Travel: My journey with the Bedouin

Shena Guild survives a bumpy ride on a camel as she treks into the Syrian desert and samples the life of a nomad

We didn't know if visiting the Bedouin nomads of the Syrian desert would be remotely possible, let alone pleasant. There were worrying stories about overcrowded tourist sites in Jordan, and even worse rumours that many of the trips were a set-up, with the supposed nomads returning to their homes and televisions after the tourists had gone home fooled and fleeced.

But desert safaris in Syria were only rarely mentioned, which I took as a promising sign, and a few inquiries led me to a carpet trader in Palmyra, the oasis in Syria's eastern desert. Moafak Daas, we were told, could take us to stay with the Bedouin.

On arrival in Palmyra, we found our man sitting in his carpet shop on the main street. Moafak's offer sounded reasonable - for $300 (pounds 190), including all food and drink, we would spend three nights with the Bedouin. He would also provide plenty of bedding to shield us from the extreme cold of the desert night.

We set off in a minibus to find Abdel, the Bedouin shepherd who looked after Moafak's 30 camels. As our eyes became accustomed to the initial blankness of the sand, mountains and sky, we could see tracks in the sand - but no sign of Abdel.

Moafak didn't seem concerned by this - the Bedouin move on at roughly three-monthly intervals in search of recent rain, of pasture. This year there had been little rain, so they were having to move more often to find grazing. Finally, we found a shepherd who said he had seen a herd of camels.

We found the camp at dusk, Abdel and his family were already gathered round a fire in the tent. After much banging from the kitchen area, a woman appeared from behind the hanging cloth with a huge stainless steel platter piled with various vegetable dishes as well as yogurt and a lot of unleavened bread. Abdel gestured to us to start first, before joining us. The platter was then passed to the rest of the men who had gathered in the tent. The women got what was left.

As night fell we were shown our sleeping quarters, floor space in the main sitting area. Abdel, his two wives and six children slept, as usual, in the kitchen area.

It was extremely cold and we accepted as many blankets as we were offered, but with so many small children sleeping next door I reckoned a good night's sleep was out of the question. In fact it was not the little people that woke me but a baby camel snoring by my feet at the bottom of the bed.

In the morning we set off by camel towards the mountains to find the rest of the herd. Nobody had warned me how uncomfortable it was to ride a camel. Every half hour or so I had to disembark and walk a while. As we went, Abdel explained that he looked after camels belonging to three men, and was paid 300 Syrian pounds - about pounds 3.70 - per month per animal.

The animals, Moafak said, were worth about $1,000 each - no mean sum in a country where the average monthly wage is $40. The camels represented Moafak's life savings - a throwback to the not-so-distant days when the Bedouin had few links to urban society and would rather keep their assets mobile, if not exactly liquid.

Some hours later we caught sight of the roaring herd in the distance, and Abdel, with the help of two young boys, swooped to round them up on foot. With one person riding a camel in front, the rest of the herd fell easily into line. And so we followed them home.

As night fell flocks of sheep were herded around us; most of the shepherds were young boys who had spent the day with sheep and were now riding home on their donkeys.

When we got back the camels filed in politely to get their fill of water. By now it was getting cold, time to take shelter ourselves and relax and await dinner. As the sun sank below the horizon I asked myself if there could be any more desirable way than this to escape from the stresses of the modern world.

SYRIA

GETTING THERE

Syrian Arab Airlines (tel: 0171-493 2851) offers return flights to Palmyra from pounds 310.

Other airlines flying to Syria include British Mediterranean, which is operated by British Airways (tel: 0345 222111), Royal Jordanian (tel: 0171-878 6300), and Air France (tel: 0845 0845111).

JTS, Jordan Travel Service, (tel: 01628 483550) offers tailor-made itineraries across Syria (including Baalbek, Lebanon). An eight-night trip to Homs, Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra costs pounds 1,292 per person, including return flights, four-star b&b hotel accommodation and one night's camping in the desert near Palmyra.

FURTHER INFORMATION

It is useful to carry US dollars as well as the local currency, Syrian pounds. For visas, contact the Syrian Consulate (tel: 0171-245 9012) Your passport must not show evidence of a visit to Israeli-controlled territory.

Jordan and Syria: A Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 11.99).

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