I caught a taxi to the bus station in Damascus with the intention of catching luxury bus to Palmyra. When I reached the bus station I had to pass through a metal detector similar to what is used at the airport. The police were very friendly and waved me right through not searching my luggage or myself at all when they saw the Canadian flag on my pack. All of the signs at the bus station were in Arabic so it took some asking to figure out where to go get a ticket and what bus was heading to Palmyra. While I waited for the bus I spoke to a Syrian man about the same age as me who was on his way to Deir Es Zur which is the next stop after Palmyra. Deir es Zur is Syria's major oil producing region and he was a Chemical Engineer who worked out there. He was very helpful and showed me which bus and seat was mine.
The ride through the desert was uneventful but I found it to be quite scenic. Miles and miles of desert and mountains. The desert wasn't sandy like the Sahara but rather quite rocky more like California or Arizona. There was also very little vegetation. I can only imagine how hot it must be there in the summer. I was there in October and the temperature was in the mid-90's (~35C). I really was hoping we would stop at one of the junctions so I could get a picture of myself standing next to one of the signs pointing to Baghdad but we didn't stop at all on the three hour journey.
Palmyra was on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire and rose to prominence as a major trading post for caravans journeying from Persia to Rome. After much warfare and rebellion it became little more than an outpost by the end of the 2nd C. AD. I arrived in Palmyra about 2pm and walked to town, which was only about half a mile from where the bus dropped me. I had little problem finding a hotel and the place I did stay in was probably the best hotel I had on the trip (except for the Marriott of course). A corner room at the Heliopolis with windows on two sides, a view of the ruins, satelliteTV and private bath was $35/night.
After settling in I took off for the ruins, which were about a mile away. On my way through town I decided to stop and get something to eat since I hadn't eaten yet that day. I was the only one in the restaurant and had a delicious meal of chicken kebab's, falafel, fries and a coke for about $3 US.
It was only about a 3 block walk through town to get to the road to the ruins but being apparently the only tourist in town I was called upon by every shop keeper and restaurant owner to come and have a cup of tea. I tried to be polite and explain I was off to the ruins but finally acquiesced and sat down with a gentleman in front of one of the hotels for a cup of tea.
Ahmed owned the Bel Hotel which was a cheap backpacker's hotel and also owned the rug/silver shop across the street. He was very friendly and I ended up talking with him and a couple of his staff for almost an hour before I insisted I had to get up to the ruins before sunset. He insisted that I stop for tea on my way back after seeing the ruins and I agreed to.
Palmyra is known to the locals as Tadmor, which means "City of Dates" and on the road to the ruins I passed by several date stands where the proprietors insisted I try their dates which I did. That was the only mistake I made with regards to what I ate on the trip. The only time I got sick on my trip was in Palmyra and I am pretty sure it was from eating the dates. I ended up eating virtually nothing for the next two days and just drinking lots of water. I didn't feel too awful and I wasn't prevented from doing anything but I couldn't stomach any food for a couple of days.
As I got to the ruins there was a French tour bus unloading and I wandered into the ruins just ahead of the tour group. The ruins are absolutely massive and spread over a huge area and it was nice to be able to wander around without there being huge crowds. I decided to hike up to the Qala'at ibn Maan which is a huge muslim castle built in the 17th C. The hike wasn't too bad and only took about 30 mins though it was hotter than hell! I wandered around the castle and took a lot of pictures of the ruins as the sun went down.
On my way back to my hotel I stopped for tea again at the Bel Hotel with the proprietor. I gave him a couple of postcards of Denver and he seemed really excited. He kept staring at them probably trying to imagine what such a place could be like.
The next morning I got up at 530 am hoping to walk over to the ruins just as the sun came up so I could get some good pictures. I was feeling worse than the night before so decided to just pop some Pepto-Bismol for breakfast. After a few more hours at the ruins I decided to leave and head for Hama about 3.5 hours away. I headed back to the hotel, checked out and headed to the bus station to hopefully catch a bus to Homs about 3 hours away where I could transit to Hama.
In the Middle East there is a myriad of transportation forms available. Private Taxi's are the little yellow taxis and they are the most expensive. In Jordan and Lebanon these are often old Mercedes while in Syria they are more likely to be ancient Opels, Peugeot's and Lada's. Service taxis generally run on set routes between towns and carry 5-7 people. They are more expensive than buses but still a good price. For buses there are minibuses, microbuses and luxury buses. Minibuses are actually minivans and they generally make small hops between villages. Microbuses are like half schoolbuses and tend to be decked out in funky colours with all sorts of crazy statues, flowers, dolls, etc on the dash. Finally luxury buses are like greyhound buses and make the longer trips between cities.
The first bus out of Palmyra happened to be a microbus and I hopped on board. The seats were so close that my knees were literally touching my chest for three hours. It wasn't very comfortable. Once I reached Homs I jumped out and quickly found a minibus that was heading up to Hama about 30 mins away. The minibus is interesting in that you can hop on anywhere along the route and hop off anywhere. Also one of the passengers generally becomes in charge of collecting the fares and everyone passes their money to him and he doles out the appropriate change and then hands the money to the driver. It is all quite organized.
When I reached Hama, I hopped out of the minibus and hailed a cab, which took me to my hotel. The total cost of the 3.5 hour trip from Palmyra to Hama using microbus, minibus and taxi was about $2.50 US with the taxi being almost half that cost for just the last mile.