Thursday, October 16, 2008

Syria: Bosra and Palmyra

Chapter Two - Bosra and Palmyra

I intended to visit Suweida and Bosra the next day. My blistered feet were killing me, though, and I was only able to visit the latter, and then only foot by foot ! I left my hotel, bought myself a pair of good, airy sandals, and took a metered cab to the bus station.

Getting to Bosra with Damas Tours was impossible. Apparently, their buses only go to De'ra nowadays. A company called Jameel had buses for S£50 one-way. Buses roughly leave at intervals of 2.5 hrs. The last one leaves at 8 pm in either direction.

I was at the station at about 10:30, but only had a bus two hours later. I killed the time eating the excellent chicken shawarma which is sold there, and talking to local people departing to variety of destinations. So many people were talkative, that the arrival of my bus came as both a surprise and also a bit of a disappointment.

Upon boarding I was offered a plastic cup of drinking water, similar to when travelling by bus in Turkey. One big difference with Turkey, though, is that this water is not mineral water, but ordinary tap water. However, I drank it on all bus trips during my holidays in Syria, and didn't experience any problems.

The driver was a friendly guy. Getting to Bosra took 2 hours, including the 'eat-a-snack-and-pee stop' which seems to be mandatory on all long distance bus trips. Sometimes this can be a blessing, but often it comes much too soon, and by the time you 'have to go', the stop's already behind you.

Once in Bosra, I got out near the Gate of the Wind. I had a drink at the small shop which has been set up there, and started my shuffling walk over the cobbled main street. The ruins are on both sides of the this street, and so are the houses of the present inhabitants of the city. To my surprise, there were few other tourists. More locals than tourists actually. The whole place had a quite un-touristy feel about it and had a lot of atmosphere. I felt as if I had been through a time warp. I loved it.

I thought the tourist crowds were hiding in the magnificent and very impressive Roman theatre, probably the best preserved in the world, but no. Also here, more locals than tourists. A school was day-tripping and the songs and dances of the girls really cheered up things, almost making the place functional again.

Mosque of Omar, Bosra.jpgEntrance to the theatre was S£300. It's not cheap, but it's a place worth visiting, I think. The rest of the ruins - which are also interesting and really worth a look - can still be visited free of charge. A guy will be dedicated to show you around the Hammam Manjak (which is totally unnecessary), for which he'll expect a tip of not less than S£20-30. Nearby is the Mosque of Omar, which is said to be one of the three oldest mosques in the world, but probably it is not. A blind man sitting near the northern entrance stood up, approached and welcomed me, and suggested to show me inside. Touched by this gesture, I wholeheartedly accepted. I was greeted by a hunchbacked old man - this is a place of true faith, not a tourist hangout - who showed me around. The interior is not in any way spectacular, but beautiful in its simplicity. I thanked both friendly men, and left.

Guys selling 'antique' coins continuously walk around the site in search of a prey, although they keep a low profile and are not pushy. Their prices are ridiculous, and so are those of drinks and souvenirs at the stands which lie amidst the ruins. If you don't settle a price before opening a soft drink, expect to pay S£50 for it !

At the other end of the main street (from the Gate of the Wind), is the Nabataean Gate, once the entrance to a royal palace. A sole Nabataean pillar still stands. It's very plain, but is interesting in that it's the only one in the whole of Syria. Right by this gate, Mohammad, a 17-year old youngster, has his shop. He speaks excellent English and good Italian, and is a great guy to talk to.

In the evening, I needed a bus back to Damascus. At 6:30 I decided to go looking for the Jameel office. Upon hitting the main street, I stumbled across the Karnak office. As I didn't have a clue of where to find the Jameel office, I thought "What the hell. I can just as well take a Karnak bus back." and walked in. I asked the guy there when the next bus to Damascus would be leaving. He told me there were no more buses after 5:30 pm. "Oh, okay", I said, "could you please tell me where I can find the office of a private company which does have buses ?" The guy told me there weren't any, although of course I knew very well there had to be the Jameel office. But ! I could either stay at the dorm inside the citadel (there are only two places to stay in Bosra, the other being the expensive Cham Palace) or rent his minibus to drive me back to Damascus. 'Only' S£1500 ! I told him I'd take a pass on his offer. He kept insisting, I kept refusing. His price didn't come down BTW. I got fed up with this, and walked out. Another person crossed the street and asked if I wanted to go to Damascus. I said I did. He was just about to show me the way to the (probably) Jameel office, when the Karnak dude came running out and shouted to the other man in Arabic. Suddenly the other guy also told me there were no more buses and also proposed to go by minibus for S£1500. I told the two they were nothing but scoundrels, and that I'd rather hitch back than taking their minibus. I walked off down the main street, and after five minutes in eastern direction, I found the Jameel office at the left hand side of the road. I booked my ride, and at 8 pm I smilingly whizzed past the Karnak office… About two and a half hours later, I arrived back in Damascus. Not at the bus station, surprisingly, but just in a street somewhere, where many taxis were waiting. I didn't have a clue of where I was, and nobody appeared to speak any English, so it was difficult to agree on a price with the taxi drivers. As I expected I wasn't far from the centre - and rightfully so, as it turned out later on - I kept bargaining. Finally, I agreed on a price of one Dollar (their initial price was much higher !). Still too much, no doubt, but it was probably my only option at that time of day. And walking long distances with the condition my feet were in, was impossible...

The next day, after a good night's sleep, I checked out of my hotel, and took a cab to the Pullman bus station. It's an awfully busy place. After some initial queries of where I wanted to go, I was taken by the arm and immediately after a cursory check of my backpack by the military at the gate, I found myself in the right office for the bus to Palmyra. Otherwise a tough job if you can't read Arabic, and you have 70 or so offices with names in Arabic only to choose from ! A ticket was S£130, not very expensive for a three hour ride.

The bus wasn't exactly luxurious, but not bad either. Right in the seat behind me, was a man, a writer, who was originally from Deir ez-Zur but now lived in the capital, and who was travelling with his child and beautiful Lebanese wife to his place of birth to attend a funeral. He spoke good English, his wife good French. They were great people to talk to, and I discussed many topics with them. They considerable enlivened the otherwise boring journey; the landscape is very monotonous and - to be honest - ugly.

For Belgians, used to living in a tiny country where distances are equally small, three hours is quite a long time to be on a bus, so I was glad to arrive in Palmyra.
The first thing I saw when the bus entered the city perimeter, were the incredibly beautiful, extensive ruins behind the Monumental Arch. I immediately felt the urge to get out and start exploring, but I needed to find a place to stay first; that way I could also get rid of my backpack.

As soon as I got out of the bus, I was approached by a man who asked if I was looking for a place to stay. I said I was going to the Orient Hotel, which had been recommended by many. He made up some story about the Orient, and suggested to come and check out his place first, the Citadel Hotel. Thinking by myself that looking doesn't cost anything, I decided to take up his offer. To my surprise, the place wasn't bad at all, perfectly clean and very conveniently located near the museum, the bus stop, the main street of town (Kouwatli St) and within walking distance of the main ruins. According to its owners, the hotel has been recently refurbished, and singles go for US$10, doubles for $20. Doubles have their own spotless bathroom. With these prices it's definitely not the backpackers joint it seemingly used to be, but I didn't mind that at all; I decided to try it for a night, and ended up staying there a couple of days.

Downstairs is a small restaurant which serves simple but quite good dishes. For a budget filling, the meat sandwiches at S£25 are excellent.

You can get many things done here: international telephone calls (24 hours a day apparently; I called late at night without a problem) at S£200 a minute, change Dollars (not at really good rates though), and arrange trips to just about everywhere, including Deir ez-Zur, Dura Europos and Mari.

I informed about the price of a trip to the Qasr al-Hayr ash-Sharki. A driver 'happened' to be present, and he told me it was S£4000. I laughed at him, and told him he was nuts. The price dropped rapidly to S£3500, S£3000, a little hesitation and... S£2500. But then he refused to come down. I took me ages (literally !) to get down to S£2000. But even that was too much for me. He said less than S£2000 was impossible. I tried everything, but he didn't budge. I told him he could drive by himself, as I surely wasn't going to come along. I stood up and walked away. Suddenly, he started shouting, and came running after me. He was willing to bargain again. Finally, after fierce discussions, we reached an agreement : S£1600. Understanding that this was really it, I took it.

In the nearby museum, I enquired about the entrance fees. These have now reached disastrous levels for budget travellers and people really travelling on a shoestring will find themselves skipping a couple (or all) of the pay sites.

Entrance to the Temple of Bel is S£300. To the Museum S£300. To the castle, Qala'at Ibn Maan, S£150 (so definitely not free anymore !) and if you want to see the Funerary Towers another S£150 (without the 'necessary' wheels !).

I think it's time for the people making the decisions for entrance fees to sit around the table and agree on a combined ticket price. I think S£500 would be more than reasonable, as none of the above sites is really worth its asking price, IMHO. The best thing is - luckily - still free : most of the ruins that lie to the left and right of the Great Colonnade.

In the early afternoon, I started walking (with improved feet BTW ! ;) ) to the main complex. I was only as far as the museum, when a guy came up to me and wanted to know if I was interested in visiting the Funerary Towers (tower-like tombs). Actually I was. I asked how much he wanted for it. His initial asking price was S£400, way too much ! He insisted that the towers were 5 kilometres out of town. I knew that was a lie. They are only about 500 metres away. Thing was, I knew I needed a car because the people at the museum simply refuse to give the key of the towers to anyone without a hired car. Real Mafia practices ! Anyway, there was no way (I know of) around this, so I had to bargain. And you have to bargain really hard. Still, I couldn't get any lower than S£200. When you've come down to S£300, they will throw in a 'free' ride up the castle hill. If you don't want that, keep trying and another S£100 will come off. We agreed to meet in front of the museum at 4:00 because there are set times to visit the towers. There's only one visit in the afternoon : at 4:30.

I continued to the Monumental Arch and the Colonnaded Street, which I had seen from the bus. A young boy near the Arch tried to sell me a local cola for S£100. It must be somehow representative for what the package tour people are willing to pay. I paid the usual S£25, and for that he also wanted to take some pictures of me. :-)
This, IMHO, is the best part of Palmyra. It's fun to explore and there are not too many other tourists. The real gem was the theatre. I had it all to myself and could quietly fantasise about its past.

There's not that much to the part behind the Tetrapylon and the Great Colonnade, but as I had the time, I took a peek.
I was so close to some of the Funerary Towers that I could've easily visited them from where I was. I loathed the idea of having to go back all the way and hire a car to drive to them again. But I had to. It was around 4 when I arrived at the museum. I met my driver, who appeared to be working there. I bought my tickets for the museum and the towers. The museum is also the place to look for guides, if you want/need them. I didn't. They can cost you just about anything. An official guide, hired at the museum will expect S£300 per hour. There's no bargaining on that. An unofficial guide, whose knowledge you just have to trust, will ask the same initially, but will come down to S£100 per hour if you really go for it.
I had about 35 minutes to spare inside the museum; this turned out to be enough for me, although it's quite good.

At exactly 4:30 I left for the Towers. The really impressive keys (no shit !) were handed to my driver. I visited the Towers of Yemliko and Elahbel, and the Tomb of Atenatan, a hypogeum which is also kept locked. Although these places were interesting, they are not worth the money involved. My advice is to give them a miss.

I concluded the day with a visit to Qala'at Ibn Maan, the castle on the top of the hill which is visible from just about everywhere in Palmyra. I understood the views from the castle at sunset were stunning. Unfortunately, the day I was up in the castle, it was raining and very, very windy. A fine haze because of whirling dust obscured the views, and the sky was dark grey. This left me only the castle itself, and that's rather disappointing, and definitely not worth the S£150 which is now being asked to enter.

In the evening, I took a stroll through Palmyra's main street(s), past the restaurants, shops and hotels. On my way back to my hotel, a sign drew my attention : the Traditional Palmyra Restaurant bears a sign on which a recommendation by the Lonely Planet guide is printed. The owner noticed me looking at it, and invited me in. I asked him : "Are you still as good as Lonely Planet says ?" He said they were. I told him to prove that to me. "No problem", he said. Being hungry I walked in. I ordered fresh orange juice, which was lovely. I noticed a sign on the wall, advertising mensaf, the traditional Bedouin food. Traditionally, it consists of a bed of rice mixed with lamb and peanuts and/or pistachios, topped with the gaping head of the lamb in question. The brains, eyes and tongue are all to be consumed ! I asked the restaurant owner if the mensaf was traditional. He assured me it was not, and that it was also available with chicken meat. I decided to go for that, and really, it was delicious ! A lentil or tomato soup was 'on the house'. The price, at around S£300, wasn't bad either, not for a speciality. So, yes, the place is still as good as LP says.

Back at my hotel, I was invited to tea by the owner. It was there I met Erik, another Belgian, who was interested in coming along to Qasr al-Hayr ash-Sharki. What I'll call a proxy for the driver I had bargained with, restarted the negotiations about the price for a ride. Without blushing, he just doubled the price. We had come down quite a way, when we discovered a French couple would be joining us. This again changed the situation. To keep a long story short, we finally got down to US$20 per person for the two of us, and US$25 for the French people. At least it was less than the S£1600 I would've had to pay if I'd gone alone, so it was fine by me.

The next morning, I got up at 4:30 and at 5 a mini-van with the four of us left for the desert castle. A monotonous drive over asphalt roads took about two and a half hours. Then the van left the road and continued over tracks in the scrubby desert. This is not desert as you imagine a desert and which you find for example in neighbouring Jordan. This is a more like a steppe, but with so little vegetation that only Bedouin survive here.

The driver drove like mad at high speeds, so it was in just over three hours that we arrived at the castle. Except for the Bedouins who are at home in this region, there was nothing for miles around. This is really a place to come if you want solitude. Only for that though, as the castle is not that spectacular. The place can be divided into two parts : there's the actual castle, which is kept locked and for which entrance has to be paid, and there's an old caravanserai, free of charge, but also heavily ruined and not of much interest. The entrance fee for the castle, which used to be S£100 (now probably S£150, as on the 1st of May the government increased the price of all tickets with 50%), has to be paid at the only house in the vicinity. It's about one kilometre from the entrance. We decided it wasn't worth it; a look inside satisfied the four of us. There wasn't much to be seen, apart from the gateway, similar to the one now on display at the National Museum of Damascus.

I doubt if the place is really worth the trouble and money involved. We stayed here for about one hour and then returned to Palmyra.

In the afternoon, I said good-bye to Erik and went to visit the Temple of Bel, presumably the highlight of every visit to Palmyra. I strongly disagree with that. Anyway, it's not that the temple isn't interesting or something, because it is, but it's just that it's overcrowded, too expensive to enter and simply not the single most beautiful thing to see in the city. There are really too many people inside, mostly tour groups, this in stark contrast to the rest of the ruins. Not that I don't like people, but it does little good for the atmosphere of the site. It's hard to muse about the past when people are almost pushing you aside wherever you stand. It's still ages away from the situation at eg. Petra in Jordan, but it won't be long anymore before it's on a par.

I decided to have an early night's sleep - after all I was up at 4:30 that morning ! The next day I left for Deir ez-Zur. The Karnak (= state bus company) office in Palmyra is virtually across the street from the museum, very convenient. Really good luxury buses leave many times a day here for Deir (and other destinations). The fare was S£75; the trip took about two hours. I must say that the quality of the Karnak buses was certainly up there with some of the better private companies !

No comments: