Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Friday, November 17, 2006 04:23:38|
Arabia 2006: 11 - Kuwait to Damascus, Syria
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
The breakfast buffet at the Sheraton Four Points in Kuwait has taken first prize for the trip - it was excellent. An interesting twist was waiters coming around with various local breakfast treats not on the buffet table, but fresh from the oven.
The taxi arranged last night was on time for a city tour. Prices here are high, so I cut it from four hours to three. The driver had trouble filling three hours, as I was not inclined to wander around ultra modern shopping malls.
There is little left of old Kuwait. The August 1990 invasion by Iraq destroyed a great deal, including 15 aircraft of the Kuwait Airlines fleet. The country spent over five billion dollars rebuilding after Saddam's troops were driven out in Feb 1991, starting a building spree that is continuing today. An old building in Kuwait City is 50 to 100 years old, and they are quickly coming down to make way for modern steel and glass towers. There is no sign of war damage now.
The world's department store, restaurant and fast food chains are present en-mass, and a market is an upscale shopping centre. One area less than three blocks square survives as a traditional souk where many locals shop. Its chance of surviving the surrounding forest of building cranes is not good.
I read somewhere that a country without its heritage buildings and monuments is like a person without a memory, but that has been the case in all the Gulf Countries. Perhaps they don't want to remember the poverty they suffered in pre-petroleum days. Today in Kuwait there is an ultra rich class, and a middle class. No citizen is truly poor, and this seemed true in the other Gulf countries as well.
Most people in Kuwait speak English. Government employees "work" from 8 AM until 1 PM while businesses operate from 8 'till noon, then 4 to 8 in the evening. Women recently received the right to vote and run for parliament.
It is interesting that the Arab Gulf countries call the sea the Arabian Gulf. My geography lessons taught that it was the Persian Gulf, and my pocket atlas very neutrally calls it "The Gulf". You can bet that on the Iranian side, where they are proudly Persian and insulted if called Arabs, it is still the Persian Gulf!
Today's paper had the story of a lost appeal by 6 Al Qaeda members, four sentenced to death and two to life imprisonment. Obviously not a good country for terrorists!
Britain did Kuwait's foreign relations and defence from 1899 until independence in 1961. The 17,820 sq. km. country is about half the size of Taiwan. Arable land is 0.84%, so food must be imported. Out of the population of 2,418,400, male literacy is 85% and female is 82%. About 85% of the population are Muslim, and the average life span is 77 years. Kuwait has approximately 10% of the world's oil reserves.
At the airport formalities were minimal and quick, although the airline agent insisted I needed a visa for Syria until I showed him a paper Chi from Bestway had provided - that satisfied him sufficiently to give me a boarding pass. The lounge gets the trip to date award for the best food - they had a restaurant with set tables and a massive hot & cold buffet with salad and dessert bars at no charge. It lacked beer, but Kuwait is like that! The departure area shopping mall did not have Christmas trees or decorations.
The two hour ten minute flight was on time and comfortable. Hanna, who will be tour guide for Syria, met me as I entered the immigration area, easing my worries about whether or not I could get a visa. In minutes he had the visa in my passport without using my landing card or Chi's documents. We bypassed immigration and customs and were out to the waiting van in the first rain I've seen since Casablanca. On the way to the hotel he went over what to expect for the next few days, saw me checked in, arranged a 9 AM pickup and disappeared. I can't get over how quickly it all happened!
The Sheraton is an aging hotel that shows it in some areas, but the rooms are clean, staff friendly and helpful and location good in the university area. It lacks some conveniences such as a safe and bottled water in the room, but makes up for it with an English style pub. The only beer on tap was from Munich, but it was great, so I downed a couple of pints to celebrate country/destination 300 while munching popcorn. I was in an English pub in Syria serving German draft beer while "La Macarena" was playing over the speaker system, watching Arabic speaking clients touching glasses and saying "cheers" to each other! Very multicultural!
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Breakfast this morning would take second place only to yesterday's breakfast. It was the first time I've had crisp pork bacon this trip, a nice treat! Fakir, the driver, and Hanna picked me up a few minutes late and took me to the museum in heavy traffic. The road is being redone in cobblestones, so we had to walk a couple of blocks through construction, then across the beautiful gardens of the museum. The entrance is the actual ornate front taken from an ancient castle.
The museum is well done, and though I was aware that the area was called the cradle of civilization, I learned several new things. The Ugarit area provided the first alphabet of 30 letters in 1,400 BC. It was written left to right, rather than the opposite way Arabic is written. The first known written music (for flute) from the same year is also on display, written on a tablet. Traces have been found indicating Ugarit was first settled around 8,000 BC.
Inside the museum a synagogue taken from Douga Europos had been reconstructed. It was built in 244 AD and destroyed by an earthquake in 255. The original murals on the walls are part of the reconstruction, depicting scenes of Moses, Abraham and other familiar stories. It is beautifully done.
The wheel was invented in Syria around 4,000 BC, for making pottery. It was later adapted for transportation. The city of Elba is credited with producing the first dictionary and the first world map. Three libraries of tablets have been discovered in Syria from 3,000 BC, written in the Sumarian picture language.
The massive living room of a 300-year-old mansion has also been reconstructed in the museum, done in intricate carved and inlaid wood.
My luck with weather is holding. Today is sunny and cool, as the altitude in Damascus is about 850 meters (2,800'). The degree of covering for women is optional, ranging from fully covered (very few older ladies) to western style cloths. The country is tolerant of religions, with many different Christian sects and various other religions well represented and afforded the same rights by law as Muslims. Hanna, my guide, is Greek Orthodox Christian and has never found it a problem.
Of Syria's population of about 18,900,000 some 3 million live in Damascus. From traffic it looks like they all must have a car! Life expectancy is 70.3 years and the medical system is free. Education is free to university level, where attendance is subsidised heavily. Hanna took his masters in history and English at a cost of $200 per year. There is a big discrepancy in literacy - males at 90% and females at 64%.
We walked from the museum to Old Damascus, which was surrounded by a wall 8 km long and is still accessed through one of the three original gates. There is a large covered souk market area, and residential areas often have the narrow, twisting streets covered with trellised grape vines. The government and UNESCO ensure renovations buildings are done in the traditional style. Real estate values are rising rapidly ensuring the old city will continue to be well looked after. It is a popular place to live and has dozens of great restaurants.
We visited the giant Umayyad Mosque, built over a period of 10 years starting in 705 AD. It is an amazing feat of engineering! The main prayer area under a 45-meter (150') dome is 157 X 97 meters (515 X 320'), all carpeted. In the centre of the prayer area is a columned, ornate shrine to John the Baptist, said to contain his head in the massive stone casket inside. The enormous outer courtyard has giant mosaics depicting trees, palaces and so on.
Having chosen to eat in a local restaurant, Hanna led the way through narrow lanes until we descended below street level into a restaurant with arched ceiling decorated like a museum. It had a buffet featuring dozens of hot and cold traditional Syrian dishes, so I tried a little of everything and found it all delicious. After seconds on some favourites we tackled the desert area, trying various types of sweet deserts. It was a fabulous meal, costing $10 for the two of us including bottles of water and tea.
Again we were walking the maze of narrow streets, soon arriving at the Ananias Church. St. Ananias was Jewish, and a citizen of Damascus, who is written up in the book of Acts of the Apostles in the bible. It is he who is said to have cured Saul of his blindness after meeting him on Straight Street in Damascus. We were on that street today - it still bears the same name. After becoming Bishop of Damascus St. Ananias was executed by the Romans.
The church is of stone; built below street level - or perhaps that long ago it was at street level. The date of construction is not known, but it was before the Moslem conquest in AD 636. It was known through the centuries as the Church of the Holy Cross. Today regular services are held by the Franciscan order.
Hanna, who lives near the area, walked me to the van and then walked home. The driver fought through traffic to get me back to the hotel. To cut down on air pollution in Damascus, the government will ban all diesel and gasoline powered vehicles next year, requiring them to use the country's abundant natural gas. Apparently Lebanon is headed the same way, not allowing diesel-powered vehicles across its border.
Back at the hotel I used the high speed internet in the business centre to answer emails. It appears negotiation with Continental on my return trip is turning positive and that I'll be able to use my tickets to fly out of Beirut. The business centre staff assisted me in contacting Red Carpet Airlines in Beirut by telephone, who say they will allow me to fly to Baghdad, Iraq, and back on Nov 23rd without an Iraqi visa - good news for me!
After catching up on some writing, dinner was a burger and beer in the pub. Tomorrow we leave at 8:30 AM for the City of Palmyra, the ancient capital of Queen Zenobia.