Syrian town of Tartus.
On Saturday, we arise to begin our dreaded trip through the Syria border crossing. We had read about the crossing into Syria and none of it was good. We fortify ourselves with breakfast of hommus, bread and tea at our usual local coffee shop and buy bread and hommus to eat on the trip. The coffee shop fills one, but only one, of our flasks with hot water. They refuse to fill the second flask with water, even for money. We return to the hotel and pay the bill of JD 360 for the excellent three-night stay and at 08.45 are on the road to Syria.
Amman is, as usual, very busy but we find our way through by following a NW compass bearing with little trouble and lots of luck. As we pass through the streets, a local eating house is on fire, with the fire department on the scene causing mass confusion, that threatens to block the street. We pass through the town of 'Mafraq' on H/W 15, heading north on an excellent 4-lane divided highway, all the way to Kirbat Jabir and the Jordanian/Syrian Border, which we reached at 10.00.
At Jordanian customs, we go through the, now usual, running around until a helpful 'company man' or agent helps us get most of our JD 300 deposit back. We pay an additional JD 4, each, departure tax and a JD 15 fine on the Discovery Land Rover for being in Jordan for four days. Not sure why, as we had only been there for three days, but who’s counting? We pay JD 10 'company fees' for who knows what, and give JD 20 to the company man, as he was helpful and useful and without him, I am not sure if we would have received any of our deposit back. Not sure about all this, as the whole thing is all a big act to make things complex and confusing so travelers can be separated from their money. I guess the local people are poor and we appear very rich, so they try to balance things out.
On to the Syria border where the value of the Syrian pound, being a ‘soft currency,’ changes each hour. The official rate of exchange is SL50 = US$1. It is recommended that Syrian pounds not be bought as everyone in Syria wants US dollars and Syrian Pounds are very difficult, or impossible, to exchange after leaving Syrian, as we found out. The Syrian government states that US dollars will not be accepted, but everyone, including the government, wants the greenback.
At the Syrian border, as expected, we have many problems and delays due to the Land Rover's papers. Of course, we require more new manifests, etc., which of course cost more money. We meet and chat with an English truck driver returning from UAE to England with an electric transformer. He has been waiting at the border crossing for three days and hopes his company representative will soon obtain permission for him to proceed. He tells us our route through Greece is no good as there were no decent ferries from the port of Igoumenitsa, where we plan to sail from. He also tells us wild stories about deep snow in the mountains and Albanian gunmen running around northern Greece. He had Noinin a little worried as we hang around the border post in the heat and dust waiting and listening to the truck driver's stories. We are grateful that it is December and a “cool” 35 degrees.
After seven hours of discussion and sitting around, we pay US$300 for a 'guarantee' on the Discovery, which is supposed to be refundable when you leave. Of course, government and company taxes and expenses will be deducted from this. We also pay SL2,000 in taxes or something and pay “the company man” SL500. They explain that we can only stay for three days, but as Noinin is a woman we can travel as tourists and go where we want. If a woman is not present, I would have had to travel in a transit convoy, escorted by police. The visas in our passports are good for 3 months and the police checked these through quickly with no trouble. We are waved across the Syrian border onto a four-lane highway, heading north.
There are some Arabic and English road signs but not many. Most are damaged and difficult to read and are normally installed beside the road, after the turn they apply to. Diesel fuel is called 'Mazout' and is available at a reasonable price. In the early afternoon, we approach Damascus and think we missed the, marked on the map, ‘city bypass’, but maybe there is not one. We end up in the middle of this old, dusty and busy city with people walking everywhere. It is even worse to drive in than Amman. The place is full of old trucks and cars travelling at high speed, and donkey and carts travelling at low speed, on the wrong side of the road. The high point of people traffic is two guys running across the road carrying a large sheet of glass between them. I was about to zig-zag between them when Noinin spotted the glass and screamed.
Syrian town of Tartus.
Somehow, we spot signs and get through the city with little trouble, except to our nervous systems. We drive north on H/W 5; another divided, four, lane highway. South of Hims, or Horns, the road we need to take turns off to the west, but the sign is unreadable and we miss the turn. Later we figure out that we have missed our turn and do a ‘U-turn’ across the deep sand and water-filled ditch in the center of the highway. Thankfully we are in a Land Rover. We find, and turn onto, the road to the west along the north of the Lebanon border through the hills on yet another four-lane divided highway, but this one needs repairs, big time. We pull off the road into a lay-by to eat our bread with hommus and drink our tea as the sun is setting. Feeling refreshed, we rejoin the battle on the road and attempt to see the broken surface and unmarked lanes through the glare from the misdirected light beams of the many heavy trucks. This is made more interesting by many of the cars and trucks having one or no headlights and driving with high beams on or flashing high beam lights. We defend ourselves by turning on the Discovery’s high beam main lights and the fog lights and finally the large, super bright, safari lights.
I wanted to visit ‘Karak (Crac) de Chevaliers’, an eight-hundred-year-old crusader castle which is about 10km north of the highway but as it is too dark to see, we have a limit of three days in Syria on our visas, and we do not what to stop overnight in this area, it will not be possible. In the early evening, we arrive in Tartus, (Tatus or Tartous) which is an old crusader city, where we plan to spend the night. At the south end of the city, about two blocks back from the beach, we find the ‘Shahine Hotel' after receiving directions in excellent English from a man opening a 'Pizza Hut' store. Everyone is very helpful and speaks very good English. We are not sure about parking the Discovery on the street outside the hotel, but the hotel night staff say they will watch it during the night and assure us they have had no problems in eight years. The hotel is rated as a '3 star' and wanted $US35 but reluctantly accepted SL, which we wanted to get rid of. The room is OK, basic but spacious with a balcony overlooking a busy side street and across the roofs of the town to the sea. We woke the following morning to the sounds of school kids heading for school and looked out the window to see the kids and an island just off the coast with crusader castle ruins on it. After a pleasant breakfast in the hotel, for a cost of SL 200, we load up the Discovery and drive north through the port town of Banias (Banyes), which also has an oil refinery. This area, in season, is a major local holiday resort and there are a large number of reasonable hotels and not-too-clean beaches. In the next coastal town of Jable, we fill up with 61 liters of diesel at a cost of SL373 and find our fuel consumption is 14.13 km per liter or 39.86 mpg, the best yet. We proceed along a reasonable, two-lane coastal road to Latakia (Lattakia or Al-Lathqiyah) which has a dirty beach.
The road became narrow and twisty as it leaves the coastal plain and winds its way into the scenic mountains to the small border post of “Kasseo (Kassab)” where we intend to cross into Turkey. At the Syrian border, the chief official refuses to let us cross as he claims our paperwork states we had to cross at the major border crossing of Baba Al-Hawa. We have difficulty confirming this as everything is in Arabic, but on close examination of the fine print, I do recognize the name, “Baba Al-Hawa”, written on the document. I become very upset, as the border officer, when we entered Syria, told me that we could leave Syria at any crossing, but maybe he just wanted rid of me. I had based our travel route on an exit from Syria at Kasseo, in the mountains beside the sea, and the turn-off for Baba Al-Hawa was a couple of hundred kilometers back on the plain. I have a big argument with the chief official, in fact, the biggest argument I have ever had with an Arab in my seventeen years in the Middle East. The fat chief has no interest in my concern of getting to Baba Al-Hawa and just leaned back in his chair and refused to allow us to cross at this point. He demanded that we drive to Baba Al-Hawa and told me to give a ride to a policeman, who was going off-duty and lived there. I was very annoyed and lost my temper, not a wise thing to do in the mountains of Syria. I stormed out of the police hut, barged passed the policeman waiting for his ride and recommended that he get to (expletive) out of the way or he would be hugging a Discovery. I jumped in the truck, told Noinin to fasten her seat belt, fired up the engine, stuck it in gear and watched a shocked policeman jump for his life. Lucky for us all, he succeeded.
On the map, we found a small back road that twisted through the mountains and woods and appeared to end up down on the plain, close to the border crossing. So away we went. The road was just like the map stated, up, down and around mountains, twisty, tree-lined, potholed, and slow-going with160km to Baba Al-Hawa. Once again, the Land Rover proved its worth and I am not sure a two-wheel drive car would have completed the trip. After three hours of hard driving in low gear, we arrive at the busy border crossing in a ‘great mood’ and fill up with 21 liters of diesel.
The large, dusty and dirty, Baba Al-Hawa border crossing contains the usual bunch of rag tags, who descend on us as soon as we stop, looking for, what else, money. We were the meal tickets for whole families for weeks, which is fair enough for these poor people. It is just a very confusing and upsetting situation as the officials are paid off to hide or direct you to the “company men”, and no one appears to be in charge or in any hurry. We give the 'company men' SL 1,500 to get the Land Rover out of Syria and to get a percentage of our deposit money back. Everyone wants US dollars, not the soft Syrian currency, and this guy wanted a hundred dollars at first. The Police check and recheck our passports and their visas, looking for something wrong so they can detain us and rip more money from us. Twice we thought we were finished with the checks and finally through, only to be stopped again. Hours later, at the final checkpoint, a young cop gets all excited about Noinin’s Irish passport and runs off, back up the road, with the passport to his boss. The boss, an older and wiser head, tells him to shut up and give the passport back. We are waved through and out of Syria, I hope never to return
People in every country are friendly and helpful except at border crossings where they seem set to screw travelers out of every cent before sending them on their way with their paperwork written up so that their buddies at the next border can screw them some more.
Papers for all Arab countries appear to have to state all countries and border crossing points before the car is brought into the country. It appears it cannot be changed later and you have to leave as stated on the papers. Like most things in the Arab world, the rules are flexible and ever-changing, hence I use the word “appear” as I really do not know the rules, or if there are any rules.
Ian and Noinin Conlin
About the Author
Born in Northern Ireland in 1944, Ian moved to Germany in 1948 to join his father who was in the British army.
Returning to Northern Ireland in 1955, Ian worked for the British Ministry of Defense as a trainee and obtained a degree in Engineering from Queens University, Belfast.
In 1967, Ian moved to Scotland for a year before moving to Canada.
Ian was employed by Ontario Hydro as a commissioning engineer for nuclear and coal-fired electric power stations in the province of Ontario. Then, in 1980, Ian accepted a position with Aramco and moved to Saudi Arabia as a commissioning engineer with Northern Area Producing Engineer. In this capacity, he was commissioned and started up a number of oil and gas plants both onshore and offshore from Dhahran through Ras Tanura to the Kuwait border.
August 1990 was the start of the Gulf War when all Western contractors departed. The remaining Aramco employees in the northern area became busy and the area around the northern oil fields on the Kuwait border became very exciting.
Ian moved to Ireland in 1998, then returned to Canada in 1999 to work as a design engineer for nuclear power plants. He moved back to Ireland in 2011 to work part-time before retiring in 2012.