Entry Info

Damascus Solitary WalkingAfter parting from the friends, I remained at in Damascus and the time for a carefree solitary walking came. I actually like the time that I don't have to think about others and feel relaxed with walking around without specific purposes. It is said that Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world as the city has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years. Due to the conquests after the conquests, most of the ancient cities were buried under the new cities but still the remaining old town has more than 1,000 years of history. And the best charm of Damascus is that we can walk through two areas with very different atmospheres, the Muslim area and the Christian area.

Damascus Muslim Area

Damascus Solitary WalkingAt the centre of the old town, Umayyad mosque, one of the biggest mosques in the world stands there and many pilgrims from all over the world come. Starting from the mosque, big souks (shopping streets) lay and various shops are selling their goods. According to the local people, you can buy anything there. As a person from Tokyo where you can buy literallry anything, I felt it was bit overstateding but in fact they have much many more local consumer goods than the other neighbouring countries. Looking at some cool leather stuffs, I thought I'd come here if I was a buyer of fashion items.

Damascus Christian Area

Damascus Solitary WalkingOn the other hand the Christian area is less busy than the Muslim area. There are no big shopping streets like the souks, just walking along the narrow allies, I could find some small churches and mysterious souvenir shops. Although Syria registers Islam as their official religion, some Christians have been living for generations in Damascus even since before the Islam was born. At the Christian area, there are still some roads and churches mentioned in the Old Testament.

Trying "hammam"

Damascus Solitary WalkingI had a chance to try "hammam" known as Turkish bath in the Moslem area. This hammam place has an amazingly long history. According to them, they've been running since 7th century and even the real crusaders used the actual site. Although this place is used as a kind of a social place for the local people, a foreigner like me was courteously welcomed too. After slipping into a seat of with a towel wrapped around my waist, the first stage was a dry sauna. This sauna was absolutely awesome. I felt like as if a lot of waste accumulated in my body scattered away and realised that I was quite tired at that time. The next stage was a steam sauna where everyone washed their body. And finally a brawny hairy Arabic guy was there to give me a peering and massage. Not listening to my moan, he continued his service rigorously for some minutes. It was actually nice despite some strong pain.

After all, it was the time for breaking downtaking a break with a bottle of coke as they don't have any alcoholic drinks for the Muslim rule although a bottle of beer must've been the best beverage on this occasion. For this full menu, they charged 600SYP (13USD approx.) Considering about the local prices, this was almost the same as going to a decent restaurant. Though it's quite nice amount of money, I can understand as I suppose this should be quite similar act to Japanese people going to big public baths. After checking out, they gave me a small cup of Arabic coffee and the drowsiness caused by the bath went away completely.

The legendary croissant.

Damascus Solitary WalkingA croissant from Damascus, I heard about this story from many travellers from the North when I was in Dahab. At a back alley in the Christian area, there is a small bakery being talkedspoken of as a sort of a legend among Japanese travellers. Although they sell some sweets like éclairs, their main product is a delicious croissant baked with full of batters . The butter oil would stick to the paper bag if you don't eat quickly enough. Besides, one piece of it is merely 20SYP(0.5USD) and big enough for a small lunch. Though it might be difficult to find out the place as the area looked like a city maze, if you have a chance to go to Damascus, this bakery is definitely worth trying. As the Christian area is not so large you'll possibly see the store if you just walk around without a map. You wouldn't miss it since there are always queues by the local people and the smell of the butter is very intense.

The food culture at Damascus

Like this croissant, it seems like Damascus has a very vast range of food culture for the local common people. I always bought Kebab sandwiches on the street and draunk fresh fruit juice everyday using "vitamin supplementation" as a good excuse. Either mango or banana could be the best for me. What's more I must mention about a the gelato. There is a famous traditional gelato shop on the big souk at the Muslim area and their milk gelato was so smooth and tasty. It's absolutely essential for walking around the souks. Though the foods are totally different from Beirut where I stayed at just prior to Damascus, I suppose the food culture of each city just flourished according to the people who dominate there.

Entry Info

20th (Tue)
Jul 2010

[day111] Damascus with Friends

After staying in Lebanon for a week, I went back to Damascus again. For this time, I got the 14-day tourist visa and travelled around Syria. Besides, I expected to see a couple of my friends from Dahab, Shinya and Tomoko in Damascus. We travelled together until Amman and though we once separated there -they headed to Israel while I went to Lebanon- we made a promise to meet again in Damascus as we were planning to visit the city on a close date. Before leaving from Lebanon, I let them know that I was coming to Damascus on the day. After get out from the taxi, worrying about how to actually meet with them I was walking to the Marche Square where there is a lot of budget accommodation ally and found a familiar guy waving to me. Oh, it's Shinya! They anticipated my scheduling pattern and wait there having tea. It was a quite an impressive welcome indeed.

Damascus with FriendsIn the evening, we ate a famous grilled chicken for dinner. A whole chicken for 240SYP (6USD) was quite good value. Taking it to the accommodation, we started eating the meat with bare hands. The succulent meat with thin bread originally having wrapped the meat was absolutely delicious, probably the best in Syria. Besides accompanied with this juicy meat, we definitely needed some chilled beer. Although it was quite hard to find a liquor store as the Damascus downtown where we were staying was for Muslims, we finally managed to locate a small store by asking quite a few people around us. The beer with friends talking about each travels was far better than usual.

Shinya and Tomoko were planning to visit Lebanon for about a week from the next day. This was the time that I could make use of the fresh information there and they told me about Israel in return. It was quite enjoyable to exchange this kind of information from the fellow travellers. Though both of our plans were very tentative, we promised to get together again in Hama, the northern part of Syria probably in a week. Besides, they left me an important task saying "Please say hello to Iyo. She'll be back to Damascus Tomorrow."

Iyo is a girl we met in Dahab too. In order to visit Israel, she had left Dahab before us but coincidentally met again in Amman. We actually came to Damascus together and went to the Chinese restaurant on the night. After seeing off the couple, I visited the accommodation in the old town where she would be staying but she was not there. Losing any idea where she was, I was just strolling around the Moslem area with a special ice cream there and found a familiar girl pointing to me. Oh, it's Iyo. Though Damascus was a quite large city, it was not very rare to encounter some travellers since the places strangers can walk around were limited.

Standing at the corner and chatting, she explained that she had just finished travelling around Syria and had a plan to go back to Japan the next day. It was almost the end of her half a year round the world journey. Therefore, I was honoured to accompany her for her last dinner abroad and we decided to go a fashionable restaurant in the old town's Christian area. There are quite a few den style restaurants along the small alleys at the Christian area and many local young people seemed to visit them.

Damascus with FriendsSomehow she looked bewildered when she saw the menu on the seat. I asked why and her answer was "There are no prices on my menu." I presume this was a sort of a gentle message from the restaurant to MY guest "Don't worry about the price and order whatever you like." Of course, I had a decent menu with prices. I didn't have the faintest idea a restaurant in Damascus would do this style. Well, this would be my treat though I'd been thinking about it. Anyway the bill was not as scary as Lebanon although we ordered some a la carte dishes and glasses of cocktails (Non alcoholic only, disappointingly!)

During the dinner, she told me a lot of useful information about the places and the accommodations in Syria. Besides, she gave me a Japanese guide book about the Middle East countries. Though I usually prefer not to bring any physical books during this trip, the guide book seemed very helpful in this area where the net often didn't work. Anyway I found meeting with friends again and again in the other countries is very interesting. It was a precious occasion to stay in Dahab such a long time. I feel like meeting with them again in the near future.

Entry Info

We used a "Service" taxi which is a sort of shared taxi arranged by the accommodation to go to Damascus from Amman. With the 3 girls I met in Dahab and Petra, we set off to the North again.

The Syrian Visa Issue

Thinking of Syria, visa issues often come to mind. According to the information from the net, it would be a very hard work to get a Syrian visa after departure from Japan. Perhaps, the embassies in Istanbul or Cairo could grant it. Nevertheless, the current situation seemed very different from the info. The guy from my Cairo accommodation told me that it is impossible to get a visa from the embassy. The travellers from the North that I met in Dahab said they could get the visa at the border without any problems. Besides these, the guy of Amman's accommodation assured us that the Syrian border would issue the visa to the most foreigners except for Americans. Anyway we had no choice but to trust their words and go to the border without the visa.

And the result was, it was a snap indeed! The driver who had many experiences guiding foreigners to here helped us a lot. He explained the detail of the immigration card which was written in Arabic only. After filling out the form, what we had to do was just submit the form and pay for the visa. They didn’t even ask any questions. The officer at the counter only said "Oh, Japanese, Welcome!" That's all. Maybe there are more questions and procedures to enter Australia.

There are two kinds of visa available for Japanese at the border, a Transit Visa for 48hours cost 8USD and a Tourist Visa for 14 days cost 24USD. But the officer at the border was quite amiable and even though one Japanese girl with me declared that she would stay in Syria for 10 days and go back to Japan directly, he somehow granted her aTransit Visa which is actually cheaper but only for 48 hours. He confirmed it will be fine in her case. For my case, I applied for a Transit Visa as I was planning to go to Lebanon on the next day and the visa was issued immediately.

However the prices and their attitude vary significantly according to your nationality. Just for reference, I asked people around us, Koreans had to pay slightly more than us and British and Australian were charged more than 100USD for a single visit visa. As far as I asked the Transit Visa was granted to Japanese only. I really feel privileged at being Japanese. I should keep and improve this good reputation towards Japanese during this trip with appreciating our forerunners.

Incidentally, the reason why Syria is so harsh granting visas to people from English countries is without any doubt related to the Palestinian problems. The founding of Israel and the big confusion afterwards were originally triggered by the British government's contradictary promises made with Jews and Arabs at the end of WW1. Well actually I didn't care about this story before this trip. Those history and geography topics had been just a lullaby in the classroom but once visiting the actual site, those stories became interestingly realistic.

Special Dinner at Damascus

For this occasion, I stayed in Damascus just for one night and headed to Lebanon on the next day. (Therefore I'll write about Damascus later). As the fellowship with the girls would be over here, we decided to go to a nice Chinese restaurant together. But according to a guidebook Damascus has only one Chinese restaurant in a luxurious hotel called Cham Palace. Though the book said it would be reasonable, the building of the hotel looked the real five star. A lobby with a big fountain, restaurants with formally dressed waiters, the 3 girls were bit overwhelmed with the situation. About myself, I wouldn't be touched with this degree maybe thanks to the first class trips.

The quality of the restaurant was not impressive unfortunately. The taste of the meals was good but the service of the waiters was terrible as if they misunderstood that luxurious means just snobby. Maybe our jeans looked too shabby but not having had my companions, I would've got out from the restaurant for their superior attitudes. The real luxurious services are usually full of hospitality. I suppose in the Middle East countries probably apart from Dubai, those expensive places rarely have their strong competitors and tend to neglect the quality of service. They should be able to make it better as they have a great culture of welcoming travellers.

Going to Lebanon

As mentioned before, I was going to Lebanon from the next day. It would be quite new in a way as I hadn't travelled alone for more than 1 month since Luxor.

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