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Thursday, December 22

Syria

Brett: Getting from Egypt to Europe is tricky - the classic route via Libya and Tunisia is still closed, and there are no passenger ferries from Alexandria, so the only option from there is shipping your vehicle and flying separately. This is very expensive, the bureaucracy is terrible and many people complain about theft from their vehicles. There are a couple of cargo ships (with Grimaldi Lines) from Ashdod in Israel to various ports in Italy, but this is also very expensive (around 1400 EUR + 200ish EUR clearing fees on arrival) and takes 6-8 days. Being a cargo ship, these are not luxury at all, but we have heard reports that the food onboard is great! Besides having an Israeli stamp in your passport, another hassle is that your entire vehicle is searched when entering Israel – you literally have to unpack everything and get it scanned, before the car gets searched and scanned as well. The only other option is to cross by ferry to Jordan (the ferry to Jordan and the vehicle insurance on entry is really expensive, but Jordan is a fantastic place to visit in its own right), then drive via Syria and Turkey. Syria is in the news daily, but there are still several people we met coming through this way that said it wasn’t too bad. We picked the Syria route.

We decided to time our crossing Syria to avoid travelling on a Friday to avoid as much of the protests as we could, and we also wanted to cross at least a few days before Christmas so that we didn’t spend Christmas day worrying about it. On the way to the border, we stopped off to hide all our high tech electronics (GPS, Sat Phone, Cameras and Laptop) as Syria does not allow these into the country. We reached the Jaber/Nasib border at 12:30 on 20 Dec 2011 (Tuesday). Exiting Jordan was easy - we paid our $10pp exit tax in in the super-modern immigration building, handed in our customs papers and were on our way through what looked like a giant car scanner. 

On the Syria side, we went to the Foreigners Counter and applied for a visa. The officials didn’t seem surprised or alarmed that we wanted to cross the country, but we were travelling on our South African passports. We have heard that if you try to get a visa on arrival, a fax gets sent to Damascus for permission. In our case we had our visas approved in about 15-20 minutes. We were charged $50pp for the visas on our SA passports – much higher than we had thought, as our Dutch friend Casper paid only $20 a few weeks earlier at the same border.  Prices seem to vary by your nationality and no doubt also who is on duty on the day. We think the visas would have been cheaper if we had applied in advance in Amman, but we hadn’t bothered. They spent a while checking out the stamps in our passport, probably looking for Israeli stamps (we haven’t been).

Customs is more complicated – you need to get photocopies made of the driver’s passport and car reg certificate. The guy that does the photocopying helped us when we couldn’t work out where to go next (there are no signs in English). Once we had the photocopies ($1 each), we parked in the customs lane and gave the photocopies to the official. He filled in some paperwork for us (as it was all in Arabic) then we went back to the main Customs building to the bank counter, where we paid for our insurance ($50 for a month – we tried to get insurance for a shorter time given we didn’t want to spend more than a day or two in Syria, but apparently a month is the minimum) and the import duty ($92). You can pay these fees in USD or probably most other major currencies, as the bank counter is also an exchange desk. We went to collected the insurance from a window a few along from the bank counter, paid another $20 but not really sure what for because of the language barrier, then went back to the custom lanes for the brief vehicle search. We were exempt the $100 diesel tax, although they did ask us if it was really a petrol car many times. It all took 1h45m and the total cost was $264.

Mary: Syrians have their own style of driving – very fast in the fast lane, very slow in the slow lane (and you seem to be expected to give way to anyone joining the highway), and the middle lane is  actually 2 lanes of cars trying to edge ahead of each other. There is often somebody driving the wrong way down the highway in the emergency lane and there are various coffee and vegetable stalls on the side of the road all lit up with LED strip lights. We saw no signs of trouble until about 10km from Damascus where there was two roadblocks in quick succession. The roadblocks looked only a few months old and were just piles of old tyres across the highway reducing it down from three (or 4) lanes down to one. The traffic was backed up for 30 minutes at each, but as tourists we were just waved through. The roadblocks delayed us, so that we entered Damascus in the dark. Heading towards our campsite, there was a 3rd roadblock at the off-ramp from the highway, a 2m wall of sand bags. The army guy didn’t speak much English but he thought we were from the UN(!) and we had to do some actionary to explain that we were tourists. We headed for the New Kaboun Campsite ($10pp), 2km from the highway, but the roads around it were all dug up, so we had to find our own way through some tiny back streets to get round. We managed to attract the attention of a group of kids who ran after the car shouting “money, money”. and one or two banged on the doors. Not a big deal, but we were pretty stressed out from being in Syria in the first place, arriving in Damascus after the dark, and struggling to find the campsite, so it didn’t feel great. Eventually we found our way to the campsite, which was a peaceful haven shut away from it all and we could finally relax. The manager was a really nice guy  - he said the last person to stay there was the Dutch motorbiker that we had met in Aqaba, who had been there two months ago. The campsite is really big and set up for overland trucks. The manager told us that Damascus was completely safe and that he could arrange a taxi if we wanted to go into town to explore, but we weren’t convinced and were pretty tired from the long day. 

Even with the peaceful campsite, we didn’t sleep much, so we were up and heading north by 6:30am, missing the Damascus traffic. We were particularly nervous about passing Homs but the main road bypasses the city. On our way round the ring road we could see trenches dug up next to the highway as a sort of moat, roadblocks with big tanks in any road leading to the centre, and soldiers with guns in the forests. There were no roadblocks on the ring road and we felt pretty safe. We saw a posters of Bashar al-Assad everywhere, but coming out of Homs there was one massive one which had been defaced with mud and there was a lot of graffiti on the walls round the town. We also passed Hamas on the ring road, but there were fewer signs of the army there. Aleppo looked very modern and safe, and we only passed one checkpoint where we were waved through, but 10km past the town, we passed a big military base with dozens of camouflaged helicopters parked on the grass. We missed Idlib completely as we had read of major troubles there (along an alternative route to the Turkish border). 

Brett: Just before the Kilis/Aziz border, we poured the remaining petrol from the jerries into the tank, because you can’t carry full jerries into Turkey. In total, Damascus to the Turkish border took us 6h.The Syrian side of the border took 45 minutes (most of it on filling in the customs log). We paid the customs guy $10 departure tax and got our passports stamped at the immigration office (45 minutes total). It was a bit confusing with no signs and not many people speaking English, but people were pretty helpful. On the Turkey side, we paid $15 each for visas and did a much more detailed customs check (they even checked our water jerries contained water!). We bought insurance for $45 (minimum 3 months). We saw a sign with the phone number of the insurance salesman on it so we phoned the guy from the border gate. He met us and we walked to his office about 300m away to do the paperwork. Finally we headed back to the Customs guys to register the vehicle and headed off. The process was pretty easy and organised, but took 1h45m on the Turkey side. Here too, there were very few English speakers, but there was a lovely guy at the vehicle registration desk who spoke good English who escorted us round and helped us.

Sorry, no pictures with this post. We figured taking pictures would be a big risk, so kept the cameras hidden – anyway, the stuff that would have been interesting to photograph would have been the checkpoints, tanks and army presence, and it would have been a bad idea to risk getting caught taking photos of that stuff. We did take our GPS out of hiding and used it in Syria (hiding it at each checkpoint) – it was really helpful to keep us from accidentally going into places we didn’t want to be.

When we checked into our hotel in Turkey and turned on the TV, we saw the reports from the BBC on the massive increase in violence over 19-21 Dec, especially near Idlib and to a lesser extent around Homs. We were relieved we hadn’t seen that before we left, as we probably would have been put off, but driving through on 20-21 Dec we saw no trouble on the highway.

The Bottom Line: Although we saw lots of signs of military presence and control in Syria, we didn’t see any trouble at all. Sticking to the main highway through seems to be ok and tourists are generally just waved through. It seems unlikely that the situation would ever get so bad that tourists would be targeted just driving along the highway – but obviously there are no guarantees. With all the border admin it might not be that easy to get through in a day, in which case it is probably safest to stay in or near Damascus. Overall, we are glad that we went through Syria as it saved us a lot of money and hassle, but we couldn’t relax and we felt relieved to get into Turkey.  Having said that, the Dutch couple we met in Jordan who had driven through Syria about a week before us (heading south from Turkey) said they felt quite relaxed, stopped for coffee at the little stalls, chatted to the guys at the checkpoints and they also didn’t have any problems.

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