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A unique travel destination

Travelling is all nice and good, but I want to go further. Past the known, into the unknown...

Author: Thushara Verhoeven | Photo & image credits: © TPJ Verhoeven Photography | 3.077 words | Published on: 5 August 2022 | Last edited on: 8 August 2022


Look closely at this photo ▼

Untitled photo

© Aleppo National Archives (shared from BBC News)


Where to next?

In case you love that photo: I certainly do too. But if you read the undergoing text carefully, you now have learned that it has been taken in Aleppo, which is a city in... Syria 🇸🇾. And yes, that is exactly where I will be going... I'll let that sink in for a moment.


Undoubtedly our planet is full of beautiful and astonishing places. Unfortunately there are more destinations I want to go to than I have money in my wallet. Most commonly Money and Time or a combination of those two are the limiting factors. It boils down to the fact that we always have to carefully choose where to go since we don't have infinite amounts of both: we cannot do it all or can we...?


When you yourself will try to imagine travelling to a country like Syria, you might run into some practicalities. In other words: you might have some questions as to why in the world someone would want to go there. I have listed some of those below and provided those with my anwers. It will give you an insight in what drives me.


Q and A

...what made you decide to go to Syria?

• Syria has a very important and incredibly rich history and I happen to love that kind of stuff.

• I actively follow a lot of travel vloggers from around the world. I've been watching films, documentaries and all kinds of footage about all of these far away lands for over two solid decades with an open mind. Direct reason came in the beginning of August 2022 when a news article was published on the Dutch news site NOS.nl with the fitting title: 'Travelling to Syria despite travel warnings - People are curious'. After reading that article I was practically sold and I reached out to Rik Brinks from CultureRoad that very same day about travelling to Syria via his travel agency. 

• What made my determination even stronger was when I stumbled upon this YouTube documentary (Thomas Brag, Yes Theory). About this video: it is 47 minutes long so please do take your sweet time. Kick back and relax if you plan on watching it (and you should!) It also comes with a warning of my own: if you have a heart, compassion and sympathy... it's highly emotional and very moving stuff from time to time. Pro tip: go watch it, since it basically explains all of my own reasons why I want to go as well.


...what do you hope to get out of a trip like this?

• Unique experiences, great memories and amazing footage which will tell a compelling, yet more positive and complete story to share with the entire world. I will travel there so that you don't have to (but you are very welcome to do the same in case you want to).

• My philosophical and personal approach is this: after being bombarded with negativity about this place for so long I simply refuse to believe that it is that bad. Contradictory to what we have been led to believe for over two decades. I desperately long for a whiff of the notion that there are good people in the Middle East too who are just trying to live their lives to the best of their abilities on a daily basis. I know that to be true but it's hard to wrap my head around that after such long and dark times. I myself am surrounded by peace and love, freedom and safety in my own country of The Netherlands, but my eyes are certainly not closed to the horrors of this world. They actually happen and frankly I am kind of sick of it. So I guess you can say that I want to make such a trip because it provides me with an opportunity of actually contributing to positivity. I am going to capture that story through my camera lens and share it with the world.


...I wouldn't go there. Why do you?I

want to change the way people view the world for the better because as professional travel photographer I play a big role. However this is the exact sentiment I get most ot the time from people when I unfold my plans about a trip to Syria. I don't mind it because I get it ("who in their right mind...?") It is the exact reason I wrote this article. It's not to explain myself because I know I don't have to to anyone but myself. It's because I want to. As a professional photographer I want to clarify that I acknowlegde the fact that I know I hold great power since images speak a thousand words. It is not my objective to convince you to go to places like this, but if I somehow somewhere convince someone else by accident in the process... then that is truly great! 

Practicalities

• Is it safe to travel there?

Short answer: Yes. But as of August 2022 it is definitely not safe to travel to the northern part of the country due to ongoing conflict there. Obviously it's not allowed for tourists to get into those areas.


• Where do you book a trip like that?

I am looking into this trip via the Dutch travel organisation CultureRoad - "Expert in unique destinations". (To get an idea of what they are doing and where they offer trips to: definitely check out their website!)


• Is it an organised trip?

Semi. Via CultureRoad you can book a group tour. I however did not do that. I will be travelling solo. I planned my entire trip with them and expressed in what period I want to go, what places I would like to visit and how many days I want to travel around. In that sense I pre-organised it myself, but since the local guides know everything and will take me from place to place it will be semi organised indeed


• What places will you be visiting there?

At this time on my list are the capital of Damascus, the cities of Aleppo, Homs, Busra, Palmyra and the coastal city of Latakia. Besides that: everything the local guides will throw at me. I am open to everything.


• When will you be going?

The plan is the 13-27 March 2023. As of today (beginning of August 2022) after a few exchanged emails and one very nice phone call, the general idea is to go in that period. Of course taking into account that airlines, war lords and pandemics could change this, but in case nothing of that happens, that is the plan.


• How will you go there?

By plane, but I will not fly to Damascus directly since there are no direct flights from my country to Syria. Instead I will be flying from Amsterdam to Beirut, the capital of the neighbouring country of Lebanon. From there a taxi will get me across the border into Syria and drop me off in Damascus. This will take approximately 4 hours.


• Are you going alone?

Yes. And no. Yes, in the sense that I will travel to Lebanon by myself. There I will be awaited by a local guide. In Syria I will be accompanied by local guides during the entire trip. I am free to roam about, but they know where it is and isn't safe to go and they can point me towards the good stuff. I have full confidence in them and their knowledge about their country and of course in my own common sense regarding safety.


• You are a professional photographer. Isn't that a problem when travelling to places like this?

According to the travel agency and the local guides it is not, because I am not a journalist. Despite the fact that I am indeed a professional photographer this won't be a sponsored trip. I will not be on assignment (work). Instead I will be simply going as a tourist... only with slightly above average camera equipment.


• Can you get a visa for a place like that?

Yes, but not directly. The travel agency is making sure of that and on arrival at the Syrian border it will be added to my passport. They also make sure all security checks are in order.


• Is it expensive?

They offer a 3 day trip, an 8 day trip and a group trip, but it's possible to plan your own: I went with a customised solo 14 day trip. Honestly, I do not know exactly what to expect entirely at this point but CultureRoad is pretty straight forward about the target prices on their website. The trip itself will probably cost me about € 3.500. Included are the guides, transport, entree fees, accomodations and food. The flights from and to Beirut are not. Since it's quite cheap to fly there from Amsterdam (€ 65~100).


Destination: Out of the Ordinary

On my Travelling To Do list there are some of the world's most extreme places where tourists in their right mind do not venture on their own, mainly due to negative media perception or the accompanying safety issues. These places are simply not on everyone's travel radar, but they sure are on mine...

THE BEATEN TRACK - Cities like London, New York or Dubai are widely known and very safe to travel to. Millions flock there every year and every single tourist wants to take that photo with the Big Ben, on Times Square, with the Eiffel Tower, on a boat in Venice or at Las Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona. We all know the pearly white beaches of The Maldives. We know the stories of our university's interns that go overseas working (and partying) in Curacao, Australia or New Zealand. And let's face it: we all know at least one person who went to do development work in poverty struck nations in Africa. Don't get me wrong. I do not look down on people who do that in any way. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that because I am all for getting out there in the first place. Go travel. Do your thing. It doesn't matter much where to, because as long as you get out there, you are already widening your horizon and I am all for that. I on the other hand want to do things differently.

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK - When people go to a certain destination en masse, I quickly lose interest. I want to travel to places not many other people travel to. I want to capture unique stories and I want to explore, to feel and experience deeply. So to put that in the right perspective of 'going off the beaten track', here are some of the places on my travel list: Irak, Iran, Afghanistan, the kingdom of Bhutan, the islands of Spitsbergen, Greenland and Antarctica and countries like Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and North KoreaIn other words places that are most definitely not easily accessible, either due to war, authoritarian regimes, poverty or simply because of their geograpic location what makes them difficult to reach. For all countries on Earth goes that it's not completely impossible to go there but for the places on my list it takes special effort, time or money or a combination to actually get there and get back home safely.

WOW, DUDE... - Now that you learned this about me there is a fair chance you might think I am batsh*t crazy for actually wanting to go to places like that, while I also can be chilling on a beach with a Margarita in my hand doing absolutely nothing all day. And judging by what we have been seeing and are still seeing on the news about most of those places here in the West... no, I do not blame you. However, if you watched as many hours of documentaries and travel vlogs about all of these unique places as I have and you love human interest stories or you are a travel photography lover like me, you also know this: the people creating that awesome content almost exclusively focus on a very different side of these places, opposite of the death, destruction and mayhem we see on the news. And that is precisely the side of the story I want to experience for myself and capture for the world.

NOW IS THE TIME - I came to the realisation that I am now in a place where all of the three hugely important factors that dictate all of our lives are finally present: Money, Time and Energy. Now in my 30s I have all three but that wasn't always the case in the past. As a poor student for example money and time where lacking. And when I imagine myself getting older Energy won't be there forever. Meaning that if I do not do these travels now, I probabaly won't be doing them at all later in life... and that will inevitably lead to them being shelved on that mental to do list of 'Things I Never Did And Never Got To Cross Off' and that is simply unacceptable to me. 


Background: on the flip side...

Syria is a country with a very ancient but also has a more recent incredibly violent and turbulent war torn past. Downright evil things took place there within the last decade. The attrocities committed by ISIS/IS/Daesh are probably why you might have a negative perception when you hear the country's name. No... Syria is definitely not a main tourist destination as of August 2022. Governments worldwide have issued travel warnings for over 12 years. It all began when the Arab Spring happened here in the Middle East back in December 2010. People rose up against corrupt, long-lasting dictators who met their experiration date and in many cases succesfully overthrew them. However in Syria things went differently. Their leader stayed and that basically plunged the country into chaos, war and destruction.

This particular course of history, combined with what we are being served on the evening news since then, has formed our mainly negative perception of Syria and the Middle East in general in eyes of us in the West. We associate the entire region with some of the worst evil the world has seen in recent years. That sentiment also extends beyond the borders of Syria. Since the 9/11 attacks in New York we learned that the plane hijackers mainly came from Saudi Arabia. After the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of these attacks, our perception of the Middle East already had begun to shift downwards. The news and the tsunami of documentaries and Hollywood movies that followed set the course for over two solid decades, basically sealing this extremely negative perception of the Middle East in the eyes of the West: "the Middle East, especially Syria, is dangerous and no one should travel to that country, because you definitely will be blown up, get kidnapped or beheaded."

In that light we learned about Syria and its cities, not because of good things, but because of the war and the violent acts of pure and devilish evil committed by humans against humans that reached our televisions and smartphones. What followed were the infinite waves of refugees desperately trying to flee the violence in their home country that totally overwhelmed the West back in 2014-2015. It was in that time that we learned about the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Syria's capital Damascus but solely in a negative way, seeing the footage of death and destruction day in, day out on our evening news. One was better off closing an eye or two for news about Syria, because news from Syria was (and sadly to this day still is) almost exclusively bad news.

...and the other flip side

It is common knowledge that Syria is a Middle Eastern country but what is equally commenly overlooked is the fact that this very region is in essence the cradle of Western civilisation. It is the region of the old land of Mesopotamia, which is the area around and between the Tirgris and Euphrates rivers dating back as far as 4000 B.C. It is home to some of the oldest cities on the planet. Both the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo are around 6.300 years old(!). It's also the region that brought forth three of the planet's biggest religions where most (if not all) of the Western countries based their entire system of norms, values and laws on two of them, namely Christianity and Judaism.

Archaeologically speaking the country is interesting as well: the Romans left a big mark. The Hellenistic and Roman temples of the Syrian city of Palmyra and the Roman amphitheatre in Busra are proof of that. More on the Romans: we logically associate the Romans with the Mediterranean, which is the area around the Mediterranean sea which they conquered  and ruled over for centuries. And despite the fact that Syria still is where it always was on the map over the course of (literally) millenia, Syria is also a Mediterranean country with around 180 km of coastline. The island of Cyprus is right of its coast and we all know about Cyprus, don't we?

Syria is a country with an incredibly long and vast ancient history. It is home to the sole place left on earth where the dead language of Aramaic is in fact not dead and is still being spoken and actively being taught in schools. In case you did not know this: Aramaic is the language that was spoken by the very people that lived during the time of... Jesus Christ. No, I am not religious myself, but ever since my time in highschool where I first learned the words "Lucius in hortus sedet" in Latin class, I became extra interested in old cultures. I have always been interested in anything ancient, beit Latin, Greek, Arab, Buddhist, Hindu or otherwise... I want to know and learn about all of these things. So what better way is there than to actually go there and take it all in myself?


And there's more...

Even more recent travel plans!


• Mid October 2022: a city trip to Tblisi, the capital city of the former Soviet state of Georgia

• Half November 2022: a 4 day visit to the ancient city of Petra in the Middle Eastern kingdom of Jordan.


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