Trip Start May 22, 2009
197Trip End Feb 16, 2010
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Most travelers make a trip to Istanbul or Ankara in Turkey and apply at a consulate there. Timely, costly, and a pain to try and apply outside of your home country (need additional letters and such). We decided to just show up and see what happens. Worst case scenario…they say no! Not so bad since we have a multiple entry Visa for Turkey.
On the way to the border, we passed by dozens of transport trucks waiting for their paperwork. Most of them were sitting outside with a side panel open making cay (tea). We had many offers for us to join them, but we wanted to get to the border as we had no idea how long this could take.
Upon arrival at the gate we were asked if we had a visa [no], but we must have a visa [we would like to buy one here], why did me not have a visa [we couldn’t with our bikes as we’ve been on the road too long and didn’t know when we would arrive], you will have to wait for approval from Damascus [of course, of course, shokram].
Led into a little room where all the signs were in Arabic, I eventually saw a small printed word ‘Visa’. But when I went to line up at that window a bunch of gigantic Arab men bunched at the window asked if we needed visas, took our passports and thrust them through the window shouting at the passport police to give us our visas. (All in the ‘import/export’ business and well familiar with this border crossing…)
A tiny form to fill in, and some questions about our jobs and where we were going to stay. Given a stamp to go to the bank and pay for the Visas. (Bank: guy smoking at a low table with a long ash dangling off the end of his cigarette counting American bills.) Met up with a Swedish traveler on motor bike while waiting. He had been a good little boy and got his Visa in advance in Istanbul. However, he still had the same form to fill out, paid a higher price for the privilege, had some additional taxes and customs to pay, and waited just as long as we. I don’t know, it may have had something to do with his motorbike.
Visas stamped in passport we were onto customs which waved us through without a blink of an eyelash. About 1hr total at the border.
Then we were there: in Syria!
Funny how things change. Ask me last year about places in the world I wanted to travel and Syria wouldn’t have even made the top 100. A country relatively unknown to me - ‘somewhere in the middle east’. Even a few months ago I had never thought about it. It wasn’t until about mid-November that the thought occurred that we could actually cycle to Egypt…
The road immediately changed to a smoother pavement, yet had the appearance of being a dirt road. We felt like we were flying along the flat surface. To lift spirits further, we had several ‘welcomes’ as we left the border crossing and then the air was filled with whistles, shouts and waves from people in homes or along the road. Busses, mopeds, cars, trucks, 3-wheeled-something-or-others all toted their melodic horns and passengers craned their necks to see us better. When I acknowledged with a wave, reactions varied from waves in return, smiles, beckons, and in one truck, peels of laughter and cheering!
Upon arrival in Aleppo (population 2 million), I hadn’t a clue as to where to go. I had the name of a hostel and the area of the city where it was. But the signs were mostly in Arabic, and nothing seemed to indicate little divisions of the city. Traffic was insane! Cars packed in as tightly as possible in the narrow street ground everything to a halt and left little room for our bikes. However, the slow pace did make for easy conversation with the drivers. One cabby asked me if I spoke English, so I asked him where Bab Al Faraj was (the area of the city where the hostel was). He motioned for us to follow him - 4 ways flashing and everything. He even turned down a fare to stay with us. But after several calls for his cab, he took a passenger. Still he kept with us and when our turn was different from his fare, he pulled over and directed us which way to continue.
Shocking as this was, it became a familiar occurrence to us as we peddled. On the next street, more drivers and cabbies were helping us with directions (although we had a pretty good idea of where to go now). At one point Brian was on one side of the street talking to a driver, and I was on the other side talking to someone else. A guy came off the sidewalk and wanted to buy Brian’s bike from him and several others shouted ‘hellos’ and ‘how are yous’ as we went along. This is not the behaviour I'm used to encountering in large cities.
Continuing on our way, we finally arrived at the clock tower. With the heavy traffic, we decided to get off the bikes and walk for a bit as we tried to find the hostel. But the sidewalks were about as jammed as the roads and navigating the bikes was difficult. Luckily, we only had to walk for about 30 seconds before a man was talking to us and then personally escorting us down the street to the door of our hostel. Wow, such unexpected kindness and all without any expectation of payment in return. Welcome to Syria!
Axis of evil? My ass!