In the summer of 2007, my brother and I drove from the UK to Damascus. Four years after our road trip, Syria was plunged into Civil War. Our hearts go out to all the men, women and children who have lost their lives and affected by this armed conflict, and to the beautiful people we met along the way.
Written by Chris Raven
Si drives south to the town of Nevşehir in the heart of Cappadocia, and we follow fields of yellow sunflowers all the way to the agricultural city of Nigde. The windows are down and there is 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 climb the breathtaking Kolsuz Pass in the Niğde Province at an altitude of 1,490 metres (4,890 ft), and slowly make our way down towards Adana that produces grapes, cotton, wheat and barley. From the Levant region up into Turkey, the farming revolution began here 8,000 years ago creating a hub where farmers are first thought to have spread into Europe. We arrive on the Mediterranean coast at the port town of İskenderun. There is not much to see so we park up overlooking the port. Si rummages through the trunk and fishes out a saucepan and the gas stove. We cook a tin of meatballs with spaghetti, and I take the opportunity to have a shave using the hot spaghetti water.
We arrive at the small Yayladağı Turkey/Syria checkpoint. I feel nervous and slightly anxious. After our four week journey through Europe we have finally arrived at the border and our gateway into the Middle East. War has been raging in nearby Iraq for many years following the US and UK invasion in 2003 and, with Baghdad located only 466.6 miles away from our chosen destination of Damascus, it all feels uncomfortably close. If the head gasket blew right now, at this very moment in time, causing the rusty engine to give up the ghost, and there was nothing more to do with the heap of metal than roll it off a very high cliff, I would secretly be over the moon.
‘Why didn’t we drive to the Arctic Circle instead?’ I say, beaming a fake ‘what-the-flipping-heck-are-we-doing’ smile.
Si turns to me, and frowns. ‘What?’
‘You know, lakes and mountains. Cute reindeer.’
He ignores me and urgently winds down his window.
Composing ourselves, we crawl towards the checkpoint and pull up alongside a border official. He is a friendly mature chap and wears glasses and a mustard coloured uniform. He leans forward and smiles 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 is little of interest. The official asks to see our passports and quickly flicks to the visas, which we had obtained from the Syrian Embassy in London on route to Dover. He 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. Thumbing through the pages he finds the Escort’s details and hands it over. We watch the official narrow his eyes and skim read over the page. He seems to be struggling to understand it.
‘Are you sure we don’t need a Customs Certificate?’ Si whispers.
‘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.
The official indicates for us to open the trunk. He peers down at the camping equipment and an old kettle. The desire to rummage through old junk doesn’t appear to be high on his agenda, so with a nod he instructs me to close it. For car insurance, we are shown to a concrete building and welcomed inside by a smartly dressed guy sat behind a desk. Within seconds, he is typing away on an old computer and quickly prints out a form before sliding it in front of us. The guy’s English is exceptionally good, so 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 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 I tell him about our quest to drive 5,000 kilometres from the UK to Damascus. He is fascinated by our journey, but wonders why we are driving a car all the way to Syria. We have to think about it for a moment, before I reply with a simple ‘adventure’. Si asks him about the massive influx of Iraqi refugees into Syria that has 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 $150 for the two week car insurance and bid our new friend farewell. Skipping into various customs buildings and having our passports checked and stamped, we finally pass through the Syria customs barrier. We are then told we need to take our documents into small office that doesn’t appear to have been decorated since the 1950s. Two overweight officials sit slouched behind a wooden desk and a large bunch of electrical wires protrude out of the crumbling wall above their heads. A big gust of wind blows through the window and the paperwork on the desk flies around the office. We watch them both with amusement as they try desperately to catch the sheets of paper. A truck driver standing next to me shakes his head and looks down at his watch. After closing the window the officials wave us over and surprisingly, without much hassle, our paperwork is stamped and we are told we can go.
We follow a Syrian hatchback down a winding mountain road and I notice the fuel gauge is kissing red. In a country neighbouring an oil rich nation such as Iraq, you would imagine fuel is everywhere, literally bubbling from out of the ground, but we become frustrated when we can’t find one. It is not until we are on the coast heading for the port town of Lattakia that we finally stumble across somewhere to refuel. Si pulls up beside a pump and an African guy wearing overalls walks over. He is from Nigeria and fills the tank to the top. It works out at around 25p ($0.50) a litre (2007). I give the guy a tip and wish him well.
Back on the dusty road it isn’t long before we reach the sea town of Lattakia. In addition to serving as the biggest port in Syria, the place is bursting with ancient history, street cafes and pleasant beaches. We pull over and enjoy the ocean views. People walking by stop and study our number plate and GB sticker; a clear indication of how far we have driven. We are now closer to Baghdad than Istanbul and, beyond the empty crisp packets and water bottles on the sandy beach, I look out across the ocean towards the island of Cyprus that is located only 160 kilometres away and try to imagine the sun burnt Brits drinking beer and dancing to Lady GaGa in Ayia Napa. Journeying on, we leave Lattakia and drive south along the Mediterranean Coast to Tartus. It is a little town with a majority population of ethnic Levantine Arabs and about 3,000 inhabitants of Greek origin.
Two guys at Crac des Chevaliers (Photo by Chris Raven)
Skimming alongside the Lebanese border, Si drives in the direction of the 12th century Crac des Chevaliers, a World National Heritage fortress that was one of the Crusader’s most important strongholds, and through a lush green valley we see the crumbling sandstone block fortress perched on top of a hill. It resembles a castle from a child’s imagination with towers and turrets that reach up into the clouds. We pass a mosque and two donkeys and drive up a steep road that takes us into 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 to allow the engine to cool down. Two guys on a motorbike stop beside us and look at the car. They fire questions, but we haven’t a clue what they are saying so Si grabs the phrasebook and we attempt to have a comedy conversation. They laugh before asking me to take their photo before zooming off with a holler. Across the road an old man sitting outside of a little shop catches my attention. We take this opportunity to grab some supplies. The old man is a delightful chap with a striking face and sparkling green eyes. He chats away and we politely smile and nod. We shake the man’s hand and drive further up the road, avoiding a shepherd with his a flock of sheep. With the sun setting fast we decide to spend the night at the castle. We spy a hotel and restaurant and park up overlooking the town with the flat, desert landscape reaching out to Lebanon. We are welcomed into the restaurant by a man with a beard and a perfectly round pot belly. His shirt stretches so tightly over it the buttons are literally ready to pop. The place is completely empty with the exception of a tour group of westerners. He ushers us over to a neatly laid out table by the window, and we order lamb kebabs and a couple of local beers. The tour group sitting nearby burst out laughing and talk loudly, they are German. The big guy returns to the table with our beers, and randomly tells us we are sixteen miles away from the Lebanese border and only the other day he could hear machine gun fire.
‘Machine guns?’ I reply, sipping my beer.
‘Yes, yes, not far,’ he nods vehemently, pointing out of the window.
‘We are safe here?’
‘Yes, yes, no problem. Safe.’
Now I know why his restaurant is so empty. Here is a little tip for you buddy on how to make your business more 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 a few beers and have a party with the Germans.
With a cloudy head after last night we devour breakfast and wander very slowly around the old Crac, before driving south through the desert on the Road to Damascus. The desert landscape stretches for miles and miles, and there are hills and small brick houses on the horizon shimmering in the heat haze. 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 bridge, and moments later I swerve around a car parked up in the slow lane. The driver has decided to stop in the middle of the highway and have a chat with his friend walking along the hard shoulder. A sign for Baghdad flashes overhead and along the roadside there are huge billboards of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The election was only a few days ago and with Assad being elected for a second term, his face is everywhere.
‘Have you driven all the way from England?’ he shouts.’Yes, from England,’ I reply, slightly surprised.
‘No way, I’m from Manchester!’ he laughs, reaching out his hand.
It has been a while since I have heard an English accent, especially a strong Mancunian accent. Before I have time to shake his hand the taxi zooms off and disappears into the chaos. Si turns down a very narrow street into the maze of the Old City. Shops and people spill out into the road and there is no room for error, otherwise it is goodbye to the wing mirrors. Crawling through the ancient bazaar, we pass market stalls selling carpets and colourful herbs and spices, and Si weaves around wooden carts piled high with fruit and vegetables. Groups of men sit in the shade and drink tea and smoke nargilah pipes. Si manoeuvres skilfully through the cobbled streets and we eventually find our way back onto the busy road.
We eventually find a car park not too far from the old town. A guy with a grey moustache and baggy trousers runs over. He appears to be the car park attendant. With the phrasebook at hand we try to ask him if it is okay to park here for a couple of nights. After another comedy conversation, the guy finally understands what we are talking about and nods. He writes down the price. We have made it to Damascus! Removing the magnetic GB sticker from the back of the car, we throw our rucksacks over our shoulders and head off in search of a hotel. The streets are busy and shop owners smile and say hello. The clothing here is very diverse with some men wearing traditional kuffiyahs, turbans and head wraps, while others are wearing modern suits or jeans and t-shirts. It is 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. None of the men have long hair, so Si’s rock star appearance stands out like a sore thumb. Our search for a hotel doesn’t start well. We get turned away from the first two, either because we are foreigners or due to looking slightly bedraggled. Continuing our search, we eventually find a room in a posh hotel way above our budget. It has a grand reception, with sheikhs sitting on plush sofas and well dressed businessmen occupying the foyer. We pay for two nights and head to the room.
After a well-deserved power nap, a shower and a shave (using hot tap water instead of hot spaghetti water), I feel re-energised and ready to explore. I look out of the hotel window at the city of Damascus down below. Satellite dishes dominate the roof tops of the buildings, and a huge banner of the president hangs down the side of a twenty storey office block. Feeling fresh, we jump into a taxi and head for the Jabri House, one of the most attractive restaurants in Damascus. The sun begins to set, sparking off a haunting chorus of the Muslim azan call to prayer that is broadcast from loud speakers from the many mosques across the city. Our taxi driver nips through the city walls and squeezes down the narrow back streets of the Old City near to the Ummayad Mosque. He pulls up outside an old Ottoman house built in 1737, with traditional Damascene architecture and interior design. The restaurant has a buzzing atmosphere and there is a delightful courtyard and a water fountain. A smartly dressed waiter leads us swiftly up to a balcony and shows us to a table overlooking the courtyard. We order grilled skewers of chicken and lamb with humus and peppers, and a huge double nargilah pipe. I peer over the balcony and watch a Syrian family taking photos. A woman wearing a blue headscarf smokes a pipe in one hand and has a cigarette in the other. A live band begins to play a selection of traditional Syrian songs and people get up and dance.
With bellies bursting from the delicious food, we walk through the crowded narrow streets to the Christian quarter. 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 watering hole on the corner of Mar Mar, and order two large double Johnnie Walker Black to celebrate our arrival to Damascus. By one o’clock in the morning we are both happily drunk and the party people have arrived. Before you can say ‘dancing in Damascus’ the place is heaving. We drink, dance and make friends with a group of trendy Syrians and chat to a guy in a sharp suit from Dubai, who smokes a cigar. The funky Middle Eastern music accompanies us through the night, inspiring Si to dance with a woman from Jordan who is on a hen party weekend. We stumble out of the place with empty wallets, but huge smiles. A truly fascinating night.
Shoe shinning guy in Damascus. (Photo by Simon Raven)
The next morning, with cameras hooked over our shoulders, we hit the sights of the old town. I have my trainers cleaned by a shoe shine kid, whose funny banter 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. A man walks past with a hand gun tucked into 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 located inside the old walled city. We buy a drink from a tamr hendi drinks vendor, who is wearing traditional Arabic clothing and carrying a huge silver container on his back. He grabs a glass from the belt around his waist and fills it up with delicious Tamarind juice, which originally came from India via Persia to Aleppo in the seventh century. It tastes sweet and sour, but very refreshing on such a hot day. We walk through the markets that are full of shops fighting for space as they sell their trade from spices, tourist souvenirs, sticky Arab sweets, carpets, jewellery, sweet flavoured syrup tobacco, mundane kitchen utensils, clothing and make-up. A man offers Si a pack of cheap white socks, and I am 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 white socks as a souvenir from the Middle East. Thankfully, they are for his own use and we have fun buying spices for everyone back home instead and fresh apple tobacco from a man making it himself at the back of his shop.
Construction worker in Damascus. (Photo by 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 that was completed in 715. The mosque holds a shrine supposedly to contain the head of John the Baptist, who was honoured as a prophet by Muslims and Christians. We buy a coffee and people watch. Children dance in a water fountain and families enjoy a day of shopping. I take a sneaky photograph of a Polish UN soldier standing by his Jeep. Buzzing from the caffeine, we continue to explore the souks and admire a statue of Saladin on horse back; a Kurdish Muslim who became the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. Passing a newly constructed mosque on Sh al-Jumhuriyya, I see a guy sitting on a wall who is covered in dust and wearing a kuffiyah. I grab the phrasebook and flick to the page.
‘Ymknny aittikhadh suratik? I ask him in my best Arabic.
He seems to understand and jumps down from the wall. He flicks a cigarette into this mouth and poses in front of the camera. I take the photo and shake his hand.
‘Shukran,’ I smile.
He nods and jumps back onto the wall, cool guy. Keen to copy my photographs, we stubble across a small internet cafe. We chat to the owner and his friend from Iraq. Before I have had a chance to download the photos from my camera, we are eating pizza with the guys and the other customers who are from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the United States. The guy from Iraq asks what we are doing here. I tell him we have driven from England on a quest to reach Damascus. He shows no expression and doesn’t seem too impressed. I guess why should he be? He leans back in his chair and turns to his friend. Was it something I said? The guy from Iraq breaks the silence and tells us he 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. The conversation has turned to politics, so I focus on downloading the photos to my memory stick. The American guy also turns back to his computer screen and grabs the mouse. Si’s journalist instincts kick in and he enjoys a fascinating debate about the state of the Middle East.
The following morning, we check out of the hotel and make our way through the busy streets to the car park. I scan the vehicles for our dusty but trusty chariot and cross my fingers it is still here. It is, and I am so happy like I have bumped into an old friend. The guy with the moustache from the other day runs over and looks pleased at our return. We throw our bags into the trunk and instinctively take a peek underneath the car to check for explosives. Sparking up the engine it rattles and splutters into action, and waving goodbye we hurtle out of the city and join the highway. With a hot wind blowing across my tanned forehead I watch the desert landscape flash by, and the huge face of President Bashar al-Assad. I am so grateful that the head gasket didn’t blow at the Turkish border like I wanted it to and I am even more grateful we didn’t push the Escort off a very high cliff and end this incredible journey. It has been physically and mentally challenging, but our overwhelming desire to explore the unknown has rewarded us immensely by giving us the opportunity to witness a country so full of colour, kindness and cultural magic that it will be forever engraved in our memories.