Questions and Answers
On this page I'll try to answer some common questions about travel in the region. My experience is limited to the three weeks I spent in the two countries and you must keep this in mind while reading my answers. More over, my comfort level might be different from yours, which means that places that I liked may seem drab and dingy to you. If you have any other questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Where did you go?. I started in Beirut and visited Baalbek before crossing the border and going into Syria. I stayed in Damascus for a couple of days and visited Bosra, down near the Jordanian border, as a day trip. Then, out to Palmyra in the desert and up to Hama for a few days. From Hama, I visited Afamea and Krak des Chevaliers before moving on to Aleppo. I spent a few days exploring around Aleppo and going out to St. Simeon and then moved on to Tartus, on the coast, for a day. I then crossed back into Lebanon and stayed in Tripoli for a few days. I returned to Beirut and flew out the next day.
- How long were you there? From December 22, 2003 to January 9, 2004. By my count, this is 19 days.
- What sort of visas do you need? For Lebanon, Americans can just show up at the airport and get a visa on arrival. You can get a free transit visa that allows you 48 hours in the country. This is enough time to skip Beirut (which is rather nice, but alot like a western city) and go straight to Baalbek, then out to Syria. Or, you can buy longer stay visas. Note that a visa is not multiple entry, so you need to buy a new one every time you come into the country. If you are going to be crossing a land border, make sure you have some Lebanese pounds stored away to pay for the visa, otherwise you'll have to deal with getting change from someone. If you have an Israeli stamp in your passport, or if the border agents think you have been to Israel, you will probably not get in to Lebanon.
Syria is a bit more problematic. You will need a visa before handto get into Syria, although there are plenty of tales of people getting a visa at various land crossings. I wouldn't risk it, although if you are coming in on a long distance trip, this might be your only option. Theoretically, you can fill out a few forms from the web and send your passport and a check to certain consulates in your home country and get a visa. However, I couldn't untangle exactly what I needed to send where and so paid Passport Visa Express to do it for me. Sure, I paid twice what I should have, but it was done right and I got my passport back about 9 days after sending it in. There are plenty of other such companies on the web and you can get recommendations from the Lonely Planet Website (see the links in the Is it Safe section.) As with Lebanon, if the border agents think that you have been to Israel, or if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport, they will not let you in.
- Is it Safe. I have a separate section that tries to address this. You'll have to make up your own mind, however.
- How expensive is it? Overall, travel in Lebanon and Syria is very cheap and rivals Nepal. Lebanon is more expensive than Syria, but not by that much. How much you spend depends on what you are after and how you like to travel. I like staying in budget places as you generally meet interesting people there, particularly of the local variety. I'm not a big fan of backpacker haunts and would try to guess which of the budget places listed in my guidebook would the fewest backpackers. I usually guessed right, but I think this has to do with the paucity of tourists in the region rather than any ability of mine. With a few exceptions, I would spend between $4 and $7 for a room. I prefer to eat street food rather than in a more formal setting, and if I can't get street food I tend to eat in basic restaurants. I found that the various kinds of shawarma and felafel available were satisfying for dinners and lunches. On the street, a shawarma will run you about 60 cents and a felafel sandwich about 50 cents. I'd generally eat two for dinner, and have a couple in the afternoon for snacks. A shot of Arab coffee will run you about 20 cents. I ate a lot of pastries, generally a quarter kilo in the evening. Sometimes more. Depending on what I'd get, I'd spend about 90 cents. Occasionally, I'd eat a restaurant meal would generally spend about $4. Entrance to most locations in Syria is about $2.50. Mini buses and long distance buses are cheap and rarely ran me more than $3, even for long hauls like Damascus to Palmyra. All in all, I spent, on average, about $8 a day. $15 a day would get you slightly fancier rooms and more restaurant meals. $30 a day would be an outrageous sum, but I'm sure you could spend it. Beirut is the one exception to cheapness, and things are much more expensive there than elsewhere.
- Can you drink the water? In general, yes. You might get sick, though. I treated some water with iodine (Polar Pure) and drank others. It depended on where I was. I freely drank fruit juice from stalls on the road and didn't suffer any ill effects.
- How is the food? I'd say pretty damn good. One basic staple that you can get on the street is shawarma. There are chicken shawarma and lamb shawarma. Which ever meat is used, it is compressed onto a large spit and then roasted in little street side stalls. Meat is sliced off, put into flat bread (don't think of a pita), tahini sauce (not hummus), pickles, and vegetables are added. Every vendor seems to have their own style. For example, one guy in Damascus would roll up the sandwich, dip it in chicken fat that had melted off the spit, and then grill the result. In Hama, you'd frequently get some mint in your sandwich. Everyone has their own set of pickles to put in. A felafel is like a shawarma, but rather than meat you get some fried, seasoned, chickpea patties. I found that two sandwiches would be enough for a dinner, or for lunch. The main exception was a place in Tripoli that served felafel sandwiches that were about as big as my forearm. I could eat shawarma and felafel all the time and not tire of them, but you might want some more variety. Another great street food option is pizza, which is not at all what you would get in the States. Rather, it is more like Turkish pide. Think of a flat bread painted with olive oil, then with some toppings like cheese, and grilled for a bit. These are extremely good and make for a great snack.
If you progress past the street level, you'll find small shacks that serve some limited, but very tasty food. The best of these are the roast chicken joints, which are easy to spot as they have a large, bulk rotisserie out from with about three dozen birds going at once. Some are smaller and only have a dozen. Generally, there are a few plastic chairs around for you to sit on while you eat, or you can get them to wrap it up for you. The chicken is split and some kind of finishing sauce or seasoned butter is poured over it. The result is the best chicken I've ever had, although be aware that the chicken is less processed that what you get in the states so you might have some unfamiliar body parts still inside. Generally, you'll get a heap of flat bread, pickles, and some hummus. There are similar places that specialize in kebabs, but I prefered the chicken joints.
I went to a couple of more upscale restaurants in Aleppo and Hama, but didn't find the food to be that much better. These places are good to go to if you want things like kibbah, which is minced, raw lamb that has been seasoned and finished with olive oil. It is very good indeed. Sometimes it will come out fried, but I never had it this way. Labna is like a thick yogurt dip and seems a little bland if you are used to having good strong yogurt at home. The humus is about like what you get in the states. Baba Ganouj is a roast eggplant dip. It is not like what we get in the states. Proper baba ganouj in Syria consists of chunks of roast eggplant, some onions, tomatoes, and some spices. The smooth, creamy stuff made with tahini and all blended (i.e, what we get here) is actually called muttabel. Fatoosh is a basic cucumber-tomato salad with some white cheese in it and strips of fried flat bread. I ate alot of fatoosh as my only other vegetable source were what happened to be stuffed into my shawarma or felafel. If you order some olives, you'll get about thirty of them to work on and they will be strong (like kalamata). Syria cheese is sort of like feta and is quite tasty and basic.
In most places, if you order tea you'll get something that came from a tea bag (i.e, exactly what you can get at home). However, coffee is excellent and resembles espresso, except that it is heavily flavored with cardamom. You can get it with any level of sweetness that you like and I generally found asking for slightly sweet was about right. A shot will run you about 25 cents. There are several national beers that you can get in Syria, but you'll have a better choice in Lebanon. Common to both countries is arak, which is a distilled liquor (about 100 proof) similar of ouzo. There are plenty of liquor stores in the larger towns (Baalbek excepted) and a liter is pretty cheap. Mix it with water, otherwise it is a bit overpowering. There are many fresh fruit juice stands that make some wonderful concoctions. Normally, they pour off the juice into a glass and you stand around (or sit at a table) and drink it down at your leisure before returning the glass. I had excellent orange, banana, strawberry, and combination juices.
There are lots of open air markets and you can score all the normal kinds of produce that you can anywhere else in the world. I tended to buy a lot of oranges as they were cheap and much better than those I was used to getting in the States. I also ate immense quantities of various kinds of pastries, of which there are about a thousand varieties. I found that the French influence in Lebanon resulted in a higher quality pastry, but those in Syria were spectacular at times. There are many shops devoted to pastries as it seems that the Syrians have a particularly sweet tooth. While it might be a little awkward at times, and you'd miss some of the best food, a vegetarian could make out in Syrian and Lebanon by ordering a lot dips and side dishes (heaped under the basic name of mezze) in restaurants, felafel on the street, and buying produce from the market places.
- How do you get around?This depends on where you are trying to go. For long hauls between major cities it is easiest to get on a luxury bus. These are just large buses, like a Greyhound. They are fast, leave on time, and usually don't pick up passengers along the way. For example, you'd want to take a luxury bus from Palmyra to Hama or Damascus, and from Hama or Homs to Aleppo. Besides, there are few other viable options. To get from a main city out to an attraction for a day trip, it is usually easiest to take a mini bus. These are like large mini vans and can hold a shocking number of people. The mini buses run on a, more or less, set route although they deviated from them for me to get me closer to a site. They leave when the driver thinks enough people are on board and pick up people along the way. Overall, they are a great way to travel. Another option is the service taxi. This is like a mini bus, but is usually an old diesel Mercedes and is just as overcrowded. In town, you can take in-town mini buses, regular taxis, or walk. I prefered to walk, unless it was really, really far to where I was going.
Longer distance mini buses and service taxis generally leave from a set area. Frequently, this is a large square, but sometimes is just a large street corner. There are no signs. Just walk up to someone who looks like they know what they are doing and ask for help. I tried Arabic, but no one could understand me. Eventually, I gave up. Instead, I'd smile and ask in a loud, clear voice, "Hama?" (if I wanted to go to Hama). The person would either point me in the right direction or walk me over to the correct mini or service taxi. It can be confusing as to when you should get out of the mini or service, but in general the driver or another passenger will nudge you and tell you to get out. Luxury buses usually leave from a small square and, unless you read Arabic, you'll need to ask people for help. In both cases, never sit next to a person of the opposite sex. On luxury buses there is assigned seating, but in minis it is easy to forget. Since women between the ages of 8 and 60 never travel alone, you won't have to worry too much about this and their traveling companions will have taken care of this.
- What about mosques? Mosques are like community centers in the US, in addition to performing religious duties. In general, foreigners and non-Muslims are allowed in without issue. You need to be dressed respectably and women need to cover their heads. At the entrance way (into the central courtyard), you'll have to remove your shoes. Sometimes there will be a person who will watch over your shoes and you'll need to give him some money in return when you leave. If you take your shoes with you, put them in your backpack. Don't carry them in hand. The only time in which you can't (or shouldn't) visit a mosque is during Friday prayers (about 11 am to 2 or 3 pm), or on Fridays in general. Be respectful and don't point your camera at people in an intrusive way. I didn't take any pictures in the inner area of the mosques that I visited, but this was my own preference.
- What about smoking?. Every male in Syria and Lebanon beyond the age of 12 seems to be a chain smoker. There are almost no prohibitions about smoking in public, with mosques and museums being the main exceptions. Buses, minis, service taxis, and restaurants all allow smoking. If you are in to it, try some of the local tobacco although you'll need rolling papers for the cigarette style tobacco. Or, go to a coffee place and try a narjeelah (water pipe).
- How did you carry your stuff? I brought a Serratus Aladdin II pack (about 44 liters capacity), which is a tough alpine pack that has seen quite a few miles. I had plenty of space for all my stuff and I could carry it effectively on my back when appropriate.
- What kind of camera did you bring? I brought a Nikon N80 with a Nikkor 28-105 lens and shot on a variety of Fuji slide film (Velvia, Provia, Sensia). I carried it in a LowePro Nova mini bag, which fits nicely into my backpack. Frequently I'd carry the camera slung around my neck, but tucked into my jacket while walking around town. The bulge looked a little strange, but I found this to be a convenient way of carrying the camera when I might want to take a lot of pictures as I walked. I scanned the slides into the computer using a friend's Nikon slide scanner.
- How did you carry your money and passport? Although I brought a waist money pouch, I never really used it. I carried my passport with me at all times inside of my jacket in a zippered pocket. I usually carried cash for the day in the other zippered pocket and left the remaining amount in my pack or in the hotel room. Additionally, I hid some money in the frame of my pack along with copies of important documents (passport, ticket). None of this was necessary, however.
- Who are these two guys whose pictures are everywhere? Paintings and photos of Bashir Asad, the current ruler of Syria, and his father, are just about everywhere in the country. I wouldn't, unless you really think the Syrians are soft, deface these pictures.
- What are some can't miss places? Baalbek, the Great Mosque in Damascus, wandering the old city in Damascus and the attendent souqs, Bosra, Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers, and Aleppo. If you go to the area and you don't go to these places, you'll regret it.
- What was your favorite place? This is really a bad question. If I had to name one, I'd say Palmyra. And Aleppo. I know that this isn't one thing.
- Where didn't you go that you wish you did? I would have liked to visit more of the Crusader castles and some of the Ismali ones, such as Musyaf, as well. I wish I had the time to get out to eastern Syria to the Euphrates region. There isn't much there that would appeal to tourists, but the area seems like a neat place and it would have made for a nice three or four day excursion. I'd like to have visited the Golan Heights, which, I was told, are accessible through the UN.
- How did you wash your clothes? I brought a bottle of concentrated soap with a mint scent and washed out my clothes in the shower area of the various hotels I stayed at. It took a while for the clothes to dry in the cold, damp air, but usually took no longer than a day.
- What kind of toilets do they have? For the most part, the toilets are western. I stayed in only one place that had squat toilets (Hotel Syria in Aleppo). I actually prefer the squat toilets, having gotten used to using them in the backcountry of America and in Nepal. As in the other developing countries that I have been to, you do not want to flush toilet paper as the plumbing frequently cannot handle it. There is usually a waste basket next to the toilet to put used paper in.
- What is the weather like in the winter? Except for Beirut and Tartus, a little chilly. The only place that was actually cold was Palmyra. If you are used to a US winter, the winter in Syria and Lebanon will seem like fall. If you are used to a European or Australian winter, you might want some warmer clothes.
- What guidebooks did you use? I used two from the Lonely Planet. One for Syria, the other for Lebanon. Overall, the books were fairly accurate, although I did notice that travel times were less than the book indicated and, of course, some prices had changed (both lower and higher).
- What does ahlan mean? I heard this a lot in Syria and Lebanon and it means welcome, sort of. It doesn't seem to have a very good translation as a single word, but is used like "Be at home here."
- What is a souq? A souq is a market place on the street, though usually it is covered. A souq can sprawl on and on and is divided into areas which offer different kinds of products. There is a vegetable souq, a gold souq, a clothing souq, and so on. Inside of the souqs are generally found smaller enclosed areas, called caravanseris. These are areas where caravans, in the olden days, would pull in and camp. A souq is a great place to wander about, particularly on a Friday when no one is there and you can poke around without having someone try to sell you trinkets.