overland-underwater.com - A charity drive from the UK to New Zealand
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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

Goats and Gold

Written by Alex Towns. Uploaded 20 October 2005.

Syria, Country 10, Diary entry 11-17th Sep 2005, Total distance in Syria: 1100 KM (On the drive south)

With our fuel tanks brimming and an amazed crowd left at the fuel station wondering where we had managed to squeeze all that diesel, we headed off to find our first nights camp in Syria. Pleased to leave the traffic madness of Aleppo behind we headed in the rough direction of St Simeon to the north. It was again dark so followed our noses down a track hoping for somewhere remote.

How were we to know there was a diesel shortage

The track promptly ended and all being quite tired we decided it was good enough although it wasn’t particularly sheltered and a breeze was starting to pick up. The breeze progressively grew to a gale which gave the tents a thorough shaking and with the fly sheet flapping about noisily it was time to insert ear plugs!

In the morning Martin was looking particularly worse for wear. With no ear plugs he’d gathered in his flysheet which had helped although he could now only hear our tent! Fearing that his tent was soon to take off he decided drastic measures were necessary. After packing down his tent he spent the rest of the night trying to sleep in his car, whilst Maz & I slept like babies blissfully unaware of his drama!

Time for a quick shower and almost to cue the local goat farmer wondered over the hill on his donkey with goats in tow. After a long conversation where we were all fluent just unfortunately not in the same language, we packed our tent away and waved our farewells with the goat herder still gesticulating frantically..!

Onwards to St Simeon’s but first a quick breakfast stop in a small village on the way. Quite by luck we found a bakery that appeared empty at first glance but after a suitable amount of sign language some pastry things appeared. I had the choice of triangles with a cheese filling or flat mini-pizza type things with what looked like a topping of sesame paste. Feeling adventurous I ordered a taster of each just as a helpful gentleman arrived to assist with the translation.

With breakfast in the bag we arrived at St Simeon. In the 5th century AD, shepherd Simeon ended up in the land north of Aleppo. Looking for the meaning of life and following a revelation he had in a dream, he ended up in a monastery. Not satisfied, he made a pillar and sat on top of it. Every few years, he made a newer, higher pillar, until sitting for years on a 15 metre high pillar on which he eventually died, after having spent some 36 years on top of pillars. By this time, he had become a famous person and drew pilgrims from as far away as northern Europe. Now to us we were surprised that he wasn’t led off to the funny farm, but in their infinite wisdom they made him a saint..!?!?

It was uncomfortable enough sitting for our photo - little lone 36 years..!!

Breakfast results: Cheese triangles = Thumbs UP Mini pizzas = Thumbs DOWN…. It was more like curry paste – a bit strong for breakfast..!!

At least we had something inside our stomachs to help our malaria tablets go down, as after taking them for the first time in Turkey on an empty stomach, made us all feel nauseous. With the sun getting hotter we made tracks for Aleppo to brave the mad drivers once more and to see what it looked like during daylight hours.

One of the main attractions is an enormous fortress in the centre of old town. With signposts rare, we switched to the alternative method of navigation… the citadel dominated the sky line so we made a bee line straight towards it. Once there we had to play the parking game, to which I still don’t understand the rules, but we eventually got parked right in front with a friendly policeman happy to guard the vehicles 24x7.

The imposing Citadel at Aleppo

The hill the fortress stands on is an impressive man made mound and it definitely commands a dominate position with good views across Aleppo. Once inside however, it resembled more of a building site with ‘renovation’ going on everywhere. It was hard to appreciate what was there originally and what had been recently rebuilt! The thrown room above the entrance gate had had a face lift and did look pretty spectacular.

Name that bit of meat..??

With our castle exploration complete, time to satisfy the shwarma worm with a quick chicken shwarma before diving head long into the covered souks. Unlike Istanbul where the old souk primarily sells tourist tat, the souks in Aleppo cater more for the local population and as such we were treated to the sights, sounds and smells of a busy souk. There was material street where you could buy any colour you wanted in shades of white or black. Then butchers street with all sorts of things on the block and hung up on display, bakers street where we got a mixture of filled triangles for brekkie tomorrow. Spice street which smelt amazing and would you believe it baklava street so we couldn’t help but sample the local flavours – yum.

Martin goes native

Completely lost we emerged back into the daylight and with a bit of luck we wandered towards the cars, avoiding the mini vans which just managed to squeeze down the extremely narrow streets. As we turned a corner we were met by an amusing scene at a cross roads where there were four mini-vans each facing each other nose to nose, beeping and shouting, none wanting or able to give way as swarms more arrived and backed up behind the jam. It’d be a while before they got that lot moving again!

Oops.. nice jam

With no sign of our 24x7 policeman we jumped in the cars and headed out of town with a freshly cooked chicken and bread for sups. Again with light failing we kept our eyes scanned for a suitable camp, but we were amazed at just how populated Syria is, with every scrap of land in use. With the sun setting fast we found a small outcrop of rock up from some fields which was not directly visible from the road – perfect. Out with the chairs and time for a cheeky sundowner before our chicken feast.

I don’t recall setting our donkey alarm the night before, but at 6am it went off – LOUD right by the tent. Morning…. The clanking of bells and bleating of goats meant our first visitor of the day. Dragging ourselves out of the tent at this unearthly hour, Martin was already deeply engaged in conversation with our goat herder. The chap obviously couldn’t believe his eyes, after a lifetime of walking his goats round these parts to find two ruddy great cars with tents on top. I’m sure he prodded the donkey to set it off and wake us.

Naturally with our Arabic limited to hello and his English none existent, it made for an interesting conversation when still wiping the sleep from our eyes. Martin was a big hit though and our goat herder was very keen for Martin to help him milk one of the goats for us. With a few buckets of goat’s milk we understood that we needed to heat it first, to which he then added sugar. Not too bad, although a pint each was a bit much to help the triangles go down.

Martin being shown which bit to tug..!

For over an hour we were entertained and he was a natural for the video camera, chasing after his goats and jumping on his not so obliging donkey for a quick lap around the campsite. After writing down our names for him and telephone number which he was very keen to have, although I’m not sure sign language works down the phone, he jumped back on his donkey, rounded up his goats and was off. A bizarre morning!

Our morning entertainment

With our Lonely Planet map in hand – Syria with about 5 towns on and a few roads – we set off for our next sight Qalat Salahidin. By my dead reckoning I’d put a waypoint in the GPS, but when we had passed this and there was still no sign of an imposing mountain fortress it was time to get some local advice. In fact we weren’t too far away, just on a parallel road, so after following a bus to the right junction we were soon closing in on our castle.

The delightful hill top castle of Qalat Salahidin

TE Lawrence was moved to write of Qalat Salahidin ‘It was I think the most sensational thing in castle building I have seen’. The sensational aspect is mainly due to the site – the castle is perched on top of a heavily wooded ridge with near precipitous sides dropping away to surrounding ravines.

The Mediterranean coast of Syria didn’t have much to offer for sightseeing, so on a castle theme we decided to make tracks for the next in the book. At 2300 feet above sea level, stands what is much considered the greatest fortress in the world, Krak Des Chevaliers (Castle of the Knights). With its command over the valley between Homs and Tripoli, and being a model of perfection of medieval fortification, this Castle was never besieged or taken by storm. It only fell towards the end of the crusades through Baibars unique plan involving trickery, however the few residing crusaders were given safe passage in return for the surrender of the Castle.

With no bush camping available we followed the signs to ‘campnig’ and were directed to a carpark for the night. It did however receive full marks for it’s location with a great view of the magnificent Castle. As it was growing late we decided against driving back down the hill to the village in search of food and opted instead to try the grub of the camp restaurant to which we were not disappointed… grilled garlic chicken and a mezza of food. The local beer however had a distinct chlorine flavour – not the best.

Krak Des Chevaliers a magnificant crusader castle

We made good use of power being available and settled in after our meal to catch up on diary and photos. Our hosts hung about and provided us with chi but you could tell that our absence was overdue. Tired, we said our goodnights and climbed into our tents. This must have been exactly what the staff were waiting for as almost as soon as our lights were off a huge party kicked off next door. This time even ear plugs couldn’t deafen the noise.

In the small hours of the morning the party finally ended… relief… only to be replaced by the dawn call for prayers from the mosque next door, then silence again before the dogs started barking forever and finally the cockerels had their say. Not the best nights sleep we’ve had, however poking your head out of the tents in the morning and being greeted by the splendid view of the Castle was some small consolation. At least we were up early to avoid the coaches of tourists motoring up from Damascus.

The castle was indeed impressive and as we ambled about we noticed many people dressed up as if they were about to take part in a nativity play..!?!? Very odd we thought until we stumble over a makeshift mdf set that had been assembled in the court yard… they must be filming! After playing crusaders for awhile and trying to get ourselves lost through all the passages, we ended by scaling the outer wall.

Reaching the top we could hear what sounded like someone in pain. Peering over the edge there was a rather agitated man screaming at the top of his voice to a horde of guys in costume, some on horse back and some foot soldiers apparently in charge of a rather clumsy looking battering ram. This was too good to miss, so we settled down to watch the show, until realising that his shouting was now directed at all the tourists on the wall as we were now in shot. Apparently the traffic working it’s way between horses, men and battering ram was all normal for the setting, or perhaps the director just realised that there was no way on earth even he had the power to hold up traffic in Syria..!!

I'm an actor don't you know

Moving out of camera shot and with a lucky break in the traffic, we were allowed to watch on as the cameras rolled and the massed hordes stormed the castle! However the battering ram had a mind of it’s own and careered off the road, up the bank and almost rolled over, in the process dragging the foot soldiers along with it. We may have been out of camera view and high on the Castle wall, but I’m sure the laughter from the tourists will need to be edited out before it goes to air.

We spent the afternoon doing a bit of repacking as stuff had started to migrate onto the front seats as well as a few running repairs to the cars. With the afternoon drawing on we decided to up sticks and press on. First stop however was to satisfy our shwarma worms, but look as we might, we couldn’t see any fud shops as we drove through the villages surrounding the Castle. The nearest we came across was a butchers, so we thought we might as well ask.

Our butcher friend had a little English and with our advanced sign language we thought we were making progress. He however insisted that we should wait for his brother who was the English speaker in the family. After a quick phone call we were soon being introduced to Bashra who understood our plight for food & soon had his brother cooking up some mini-pizza things with a meat topping. Instead of loitering about, Bashra invited us in for chi. We’d already noticed that “No thank you” were words completely omitted from Syrian/English vocabulary and we were ushered upstairs to his parents house and out onto the balcony as the tea brewing commenced.

Here started a most random and unexpected evening……!

Tea in Syria (and most of this region) is served black with sugar – and sometimes with a random bunch of herbs added for good luck! We had already got a taste for this sweet tea in Turkey, so were looking forward to a quick brew. We quickly realised that Bashra and his family had a particular sweet tooth… with more parts sugar to tea from what we could tell. Still it went down well… then a top up… then another… then the mini-pizza’s arrived… then another top up. During this tea drinking ceremony word got out that there were strangers in town, and we were literally greeted by a procession of friends and family.

It was turning out to be a fun evening, with Bashra key in the middle managing the translations. One eye however was on the clock, as it was now dark and we’d not found our next camp! Bashra then asked if we wanted to take showers, to which we politely thanked him for the offer, but didn’t want to overstay our welcome. By about the third offer we realised that we really must be quite grubby and should actually take him up on his kind offer. At the same time he offered us beds for the night and it was obvious that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer!

Showered, changed and overnight bags unpacked in our room for the night, we settled down to more tea, this time served by the youngest of the family. We were about to take a sip when an uncle leapt at the table stopping us from drinking it and in the process spilling scolding hot tea all over Maz’s dress – coincidentally the same dress that was covered by the exploding Fanta glass..! The youngest had made a mistake whilst brewing the tea and instead of adding a kilo of sugar, mistakenly had added SALT instead… a close shave..!!

With a new brew of liquid sugar on the go, we were informed that we were to visit his grandfathers house. Before long we were walking towards the next house not really sure what was going on. Once inside we met the rest of the family – over a dozen of them – and were shown to 3 seats facing the family… I could have sworn we sat where the TV used to be! The bizarre evening continued with lots of laughing and sign language and Bashra doing his best to interpret a dozen people at a time.

The conversation then swung to pork…. For this village was the Valley of the Christians and they were very interested to know our views. A bowl appeared full of grilled cubes of pork and we were encouraged to try some. It was delicious, which sparked the arrival of a table which was set up in front of us and quickly covered in foods of all flavours. A veritable feast then ensued topped off by the arrival of Arak… the Syrian version of Raki as experienced previously in Turkey. Forewarned is forearmed and we did our best not to get into a drinking contest.

With bellies full, we said a warm farewell and returned to Bashra’s parent’s house for the finally event of the evening, the Hubbly Bubbly and strong black coffee. It was way into the night when we finally retired to bed with an 8 O’clock wake up arranged. With so much sugar, coffee and chi searing around our bodies it was about 3 hours later before I managed to wrench my eye lids closed..!

The morning dawned to the smell of fresh chi brewing, but before chi of course came coffee. My eye lids sprang back to the rabbit in the headlights fixed position…. We’re WIDE AWAKE. We had a sumptuous traditional brekkie, the highlight for me being aubergines stuffed with pistachios (made a year in advance) along with some very strong cheeses.

We finally said our farewells, promising to pop in on our return drive up Syria and were on the road again, but before heading south we had a quick detour north to visit Hama. Here about a dozen gigantic wooden water wheels or norias remain from medieval times, when they were used to scope water up from the Orontes river and irrigate the land via a course of aqueducts. After negotiating the numerous restaurants that line the river bank, we managed to get very close to three fine examples, the biggest being some 20m in diameter. The wood turning on wood made an eyrie groaning sound and the fine spray was refreshing in the midday sun.

The huge waterwheel (norias) at Hama

Trying to catch up on a little time we then made a bee line to Damascus which is arguably the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. We bush camped late just outside in which looked like a perfect location, a dry wadi bed which hid both vehicles completely from view. The locals however are a resourceful lot and leave no stone unturned in their hunt for strangers. At some unearthly hour in the morning we were woken by a mass of dirt bikes obviously going for a late night scramble up the wadi..!!?!? We pretended to be fast asleep… through all the revving and shouting and eventually they left us in peace to snooze until morning.

Where's Luke Skywalker..?

Unfortunately we arrived in Damascus on Friday, the Moslem holy day, so instead of the hive of activity we were expecting, nearly everywhere was shut – not good planning. We however meandered around and visited the Umayyad mosque, for which Maz had to dress up like an extra in Star Wars, fortunately Martin and I had decided to wear trousers so we didn’t require matching outfits. The mosque was very grand and religious chants echoed from the minarets giving a real tranquil feel to the place as we sat and contemplated on the many carpets that adorn the main hall.

The impressive mosque in Damascus

We then tried to loose ourselves down all the back streets and quite by accident in a tiny little side street, came upon a restaurant which was at the right place at the right time. Inside it was a beautiful cool courtyard, with a fountain in the centre and fruit trees dotted about, so we decided to make the most of our find and stayed for a healthy lunch before heading on to see the Palace. The Palace is quite understated from the outside, but inside the rooms are heavily decorated and it was nice to see the differences from room to room taking the occasional sneaky photo… as “no photo” appears to be the next phrase they learn after “welcome”.

A  sneaky photo inside the Palace.. although the mother-of-pearl seats didn't look so comfortable

Back in the cars, we thought about a drive round the old city walls, but Martin fearing a repeat performance of Istanbul said he’d wait for us on the road out of town. After a few laps we decided Martin may have had a point and after a quick stop for some serious haggling over a Hubbly Bubbly we set off to rendevous… easier said then done. 20km out of Damascus we realised we’d probably missed Martin… but since we all knew the plan for tomorrow was Bosra we continued.

With the sun showing signs of setting, it was time to find camp. We pulled off onto the first dirt track and followed it into the desert until we found another dried up wadi and just to one side what looked like a bit of excavation cut into the bank, big enough for us to reverse into. Apart from scaring a desert fox from his hole and an unfortunate bat that flew into the aerial, we were otherwise alone and totally hidden… surely not the perfect camp we’d been looking for!!!

I busied myself getting the stove ready as Maz climbed up the bank to send our Lat/Long to Martin. Frustrated that the SMS wouldn’t send, Maz climbed onto the roof to help set up the tent before trying again. No sooner had the tent been erected than Maz from the roof of the car said “I don’t believe it, someone’s found us!” I couldn’t see them from the bottom of our hole, but sure enough a car had pulled up and 4 men were getting out and walking towards us…. Great.

The normal “welcomes” ensued and the offer of chi back at his village, but then things started to take a peculiar twist…. They started asking if we were alone. Thinking this must be their land and not wanting to impose we assured them it was just the two of us. Then a peculiar story emerged…. When the Turkish army left these parts, they apparently buried significant amounts of GOLD in steel boxes and would you believe it our new friends had a secret MAP…!! They had obviously been totally surprised to find us and our vehicle parked here and must have assumed we had a similar map and were in the process of gold hunting.

They were convinced we must have some electronic gold hunting device stashed in the car and asked us repeatedly, along with confirming it was just the two of us and also if we helped them look they would happily share the gold before going back to theirs for chi..!!?!?! Okay so now things were getting a bit too weird and it was now dark, so we introduced our friend Martin into the conversation, saying he was driving down to meet us - as 4 men with spades looked down at us in our hole!

For the first time we really felt uneasy and quickly decided to up sticks ASAP. We did a record pack up of the tent, jumped into the car, locked the doors and headed out of the wadi, but unfortunately the only way out was past their car. We were quizzed as to what we were doing and asked to turn off our headlights so as not to attract any attention… we quickly said our friend had arrived, said our goodbyes then hot footed it out of there. Of course it was now dark so we had no idea which track we came in on… but it didn’t matter JUST DRIVE.

The free-standing Roman theatre made from Basalt

A bit spooked we tried to find an alternative camp, but most tracks seemed to lead to a Bedouin camp so it was a few hours before we finally found somewhere suitable to stop for the night…. Hopefully no gold and no goats.

For our last day in Syria, we planned to see Bosra an old Roman town, distinct in that it was made almost entirely of black Basalt rock. It also had one of the largest free standing theatres as normally the Romans set such theatres into a hill side. With perfect timing we arrived almost exactly as Martin pulled up. Unfortunately Martin was suffering from an upset stomach so wasn’t particularly excited by another set of ruins, so found a suitable bit of shade to crash out in.

With the ruins explored it was time to say a fond farewell to Syria and head for the border with Jordan and country number 11…..

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Comment from Scooter
Hi A, M, M, looks like the adventure is really kicking off, we're jealous as ever, take care, Scooter, p.s. how was the diving in Sharm?
21 Oct 2005 @ 08:23:53

Comment from Angie
Hey guys, your videos are great - my favourite was the donkey/goat man - looks like you have a friend for life there Martin! Made me laugh out loud as he was trying to hop on the poor wee donkey, I got funny looks as I'm in the library! Still so jealous... Angie xx
31 Oct 2005 @ 11:23:53