Taking a long-distance bus in Turkey is a very civilized experience. Buses in Syria are less refined, but much more of a cultural experience. We never know quite what we’re getting into. We have not yet (and likely won’t) perfect the ability to catch the best bus between two places. We did managed to avoid a scam in Homs and take a nicer bus than our morning bus out of Palmyra.
Smoking on buses in Syria is not only allowed, and the rule is enforced – unlike many other places we’ve been – even on the local buses. On our small bus from Palmyra to Homs, someone lit up a cigarette. Our initial thought was that this was just like Turkey, Greece and Italy where a table with ashtrays might be located right below a no-smoking sign. We were surprised when seconds later the bus attendant came over and talked to the person smoking. This quickly escalated to shouting back and forth and it was clear that the attendant was prepared to have the driver stop the bus and kick the smoker off in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere. Fortunately, the smoker extinguished his cigarette and put it away. It was truly delightful to see the rule actually enforced!
The first lesson about taking a bus in Syria, is to arrive early at the station (Karajat – sounds like garage) and take your time. Inevitably someone will try to rush you, because their bus is leaving in 5 minutes. This of course means that you are not looking at any of the other buses who may also be leaving in 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes. If you have the flexibility to take a smaller bus, then you will have a lot of options and no need to rush to the first people that you see. That being said, the smaller buses are often filled beyond capacity, so you may get a seat but there may also be people standing or sitting in the aisle.
The bus we took from Palmyra to Homs was arranged by our hotel. The bus (a minibus) stopped right in front of the hotel to pick us up. The attendant evicted two people from their seats, so that we could sit down – since the hotel had reserved a seat for us, it was ours. We were also paying a tourist premium (likely of 25 SYP), which we guess a portion will go back to the hotel somehow. The bus was full enough that 3 younger men stood for part of the trip and sat on the floor for part of it. The ride from Palymra to Homs was about 2 hours.
Unfortunately, the minibus from Palmyra arrives at a different bus terminal than the large (Pullman) buses that leave for Aleppo. This meant we needed to take a taxi across Homs. We did have a couple of offers of a minibus ride to Aleppo, or possibly a service taxi, or perhaps just a ride to the other terminal for 100 SYP each. We couldn’t quite tell what they were offering, but have gotten wary of people approaching us as we get off the bus to offer something. Scott wanted to take the 2.5 hour journey in a Pullman bus, so we decided to take a taxi to the other terminal. We have gotten wise enough to not take a taxi directly from the bus terminal – rather we walked out of the terminal and then flagged down a taxi. We found a taxi that used a meter and he took us across Homs to the right bus terminal, pointing out some key sights in Homs along the way. It was a rather long ride, but with the meter running, we felt we got a fair deal.
Upon arriving at the second Homs terminal, just outside the doors someone in a rather plain uniform claimed to be police and demanded our passports. Scott complied. He checked the passports, then asked where we were going and if we spoke Arabic. When we said we did not speak Arabic he gave our passport to his friend who ushered us to a desk and stamped out tickets for us and asked for money – 300 SP each, too much for the bus fare. We said no, that he wanted too much for the bus tickets. The person with our passports put them down for a minute and Becky immediately snatched them back. Once we had our passports it was easy to walk away from this scam. We quickly found the washrooms (a priority at the time) and then found a quiet place to sit, have a tea, and strategize about how to get our tickets from Homs to Aleppo. We decided to talk to Al-Alihah, a company mentioned in our guidebook, and whose buses looked both good and plentiful. Without any pressure, Scott was able to get us seats on a Pullman (full size) bus for 140 SP each, which felt downright luxurious after our last two bus rides.
The bus from Aleppo to Antakya turned out to be another challenge. We asked many companies at the Aleppo International bus terminal, and coincidentally all the buses left at noon (all the big buses that is). One of the companies told us that they are all actually selling tickets for the same bus. You don’t actually buy the tickets until the bus arrives, and we found out why. The bus never came! Apparently this is a Turkish bus company, and they only run the bus when it looks to be full enough to be worthwhile. We waited for an hour after its scheduled arrival time, and eventually realized it wasn’t coming. There was a mini-bus from another Turkish company (HAS) leaving, but they could not easily take our bikes. They suggested that they could strap them to the roof, and would charge us a 1000 SP fee for doing so, on top of 250 SP each for the ticket. We opted for a taxi and with the help of Dani and Fadi, managed to get one for a reasonable price, 2000 SP. This made the drive to Antakya less than 3 hours including the customs and duty free stops. As we travelled we saw at least two other Turkish buses headed to Damascus, so it may be easier to get a full-sized bus directly from Damascus to Antakya.
Scott made good use of the Turkish-English dictionary given to us by Wendy and Peter, since the driver only spoke Arabic and Turkish. We managed a few conversations over the course of the drive, and the driver drilled us on our Turkish numbers. Unfortunately, we still can’t count past 5 🙁
The area between Aleppo and Antakya was much greener than when we were here in December, with plants sprouting in the fields, and even the hills of no-man’s land were green. Quite the contrast from our ride last month.