Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inshallah! We will get across that border: A day out at the Syrian border


Destination: Syrian/Turkey border between Kilis, Turkey and Aleppo, Syria

Number of Days Spent: 10 exhausting hours

Where we stayed: Sitting in a plastic chair for 7 hours, 1 hour in the "VIP" section, and one more pacing around

Best restaurant: No food anywhere to be seen! Not even water!

Best of: The Syrian border guards could not be more friendly; albeit slow

Worst of: No food, little water, an impatient taxi driver and some of the most disgusting bathrooms in the world...perhaps the lack of water was a blessing in disguise

Most Memorable: We will never forget the hospitality of everyone at the border. We must have been welcomed into the country at least a dozen times by various people, particularly Iranians who found it odd that two Americans were just "hanging out" at the border

Useful Tip: Should go without saying, but get the Visa ahead of time from Washington (the official line)

Since we were rejected in Istanbul, we started looking for alternative routes to get to Jordan and continue our path without Syria. After hours of searching for flights or ferries turned up no cheap alternative we opted to try our luck in Gaziantep. When we were again told no, we debated for a moment and decided we were too close not to give it a try so we packed up our bags and headed to Kilis on the public bus. We had arranged for a taxi to take us all the way from Kilis to Aleppo for 90 lira ($60 US). A little pricey but haggling with a taxi driver on the Syrian side we heard was pricey as well. Plus we figured that having a "local" could possibly hurry the process along.

First two gates, getting out of Turkey that is, were no problem. Upon crossing no-man's-land however proved to be a different story. After inspecting our Passports and realizing we had no Visa, we were pulled over to a side room where a man who spoke decent English asked us why we didn't have a visa. We tried to explain to him that we had been traveling and did not have the opportunity to apply for a visa from Washington. After a few more silly questions, he prepared a fax and said "you could be here for an hour, two, six, maybe come back tomorrow." We had heard that 6 was the "norm" for Americans without visas and since it had already been an hour, we figured no problem. Off the fax went to Damascus and we sat down to patiently wait.

This particular border is in the middle of nowhere. One dusty, smoke filled room with a couple of offices attached are all that make up the immigration office. Across the street is the bank where you pay for the visa and the doctor's office where they make sure you aren't carrying over the flu apparently. That's it. No air-con, no duty free, no lobby; not even a "Welcome to Syria" brochure stand.

We sat in the corner, chatting it up with the passing tour groups; mostly Iranians on vacation. I'm sure we were quite the spectacle, two white Westerners, seemingly just hanging out. When we did get up to stretch our legs, the apparent boss would get up and kindly ask us to sit back down.

I just hope that the border guards who we were warmly shaking hands with have different bathroom facilities they use because the conditions of the public restrooms were the worst we have encountered...and that's saying a lot. Luckily for Tracy, the Iranians had apparently heard of the problem and came prepared. Upon entering said facilities they glanced at her, then at one another then back at her before informing her that they had soap and would wait until she was finished. Sure enough, they waited and out came a handy dandy soap dispenser (it was even nice smelling and good quality!). The man who was accompanying the ladies outside the loo turned to Tracy and said, "when you get home to America, please write a letter to the newspaper and let them know of the horrible conditions of these bathrooms." While our little blog isn't the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune by any means, we're informing the public at large through the power of the Internet!

After seven or so hours had passed, the boss man came out and waved at us to come with him. Yeah! He finally has an answer! We follow him to a small courtyard in the back where a fountain with no water and a smattering of potted plants called home. In the middle of the yard sat two cushioned chairs, apparently out of some other, much nicer, waiting room. "Come, sit." he exclaimed and ran off. Are we being interrogated? Had they found out we were not students as we had told them all along? As he trudged off without another word, another man came out with a glass of water and handed it to us. Ah, this must by the VIP room we joked.

At this point the taxi driver, who wasn't the most patient man to begin with, was pacing and pacing and with each passing minute became more visibly agitated by the whole situation. After an hour of "relaxing in luxury" the fax finally came back...YES! A whirlwind of activity ensued with the taxi driver virtually dragging us from the office to the bank to pay our $16 each (well, it would have cost $100 each from Washington!) and back to get that well deserved stamp!

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After getting through all the hassle, we thought for sure the taxi would demand more money for the long wait, but he didn't. We ended up giving him a good tip anyway, figuring he had put in more time than he bargained for!

Moral of the story: Get your visa in advance!

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