It’s hard to know where to start with our latest journey, one that took us from the southern coast of Turkey and plunged us less than a day later into Syria – a country we already feel very much at home in. Our marathon leg started with a night bus from Antalya to Hatay, a city near to the Syrian border. Yes, another bus!
We have already hinted in our journals that buses will have a role to play in our travels in the near-term and with the choice of taking a bus or cycling miles of highways, lined largely with 5-star holiday resorts, we knew what the better option was. Our time is short. The list of countries we want to see is long and so it made sense to us to hitch a lift past the less interesting parts of Turkey, giving us more time to explore Syria, a country we’ve been looking forward to for some time.
Before we got anywhere near the border, however, we had the 14-hour bus ride to endure and what a ride it was. Turkish buses are known for their service and on this ride we were treated to an offering of motion-sickness pills before the usual rounds of coffee, cold drinks and that pervasive lemon-scented cologne Turks love to rub over their hands and in their hair.
“Do we really need them?” we asked our server, wondering anxiously about what awaited us. A man next to us used his hands to gesture wildly about the hills and twists ahead and he wasn’t wrong. After a few resort towns the road narrowed and climbed dramatically. Hairpin turns ensued in their dozens along with steep descents and when two vehicles met on a corner one stopped to let the other squeeze by. How very unlike Turkish driving habits normally, but absolutely necessary! When a large lorry met our bus there were only inches to spare. Perhaps it was best that the darkness prevented us from seeing the steep cliffs leading to the sea below.
Despite the hair-raising ride, we were glad to be on the bus at all. The habitual yelling of “problem” had carried on for a good five minutes as three or four workers including the driver and ticket-seller debated about whether or not there was room for our bikes. Arms flew high in the air. Sweat poured down one chubby man’s face and his eyeballs bulged as he motioned to what was admittedly a packed luggage area. Voices were raised. But never fear, after five minutes some deal was worked out, our bikes were squeezed on and all was well with the world. We were on our way to Hatay.
We actually managed to get some sleep on the bus, quite a feat since it stopped frequently and even at the early-morning breaks nearly all the passengers rushed off for tea, to use the bathroom or to buy trinkets from a selection of stands. Talking dolls and toy tanks for the kids. Mobile phone covers. Prayer beads. Hair scarves. It was all for sale by the highway.
By the time we pulled into Hatay in the morning our legs were full of energy and itching to get going so we made a dash for the border, flying along the flat roads and with a tailwind to help us along. By lunchtime we’d reached the Turkish checkpoint and butterflies danced in our stomachs. We had no visa for Syria, having failed to get one in Istanbul due to diplomatic shenanigans, and we’d been told that officially none were given at the border. “Impossible,” the woman at Syria’s Istanbul consulate had said.
How wrong that turned out to be. Just seconds after rolling up to the Syrian side of no-man’s-land, past kilometers of trucks queueing to pass customs, we met Sammy from the tourist office. “Come with me,” he gestured, taking us to the man in charge of visas. We’d been told by other travellers that getting a visa at the border was possible but depended on the mood of the official in charge and could take anything up to 12 hours. Other travellers in the office where we were taken told us they’d been waiting at least half that time. But with Sammy’s help and a mysterious call to Damascus we were on our way in just over an hour.
Later we wondered if we’d been had. We heard from others that the visas should have been cheaper than what we paid but on the other hand there’s no doubt our visas came through much faster than other travellers waiting for the same piece of paper and the total cost was still less than if we’d gone through the consulate in Istanbul. If we did line Sammy’s pockets a little, at least he worked for it!
Finally, after weeks of debating and wondering if we’d get in at all, we entered Syria to a chorus of welcomes so loud it was deafening. War on terror? Axis of evil? The government politics may be one thing but the Syrian people themselves couldn’t be more friendly. People shouted “hello” and “welcome” from every corner. In the first hour, three motorbikes with families on board pulled up to chat and welcome us to the country. One man invited us for tea but unfortunately we couldn’t follow the directions to his house and never managed to find his home. Sometimes the cheers were so enthusiastic, arms flying high in the air, we felt we’d just scored a goal at a football match for the home side. On the other side of the road, a cacophony of horns, drums and loud music coming from a fleet of packed cars signalled a wedding party on their way to the celebration.
The only niggle in the day was the discovery of our first broken spoke in Andrew’s back wheel just as we stopped to camp. Well, that’s a task for Syrian bike mechanics tomorrow. Another adventure awaits.