A Travellerspoint blog

Week 43, 19.Dec.09 - 25.Dec.09

Doha, Qatar to Jerusalem, Israel

View Week 43 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Doha, Qatar
Its dusk and I'm having a mint shai & nargileh on the rooftop of a cafe in the Waqif souq area of Doha, lounging on a divan and listening to the muezzin calling evening prayers from the surrounding mosques - quintessential Arabian nights! These 2 younger local guys sitting next to me, who happen to be college students in Florida, started asking me questions, like how I liked Doha ("Awesome!", but actually seems a bit boring!) and my impressions of the Middle East ("Different than what the U.S. Government would have one believe!").

So today found a much more convenient hotel with private room right next to the bus station in the city center, for only QR20 more (about US $5.50) per night than the dorm in the youth hostel way out of town. Today's weather was awesome - light breeze, sunny and around 22 C (upper 70's F), so I took advantage and walked the entire Corniche (about 5 km each way),

and enjoyed the people watching - loads of people walking, jogging, and biking around. Heading back to the hotel now, and when I asked for the bill, was told by the waiter the college kids (who left a bit ago) paid for my shai - how awesome!

Just had Skpe calls with the fam in a coffee shop near the hotel, now getting ready to find a bar in one of the 5-star hotels (here in Doha, the only places serving alcohol in the whole country!). Today was fairly low-key, I spent some time trying to track down a tour company for a trip to the desert tomorrow, then visited the Museum of Islamic Art. Overall nice displays & well organized,

but disappointed there were no pieces from Qatar itself (nor the Arabian Peninsula, for that matter), only Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Syria. But the building and grounds itself, designed by the renowned architect I.M. Pei (the Louvre triangle), did make an impression!

Just returned from my tour down to Khor Al-Adaid, in the southern part of Qatar, with seemingly endless sand dunes.

Myself and an older couple from S. Africa, who were in Doha only the day on a transit flight to India, signed up for this tour where our driver, Assam, took us down past the oil refineries

to the vast open desert. We stopped for tea in a local's tent,

while Assam let out some air from the tires, then we were off into the dunes. This guy was a crazy driver... more than once I though for sure we were going to spill!

But he is nothing short of a professional (done this more than once), and we arrived safely at the inland sea bordering the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, perfect views at sunset!

Dubai, UAE
Back here in Dubai overnight for the connecting flight back to Amman tomorrow. The flight from Doha was uneventful enough, but it got interesting when I got on the same bus # from the Dubai airport as last time, only today took a different route and winded up way the heck out somewhere... but finally made it back to the crappy hostel way the heck out in the other direction, and off to bed.

Jerusalem, Israel
I had a surprisingly uneventful trip here into Israel today - up at the crack of dawn back in Dubai for my 8 AM flight to Amman (where I was required to buy a tourist visa instead of a free transit visa, despite my leaving Jordan the same day - B.S.!!), took the bus from the Amman airport to the Abdali bus station then a shared taxi to the King Hussein Bridge border crossing, then another bus to the actual border (mandatory, despite the fact you could walk there). My shared taxi was with 2 Palestinian men & an American/Palestinian woman, who were offering me their interesting perspectives on the whole region as we were crossing over into Israel (or, more accurately, Palestinian-controlled West Bank). It was a bit disappointing I ended up getting a stamp in my passport from the Israeli Immigration "officer" (18 year-old girl serving her military obligation), as that rules out about 1/2 dozen Islamic countries that I haven't been to, and now won't be able to visit, at least with the current passport. Well, at least I entered without any issues, even after I heard the girl tell her colleague at the next station while flipping through my passport, "Um, Syria....". After the 5 or 6 different control point/stations to actually enter successfully, got into another shared taxi-van (with at least 100 flies to accompany me) through the vast desert of the West Bank, past the border check point (flashing the passport), and into Israel-controlled Jerusalem. I got checked in to the hostel I had made a reservation with (anticipating a busy time in the next couple days, didn't want to risk my usual last-minute hostel shopping for fear of everything being booked.... although, the hostel did get my reservation screwed up anyway and stuck me in the wrong, but nicer, hotel section), then wandered over through Damascus Gate across the street into Old Jerusalem, which is divided into 4 quarters - Christian, Jewish, Armenian (random?), and Muslim, the latter of which I strolled around and watched the hawkers at their best!

Christmas Eve in Jerusalem (very cool!), about to head over with a few other "pilgrims" staying in the hostel, on the ~8 km walk to Bethlehem for Midnight Mass. Today in Old Jerusalem (love this place... so much history!), started out with a visit over to the Western ("wailing") wall, Judaism's holiest shrine, with dozens of Bar Mitzvah ceremonies taking place, kids dancing around singing and carrying the Torah(?, looks like the Stanley Cup!) and weaving between the praying ultra-Orthodox men sitting by, or leaning up next to, the Wall. I first entered the immediate area to the right, then quickly realizing that all around me were (very good looking) women cheering and throwing candy over a segregating divider, so backed out of there and over to the left (men's) section, donning the obligatory Kippa and all...

Next joined a free tour to some of Old Jerusalem's more off-the-beaten-path sites, like the Armenian quarter with its Orthodox church.

I split off from the tour to visit one of the holiest places in the world, the "holiest in the holy land" (so my guidebook tells me), the Temple Mount.

Only open for a couple hours per day for non-Muslims (and closed tomorrow for the Muslim Holy Friday), wanted to make sure I didn't miss it! The atmosphere was really special -- people wandering around the plaza, or picnicking on the grass under the trees, all very peaceful and relaxed in this region often wrought with conflict. The centerpiece, Dome of the Rock (AD 691), was built over the slab of stone where it is said Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, and where Mohammed supposedly ascended to heaven. While wandering around amazed at the history I was in the midst of, I bumped into a couple staying in the same hostel (hotel?) who were telling me of their "adventure" earlier today visiting the ultra-conservative Jewish Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearm, where they almost got stoned (not drugs, but rather rocks thrown at their heads...). "By the local punk kids?", I ask. "No, by the crazy middle-aged women on rooftops!". Yeah, I think I'll skip that area!

Merry Christmas from Jerusalem! Last night I did the pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

During the ~8 km trek, I felt I had fulfilled my Christmas spirit obligations as the group and I helped push an Orthodox Jew's broken-down car along the main street about 500m up the road. But when the car, loaded with bottles of mineral water, started up, he just waved and drove on by... uh, thanks for the drink and/or ride offer there, buddy! So it was an interesting stop crossing the check point into the West Bank,

where the security wall was showing a lot more life and character on the West Bank side, with the graffiti - some paintings with more peaceful messages than others...

When we crossed through (quite simply), the first image was a Palestinian bar/restaurant where we had our Palestinian Christmas beers (I negotiated a few Sheckles off my beer... "C'mon, it's Christmas!"),

and immediately outside, there was a gate in the security wall that opened and the Israeli border guards came out, displaying their usual high-level of discipline while smoking, taking photos and hitting on Svenja, the cute German girl in our "pilgrimage"...

Well, there was certainly a different vibe going on in the West Bank - not sure if this is because I was in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, or if this is the norm, but either way it was a really fun atmosphere! We walked past the empty lots strewn with garbage (not the cleanest place) to Manger Square where 100's of people (mainly Palestinian teenage boys) were crowded together watching the free rock concert.

Right next door, the Church of the Nativity (site where Jesus was born) was a madhouse with the security during Midnight Mass.

Stopped off for another beer & sheesha at a pro-Arafat cafe (as all shops still seem to be in Bethlehem),

before walking back to the checkpoint. And what a joke, there were about 20 people trying to cross back from the West Bank, we're sitting at the check point for about 20 minutes with the Israeli border control shouting over the speaker system to go to one of the lines, then sitting and nothing's happening?!? Finally we were herded through like cattle, flashing our entry stamps and bussed it back to the hostel. So this Christmas morning back in Jerusalem, checked out tons of historical sites: Coenaculum (site of the Last Supper),

King David's tomb, Church & Monastery of the Dormition where Virgin Mary died (which is apparently different location than her tomb, which I also visited and was very cool with the hanging lamps).

Next was Pillar of Absalom (Tomb of David's son),

and nearby olive grove garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was betrayed the night of his arrest.

After all those places, entered back into Old Jerusalem through Lion's Gate and walked with dozens of other pilgrims the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows), the landmark 14-stage path where condemned Jesus lugged His Cross to the Calvary.

The final 5 stages, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, were quite a site - hundreds of people packed into a tiny area where Jesus was nailed to the Cross,

then adjacent point where He died on the Cross, where there was an ongoing, intense prayer procession with the Greek Orthodox Priests.

The site where his body was laid out downstairs (or down the hill, that the Church was built over), and finally Christianity's holiest site, the cave where the Body was buried and resurrected (now a chapel built over).

Despite the huge crowds and queue, got to see it all! Now back in the hostel/hotel, the fellow "pilgrims" and I are heading out for a Christmas drink in New Jerusalem... well, we'll see if that is possible during Shabbat!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 12:37 Comments (0)

Week 42, 12.Dec.09 - 18.Dec.09

Dubai, UAE to Doha, Qatar

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Dubai, U.A.E.
Despite the rainy weather, had a really good day today in Dubai. This morning I went over on the bus to Dubai Creek for a ride on an arba (old wooden water taxi), vying for the limited space on the pier (some knocking into others to position themselves!).

Caught glimpses of the wooden cargo boats bound for Iran

and wandered around the "Old" souq of Dubai (not quite the same atmosphere as Aleppo, lets just say). Headed over past the Grand Mosque to the Dubai Museum, built inside the Al-Fahidi Fort (1778)...

it is strange to see this old Fort surrounded by a city of brand new skyscrapers, malls and construction cranes ready to just keep building (or finish whats been started, perhaps after the city recovers from its own financial crisis?). There was a respectable amount of displays and information, showing Dubai's transformation from a small fishing village to the extreme postmodern city it is today (siting the discovery of oil as the catalyst, naturally).

Made my way back over to the Dubai mall to meet up with Matthias - catching glimpses of the Burj Dubai just outside - this sucker is damn tall!

As I was only 1/2 hour late for the rendezvous with Matthias, was forgiving on his 45 minutes truancy - I don't think anyone who lives/works here could ever be held at fault for showing up late to a meeting - this is some of the worst traffic in any city I've ever seen. The really need to hurry and finish that monorail under construction for the past couple months... probably should have prioritized that ahead of "necessities" such as The World man-made islands, but hey, who am I to say?!? We headed over, eventually making it to, another Dubai iconic landmark - the Burj Al-Arab "Seven Star" hotel, shaped like a sail. I opted to skip the US $25 afternoon tea in order to step foot inside (no one may enter without a room or restaurant reservation), and just enjoyed the views (and brief escape from the hectic city) from Jumeirah Beach.

Bid farewell to crazy Matthias who is heading back to S. Africa, and EVENTUALLY made it back here to the hostel, now gotta get ready and find a bar to visit!

Today I witnessed the most ridiculous amount of rain to fall in the span of a few hours - considering that I witnessed this on the arid Arabian Peninsula only adds to the insanity! Took the bus from Dubai down to UAE's capital, Abu Dhabi, where I planned to go see a few sites. Well, shortly after arriving it began pouring solid for just hours - I'm talking hurricane-level amounts of rain! This area is so dry it understandably couldn't absorb the water, so all the streets and sidewalks were deeply flooded.

It was so difficult navigating around (either on foot or taxi) that after a couple hours, just headed back to the bus station. The ride back here to Dubai took an extra hour with the insane traffic, now after dinner I'm gonna crash so I can get up early for my flight!

Manama, Bahrain
Arrived here in the small Gulf island-nation of Bahrain this morning, and instantly felt a different vibe compared to the UAE - although this is an Arabic nation, it holds that certain carefree feeling that is unique to tropical islands. But again, it is a nation on the Arabian peninsula, so there is money here - its expensive, and skyscrapers both gleaming new & still under construction are all along the business district area on the waterfront of the capital city Manama. I reserved a room from the desk at the airport at the cheapest hotel they offered - its listed as 2-star, but I think its pretty darn nice... goes to show how low my accommodation standards have been the past 9.5 months! After dealing with my annoying credit card situation (after attempting online flight ticket purchase, bank declining then putting a freeze on it, despite my notifying them, as always, in advance of my upcoming travel destinations), wandered around a bit in the immediate neighborhood, checking out the procession of hawkers trying to sell crappy souvenirs to ex-pats around the Bab Al-Bahrain, a 1945 British-built "Gateway to Bahrain",

where the customs pier used to be located, now about 3/4 km of reclaimed land from the shore today. Heading back to shower in my nice and clean bathroom, then will check out if any nightlife here!

Having an afternoon shai at Ahmed Abdul Rahim's coffee house, where the old timers are sitting around on benches puffing away on the nargilehs and slapping down the dominos. Today I visited the limited sites in Manama - after my breakfast (at Starbucks... one good thing brought about by all the ex-pats living here!), started over at Beit Al-Quran, the modern-looking building housing ancient Qurans of all shapes and sizes.

Continued out to the Bahrain National Museum housing an interesting collection of relics and archaeological finds from ancient Greek times (when the island was named Tylos),

up to modern Islamic times and the main source of income for centuries, pearl diving.

Next wandered over to connected Al-Muharraq island, smaller than Bahrain island-proper, and may as well be a different country - lacking all of the high rise construction development, has a much more tropical-island feeling. Still not sure how I feel overall about Bahrain... not really a tourist destination (certainly not on the backpacker's circuit), but one thing is for sure, I'm loving the warm sunny weather!

Budaiya, Bahrain
I'm watching a couple fishermen casting nets in an islet at Subh Beach, about 12 km west of Manama.

Its a pretty cool site - the old traditional lifestyle integrated into this modern island nation of development. Took the local bus (which only blue collar immigrant working class are riding) from Manama here to Al-Budaiya, not having specific sites in mind but just wanted to wandering around Bahrain. Well, the locals in this port town I'm sure aren't used to tourists (or any westerners), based on the stares I'm receiving. Wandered all around the town then over a couple kms here to Subh Beach, where despite the grubbiness, local families were enjoying The Gulf's warm(ish) water - women in full abayas notwithstanding!

Dar Island, Bahrain
I'm relaxing on the beach of tiny Dar Island, a few kms east of Bahrain that I reached by water taxi, and finally getting back to reading my novel I've been neglecting (although not that good). I took the local bus from Manama south to the last stop in Sitra, then walked at least a couple kms past the rather grungy factory industrial area (reminded me of views along the Jersey Turnpike) and animal farming area (reminded me of smells along the Jersey Turnpike!) to the port. Dar is a really nice little island with its local donkey resident,

and unlike Subh beach yesterday, is actually clean and really nice for swimming (well, jumping in then quickly out... The Gulf isn't all that warm). Heading back to Bahrain main island and up to Manama in a bit, going to check out what's in store for their National Holiday celebration tonight!

Doha, Qatar
I just returned to the logistically unfriendly youth hostel here in Doha (if this is still technically Doha city... man, this place is WAY out of the city center!), after wandering around Al-Corniche a bit, the main street along the Bay where the locals are out in full force waving their crazy-looking purple & white flags and swords to celebrate Qatar's National Holiday.

Unreal... I visit two different countries and see both National Holidays in as many days! This morning back in Bahrain, I debated in the airport on buying a bottle of liquor - since Qatar is essentially a dry country - but opted not to try it, for risk of losing it when passing through customs (although I definitely could snuck it in, carrying it in my pocket... damn!). I took the short - but uncomfortable - flight over, and was seriously nervous of the weather we were flying through - full on thunderstorm. When we were boarding, I was looking out the window at the lightening and around at other people boarding, to see if anyone else thought this might be a mistake to fly in? But after major turbulence (and watching the lightening bolts around the airborne plane), thankfully made it safely here to Qatar which had nice sunny weather earlier (the rain arrived a bit later). Bypassed the taxis - which I've grown to loathe in my travels as 99% of them worldwide are total scammers - and took the local bus to the bus station, then a connecting bus to this youth hostel (a good 45 minutes away!). Since this was the only hostel I could reserve online in advance I have no choice tonight, but definitely checking out of here tomorrow for something closer to the city center.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 04:49 Comments (0)

Week 41, 5.Dec.09 - 11.Dec.09

Amman, Jordan to Dubai, UAE

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5. Dec. 09
Amman, Jordan
Did a tour of Amman ruins from Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods today - started out with a coffee on Al-Almir Mohammed St., then made my way up Jebel Al-Qala'a hill to the Citadel, with spectacular views of the city.

Within the Citadel were the ancient ruins (when the city was known as Philadelphia) such as Temple of Hercules built during the Marcus Aurelius reign,

the Basilica from 6th c. AD, and Umayyed Palace from AD 720.

Next, stopped by the National Archaeological Museum with tons of ancient exhibits - my favorite was the Statue, earliest know form found in Jericho from the Neolithic Age (8300 - 4300 BC).

Next wandered down to the Roman Theatre and Nymphaeum (both 2nd c. AD), finished up with a stroll through King Hussein Mosque (AD 640). There was one point heading back where I was looking where the hotel/hostel's street was (got lost a bit), and while consulting my map was approached by a man who asked what I was looking for, and when I replied, told me to follow him. We take a few steps and then he asks me if I believe in the Prophet Mohammed and some other babble. When I replied, "Well, no, I'm Christian", he smiled (with his 5 or so teeth) and started talking about the 1 billion "believers" and all others condemned and blah blah. He starts walking away from me, so I reply, "So since I don't believe in Mohammed you won't tell me where the street is?" Whatever - I found the street anyway, and although that was the first of such incidents since I've been in the Middle East, all that guy did was reinforce negative stereotypes for Islamic extremists.

Just got back from dinner at the double-burger place (awesome, had it for dinner the last 3 nights!), now getting ready for bed. This morning I swung by the Saudi Arabia consulate to apply for a transit visa to cross overland to the UAE (my next destination) - but shot down. The person working in visa control asked me if I already had a visa for UAE, and when I informed him Americans don't require one in advance, his next deterring question was whether I had my own car. Having said "no", was told that I needed one for a visa to Saudi. Uh huh... I don't remember seeing anything about that on the State Department website, so figure it more or less depends on the OIC's mood at the time. Well, I could try again tomorrow or the next day, but not sure how much time I want to sacrifice on the attempt. So after the consulate, went to the bus station to catch the next bus to Suweimeh, and connecting taxi from there to Amman Beach on the Dead Sea. The sea itself looks more like a really nice lake, blue water, gentle waves and sandy beaches.

Not sure what I was expecting, maybe a big muddy puddle crusty with salt? Nice warm sunny day so of course took a dip (or, more appropriately, a float!).

Pretty crazy, but sure enough, you can't sink! Tasted the water and it was awful - WAY saltier than any ocean I've ever swam in. I enjoyed the weather for a bit then headed back out on the road and grabbed a taxi to nearby Bethany, site of Jesus' baptism. The actual site is on a section of the Jordan River that is now dried up,

but there were areas where the river was still flowing.

Also saw the ruins of John the Baptist church and a few other ruins. Leaving Bethany, didn't see any taxis so started hoofing it the 5 or so km back to Suweimeh, but along the way got a lift from one of the tour guides at Bethany - really cool guy who had a lot of info on the area, this place is rich with Biblical stories! Got in a shared taxi in Suweimeh back to Amman (slightly delayed b/c the driver got a ticket at one of the checkpoints... not sure what he did, but at least I finally made it back!)

Wadi Musa, Jordan
It is POURING outside - POURING, and FREEZING!! I'm in my hotel in Wadi Musa, arrived here this afternoon from Amman. There isn't much to do in Wadi Musa itself, this is the base point for Petra, which b/c of the weather, will have to wait until tomorrow to see in person. However, tonight I'll still get a glimpse, the hotel is screening "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"!

Petra, Jordan
I must say Petra lives up to its reputation as one of the best sites of ancient ruins in the world! Right now its 18:30 , I'm having a shay and relaxing a bit among the ruins before heading back to the hotel in Wadi Musa. I arrived this morning at 07:30, and walking through the 1.5 km long Siq (canyon-like cleft in the rock),

came upon the grand Treasury building, what is thought to be one of the most important tombs built by the Nabataeans (3rd c. BC).

From the Treasury, kept walking to the outer Siq with dozens more tombs, carved right out of the sandstone mountain sides.

Took a steep hike up one of the mountains to the high place of sacrifice with one of the local Bedouins (who was probably expecting a tip), then descended down another pathway passing various fountains & tombs,

coming to the landmark Pharaun Column, ancient marking post on the Egyptian-Arabian spice trading route. Next, back down past the outer Siq, crossed over to the magnificent Royal Tombs (seems thats all the Nabataeans built?!?),

and climbed up THAT mountain to the peak for more great views. Descending down, kept walking and followed the ancient collonaded street past the Great Temple, through Temenos Gateway and past Qasr Al-Bint - all very impressive!

Did the next hike up (each of these supposedly 1.5 hours round-trip; I'm burning through in about 1/3 that time... but feeling it!!) to the really magnificent Monastery, at the top of the southern mountain.

The weather looked threatening, so huffed it down quickly and stopped in the 2 smallish musuems before my crazy instinct to "see it all" took over and I proceeded to hike up my 4th mountain to the Crusader fort (this one, actually, not that impressive). Although my eyes have seen so many incredible sites today, my body will be feeling it tomorrow!

Day 2 of Petra - much slower pace today, mainly b/c I saw 95% of the place yesterday! Arrived in the early afternoon, visited Sextius Florentinus tomb which was unique b/c of the Latin engravings above the entrance - very faded, but still really cool!

Stopped by the Byzantine church from the 5th c., with its awesome mosaics, then Temple of Winged Lions. OK, NOW I've seen 100% of Petra!

Amman, Jordan
Back here in Amman for the night; took the minibus back up from Petra this morning. The only notable thing to speak of for today was watching Barak Obama's Nobel Prize on Al-Jazeera TV... the commentators were surprisingly
positive on his speech and the overall notion of the award being presented to him; although couldn't help but notice that they would switch to their field reporters in Afghanistan for clips on locals' reactions there (not so positive...).

Dubai, U.A.E.
I'm about to head out and see the famed Dubai nightlife with this crazy German guy Matthias, who is staying at the youth hostel also (can't believe Dubai even has a youth hostel, but at $35 in a 5-bed dorm, still expensive as far as hostels go). Took a flight this morning from Amman (since unable to obtain that transit visa to go overland via Saudi Arabia), and instantly felt the humidity in Dubai's airport - glad to be back in some warm weather, albeit rainy. It was quite a project for me to get to the hostel itself - taking a shuttle bus from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3 just to buy the local bus card, then back to Terminal 1 to catch the right bus, and before boarding having asked to be told where my stop was, still got dropped off at the wrong stop. Well, I eventually made it!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 13:02 Comments (0)

Week 40, 28.Nov.09 - 4.Dec.09

Damascus, Syria to Amman, Jordan

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Beirut, Lebanon
I'm in Beirut, Lebanon (crazy I'm able to say that!), and just had a shower in probably one of THE worst hotels I've stayed in yet!... I couldn't guess the last time the bed sheet was changed (probably better not to know!). Took a bus this morning from Damascus and had to bid 'farewell' to Syria - really perhaps the nicest people I have ever met. If I had a dollar for every time someone "welcomed" me to Syria, I'd have collected quite a bankroll. So last night back in Old Damascus, the Aussie and Danish guys staying in the same hotel (2nd time around, also back in Hama) and I head out to find "Marmar", the supposedly BEST nightclub in Damascus. Well, after wandering around for probably 2 hours, finally find it down some alleyway and find it as just a small, lame bar - what!!

Well, fast forward to today, at the bus station in Damascus met this kind of crazy old man with one leg originally from Lebanon but lived in the States for a while and now Syria, who was absolutely HILARIOUS - asked me where I was from, and with my reply smacks me on the back laughing, "New York! Get outta here you son-of-a-bitch! You gotta be kidding me you mother f-er! Come on, I'm going to buy you a coffee you son-of-a-bitch!"... and kept swearing up a storm in an old sailor's way (he happened to be ex-Navy, so it made sense). Kept "chatting" for a bit, and I'm pretty sure he was going to ask for money, but I said, "Well, that's my bus -- gotta go!" Getting to the border, met some guys also crossing over - French and 2 Brits. We all get screwed with the kids changing money at the border, but don't really have other options as there are no ATMs there and their visa must be paid in Lebanese Lira. When we get to Beirut we tried several hotel options but all full due to an Arabic holiday, but finally found this one in the French guy, Clement's, outdated guidebook (not surprising it was delisted from the next edition) - one of the Brits, Steve, makes the call, and when asking the price for a room for 4, gets a response "I don't want to talk about prices over the phone." Uh, ok? Well, arriving at the building I'm not sure if it was evacuated of just never finished, but the lobby is an empty shell.

We get to the floor of the pension - not much better! Well, to avoid thinking about the conditions for a few hours, we're about to head out and find a bar or club here in Beirut's famed nightlife, good way to mark 9 months of traveling!

Clement and I are about to head out to a club with 2 Romanian girls staying in the new hotel we moved to today (no way we were going to spend one more night in that dump from yesterday!), who I met in the lobby and spent about 2 hours helping them download & transfer photos from my laptop to theirs (I'm such a sucker). No idea what happened to the Brits, but earlier today we all taxied to southern Beirut, passing all kinds of barbed wire barricaded checkpoints,

to the Hippodrome (which most locals had no idea what/where it was) to catch a horse race (how random).

Absolutely pandemonium for those who picked the winning horse, yelling and throwing their jackets in the air etc. After we wandered around the neighborhoods of southern Beirut which are a sharp contrast from the wealthy/ritzy places "downtown" (which is actually north). Somewhat ubiquitous are the super long, usually striped curtains dangling outside the windows and draped over balcony railings - definitely brings back images of Beirut I had as a kid watching TV in the States.

We headed back up to downtown and along the corniche seafront, enjoyed a sheesha (and the views of Lebanese women) as the sunset - good day!

Not much activity today... after bidding goodbye to the French and British guys, spent some time getting caught up on emails (good thing, as the family has issued APBs out for my whereabouts). Strolled around the swanky Hamda neighborhood, and relaxed with some coffee.

Baalbek, Lebanon
I've returned to frigid weather traveling some 90 km northeast of Beirut, in order to see the ruins of Baalbek, dating from the 1st c. AD. Approaching Baalbek, about 1 km out, lining the median all the way to the center were banners and yellow Hezbollah flags flying proudly in their self-declared "capital".

Arrived here and got myself checked in to a hotel. Making small talk with the manager, I ask if he's Lebanese, he replies, "I'm Palestinian. I am from Palestine."... I guess I should expect that a lot around here. So he takes my passport to register, frowns a bit while sharing his views on American government policies, although he thinks American people are "good", I decide not to question him on Hezbollah's policies. But then after he scans my passport and returns with a smile, looking me in the eye nodding, "I think your roots are German". I say, "Well yes, from a long time ago...", but he just nods and hands me my passport, walking away satisfied - I decide not to pursue the subject with him and head out past the hordes of touts selling Hezbollah t-shirts to the really well-preserved ruins. The Temple of Bacchus, dedicated to Venus, was really impressive.

Also impressive were the 6 remaining standing columns (some of the biggest Rome ever built) of Temple of Jupiter.

Crazy, I certainly didn't imagine Lebanon with awesome Roman ruins!

2. Dec. 09
Beirut, Lebanon
Took forever to get back to Beirut today, and unfortunately other than a coffee there wasn't too much excitement to write about for the day! Did stop by the ancient St. George's cathedral and the Cardo Maximus, where archeologist excavations are still going on - pretty cool!

Tripoli, Lebanon
Day tripped up here today to Lebanon's second city, Tripoli. There is definitely a different vide going on here compared to Beirut. Arrived at the Abdel Hamid Karami square,

and was almost instantly once again surrounded by genuine people who were happy to help, not just looking for a tourist buck - I guess that's one thing I couldn't say about Beirut or Baalbek. First checked out the Taynal Mosque from the 14th c.,

then as I was wandering up to the Great Mosque (which was closed),

a man approaches me on the street asking where I'm from, and upon hearing the States, tells me how he won a gold medal at a kickboxing championship in Orlando - based on how bad he was limping (I think maybe a prosthetic leg but I'm not sure?), I'm thinking he either is really good at kicking with one leg, or that tournament was a long time ago. He decides he wants to be my tour guide and brings me to this shop where in the back is an old former Turkish bath house - huge place with dozens of rooms, which was really cool because it wasn't listed in my guidebook and the entrance was hidden behind this small shop.

We're walking along, and as he is telling me he's now a police officer, everyone we pass stops to greet him, seems like some kind of mafioso going on! We stop by the Old Souqs - Gold (Al-Sayyaghin), Perfume/Spice (Al-Attarin), and the very interesting Khan As-Saboun, the 16th c. soap market with hundreds of different soaps, where all of it is still hand-made.

There was one carved out shaped like the Quran!

So my impromptu guide bids farewell, I continue exploring and trek up the steep steps to the 12th c. Citadel of Raymond De Saint-Gilles, built by the Crusaders and seemingly occupied today by the Lebanese military, with all the tanks stationed outside. There are also some modern-looking battle scars from the outside as well.

Now I'm making my way back to Beirut for the last night here. Tomorrow, Jordan!

Amman, Jordan
This morning, bid farewell to Lebanon... all-in-all, not the most memorable of places, and arrived here in Amman via flight (wasn't about to repeat another Syrian border crossing adventure) and after the airport bus to service taxi connection, arrived at a cheap hotel/hostel and got checked in and wandered around a bit. So now there are a group of travelers (and workers in the hotel) heading out to an irish pub for some drinks, don't mind if I do!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 05:34 Comments (0)

Week 39, 21.Nov.09 - 27.Nov.09

Aleppo, Syria to Palmyra, Syria

View Week 39 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Aleppo, Syria
Having a shai (tea) at an outdoor restaurant next to the massive citadel, enjoying the views of the Old City of Aleppo and the locals meandering about - the majority of women are covered from head to toe in the chador/abayas; many of them with an additional veil covering their eyes... kinda creepy Darth Vader-like, you really have to wonder what they look like! I think its really interesting how this religion has adopted such a conservative look, despite there being nothing (from my understanding) actually calling for this in their Quran? Anyway, started out today with a pretty awful breakfast back in the hotel (complete with one of those car hood-heated giant pitas) then headed down to the main souq western entrance, 13th c. Bab Antakya gate. Entering into the partially covered network of passageways spanning 1.5 km (longest in the world), definitely felt as though I was transported back in time to the medieval bazaars. The exception being certain items for sale - everything from electronics, to designer jeans. Wandering down the narrow passageway and being amused with the sites of mini trucks and wagon carts trying to navigate around each other after battling for space,

made my way to the 8th c. Great Mosque (Al-Jamaa Al-Kebir), which was really nice - very peaceful and relaxing place, with old men sitting on pillows while reading the Quran. They had on display (dividing viewing area men from women) a large sarcophagus with a sign saying it contains "an" organ of Zacharias (one of the Prophets)... not sure which organ that may be, but I think legend has it, it is actually his head.

Went back out to the connecting souq to wander a bit more then finished at the eastern end gate and out to the citadel.

Spectacular ruins I climbed around for a while, and also got some terrific views of Aleppo itself from atop the citadel walls.

After, I wandered south into the neighborhoods not listed in my guidebook, enjoying some local atmosphere devoid of any tourists - good stuff!

Hama, Syria
Getting ready to turn in early here in Hama. Bussed it down here this morning from Aleppo, got checked in to a hostel and then after a late falafel lunch, wandered around the small alleyways of the Old Town,

with the enormous "norias" (13th c. wooden waterwheels) dotted around the Orontes River.

These things are legendary around the Middle East, originals dating back to the 4th c. AD!

Just returned from visiting Crac Des Chevaliers (via microbus change at Homs) - castle from 11th c.

Now, I've traveled in all of Europe and seen so many castles that I thought I'd had enough for a lifetime. Well, I can say the Crac is one, if not THE, best castle I've ever seen - incredibly well-preserved, it seems as though with a bit of insulation and flooring, you could move right in! The layout had an exterior fortress with about a dozen towers, where I strolled around and saw the moat,

baths, and great hall where they kept the stables. Moving to the interior fortress, got to see the really picturesque loggia and vaulted room with its gothic facade,

then to the chapel-turned-mosque, complete with the pulpit still in-tact.

What was perhaps more impressive than the site itself is the story behind it - originally built by the Emir of Homs in the 11th c., then occupied by the Crusaders who held it until 1271, when Mamluk Sultan Beybars surrounded it. Although the Crusaders departed after a month, having negotiated a safe passage to Tripoli, the castle was technically never breached - pretty cool! Strolled around outside a bit, then taking the horn-honking addicted microbus back to Homs and connected for the trip back here to Hama.

Today was spent touring around more sights around the region. A Japanese tourist staying here at the same hostel and I hired a "guide" (driver), and the first place we visited was Apamea, ancient Roman/Byzatine ruins dating back to 2nd c. AD.

Arriving early enough in the morning we had the place to ourselves practically - pretty sweet! Apamea has a 2.1 km long cardo (main street) of parallel colonnades, some with the unique-to-Apamea spiral carving.

Couldn't help but notice how the locals certainly try to use up every inch of land surrounding the ruins for farming - sometimes going so far as plowing around a column or two!

After a couple hours climbing around the ruins (I think it is crazy how lax they are about the ruins here - noway you'd be able to touch these ruins if this site was in Europe),

we headed to the famed "Dead Cities", ancient Byzatine ghost towns abandoned 15 centuries ago (no one knows quite sure why). There are supposedly hundreds of these scattered in northwest Syria, alas, we only had time to visit two. The first of which was Al-Bara, set in a large olive grove area, and had these cool pyramid tombs scattered about, with sarcophagi still contained (and visible) within.

Next we headed to the nearby "Dead City" of Serjilla, which looked more like an actual "city", complete with intact abandoned houses, church, inn, and bathhouse.

It was great to see the buildings & roads so well-preserved, easy to picture how these people lived. As we were readying to leave, saw a couple of goat herders passing through.

So, I guess one could say there is still a bit of life flowing in the "Dead" Cities!

Damascus, Syria
Sitting in a pretty swanky coffee/nargileh (sheesha) place in central Damascus, having a shai (funny, I find myself drinking a LOT of tea lately... I guess when its available everywhere, everyone constantly drinks it and invites you to drink as well, you just do as the locals do!) and enjoying the views (Damascus women). Headed down here today from Hama, and can say that at first glance I really like this city - super significant with its place in history (another one vying for the oldest in the world), yet has a young, vibrant and - maybe even a twinge of liberal feeling - that keeps it active/alive. After I arrived in Damascus and checked in to a hotel, headed over to the National Museum with tons on amazing ancient artifacts from all over Syria; my favorites by far were the 2nd c. fresco-covered synagogue, and the hypogeum of Yarai tomb from Palmyra.

After the museum strolled by and in (now open, construction completed!) the 16th c. b&w striped Takiyya as-Suleimaniyya, built by Ottoman Empire's premier architect, Mirmar Sinan.

Having (another) shai here at Al-Nawfara coffee shop in Old Damascus, listening to Abu Shady, Syria's last professional "hakawati" (storyteller) spinning tales from his throne.

Although of course I have no idea what he is saying as it is in Arabic, it doesn't take away from the entertainment factor (probably would be really cheesy if in English, anyway!). I saw probably every square inch of the Old City today. Wandered into the western entry point and beginning of Souq Al-Hamidiyya... funny, exact same setup as Aleppo's - but quite a difference in the Souqs themselves: this one in Damascus is wide, orderly and -- dare I say -- even qualifies as clean on some level. Boring! Moving along eastward, arrived at the remains of the western temple gate of the 3rd c. Roman Temple of Jupiter, where I bumped into the crazy Russian guy also staying in the same hotel. He tells me he stayed up all night (and still reeked of booze) to watch the sun rise over Damascus from atop the mountain north of the city, only it was super cloudy this morning - oh well! He went off to sleep (or to sleep it off, maybe) and I entered into the landmark Umayyad Mosque from 705 AD (converted from Temple of Jupiter). Really beautiful mosaics all over the walls of the interior courtyard, and full ambiance with the constant prayer calls booming over the speakers.

Wandered inside a while to check out the shrines (or, more interesting, checking out the people who are visiting the shrines),

then went next door, to the mausoleum of Saladin from the 12 c. After, headed up the street to the Iranian-built Shiite Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque. It seemed like most mosques from the exterior (bland and basic), but the interior was absolutely unique - a complete riot of colorful mirror mosaics, and pilgrims weeping - literally - next to a memorial, made it all a bit overwhelming!

From there I visited the 18th c. Azem Palace with its fruit tree lined courtyards and cool displays.

Passed another Souq and east along Sharia Medhaat Pasha street to the eastern gate, outside to St. Paul's chapel where, according to biblical tale, is the site where the disciples lowered St. Paul out of a window in a basket so he could help the Jews flee.

On the way back into Old Damascus, coincidentally, saw some man climbing UP a rope ladder (maybe a shortcut to his home??).

Palmyra, Syria
Watching the sun set behind a group of mountains and giving the ruins of Palmyra a wonderful, almost pink glow.

I arrived here today (eventually, after waiting around forever for the bus back in Damascus to leave) at a restaurant outside of town then shared a taxi to the ruins - these really are quite spectacular...

I hate to say it, but it almost makes me wonder why I bothered visiting Apamea! The incredible story behind the rise and fall of the city under the leadership of Queen Zenobia makes it that much more interesting - how she was defiant to Rome and staged a coup that failed, so she bolted into the desert on camelback!

Wandering by the (mostly) 2nd c. AD sites like Temple of Baal Shamin,

Temple of Bel,

and countless other landmarks spread out over a vast area, makes you feel you're almost alone despite the buses of tourists around. Best part is, consistent with Apamea, there are no entry fees/open hours/roped-off areas, you go wander wherever!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 08:01 Comments (0)

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