“Nobody ever believes me, but these really are the great destinations you should be going to right now and, in a way, we’ve got George Bush to thank.”
…before doing his best to look friendly out in the desert
Past and present: A Syrian girl uses head and mobile at the same time
Tourist-free tourism: Dom visits the citadel of Aleppo in Syria…
Holidays in the Axis of Evil. It might not sound like your cup of tea but these are currently the ‘hot’ destinations in the Joly household.
I’ve recently been to both Syria and Iran and, say what you like about the foreign policies of Damascus and Tehran, you won’t find a Starbucks, a Gap or a hen party fighting in the street in either of them.
Syria is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I arrived in Damascus, a bustling, exciting city, and spent a wonderful evening wandering the ancient streets and eating in the hidden courtyard of an old Arab house that had been turned into a restaurant.
The following day I headed north and climbed all over the fortifications of the beautiful Crusader castle of Krak Des Chevaliers, totally untroubled by anybody else. The man who issued tickets at the gate was fast asleep and seemed shocked to see a visitor. I found my way through the complicated sets of steps and turrets until I was at the very top, overlooking the surrounding countryside just as the Crusaders would have done 600 or so years ago.
Further north, I wandered the impressive Roman colonnades of Apamea without a single other person in sight. News, however, travelled fast to a local village that there was a ‘tourist’, and a solitary man eventually appeared and offered his services as a ‘guide’. I politely declined and he sauntered off to sit on a distant rock and observe this curious alien creature.
Arriving in Aleppo late at night, I found a bed at the famous Baron Hotel, a place where Lawrence of Arabia once laid his weary head. I necked a couple of stiff gin and tonics at the bar (Syria is not a dry country – the beer there is some of the finest I have tasted and can also, weirdly, be used to wash your hair should you forget your shampoo) and chatted to the barman, Georges, who remembered times when the hotel was full of tourists. He was sad that it was now not what it was and I nodded sympathetically, although secretly I was delighted to be pretty much the only guest, as I was treated like royalty.
Aleppo is a magical city with a beautiful citadel towering above it and a magnificent souk that you can get lost in for hours. Everyone was incredibly friendly and pleased to see me. I lost count of the number of times I was ushered into little shops and had sweet cups of tea pressed into my hands. Whatever the differences of our respective governments, it seems this is of little interest on the Syrian street.
I ended my journey there in Palmyra, an extraordinary town in the middle of the desert. It was once the base of Queen Zenobia, the Syrian equivalent of Boadicea – she fought the Romans to a standstill before they finally overran the place. I stayed in the Zenobia Hotel, right in the middle of the ruins surrounding the town.
Palmyra is breathtaking – a ruined castle sits on a hill overlooking the whole town and there must be three or four square miles of Roman ruins, amphitheatres, colonnades, bath houses and temples. As usual, I had the place to myself – there was talk of a couple of Italian tourists in town but I never saw them.
I think the only time I ever felt remotely threatened was completely my fault. Someone in Palmyra had told me about this salt lake a couple of miles outside town. I decided to pay it a visit and drove out there in my Land Cruiser.
Yellow fever: Brightly coloured mosque domes in Aleppo
When I got there I couldn’t resist trying a bit of ‘desert’ driving and was happily roaring about the place when I heard gunfire. I stopped the car and got out slowly. From my left I could see a man holding an AK-47 running towards me from a tiny hut I hadn’t noticed before. I was terrified. Had I stumbled on some secret military base?
It turned out that the man was paid to look after the salt lake – from what, I never quite got to the bottom of – and he was not impressed with my off-roading all over his charge. He’d fired several warning shots over my vehicle in protest and was now keen to remonstrate.
Fortunately, like most things in Syria, it went better than I could have hoped. I apologised for using his salt lake as a racetrack and he soon relaxed. I don’t think he got many visitors and he appreciated the company. He scuttled off to his little hut and brought back three cold beers which we shared in the shade of my vehicle.
He then saw me staring at his rifle and handed it over to me for inspection. Within a couple of minutes I was firing the thing at our empty beer bottles that my new friend was hurling into the air. You don’t get this type of experience in Magaluf…
We parted the best of friends and I gave him a Pussycat Dolls CD that I happened to have in the car. He seemed more interested in the front cover than the music but I hope it gave him pleasure.
This unusually friendly attitude towards visitors isn’t just found in Syria. A couple of weeks ago I was in Tehran and had the time of my life. Iran really is a ‘dry’ country and I presumed it would be a difficult place to enjoy myself in. Far from it. The Iranians are incredibly hospitable and, without giving away too much, they are also keen home-brewers and so ‘refreshments’ were never a problem.
At first sight, Tehran is not an overly attractive city, although it lies right beneath a huge mountain range and the snowcapped peaks give it a beautiful setting. I was here to go skiing but spent a day wandering around and quickly fell in love with the place.
The Central Bazaar is a hive of industry and a godsend for people-watchers such as me. I took a seat in a coffee shop and watched as porters carrying huge bales of the black cloth used to make the all-encompassing burkas worn by many Iranian women fought their way through the crowds of shoppers.
The Great Satan: Anti-USA messages in the Iranian capital Tehran
A stranger suddenly loomed in front of me and grabbed my hand: ‘Thank you for coming here, thank you… ‘ He was beaming with pleasure and walked on as if it was his job to thank personally every tourist who visited his city.
This seemed to be a common thread, a palpable frustration at the lack of visitors and active encouragement whenever I was spotted. Tehran is a city of museums – unvisited museums. I went to the Carpet Museum, a place that had been set up by the late Shah’s wife, and very impressive it was too. The man at the door was so excited to have a visitor that he insisted on giving me a personal tour.
Later that evening I headed off to a little local restaurant that a friend in London had recommended. I ate fesenjan, an amazing lamb stew with walnuts and pomegranates. Visiting the old American Embassy was a particular joy. Plastered all over the walls surrounding it are bombastic phrases such as ‘The United States is too weak to do anything’ and ‘America will face a severe defeat’. Above the entrance was a sign announcing a ‘Great Satan Exhibition’ but they wouldn’t let me in so I’ll have to catch it when it visits the British Museum.
Every Iranian I met was very embarrassed by these signs of the revolution and couldn’t understand why I would be interested in them. I caught sight of a huge ‘Down with the USA’ painted on the side of a whole block of flats but had to really work to persuade my taxi driver to stop and let me photograph it.
I left Tehran the next day and spent three days in the mountains above, skiing to my heart’s content. The pistes are fabulous and I had a wonderful time. The slopes have recently been de-segregated so everyone was skiing together and it was often hard to remember that I was supposed to be in the Axis of Evil.
I flew home longing to see more of Iran, such as the great desert city of Isfahan or the ruins of Persepolis. Nobody ever believes me, but these really are the great destinations you should be going to right now and, in a way, we’ve got George Bush to thank. For my next trip, I hope to visit North Korea or Libya – my wife fancies Italy but it’s not my bag. I think a weekend in Pyongyang or a leisurely couple of days exploring Leptis Magna is just what the doctor ordered. I’ll send you a postcard … if I can find one.