Wednesday, December 27, 2006 Syria Syria / Turkey Turkey

Into the axis of evil™

We didn't see much play in the salon, but it sounds exciting. [IMG_0666]
Antakya bus station [Enlarge]

We had nothing planned for boxing day apart from our evening journey to the city in the south of Turkey called Antakya or Hatay (it can't seem to decide which name to use, but anyway, it's the Biblical city of Antioch). From there we would be taking the overnight bus which would see us arriving in Aleppo, Syria some time in the morning. As it had snowed during the night and was still snowing (pity the people doing the mountain hike that day), we thought we would spend the day in the warm uploading our photos to flickr. Up to the point where we left İstanbul we had found enough free internet access to keep up to date with the photos and the blog, but now we were in the sticks we hadn’t been near a computer for over a week. We were in the internet café for so long that the owner eventually gave us a free glass of tea.

Having fully caught up, we returned to the Cappadocia Palace hotel at 15:15 ready for our transfer to the bus station. Yuki drove us down the hill to the bus station, and with the snow and ice on the road we were glad we hadn't walked. The following is what the Yuki tours guy had told us would happen next:

  • Catch the 16:00 bus from Ürgüp to Adana, arriving at something like 20:00. He gave us a pair of handwritten tickets for this leg.
  • Someone would be waiting for us at Adana, to give us tickets and show us where to catch the bus to Antakya. It would leave at 22:00 and arrive at 23:30.
  • Someone would be waiting for us at Antakya, to give us tickets and show us where to catch the bus to Aleppo. It would leave at 00:00 and arrive at something like 08:00.

This bore no resemblance to the itinerary we had been given by Hayden in İstanbul (for a start, he said we would go via Kayseri rather than Adana), but the Yuki man was insistent that everything would be fine, this was better and faster, and there was "no problem". Again those two words. We had no real option but to go with it and trust that it would work out. Here is what actually happened next.

Catch the 16:00 bus from Ürgüp to Adana, arriving at something like 20:00.

We went into the office and walked up to the Nevşehir bus company desk to ask about the 16:00 bus to Adana. "No bus" came the response. "Servis to Nevşehir, then bus to Adana." He refused to answer any questions about when the next servis would be leaving for Nevşehir, again saying "no problem". Unable to debate in Turkish we just had to wait it out, and eventually after much confusion a minibus pulled up and the man pointed at it and said "Nevşehir" so we got in.

We arrived at Nevşehir at about 16:45 and found out that the next bus to Adana was the 17:00. We now had no idea whether we were on track or not, and we were a bit worried because our changeover times didn't have a great deal of slack in them. Nevertheless it looked like we would be OK to get to Adana for 20:00.

Someone would be waiting for us at Adana, to give us tickets…

Because of the snow and ice our bus was badly delayed and we actually arrived at Adana an hour late at 21:00. However, since our bus out of Adana was not until 22:00, we were relieved that things seemed to be working out OK, just as we had been promised. And then it started going very wrong. There was nobody waiting at Adana to meet us. We walked around the coach and stood in the bay for twenty minutes or so, but it was obvious that we were not going to be met. We heard a voice from a nearby coach shouting "Hatay! Antakya!" (these are the same place, remember). This was where we needed to be so maybe it was just a matter of getting on. The steward was very happy to see us and showed us to our seats, but he spoke no English. He got out a pad and wrote "24.00" on it. We waved our itinerary and vouchers at him, and insisted that we had already paid, but of course this meant nothing. He wasn't expecting us, and if he was going to take us to Antakya, he wanted payment. So we got off the bus again and watched as it drove out of the station. The last leg of the journey had been with the Nevşehir bus company, so in desperation we went in search of the Nevşehir desk. Maybe they would know what was going on. They didn't. Our itinerary and vouchers from Hayden in İstanbul meant nothing to them.

Now we were pretty pissed off and out of options. Throughout the journey through Turkey, we would have saved a fortune and had a much easier time if we had bought our own tickets and made our own way. We could have bought all the tours locally, again much cheaper. We were much more annoyed that we had been so badly ripped off by Hayden in İstanbul and belived his crap about "don't worry, it always works out", than we were about being stranded in a vast unknown bus station with night approaching, hundreds of miles from where we needed to be.

We got out the mobile and rang Yuki Tours. It being 21:30, nobody answered. Remembering that the owner of the Cappadocia Palace Hotel was also the owner of Yuki Tours, we rang there. We managed to communicate the problem to them and they promised that someone would call us back. Sure enough, someone did, and he told us to find the office of the 'HAS Tours' bus company, and ask them to phone the Cappadocia Palace Hotel. A way forward at last. We found HAS, but could we convince the man behind the desk to make a long distance phone call to the other side of Turkey on the say so of a couple of backpackers who spoke no Turkish? Of course not. He flatly refused. So we took his card and called the Cappadocia Palace again to tell them to phone him.

Over the next few minutes much animated negotiation went on over the phone between Yuki Tours and HAS. Eventually the HAS man said "come". We followed him to the Nevşehir desk—they were the only bus company with offices in both Ürgüp and Adana, so they were going to be the intermediary for what was about to happen. After a lot more gesticulating and speaking on the phone, the Nevşehir man gave some money to the HAS man. The HAS man told us to come back at 23:00, and he would give us a ticket on their 23:15 bus to Antakya. Presumably Yuki would sort it out with Nevşehir in their Ürgüp office. Whatever.

It was 10pm. We had an hour to kill, and we now knew we were going to have exactly the same problem at Antakya. We decided to phone Hayden on the mobile number he'd given us. Amazingly, he answered. He confirmed what we'd suspected: that Yuki should have given us cash or vouchers for the buses all the way to Aleppo. He said he'd call them and make sure we would be OK at Antakya.

We found a warm place to sit in the waiting room and Glenn went off to find out where the bus to Antakya would be leaving from, leaving Isla to guard the bags. He hadn't been gone a minute when a man in a chair opposite Isla suddenly clutched his chest, fell forwards onto the floor and began to have some kind of seizure. Through the glass wall of his office next door a transport policeman hesitated and then seemed to resign himself to the fact that this probably was part of his job and came through to help. A few other men clustered round the man and tried to restrain him. After a few minutes someone came in with half an onion to hold under the poor man's nose. In spite of their help he came round after a few minutes and seemed to refuse any other assistance. Glenn had come back, talking on the mobile, half way through the performance and Isla admitted that she was so on edge she had at first thought it was some kind of scam. Late night bus travel makes you very cynical.

Glenn was on the phone to Hayden's boss, who had obviously been on the line to Yuki. He was very sorry and promised he would sort everything out. There was a direct bus from Adana to Aleppo, so he would get us a ticket on that and we wouldn't even need to change at Antakya. He told us to go back to the HAS desk and wait there—he was about to phone them. There was some more behind the scenes negotiation and we were given a paper ticket to Antakya and YTL 15 to buy a ticket to Aleppo from there. We protested that we had been assured we would get a ticket all the way to Aleppo, at which the HAS man told us that Hayden's boss was wrong, there were only direct buses in the summer. We would be changing at Antakya after all, and, even better, we'd be arriving into Antakya at 02:00 and the bus out was not until 09:00.

There then followed a night bus experience pretty similar to the previous one.

At 02:15, the coach dropped us outside Antakya Otogar. We walked through the freezing night into the concourse. The place was deserted and almost everything was closed, but there was someone at the HAS desk. We wanted to buy our ticket to Aleppo with the 15 Lira we'd been given at Adana, so that at least we would know that we were going to be on the 09:00 bus out. The man sitting behind the HAS desk was wrapped in a blanket, and had an electric heater on behind him. Another man was lurking close by. We asked about the bus to Aleppo. The man behind the desk didn't seem to speak English, but the lurking one did, and his face fell. "Border closed—festival of Eid al-Adha." He would have fooled us but for the fact that he then tried to persuade us that although the border to Aleppo was closed, he knew a man who could get us across by taxi—for a consideration, of course: 70 US dollars (GBP 36). By now we had realised that the man at the HAS desk was just some sort of squatter who wanted to use their heater, and we managed to get the lurking man to admit that the HAS desk would open for business at 07:00. He told us that we were wasting our time, they would only confirm what he was telling us. We didn't believe it (even Ayala Travel in İstanbul wouldn't be so incompetent as to sell us a tour of Syria that we couldn't actually take, surely?) so we decided to sit the night out and wait. We told him we would think about it and would get back to him at 07:00.

There was no warm waiting room at Antakya—the seats were all in the freezing cold concourse. We found a seat as far away from the fierce draught from the main door as we could. We zipped up our coats and pulled on our hats and gloves. At about 03:00 we were approached by a man with a HAS uniform on. What were we doing here? Why didn't we come upstairs to the café upstairs where it was warmer and we could drink some tea. We liked the sound of 'warmer'. When we got upstairs the HAS man disappeared, but another guy immediately pounced and asked if we would like to change some money. From one of his many pockets he pulled out a huge wad of notes in some sort of attempt to prove that he was serious. We did need some Syrian pounds, but not until we had a bus ticket and knew we were actually going to Syria. We told him "not yet—when we have a ticket" and he took this as an opportunity to bargain. His exchange rate improved. We said "really, not yet". Throughout the rest of the night he came over at regular intervals to try to convince us, and by the end of the night we actually looked forward to his visits because they broke the monotony. At 05:30 the owner of the café turned up for work and having tried to sell us some breakfast, made it clear that if we weren't planning to eat or drink, we were no longer welcome in his café. So we walked back downstairs to the concourse. The place was definitely beginning to come to life, but the HAS desk was still not populated by proper HAS people. We hung around near the desk trying to get some warmth from the heater at the back of the office. Finally, at 06:58, the desk opened and we were straight in there with our money. Of course the border was not closed, and in a matter of minutes we had our tickets. The money changer was waiting for us because we had told him that we would change some money once we had a ticket. He honoured the rate he had promised us, which was actually much better than we would have got at a proper booth. OK, it could have been funny money but we had seen him getting plenty of business with locals through the night, and we only wanted a little to get us started in Syria. Ticket bought and money in the pocket, by now the sun had risen and we only had the small matter of two hours more to kill, so we bought some Doritos for breakfast and went to the back of the bus station where the sun was coming in through the windows. We stood in the sunlight to thaw out and eat our breakfast.

At 09:15 we discovered that the transport to Aleppo was a minibus rather than a coach, but minibuses are actually better for crossing borders in because the waiting around for the other passengers to get the passports stamped and luggage searched is much less. Our fellow passengers were a Turkish mother and daughter and two Syrian men. After a while we arrived at the sprawling border crossing complex, which was also a building site as they are doing some major renovations.

As we arrived at Turkish customs, a border guard walked over to the minibus and our driver got out. He came round to the side door, and pulled a crate of bottled water from under Isla's seat. He handed it to the guard, who walked away happy. No words were exchanged and it seemed that this was HAS's way of ensuring that we had a nice easy border crossing. Contraband water!

Then at Turkish passport control we got out and queued at a window for our exit stamp. A man pushed us in at the front of the queue and then wanted some baksheesh for the privilege. He got one of our last Turkish coins and seemed pleased with it.

No-man's land consisted of about a mile of countryside and included at least one abandoned village. It also contained thousands of lorries queuing up to enter Turkey. They lined both sides of the road, nose to tail, and as we turned the final corner before reaching the duty free shops, the queue opened out into a four-wide stream of lorries who were queuing up to be allowed to enter the main queue! Throughout no-man's land there were mountains of rubbish, and the remains of several camp fires. The lorry drivers must have been there for days or weeks.

Our minibus's next stop was at Duty Free, followed by another at Syrian passport control. The sign on the Syrian building said 'Post Office', but the driver told us that was where we needed to be so we went in and up to the counter. There was no queue at the 'foreigners' window and the official behind the desk took Glenn's passport and gave him a small blue form to fill in. It asked exactly the same questions as the visa application form had. Obviously they wanted to make sure that they got the same answers as they had done previously, or maybe they just don't have a joined-up database. When Glenn had completed his form, the official stamped it, and the visa. Then he took Isla's passport and gave her a form. While she was filling it in, the man got bored, and gestured for her to pass it through the window to him, only partially completed. He stamped it and said she could take it away and fill the rest in later! We would need the blue forms when we left the country. With our passports and forms we got back on the bus.

Another box of bottled water changed hands at Syrian customs and we drove through without any checks.

And then we were inside the Axis of Evil. It didn't seem very evil, although it did look and feel different from Turkey. Firstly, the soil is very red and there are olive trees planted everywhere. Secondly, the moment we crossed the border the two Syrian men on the bus suddenly became very friendly and started talking to us in pretty good English. They were working in Turkey, but were going home for the festival of Eid al-Adha, which would be happening for four of the days that we were spending in Syria. They were very happy to be going home for a while. The final difference we noticed immediately was that the bus driver turned into a horn-honking, headlight flashing, death-wish overtaking maniac, which seems to be the Syrian way of driving. At every new country we have been in, the driving standard has made the previous country seem like a model of consideration and mild manners. We stopped at the first fuel station we came to and the driver filled up with petrol which cost a third of the Turkish price (diesel is a tenth the price). After 40 km on fast, four-lane road we arrived in Aleppo. We fought our way through the traffic and finally came to a stop in a square of tarmac called the bus station. Yet again we were due to be met by someone, and for a change we actually were! Hayden's boss had clearly been on the phone. Our contact walked us round the corner to the Spring Flower Hostel, showed us to our room and suggested that we take a shower, have a rest for an hour or so and then come upstairs to the roof terrace to have some tea and to meet our guide. We liked Syria already.

Map of Day 032

Day 032
Urgup to Aleppo

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.