Entry Info

15th (Sun)
Aug 2010

[day115] Some meetings at Hama

As I enjoyed Damascus fully, I decided to go to the next destination, Hama, located in the northern part of Syria. Many travellers stay there long time for its convenience as a location to the other important sites around the area although the town itself has only huge waterwheels for the tourists' attraction. The long distance coach was quite comfortable. It has only 3 columns(1:2) and I could sit on the one without neighbours. After feeling drowsy for 3 hours, I noticed the bus arrived at Hama.

The best cheap hotel in the Middle East

I checked in to the Riad Hotel recommended by Iyo that I met in Damascus. According to her, many travellers praise the hotel as the best cheap accommodation in the Middle East. As it would be safe, unusually I made a reservation by email beforehand. (Though they don't have a website, you can contact with them by email "") In fact, the quality of the hotel was quite high. Although I would argue the accommodation in Damascus had a better atmosphere since the Riad Hotel is in an ordinary building, I liked this hotel very much for its absolute cleanness. The price for a single room with no bathroom was only 600SYP(13USD). Though it was quite a small room with a single bed and a little desk, it looked enough for one person. Incidentally, the ensuite double room even had a private fridge, which is quite rare in this class. I can recommend this room to couples who are travelling.

After checking in, I walked around the area to find a nice dinner but there are somehow few restaurants on the streets. Usually every town has bustling streets with restaurants and local people. However the receptionist told me there are no such streets in this town. Although there were plenty of cloth or grocery stores, I could find only a couple of Kebab shops and I bought one Kebab sandwich from them then took it away to the hostel. I began to feel bit tired of Kebabs as I ate one almost every day.

Meeting again (and again)

While eating the sandwich, I heard a very familiar voice. Oh, Shin and Tomoko, who had parted at Damascus, came again. Counting Dahab and Damascus, this is the third time to meet them. Likewise the case in Damascus I felt really comforted by seeing friends' face. Since the Riad Hotel has some private tours to the surrounding area, we decided to go together with a Japanese man staying there at the same time. I'll write about this episode later as it takes bit too long.

Serendipitous meeting

We had one more wonderfully unforgettable meeting at Hama. When I walked with Shin and Tomoko to go to a hammam we lost our way at the old town. The map of the Japanese guide book didn't help at all and the night had already started falling. It's a theory to ask passersby when we get lost. Therefore, we started asking people randomly in English. Although most of them not understanding English looked just bewildered, luckily one young guy using his mobile phone responded positively. He could speak English a little. I told him that we are looking for the hammam and he offered to lead us there as it was very close to where we were. In fact, the hammam was located at just on the middle of a narrow passage connected to our original location but I suppose we couldn't have reached there without his support.

He is a university student in Saudi Arabia and came back to his home town here. His name is "Obada". Before going to the hammam we decided to go to dinner together as he suggested he could take us to a nice local restaurant. The meal was grilled whole chicken which we ate in Damascus too. It was quite a large amount and actually delicious. What's more, surprisingly he paid for all of us. I hadn't realised his intention when he withdrew some money from the ATM on the way to the restaurant. Obada said, "Isram has a rule 'Be Gentle to Travellers' Never mind you are my guests." We accepted his kind offer.

On the next day, after coming back to the tour we met again and Obada gave us a walking tour around Hama old town. He took us to some very local spots like the back of the waterwheels and small market. He looked very proud when he was introducing his town to us. During the walk we talked a lot about our country, religion and business. As he is learning programming, we took our opportunity to work together too. Besides, he treated us to dinner again. Though we tried to pay, he stuck to his custom. In this case, we have to treat him with delicious Japanese meals when he has a chance to come to Japan. We should keep this friendship for a long time though it was just a coincidence to meet him at first.

Entry Info

Balabakk and the God of ThunderSince spending one week only in Beirut seemed to be bit too long, I decided to go to Balabakk to see the old temple when I switched the accommodation. The main transportation I used was of course Service. In the other countries, Service means a shared taxi operated with a normal car but here in Lebanon, the term covers a mini bus which carries about 10 people as well. Basically they are mostly used by the local people and not by foreigners except for the budget backpackers like us.

Almost all local people in the Middle East countries don't speak English but how do we manage to get in the local bus used by such people only. The basic strategy is quite simple; just repeat the name of the destination. Like "Balabakk? Balabakk?". If the driver beckons, this must be the bus you can use. On the payment, probably people around you help counting the notes. While the private taxi drivers often try to rip you off, this kind of thing usually wouldn't happen in Services as you just need to pay the same amount as the other people. Besides, in order to make the trip safer, it's quite effective to get notes of your destinations' names written in Arabic from the accommodation. Showing the notes, you can make sure the driver would drop you off at the destination. Oh, don't forget to get the name of the return trip's destination as well.

Temple of the God of Thunder

Balabakk and the God of ThunderThe ruin of Balabakk is very famous for the well preserved temples which were originally built in the ancient Roman era. The temple appeared absolutely magnificent even for me who is not usually engrossed with those kind of ruins. How come the ancient people could construct such a huge building? What's more, there were just a few tourists on the site and I could peacefully stroll around and shoot photos. This is very important as the tremendous number of tourists often spoils the atmosphere of the place though I know I'm a part of them.

However when I was enjoying photo shootings, the sky was getting darker. Although it was a beautiful sunny day in the beginning, before I noticed the sky had became gray and finally the big rain drops started falling with thunder and lightning. Coincidentally, the name of the temple I visited was "Jupiter Temple". In a way, this is a very well made story as Jupiter is known as the god of lightning. But I had to take shelter from the rain at the museum on the site for 2 hours. According to site managers, it hardly rains in the area, probably a few times of precipitations per year. Well, I should feel honoured for this rare experience.

Incidentally the name of accommodation I stayed at that night was "Jupiter Hotel" too. The price of 15USD for a dorm room without hot shower system was quite touristic but as there were no other visitors there I could use the room privately. Though they had a decent private room with shower, I'd rather go back to Beirut and eat something nice than spend 40USD for a mediocre room. There were nothing special to do at night and I was just reading book on a shabby bed. At the time, I was reading the Lord of the Rings on my iPhone and the adventurous story cheered up my heart towards travelling.

Meeting with a Nice Guy.

Next morning, the rain stopped and the sky became clear again. After walking around the area for a while, I made my way back to Beirut by Service as usual. After a while of the departure, the middle aged guy next to me tried talking to me with his little broken English. He said he was a lawyer living in the next town of Beirut. After chatting idly like "Where are you from?", "How's Beirut" and such, the guy suddenly offered me a lift to Beirut. In fact, the Service we were on would terminate on the outer edge of Beirut and I had to change the bus to go Downtown. Immediately the bad memory of being severely ripped off in Bangkok flashed into my mind but considering the circumstances, a guy who accidentally sat next to me on a local bus wouldn't be that kind of fraud. Besides, Lebanon was the country of Muslims whose principal is "Be gentle to travellers". Therefore, I got up my courage to follow him. Anyway, I can manage most troubles if I get seriously involved with some.

Somehow we went to his office at first and drunk tea together and after that he surely took me to the Beirut downtown, precisely in front of the accommodation. What a nice guy he was! In reality, the local people in this area were absolutely kind to travellers. I couldn't count how many times they helped us. For instance a man walked with us to the accommodation in a minor town; a lady tried to find someone who could speak English to help us. It was definitely because of their kindness that I could safely travel though the area that the language was totally different from ours. Thanks to them, I started thinking about being gentler to the foreigners coming to Japan after this trip.

Entry Info

Parting from the friends, I started the preparation for going to Lebanon the next morning. It took about 20 minutes to go to the bus terminal located at the outskirts of the old town. As the driver intentionally stopped in front of the Service taxi terminal, I could immediately hop in to the Service. When I used Services, the center of the back seat was always appointed to me as I'm quite skinny to fit in the space. Surrounded by big Arabic guys for 3 hours, making a little conversation using my poor vocabulary, it was a classic Service trip indeed.

Again passing the border was surprisingly easy. No sooner had I shown my passport than the officer, who was bit arrogant to Europeans, became very friendly. I really appreciate being Japanese. The cost of the visa was 25000LBP(16USD) for 14 days. However I had a little problem here. Despite the fact that they accept Lebanon pounds only, there are no ATMs or even money exchanges. Luckily as I found an ATM just over the gate, saying in body language "I just gotta use it!" I managed to cross the border temporarily. I like this flexibility.

Up the Lebanese mountain range, where you can even ski in the winter season, the Service continued driving. Lebanon was certainly adorned with green although the other Middle East countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria appeared to me the Countries of Sands. I hadn't seen the scenery of trees and mountains for a long time. Once the road started descending, the sight of the Mediterranean Sea, which I'd never seen before, came into my view over Beirut city.

Basically, I didn't book the accommodations in the Middle East after Dahab. One reason is which is a sort of a lifeline for accommodations doesn't work well in the area. And most importantly, there are anyways no problems without reservations. Even if the first candidate was full, it was quite easy to find an alternative. The staff in accommodation also seemed like to get used to accepting the travellers who don't have particular schedules. Therefore, I arrived at Beirut just having two names of accommodations but a problem occurred this time. The first candidate, Talal's New Hotel was full and the second one had closed already. Thanks to the taxi driver, I finally managed to find the bed for the night though it was bit overpriced (30USD for a twin room plus 6USD for the net) in this area where the cost of dorm room was 10USD. Anyway just for time being, I'd stay in this accommodation and booked for Talal's from the 4th night.

Not only this accommodation problem, Lebanon especially for Beirut is often avoided by budget backpackers for the higher prices than the other Middle East countries. Actually, one piece of sandwich cost about triple than in its neighbor Syria. You need at the very least 10USD per person for eating out Downtown but with the same budget you could go to a nice local restaurant with 3 friends in Amman. Nevertheless, I believe I would "lose" if I avoid going Lebanon just for the monetary issue. Besides I wouldn't be able to go to Europe which is much more expensive than Beirut.

And I found Beirut is in a way quite reasonable if you have not too tight a budget. The dishes from the restaurants are quite high quality but not so expensive. For example, one Italian pizza with a glass of fruit juice was about 15USD; a premium beef steak with a glass of red wine was about 30USD. Although it is said that it's quite expensive as a Middle East cities, it's definitely cheaper than Tokyo. Besides, both of their quality of service and taste were quite high presumably because of the many competitors around the area. The services which are very friendly yet respectful to the customers were totally different from the snobbish restaurant in Damascus.

But how come Beirut is such a "rich" city? Blooming with the astronomical amount of money from the oil, Beirut in fact had been once the central of Islamic finance until 70's when the notorious 10 year civil war and the following Israeli air strike. Some people say Lebanon is "Swiss in the Middle East" but this metaphor comes not only from the Lebanese mountain range as beautiful as the Alps. Due to the repeated war and the confusion, most of the funds escaped to Dubai but there are still many banks in the city. Besides, the stores of Bang & Olufsen and Vertu, Porsche and Ferrari parked parallel, I could find Downtown has got more luxurious cultures than Tokyo. Though it doesn't have skyscrapers, the atmosphere of the city was similar to Dubai.

Nevertheless, there are still many marks of wars on the town despite the tremendous amount of funds invested for the reconstruction. You can find abandoned buildings with huge bullet holes in the Old city and soldiers with machineguns everywhere. In the Downtown, there are so many new Roman style buildings guarded by the solders but they are totally standardised making me feels as if I'd been in a theme park. There were not many pedestrians in the daytime and quite a few "Opening Soon" signs were displayed on the perfectly polished show windows. While there are signs of wealth, the city wore a strange melancholy. I hope to visit this city again when all reconstructions have been completed and the new stores start working.

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