As it turned out, crossing over the border to Syria was totally painless, because we were lucky enough to have a Syrian businessman as a fellow passenger on board our bus. The process itself would have been so much worse if it wasn’t for him – he shepherded us from desk to desk at the border collecting signatures and stamps and changing money for us etc. So it wasn’t nearly as horrible as I feared it might be.
Aleppo was a challenging experience to say the least. For a start, it’s crowded, polluted, noisy and overwhelming. There were lots of ups and downs in the four days we were there, though on the whole it was a great learning experience and we were both amazed at the fact that we had unintentionally made it to the Middle East which is a world away from Turkey. For all the talk about a Muslim nation like Turkey joining the EU and how big a step forward it is, going to Syria made us realise that Turkey is much more European than it is Middle Eastern.
Syria is a very challenging place to travel as a woman, and I imagine it’s like that through most of the Middle East (except for cities like Beirut or countries like Israel, probably). In Aleppo I got stared at every moment I was out in public and it really got on my nerves at times. Sometimes I got that impression that it was because I looked Asian, but mostly it was because I was a foreign woman who wasn’t covered up. I got stared at quite a bit in India too but somehow it felt slightly more threatening in Syria though I don’t imagine that anything bad would have happened. I couldn’t help but feel that many of the women in Aleppo, covered up as they are from head to foot in black chadors, had been turned into walking sacks with little public personality. They didn’t smile much in public for one thing – I smiled at a lot of women and often only got a small half-smile at best. So you can imagine my surprise when I was approached by a group of women as we were hanging outside the Great Mosque shooting the breeze and watching people walk past one day. They had obviously never seen an Asian before or at least, in such close proximity, because they overcame their shyness and asked me what my name was. I was a bit taken aback by their forwardness but also immensely flattered too.
Some of the other highlights included the food which is generally much more tasty than it is in Turkey (though perhaps a bit less clean!?); the fantastic souk (market) where all kinds of amazing wares were on sale alongside animal guts and off-cuts of fabric; and it has some pretty features such as the Armenian quarter (Al-Jdeida), the Old City (where we visited a restored mental asylum from the Middle Ages) and an impressive citadel that looms over the city. We also did a half day trip to some nearby archaelogical sites including a famous one called Qalat Saaman – where a man named Simeon did a bizarre thing by living on top a column for a number of years and refusing to speak to women. Too f#$%ing strange by half – and stranger still that that pointless act turned him into a saint!!