Map of Syria  

Audrey writes:

It was really tough travelling in Syria, but the incredible sights made it worthwhile. The fun began with the border crossing where we needed to get visas. Most tourists would have gotten their visa in Canada, and that's what the official asked of Ekke. Of course, our visa would have expired by the time we reached Syria anyway so they seemed okay with that. Jeremy Kroeker (www.jeremykroeker.com) had tried to get into Syria at a smaller border crossing a couple weeks before, and could not get a visa, so he tried at a bigger border crossing, with success. Ekke brought us a couple of forms to fill out then stood at the counter while others pushed in around him and tried to shove their passports on the counter ahead of him. The officials behind the counter kept helping Ekke in spite of all the hubbub. He paid some US dollars ($56 each) and within an hour, we had our visas. I attempted the next part, the insurance. A 'fixer' guided me to the insurance place. I told him I could read the sign 'insurance' and didn't need his help. But, he kept showing me where to go, and spoke Arabic with the guy behind the counter. I thought things were going more smoothly than if I had attempted it myself, so I stopped trying to shake him off. We went back to the bike to get the carnets the 'passports' for the bikes to ensure we won't sell them and not pay duty. After several stamps and paying $80 US, I thought we were finished. Then, the insurance guy said $4 more, which I paid, but all I had was a 20 dollar bill. He gave me change, a few American dollars and a stack of Syrian pounds. Good thing I had learned the exchange rate, because this added up to about five bucks. It wasn't until I got somewhat agitated that they gave me the rest of the change. I gave the 'fixer' a couple of bucks, but I'm sure he was in on the scam too. After a few more checkpoints and more showing of passports and carnets, we were in Syria.


Aleppo was usually the first stop of most tourists, but it's a huge city and we wanted to head in the direction of the coast. By this time, it was 3:30 and it would be dark in an hour, so we headed to Idlib, the next closest dot on the map. No accommodations for Idlib were listed in our guidebook, so we rode into town not knowing what to expect. There was a lot of traffic, dust, stone buildings, and a few horses and carts.  Ekke asked a traffic cop if he could point us in the direction of a hotel, and he waved us over to a side street. We didn't see any hotels, and just pulled over and asked another cop about hotels. Two off-duty officers jumped on a small motorbike, and got ready to lead us there. Meanwhile, some guy just walked up and handed me a white bag. Inside was about a metre of coiled honey-soaked pastry that was still warm. I was trying to ask him, "How much", and Ekke was saying "La, la" (no), but the guy was indicating that it was a gift. So, I just put the bag over my mirror, said "Shukran", and rode away. How friendly was that!. The mini-bike cops led us to a kind of divey-looking hotel, but it was full. Next came kind of a mid-range place, but after looking at a room we decided it was definitely not worth $35. So, after a few photos with our new friends (they wanted their pictures taken with us on their cellphones), another couple of guys who had just shown up on a bike took us to the Carlton Hotel, which looked a little too swanky for our budget. But, they didn't know of any other hotels, and they also tried to bargain the manager down from $95, but no luck. So, I went in with a sob story about us travelling around the world, how we had to watch the money, and gave him our card. He gave us the room for $88. It had a beautiful lobby with a solarium, and the rooms were nice enough. Supper in the hotel banquet hall was a bit strange as we were the only ones in there. But, we had a huge meal that we couldn't finish, and the bill came to 600 SP ($12) - unbelievable.

Free sweet treat

Off duty police help us find a hotel

Our first clue that we would be woken up at 4:40 am was the gigantic mosque just outside our window. Ekke heard the first "Allah Akbar" (god is great)), and it wasn't too loud. But it turned out to be a mosque further away, and soon he heard the sound of someone blowing into a microphone, as if they were just standing across the room. I was shaken out of my sleep by the loudest call to prayer I've ever heard. I'm sure the floor was rumbling, and I had to cover my ears. It was also the longest call to prayer, and we couldn't get back to sleep. The town started coming to life, too, so maybe others were shaken from their sleep, but I couldn't imagine going through this every day.

Mosque speakers at the same level as our room (click on the photo to see and hear the video on YouTube)

The route to Tartus took us up some winding little hilly roads, which were quite quaint at first, but then became somewhat dangerous as we had to pass other vehicles and they had to pass us. I'm pretty sure they were expecting us to be riding on the side of the road, as they would honk and try to squeeze us gently to the side. It was our job to avoid head-on collisions as oncoming vehicles just passed as if we weren't even there. Then, the heavy rain and hail started, and the roads were running with water and mud. Ekke found us refuge under a tin roof, which, when the lightning started, was only slightly scarier than the roads. We just sat and watched the deluge, across the road from a pleasant orange orchard. Down the coast past Lattakia we had to ride on a bit of 'autobahn'. Sometimes there were six lanes, which occasionally turned into four, with no warning, as the road went under a bridge. The speed limit said 110kph, and many people were going much faster than that. The shoulder was a hive of activity: Buses stopped to pick people up, vendors had stands set up, kids were walking and playing, and the funnest one of all was the assortment of vehicles heading straight toward us, driving the wrong way! Ekke finally spied a gas station, a run down place with wires and insulation hanging out of the pumps. One of the attendants jumped up on Ekke's bike as it sat on the centre stand so that his friend could take his picture from a cell phone. The concept of personal space is slightly different here. Tartus was a welcome sight, and someone came over to help us as soon as we stopped. He pointed us in the direction of the hotels, and we found the Blue Beach right away (1100SP, $22). Views of the Mediterranean were incredible. The promenade, much nicer from a distance, had metre deep holes every now and again. Someone must have stolen the grates, so we were careful where we stepped. We walked up to the Crusader cathedral which now housed a museum, and behind it was a lovely park with statues and walkways. Amazing to see flowers growing in November. But garbage everywhere in the old town made for some unpleasant walking, and after having a full pizza meal for two for six dollars (290SP), we called it a night. Most places were closed in the morning, their metal doors pulled down, as we went in search of breakfast, so, we ended up on the 14th floor of the Shahin Hotel, a good buffet for only $4 each.

Just one type of "interesting" vehicle in Syria

Promonade in Tartus

Windmill on the corniche has been hit by lightning

Syria has a garbage problem

The ride to Crac Des Chevaliers took us along winding roads through small towns. Signs often had both English and Arabic, but occasionally just Arabic, getting us royally lost in Safi. After riding through pouring rain, we eventually made it out, ending up on the autobahn instead of the smaller roads. We got off the autobahn a stop too early and the road led us through a small town. A motorcyclist jumped on his bike and led us through some very small streets, pointing us in the right direction. The road climbed higher and higher, the fog rolled in, and we actually quite enjoyed the narrow, twisty road. Crac Des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle built in 1110, came into view as we rounded a corner, and it was spectacular. The huge stone structure was held by Crusaders for 161 years, and they used it to control the Homs Gap, the only route between this area and the sea. Unless we wanted to ride to the next city, the only accommodation was a hotel perched on a hill, up a steep road, under construction, that looked like it was flowing with sand in the rain. I walked up the hill to check it out, still in full motorcycle gear, leaving my helmet on because of the pouring rain. The room was not great, but it was dry, so we rode our bikes up after I discovered the road was just gravel. The last, steepest section was deep gravel with a bit of mud underneath. Ekke just gunned it and fish-tailed a bit going up. I gunned it as well, but ran out of courage partway up. I shook my head, no, that it wasn't going to happen and that I would need a rescue. But, it's amazing how one's courage rises when there's an audience (a few guys in the restaurant). I just hit the gas and swerved my way up through the gravel, all to the entertainment and applause of the onlookers.

Audrey buys a snack for on the road

The road up to the hotel alongside Crac des Chevaliers

We were greeted at the door of Crac Des Chevaliers by kids begging for money, postcard sellers, a one-legged man, and guides. After paying 150SP each ($3), we walked up the stone ramp, imagining knights in shining armour riding their noble steeds up the cobbled path. The moat had a lot of garbage in it, so it took away some of the romance, but the rest of the castle was great. The ramp switchbacked up past guardrooms and stables, and took us to the main courtyard. A seven-arched facade still had original designs intact, and it sat in front of the assembly rooms, where the knights would receive visiting Crusader kings. The cathedral, which was converted to a mosque in 1271, had a Muslim minbar (pulpit) in it. The guard towers overlooked the beautiful Syrian countryside, and we could see the Mediterranean and the mountains of Lebanon. Safety was definitely not a priority here as there were drop-offs everywhere, windows without any coverings, and rooftops with no railings. The castle had endured an earthquake, so we walked under those stone arches with a little unease. Our headlamps allowed us to explore dark corners and unlit rooms, and we spent a couple of hours doing so. A cafe was located in the Princess Tower, and a group of German tourists were enjoying lunch. We had some hummus and pita, but our main goal was to get out of the rain and drafts for awhile.

Facade in front of the Assembly Rooms

Vaulted ceiling

Audrey takes a break from the rain  

The rain continued right into the next day as we left. Since my restaurant audience was not there, I let Ekke ride my bike down the steep part of the hill. The road took us down into the valley and eventually across the desert, where it was finally dry. The landscape had a lot of scrub, kind of like the area around the Okanagan. The sunny ride to Palmyra was an absolute joy, with very little traffic, and just the odd shepherd with his flock of sheep crossing the road. After about 160 kilometres, we rounded a corner, and there was our first glimpse of the archaeological site and oasis. A colonnaded street still stood, and we could see several structures fairly intact. Palmyra was a stopping place for caravans passing from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. The Romans came in 129 A.D., but Queen Zenobia, the wife of an assassinated king, started rebelling and had a lot of control in the area. The Romans didn't like that she was minting coins with her own image on them, and came and shut her down. The Muslims conquered in the 7th century and built their castle. While I went to check out a hotel, Ekke stayed with the bikes and was immediately swarmed by ten or more local kids. I looked out the window and could see their hands on everything, one sitting on my bike playing with all the switches. It was quite comical to see Ekke in the midst of the swarm, trying to get the kids away from the bikes. He was having secret fantasies that a kid would touch the hot engine but it didn't happen. I came out and gave them my best teacher 'look', and the crowd soon dispersed. Our room in the Citadel Hotel had a view of the ruins, oasis and the Arab Castle on the hill (750SP, $15). While checking in, a guy approached us to buy postcards, and I said I'd look later if he was still there in an hour. Later, he found us at the ruins, and asked why I didn't buy postcards from him. I told him that I didn't see him so bought postcards from someone else. This started the worst hassling I've ever received from a tout as he followed us around, wouldn't leave, kept saying, "Madam, madam, you say you buy postcards". Eventually, we just ignored him, and then his friend started bugging us to buy necklaces. They jumped on their minibike and would turn up wherever we seemed to be. Later, we made an amazing discovery in town... a Pancake House! But when we went in, guess who was inside: Postcard Boy. I was ready to just leave, as he looked like he was friends with the owners, but he went out of sight and Ekke was dying for a pancake. They were savoury or sweet, with flavours like 'banana split' and 'lemon and sugar'. Fantastic.

Audrey rides down from Table Ronde hotel

Out of the rain and into the desert

Enjoying being dry (150 kilometres from Iraq!)

There was no entrance fee to the ruins, but it cost 150SP ($3) to get into the Temple of Bel (Zeus). Guides asked us if we wanted to be guided, but we were able to enjoy the visit by just using our guidebook and exploring on our own. So much detail was still visible on much of the marble, especially the pineapples and grapes on a couple of slabs outside the cella (shrine). The theatre also cost (75SP, $1.50) but had been renovated and was very complete. Postcard Boy came around a few more times, and ignoring him just didn't shake him. "Madam, where you from, Madam, you say you buy, Madam...." When he turned up as we were changing some US dollars to Syrian pounds, I'd had enough and told him that we knew he had friends at the Pancake House and would not go there any more if he kept bugging us. That seemed to do it, and later we enjoyed some fantastic savoury chicken pancakes, followed by peach and warm apple and cinnamon. We saw Postcard Boy one more time at the Arab Castle, but he was too winded from the climb to the top to bother us. The castle was apparently 'the' place to be at sunset, which was at 4:19 PM. The beautiful setting sun was perfectly lined up with a tall microwave tower on an adjacent hill, and you could just see the gorgeous colours peaking out from behind the metal latticework. So much for the beautiful sunset. The ruins were lit up, so we went down to take some pictures. Our motorcycles, just like all the touts' minibikes, were able to squeeze between a couple of big rocks and we soon found ourselves riding down an ancient Roman street between huge colonnades. How fantastic! Trying this anywhere else in the world would probably have landed us in jail, but the minibikes had set a precedent. Unfortunately, we got in big trouble with a British woman who was trying to take photos of the colonnades without a couple of motorcycles in the shot. Not wanting to miss our opportunity, we quickly took our pictures and rode out. We thought her pictures would be more interesting with a couple of Canadian bikes in them, but apparently she didn't agree. As the next morning was bright and sunny, we went to the ruins for a few more pictures, and this time a Japanese photographer actually wanted us in her shots!

Arab castle on the hill above Palmyra

Temple of Bel

Some of the incredible detail remains

The performance should be down on the stage not in the stands

Clambering in the ruins

Clambering can work up an appetite for pancakes

Riding near the colonnaded street

Arab castle at moonrise

Ruins of Palmyra from the castle

The perfect place for a radio tower

Monumental Arch is the entrance to the colonnaded street

Just goofing around!

Audrey rides amongst the ruins

Ekke Writes

We woke up to a fairly crisp morning and since the restaurant downstairs wasn't open we went down the street for pancakes instead.  For some reason there were no apple-cinnamon pancakes available today so I had a lemon-sugar pancake and Audrey had her usual banana split pancake.  While this wasn't what we were hoping for it was still delicious.  After checking out of the Citadel we rode past the Great Colonnade and took a few photos before heading into the desert.  Eighty kilometres down the road at a major intersection was the famous Bagdad Café so we had to stop in for a cup of tea and coffee.  Just as we were leaving, the owner started feeding a hooded falcon.  Just like in Tunisia, Audrey immediately got volunteered to have the bird sitting on her arm.  As we rode south across the desert it really didn't warm up very much despite the bright sunshine.

Some fun at the Bagdad Cafe

Buying lunch

About 50 kilometres out of Damascus we turned west into the barren mountains, finding our way to Ma' Lula.  This town is the home of the Convent of St. Takla and it is in these mountain villages that the Aramaic language is still spoken.  Aramaic is the language that Jesus spoke and it is the language that the Lord's Prayer was originally authored in.  We rode through town to the monastery, locked up the bikes and then walked up the St. Takla Gap, a narrow gorge in the mountainside.  After the climb up to the top of the cliff it was getting on 3:00 PM and we knew that sunset would happen in the next hour and a half so we walked over to a hotel we had seen at the top of the cliff.  It looked like an expensive hotel and it had a lovely view of Ma' Lula as well as the monastery.  It was an expensive hotel with a rate of $111 U.S. per night.  Cough.  Even his best offer of $88 was still above our budget so we walked back to the bikes thinking that we would look for something else in town and if there wasn't anything we would just have to spend the big bucks.  At the bikes we met some Damascenes out for a drive in their new Hyundai SUV.  They suggested that it was possible to stay at the monastery for a small donation so they accompanied us up and asked if it was possible for us to stay.  No problem!  They then gave us their phone numbers and told us to call them when we got to Damascus and we could come by for a visit.  What nice people.  One of the nuns said we could park the bikes inside so we pulled them up over the sidewalk into the stairwell.  We hoped there wouldn't be a need to use the fire exit...  Since we only had pop and chips for lunch (I hope our moms aren't reading this) at a gas station in the desert we opted for an early dinner at a restaurant near the convent.  Delicious skewered chicken with pita bread and a yoghurt dressing plus a tomato and onion salad made up for the decidedly unhealthy lunch.

Walking the St. Takla Gap

Secure motorcycle parking

Convent of St. Takla

What a restful sleep we had in the convent.  Until 4:30 AM anyway.  Even though Ma'Lula is predominantly a Christian town there are still enough mosques around to give a call to prayer first thing in the morning.  After we took the bikes out of the stairwell and gave a donation of $10 to the convent we went across the square to the restaurant where we had supper the previous evening as we had asked the proprietor if he was open for breakfast.  He said he was and would open his restaurant at 8:30 for us.  When he didn't show up by 9:00 we grabbed a couple of fresh pitas from the bakery next door and then rode up the hill to the chapel of Mar Sarkis to enjoy them with Nutella on the panorama deck.  A tour group from the Netherlands was there and I had the opportunity to speak a bit of Dutch.

Now that is fresh bread!

After "breakfast" we rode to the New Kaboun campground located at the edge of Damascus and set up camp.  The first time since our Switzerland trip!  It was good to see our home away from home but it is going to take a while to get used to organising ourselves for camping.  After setting up we hailed a cab and for $4 got a ride to the old town.  It was rather pleasant not driving into the middle of a big city and looking for a hotel amidst the usual chaos.  The souq was fun to wander around and the Umayyad mosque was simply spectacular.  To enter the mosque Audrey had to wear an elegant brown, hooded robe but she didn't appear to be too happy doing it.  Still, it was worth it to see one of the most beautiful mosques in the world.  After spending the afternoon simply wandering, absorbing the atmosphere, we called the family we had met the day before and Rasha and Housam came to pick us up.  Back at Abdullah and Faten's home we enjoyed watching Faten and Eptisam preparing Kubeh for a party on Thursday.  We even got to try some of this delicious treat.  I think it was a bulgur dough stuffed with meat.  After a pleasant evening chatting, Rasha and Housam gave us a ride back to our cold tent.  Perhaps we were still a bit too far north for pleasant camping?

The covered souq in Damascus

Audrey does her best impression of a Jawa from Star Wars

Umayyad Mosque

When we awakened to a crisp morning we found that we had company.  Last night a motorhome with French licence plates had arrived.  Pascal and Sophie and their two young children were taking a year to travel around the Mediterranean.  After we gave the bikes a wash we had a chat with them about their trip while we slowly packed up our tent.  By about noon we were finally ready to leave.  Since we spent a little while standing on a street corner watching the insane traffic in central Damascus last night we were not terribly keen on riding through the centre of the city even though that was the way south to Jordan.  Instead we backtracked north and with the help of the GPS worked our way around Damascus on some small roads.  It was very interesting to ride through the smaller towns and see people's reaction to us.  Most were stunned by our presence and simply stared.  Taking these small roads with the inevitable confusion in the towns probably took a lot longer than riding through Damascus and taking the big highway south.  We ended up in Bosra, a distance of only 120 kilometres, at about sunset; 4:30.  When we pulled up in front of the Roman ruins we were promptly accosted by a couple of hustlers asking if we were looking for a place to stay.  The Bosra Cham Palace was the only real hotel in town and these touts were trying to sell a night in a Bedouin tent.  It all sounded a bit fishy since this "Bedouin" tent was located in a restaurant courtyard.  We had a look at the place and it seemed OK but there was some confusion as to whether it was possible for us to stay.  According to the restaurant manager the Cham Palace had some kind of arrangement that forbade people sleeping in Bedouin tents so that they would have a corner on the marketplace.  So the manager called the tourist police and asked them if we could put our tent up in the garden.  In the meantime Audrey hopped on her bike and rode over to the Cham where she found that they were charging $145 U.S. per night for a double.  Way above our budget.  The police were still considering whether to let us stay (all this via the restaurant manager) so we got a copy of our passports for them.  The manager explained to them that we couldn't possibly afford the Cham and it would be dangerous to ride in the dark to Da'ra for a less expensive hotel.  That did the trick and we were allowed to stay.  After a delicious grilled chicken supper (which at 750 Syrian Pounds or $15 Cdn was overpriced) we chatted with Zacharia the restaurant manager for a while.  He was a trained archaeologist and normally led tours of the old city.  The "Bedouin" tent was occupied by someone who had a small section partitioned off for himself and the main area was used as a smoking and tea room.  We decided that our own nomadic tent was much nicer so we set it up in the garden rather than roll out our sleeping bags in the smoky tent with the dirty carpets for a bed.  Camping two nights in a row!

Trying to find our way around Damascus was easier with the GPS than road signs

After packing up the tent and locking everything onto the motorcycles we walked across the plaza from our "Bedouin" tent/restaurant/campground to the citadel.  What makes this particular citadel unique is that it used to be a theatre capable of holding 6,000 people.  The Roman theatre was converted to a citadel by the Arabs by building a perimeter wall with a moat.  Back at the restaurant we enjoyed an omelette for breakfast and then rode to the Jordanian border, about 40 kilometres away.  The stamping out of Syria portion of the border crossing went quickly without too much fuss and on the Jordanian side there was only a little running around to get it all straightened out.  The whole process took less than two hours, including a lunch break on the Jordanian side.  The initial impression of Jordan was that the standard of living appeared to be a bit higher.  As usual, we had to adapt to a new style of driving, this time for the better.  It seemed that the Jordanian drivers were less aggressive and generally a bit more relaxed.  We had found that riding in Syria you always had to pay 100% attention.  You had to watch for the other drivers, coming from every possible direction and you had to watch the road as the conditions changed dramatically in the blink of an eye.  The first 100 kilometres in Jordan were very relaxing indeed.

Theatre/Citadel in Bosra

Leaving Bosra with a last look at the citadel

Our route through Syria  

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