Wanna travel to Syria with Against the Compass?
Join us in Syria to celebrate the Christmas with the Syrian people
December 24th to 28th, 2023
You can’t go, you will get arrested, you will get in trouble because this is Syria, there is a war on, and I don’t recommend you take your chances.
This is what the owner of a travel agency was repeatedly telling me, in an attempt to try to convince me to book one of their expensive tours to Aleppo. Yeah, sure.
I was skeptical, especially because I had already heard that that person was suspected of being a scammer, a person not to be trusted, so I decided to do my own research and yeah, take my chances.
Upon my arrival in Damascus, I got in touch with a young Syrian named Abdul – his name isn’t Abdul, but let’s just call him that for his anonymity – from Aleppo and a UN worker. We talked over the phone, and I could tell that he was a well-educated and knowledgeable Syrian who knew his shit.
I told him the situation, and he said that there shouldn’t be a problem, that foreigners can travel to Aleppo by bus, that he would pick me up at the bus station and that I could even stay at his house.
I felt extremely lucky to meet Abdul.
After spending three incredible days in Damascus eating my way through hummus and fatteh, getting a haircut in the Shia district and wandering around each and every street from the Old City, I decided to take the risk, so I headed to Damascus Bus Station, which was in a different location than usual, as the original one was under construction.
Hello, for Aleppo?
Yes, yes, welcome, welcome – that gentleman said with a big smile.
I paid him the equivalent of 7€, a modest price compared to the 400€ the tour agent was asking for a 2-day trip to Aleppo.
I got in the bus. It was full of soldiers, but I already knew it would be. A guy in Damascus told me that most passengers going to Aleppo were young soldiers from the Syrian army.
I sat next to one of them, a 30-year old Syrian who had Bashar Al-Assad’s face as a screensaver on his phone.
I greeted him in my macaronic Arabic, but he didn’t seem to care much about me.
You may also be interested in when I visited Mosul after the liberation from ISIS
To the surprise of many, the center of Damascus is totally untouched, as if the country had never been under war, but as we were leaving the city, I realized that the outskirts of the capital had not escaped in the same way, as wherever I looked, all I could see was destruction and more destruction.
It was the first time in my life I was a direct witness of the consequences of a recent war.
With my face full of perplexity, I pulled out my phone and start taking a few photos through the window, and it was only then that I finally triggered the curiosity of the young soldier.
No, no, I am a tourist.
Oh… Which country?
I am from Spain.
From that moment, things changed. Like a good Arab, he was a real football fan and even though I don’t like football, I was happy to see him happy, as Spanish football was his greatest passion and I might have been the first Spaniard he ever talked to.
Little by little, the Syrians around us started to realize that there was a foreigner among them, who was traveling to Aleppo for tourist purposes and from then, I became the spotlight of the bus.
We had a 9-hour bus ride ahead of us. Yes, 9 hours.
Aleppo is only 369km from Damascus but the road after Homs is not Government-controlled so, in order to avoid any risks, all vehicles use an alternative road, which is significantly longer, but what really makes you waste time are the endless military checkpoints – which I really appreciate because those checkpoints are what make you feel safe when you travel in Syria.
There were so many that I even lost count, but there were definitely more than 10.
We stopped every few hours, time my military friend used for buying me a shawarma or whatever he could offer, even though I told him several times I was not hungry.
He wouldn’t separate from me either, not even when I was going to the toilet. That dude felt obloged to protect me and the rest of passengers were showing concern about the fact that I was traveling to Aleppo all by myself, but I told them that a local friend was waiting for me at the bus station.
Those Syrians made me feel safe, and this is something I truly appreciate.
The journey, however, went pretty smoothly, with no particular incident worth mentioning, only that once in a while, some soldiers would get in the bus to check out people but, despite having a foreign passport, they never asked me anything,
After an exhausting 9-hour journey, we finally made it to Aleppo.
My friend Abdul recognized me instantly, not because of my face, but because I was really standing out from the crowd.
We took a taxi to the center. It was dark already, so I couldn’t see much, but it was Christmas, December 27th precisely, and the streets of Aleppo were decorated with Christmas lights.
Is this really Aleppo?
He took me to a restaurant, pretty fancy by the way, one of those restaurants where the staff call you Sir and kind of take a bow whenever you ask something.
He had booked a table for two and the restaurant was packed, packed with Syrians with clearly high purchase power.
What are you going to drink? – He said
After that long trip, all I needed was some alcohol, but I still didn’t know anything about the kind of Arab he was, so I preferred to ask him first.
I don’t know, what are you having?
Well, I am going to order wine.
Perfect. They brought us some really good French wine, a rich one, full of body, the way I like it. We ordered so much stuff, all Syrian food, amazing. Everything was delicious.
The last thing I was expecting upon my arrival in Aleppo was such a feast.
Do you see that group of people over there? – He said. They are a famous family from Aleppo and one of the very few families from their class who refused to leave the city during the war.
Between Christmas lights and the party atmosphere from that restaurant, despite being conscious of all the destruction and the suffering from Aleppo’s inhabitants, so far, I had only seen positive things.
This was, however, one face of Aleppo, but there was another one.
On the next day, we went to the Old City, where I could finally understand everything.
The Old City of one of the oldest cities in the world was practically destroyed, empty, soulless…
It is a bit hard to express my feelings with words, but you need to be very cold blooded not to break down.
You can visit everything, seriously, and enter any building with no restrictions at all, except for the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, one of the most important mosques in the country, a mosque which today doesn’t exist and whose entrance is guarded by soldiers who didn’t allow me to go in.
For a few dollars, we also entered the Aleppo Citadel which, besides having plenty of bullet holes on its walls, is still standing and the reason is that the citadel was never taken by the rebel groups, so this was the Syrian Army’s base.
Next to the citadel, there was a pretty big and famous coffee shop, which was recently open after being shut down for several years because of the war.
There were some people around the citadel but other than that, we walked around all the Old City’s phantasmagorical streets, but I didn’t see much going on other than empty streets, except in some specific areas.
Life was completely gone.
According to Abdul, however, people are gradually coming back, so some of the businesses are finally opening and many buildings are now being rebuilt.
It will take ages to recover and, since many Syrians fled the country, it will be very difficult to go back to its full normality.
After visiting the destroyed part of Aleppo we went back to, let’s say, the more habitable part of the city.
That part was literally untouched and today was pretty lively, as if nothing had happened.
Busy markets, coffee shops, a cinema, and then you had all bars, restaurants, and churches from the Christian part; which by the way, in case you didn’t know, in Aleppo there is a large Christian population, like in all of Syria, actually.
With two of his colleagues, also UN workers, we went for lunch, then to smoke shisha, visited churches and they even took me to a park where there is a monkey in a cage who became famous because he has been locked up there since before the war – I am totally against that, just reporting the fact.
Abdul was telling me that despite the conflict and war in Aleppo, life in that part of the city had been relatively normal – relatively.
To give you the context, Abdul is a UN worker, a topographer at UN Habitat and his function is drawing and creating maps highlighting areas according to their level of destruction. So, he was a knowledgeable guy, pretty much up-to-date with the current situation, plus he lived in Aleppo during the conflict.
Coming back to the previous topic.
A significant part of Aleppo, mainly the Old City, was occupied by Al Nusra, a terrorist group similar to ISIS – there were tens of different sides in the Syria war. There were other rebels but Abdul was always referring to this group.
What I meant is that Aleppo is a huge city, composed of millions of inhabitants (well, it used to be) and the Al Nusra guys occupied a percentage of the city which according to Abdul, was around 30% and, given the fact that they were totally surrounded by the Syrian Army, life outside this area was going on with certain normality, especially because it is a big city, like Madrid maybe.
However, this doesn’t mean that it was safe, not at all.
It was not, as the Al Nusra guys were launching mortars against the Christian district, the University and against Syrians in general, so many people left, but a lot decided to stay.
In fact, Abdul told me that his university kept open and the reason is that Syrians students believed that, if they stopped studying and going to University, Al Nusra would have won.
After an unprecedented bombing and, with Russian help, Aleppo was liberalized in 2016.
The first thing you should know is that this isn’t a political post, and I don’t intend it to be.
I am just telling you the situation of what I saw in Aleppo with my own eyes and all the mentioned past and recent events are based on the opinion of a local, apolitical Syrian.
This isn’t propaganda and, since many readers ask, I want to tell you that today, visiting Aleppo is safe but, just in case, I recommend you stay in the city center and don’t wander by yourself in the suburbs of the city, not only because it could be unsafe but also because you could be questioned by the army or, in the worst-case scenario, arrested.
Also check our travel guide to Syria.