Unexpected Syria - Day Trips From Hama

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Day Trippin'' started by bokad, Jul 23, 2012.

  1. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Unexpected Syria - Day Trips From Hama

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    Syria has been on my mind (and in the news) alot lately. It is one of those countries I would return to without hesitation and recommend to everyone.

    Syria had never been a country that I was eager to visit. Actually it had never entered my conscious at all except for some vague idea of "bad place, seems like Iraq under Saddam".
    In early 2009 I had had to go there a few days for work and was so intrigued that I decided to come back as soon as possible for a proper exploration.

    This was not a typical moto trip. The riding wasn't the whole thing, just a few day part of longer travels.
    There will be no discussion about panniers, bike mods, or extreme riding.
    To be honest the riding was not exceptional but the scenery and feeling certainly were.
    Driving across wide open spaces with the wind in your hair there is an amazing sensation of freedom and adventure. Like an eagle soaring over the desert.
    This was not a trip about miles travelled but instead things seen.

    I rented the bike from a local, the cousin of the waiter at the restaurant down the street from my hotel in Hama.
    It was a Delta (WTF is that?) which I think is made in China and has somewhere between 125 and 250cc. It did nothing particularly well and we never got above 80km/h. The clutch was wonky, the brakes iffy, and the suspension useless, but it kept chugging and never broke down.

    My first experience in riding it I thought it was just garbage as I couldn't get it in to second gear no matter how hard I tried. So I brought it back to the owner and told him it was junk. He showed me all the gears were down from neutral and I felt like an idiot. Definitely he was getting the better end of the deal though as I was paying $50/day to borrow it and was worth maybe $300 tops.

    Although contemporary me can't imagine doing such a thing, apparently I did all this riding without a helmet.
    There was also no GPS. I'm amazed we found anything. I'm perpetually lost without it today.

    Sometimes the rides you enjoy the most are those with the least planning and preparation.

    These destinations (Aleppo, Krak des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Dead Cities) are all easy day trips or overnighters from the city of Hama in central East Syria.

    This all happened some years ago and I'm known to have a bad memory so words will be few and there may be some mistakes.


    Pictures (includes some from non motorcycle portion of the trip)
    --------------------
    Best Of:
    http://lotsapics.smugmug.com/Travel/Syria-Best-Of/

    Best Of Shown As Pins On A Map:
    http://maps.smugmug.com/?feedType=geoAlbum&Data=24292919_P3BSjM

    All Photos (too many to count):
    http://lotsapics.smugmug.com/Travel/Syria/

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    #1
  2. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    About Syria In General
    --------------------------
    I thought with my American passport I might have some trouble getting in. US and Syria not being on the best terms and all that. To read the the entry/visa requirements on the various travel and the offical Syrian websites, it seemed like the visa was really going to be a PITA and take over a month to arrange. I've learned though that doing the visa yourself and going through the embassy is often the most difficult way. So I called the hotel in Damascus where we would stay the first few nights and asked if they could arrange it for us. $20, 4 days notice, authorization letter given, and we could pick it up at the airport on arrival. Awesome.

    I didn't have any particular problems with entry. No snooping or questions by the immigration or police.
    Actually, I never had any encounters with the authorities at all during my time there.

    All of the Syrians I met were genuinely friendly. They said hi because they were curious, not because they wanted to sell us something. I didn't hear a single bad word about American policies, our actions in the middle east, or our relationship with Israel.

    One of the best things about Syria was people watching. They all seemed to have a certain character abou them that I found fascinating. They are a diverse bunch and can look anything from very arab to very Caucasian.

    p.s. One factoid about Syria that you may not know is that the current President (read dictator), Bashar al-Assad, had been living as an eye doctor in London and was never expected to become the leader.


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    On the train out of Damascus these adorable kids chatted us up in pretty good English and tried to adopt us in to their family for the duration of our stay.
    #2
  3. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Hama
    --------------------------
    Hama is the city from where all out rides originated. It's a good central location to reach most of the major sights in Syria. I didn't care for the city itself much though. Kinda damp and grey. Traffic is reasonable though and scooting around town is fun.

    It's notable for it's many Roman era water wheels and aqueducts . A nice bit of practical and simple engineering to distribute water from the river to farms and people many miles away.

    In the last 40 years it has been home to many uprisings against the Syrian government.

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    Middle east standard electrics in our hotel

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    Grey and wet

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    Roman era water wheel and aqueduct

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    Roman era water wheel and aqueduct

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    Roman era water wheel and aqueduct

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    Old aqueduct passes through the new city. Poster of the president top left.
    #3
  4. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Aleppo
    --------------------------
    140km from Hama

    Aleppo is Syria's second city and self proclaimed as one of the the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It's over 7000 years old, most of the ancient city lies unexplored, buried layers beneath the new.

    It's a pleasant two hour ride north over flat land and open spaces.
    I grimace whenever we pass police as I don't have a valid license or any other documents for that matter but nobody pays attention to us.

    The main points of interest are the old walled city, it's massive tunnel like Souq (market) and the hill top citadel.


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    The road from Hama to Aleppo

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    New Aleppo still looks pretty old. Here there must be some Russians as there are signs in Russian language.

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    Courtyard of a hotel. This is actually a renovated old merchants house in the traditional style with many rooms opening up in to a common center.

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    Flags of Syria and the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party

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    Reminds me of a mischievous villain from a Tintin comic. Watch out Snowy!


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    A woman quietly begs for money on a narrow walking street.
    #4
  5. Yardstick

    Yardstick Hydrophobic

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    Seeing the thread title made me think something like this. Syria is probably still not going to make my short list of places to take a trip, but those are really incredible ruins and amazing scenery. I hope you can remember more from the trip and post some descriptions with more of the pics in your links!
    #5
  6. DR650SEDDY

    DR650SEDDY ride2discover

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    Nice pictures, if u wanna see more Roman ruins u should travel west to Lebanon where i was born. U shouldn't be far away from temple of Baalback ruins, city that is dated back to 10,000 years ago. It was on Science Chan. few months back. The whole area is full of undiscovered history. Be safe enjoy ur trip.
    #6
  7. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Aleppo, The Citadel
    --------------------------

    The citadel sits on a mound in the center of the old city. It's big, it's cool, and you can wander thoughout it's many levels of towers and passages. I was in heaven.

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    It's a big place. Imposing from the outside.

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    And on the inside a never ending multi level maze.


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    The entrance is protected by a very large ditch, a bridge, and two massive fortifieds towers.
    The entrance passages contain many doors, curves, and slits for arrows to be fired upon you. Holes in the roof for boulders and liquid fire.
    You don't want to arrive without an invitation.

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    Just look at the size of that thing! Those colored dots on the bridge are people.

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    No matter how you attack it's going to be rough. Better to stay at home.

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    The citadel is a popular meeting place for young couples. Semi-privacy.

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    The citadel is a popular meeting place for young couples. Semi-privacy.

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    A view out over one of the external towers and the old city

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    One of the external towers. Connected to the main fortress by tunnels.

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    This is my favorite picture from the whole trip. What character. These guys saw me eyeing them and invited me to take a photo.

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    Must have been a holiday, lots of kids running around. They were all friendly and well behaved.

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    Public square in front of the citadel

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    Awesome!
    #7
  8. klaviator

    klaviator Long timer

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    This is not someplace I ever expect to go so thanks for posting and allowing me to see some of it.
    #8
  9. Hookapelli

    Hookapelli Meat Popsicle

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    Great pictures! It's amazing how awesome those countries are with such a rich history. I traveled around AFG and IRQ quite a bit and was just in awe with some of the architecture and how great the people that weren't trying to kill me were.

    Ate a lot of home cooked ethnic food and made a lot of friends.

    Glad you got to see it before it got all crazy!
    #9
  10. Shaggie

    Shaggie Unseen University

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    fantastic!!!!!!

    thanks!!:clap
    #10
  11. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Thanks. The best pics are yet to come. It really was a fantastic place to tour and not at all what I expected. Would love to go back with my own bike someday.

    #11
  12. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Yah, I hear really great things about Lebanon. Want to go there, need to make it happen. I hear you can go to the beach and skiing in the same day. That and the cutest girls in Arab music video are often Lebanese.

    #12
  13. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Aleppo, The Souq and old town
    --------------------------

    Wikipedia says:
    Souq al-Madina is the largest covered historic market in the world with an approximate length of 13 kilometers


    What I know is that if you need a sheeps head or some hand made soap this is the place to be!

    The old town itself is a complex maze of narrow alleys. What a great way to get lost for a few hours and find yourself in unexpected courtyards.

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    I know what everyone is getting for Christmas this year!

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    Love the contrast with the oranges.

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    Love the contrast with the oranges.

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    Found a history museum of Islamic science, medicine, and exploration amongst the alleys.
    Pretty damn interesting actually.

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    Ahmed Brownbeard, the first muslim pirate.
    Arrrrrh!

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    The buildings were always brown and drab but the people and products always vibrant.

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    The soap man... he got a little creepy.

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    In the covered market.

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    In the covered market.

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    A maze of narrow alleys.

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    A maze of narrow alleys.

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    A maze of narrow alleys.
    #13
  14. luckychucky

    luckychucky Long timer

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    Nice report. Not as bad as some would say it was. Wonder how they can cause such a worldly disturbance?
    #14
  15. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    The dead cities. Somewhere North of Hama.
    ------------------------------------------
    My only explanation for how we could of found this place is pure blind dumb luck.
    No GPS, no road signs that I can read, no language that I can understand.
    But found it was. One minute you are on a winding road amongst rocky hills and olive trees and the next thing you know there it is. Ancient, still, expansive, empty.

    There wasn't any formal entrance that I could see. Just parked the bike in the grass and climbed over a low stone wall. Someone we met inside had a booklet of "tickets" and asked for an entrance fee. Maybe it was legit, maybe not. It was empty and ours to enjoy in quiet solitude. Only the occasional noise of rustling wind and grazing sheep.

    There are a few places like this in Syria. Once prosperous Byzantine cities that were abandoned intact for some reason or another 1500 years ago. Disease, weather change, bad neighbors, who knows. They've survived wind, rain, and earthquake surprisingly well for hundreds of years. A few places just need a roof and you could move right in.

    What an excellent place to explore, climb, sleep, ponder.


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    The sky that day was a magic combination of deep blue and clouds.

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    It's not so hard to imagine donkeys and ancient men winding their way down these dirt paths.

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    Building and building and more buildings. Houses. Churches. Government. Flower mills. Etc...

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    Amazing that any of this stuff is still standing

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    The only paint on anything for at least 5 miles.

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    Feels very roman.

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    Sheep and shepherds are the only residents now.

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    Just love the look of earth and sky on that day.
    #15
  16. The_Scottsman

    The_Scottsman There's Beer here??

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    On a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
    Beautiful!
    #16
  17. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Krak Des Chevaliers, Talkalakh
    --------------------------------
    About 100km (60 miles for yanks!) South-West of Hama is what Lawrence of Arabia called the "...most wholly admirable castle in the world..."
    It is a massive monument of stone. A crusader castle of the Knights Hospitaller. Not built as a home to house fancy nobles, but instead with
    the single purpose of projecting military strength.

    Getting there was a bit tricky. The road winds up the mountain and it was slick with slush and hail. I almost lost control. Alot. Wish I
    had a helmet. Snow in Syria, who knew?!
    As usual, the weather went to crap as soon as I got on the road and cleared up as soon as I got off.

    There were a few other visitors here. Not many. You're free to explore, climb, fall to your death, whatever. There are endless levels and
    chambers and passageways and rooms and staircases deep down in to the earth. Dripping stone stairs that went so far down in to the ground that
    my flashlight couldn't find the end. But you could hear the drip drip drip of water on to stone from somewhere far away in the darkness.
    You're imagination can run wild here. You can literally RUN WILD here. I was in heaven. No rules or ropes, explore as you please.

    The fortress was so formidable that it never fell in battle. Only as the Arabs had pushed out most of the Crusaders from their lands and the
    garrison was depleted and low on supplies did they finally starve them in to capitulation.

    Barely related side note:
    Lawrence of Arabia owned 7 of the amazing Brough Superior http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brough_Superior motorcycles. And he died riding one.

    There's alot of pics below, so many fine memories.


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    Here's how it looked.

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    Satellite view

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    Hailey slush

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    Main entrance tunnel, lots of hairpin curves and holes above/sides to murder you.

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    A good showing of the many levels, rooms, and passages. An endless maze in stone.
    Follow a set of stairs and a corridor and you never know where you will pop out to daylight again at. You may end up higher or lower, inside
    the keep, or emerging from under the ground.

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    I started inside the keep and followed some passages and somehow ended up down emerging from the ground outside the walls looking up at it.

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    The inner castle. Still formidable even after you've made it past the outer defenses.

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    That's cool.

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    Excellent tower

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    I'm not such a fan of heights. Sometimes the passageways open on to a long violent drop.

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    Look how very very small that guy on the tower is.

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    Main castle entrance

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    Good place for murdering any unwelcome guests

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    Mossy damp passageway

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    Hole in the roof/ceiling let light in to lower levels and also a great way to throw shit on people you don't like.

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    Slippery stairs going up.

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    The hillsides

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    A good showing of the many levels, rooms, and passages. An endless maze in stone.
    Follow a set of stairs and a corridor and you never know where you will pop out to daylight again at. You may end up higher or lower, inside
    the keep, or emerging from under the ground.

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    A good showing of the many levels, rooms, and passages. An endless maze in stone.
    Follow a set of stairs and a corridor and you never know where you will pop out to daylight again at. You may end up higher or lower, inside
    the keep, or emerging from under the ground.

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    One of MANY large vaulted rooms.

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    Courtyard between inner and outer walls

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    Coming up from somewhere underground again.

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    More rooms and passages below the ground.

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    This place just never ends.

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    Some squiggly inscription on the wall.
    My Arabic is rough but approximately it says "Crusaders were here but now they're gone. We whipped their ass and they're crying to mom. God is great."
    #17
  18. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Location:
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    Palmyra
    --------------------------------
    Middle of the damn desert, 200km East of Hama.
    Palmyra, ancient, 'bride of the desert'.

    Driving here was nice, real nice. Smooth, flat, open road through a super landscape. I think there's a total of 3 curves from Hama to
    Palmyra. Just cruise, relax, and enjoy the view. But I didn't do that... No, I stopped for a break and just had to try the fermented camels
    milk candy I was offered. Haunted me for days. Worst part of the trip.

    Palmyra is old, like 4000 years old. And there's lots to see from each period. Funerary towers from who knows when, a grand Roman main
    street and temples, an Islamic castle, and of course modern despot pan Arab socialism Baath party Syria.

    You don't "enter" any of the historic areas in Palmyra. ItÂ’s the just the road you ride along. Then you drive off the side and you are in
    the ruins. No fence, no tickets. You can drive your bike (or camel) down the grand Roman colonnade if you so desire.

    Modern Palmyra is the closest thing that Syria has to a tourist trap. High proportion of visitors to residents. The usual western style
    restaurants, cheap hotels, touts, guides, signs in English, and souvenir vendors. It is in no way overwhelming though. Still calm, lazy, and
    authentic compared to any other tourism destination.
    Things become more rustic at the edge of town. Donkeys are still legitimate transport. I'm not sure if the camels are only for the benefit
    of tourists or just a part of normal life.


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    Modern Palmyra from the castle hill

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    Tourist cafe. The only rasta flag in all of Syria. And at last...WiFi!

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    Guys, dates, tourism

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    Hafez al-Assad, former president of Syria and father of the current one.
    His portrait is still found in many many places.

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    Road out of town.

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    Sometimes it's like a time warp here. And as always the people are interesting.

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    Mud wall and door.

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    Love this picture. There was some drama around it. Police, shouldn't make picture, some blah blah blah

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    Carpet on the seat reminds me of blanket on a camel.

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    This bike was all sorts of barely working awesome. The finicky 5 down gear shift and detaching clutch lever were my faves.
    Still, it never failed me and always kept putting along.
    I'm still amazed that I was able to just get on the bike and go. No tools, no spares, no documents, no license. No problems!
    #18
  19. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Funerary towers, Palmyra
    --------------------------------

    The valley of the tombs predates Roman times. It is a 1km long necropolis with many underground graves and tall tomb towers. The tomb towers
    have a central staircase with hollowed out spaces along the wall to store several generations of a family's deceased. They're still in there.
    Spooky! Cool!


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    On the stump of a broken tower. Look how big just the base of this thing is. Huge stones.

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    Day or night it's yours to explore. Jut ride on through.

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    Hard to tell the size but these things are huge!

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    Some of the towers from afar.

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    My bike, off the "road" by the towers.
    #19
  20. bokad

    bokad Difficult Child

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    Roman city, Palmyra
    ----------------------

    Situated on an important trade route, Palmyra was an important and wealthy city in the Roman empire. The site of battle, rebellion, and
    intrigue. Majority of the construction was done around 100 to 300AD.
    The level of detail in the stone carvings is just amazing. 2000 years ago a craftsman carved it and it's still here today, sharply defined.
    You can touch it, run your hand over it and feel the depth and texture.

    It's amazing that they could build with such size and scale so long ago. It impresses even today. Imagine how it would have felt to the
    average man 2000 years ago to see such giants of stone.

    The size of the site is damn impressive. I've never seen such large scale Roman ruins. Buildings outnumber tourists. You can easily feel
    this place is yours alone to explore.

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    Riding to the site.

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    Wow! That's a big site! No shortage of ruins!

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    Wow! That's a big site! No shortage of ruins!

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    A temple of sorts I believe.

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    Where else in the world can you ride a camel through Roman ruins?

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    Local tourists

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    No all buildings have survived so well. Have a seat, ponder the vagaries of time.

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    Someone 2000 years ago chiseled these words and I can still read them. That's permanent! I'm making my next website in stone!

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    Carving of Roman soldiers.

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    So much intricate detail.

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    Look at the size of the building compared to the people. Wow!

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    It's big!

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    Limitless ruins. They go on and on and on.

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    Limitless ruins. They go on and on and on.
    #20