Syria. West side

10 04 2011

I think I’ve just about seen enough of Syria. But it’s quite pleasant here, so I’m a little reluctant to leave. Also the latest round of news reporting / troubles in Dar’a has scared away most of the tourists, so in peak season the tourist spots are all but deserted. It really appears that the Syrian government is being given a hard time by the Western press. I’m not normally all that interested in world politics, but it is inescapable here. And it’s getting more difficult for me to be impartial. Perhaps I should stop there.

I appear to have lived through my pneumonia, if pneumonia it was. I was a bit of a wreck for a few days, and then had a few more days coughing up some interesting colours. But it’s all gone away now, thank goodness. I might need my lungs for the climbing that’s coming up in Turkey.

I got the visa! The Iran visa that is. Hurrah! I visited the Iran Consulate every day for over a week. Somehow, someone (I’m pretty sure it was the travel agency that ‘helped’ me get the visa) messed up, and the approval for my visa got sent to the wrong consulate. After 7 visits to the consulate, someone felt sorry for me, talked to someone else and I’ve no idea how many rules were bent, but I left with the visa in my passport. A week to get a visa, that had already been approved, stamped in the passport may seem like a long time, but I was pretty happy with how helpful the consulate staff were – the Iranian New Year had just passed and from the sound of it, the whole of the Iranian government took a couple of weeks off. So I count myself lucky to get a positive result in the circumstances.

With or without the visa I was going to leave Damascus the day after it was finally approved. I had a complicated back-up plan to get the visa that I am very glad I don’t have to try out. But I had been in the hostel long enough to make a few friends, including some other long time travellers from Aus. I was somewhat torn between leaving them and staying for the company, but they sorted that out for me – they decided to move on anyway.

I hadn’t really recovered, but I was keen to get out of town. So I left, got a flat going up a hill and procrastinated by fixing a few minor things on the bike that I had been putting off for weeks. Yeah, I wasn’t really well enough to be cycling. But I persisted, and after 6.5 hours I found a monastery to sleep out the front of. I remember having enough energy to put up the tent, but not enough to eat. Lucky I’d been fattening up in Damascus on that ice cream. The next day I spent all morning in the monastery (procrastinating again), talking politics with whomever would listen. This was the first Friday after the Presidents long awaited speech, and the general consensus was if ‘something’ was going to happen, it would happen today. It didn’t.

I was heading back to Aleppo (for some more of those macaroons), but decided to take the less easy route. So I went out to the Syrian Mediterranean coast, over a small mountain range. This also means I got a full dose of crusader era castles. If I had a decent internet connection I could upload some photos. Think impregnable.

Between castles, I stopped at a bakery to buy some breakfast. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The baker happened to be crazy about bikes. That surprised me. He offered to ride with me to Lattakia (60km away). How could I say no? So he rushed off to get changed and get his bike (the boss didn’t seem to mind him skipping work for the day). He came back on what turned out to be his training bike – the race bike was too good to just ride on the highway with a crazy foreigner. The police took a bit of an interest in this strange couple, but eventually we got away and rode nearly all the way to Lattakia. A thunderstorm came and chased us under a bridge for a while, but it was pleasant and slightly unusual to ride with a local for a while. It also coincidentally avoided a major disaster – the whole way was on the highway, and my MP3 player had died the day before. Highway riding with no podcasts or audio books? Boring! (It’s ok, I managed to find the loose wire and get it soldered back in place).

To be honest I wasn’t all that enamoured with the costal cities, perhaps partly because it rained most of the time I was in Lattakia (a city planner in Lattakia at some point decided that a great place for a port was right in front of the city, so the city now has a superb view of a large wall, containers, and ships instead of the Mediterranean). I won’t go on about the demonstrations that have recently happened in Lattakia, only to point out that when I was there, there was a very heavy army presence but a remarkable absence of guns. Some tourists I met got scared away by the army, but I couldn’t see any reason for concern. I was concerned by the traffic though, on my way out of town I had to take a breather to calm down at one point. There are many positive attributes one can talk about with the Syrians, but the standard of driving in the cities is not one of them.

The costal hills are quite pretty and very green, at least at this time of year. The wild flowers are out, mostly in the olive groves. I think I’m lucky to see the flowers – they must have a very limited life span, the olive farmers rush to plough the delicate plants back into the soil, using everything from hand tools, to ploughs pulled by oxen or tractors.

I must have been spending to long gazing at the flowers (or trusted the GPS just a little too much), because I managed to take a rather large detour in hilly terrain along the Turkish border. I had to make a strange shaped loop to see some abandoned cities. I’m still not sure why I went out of my way to see another pile of rocks, but perhaps that shows that I’m reluctant to leave the country. But eventually I got here; to Aleppo. Back in the city. I’m going to spend (err, waste) a few days here, then move on.

Turkey, and it’s mountains, is just around the corner, or rather, just past the castle.



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