Day 12: Beirut - Damascus - Palmyra (1)

Damascus Travel Blog

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part of my Syrian stamp collection

Getting out of Lebanon did not go as smooth as getting into the country. We needed a new visa for Syria. Although we had asked for a multiple entry visa when we arrived in the country, it turned out we had not been given one, so we needed a new one. And that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. Being Dutch we were lucky enough to be able to purchase a visa at the border - there is a special rule for people countries that do not have a Syrian embassey, that they can buy a visa upon arrival. So that was the easy part.

The Syrian visa is not a stamp or a shiny sticker like you’ll get in other countries, no it is a collection of postage stamps you get glued into your passport. And as Syria has been under Russian control for a long time they’ve inherited some of Russia’s love for bureaucracy, so you’ll have to pass at least three office windows and as many officials to get it all done.

Basically you first go to an official who checks your passport and approves your visa request. You get a receipt, which you have to bring to another office window, which is basically an exchange office. You pay the required amount in US dollars, and receive the equivalent in Syrian pounds. These are to be given to the person at the next office window, where they will count out the required stamps for you, one red one,  a blue one, a purple one and three green ones. And they just look like stamps you use for posting letters, really. Now why they don’t make a stamp for the value of the visa is completely beyond me. Then you bring the stamps back to the first official, who will glue them into your passport, one by one, and then finishes it off with a seal and a signature.

Now all this I can laugh about. Sure, it takes time, but these kind of things are all part of the travel experience. 
However, arriving at Damascus airport, where they regularly deal with tourists, is one thing, but this border crossing is a lot less frequented by tourists, and probably less so by tourists as perky as us, because, uhm, well yeah that is what sort of got us into trouble in the first place. Not that we were ever in trouble of course, but uhm, well, yeah… :)

We got to the first office window, handed over our passport, and were told to go buy the stamps. As we had Syrian money left from before, we skipped the money exchange and went straight to the stamp selling guy, handing him the money.

“exchange receipt?”
“uhm, no, we were in Syria just three days ago, so we already had Syrian money, no need to exchange”
“you need to pay for the visa in US dollar, and then bring me the receipt of your exchange, with the money in Syrian pounds”
“but we have the right amount in Syrian pounds right here”
“but not the receipt”

The guy would not budge, so we went up to the exchange office, to request the beloved receipt. We explained how we did not have any US dollars, but we did have the right amount in Syrian pounds. “oh, that’s no problem, you can give me Syrian pounds to exchange for US dollar”
“and then?”
“then I can change those dollars into pounds for you”
“you are joking, right?”
“no, not at all. The price for a visa is 27 dollars, so with the current exchange rate, you pay me 1630 pounds each”
“but how much pounds will we get for the dollars then?”
“that will give you 1250 pounds to buy the stamps, you know, different exchange rates for buying and selling”
“but I have the amount of 1250 pounds right here in my hand, doesn’t any of this strike you as odd and overly elaborate? Can’t I simply give these pounds to the stamp guy without having to buy dollars first and losing 10 bucks in the process?”

By this time we had garnered quite an audience but it seemed we were the only ones thinking this was rather odd, and as we were driving by public bus, and we certainly didn’t want to be left stranded, we figured there was nothing to do but to swallow our pride and fork out the amount of money in dollars (fortunately we still had those) and get it exchanged into pounds at an apalling rate to obtain our visa.

In Damascus we had to take a taxi from one bus station to the other at the other end of the city - a trip which took a good hour in rush hour traffic. Once again we had a memorable encounter. The taxi driver was of the usual chatty kind, asking the textbook standard universal ‘first question asked by taxi drivers’ question “so, where are you from, man?”. We obidiently replied: “Olanda”
“Olanda? I have been there man, Amsterdam, Rotterdam...”
Yeah, yeah, here we go again, another who’s been on a drug crazed trip to Holland...
“Utrecht, Anna Paulowna...”
Anna pewhat?
“Anna Paulowna”
"What on earth do you want to go to Anna Paulowna for?"
The guy turns around to us in the back seat, smiling, saying in near-perfect Dutch “I got married there, man!”

From Damascus it was another 4 hours by bus to Palmyra, making this the longest day of travelling this entire trip.

_francine_ says:
Love the money exchange story :)
Posted on: Feb 21, 2009
pms70 says:
Hahaha, you gotta love bureaucracy!
Posted on: Feb 02, 2009
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part of my Syrian stamp collection
part of my Syrian stamp collection
photo by: Biedjee