...
...and my nose runs.

Before we left the hostel, I had one last run-in with the owner: as you've probably seen from the photo above, the hostel library was very well stocked - albeit with multiple (photocopied) versions of the same book. We were evidently at a regular stop for overlanders going both north and south as there were guides (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Bradt etc) to both the Middle East and African countries. As we had a few copies of the LP East Africa guide on the truck and didn't need it anymore, I thought I'd enquire about the hostel's openly advertised 'book-trading/buying' scheme.

Once the owner had located his keys to the bookshelves, he donned his - no word of a lie - special, rubber, book-handling gloves and got me down some books he though would be a fair swap for my almost pristine condition East Africa guide. When I suggested a straight swap for his used, one edition out-of-date Turkey guide, he snorted at me and said I'd need to buy that off him for 15 EUROS...oh, and give him the book too! When I explained that that was more expensive than it would cost in the shops he simply said, "well, I suggest you go buy it from a shop...if you can find this book in one here." Man, this guy was so anal he'd have made Elton John blush with inadequacy. Thankfully, we were moving on.

I don’t want to make a sweeping statement about a city I hardly saw, but the impression I got from the others was that apart from an old castle/citadel here and there, there was not much to get excited about and it certainly didn’t compare to Damascus. Damascus seemed full of character, a heedy blend of the old and the new, of east and of west whereas Aleppo seemed more like an urban jungle. I should have found time to at least visit the Citadel of Aleppo, but feeling under the weather was just the excuse I needed to disguise my lack of motivation to see yet more old's sad but it's true.

The view of the "urban jungle" from the roof of the Spring Flower Hostel.

Syria – our short stay with you flew by but don’t lose sleep over it: you’ll definitely have the pleasure of my company again, even if only in Damascus.

Next stop, Turkey.