Welcome to Syria
Aleppo Travel Blog› entry 545 of 658 › view all entries
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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