Sandbags to Sand Dunes Expedition 2010

40,000km overland in an Land Rover

Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

The delights of Syria and Jordan

Posted by jamesandpolls on March 7, 2010

We last left you hanging in Aleppo, a town in Northern Syria and we were heading south to our first camping experience . . .

Crac de Chevaliers is a crusader castle in Western Syria, nestled in the gap between two mountain ranges running North Southand as such was a key position to hold as whoever had control of the gap had control over inland Syria (or whatever it was then). In fact it was never taken by force. It is in very good nick and like all tourist attractions Syrian is open to the public to walk all over and enjoy.  Rather annoyingly not much info though so had to make up the stories ourselves as we walked through the cavernous halls and battlements. It was here that we also met our first Saga tour from the UK. Not the last that week and we certainly expect more.

Crac was also where we broke our camping virginity.  As we pulled up to a restaurant which advertised camping in its car park, there was a mixed sense of dread and excitement. Here was the point which would turn this holiday into a proper adventure but would also signal the end of hotels and guesthouses (however basic), hot showers and restaurant food. It was with a sense of relief therefore that we saw we shared this ‘campsite’ with another overlander. They turned out to be a German and Swiss couple who had spent the last 15 months on the road covering West and Eastern Africa and were nearing the end of their journey, her to go and be a book binder in Cairo and him to return to Switzerland and who knows what.

I would like to say that our camping was a swift, efficient, military style affair but it could not be further from the truth.  As the German/Swiss couple watched on with amused grins we proceeded to completely unpack EVERYTHING from PAX. Boxes, duvets, pillows, food, cooker still in its box, and chairs still in their plastic lay strewn around the car park. We had only put up the rooftent once before, never opened the cooker and had packed everything in such a hurry that we didn’t really know where it all was.  We eventually got ourselves sorted out and had a terrific night albeit bloody freezing in our tent. It was also incredibly useful to get recent news, campsite locations and border crossing info from Jonas.  Packing up the next morning was no more efficient and several re-packs later we headed to the Roman ruins of Palymera in the Eastern deserts of Syria.

I think I should write a little here on Syrian driving. As we spend quite a lot of the time on the road one can not help but notice the difference between cultures in their driving habits but none has caused me to comment (except perhaps the Turks in Istanbul) before the Syrians but I figure I would not be doing the country justice without a comment on this part of their personality. As far as I can see the Syrians do nothing in a hurry. They can eat for hours, smoke for days, one fag after the other and talk for Syria. The only exception I can see is driving. They only do it in 5th gear, maximum speed, careering in all directions over pot holed roads. The only thing that might cause them to stop concentrating entirely on going fast is to concentrate on beeping their horns. Not angry beeps, although I think sometimes I got a few of those, but beeps to say hi, its me, I’m here, coming through, no you go first, no I’m going first, out of my way I’m in a hurry, I’m hungry and in a hurry etc. . . it is another language which at first made me turn at every beep in a very British way thinking it was something I was doing wrong but soon got used to and then joined in. But with no knowledge of the language I often got it wrong and would beep and go or beep and not go and get it all wrong which ends up with more beeps (the angry ones). It also is surprising that after a week driving in the country and having gone through probably 30 or 40 roundabouts Polls and I still have no idea who gives way to whom.  We would just edge through the teeming, speeding traffic (beeping naturally) and hope for the best. Driving in Syria – crazy, noisy and exhausting but incredibly enjoyable.

It was a great drive to Palmyra through the desert and after a short picnic lunch of bread and vache-qui-rit, which has a monopoly on cheese, we arrived. Palmyra is one of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world and was great fun with several acres of ruins to climb over and a castle to walk up to with a great view over the whole area. It was also large enough to soak up all the tourists and so did not feel too crowded (another Saga tour – go for it the 60 somethings) as we trundled round. We camped for two nights, again with some overlanders (an Australian couple) who are doing a very similar trip to us. It was great to share stories and ideas and it also gave us a sense of security sharing the campsite with others.

From Palmyra it was to Damascus, the capital. Where we stayed for two nights (the first with Jonas who we had met in Crac). Damascus won our ‘best souk of the Middle East so far’ award with miles of covered markets selling everything from very racy lingerie to metal stuff and ice cream. None of the ‘Hello my friend come in and buy my carpet’ that we got in Turkey and you could dare to glimpse in a stall without the owner grabbing you and forcibly pushing a teletubby on a tricycle into your hand giving you a ‘good price’ of  $8 for it (which we got in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul)  I think the tourism minister has actually decreed that stall holders in Syria should not do this and it makes for a much more pleasurable experience. The Old City is also charming with a Jewish and Christian quarter to compliment the Muslim majority. There is also a fantastic mosque, one of the most beautiful in the Middle East (apparently) which was a pretty amazing and Polls and I enjoyed chilling in the huge marbled courtyard watching the comings and goings of this working mosque / tourist attraction / children’s playground.

The diesel in Syria is very cheap which was a great relief after the £1.30 per litre diesel in Turkey but as a proviso the Syrians charge foreign drivers with a diesel tax which is bought by the week. This is an expensive tax, which meant that after we had filled a week in Syria we felt it wise to push south to Jordan. We had had a great time in Syria. The people are incredibly friendly, they stop you in the street to chat, ask where you are from and then utter the one English word that they all know ‘Welcome’. It has its issues, of course, it’s quite poor and pretty dirty by our standards but all this you soon get used to and what shines through is the hustle and bustle of everyday life the amazing scenery and the friendliness, oh, and the driving of course. It was also where we started to camp, developed and honed our camping skills and by Damascus, I can honestly say, were bona fide happy campers. We will have happy memories of out first Arab country. We were looking forward to Jordan though, expecting more historic sights, great people and some sun as Syria had been unseasonably wet and cold and there was not a hint of a tan yet – very important to Polls!

Jordan is more modern and more westernised than Syria but we have continued to get a tremendous welcome wherever we go. This is helped by the fact that Jonas has given us some Arabic lettering that now adorns PAX on either side beneath the driver’s and passenger’s windows which says ‘Friendship between Countries’ and it has had a real effect with people pointing at the writing and giving us the thumps up (or car beep).  The sun is also out and it has been 25 degrees for the last five days, welcome relief from rain. After a brief stop over in Amman we headed for the Dead Sea where we had two days to convalesce before moving South. As the GPS in PAX registered -407m below sea level we enjoyed the stop-over immensely. We visited the location where Jesus was baptised (Bethany beyond the Jordan) and looked across the Jordan River to Jericho and, at night, the lights of Jerusalem feeling very Biblical. We also hung up our tourist shoes for a bit, got the towel out and soaked up the rays. This adventuring lark is hard work!

Across the Jordan River was the West Bank, just 10 metres away (the River Jordan is no bigger then theKennet that runs through Marlborough!) adorned with Israeli and Palestinian flags. The area is a militarised zone and the site has only recently opened to tourists. Reading the local papers here you really get a sense how the Arab-Israeli issue dominates the political scene here. Indeed the only cross word that has been said to us so far was in Amman, in a falafel store by a Palestinian eye doctor who we met who blamed the British for the situation although he laid no blame on Polls and I!  I have always been ignorant of this complicated predicament but I think now I will pay it closer attention as we have passed so close to the area and now understand it better.

After 2 days R&R in the Dead Sea including the obligatory float, which I might say is a very strange experience but great fun, we headed for Petra. This was a beautiful drive along the King’s Highway with the Dead Sea to our right about 1000m below us, and the higher ground of inland Jordan to our left. The land also changed from quite fertile to arid to desert. Petra was fantastic and surely deserves its accolade as one of the seven modern wonders of the world. The only negative point about Petra was the hoards of people. It was quite hard to let the majesty of the treasury sink in with about 500 tourists milling about and kids selling postcards etc. . (they even sell rocks which are liberally scattered around the whole site – not much of a start up cost and perhaps a launch point to go onto postcard selling?). To get around this Polls and I got up at 5.30 the next day and got to the gates of the Siq (canyon leading into Petra) as the doors opened at 6am. We were the first in and had the whole of Petra to ourselves, not one other person, for an hour. As we trundled back up the Siq at about 8am we met the early tour groups coming down, slightly bemused that we were coming the other way.  So the first and only Tourist Top Tip – if you are going to Petra, get up at dawn and get in first –it’s amazing!

After the delights of Petra we sped down to Wadi Rum for our first night of bush camping. It was also our first real off road driving experience, more of that later! We set of into the Wadi, soon getting nicely lost amongst the soaring rock formations. After setting up camp we watched the sun set with a beer from our last hotel that we had been saving, bliss! (We have a fridge in the back of PAX). The next day (today) we headed of to Aqaba, following in the footsteps of TE Lawrence as he stormed the city however our approach was less dramatic. Following a desert track way out of the official Wadi Rum area we managed to get stuck, no, not in the sand, but in a puddle! This must be the only puddle in the whole of Southern Jordan and we found it. It was clogging; slippery clay and we spent a joyous 2 hours in the morning heat trying in vain to dig us out – no joy. There was no way I was going to ask for help so Polls had to phone the visitors centre and get someone to tow us out – we were bottomed out by this stage (the bottom of the car resting on the ground all wheels fully sunk in). Oh how the guy laughed when he saw what had happened. I can’t imagine he has pulled out many cars from puddles in that area before! I am pleased to say that even as I handed over 20JD through gritted teeth for 1 minutes work Polls and I managed to keep morale up and laugh at the situation because . . .

We knew that we had this sunset to look forward to at the end of the day in Aqaba where we are now. We have two days here before we head of to Egypt across the Gulf of Aqaba by boat (if we drive through Israel we cant get through Sudan). As we sit here looking at the sun setting over Africa it is feeling pretty cool that we have driven this far already, but with only 8000km on the clock we know that we have a lot left to go…!

I would like to thank His Majesty King Abdullah II, a former 13th / 18th Royal Hussar (which is one of the Light Dragoons antecedent Regiments) and now Colonel-in-Chief of the Light Dragoons, for his hospitality and generosity whilst we are in Jordan which is much appreciated by both Polls and me. Thank you.

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Yabba Dabba Doo Time in Turkey

Posted by jamesandpolls on February 22, 2010

P. My 29th birthday will definitely be one to remember. Thank you all for your kind messages, it was great to receive them especially the ones on the sat phone! My hammam (Turkish bath) in Istanbul was a real experience. I came out squeaky clean with very soft skin – but with lasting memories of very overweight half naked sweaty Turkish women everywhere scrubbing and being scrubbed (didn’t know where to look – do they know what exercise is?). The morning of my birthday we were up at 5am before Istanbul awoke – we sailed out of the city – over the bridge into Asia and headed south to Goreme, a small village in the Cappadocia Region of central Turkey.

The drive took us through the vast empty plains, with only the occasional village in the distance. The landscape reminded me of Mongolia – miles of semi arid grasslands which I expect stretch across to the ‘Stans. We stopped for lunch by a salt lake (60% salt the locals proudly told us) and met our first of many coach loads of Chinese tourists (its Chinese new year and it seems like the whole of China has chosen Turkey for their holiday). We arrived in Goreme early evening – in time to see the sun set over a landscape covered in rock formations resembling what the guide books call ‘fairy chimneys’, but we couldn’t help thinking they were more willy-like (they must have got the name love valley from somewhere!) It does feel like you are in a fairy tale land, little cave houses carved into the rock everywhere you look. People in this region have been living like this for over 2000 years – many of them now have turned into guesthouses – so we got to live like the Flintstones for a few days. We went to bed early that night, thinking that my big day was over for another year. However, the guesthouse owner saw from my passport it was my birthday. We were both woken from a deep sleep at what seemed like 4 in the morning by a voice saying there was a problem with our land rover – we both thought the worse, stepped outside of our cave only to be greeted by 2 Korean, 2 Chinese and 2 Spaniards (who we had never met before) singing happy birthday behind a huge cake! Brilliant.

The following day we spent exploring the region, each area having a slightly different type of rock formation. We felt very privileged to have our own set of wheels so didn’t need to rely on tour buses to see the different sites with 1000 Chinese tourists – although our first ‘off roading’ experience wasn’t too smooth when we very nearly got stuck in the clay – 2 metres of road! We visited an open air museum, the comment of the day goes to James, who wanted to know the date of one of the rock hewn churches we visited, I answered ‘11th Century’, and he replied “AD or BC?”..oh dear.

Our next stop was Antakya (or Antioch to Gladiator fans) in southern turkey near the Syrian border. On the way we visited an underground city, where Christians in the 12th Century AD hid from attacking Muslims. 7 floors deep, it is a maze of small rooms and tunnels, very claustrophobic, I can’t imagine what it was like living down there with 30,000 other people and animals for up to 3 months at a time (quite smelly I should think).  Heading South the Turkish landscape changed from vast plains to wooded valleys, then lush fields of orange trees by the Mediterranean. We could also feel the temperature rising yippee. Antakya is a town steeped in history, it was the Roman gateway to Arabia, and until the 1930’s it was part of Syria, giving it a distinct Arab feel. This was a good taster for our entry into Syria yesterday. The border crossing wasn’t as smooth as we’d hoped – very congested but we managed to find an English speaking, slightly shifty looking but very friendly Syrian who worked for the government to use his contacts and help us get everything stamped, jump the car queues with no painful car searching– sorry to all those Turkish crossing that day, it’s a wonder what a little backhander can do.

From the border in Northern Syria we headed straight to Aleppo. We are now officially in crazy driving land – the Syrian drivers make the Indians look law abiding – (virtually!). James did a great job driving into the centre of Aleppo dodging goats, lorries, carts, people, and teamed with my perfect navigating skills (!)we managed to find our little hotel down what seems like Aleppo’s Tyre Souk! Aleppo is an ancient, bustling city full of souks, delicious food and friendly Syrians. We have people shouting ‘Welcome to Syria’ at us –but we’re not hassled at all. Tourism has not taken off here, PR is not one of Syria’s strong points. We visited the souks today, you can buy everything from nuts to plastic teletubbies. We passed a man blow torching a sheep’s head on the pavement, and one man selling pashminas shouted “I am the only gay in the village” at us then proceeded to chat up James, shouting ‘Bye gorgeous’ to him when we left, so funny.

We leave Aleppo tomorrow to head to Crac de Chevailers, a castle in the desert about 3 hours south where we will at last, begin our camping experience and sleep in the roof tent!

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