Transport in Syria is always an adventure requiring improvisation and spontaneity. High gas prices are the main reason why local transport is what it is today in all its living and very vivid colour. If the movie Planes, Trains & Automobiles were set in Syria, it would have been a completely different (but equally comic) film!
On this virtual tour of Syrian modes of transport, you get a taste of the wide variety of unusual options on offer in our country.
Public Transport in the City
In Syria, we have numerous public transit systems that make the country ideal for budget travel. Instead of taking a relatively expensive taxi (a trip of six kilometres costs 75 Syrian pounds, or US$1.50), you can cover the same ground within a city on a minibus, called a ‘micro’, for a mere 10 pounds! ‘Micro’ buses are not very eco-friendly – they burn diesel and can only carry a maximum of 14 passengers – however, they get the job done.
Nowadays, large buses with a passenger capacity of about 90 people (30 sitting and 60 standing) are being introduced. These buses obviously burn more diesel than ‘micro’ buses; however, they get a lot more people to work while using less fuel per capita. That’s a Syrian carpool.
As an alternative to both, you are sure to spot the famous scania buses. These old vehicles have been roaming the roads since the 1960s and are still going strong today. Very powerful and colourful, scania buses are a sort of self-portrait of their owners, who put their own special touches into the wildly flashy decoration. I always love hopping on and enjoying the detail of each one!
Tirtera: A Syrian Invention
A terizena in Aleppine dialect (or a tirtera in Damascene dialect) is what we call a roofed metal cart with a small engine of very low horsepower fuelled by the butane gas that is usually used for ovens! Newer ones are painted with elaborate polychromatic designs and beautiful decorations similar to the scania buses, while old ones are less-glamorous heaps of rusting metal. This is the transportation of choice for the masses in Syria. It is called a ‘tirtera’ because it makes a churning ‘tir tir tir’ sound. I can only imagine what a rap star like Xzibit could do to pimp this ride!
A well-rounded pickup truck, the Suzuki is the utility vehicle of choice in Syria, a lower-carbon-emissions version of a Toyota Hilux pickup, but with much less horsepower of course. Families use them on moving day to load fridges and heavy wooden beds. For kicks on weekends, Suzuki owners love to load their kids in the back and take them for a ride. You can find whole families seated in them in a circle as if they were at a picnic, especially in larger pickups. Truly a versatile, small Titan of a vehicle!
The Donkey Wheel Cart
Endearing and powered on 100-percent vegetables or overripe fruit, these carts are often loaded with 50-100 watermelons and pulled by hardworking donkeys or mules in the heat of the summer. Souped up with amplifiers vendors use to wake up sleeping housewives at midday, these carts save time and effort for people wanting watermelons but don’t want to make a trip to the grocery store. These carts, just like tirteras, are occasionally decorated to taste, but not so cute when the donkey needs to make a pit stop in the middle of the street.
Harsher than the donkey cart amplifiers are the horns of the diesel vendors when they honk at midday. Their tankers roam about in the winter to provide diesel to residents for their central heaters. Some people living on the 8th or 9th floors require a special extension to get their fuel; vendors use a hoist to lift the tank up to the balcony and drag it to the attic where it is attached to the pump. The hoist saves time and effort, as household-heater diesel tanks usually hold about 60 litres or more and manually lifting them is no small task. Vendors would only cover one third of the clients’ houses in a 10-hour day without this new accessory. Still, the life of a diesel tank vendor doesn’t require a gym membership!
Delivery Buggies and Bicycles
Here in Syria, we don’t have Domino’s Pizza delivery service, but we have lovely buggies that bring meals on wheels much more efficiently than a sedan. As for shop delivery bicycles, most are thin-wheeled Indian-made machines that handle corners horribly (but that doesn’t seem to slow down the drivers!). When I was a kid, I tried driving one and crashed on a sharp turn. According to a documentary I saw, these are the second-most-dangerous means of transport possible, beaten only by cars without brakes in Vietnam.
Taxis in Syria are painted the universal egg-yolk yellow-orange. Here’s the best tip I can give you: As a tourist, always tell the driver to turn on his meter before taking off. Never accept a ride in a taxi with no meter turned on or you will end up paying 250 Syrian pounds (about US$5) instead of the local price of 40 or 60 pounds (US$1). It’s always a good idea to tip the driver a little bit, especially after a long trip.
Trains, Boats and Camels
We have inter-city trains from Aleppo to Damascus and vice versa, and trains connecting other cities as well. I personally suggest that you opt first for a bus between cities for three reasons. First, our trains are not the high-speed bullet variety, so buses will actually get you from A to B faster. Secondly, local trains don’t operate on a 24/7 basis like taxis and buses. Third reason: noise. Trust me on this one.
As for the camels in the Palmyran desert, they are nicknamed safinat al sahraa, or in Arabic ‘the boat of the desert,’ due to their endurance over long distances. Hop aboard for the ride of your life.