Ethiopia: yuyuyuyuyu

The border crossing with Ethiopia is special and something to remember and not like any other border crossing we have seen in the past few months of traveling. You go from hut to hut and meet people without any uniform or looking close to an official. You get a few stamps, carnet de passage is signed and that’s it. The Bradt Travel Guide describes it as a dusty one-horse outpost which is more or less what it is like.

After the border crossing we drive into the beautiful mountains up to 2,000 meters high and see the temperature drop to as low as 16 degrees and have to pull out our sweaters. The roads are very nice to drive on but are clearly not made for cars despite being of perfect tarmac. The roads are for cattle, donkeys, kids and everybody else that needs to go from one village to the next. The speed of driving drops allowing you to enjoy the scenery. In the first village that we pass we are met by kids running up to the car screaming ‘yuyuyuyuyuyuyuyuyuyu’ and waving to us with a big smile on their face. This continues until we reach Gonder where make a stop at the bank to change money since the bank at the border was closed between 12 and 15:00. With some cash in the pocket we drive some 65km to Tim&Kim Village in Gorgora at Lake Tana to spend a few days. Every morning we wake up by the side of the lake in which we take a bath sharing it with a hippo and the fish eagles. It is very nice to stay and relax in this community based project run by a young Dutch couple.

The other side of Sudan

When we approach Sudan, still being in Egypt, we cannot help but think about what it will be like when we get there. All we know about Sudan is what we have seen in the news about Darfur area and that is not very good to say the least. On other travelers’ websites we also read that Sudanese people steal your heart in a second and show you a very different side of the country. People we meet on the way are wondering if we should go there and if it will be safe to travel. Not strange to see their reactions since all they have seen from Sudan is what is shown on television or printed in the newspapers and magazines. What will Sudan be like for us?

Finally in Sudan we ourselves are taken by surprise and see a different side of the country. After leaving Wadi Halfa we head into the Nubian desert to find a Deffufa in Kerma. A Deffufa is a mud-brick building, 3500 years old, and used for funeral ceremonies at the time of the Kushite Kingdom. The building itself is almost completely in ruins but it is the occasion for us to meet a very nice family that shows us the site via their back-garden. The father introduces us to his wives and many children. English was not spoken but it did not matter to the conversation. Somehow we were made very welcome and were even offered to spend the night at their house. We have these encounters in almost all villages that we go through in the Nubian and Bayuda desert.

Another village, Abri, made of typical mud houses surrounded by a large enclosure, gives Barry the opportunity to meet children swimming in the Nile. They are looking innocent and as just local kids that are having a great time in the river but an older man passing by tells him after a while that these kids are actually coming from the Darfur area escaping the tragedy that is taking place there.

At the end of the day that is again hot and dusty, we find a spot for wild camping with a tree that provides us with some shade. There appears to be nobody in the area so we park the car to set up camp. Before we can get the chairs out to have a cold drink we are surrounded by 8 people, some goats and camels. Where did they come from? Once again we do not speak a common language but can share a drink with them and have a chat using our hands and sign language. The kids run off with a bottle of water and we all carry on with our day.

The day after we reach the Meroe Pyramids where we want to spend the night but are caught by a weather spectacle: a sandstorm. At first sight it looks like it is raining in the distance but then it becomes clearer as soon as the brown clouds of sand swallow us and we are left with nothing but to park the car and wait for the worst to pass. It slowly clears up so that we can drive again. We decide to make it to Khartoum that day because we have no real other option. Doors and windows closed do not matter, we find dust everywhere. Arriving late in Khartoum we set up our tent at the Blue Nile Sailing Club. The sandstorm has passed, we can relax again.

After a few days in Khartoum we drive east towards Ethiopia. We can really do with some milder weather. The temperature during the day in Sudan easily reaches 45 degrees and higher with peaks of 53 in the car. It is hot, dusty and not many showers available. The closer we get to Ethiopia the lower the temperature gets and finally drops below 40 degrees. It almost feels a little cold.

The eastern side of the country gives a different landscape compared to the North where we come from. It is less dusty and darker more fertile soil with a lot of cattle, camels in large groups and agriculture everywhere. The mud houses slowly disappear and huts start to show up telling you that you are getting closer to ‘real’ Africa. Besides the different style in houses you can also sense that the people are different here. Besides their skin color being darker, they come across as less open/more cautious towards foreigners.

Based on our short and limited experience in Sudan we can say that it is not a united country. We have seen only very little of this vast country, the largest in Africa, but we can already sense that regions within the country have strong identities and are very different from each other, Khartoum being a world on its own, apart from the rest. The people in Sudan can take you by surprise and really show you another side than the one you see in the news.

Ferry crossing to Sudan

In Aswan we meet 4 Dutch guys from Dustroads (Tom, Bram, Michel and Dirk) who are traveling the same route but twice as fast as we do. Together we go to the ticket office for the ferry and do a trip through town to arrange all the necessary paperwork. On Sunday we drive with 3 cars to the port to meet up with Baraka who helps us with all the steps needed before we can actually load the cars on the barge. Just before loading we have a closer look at the barge and find many new 15cm long steel nails lying all over. A quick cleanup and we carefully drive the cars onto the ferry. Saying goodbye to the car feels strange but the Sudanese captain promised to look after them and to arrive in Wadi Halfa as soon as possible, maybe even on the same day as we will. Once back in town we enjoy the swimming pool one more time and do some last minute shopping before saying goodbye to Egypt.

On Monday morning we all jump in the taxi and meet again with Baraka in the port of Aswan and go through immigration. He told us the day before that the spot below the rescue boat on deck is a good spot as it provides you shade all day. He is right, it is a nice location since we end up watching the loading of the ferry for 8 long hours before departing around 7PM! Many Sudanese passengers bring back electric cooking devices to Sudan. We see everything getting loaded from where we sit the whole day: complete tea sets, fridges, furniture, etc. The night is rough: cold and long without any comfort besides the sleeping mat that Bram shared with us. Thanks Bram.

We wake up around 5:30 with about 50 Muslims praying on deck in between all the luggage and some people still sleeping just before passing by the magnificent site of Abu Simbel on our right.

We arrive in Wadi Halfa around midday after spending 25 hours sitting on a steel deck – stretching our legs feels great. Magdi Boshara, an honest and straightforward Sudanese fixer, meets us on the boat in the restaurant to start the immigration process. We fight our way out of the ferry and get into a shuttle that takes us to customs. We get word that the barge with our vehicles might arrive in the next 2 hours and are asked if we want to take the cars today or tomorrow. Today of course, since that allows us to finish all the steps needed today to get into Sudan and sleep in our own beds! 5 Hours later Magdi has arranged all the paperwork while we collect the cars and drive into Sudan. Last thing we need to do, the next day, is the Alien registration since this cannot happen today anymore. We drive through Wadi Halfa and set up camp on the outskirts of town in the desert. Michel, from the Dustroads team, gets the veggies out and fixes us all a nice dinner under the stars in Sudan. We meet with Magdi in town the next day to do the Alien Registration and get the photo permit.

Practical information regarding the ferry crossing from Egypt into Sudan

On Saturday – Bureaucracy in Aswan

  1. Go to the Nile River Valley Transportation Office – Mr Salha to buy passenger tickets
  2. Go to Traffic court in Aswan to get a paper stating that you have no fines in Egypt outstanding
  3. Go to Traffic Police and give the court paper and Egyptian license plates and get another paper to give to customs at the port when boarding the ferry
  4. Drive back to the Nile River Valley Transportation Office to buy the actual passenger tickets (156 pounds for second class with meal included)

All this took us about 3 hours

On Sunday – Loading car on the barge

  1. At 09:00 you are at the port (15km out of town) to load the car on the barge
  2. You meet with Baraka, fixer from the ferry company (picture in slideshow), who will take you through the next steps at the port to get your car on the ferry (no fee charged by him)
  3. You register your passport details at the entry of the port and then wait for 3 hours (20 pounds)
  4. Once you are inside the gates you do a custom check of the car (10 minutes)
  5. Drive to main building on the right to purchase the vehicle ticket (2,012 pounds)
  6. You go to the customs building on the left to stamp the carnet de passage (car out of Egypt) (25 pounds for the carnet)
  7. Drive car to the barge and loading is done
  8. Taxi back to town (20 pounds)

Step 3 to 8 are supported by Baraka. (prices mentioned are in Egyptian pounds per person). All steps this day took us 5 hours.

On Monday – Boarding passenger ferry

  1. At 09:30 taxi to port – 10:00 arrival
  2. Check passenger tickets at the entry of the port
  3. Scan of luggage
  4. In customs building obtaining passport stamps and pay small exit tax
  5. Go to the ferry to claim your spot on deck if you do not have a 1st class cabin
  6. Wait for 8 hours and watch the loading of the ferry from deck

On the Sudanese side Magdi ( / +249 121 730 885) helps to arrange everything for a fixed fee of US25:

  1. Immigration
  2. Carnet de Passage (US15)
  3. Travel Permit
  4. Alien Registration (US45 per person)
  5. Photo Permit (US10 per person)

Personal note: Be patient in Sudan with the bureaucracy which is long and difficult. The country is not adapted to tourism (which gives its charm after all), the procedures for entry and exit are nowhere indicated and have to be done in different offices/buildings, in different locations. However, if you miss one of the steps you will be illegal in the country which will cause problems so pay attention.

Cairo to Aswan, Egypt

Getting into Cairo in its famous crazy traffic isn’t too bad if you know where you’re going. In our case, Salma camping, close to the Pyramids of Giza, is well indicated on the GPS. We get there without getting lost once! Shortly after we finished setting up the tent, we see someone with a “smoke gun” walking over the bar and restaurant area. At first we have no real idea what is going on until he tells us it is for the mosquitos. 5 minutes later we are under full attack – thanks for not smoking out the mosquitos on the campsite! We run for the bar to have a cold beer.

The following day, we are picked up by Khaled, who will be our driver for the coming 3 days to visit the embassies. Our first stop is the Dutch embassy and in 3 minutes the letters of recommendation for the Sudanese and Ethiopian embassies are handed over to Barry. Our second embassy is the French one which takes us 2,5 hours and we do not obtain any letter. Some words from Barry on the French embassy in Cairo: the embassy is the place in Cairo for French people to waste time, receive rude treatment, feel right at home (dealing with useless bureaucracy and people that think they own the world), not mentioning the attitude of the guy we had to deal with – who in France gave him the job? God bless the Dutch – what wonderful people at the Dutch embassy!!! The French could learn a lot from them.

Off to the Sudanese embassy that luckily knows that the French embassy does not issue a letter of recommendation and therefore accepts the visa request without the letter. 24 hours later we can pick it up and run to the Ethiopian embassy to request the last visa we need to arrange in Cairo. Lovely Jasmine tells us to come back the next day at 13:00 and they will be ready.

So, we head off to the Giza Pyramids in the morning after packing the car. Khaled is right on time as usual. We enter the site and immediately see the majestic 3 Pyramids on the hill with the Sphinx in front of it. The Pyramids make you feel small when walking around them. How did they build these giant structures 4,500 years ago? After being stalked for about 4 hours and 25 minutes we decide that the camel riders should bother other tourists and tell them politely to f*ck off! Enough is enough. We smoke Camel and do not ride Camel. No we also do not want a horse ride and yes we do know the price. I am guessing less than half of what you are offering me. Please leave us alone with the Pyramids, have some respect for your ancient ancestors.

To recover from the busy and hectic Cairo (officially 18 million but in reality approx. 25 million inhabitants) we drive into the Western desert of Egypt. This detour only adds a few more kilometers (± 1,300 km) to our journey but that is the price you sometimes need to pay to have peace and quietness. First we go through the Black Desert, a land of sand dunes covered with a thin layer of black gravel from eroded mountains in the area. After the Black Desert, we drive into the White Desert which looks like nothing else on earth and according to the local bedouins looks like a moonscape. Is that true or is it the 53 degree Celsius that makes you think so? Did the bedouins ever go to the moon to check or is it simply correct? The picture will tell you. Driving on the unique road in the desert, we are frequently stopped at checkpoints, sometime only 5 km apart. Systematically the same questions are asked: You speak arabic? Where do you come from? “Hum… Previous Oasis”. Where do you go? “Hum… Next Oasis”. In any case, the magic answer is always “Hollanda”. For some reason they seem to like that and let you go without further questions. Answering France always meant showing our passports. So if the reports from these many checkpoints are actually going somewhere, they must be looking for a French woman that went missing between the checkpoints. The landscape passing by is beautiful even though it is very hot. You go from oasis to oasis: so green and so much water allowing agriculture to exist. Water is all you need to create life in the desert, which at first sight has nothing to offer but its emptiness and peace.

We now wait in Aswan for our ferry to Wadi Halfa, Sudan that departs next Monday. The campsite that we planned to stay in, Adam’s Home, seems to be closed so we took a hotel in town with a swimming pool on the roof (Hathor Hotel) for not too much money. Swimming under the stars, with a view on the Nile in busy Aswan! Magdi (our fixer) waits for us in Wadi Halfa to walk us through the process when entering Sudan next week.

Entering Egypt – finally in Africa!

We arrive in the port of Aqaba around 09:30 in the morning to arrange the ticket for the ferry to Nuweiba in Egypt and the paperwork for leaving Jordan. In the middle of the port is an information booth where we get all the steps explained by a very friendly, English speaking, Egyptian.

The nasty surprise this morning is that the ticket for the car has almost doubled from 100 USD to 140 Euro. The total cost for the ferry is now 268 Euro, an expensive crossing of borders. The positive surprise is that the ferry is in good condition and that it is a smooth process. 99% of the passengers are locals and we do not see any other overlander. We are on the ferry and on our way to Egypt / Africa!

We arrive in Nuweiba and get ready for the entering process on the Egyptian side which in many blogs has been described as a pure nightmare. It almost reminds us of the fishing market in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). People running with luggage everywhere, officials with and without uniform, chaos in 40˚ C.

The tourist police already met us at the boat so we do not follow any orders until we see him again. Amed, the tourist police officer, escorts us through all different offices and handles the paperwork for us. All we need to do is stick with him and pay here and there. We get a new Egyptian driving license and 2 new license plates that are mounted on the car for 20 pounds. The last escort by Amed is through the gate of the port. Overall it took us about 2 hours and without a doubt we could not have managed this without his help.

Practical information for other overlanders:

  1. After leaving the ferry you will have to drive over a ramp to check the bottom of the car; drive slowly as directions given here are not the best
  2. After parking your car for inspection, go and get money from the ATM that accepts mastercard and maestro (Bank of Cairo)l; we needed about 1,200 Egyptian pounds in total
  3. Somebody will come and check the engine number and chassis number (safe to have this done), you will receive paperwork
  4. Wait for the tourist police to help you through the rest of the process (wearing a white uniform)
  5. Do not give your passport or other papers to anybody else even if they tell you they are from customs
  6. Consider a “Christmas donation” for the tourist police officer at the end of all the paperwork
  7. After leaving the port head for Sawa Camp (about 15km north of Nuweiba) N29 10,977 E34 43,244
  8. We paid the following at the border crossing (in Egyptian Pounds):
  • Total customs: 540
  • Car insurance: 520
  • License plates: 20
  • Christmas donation: up to you

Sinai is known as a place for relaxing with high temperatures during the day and reasonable warm nights. Luckily there is a breeze to make you feel comfortable. Sawa camp is a little heaven on earth, a Bedouin camp on a sandy beach facing the Red Sea. Only 50 meters off shore is a coral reef and colorful fish making it a nice snorkeling location. From here you can pay a visit to St Katherine Monastery or climb mount Sinai at night to see the sunrise.

We will head for Cairo where we will arrange the visas for Sudan and Ethiopia. Stay on the road or tracks as there seem to be land mines in the western part of Sinai.

Magical Petra at 6 AM

After a few days at the Dead Sea – floating like a bubble in that sea, saturated with salt and minerals, is always a funny experience – we finally arrive at the site of Petra. Do not mind the amount of buses parked at the entrance or you’d be tempted to run away! Instead, we enter Petra at 6am the morning after, right at opening time, to enjoy a peaceful and lonely walk through the Siq (a 1,2 km canyon) leading to the magnificent Treasury, the 43 m high tomb carved out of iron-laden sandstones. Petra is truly a unique place where you can’t stop yourself but imagine the life here at the time of the Nabataeans. The site is large enough to walk and hike for hours, making an early start is in that sense a wise decision. Climbing to the High Place of Sacrifice gives us a long and quite exhausting hike through steps carved into the rocks, but what a reward once we are up hill to view the whole valley of Petra! The magic of this place makes it one of our favorite since we started this strip.

Only downside of Petra is its entry price: 33€ per person nowadays, then from November 2010 the entry ticket will go up to 55€ or even 90€ if you are visiting Jordan for one day only. It seems to us that being listed as one of the world’s seven wonders allows them to charge extraordinary prices unfortunately.

Just 60 km south of Petra, we get in Wadi Rum desert. Passing by the visitors center (as useless as usual!), we drive through the small village of Rum, last post before the sand tracks start. All of a sudden, we are both kind of stopped as we are about to drive off sand. Small hesitation maybe on how to handle this new type of ground? It takes about 10 min to make up our mind, switch to four-wheel-drive, decrease the tyre pressure and off we go into the blistering hot desert! The first part of the desert looks like a highway of sand tracks leading in all different directions. But soon enough the tracks fade away to let us experiment real off road driving. Barry adapts his driving style very quickly to the sandy dunes, while Val tries her best to make sense of the GPS and gives proper navigation directions to the pilot! Fun experience for three days, doing wild camping wherever we feel like and going around as much as we can to see most of the landscapes the superb desert of L.E Laurence has to offer. While we gain confidence, the last day a crazy thought crosses our mind: driving further south through the desert to reach somehow the city of Aqaba. What we don’t foresee when making this ambitious plan is the enormous chain of mountains lying down there and making our crossing impossible. After 3 hours, reason takes over, we finally give it up and head back using our own track to the last camp. Well, you learn every day!

At the end of our stay in the Middle East, we find Jordan too expensive. You can clearly see that Jordan is victim of its own fame: mass tourism has the side effect of increasing prices while decreasing authenticity. Having said that, the sites remain beautiful to visit but could do with waste bins. There’s litter everywhere. The prices listed in the Lonely Planet are at least 50% off. Coach tourism is popular in Jordan therefore single travelers as us are not always as welcome as we were in Syria for example.

Ahlan wa sahlan! – Welcome to Jordan!

After spending a few nights at Crac des Chevaliers, we are ready for the desert and find our next warm welcome in Palmyra, central Syria. Abu Omar’s friend was expecting us and we met at the doorstep of the hotel. While we check in, we are offered tea and a quick lunch is prepared because we look a little hungry. With full stomachs and our luggage in the room we jump in the car and set of for the Citadel to enjoy the view before sunset. By sundown we were in the middle of the ruins which are beautiful at this time of day – a real must see. The ruins are from the Roman time and walking through you can imagine what Palmyra (the City of Palms) must have been like many, many years ago. This was the time of caravans traveling between the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Arabia.

At breakfast the next morning we meet an unusual couple: John is 74 and Mora is 80. She is born in South Africa, lived in Malawi and being back to England for 30 years she keeps on traveling the world with local transport. Believe it or not this old couple goes around Syria and Jordan by local bus, managing to find their way around thanks to experience gathered on journeys around the world.

Following the advice of a French business man who is spending a year in Syria doing voluntary work with the Jesuits, we go deeper into the desert to reach the monastery St Moses the Ethiopian in Mar Musa. To our surprise this monastery from the 6th century, hidden in the mountains, is actually located in the middle of a huge military zone with troops training, tanks and fighter planes flying over. Are they keeping an eye on us or should we just relax?

The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus is worth more than a couple of hours of your day. The place is amazing and has a long history. It is one of the holiest in the Islamic world. Valerie could experience what it is to be a Muslim woman as she has to wear a dress completely covering herself (body and head) in order to enter the mosque. At the end of the visit a Syrian girl surprises us and asks if she can take a picture of Val. Before we know it several people want to have their picture taken with us. The mix of people you meet around the mosque in the old city is vast. People from Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, from the most conservative type (women completely covered) to the modern western way of dressing. There are several touristic tours you can walk in the old city but we just walked around and got “lost”. This way we end up on places that you otherwise simply do not get to see. We loved the authenticity and variety of Damascus.

Getting into Jordan is almost easier than getting out of Syria, at least that is our experience. Before collecting the necessary stamps in Jordan the car is carefully inspected, this time from underneath. Then the usual happens: change money, get insurance for the car, clear customs for the car (stamping the carnet the passage), get our visas and off we are.

The first things that strike us is that people drive much slower, more defensive and they love speed bumps! We feel many of them on our way to Jerash. We were temped to skip the ruins this time, when you saw one you think you have seen them all, but not visiting the Roman ruins of Jerash would have been a mistake. This large site, that we advise not to visit by midday (+35 degrees) like we did, is stunning with beautifully preserved.

When we enter Amman and drive through the middle of the city, there it is: BURGER KING. The day we left the Netherlands Barry was dying for a Whopper and never got one until Amman in Jordan. Imagine the taste of the best burger and double it, that’s how good it tasted!

In Amman we spend the night at Theodor Schneller School. The motto of the school, started in 1860 by Johann Ludwig Schneller in Jerusalem, is learning to live in peace. This institution welcomes Christian and Muslim children to live together. They are orphan, or come from refugee families (the school is situated on the outskirts of a Palestinian refugee camp), or from family in difficult situation. Many of the children are marked with the experience of violence. Read more about this school on their website:

From Aleppo to Crac des Chevaliers, Syria

Getting into Aleppo wakes Barry up. People honk and traffic is a little crazy here. Despite the hectic local way of driving and the signs only in Arabic, Val finds her way on the map and we quickly get to the Citadel in the old city of Aleppo. The souq Bab Antakya, a labyrinth of narrow and covered streets, is close to the Citadel and absolutely worth a visit. Sections separate the type of items sold in these shops, going from olive oil soap to meat to clothing. You’re submerged with various smells, the best of all are the spices of course, and going through alleys of fresh meat hanging on the front of the stores is for Val a real challenge as a vegetarian, she goes and stops breathing for how long as it takes. Having said that, we are totally in love with the food here. It already started in Turkey, but once in Syria we enjoy every day the diversity of the mezze. It’s a cheap meal and you’re never hungry after eating humus and the mix of salads, all with pita bread.

Many women in the conservative city of Aleppo are completely covered wearing the black niqab and even gloves despite the 28 degrees C in order to not let any part of skin visible to the outside world. It seems to be a choice of each to wear it or not, as we see some younger women dressed in a westernized way and a chador as well. The Citadel is visited by hundreds of school children and before we know it we have our picture taken while having a coffee on a terrace! They wanted our picture as much as we wanted theirs. As soon as Barry starts taking a few shots, 30 kids jump all over him to have their photograph taken, along with a few words of English to ask us where we are from. This is the thing in Syria, not a single place we’ve been so far without having people greeting us welcome and asking our country of origin. It’s funny to see that they’re as curious about us as we’re about them. Adding that Val’ short hair cut captives the women’s curiosity and that our Toyota attracts absolutely all people’s eyes, and you’ll get an idea on how curious the people are about us here. Even though, we never felt unsafe or under threat, the only thing we had to get used to at the beginning was people coming to us spontaneously with no bad intention but simply by curiosity.

Heading South, we drive to Baniyas on the coast, in the dark, on mountain roads (we did not expect this) and wild camp on a car park facing the sea after a late arrival. For once and for all, we decide to not drive at night (if at all possible) as there are too many unknowns and dangers which can be easily avoided during the day. The morning after, still on that car park, we are invited for a coffee by Bassar, a Christian Syrian, and his friend Muhammad, a Muslim and owner of the bar near by on the beach. Over coffee and tea, they teach us Arabic which becomes a friendly and funny moment so early in the day.

We head to Crac des Chevaliers, further South, and find a cheap and nice hotel, La Table Ronde, with views on the medieval castle from our bedroom. The castle Crac des Chevaliers, from the 12th century, is impressive from the outside for its massive structure, but quite disappointing on the inside, mainly due to poor renovations (such as Egyptian decorations on one of the towers) and bad maintenance. If you manage to look through all this, it is still a childhood dream castle which will take you back to the time of the Crusader Knights.

The Hotel/Restaurant La Table Ronde is held by Abu Omar, again a very friendly man who makes our stay even more pleasant. He even arranges for us a hotel in Palmyra, our next stop, calling his friend to make sure we’d be well taken care off.

What is written in the Lonely Planet about the Syrian people is absolutely true. They are the friendliest and most hospitable people we have met so far on our trip. Even if many do not speak English, we always find a way to communicate, our Arabic is improving by the day!

Sami, the fixer at the border with Syria

The sun is shining during the drive to South Cappadocia, through the Soganli valley, with a visit of Keslik monastery, hidden in the rocky mountains of this beautiful area. You see many signs on the road for sites you can visit and it really pays off to do so once in a while. In the south of Turkey, on our way to the border with Syria, we sleep on a car park at a gas station. To be sure we inform the guard and the shop keepers who look at us a bit astonished but say it is not a problem at all, welcome! And indeed, we slept very fine and freshen-up in the morning before getting hot water from the restaurant to make our traditional morning coffee.

The drive to the border crossing of Antakya / Bab al Hawa is easy, even though we get a bit lost in Antakya, the last city before the border because of missing signs during roadwork. At the border, we meet Sami from the tourist office, unexpectedly he becomes our ‘fixer’. He helps us to not get checked by customs like everybody else: all other vehicles are turned inside out. It seems that customs look for all electric equipment for which you’d have to pay an import duty. All cars are opened and all luggage is checked. We jump the queue, our back door opens, closes and we are off in no time. No thorough check and that “for a small token of our appreciation”. The other good surprise is that getting a visa for Syria at the border is possible, against most information you’ll find on travel or official embassy websites. It is a smooth process and all well outlined on a board on the wall in the main building at the border.

We drive off into Syria and are surprised for about 2 hours that it was so easy to get into the country; it took only two and a half hours when we were actually expecting to have to wait for hours to get our visas. We find a camp sign on the main road to Aleppo, and camp in a little village 35km before the city. The camping Kaddour has rudimentary facilities but it’s not a problem for us since we have no wish of driving to a big city to find a hotel. The roads are pretty good by the way.

Cappadocia, Turkey

10 hours of driving via Ankara to cover 750km of perfect roads but with less good weather. The last 100km, before we reach Göreme, we drive at night, in the rain and fog. The last turn before Göreme is a special one: sharp downhill turn and all of a sudden in the dark there it is. It is amazing at night, even in the fog, we can only imagine what it looks like arriving here during the day. The city is small and a spaghetti of narrow roads going up and down. We look for a place run by a Dutch lady but instead of finding her place we bump into Kelebek, also mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Valerie manages to get us a room. At 20:30 we get our luggage and climb into our Cave Hotel. Assan, the manager of Kelebek, shows an authentic and warm hospitality. He truly loves and knows well his country, giving us precious advises on what to see in the region. No way we could have found our way around Cappadocia in such short time without his help! Cappadocia, in Central Anatolia, is a land of fairy chimneys and underground cities.

The next day is rainy again so we skip hiking and take the car to drive around the area. We visit Zelve Valley, Pigeon Valley, Rose Valley and the underground city (does not rain there!) of Kaymakli that is 8 floors deep. These underground cities were built by the Hittites around 1800 BC to protect them from the Persians. At the Roman period the Christians also hided here. By visiting these underground cities and seeing how clever it was all built you get a complete picture of the valleys and what was hidden so well for many years. In these underground cities you will find a real city with churches, communication system between the levels of the town, water well (100 meters deep) that is also used for getting oxygen into the city, kitchens that were used by several families at the same time to share food, stables for cattle, wineries, tunnels connecting the cities; a complete city system but underground.

Tomorrow morning (April 13) we will explore the area some more, hopefully with better weather, and head south towards Gaziantep and after that we hope to cross the border with Syria.