March 20, 2009

Train Travel in Syria
Damascus, Syria

I was jarred awake at 4:15 this morning by the uncomfortable beeping of my infrequently used alarm clock. Ugh, only a pitiful 90 minutes of sleep. The karaoke went long, and the train left very early.

I'd met Kemal through my CouchSurfing host on my first night in Aleppo. Half Turkish, half Syrian (on his mother's side), the fellow became one of the major recurring people during my ten nights in the city. And it was he who extended an invitation for me to join him on his weekend journey back to his family home in the capital city.

The morning first-class train departed at the uncomfortably early time of 5:40 am. Kemal was concerned that I'd oversleep if we retired to our respective residences, but I wanted a shower and needed to pack things up. I assured him that I'm quite capable of waking myself up on travel days, regardless the evening prior.

I arrived at the station at 5:05, but as chance would have it, Kemal was the one who overslept.

We'd purchased our tickets for the 4.5 hour trip two days prior (for 240 Syrian pounds apiece—about US$5, which Kemal refused to let me pay for), but the process to do so was excessively bureaucratic.

Inside a first-class Syrian train

First one has to wait in line to buy a ticket from a window agent, then to find the police officer charged with "reviewing" your foreign passport (signing off on the back of your ticket that he's done as much), followed by visiting another window agent to register your name on the train's manifest. Failing to register your name could incur a 300SYP ($6.40) fine if discovered on the train by the ticket-tearing conductor.

So, as I was waiting for a tardy Kemal, a curious Syrian man sat next to me and started up friendly conversation. By the time 5:30 had rolled around he decided to board the train, but not before offering me his mobile phone to call up my buddy.

My call snapped a slumbering Kemal awake, only minutes before the train's departure. Amazingly, he got there in time—out of breath, from his run down the street—with the train taking off about 40 seconds after we'd stepped on board.

I thought for sure we'd be taking a bus.

The country's landscape was a lot less flat desert and a lot more hilly green pasture than I could've ever imagined—sometimes the green stretched to the horizon. But then of course I wouldn't want to shatter the Syrian desert stereotype too much… so here's a shot of some sand:

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