Those of you whom pay attention to such things will notice that the flag is similar to that of Iraq (the Iraqi flag has 3 stars). In fact, the red, white and black stripes are the same on the flags of Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan and Iraq. The 2 green stars on the Syrian version represent Egypt and Syria and their union in the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961.
On Tuesday December 7th I finally crossed the border into Syria. I had some concerns during a long wait for my visa to be approved. I was standing in a line and met up with a Canadian girl travelling with a friend from Australia. She asked for a 30-day visa and was turned down and given a 3-day transit visa without explanation. During her questioning she said she was asked repeatedly if she was married to the guy she was travelling with and told them no. He was given 30 days and she was given 3, it seems they didn't like unmarried couples travelling together. I obtained the papers, walked down the hall to pay the $56 US fee for a 15-day visit, and was good to go, relieved to have the visa in hand as the "official" rule is you cannot obtain one at the border.
While I was waiting I met up with Thomas Andersen, another cyclist travelling a similar route. You can file this in the "what goes around comes around" category because Thomas went to pay for his visa but didn't realize he had to pay in $US or Euros. He had Syrian currency but they don't accept that as payment. You have to wonder when a country doesn't accept payment for something in their currency. I was able to lend Thomas the money just as someone else did to me about 6 weeks ago at the Turkey/Greek border. We decided to bike together as we were both headed to Aleppo that day. Thomas started his trip at home in Denmark and is meeting his family for a nice vacation at an all-inclusive resort for Christmas, so will be moving south faster than me. I hope the resort is prepared. A touring cyclist and an all you can eat buffet is a match made in heaven, at least from the cyclist's point of view.
As we left the border control, we were greeted warmly by President Assad.
I would see his picture everywhere as I continued down through the country. Bashar al-Assad is the son of the former President and swore an oath to succeed his father in 2000, at the age of 34 (after they quickly amended the Constitution since the prior version required the President to be at least 40 years old). In many conversations initiated by locals the younger Assad is very popular since promising political and economic reforms. He is delivering some economic prosperity but it is occurring slowly and not as much liberalization on the political front as promised. By all the accounts I have heard, he is very popular and considered good for the country, contrary to what you may read back home.
A few things were immediately apparent as we started on our bikes. First, the terrain is very rocky and barren as compared with the Turkish side of the border. The southern part of Turkey (Hatay province) belongs to Turkey but was a part of Syria until 1939 when it was annexed. If you look at the region on a map from inside Syria, Hatay province is showing as part of Syria with a "temporary" border around it. The other difference is that present day Israel and the Palestinian territories are referred to simply as Palestine. My first reaction to seeing the map was that I really don't have a very good knowledge of Geography if I can't even find Israel. I soon remembered that Syria does not recognize the State of Israel.
We arrived in Aleppo in mid-afternoon. Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria with a population of about 4 million. It is always mentioned, along with Damascus, as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and with its numerous mosques and Madrasa's (religious schools) is considered the Capital of Islamic Culture. It is bustling, chaotic, polluted and fast moving. One of the biggest challenges in walking around the City is trying to cross the 3 or 4 lane streets without the assistance of traffic lights or cross walks. Some cross walks do exist but not from the driver's perspective. On the side of most of the streets you often see policeman with their motorcycles but I have yet to figure out what they do. They will get off their bikes and signal cars to keep moving forward but the cars are in traffic, with no lights so I'm not sure what else they would do except move forward. The police will do that for a few minutes and then sit back down on their bikes. I sat and watched one for about 15 minutes and he didn't do anything about the pedestrians struggling to cross the road, the speeding cars darting in and out and the constant horn honking. The police motorcycles provide further reminders of the President with his image on their front windshields.
The other thing that stands out is the number of women in full black burqas with a number completely shielded from view, something I did not see in Turkey.