We had arranged a tour with mr Walid at the Baron Hotel, he’s son would drive us around around the Dead Cities and the area for the mere sum of 80 dollars. This was a bit hefty to say the least, but it would be a bit tricky to hike around the Dead Cities and nicer to get a driver related to the rather famous hotel than picking up a random guy from the streets.
The Dead cities are a bunch of towns which were deserted for an unknown reason. A few earthquakes have taken place over time and trade routes maybe changed, who knows? Anyways they were nice to wander about, Serjilla was one town which had been deserted since the 6th century, but it felt rather recently abandoned. There remains indicated rather high living standards of that time, e.g. two-storied buildings and tombs for the deceased.
After some photos and more strolling Mirsada started feeling sick. We decided to skip the mosaic museum, or actually only use their bathrooms, and got on a minibus heading for Hama. We got to Hama, got a taxi to Cairo Hotel and got there rather just in time. The rest of the day was spent nursing Mirsada who could only keep boiled rice and drink small amounts of water or stirred coca-cola.
In the evening she started to get better but we ended the day with watching a movie on the laptop. Hopefully she will be better tomorrow.
We’d set the alarms at seven but happily snoozed away until 11. Vacation is after all vacation, we missed the included breakfast but got served tea at least. The plan for today was to visit Qala’at Saraam which was a bit north of Aleppo, but first of course some food.
We found a kebab/salads place with locals and had a nice brunch for a low price. When leaving the owner asked if we were married, I answered no by reflex and Mirsada added ‘but we will marry’ which made the already smiling owner widen the smile. It seems that not only was Mirsada being frowned upon for living in sin (no blame goes to the guy apparently), he also thought that I tricked her by saying I would marry her ‘later’. I was more pleased with the situation than Mirsada (I could probably have high-fived the guy).
We found our way to the minibus station and after several re-directions we found another parking space where a minibus claimed to be going to Daret Azze. Slightly less than an hour later we were dropped off, the price for us both was less than a dollar. Now it was about 6 km walking or hitch-hiking left. We didn’t walk more than 20 meters before a pick-up truck with three ladies and an older man on the back picked us up.
They started talking limited english with us and asked where we were from and so on. The landscape was nice so I took some pictures but had to respect the ladies wishes not to be photographed. I’m a bit lost in the views when suddenly Mirsada asks me how long time we’ve been married and pulls out my hand showing my Chalmers-ring to the ladies and explain that we got married last year. This leads to the question of children, and Mirsada is again frowned upon (jokingly but still) for not conceiving any children. One of the ladies is the proud mother of eight and clearly the winner of the popularity contest.According to Lonely planet 40% of the population is under 14 years of age, has a life expectancy on 67 years and a population increase of 2.5% (which now was lower than previous years). Seeing the rate of unemployed already today makes me wonder how sustainable such a population growth is.
We arrive at the old church which was the biggest known in the world at the time it was finished (490 AD). Rather impressive size and even though what’s left of it now is mostly blocks of stone one could get a feeling of how it would have looked like at that time. It was raised on the site where a guy called Simeon used to preach.
Simeon was bent towards the more ascetic side of life and actually started the whole spending-ones-life-on-the-top-of-a-pillar trend. This generated lots of kudos at the time; fellow christians from as far away as France and England went here on pilgrimages and after his death they built this church. The tallest pillar (he built them higher and higher to get further away of the pilgrims who wanted to touch him) were some 18 meters but there was little left of this, most of it had been chipped away as religious souvenirs. We decided that we’d seen enough and started to head back to Aleppo.
We asked for directions and walked along the road for some 15 minutes before another guy picked us up and dropped us in a crossing in Daret Azze. We there got picked up by a mini-bus who drives us to the other mini-buses for free (opposite the direction he was going). We changed bus and got back to Aleppo for the same price of less than a dollar.
On the way back we walked through some fruit markets and bought some delicious black berries and cherries. We didn’t get the expected change back from one guy and questioned him, he pretended we got the correct amount until we read the price written on his sign and then gave us the rest of the change with a smile while his friends chuckled. It helps to learn their numbering system, which is rather easy even if somewhat peculiar to a westerner.
It goes something like this; one is one, two is a backward seven and three is a backward seven but a little longer. Four is a backward three, five is a zero and six is a seven. Seven is a V, eight is a upside down V, nine is nine and zero is a central placed dot. Not that hard once you get used to the backward thinking.
Back at hotel Baron we gulped down close to a kilo fruit before going into siesta / blog-mode. We should make arrangements for tomorrow when we plan to see the dead cities (or at least a few of them) and of course eat again.
After standing in all sorts of queues, filling out forms and stating for the third time that my father originated from Sweden we were all set to jump into a cab and check in at the hotel in Damascus. Then Mirsada came up with the idea of going to Aleppo instead to avoid trashing two nights, at 4 am I was in no state to argue, so we checked the early flights to Aleppo.
Unfortunately all the flights was booked, but according to the guidebook buses left from some bus central every now and then. We pondered if a government taxi presented less or more risk than the taxi-taxi guys. Greed won and we jumped into a car and ended up at some bus terminal just outside of Damascus. We knew the name of the recommended company but the arabic written language didn’t provide much clues. The friendly locals guided us and we ended up in a small ticket office where one sign stated Aleppo in good old roman letters.
After standing in line for a few minutes a friendly lady approached us and explained in english that we had less than a snowballs chance in hell to get a ticket if we just stood there. The trick was to get up close and personal with the rest of the guys. When we positioned us so no one could reach the ticket booth the ticket vendor still didn’t accept our cash. Again we were assisted by locals explaining that they were out of change. We solved this somehow and finally got two tickets, yay!
We outlined the strategy for getting good seats so that Mirsada would jump on the bus while I’ll handle our backpacks. Said and done, it worked like a charm until the ticket-guy ushered us away, apparently the seats were numbered on the tickets and ours were not the premium ones we thought we so swiftly had secured. Mirsada tried to fake motion-sickness but to no avail.
Our seats were however taken by other locals trying to convince the ticket-guy to place us in the designated smoking area. A little flash of emotions did the trick and some other poor yokel were sent to the gas chamber rather than us. We then fell into a coma waking up in Aleppo in broad daylight and an army of taxi-taxi guys welcoming us, lovely.
After a quick random selection of hotel we hailed a cab, I was baffled by the ratio of taxi cars to regular ones but Mirsada explained that this was the way it was in Syria. We’re talking more than half of the moving cars are taxis, I write moving since the parking regulations seems very liberal if existing at all.
The hotel looked very nice, the price was low enough and when we saw the rooms we were pleasantly surprised. While Mirsada returned to coma-sleep I read up on Aleppo on the guidebook. Apparently we’d chosen the right hotel, Lonely Planet has a separate text about the place: “Built at a time when travel invariably involved three-weeks sea voyages, a set of garden shed-sized trunks to be carried by porters and a letter of introduction to the local consul, Baron Hotel belongs to a very different era”.
Former guests include Lawrence of Arabia and Agatha Christie (when writing Murder on the Orient Express) which sets an air of history together with the four meter high ceiling. Speaking of history Aleppo has been around some time as well, I was a bit surprised to read that it was mentioned as the centre of powerful state at 18th century BC, and may have been constantly inhabited for some 8000 years. That still doesn’t explain the insane ratio of taxis though.
After some sleep we have a nice lunch at a nearby restaurant, the food was so nice that we didn’t get upset by the fact the food costed around 40 times the taxi-fair. We walk around in the areas and headed towards old city and Souq, which is a large marketplace. The marketplace is however still the place were the locals buy most of their stuff, we didn’t spot any other tourists and apart from a few “where are you from” questions it was very calm. No touching or blocking the way or such.
The Souq had it’s fair share of different goods; spices, meat and livers (of course hanging in the sun), jewelry and my personal favorites; leather holsters or why not a genuine syrian hand-made automatics case with extra clip holders? After some time we headed back to our hotel, Mirsada didn’t feel to well and I had some blogging to catch up with.
After rest and blogging it was time for food again, such is the nature of our lives. On the way down we thought we would honor the old Lawrence chap with a beer in the very well-used leather sofa. To make things a little more interesting I was taking the lead to guide us to the restaurant. After some time with beer running in our systems the situation started to look grim. We took a cab.
The restaurant, Beat as-Sissi, looked rather posh and we weren’t exactly dressed for success. This was upped further by the fact that we were greeted in french and that the menus lacked price. Well, how bad could it be? We ordered a few plates of very nice food. When the bill finally arrived it was cheaper than the lunch earlier. I guess we won’t be eating lunch at the same place again. On the way back Mirsada took the navigation task but cheated by using the map. Now it’s time for sleep, we will see what tomorrow brings…