Hello Damascus!

After arriving and crashing out at a hostel somewhere in the lights of Damascus I awoke to find myself in a peaceful Arabic style house that was now a hostel. The Al Rabie hostel is one of the oldest remaining Arabic style houses in Damascus with a pleasant courtyard and fountain off which rooms are to be found. After a traditional breakfast of flat bread and olives it was out into the city in my first day in Al Sham (the nickname for Damascus meaning The Sun). I was in the Souq Sarouja area, just outside the old city, in an area that was once a graveyard of the city but out of necessity it became the sadlers' district before now it is a residential district. I wandered through the cool streets until I hit a large intersection where a lone policeman was directing the torrent of traffic streaming in all directions. With expert waves of his orange baton and a few whistles he was able to tame the traffic to his will, with any car disobeying being given a ticket, fine and a shout (presumably as some stress relief for the police officer). After wandering around trying to find the British Council and the French Institute for potential Arabic lessons (but to no avail) I found myself in the leafy University of Damascus Science Campus.

After asking some students where the University Language Centre was, I was whisked away in their car up the motorway to the Humanities Campus. Here my new friends took me to the administrative office to sort out my Arabic course and made sure I had everything, even buying me soft drinks before they left. The kindness and openness was only just one of many such events that I have experienced while being here. After eating falafal on Martyrs' Square (named after those killed by the French in 1925) we met up with the 2 Spanish backpackers (first met in Adana). They brought 2 friends who lived in the old city. After tea we all ventured out into the night and the lights and narrow passages of the old city. After walking down the main covered souq we arrived by the Ummayid Mosque - so vast I didn't realize it was it. I just assumed it was a city wall! Ate in a great restaurent with a huge courtyard, having a traditional meal and good conversation. One of the Syrian guys said he could fix us a house to rent and would meet with me tomorrow. After much food and talk I headed to the hostel through the still busy souq. What a first day!

The next few days were a whirlwind of seeing houses, signing contracts in dark alleyway offices, meeting with smiling lawyers, trying to remember where my house was, getting lost and attempting to get money out of the Syrian banking system. But I did get a house, it is in the Christian quarter of the old city between two gates, Bab Touma (Thomas Gate) and Bab Sharki (East Gate) in a simple comfortable house. It is a two and a half floor house with roof access giving amazing views of Jebel (mountain) Quassiuon and the other mountains around Damascus. At night the side of Jebel Quassiuon becomes lit up like Christmas lights with large numbers of slightly different coloured lights that create a twinkling effect. The house has a sitting room, hallway, utility room and toilet on the ground floor (complete with Christian Orthodox iconography - well it is a Christian house after all). Upstairs my room has a low ceiling and the longest bed in the house and no windows. It's a bit like a cave but I figured I am not spending all my time there so it is OK. Every morning I emerge and head up the stairs to the "dining room cum sun room cum kitchen". From here the rest of the kitchen, toilet and other bedrooms, randomly with bunk beds rather than beds, can be accessed.

The house was so dirty that my housemates and I had a go at cleaning it. It was going well until we tried to clean the upstairs toilet. I lifted up the grill on the floor to clean it and noticed it was moving so I dropped it naturally (being a bit of a wuss) and made a manly noise. From the grill and the hole below, 20 to 30 cockroaches poured out onto the floor. I and my housemate systematically carried out a shock and awe tactic of "taking care" of them. Only after we had carried out our mass genocide we realised in Syria it was Martyrs' Day that day (remembering those who died in the October war with Israel). We had created martyrs on Martyrs Day! After the cleaning was almost done and the house felt almost like home. Damascus was now a home rather than a destination.

The Cheap Man's Orient Express

The last few weeks have been a mixture of excitement, worrying and lots of coffee. I arrived in Istanbul late in the evening, raining hard and with a grumpy taxi man. We sped through the empty wet streets from the airport with the Bosphorus to our right, and the Blue Mosque coming in and out of view. After arriving at the Orient Hostel in the street behind the Blue Mosque, I crashed loudly and ungracefully into an 8 bed dorm with 2 large snoring Greeks for company, and the room feeling not too dissimilar to the inside of an oven!

My first day in Istanbul was spent wandering around the meandering streets near the Blue Mosque. Outside this impressive building I attempted to get past the throng of snake charmers (without snakes!), street sellers and a man dressed as Mehmet II to get into the courtyard infront of the Blue Mosque. It felt a very long way from home looking up at the domed roof, minarets and blue sky. Inside, the red carpet contrasted greatly with the white and blue geometric patterns of the roof, but sadly the atmosphere was lost to the masses of tourists on their own sightseeing pilgrimage to Istanbul. Across from a lovely park is the grandiose Hagia Sofia (a church, then a mosque, now a museum). Inside the cavernous interior of Hagia Sofia low strung lights and large placards with Arabic script stood out against the dull background. It was so big it was almost hard to take it all in. Exploring the narrow passages and the upper levels, I was distracted every now and then by the large interior, the Byzantine mosaics and the gold decorated paintings that had been discovered when the building was restored.

The Grand Bazaar was my next stop in my wandering. Walking through this market was an experience with sellers of Turkish delight, spices and tea in the more touristy end, and more exotic items such as mannequins, sequin-studded phones and surplus army gear in the more local end! After getting tickets to Adana by sleeper train (being told it would take 16 to 18 hours) by the station on the banks of the Bospherous I headed back the Blue Mosque to spend the evening around there. The next day I spent 4 hours walking around incredible Topkei Palace, home of the Ottoman Empire for over 500 years. Here I saw amazing views of Istanbul along with the lavish decoration and some relics of the Prophet and his companions. The relics included several locks of the Prophet's hair, a wooden bow and staff (all in excellent preservation especially after at least 1300 years!). At sunset I headed across the Bosphorus on a ferry to the Hydrapassa Station and boarded the sleeper train that would be my home for the next day.

The cabin was simple - two beds, a sink and a table, but for 30 pounds you cannot complain. The Turkish countryside was mountainous in some parts, flat as a pancake in others, but everywhere had a distinct lack of trees. However, the sky painted the landscape with clouds creating patterns and textures on the hills adding some interest in the featureless landscapes. Slowly moving away from Europe, the villages we passed and places we stopped (sometimes no more than an orchard with a shack) felt a long way from the Turkey I met in Istanbul. 16 hours came and went. 18 hours came and went. 20 hours came and went. I began to believe the Lonely Planet's description of Turkish Railways "that you will grow old and die before reaching your destination". After 21 and a half hours we pulled into Adana, a city in the far east of Turkey and disembarked to me greeted with 29 degree heat at 10 o'clock at night. After chatting with two Spanish backpackers in the station we had a better idea of how to get into Syria. They were sleeping in the bus station to save money, however I wanted a proper rest and to get out of the heat so after catching a taxi I crashed into a cheap run-down, still-getting -built hotel!

7 hours sleep later I caught a taxi to Adana bus station, though after reversing up a motorway and with my misguided taxi driver exclaiming in surprise when I reached the bus station in Adana. After being herded onto a waiting bus where the conductor spoke Arabic (handy if we could speak more than a few words) and after paying 6 pounds I was on my way to Antakyia close to the Syrian border. It seems in Turkey to make money in transport you have to go to the needs of the people rather than make the people come to you (as in the UK). So for the next 4 hours the bus stopped in petrol stations, lay-bys and the sides of the motorways to pick up and drop off people. Just as I was getting used to the rhythm of it all I began to arrive into the ancient city of Antakyia or Antioch as it was known in Roman times. Sadly no evidence of the city's ancient heritage could be seen amongst the commercial area of Antakyia - only woodyards, scrap merchants and car dealers were evidence of continuing human habitation.

Arriving at the ugly bus station - a car park more than a station - I was bundled into a waiting taxi with curtains and driven to the part of town that issued visas to drivers. It felt uncomfortable but I have begun to see that in the Middle East you just have to go with the flow! At first I thought I was being driven to the border to get a bus, but I soon realized it was my own personal taxi to get to Aleppo for about 30 pounds! Khalib our driver chatted to me in broken English and Arabic (he was Syrian) while he drove towards the imposing border area, under the gaze of watch towers and past miles of barbed wire fences. It's what you think a border should look like. After jostling with the taxi drivers to show my passport I got through the Turkish side. The traffic was terrible and I waited in line for about an hour before reaching the Syrian side. Luckily I was not traveling in lorries. They had to wait for 5 km before the border and sometimes take a day or two to get through the border. After filling in a visa card and waiting in more lines, we weaved in and out of the lines of trucks and dodging cars coming the other way on our side of the road to get to the Syrian side!

At duty free in no man's land I saw the two Spanish backpackers in a similar taxi waiting around. They were waiting for their taxi driver to buy as much fags and booze as he could hide under the seats and in the spare tyre area of his taxi, much like ours. We arranged to meet on the other side of the border after getting through. Before this after telling the border guard I smoked 20 a day (the cigarettes were the taxi drivers) he wished us luck after 4 hours of waiting. Not too bad! The 2 Spaniards were waiting and we then shared one taxi to Aleppo. We sped along the high featureless plateau before turning off to be suddenly dumped at the bus station at Aleppo. After trying out my Arabic and getting some response I managed to buy us all tickets to Damascus for about 3 dollars. I experienced my first ripping off in the station cafe before being crowded onto the bus at night fall. The bus station felt very Middle Eastern - the Arabic signs, the burkhas and the smells. It felt good to be nearly there. The bus took 4 hours mostly in the the darkness but when the bus rounded a corner I was greeted with a view of the lights of Damascus spread out before me. I was finally there, after 4 days from leaving the UK and 2 days traveling across Turkey. The road to Damascus had finished but the journey had just begun.