March 10, 2009

First Night in Syria, Initial Impressions
Aleppo, Syria

It'd been an hour or two since I'd seen anything but an occasional truck pass through the border control and into Syria. Now with my Syrian visa in hand and the sun starting to grow low on the horizon, I knew my only (affordable) option was going to be to start walking.

I'd written to the CouchSurfing ambassador for the city of Aleppo (also written on maps as Ḩalab) asking how much transportation should cost from the border to the city (so that I wouldn't get ripped off). His rather useless reply was that a taxi shouldn't cost more than US$50.

Expecting to find no buses and only hungry taxi drivers at the border, I'd done some Google Map's satellite reconnaissance of area immediately west of the checkpoint prior to my departure from Turkey.

Bāb al Hawā', just a grease spot of a village, was only a few miles down the road, bisected by a pair of primary roadways. This was my contingency transportation plan. If I was going to find an affordable means of getting to Aleppo, this would be my last, best spot to do it from.

Nothing but Smiles

But I really wasn't looking forward to the walk. After strolling past the customs inspection point without being stopped and pushing away a persistent taxi driver, my broken heel was already starting to throb after only a couple hundred yards.

The final gated checkpoint to the border crossing was guarded by a pair of Syrian who were nothing but smiles with me as they inspected my passport for the proper markings.

"Ah, American! Welcome!" one said.

"Welcome to Syria!" said the other, quite genuinely.

In fact, pretty much each and every Syrian solider encountered in this area was more than happy to smile amiably and give me a nod of the head.

I proceeded atop the dusty gravel for only a few paces before I saw it—the smile in my head stretching from ear to hear—a trio of minibuses haphazardly parked next to the road, waiting for passengers.

Good fortune washed over me as one of the vehicles was moments away from departing, the trio of occupants waiting for lord knows how long for enough people to make the 60-minute ride into the city of value to the driver.

I had the foresight to exchange my remaining Turkish lira at the bus station in Antakya, instead of waiting for the border. This was a good move, as there wasn't a single person doing so in sight in or around the area.

The young jovial driver wanted 300 Syrian pounds for the journey, but we settled on 150 (approximately US$3) before departing.

Olives and Rocks

En route the city there was a lively discussion on stereotypes and other things between the twenty-something driver, a French-speaking Lebanese guy, and me—a lot of it in simple English and pantomime with laughs and big smiles on our faces. The Lebanese offered his mobile phone to me so that I could contact my future CouchSurfing host, Christophe.

The passing countryside was full of beige exposed rocks and agriculture. Arid, but certainly not sandy desert. Homes were made of stone and mortar, with occasional fields of olive trees firmly dug into the rich orange-red soil.

Somewhere in the middle of Aleppo—Syria's second largest city—I simulated the noise and movement of a train "WHOO WHOO! Chuga-chuga chuga-chuga" to communicate to the Arabic-speaking taxi driver that I needed to go to the train station.

The fare for a taxi in this part of Syria starts at four Syrian pounds both day and night—just $0.17. Most any ride to a destination in the city won't cost you more than $0.75 or so.

Syria certainly seems more raw and gritty than cosmopolitan Turkey. Everything here is the color of my khaki pants, covered in a similar-colored dust. Buildings, streets, mosques—everything looks like it's been built out of raw desert.

Social Life

Christophe arrived just minutes after me, driving a good looking Hyundai SUV provided by the French company he's working for. Christophe is from France, 25 years old, and has been working in Aleppo (managing the packaging and exporting of Syrian soap made from olive oil) for over a year now. He's full of energy, opinions and hospitality. Shortly after I met his flatmate, Pasqual (also French), who shares this huge apartment with him.

Christophe and the 16-year-old

I settled in while Christophe jumped out to a market for a few moments, returning home with some random 16-year-old French/Syrian kid that he met on his 10-minute outing. It turns out that they're neighbors, and that the kid is pretty cool for his age. He speaks excellent English as well as French, and gave up some great insights into being a male teenager in Syria.

The short of it? Boring.

After, Christophe drove us to a turn of the 20th century hotel that hasn't changed much since its inception. "Every visit to Aleppo should start and end with the Hotel Baron," he said with a smile.

Outside the Hotel Baron

He's quite the regular at the place, as are part of his little posse that we met up there.

It sounds swanky, but the place is pretty much empty and old, lending to the atmosphere and moderately inexpensive alcohol. We were joined by three others, making us five for drinks and conversation tonight: a Turkish/Syrian fellow and a pair of American girls teaching English in town.

A colonial throwback whose former guests include Agatha Christie (who wrote much of Murder on the Orient Express here), T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Ariabia), Ataturk and Teddy Roosevelt. The Hotel is rather run down, but this only adds to its charm. Many rooms have recently been renovated and are in a reasonable shape. If you cannot afford to stay here, it is definitely worth the effort to pop into the bar to have a drink and marvel a showpiece at a bygone era.

Great Ending to a Very Long Day

As usual, CouchSurfing has been a bountiful blessing from the travel gods.

Christophe and friends at the Hotel Baron

I've been swept up and included in a pretty amazing international community of travelers and workers here in town, and I already feel like I've already got a nice group of people to call my friends. We've got plans for most every night this week already, including a visit to the city's first nightclub (with alcohol!) that opened up in 2008.

Another CouchSurfer in town (that couldn't host me) whom I met back at the apartment tonight is going to show me around town tomorrow afternoon, with a pair of Russian women arriving in the morning.

It would seem that I'm in very good hands, in a home with a great hot water shower. I really couldn't ask for much more.

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