Syria

[ed. Clearly at this point we at WBB - along with everyone else in the world - are advising travellers to stay well clear of Syria and its borders...for now.] Mention traveling to Syria to anyone and their reaction is likely to be equal parts curiosity and dismay. Perhaps sadly known best for its dictatorial leadership, and the brutal reaction to the protests that have sprung up during the 'Arab Spring', Syria is also truly one of the world’s most unique and wonderful places to visit. Much has been said about “Syrian hospitality” in a number of travel guides, and all of it is true. Local people will go out of their way to help you, talk to you, keep you safe, buy your coffee and share knowledge of their country, and all are more than just a little proud to be, “very very Syrian”. The food is some of the best in the region, especially in Aleppo, where the Muhummara dip (a glorious pomegranate walnut concoction) is worship-worthy, and kebabs come blissfully drenched in a sauce of sweet cherries. Both Damascus and Aleppo, two of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth, boast giant labyrinth, medieval souks that will make collectors of rugs and scarves and spices and jewellery swoon with delight. The country is home to some of the best sheesha on earth, a surprising religious and ethnic diversity and a unique, slightly cut-off-from-the-outside-world sense of identity. Syria is not to be missed by any traveller to the Middle East, though it is important - these days in particular - to pay attention to the current issued travel warnings, even if you choose to ignore them, and make sure your passport is free of any Israeli stamps. That said, the country is beyond amazing; just go and see for yourself. You won't regret it. ~ Julia Totino



Are You Syrious?!

Julia and her generous taxi companionLike many a wayward Middle East backpacker before me, I came to Syria overland by way of Amman, Jordan. Unlike most other flip-flop-footed travelers in the region however, my journey was made at a rather precarious time, smack in the middle of the so-called “Arab spring” in June 2011. Mere weeks after my own home nest of Canada issued a warning against all travel to the country, I decided to take the plunge and make good use of the $78 tourist visa obtained one snowy, spring morning months earlier, after having mailed my passport all the way from Calgary to the Syrian embassy in Ottawa. It was a world away from the hot morning months later, where I waited anxiously in the Abbasi Palace hotel in downtown Amman - a friendly budget establishment which, despite their protests that Syria was unsafe for me to visit at the time, had arranged for me a ride to Damascus in a shared taxi across the border.

After breakfast, I paced about the common room, my backpack propped against the wall, shoes on and guide book in hand. I made those awkward prolonged goodbyes you have with people you've spent only a few days with, but through the intense chaos of travel feel like you’ve somehow known your whole life, and then my taxi arrived. Maria, my good humoured Aussie friend and travel companion, who had spent the last few weeks traipsing with me through the dust and sand of Jordan, helped carry my clumsy bag into the little elevator. She kissed me on both cheeks, said “stay in touch” and looked like she was going to cry - or perhaps it was the unforgiving glare of the Jordanian sun.

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 Full name: Syrian Arab Republic

 Population: 22.53 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Damascus

 Largest city: Aleppo

 Area: 185,780 sq.km. (71,498 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Spanish and various  indigenous languages

 Major religions: Arabic, Kurdish, Armenian,  Other

 Monetary unit: Syrian Pounds

 GDP per capita: US $5,100

 Internet domain: .sy

 International dialling code: +963

 Source: CIA World Factbook