I wake up with the evidence of horrible night sweats. With the day of travelling ahead, I make a change and decide to make it downstairs for breakfast which turns out to be particularly bad. We're being picked up at 12:00, so decide to waste some time in the Handicrafts market.

Oncw the time is properly wasted, we check out a little early and catch our drive when he turns up. And we're able to leave significantly earlier than expected.

Our Jordanian driver's lane discipline is as approximate as his speed, and his reaction to fielding a phone call is to slow down while still on the motorway and then gradually drift into the hard shoulder over the course of minutes. The phone call alerts him to the fact that he's left Damascus without picking up the group visa he was asked to.

Naturally, he decides the right course of action is to continue down to the border with all due haste and to tell the visa-bearer to join us there by taxi. Through checkpoints. And once he's failed to shout the border police into giving us an exit visa we're stuck mid-border until our visa catches up with us.

Half an hour later it's there in the care of an efficient Syrian who breezes through the formalities before getting back in his taxi for Damascus. Meanwhile our driver launches onward toward Jordan, hurtling through the remaining Syrian checkpoints until we're finally waved through the last Syrian gate by what appears to be a plumber.

The 3 km of no-mans-land passes in a blueshifted blur ending abruptly when we reach the queue for entry into Jordan. It's characterised by comedy queue-jumping, jostling for position and bean theft. Actually a bit disappointed in our driver's barging - he starts well by creating a line of his own and shamelessly driving past half the queue, but then fails to protect his position and allows a succession of fruit-laden cars to re-take.

The queue is finally unwedged by a coach getting through and the three-lanes-in-the-space-of-one fight their way through the checkpoint.

Thw next queue has a lane marked "Diplomats and Businessmen", which aggrieves our driver with its emptiness. He has two attempts at taking it which both end with official types setting him straight. On the third try he nips through, and around customs, without being stopped. Which is nice.

Then he demands customs do the needful, to which they reply with a collective shrug which communicates that our driver has managed to get through customs without collecting the relevant documentation and hence he can now neither go forwards or backwards, nor be inspected. Luckily our driver has another wizard wheeze. He waits for a vehicle to leave an approved line and motors us back up it in reverse. We get our paperwork and are free to move to the next stage.

The next stage is the visa office, where the highly trained Jordanian visa monkey sees the Saudi multiple entry visa stapled into my passport and decides the obviously correct course of action is to tear it out.

Suitably stamped, we race onwards through the mountainous Jordanian roads to Amman, bumper to bumper where possible until we finally reach our hotel.

Posted Sat Apr 3 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Syria

It's our last full day in Damascus. We mostly spend it exploring the back streets of the Old Town. It's Friday, so most of the city is closed, except happily for the Christian Quarter. Happily, because that's where we're headed.

Off the beaten track, we discover such wonders as cats in the street eating butchers' cast offs and small children playing with a dead rat.

An unexpected consequence of it being Easter is the appearance of street vendors with cardboard boxes full of live chicks.

All in all, our day is relaxed, as we run out the clock in the picturesque surroundings of Old Damascus.

In the evening we visit the Al Kamel restaurant. It's memorable mostly for the bloke flogging dead foxes outside the door.

Incidently, my Mystery Illness is still with me. I'm alternating ibuprofen and paracetamol to keep the pain in my legs in check.

Posted Fri Apr 2 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Syria

From Aleppo, we head to Hama, Syria's fifth largest city. The city is best known for the norias - waterwheels with buckets to lift the water for irrigation - which litter the waterways. The scale of the things is impressive enough, but nothing prepares you for the tortured groaning the things produce.

After Hama, we trek up to Krak des Chevaliers. An Egyptian company turns out to be using the castle to film some Cleopatra-based drama, so large chunks of it are dressed in ancient Egyptian cardboard.

Our final atop is at the Khalid Ibn Al-Walid Mosque in Homs. Then we head back to Damascus, where we take our leave from Sherif.

Our meal in the evening is at a restaurant whose menu promises "extinct meat".

Posted Thu Apr 1 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Syria

We start the morning with a 20 mile trip out of town to the Church of Saint Simeon, the 5th century Christian ascetic who is became renowned for spending 37 years on a pillar. The Church is of course crawling with minga as usual, here to see the Actual Pillar, now about eight inches high and topped with a boulder. There's some fairly fun bits of old architecture here for engineering fans, and the remote hilltop site has wide open views over the Syrian countryside.

And then we head back into town, for lunch at a Genuine Aleppo Old Town restaurant. Paying for that leaves us short of cash, and we start a hunt through the town for cash machines. They're actually surprisingly hard to find. Or at least working ones are - they're all either broken, out of money or unable to talk to foreign banks. It takes a visit to a nice five star hotel to find a machine capable of feeding us money.

All this searching eats into the time allotted for our visit to the Citadel of Aleppo. We arrive about 45 minutes before chucking out and get a whistlestop tour of the citadel. Backwards.

After the citadel, we head into the souqs in order to find out what Aleppo's local specialities are. They're noticeably pushier here than Damascus and we're continually grabbed by hawkers and children alike to be invited to part with our money.

Adjacent to the souq is a soap factory, where we learn how Aleppo soap is made. It's a stinky process, which is appearently only carried out for a few weeks a year.

Posted Wed Mar 31 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Syria

At breakfast, I discover that the hotel boasts a spectacular view over the ruins. It's another early start, but happily it turns out the driver has a Plan to reduce driving time. He takes a short - and crazily bumpy - cut through a Bedouin town, with only a few brief stops to ask directions. The short cut gets us onto a route which is clearly unsuitable for coaches (and it's not clear it's suitable for us), giving us a head start on the way to Ar Rasafeh.

Our driver's eagerness to reach the destination despite the road conditions mean that it's only two hours before we reach the remains of the ninth century BC city Ar Rasafeh. Not bad for a ruined city, but to be honest, I'm starting to get a littled ruined out.

We're underway again shortly afterwards, heading north toward the Euphrates. An hour or so later, we're waiting to be admitted into the restricted area around the Tabqa Dam, a four-and-a-half kilometre long dam over the Euphrates. Sadly, photos aren't allowed on pain of getting shot.

We're actually here for a boat trip on the reservoir created by the dam - Lake Assad. There's a citadel, Qal'at Ja'bar, which used to be on a hill and is now an island in the lake. It's a pleasant afternoon float on the still lake on what is a fishing boat for the rest of year. The boat ride is followed by a meal of lake fish before we're ready to turn around, head back over the dam and towards Aleppo.

It's a long and tedious drive into Aleppo which I pass by catching up on News Quizzes. We arrive into Aleppo after dark, which doesn't hinder us from discovering an appetising dinner of Greek salad, Shish Kebab and delicious Al Shark beer.

I've clearly picked up some sort of illness in Syria. I've had a stubborn sore throat for a few days which is refusing either to die down or to develop into a proper cold. More concerningly, my legs have started to ache so badly at night that I can only sleep in a couple of designated positions, and rolling over results in excruciating pain.

I treat the condition with my usual level of urgency. And painkillers.

Posted Tue Mar 30 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Syria

It's an early start on the road out of Damascus. We're heading to Palmyra, the ancient trading city in the middle of the Syrian desert. It's a 200km journey which, according to the signage, is coincidently the distance to Baghdad.

The "Bagdad Cafe" is apparently one of three identically named Bedouin-run stops on the road to Palmyra. We pause for a cup of tea, before finally reaching the first stop of the day, the Valley of the Tombs outside Palmyra. This necropolis outside Palmyra turns out to be the first site available for separating the tourists from their money and all manner of optimistically priced tat is on show.

The flagship tomb - the Tower Tomb - is only open for a few brief periods a day, so it's our first, fairly crowded, stop. The tour takes in a couple of the smaller tombs, most of which are in a fairly poor state of repair. Anything with a face has been smashed in order to avoid the temptation to worship it.

After lunch, we head across to the remains of the vast Temple of Ba'al at Palmyra, an extremely important religious centre for the ancient caravan routes between Persia and the Mediterranean ports.

Everything about the temple is big, from the imposing Holy of Holies in the centre to the channel under the high altar for draining away the large volumes of blood.

After the Baal temple, it's time for the main event, the ancient Roman town. While it's not that well preserved, the existing structures are impressive and serve to underline the scale of the place when it was built.

The most impressive feature of the Roman city is the theatre, which is still in excellent condition.

After touring the city, we're taken up Qala'at ibn Maan, the 17th century castle on a hill overlooking the city, for a sunset view of the ruins.

The evening is spent in the modern part of Palmyra, a small town which exists largely to extract money from tourists. We pick an establishment which promises Genuine Bedouin Food in the shape of mansaf.

Posted Mon Mar 29 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Syria

Today is the first official tour day in Damascus and we've already broken it by seeing one of the places on the tour yesterday. So the tour starts off at point two, the Chapel of St. Paul, set in the city wall at Bab Kisan, the ancient city gate through which Paul was lowered out of a window in Acts 9:25.

It turns out we're OK to interrupt a service if tourism may be at stake, as we wander in and receive a description of the chapel, and a look at what may or may not be the Actual Basket.

From Bab Kisan, we head around to the Christian Quarter of Damascus. It's Palm Sunday, so everyone is out in their Sunday best and the streets are ringing with the sound of drums. The first stop there is the church under the House of Ananias, the earliest surviving Christian house of worship in Damascus.

Sherif paints a picture of a good relationship between Muslim and Christian in Syria. While the weekend is Friday-Saturday, Christians at least in public jobs are granted Sunday mornings off to worship.

From there we wind our way further into the Old Town through the souqs until we get to the Azem Palace, an example of traditional Damascene architecture complete with separate ladies' and gentlemens' quarters. Built for the governer of Damascus in 1750, it's now a museum of art and folk traditions.

The final stop in the Old Town is the Ummayad Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the world. It's an impressive building, constructed on a grand scale.

After our tour of the Old Town, we head back to the bus and make our way out of the city up to Mount Qasioun for a view over the city and a swift look at the directions in which Damascus is beginning to sprawl over the mountains.

The evening brings a meal in the Ommayid Palace Restaurant. The bus turns up at our hotel too pick us up and tries to bring us to the Old Town. Unfortunately, it gets turned away by police. Our driver gets a series of phone calls which in traffic, and on account of his Western passengers, tries to pretend he's not talking while driving. We crawl around the block in the heavy traffic and try again, miraculously making it past the police on the second try. The driver turns out not to have a clear idea where he's going as he very skillfully threads us through impossible gaps in what ultimately turns out to be a futile route through the souq. He goes on to show even more skill reversing the bus back after he's told the correct route to the restaurant. Sherif meets us and explains that he had to tell the police to let us in.

The restaurant comes complete with musical entertainment and whirling dervishes.

Posted Sun Mar 28 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Syria

It's a free day in Damascus before the tour proper starts. We venture out and head towards the National Museum. Technically, there's a pavement taking us there from the hotel. In practice, the line between pavement and road is a little blurry here.

The museum's sculpture garden is filled with objects scavenged from Syria's archeological heritage, with no undue attention paid to classifying them. Inside, a more closely designed exhibition takes us through the many different periods of different civilisations in Syrian history. The summary for lazy people: Syria was the crossroads of world trade for thousands of years and during that time was invaded by anyone who was anyone.

On the next street down from the hotel, there's a handicrafts market. It's in a former hermitage, which is delightfully dilapidated. The cells are now full of hawkers in the finest tradition of Middle-Eastern souqs.

After the market, the next stop is Damascus's Old Town, via a shawarma. The Old Town souqs turn out to be fantastic. They're wide and covered, giving a more open and safe feel to the place than the more frenetic markets in Fez and Marrakech. All the sights and sounds and smells of metalworking, spices, meats are here, but it's OK to just walk and watch without being invited to buy.

It's been an interesting day out in Damascus. It's one of those place I've been wanting to visit for a long time, and it hasn't disappointed. It's a chaotic city, but it's definitely a good-natured chaos. It's dirty, slightly less developed than elsewhere in the region, but more importantly, feels warm, friendly and safe to the visitor.

Posted Sat Mar 27 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Syria