Note: This information was gathered in 2010 and the political situation in Syria has since changed dramatically. In fact it is a war zone. Travelers are strongly discouraged from traveling to Syria at this time.
Transport in Syria is pretty much the same deal as Turkey. Long distance journeys are most comfortable by bus, though squeezing in a minivan with all the local is also an option. Travel around Syria is easy and affordable. There are trains too, however I have never boarded one in Syria.
From Allepo to Damascus: A VIP comfortable bus will cost you 200/250 SP and it takes 4 hours. A minibus from the Damascus terminal to Bar Touma (Christian part of Damascus) was 150 SP.
Damascus to Palmyra: Bus costs 200 SP/3 hour journey.
Palmyra to Del Azur: Bus costs 200 SP/2.5 hour journey.
Del Azur to Raqqa: Minibus costs 150 SP/2.5 hour journey.
From Raqqa to Ath Thaura and Lake al-Assad/Qala’at Ja’abar castle: Minibus costs 500/600 SP/1 hour journey (it is a bit off the main track).
From Al Assad back to Ath Taura: Catch minubus again or pay 400 SP and Mohamad will give you a ride as there some days there is can be no other options (talk to people in the restaurant there). In Ath Taura you can get a ride for only 50 SP back to Raqqa (big difference in price).
In Raqqa you have to ask the locals to point you to different bus station if you want to travel onwards to Qamishli. It is not far to walk.
Raqqa to Qamishli: Minibus costs 200 SP/3.5 hour journey.
In most cases it is very easy to find bus terminals and minibus stops.
Hitchhiking is possible but some places in Syria have very little traffic so you might find yourself standing by the side of the road for some time before hitching a ride.
Plenty of hostels in big cities but not so much in the smaller rural areas. Not to worry there are always plenty of hotels at reasonable prices.
Some places I stayed at:
In Allepo I stayed in Hotel Damascus opposite Sheraton (can’t miss it). The cost was 600 SP. Before stumbling upon this little place I walked around for hours trying to find a place to stay in. They were all fully booked so when I got to Hotel Damascus that 600 sounded pretty cheap.
Damascus: I could not find a place to stay. I don’t recall it being any special time of a year nor I can’t think of any extraordinary events happening at the time, yet all the hostels were fully booked. Bar Touma is a Christian quarter of the city and all the Westerners are there. It is the only place in Damascus where you can drink alcohol publicly or in bars. For public consumption go to the mushroom square. A lot of foreigners as well as young Syrians hang out there and they all drink. Beer in a shop costs about 50 – 60 SP for Efes.
I managed to talk a lady from Hostel Damascus in Bab Touma into letting me stay on the rooftop. Now she still had the cheek to ask me to pay 800 SP a night. For a rooftop!!
In Palmyra you can stay in a nice hotel for 300 – 400 SP (for example: Citadel Hotel).
At Lake Al Assad there is no accommodation available but if you talk to people in the restaurant there they will put you up in a tent for 300 SP/night. The restaurant people rule..!!
In Qamishli: Omayyad Hotel which is on the way towards the border costs only 400 SP. It’s very simple but very sufficient. Room with two beds and a wash basin. Fairly clean.
Damascus and me
Up in Adana and Antakya in Turkey I had already noticed the change in climate. It was considerably warmer. Now Syria was proper hot. I spent a few days in Allepo walking around admiring the narrow and chaotic streets of the old town. I had a quick look at the citadel and got bored. Went back to the hotel and relaxed for a while. Finally I made up my mind to leave here and made my way down south to ‘Dimashq’. I took the late afternoon bus which cost just about 200 Syrian pounds (sp) and took around four hours to reach Damascus.
Apart of exploding tire which had to be changed in the makeshift garage the journey was uneventful. We arrived in Damascus at about 9 pm. I was trying to ask some people how to get from the bus station to the town center. I got lucky as there was a young Kurdish (so he says) feller speaking good English. He tells me I shouldn’t worry as he is going to help me to get wherever I was going to. He was very pleasant and helpful. I had a good feeling about him. He paid the minibus fare (negligible amount) and we went to the center. There I told him I was looking for two things. First, somewhere I can change some money at this time of a night and second, the Damascus hostel. He is like ‘no problem brother, we will find everything!!’ and I am like, ‘great mate, this is just what I needed a bit of good natured helpful guy in this crazy city…’. So we run around the city like crazy (the guy walks really fast and he doesn’t have a backpack to slow him down – I had to work hard to keep up with him). Slowly I am getting tired and annoyed and hungry and just want to check in and go to sleep. It is around 11pm by now.
So this is what happened when I wanted to change some euros. The Kurd tells me: ‘I know places where they change money but if you go there they will definitely want to shortchange you.’ Me, thinking the guy has got some point on this one, agree with him instantly. So I reckoned we would go there together and I would let the Kurd do the talking and then I would step in and exchange some money. We tried a few places and every time he tells me ‘wait outside, me talk to them and find out the exchange rate, then I will come to you.’ I agreed. By this time I was very annoyed and just wanted to go to the hostel and do the exchange tomorrow in the bank. The Kurd insists on one last try and he finally comes out and says ‘this is good rate, give me the money I will change it for you.’ (Can you see where this is going?). Now something at the back of my mind said ‘what??’ but me in the state of some dumbness, hand him one hundred euros. He takes it and everything in me is yelling at me…’don’t do that!!!’. I ignore all my senses. The Kurd says I will be back in two minutes. At the same instant I think ‘yeah, sure…. you gonna be far away in two minutes…’ yet I do nothing just stand there watching the guy go towards the corner of a building. I wake up suddenly and say ‘wait, come back’. The Kurd starts speeding away while I am watching this in disbelieve thinking ‘did he just sped off with my hundred euros?? Should I run after him?’ then I look at myself wearing flip flops and carrying a backpack….’how the hell am I supposed to catch him like that??’ I am dumbstruck standing in the middle of the pavement just staring in front of myself. ‘You are an idiot’ I tell myself a few times.
After what might have been like five minutes I came to and sat down on the curb. I smoked a cigarette and smiled a little. The smile gradually became laughter…. I laughed at my own stupidity. Such a schoolboy mistake! Anyway, shit happens to everybody and it just so happened it was my turn on that day. I stand up hail a taxi and have him drive me to Bab Touma (apparently a Jewish quarter) to find my hostel. The cab cost me like 150 sp and luckily I still had some change on me.
It took me another hour to find the bloody hostel which was in the Christian quarter. The place was not signposted or anything. And guess what…? They are fully booked!! The lady says: ‘sorry but you will just have to go somewhere else. (After all I had to go through that night she just sends me away like this…I guess she had no idea what happened that night, anyway). I looked at her and say: ‘Come on, anything…. I will sleep on the balcony if need be. Just anything.’ She looks at me and says: ‘OK, you can stay on the roof but it will cost 800 sp.’ (Stupid crazy cow!!! 800!!!) I say: ‘O, come on I could have a room to myself for 6 or 7 hundred. How can you charge me this much for a rooftop.’ That seemed to work, although she said she could charge me whatever she liked as pretty much all the hostels and little hotels were fully booked (I found out later this was indeed true). I suggested I pay 500 for the first night and then we will see. She agrees.
Well, I recovered from my first traumatic night in Damascus and got my wits about me again. The next day I went out and got some money out of ATM and then set about looking for a nice place to stay for less money than what the old witch was asking. I found nothing. All the hostels were full and some hotels I found were even more expensive than my rooftop dwelling. I decided to stay and suggested that I pay 700 a night. The old woman says ‘OK’. I am happy (sort of). Next thing on my mind is my Iranian visa. Back in Istanbul I contacted Iranian based agency to sort it out for me hoping to pick it up in Damascus. Well in Damascus I am but the visa is nowhere in sight. Miss Nazi who was in charge of my visa application tells me I need to make a payment so that she can apply for my visa then. To send her money would take 2 or 3 working days then it should take up to 10 days to process and approve my visa in Iran…inshallah. After that she would send the visa number to the embassy and that should arrive within 2 working days and from that moment on I would get it issued into my passport within another 2 working days. Altogether a lot of working days and an undesirable prospect of me spending a lot of time in Damascus and surroundings. I only had single entry visa so trips to Lebanon and Jordan weren’t that feasible. First I would have to pay for Syrian visa all over again, second I didn’t know if they would issue another visa without being funny about it – you know them officials can be real pain in the arse.
I made the payment and after that all I had to do was wait. So I wait and I see a lot of Damascus and I drink a lot of beer in the mushroom park. The only place in Damascus within the Christian quarters where you can drink publicly. I made a full use of the advantage. There I met some Syrian people as well as other foreigners usually studying Arabic in the city. Perhaps I should mention two guys especially who played some role in my story later on. A Canadian feller named Landon and a Swedish guy called Joachim.
Another memorable character was Mr. Basan. A 25 year old student of Archeology originally from the north of Syria. We had a lot of chats and drunk some beers together as I would invariably meet Mr. Basan almost every night in the mushroom park. He told me about the young Syrian people and how they all disagree with what’s going on in their country and the image they have in the world. He said he could get along with anybody: ‘Westerners, Arabs, Persians, Blacks even Jews..!!!! So why can’t I go and travel and be looked upon as a human being??? I want to fly but I don’t have wings nor will I ever have any. This country is shit! I would like to immigrate.’ I got an impression the majority of the countries population feels the same way about it. Wherever I went people welcomed and greeted me warmly. Whether it was because I am Westerner or not I have no idea.
While all this was going on I still kept in touch with Miss Nazi from the Iranian agency and I figured there was an Iranian Consulate in Sulaymanyia in northern Iraq. I suggested this to Miss Nazi and she confirmed that I could pick up my visa from there. That was it. After like five days in Damascus I could start moving again. I told the Canadian guy I wanted to go to Palmyra and he said he wouldn’t mind going there himself to which another guy from Poland reacted as well and joined himself too. So the next day we, the three of us, went to the bus station. The next stop Palmyra.
For Syria you need to have your visa organized before hand. However, there is a way to get in even if you don’t have it. I was advised to sort my visa in Turkey and pick it up either in Istanbul or Ankara. Well, I was too busy doing other things and never really got around to it.When I turned up at the Antakya/Allepo crossing my strategy at the border was to play dumb. This is how it went.
First they told me off for not having visa arranged. Then they said I couldn’t enter the country. While all this was going on all the other passengers in the taxi (all Syrians) were getting pissed off as they had to wait for me. Eventually after a lot of pulling of my dumbest faces and about 30 minutes of questioning they turned around and said OK! 32 US dollars and I had visa for three months in my passport. Go figure!
The official policy though goes like this: If there is a consulate or an embassy in your home country you need to apply there in advance. There is more to it as is usually the case with visas for various countries. I advise you to read up on it on embassy websites and such.
Make sure there is no evidence either in your passport nor in your backpack or even on your person that would suggest you might have been to Israel. If you have and they find out you will never get into the country. Apparently the Israeli officials are willing to place their stamps on a piece of paper for you but I don’t know how true that is.
For onwards travel you can pick up visas in Damascus for countries like Iran, etc.
Leaving Syria back to Turkey:
At Qamishli, though a pleasant town nothing of interest happened. I didn’t meet anybody who could speak English and spent a night there before I made the crossing next morning. I stayed at the hotel Omayyad which is on the way towards the border. The man charged me 400 sp for a two bed room with a washing basin. Simple but sufficient. In the morning it was about 5 minutes walk to the border. When I turned up (foreigners don’t use this crossing often) I was given a celebrity status and jumped all the queues. The officers on Syrian side asked me to sit with them and drink tea. The crossing itself and all the paperwork took about 30 minutes. There was also an exit charge of 500 sp but for some reason I was asked for 600 sp even if it said on the document itself 500. I paid anyway.
Border crossing south of Al-Bukamal between Syria and Iraq is not open for Westerners. You have to go back to Turkey and cross from there.
Some places of interest in Syria
Is a reservoir on the Euphrates in Ar-Raqqah Governorate. This is the largest lake in Syria. Qal’at Ja’bar is a castle on the left bank of Lake Assad. The castle is said to have been built by the Banu Numayr tribe in the 11th century. It is a beautiful place to explore. You can even swim in the lake if you wish to. It is really refreshing given the temperatures in Syria.
is a city in north eastern Syria on the border with Turkey, adjoining the Turkish city of Nusaybin, and close to Iraq. There is nothing special about this place nor it really is a place of interest. I only listed it because to me it was a real deal. Couldn’t be less touristy. A good way of getting the real feel of Syria is hanging around Qamishli for a day or two. You will probably get bored but do go out and speak to people at the markets and you might just be surprised. The interesting mix of Kurds, Christians (Assirians and Armenians) and Arabs make this place almost unique.
It used to be an ancient city in central Syria. A dessert city within an oasis. Nowadays most notable for the Roman ruins (free entry). Definitely worth a look the ruins are quite breath taking. If you are into photography you will find plenty of good opportunities within the ruins at sunset and dawn. Alternatively you can just walk around and pop in to the local shops. People are very friendly and 3 days would probably be enough for a quick visit.
The capital city Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East and the second largest in Syria after Allepo. There is a whole lot of sites to go and see and one of the most spectacular is the 8th-century Great Mosque of the Umayyads. You can do pretty much anything here be it culture, history or simply having a few drinks in Bab Thouma….just get out there and explore.
It is a disputed territory between Israel and Syria. Not really a pleasant subject but if you are interested in the political and historical issues you probably will find it of interest. With the permission from the Ministry of Interior you can visit the deserted town Quneitra.
Syria’s largest and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Aleppo is very rich in history and the old city is definitely worth seeing.
Crac des Chevaliers:
The archetypal Crusader castle, magnificently preserved and definitely a must see.
Me on the road:
I decided to include here a little account of my travel to Palmyra and onwards to Lake Al-Assad. It is an extract from my journal.
The bus ride to Palmyra took about 3 hours (200 sp) and we arrived at noon just when the sun was at its worst. After what seemed like a long walk around the city we checked in the hotel Citadel (300 sp/night). The next two days were really uneventful to be honest. We had a look at the Roman ruins of the ancient oasis of Palmyra and climbed up to the Citadel just outside of the city. After that we checked out the tombs and that was pretty much it. Most of the sites are free to enter, however there is a fee to enter the Citadel (forgot how much). The next day Frank left for God knows where while me and Landon stayed for one more night. After that we took a bus in the morning to Del Azur (200 sp, 2:3o hours) then onwards by minibus to the town of Raqqa (150 sp, 2:30 hours) followed by another minibus to Ath Thaura and Qala’at Ja’abar Castle (600 sp, 1 hour) which is just on the shores of the lake Al Assad. While still in Ath Thaura, something quite interesting happened. We were trying to get a minibus ride from one of the many different drivers who were trying to offer us their services. We chose one but then for some reason we got in another man’s car. We thought he was gonna leave sooner but when we realized he wasn’t we went back to the original guy and went on with him. Obviously the man in whose vehicle we sat for about a minute by mistake didn’t like it and decided that we should have stayed with him anyway. So he chased our minibus in his little minibus. At one point he cut across the road and blocked our vehicle along with half of the traffic on a busy motorway. This was a little unnerving as you see people doing that sort of thing in films but nobody is quite as stupid as to try it in reality. Well, this geezer was! He got out of the car shouting all the time and attacked our driver. There was some pushing and that until the bystanders got hold of the crazy guy and we went on. He didn’t follow us any more. Apparently it was all because of us. They are like little kids in this respect thinking it a great honor to have a foreigner in the car or something like that. It was quite an odyssey to get to the lake and I was glad we didn’t hitchhike as we originally wanted to. We traveled all day and arrived at night. There is a restaurant underneath the castle and they hire out a tent on the premises. We asked about it and they let us stay there for 300 sp/night. We had a few bears and went to sleep.
The next day after we had a good look at the castle which was really impressive to say the least we found a spot some 20 feet or so above the lake and this made for a perfect jumping point. This was the first cloudy and not so hot day since I entered Syria, still we plunged in (after I made sure the water was deep enough and there were no rocks underneath of course) and the water was good. Refreshed we spent the rest of the day relaxing doing nothing. The nature around that place is beautiful.
Next morning the guy who runs the restaurant offered to take us back to Ath Taura for 400 sp. We wanted to hitchhike but as it was Friday and the place was quite remote we couldn’t hope for much traffic and I had a long way to go too on that day. In Ath Taura I said goodbye to Landon and took a minibus back to Raqqa (50 sp). At Raqqa I had to walk to a different station and take another minibus for 200 sp all the way to Qamishli a border town with Turkey.
The Israel subject is definitely to be avoided unless you deliberatly seek confrontation or argument.
There is a shortage of ATM’s and a lot of them don’t quite work. Make sure you have enough cash or other ways to get to your money.
Be aware of the dress code when visiting religious sites. It is Muslim country and you should respect it laws and customs. When traveling outside of tourist areas it is best to dress modest or in accordance with the local custom.
It is wise to avoid political comments about Syria at the best of times let alone during the current situation.
Most prices in Syria are subject to negotiation. Bargaining is practiced.
A little review of Syria
All together I spent two weeks in Syria. It was a substantial detour for me but I wanted to see the country and the way people live there. Syria is a hospitable country and its Arab people are for most part friendly (sometimes even too much) but I was surprised to find that they don’t speak much English. This was to the contrary to what I expected. So in general people are nice and most places are safe for anybody to go to. Damascus was a vibrant city but traveling across the desert was quite different experience. While crossing the desert I followed the river Euphrates for some miles and saw a lot of green vegetation on its banks and the vicinity but other than that Syrian desert is an inhospitable place and I wondered what makes a person want to live there. For that reason alone the Bedu people of the desert have my respect and admiration. Other than that I also expected Syria to be slightly cheaper than it was and most of other travelers pointed this out also. Still it wasn’t as expensive as Iraq. There is a good bus infrastructure in Syria but the same cannot be said about the railway. Also it was interesting for me to note that in Syria I had to show my passport every time I made a bus journey and they check bags at the entrance to bus stations. Very little of Syria is computerized and most of the administration work is still being done by pen and paper.