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Syria

Getting around

Bus & tram

Bus

Syria has a well-developed road network, and bus transport is frequent and cheap. Distances are short, so journeys rarely take more than a few hours. Carry your passport at all times as you may need it for ID checks; you'll definitely need it to buy tickets.

Several kinds of buses ply the same routes, but the most safe and comfortable way to travel is by 'luxury' Pullman bus.

Karnak & other buses

At the time of research the future of Karnak was under a cloud, as the state-owned bus line has been losing money ever since the national bus system was opened to private competition. A government review was looking into whether it should be closed down or not, and the feeling on the street was that it was unlikely to be around much longer. If it is propped up, the government will need to spend a lot of money upgrading its buses, because at the moment they're very old and none too clean. Fares are usually about a third cheaper than those charged by the luxury buses but given that, you're talking a difference perhaps of less than a dollar...

There's also a third, even cheaper category of buses. These are really old rust buckets on wheels, and buying a ticket is akin to a gamble on whether the vehicle's going to make it or not. Needless to say, this is the cheapest way of covering long distances between towns. These vehicles have their own garages separate from those of the luxury buses. We suggest you steer clear.

Minibus & microbus

Minibuses operate on many of the shorter routes, eg Hama-Homs, Tartus-Lattakia and Homs-Lattakia. They take about 20 people, are often luridly decorated and have no schedule, departing only when full. This means that on less popular routes you may have to wait quite some time until one fills up. Journey times are generally longer than with the other buses, as they set people down and pick them up at any and all points along the route - hence their common name of 'hob-hob' (stop-stop).

The term microbus is blurred, but in general refers to the little white vans (mostly Japanese) with a sliding door. These are used principally to connect the major cities and towns with surrounding small towns and villages. They are replacing the lumbering old minibuses with which they compete, and are faster and slightly more expensive. They follow set routes but along that route passengers can be picked up or set down anywhere. The fare is the same whatever distance you travel.

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Car & motorcycle

You'll need an International Driving Permit (IDP) if you decide to drive in Syria. Traffic runs on the right-hand side of the road. The speed limit is 60 km/h in built-up areas, 70km/h on the open road and 110km/h on major highways. The roads are generally quite reasonable, but when heading off into the backblocks you will find that most signposting is in Arabic only.

Europcar (011-212 0624/5; europcar@net.sy) has been joined by Hertz (011-221 6615; fax 011-222 6181) and a number of other international firms, including a gaggle of sometimes dodgy local companies. With the latter, keep your eye on insurance arrangements, which seem quite lackadaisical. Hertz's cheapest standard rate is US$49/309 per day/week for a Renault Clio, including all insurance and unlimited mileage. Europcar is more expensive, starting at US$62/412 per day/week for a Peugeot 106 (plus insurance). The local companies can be cheaper. Most of the firms have desks at the airport, and offices on or around the Cham Palace Hotel on Sharia Maysaloun in central Damascus. You'll need an IDP and a deposit of US$1000 (cash or major credit card); the minimum hire is usually three days.

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Train

The Syrian railway system was neglected for many decades, but is improving due to recent government investment, including the purchase of new French-made locomotives. That said, buses are still usually the better option for getting around the country. The only exception to this rule is the Lattakia-Aleppo service; this goes through spectacular countryside, starts and terminates in centrally located stations and is very comfortable.

First class is air-con with aircraft-type seats; 2nd class is the same without air-con. Student discounts are only given on 2nd-class tickets.

The main line connects Damascus, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zur, Hassake and Qamishle. A secondary line runs from Aleppo to Lattakia, along the coast to Tartus and again inland to Homs and Damascus.

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Local transport

Service taxis (shared taxis; ser-vees) only operate on the major routes and can cost three times the microbus fare - sometimes more.

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Air

Syrianair has a monopoly on domestic flights in the country, and operates flights from Damascus to Aleppo, Deir ez-Zur, Lattakia and Qamishle. Under-26s can usually get discounted tickets.

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