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28 March 2009

Did you know – Istanbul is the only city in the world to be in both Europe and Asia geographically and is one of the biggest cities in the world with a population of almost 13 million people.  Istanbul (and Turkey) is predominantly a Muslims city (country).  Istanbul is home to more than 2500 Islamic mosques, about 50 Christian churches and about 16 Jewish synagogues.

Well, Turkey was unfortunately a whirlwind stop for us.  The main reason for this was because of the absolute awful weather we’ve had.  Out of the 12 days we spent here, 9 or 10 of those we spent in rain.  Not the London type light drizzle, but rather torrential downpours wherever we went.  We had one good day in Istanbul and another good day at Pamukkale.  Nevertheless, we tried to make the most of it.

We met some really nice people here in Turkey.  Not only locals, but also some other travellers.  We were wandering around in Istanbul looking for a cash machine when we saw a biker coming past.  Not someone to miss out on a good chitchat, we decided to speak to him.  The biker (Knut – from Germany) was on a short (I think he said 6 weeks) tour of Turkey and surrounding areas.  We were also introduced to 2 very nice South African ladies who were in Istanbul for the ‘World Water conference’.  Knut met them the night before at the hotel he was staying at.

We stayed in Istanbul for 2 nights – we like cities, but definitely prefer the countryside, and explored the main tourist sites like the ‘Blue Mosque’, Aya Sofyah, the spice bazaar and generally just strolling around the place.  It’s not really the tourist season yet, but there were a lot of tourists about.  I dread to think what the place will be like in the summer.  Like any other big city, it is a bit pricey, especially around the tourist hot spots.

After our 2 nights there, we decided to head off.  It so happened that Knut was going in a similar direction to us.  We decided to travel together for a bit.  He rides a BMW GS1200 – a really nice bike.  I must say, I was a bit envious at times.  Knut, soon enough found out that even though we have a 4.2-liter, 6-cylinder engine, our pace would never be the same.  We decided to rather meet at a specific town or place at the end of the day so that he can enjoy his riding instead of hanging around for us all day.  It all turned out very well, and we traveled together for 3 or 4 days.  It is always nice to have some other company as well…a bit of a change.

It was time for Knut to head back to Germany, and time for us to head to the coast.  We’ve been keeping an eye on the weather for the last few days and it looked a bit more promising.  True to a weatherman’s word though, it all turned pear shaped and the rain followed us all the way along the coast.  It really did dampen our spirits a bit.  We could have spent a lot longer in some of the places we went to if it wasn’t for the rain.  There are some really nice villages and small towns on the coastline.  The road is also very nice with spectacular views of the rugged coast.  We did have one day though were there was so much rain and also fog that we missed a lot of the scenery.  To add to that, we also had hail almost every day.  I really don’t like hail at all.  I always have visions of hail the size of tennis balls coming down and damaging the car or even worse, breaking the windscreen.  I think I’m a bit paranoid about it after living in Sydney for a bit where there can be very big hail storms.  It really does cause a lot of damage.

Not all is grim though, we did survive the bad weather and today was not bad at all.  Our spirits are high after getting a good dose of vitamin D from the lovely sunshine we had today.  We are a bit apprehensive though.  We are at the Turkish/Syria border now and will spend the night on the Turkish side.  We are going to enter Syria tomorrow and will try to do this without the all-important Carnet.  It is normally a requirement, but we will have to see how we go.  We do have a carnet, but Syria is not listed on there.  Fingers crossed everyone that we get in hassle free.

A quick summary of our experience entering Turkey – it took us about an hour to get through the crossing (we entered at the Svilengrad border on the E80).  It would’ve been quicker if it weren’t for the insurance booth waiting to have their internet line fixed so that they could issue us the mandatory car insurance.  We got our visa at the border, and they issued us with a 3-month multi-entry visa.  The car insurance is also valid for 3 months (the shortest period they issue).  The cost of the insurance was 55 Turkish Lira.  Once you have your visa you get it stamped at the first window, then drive the 30 meters to the next window where they take down your car details (this actually goes into the computer system).  Here they also stamp details of the car into your passport with a customs stamp.  Customs will stamp your passport again when you leave the country to show that you took the car out of the country.

That’s all for now.  I really hope our next entry will be from Syria where we can go and find a little bit of sunshine!!

29 March 2009

Did you know – Syria remained under Ottoman rule, right from 1516 to the First World War (1914-1918).  After the end of First World War, Syria came under a League of Nations and became a French Mandate and then gained independence from French control, on 17th April 1946.

This is just a quick update.  The good news is that it stopped raining.  We woke up this morning at the Turkey/Syria border with the sun streaming in!!!  It was a really nice change.  I’m sure it won’t be long before we start moaning about it being too warm…there’s just no pleasing us, is there?

The even better news is that we managed to get into Syria without any problems.  We are now in Aleppo (also known as Haleb) in the northern part of Syria.  We will only be staying in Syria for 7 days, because there is a US $ 100 per week tax on foreign diesel cars.  The diesel is cheaper here than in some of the other countries we’ve been recently, but not outrageously so.  It cost 25 Syrian pounds per liter (approx AU$0.80 per liter).

Here is another quick summary of our experience of the crossing (for those who might want to attempt it too).  We’ve heard different stories of people having trouble at some crossing and others being a bit easier.  With no concrete yes or no on the different crossings, we decided to go to one of the crossings that are supposed to be busier – we crossed at the Cilvegozy, about 40km west of Aleppo).  There are definitely enough trucks around waiting to cross, but we saw no activity with any of them.  There must’ve been about 30 trucks waiting in line.  We decided to tackle the crossing first thing in the morning and we left the Turkish side just after 8am (I think the crossing is open 24 hours).  It took about 30 min on the Turkish side, hanging around for the people to have their morning tea and coffee.

The Syrian side was also relatively straightforward.  Armed with my passport, hard cash and a copy of the car registration I approached the customs officer.  He very quickly pointed me in the right direction to start the paperwork trail.  First you need a small A5 piece of paper in Arabic (this cost Syrian pounds 50) where you have to complete some personal and car details.  Once you have this and you have the signature of the captain on it, you ready to move on.  The costs of the relevant pieces of paper are as follow.  Car insurance for 1 month is US$ 52, diesel tax of US$ 100 and US$ 78 as customs fees for the temporary carnet permit (your customs fee will be US$ 9 if you have a valid carnet from your own country).  As it turns out, the $78 carnet fee is a lot cheaper for us than the 470% temporary import duty it would’ve been to include it on our carnet.  The next step is to change the $230 at the exchange office.  He will give you 3 different receipts with the 3 different Syrian pound amounts so that you can pay for the car insurance and everything else.  The next link in the chain is to get the insurance, then back to the custom guys where they issue the temporary carnet.  The final link in the chain is to show all the docs to the captain and his pals where you have to pay a final Syrian pound 100 for another small piece of paper and where they write some details in a book.  No idea what it’s for though.  Oh yes, you also need to have your passports stamped.  You get this done in the same building at the police window.  With a lot of stamps and a much lighter pocket, you’re free to go.  Welcome to Syria!!

We really noticed that we are in an Arabic state where woman don’t have too many rights when I took our passports to the police desk to get our visas stamped.  Mandy was still in the car, parked outside the building.  I handed the guy the 2 passports and told him the other one is for my wife.  He never wanted to see her or anything like that…just stamped it and that was it.  One good thing though, everyone was really friendly and helpful.

Our first impressions of Syria are very good.  The people are very friendly and we already ate too much because the food is so good.  It is also a bit cheaper which makes it even better.  The best of all, the sun is shining.
 
01 April 2009

Did you know – The colors of the Syrian flag throughout themodern history of Syria are those of the pan-Arab movement: White symbolizesthe Umayyad dynasty, green symbolizes the Fatimid dynasty, black symbolizes theAbbasid dynasty and red symbolizes the blood of martyrs.  The current flag was adopted in 1982 after‘The Federation of Arab Republics’ split after Egypt made separate peaceagreement with Israel.

It has been quite a different experience so far.  I’m not sure what I thought Syria would belike, but its certainly different to a lot of places we’ve been to.  Most of the people here are veryfriendly.  I’m not sure if this is justa superficial friendliness to try and ‘extract’ a few dollars from you or ofits real.  I’m hoping that it isreal.  Saying that, no one has comeacross as pushy, trying to sell you things the whole time.

We spent our first night in Aleppo, a town in the north ofSyria.  It sure is a dusty place, thesame as a lot of the smaller villages here. I thought for some reason that Syria will not be a poor country.  Then again, it probably isn’t poor (in termsof African poor), but it does seem a bit run down in the villages and alsoparts of the cities.  Aleppo is apleasant enough place.  It is amazinghow quickly you get used to the prayer calling everyday (5 times a day, withthe first one being at sunrise – I think sunrise is around 6am), we’ve evenmanaged not to wake up with the early morning calls.  We only spent one night there, which was probably a good thing.  The ‘hotel’ we stayed at was definitely notthe Sheraton.  It was more like the‘Shitaton’.  We survived our stay thereand decided we should probably not ‘slum’ it like that, not at our age anyway…

We left the following morning and went to a place calledCrac Des Chevaliers.  This is a very oldcastle, dating from 1031, and the Crusaders Knights expanded it to its existingform in the 12th century.  The Crusadersdefended the castles for a long time, but the Muslims gained control of it inthe end again.

There is a small camping spot on the top of the hill by thecastle where we stayed for the night. It was here that we also met some other overlanders again.  The one guy from Holland is on a two-monthtrip around the Middle East.  We alsomet an English couple that is on their way to Cape Town.  I think they will be a little bit quickerthan us, but we might still travel together the odd day here and there.  After some quality R&R, admiring theview from the castle and generally just being lazy for the whole morning, weheaded south.

Next stop was a little village called Maa’Lula, about 50kmnorth of Damascus.  This spectacularlittle village is set in the mountains and the people here still speak Aramaic,the language of Jesus Christ.  There aretwo convents in the village, and one of the convents allows people to staythere for a small donation if they want to. We couldn’t resist, and decided to spend the night there.  We ‘checked in’ in the early evening, andonly realised afterwards that there is a ‘lock-down’ at 8pm.  The gates close and you have to beinside.  We all of a sudden felt a bittrapped, not being able to come and go as we like.  We luckily had our laptop with us, so we could watch one of ourmovies.  I was glad when the morning came,the place was very clean and comfortable enough, but the pillow was a bit likea brick, and my neck was a bit sore.  Wedo miss our own beds and our little home, Pumbaa.  It is always reassuring to sleep in Pumbaa…

We arrived here in Damascus today.  We initially wanted to stay for 2 nights, but I think we willonly stay for 1.  It is nice to be in acity, but not really the place for us, even though we have stepped up with ouraccommodation arrangements here.  A lotof the cities are very similar, they all have loads of mosques and a lot ofmarkets.  To be honest, they are a bit‘samey’.  You also always tend to getripped off a bit, which is slowly becoming my pet hate.  So, tonight is probable our first and lastnight here in Damascus.  We will head offtomorrow afternoon to some sites to the south, before we leave Syria onSaturday.

That’s it for now, from a sunny 25 degrees Damascus.