Jordan to Syria – Amman to Damascus, 26 December 2010

The day of the big crossing, undertaken with some trepidation. Why the trepidation? I don’t have a Syrian visa. I read pretty conflicting reports about the Syrian visa before I decided to go to Syria without a visa. The Singapore MFA website writes that I needed a visa to enter Syria, which costs over $120, and takes a lot of trouble to get, but many reports online write that it is possible to get in through the border crossing with some other special visa that cost a fraction of an official visa. I decided to take the risk.

Anyway, I left Jordan Tower around 9 am. Initially, I wanted to take a JETT bus, but after talking a little to the people at the guesthouse, they decided that I should just try and do a share taxi. The shared taxi companies are located pretty near the JETT bus station, and taxi drivers will usually know where to take you for these shared taxis. These shared taxis usually leave for the border when they fill up with four people, and costs around 11 JD per person. Depending on your luck, it could take a while to fill up, or it could be quick. Thankfully for me, I think the taxi company said that they’ll leave in half an hour, even if they didn’t have the four people. We left in fifteen minutes, because that was how long it took to fill the taxi.

When we got to the border crossing on the Jordan side of things, apparently they collect an 8 JD exit fee from everyone. So, do keep some JD for this. If you don’t have any, they also do have money changers at the border crossing, who will sell you JD to pay your fee. Exit was easy, though two ladies of the car did take a while before coming back (think they got lost). Thankfully for them, the taxi driver was nice, and waited for them.

We crossed over to the Syrian side of the border. The first guy I went to, he saw that I had no visa, and just told me that I had to go back to Jordan. My heart did sink. I think my poor puppy dog face did have an effect on him. He asked another guy to look at my case, and the second guy, seeing my sorry face, decided to give me a transit visa that allows me to stay in Syria for 3 days, and costs me $25 instead. It did take a while, but once again, the very kind taxi driver, and the other three ladies in the car were really nice about how long it took. The driver drove us to a point maybe about 5-10 km from Damascus. I took a taxi that brought me to the old town of Damascus. I proceeded to try and find the place I was staying at – Damascus Hostel – which was quite an adventure, as it was not that easy to find, despite instructions. In the end, one of the neighbours of Damascus Hostel pointed out the place to me.

Damascus Hostel is a highly-rated hostel in Old Damascus. It is fair to say that it is one of the cheapest options in Old Damascus, but it isn’t exactly cheap in absolutely terms. I paid $60 for a single, private room, which was  really tiny room that had a bathroom the size of a broom closet, and kinda floods the room every time I showered. The common areas were also kinda so-so, although the breakfast was pretty good. They also had a cool ladder stair that serves as a shortcut from Old Damascus to new Damascus, if you don’t want to enter or exit through the designated exits. The best thing about Damascus Hostel was its tours, as they have really good, and knowledgeable drivers, though the tours are also kinda pricey. They also have a thing near the kitchen door, which has slips of Arabic and their English meanings that will help you get around Syria. The main reason why I am writing this is because it has insanely high ratings on various travel websites, whereby many reviewers seem to think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. This was disproportionate to my expectations. All I am saying is, it’s decent, but don’t go there expecting it to be a five-star hostel.

As I arrived at three-ish, I still had half a day ahead of me. I walked about half of Old Damascus. Old Damascus is a UNESCO world heritage site, and its claim to fame is for being the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world (I think around 10 000 years). It tries to preserve the buildings as much as possible. Consequently, there are many buildings that are kinda lopsided, but it is allowed to stay that way, making all the narrow alleys pretty fun to explore. Presently, half the city is Christian, and half the city is Muslim, reflecting its long history. I walked from Bab Touma, the Christian quarter, to Umayyad Mosque, going through the souq. The Umayyad Mosque also reflects the history of the city. It used to be a Christian basilica, but a Muslim mosque was built on top of it. It reportedly holds the head of John the Baptist. I didn’t go in this time, but the Umayyad Mosque is really impressive – it’s SO big that there was no way I could photograph the whole place. The souqs were a little more fun than the ones in Istanbul, as the ones in Istabul were a little more touristy.

After my little late afternoon walk, I decided to head back to the Christian quarters for dinner at this place called Haretna. It is a middle-class place, and it was pretty popular. Although I showed up at five-ish, it was already full. Amazing. I had a Haretna chicken, which tasted decent. I then returned to the hostel to rest, as I signed up for a cool tour to the Crusader Castle in Krak the next morning.

Old Damascus

Different types of balconies haphazardly jutting out in DamascusOld Damascus

Souq in Damascus
Haretna - a mid-priced dining option in old DamascusPretty interior of Haretna


Jordan – Amman, 25 December 2010

Another day of aimless wandering. Anyway, I decided to take in some of the touristy offerings of old downtown Amman, so I headed to the Roman Theater, and the Nymphaeum. I thought it was quite impressive that these old megaliths are right smack in the middle of a downtown, where people are busy getting from point to point, and going about their daily business.

After being vaguely done with the core, I decided to move upwards. There are ring roads emanating from old downtown of Amman, and they kinda climb in height. To get a sense of downtown Amman, I decided to trek up to the first circle, and explore it. Also, I heard about the cafes of Rainbow street on the first circle, and needed a change of cafe scene, so up I went.

It seems that a different crowd visits this area. It definitely seems younger. People in old downtown Amman appear to be middle-aged, while the crowd hanging around Rainbow street are probably closer to their twenties. I think part of this is also reflected in the names of some of the shops. Some shops try to update the appeal of the good ol’ schwarma (sliced meat) by calling their shops funky names like Schwamama. I thought that was quite funny! After some strolling, I needed to get some work done, so I settled on a cafe that was perched by the hill, and proceeded to work until sunshine, when the hues of the setting sun coloured the town a warm orange.

I then slowly made my way back downtown, which basically involved me randomly walk down without any real idea of where I was, except I had to descend. Working without a map and getting lost in a city can be quite fun, but erm, not for the faint-hearted. I did end up going through some cool streets like those that specialized in selling shoes; a house that decided to paint its walls with fake windows and plants to make it seem cooler than white walls; and also walked by a movie theater that seemed to offer more *ahem* adult films. 🙂

Shwarmama - they come up with funky names to sell shwarma

An update of the good ol’ shwarma
Downtown Old Amman

Downtown Amman from first circle (Jordanian flag to the right)

Downtown Old Amman

Sunset in Amman
Someone decorated their entrance!Someone decorated their wall!


Jordan – Amman, 24 December 2010

I wanted to explore different facets of Amman, so after reading about new Amman in the west, I took a cab to the new downtown with its big malls. I went to City Mall, which was shaped like a spaceship in the movies, complete with glassy exteriors, and filled with a shopper’s paradise. Well, anything you can get from any other mall in the world was in this mall, and in the food court, there were fastfoods like KFC, Carl’s Junior, McDonald’s, etc. Well, you get my drift.

It was pretty crowded. I went to the food court for lunch, and definitely had a lot of trouble finding a seat – it was packed. Anyway, after I found a seat, two ladies asked if they could share my table, and of course, I said yes. Interestingly, after listening to them talk for a bit, I realized that they were speaking in Indonesian. So I just kinda said hi, asked them where they were from (Java, I think), and what they were doing here. Turns out they are working in Jordan. Interesting. I wonder if it’s an Islamic world thing, that brings these ladies to Jordan for work.

After lunch, I just sat down, and did some of my readings for the next quarter. Not a particularly exciting day, but I do what I do best on vacation – chill out, and try and see different sides of the country. I saw the modern side of Jordan, and got some work done.
City Mall, Modern Amman

Exterior of City Mall, Amman

City Mall, Modern AmmanInterior of City Mall, Amman


Jordan – Madaba to Amman, 23 December 2010

We were not quite done with Madaba. The girls had a flight back to Singapore in the afternoon, leaving us the whole morning to see Madaba. We continued looking at different sites like the mosaic at one of the Apostles Church, the Archaeology Park, and the Madaba Museum – all these places can be accessed with one joint entrance ticket. Just buy at any of the sites. All these sights are within walking distance from each other, and can be done in under three hours. I thought the Madaba Museum was pretty interesting. Apart from giving you a good view of Madaba Town, they also had costumes and jewellery of the Bedouin. For one, I found out that some Bedouin tattoo their faces. The guy at the Archaeology Park was definitely enthusiastic. He didn’t know much English, but will just say out key words to let you know what you’re looking at. And due to the dust that settled on the mosaic, he’ll without fail, dust off the mosaics and clean them with water, restoring them to their shiny glory for you.

After our whirlwind tour of the remaining sights of Madaba, we took a cab to Amman airport, which was about half an hour away. The girls were going back to Singapore for Christmas, while I was continuing my adventure in the Middle East. I didn’t really miss home for most of the time in Seattle. But seeing them get on the plane made it hard for me – all I wanted to do was to buy the same ticket as them and fly back home!

Anyways, I resisted the temptation, and hopped onto the airport bus to head back to Amman. I think they have busses leaving the airport around every 30 mins, and costs 2 JD. It drops you at a bus station on one of the ring roads. From there, I took a cab that took me to my next hostel – Jordan Tower Amman, which is located on the downtown of Old Amman. This place is a freaking steal! I paid about 8 JD (~12 USD) for a bed in the female dorm, that shared a common bathroom. I definitely lucked out – nobody else checked into the dorm room, so I had it all to myself. Ok, first off – the common areas. They have a TV, complete with sofas, and they also had a separate room, whereby they had walls lined with cushions. It was all colourfully decorated, making it extremely inviting.

Next, my room was definitely very clean, even though there was nothing there but the beds. The common bathroom was also very clean. It was winter, so they actually gave me a portable heater as well. Although they said they only had hot water at certain hours, I didn’t actually run into any problems with the hot water supply. It worked really well, and I had a really nice shower!

They were also really good with tours and arranging transportation. Like Mariam Hotel, they were not really in the business of organizing tours and profiting from them, as much as trying to facilitate tours. Basically, you told them what you want, and if you are part of a group, they’ll get a driver to drive you to where you want. If you are on your own, they would also ask around to see if anyone else wanted to go to the same places, so you can split the cost of transportation. I mainly needed their help for getting around Amman, and both times, they were very happy to write them instructions in Arabic, and also tell the taxi drivers where I wanted to go.

Last thing – their breakfast is amazing. Located in the TV area, although it’s supposed to be until 10 am, they actually serve it later, if you ask. One day, I slept in, and the staff got worried that something might have happened to me, so they checked on me. After I finally crawled out of bed at 11 am, they asked if I wanted to have breakfast, even though breakfast hours were over. Anyway, although it’s not a buffet, they have two options – Western and local. For Western, they have toast, eggs, beans, etc., and for local, they had their local breads, and delightful jams, along with Jordanian tea. I really loved their pastry and jam! Erm, in short, do stay here! It’s just beside the Roman Theater.

After checking in, I did what I do best on my own – roam without a plan. When we first went by Amman briefly on our first night, I didn’t really like it. There’s something about the whiteness of the buildings that turned me off. But beneath all its white buildings, it actually has a quiet, hidden charm, which I discovered, while roaming. Parts of it definitely reminded me of Hong Kong. On the outset, it appears that there’s nothing on the ground level of old downtown Amman, except endless money changers, and shops selling stuff for tourists. But as I just fumbled around, I saw many mysterious doors, which were open to very interesting interiors (so, they are cafes and restaurants). I eventually wandered into one, which had a huge door, stone stairs, and stone interiors. No regrets. I walked into Cafe Jafra, which had some pretty retro stuff, like a retro cash register, and retro film projector. The crowd in Cafe Jafra seem pretty well-heeled, and in their twenties. I chose a spot by the balcony that was overhanging the street, plonked myself down, and proceeded to sip a cuppa, watch the world go by, watch the sun set.

Sitting there, I really had the feeling that I was in any other cosmopolitan city. What conservative Middle East? The one thing I learnt in my travels – people will learn to live the best they can, regardless of the circumstances.
Jordan Tower Hotel - excellent place to stay, and real cheap, too!

Jordan Tower Hotel

Jafra Cafe and Restaurant, Downtown Old Amman

Cafe Jafra from the ground

Downtown Old Amman

Downtown Amman from Cafe Jafra

Jafra Cafe and Restaurant, Downtown Old Amman

Interior of Cafe Jafra

Retro Cash Register in Jafra Cafe and Restaurant, Downtown Old AmmanRetro Cash register of Cafe Jafra


Turkey – Istanbul to Jordan – Amman, 18 December 2010

With a flight to Jordan in the early evening, effectively, we only had about half a day. Through our brainstorming session, our options included a trip up the Golden Horn to St. Stephen’s, a trip across the Bosphorous to the Asia side for a little stroll, or something in between.

In the end, we decided to take a truncated version of the full Bosphorous tour, which usually runs from 10 am to 3 pm (1 trip, 20TL/~14USD) during the winter, with more trips during the summer. Run by other non-official companies, it starts from a harbour further inside of Eminou, and goes up two bridges, and covers both the European side and the Asian side. It lasts about 2hrs, and touts along Eminou will be happy to introduce this 10TL (~7USD) tour to you, if you will give them your time of the day.

It was a pretty decent tour, and it fit into our tight schedule, which would not have allowed us to take the Bosphorous Tours offered by the official Turkish travel company. It is quite true that parts of Istanbul are best seen from the sea, as it will be hard to appreciate the scale of some of the buildings, unless you see it from afar. I could barely capture the pictures of some of the palaces even from afar! Imagine how large they will be up close! It was definitely a useful way for us to spend our time!

To get to the airport, we took one of the airport minivans available in the many tour operators in Sultanahmad district. For 10TL (~7USD) per person, they have a door-to-door service, that leaves approximately once every hour, half past the hour. One of the booths can be found outside the Hagia Sofia. It took approximately half an hour before we got to the airport.

Our flight to Jordan was somewhat delayed, so by the time we reached Amman, it was time for us to rest in preparation for our super early JETT bus to Petra the next day. My first impression of Jordan was not exactly good, as everything looked very one-colour and concrety.

For this night, we stayed at the Arab Tower Hotel on Hashmeni street, near the Roman Theater in downtown. It was about 14JD/~20USD per person per night. I didn’t really like it, as the bathroom was small, and looked pretty crummy. Thankfully, it was just one night, and we’re off to Petra. (I don’t take photos of crummy hotels)

Bridge linking Asia and Europe, and the Asia side


New Istanbul

Last meal in Istanbul – Shwarma Plate and Chocolate Pudding (about 12 lira)

Upcoming: Turkey – Jordan – Syria, 15-28 December 2010

15 December 2010: Istanbul, Turkey

16 December 2010: Istanbul, Turkey

17 December 2010: Istanbul, Turkey

18 December 2010: Istanbul, Turkey to Amman, Jordan (plane)

19 December 2010: Amman to Petra, Jordan (bua)

20 December 2010: Petra, Jordan

21 December 2010: Petra to Madaba, Jordan (bus)

22 December 2010: Madaba to Dead Sea, Bethany beyond Jordan, Mount Nebo to Madaba, Jordan (taxi)

23 December 2010: Madaba to Amman, Jordan (taxi, bus)

24 December 2010: Amman, Jordan

25 December 2010: Amman, Jordan

26 December 2010: Amman, Jordan to Damascus, Syria (bus)

27 December 2010: Damascus, Syria

28 December 2010: Damascus, Syria to home.