November 09, 2009 GMT

We have gained the fabled Syrian border, where visas are indeed available on request, at least for Brits and Canadians.

So we enter the Middle East, that area of the world, I think, most mis-reported and mis-represented in the British press (and maybe in the rest of the western media as well for all I know).
So I can't resist the lazy option of using a couple of favourite quotations.
First, by Humbert Wolfe, Italian-born English poet:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to.

(Apologies to any truly independent journalist reading this).

And, seen on a noticeboard in an Andalucian mountain retreat, author unknown:
Exultation is the going
of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses - past the headlands - Into deep eternity -

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand,
The divine intoxication
of the first league out from land?

Exultation and intoxication are good ways to describe the first experiences of Syria, its land border crossing and our first halt for the night in the Middle East.

We were pretty nervous entering the no-man's land between Turkey and Syria. All the Syrian consulate services state that the likes of Europeans and North Americans must obtain visas before arriving at the border. And the implications of refusal at the border would be a long, long ride all the way to Ankara with the world's most expensive petrol, and winter now firmly in place in central Turkey. (And the outrageous £68 fee for the standard pro-forma letter from the British consulate).

But our first contact with the country as we parked at the bottom of the grand stairway leading to the entrance of the immigration hall was a barage of "Welcome to Syria, enjoy your stay," from everyone we passed.
Inside, another welcoming soul pointed us straight to the first window of the many we would be visiting over the next two hours.

It went something like this:
Police window - "Welcome to Syria! You donít have visas?" He checks passports for evidence of any Israeli stamps. "Well, don't wait out there, come in the office, take a seat." Passports were checked again and the visa price written down for us to take to the bank cashier to pay.

Bank cashier - pay the visa fee, receive receipt, no waiting.

Visa window - a clerk in the office calls out, "Don't wait in queue, come round to this window." We pass over visa receipts, receive the yellow copy back. "Now go over there to vehicle insurance, pay insurance and come straight back here."

Vehicle Insurance - "Welcome to Syria! Come round to this window, there's no queue." We explain we need motorbike insurance, hand over log books and receive bill to take to bank cashier to pay.

Bank cashier - "Hello again! Welcome to Syria." We pay insurance bill, receive receipt.

Visa window - "Hello again!" We hand over insurance receipt, receive back yellow and pink copies, hand over passports, receive visas. "Now go over there to customs window, hand over the pink copy with your Carnet de Passage (the super-expensive international import permit certificate issued by RAC, required for Mid-East and Africa).

Customs window - Clerk makes sign of chopping off his own arm. This is sign language for "Hand me your Carnet please," derived from the cost of the Carnet, roughly an arm and a leg. The Carnet is actually an A4 book of 25 import/export certificates, plus a few pages of explanation. The clerk stamps the top section of the first certificate. "Now take all this to the next window."

Second customs window - Clerk instructs a computer to print out an insurance certificate, stamps the bottom section of the first certificate in the Carnet and retains it.

Now we have visas in passports, bike insurance, and Carnets stamped. We're pretty sure that's everything, but the customs clerk says, "Go to next window," which is labelled 'Photocopying'.

Photocopying window - "Welcome to Syria! Don't wait out there, come round here inside." "Now, we need a copy of your logbook and passport but first of all the Director of the Customs Service would like to welcome you to Syria properly and have tea with you, so his assistant here will take you upstairs."

Office of the Director of the Customs Service (large, wood-panelled, well furnished) - "Take a seat (big leather armchairs). "Welcome to Syria, we all wish you a wonderful visit. All the paperwork is done. Now, would you like tea or coffee?" Tea and mineral water arrives, we learn about where the assistant lives and his favourite bit of his own country. The director asks if we're a family group, how long we'll be in Syria and where we'll go afterwards. They recommend places to stay tonight. It all seems so different to arriving at Dover docks from Calais........
"Is this your first visit? When you reach Jordan you must visit Petra. But don't miss Palmyra first." "My assistant will take you back downstairs, everything is done, he'll see you off. Have a wonderful visit."

Downstairs - We collect documents from photocopying office and Mr. Assistant does indeed see us to our bikes and waves us off.

So we are now really in Syria, and it is indeed different to arriving in Dover.
And all without filling in a single form or needing a single passport photo.

There's an immediate change of terrain from Turkey's mountainous south. It's flat, the ground a rich red colour, and very stony and rocky. Stones and rocks used for everything, house building, fences, and to mark the edges of the roads. There are signs to ancient monuments everywhere which I suppose you'd expect in the 'cradle of civilisation'.

We have a recommendation for a campsite on the way to Aleppo which we find in about an hour. Which is just as well as it's dark before 5pm. The owner shows us where to camp. "Here, away from the Italians, they're so noisy."
He has two large groups of motorhome tourers staying, one Italian, the other French. But it's quiet. "They've all hired a coach to take them on a tour of Aleppo."
Then he offers us dinner in his home. "In about an hour."

Dinner is on the magnificently carpeted floor of his lounge, around a huge circular polished steel platter, accompanied by his two small children playing here and there. After dinner, in the Moslem tradition as I understand it, his wife (unseen up to now) brings in tea. Then the owner goes off to attend to something and we are left alone in his lounge with his wife. It feels like quite an honour.

Exultation and intoxication, our first day in Syria.

Entrance to our first Syrian overnight stop
(Sharp-eyed readers of a certain profession will spot the Sleeve 13A near the top of the telephone pole - an improvement on the lemonade bottles of Romania.)

First camping in Syria

Posted by Ken Thomas at November 09, 2009 07:50 PM GMT

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