Thu, 12 Jun 2008 11:39:24 +0000

Too Much Bahrain Index Disaster: I lost my backpack

I got up reasonably early this morning. Apparently too early: when I left the hotel just after 7:00, the bloke at reception was actually asleep in a bed that he'd set up in the hall. Dedication, that.

In terms of sights to see, the highest priorities all seemed to be clustered up towards one end of the old city, around the souq al-Hamidiyya. So I went off there. I passed the citadel, which looks like it's been extensively reconstructed, and the statue of Salah-al-Din crushing Richard the Lionheart. Fun stuff.

Then it was into the souq, where nothing was open because it was still too early. The souq is a street full of shops covered over by a corrugated iron roof, which has lots of holes rusted in it. The result is a disco-ball effect of spots of sunlight. With the place almost deserted, it looks pretty cool.

But at the other end things get more interesting. The end of the souq is a ruined Roman temple.

And then there's the Umayyad mosque, a massive building dating from Greek times, but extensively reworked by succeeding Christian and Muslim generations. Unfortunately it was too early to go in here as well.

So I wandered randomly. There are signs around for different walks you're supposed to go on, and I followed them sometimes. But mainly I just followed my nose. The old city is absolutely gorgeous. It's just like a mediaeval city, with upper stories cantilevered out over the street, sometimes to the point of touching. It's not particularly touristy, even though there are tourists around. It just has a really nice atmosphere.

I bought a pasty-looking thing from one vendor, and while it was fairly dull, just having cheese inside, it was piping hot because it was straight from the oven. I also bought a toasted roll from another place, which also turned out to be just cheese. Not that great, but it's food.

Heading back, I found that the mosque was finally open. Wikitravel says it welcomes "foreigners" (I have to assume they mean "non-muslims"), so I definitely had to have a look. There are two gates, and it seems I initially went to the wrong one. "Foreigners" have to buy a ticket. But I was welcomed inside.

The courtyard is really not much more than a big empty space. There are some very spectacular mosaics high on the walls though. I'm not much use at dating these kinds of things, but the bulidings depicted seemed somewhat Byzantine to me.

Like all mosques it's basically a big empty room inside. The roof is held up with columns that looked like they could well be Greek. (Corinthian columns? I can never remember all the names of the different kinds of columns.) The mosque apparently houses the grave of John the Baptist, with a big shrine for him. I didn't know John the Baptist was a prophet for Islam. For some reason the sarcophagus is lit by lurid green lamps. Maybe because it's the colour of Islam, I don't know. There wasn't much to see when I peered in the windows.

While I was wandering around a worshipper came up to me and told me I was in the female section, which was embarrassing. He actually first asked if I was "mister" or "lady", which was at least open-minded of him. I know that my hair is confusing for many people around the world, but I still have to wonder if these people end up making embarrassing mistakes in nightclubs a lot. I'm going to stop shaving for a while to try and make myself slightly less ambiguous.

Even though that wasn't an awful lot of touristing, I'd walked quite a long way and seen quite a lot, and I was feeling pretty tired. So I had a sleep for a couple of hours during the hottest part of the day. Thankfully, Damascus is much cooler than Dubai, with a good breeze to cool things down. Still, I didn't feel much like charging around in the sun much.

When I woke up, my major job was to find the bus station to book a ticket to Palmyra. All I had to go on was the rather vague instructions from the guy at the front desk, that I had to go to Harasta bus station. There's a dinky little map on the hotel's business card which just has an arrow pointing off the edge of the map for that. I walked a long way in one direction after misinterpreting the map, then walked a long way in the other direction, and then gave up and asked at the hotel again. This time it emerged that the bus station is too far to walk anyway, and that I had to get a taxi. But apparently there's no need to book my ticket, I can just turn up.

So I didn't achieve much with the afternoon. I did have some felafel from a street stand. Not the most amazing food in the world, but OK. It was more tightly wrapped than the felafel I've had before, and held together better, so that's good.

In the evening I spent an hour on the Internet and booked a hotel room in Palmyra over the phone. But nothing more exciting than that. I'm surprised how tired my feet are, but I guess I did do a fair bit of walking today.

Too Much Bahrain Index Disaster: I lost my backpack