Sep 29 2009

Athens, Greece

Finally got on my 3.55am flight and arrived at Athens at 6.30am in the morning. Yeah!
There are many foreign workers in Athens. Waited for an hour in line for immigration. Got in into EU quite easily, the immigration officer didn’t ask any questions at all.

Took the metro (6 Euro) to the city and checked in to the Aphrodite Hostel (14 Euro) which is close to the Larisis metro stop. After cleaning up, started another full day of sight seeing in this historical city.

Walked to Omonia which has many shops and is close by the acropolis.
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Athens meat market
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The changing of the guards in Athens was unique

Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus
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Parthenon at the Acropolis

Theater
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Piraeus (A port city in West Athens, with boats to Italy and the greek islands.)
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The Acropolis Museum
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Athens Olympic Village
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Next day,

Tried to get a ticket to Tirana, Albania. Went to a bus station behind Larissi train station but wasn’t able to get a ticket. I thought the guy said that all tickets were sold but later I found out that there is no bus to Tirana on Tuesday.

Bus schedule in Greek (no bus on Tuesday and Wednesday)
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Met Maria and she showed me around Athens. Tried Gyros (Souvlaki, 2 Euro) and Frappe (Greek ice coffee). Went to Gazi which is an area with many cafes.
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Greece has a population of 11 millions but there were 17 millions tourists visited the country last year. There are also many immigrants from Africa and Asia in Greece. Greece is very touristy so things are not cheap here, especially with the weakening dollar. An average meal here cost around 8 Euros.

Since the route to Europe is a detour, I tried to travel faster. I decided to go back to Larissi bus station and took an overnight bus to Sarande (10 hours bus ride, 26 Euros), a town beside the beach at the southern part of Albania. From Sarande I can then take another bus to the capital city, Tirana.

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Sep 26 2009

Beirut

Took bus no. 6 (1500 LP) to Beirut and stayed at Hostel Al Shabaa (USD$10). It’s very common to use US dollars here and 1 US dollar = 1500 LP.

Beirut is an interesting city, the city has a population of around 1.5 million people and is a city of contrast. There is a mixture of European and Arab influences. Most Lebanese speaks Arabic, English and French. The proportion of Muslims and Christians are around 50% each. There are now slightly more Muslims because many Palestinian refugees are settling in Beirut. Some places there are churches that are just right beside a mosque and woman in Burqhas and nun walking on the street. By first look, the city is much more modern and wealthier than its Muslim neighbors. There are many luxury cars on the street. It seems like a third of the cars on the street are Mercedes or BMWs and another 30% are some other expensive European cars. I don’t see that many luxury cars even in New York city. I heard most people are just leasing the cars to look good. On the other hand, there are army tanks on the road and many military personnels carrying machine guns at every corner of the street. In some parking garages, cars needed to be scanned by bomb detector before allowed to go in.

Some areas, there are some nice modern buildings standing just beside some war torn old buildings with gun shots hole in it. Beirut has a great nightlife, there are many bars and clubs just like any other western cities. It’s also interesting to see the army everywhere guarding with their machine guns while party goers zoom around with their Porches and Mercedes.

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In Beirut, there are military personnels everywhere. Feels like the country is still at war.

Tanks on the street
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Army vehicle
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Beirut is considered as the Paris of the Middle East because unlike other Middle Eastern cities, Beirut has nice beaches and mountains while most other Middle Eastern cities are built on desert.
Seafront
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National Museum of Beirut
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Moved to Hostel Talal ($10) on day two because they have free WiFi and the hostel has nicer people.
Hostel Talal
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There are more Muslims living in the west side of Beirut and more Christian living in the east side. During the civil war, there is a green line that separated the 2 sides. The south side of Beirut is poorer with many Palestinian refugees living there.

Overall, people here are very friendly and helpful. The city looks more normal compared to other middle eastern countries I visited. In Syria, Jordan and Egypt, 70% of the people on the street are males.

Walked around Hamra (west Beirut) which is a college town and visited the American University of Beirut.
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Acharfiyeh and Gemmazeyeh at the east part are considered the hip area. Solidere is another new area with expensive shops and there are many constructions going on.
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Originally, I thought about going to Cyprus or Turkey after Beirut, but now I think about making a detour for my trip and go up north to Eastern Europe before visiting Turkey and Iran. It’s hard to take time off to travel but since I have already quit my job, I might as well spend another 2-3 weeks visiting Eastern Europe too.

On Sunday, I tried calling and checking online but wasn’t able to buy an air ticket. Went to the airport but wasn’t able to get an air ticket too because everything was close on Sunday. On the way to the airport, there were soldiers at every 20 meters. I took a picture but was stopped by a military officer and he wanted me to delete the photos. Luckily I was able to get back my camera.

On Monday, I spent the morning trying to get an air ticket to Athens. I went to Olympic airline ticket office but the lady doesn’t want to issue me a ticket because she mentioned that I might need a visa and might need to buy return ticket instead. I am sure that I don’t need a visa but she won’t listen. Spoke with the manager and finally went to a travel agency instead. I paid more (USD233 instead of USD 195) to get a refundable ticket just in case I can’t get on the plane because it’s a one way ticket.

Walked around the city then took a minibus to the airport (1000LP) at 9pm. Got to the airport early because the minibus will stop running after 9pm and taxi is more expensive. My flight is at 3.55am so I have a few hours to spare at the airport. The security is tighter to fly with one way ticket especially without another onward flight ticket But I managed to get my boarding pass at the airport counter without any problem.

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Sep 25 2009

Damascus to Beirut

Spent the morning looking for the world biggest restaurant, Damascus Gate. The restaurant is far away from the city and is close to the international airport of Damascus. Since a cab will cost almost $20, I tried to take a bus there. Got to Baka bus station and took an airport shuttle (45SP, $1). The bus dropped me off on the highway and got to the restaurant after 20 minutes walk.

The restaurant
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It’s not that big as I thought, probably they just put more chairs in the restaurant to get the title.
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Got back to the city after taking 2 minibuses and one taxi (45SP too).
Went to Al Sumariyeh bus terminal by a minibus (10SP) at 12pm and took a bus to Beirut, Lebanon. Bus was delayed and finally left at around 2.30pm.

At the border, we were required to pay 500SP for Syria departure tax, however the custom wanted more for his own pocket. Got to Lebanon checkpoint
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and the immigration were so slow. They told me that I will need to pay 25000 Lebanese pound for a visa but I remembered that I read that I don’t need one. They only took payment in Lebanese pound and I had trouble finding people to change the currency. While waiting, the assistant bus driver took out my backpack from the bus and the bus left without me. So far I don’t have good experiences with Syrians.

Hitched a ride from some Saudi guys at the immigration checkpoint to Beirut.
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Got to Beirut and visited the mosque.
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A hip area with any cafes in Gemmayeh
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Spent a night with those guys in Journieh.

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Sep 24 2009

Palmyra

The overnight train arrived at Kaddam train station in Damascus around 6.30am. Took a public bus back to the hostel and after cleaning up, went to Pullman bus station and bought a 9am bus ticket to Palmyra. Palmyra is around 3 hours (250km east) away.

Palmyra Museum
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The ruins
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Video of the ruins

Temple of Bel
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Got back to Damascus at 7pm.

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Sep 23 2009

Aleppo

Went to Pullman bus station and got on the 9am bus to Aleppo. Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria with population of around 4.2 millions and is 4.5 hours north of Damascus. Aleppo and Damascus are vying for the title of oldest inhabited city in the world. Aleppo was said to be inhabited since 8000 years ago.

Met Jane, a Canadian on the bus and we spent time wandering around the city. We had kebab for lunch (250SP, around USD5).
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Walked around the souq which is said to be the biggest in the middle east. The Souq is around 12km in total length. Most shops were closed because of the Eid holiday.

Visited the Citadel which is around 2000 years old.
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View of Aleppo from the Citadel
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View of the Citadel
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We were walking around and Jane recognized a man who is one of the very few if any Buddhists in Aleppo. He has a small café
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and is trying to create a meeting place to teach Buddhism to people who have an interest in the subject matter. Met some new friends at his café.
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The great mosque
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Decided to take an overnight train back to Damascus so I can sleep on the way back to save cost and time, and just to try something different. The train took around 6 hours (110SP around USD2).
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Sep 22 2009

Damascus, Syria

Only slept for 2 hours today because I had to wake up at 3am for a phone interview. It might be weird to have a phone interview while backpacking in middle east, but since the position is with one of the biggest hedge fund, I can’t refuse this opportunity. It seemed like the job market in the financial sector has been improving lately because I have been getting more emails about openings in the financial sector in my mailbox. Since I woke up early, I decided to walk to the Abdhali bus station from my hostel in the old city. It’s only 30 minutes walk.
Took the 7.30am bus and after passing customs, arrived in Damascus at around 11am.

Decided to find my own way to downtown instead of taking a taxi since I have time and thought it’s a more exciting way. Took a public bus to downtown
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and in Damascus there were only 4 budget hostel in the same neighborhood at Saroujah st. Stayed at Al Saad since the other 3 nicer ones were full. Got the cheapest room at the hostel rooftop (300 SP ~6USD).
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Walked around the old city.
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Ate kebab for lunch.
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Started at Bab Touma which is the Christian quarter of old Damascus. There is a big souq in the old city with shops selling all kinds of stuffs.
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The citadel
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Went back at night, visited the Umayyad mosque. The mosque was converted from a Byzantine cathedral in AD705 when Damascus became the capital of the Islamic world.
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This is the famous ice cream store in the souq.
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Sep 21 2009

Dead Sea and Mount Nebo

Met the first Malaysian at the hostel and with 2 other travelers (swedish and aussie), we got a service taxi to Dead Sea and Mount Nebo at 7.30am (35 JD split by 4 person).

Mount Nebo is where Moses believed to be buried.
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In the bible, it mentioned that God showed Moses the promise land on Mount Nebo but he didn’t manage to get to Israel. It’s possible to see Jerusalem and Jericho from Mount Nebo when there’s good weather.

The dead sea is 8.6 times as salty as the ocean. No fish can survive because it’s too salty.

Dead Sea
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We went to Amman beach (12JD, which is a little pricey than expected), there is a swimming pool
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and shower room which are quite important because the salinity of the sea will make the skin uncomfortable.

Because of the high salinity of the dead sea, it’s very easy to float on the water.
Floating on dead sea
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Got back to Amman around 2.30pm. I went to the bus station trying to get to Damascus, Syria. But because of Eid, I wasn’t able to get any tickets and all the service taxi increase their prices so I decided to go to Syria tomorrow morning instead. Moved to Abbasid Palace hotel (5JD) because they have free wifi so I can get on the web again. Met another Malaysian lady on the street, this is the second malaysian traveler I met after almost 8 weeks traveling, and both malaysians I met were in Amman.

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Sep 20 2009

Amman

Took the 6.30am bus from Petra to Amman (5JD, 3hours). Amman is a very old city. It was conquered by the Assyrians, followed by the Persians, and then the Greeks. The city became part of the Nabataean kingdom until 106 AD when Philadelphia came under Roman control.
In 326 AD, Christianity became the religion of the empire and Philadelphia became the seat of a bishopric during the beginning of the Byzantine era. Then comes the Umayads and Abbasids. After the Islamic conquests, Amman became part of the Muslim empire, until the Ottomans were forced out by the Allies, with the help of the Hashimites, who formed a monarchy that continues to rule until the present.

Today is the Islamic holiday of Eid ul-Fitr marks the end of the fasting period of Ramadan so most shops are closed. Checked in into Hostel Mansour (3.5JD). It’s an OK hostel, nothing too fancy but it’s cheap. Amman is a city of 2 millions people on 7 hills.

Amman is famous for old Roman Theather
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and Citadel. The citadel has been inhabited for centuries, important as a military and religious site.
Click here for a 360 degrees view of Citadel Hill in Amman.

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Walked towards the famous 127m flag pole, I read that it’s the highest in the world.
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Jordanian kids wear their best for the first day of Eid.
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In the evening, walked to the west part of the city which is a more modern part of the city. Other than that, there are not a lot to see in Amman.

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Sep 18 2009

Petra

Waited at the bus station at 7.40am to get a minibus to Petra. The minibus didn’t leave until 10am. It’s 2 hours ride to Petra (5 JD). Met Julia and Sam again as well as a Dutch friend Roul.

Got to Wadi Musa around 12pm and stayed at Valentine Hostel (3JD, got the cheapest dorm).

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View of Petra from hostel
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Petra is voted as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and is famous for Nabataens architecture. Petra is just 2km from Wadi Musa and to get into Petra, a day pass cost 21JD. I decided to stay at Wadi Musa for 2 days since there is only one bus a day to Amman early in the morning because of Ramadan.

I got a 2 days pass for 26JD since it’s almost 2pm and the site close at 6pm daily. Met a Taiwanese and we spent half a day walking around the ruins. We covered quite a lot for half a day.

Petra is the capital of the Nabataeans around 2000 years ago. The entrance to Petra leads us through narrow gorge called the Siq
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After 30 minutes of walking, we got to the Treasury, Al Khazneh
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After 45 minutes hike, arrived at a peak called place of high sacrifice.
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Petra is a big site of around 40 square km.

Went back to Petra next day morning.
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The Monastry
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View from a peak

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With the team
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Went back to the hostel in the afternoon after covering all the sites on the map. My shoes after walking for 2 days at Petra
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Sep 17 2009

Aqaba

Took the 10.30am bus to Nuweiba (15 LP, 1 hour ride) in order to take the ferry across the dead sea to Aqaba, Jordan. The fast ferry is only an hour to Aqaba but cost US$70 plus US$10 departure tax from Egypt.

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Traveled with Julia and Sam who I met from the bus station at Nuweiba. We got a free Jordanian visa on arrival and after getting off from the ferry terminal, we were expecting touts to offer us hostel room since there were touts everywhere in Egypt but we didn’t see any. This was the only time where we missed the hassling from touts. There weren’t any hostel in Aqaba and just hotel. Got a room at DWeek hotel in the city for 10JD (1USD=0.70 JD).

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Jordan is cleaner than Egypt and people here obey the traffic lights. There were also less hassling for tourist.

Aqaba has one of the highest flag pole in the world.

Things are slightly more expensive than Egypt, Jordanian dinar value is similar to the Euro. Even though the average salary for Jordanians are only 200-300JD but a meal cost 3JD, 1% of their salary. I also noticed that Jordanian loves Mercedes Benz, there are many here, mostly old ones.

As always there are the Chinese doing business everywhere. In Aqaba, Chinese massage centers are pretty popular.

This one called Lord of the Rings Chinese Massage
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Aqaba is the only place with sea in Jordan (beside dead sea).

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