Before you read this (controversial) blog post, I would like to give a small introduction.
When I visited Syria, July 2018, most of the country was government-controlled. As a result, the government-controlled areas were fairly safe to visit as a tourist. Travel advice for Syria has been very strict according to our government: all travels should be avoided and there is a very high risk involved. When I walked around in Damascus at night, I felt safer than in most European cities. Women are not afraid to walk alone in the dark. Harassments are not tolerated by Syrians and passers-by would immediately help people in need. I really liked Damascus. It is a vibrant city with an active nightlife.
To be clear: With all the positive comments I am giving about Syria, I might sound like I am pro-Assad. But, I try to see everything as unbiased as possible and don’t want to involve into politics. I am not a journalist, I am not here to spread pro-Rebel or pro-Assad information. The conflict is too complicated and both sides share biased information to their favoured media. We are not sure about what is fake and what is not. This is a travel blog and you can come here for advice and my experiences in the parts of Syria you can visit as a tourist. Please do not feel offended. Enjoy!
It all started in November 2017. I had booked a flight with Aegean Airlines to Beirut in February 2018 but was interested to visit Damascus. I contacted the Syrian Embassy in Brussels to apply for a visa. As requested, I filled in all documents, sent them a scan of my passport and waited for 12 weeks. Guess what, I have never heard of them and I had to leave to Lebanon without a Syrian visa. I met a few people in a hostel in Beirut. One of them, an Irish guy was brave enough to visit Syria too. However, he went to the border without a visa and was denied to enter the country. I then knew I will never be able to enter Syria without a visa too.
In April 2018, the idea was still in my mind. After finding a fixer, I was told that interaction with the embassy in Belgium wouldn’t even be necessary to get the Syrian visa. All I had to do was send 200$ by Western Union (WU) to him. I know it sounds strange to do but it was my only hope to visit Syria. So I went to the website of WU to send the money. Turns out you can’t just send money to Syria, you have to visit an office. I managed to send the money but WU took almost 20% (!) commission fee. Weeks passed, and in the meantime, I booked a flight to Beirut again. I was scheduled to visit Syria from 25th until the 31st of July.
A few days before I was flying to Beirut I received a WhatsApp message with a photo of my visa. It was going to happen. I must admit I started to become a little bit nervous. I was scheduled to land at 01:50 AM in Beirut, which means I would cross the border to Syria at around 4 to 5 AM. I was starting to ask myself questions: How will the immigration officer react in Beirut with my travel plans? How will the border crossing be? Is it safe to cross in the dark?
I arrived in Beirut airport and I was standing in the line to enter Lebanon. I received a card on the plane which I had to fill in and hand to the immigration officer. One of the boxes said “Your address in Lebanon“. I just filled in “no overnight in Lebanon” and I’d see what the officer will say. After 15 minutes of standing in the queue, it was my turn. I handed out this card along with my passport and a few seconds later he asked me “where are you going?“. I told him with a cool voice: “To Damascus.“. He didn’t even look at me, stamped my passport gave it back to me. Wow. Much easier than I thought.
As I left the airport, I was scanning the arrival hall for a paper with my name. Bingo. I introduced myself, shook his hand and I followed him to his car. He was a Syrian from the South, but I couldn’t talk with him that much as he only spoke Arabic. “Welcome welcome, my name is Youssef“. He said.
I had too much adrenaline in my system to fall asleep during the drive to Syria. After an hour on the Lebanese roads the driver, Youssef, asked me “Coffee?“. I said yes, so we stopped at a place. “My friend“, he said. Apparently, he knew the people at the coffee shop very well. I asked for sugar but they stared at me as I was speaking Chinese to them. No sugar I guess. I received a small cup of coffee with a very strong taste. This must be the traditional Arabic coffee. I wanted to hand over money but Youssef, my driver started shouting “No money! You, Welcome!” and he handed over some money to the coffee maker.
We proceeded and arrived a few moments later at the Masnaa border. It was fairly busy for being night-time but everything proceeded quickly. I received my Lebanese exit stamp, we proceeded to the Syrian side, handed out my passport and the visa document and received my entry stamp to Syria. Before we enter Syria, the trunk of the car was opened and a few questions were asked about the items that were inside the car (a bag of vegetables of Youssef for example). We left the gate and were officially in Syria. It felt very strange… about 5 kilometres long was a dark road between two mountains and with giant posters of Assad. We then passed our first checkpoint with two soldiers who greeted me and said “Welcome to Syria! Do you like Chai?!” [Chai – Arabic for Tea]. My driver hands out a bill and we progress to Damascus. This happened a few times that he gave some money at the checkpoints.
R.I.P. ESTA – This stamp bans me from the USA ESTA program unfortunately, If I ever want to go to the USA again, I have to go to the US embassy and do the long visa procedure. A ridiculous rule that was opposed by the US government.
I managed to get some Syrian pounds as it is the only accepted currency. During my visit, 1000 Syrian pounds equalled to 1,70€. A bill of 2000 Syrian pounds is the highest bill available and is introduced recently due to inflation.
After three hours of driving, we finally entered Damascus. A few checkpoints later we arrived in Bab Touma, the Christian district of Damascus. I was going to stay at the most prestigious hotel in Damascus: Beit Al-Wali Hotel. I took my luggage, greeted Youssef and walked to my hotel. Surprisingly, even at 5-6 AM, there were still a few people on the streets.
The street to the five-star hotel, Beit Al Wali.
I quickly checked in and went to my room to sleep. The next day will be interesting, as I have a day on my own in Damascus.
After waking up a few hours later and leaving my room, I started to realise how beautiful this hotel actually is.
After breakfast, I was ready to leave the city. The hotel staff advised me to drink some tea first. Syrians love to drink tea all day.
I was ready to walk around in Damascus, mainly in Bab Touma and outside around the district. Don’t get me wrong, I liked to roam through the narrow streets, but Damascus has normal roads too. The streets were empty because it in the middle of the day and therefore the hottest time of the day.
You can find posters of Assad in almost every street of Damascus.One particular street in Bab Touma with beautiful flowers.
Because everyone loves cats right? I bought some street food which I shared with these cats.
Small street for pedestrians and bikers.
This is at the Bab Touma square – on the left is the checkpoint, on the right the police station. Soldiers at checkpoints are not allowed to be photographed so I didn’t take a photo of the checkpoint.
The beautiful hotel courtyard in the eveningAt the entrance of one of the many churches in Bab Touma
The next thing on the plan was to go to Krak Des Chevaliers via Homs. I had a tour guide picking me up with a driver.
The first things you pass when leaving Damascus city is Douma, which is inside district East-Ghouta. The severe destruction that took place recently is very depressing to see. Douma has a very historical point of the Syrian war. It is said to be the first area to rise up against the president, Bashar Al-Assad. Douma was the city with a suspected chemical attack on April 2018. Afterwards, the place was cleared from the rebels and is now back in government’s control.
When we left the districts of Damascus, we were driving in a dessert-like area next to the mountains, known as the Anti-Lebanon. As we come closer to Homs, we pass the mountains and a sudden strong wind hits the car. It was interesting to see all the askew trees on the side of the road, because of the wind coming from the Mediterranean sea. Before heading to Krak Des Chevaliers, we stopped at a road restaurant near Homs with very cheap Syrian food and free coffee or tea.
We proceeded to the castle and the closer we were getting, the more destruction of small villages we started to see. The Krak Des Chevaliers and its surroundings were occupied by Rebels. In 2014, the Syrian Arab Army recaptured the castle and the surroundings. Since then, the castle is being reconstructed. The castle has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
We finally approached the amazing castle, which looks in pretty good condition!
The entrance of the castle – the first armed person without military uniform I see in Syria.
If you haven’t noticed, on top of the castle is a Russian flag.
This is the inside of the castle. This part of the castle was used as a horse stall. It is a strange feeling to walk around and know that a few years ago armed rebels used to live here.Before leaving the castle, A selfie with my guide and driver.
Time to return to Damascus.
We returned to Damascus to look for a local Syrian restaurant. We eventually found a good place and sat down. The amount of food we got was just incredible. We received unlimited flatbread, some hummus and a mix of several vegetables. I then ordered something with chicken and mashed potatoes. Everything was so delicious. When we received the bill, which was about 8000 Syrian Pounds, I decided to pay instead of splitting the bill. We had eaten a ton of food with 3 persons for 8000 SYP or less than 14 euro!
As it was getting dark, I returned to the hotel and checked Couchsurfing if I could meet with a local. Luckily I found a woman from Damascus who would like to meet for a drink. We walked around in Bab Touma to look for a place to eat and drink something, so we ended up in something like a “lounge” where they also serve food. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting experience to talk with a local about Syria :).
The remaining two days I strolled around Damascus, doing some sightseeing, talking with locals, buying souvenirs. I spent one day with a guide and the other day on my own. Some interesting places I visited was the Umayyad mosque, known as the fourth most holy place for Muslims. I also visited several souqs in Damascus with spices, nuts. You can even find a gold souq in Damascus.
Umayyad Mosque in the centre of Damascus
Only a few metres from the mosque you can find the largest souk of Damascus. Look how busy the place is!Tamarind drink is a traditional cold drink that is sold by these guys. It has a very sweet taste and is refreshing on hot days like these. For me, it tasted a little bit like cherry juice.A meeting place for locals to have a drink.
The gold souk.
The spice souk was very interesting. There are also traditional medicine practitioners in the souk. I bought hibiscus, caraway and Aleppo soap from him!
This used to be the hammam in Azm palace in Damascus
Damascus is a beautiful city with a lot of history and culture. Everything feels very normal in Damascus. In the city centre, you can’t see any signs of the war. This is only when you leave the centre and see for example Douma / East-Gouta district, as I have shown. Syrians are really very hospitable people and everyone is ready to help you if you have a question. Let’s hope the war will end as soon as possible. Peace to Syria.
Do you want to see more? I’ve made a short video of my trip to Syria. Enjoy!