Thursday, October 16, 2008

Syria: The friendly city of Raqqa

Chapter Four - The friendly city of Raqqa

Raqqa was a very friendly city ! I was invited practically everywhere for tea or sweets. Although there's nothing much going on, I loved every minute of my stay there.

I had a room in the Ammar Hotel. A single (with two beds, so actually a double) cost S£400. The only bit of 'luxury' is a wash-basin. Toilets and shower are down the hall. The rooms are rather noisy, but they're clean.

I haven't been offered supposedly free tea or coffee or any other scam like that. Apparently, some travellers have pointed out to the guy what's written in the LP guide… This guy, BTW, is not the most friendly guy you'll ever meet, but he's not so bad either.

Right across the street from the Ammar Hotel is a great shawarma joint. The owner, Abdallah, is a great guy. His food is excellent and cheap enough (S£25).

A stroll through the main street is very rewarding. The people are so friendly ! I was frequently invited for sweets and drinks. Astonishing !

At the end of the street is Bab Baghdad, the city's only remaining gate. It's not particularly impressive but dates from the Abassid period. Behind the gate is the skeleton of a mosque under construction. The works were halted some years ago, because the Iranian (re)sources dried up. It's a quite picturesque place. I followed the old city walls for a while (they run north from Bab Baghdad), but soon returned because the walk wasn't particularly interesting.

The initial reason I had come to Raqqa, was to pay a visit to the long dead desert city of Rasafeh. Getting there was much less difficult then I thought it would have been. First, I walked to the Raqqa bus station, but I was at the wrong side of the street. Mini/microbuses leave from the station at the left hand side of the street (if you're coming from the city centre). The local people quickly pointed out the right microbus to get to the Rasafeh turnoff. The fare was S£15. Soon enough the small Kia mini-van filled up and was crammed with 17 people and their luggage / groceries. It was fun though. A Syrian family made some kind of picnic of the 20 minute trip.

I was dropped off at al-Mansura, right by the turnoff to Rasafeh, which lies about 35 kilometres away. There is no public transport to it, as it is effectively a dead city. I quickly understood my only option was to hitch. I had walked about 50 metres or so, when I saw two men talking loudly. One left when I approached; I decided to ask the other one if it was easy to get a ride. He immediately invited me inside the house we were standing in front of. It turned out he was a doctor and the 'house' was something like a First Aid post. He gave medical assistance to people who couldn't afford to go to a private doctor. I was introduced to his two gorgeous beautiful daughters... and their children... Arabian coffee was served and we talked about this and that.

When I was about to leave, the doctor insisted on giving me some kind of present. As he couldn't immediately come up with something, he handed me a tube of anti- histamine ointment, some antibiotics and the Syrian version of Aspirin... At least I could leave for Rasafeh prepared ! :-)

Out on the road again, I was wondering how long it would take before I'd find a ride. Soon enough, as I discovered : the first car I flagged down stopped. I could come along for… S£250. Hmm… No, thanks. The next car… It stops too. "How much ? S£250 ?!?…" Same with the next, and the next… Apparently, all the locals are aware of the difficulties to get to the ruins and have all agreed to ask foreigners S£250 for the return trip. Yes : they wait for you or come along with you for a walk around the ruins.

About halfway from the turnoff to the ruins, we were stopped at an army checkpoint. I needed to get out and come to the HQ, where I had to talk to the captain. He didn't speak a word of English, and my Arabic is worse than bad, so not much talking went on, but I clearly understood that I had to be back after 40 minutes. Why ? I'll never know. But he really insisted on being back in time. This was the only time in Syria that I was stopped by army or police.

My 'driver' was a real nutcase. He drove like mad, even through the potholes, sometimes with no hands on the wheel. In the meantime he found it necessary to try and teach me Arabic, although he himself didn't speak a word of English. Would be nice of him, were it not that he had turned up the radio volume to the max, so I could hardly understand a word.

Already from a distance you can see the walled city lying there in the middle of nowhere. It's impressive because it takes in quite an area. Visitors enter through a monumental gateway. It's there that you also pay for yer' ticket.
Rasafeh is a very nice place to visit. There are some old churches and cisterns to be seen. But with this kind of money for the trip thither - and I could only stay for about half an hour ! - and a S£300 entry fee slapped on, I doubt if it will appeal to shoestring travellers. Guess not… This is one of those places that seemed to be free to enter previously, but now carry the heavy entrance burden so many sites in Syria do.

Getting back to the turnoff was no problem. Like I said, you're paying for a return trip. I had a great ecological experience in a garage, next door to the doctor's office. I wanted to get rid of the plastic water bottle I had been carrying during my visit to the ruins. I didn't want to throw it on the street, so I asked a guy in the garage where I could loose it. He gazed at me, then suddenly seemed to understand what I wanted, and... filled the bottle with tap water for me. Hmm. Not exactly right. I emptied the bottle and showed him I also wanted to ditch the bottle itself. He clearly didn't get it, and called upon another employee for help. He didn't get it either. So, I threw the bottle on the street, showed them this was not correct, and picked it up again. Then asked them if they understood, and now they did ! One of them took the bottle from me, and threw it away... on the street...
Anyway, I was back on the main road, and from there, I flagged down a big bus, paid about S£15 again, and travelled back the 30 minutes to Raqqa in a bit of comfort.

Back in my hotel, I washed up a bit and went out on the streets again. I needed another one of Abdallah's shawarmas and a drink. I was walking in Quneitra Street when I was invited in by a tailor. He was a friendly man, very eager to practice his English. I didn't mind teaching him some more words. He was incredibly enthusiastic, a nice guy to talk to and a good listener. He introduced me to his aid Ali, a Kurdish boy, and to all his customers, the pastry baker next door, a couple of construction workers, the shawarma seller, the local photographer,... All great people, incredibly hospitable, and the one even more friendly than the other.
I spent my whole evening at his shop, and wasn't bored for a minute.

The next morning, I was going to Aleppo, but first I dropped in at my friend, the tailor's. He was so happy to see me, and frankly, I was very happy to see him again too. Tea was served immediately. The photographer, Pashar Taha, was there again as well. I got to know him better too. He's a true professional; he sent some of his work to my home. Pictures to remember each other were made, and extensive good-byes were uttered.

It was with some pain in my heart that I had to leave these kind folks, and this very pleasant city. But I knew I had made some good friends...

At the bus station, I bought a ticket to Aleppo. It cost me S£85. The company was called Express Tours, and I can really recommend them. Their buses are very good. They take about three hours.

Next to me on the bus was a very nice Arab man. He didn't speak any English, but by using symbolic language we managed to mutually entertain each other during the whole trip.

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