It has been a trip 12 years in the making and probably the last casualty of COVID-19 that I’m finally making up for. And as should be expected by now I’m a man of my word when it comes to travel promises: I followed through on Wales and Svalbard when both got moved twice because of COVID-19, and now it’s Syria’s turn to be consecrated as a long overdue monsoon.
And what I’m even more grateful for is that each attempt to visit Syria always came accompanied by a consistent group of 14-16 monsooners. It would be no different this time and it’s always easier when I’m surrounded by veterans; all of them had no issue flying into Beirut, Lebanon at least a day before to begin the trip.
From NYC I woke up early at 5am to work the annual Bronx 10 Mile race in the South Bronx by Yankee Stadium.
It was 6 years ago here where I had my first ever race medicine experience as an attending and brought back a cardiac arrest that thus cemented me as the de facto “dark cloud” of NYRR.
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After the race I returned home by 1pm to quickly pack and say goodbye to Rik and his partner Judith who happened to be staying the night before and were flying out across the Atlantic at the same time, although to different airports. Rik, whom I traveled with in Venezuela, Kurdistan, and Angola, is also the one who helped set up this trip for us in the first place! What a great way to bless the trip before it starts.
I then headed out to JFK Airport for my 4:30pm Air France flight to Paris.
For this flight I transferred 30,000 in Chase Ultimate Rewards points to become Air France’s Flying Blue miles where I was then able to book a Premium Economy seat for free. Then that morning during the Bronx 10 Mile race I received an e-mail offering to upgrade to business class for $475 USD. Air France Business class for $475 USD and 30,000 miles? That’s a steal.
Once landing in Paris, I navigated through the illogical labyrinth of CDG Airport with Mihaela and did our best with getting nowhere at the M gate part of Terminal 2E (whatever that means). Although we were coming from the same flight, I found a transfer bus that took me to M gates which obviated the need to go through security for me whereas she found a shuttle train that required her to go through security again at M gates.
Not wanting to feel left out (I’m being sarcastic), I left my bags with her to take that shuttle train to another part of Terminal 2E so I could check out the Yotel Air airport lounge.
The lounge being tiny tiny, I came back with snacks before we boarded our onward flight to Beirut Airport; good to be finally back in Beirut for the first time in 12 years! And thanks to Booking.com’s robust interface we were quickly met after passports and at arrivals by a happy and jocular taxi driver who took us straight to our lodgings at Gemmayzeh Street within 20 minutes of arrival. While Mihalea joined the others at Hotel Meshmosh, I then checked in at Hotel Lost across the street.
With extra time before dinner, I unpacked, changed, and walked over to a nearby gym called Barbell House for a quick workout before returning back to change again before our informal introductory dinner at Loris Restaurant.
Jill would join us later that night at around 11pm after we had moved on for drinks at a Lindy Hop event nearby. After a quick call with Fadi over the phone, I would leave early to get in my glorious 9 hours of sleep that was long overdue.
At around 10am the next morning we convened in the lobby of the appropriately named Hotel Lost on Gemayzeh Street to meet our first driver Wael. As Rajani was flying in at the same time, we also sent another driver named Bilal to find her at arrivals (a tall order since she ran out of free Wi-Fi at the airport the moment he began looking for her…luckily a last minute photo of her that we sent him did the job).
Both our vehicles then drove an hour towards the Lebanon/Syria border at Masnaa.
About 20 minutes from Masnaa, we paused at a rest stop for an extended bathroom and breakfast break as Rajani was reunited with us to complete our group.
Once we reached Masnaa on the Lebanese side, we stamped out pretty quickly.
Afterwards we drove 10 minutes towards the Syrian border across no man’s land.
Once we arrived at the official border crossing into Syria, we were joined by our Golden Team guide Ophelia who introduced herself and quickly inserted herself as part of our group of friends.
As Americans with USA passports, getting a visa at the border was actually the easy part; the actual rate-limiting factor was that we had to give ourselves at least a 3 month window to obtain the security clearances for our group first in order to be authorized to obtain our visas at the border.
And although we had expected 3 months to hear back, we were actually given the all-clear only 2 months in, which allowed another month for last minute USA passport holders to also join along our group for an expedited fee (with Andaleeb joining as recently as last week!)
The fee for security clearances for USA passport holders (if given adequate time) starts at $150 per person, which we paid to our guide for having had already pre-paid for us, and with that we would easily able to obtain our visas at the border to pass through.
You first have to drop off your passport at this counter to begin processing.
Then you get back your passport and walk to the back of the room to a visa counter to pay the fee depending on your nationality (at the time of posting, Americans pay $160, Australians and UK pay $130, and Indian passport holders have to pay $52)
With the payment receipts in hand, you return to the original counter where the officer then stamps you in!
However, as the 14 of us got in without an issue (including our last minute American signup Andaleeb, and our Indian passport holder Priyanka), Lisa was repeatedly being denied on her Australian passport.
From offering her Hungarian passport, turning up the waterworks, or even sending a driver and booking her a hotel room in the Lebanese border town of Aanjar for her to come tomorrow instead, our far-fetched contingency plans were quickly made obsolete by a persistently helpful Syrian border officer who claimed to Ophelia someone in the back office on their end had misspelled her name in the visa processing a month ago.
After 2 more hours of sorting out this bureaucratic oversight, Lisa was approved and hugs were had all around.
We then immediately celebrated, obviously, with trying to get SIM cards at the border data shop next door.
After another 45 minutes here, we then continued on towards Damascus, arguably the oldest capital city in the world since 2500 B.C.
With another 45 minute drive from the border we arrived at Damascus by 5:30pm and settled into our lodgings at the gorgeous Talisman Hotel.
If Brad and Angelina stayed here, why can’t we?
We took 30 minutes to freshen up before grabbing a quick sandwich lunch/dinner/dunch/linner/lupper in the courtyard.
The guy who came by to deliver us food also was an exchanger, giving us the equivalent of $50 USD worth of cash in Syrian Pounds/SYP:
As the sun began to set, we immediately set out from the hotel onto Straight Street.
During the Hellenic/Greek era of Damascus, the city was re-designed by Hippodamus who gave the city its grid structure. The longest of these streets at 1.5km in length was called Straight Street. It also became known as the Street called Straight which then was referenced in the New Testament as the old decumanus maximus/the main Roman road, of Damascus, Syria.
According to the Acts of the Apostles (9:11), Paul the Apostle stayed in a house on Straight Street. And according to the King James Version of the English bible:
- “And the Lord said unto him (i.e. Ananias), Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth.”
A 10 minute dash along this famous street led us finally to the one and only Great Mosque.
Also known as the Umayyad/Omajaden Mosque, this was once an Aramaic temple that was converted into a Roman temple to Jupiter, then a Byzantine church, and then a mosque, and has been since regarded as one of the oldest, largest, and most majestic in the world.
Inside the mosque is no less splendid:
And they are very very liberal with letting anyone take photos here, including in very front where people pray towards Mecca.
I took advantage of this:
The interior also houses the burial place of John the Baptist’s head, a tradition originating in the 6th century.
They’ll even let you take a photo of it inside:
…or even a group photo in front of it:
The mosque retains its splendor even at night:
And just up there with the mosque, we then also headed out to walk through the famous Al Hamidieh Grand Bazaar (also known as the Al-Hamidiyah Souk).
In the souk we stopped for a quick “ice cream” break at Bakdash, known in the Arab world for its traditional Middle Eastern booza — a mastic frozen dairy dessert
We then took it all in with a leisurely stroll along the nightlife of Damascus, a perfect time to get acquainted with daily life here.
And while in the old centre of Damascus, we found a nice rooftop bar where we kicked back with some local beer, blue wine, shisha, as they projected uncensored music videos of Doja Cat, Shakira, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj…you name it.
By 11:30pm we retired to bed for our first day in Syria. We just made a 12 year dream come true.
Tomorrow we leave for a roadtrip up into the mountains into Maaloula!
- At time of posting in Damascus, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 35% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny and clear