Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Middle East beckons

When we were students (too many years ago) we hitch-hiked around the Middle East covering Turkey, Iran (really wonderful) and Iraq (not so wonderful). What we got up to and the risks (as would be judged today) we took are now best forgotten. Although we crossed Syria, we never saw any of it and made a resolution to return one day with Damascus and Palmyra being high on the list. Add to that a desire to visit Petra in Jordan and you


have all the ingredients of a journey. In this case, we are travelling with Exodus who specialise in holidays for travellers rather than tourists and offer only about six trips to Syria each year.

Lonely Planet has an interesting comment on Syria: Here's a newsflash: contrary to what the US State Department may wish the world to think, Syria is not populated by terrorists, zealots and other bogeymen. In fact, Syrians are among the most friendly and hospitable people in the world, and most visitors to their country end up developing a lifelong infatuation with its gentle charms. The reaction of most people when we said we were going to Syria and Jordan varied between “you must be mad” and “what do you want to go there for?” Certainly we do not know of anyone else in our circle of friends who has been there.

And so we are again making the trip out to Heathrow in order to catch a

On the train to Airport

late afternoon flight to Damascus where we will meet the others in our small tour group. When we check-in at Heathrow we find that we have been upgraded to Business Class and so the pleasures of the Business Lounge, nice wide

Business Lounge

seats with plenty of leg room and an upgraded menu await us. With two crew to look after eleven  Business Class passengers (two for 140 in economy class) we force ourselves to enjoy the champagne, hot towels,

BMI Menu

menu of your choice, newspapers, better choice of films etc

Business Class

Arriving in any foreign country late at night is always a strange experience and Damascus is no exception. There is a surprising lack of formality, the stamp in our passport is unimpressive, our bags are waiting us and slowly the other members of our 15 strong band assembles under the eye of our guide Adnan who, on the way into town, proceeds to tell us more than we can absorb – bed is all we really want. One thing which we both notice is that Damascus is still very alive at 1 am in the morning. If you wanted to go and buy a new kitchen just after midnight, there are shops open and ready to serve you and lots of small children are still up and lively. They are also repairing the roads, selling t-shirts on the pavement and many families are sitting on the grass beside the main road into town having a picnic.

That one is in a country which has firmly positioned itself on one side of

Map of Syria

the continuous unrest within the Middle East is shown by the map above – notice the area called Palestine and note also the country whose name is missing.

There are quite firm official opinions about Britain and the USA and whilst tourists from these countries are welcomed, at an official level whenever possible, economic sanctions are enforced. For example, there are no car or lorry dealerships selling UK or US built cars and they do their best to avoid by products from these countries but of course it is not always possible.

Anyway, we have arrived safely and somewhat hot – more to come.

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