Today was moving day - going from Jordan to Syria. We made an early start - 6:00 am alarm - not use to this since Ken & Judi went home. The first leg of the journey was getting the bus to Amman - which turned out to be relatively painless. It was then across Amman to pick up a shared taxi (we had missed the 7:00a.m bus and the next one was 3:00p.m). The shared taxi is a large taxi (takes 4 to 5 passengers) and goes when its full. We located one that does the route, but as usual business was a little slow today. Another passenger turned up, so we agreed to pay for a spare seat otherwise it was going to be a crowded journey and a long wait.
This was agreed so we got into the taxi but the other passenger had disappeared. The driver decided to go anyway - I use this term loosely - he drove around the block for another 15 minutes before deciding it was futile and set off. The journey to the border was quick (about 1 hour). The fun started when we got to the Jordanian immigration - he looked at our visa from Aqaba and mutter something, then took us off to another official. We were then led to another building a little puzzled (we knew that Aqaba visas are a bit different because they are free as it is a development zone). Anyway, we were being taken to a place where we had to pay money - we asked why. There was a American lady who spoke good Arabic who helped us - it turned out there was no problem - so it was back to the first official who after lots of muttering and discussion with his mates, stamped our passports.
After this, getting into Syria was a breeze,. One slight confusion when he looked at our passports and saw a Lao visa, and thought it was Israeli (The Syrians deny entry to anyone who has been to 'occupied Palestine'). Once he was put right, we were fine and on our way to Damascus.
We arrived at our hotel with no Syrian money because the taxi driver couldn't take us to an ATM. The hotel came to our rescue and lent us the £3 anyway. Then we found the reason they were being nice to us - they had messed up the booking and we had no room for tonight - no problem they found us another one at a similar rate - all I had to find was an ATM. Tried 3 - one not working and the other 2 didn't seem to accept international cards. This is a nightmare scenario, because if the ATMs won't work for us, we only have limited other funds. We opted to move hotel anyway, and then start looking. Fortunately we found an ATM that did work - panic over.
We then had a look round the area by the hotel - it's not in the historic part but downtown. The place seems more westernised than Jordan - lots of locals in western dress and quite a bit of bustle - This is the first large city we have been in , Amman was a sleepy place by comparison. We found a place to eat - French style - onion soup and fillet steak all for £10 for 2 - hope we don't pay for it later!
We had to start the day by moving hotel. The new one was better - the old one seemed to be aimed at Iranian tour groups. We finally got going about 11:00 and went for a walking tour round the old city.
We had a quick look at the Hejaz railway station. It is quite historic - built to take pilgrims to Mecca, it was destroyed by TE Lawrence. Unfortunately the railroad has fallen into disrepair. We then started the tour proper by walking down Straight Street (named for it's geometric attributes rather than it's sexual orientation). This was originally the main street in Roman Damascus and is now a large souq - but with the advantage that the road is wide and the roof is covered. We had a quick diversion to see a khan (place the caravans used to rest - basically a hotel with rooms on the 1st floor and stables below). We also saw the Azem palace - built as the private residence for the governor of Damascus in the 18th century. It was a beautiful building and filled with furniture in the style of those times.
We then wandered into the nut sellers - lots of samples,- tried home made mini pizzas, through the wood workers and then through the main souq to try the local ice cream. This was vanilla and pistachio and covered with nuts - wonderful. After this we had to have a rest before having dinner in one of the old city courtyard restaurants.
The next day we planned to finish off looking round the old city. Our first stop was the Citadel - except when we got there it was closed for renovations - they were supposed to be finished by 2009 but were over running a little.
The next stop was the Umayyad mosque - this is one of the oldest and holiest in the Muslim world - supposedly next in importance to those in Mecca & Medina. We started at the main gate where all the Iranian tour parties were going in. We were pointed politely but firmly to the entrance and ticket office round the back for infidels. There Fran was told to put on this hooded cloak. She was not impressed - in fact she was furious. She had taken care to dress modestly including a headscarf but this was not enough. It took all my powers of persuasion to get her to go into the mosque.
We first saw the tomb of Saladin - a local hero in these parts for kicking out the crusaders. From there we went into an enormous courtyard filled with lots of tour groups from Iran. It was quite impressive. We were allowed into the main prayer hall - another very large room. It had in it a shrine to John the Baptist - this seemed revered by the Iranian women - I don't know why. We then went to see tomb of Ali Hussein - grandson of Mohamed and revered by Shiites. To get in we faced a scrum and were pushed and jostled by Iranian tour groups. This behaviour was totally at odds with the friendliness and politeness of everybody we have met on the trip.
After this, we went round to some of the lesser sites - this was also not very successful. St Pauls chapel (where he had escaped from some Jews) was closed up - or so it seemed. We were invited into an Armenian church - the most notable feature of that was a memorial to the slaughter of Armenians by the Turks.
At this point, we gave up on the old city and went to another area on the edge of the city. It was supposed to be a mixture of tombs, mosques and souq. It was very different from the old city but we saw no evidence of the tombs. The other problem was that it was all uphill. I think all of this wore Fran out. We decided we needed a good meal so went to the best Syrian restaurant in city - in the 4 Seasons Hotel. We had lamb with cherry sauce and lamb with pomegranate and quince - quite different but very good. It has inspired Fran to buy more cook books!