Successfully crossing into Syria

Trip Start Dec 07, 2009
Trip End Sep 26, 2010

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Where I stayed
Baron Hotel Aleppo
Read my review - 4/5 stars

Flag of Syria  ,
Thursday, September 9, 2010

I am in Aleppo.

This is very good news because it means I was granted entry into Syria after showing up at the border with no visa, a big scruffy beard, and a giant backpack. I also had a big smile on my face and luckily the border guards seemed to be in a good mood, joking around with me. Maybe it was because Ramadan was ending today for them. It looked a bit dodgy for a little bit as me and two Aussies all showed up at the same time with no visas. We all handed our passports to the same guy and I got quite nervous when he handed the two Aussies their passports back with visa approvals within 2 minutes. Then he disappeared with mine into some back rooms and I was left standing there, trying to remain positive. Finally after about 30 minutes of sweating bullets the guy reappeared with my payment slip which meant I had been approved. 56USD later, I handed my passport back to get stamped and I was officially in. Great success! I do not recommend showing up here without a visa though, I have definitely been concerned since the Syrian consulate in Istanbul debacle. On the other hand, still have that pen, it worked beautifully filling out forms at the border. Sweet justice.

On to Aleppo!

We walked through the border and found a private bus taking us to our destination in downtown Aleppo. It was only an hour and a half away but I fell asleep for most of the ride, a carefree young man. The differences were quite stark once we made it to Aleppo. Lots of traffic, lots of people. It reminded me of India in a way, although on a lesser scale. Less of everything. Less honking, less people, less rubbish, definitely less cows. More wonderful smells though! Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the world, Damascus being the other. Mostly you see lots of men about in the streets. When you do see the occasional woman, she is covered up in her traditional black burqa. It is quite fascinating to see. I immediately like it here.

We make it to our destination in the middle of downtown Aleppo, the infamous Hotel Baron. It is the oldest hotel in the city and was once stayed in by Laurence of Arabia. It is grand and wonderful to set foot into the giant lobby with high ceilings. In one of the display cases sits Laurence of Arabia's <unpaid> hotel bill. It seems that when he stayed here he ended up pulling a runner and ducking out of his charges. The good ol' days! Soon I find myself wandering the streets of Aleppo. I get into the souqs, a huge covered market selling everything and anything. It seems like there are hardly any tourists here and life is just going on as usual so it is quite fascinating to be here and see the mass of humanity inside the souqs. Then I find the citadel and it looks very impressive from the outside. Now to find my way back! Back through the souqs: check. Back through the streets to the Sheraton hotel and clock tower: check. And.... no idea where to go now. Luckily, I have a good sense of direction and start wandering in the general direction I think the hotel is. After a while I finally find it and take a well-deserved shower then a nap. I wake up in time for dinner and our group meets with our local fixer, Rani, who is taking us for a traditional Syrian dinner. We go to Al-Kommeh restaurant and I immediately love it after we climb the 5 flights of stairs to get to the rooftop. It is like something out of Aladdin. Big red drapes and plants and comfy cushioned sofas to sit and lounge at while you eat. Food arrives the second we do. We start with mezzes which is like appetizers of sorts. Salads, breads, apples, so many dips. Hummus, baba ganoush, yogurts, tzatziki. Nom noms!
I order some lemon-min juice as well and it is fantastic. It is also bright nuclear yellow, but this does not faze me. As a main course I order cherry kebab. This turns out to be lamb kebab smothered in a rich cherry sauce presented on top of flat bread. It is sweet and delicious. I'm relaxing on the sofas and it is wonderful. I decide to get some strawberry shisha and it is also delicious and pleasant. I definitely like life here in Syria.

After dinner we find our way back to one of Rani's hangouts. It is another rooftop, but this one has a view over the clock tower and the mass of cars below, but we are far away enough not to be bothered by the noise. It is just relaxing to be up here and we hang out for a while with the group. Finally I head back to the hotel without any problems and quickly fall to sleep.

Friday morning and I have a well-deserved sleep-in and then take a late breakfast. It seems eerily quiet outside the hotel. It turns out there is some sort of holiday and most of the locals have left town. I have heard that the citadel is open anyways so I start heading that direction. The roads are nearly deserted. I get to the entrance of the souqs and duck in. It is a huge difference from the day before. They are empty and quiet. The dim lights from the ceiling cast eerie shadows. A few people walk past and say hello, but the difference is astounding. I love life at this moment, just wandering through the deserted souqs of Aleppo. This is life, and I'm happy to be here. I make it to the citadel and climb up. It is an amazing fortress and I quite enjoy exploring. I find my way to the very top via some hidden stairs for a magnificent view of the city. I also find the dungeons and climb all the way to the bottom. I spend about 3 hours up at the top just enjoying the great views of the city and soaking up the day. On the way back I find some treats: corn with melted cheese, cheese toasties, fresh fruit smoothies (no ice!) I stop at Rani's hotel and take some tea and chill with him for a while.

I have a repeat performance of the night before for dinner only with a smaller group. I also get my hands on some really tasty Lebanese beer. Good way to end my time in Aleppo. The time is starting to fly by as I get closer and closer to home.

-js, border master.

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