Monday, June 29, 2009

Damascus [updated with pics and more; previously posted 10/03/09]

I had a horrible flight from Istanbul to Damascus - really bad turbulence a good part of the way. I had white knuckles most of the trip, when really, I wanted to be sleeping. Other than that, my entrance to Syria was fine. Making my way to my hotel had a few setbacks, though. I wrote about that in another post. Basically, the airport bus didn't stop at the station shown on the map, so I had to find a ride with some other travelers to where I wanted to be. Then, I found out that my originally planned hostel/hotel was full. :O I didn't have to wander too far and found a bed in a co-ed dorm at a hostel next door (it was the only bed they had left available).
After I had gone to bed, one of the guys arrived. He is from Japan and is one month into a three month trip around the Middle East. We talked for a short time before I fell asleep. I slept fairly well. I didn't wake up at all when the other two arrived. I woke up at 7:30 and went back to sleep. Too early. I got up at maybe 8:30, got ready and went down for breakfast. Breakfast was fresh bread (still nice and warm), an apple, a cheese triangle, butter and jam, a hard boiled egg, tahini and a couple of olives. Not a bad breakfast.[a random building... not sure what it is, but I like it]
After breakfast I took some clothes down to be washed and then wandered over to the Old City part of Damascus. I walked around the Citadel (it is closed to the public)[statue of Saladin in front of the Citadel]
and then through the old souqs (SO long!!) and back alleys until the Ummayad Mosque was open at 10:30.[in a long covered souq. fairly early so not all of the shops were open]I love wandering. :)In front of the mosque is the remains of an old (temple?) gate, at one end of a very long covered souq. The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque, is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. The mosque used to be a church but was converted into a mosque.To enter the mosque, I had to wear a funny grey robe. The mosque really is very grand. It is HUGE!!! And beautiful.I mentioned the mosque when writing about the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul - because there is a shrine in the mosque which also claims to contain the head of St. John the Baptist (the one who baptized Jesus).At least 6 different places claim to posses his head. There also several claims of possesion of his arm (with which he baptized Jesus) and other such things. The mosque is important to Muslims for many reasons, one of which is that it is said to be where the Prophet Mohammed's grandson and other descendents were improsoned during the Battle of Karbala.There is a shrine in the mosque that contains the heads of those people who died in Karbala. Next to (connected to) the shrine is a small box like inset where the head of Husayn ibn Ali (the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed) was kept. Next to the mosque is the tomb of Saladin.
After spending some time in the mosque, I had tea at An Nafura, a little coffee/sheesha shop behind the mosque. Nice, but too much ash was blowing around from all the sheeshas.I walked around the Old City for so long. It really is like a labyrinth with winding alleys, some ending in dead ends, some covered (some with quite low roofs).Some were even leaning!! Such an amazing place to go through. Many of the streets and alleys are souqs (traditional markets) selling all sorts of things from clothes to housewares (in different alleys, though).I eventually found the Azem Palace. So nice!!I wasn't allowed to take pictures in the rooms, though. They were set up sort of like a museum. One room in the palace is for the bride. The whole purpose of the room is for the bride to get ready for the wedding. She bathes, and then takes around 2 days to prepare for the wedding.I did take some pics in the central courtyard, though.
After checking out the palace, I went through some more of the souqs. I bought some snacks - sesame snacks and ones made with pistachios (sort of like peanut brittle but made with pistachios), and some dried apricots.I ate a late lunch at Leila's Restaurant. It is in a beautiful courtyard about a floor below the ground level. It is open to the sky, but there is a roof that they pull over if the weather is bad.The bathrooms are pretty much caves (but fancy caves!). I had fattoush and a banana milk to drink.The waiter was a bit odd. He brought my food, disappeared and when I had just snapped a picture of my dish, he returned with a plate and started scooping the salad from the bowl onto a small plate, pretty much dumping some of it in my lap. :O I said I could do it on my own, but even after spilling on the table and my lap, kept going, making a bit of a mess of everything. Strange!!! Then he didn't return for so long. I finished eating and ordered some tea. The tea took a long time to come.It isn't the cheapest restaurant in the area. I had expected a bit more in terms of service. After I paid the bill, which included 10% service fee, the waiter didn't bring all of my change but rather gave himself a tip by rounding the bill up. I was certainly not impressed.
I nearly got lost wantering about the souqs again. I covered several of the alleys more than once or even twice, and it seemed as if sometimes I was going in circles!!I love the spices!
The only people that talked to me other than sales people trying to sell things to me, are a few women, and a girl who was walking with her father and brother. They asked where I'm from and what my name is. The girl and her father and brother were kinda sweet and were trying to talk to me for a while, as we were walking in the same direction for several minutes.
I headed back to the hotel and then, for some reason, decided to eat again. I asked at the hotel where I could get food nearby. The guy said there are a couple of places I could get sandwiches up and to the right. I went where he said, but found no sandwich type places. I went into a little restaurant. The only English anywhere was on the window, where it said, "MEALS COOKING." I asked what they had and the guy took me to a display case near the back and pointed out everything in English.I got rice (some sort of curry-ish seasoned rice) and a vegetable dish. Flat bread is in bags on the tables and is pretty much help yourself. The food was excellent, and cheap. Then it was off to the Internet to do some posting, and bedtime was upon me.[the crooked stairs up to the 3rd floor where my room was]

Istanbul III [updated with pics and more; first posted 09/03/09]

I got up fairly early, got ready to go and headed up for breakfast. This time I tried the plain omelet. Like the french toast, it was a bit oily. I had some bread with it (a couple of slices of baguette).
Then I got a photo copy of my passport and driver's license (luckily I have it with me) and it was back, once again, to the Syrian embassy. When I got there, there was no line-up, and since I had already filled out the form the day before, all I had to do was hand everything to the woman behind the counter. I then had to go down to the bank to pay the fee, and then go back to the counter. She gave me a receipt and said to come back at 2:30. I had to be back then, as it was the last work day of the week, and they would be closed Monday. I had a few hours to waste, so I went for a bit of a walk and then took a taxi to Kabatas.I walked along the seaside, taking pictures of the mosques and other historic buildings along the way.I love mosques and churches.They are all such beautiful buildings.[a university: Mimar Sinan Guzel Sanatlar Universitesi Kultur ve Sanat Merkezi][??]Almost every mosque there had a small (or not so small) structure nearby for Muslims to do their ablution (washing/cleansing) before entering the mosque to pray.After I had my fill of mosques for he day, I wandered up the hill along a small side street.I had seen a little church from the main road and thought maybe I could find it. I did eventually find it, but the large gates were closed.After a bit more wandering, I stumbled across the Galata Tower.Built in 1348, the nine story tower is a very important and visible landmark in Istanbul.As it is on top of a hill, there is a good view of the city all around it from the top floor look out.Entrance was 10 TL. I had lunch in a little cafe near the tower. The waiter suggested the special donair, served the proper way. It is meat (beef) with a special sauce, over squares of bread, with unsweetened yogurt on the side.It was delicious! I still had a lot of time left, so I walked back down to the seaside and went to the Galata Bridge.Fishermen lined the sides of the bridge. Under the road part of the bridge is a pedestrian bridge, with restaurants the entire way. I decided to sit and have some tea at one of them.The waiter, Mehmet, stayed and chatted with me for a bit. Apparently fish and lures sometimes come flying into the restaurant (from the fishermen above). The lines come down past the pedestrian section the entire way. Mehmet said that only a couple of weeks before, he had been hit in the head by a little bait fish. LOL. My tea was free. :) Usually tea is free for customers, so Mehmet decided not to charge me. Yay.
Finally, I got my VISA.
I went back to my hotel to book my flight to Syria. That was a bit mistake as they really overcharged me for the flight. Lesson learned. Look around a bit for flights!!!!
My friend Omer met me at my hotel at 7:30. I met Omer in university and he has been living in Istanbul for the past 6 years. The plan: dinner and then drinks in Taksim area. We took the tram. At Kabatas, we tried to transfer to the Kabatas-Taksim short line. We got on, and waited. And waited. And waited. There were technical difficulties and the train wasn't working. So after all that waiting, we got off and went back up to the street. We tried to catch a taxi, but they were all full (due to so many people not being able to take the short line). Eventually we got one and made it to Taksim square. We walked along Istiklal to the restaurant. It was great! :) We had salad and a chicken dish. The restaurant is fairly high up, with no elevator. 6th floor?After eating, we went to meet some of his friends at another restaurant. They were gathered for a birthday party. They were drinking raki, which is made from anise seed. YUCK. I didn't even taste it. I know I don't like anise seed. They pour a shot or so into a glass and then add ice and water. The water makes it turn a milky white. Strange. Eventually we headed out in search of a bar called Cuba. We eventually found it but it was packed. So we went to a little bar called Lokal. It was great fun. The bar used to be a cafe, and it looks like it. The DJ is so funny!!!! He really doesn't look the part but is really good. After a few drinks (and dancing), we went to another bar, Menthe, where his friends had moved to. It is TINY!!!!! After everyone else started heading out, we decided to go back to Cuba. It wasn't as busy, so we went in. I love latino music, and dancing! :) So much fun. I didn't get back to my hotel until maybe 6AM (?). Oops. As a result, I only had time for about 2 hours or so of sleep. I had to get everything ready to go the next morning, check-out was at 10AM and breakfast is over at 10:30.