The last several days have involved travel via a number of different modes of transportation. As I noted in my last post, the folks at the Jisr ash-Shughur train station were kind enough to store our bikes for us so that we could ride the train to Damascus to meet up with Adrienne. It was a bit strange to cover the distance we had taken three days to ride (admittedly with some significant scenic detours) in just a few hours. We arrived in Damascus early in the morning the next day, after an uncomfortable night’s sleep on the train. Still, we were in better shape than Adrienne, who had apparently required a little assistance getting to sleep the previous night and was still a bit groggy. Early as it was, we had some difficulty finding some food, so we sat for a bit in a little park, where, just before we got up to leave, the sort of wingnut I’ve rarely encountered outside of Santa Cruz approached us and seemed very much to want to “help” us. He was full of all sorts of praise for the European stock from which he had decided we all came. Despite the fact that some poor Texan was waiting for him, and despite the fact the we clearly weren’t interested in his “help,” he carried on and decided we really needed to know what our names looked like in bad, blocky Arabic and Armenian calligraphy. We eventually extricated ourselves from this self-professed philologist and headed to Mayssun’s house.
Most of our time was spent in the Old City, wandering around the souqs, looking for soap, clothing, household goods and gifts for friends. Obama was speaking in Cairo, so everyone wanted to talk to us about Obama. We were of course less than glowing. We also spent an inordinate amount of time eating, almost all of it excellent, though I have to say that Aleppo has a bit of an edge on Damascus. The architecture, as I mentioned previously, was amazing, and it wasn’t confined just to the Old City. Damascus has clearly been sprawling for a while. We scarcely left the Old City, except on Friday, when we went searching for some electronics in the high-tech part of town, mostly without success. It was a bit strange as the place was mostly deserted because it was Friday and a stiff wind blew sand in our eyes the whole time. The trip to Damascus was relaxing on the whole, and it was especially wonderful to spend some time with Adrienne since we won’t see each-other for about a month.
We left Damascus on Saturday afternoon after a quick trip to the Great Umayyid Mosque, which was quite an experience. The place, built on the ruins of an old Roman temple to Jupiter, was immense, and many of the old Roman collumns were incorporated in its construction. The artwork, much more representative than I generally expect from Islamic art, was amazing, and amazingly refurbished. I wasn’t listening particularly closely, but the imam inside seemed to be preaching moderation, while a small group surrounded him in wrapt attention (yet his voice was broadcast via speakers all across the huge mosque). As has been usual in Syria, Elaina and Adrienne had to don cloaks to cover their hair and arms before entering.
Rather than taking the train to Jisr ash-Shughur via Aleppo, as we had done in the other direction, we went through Lattakia, partly to see the part of the countryside and mountains between Homs and the Syrian coast, and also to see a different view of the Lattakia-Aleppo route than we would otherwise see. The route through the mountains to the coast was pretty, but not spectacular, and the increasing humidity was more noticable than anything else. It was sunset by the time we reached the coast. In Lattakia, the train to Jisr ash-Shughur didn’t leave until the next morning, so we got our tickets and headed downtown after a long delay trying to convince a cab driver that we REALLY just wanted to walk the 2km to downtown, despite his decent price. We eventually reached our intended hotel after a bit of a detour, but the old man informed us that there was no room. Really, there were just no sheets, as the boarders had already left. In any case, he phoned a fellow at a nearby hotel with more rooms, and he showed up to escort us to his hotel. The price was a bit more than we wanted to pay at S£700, but we eventually agreed.
We left early the next morning to catch the train, leaving a bunch of our stuff in the hotel so we wouldn’t have to carry it over the hill. The route through the mountains was pretty, though there had obviously been a lot of clear-cut logging and the land was scarred by the construction of the giant new roadway connecting Aleppo to the intermodal terminal in Lattakia. Since the various European political machinations of the interwar period that handed Iskanderun/Alexandretta to Turkey, Aleppo has been deprived of its traditional and most sensible route to the Mediterannean, thus necessitating this concrete monstrosity.
When we arrived in Jisr ash-Shughur, the station master was there and recognized us, as did Tamer, the security guard. They brought us to the storage room where our bikes were left and we started to pack up and fill up our water supplies. I discovered that I had forgotten to bring my keys and my lock was locked to my bike. Thankfully, it was only locked to the frame, so I was able to tie it down without getting in the way too much. Various people kept giving us fruit for the trip: plums, apricots, kumkwats. I felt a little bad taking off so abruptly, but I explained that we needed to get going because of the heat of the middle of the day. It was already 10:00 or 10:30.
The ride was all on the main highway, soon to be replaced by a giant super-highway more-or-less along the same route. There were some lovely stretches of the road, but for the most part, it was one big construction site, with tons of lorries carrying rocks. Drivers passed incredibly wrecklessly, making the ride even more nerve-wracking. Luckily, the climb out of Jisr ash-Shughur was not as difficult as I had imagined, and it was only a total of 75km to Lattakia. After braving the incredibly unsafe drivers just outside of Lattakia and the general chaos of the city itself, we reached the hotel, showered and napped. We went out to eat and take care of boring things I won’t tell you about, but took note of the amazing sparkly fashion here, not unlike the hip youth of Cairo.
Next will be some bureacratic visa extension stuff, and hopefully a trip back over the mountains along a smaller, steeper hill that goes past the Salah ed-Din Castle. Stay tuned!