Start of the Middle East trip

Damascus Travel Blog

 › entry 1 of 20 › view all entries
The entrance of the hostel
When trying to figure out my itinerary I decided to fly to Damascus and travel to Beirut the next day. This left me with the possibility to cancel that trip if the situation in Lebanon would get nasty. I did this because of the elections, which took place a week before me arriving. Times like that are especially tense. In the end this wasn't necessary, because there weren't any rumors of rigged elections and Hezbollah seemingly accepted their loss. During my trip fellow travellers told me even the north is safe to travel, an area which I believed was nowhere near safe enough. (Another case of travel-advice over exaggeration) The south and excpecially the refugee camps is still generally off limits, but cities like Tyre are okay to travel to.

So I ended up being in Damascus for the first night.
Since I didn't see a whole lot of Damascus/Syria on my first day, I', using this entry solely for information. Following the first night in Damascus, I spend 3 nights in Beirut and finally left Syria the 3th of July. I returned back home from Amman the 18th of July.

Planning the trip
While planning my trip I searched the internet and TravBuddy for advices and experiences I could use. For me the most comprehensive blog here on TravBuddy was the one of Biedjee.
He visited the same countries in one trip as I did, but visited a couple more cities than I did. He included a lot of history of (archeological) sites and cities, which gives a good insight of the area. (I won't be trying to redo that...) Big hands up for him and I think anybody traveling these countries should at least read his blog. Although by now it's a bit outdated, it still contains a good summary of all major places and experiences you can expect.

The flight
I made the flights to Damascus and from Amman with Royal Jordanian (RJ). You can't book flights like these in one reservation on the website of RJ, so I did it via a online agent. All in all I'm very content with RJ! This is one of the few airline where I can sit properly with my length, with still space left (I'm 1,90 meter). The food is good and the onboard screens even offer on-demand video. On the flight back home I was in one of the airbuses of Royal Jordanian that offer in-flight mobile-service, so you make calls, use GPRS or internet from your airplane seat with normal roaming rates.
simsing says:
Congratulations on the featured blog!
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012
Momentum80 says:
Congrats on the featured blog
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012
monky says:
Congrats on being featured! have a great day:)
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Instead of stating the general information, experiences and tips in the separate blog-entries, I tried to collect some of them in general entries for each country. My specific experiences are in the other entries. In this one therefore some info about Syria.

Instead of getting the visa back home as I should, I didn't do that, because I was too late and had to try my luck at the border. I had no problems whatsoever. When arriving at the airport you first have to go to the exchange office to pay for your visa (34 US$ for dutch people). (This really is an exchange office since the receipt you get, is the same as a regular exchange, but instead of getting some other money, you get your visa...) Second you have to go to the customs official at the desk for your passport check. After some questions he stamps your passport and that's it...
I followed the same procedure when returning back from Lebanon over land, although you have to visit a couple more officials. Here I also foudn that paying in different currencies isn't a problem at all. I didn't have 34 US$ exact, so I could pay with 30 US$ and the equivalent of 4 US$ in Syrian Pounds. (I guess this is one of the major changes since 2007 when Biedjee visited...)
It's different for US-citizens, since I heard from first and second hand some have to wait about 5-12 hours at the border, just to get the visa.
When you have some evidence in your passport that you visited Israel/Palastine or they find out some other way you visited/plan to visit Israel/Palastine, your chance of getting a visa is nil. The other way around you can expect extensive interrogation in Israel if you visited Syria.

Like it says in the Lonely Planet the criminality is relatively low in Syria. This is exactly what it feels like and how the people act. They put more trust in each other and you, seemingly not worrying whether you're going to pay or not. Although you have to watch out it's generally okay to put your bag besides you without tying it to you...
During my trip I haven't met a single traveler feeling different or having had any problems of the sorts. The only problems you'll come across (especially women) is harassment. For this kind of situations it's good to know a few Arabic words to get rid of them. The lonely planet has a few useful words of which "imsè" worked for me one time I needed it.

Traffic/Getting around
At first the traffic seemed a mess, but this perception all changed when I returned from Lebanon. Compared to that it seems a bit organized... Honking at each other is a way of signaling whatever you want. Whether it is to "hurry up"/"start driving"(at traffic light), "move aside", "stop at the intersection so I can pass" and so on.

Traveling around Syria is relatively easy. When you find out where the busstation is and you know your destination in Arabic (hostels are more than willing to help you) you can't go wrong much. Every city has it's minibus-station to travel to towns close-by.
Further there are the stations for big buses with air-conditioning (Pullman; Bolman in Arabic). Those are specially good options on long distances like between Damascus and Aleppo, Hama and Palmyra, distances you don;t want to spend in the hot and cramped minibuses. You get a ticket at the office (assigned seats) and put your larger luggage in the back of the bus. The best is you get a baggage-ticket so there isn't any discussion about which is yours when leaving the bus. This was never checked when I traveled the buses, but never had problems with it either.

The People/Communicating
The people are generally friendly and helpful. The language barrier is one of the biggest problems. Besides of course Arabic, few people speak English and even fewer speak French. In major cities and touristic places like Damascus and Palmyra you won't find much problems getting around with English, but especially with the locals who are less involved with things like that, it's a problem (for example getting directions on the street or communicating in the minibus or taxi). The least you can do if your Arabic isn't the best, is take care your English is more than decent. (If you add your own English problems to theirs you can imagine the difficulties.)
Getting around with (mini)bus and taxi is usually the easiest with getting some directions from the hostel. Most are more than willing to write directions in Arabic for you to show to the driver or whoever, or even teach you how to pronounce the place properly in Arabic. Usually there at least one guy at the busstation who can talk a bit English if you want to know something. This isn;t the case in (mini)buses itself, so you'll have to be lucky on that.

Paying/Getting money
In Syria I had nearly no problems getting money from ATM's with my debitcard (Maestro cards are accepted nearly everywhere). Most places have enough ATM's, usually of several different banks. Audi Bank is one of the better banks, since you can also withdraw US Dollar from their ATM's, which is nice if you need it. The best Creditcard to get around with is Visa, with on second place Mastercard. Most places that accept creditcards, accept both. I've seen nearly no signs of American Express (maybe at ATM's only), so I wouldn't bet on that one.

The general consensus is you'll get ripped of as a foreigner. In the shops in the souqs of for example Damascus the asking prices are majorly overstated. If you're a good bargainer you'll get it for about 25% of that. 50% is possible with not much of an effort. Of course when starting the bargain think of what you want to spend and work towards that.

The food is a bit different from the western food of course. You won't have much trouble finding some western-like food if you want to. The food widely available are the kabab, shwarma, falafel and of course the Arabic bread served with nearly everything. Although the food in general is cheap, you still have to be aware not being ripped of. The best prevention is to find a place where the menu includes prices, or ask about the prices beforehand. (And of course an English menu helps...)
Vikram says:
Congrats on your feautre!
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012
Ils1976 says:
Gefeleciteerd met je feature!!
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012
Suusj says:

Gefeliciteerd met je feature :-)
Goed geschreven, dus zeker verdiend :-)
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012
The entrance of the hostel
The entrance of the hostel
Damascus Hotels & Accommodations review
Perfectly located hostel
This nice little family hostel is perfectly located inside the old City. It actually is located on top of the old city wall. It therefore has two ways… read entire review
photo by: Biedjee