Welcome to Syria

Aleppo Travel Blog

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People i met here who contributed to, and improved my trip: Julia (Russia), Jameel, Ahmed, Yahya (Syria) Jan (Germany), Dmitri and Anastasia (Russia)

Taking a Syrian visa from an embassy outside of your own country is a renowned headache, with extra costs and plenty of time spent waiting for approval from Damascus. In my case i would have had to pay $95 to my embassy for an introduction letter and then 40 Euro for the visa itself. Luckily i had found out from the Thorn Tree - thorntree.lonelyplanet.com - website that although the official stance was that i needed a visa in advance, this wasn't really the case in practice.

We had opted to cross the Bab al-Hawa border, which was halfway between Antakya and Aleppo, and is the most popular crossing for overland travellers.

All that was required was to answer a couple of questions about what my job was and which hotel i would stay in and then a visa was issued on the spot for $52. It felt like there should be some catch, but there really wasn't, so just turning up had saved us a lot of time, money and effort!

Once through customs a man gave us a lift to the main road and then a four wheel drive let us jump in the back for a ride to where minivans were congregating to take people to Aleppo. Normally the price of the trip would be 35SYP ($0.75) for the hour long journey, but we agreed to pay 50SYP each as we had our bags taking up an extra seat. Having come from Turkey, it was a welcome change to return to a country with such cheap transportation.

First impressions of the country were positive, as the people had already helped us at every given chance.

In terms of the landscape, it definitely felt like been back in an undeveloped country, as the buildings were run down, the streets dirtier and dustier and the cars often looked like death traps. For some people this would be off putting, but for me i find it characterful. It was enjoyable to watch the Arab men wearing their red and white scarfs, driving clapped out motorbikes, or chador clad women bustling along the footpath.

It was 16.00 by the time the van pulled into Aleppo and our driver kindly phoned our couchsurfing host Jameel to tell him to come and meet us. Ten minutes later he arrived with four other foreigners; Jan from Germany, Dmitri and Anastasia from Russia and Allen from Serbia. It turned out that Jameel's Mum was actually Russian, so he spoke fluent Russian, as did everyone else except from Jan and I.

Thus Jameel gave descriptions and explanations of everything we would see in Russian and then Julia translated it for the English speakers.

The plan was to leave our bags in a shop, where Jameel knew the owner, and then have a look around before it got dark. The shop was located in the heart of Souq Al-Atarin, which is the main covered bazaar in Aleppo, comprised of atmospheric streets which no doubt house the same stalls that they have done for the past 800 years. There was a real vibrancy about the place, with vendors touting all kinds of products, large carts been wheeled down the narrow alleys, aromas drifting from bags of spices and even one old man riding his donkey home after a hard days work.

Entering through Bab Antakya (the main gate), it became apparent that Jameel seemed to know everyone, and due to his contacts he got to show us some really fascinating things, which were way off the tourist radar.

Firstly we went to a soap factory where they make 100% natural products, something which Aleppo is famous for. We were given an explanation of the manufacturing process and then went to look at a restored but still working caravanserai. Jameel knew the man with the keys to get on to the roof, so we went up to get some nice panoramic views over the Old City, as the light slowly began to fade. The last port of call was Al-Adlliyah Mosque, which was atmospherically lit and although it had a less ornate interior to those that we were used to seeing in Turkey, it was nevertheless pleasing on the eye.

Returning to collect our bags from the shop, we were invited to have tea in a beautiful small room at the back of the shop. After this Jameel took us into another room where there were traditional Syrian costumes and had us all dress up in them.

It was great fun and it felt like we had already crammed several days worth of things into just a few hours!

Whilst the original plan had been to stay at Jameel's house, it turned out that his parents had received some unexpected guests, but his friend Ahmed had kindly stepped up and volunteered to host us, even though he wasn't a couchsurfing member! There was just enough time to grab a couple of delicious shwarmas (kebab sandwiches) and then we caught a taxi home. I was gob smacked how cheap the ride was; only 30SYP ($0.65) for a 10 minute trip, i was going to like Syria!

Ahmed was a nice guy and we spent an hour chatting to him before we all decided to go out to drink tea and smoke nargile (water pipe).

Jameel chose a very local place, which was frequented by old men toking on their 50SYP ($1.10) pipes and supping their 25SYP ($0.55) cups of tea. An Iraqi refugee with a huge smile served us, and to complete the setting we were brought a backgammon board. We were joined by the people from earlier in the day and also another four couchsurfers turned up.

At 00.30 the meeting drew to a close, but Ahmed had received a phone call and was now unable to host us. Luckily a Couchsurfer called Yahya stepped forward and offered us a room at his house, even though he wasn't going to be there the following day! Thus we caught a taxi back to Ahmed's to collect our bags and then went on to Yahya's apartment. The three of us were feeling a bit peckish and even though it was 02.

00 there were still take away stalls open, so we bought a whole roast chicken, which came with fries, rice, hummus, bread and salad and only cost 325SYP ($7). After eating we chatted for a bit longer and finally hit the hay after 04.00, concluding a fantastic introductory day to Syria.

We had arranged to meet everyone at 10.45 on Friday morning to go and get breakfast together, before heading to Qala'at Samaan - the Basilica of St Simeon. I think there ended up been 12 of us - Julia, Jameel, Ahmed, Anas, Mouthana, Allen, Jan, Dmitri, Anastasia, Mohamed, a Syrian girl and Me - a mixture of local and foreign couchsurfers, and some other travellers from a Hostel where Jameel often hung out. Breakfast was actually fantastic, a type of sweet porridge that was green in colour and came with strips of thin cheese and bread.

Now maybe it doesn't sound too appetising, but the fact that every bowl was clean when we finished served testament to just how good it was!

With breakfast out of the way, Jameel led us back to the souqs for half an hour to show us the Al-Qiqan Mosque, which had ancient hieroglyphs on the wall. There were also nice views over Aleppo from here and the minibus terminal was close by, so we went there next to secure a van to take us out to the Basilica. As there were so many of us we just hired the whole vehicle for the hour long journey and this only cost us 30SYP ($0.65) each, to go right to the entrance of the site.... continued on next blog entry

sylviandavid says:
What a great day! I am looking forward to the pictures.... I can't believe how many really local things you did... The view from the roof sounded so beautiful... nice blog.... Be Safe! Sylvia
Posted on: Jun 12, 2009
Biedjee says:
Say hello to Aleppo from me ;-)
Posted on: Feb 28, 2009
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photo by: Stigen