Rip off Hotels and a lovely Old Town
Damascus Travel Blog› entry 556 of 658 › view all entries
Our bus from Palmyra dropped us off at the Harasta Garage, which was quite a distance from the centre of Damascus. Now the reason that people buy a GUIDE book is to be helped out and GUIDED with issues such as how to get from the terminal to the town centre. Lousy Planets expert authors gave the advice to take a minibus or a taxi, with no mention as to which numbered minibus.
Faced with literally hundreds of vans in front of us, what chance did we have if we didn't even know the right number!? By some random stroke of luck a driver of a big green bus #25 stopped and asked us where we wanted to go. Thankfully he spoke English and his bus was going to the place where we needed to go, so he helped us on and told us when to get off, which was great of him.
Once off the bus we stupidly relied on the shitty guidebook to further help us, by following its thoroughly diabolical map. This obviously helped us as much as a piece of pork would help a Muslim, so we ended up relying on the kindness of a young Palestinian boy called Jamal, who managed to locate the street where the LP's recommended budget hotels were situated.
Sadly some hotels and guest houses use their LP listing to completely abuse travellers, by hiking the prices up once they get a mention and grossly overcharging for the service that they provide. But Damascus' backpacker Hotels have taken this to a new level, by cooperating to fix the prices of all the Hotels, so you have to pay a set amount, regardless of which one of the three that you stay in.
The culprits of this scam are Ghazal House, Al-Rabie House and Al Haramain Hotel and i have to strongly advise you to stay the hell away from them! The new price that has been fixed is DOUBLE what had been previously listed and was DOUBLE of what you would have to pay to stay anywhere else in the City.
A quick comparison in prices: The three rip off hotels provide two beds in a room, with SHARED bathroom for 1200SYP ($26) a night. There is no towel, soap and you don't even get a top sheet on the bed, so you sleep under dirty blankets. Hotels around Martyrs Square provide a double room, en-suite, tv, towels and soap for 600SYP ($13).
The manager of Ghazal House knew that we wanted somewhere cheaper and smugly sent us to a fourth Hotel in the same street as theirs, which was in on the price fixing. He acted surprised when we told him they wanted the same amount, but this was his way of trying to kid us that all the cheap Hotels in Damascus charge 1200SYP for a room.
Ok, enough of these establishments, and back to the positive aspects of Damascus! It was pretty much dark when we went out to sightsee, so we opted to have an early Dinner, which was a massive sandwich and a plate of fries and then we walked to the Old City. A photo of Bashar Al-Assad graced the Citadel walls, which marked the entrance into the labyrinth of souqs. Assad is the current President of Syria and its impossible to go more than a few minutes without seeing his face plastered on a a wall, billboard, shop window, souvenir magnet etc etc.
The vibrant Souq al-Hamidiyya was filled with shoppers and all of them were carrying ice creams, so we went in search of the shop that was selling them. 'Bekdach' was the name of the store and its pistachio topped ice creams (50SYP/$1) were superb, explaining why so many people were munching on them. The Souq terminated through the Western Temple Gate, which opened up onto a square with Umayyad Mosque at its centre. We sat scoffing our ice creams whilst sitting on a step and admiring the illuminated building.
We spent another hour or so wandering around the Old Town and whilst i found it thoroughly charming, there was something else that caught my attention even more than the lovely architecture. For some reason a chador clad woman was wearing a pair of sunglasses in the middle of the evening! I mean, get serious, what the hell is that all about!? I decided that i needed to drink a few beers, sometimes this crazy World that we live in strikes me as a little too surreal!
The following day we checked out of our Hotel, after taking a shower that either burned you or froze your balls off.
We spent our day back in the Old Town, walking through the Souqs and trying not to get crushed by the countless shoppers. Proceedings weren't really helped when a group of men on horses came parading into the square in front of Umayyad Mosque! I can't really tell you what it was all about, but i do know that there was very nearly a nasty accident as the horses were totally spooked by the huge crowds and nearly trampled some young kids.
We entered Umayyad Mosque for midday prayer, and the place was jam packed with worshipers and children on a rampage, one of whom stole and hid Julia's shoe! The Mosque is one of the Worlds earliest Islamic structures, dating from 705AD and it is beautifully adorned with Golden Mosaics on several of the courtyard walls.
Another worthwhile site that we visited in the afternoon was the Azem Palace (10SYP – or 1500SYP without student card), which had a dozen or so rooms that had been turned into small museums with dioramas. For some reason photography was forbidden within the rooms, but allowed in the courtyard. The interior and exterior of the structure was extravagantly decorated, with the traditional black and white Damascus style tiles prominent throughout.
Our couchsurfer in Beirut called Ahmad had agreed to host us a couple of days early, so we collected our baggage and went to the Baramke Garage, only to find that the place had closed down! Thankfully a friendly old man told us that buses to Beirut now left from what sounded like 'Somaree Garage', which was a 20 minute drive out into the suburbs.
Exiting the country we had a real shock when we found out that we had to pay a 500SYP ($11) departure tax, which is the first time that i can ever recall having to pay a departure tax at a land border. On top of this the officer told us that we didn't have an entrance card that we should have been given on the Turkey border. For this crime he wanted another 100SYP ($2) from both of us, but i refused to pay it and in the end he just told us to pass through.
Syria has had its highs and lows, but we will be coming back after we look around Lebanon, so i will certainly reserve my judgment for the time been. In general the people have been pretty kind to us, although many of the children were a pain in the bum, and the touts also got really annoying at times.