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Karen and Compass, Phe and Me - On Roads Without Lines

Graeme Robin ...Travel in Syria

Graeme Robin travels the world in his trusty old Fiat Tempra, and writes about his journeys. If you enjoy reading this, you should consider buying Graeme’s second book

‘Karen and Compass, Phe and Me - On Roads Without Lines - Book 2 Covering Graeme’s four month journey through:


To buy BOOK 2, visit:

About Me I was born in 1937, married Barbara in 1963, but lost her to a dreadful cancer 43 years later. I felt as if the world had stopped. Life was suddenly not as precious as it had been. I didn’t care that much. But a change sort of evolved. I travelled to Europe. I bought an old car. Then a GPS. Then a compass. That made four of us – Karen (the robot voice on the GPS) and Compass (just that), Phe (for Fiat - a 1993 left-hand drive diesel sedan) and Me. Suddenly it was not “I” but “We”. It was

“Karen and Compass, Phe and Me”. We started to drive around Scandinavia, Iceland, the Arctic Circle and into Russia all the time on minor roads, avoiding the major roads and highways as far as possible – in other words,

“On Roads Without Lines”.

We were just wandering around on winding, single lane roads often unsealed, through small towns and villages, seeing the people at their normal everyday lives and work. Trying to get a feel for each country – trying to put a tag on it. I took a lot of photos and kept a daily journal. So a book evolved. Book 1. Had this suddenly put meaning back into my life? It felt good so instead of selling Phe at the end of the first four months I kept her for another four months of journeying this time behind what used to be called the “Iron Curtain” and another book evolved. Book 2. It felt good so instead of selling Phe at the end of the second four months I kept her for another four months of journeying this time around Spain, Portugal and Morocco and another book evolved. Book 3. It felt good so instead of selling Phe at the end of the third four months I kept her for another four months of journeying this time to Italy, the Middle East and the Balkan Peninsular and another book evolved. Book 4. All have been marvellous experiences of discovery - so good that I would like it to continue for the rest of my life! How long is this old bugger going to last!

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Wednesday 22nd September 2010 We were away from Hakkari by half past eight, on a sunny, warm morning and straight back into the dust, the mountains, and the army road blocks, heading for Syria. In so many places the mountains are being nibbled away by giant excavators, the rocks crushed, then graded for size and turned into concrete and road fill. And they are sure using tons of these two things.


Bye Bye Turkey - Welcome to Syria

From Hakkari, backtracking to Sirnak is 188 kms and it was the same trail as we followed yesterday beside a river down on the valley floor – a gorge so tight at times there was barely room for the river and the road side by side. You wouldn’t say the river was clear but it was not muddy either. It was that pale aqua green colour that you would normally associate with rivers coming from a glacier, but that’s certainly not the case here, so I presume that it picks up the colour from the rocky terrain. In places where the mountains of rock spread apart a bit for a little flat land, there were villages, lots of them, and small at that, all the way, until the road parted company with the river and headed skywards again for that 2080 metre summit we passed over yesterday. After leaving Sirnak we were then in an area we had not travelled before – flat country with a straight road running parallel with the border of Iraq not far to the south. At the town of Cizre there is a left turn to the Iraqi border crossing just 50 kms away. Its not a long border – maybe a couple of hundred kms - and I find it just too hard to imagine the scenes, when Saddam Hussein was trying to exterminate all of the Kurds in the north of Iraq. There would have been hundreds and thousands of refugees trailing across this country trying to escape into Turkey. What was that? Twenty years ago or more? Not far to the west of Cizre there must be a decent sized coal mine, well I didn’t actually see the mine, but the coal had been trucked up to many ‘depots’ along the roadside and each ‘depot’ had graded it in to big lumps down to little lumps and then the fines which were all but dust. You can imagine the mess, but that’s the way they seem to do things in Turkey. From there on we were driving on good roads on flat country and making good time, even though I made a wrong turn and had to cut across on a minor road to rectify. There was a herd of goats, maybe a hundred or more, in the care of two young shepherds about 13 years of age and one of them had a pea rifle. There was a lot of smoke in the sky because the Turks are burning off the stubble. We are at the Turkish border and it’s a heap harder to get out of this bloody country than it was to get into it – and we haven’t started on Syria yet.

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The bloke in town where I converted the last of the Turkish cash into diesel, said “Better hurry as the border shuts at 3:50.” My heart sank – it was already after half past three. Why is there always something? We got through the first gate into the Turkish compound and sat, and sat, and sat. I got the police stamp, and then the immigration stamp, but the customs bloke (Phe had been ‘imported’ into Turkey and was now being ‘exported’) had no English and couldn’t read the Rego papers and relate them to me or my passport. I did my lolly after the best part of three quarters of an hour and poked a finger at my name on the passport and the same name on the papers, and then out of the car and at the words ‘Fiat Tempra’ on the papers and then to the label on Phe’s beautiful butt, and finally the rego number on the papers and the same number on the plates. He reluctantly gave in and down came the stamp! About time! The gate opens and we were into the no-mans land before the Syrian border. We were the last customers for the day and their 4 o’clock knock-off was long gone, Once again no English but a young bloke took me from one window to the next and things seemed to be going okay until we got to the Bank of Syria. Why do we need to go to the bank? Before leaving Australia I had paid for, and received a 90 day, multiple entry, visa into Syria, so why the bank? But this bloke wants money – and in US dollars. “Why would I have US dollars?” I asked him. “I come from Australia not America!” He was adamant. US dollars! Then I asked him how much and he said $US 235! I just about fell over! The bank bloke had very little English but between him and the young bloke I got to understand that it was for Phe’s visa, and her car insurance, and than a premium because she uses diesel. He wouldn’t take the visa card and there was no ATM at the border. I had no Syrian pounds of course and no Turkish lire left as the last of them had gone into the fuel tank in town more than an hour ago. A few euro coins – but $US 235? Not within a bulls roar! A problem is looming. I was sent for a walk towards the fence while eleven of them, including the nice bloke who had helped me through the system, stood in a circle trying to work out an answer. It was after five my the time they called me back and the one senior bloke they had found who had a little English said I must return to Turkey! And the word “Turkey” was the echo from another ten voices. “No!” I Shouted “No, no, no!” That rocked them so they had another talk – even got the police chief over to help and then eventually resolved that two of them would drive me the three kilometres into town to an ATM to get the money. We went, but the first machine only had Syrian pounds – no US dollars. So off to another ATM but the result was the same. I had taken the bank bloke’s word that only US dollars would do and that he didn’t even want Syrian pounds. However that was not going to happen so the two blokes with me organised to withdraw 16,000 pounds - that should cover the $US 235. A third man in a suit, with English, had joined in to help and assured me that the two blokes were right and that Syrian money would be accepted. So I had a wallet full of cash and back we went to see poor old Phe sitting so forlorn and unloved in the middle of the no-mans land waiting for her best mate north of the equator to charge to her rescue – which he did. The banker accepted the pounds – 11,250 of them – without a squeak. Bastard! By a quarter to six they opened the gates and let the four of us loose into Syria. And in particular, the town of Al Qamishli. And what a mess, with dust and litter and people and little yellow taxis by the hundred. I saw a hotel, and loved the name - Alsaid Hotel - so climbed the 50 stairs, asked the price – 500 pounds – and saw the room, which was fine, although I would have liked a toilet seat and some toilet paper but neither of those things were going to happen, so I placed the money down for one night and will decide on another one later.

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But how lucky can you be. A beaut reception/manager bloke. I later found out his name was Aziz, aged 33, with three children aged 7, 3 and a baby. He sat me down in their lounge – not really four star like - but there were half a dozen tatty old lounge chairs and we chatted for a while, me in English and him in Arabic. He offered coffee and I suggested chai (tea in Turkish) which was duly brought by his side kick who I later found to have the name Zorro. He was an unmarried 22 year old. It was Zorro alright because they both laughed and nodded when I did the Zorro sword thing of three swishes and the letter ‘Z’ carved in the wall! How would they know that at their age – that was a comic strip – or was it a film? - when I was a kid! But it was nice and friendly and a wonderful welcome to Syria. I left them to organise my gear and my room and to play catch-up on this journal which was three or four days behind. Worked for an hour and there was a knock on the door and it was Aziz with a tray and a cup, saucer, sugar and another pot of tea. Wonderful!

Al Qamishli - My first stop in Syria, and two friendly and helpfull Syrians Thursday 23rd September 2010 The single bed was comfortable, the room was quiet, the aircon good and the shower fabulous – the best since leaving home even though the whole bathroom of basin, toilet, (no seat) and shower head would be no bigger than one metre by two metres and you had to keep the door shut to keep the water in. After more than twelve hours of shut-eye I was outside at the reception desk to be sure that there was no breakfast included – and there wasn’t – but Zorro took me across the street and down a bit to a small restaurant selling breakfast. Just two tables and six chairs. I had what the bloke was offering - a sort of broad bean stew with a ladle of something that looked like yoghurt but probably wasn’t and heaps of spices. A big round flat bread the size of a large dinner plate was folded and put on the table. A bowl of sliced tomatoes, cucumber strips, green peppers and some sprigs of coriander. It was only when I got to the bottom of the bowl that I worked out it was broad-beans because all of the other flavours left little room for the taste of the broad-bean. There was miles too much for me to eat but I did my best without even touching the bread. He makes an egg omelet too, so I may try that tomorrow. Zorro stuck to me while I ate what I could – not at the table but outside in the street - and then with sign language he guided me a place to fit a Syrian sim card into the mobile phone and add a few pounds to top it up as well. There’s another birthday coming up – Lachie, our eldest grandson is going to be 14 tomorrow so maybe I will be able to get this one right. Then next week our son turns forty something. The morning was spent working on this journal and in the afternoon I went walkabout around Al Qamishli and managed to find an internet place. I was put out though, because they would not allow me onto the internet without sighting my passport. It’s hot! Very hot, and even though I have learned to walk on the shady side of the street I was wringing wet by the time I got back to the cafe with the prescribed document. Now I know that you need your passport to buy a sim card and also to use the internet. It’s not only for crossing borders and showing to nosey army kids. The internet cafe was a good place though and I did what had to be done in a couple of hours then back to the hotel and the aircon for more work on this journal. I had another chat with Aziz and Zero before they knocked off about eight o’clock – so it seems they do a twelve hour day but possibly a four day week. I tried hard to find out by drawing calendars and things and the response from Azia was a “7777” and I don’t know what he was meaning. Anyway they have both been so very good to me, a complete stranger with not a word of Arabic. The language barrier is bad enough but I have always found solace in other non-English countries with the fact that the numbers are the same – sure they sound different when spoken but when written they look the same. Not so in Arab land! The Arabic numbers are meaningless to me. I wonder how big a problem this will be in the weeks ahead? I gave Zorro some money and Aziz a little more plus koalas for each of his three kids. I don’t know if they appreciated it but they both knocked on my door before they went home to shake hands and say goodbye. Maybe they don’t work tomorrow.

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Friday 24th September 2010 Last night I tried out the new sim card on a happy birthday call to Lachie in Australia, and it worked perfectly so what sort of swifty were those Italians pulling when the sim card for their country proved to be worthless. The only problem was that I got the time difference mixed up and got my family out of bed at five thirty in the morning – I thought it would have been seven thirty. Oh well thems the breaks. At least I have handled one birthday almost okay. Breakfast this morning was not at the same shop because he wasn’t open, but another just a hundred metres in the opposite direction was open, and I ordered two of those thin pieces of round bread topped with spicy things -similar to a starved pizza - and heated, plus a couple of bananas.

That would have been enough. But that’s not how it’s done in Syria so it came with diced tomatoes, green peppers and some cucumber. Nice and better than yesterday – especially the second cup of tea after I confiscated the sugar bowl. But it was good sitting and being a part of the morning traffic through this part of the town. I must have overdone it on the peppers – I thought they were mild but by hell did that last bite set my mouth on fire! Water didn’t help and neither did a bite of banana and the tea being scolding hot seemed to do more damage than it was worth. Just had to wait for time to do the healing. And it cost 100 Syrian pounds – so very cheap.

One of the main streets in Al Qamishli - best to walk on the shady side of the street!

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We were leaving Al Qamishli sometime just after ten and I couldn’t find the way out of town for ages, but it was good to wander around the place and try to find something attractive – other than the friendliness and helpfulness of the inhabitants. They don’t smile a lot even when they are talking to me but if, at the end, I pat him on the arm or shoulder, shake hands and a warm smiling thank you in English, he always, and I do mean always, will break into a warm smile. One bloke today wanted to kiss me on both cheeks but I thought that was a bit over the top. I haven’t noticed a lot of kissing yet but it may be early days. Aziz and Zorro were both back at work this morning again. Zorro walked my bag down the stairs and even stopped and waved me goodbye. He would have watched as we made the mistake of turning right instead of left – and maybe he shouted - but I hope he wasn’t still watching when we went past the same hotel a full hour later still trying to find the way out of town. The litter is everywhere except that in the major towns and villages, first thing in the morning, there are the sweepers doing their rounds, but in places where they don’t operate the bags and bottles and paper and tyres – you name it – just build up until the first heavy torrent and then it will all be swept out into the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a bloody mess. And the dust! I wonder if I am right in thinking I am not going to like this country from the picturesque point of view - but I am sure I am going to like the people, because I must have stopped 8 or 10 times this morning to ask people for directions to get on the road south towards Deir Ezzor. One bloke walked away 100 metres and got his motorbike out of a garage and started to lead me out of town. After a couple on minutes I pulled the plug on it because I didn’t want him to be leading me for miles and miles perhaps when I was quite happy wandering around in the approximate direction and absorbing the activity around me. And none of these people had any English. None at all. And so the directions barely reached as far as the next round-about and even then I often get a verbal ‘left’ with a hand pointing to the right. It then becomes a matter of guessing which one to rely on - the verbal word or the pointed finger. I had decided to drive directly south from Al Qamishli to the city of Deir Ezzor and when we eventually broke away from the city, the road south was excellent but was carrying not that many cars. There had been plenty of cars in Al Qamishli though, but a quarter of them would have been the little yellow taxi trolling the streets for business. Aziz told me that Syria has virtually no oil but some natural gas and produces lemons – maybe I got it wrong but it was a round fruit that twisted the face at the bite! He said that he is Kurdish – I didn’t ask about Zorro – and a lot Kurds live just over the border in the area around Sirnak in Turkey, especially, and also in northern Iran, in northern Iraq and here in the north of Syria. Its all Kurdish. I didn’t actually ask if there was friction in Syria but I gather there is not because had there been some it would have come up in the conversation. They are all Sunni Moslem, except for Iran where they are Shiite. With the help from Compass we eventually found the road heading due south and once into the flat country the houses look to be made from mud brick – the older ones – rendered with the same material but the distinctive feature was the domed roof with no eaves or overhang. A bit like a haystack. Only a few windows and often blank walls facing the northern heat. The newer houses were from concrete blocks. I have given up trying to identify the few green crops along the way. I think a lot would be green peppers which are being harvested at the moment. Much of the ground looks to have been tilled after a grain crop and some of the land looks to be just bare. There is not a cloud in the sky and only a whisper of a breeze. At midday it was in the early to mid thirties, but I could not say the sky was blue because of the mist, or whatever it is. I couldn’t describe it as a grey sky and even directly overhead it was not blue. As we got further south it got heavier and thicker to the point where I could not even see the horizon on this flat land. I wonder if it is just dust - a dust storm. But then without the wind what would keep it in the air, it would just settle. We have come to a town where there are some new and big grain silos, so there must be a hefty grain crop here when the time and rains are right, but it is difficult to imagine that today. It is bare and brown and not nice. The same sheep are here in Syria - with the sad black faces – and are looked after by shepherds, but it’s strange that I have not seen any shorn sheep – they have all been heavy in wool right through our whole trip.

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A common sight of women in the back of a truck. Like it or lump it - but that’s the way it is in this part of the world. Right now the land may look hot, barren, dry and bleak, but another town and more huge grain silos so it can’t be like this all of the year round. They must rely on rain at the right time in the growing cycle. A couple of ten year olds when I stopped for a breather in a small village. “Good morning. How are you?” with perfect English pronunciation. He didn’t have a “What is your name?” like the Turkish kids, but I am sure what English I got was all he had to give! – but at least it’s a start. Then something different because I had been accustomed to seeing men only on their own but this time it was a family group – a man, his wife and two kids all walking together and all crowding the car window as I asked for direction. Apart from the language, I could have been at home. So I gave the little kids a Koala each. What great fun it is asking for directions because the next time, in Hasakah, there were four blokes together in a fish shop I think it was, and they were all pouring over the map trying to work out where I was heading for – Deir Ezzor - and no matter how many times I spoke the words they just couldn’t recognise the town and of course they could not read the English writing on the map. Had it been in Arabic it would have been a breeze, but when the penny finally dropped they were all over me like a rash, and I am sure, pronouncing it much the same as I had. All morning the countryside had not changed one little bit although we are about 300 metres above sea level so certainly not in ‘high country’ and there were a lot of settlements with a few houses , then a gap and another small settlement . It reminded me very much of Morocco where the houses are made out of the local dirt and blend in so well you can hardly see them. But I must be missing a beat somewhere because all of these people would not be settled out here without reason – but I’m darned if I can work out what it is. Oh yes, its dust alright now that the breeze has risen a notch I can see little willy willys travelling along and the dust being picked up from the side of the road – the ground is all but bare so it stands to reason that dust will be picked up. Then there are signs of artesian water, so that may be the link I was missing. But suddenly the road changes from a fabulous single lane surface to an unmade surface, rocky and bumpy - but no problem because Phe is tough and can hack it. But then it does become a problem when the unmade, rocky and bumpy road changes to a dirt track. Throw in a few forks without signs and suddenly we are not looking too good. I stopped a bloke on a motor bike and my pronunciation of Deir Ezzor was all he could go by because he had no idea of reading the English on the map. He pointed for us to keep going But I was not at all confident he had actually understood the question. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

I think I heard Phe murmur “I don’t think we are on the right road Grae.” Then another man on a motor bike came to meet me from one of the farm houses and recognised the town as I pronounced it and told me, by sign, to drive “Towards those trees (a picture in the air of a tree) but don’t turn left, (and pointed to the left and then chopped his hand off) but when as far as those houses (a picture in the air of a house) then turn left!” I then got a “boop, boop” – that’s the train line! Such a nice guy. First of all he wanted some American dollars and I said ‘not American – Australian and no US dollars in Australia’, so he gave up and then he invited me in for something to eat. Twice he did this. Should I have accepted? I don’t know. It gets terribly strained having tea in a room where no conversation is possible. Wonderful and no words that either of us could understand. I followed the instructions exactly as he had given them and it worked out perfectly. From the time we crossed under the train line, it became easy because I could see vehicles moving on the highway maybe 3 kms away so it was only a matter of following a track leading in that direction. We were back on the first class sealed road all the way to Deir Ezzor. How the hell I lost it in the first place I will never know and I was not going back to find out. It is 180 kms from Hasakah to Deir Ezzor and the road has been flat, straight and true for all of those 180 kms except for that itchy, titchy, little bit in the middle where we managed to lose our way. When we arrive at Deir Ezzor there was a hotel that looked okay from the outside and stood up alright on the inside but the price was 1600 pounds – makes the last two nights at 500 per night look pretty good. (But this one comes with a toilet seat and a roll of toilet paper). I was tempted to try somewhere else I must be getting old because I couldn’t be bothered. Instead I found an ATM, a car wash inside and out for Phe and a fill of diesel – A price I couldn’t believe, just 20 pounds a litre. That’s even cheaper than Tunisia and about a quarter the price of Europe.

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Syria - Westwards along the Euphrates River valley to Aleppo Saturday 25th September 2010 Breakfast at this mediocre but expensive hotel was about the same – mediocre. We are leaving around about nine heading back across the country to Aleppo in the top left corner – the north west. But before we leave I have a few things to say. What a filthy bloody joint this is. Phe had a nice clean wash last night and I come out this morning and she – along with every other car in the city - was covered with dust, just covered! I had to re-wash the windscreen and the rear window just to be able to take off. This city could be a really beautiful place because it has a huge river flowing right through the middle of it – and that river is the Euphrates! The Euphrates, and it runs right through Dier Ezzor, and then across the length of Iraq and eventually empties into The Gulf. It is a big river that has it’s origins in the mountains of Turkey. I know it would be hard, but there seems to be no attempt to control the dust and of course every time a heavy vehicle goes past there are clouds of dust billowing out behind it. Then they could teach the population to stick the rubbish in the bins and not just chuck it out the window or onto the street – how hard is that! Many, many other countries have done it. Just how hard is it! It gives me the irits to see such a mess! Dier Ezzor could be a really beautiful city but it isn’t not, and not by a long shot. I haven’t got to talk to a woman in Syria as yet – well not in Turkey either now that I think of it – but this morning when I was cleaning Phe’s windows, a woman was walking towards us and as she passed by she looked straight at me and I smiled, but her expression didn’t change one iota – her eyes didn’t even blink just moved away from me to the way ahead. She didn’t even drop her eyes to the pavement. It wasn’t even embarrassing – it was just sort of stone cold as if I wasn’t there at all. Just one of those little person to person things that had a result that I am not accustomed to. It seems almost compulsory for all of the men in Syria to smoke, but I wonder if women smoke as well? The river, the Euphrates, would be the life blood to the area because the flatland is cultivated all along it’s banks – potato, corn, peppers and so many things that I don’t recognise and there are people working in amongst the crops everywhere. There are small villages along the road every few kilometres. We are only 250 metres above sea level so nothing much has changed from that point of view. Phe needed a top-up of oil and amazingly at one of the many villages we passed through I was able to spot a bloke who could sell Phe that one litre. I say amazingly, because retailing in Syria is different than in western countries. There are no flashy glass shop fronts – in fact there is hardly any glass at all – just a metal roller shutter that tells you that when it is down, the shop is shut and when raised, they are open for business. There are no signs neither in Arabic and certainly not English, but the locals know where to go for whatever they want, but us mere mortal tourists have to peer inside each of these shop-fronts to decide if the items for sale are groceries, or clothing, or engine oil or a mechanic fixing cars. Well I struck it lucky and a Peter Ustinov look-a-like took the first 50 pound note I offered and then indicated ‘more’ and the second 50 proved to be enough to satisfy both him and Phe. The same litre of oil cost 20 lire in Turkey – 7 times the price! Despite the dust, everyone seems very neat and clean. Men in western dress have clean shirts with ironed creases on the sleeves or if in traditional style, the shoulder to ankle gown is either very white or beige, pressed and clean. The women have brightly coloured traditional dresses and scarves – bright blues, or reds, or orange, and with gold or silver threads. A few women are in all black. I can’t believe I have lost the medical kit. I had it out a week or so ago when I had the trots and today I’ve won a bad foot and a bad elbow both at the same time, probably from the cold draft under the air-conditioner a couple of nights back. I have had it in my foot two or three times over the past year and am sure it is a chill that catches the muscle, and which normally takes 4 or 6 days to come right. So I thought a panadol forte would help me to operate the clutch pedal without grimacing – but no kit! It’s the second thing lost on this trip – the first was the immersion element for boiling water, way, way back. At the turnoff to Ar Raqqah there was some roadworks and I could have taken more time to see what was happening because there were women with shovels walking to do work and there were also strange looking 200 litre drums of a very pale greenish liquid that was being mixed with a pole – in one case just the one fellow mixing and in another case there were two women mixing but I never saw anyone using whatever it was in the drum, so it will be a mystery to me forever probably. Over a couple of kms there must have been six or seven drums of the stuff. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

The dust has blurred the horizon for the last two days - I guess there is little that can be done about it. The countryside after the Ar Raqqah turnoff has not changed one little bit with people in amongst the crops, harvesting, and the visibility poor. I don’t want to keep harping on about this dust, but how the hell they live with it I don’t know. I suppose that is a stupid question because they have no choice because the dust is going to be around whether there are people here or not. I had decided to give Ar Raqqah a miss and head instead directly to Aleppo for - hopefully - a nice hotel with wifi so I can get some business done with the publishers in England. There doesn’t seem to be much of a ‘journey’ in today’s march. It looks to be just Dier Ezzor and Aleppo – the two destinations and not that much in between, and what there is was pretty bleak. But then quite suddenly the landscape changed as we left the desert behind – I still can’t resolve in my mind the need for another big batch of huge grain silos – so where then hell is the grain coming from? The improvement is gradual but definite. There are plantations of small olive trees still a few years away from their first crop and there is some water lying around in places. The Euphrates broadens out into a lake a way to our right out of sight but there are a number of channels that are bringing water to the area. Then for the first time all day – and it’s now almost two o’clock – the sun has managed to peak through the dust and is shining on Phe. We may have left the worst behind us. Aleppo looks to be a nice enough sort of city, clean and tidy with buildings a concrete colour rather than the colour of the earth. A few street trees. It is a big city of more than two and a half million people and bigger than the capital, Damascus. I drove around for a while before I started asking the locals about hotels, and it took four asks before this middle aged guy, who had tried to direct me (in Arabic,) then suggested – I think – that he hop in and guide us to one. I accepted the offer and away we went. For the next 15 minutes or more he guided and pushed us through the tooting traffic to a 4 star at what looked like the centre of town but even at 5300 pounds they were full for tonight. (Remember I paid just 500 Syrian pounds at Al Qamishli for our first night in Syria) The receptionist suggested another hotel around the corner but they were also full at 4200 pounds. This receptionist fellow was good enough to ring another three hotels until at 4100 pounds he found one that had a vacant room and also wifi. My new ‘best friend in Aleppo’ guided us there, found an illegal place to park, and got me to reception where I did the normal things needed to book in. But then he disappeared. I looked all over but there was no sign of him. I had intended to offer him some money but obviously that wasn’t part of his plan. One of the hotel porters walked back to the car to lead me to Phe’s park for the night but there was still no sign of him.

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A shame really as I would have loved to have thanked him for being so very kind.

Syria - From the big city of Aleppo to the Mediterranean coast and Latakia Sunday 26th September 2010

We made it out of this big busy bustling city of Aleppo, and if it wasn’t for Compass we would have had no bloody hope at all. We had driven for three quarters of an hour I guess, by heading towards the south-west whenever an intersection came up, before there was the first road sign in English that I could recognise – and that was to Daret Azzah , a little more west than south-west but there should be no problem with that. In fact the road looks to be a minor road which suits Phe and Me down to the ground. It was a nice hotel last night and I got chatting to a German couple who had been travelling around Jordan, Lebanon and Syria for four weeks. They gave me a few tips on places they had been to and enjoyed and were good enough to give me their Syrian maps. Courage is a very precious thing to me and I don’t want to use any of mine up in trying to walk to – and then, maybe, find – the Tourist Information Office just on the off chance that there would be some good info coming from them and for the sake of getting a good road map of Syria. Aleppo is a strange and confusing city and the risk of not being able to find my way back to the Hotel and Phe parked in a nearby car-park, was too great. So thank you ‘German couple’ very much for your maps. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

Today I am not going to mention litter, not at all - but that’s not to say it’s gone away, just that I don’t want to keep on harping about it.

A street in Aleppo but it is now in the best light because we had three solid torrents of rain last night. Each one only lasted for maybe five minutes but it really pelted down and would have freshened the place up, so the photos are a bit brighter than they would have been had they been taken yesterday.

Then there was this big up-market housing development with three stories homes on large blocks of land. They looked to be very much the same shape and style as I discussed when travelling through Turkey, but up to now I had not noticed the repetition of design here in Syria. There are about 30 on this side of the road and maybe half as many on the other side and all about to the same (early) stage of development. A couple look to be well on the way to completion, but the rest a long way off. It is about 10kms short of Daret Azzah so a fair way from Aleppo. Another encounter of the happy kind this time at the small town of Daret’ezzeh. I suppose it happens because I am a novelty, being old and scruffy with a car to suit, and with no Arabic at all – maybe even a challenge to some people. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

Just over three weeks ago, while we were in Tunisia I had a mishap which destroyed the camera and after a big hassle I bought a replacement from the town’s one and only department store. Only the choice of one digital camera but in two colours – silver or black. Great choice! Its a Fuji and works well enough but runs on two AA disposable batteries which don’t seem to last long and it has been a battle keeping new, fully charged batteries up to it. The shops and kiosks all the way since Tunisia seem to stock only disposable batteries that are flat! Well the (brand new) camera is playing up again so we cruised up the main street very slowly looking to spot anyone who may know something about cameras. There was a tiny shop with some gear like CD’s and phones in the window, so I gave it a go. Of course the bloody camera wouldn’t malfunction when showed to the bloke but he took the easy way out of wanting to put the two AA batteries into his charger. He was a nice, friendly young fellow and had his two little kids with him in the shop but English was as scarce as hen’s teeth and even the regular sign language was not working very well either. I tried to tell him that they were not rechargeable batteries and furthermore I had just taken these two brand new batteries straight out of the packet. He was unable to understand the “Not Rechargeable” sign written in English on the side of each battery. Then I thought to get him to top up the mobile phone with another 100 Syrian pounds as I have my son’s birthday to attend to in the morning – the last of this batch for a month or so. Anyway, I sat around for half an hour waiting for the batteries to either explode or stay cool, until the young bloke spotted two blokes on the street who had a little English. He called them inside and I was able to get them to understand the batteries were not rechargeable and managed to get them back out of the charger before any damage was done. They then wanted me to buy some ‘rechargeable’ batteries – and I would have done exactly that except the young fellow only had his own charger and not another that he could sell to me. No good from my point of view buying rechargeable batteries without a charger. So “Come” was the instruction, and off we go down the street a couple of shops to a grocer who sold us (me) a couple of new AA’s. I stuck them into the camera and they were deader than the do-do. The shopkeeper just shrugged and gave me my money back. (Did he really put those batteries back on the shelf behind him?) My old batteries kicked the camera into life but I know it won’t be for long. Anyway there were now four of them and one of me trying to solve the unsolvable so eventually we all gave up. But parting was a happy affair with warm handshakes and smiles all-round and a few soft palms to the heart – which perhaps is an Islamic blessing for me. In parting the main guy asked if I was going to the Citadel and I said “Yes” and then “Where is it?” He told me a left and then a right and it was well worth the visit.

This is the Sanaan Citadel but there was not a skeric of information in English so I will have to google it to get details. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

On the way back from the Citadel the hillsides were just rocks but below there were green valley floors. This was pretty typical. The rocky hillside is just that – rocks with hardly a shovel full of dirt. On the other hand the valley floor looks to be pretty fertile and certainly good enough for olives and in some places vegetables, corn and other bits and pieces as well. There is water as well. We picked up a hitcher while I was parked looking for the way to Addana on the map and this bloke told me the way and then hopped in. I didn’t mind but it was a shame he had no English – surely I will catch one soon! Anyway he guided us to and through Addana and then for another 50 kms before he signalled a stop. And the area had water and had become a rich bowl for the production of foodstuff. There seem to be more and more olive trees and these trees although a lot larger were not the very old, mature trees we have seen in other countries. Maybe Syria only started into olives 20 or 25 years ago – in this area at least. I understand there is a mountain range that runs from north to south near to the coast and maybe on our way to Latakia today we will pass over the top which will make a nice change to the flat driving in Syria so far. About 50 kms short of Latakia there were a couple of speed humps that made the car in front of me and the truck in front of it, to pull up a halt. There was a bloke on the road and he shook hands with the driver in front of us, so I pulled out to overtake these two mates who had stopped for a chat, when I noticed a second bloke on the road, but this one had a rifle not on a strap to the shoulder but at the ‘ready’. He was in civilian clothes but it surely was a Syrian Army check point of some kind and we had almost barged straight through it. Within about 10kms of Latakia I reckon I spotted some of Aziz’s lemon trees – just a handful in amongst the olives, and if they weren’t lemons they were something mighty close to lemons.

Syria - Across the mountains to the plains around Apamea Monday 27th September 2010 Once again when we had arrived at Latakia, I stopped at the first hotel we came across. This one was 1500 pounds which was a lot softer than the previous night’s 4100 pounds but it was pretty scruffy – and heaps of street noise with those honking horns, until I got a change in rooms. So now it’s a lot better. Perhaps I should do a bit more shopping around in future. His name was Yasser, and he was the English voice at the Tourist Information office here in Latakia. He had excellent English and I am so glad I didn’t give up trying to find the office - although I was sorely tempted a number of times. It was only pot luck in the finish, as there were none of the usual ‘Tourist Information Office’ logos which are recognisable world wide. Not even anything in English at all. Maybe finding it was a good omen because the day just got better from there. Getting back to Yasser though, I didn’t really get a great deal of information but what I did get will be good quality I am sure, and it was just nice talking to him. I said to Yasser before I left, that I have a thousand questions about Syria and I will remember them when he is not around, and of course straight away, one of them was to ask for a note in Arabic describing AA rechargeable batteries with a battery charger to suit. I would then have a chance of buying the gear to escape this rigmarole of buying cheap AA batteries that are flat straight out of the packet. But I forgot. After the Tourist Info place we drove north of the city to the nice Mediterranean beaches and then around towards the wharf and port area when I spotted a brand new multi storey retail complex with K Mart as one of the tenants. Worth a try. Bingo! Just inside their doors there was a separate section selling batteries and the like and so a pretty big and clumsy looking battery charger and rechargeable batteries became part of our gear. The young fella – maybe 27 – looking after the section also had excellent English which made it easy and very convenient. His name was John. But as I was walking back to Phe it occurred to me that there was a long day coming up and I would need a camera that was functioning and not dependent upon iffy batteries, so I backtracked and asked John if he could plug the new charger into the power to give the new batteries a spark of life. I could hang around K Mart for the hour that it would take. And that’s what happened. He wasn’t very busy so we chatted and he told me about his wish to emigrate to Australia but he could not find information about the Australian Embassy in Syria. I told him I didn’t think it mattered much whether he applied through Damascus or Cairo or London or even Canberra but the sooner he made the application the sooner he would find out whether he was accepted or knocked back. He said he had trained in University as a computer engineer – is there any young person in the world who is not a computer engineer?

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I asked him what the jobless rate would be in Syria and he thought it would be well over 50% and that the wages were poor. I asked him how much he was paid in this job with K Mart and he said $US 100 a month but it would be $150 a month if he was working at his trade. I asked if he was married and he said no because it was too expensive – not quite sure what he meant by that. We parted after the hour was up and the new batteries were cooked to perfection – I hope - and I took off on the rest of our journey. We were 10 minutes up the road, around the docks area of the city, when I had a dose of the guilts. Barb and I have three children, each of whom have married and raised three children. Each of them and their spouse have worked hard and never had financial assistance from the Government or from their parents but each couple now own their own home on a suburban block and two cars plus money in the bank and only a small remaining house mortgage. This young bloke today could not, in his wildest dreams imagine such a lifestyle – a lifestyle taken for granted by the average young Australian. He seemed to be very intent on trying to break the cycle and I think he wanted to talk to me about Australia and get some help. And why shouldn’t I help. There may be something I could do even if it is only advice and support. So a U-turn to give him my email and postal address and a little information about Australia’s low unemployment rate plus the shortage of skilled people. I also suggested he could well be suited to working in the areas where the wages were the highest, and where jobs are available because of the high temperatures, and that’s around the remote Queensland and West Australian mining towns. The excessive heat surely wouldn’t worry a young man from Syria. I like this town of Latakia despite the very ordinary hotel last night. It seems to be neat and tidy with street trees and many broad streets. It has beaches to the Mediterranean Sea and a seaport. Traffic control seems good with lights and roundabouts plus police on point duty along the way. But by one o’clock it was time to leave. Yasser had marked a road on our map that meant going south as far a Jableh, past the airport and then turning left into the mountains and out the other side to finish up at the town of Apamea for the night. It is the site of a citadel up on the hill. Well we got lost again! I don’t know if is just me or is it these stupid maps that are put out by the Tourist info people, but I stopped at every signpost that had English writing on it and could not, not once, find one of those town on my map! The best thing Yasser did was to give me a second identical map but written in Arabic rather than mine that is written in English, so whenever I stopped seeking info, the local had no difficulty reading the place names on the map – at least he knew where he was. Compass says we are going east into the mountains and so long as the road doesn’t run out we should eventually get to the plains over the other side. But I had no idea which road we were on. I stopped and asked a couple of blokes smoking bongs – four o’clock in the afternoon - and they said we were heading for Apamea okay. And that was only two men out of what must have been dozens of enquiries. Then I gave away asking because the road was fine as it twisted and turned in the climb to the summit.

One of the villages up in the rocks. It is almost invisible being the same colour as the rock and the dirt. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

As we passed through this village I saw an elderly couple sitting outside in the shade with washing drying on their line but apart from that there was nothing much happening in that village that day. A number of times I thought we had reached the summit of the road but around a bend and there always seemed to be another climb – not that we were very high it was just that we had come up from sea level to the mountain tops in a very short space of time. Eventually we made it to the top. It had been an excellent road all the way with what looked liked a fairly new asphalt surface. But then it stopped. It didn’t just peter out. It stopped! It stopped! About 100 metres further back I had seen a fellow walking into a house and as we passed I nodded and he waved, so I went back and knocked and called a “Hello” into the doorway that he had gone through but when I looked it was sort of a nothing space under the house. Nearby there were some stairs to an open door so I climbed the stairs, called out, put my head through the door and here are four blokes lying on carpets and cushions in a small room playing cards. This is precisely the same as what happened in Morocco on the Sahara Desert a year ago – is this what they call daja-vu? That time I had Ali who led me to the den but this time I had done it all by myself. Anyway I went inside and asked the question “English – speak English?” and one of the men after a bit of think music said “English – yes.” As it turned out he had only just passable English. It took a while for the four of them crowded around the Arabic map to work out where we were and where I wanted to go but then the English speaker said “Come – follow” out onto a deck and he explained in simple terms and signs and finger pointing the way I should go to get back to the main road. In essence it was to miss the first road to the left but take the second road to the left and then drive all the way to Apamea. He couldn’t put a mark on the map showing exactly where we were at that moment but he told me how to get out of the mess we were in. Then he said “tea – like tea?” and I said “Yes” but because I said “no sugar” they had a laugh because all of the pots they had must have had sugar – and there would have been a handful at least in each pot - so it took a few minutes for a new pot to be made. These four blokes weren’t no-hoper’s or layabouts – they seemed to me to be regular middle-aged men but when I tried to find out just what they were doing perched up there on the mountain top in this village at the end of the line, I didn’t really get an answer except that “We drive to Jableh” (back down on the coast), and I wondered if they were a group of the small van-bus drivers which would criss-cross the whole area. Anyway after two cups of tea I wanted to take a photo of the four of them playing cards – I had already sat through a couple or three hands – but as I stood, so did all of them, so the moment was lost, however they were happy to pose for a family group outside on the deck.

As we drove away they were all outside to wave us off.Wonderful friendly, helpful Syrians.

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This day was just going on and on. First of all I couldn’t believe it, but after driving for twenty minutes I was back at the same dead end, of the same road, again, and had just driven right past their house without noticing it. We had done a full loop. So I crept up the stairs again and popped my head in and said “Boo” and laughed and carried on like a two bob watch. They then told me that the second turn-off was not really a fork with two prongs but that it had three prongs and I had taken the left and should have taken the middle one. I had not see any three bloody prongs but they should know – it’s their country! So off down the hill again to the second intersection and I still can’t see three bloody prongs. I was tempted to give up and backtrack towards the coast but then the thought ‘No, I will try again’. There were some shooters up the right-hand road a bit, “I will go to where they are and try for a second – or fifth – opinion.” They were good value. About five of them with a bird call blasting out of a CD and the occasional shot at these little fellas that looked very similar to but smaller than a Kingfisher we have in Australia. A long sharp beak and a green chest – a pretty little bloke but it would take a lot to make a meal. Anyway two or three of the shooters had excellent English and threw their hand up in the air when they found I was heading for Apamea, so I must have been a long way off the track, but then they pointed out the road I should take to meet the main road – and lo and behold it was the middle prong to the three pronged fork and I was standing almost right on top of it and still had not seen it. It still wasn’t all plain sailing but eventually we followed the hill down to the valley floor and picked up the main road. I really am bloody hopeless though, because I am here to collect material to put into a book, and after we left the shooters to take the middle fork, there was another shooter on his own and I stopped so as not to disturb him as he took his shot. Why didn’t I take a photo of that! Some journalist I am! A paparazzi without the P! He missed the bird but maybe I should have asked them both for a replay and he may have shot it the second time around. We are now on the (main) road that Yasser the tourist info bloke, said was a great road and he is dead right, with a good drive through the hills that were bush clad with pine and little oaks (I think) but still with plenty of boulders showing through, except it had paled a wee bit compared to that marvelous road we had found when we got lost, if you get my drift. It’s a quarter to six and we are out of it and onto the plains heading north Apamea. Surprise, surprise, there is no hotel at Apamea and the nearest is back at Hama 50 kms to the south. But there is always a flip side to the coin because we were probably only half way back to Hama and there were all of these loaded trucks and trailers behind tractors lined up one after the other on the side of the road – maybe a hundred odd – all loaded with huge hessian bags of what was sure to be cotton. There must be a cotton gin here to process the crop, and that’s what would have been being picked today by all of those people in the fields. That seals it! We will come back here tomorrow to see the Roman ruins at Apamea and also to check out the cotton.

Syria - The Roman Ruins near Apamea and some cotton picking Tuesday 28th September 2010 Last night’s hotel was in the ‘old town’ of Hama. Nice. This morning I have checked out, got all of the gear into Phe and fully expect to be back here tonight – but at least we are not committed at this stage. We are going to head back north to Apamea and its Roman ruins but on a different road and on the way we can check out the cotton thing. But we have to get out of this town first and someone said that life wasn’t meant to be easy! You can say that again! Oh for Karen to lend a hand! But her maps all stopped on the other side of the Mediterranean so its up to Compass alone - no good looking at Me because Me hasn’t a clue. Every bloke I asked had a finger and it pointed in the opposite direction to the direction we were travelling. We were getting nowhere until I asked three young twenty year olds walking together and as an answer, they all hopped into Phe and gave directions until, after only five minutes or so, they called a halt, all piled out and signed ‘straight ahead for Apamea!’ Smiles and handshakes all round - but not the slightest hint of money. Wasn’t that nice. These blokes – it’s nine o’clock , a Tuesday, and if they had jobs they would be at work. So what were they going to do for the day? The three of them neatly dressed and clean, just going walk-about. They seemed to be good mates and enjoyed each other’s company but what is their outlook for life? Sad I reckon.

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This is cotton as it is growing and in my hand is the cotton out of one quarter segment of the flower or bud or whatever it is called. The three seeds were devilishly hard to separate out – and there are still another three seeds embedded in that ball of cotton. The cotton, without any of the seeds, is exactly as you would buy cotton wool from a shop. What an amazing plant it is! Lets call it a bud, but it grows and swells but stays tightly enclosed in the outer shell until that starts to open revealing four segments of tight wool inside. The four petals spread so far that they leave the wool completely open to the air. I know cotton needs a lot of heat and a lot of water to succeed as a crop. The pickers only move in when all of the buds are wide open and then it is simply a matter of plucking each ball of cotton wool off the plant – maybe ten per plant – and then move to the next. Apparently picking is women’s work but there are blokes around as the bags the women fill are bundled and squashed into a hessian bail. They then become heavy. It has never ceased to amaze me when you compare cotton and sheep’s wool. In the natural state they are very similar to the eye and to the touch except that sheep’s wool is a little greasy with the lanolin content while cotton wool is dry, but both are twisted into a thread and that thread woven or knitted into a cloth and used for may things put predominately for clothing. The big difference is that cotton is a vegetable grown with sun and water while wool is animal – a product of the sheep. The area we are into today is arable, intensively farmed flat land with a plentiful supply of water. There are lots of people doing lots of things on the land. It’s a very busy place.

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The Roman ruins near Apamea date back to 300BC. They are impressive but I found it particularly difficult to visualise how the city would have looked when it was brand new all of those centuries ago. The row of columns is 1850metres long! And not very wide. First the Roman baths with the exposed plumbing, then an arch – the rest of the building has collapsed but the arch remains - then the row of columns and it looks very, very, very straight after all of these years – amazing people these Romans! Pity they didn’t teach the Italians how to drive! I got suckered into buying some stuff that was most probably die-cast in Damascus (or China) and buried underground for six months to give it some “age.” It was from a nice bloke on a motor scooter who led me up here. I gave him 200 Syrian pounds for the guidance but then another 1500 for four Roman coins he had “Found here on the site myself.” It sure was his lucky day when I came along! You would reckon I would know better! I really have no idea how original this site is but if it really is original then it is amazing. At Apamea, as well as the Roman ruins there is also an ancient city up on the hill but the ruins were enough for me for one day so I left the ancient city for next time. We made it to the line of cotton trucks about two thirty and I sat for a while and watched as three empty trailers came out but no full ones got inside, but then Phe managed to get us onto a side track that went around the back and up onto a rise overlooking the site, and I was able to see that this was not a cotton gin at all. It was simply a depot where the bales are stored under tarps for as long as it takes before being trucked off to the gin. Makes sense because the gin would want to operate at an even pace all of the year round and not just at harvest time. It is almost three o’clock, knock off time, and the workers are tidying up the last of the bales into the giant ‘hay stack’ for the day and I guess the farmers who own the fifty or a hundred trucks and trailers out on the road will sleep with their cotton until the morn. We are back to Hama for our sleep until the morn.

Syria - The Ancient city of Palmyra - an Oasis in the Syrian Dessert Wednesday 29th September 2010 Yasser at the Tourist Info place had said that Palmyra is a must see! He said that Germans fly to Syria to see Palmyra and then fly straight home again. I hope he is right because I am not a big fan of the Roman ruins, or ruins of any sort come to that. It looks to be around 250 to 300 kms east from Hama with not a lot in between so we should be there soon after lunch.

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I guess we will be going back to the desert and the dust, but at the start it was clear, a warm morning with not a cloud in the sky and only a breath of a breeze. It was half past nine by the time we cleared Hama and the visibility looking east was as good as we have had for weeks. Sure, it’s still misty but not anywhere to the same degree as in the past. I wonder how this happens? Those fertile plains of yesterday stopped almost as soon as we were out of the city. This could be pretty serious grain country with just a few olive groves dotting the landscape and the rest a brown stubble colour waiting for a rain and a new planting next month possibly. Almost every town along the way has the big grain silos for grain storage. Yesterday morning I drove the best part of 25 kms to the south when I thought we were going north! I couldn’t believe it when Compass’s needle had the red end pointing the wrong way! So this morning I have been very conservative and have asked for directions at every intersection, or fork, or tee because there has not been one road sign in English since we left Hama. It paid off early when we were in the town of Assalamyeh and I stopped and asked directions from a young fellow. He had good English and confirmed I was on the right track. He asked for a lift – and it was my pleasure. He comes from Assalamyeh and is a doctor (still in training I suspect) and has work at the local hospital. I asked him about money and he said he gets US$250 per month and when I commented that that doesn’t seem to be much, he said that “If I was in my own practice I would do a lot better and get closer to $2000 per month. Things are cheap in Syria and it doesn’t cost a lot to live”. Why didn’t I ask him about the average size of a young family – him being in obstetrics and all – because I have the feeling that the average may be a fairly low 3 or 5 kids and not the large figures of Morocco and Tunisia, but I did ask him where he got his good English from and he had to repeat the answer because I was not ready for it the first time – Russia! He lived there for five years with some friends. Amazing! A nice young fellow, and my first English speaking hitcher for weeks but unfortunately he got out just on the other side of town.

Then the Wednesday livestock market – Syrian style. It seemed to be only sheep and goats although it’s ten o’clock and it’s probably all but wound up. It seemed a lot less frantic than the last market we went to - where was that? That’s right! Next door to that five star hotel in Tunisia! At this market there were ropes and chains fixed to the ground and ever so often what looked like a loop of rubber which could be easily slipped around the front hoof and the animal controlled easily and simply. Didn’t see any cattle ramps though, but these Syrian farmers are a pretty tough bunch and the lift of a sheep from the ground onto the tray of the truck was never going to be a problem. As we turned the corner and started driving south the country became hilly and terribly arid. I was surprised. I expected the arid alright but not the hilly. No villages, no people, and no traffic on the road. A breakdown out here would mean a long wait. But Phe’s tough and “breakdown” is a word hardly in her vocabulary at all. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

Another mob of sheep and goats with what looked like two shepherds, a man and wife perhaps. A covered truck for their supplies and dirt and rocks for the sheep to eat. How do they survive? And they need water too of course. I wonder if these shepherds in particular own the flock or are they working for wages for some other owner.

I still have not seen one sign in English that tells us we are on the road to Palmyra, but I think this road from Hama could be the less preferred route to the one a bit further south that comes from Homs and another from Damascus. It has been a beaut drive though – the sort that Phe and Me both love on a sealed road without lines. When we entered Syria I noticed the mud brick houses with domed roofs. Well the mud brick is still prominent but the domed roofs have been replaced with the normal flat roof, probably out of the same mud brick but supported on poles. Then there is the more modern type of house made from concrete or concrete blocks and with a reinforced concrete roof. And the tent villages that look pretty permanent. I wonder if this is the camp of the Syrian Berber? We made it to Palmyra early in the afternoon and straight away found a nice friendly hotel facing the citadel.

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That left us three or four very enjoyable hours for wandering around the ancient ruins, the castle and the citadel - all great even though ruins are not my favourite treat of the day. There were a lot of tour groups and I only managed to latch onto an English speaking one at the end. Just as well though because I get too impatient to try to sift out some relevant facts from all of the garbage thrust at the captive audience. I wish these tour guide people would cut out all of the irrelevant drivel they go on about and just cut to the basic facts that tourists can absorb and perhaps remember. You only need to look at the faces to read the sheer boredom of listening to some bloke telling you about - - - - - - - -------!

The Temple of Ba’al at Palmyra

They are still digging at Palmyra Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

With Phe, I decided that a drive through the ‘green oasis’ would be a good idea. The sign was up and pointing at the date palms but I guess it related to foot passengers only because we had just entered a narrow, dusty, one way lane with the mud brick and rock of houses on one side and a high stone wall into the date palms on the other, when a bloke motioned for us to back up and go no further! He was talking in Syrian – as is his right – and I had no idea what he was talking about so I continued on a few hundred metres looking for a place to turn. Another couple of blokes were there with words and gestures too. Actually I – and every one of the other tourists in Palmyra that day - had been pestered by the minute by men and boys trying to flog us beads and whistles, carpets and postcards - you name it - and I had it in my mind that these fellows were onto the same game, so I tried to ignore them by saying I don’t understand – which was the truth. Eventually the penny dropped when they got me out of the car and pointed to Phe’s rear tyre – flat! Well it was a long way down but not quite dead flat – yet! I thanked them and went looking to find a petrol station for some air as a starter. Better still I found a small tyre shop with a young bloke still working at seven thirty in the evening. He had just enough English to know that Sydney and Melbourne are both in Australia and that if he pulls out that big shiny screw sitting in the tread and plugs the hole it will not need a tube – and yes he can do it – and yes he can do it now! He removed the tyre, plugged the hole and checked all the other tyre pressures and then said 100 Syrian pounds. What’s that, about 1.60 euro or $A2.40. I couldn’t possibly pay 100 pounds for his hour so I gave him 300 and we were both very happy. He was such a nice friendly, happy, bloke. His name was Mohammed – why did I ask!

Syria - and On the Road to Damascus! Thursday 30th September 2010 We are On the Road to Damascus! I have been wanting to put that bit into this journal ever since entering Syria but today is the day at last. It’s been a long time since I last went to Sunday school and it took some research to find out that according to the New Testament, it was Saint Paul who was On the Road to Damascus when he had a vision, was struck blind, and converted to Christianity. So there you are. And I thought it was a movie staring Bing Crosby and Jerry Lewis! We have about 250kms to travel through the desert much the same as yesterday I expect. Not far out of town we passed a sign ‘The Palmyra Camel Racecourse’, and it reminded me that I saw two camels yesterday standing outside one of the tourist hotels and that they were the only camels I have sighted in out total journey in Syria so far. And now here is a camel racecourse. Who is doing the kidding here I ask?

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It is a lot easier drive today than it was yesterday – 110 km per hour all the way, single lane but a good road surface, straight and flat, but not anywhere as interesting. This is the main drag between Damascus and the Palmyra tourist destination and we passed a lot of tourist coaches heading out for a day or two at the ruins. We came towards Damascus from the north and there was a lot of pollution coming from some heavy industry and stuff. A cement works as well, and there sure would be a big demand for cement in Syria. I thought it was going to clear but as we got closer it became just one great big grey cloud of smog. The huge advertising billboards for the likes of ‘Ford’ and ‘Hoover’ had that dark brown grime stain creeping up from the bottom the same as you see on some railway stations and goods yards. When we got to the outskirts of Damascus I got a fit of the smarts, and so I followed a big purple bus into town hoping it would lead us directly to the bus station – therefore the middle of town and right next to a wonderful three star hotel with a cheap price. Tell him he’s dreaming! The purple bus was the one that left Palmyra every hour for Damascus. It didn’t work out. The purple bus stopped at what I thought may have been a suburban bus station, let off a few passengers and took off again out of the bus station and I lost it! Bugger! But I stopped at an ATM to top up the wallet and then went into the bank for smaller change as the machine had only given out 1000 pound notes. I can always be relied upon to make a fool of myself – and here I did it again. I fronted the counter and pretended to tear a 1000 pound note in half but the puzzled look from the other side of the counter prompted me to write with biro on the palm of my hand ‘50, 100, 200.’ The nice cashier lady then said in perfect English “You want to break the 1000 into smaller notes.” I felt so small I could have walked under a snake with my umbrella up! Anyway she took it in good fun and when the transaction was concluded she came outside to direct me to the centre of Damascus where the hotels would be. Nice and helpful but she had a very cold hand when I shook it to say thank you and goodbye. Strange, because it was well over thirty degrees again today. Maybe it’s from handling so much of that cold cash all day – and an air-conditioner that may be set a tad low.

A back street just off the main drag in Damascus.Very easy to buy an ice cream or a kebab or a cold (soft) drink. It was easy to find a hotel without breaking the bank, but devilishly hard to find somewhere for Phe. In the end one of the hotel’s porters came with us to find a parking spot in a street nearby – not the best but the only place on offer.

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Probably going to be a small apartment block of four (at least) floors This photo is a good illustration of the method of building modern houses and apartments, not just here in Syria but all over this part of the world from northern Europe to western Europe and now in the Middle East. I reckon it’s great and far superior to the ‘stick by stick’ method I am used to in Australian and New Zealand where houses consume tons of trees and are then clad in clay bricks or more timber, or some other product. Here construction is simple. Pour a concrete floor with plenty of steel reinforcing, a few vertical pillars with plenty of steel reinforcing, another floor this time with light-weight bricks as well as the concrete, more pillars, another floor, or maybe the roof. The stairs are poured – with plenty of steel reinforcing - at the same time. Then they use some large but lightweight clay bricks for internal and external walls. The walls are not load-bearing – just filling the hole. Finally the walls are cement rendered on the outside and maybe cement, or perhaps plaster or tiles, on the inside. The windows are mostly double glazed in aluminium frames with sashes that open into the room – and with just a flick of the lever they can open in as a casement window for maximum air flow, or tip in from the top as an awning window. And I have never found one that doesn’t work! Terrific. I am a fan for this type of construction for a number of reasons. Surely it is cheaper than our way. Heat, cold, and sound insulation is excellent. Even in a room with an occupied floor above, there is no sound that comes through. The intermediate floors are solid with no sign of bounce. The only problem I have found has been with the plumber - wouldn’t you know it! In many, many cases the bathroom on upper floors smell badly because of inadequate traps from the shower or from the drain hole in the bathroom floor. Without the trap the smell from the whole drain system drifts straight into the bathroom. Easily fixed, I reckon, by getting the painter to do the plumbing! I had it worked out in my long-term forward planning diary, (what long-term forward planning diary?) that tomorrow would be a day for looking around the ‘old town’ of Damascus and the Tourist Info people, just a short walk from our new hotel, would be just the ones to lead me in the right direction. But - there always seems to be a but – they were closed by the time I got there at six o’clock and tomorrow, being Friday and a holy day, means they will not re-open until Saturday morning. A bit late as we could be heading south on Saturday. Towards Jordan.

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Syria - In Damascus Friday 1st October 2010 Phe’s in for a spell today and my feet are going to do the walking. I managed to get a tourist map of Damascus and the old city is only about 15 minutes walk from the hotel. I don’t know if it will be a drawback or a bonus today being a holy day with the vast majority of stall holders and shop owners having the day off, because I am certainly not the one for browsing through all the stuff that’s offered for sale, but on the other hand the busy ‘souk’ atmosphere will be missing. Then there is the plus that with less crowds I may have less chance of getting lost. The insurance this time though, is the little yellow taxi, so that if the worst comes to the worst I can get one of those mighty little mouses to bring me back to the hotel – and just for 50 pounds – less than a euro.

I had to love this bloke’s hat

It is a holy day today and the bulk of the stalls are closed, but it is easy to imagine what it would be like here tomorrow Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

There were a lot of men scrambling through the pile of shirts and slacks and even a jacket or two, so evidently they must be cheap even by Syrian standards.

I had a joke with the owner of this small furniture shop because I thought the timber was inlaid with mother of pearl. Silly me! How far away are shellfish from the middle of Syria. First of all I thought the bloke said the white inlay was camel horn. “Camel horn?” I tried to confirm ‘camel horn’ with a couple of forefingers coming from my forehead. He looked puzzled. And I looked puzzled too because “Camels don’t have horns!”Then the truth – not horns, stupid. He is saying camel bones! He said the furniture was made in Syria but when he said the camel bones were also from Syrian camels, I laughed out loud because the only two camels I had seen in Syria so far were the two giving the tourists a ride at Palmyra yesterday. He said there were heaps of camels in the desert around Palmyra and Deir Ezzor where we were a week ago! Maybe they had been lying down when we were in the desert! Anyway he took the kidding in good nature and we had a good laugh. I had assumed that Syria would be all but 100% Islamic but not quite true with about 10% following the Christian faith. There are a number of the Catholic churches in Old Damascus.

If spices are any way to judge, then Syrians love their food! Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

Damascus is apparently the oldest, continually occupied city in the world, but then the tourist information leaflet described the early Roman Damascus as being up to 5 metres below this ‘old city’. How can that be? Beats me! But Damascus today is a beaut place sitting as is does backing up against the low hills to the north-west. On the way out tomorrow we can have a look and I guess that a lot of the residential area is up there overlooking the city lights. I wasn’t game to move Phe today because I doubt if we would find our way back to the hotel. The ‘new Damascus’ was great too with contrasting tiny alleyways and then wider streets with a few trees and greenery here and there. It’s clean because there are men with brooms and barrows picking up litter almost before it hits the ground. And the Syrians I talked to were friendly and courteous. Another thing I really liked about the Syrians was that the men were often walking with their wives and children and not a couple of paces out in front. And sometimes holding hands. And often I got that warmth from a fellow, after getting help one way or another, a parting handshake, then many times it has happened that he has put his hand lightly to his heart, briefly, and then a slight gesture to me, which I take as being a silent blessing such as goodbye – go in peace. I hope I am right.

Syria - How about we go to Beirut? Saturday 2nd October 2010

We left the hotel around nine and had a quick drive into the hills to the north-west for a couple of photos looking down on Damascus. The area was nice but really an extension of the city itself. One good thing though, was that it should be easy for Compass to set sail to the south so that sooner or later we will see a sign that will take us to the border with Jordan. Not so! The first sign I saw was to Lebanon and it’s capital, Beirut, and a quick check with Compass showed that for some unaccountable reason best known to Italian/ French sheilas, Phe must have done a couple of right angle turns without either Compass or Me noticing and had us driving north instead of south! So I pulled over and had a good look at the map.

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To help out with the reasoning I wrote a little calendar of the days remaining until the time to go home on 21st November. Leaving out say, 7 days to drive back to England from wherever we are, there are 42 days left for touristing. We could go to Lebanon for 6 or 7 days, then to Jordan for about the same time, then to Egypt for three weeks and leave Israel until last, for 6 or 7 days also. From what I understand some of the Arab countries will not allow entry if there is an Israeli stamp in the passport so the problem will be solved if we leave Israel to last and then maybe catch a car ferry from Israel to Crete and then to Turkey for the start of the trip back to England. I wonder if that will work? So lets go to Lebanon and Beirut! We don’t even have to find the right road because Phe already has us on it! But we do need some fuel and it would be best to buy it here in Syria with such a cheap price. We left the highway for a reasonable sized town but the petrol station had petrol but no diesel. The bloke there directed me down into the town and I looked all over but couldn’t find the other petrol station. I asked a couple of blokes and they said “No diesel in town.” Well they should know – it’s their town!, so back to the highway and along a bit to a second (sizeable) town and instead of driving around aimlessly, I spotted a bloke on the side of the road putting fuel into his car from a plastic water bottle, so I stopped and asked him. I reckoned he had run out and had had to walk to the petrol station for a top-up. With no English at all I got the message that I would get no diesel in this town either. But then he locked his own car and hopped into the passenger seat next to me and directed us back the ten kms to the first town and the petrol station that had already told me they had no diesel. He got proper directions (in Syrian) and back we went down into the town – remember the two locals had already told me “No diesel in town.” But my latest best friend found the place okay – it was the tank off an old petrol tanker, no wheels or prime mover, just the tank sitting up on blocks with a hose coming from it. No wonder I had missed it on my run through the place. The measure was a bit dodgy though because the bloke reckoned 46 litres, and there was no way in the world that Phe would have taken more than 36 litres. Anyway it was not the time to kick up a fuss. I drove my friend back to his car. How nice was that! This bloke gave me, a total stranger, the best part of half an hour of his time just in the name of what – not friendship – but perhaps friendliness is the word. I am certain an offer of money would have offended or at least embarrassed. He was close to thirty. I asked if he was married and he nodded a ‘yes’. “Bambinos?” I asked and cradled my arms. Another nod ‘yes.’ “One?” with my one finger but got a two fingers from him – so I fished out two little koala bears for his kids. That was the morning. Great! A good decision and another brush with the real Syrians. But it was all downhill from there. My favourite parasite – the international bureaucrat - did me over again and this time I got done like a dinner! By one o’clock - after one and a half hours - we had finally cleared the Syrian side of the border and made it into the no-mans-land between the Syria and Lebanon fences. One and a half hours of tooing and fro-ing from one window to the next and then back to the start to pay for another piece of paper. It was enough to drive you bonkers! There was very little English around but at the one and only English speaking chance I had, I asked the bloke if I needed a visa to enter Lebanon and he said “Yes – but you can get it at the border.” Exactly the answer I wanted and early in the process too. The no-mans-land has to be the longest. The road winds it’s way downhill through the rocky mountains for maybe seven kilometres past a number of wrecked cars with bullet holes as a reminder of the not so friendly times of not that long ago. My first contact with Lebanon was good with a sign in both Arabic and in English which said something like “Don’t throw your rubbish away – put it in the bin.” My second contact got me a visitors visa but my third contact with Lebanon was also my last! “Phe cannot enter Lebanon because she is diesel and no diesel cars are allowed in Lebanon!” I still can’t believe it so I will repeat it to see if I can make it believable! “Phe cannot enter Lebanon because she is diesel and no diesel cars are allowed in Lebanon!” No! That still hasn’t made it anything but still bloody ridiculous. I almost cried. It’s not the end of the world but it’s just the disappointment of not being able to get things right. So there is nothing that can be done – we just have to go back to Syria. What a bastard!

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By quarter past one we were knocking on the Syrian bureaucratic door again calling out “let me in – let me in” and an hour later I had precisely the same problem as when we entered the country ten days ago – they want another 4112 pounds ($US90) for Phe’s visa and I have only 2000 pounds left in my wallet. They will not take payment by Visa card and there is no ATM at the border post - the nearest is all the way back at Damascus. I certainly couldn’t walk it in a week and Phe is not allowed out of the compound until the 4112 pounds is paid. One of the bright blokes has the solution “I will drive you to an ATM in Damascus - but it will cost you 2000 pounds” That really sent me off. Just as well they were not able to understand half of what I was saying. But I went away and had the sulks for a quarter of an hour and then went back and accepted the offer. I was over a barrel and no matter how much I raved on about it they knew, and I knew, that I would have to accept and pay the 2000 pounds. Either that or leave Phe there forever! By quarter past four we were out of their clutches and back on the road to Damascus. It had taken a full hour to get the money as the first ATM was ‘not in service’ and the second refused to recognise my visa card – and that would be a first - and I was starting to think I had entered the wrong pin number but the third one did the right thing and paid up. My life seems to be just highs and lows these days. When I thought this morning about going to Beirut and the thought had time to sink in and mature, I got all enthusiastic because it was a good idea, fitted into a timetable okay and when the Syrian bloke said you get the visa at the border, well it was all go, go, go. And then the Lebanese gave me a visa and then took it all away again by telling me to leave my best friend north of the equator parked in some dusty, dirty, rubbishy no-mans-land car-park for a week – well the sky sort of fell in. The Syrians at the border were nice enough – I can’t take that away from them – its just the way it is, the way their system works and no-one is going to kick it over. Probably it was some long-dead bureaucrat who designed the system and no one has the guts or intelligence to change it. I wonder what it is like at the airports? We took the road back to Damascus almost all the way to the city before turning right towards Jordan and a bed for the night on the edge of the Golan heights near the city of La Quneitra. This is the buffer zone separating Syria and Israel with a UN peacekeeping force on the job. The hotel was a bit expensive but it will be our last night in Syria unless for some reason or other we get stopped from entering Jordan. Must see about getting Phe’s face washed in case they don’t want dirty cars in Jordan!

Bye bye Syria and hello Jordan Sunday 3rd October 2010 Today was never going to be the best day of my life with the prospect of battling through the Syrian border bullshit for the fourth time, but I never expected our problems to start just a kilometre from the hotel on the road to La Quneitra.

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It was just one kilometre down the road heading south towards the Jordanian border that we were stopped at a Syrian army road check. The bloke took my passport and left me to sit on the side of the road for the best part of ten minutes while they did what they wanted to do. But then, rather than get the go-ahead to drive on which is usually the case, I was told to drive into the compound of the barracks and from there I was taken into a room with a desk, some chairs, four Syrians and a mountain of paper, pads and forms. After a few minutes I got the feeling they were ignoring me and rather than ‘sit’ as I was instructed, stood as a gesture of defiance and tapped the face of my watch telling them I wanted to get going to Jordan. One bloke had a little bit of English and asked “Where go?” and I told him to Dar’a and then to Jordan. Dar’a is the town on the Syrian side of the border with Jordan. He made a phone call and kept glancing at me and then back to the passport.- it made me uneasy, but then he hung up and nothing more was said. They went back to looking at some forms and writing on other bits of paper and I was sitting by now, and sitting like a stunned mullet. A few minutes more, the phone rang, a few words and then the question again “Where go?” I was getting pissed off by now so I grabbed the English speaker bloke’s arm and walked him out to Phe – strangely enough he didn’t resist - and showed him the map of where I had been in Syria and where I was planning to go today. The tide suddenly and unexpectedly turned. He was now on my side it seemed. He pointed to Al Quneitra on the map and said “No” and then traced a line back to Damascus and then down the main highway directly to Dar’a, so bypassing Al Quneitra altogether. He wanted me to backtrack to Damascus and come back down the main drag just 30 kms to the east. Of course I jumped up and down. He opened the passport and pointed to a particular oval stamp of the many Syrian stamps and said “Al Quneitra - No!” From all of this I gathered that at yesterday’s border it had been decided that this cranky old Aussie fart was a definite risk to national security and that he should not be allowed to drive through their precious territory and particularly not anywhere near the Golan Heights region! I wonder if it is a rule for all tourist or have I been singled out – surely not! Maybe my name ‘Robin’ was too close to that of Israeli Prime Minister ‘Rabin’ of the 1990’s, and if so, I must definitely be a Mossad agent. I should not be making fun of this experience as it is their country and it’s theirs to defend and protect as they think fit. All of the Golan Heights was Syrian territory up until the 6 day war of 1967 when Israel seized it but offered it back in return for a lasting and meaningful peace agreement. This agreement never came about with Iran and radical groups like Hezbolah muddying the waters. I am merely a short term guest - here today, gone tomorrow - whereas they, the Syrians have to live with the consequences of their actions (or inaction.) The disputes between Israel and it’s neighbours has been a festering sore for what is it , 50 years now, or more? I believe that disputes of any kind are only ever settled by either force or by compromise – they never ever seem to ‘just go away’. I really do hope that all the politicking and posturing doesn’t get in the way of an eventual compromise of the Middle East problem. So once again we are on the road to Damascus – Is this the third time? Nothing against Damascus, but I really hope this is the last time! It’s 50 kms back to the turnoff to pick up the main road from Damascus to Dar’a and I wanted to have some more cash from an ATM before tackling the border again – so only the two objectives, find an ATM and find the turnoff. The Syrian ATM network is poor with towns like Palmyra having none at all and when you do find a machine there is a fair chance it will be out of service. In Damascus there are banks and ATM’s on almost every corner but not so in the lesser towns and cities. Case in point was the border from Turkey – no ATM – and the border yesterday with Lebanon – no ATM. We were within 8 kms of Damascus when I started tracking down a machine after two or three instructions from the locals and when I eventually found it the bloody machine was a dud, and to make matters worse, with all the twists and turns, I had lost the main road, so it’s back to Compass to keep us heading north. The stupid thing is that I have 1000 pounds in the wallet and yesterday it cost 850 pounds at the border to get out, but somehow I don’t trust the system and would like another 2000 Syrian pounds up my sleeve just in case. Karen and Compass, Phe and Me – we must have been in 35 or maybe 40 countries and never before, not once, have we had to pay money to leave the country. In fact as a matter of habit I have always spent the last of the notes and coins on diesel just before the border. By half past eleven we are all set – I have another 2000 in the wallet and we are on the road out of Damascus – will it be the last time? I hope so!

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No wonder I chose that road yesterday in preference to the motorway from Damascus to Dar’a because this is one very ordinary way to get from A to B. It is straight and boring, the smog is thick around Damascus and no sign of it lessening as we head south. But it is 110 kms to Jordan and it will take us just over an hour and there is no alternative. But one thing though, they have people out on this highway picking up the litter piece by piece, bottle by bottle, can by can – not a lot of people and it’s a big job but at least an effort is being made. Breakfasts in Syria have almost always included a sliced tomato and most times cucumber along with flat bread, butter, cheese, and a couple of spreads to add to the bread. The spreads were nice – not sweet, a little spicy and the consistency of mayonnaise. But it struck me that I have not seen tomatoes or cucumbers growing. Maybe like the camels, I have not been looking in the right place. Well that changed today because we are travelling through an area that is a little more arable and is full of tomato crops and cabbages and peppers – you name it, it’s here, just around 40 kms north of Dar’a. But it seems to run in patches of market gardens, then a bare patch, then an olive grove or two, then back to the market gardens. I am not going to mention the litter again. It’s a hot day, probable low to mid thirties, the sun is shining through a patch of blue sky directly overhead but the rest all around – the whole 360 degrees is bad, smoggy, misty, brown haze – not nice. I am sure it is smog. Ready. Set. Go! It’s ten minutes to one and we enter the Syrian border! At twenty to three we are out of Syria – ten minutes short of two hours! What a shmozzle! Yesterday it cost 850 pounds to exit to the Lebanon side of the fence and today it cost 5350 pounds to do the same thing to Jordan. How come? Who knows! And of course I didn’t have 5350 – only 3000. There was some lukewarm good news in that there was an ATM right there next to the banker (who won’t take a Visa card) – but it is jammed tight and really looks as though it hasn’t worked this decade. The banker said that there is a second machine in the duty free store half a kilometre back down the road and as I sweat out the walk back I am thinking about the drive all the way back to Damascus should this one be a dud too. But it wasn’t. Thank you Allah, or Jesus or was it just the National Bank of Syria. By contrast the entry into Jordan took just one hour. Buy insurance for Phe, get a 30 day single entry visa, passport control and customs – that was thorough, they even had a bloke in a pit looking at Phe’s underbelly as we drove across. What a difference it was. Some of the blokes had a little bit of English, they were all pleasant, they had computers, and it was just an easy simple thing to do. No bullshit like ‘fathers name’ and ‘mothers name’ and ‘address in Jordan’. The only hiccup was that they too had just one ATM at the border but guess what! A message on the screen said “This machine is off-line temporarily” I had converted the remaining Syrian pounds to Jordanian dinars but not enough to cover the insurance, and visas for Phe and Me but luckily the bank was able to change a hundred Australian dollars into 62 dinars and that saw us through. So we are out on the open road in Jordan with a little cash and not much of a map, but enough to suggest a right turn to the city of Irbed in the north western corner may be the way to go for tonight and maybe even tomorrow night if the hotel is okay. I look at the landscape trying to find a difference with Syria and can find none. Why should there be any difference, after all it’s only a few kilometres and a fence! It’s dry, it has some olives, but hold on! There’s some prickly pear – we haven’t seen prickly pear since Italy I don’t think.

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And then low and behold a whole heap of camels maybe fifty of them on each side of the road. They were tethered and fenced so they were definitely domesticated and not wild but what a surprise so soon after leaving Syria. Apart from that it looks much the same. Same smog the sun is trying to squeeze through, and it’s in the low thirties. Drivers and driving seems much the same. The litter is the same (would it be too much to hope that it is the wind that is blowing Syrian litter across the border?- I reckon it would be too much to hope!) I couldn’t spot a sign for a hotel at all but a friendly policeman directed us to the Hotel Joude – it claims three stars but that may have been a few years ago – and for 25 dinars per night, we are here for tonight and a rest day tomorrow.

My Impressions of Syria after 11 nights Syria is not a large country and is roughly a right angled triangle. It is about 500 kms across the top – east to west - bordering with Turkey and about the same coming down the west side along the Mediterranean Sea for a while, then bordering Lebanon as far as the Golan heights – an area in dispute with Israel. The Golan Heights had been Syrian territory until the 1967 6-day war when Israel, in retaliation, advanced and seized it. Israel offered to hand it back in return for a lasting and meaningful peace agreement but an agreement never came about with Iran and radical groups like Hezbollah muddying the waters. So most of the Golan heights is controlled by Israel, a small portion by Syria and a UN peacekeeping force is there as a circuit breaker. The Syrian Arab Republic has a young President, Al-Assad, and a parliament controlled by the Ba’ath Party as a democracy. It has a regular income from oil and gas, and also from agriculture such as cotton and wheat but it is regarded as a poor country with high unemployment, even with half the people employed by the government.. More than 90% of the population are Sunni Moslem and most of the remaining 10%, Christian. Women are almost always dressed in their traditional long dress with a head scarf and clothing from neck to ankles, often in bright colours and also often in that soft browny-beige colour that I used to call gaberdine many years ago. It must be very hot for them. A few younger women wear western dress but only a few. Not many were dressed in the all-covering black burqua. It offended my own prejudices to see the way women travelled in the back of trucks – I didn’t see men travelling this way. Maybe it was only the women being driven to and from work in the cotton fields but I somehow doubt it. In contrast many men walked with their wives and children and not out the front a pace or two. It was not unusual to see couples holding hands – and not just the newly weds either. As for the men they were predominately in western dress but many wore the shoulder to ankle gown (that I don’t know the name of), often pure white cotton, clean, pressed, buttoned at the wrist and with what looked like a starched collar. Transport around the cities, towns, and villages centred around the little yellow taxis that patrol the streets all the time. They are cheap and available. In some places I just could not believe how many there were on the streets. The second mode was the mini van-bus. It gets as big as a Toyota High Ace and can fit in between 10 and 16 passengers – a bit squeezy sometimes. They run from one town to the next and then back again, stopping on demand for drop-offs or pick-ups. If they are full they wont stop and you just have to wait for the next one – maybe 10 minutes. The preferred means of private transport is the small motor bike – not so much the motor scooter but a motor bike, especially one with a long bench seat that can fit Dad (driving) Mum, (side saddle) and one kid in front of Dad and Mum holding the baby. Alternatively it is not unusual to see three fully grown 20 year olds on the one small bike. In the country a donkey is more versatile for loads or for pulling a cart. Alcohol was not on the supermarket shelves and not at three star hotels either but I was able to get a beer at the couple of ‘five’ stars I stayed in. But smoking a bong must be quite acceptable as most cafes had them for the blokes – and I saw girls too a couple of times. It was strange though as an Australian where beer drinking is almost a national pastime to see all of these Syrian men at the cafe having a coffee or a glass of water as they chatted or played cards with their mates for hours every night – and many puffing on the ‘hubbly bubbly’ The worst two things in Syria could both be fixed given the will, and I suggest would have to be fixed if Syria wanted to build a tourist industry.

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The first is the litter - it’s disgusting – and I don’t reckon international tourists would wear it. In Damascus it is not too bad because they have an army of blokes with trolleys and brooms all day long picking it up soon after it is dropped, but in the other cities the cleaning army is out during the night so things are okay in the morning but it’s all downhill from there. The mind set of the population is to drop it – a can, a plastic bag, a cigarette butt (and everybody smokes), the empty packet, or a plastic drink bottle - or just throw it out the window. Of course the rural areas have to rely on the wind and the rain to clean things up – and it ‘don’t rain too often!’ I guess the dust problem is unavoidable in a dry desert country like this, but even if the quarry trucks had to cover their loads it would help, but at the moment the dust lies on the side of the road and the next heavy vehicle trails big billowing clouds of the stuff behind it forever. The second downer is the pathetic border controls. Maybe if I was in a bus or on an aeroplane it would be better – I don’t know – but in the car it was bloody awful and has nothing to do with security just old fashioned inefficiency. Hopeless and if I never have to drive over the Syrian border again it will be too soon! I have left the best until last!

The Syrian people! Well the men at least because I hardly spoke to a Syrian woman and if we passed in the street her eyes would seldom meet mine – but how come I have the feeling she knew everything about me including what I had for breakfast! The men I had contact with were either hotel staff or people I was seeking help from – basically “Where am I?” They were all first rate, helpful, friendly, happy, blokes who in many cases went way out of their way to help a stranger. Maybe I am a novelty because in many cases I was the only tourist. It started with the first hotel and two blokes called Aziz and Zorro. They looked after me as though I was Santa Claus without the gifts. They brought me cups of tea, took me out to breakfast and waited around until I had finished, and Zorro was even outside to wave me off when I left. Then another day I was lost in the mountains and barged through an open door into a room with four blokes sitting on rugs and cushions playing cards. They gave me directions and then sat me down for a cup of tea. Barely a word of English. Then there was the bloke who left his car on the side of the road, got into Phe and directed us to a diesel supply in the next town down the road. Then the pedestrian bloke who got in Phe to direct us to a hotel in the big city of Aleppo. The first two hotels we tried were full but he had the receptionist ring a third and then took me to it. When I came to thank him and say goodbye he had disappeared – just vanished – and we were kilometres away from where we first met. These are just the ‘stand-outs’. Every man I approached in Syria was just beaut. Even the ones at the border control seemed to be nice blokes - just doing a bad job. Syria is a land of contrast from the dusty desert in the east, with its majestic Euphrates river, to the sea in the west and those wonderful hills to get lost in as we cut back inland, then the ancient ruins in the desert at Palmyra to the big smoke, Damascus. But Karen and Compass, Phe and Me are only coming back if they take away the borders!

Graeme Robin travels the world in his trusty old Fiat Tempra, and writes about his journeys. If you enjoy reading this, you should consider buying Graeme’s second book

‘Karen and Compass, Phe and Me - On Roads Without Lines - Book 2 Covering Graeme’s four month journey through:


To buy BOOK 2, visit: Hear more about Graemes’ travels at

Graeme's BOOK 2 'Karen and Compass, Phe and Me - On Roads Without Lines - Book 2' is available to buy both in print and online BOOK 2 covers Graeme’s four month journey through: Estonia and the Baltic States Poland Ukraine Hungary Romania Bulgaria Turkey Georgia Greece To buy BOOK 2, visit:

Syria - Graeme Robin - Travels  
Syria - Graeme Robin - Travels  

I was born in 1937, married Barbara in 1963, and lost her to a dreadful cancer in 2006. I didn’t handle it at all well. What money we had, I...