Sunday, 28 February 2016

Road to Damascus in a Ford Escort

In the summer of 2007 I drove with my brother from the UK to Damascus in the Middle East. Our thoughts are with the kind people we met during our journey, who are now the innocent victims of war. Read about our experience in this complex region of the world.
Simon Raven & Chris Raven in Syria on the Road to Damascus
I was understandably apprehensive when my brother, Simon, first suggested the idea of driving to Syria in a rusty Ford Escort.
  ‘Maybe it's safer to explore Scandinavia instead?’ I’d replied, my head buried deep inside a world atlas. 'Lakes and forests. Cute reindeer.'
  He raised an eyebrow. ‘No, it’ll be absolutely fine. According to Lonely Planet Syria is one of the safest countries to visit in the Middle East.’ He flipped a burger on the barbecue. 'Besides, Damascus is the oldest city in the world. It'll be mind blowing.'
  Toasting our latest expedition with a mug of tea we agreed to take one step at a time and see how far we could get. Our road trip to the Middle East was about to begin...

I wake up at sunrise outside the gates to the Göreme Open Air Museum in Cappadocia, Turkey. A roaring sound, in short violent bursts grabs my attention, and I glance out of the window and see a yellow and blue hot air balloon drifting over the strange volcanic mushroom-shaped rock formations named “fairy chimneys”. Holes are dotted across the rocks where ancient civilizations have carved windows and doorways into these natural dwellings, and Byzantines have made chapels with paintings during the spread of Early Christianity.

Sunflowers and the High Taurus, Cappadocia, Turkey. (Photo Simon Raven)
With the sun burning bright over the dry moonscape and my chicken noodle and bread breakfast now lying heavy in my stomach, I fire up the Escort and we head south through the Cappadocia region. Before long we pass through the town of Nevşehir in the heart of Cappadocia and drive alongside a field full of yellow sunflowers on the D765 to the agricultural city of Nigde. The windows are down and there’s an open road in front of us as we cruise the High Taurus; a mountain range brimming with important chromium deposits and other minerals such as silver, copper, iron, lignite and zinc. We begin to climb the Kolsuz Pass in the Niğde Province at an altitude of 1,490 metres (4,890 ft). The views are breathtaking, and before long we turn left onto the E90 and pass through the large city of Adana and the blue waters of the Seyhan River reservoir. Adana produces great quantities of grapes and citrus fruits and also cotton, wheat, corn, soy bean and barley. Once outside the hustle and bustle of Adana, we begin to drive along the Mediterranean coast to the town of İskenderun at the foot of the Nur Mountains. We pull over and cook a tin of meatballs and spaghetti on the gas stove, and I take the opportunity to have a shave using the hot spaghetti water.

Kolsuz Pass, Niğde Province, Turkey. (Photo Simon Raven)
Around one o'clock in the afternoon we reach the small Yayladağı border checkpoint with Syria, and I begin to feel slightly nervous about visiting our first ever Middle Eastern country. War had been raging in nearby Iraq for many years following the US and UK invasion and, with Baghdad being located only 466.6 miles away from our chosen destination of Damascus, it all feels uncomfortably close. I mention my fears to Si, and he calms me with the knowledge that the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq but has good foreign relations with the United States and the European Union.

Composing ourselves, we crawl over to the checkpoint and pull up alongside a border guard. He’s a friendly looking chap wearing glasses and a mustard coloured uniform. He leans forward and smiles at us before glancing into the back of the car. Apart from the sleeping bags, a torn road map and a few tins of Irish stew, there’s little of interest. He asks for our passports and quickly flicks to the visas, which we had obtained from the Syrian Embassy in London on route to Dover. He hands back our passports and asks to see the documents for the car. Si fumbles inside the glove box and pulls out a folder stuffed full of tatty pieces of paper. He thumbs through the pages and finds the Escort’s logbook. He passes it over to the guard and with a frown he skim reads the front before handing it back.
  ‘Are you sure we  don’t need a Customs Certificate?’ Si mumbles, looking extremely nervous.
  I shake my head. ‘No, just car insurance and a Green Card.’
  We both turn to the guard, and smile. He peers over his glasses and looks at us curiously.
  ‘Can we buy car insurance here?’ Si smiles, anxiously tapping the steering wheel.

Posters of President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. (Photo Simon Raven)
The border guard indicates to us to open the trunk of the car. He glances down at the camping equipment and an old kettle. The desire to rummage through a car packed full of old junk doesn't appear to be very high on his agenda, so with a nod he steps back and instructs us to close it. He points to a building on the right and informs us that we can purchase car insurance there. Thanking him, we leave the car and make our way over to the small concrete building. We’re welcomed inside by a smartly dressed young guy sat behind a desk. Within seconds he’s typing away on his old computer and prints out a form. The guy’s English is exceptionally good. I ask him if many tourists pass through this checkpoint, and he informs us foreigners normally cross into Syria at the larger border crossing at Kargamış. I ask him what the situation is like in Syria at the moment and he tells us not to worry. "This is not Iraq," he smiles, gathering all the relevant paperwork together. "Welcome to Syria." A huge weight is immediately lifted off our shoulders. I can see that this guy is genuine and really happy to see people visiting his country, and I wonder to what extent tourism has been affected as a result of the Iraq war. We chat to the guy for a while longer and tell him about our trip overland from the UK. Si asks him about the massive influx of Iraqi refugees into Syria which had brought about rising prices and overcrowding, but he tells us most Syrians seem to have accepted more than a million of the refugees happily enough. We pay the costly US$150 for the two week car insurance and bid our new friend farewell. After an hour of skipping into various customs buildings and having our passports checked and stamped, we jump in the car and pass through the first barrier. We’re told we need to take our documents into another office, which doesn't appear to have been decorated since the 1950’s. Two overweight guards sit slouched behind a wooden desk and a large bunch of electrical wires protrude out of the wall directly above their heads. With the paperwork blowing comically around the office, they eventually close the small window. We wait patiently in the doorway, and watch a Turkish truck driver unsubtly and, quite successfully, bribe the customs officials. Without much hassle, our paperwork is stamped in turn, and we’re told we can go.
Driving slowly down the winding mountain roads, we keep our distance from the Syrian car in front. The landscape is surprisingly green here despite the soaring temperatures. We’re low on fuel, so we go on the hunt for a petrol station. You’d imagine this would be fairly straightforward in a country neighbouring such an oil rich nation as Iraq, but much to our frustration we can’t seem to find one. Gritting our teeth with each mile as the petrol gauge dips below the red line, it’s not until we’re on the coast heading for the port town of Lattakia that we find somewhere to refuel. Pulling up beside a petrol pump, an African guy wearing overalls walks over to the car. He's from Nigeria. He fills the tank to the top and I pay for the petrol in cash, which works out at around 25p ($0.50) a litre (2007). I give the guy a tip and wish him well.

Crac des Chevaliers. (Photo Simon Raven)
Back on the dusty road, it isn't long before we reach Lattakia. In addition to serving as the biggest port in Syria, the city is bursting with ancient history, street cafes and pleasant beaches. We pull over and enjoy the ocean views. People walking past stop and study our number plate and GB sticker, a clear indication of how far we have driven. We’re now closer to Baghdad than Bucharest. Journeying on, we leave Lattakia and drive south to Tartus along the Mediterranean Coast bordered by the Alawite Mountains. It’s a scruffy little town with a majority population of ethnic Levantine Arabs and about 3,000 inhabitants of Greek origin. The History of Tartus dates back to the 2nd millennium BC when it was founded as a Phoenician colony of Aradus. We take a stroll around the old town and walk along the ramshackle beach that is littered with rubbish. I look out across the water and realize that only a hundred miles across the ocean is the island of Cyprus. Here we are in the Middle East, a region of the world that has become synonymous in recent years with war, and a stone’s throw away in Ayia Napa there are thousands of Brits drinking beer and dancing to Lady GaGa.

Two guy at Crac des Chevaliers.
 (Photo Chris Raven)
We continue south towards the Lebanese border as we head for the Crac des Chevaliers, a fortress that was one of the Crusader’s most important strongholds in the Middle East. Skimming above Lebanon we head westward on a four-lane highway before cutting through a lush green valley. A few minutes later we spy the Crac des Chevaliers, a crumbling sandstone block fortress that's perched on top of a mountain. It resembles a castle from a child’s imagination with towers and turrets that reach up into the clouds. Putting the Escort's 1.4 litre engine to the test, we pass a mosque and two donkeys and begin to climb a seriously steep hill through the town of al-Husn. Local people stop in their tracks and watch our beast of a car splutter and kangaroo past. We eventually pull over at the side of the road and allow the engine to cool down. Two young guys riding a motorbike pass by and look inside the car. An old man sits outside a little shop and waves. We wave back and take the opportunity to grab some supplies. He's a delightful old chap with sparkling green eyes. He chats away to us in Syrian, and we politely smile and nod. Driving further up the hill we wait for a shepherd with a flock of sheep to pass by before turning left into the car park. The sun is slowly setting, so we decide to park up and spend the night here. We see a hotel a little further up the hill, and park the car looking out over the town below and the mountainous landscape that reaches out to the Lebanon. As it grows dark, we decide to head inside the hotel and grab a bite to eat. We’re welcomed into the restaurant by a large man with a beard and his young son. The dinning room is occupied by a German tour party. We sit by the window that looks out across the mountains and order lamb kebabs and a couple of bottles of local beer. The owner strolls over with our beers and tells us we are sixteen miles from the Lebanese border and only the other day machine gun fire could be heard in the distance.
  'Machine gun fire?' I reply.
  'Yes, yes. Not far,' he nods vigorously with excited wide eyes. 
  'We're safe here?'
  'Yes, yes, no problem. Safe.'
  No wonder this restaurant is empty. Here's a tip buddy on how to make your business successful - don't tell your customers about machine gun fire down the road. Despite this, the night is fun and we eat great food, drink cold beer and have a little party with the Germans. 

Chris Raven on top of the Crac des Chevaliers “Homs Gap” (photo Simon Raven)
Waking at sunrise with a slight hangover, I grab my camera and capture bright purple thistles and poppies growing beside the castle that’s drenched in orange light. Witnessing many great battles the Crac des Chevaliers is a magnificent piece of Limestone architecture that was built by Crusaders between the mid-12th and late 13th centuries. A World National Heritage site, it's one of the most important preserved medieval military castles in the world. The castle was built in order to control the “Homs Gap”, the gateway to Syria, and it was through this passage that Syria communicated with the Mediterranean. After a few hours ducking and diving with our cameras around the old Crac, we eat breakfast and head south through the desert on the legendary ‘Road to Damascus’. The term ‘The Road to Damascus’ was coined in the New Testament and refers to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, later known as the Apostle Paul, to Christianity while travelling to Damascus to persecute Christians. Today we refer to ‘A road to Damascus’ moment, or change, as an important point in someone’s life where a great change or reversal of ideas or beliefs occurs. All of a sudden a sign whips over our heads pointing to Baghdad, and I experience a similar reversal of ideas about what on earth we’re doing here.
  The desert landscape either side of the road stretches for miles; there are hills and small brick houses shimmering on the horizon. The heat is intense this morning. Cars and dirty trucks sound their horns and a man zooms by on a motorbike wearing a red and white keffiyeh that flaps on top of his head. We pass a truck that has crashed into a derelict building, and moments later I swerve around a car parked up in the slow lane. The driver has decided to stop and have a little chat with his buddy walking along the hard shoulder. Hundreds of large billboards of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad are lined up along the highway. President Bashar al-Assad, trained in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital in London, but his education was cut short due to his brother’s death and subsequent confirmation as President by an unopposed referendum in 2000. He was expected to bring a more liberal approach to the leadership than his father. He is married to Asma (Emma) Assad, née Akhras, a Syrian Sunni Muslim from Acton in west London who he met in England. I try to imagine the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s face stuck on hundreds of massive posters alongside the M1. If the traffic jams aren't enough to cope with seeing Mr Brown smiling at you as you crawl past could certainly turn you to drink.

Traffic on the road to Damascus, Syria. Photo © Simon Raven.
A blue road sign flashes overhead with ‘Jordan Damascus’ on it in big white letters. We’re getting close now and the traffic is building up. Without warning, the front right tyre blows and I'm forced to swerve over onto the side of the highway. The traffic zooms dangerously past and, with military precision, we jump into action faster than a couple of F1 mechanics in the pit lanes. Within seconds we’re dripping with sweat in the 40°C heat. I'm just about to throw the flat tyre into the trunk when a car with four guys inside skids up behind us. For a split second my heart sinks and I fear the worse. The guys stare at us, but thankfully, they drive off. Freaked out, we quickly leap back inside the Escort and join the heavy traffic. I grab a towel and dab my face. The adrenalin is really starting to kick in now as a road sign for Beirut flashes by. We eventually hit the outskirts of Damascus. People smile at us and look at the car. They seem fascinated by the fact the Escort is a lefthand drive and the steering wheel is on the other side of the car. I'm nervous and feel uncomfortable by all of the attention. We’re driving through the capital of Syria, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and Si’s driving skills are being tested to their limits. There are no rules and the pedestrians walk right in front of the car. We haven’t a clue where we’re going. A yellow taxi edges alongside us and we’re surprised to see a young guy of Arabic appearance stick his head out of the taxi window.
  'Have you driven all the way from England?' he laughs.
  'Yeah. Where you from?' I shout back, surprised to hear a fellow British accent.
  'Manchester!' he replies, reaching out his hand.

Getting close - Road signs on the Road to Damascus. (Photo Simon Raven)
Before I have time to shake his hand the taxi zooms off and disappears into the chaos. Concentrating on finding a hotel, we turn down a very narrow street into the Old City. There's hardly any room to make a mistake, and if we do it’ll be goodbye to the wing mirrors. I feel like I'm in a scene from an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie. Crawling through the ancient bazaar, we pass market stalls selling colourful herbs and spices. We weave around wooden carts piled high with colourful fruit and vegetables and see groups of men sitting in the shade drinking tea and smoking shisha pipes. Si manoeuvres the car skilfully through the cobbled streets and we eventually find our way back onto the busy road leading through to the central part of the city. After driving around for an hour, we eventually find a car park not too far from the old town. We identify a free space, and a guy with a grey moustache and baggy trousers runs over. He appears to be the car park attendant. We collapse out of the car and try to ask him if it’s OK to park here for a couple of nights. The price is reasonable and he seems happy enough for us to leave it here. I feel completely overwhelmed that we've made it to Damascus. Throwing our rucksacks over our shoulders we head off in search of a hotel. Shop owners and people in the street smile at us as we battle through the crowds. Clothing in Syria is very diverse with men wearing traditional kuffiyahs, turbans and head wraps, while others are wearing modern suits or jeans and t-shirts. It's the same for the women. Some women are wearing long black garments called abayah that covers them from their shoulders to their feet and others are in full burqa or in jeans and t-shirt. Short hair on women and long hair on men is equally uncommon, so Si’s hippie hair stands out like a sore thumb. Our search for a hotel doesn't start well. We get turned away from a couple of two star hotels, who appear to either have a problem with foreigners or are suspicious of our bedraggled appearances. Continuing our search, we eventually find a room in a hotel way above of our budget. It has a grand reception with a lot of glass and expensive lighting, plush sofas and rich looking sheikhs and well dressed businessmen occupying the foyer. We pay for two nights and head to the room.

View of Damascus. (Photo Chris Raven)
Three hours later after a well needed power sleep, a shower and a shave (using hot tap water, instead of hot spaghetti water), I feel re-energised and ready to explore. Slipping on some clean clothes, I look out of the window at the city of Damascus below. Satellite dishes dominate the roofs of the buildings, and a huge banner of the president hangs down the side of a twenty storey office block. The sun begins to set, sparking off a haunting chorus of the Muslim azan call to prayer which is broadcast from loud speakers from the many mosques across the city. We’re starving and ready to try more of the local Syrian cuisine, so heading out into the street we jump into a taxi and head for the Jabri House, which is supposed to be one of the most attractive restaurants in Damascus. Our friendly taxi driver nips through the city walls and squeezes through the maze of narrow back streets of the old city near to the Ummayad Mosque and pulls up outside an old Ottoman house built in 1737. It has traditional Damascene architecture and interior design. The restaurant is busy with a buzzing atmosphere, and there’s a delightful courtyard, a stage to my right and a water fountain in the middle with tables full of people enjoying an evening out. A smartly dressed waiter in black leads us up stairs to the second floor and shows us to a table overlooking the courtyard below. We order grilled skewers of chicken and lamb with humus and peppers, plus a huge hookah to smoke at the table. The restaurant doesn't sell alcohol so we drink refreshing orange juice. I peer over the balcony and watch a Syrian family taking photos of each other. An attractive woman wearing a blue headscarf smokes a pipe in one hand and a cigarette in the other. A live band begins to play a selection of traditional Syrian songs. People get up and dance. All of the problems surrounding this country are not on the minds of these happy people tonight.
With bellies bursting, we walk through the crowed narrow streets to the Christian quarter of the old city. Western faces begin to appear and we reach a square and the area where there are a few bars. We set up camp in a bar cum club on the corner called Mar Mar. Claiming stools at the bar, we order a couple of pricey beers in celebration of our arrival in Damascus. Its one o'clock in the morning by the time the party people arrive and before you can say ‘dancing in Damascus’ the place is heaving with the young and fashionable. We drink, dance, make friends with a blonde couple from Belgium and chat to a guy in a sharp suit from Dubai, who expertly smokes a cigar and talks loudly about how wealthy he is. The funky Middle Eastern music accompanies us through the night, inspiring Si to dance with a girl from Jordan who belongs to a hen party. We stumble out of the place with empty wallets and big smiles across our faces in the early hours.

Shoe shinning guy in Damascus.
(Photo Simon Raven)
The next morning I feel like my head is about to explode. Taking full advantage of the complimentary breakfast, we fall out of our beds and devour delicious bread, eggs, fruit and strong Turkish coffee. It doesn't take us long to feel human again, and with our cameras ready for action we hit the sights of the old town. Withdrawing money from an ATM machine, I get my trainers cleaned by a shoe shine kid, whose smile wins my business. He does a grand job, so I pay him kindly. I love the fast pace of this city and the diverse cultural mix of its citizens. It’s so exotic and you really feel like you are on an adventure. A man walks past with a gun sticking out from the back of his jeans, and a group of women brush by who are completely covered up from head-to-toe. We arrive at the Al-Hamidiyah souk, which is the largest and the most central souk in Syria, located inside the old walled city next to the Citadel. The souk starts at Al-Thawra Street and ends at the Umayyad Mosque plaza. Shops fight for space selling spices, tourist souvenirs, sticky Arab sweets, jewellery, mundane kitchen utensils, clothing and make-up. A man offers Si a pack of cheap white socks, and I'm surprised when he eagerly jabs his fingers into his pocket and hands the guy some cash. Si smiles at his new purchase, and I imagine family members back home looking very disappointed when he gives them a pair of plain white socks as a souvenir from the Middle East. We decide to buy everyone back home spices instead and some fresh double apple shisha tobacco from a man who makes it himself in a room at the back of his shop.

Construction worker in Damascus.
(Photo Chris Raven)
Arriving at the plaza, I'm stunned by the sight of the Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world which was completed in 715. The mosque holds a shrine which is said to contain the head of John the Baptist honoured as a prophet by Muslims and Christians. We sit down and watch people going about their business, a group of children dance in the water fountain nearby and I take photograph of a UN soldier standing by his Jeep. Pausing to admire the statue of Saladin on horse back, a Kurdish Muslim who became the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, we slowly head back to the hotel. On the return journey we pass a newly constructed mosque on Sh al-Jumhuriyya. A kid covered in dust who is wearing a red and white kuffiyah, sits on a wall and smokes a cigarette. I ask if I can take his picture. Jumping down from the wall he flicks his cigarette into this mouth and poses in front of the camera. For the rest of the afternoon and evening we enjoy the atmosphere around the hotel and use a small internet café nearby. We chat to the owner and his friend from Iraq. Before I've had a chance to log into my email, we're eating pizza with the guys and chewing the fat with the other customers who we discover are from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and America. The main topic of conversation is politics, and we learn that the guy from Iraq had been forced to flee across the border into Syria to escape the war. Many of his friends had been killed. He appears to point an accusing finger at our former prime minister Tony Blair. Fascinated to discover an organised cosmopolitan city here in Syria, I begin to fear how rapidly a country in this region of the Middle East can collapse into political or social chaos.

Checking out of the hotel the next morning, we cross our fingers the car is still parked up where we left it. I'm relieved to see our navy blue Ford Escort, a machine that has transported us all this way from the UK to the Middle East. The same guy with the grey moustache runs over and looks pleased at our return. We throw our bags into the boot and take a quick peek under the car  before striking the engine. Our road trip to Damascus it seems has come to an end. Waving goodbye we hurtle out of the city towards the highway. Now all that is left for us to do is to drive back home…

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