After running the Syrian border (NOT!) and being befriended by two men claiming to be part of the Syrian government and promoting tourism (and telling the gals that shorts, etc. are fine), we made our way to Aleppo (and found that shorts, etc. are NOT common. Gals - long skirts and full length/long arm shirts, please. Boys - long pants only, no shorts). Welcome to Arabia! Turkey uses an English-based alphabet... not Syria! Try navigating with this!
After finding a hostel (on a back street, close to a tire repair shop and with a doorway our packs could just squeeze through!) we navigated our way to the souq. Surrounded by dusty light beams, corridors, wiring mazes, and people, we managed to find our way around and eventually get in touch with someone who would take Canadian and American travelers cheques. This was a tad touchy and we were led on a few wild goose chases! After getting some usable bills at a decent rate and finding our way back to the souq, both Dave and I were propositioned for a night out... by guys! As "homophobic" as the Arabian way of life is supposed to be, the Syrian's outlook was far different. Dave and I were prepared to be worried about the galls, not us! Onward to the local castle... the citadel. A rather monstrous creation with some beautiful rooms and views.
Next day... trip to St. Simons... this guy sat naked on a pillar for 30 years. And? Your point is? People thought he was nice enough that they built a temple (now in ruins) around where he once sat. We had noticed quite the environment change as we crossed the border. Turkey felt at least green, whereas Syria lacked that unless you were directly next to water. This feeling was brought home to bear on this excursion.
After another bus frustration on the St. Simon's trip (this time a mini-bus driver who thought 1 meant 100 and some tourists (us) who thought we were getting an amazing deal) we made our way back to the bus station and piled onto the soonest transport to Hamah. Hamah was a quiet city after Aleppo, and we enjoyed a wandering walk to see the famous Roman-era waterwheels. The larger of the two was a good 50+ feet in diameter! The wheels rested in stone blocks and are not lubricated by anything but water... strange squeaks and groans and creaks could be heard for a few hundred feet! On the way home, we spotted some taxis taking a break. We also managed to wrangle a tour of a pop plant. As much as the Middle East "waste system" leaves the countries wanting, the recycling of pop bottles is rather religious, no pun intended! When you buy a pop, if you stick around, drink, and return the bottle, it is one price. If you take the bottle with you, that is a markedly higher price. Those used bottles are collected, checked for cracks/chips, steam-cleaned, filled with pop (in this factory, orange), and then the differing labels are sorted. So buying "Orangina" as opposed to orange pop from, say, Pepsi, is no real difference!
We carried on to Homs after getting our free pop (being a 'tourist' has its prices, but it also has a few perks!). Big city again! Different from Aleppo, though. We refused the exorbitant taxi fare and walked our way to our "home" for the next couple nights. When nighttime came, Homs came alive. Aleppo was a big city and stayed a big city even at night. busy during the day, busy at night, no real change in the character. Homs, however, bloomed after sunset. More bicycles, and the taxis, well, lets just say that the taxis were are resplendent and varied as a tropical rainforest. Flashing lights, UV bulbs, wacky honks, and even fuzzy dice! Our first day trip from Homs was to Krak de Chevalier, a famous Crusader ruin. One thing we didn't realize until you see the castle is the amount of effort and time the crusaders spent in the Middle East. A string of castles dotting the landscape and 100 years of mostly occupation! Krak de Chevalier was a well-preserved warren of corners, hallways, and rooms. Dave was enjoying his new camera, and the neat lighting gave some... interesting pictures! Peter played with the little point-and-shoot (We were so disgruntled with some of the photos taken by the camera that we bought a nice new Nikon F80 when we got home)...
Next day trip... Palmyra! Welcome to the desert! this was the longest mini-bus ride we had anywhere in the Middle East (except one in Egypt)... Early start, 6 hours, and straight East into the heat. Palmyra is an oasis with yet another crusader castle and an amazing set of Roman ruins. Interestingly enough, Syria is noticing that the water level at the oasis has been decreasing steadily as the population and water usage increase in Homs and Damascus. And apparently the Syrian government sees no real recourse to take, so slowly Palmyra drains... We knew it would be hot... but not 42+ degrees Celsius hot (108 F)! Luckily, it was also excruciatingly dry, and thus bearable. After a wander past the local camel race track and UP to the local crusader castle (unknowingly closed until noon and we arrived at 11. Nice walk, though!), we skipped the inside of the castle, wandered back DOWN, and had tea with a family living in the Roman ruins. We extricated ourselves minus a few Canadian Leaf pins (wisely brought by MacPalm) and walked though the maze of columns to our first camel-ride sales pitch and a guy riding a bicycle with a cooler of "cold" pops (hmmm 38 degrees cold?).
Many ice creams and pops later, we caught our mini-bus back to Homs. Crowded, hot, and long! Another night in Homs and onward to Damascus the next morning. We walked many miles in Damscus chasing money, Jordanian visas, and shade. A visit to the souq and the local mosque (credited with being the grandest mosque of them all, but I found it far from outstanding and less captivating then the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul) made for a couple fun pictures.
A close encounter with the crate-kind, some yummy mango milkshakes, PIZZA!, and 4 Jordanian visas later, we found ourselves wandering the halls of the National museum... somewhat disorganized and labels in a few languages, all excluding English. We managed to skim one wing, then left to entertain a kitten and hang with the locals in a park. The break was thoroughly enjoyable, except for a young husband whose main task seemed to be abusing his daughter. Discussions of Parenting 101 requirements abounded! We found a small artisans villa, housing paintings, inlay work, silver, and ceramics. Amazing workmanship.