The Silk Road, China

Monday, 30 April 2007

Yazd - kicking back with a Russian beer in the desert

Marco Polo passed through this oasis town on the Silk Road. Its setting, high on the Iranian plateau is dramatic: sandwiched between the Dasht-e Kavis desert to the north and the Dasht-e Lut desert to the south with snow capped mountains including the 4000m+ Mount Sir in the distance.

The maze-like old city is light brown; it is entirely constructed from mud and straw. Rising out of its lanes are numerous badgirs - wind towers designed to circulate breeze into the buildings below. Thanks to these and to a (necessary) local obsession and expertise in distributing precious water through underground qanats, our stay was extremely comfortable in the desert.

Wind towers

Our hotel, aptly named The Silk Road Hotel, was one of the best we have found so far: a restored traditional house, its rooms are set around a tranquil courtyard with a fountain at its centre. Many a happy hour was whiled away during the heat of the day - reclining on the elevated tables, sipping sweet black tea, playing chess and reading.

The hotel stocked the finest beer in Iran. When I say beer, of course I mean non alcoholic malt drink. At worst, this tastes like cold Horlicks; at best it's a passable attempt at the amber nectar. Our Russian discovery, with a subversive 0.5% alcohol, came as a major excitement - we had been without beer for over a week and would settle for anything that passed as the ice cold refreshment we so missed. It also provided another excuse not to over-exert ourselves.

When we did venture out of our little beer soaked paradise, we discovered that Yazd remains home to a number of Zoroastrians - the religion of the First Persian Empire (see Persepolis) and one of the first religions to put forward the idea of a single, omnipotent God. This God is represented (rather underwhelmingly in my view!) in an eternal flame in Yazd which is said to have been burning since 470AD.

Far more impressive were the Zoroastrian 'Towers of Silence.' In order to preserve the purity of the elements, the Zoroastrians refuse to either bury or cremate their dead. Instead, they are simply left in the Towers of Silence. Priests watch over the bodies, to see which eye is plucked out by the vultures first - it is believed to be a sign for the afterlife. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this practice has been discontinued since the 1960s.

The Towers offered a stunning view over Yazd and out to the desert and mountains beyond. The city has grown considerably beyond the Old City and now has population of 400k. But from the hilltop outside Yazd, the Towers offered exactly the tranquility their name suggests.


Persepolis - when Persia ruled the world

After its (of course now historical!) tradition in wine making, Persepolis is what now makes Shiraz a household name. It is one of the biggest tourist draws in Iran, offering a glimpse of the First Persian Empire in c500BC. At its height, it was the greatest Empire the world had seen, stretching from Egypt to India across Syria and Palestine right up to the Danube. For the first time in history, the Persian Empire pulled different peoples into a common (if loosely governed) experience. It laid the foundations for classical civilisation and the world's most widespread religions.

Persepolis itself provides evidence of a cosmopolitan exchange of ideas across the empire. Conceived by Darius the Great, its columns have Egyptian and Ionian influence and its bas reliefs contain Greek detail. Its purpose was to demonstrate the might of the Empire and therefore, quite amazingly in my view, the city was used just once a year as the place where the subjects from the different nations in the empire would come to pay homage to the great Persian kings.

Today, thanks to Alexander the Great who razed the city to the ground in 330BC, there is a hint of Ozymandias about the arrogance of Persepolis. The stone is now yellow instead of the highly polished black marble in its heyday. The huge entry staircase and standing columns give some idea of the scale of the place, but - perhaps more than Palmyra - quite some imagination is required to feel what it was once like. Fortunately, the sand has preserved very well the stunning bas reliefs (of countless subjects bringing tribute).

We had found Iran quiet (in terms of tourists) and so were intrigued to see how crowded Persepolis would be. Although far from deserted, the site was quiet and about one quarter of its visitors were foreigners. This has been the story since 9/11 all over Iran: people we have spoken to involved in tourism have had to diversify (into carpet exports, for example) to make ends meet. Entrance to Persepolis was just 25p - less than the cost of the can of Coke we bought next to the ticket office...

The heyday of the First Persian Empire is still remembered by Iranians today. Before the revolution, the Shah attempted to tap into national pride by harking back to the days of Cyrus the Great and visiting his tomb. Today, one of Tehran's football teams carries the name Persepolis - something that would be hard to imagine for, say, Stonehenge! Persian greatness in ancient history undoubtedly contributes to Iranian pride and a strong sense of identity quite separate from that of its Arabic neighbours.


Friday, 27 April 2007

Shiraz: the culture that holds it all together

After the rather characterless sprawl and noise of Tehran, the wide green boulevards of Shiraz were a welcome surprise. So as soon as we had settled into our hotel, we thought we would go and see for ourselves a legendary Persian garden.

The Iranians are clearly proud of their parks & gardens: every town has them, and they tend to be far more intricate than your average London park. Every garden is carefully tended, water is major feature of most and many have a highly decorated building at their centre.

They are also extremely sociable places, particularly in the late afternoon and early evening. We found ourselves in Melli park, a small park across the road from the shrine of the 14th century Persian poet, Havez. Immediately it became clear how much more open and relaxed Shiraz was than Tabriz. We chatted for half an hour or so to a softly spoken driving instructor, who had taken his three young children to play in the park. Then, as we moved towards the shrine, we were again befriended by Mahmoud, a retired man in his sixties with youthful looks and enormous charisma, who reminded us both of a mutual friend, RD-L.

We joined him and three of his friends on a bench, and in due course were joined by four university girls in chador. Assuming we were in safe hands as far as the 'red line' (see previous entry) goes, we saw for ourselves the product of the strong (and mixed sex) Iranian education system: a barrage of questions regarding our impression of Iran and Iranian women.

We then all wandered up to the shrine of a poet who has an extraodinary presence in everyday Iranian life: nearly ever city has a road named after him, most houses have a book of his work and most Iranians can quote him. People mill around his tomb paying their respects and there is a wonderful teahouse in couryard next to the tomb which is - like the park we went to in Tehran - both the place for the young to be seen and to date. There we sat drinking sweet black tea and eating nuts, feeling completely at home with Iranian men and women we had only just met. To the sound of
Persian music, Mahmoud then recited some lines of Hafez in Farsi - magic.

Iranian society is conservative: politeness is very important and confrontation is avoided if at all possible. We noticed with interest that Mahmoud simply chose not to translate for us when he felt our the conversation was heading in a direction with which he wasn't comfortable: he would not allow the girls to exchange email addresses with us and - slightly harshly, perhaps - was happy to make us squirm in our seats with their questions on the veil but wouldn't pass on our questions in reply about their views on it! This conservatism was particularly interesting coming from a man who had alluded to how things were better before the revolution (although wouldn't be drawn further).

Mahmoud invited us to breakfast the next morning at the tomb of Baba Cui, who was the mentor of Hafez. We met at 6am, picked up some bread and drove with him to the foothills of Shiraz. It was Friday, the day of rest, and so we joined a stream of hundreds of people heading up the hill to enjoy their day off work. The sun was already warm and view over the lush, green city was spectacular.

At the top was a little square next to the tomb where people young and old were singing and clapping and celebrating the lives of Hafez and his mentor. We sat just above the square and at our breakfast - sangak bread and a tasty green gunk that served as a dip. Some passers by gave us all tea and it later transpired that noone knew them; they had shared the tea they had carried up the hill with total strangers.

The strength of Iranian culture which is deeply rooted in the past along with its ability to appeal to all age groups really struck me. Here we were in place where retired men and teenaged boys (complete with American football shirts - one with BUSH on the back)chose to spend their spare time. Cynics could argue that it is due to a lack of alternative social activities, but nevertheless the net effect must be a positive one.

Nor is this cultural expression tied to religion. Quite the opposite in fact. The Mullahs frown on such merrymaking: singing is discouraged in public and we were told that the clerics had moved in recently on the square with their prayer books in an attempt to encourage more 'appropriate' activity.

This hasn't stopped the locals, however. The days of the morality police (who would issue on the spot floggings for violation of the law requiring appropriate covering of the skin) are thankfully over and the clerics realise they cannot suppress such well-meaning gatherings. As we sat, clapping and shouting drifted from the trees on the hillside and walked over to find a dance in progress. This consisted of a few (male) dancers hopping and shaking their shoudlers to a drum beat, egged on by forty or so whooping onlookers (including some women towards the back). Thankfully we managed to esccape thge 60 year old moustacheoied man who told us that everyone was demanding that we dance!

A few (younger) people were quite vocal about how absurd they thought the rules are. Mahmoud, as ever, spoke of the positives of the dancing rather than criticised the regime. What's clear is that the 'red line' is constantly being pushed in many aspects of life. Someone mentioned that to me that one of the dancers had been drinking illegal whisky... I just hope that one or people overstepping the mark won't give the Mullahs an excuse to try and clamp down on such harmless fun.

What is clear is how strongly Iranian culture runs right through the people. Add to this a nearly universal faith (90% of Iranians are Shia Muslims and it seems that it simply the degree of devoutness varies from person to person) and an strong awareness of foreign intervention in Iranian history (old and new) and the result is an extraordinarily powerful sense of a unique, shared identity and a willingness to defend it to the last. Rightly or wrongly, the USA (and most recently the British seamen), are widely perceived to be aggressors seeking to challenge this identity.


Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Iran - the 'red line'

I write from an Internet cafe in Yazd, a oasis town in the desert of central Iran. We've been here a week and I feel I'm just about getting to grips with this fascinating - if a little confusing - country. Clearly Iran has very strict rules and it's important to be aware of the 'red line' as Ehsan, a guy of 26 from Esfahan told us... The problem is that in our experience, attitudes to the regime and the rules vary wildly depending on where you are: it's often very hard to know where the line is! We have created a 'Mullah index' - where 10 is reserved for Qom (a holy city from which the revolution originated) and 1 is .... somewhat more liberal than 10!

The way people have react when they see us has varied. Our reception in the north was cool to say the least. At the border, the official thought that if he asked us enough times whether we were English or Irish we would finally say that we were Irish. Clearly he was both confused by the inclusion of Northern Ireland on our passport and perhaps a little surprised that anyone from the land of wandering sailors ("did they go to prison when they got back?" we were asked innocently by a local) managed to get a visa.

The first thing we noticed in northern Iran, during our stay in Tabriz, is that we were largely ignored. The town was modern and clean and extremely crowded, and everyone appeared to be very busy, giving off an impression of I'm-just-doing-what-I-need-to-be-doing that is all too familiar back home. Chris found this absence of "hello mister... how are you?" refreshing; I was initially a little concerned that we'd wander round in a bubble and only get to look at (beautiful) buildings. While we were encouraged by how similar some of the stock Farsi phrases were to Arabic and that getting to grips with written numbers was fairly easy (interestingly, they are written left to right while text is written right to left), it was immediately obvious that not many Iranians speak English.

By contrast, our reception in Shiraz (3 pushing 2 on the Mullah scale) in central Iran couldn't have been warmer: lots of people keen to talk to you and hospitality to match that we encountered in Syria. (See separate posting on Shiraz). We now might be able to hazard a guess as to what it's like to be a celebrity: polite and enthusiastic responses to a never-ending barrage of (often unintelligible) questions from total strangers.

After suffering the agonising embarrassment on our first evening (in the north) of being told it was illegal to play cards and in light of the cool reception so far, we were on very best behaviour. We were wandering around looking for a place to have lunch, did a U turn and nearly bumped some young girls; we realised they had been following us. They offered us help and so told them what we looking for. At this point we felt an atmosphere of extreme hostility coming from a number of men nearby, and from one man in particular who was deploying what can only be described as a death stare. Sensing this, (and now understanding why one of the girls had been literally shaking) we made our excuses and scarpered around the corner. 10 minutes later in a restaurant, one of the girls slipped in and gave us her number: after all, it would be us who would cop the blame! But we had learnt our lesson: don't talk to women in public.

So for some, playing cards and talking to strangers of the opposite sex is crossing the 'red line.' For others it is not. Two days later we were sitting in Shiraz having tea with four young women in chador... And a week later we were playing chess in Yazd like it's going out of fashion...

The only other evidence of hostility we have encountered in Iran is sprayed over the walls of the former US Embassy, now hilariously called the US "Den of Espionage." Messages of aggression aimed at the "Great Satan" abounded; we couldn't help wondering who wrote them, how widespread this view was and whether it extended to people like us.

Our experience in central Iran is encouraging; indeed Iranians are clearly concerned about the impression of them that is painted in our media. Playing the 'celebrity' game is back on the cards for us: every day we skip from one unsolicited conversation with a total stranger to another and photo calls in public with giggling girls (and occasionally men, somewhat alarmingly!) abound... but the 'red line' isn't clearly defined at all.

The clothing debate is widely publicised. By and large, it appears that men can wear what they like (tight T shirts and Elvis haircuts being the thing to be seen in at the moment). Women on the other hand, must of course wear the veil by law. Needless to say, "the veil" ranges from head to foot black 'chador' at one extreme, and at the other a brightly coloured head scarf worn so far back on the head it barely stays on, a figure hugging thigh length coat /'manteau', jeans, strappy shoes and all of this topped off with uber coiffured hair pouring out of the front of the scarf and masses of makeup (so much makeup in some cases that it would be dubbed trashy anywhere in the world!).

However, I read in the news that the clerics are giving up. They attempt to stop the way women (and men) bend the rules, and they are particularly keen at this time of year (the beginning of summer. (see We recently saw a victim of this policy: a girl being driven off in a police car in Esfahan.

The 'red line' in fact cuts right through Iranian society, making a geographically based Mullah Index somewhat flawed. As a visitor you sense you are given a wider berth on these matters, but it is important for us to keep our wits about us. Things have got more relaxed as we headed south, but we will have to adjust back when we head north east towards the pilgrim city of Mashad...


Friday, 20 April 2007

Turkey - The Marco Polo interchange

Reluctantly we left Syria for Antakya (ancient Antioch), which had its heyday as Silk Road town under the Romans. From here we follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo, leaving the the northbound Silk Road in an arc across central Turkey and then pick up the main Silk Road that connected Constantinople with Persia.

Two overnight bus journeys took us across Turkey, first to Malatya and then to Van. The former is an unremarkable town, famed only for its apricots but is a good stopping point to explore nearby Mount Nemrut. Here we stood at the top of a 2000m+ snow capped mountain, and stood next to some huge ancient statues of king Antiochus admiring the a breathtaking view of the vast plains of Anatolia.

Van is one of the most easterly towns in Turkey and is a University town and gives it name to a kind of cat that has one blue and one green eye. We took a boat to an island on lake Van to see an old Armenian church; one of the few that has (just about) survived the Turkish government's attempt, on the grounds of 'nationalism,' to move on and 'forget' the Armenia atrocities of the early 20th Century. I was disturbed to read that Turkey has found it easier to deny Armenian history in South East Turkey and to destroy (or deliberately allow to fall into decay) monuments that provide evidence of it.

Military presence became more noticeable as we headed east; a reminder of the troubles with the Kurdish insurgent group, the PKK. "There is no problem with the Kurds... Turkey is full of Kurds," a local told us. "It's just Syria playing games - giving money to these people so that Turkey remains weak." A sweeping statement that we didn't believe tells the full story, but perhaps a policy that does not appear inconsistent with the Syrian government's support of Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel.

Turkey is a country of contradictions. Our route through the conservative, religious centre and east had lead me to expect a completely different world from Istanbul and the Mediterranean coast. But the competing draws of modernisation from the West and the strong traditional Muslim values stretch deep into the country.

"We want to be like France, England and Germany," Kemal told us - a small man of about 50 in bell bottom jeans, a massive moustache, shoulder length hair and a sweep over that failed to conceal a bald patch. And the evidence was there on the streets of Malatya: western clothes shops and more mobile phone shops and Internet cafes than I have seen anywhere, let alone in a medium sized city.

Other more religious Turks would disagree with Kemal. We chatted to a barrister over Kebabs one evening, who clearly adored football (as do all Turks) but as a devout Muslim clearly found his faith causing friction with some aspects of looking west in the name of modernisation.

So it seems that the combination of fierce nationalism, an obsession with modernisation and Islam leave Turkey somewhat isolated. "No country is our friend because we are in between the Arabs and the West..." Kemal told us. But nevertheless, he had great plans for his country: "Turkey will be a great country; we have everything we need - tourism, oil...we can be the world's greatest nation on our own."

For us, it had provided a sharp contrast to Syria, with a bigger dose of Western culture (and prices to boot) and scenery that lead us to believe that we had already arrived in Central Asia - vast green plains that gave way to an almost lunar topography, which was enveloped in a blanket of snow as we climbed towards the 5000m+Mount Arrarat. In fact, the surroundings of the palace above Dogubouyazit (the frontier town near the Iranian border) looked almost Tibetan!

But for now... onwards to Iran - a country with more in common with Syria, perhaps?


North towards Constantinople

From central Syria, the trade caravans heading east would have followed the Euphrates south to Babylon. Today this would be somewhat foolish, so instead we followed the silk road north west towards its terminus at Constantinople / Istanbul.

Avoiding Iraq provided a great excuse to be distracted from the trade route by one of the finest medieval castles in the world - Krak des Chevaliers. In the 12th Century, the Crusaders took an existing fort and so successfully improved its fortifications that it held out against Saracen attack for over a hundred years. When it finally surrendered, marking the end of the Christian control of the Holy Land, it was again strengthened by a second defensive wall.

Rolling thunder and lightning flashes provided a dramatic setting as we walked up to this huge, imposing castle which is perched on top of the hill. We spent several hours exploring the maze of rooms and corridors before walking around the battlements, from which there was spectacular view of the lush green Syrian plains stretching out below.

We continued north to Aleppo. Now Syria's second city, it's success on the Silk Road is illustrated by the fact that it now houses the world's largest bazaar. This city of a thousand mosques is also one of the more religiously diverse in the Middle East, with Christians making up nearly half of its population. That it is one of the few remaining examples of sustained religious co-existence that William Dalrymple finds on his travels in the Middle East forms the basis of his strongly argued book, From the Holy Mountain.

Aleppo's rich history collides with the present just beyond its impressive citadel and the labyrinthine bazaar. There must be a yellow taxi for every one of the thousand mosques in Aleppo (and 1000 satellite dishes...). Crossing busy three lane roads with no traffic lights and certainly concept of pedestrian right of way is an experience.. you simply walk out, confidently, into the oncoming stream of traffic and miraculously the cars flow around you. A certain understanding of Syrian road etiquette is required, however - if you attempt to walk in front of a car that has already slowed for someone ahead of you, it will accelerate straight at you.

Once this lesson was complete, Aleppo was a pleasure to explore: in my view it somehow managed to surround its ancient core with a more characterful bustling modernity than Damascus. In addition, it has some excellent restaurants and 25p fresh fruit smoothies to keep the energy levels up as you wander around.

We were sad to leave Aleppo and Syria and with them the Arabic section of our journey. Our brief introduction to Syria and Lebanon had been captivating. We had scratched the surface of an embarrassment of cultural riches (and at the same time scratched our own heads at the extraordinarily haphazard approach taken to conservation and heritage) and had found a warm and welcoming people (unsolicited, we had be given lifts by a Beiruti couple and an Aleppan man and housed and fed by some Syrian teachers). Syria, in particular, is without doubt a hidden gem; I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone!

Friday, 13 April 2007

Palmyra - Syria old & new

We did not expect to gain insight into contemporary Syria at a former Silk Road caravan town which, predating Damascus and Aleppo, was so prosperous that it dared to challenge the Roman Empire. But thanks to another example of Syrian hospitality - this time of a French teacher we met on the bus to Palmyra - we ended up staying in the home of four teachers. Of similar age to us, they showed incredible generosity and taught us more about what it is like to be Syrian in two days than we have learnt in our trip so far.

But first, ancient Palymra. Its setting alone, near an oasis in the middle of the desert about 150 miles east of Iraq is breathtaking. The town (previously known as Tadmor) was to provide a vital stopping point for the caravans of spcies, perfumes and silk from the East as early as the 19th century BC.

When Rome invaded Syria in the 1st Century BC, the Empire's trade poured through Palymra, and the city enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and a degree of autonomy thanks to its remote location. It was at this time that the awesome site, much of which is visible today, was constructed: including a colonade one kilometre long ending in a huge arch, and impressive amphitheatre and a vast temple built to honour the Babylonian equivalent of Zeus.

At sunset we climbed up to an imposing (and more recent) citadel, which was perched on top of steep hill and offered stunning views over the site and the desert beyond. We both agreed that the place somehow created the most vivid picture of its former self than anything we had ever visited. The stunning Roman columns glowing in the sun perhaps contrasted with the town's harsh setting to convey a sense of opulence - the carefully constructed water and drainage system must surely have been like paradise to the caravans as they pulled into the enormous marketplace after an arduous journey through the desert.

Brimming with confidence, Palymra made a bid for independence. The city rose up against the Persians and finally against Rome under the intriguing Queen Zenobia, who in her rein took back all of the Syria which had been lost. Rome retaliated however, and in 274 Aurelian's army brough Palmyra under heel. It was never to fully recover, later being ecclipsed commercially by Damascus and Aleppo.

These ruins were undoubetedly the highlight of the trip so far. Yet we were also lucky enough to experience a glimpse of Syrian culture too, thanks to our hosts Yasser, Nassan, Feras and Belal - the first a French teacher, the others teachers of religion. Showing incredible generosity, they housed and fed us and walked around the sites with us when they had finished work. All of them worked in Palymra during the week, returning to their family homes in Homs (2.5 hours west) at the weekend. Despite their modest house (we slept on the floor, having refused to take their beds when offered) their would neither allow us to leave after the first night nor to take them out for a meal.

Through them we discovered a national obsession with mobile phones, but not yet with the internet (although email was beginning to take off). They told us that we both should be married by now (!), but were keen to compare their lives with ours as dating in Syria is a no-no and living with female friends unheard of. We found that Arabic was indeed quite tricky and our woeful pronunciation hilarious. It was obvious how much their faith permeated throughout their language and every aspect of their lives. It was also clear that they dervied real pleasure in hospitality; we were very lucky to have spent time with such kind, genuine and well educated people. Hopefully they learnt something from us too - about our culture and about our language... There was no doubt that they loved the two cards games we taught them - playing Blackjack in Syria with peanuts as chips to the sound of "Hit me" in sploken a thick Arabic accent is not something I will quickly forget.


Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Beirut - a tale of two cities

We decided to go to Beirut. Partly because James had shown how easily it could be done, but mainly because Chris wanted to. For me, going to the sea meant that my trip would span all of Asia from coast to coast.

The drive over the snow capped mountains from the Syria down to the coast was spectacular. However, as we neared Beirut, evidence of the recent conflict became clear as our car picked its way around a road bridge destroyed last summer by Israeli bombers.

There are many reasons why Beirut might be described as two cities: the old and the new... the Christian and the Muslim... However, what follows are some more light-hearted observations during a fleeting visit.

Buoyed by rave reviews in our guide book about the buzzing nightlife and fantastic cuisine, our expectations were high. We hunted down the hostel with the best review in the heart of Beirut and were somewhat... disappointed to find one of roughest places I've ever encountered located on what must have been Beirut's premier road for "super" night clubs. We checked in and headed out for supper, only to wander through deserted streets (each signed with a district, rarely with a street name) before finding our lovely (albeit tiny) restaurant. Finding a drink after supper proved even harder - of the two recommendations in our guide book, one was closed and the other did not serve alcohol. Having trawled most of Western / central Beirut by this point, we had managed to bump into an off licence and therefore resigned ourselves to drinking a quiet beer on the peer looking out to sea. Lovely, but not quite what we'd expected! The next morning we were determined to find the people in Beirut. But again, we found an impressive - but deserted - newly built "Downtown" area centred around a Rolex clock tower.

At this point I had to contact James for advice on where we had gone wrong. Some advice followed by text and also a kind invitation to his fiance's family house for lunch. We discovered over lunch that the 'heart' of Beirut had shifted away from the normal "downtown" area due to the ongoing Hezbollah demonstrations, which were based out of hundreds of tents in the town centre. This fact was then conclusively proved on Saturday evening when we visited the heaving bars of Germayzeh. One single lane road in particular was packed with bars all of which were overflowing with people. Amusingly, because cars are such a big deal in Beirut, everyone had to pull up to their bar of choice (music up, windows down and top down (if possible), although this meant enduring at least a 30 minute wait in horrific traffic. But most importantly, we had finally found the real city of Beirut. We were very impressed (perhaps a little intimidated by the scene, particularly decked out in our finest "travel gear!") and had an evening out with James, Zeina and Christina (a friend of theirs) which was a reminder of the London nightlife that we won't see again for some time.

If there's a moral to this story, perhaps it's that things change very quickly in the Middle East. Bur encouragingly, despite enormous difficulties, people quickly adapt in the attempt to continue living their lives.


Damascus - "Salaam 'alakum'

With a claim to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world with significance to the Silk Roads (connecting Babylon with the Phoenician ports such as Tripoli), Damascus is a good starting point for this journey.

The drive from the airport sets the scene for any contemporary Middle Eastern city - flat roofs, satellite dishes, hectic roads and what little Latin script there is on the billboards dissolving rapidly into Arabic.

But the heart of Damascus - the old town - is far from ordinary. Entering via a covered souk, you are confronted by an amazingly powerful array of smells: spices, perfume and apple tobacco. The remainder of the old town is a maze of narrow, irregular streets with ancient houses sometimes appearing on the verge of toppling over. The only large open spaces are the huge marble courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque and the stonework of the Azem palace.

The Syrian welcome (salaam alakum in Arabic) was a warm one. I arrived the day before Chris and a single stroll through the old town resulted in tea and a chat with one stall owner and greeting another two by name when we returned the following day. Normally these conversations tend inevitably towards the sale, but on this occasion it was me who eventually felt duty bound to talk about what was in the shop.

When Chris arrived we explored the Old Town further, before meeting James (Carty) for lunch, who had come over from Beirut. (Joining him for a couple of weeks on his epic journey last year was one of the reasons I decided to do this trip - see Why entry)

After some delicious mezze washed down with a fresh lemon and mint drink we bid him farewell and continued to explore the bustling night food market. Damascus had been the perfect introduction to the Silk Road.