26 October – 2 November 2009 – Brandesburton to Damascus
Before I start with this update, apologies if it sounds like a weather report of Europe but the weather has been the deciding factor in the past seven days resulting in our “cracking on” and our arrival in Damascus tonight 2791 miles later. At this rate we will be in Cape Town for Christmas!!!
As we left home on 26th October to take the ferry from Hull, the Toyota was much lighter than on our last trip – no rear wheel carriers, no top box and only one bag between us – guess who has the most space in the bag. We left a little space for some Christmas cake and a surprise gift from all at Routh and a Christmas shoe box from Andrew and Bridget our wonderful neighbours – thanks to all of you – they will remind us of home wherever we are at Christmas time. Faye – whom you will all remember collects fridge magnets and we spent our last trip seeking them out and sending them to her. In repayment for this she presented us both with strange sunglasses which we are both tasked to wear in each country of our trip. Sadly JCs represent beer glasses and have BEER written across the bridge so, in deference, to the Arabic countries which we will pass through, we thought it was better to leave them behind. However, just for Faye we took one shot before we left and Denise still has hers – so watch out for more of them.
Just for you Faye.....
Having a drink at the bar on the ferry it was a strange feeling watching Hull docks slip away into the distance and the realization that our next adventure had begun!
After a slow disembarkation in Zeebrugge we were on our way and made it into Southern Germany where we spent our first night before making an early start, heading straight for the early morning rush hour but we caught up and covered 633kms by 6pm and were nearly at the Austrian/Hungary border. We were attracting attention as we drove along as usual with waves and messages from people along the route. In the hotel I was confusing myself, must have spent too much time in Spanish speaking countries last year because, despite being a fluent German speaker, everytime someone asked me a question I responded in Spanish!!! Maybe I just left my brain in the bottom of a Tequila glass in Mexico.
The following morning saw the start of the bad weather which was to follow us all along the rest of the route. With a wet miserable start and only 4c we made the first change to our plan which had been to go over into Rumania, down the Black Sea coast and South into Turkey that way. Neither of us having been to Rumania before, we thought it would be fun but reverted to the usual route through Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and into Turkey at Kapicule.
The Toyota is not really suitable for city driving, particularly with the roof tent and the rest of the stuff up top and as the weather, again, was not great for sight-seeing, we just hit the motorways and kept on going, sailing through the EU borders. At our first non EU, Serbia we came across our first “helpers” wanting to change money or fix our Insurance but they were out of luck, we’ve been this way before so know our way around. Quickly on the road again we make comparisons with this country and South America, where all live seems to go on along the road side – here it is just a two way strip of nothing for miles and miles – we could see villages in the distance but mostly what we saw was strip farming, mostly maize and some people working, burning off the stubble – no eco worries here then. As we approached Belgrade in the heavy traffic memories returned of our last stay here in the Hotel Nacional with its handkerchief sized towels, cracked windows and bed with broken springs – but our luck was in and we stayed at our first “Oasis” – Hotel Oasis great room, great food, friendly staff and great value.
The road............. Nav's problem reading signs........ Storks nest............... Easier way of travelling?????
Off into more early morning rush the next day – next stop Sofia after another day of boring motorway driving and then onto the notorious Sofia Ring Road with its rutted surface, sheep crossing and constantly changing speed limits with groups of traffic police waiting to pounce on any unsuspecting foreigner. It was really cold but the girls in their tight, tight jeans and high heeled boots were still plying their trade – at least I don’t think they were waiting for a bus! Another night in an hotel – too cold for camping. Here we met Boriana a young economics student supplementing her income by working as a barmaid in the hotel. Her English was perfect, she was very interested in our journeying and gave us some insight into life in Bulgaria which doesn’t seem to have changed much since joining the EU – more choices but no money to buy them. One thing we both notice in these countries is the number of smokers and the lack of regulations about where you may smoke – everywhere smells of smoke – we have all become so used to smoke free zones in the rest of Europe.
Our aim is still Istanbul for a couple of days, but with signs of snow in the distance and a poor weather forecast, it looks like we may be “cracking on” even further before we get some sunshine. Despite European funding, the motorway is still unfinished in Bulgaria and the 250kms of road to the border is two way all the way, through small villages with the usual army of traffic cops so slow going. Along the road the houses seems incomplete with no glass in the top stories, gourds, pumpkin and squash are stacked up outside in the gardens and there are stork nests at the top of lampposts. We reached the border 1,655 miles from home at around midday. Lots of new buildings but still confusion as to where we would get (a) visas and (b) vehicle insurance – so I sat and watched the world go by as JC scurried around looking for the right people. Once through the border, it was still very cold so we stopped and had a piece of CMCs Christmas cake – sorry we needed some comfort food in the cold – but promise we will still leave some for Christmas. The weather got worse and worse with driving rain and Patagonian speed winds. As we approached Istanbul at 5.30pm we decided to carry on through chasing the sun. The traffic was chaos and the standard of driving horrendous – the locals seems to have no concern for the poor visibility and just sped on by as I peered into the dark for road signs to take us over the Bosphorus and JC wove our way through the traffic – not any easy job when lane discipline disappeared completely when we approached a toll barrier. Then its definitely everyman for himself, including the trucks and overland buses. The tolls have various booths with differing methods of payment some with automatic sensors, some with pre-paid cards and some with cash. At the first one we had to cross across six lanes of traffic just to get to the cash payment booth. Once through, the six lanes quickly changed to twelve – no one gives way so the only thing to do is be like them – all manners forgotten we pushed and pipped our way through. Our next toll would be the Bosporus bridge – we couldn’t see a cash booth so headed for the only one which appeared to be manned. The charge was 15 pounds! Exorbitant - but the other than hold up the whole of Istanbul whilst we argued there was not a lot we could do so disgruntled we pulled away before the light on the barrier went green – to the sound of the attendant shouting at us through the wind and rain. After about 30 metres we realized that maybe we should have picked up a ticket or something?? This was confirmed by a friendly trucker who pulled up alongside of us and was frantically signaling for us to stop. Imagine the scene – dark night torrential rain, long queues of traffic coming into a bottle neck before the bridge, all inching forward and pushing their way through – we stopped put on the four way flashers and to the amazement of all JC wound his way on foot back to the tolls – I wondered if I would ever see him again!! Once back at the booth he was apologetically directed to the control tower to collect a pre-paid card – that’s why it cost so much!! Standing above the chaos looking down on the traffic the head man explained that there was no cash booth now because of the volume of traffic. As they stared down into the darkness he said “They are all just like sheeeeep!!!!” Imagine the local press the next day “ Large, genial Yorkshireman brings Istanbul traffic to a halt”….. Finally we crossed the bridge and “Welcome to Asia” - it didn’t look so welcoming that night and although I had had a brief glimpse of Topkapi Palace from the bridge – no sight of the Blue Mosque.
Deciding against looking for somewhere to stay in Istanbul it took us two hours to get around the city and then a further two hours to get to Bolu where JC knew of a hotel. Great place BUT it was on the top of a mountain. By this time as well as the rain, the fog had set in and we slowly made our way to the top of the mountain with only small yellow flashing lights showing the side of the road and the lights of the vehicle in front to keep us on the road. Finally at 9.30 pm and 766kms later we spotted the hotel and wearily pulled in – would they have a room was a worry as we could see a large party going on in the main dining room. Thankfully they did and we dumped the bags and headed for the bar and a well deserved drink before we crashed out. The next morning we were awoke by the muezzins calling the faithful l to prayer from the local mosque – we were definitely a long way from home now!
We began to wonder if the weather would ever get better – 1st November and its still raining and only 4c. We must have looked cold because when we stopped to fuel up on the Ankara ring road the pump attendant invited us into his little hut for some warming Tchai. We had an interesting conversation – him in fluent Turkish and us in fluent English – but lots of smiling and gesturing as we drank and left for another long long day to escape this weather arriving in Iskenderun – not far from the Syrian border at 8.30pm. We had stayed at this hotel once before and they remembered us, making us very welcome and rustling up a decent dinner at 10pm on a Sunday night. Its surprising to think that only a week ago we were at the bank in Beverley picking up currency and here we are almost into Syria – well for anyone other than JC that is – he promises we will slow down once the weather breaks. Lets hope we get some sunshine soon or we well be back before the daffodils!!
Our road to the border took us across a flat plain through cotton fields, when we travelled through here the last time, it would only have been a few weeks earlier in the year and the people were picking the cotton. The fields were full of smiling people working in the sunshine and the nomads who follow the harvest living in their make shift tented villages amongst the cotton, children playing in the sunshine. Now the fields are swamped with water and I pity these people living amongst the mess of mud, the women trying to keep the place clean and get the washing dry in the non stop rain! (the weather again..).
Other traffic in Turkey.............. Has it stopped raining?????? This one for Faye - see I did bring mine!!!
At the border the coffee seller with his large pot of hot cardamom flavoured coffee remembered us and came over to shake hands and give us the first of many ‘Welcome to Syria”. In the arrival hall the sign says “Welcome to Syria the Birthplace of Civilisation” and everyone we met was happy to see us in their country. As JC went off to sort out the import of the car, I spent a very pleasant half hour drinking tchai and chatting with locals at the tourist office – they love to practice their English and don’t get much chance, the majority of travellers coming through being German and French – not many Brits.
Double decker sheep - Syrian style.... Wide load - only foam...... Fish for dinner madam..........
We had visited Aleppo on our last trip and heading South to Damascus via Hama to see the famous Nourias – these are huge water wheels – a simple form of irrigation that have been in use here since 15AD and are still used in the Spring and Summer months. Fortunately for us, one was still running and we stood like many before us watching the wheel turning and tipping the water into a channel along the top of a wall from where it would be directed around the city – very clever. Syria is renowned for its welcoming people and the people of Hama lived up to its reputation – the policeman who we spoke to regarding parking smiled, welcomed us and used the bonnet of the Toyota for his bag as he donned his reflective jacket for traffic control, a group of young boys smiled and asked us to take their photographs and two young women who were also visiting the Nourias asked me to photograph them together whilst asking where we were from and welcoming us to Hama.
Police protection?????? The boys......................... The Nourias................................
Despite the welcomes and the opportunity to stretch our legs we had to get moving if we wanted to get into Damascus before dark. No chance – the weather quickly changed again and we had torrential rains all the way in. As we approached the city the roads were flooded – we didn’t think we would have do do any river crossings until we got to Africa and, once again, in chaotic traffic in the dark we fought our way into the city centre where, once JC saw the Citadel and landmark of the old Station we made our way to the hotel area. First one full, second one was the new Four Seasons, where I believe they took one look at us and offered only the most expensive room as being available to ensure that we didn’t stay there. To me, the sign of a good hotel is one that can judge clients not only by their appearance – so it got the thumbs, down despite our desperation for accommodation, and we drove on to the Omayod where they had a room for one night only. They helped us to get parked amidst the chaos that is downtown Damascus, settled us in and later brought chocolates, orange juice and water, compliments of the Hotel – this despite our appearance in our travelling gear – well done!!! This one gets my thumbs up every time. As I settled in JC went off to another hotel just around the corner and got us a room for the following night. Dinner overlooking the city was a real treat for me as a vegetarian with falafel, hummous, tabbouleh, fatouche and many more vegetarian dishes on the menu – a great start to a rest stop which will allow me to update the site, as I know many of you have been logging on to see what we are upto. Rest day – what rest day I’ve got a couple of hours to do the update before we have to move hotels!!!! Keep the messages coming.
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