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By Laura-Jane Marsden
At the Turkish border crossing into Aleppo, Syria I am feeling tired and intolerant.
Why aren’t the crowds of Turks with wads of cash poking out of their passports standing in an orderly queue with their visa forms filled out in black ballpoint pen?
Whilst I am normally a multi-cultural advocate, I become frustrated with the lack of English law and order apparent.
But my travel buddy (who also happens to be my husband of six years) reminds me to take a deep breath, smile and remember why we came: to discover a little piece of Syrian daily life. This culture is not worse than ours, it is simply different.
It is the differences which, in reality, make my heart race when travelling in the Middle East. Three hours later in the airy hostel room I am showered, rested and in a better mood: ready to go and explore Aleppo and grab some nosh before my tummy starts rumbling.
We head past some greetings of ‘where you from, mister’ to the labyrinth of undercover markets known as the souq in the centre of Aleppo. I feel as though I’ve stepped into an Arab version of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. After my experiences of drab, concrete English markets selling beach towels and knock off brand trainers this place is truly magical. I will try and describe it, but really you have to go and see, smell and taste it yourself to believe it!
Firstly, there’s the aroma. Up through my nostrils floated wafts of: herbs, spices, coffee and raw meat. I didn’t need to look much further to see the evidence of the latter: hanging to my left at pretty much head height was some sort of medium-sized animal carcass.
My husband gives me a nudge. No he is not warning me of the carcass (I should mention at this stage that I am a vegetarian) but pointing out some sheep skulls. Lovely! But their image is soon erased from my mind when I see sacks (as in, the proper big brown variety) filled with rich coffee beans.
As we wander further into this fascinating maze we come across a beautiful soap stall stacked with delicately made toiletries that looked good enough to eat. Remembering my rumbling tummy and thinking it best to avoid a mouthful of soap, I went for a bag of sweet Syrian biscuits at the adjacent stall.
We couldn’t stand still for long because we got carried along by the crowds of people.
In this bustling market locals still managed to weave laden motorcycles through the hordes. Rather them than me! Round the next corner there were a couple of donkeys resting in the shade. Across the next alley we discovered beautifully spun wool and patterned tunics hanging ready for sale. The material felt soft and cool in my hand.
In every corner there was something colourful to gaze at or a delicate sweet snack to sample.
As we came to one of the exits to this fascinating maze the road widened to the entrance to the Great Mosque. We were welcome to visit this immense place of worship and were immediately greeted by friendly locals who were keen to pose for pictures and exchange smiles.
This was clearly a place of worship where everyday life was carried out.
There were men sleeping in the shade of the grand walls and children playing catch between the legs of the adults. Men and women were being taught separately and people were also studying individually. Women sat in groups in the shady interior chatting and writing. I was struck by the community spirit evident in the mosque and throughout the alleys and lanes of the souq.
I am still looking for the same back home.
Laura-Jane caught the travel bug somewhere between the ancient temples in Cambodia and the floating reed islands of Peru. She writes for her website Roam the World which is dedicated to helping fellow backpackers to plan an adventure.