June 28, 2006

Plans and pics

In the coming weeks of my holiday, I am going to…

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (at least start it),
Penguin’s The New History of the World (bits and pieces),
some Finnish contemporary literature (open for suggestions)
Thrillers (Michael Connelly, Ilkka Remes etc)
The newspaper
The info package about my exchange year

… watch
The second season of my favourite TV show, “Six Feet Under” (see above), on DVD
A movie with my free ticket

Friends at my home
Friends at their home
Friends outside

…get to know
More choral music essentials (Finnish and foreign, secular and sacred, accompanied and unaccompanied)
More symphonic music (Mahler, Beethoven...)
More bars and restaurants in Helsinki

Play the harp until I can’t make out the strings from each other anymore.
Start running around Töölönlahti again.
Go to sell stuff I don’t need at the flea market.
Spend hours at Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (particularly the travel section)
Have breakfast or a late drink with a book in Café TinTin Tango
Go to Ireland with Mikko (check his new website on the sidebar)


Yesterday, a record-breaking 30 people visited this blog! Thanks for reading everybody. Here are some pictures I took yesterday!

Damascus World Cup - Football fever grips the city.

Evening in Damascus, with Mount Qasioon in the background.

Two beauties waiting for me in bed.

June 26, 2006

Day five(Saturday): Sanliurfa - Gaziantep - Kilis - Aleppo - Damascus

The title of this post should give you a good idea of the chaotic events of the day. After writing the post before last at the Internet Café “Interaktif” in Urfa, I checked out of the hotel, had a chat with Yusuf whom I bumped into on a street corner, and headed for the otogar, a sprawling and loud place just outside the city.

Completely soaked because of the heat, I got a ticket for the next bus to Gaziantep and boarded the bus. When I took out my phone to write a text message, the conductors told me to switch it off because using mobiles was prohibited in the bus. This sort of irritated me, but what could I do, especially as one of the conductors sat next to me the whole trip. The ride to Gaziantep took two and a half hours. On the way, we crossed the Euphrates again at a town called Birecik, where I was impressed to see a family saying goodbye to a boy who was boarding the bus. Tearful farewells always make an impression on me, and probably understandably so. I took this picture, but I’m glad they didn’t see me taking it.

Heartbreaking farewell at Birecik.

Gaziantep’s otogar was easier to manage than the one in Urfa, but asking around all the companies for buses to the Syrian border proved to be futile – all I got as a response were shaking heads, suspicious frowns and endless ramblings in Turkish. Exasperated because I didn’t want to get stuck in this big hectic city, I tried asking people outside the otogar, but they hardly knew what I was talking about, either. So much for it being very easy to catch the microbus to Kilis at the border from the main otogar: I gradually was able to understand that there was another depot, the “Kilis garage” - somebody shoved me inside a city dolmus (minibus) and I was on my way downtown. I kept asking the driver whether we were going to the Kilis garage but after the tenth time he got fed up and probably told me to shut up in Turkish. At the bus stops, somebody yelled the destination of the bus to people waiting straight into my ear and I had felt a real urge to curse at him in Finnish. I was dropped off at a street corner and pointed in the right direction.

Fingers crossed, I walked along the street and arrived to a petrol station – needless to say, nobody there spoke English either, but at the word “Kilis” I finally got some life into the vendors and they pointed at some vague direction. I arrived at a dusty parking lot full of minibuses on their way to towns in the region. I found one with a sign saying Kilis, but it was packed and left without me. I went inside an office and asked about buying a ticket, but the man at the counter just lit a cigarette and ignored me.

A box of tissues goes a long way...
The driver of the next minibus was so out of it I had to take out a pen and draw an approximate map of the region on a box of tissues (see above) for him to understand where I was going. The price sounded like a rip-off to me, but at this point I hardly cared anymore. At least I knew I was going in the right direction now, and I packed with all the other passengers into the minibus. The drive to Kilis took less than an hour. Looking at the my fellow passengers, I guessed that almost all of them were headed for the border, but I was wrong – the only one left on the minibus after we stopped in Kilis was me, so the driver had all the time in the world to visit some of his friends before we continued.

The only good thing about the driver was that he helped me change my Turkish money back into Syrian lira – and it’s good I did this because I didn’t have any of those left. It probably goes without saying this meant another visit to a friend who changed the money for me. I expected to arrive at a busy border post where I could just walk across and catch a bus to Aleppo on the other side.

Instead, I was half-dumped at a completely remote barbed wire fence with the road going through it and a dead-looking hut with two bored soldiers whiling away their time in front of it, clicking away at their prayer beads (something every man I saw in Turkey had). It didn’t exactly inspire confidence, but I walked up to them with my passport, was greeted with about twenty questions in Turkish, and signaled to put down my bag, sit down and wait. I couldn’t see anything on the road ahead, so it seemed like walking to Syria wasn’t an option.

Eyes glued to my watch, I waited for a car to pass by and give me a ride, but the few cars passing here were coming from the Syrian side. Finally a Turkish taxi arrived and took a man from Istanbul and me to the Syrian border post. Once we were there, I was so happy I could finally communicate with somebody! Compared to my Turkish skills, one could say I am almost fluent in Arabic, and because I was able to answer the officers’ questions in Arabic, they treated me so much better than the Turks! While the Turks were having their passports scrutinised, I was being offered coffee. The driver was getting really irritated, especially when the officers asked him how much he was charging me for the ride and they told me to only pay him half of that before stamping his passport!

Finally, light at the end of the tunnel

We crossed the border, and really Syria felt like safe territory for the moment and I could finally relax for a while. Not too much, though, because the driver was listening to some religious recording (probably something like: “The Call of the Imam – Best hits”) at full volume the whole trip to Aleppo. I was planning to go straight to the airport and see if I could catch the last flight to Damascus. I switched to an Aleppo taxi on the outskirts of the city, and at 19:45 I got a text message from my aunt saying the last plane left around eight o’clock, so I told the driver to floor it! Well, I hardly know how to say that in Arabic, but he got the message from my frantic gesticulations.

Already resigned to the fact I was probably going to have to spend the night at ALP airport, I arrived at check-in to realise that the airplane was an hour late! Now that’s what I call good luck! Someone once told me that the last minutes are always the longest ones and I really felt it when I was stuck in the check-in queue behind a huge clueless family with a hundred bags. The bored clerks asked me where I came from and why I was in Syria, and when I told them half of the family history they laughed, maybe because they didn’t believe it. To put it mildly, I wasn’t in the mood for jokes so I tried to ignore them while my boarding pass was being issued. When we landed at Damascus airport (the plane was coming from Frankfurt, so obviously everyone burst into applause at touchdown), I was the first at passport control and through in two seconds. Home just in time to catch the end of the match between Mexico and Argentina.

June 25, 2006

Day four continued - with pictures!

One of the best things of the trip with Marc and Yusuf was meeting all of Yusuf’s friends. He’s been driving tourists up to Nemrut forever so, naturally, there were countless nephews to be met all over the place! Almost all the people we met were Kurds, extremely kind and uncomplicated people. It wasn’t always easy to make out whether one of them was really related to Yusuf, but at least we met his (real) uncle, who worked for the government in the national park and invited us to tea in his little hut on the summit of the mountain.

The huge Ataturk Dam, the largest dam in the Middle East
The scenery was fantastic and there were many sights to see on the road to the peak. First, we stopped at a tumulus, an ancient burial mound with some columns around it. Marc and I circled it and admired the views on the nearby plains and mountains while the sun did its best to scorch us off our minds. Marc explained to me how, before the Romans arrived, all of this was a small kingdom ruled by the Commagenes. Never heard of them before, but they certainly chose a nice spot for their realm. Afterwards, we stopped at an ancient Roman bridge, constructed out of stones taken from the columns we had just seen at the burial mound. Some locals had come to take a dip in the stream, which was extremely fresh and clear, and it would have been very tempting to join them. We stopped again to have tea with Yusuf’s friends, then continued high up to a mountain village (passing Yusuf’s aunt on the way, who was walking up the road).

There are several small villages in the national park and the inhabitants get around by hopping on tourist buses and vans. We had several of them with us and they always would shake hands and behave in a very modest and down-to-earth manner. It was incredible to see the villages where they lived. One would think it’s a curse to live so isolated from the rest of the world, but one only had to look at how happily the families’ children played with each other to realise it doesn’t take much to make people happy. And they were really beautiful people, with some of the most wonderful eyes I have ever seen.

The last stretch of road before the summit was in bad condition and very curvy. On top of this, the suspension between the wheels of our minibus broke down, and we had to drive very slowly. From the parking space at the top we still had to climb on foot for about ten minutes to reach the eastern terrace of the ruins. The Commagene king had statues built at the top of the mountain – the statues were of the king himself next to the Gods, his “relatives”. He put one set on what is called the eastern terrace, so they could watch the sunrise, and on the other side he put another set of Gods to watch the sunset. Obviously, the only place suitable for this was the highest peak of the region. The heads have fallen off (vandalism and earthquakes) and lie scattered in front of the huge sitting bodies of the statues. Some of the heads alone are over two meters in hight.

Trying to fix the car, with the summit of Mount Nemrut in the background.
It was fantastic to finally reach the peak and gaze at the surrounding scenery. And who else was it possible to bump into but a big group of German mountain climbers. From the eastern terrace, we made our way around the huge burial mound (the grave of the king himself has not been found to this day) to the western terrace, which was more impressive than the eastern one. We had around two hours to walk around before the sun set. The expressions on the faces of the ancient gods was what impressed me most – it was like the eyes were really looking into eternity, and they have been lying there all these hundreds and hundreds of years for anybody to come and see them. It’s like they are looking at us from a different world.

There were several other people on the top. I met a Turkish boy from Adana. He was almost my age and, as usual, could hardly speak any English but we could communicate more or less. I told him I only knew one song by a Turkish musician, Sertab Erener. He was thrilled, and eagerly replied: “Finland Eurovision!!” Well, I suppose there are many different ways to have a cultural exchange. I also walked around by myself on the mountain, listening to fitting music on my iPod, like Sibelius and Rheinberger’s “Abendlied” for choir which hit the nail on the head when the sun started to set.

But of course just listening to the silence was all the more stunning. I only saw the sun set once on Mount Nemrut, but it’s even more impressive to think that the sun is going to set there again today, and tomorrow, and every day for as long as we are able to count time. And there are so many places like it in the world – places where humans have left their mark in nature, probably knowing it would survive for ages to come. Places where anyone can come and gaze in awe at the result of somebody’s idea, which at the time must have seemed like a madman’s plan, but now doesn’t seem that crazy at all. They are places which lead their own lives, majestic and breathtaking, in their own isolated and mysterious world, on a different level from our day-to-day life. For the gods on Mount Nemrut, one day is like a minuscule drop in a vast barrel, but for us that one day can leave a very lasting impression. Everybody should see a place like it some time in their life.

Gazing at the sunset, into eternity.

June 24, 2006

Day four: Nemrut Dağı national park

Today is actually already day five of the trip and I will start the journey back to Damascus. Because travelling through Antakya means I'd have to spend the night there (something I'd like to avoid), I'm going to try a different route today: bus to Gaziantep, from there to the border at Kilis (about one hour by minibus), and minibus from the other side of the border to Aleppo. I need to check out from my hotel in about 15 minutes, so obviously I can't now write about yesterday's trip at length!

It was really fantastic and definitely the highlight of this trip. And I was really lucky because when I went to the office yesterday morning, another tourist from Switzerland hat turned up, so we were able to divide the cost! He had also come from Aleppo and was an expert in plants, agriculture and especially history, so I learned a lot of things just listening to his running commentary! He was fun company, but in the end he got a bad headache and got grumpy. Yusuf, on the other hand, was a real bag of laughs! There are many stories I could write about him but one of the best ones was that every time before you could see something important from the car, like the artificial lake created by the Atatürk dam or our first glimpse of Nemrut, he burst into "One, two, three, four - SURPRISE!!" Chanting along was obligatory.

We left at eight in the morning and came back past one at night because the car almost broke down and we had to take it slowly. I just visited the office of the tour agency and the manager told me all our money went into reparing the car. Bad luck, but that's business! All in all I have to say that I don't think I have ever felt that hot in my life. The air was absolutely baking! We stopped a lot of times before Mount Nemrut itself. About one hour after leaving Şanlıurfa was the huge Atatürk dam, and after that we stopped to take pictures of the Euphrates and the lake which was created by the dam (a lot of Kurdish villages now lie under the water).

Lunch was in Kâhta, a small ugly town full of gipsy children asking for money. Here we had some interesting "cheese pizza" wıth sugar sprinkled on top. From Kâhta, we made the short drive to the entrance of the national park.

I need to stop here but I'll continue another time, so come back to check for updates to thıs entry! I wish I could have ended in a more catchy way, like "It was then that we noticed our backpacks had vanished from the van, and kind old Yusuf had magically transformed into a sword-wielding maniac..."

June 22, 2006

Day three: Şanlıurfa

I've decided I should make a tour of Turkey one day, preferably with a friend. The country is really big and I'm only exploring one tiny corner of it! After three days of being on the road I feel like the journey is just beginning, but of course I want to go back to Damascus by Monday like I promised. It's tempting to know I could hop on a bus and tomorrow be in Istanbul, the Black Sea, or even Iran. But like I said, I'll leave all that for next time!

The breakfast at the hotel was surprisingly good considering it was included in the budget price. I went to look around the ottoman-era bazaar, which was interesting but nothing really amazing. I didn't find anything to buy.. took care of some practical things, like changing more money, but then I had to come back to my air-conditioned room because the heat was so overwhelming.

I went to get a haircut and a shave (necessary after I realised the shaving foam I bought yesterday was actually deodorant) for only 5 lira (at least ten times cheaper than in Helsinki) and walked around the old part of the city, where I was almost assaulted by playing children who were so fascinated in seeing a foreigner. Lunch - I already have something of a regular place to go here, the owner introduced himself to me as "Mister Kebab" - and then another rest at the hotel.

The people here are friendly and obviously don't see many tourists. Locals seem to just hang around the bazaar and the park, meeting friends and chatting. They have very annoying ringing tones - the Nokia tune is everywhere and today at the barber's a mobile burst into "Jingle Bells" - and love taking pictures with their phones. If asked for directions, they take you by the arm and point it out to you, almost shoving you in the right direction in the end. Mostly they are muslims, and very devout - I think many speak Arabic.

I climbed the hill to the castle today for great views on the city, which is really big. On my way back down, I met an American who had just arrived from Mount Nemrut. Something of a hippie, middle-aged, long white hair. He is now sitting in the next booth in this internet cafe because we ended up talking and went to have dinner together. I am the first foreigner he has seen in days (he's on a five-week trip around Turkey - my five days somewhat pale in comparison). On our way back from the sacred fish pools, we were approached by a Kurdish man who wanted to try out his English on us. He spoke English very well because he had spent time in the States before September 11th happened and he was kicked out.

Tomorrow, I'm going to make the tour to Mount Nemrut. I was really in bad luck because the man who runs the agency told me that since there were no other travellers I would have to rent the whole minibus for myself. This sounded ridiculous (and expensive), so I was already planning on packing up and moving to Kahta, the village nearest to the mountain, but then we got into negotiating. I got the price down considerably, but still had to pay much more than I was counting on. The manager told me this was the first time in 18 years business was so bad - there had been no tourists in two weeks. I anyway feel like I got a fair price.

So I'll be driving tomorrow with Yusuf, a man who speaks some English and keeps calling me his nephew (he explained it to me very clearly: my father is his brother) - we'll leave here at 7:30 in the morning. It's going to be a very long day - we'll see many sights on the way and arrive at Nemrut in time for the sunset, by the time we're back at the hotel it will be midnight. A long drive, and Yusuf already made me promise him I'll keep him entertained by singing. I can't wait.

June 21, 2006

Day two: Antakya-Şanlıurfa

The sun woke me up today by shining straight through the window - it was already very strong at 7.30. I had breakfast and walked over the street to the archeological museum, which was really interesting. The mosaics were as impressive as the ones at the Bardo museum in Tunis and there were other objects of antiquity as well, such as a sarchophagus. There were only about three other tourists and I spent less than an hour inside.

After the museum, it was time to move on. I checked out of the hotel and bought myself some food for the trip. Finding out which of the local buses went to the long-haul bus depot wasn't as easy as I thought but I finally found the right one and rode with the locals back to where I arrived yesterday from Aleppo. I liked Antakya and the people were helpful - as a matter of fact, the only person who didn't help me a bit was a policeman. Go figure.

The bus was big and new and left the station punctually at 11. At first, there were hardly any other passengers, but gradually the bus got fuller as people got on from what to me looked like the middle of nowhere. We started climbing steadily once we were outside Antakya, and to my surprise the driver went via Iskenderun, so I got a good look at the Mediterranean.

After that, though, we finally headed east and the bus didn't stop so much anymore. The road was narrow and boiling in the sun - close to 40 degrees celsius - and we went through hilly country which meant several tunnels and bridges. The service on the bus was great - the onboard assistant kept pouring some sort of cleaning oil on everybody's hands and bringing drinks for free. A well-built Muslim woman behind me was all the time trying to catch some sleep but the assistant was getting furious at her because her feet were blocking the corridor. In the end, she just stuck them through the two seats I was occupying. At one point she sort of collapsed on the floor and I thought she was going to be sick, but she had just spread out a small carpet and was possibly praying. Whatever she was up to, she most certainly wasn't facing Mecca.

Just before crossing the Euphrates, we stopped at a gas station for about half an hour and everyone went to relieve themselves and get something to eat. The river offered a nice change of scenery, but soon afterward we were back in desert country again (no more mountains). Until just before arriving in Sanliurfa it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, but then suddenly we pulled in at the otogar (bus station). The trip took exactly six hours and the bus then continued all the way to Diyarbakir, which is supposed to be a gloomy place as well as dangerous because it's the centre of the Kurdish insurgency.

The otogar was extremely confusing and I had to ask around about how to get to the centre. Once again, I was given a lift for free - I don't even know whether it was an official city bus or just someone's private van. I know it sounds a little suspicious, but let's just say I could see I could trust them. I'm staying at Hotel Ipek Palas - the price is the same as in Antakya (I just asked for a discount and they gave it to me - talk about persuading skills) and it's surrounded by several barbershops; perhaps a pressing hint to do something adventurous with my hair?

The first place I visited was the company which runs the trips to Mount Nemrut - sure enough, it's run by a local teacher who isn't very modest about the fact his services are all over the Lonely Planet guides. I came out slightly deflated because he told me there needed to be four tourists for the trip to be done and they hadn't been any trips in a whole week. However, I'm going to ask again tomorrow and I already saw another agency which runs tours there. And if it doesn't work out, I'll have to change my plans and take a bus somewhere near the mountain and take a tour from there.

This is an interesting city. I walked through the main street past all the shops and services until I came to the bazaar. I sort of went around it and came to a huge park which is something of a main attraction here. At the centre of the park, which was really cool and pleasant in the evening climate, are the Pools of Sacred Carp - probably one of the most unusual names for a tourist attraction I have ever heard. Sure enough, the pools are FULL of the stuff - At places it looked to me like there was more fish than water. It looked like a place where locals like to go for a walk and I also saw some other tourists, but they all looked Turkish. Some boys were selling fish food to throw into the pools and many people were doing that, but the sight of all those fish flapping on top of each other to get the food would have probably made many feel slightly squeamish.

The pools are connected with each other through rivers and there are at least two old mosques next to the park - one can also see the castle which is high above the city. I should try to go there tomorrow. I will also definitely go to see the pools again and explore more of the park. The bazaar should also be interesting. I was approached by a local who was studying English and wanted to try it out on me. He owned a textile store for winter clothes. Understandably, business was slow. It was difficult to imagine this place in winter - indeed, I think I have come to the hottest place in all of Turkey! After walking around, I finally had a warm meal at a restaurant next to the hotel.

The nicest thing about this trip is visiting places I know absolutely nothing about. Antakya and Sanliurfa feel like very secluded worlds, minding their own business and oblivious to the outside world. It's like they know the world isn't making a big fuss about them but they don't really care. I was looking at a map of Turkey today and I realised how far to the east this country spreads. One can hardly say I'm in Eastern Turkey, it's more like Central Turkey. People seem to only know about the Turkey of the west, around Istanbul and the beach resorts of the Mediterranean. But who has ever heard of Sanliurfa, or Van with its huge lake, or the other cities close to the Iranian and Iraqi borders? I feel like I have really come somewhere special.

June 20, 2006

Antakya (Hatay), Turkey

I am writing this post in an internet cafe in Turkey. I got here today, took a minibus from Aleppo. Border 'formalities' took an hour but the driver was really fast so the whole trip took three hours. Carlos and Dea saw me off at the bus station before going to the airport to catch theır airplane back to Damascus. I'll see them again when I get back to Finland because they are flying home on Friday.

It's going to take me ages to write this entry because the keyboard is in Turkish and I keep getting letters like ç or ş or ğ or ı and I can't change the language settings because EVERYTHING is in Turkish, I mean I just signed in to messenger and something came up asking me what I wanted to do and I didn't even know which button was cancel and which was continue! Really exotic :)

Our two days in Aleppo were really nice. The souq lived up to our great expectations although we took a while to find it. The hotel was top class without being flashy - an old courtyard house converted - and the food in Aleppo was really good, too! I also got the impression there were more tourists around than in Damascus. We visited the citadel yesterday - it was extremely hot! All in all, a successful short trip. All I can say is I hope Dea gets her chocolate crepes soon before somebody gets hurt ;) And I'm sorry about the ıPod cable!

Anyway, so I took the bus to Antakya wıth four other passengers. Some new people got on at the border. Instead of arriving at the bus station I had circled on my map, we ended up way outside the city at a huge bus depot with connections all the way to İstanbul! I was told I can take a minibus to the city but of course I didn't have any Turkish money and there was no bank at the station. Fortunately, one of the other passengers changed 15 euro for me, and at the right exchange rate - but I didn't need it because then the company gave me a lift to the centre for free.

Antakya is bigger than I expected. There are lots of shops and restaurants and the suburbs climb onto the surrounding mountains. I had a good walk around the city looking for a hotel - there's also a small bazaar and while the river that flows through the city is hardly idyllic, the bridges crossing it are a nice place to stroll. I ended up in Hotel Saray, in the middle of the centre. The room costs 15 euro one night and is very comfortable with air conditioning, a private bathroom and shower, a tv (only shows some crappy Turkish programs) and a fantastic view on the surrounding mountains.

One feels really hopeless here without knowing how to speak one word of Turkish. We're pretty much in the middle of nowhere so hardly anyone speaks English. It felt really great to find some ATMs - we found only one in Aleppo and it wasn't working. I had some kebab - well, this IS Turkey ;) and got some biscuits and water from a supermarket.

Tomorrow, I'm planning to visit the Archeological Museum which has one of the best collections of Roman mosaics in the world and is the prime attraction for miles here - in the afternoon I'll continue by bus to Şanlıurfa, a trip of about 6-7 hours. I was going to do it on Thursday but now that I'm here I feel like moving on towards the final destination. I wish I could post some pictures but I didn't bring my card-reader and this computer doesn't have a slot for my memory stick.

So here goes - my first ever post from Turkey! Good night, world!

June 14, 2006

Dreams etc

Last night, I again dreamt of travelling to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. In the dream, I was telling everyone how incredible it was that I always dreamt about that, but now I was really going there for the second time – it was really happening. Dream interpreters would probably think that this, the capital of remote Sakhalin island in the far east of Russia, will play a significant role in my life. That will be seen.

Yesterday, we went on a day trip to the south, close to the Jordanian border. We visited the villages of Shahba (interesting Roman ruins), Qanawat (not very interesting ruins) and Bosra (fantastic ruins!!). Bosra is home to one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in existence, and it’s huge. The sun was really strong and I got burnt. The fascinating thing about all these ruins is that the people who live in the villages practically live among the ruins. There is hardly any infrastructure to protect the ruins, such as fences or signs – people even go to get some ancient Roman stones for finally building their dream-house. Walking on sand, you suddenly stumble upon bits and pieces of an ancient mosaic. It’s like the fact that you’re living next to structures which were built thousands of years ago is the most natural thing.

Exploring the town of Bosra - this picture is not staged...
The sad thing is that these ruins would be worth so many more visitors. Of course it’s fantastic to be the only one sitting in such a huge amphitheatre, but the people in the villages really need the money of tourists who just don’t come anymore. It’s the same like when we were visiting the ruined city of Palmyra last year with Martin – people struggle to get a glimpse of a column somewhere in Italy and here we had a whole city of ruins for ourselves. Restaurants are empty and the people stand around, not knowing what to do with themselves or their camels. We had lunch in the only hotel in Bosra, which looked really nice and high class, and absolutely nobody was there. We ate in an empty restaurant where all the tables were set for a full-course meal. Just as we were leaving, though, we saw a huge group of Malaysian or Indonesian muslims with a guide coming to explore the amphitheatre.

The ampthitheatre at Bosra.
A couple of days ago, we were invited to some friends who lived in the eastern outskirts of Damascus. It was really interesting to see how people lived there, happy with what they had (a family of four sharing one bedroom and a living room). The hospitality was overwhelming, but that’s nothing new to people who visit the Middle East regularly – so much food! It kept coming. When we drove back in the small ancient Volkswagen of theirs, I felt like I was sitting in one of those movies they show at the amusement park, with moving chairs and a huge screen. The traffic was breathtakingly crazy, and it was past midnight.

Browsing for shoes downtown.
Two days ago, Carlos and I walked to the old town – the same walk I always do, through the Merjeh area and Souq Hamidiyeh to the Omayad mosque, which is the most important religious structure in Syria. Damascus can not really be called a beautiful city – some of the buildings are so ugly you can’t help but stare. The region where all the cheap eating and accommodation options are, around Martyr’s Square, is dirty and chaotic. However, there is so much hustle and bustle and so many people around that it’s still a nice experience walking around, just watching what the people are doing in their free time and what they are buying and eating. And the old town is definitely the jewel of Damascus – ancient, labyrinthine and bursting with people. The courtyard of the mosque is one of my favourite places here. It’s huge, very clean because people have to remove their shoes, and also bursting with activity – families and friends just sitting around, children running around trying to catch each other, and some people meditating in quiet contemplation. One is surrounded by the beautiful building with its exotic minarets, and it’s really beautiful. Nobody comes to ask you why you’re there or whether you are a muslim – everybody is welcome (although foreigners have to pay an entrance fee while Arabs don’t – I pass as an Arab :).

The Omayad mosque's courtyard.

June 10, 2006

World cup and picture comparisons

I went to some travel agencies today to find out some things about my trip to Turkey. Mostly I asked about flights inside Syria – the national carrier is Syrian Air with a catchy slogan: “Syria means Safety”. The network is pretty extensive and there are flights between Damascus and Aleppo almost every two hours. The office was one of the bleakest places I have ever been in – all white and clinical with one woman fumbling with her phone behind a computer. At least she spoke English. I left with some useful information and a timetable which is like something straight out of the Molvanian guidebook (pages and pages with DOMESTIC FLIFGHTS). By the way, prices are really cheap, a one way trip to Aleppo costs 20 US Dollars.

I still haven’t decided when to go and the exact route. I can either go to Turkey from Aleppo or from Latakia (however, the aircraft to Latakia is something with the suspicious name of Yak-4, I’ll have to do some internet research on its reliability). The only flights from here to Turkey are to Istanbul, and that doesn’t help me at all. Carlos, Dea and I are probably going to make a two-day trip to Aleppo anyway, I’m really interested in seeing the old town, which, according to many sources, is the “most vibrant and untouristy market area in the Middle East” I

Imrali island, in the middle of the Sea of Marmara. I took the top picture from the airplane and the one below is an image from Google Earth.

Anyway, there are very many travel agencies here. Almost all the major international airlines are represented, including Austrian, KLM, and Iraqi airways (boarded up right now).

The streets are eerily empty in the afternoons because of the football matches. I watched both matches yesterday and now we’ll probably sit and watch Sweden play against Trinidad and Tobago. We had fantastic food today at my aunt’s again: sfiha, something like Arabic meat pizzas with yoghurt, fresh salad, and some grilled chicken. It’s funny how the vegetables here taste so good although they’re practically grown in the desert.

Today is my class reunion. I’m a little disappointed I can’t be there because it would have been great fun to see who turns up. The cats have gone crazy, by the way. Sousan can’t stop howling and Grozney is even more affectionate than usual. I hope Nana gives them their pills soon. Daisy is still her usual self.

Damascus international airport. On my top three list of "most frequently flown to-airports"

June 08, 2006

One thing never changes here – it’s hot. Around 36 degrees, sometimes peaking at 40 in the middle of the day. In the evening, though, there’s a nice cool breeze and it’s pleasant to sit on the balcony. Yesterday we all squeezed ourselves onto it – my grandparents, their three children and in-laws and us, the third generation – and there were so many conversations going on that Zorba, the family parrot, was in seventh heaven. He’s behind me right now, imitating every voice in the house, from Nana answering the phone to Grozney the cat mewing.

The city has been gripped by World Cup fever – many cars have national flags ranging from Iran to Brazil waving at the back, while some stores have suddenly converted into only selling football paraphernalia. Walking through one of the shopping areas today I got the impression some new stores have opened and there is more variety in Western clothing, especially shoes. There even is a Kentucky Fried Chicken (an original one, not fake “Kuwaiti Food Company” like some years ago) just next to our house.

However, Damascus still is a city where time seems to pass much slower than elsewhere in the world. Sure, the traffic is crazy and the people lively, but the streets look like they’re “straight from the stone ages” (quote from my uncle), a window pane on my grandparents’ balcony is still smashed because my mother hit it with her knee when she was five, and the shopkeeper across the street, where we go to get our groceries, has probably been there forever.

Started reading Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore” and watched one and a half episodes of Lost today. We had lunch at my aunt’s: fantastic Indian food. Still haven’t made the traditional walk to the Old Town and back – but there’s still time for that. We’ve practically been here just over 24 hours. I’ll join the others on the balcony now. Have a good weekend!


Picture comparisons for this post are already available, but because of a very slow internet connection, I hope to post them later.
Flying to Damascus is always a fun experience, especially in terms of people-watching. The excitement starts at the gate (C57 for as long as I remember), where the Syrians start queuing up long before boarding begins. Here you have people, usually members of huge families coming to visit their home for the first time in years, carrying what looks like their whole fortune with them in bulky bags and boxes. They throw all their passports at the officer at once while their children play hide-and-seek between other passengers’ legs. At security, they awkwardly spread their arms for the security officer (usually female so nobody feels humiliated) to check them. Little boys are asked to remove their sneakers and put them on the conveyor belt, and they happily run around the waiting area without shoes.

Once inside the airplane, the commotion really starts. Many people don’t know how to interpret their boarding passes and just take any free seat available, causing the line to block up and the stewardesses to despair. Fathers command their children to sit close to their mother, who is in a wrong seat anyway. The families who can understand what their seats are complain to the stewardesses that the whole bunch is sitting all over the plane. The huge bulky cabin baggage items are laboriously lifted into the overhead compartments while babies scream for their mothers.

Austrian Airlines workers must have to wear some of the ugliest uniforms in the world – it’s not that red is unattractive, it’s just that the shoes and stockings and lipstick just make them look like circus entertainers. They try their very best at keeping patient and helping the passengers although they are stretched to their very limits. Yesterday, one of them had to run out of her seat and force a boy to sit down while the plane was taking off.

After just three hours of flying, the plane lands in Damascus international airport – the women start crying, the children squeal and the men whoop, and almost every time the whole plane erupts in applause. Who said flying was boring?

June 06, 2006

The trip begins

I wanted to write an entry in this blog before leaving Helsinki, but this turned out impossible because I only slept just over an hour before the trip as it was. Last week seems to me like a blur of things I took care of because I had to (last formalities at university before the end of the term) and things I wanted to do (restoring my apartment to absolutely perfect shape).

Two evenings do, however, stand out from the blur - one is Dominante's concert in Leppävaara last Tuesday, a performance where the air seemed to be filled with a magic that doesn't always create itself at concerts, and CM Swing's show on Sunday (less than 24 hours before leaving) in Gloria, which was simply one huge piece of fun to last for the next weeks. Picture below.

Yesterday, I could still taste the campari on my tongue when my two synchronised alarm clocks rang at 5:15. Dragging my 27 kg suitcase (only 6kg lighter than it was when we returned from Hong Kong less than two weeks ago) and myself outside to wait for the taxi was a struggle, but the sky was so clear and the street so blissfully silent I felt revived and took some pictures.

Once we had checked in at the airport and passed through security, I finally got some juice at Robert's Coffee and felt that life was, after all, manageable, even though replulsion wasn't far either when I saw how many people were having alcohol at seven in the morning. We flew to Vienna on a small plane with the Turkish volleyball team, which consisted of men so tall they made everyone look like dwarfs - one of them was wearing a dazzling silver pin-stripe suite which made him look like he just stepped out from the set of Moulin Rouge and provided the first good laugh of the day.

Once in Vienna, where we are living at the house of my father's aunt and her son, all I managed to do was sleep and sleep,which really was a good idea because of the short nights of last week. Today we spent the day downtown, cruising through the classical music stores, having Wienerschnitzel and some spectacular cake, and browsing what was on offer at the Naschmarkt, where I got some trousers very similar to the ones I bought in Otavalo (Ecuador) but which already have a huge hole in a most uncomfortable spot. They are from Nepal.

It's already past nine and I think I'll get ready for bed now bit by bit, tomorrow we'll leave for the airport at 7:30 and land at DAM international airport at three o'clock. Let's see if I'll have the inspiration to keep this blog running during the one month-trip, I hope someone is reading this - feel free to drop me a line or ask any question and I'll be happy to answer!

June 03, 2006


This is just a test to see if my blog is still working. For some reason, I can't open it from my computer. I hope to write a new entry before leaving after tomorrow.