Part One: To Go Or Not To Go?
One of my big goals on my current trip was to explore the Kurdish regions of the Middle East (as far as I could, with Iran not being on the table (I don’t want to be with a guide 24/7) and eastern Syria being almost definitely out of the question (due to security)). On the way, I wanted to hit Syria, without getting a visa in advance.
Why no visa in advance?
- You have to pay the standard reciprocity fees that a lot of countries force on Americans, due to the fees for American visas for them. Namely, at least $131 USD.
- For Syria, you have to submit your passport to the embassy in your home country, which in my case would mean shipping my passport off to Washington, D.C., something that would severely inhibit my day-to-day country hopping.
What’s odd about Syria is that despite their claim that you need to get your visa in advance, they usually let you get one at the border. And at a lower price, as well. That is, unless you’re American.
All of the online research (including getting advice on the CouchSurfing forums from travelers and locals alike) had pointed to a June 2010 shift in Syrian policy. Before that, Americans got in after waiting at the border for 2-9 hours while their passport was processed via fax to Damascus. After the directive, no Americans were to be allowed to get visas at the border.
My problem was that an edict which conclusively changed a policy that wasn’t really respected anyway did not really tell me that it was absolutely certain that I would be denied, especially after various sources told me that they knew of Americans getting in after June 2010. I figured that if it wasn’t too big of a hassle, I’d just try. Worst-to-worst, I’d get a story out of it. (How meta.)
My original plan was to come in from the north, from central Turkey, but a ferry to Cyprus changed my itinerary. I ended up flying to Lebanon with the intent of trying to go from Lebanon to Damascus.
When I arrived in Lebanon, I had days of contradictory information. I went to the Charles Helou bus station to ask the drivers about my chances of getting into Syria. Literally every time I asked, I heard the opposite opinion. One said impossible at the border, talk to the embassy, and the next would say no problem, just pay at the border. The last guy I talked to gave me some hope, telling me an extensive explanation of how it was fairly easy and it would be fine for me, even as an American. I wanted to believe it.
I went to the Syrian embassy, walking a couple of hours across Beirut, which was under high army patrol due to Ahmadinejad’s visit to the city. By time I got there, the embassy was closed, but they found me a woman (who I assume worked there, as she came from behind the metal detectors), who told me that it would be a waste of time and money at the border, but if I had 25-30 days, the Syrian embassy in Beirut could take of it. She once again emphasized to not bother going to the border.
Part Two: October 20, 2010
In the end, I decided that I had to make the effort. I was going to Zahle, anyway, which wasn’t that far from the border.
(To figure out the maps, ‘Dimashq’ is Damascus and the grey line is the Syrian border.)
On October 20th, 2010, the guy that I was hanging out with drove me from Zahle to Chtaura (‘B’ on the map), the smaller town to get to the even smaller town of Masnaa (‘C’ on the map), the Lebanese border town.
Taxi from Chtaura to Masnaa was $2.
Probably should have cost me only $1 for the border taxi from Masnaa to the Syrian border, but I ended up paying $2, not realizing that I was actually at the Lebanese border at that point.
At the Lebanese border, I filled out my departure card and got an exit stamp. I had my electronics backpack with me, but I was slightly nervous that they would drive off with all of the rest of my stuff. It was another case where I wished I had had some info on the taxi that I was previously in.
We drove into the 8 km no man’s land between the Lebanese border and the Syrian border, seeing the mixture of ads for Lebanese stuff and billboards with Bashar al-Assad and Syrian flags.
After a few minutes on this building-less highway, with trucks on the opposite side lined up to get into Lebanon, we arrived at the Syrian border. What I saw was a shock to the eyes. Stupidly, I expected something ramshackle with a couple of guys smoking cigars, waving people in or denying them on their whim, akin to the border in Bolivia that you go to for the Uyuni trip.
Instead, a duty-free mall. Complete with a Dunkin’ Donuts.
We all got out of the taxi. I gave the $2 that, by this point, I was sure was an overpayment, and walked to the Syrian border building. Less chaotic, but no less professional (and a bit bigger) than the Lebanese counterpart. There were signs in English about whom to contact if you had complaints. On the far end was a counter for women. Despite there being signs for “All Nationalities” all over the place, it seemed like foreigners were told to go to the 2 lines marked “Foreigners”.
It didn’t take long for me to get to the front. They flipped through my passport a bunch without seeming to notice that I was American. For a moment, I hoped they wouldn’t notice at all and just give me an entry stamp and let me get on with it. While I was standing there, the guy on the line next to me had his phone go off. “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” was his ringtone.
Then the border guy flipped to the front of my passport and saw the faded American cover. After they confirmed that I didn’t have a visa, we had a very quick back-and-forth where I was told there was absolutely nothing they could do. He said the same line that I had always heard from the Lebanese, except applied to the neighboring country. “You are very welcome in Syria.”
It’s pretty much what I had read before. Very polite, but nothing they can do. It isn’t like they’re BSing, though. I had hoped that perhaps my French work visa or other reasons (just wanting to get through to Turkey, potentially wanting to teach English) would get me somewhere, but no dice. I asked if there was anyone else that could be called to make a different decision. After a few more pleads, the guy asked to take my passport back. I thought maybe they would do something. Another guy came after a while, took my passport, wrote down the info and called someone. I had no idea what was going on, but it seemed all right.
A new guy came, one that I hadn’t dealt with before. He took my passport and had me follow him. I wasn’t sure if I was going somewhere where I could maybe offer a bribe or plead my case. Nope. I was pointed over to the direction to get back to Lebanon. I asked about a toilet. The duty-free mall. Free bathroom. Asked a guy in a suit and tie that worked at duty-free how I could make a call to Lebanon. He said I could use his phone if it was an emergency. I said that I wasn’t sure what to do now, since I couldn’t get into Syria. I used his phone, called the guy from Zahle and walked to the other side to go toward Lebanon.
Various taxi drivers ran over to try to scam me, but I figured I would try to hitchhike. They thought I was nuts and tried to work $5+ out of me. I told them to go away. I had my thumb out. Every car that went by was packed.
After a while, I agreed to the taxi people setting me up with a $1 ride in a beat up BMW. The fair price. Less than a minute on the road, the taxi overheated. I took some video, and the guy next to me insisted that I take a picture with him.
Back in Lebanon, since I wasn’t successful getting into Syria, I had to get my exit stamp cancelled. When I asked the Lebanese border control guy about getting back to Chtaura, he said that I could possibly get a free ride on one of the buses that was coming by. He walked me over the the side where the buses were going into Lebanon and left me with the border guys there. I thought he had arranged it so they would talk to a bus. But they let the various taxi scammers harass me. I told them that the other guy had made it sound like I’d get a bus. They seemed confused about all of it and annoyed that I tried to get into Syria. “Why Syria?” Realizing I was getting nowhere with them, I left most of my bags by the gate and went to go talk to the first guy.
He came back with me and sorted it all out. No bus, because the buses that were waiting there at the time were Iranian. And no guarantees when another bus would come. The border people figured it wasn’t a great idea to ask the Iranians about me going on. So, instead, they arranged a $2 taxi to Chtaura.
After that, it was a $2 taxi back to Zahle to a 4,000 Lebanese pound ride back to Beirut to take a $108 USD flight to Istanbul the next morning.