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Trip Report My mixed-bag month in the Middle East

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Last fall I spent two months traveling, split about equally between the Caucasus - Georgia and Armenia - and the Middle East - Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. I've been posting trip reports here since 2007, but there's so little apparent interest in the Caucasus that instead I just posted a link to my blog - mytimetotravel.wordpress.com . Since there seems to be a bit more interest in the Middle East, or at least in Jordan, I'm going to go ahead and do a trip report for that part. The photos (Jordan isn't up yet) are at http://tinyurl.com/yewfsk4 .

October 11, 2009: "You need a paper ticket", "Ouch!", "$700 a night"

I prefer to travel overland, but Armenia to Syria would take too long, and there's a twice-weekly (Sundays and Mondays) flight from Yerevan to Aleppo. It's a code-share, and I bought an e-ticket on Armavia since Syrian Air wanted me to get a paper ticket, which seemed problematic in the US. But once I got to the airport and tried to check-in, I found out that Syrian Air wanted a paper ticket regardless - they didn't have an arrangement to take Armavia's e-ticket, even though the flight was a code-share! Still, shouldn't be a problem, you would think. There's an Armavia office in the airport, and how long can it take to issue a paper ticket?

Between a lot of waiting and a lot of phone calls, it took a full 40 minutes. Fortunately, I believe in getting to the airport early, because I had the 40 minutes. By the time I checked-in, was cleared by two passport control officers and went through security, it was time to board. Or at least start to board - all the checked bags were gathered on the tarmac by the plane, and we had to identify our bags before they were actually loaded.

I had a little trouble actually entering Syria - not with the passport control official, but with finding him - all the signs directed me to the duty-free shop. Then I couldn't find a working ATM, and had to change cash. Finally, the hotel driver I expected to meet me was nowhere to be seen. The woman in the Tourist Information office, though, was a gem, and called the hotel for me. When I eventually arrived at the hotel, my day did not improve. I had had trouble getting hotel reservations in Syria, and had picked the Dar Halabia (http://www.dar-halabia.com ) for Aleppo, partly because they were associated with a travel agency which could book me a room in Hama. Nice pictures on their website, but my room looked nothing like them. Small. No AC. Windows opening onto the main staircase. Nowhere to put anything. When I complained, I was told I could move the next day.

Since starvation was setting in, I left to find lunch (unmemorable) and visit the Citadel. The citadel impressed me a great deal. I suppose the hill that rises at the eastern end of the medina was originally natural (some ruins there date to the 3rd millennium BCE), but now its smooth slopes rise at a 45 degree angle, sheathed in stone, to a completely walled, flat, top. One of the most formidable castles I’ve seen, although not, it turns out, impregnable.

I had a nice time wandering among the remains of palaces and mosques on top, stopping for coffee at a cafe on the north side while appreciating the view of the town. But I had to get back down, and I was worried that my Birkenstocks wouldn't get a good grip on the slick stone. I was right to worry: part way down my feet slid out from under me and I sat down, hard. While nothing seemed to be broken, I knew my bones were more fragile than they used to be, and had doubts about my vertebrae. Indeed, it was several weeks before pain in my spine totally subsided – but there didn’t seem much point in seeking medical help.

After dinner I took a closer look at my room at the Dar Halabia. Although the website promised AC, my room had no AC, and no fan, and even if I left the windows open, no cross draft. The shower head was so dirty I wouldn’t use it to wash my feet, never mind my body, and the room itself was grimy. I really couldn’t face spending the night.

I quickly repacked, checked Lonely Planet for an alternative hotel, and walked out into the deserted medina. Once beyond the medina walls I picked up a taxi, but the driver didn’t recognize the address, and I wasn’t familiar enough with the town, or its one way system, to navigate us there. Eventually I told the driver to take me to the Sheraton, which we had already passed at least twice.

I carried my backpack through the Sheraton’s gleaming lobby, finally finding the reception desk discretely tucked away in a corner. Did they have a room for the night? Well, yes, they did have one. A suite. For $700 a night. Did I want it? Well, no. I was willing, I said, to throw money at my problem, but not that much money. The woman behind the desk helpfully suggested that I try the Riga Palace (www.rigapalace.com/home.html ) instead. The Riga wasn’t in my guidebook, but after asking for directions a couple of times I found it: a new-looking four star hotel with a somewhat less formidable marble lobby, and a room for “only” $130/night, and for only one night. I took it – I would go hotel-hunting the next morning, in daylight.

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