With the snow-covered highlands of Turkey looming ahead of us, we opted for the easy option to get from Iran to Syria. No, not a 2 hour flight – don’t be silly… why would you, when you can zoom across on a 2-day train journey?While we’re no strangers to crossing borders on foot or by plane, this trans-multiple-country train journey delivered plenty of surprising and amusing incidents. Here are a few:
A train ticket…right? So we bought a train ticket. It cost us 1.2 million Iranian Rials for the two of us. As it turns out, our Rials went further than expected and got us three trains, a boat, a bus, two kilos of pickled vegetables, two wheels of cheese, a kilo of baked beans and four litres of water!
Great, a sleeper train! We boarded a luxurious sleeper train at 11am and the engineer’s prognosis was for 8-9 hours of sleep per night. Fortunately the folks in charge had better ideas and herded us out of our berths and onto a chicken run for seats on a boat(!!) at 11pm. The boat docked as dawn approached… along with another sleeper train. Again, however, as night fell, our train morphed into a bus which then in turn gave way to a seated train. Fortunately we didn’t have to spend the whole night on the train as the welcoming Syrian immigration hall hosted us for most of our final night!
How much for that visa?!? Ok this one was my mistake. At 2am, 1 hour
and 400 metres away from the Turkish departure station, the gently rocking ice-box on rails I was seated in jolted to a stop and discharged me into a Syrian immigration office. I was only 28% awake and had expected my inoffensive Kiwi passport to be cheerfully stamped with a free entry visa, so being asked to pay was not part of the plan. The poor immigration officer had no idea how much a visa should cost a Kiwi and so tried to charge me the Australian visa fee of AUD105. I insisted that I be given a visa free – a situation that soon escalated to the supervisor of the customs post with whom I negotiated a fee of USD20, though was still angry about having to pay this. On subsequent careful reading, the free visa is something I was entitled to in Lebanon, but not Syria. This realisation leaves me feeling more than a little bad about bargaining for a visa – a new low for me.
Roman Ruins: Since arriving in Aleppo (Syria), 50 hours after boarding our train in Tabriz
(Iran), we’ve been immediately struck by the fact that we are in ancient Rome. Sprawling colonnades and facades are all that remains now of what were once massive cities on the fringe of the Roman empire. The sites of Apamea and Palmyra are impressive not for their finery of detail, colour or finish but rather for their audacious scale and still obvious straight lines of construction. The colonnaded street at Apamea, 2 km long, flanked by perfectly aligned columns on both sides, is particularly stunning because of its humble setting. The site is totally unmarked, so we followed locals’ indecisive directions and hiked up a gentle slope to suddenly be confronted by hundreds of columns shooting out of someone’s field – complete with sheep and goats grazing among the ruins.
Crusader castles: A millennia after the Romans marched over the hills to impose ‘order’ on this chaotic land, the Crusaders did the same – conquer that is, not impose order. Without the luxury of a standing army of mercenaries, and having the force of
Islam to contend with, the Crusaders’ architectural legacies are decidedly more military than the Romans’. A line of crusader castles stretches down the coast, providing golden sandstone crowns to the many hills littering the countryside, and signaling the outer reaches of Europe’s influence. The staunchest and most imposing of these is the formidable Crac des Chevaliers near the Lebanese border. Our experience of exploring the perfectly intact ramparts and scrambling within the many hidden tunnels took place as an eerie mist slowly covered the valley. A wonderfully spooky view to go with a castle that inspires plenty of stories of great battles, cunning strategies and brave deeds. Whatever historical lens one views the crusades through, admiration for the men who left such a fantastic legacy of engineering must surely be indisputable.