I was met with the overwhelming smell of citrus the moment I walked through the wooden doors and into the courtyard of the hotel. For some reason, all of my senses today seemed to be on steroids. Oh, those orange trees! All around me, a collage of marble, ceramic tile, stone, wood and stained glass.
Note: This post is as much about “getting” to Syria than actually being there. The journey itself was half the adventure. If you’d like to skip ahead to the actual “inside Syria” part, just click HERE.
It was Groundhog Day in Beirut: the same day, seemingly over and over and over again. It was a stark dichotomy of feelings, conflicting to say the least: waking up each day in one of my favorite cities in the entire world, but, at the same time, not wanting to be there. I wanted to be in Damascus. I was so close, I could taste it, but a little hope escaped with each new dawn that arrived without a phone call or message from my Syrian guide, just 70 miles away, across the border in Damascus. I tried to stay positive, but somewhere along the line that week in Lebanon–I think it was Wednesday–I finally surrendered to the possibility (and at this point, the probability) that I might have traveled 7,500 miles for nothing. It stung. I felt defeated and a little bit foolish.
I’d been trying to get into Syria since 2017. It had been, hands down, the hardest country to visit as evidenced by going to 192 other countries first – almost every country in the entire world except for Syria. And it was not for lack of trying. It’s not that they weren’t letting tourists in – it was that Syria was not letting American tourists in. The government was simply not approving visas for Americans. There was a small window in 2019 where a few Americans (including some friends) were able to dash in, but weeks later the pandemic exploded and Syria’s doors were slammed shut…to everyone. And wouldn’t you know, when they finally did open back up, Americans were once again left off of the “guest” list. So frustrating.
Besides staying in constant contact with tour guides on the ground in Syria, I tried other avenues – like writing (physical) letters to the Syrian ambassador to the UN and even President Assad himself. But my requests went unanswered. I wondered if I’d ever get into Syria.
In 2022 my goal of seeing every country in the world was suddenly at the one-yard line. 193 was in sight. I was only about 20 countries away from the finish line – this could be wrapped up in just two or three trips if not for this pesky Syria cock-block. And I did not want to get all the way to 192 and then be stuck–maybe forever–not being able to get into Syria and finish. Imagine all these decades of travel, all the money and all the time, and all the risk – just to arrive (and get stuck) at 192 and not be able to finish. This was not an option. I had to get into Syria.
Knowing I couldn’t get in the “regular” way, there were two other choices. One: to cross the border from a Kurdish-controlled area in Turkey or Iraq, directly into Syrian Kurdish territory. The Kurds are in control of some of Syria, making it possible to get into the country through Kurdish-controlled borders: I’d be crossing under the rule of the Kurds and not the Syrian government. However this comes with risk. Fellow traveler and friend Sam Goodwin visited Syria using this method and ended up staying a lot longer than he planned. After he was discovered by Syrian secret police, they were nice enough to give him a complimentary (and mandatory) 62-day stay at one of their one-star resorts. Yes, a Syrian prison. You can read Sam’s story HERE. It is harrowing, to say the least.
Option two, and a more common way to “check off” Syria, is by visiting The Golan Heights, which is located inside Israel‘s borders. While every country in the world (besides the US and Israel) considers the area “Israeli-controlled Syria,” you’ll get mixed answers from serious travelers on whether this is really Syria or not. It’s certainly not as disingenuous as claiming to have visited North Korea by simply walking into the little blue building on the DMZ, but could I actually count “The Golan” as Syria? I went ahead and visited in 2022 as sort of an “insurance” policy. I certainly planned on visited Damascus the moment they’d allow me to – but I also wasn’t sure when (if ever) that would happen. And I refused to get all the way to 192 and not be able to get any further. So, I’d count The Golan as Syria for now (my 178th country) and hope and pray I’d find away into Syria proper soon. You can see my Golan Heights blog HERE.
Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Randy Right Over
I’ll never forget getting the text from Ghaidaa that Saturday night. It was February 2023.
“Yoooooo. I have good news.”
I’d been pestering/stalking/annoying the Syrian guide for years, constantly asking if she’d received any updates about American visas. It was finally time. I was flattered and honored that she reached out to me first. I’d be her company’s test subject; the guinea pig, and (hopefully) the first American visa in years. I was up for the challenge.
By Monday morning I was emailing all of my docs to The Syrian Embassy – located in all places, Havana, Cuba. For some odd reason, this was the office relegated with processing the visas for Americans. Fun, right? But there was a small issue. The embassy’s website mentioned the process could take up to 60 days. Not that I was impatient (I’d been waiting six years), but if I was able to get away to see Syria, it would have to be in the next 30 days, or I wouldn’t be able to go at all this year, thanks to that pesky “job” thingy. And who knows how long this window of opportunity would be open. I had to get that visa and I had to get it quick. Ramblin’ Randy superpowers activated!
I spent the day sending messages to Cuban tour guides on the ground in Havana: My plan was to have treats delivered to the embassy along with my paperwork. Because, who doesn’t love treats?!
The first guide thought I was nuts and gave me a hard pass, but luckily, the second said he’d do it. Even getting the money to “Yan” proved a challenge. Remember, the US still has an embargo against Cuba: There is no Venmo or Paypal there – and no, you can’t even send a bank wire from the US to Cuba. They are completely cut off! I ended up using an “underground” service based in Miami to send Yan the money for the pastries and pay for his service. You literally Venmo some random lady in Miami, and minutes later, someone on the ground in Havana is delivering the cash to your recipient. Wow, are these Cubans resourceful!
Answer the Phone
I was in a meeting at work when my phone rang displaying a weird, foreign phone number. I figured it was a scammer for sure, but picked it up anyway – not sure why, but I’m glad I did. It was an employee at the embassy in Havana. He was calling to find out what the pastry delivery was all about. He seemed confused. After explaining my reasons for the treats, the man turned from curious to very grateful. I even heard staff members in the back shouting, “Thank you, thank you!” I’d simply told them this was a small token of appreciation for processing my visa. Oh, how I was hoping this might help bring my application to the top of the stack.
It was about to get better. Five minutes later my phone rang again. This time it was the actual Syrian Ambassador to Cuba – the H.S.I.C. (Head Syrian in Charge.) He was even more animated than the first guy – professing his gratitude for the giant box of Cuban baked goods and offering “any assistance I needed.” Oh, wow – I was “in” with the ambassador now! By the time we got off the phone, he’d given me travel tips and even insisted I visit his village in Syria. It was wild. It was during this second call that I took the opportunity to inquire if I could go ahead and book travel to Damascus in less than three weeks. He said getting the visa by then wouldn’t be a problem. It was settled: By noon I had my ticket booked and the Ambassador’s personal cell phone locked into my contacts. This was really happening!
To Go or Not to Go – That is The Question
Fast forward two-plus weeks and my visa had not come through yet. I was just days out from my flight to Beirut (the launching point for Damascus) and it looked like I would not have the visa in time. Turns out the embassy in Havana was just the starting point for the visa application – my documents would have to be screened, scrutinized and approved by the fine folks over in Damascus. It was a big deal and a thorough process…and it wasn’t finished. As my departure time neared the 48-hour mark, I’d come to the realization it wasn’t going to happen…at least not this time…
…Until I awoke Wednesday morning with a message from Ghiadaa not to cancel tomorrow’s flight: She’d been promised the visa would arrive the next day. Holy cow, we’re goin’ to Damascus!!!
I left LAX on Thursday and would arrive in Beirut early Saturday morning. The plan would be to rest up and enjoy a day in my favorite city in the world for food, before crossing the border into Syria on Sunday to begin my six-day tour – I’d have almost a full week there! But Friday Ghaidaa informed me that my visa did, in fact, not get processed Thursday. And Friday and Saturday were weekend days in Syria, so we’d get it Sunday, and I would begin the tour Monday. I’d lose a day, but I was okay with that. After all, I’d finally be in Syria, right? Only we didn’t get the visa on Sunday. Or Monday. Groundhog Day had begun.
Normally, I totally would’ve relished a few extra days in Beirut…thoroughly! It’s literally one of my favorite places in the world. I hate the phrase, but Beirut is indeed my “happy place.” But I had a ticket back home on Saturday, that I could not change – I needed to return for work. It was now or never, Damascus or bust! And with each passing hour, I came closer and closer to “bust.”
By Monday I was getting really antsy. Ghaidaa didn’t have any new info for me and I just couldn’t stay still in Beirut; I was going crazy. At checkout I ordered a ride to the border. I’d stay the night in the village of Anjar, Lebanon, which was minutes from The Syrian border. My thinking: When my visa finally does get approved, I’m nearby. I was running out of time and wanted to do everything I could at this point to get as much time in Syria as possible. This was killing me!
Despite my anxiety (and sheer horror that I might’ve come all this way for nothing), I really enjoyed Anjar. It was a pleasant surprise! I had no idea, until I arrived, that Anjar was actually an Armenian village, resettled in 1939 by folks displaced by the Armenian Genocide. What a cool find!
I spent Tuesday walking the town. It was quiet and peaceful. There were a handful of very small parks and monuments, a big church and a few hotels and restaurants. The ruins were the biggest tourist attraction here. Most people (if not all) I came in contact with here were Armenian. Street signs ending in “-ian” displayed the names of local heroes. This was a neat place…almost neat enough to mask my anxiety and utter disappointment from my still incomplete visa. By the time I woke up Wednesday morning, I’d conceded to the fact I would not be going to Syria on this trip.
By Wednesday I was numb. I couldn’t believe I’d made such a faux-pas as to travel 7,500 miles a across the globe before my visa had cleared. I’d get sad, then mad…then remind myself that if a hiccup on my “vacation” schedule was the biggest problem in life, I had it pretty good. “Champagne problems” as my friend Chachi would say.
Here’s the part where I will brag about my accommodations in Anjar. The Hotel Layali Al Shams was a gorgeous property. The rooms were elegant and comfortable and had English TV. The pool looked awesome, although it wasn’t quite swimming season yet. But most impressive was the staff, specifically Gassig and Vart (Armenian for “cinnamon” and “rose,” respectively). Not only were they pleasant to chat with, but by day three (Wednesday), Vart was giving me a personal tour around the town. I was taken aback when I heard her calling some of her friends in Anjar, requesting them to “open” their establishments for me. I’d partake in a special visit to both the Mousa ler Ainjar Ethnographical Museum and the Anjar Art Gallery. These were both opened by their directors, specifically for me. I felt like royalty. The overwhelming warmth and kindness of the people in Anjar helped numb the sting of not getting into Syria, if even for a fleeting moment. Anjar was such an unexpected treat that I was lucky to find purely by chance. I’ll be posting a full article about my time in Anjar soon.
RAMBLIN TIP: You can book The Hotel Layali Al Shams HERE.
If my afternoon spending time with Vart and meeting the locals of Anjar wasn’t good enough, I returned to the hotel only to discover an unexpected message from Ghaidaa waiting on my phone: My visa was approved. OMG! I would meet the company’s owner, Fadi, tomorrow morning on the border for my trip in. At this point, that would only mean only about 30 hours in Syria, but that was fine with me. I really thought I’d be going home without seeing Damascus. But Ghaidaa came through. I was going. I almost cried.
A Run for the Border
The next morning at 10:40AM, Fadi called my cell phone and sounded a bit distressed.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“Here at the hotel,” I responded.
“Why aren’t you here, at the border? I told you to meet me at 11:30.”
“It’s only 10:40,” I replied.
“I meant Syrian time. It’s 11:40. Come! We are all waiting for you!”
Crap! Panicked that I might literally “miss the bus,” I pleaded with the lady at the hotel’s front desk to please get me a cab right away. (I’d already been waiting about 20 minutes). I was getting the feeling that “taxis” might not even be a thing in this small village. I was a wreck! Not a moment too soon, it was Vart to the rescue! She pulled up, I jumped in, and we were off, arriving at the border just ten minutes later. Fadi rushed me into the Lebanese immigration office to get me “stamped out” and then into a small bus with eight or nine other tourists. I apologized for holding everyone up and was surprised to be met with an extremely warm reception from everyone. Apparently they were told “my story” and shared in my joy of finally being able to cross the border. I felt loved!
I’m not sure why, but when I was told I’d be joining other visitors on the ride to Damascus, I pictured a bus full of local, middle aged Lebanese/Syrian women in headscarves, holding chickens in their laps. But these were crazy tourists just like me, from all over the world: Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Brasil and Paraguay. I felt an instant connection. These were my people!
Once we left Lebanon, my excitement level was higher than I can ever remember – in my entire life! Except, we weren’t quite officially “inside” Syria just yet. Well, yes we were, but not past the official border entry. We’d drive a couple miles on a stretch of highway–a sort of no-mans’s land–before hitting the Syrian border processing center and official entry point. I would not breathe a sigh of relief until I was actually stamped in. I wasn’t being negative, but I could not rule out the possibility of something being amiss with my paperwork and being sent packing by the border officials. The way this trip had be going, that scenario would not be much a surprise. I was holding my breathe.
The immigration processing building was something out of the 70s: big photos of President Assad were mounted on every wall and older men smoked behind the partitions while stamping visitors’ passports. Interestingly, each visitor is charged a different “entry fee” depending on their nationality. The Brasilian paid five bucks while I was charged $160. No complaints here. At this point I would have given my first born had they demanded him.
While waiting, we took pictures outside, in front of the big “Syria” sign. With all of the portraits of Assad, this felt like the Middle Eastern version of North Korea, and I was loving every bit of it. 40 minutes later I was handed back my passport with an addition of that glorious, albeit smudged Syrian stamp inside. I was in. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. I was so happy I wanted to scream. I tried my best to play it cool but it was difficult.
Next Stop: Damascus
I enjoyed the hour drive in to town, through a mix of mountains, desert and cypress trees. If this were ten years ago, in the beginning of my travel career, the military checkpoints and all the big guns would have rattled me. But I’ve travelled to enough of these kinds of places to learn that these guys are actually here for my protection. In fact, the road from the border into Damascus is one of the most controlled and secure areas in the entire country. You are well protected and insulated here. I counted four checkpoints on the way into town. One officer boarded the bus, looked at a couple passports and gave us a big, “Welcome to Syria!” before leaving us. Another asked where we were all from. I said, “America” to which he looked a little surprised but pleased to hear. Soon, the city came into view as we descended down, down, down into Damascus. I felt like I was five years old again, walking through the gates of Disneyland. What a rush!
As soon as our bus crossed into the walled city of old Damascus, a familiar face boarded. It was Ghaidaa. I said goodbye to my new friends on the bus who were all on tour together. Ghaidaa would be my personal hostess for my now edited-down 28-hour private tour of the city. The rush of endorphins since beginning the trip this morning only increased, now that I found myself walking the crowded alleyways among the locals. It was a busy Thursday in old Damascus. Our first stop was the hotel, but just to check in and throw my bags down. Usually I’d rest and freshen up, but not today. I wouldn’t be wasting even one minute inside my room.
I was met with the overwhelming smell of citrus the moment I walked through the wooden doors and into the courtyard of the Beit Almamlouka (“House of the Mamluk Family”) Hotel. For some reason, all of my senses today seemed to be on steroids. Oh, those orange trees! All around me, a collage of marble, ceramic tile, stone, wood and stained glass. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing at full attention. I’d been in a trance of wonderment since stepping out of the bus and, at this moment, was trying to hold back tears of joy. I must’ve looked silly to Ghaidaa and the hotel reception. The hotel staff, by the way, was as welcoming as long, lost family. They seemed truly happy to see me. And good Lord, are Syrians attractive! Focus, Randy, focus.
The first order of business was lunch. We joined Ghaidaa’s colleague and her two clients – two tourists from Portugal and Finland – and shared a table of traditional dishes before breaking off and walking the city. I immediately knew I’d be coming back to Damascus – I needed to spend at least one full day simply perusing the antique shops. But I’d really flip my lid once we turned the corner and fell into the giant bazaar. I’d been to plenty of souks and markets before, but this – the ancient bazaar of Damascus – this took the cake in every way. And once I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did…
This Old House
Suddenly we were standing inside an enormous, black-and-white striped, stone palace. Once again my senses were pushed to their limits. How does it just keep getting better? The Khan As’ad Pasha thrived during the Ottoman era, hosting caravans coming from Baghdad, Mosul, Aleppo, Beirut and elsewhere in the Middle East. Ghaidaa showed me the rooms upstairs, which would be rented as living quarters to merchants in the old days.
Next, Ghaidaa and I sipped a coffee at Nawfara Cafe. It’s here where locals assemble to hear the live readings of Ahmad Al-Lahham, a traditional Arabic storyteller or hakawati. With a book in his left hand and a sword in his right, Al-Lahman belted out a tale in a thunderous voice. For obvious reasons, I could not follow along (it was read in Arabic, of course) – but I enjoyed every sentence nonetheless. I jumped when he loudly clanged down his sword. Someone get this guy a podcast. I found a great article on the cafe and its storyteller HERE.
Karaoke in Damascus
If you told me, 20 years ago, that one day I’d be drinking Syrian beers and enjoying Karaoke in a small, smoke-filled club in Damascus, I would’ve said you were mental. Yet tonight, here I was. I joined Fadi and my friends from the bus at a nearby bar tucked away on the backstreets of the old city. It was great to catch up with the others and get a glimpse of Damascus nightlife. The room was filled with mostly young people, the table across from us celebrating a birthday. The music selections consisted of both Arabic and classic American songs. And no, I did not participate. I learned my lesson in Panama back in 2008 when I attempted House of Pain’s “Jump Around.” No one “jumped around.” No one.
I enjoyed a big, traditional breakfast at the hotel before heading out with Ghaidaa for my final romp around the old city. Friday is a weekend in Syria, so the streets were quiet and the bazaar practically empty compared to our previous visit. Foot traffic picked up gradually throughout the day. We’d spend the day traversing the stone-floored corridors, popping into tiny mosaics shops/mini-factories; we visited the Chapel of Saint Ananias and the giant Umayyad Mosque. Ghaidaa showed me a classic, family-owned mansion and I just had to snap a pic every time we’d run into a billboard of The President. Did I mention the weather was just divine? It was short visit, but a quality one. I drank in every second with passion and enthusiasm.
I’ll See Myself Out Now
By 5:25 I was in a car headed out of the city. I was back at Syrian immigration by 6:30 and crossing into Lebanon by 6:45 (actually 5:45 because of the time change.) I’d wished I’d had time to overnight in Anjar – it would have been nice to see Vart and crew again, but my flight home from Beirut was the next day. As I walked back into my Beirut hotel room and plopped down on the bed, an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, but more so, gratitude, came over me in a rush. It happened, it actually happened. After all the years of waiting and wishing, all the emails and letters, and that oh-so anxious wait in Beirut, I’d go home completely satisfied and absolutely thankful…thankful to Ghaidaa and Fadi from Golden Team for making it happen and to God for keeping me safe. And of course to the folks in Syria (and Havana) who approved my visa. Return, I will, if they’ll have me again.
This entry was posted in Middle East