A Travellerspoint blog

Lebanon

A more infamous war-zone


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Our first stop in Lebanon was Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley. Baalbek is famous for large ruins, hashish production as well as being the headquarters for Hezbollah (the current leader, Hassan Nasrullah, is from here). This is scarily visible. There are Hezbollah's yellow flags all around town, as well pictures of a smiling and rather cute looking Sayid Hassan (Mr. Hassan, as he's known around here) with his thick glasses, turban and big beard, often alongside the Ayatollahs Khomeni and Khameni. The Iranian influence and money is also visible, with more-than-suspiciously Iranian looking mosques, decked with onion domes and blue tiles, outside played a loud and impassioned speech by Nasrullah, set to music. There are even shops selling Hezbollah souveniers, but some are so out of the way, they are clearly not for tourists, but for the locals.

The locals buy the Hezbollah merchandise (incuding mugs, t-shirts, flags, desk-flags, bumper stickers, CDs) so that they get immunity from the police, as Hezbollah is popular with the locals and have lots of guns. The hashish dealers, although officially not looked favourably upon by Hezbollah, are tolerated as they help with the financing and ride around in huge SUVs decked out with Hezbollah signs blaring bomb and gunshot sounds (not even to a beat, just war noises), and Nasrullah speeches. Hezbollah, or the party of god, are very popular in the area, the principal reason is that their activities are generally useful to the people. Lebanon's goverment is almost non existant, and with the heavily damaged infrastucture, Hezbollah filled the gap and built schools, mosques, roads and hospitals not just in this area, but in many Shia area's of Lebanon, financed through "muslim charitable donations" (ie the Ayatollahs of Iran). Along with the religious ties, their supporter base is loyal and large. The police, controlled by the government, are completely incapable of touching anyone affiliated with Hezbollah out of fear.

This definitely added some tension to the air, or perhaps that was our slight worry at the yellow flags with Kalashinkovs on them all over the place. This was not helped when the explosions started, but those turned out to be fireworks. Tourists don't seem to stay in the town at all, and just arrive on day trips from Beirut to see the ruins and go. The ruins were very impressive, as they are huge and well preserved temples to Jupiter and probably Bachus, although no-ones really sure as the iscriptions have worn off. The on site museum and labelling was by far the nicest and most-airconned we'd been to so far, which was a bonus.

From there, we took a minibus to Beirut, through past the many glittering billboards and sandbag and tank reinforced military checkpoints.

Beirut is a shock to the backpacker system, used to small dirty streets, grubby children running around, men sitting on street corners drinking tea, we suddenly fast forwarded into the 21st century. Macdonalds, Dunkin Donuts, and Western culture in general is the way in Beirut, Hummers and SUVs rolling around playing RnB underneath billboard advertisements for holidays in Turkey. Amongst these glamorous things, soldiers, security guards and milita men (depending on whose area you're in) stand around at street corners with assault rifles and tanks. Not all the Hummers are civilian either, with fully armed military patrols rolling past flashy Bulgari shop windows. Barbed wire adorns many of the buildings just like the jewlerry on the nicely dressed women strutting around town. The downtown area, newly refirbished after the war in 2006, is completely closed to cars by military checkpoints, and soldiers stand guard underneath the main Rolex-sponsored clocktower.

But Beirut is not all glamour. As well as being one of the most developed and richest places we've been to so far, it's also the poorest. The city is divided in 3, with the christians to the east, muslims to the west, and the Shia slums and palestinian refugee camps to the south. We went to the slums and camps yesterday, about an hour walk from the centre, into filthy rubbish strewn streets, people living tightly packed in either concrete shells of appartment blocks or corrugated iron housing. We may have heard a single gunshot. These areas seem to be divided as well. The Shia areas are clearly marked with the posters of martyrs along the road, but we were in an area with green flags, controlled by the Amal militia, who before were bitter enemies of Hezbollah. Life looked very hard here, trash strewn streets where it is unclear whether the rubble was cleared after the war or not. We tried to find the Shatila refugee camp, scene of a famous massacre of Palastinian refugees in 1982, and what we found was a few nasty walled off areas, topped with barbed wire, although it seems that there were people living inside, we saw fresh laundry lines over the tops of the razor wire. Perhaps these were the camps. Either way, living condition were by far the worst we've seen on this trip, mangy dogs patrol the streets and syringes litter the grimy pavements.

After that, we went back to the glittering lights on the centre, past the many Starbucks and Costa Coffees, had dinner and wondered whether we were in the same country as a few hours ago...

Posted by Antonxiii 07:44 Archived in Lebanon Tagged backpacking

Entering Civilization

Damas and Lebanon


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Stepping off the coach to Damascus, fighting through the rediculous taxi touts, we got to the flat of a friend of mine, Benjy, currently studying Arabic and Persian in Damascus and very familiar with the city. He had kindly put us up for a night in his flat (in the 'Notting Hill of Damascus'), fed us and gave us some tips about town.

Our time in town we mostly spent looking around the old town of one of the most ancient cities in the world, consistently inhabited for the past 6000 years (although flattened in the 15th century by Timur). This still has atmopheric charm, complete with small winding streets, mosques and churches and big souqs.

I liked Damascus. Sure, we had arived out of the desert to by far the biggest and shiniest city we've been to since Kiev, but it definitely is a nice place to spend some time. A faster pace of life, generally marked by the crazy traffic, constant honking and people milling about, although energy levels were visible low because of Ramadan. The Christian quarter was still business as usual though, with it's cafes and kebabis wide open. It's definitely not the most developed city around, but that is part of the charm, with the street sellers hawking prickly pears, socks and other random objects in loud arabic along the big streets in town. Damascus has managed to to accumulate some very nice things over it's history. These included the Umayyad mosque, a large working mosque in black and white smooth marble and well as nice painted designs on the bit where it was built over a Roman temple. This contained the remains of John the Baptist (considered a prophet in Islam), and a shrine to a Imam Hussien (the glass around it filled with Iranian money). Next to this building, the mausoleum of Salah Ad-Din. With the ancient baths and caravanserais and religious monuments, not a bad collection.

We had a relatively hedonistic time, using Benji's knowledge, checking out the best juice bars and ice cream places in town, as well as a very enjoyable hot and scrapy hammam, that cleaned us up nicely. The 'Notting Hill' of Damascus was filled with Syrian playboys driving around in circles in their nice cars, showing off small rims, blaring pop music alond with Europeans chilling in the cafes. Muslim vaules put to once side, hijab factor low, as well as unmarried couples holdings hands, unlike most of the rest of the city, where Ramadan had closed down most of the stores.

Anyway, after a few day trips to christian monasteries nearby, we hit the road again and got on a bus to Lebanon, which we eventually got to, but not before the Syrian sytem bit us by charging 500SYP (10$) for having to leave the country, a system most likely designed to make it prohibitively expensive for many Syrians to go abroad. Anyway, entered we more green and mountainous terrain, with a troubled history....

Posted by Antonxiii 13:21 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Back

Onto the firmly beaten track


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After breaking down in the desert, we eventually got to Palmyra, which has been a tourist destination for 200 years. Tourism is the only industry there and needless to say were immedeately shafted. Firstly, a rediculously expensive taxi (there were no other transport options), then an elevated hotel rate as the taxi driver collected his commission. Well, actually it was still dirt cheap, but not for Syria.

Our arrival also coincided with the start of Ramadan, the muslim month of fasting, which has so far turned out to be pretty lame. As an procimation of faith, they all give up eating, drinking and smoking during the daylight hours, and consequently give you evil looks if you tempt them by doing any of these in public. As we're clearly not muslims and thus not expected to fast, but the problem is that many shops, cafes and restaurants are closed as either the owners can't even drink during the day, as well as the fact that none of their usual clientelle would go anyway. One benefit is that the touts are too lacking in energy to bother the tourists.

Palmyra is an ancient oasis town situated along the Silk Road, and has had a very colourful history in that it was independent from the Roman and Persian empires (it was a buffer zone in between) for a long time, allowing it's own unique culture to flourish, until the Romans took it over. This led to an influx of even more wealth and many of the ruins date from then.

The ruins themselves give you an insight into the look and size of the ancient city, but the busloads of tourists are sort of off putting, as are the ticket prices coupled with their direct refusal to accept our student cards. If you ever go, get an international student card', or more like a Syrian monuments discount card. Anyway, we managed to sneak into the main attraction, the mostly standing Temple of Bel (a Palmyaeran deity), by climbing over the wall at the back, which was pretty badass.

As with many of the ruins on Syria from this era, it's very impressive, and great if you love huge columns. Heh. The main collonnade is still mostly intact and spans almost 2 kilometers. The Valley of the Tombs nearby is also fairly impressive, and is filled with mysterious large rectangular structures, which we clambered about for a while. Then an Arab castle, to which we had to hike up a hill in the 50 degree desert heat. Situated in the middle of the desert, the heat was almost unbearable, and we had to sit out the hottest parts of the day in the shade, unable to move.

Soon enough, we beat the heat by getting on a bus to Damascus.

Posted by Antonxiii 13:28 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Further Down the Hospitality Rabbit Hole


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Having accepted Amir's invitation, we headed to the village of Bokros further south along the Euphrates from the city of Dier Ez-Zor. Eventually after a series of rather disastrous minibus rides, including one where the window exploded for no reason, we arrived. Here he led us to a nice looking house in an otherwise nondescript farming village, and introduced us to Mohammed, the owner of the house and Khalid, a friend of theirs who was staying there. Both seemed very well educated and had a good command english, and both worked for the Syrian National Oil company, Mohamed as a communications technician and Khalid as a safety officer.

This was all a rather surreal and dream like experience. The house seemed to be the centre of village life, as many of the locals would stop by for a bit for some tea or to partake in our meals. Although not rich by any means, clearly these oil workers were the most wealthy in this village of farmers, and supported much of the rest of the populace with their earnings, although to what extent I can't say. Many strange characters stopped by during our stay, including one other oil worker, Geologist Naif, but mostly random farmers and villagers, one of whom sang even us a song.

We were served lavish amounts of tea and awesome Syrain homecooking (by far the best food we had in Syria). Being excellent hosts, they made it seem that every wish would be catered for. Having arrived from the desert after an exhausing ride, their unswerving hospitality was akin to finding a lake of fresh ice cold ice tea in the desert.

Perhaps I haven't captured the surrealness of the events. These were very intelligent people and constantly played jokes on us that caught us a little off guard. These ranged from trying to guilt trip us that they won't be able to eat for 3 days because they served us meat to warning us about being eaten by the dogs that wandered around the village, as well as asking us to sing them a song as it was part of their tradition, apparently. Coupled with the host of other characters that popped by, who they described extravagantly as professors of english (to a guy that clearly spoke none), and professional football players (to a heavy chain smoker), this made for a very odd experiance.

Eventually we were led to the roof where Amir was already sleeping, where we immedeately fell asleep under the many visible stars, although not before Khalid pointed out his star, and told us to remember him everytime we see it. That was a little wierd.

We had planned to leave the next morning, but they were very eager for us to stay forever, although Mohammed had left for work that morning. We were served a massive breakfast, and chatted and played chess with an ever increasing group of men until lunch. A huge lunch later, we were encouraged to sleep. Relaxation is something the Arabs do very well, and we followed their lead to a daytime nap. Then, with heavy hearts, they let us go and put us onto a minibus to Dier Ez-Zor, from where we got onto a coach to Palmyra.

Posted by Antonxiii 12:50 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Syrian Pharmacists Speak Russian

A story of hospitality


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So, I left off last time with us in the middle of the desert, sun setting, arms out into the air in a prayer to the many gods this region has had over the millennia. Our prayers were swiftly answered by a minibus full of Syrians who looked shocked to see foreigners, and welcomed us with open arms.

As usual, the level of English was pretty low inside the bus, and we were expecting to get by with the basic hand gestures and simple conversations about where we were from (not always so simple in my case) as well as listing english football teams. But in a strange quirk of fate one of the passengers, Sayid, a pharmacist, spoke Russian, and had spent 8 years all over Russia learning the pharmacists trade. As he had had such a good time in Russia and had been treated so well during his time there, he invited us to stay at his house in the village of Al Mansoura. This was perfect for us as we had no idea where we would stay tonight, and there were no towns with hotels (no towns at all actually) within at least an hour of where we were. This was also a great as it allowed us to communicate properly with the people, so far we'd had pretty basic conversations as our Arabic isn't exactly up to scratch.

Arriving to his home, we were introduced to the men in his family, and the women quickly made themselves scarce. He lived with his brother, Mohamed, and his cousin Sultan stopped by to meet the foreigners. As usual, we were served large amounts of tea, and again as usual the conversation turned onto money. Arab culture is pretty materialistic, they all dream about getting rich, and it seems to pain them that Syria is in such a poor economic position, something they are acutely aware of.
Sayid promptly went to bed, leaving us in the company of Sultan, who seemed happy reeling off common memes, a rather tiring conversation form that Syrian seem to love doing with us when there is no common language. It generally goes like this: "Chelsea... hmm.. yeah... Charles Dickens... hmm, yeah.. Liverpool... yeah... Sherlock Holmes... yeah... Michael Ballack.. hmm... Shakespeare (or Sheik Sebeir, apparently he was an Arab)... hmm.. yeah..." etc. ad infinitum. Eventually after a few games of chess with Mohamed we got to sleep in his courtyard, under the stars, as it was very hot.

Next morning, they opened up their pharmacy and gave us breakfast inside, I think we brought in a few extra customers. Soon enough, they sent us on our way and we were on a bus heading to Lake Al-Assad, a lake created by damming up the Euphrates. We saw a castle on an peninsula on the lake, and we spent most of day frolicking around under a fig tree on the beach by the cooling waters eating melons and generally having an excidingly good time. After a few hitches back, including one on top of an awesome Arab rasta-colour scheme pimped out pick up, racing over the dam, we got back to Al Mansoura, where we planned to hitch across the desert to the other side, against the advice of pretty much everyone we had come across. They were right. An hour of waiting around on a disty road drilled home that no one would be driving through the desert late on a thursday night (friday is the main weekend day), and so we gave up and got on a minibus to Ar-Raqqa, the capital of the region.

Raqqa's main claim to fame is that it houses many Iraqi refugees, and consequently, its a pretty gritty place, at least from what we saw of the bus station. After hours of waiting and waiting and somehow not getting onto buses that seemed to be going even after we had registered our passports, we chanced upon another weary traveler going our way, Amir. He happened to be trainee pharmacist, and consequently, spoke excellent Russian after having spent 6 years there studying. Syria doesn't seem to have any facilities for pharmacy study, and sends its students to Russia. Again this turned out amazingly, as he put us on a bus, even paid for us, and invited us to his home in the small village of Bokros, near the town of Dier Ezzour where we happened to be going.

Weary and amazed at our luck, we accepted....

Posted by Antonxiii 14:31 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Heading East

Into the wild again


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From Homs we decided to head into the desert, into the wilds of Eastern Syria, away from civilization, away from the crowds. So we got a minibus to an unknown town eastwards, accompanied by looks that said 'why the hell are you going there' (exactly what we were looking for), we got out onto the main highway east and stuck out our arms.

It wasn't long before a tucker picked us up for a small distance until he had to turn off, leaving us under a motorway bridge, conveniently shaded from the baking sun. A few minutes later a man in a yellow fiat picked us up, and we raced into the desert. Little did we know this man, Abu Ahmad, was a complete nutter, drinking 13% strength beer (although he insisted he'd quit for ramadan), driving at 140 kmph and racing his friends that drove coaches, bringing us close to death more than once. He would spray himself with cologne to mask the heavy stench of alcohol in case the police stopped him, and asked me to take responsibility for the can if we were stopped. Eventually we got out of the car on a turn off in the middle of nowhere, and he started demanding ludicrous sums of money. We flat out refused, and the yellow fiat raced off into the distance.

This turn off we'd got to led to a place called Ar-Rasafeh, an old roman town that was heavily fortified as it was a defense post against the Persians, as well as a stopping point for caravans on the silk road. It is walled collection of ruins in the middle of the scorching desert, miles away from anything. To get there we had to wait for over an hour at a little truck stop 2km from the turn off, having been given tea by some locals, just waiting for any kind of vehicle to be going our way. Eventually a pick up obliged an we hopped on the back and went down an empty dusty road, amidst a completely empty, beige sun baked landscape.

Ar-Rasafeh was worth it though. Lonely and isolated, the church and a few building are still in okay condition. The Cisterns were by far the most impressive thing there though, massive underground vaults, with shafts of sunlight breaking through like lasers from holes above. We were alone for much of the time, until 2 robed Arabs mysteriously turned up, took some photos with us and promptly disappeared into the desert.

Then we got onto the road nearby that led to some sort of inhabited area and stuck our arms out again, throwing ourselves onto the winds of chance. Fortunately, we were soon picked up, and this began our 2 day Syrian Pharmacist adventure... (more to come)

Posted by Antonxiii 07:03 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Muslim Kids

Growing up ain't easy

Child labour laws are a probably a funny joke here. The cities are full of little kids running around selling all kinds of wares, from bread to chewing gum, and the nargileh cafes are garrisoned by armies of shoe shine boys running around avoiding getting hit by the waiters. Today we talked to one of these boys, Riyaz, who was very happy to actually have a conversation, probably a rarity for him as the local just ignore them unless they actually want their shoes shined. He was terrified of the waiters and ducked under the table whenever they were nearby, as they dislike the boys loitering and smack them if they get in the way. We got him a coke, but had to insist it was for us as the waiter asked just to make sure wasn't for the little rascal. He drank it under the table, and was eternally grateful, coming to our table in between rounds of shining shoes and even gave us some popcorn.

When we were in Kayseri in Turkey, after being guided skillfully into a carpet shop, and having realized this leaving, we were given a boy to help us out and follow us around as it would help his English. This turned out to be a massive boon, as we were very tired having done a 1000+km hitch in the past 20 hours and hadn't slept much. He showed us where to go, brought us to tea houses and kebab shops, and generally helped out. The strange thing was, that this didn't surprise anyone, and the other people we ran into sort of expected him to do all this.

Posted by Antonxiii 06:51 Archived in Syria Tagged tips_and_tricks

Syria So Far

Arabs, Markets, Castles, Ruins


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Syria has been probably the dirtiest and dustiest place on the trip so far (and easily the hottest), with most of the places that we've stayed at having some nasty odor or other. But, on the bright side, we've also had some of the cheapest accommodation of the trip here, which makes up for the more than questionable hygiene, and a few bad squatter experiences.

We've so far been making our way south from Aleppo down Syria's developed side, and Syria's main north-south artery of Aleppo to Damascus, so far we stopped by at Marat An-Nama'an, Hama and now Homs. But soon we'll venture off the beaten path and bust east into the desert...

The sights so far have been mainly ruins, highlighting that this is an old, old place. Civilizations have come and gone, since the very beginning, and great powers have always vied for the region. We've seen many impressive ruins from all eras, the leftovers of the massive colonnades of the Roman city of Apamea (first built by the Seleucids though), which had enough of a main street left to inspire the imagination to envisage the legions walking in under the eagle banner. The size and solidity of the stones was very impressive.
From the byzantine era, we saw the Dead Cities, large Byzantine towns that were left abandoned for some unknown reason. Although most of the building are ruined, with quite of few of the stones taken by locals for their own houses, there is still a few buildings and walls fully intact, and more than enough to show that there was a proper town there. Again, it was all built out of huge stone blocks, giving the impression that these ruins would be here forever (or until people steal all the stones). The current theory on why they were abandoned are "demographic shifts", people moved out to better places, perhaps to escape marauding armies, of which there have been many.
Personally though I prefer the medieval ruins. Today we saw the Assassin's castle at Musyaf. The Assassins are the stuff of legend, but were definitely badass. Since they were Shia Ismailis, they were constantly at war with the Sunnis, who generally controlled the region. When Saladin besieged their castle, he one day woke up with a cake, a dagger and a note by his bed saying "you are in my power" signed by the Assassins. Obviously, he crapped his pants and lifted the siege. When a crusader came to the castle, the leader, just for kicks and a display of power started shouting at his acolytes to start jumping off the ramparts, which they did until the crusader begged him to stop. The castle itself is pretty intact, and we spent a good few hours climbing around it.

The local people have been pretty nice. There seem to be tourists around, but mostly of the tour-taking variety, so when we take public transport around the place to small towns and villages to see the ruins, we get many surprised looks and mobbed by cute and scruffy children. This is good as we also get invited for tea, but the language barrier is proving quite hard to break through. Some communication is possible though, about pretty random topics. With one old man (who lived in a house in the ruins of an old castle), who spoke no English whatsoever, we managed to "talk" about world war 2 (I got the distinct impression he still though the Soviet Union still existed), and about how he stole stones from the ancient roman ruins nearby to build his home. Somehow, just with our hands and tone of voice, this got through. Although he tried to explain for about 20 minutes how he was a farmer and it didn't really click until he took us into his shed and showed us his plough.

I've also been surprised at how many men still wear the traditional robes and headwraps. The streets are filled with the guttural tones of heavily stubbled men in the red kiffieyeh, hijabied women and street urchins selling bread and shining shoes. There is a lot of heat around too in the cities, not just from the baking sun, but from the streetside kebab shops cooking outside, and men carrying around coals for the nargilehs. A very vivid and intense culture, lots of loud body language, people hawking things on the street, as well as shouts of "hello and welcome" to us as we walk by. Most of the younger people we've met seem to be fixated on leaving the country though, as there a few jobs, and no money here. Money is all important around here, you need to to get a wife (or the bride's family will refuse), to get a house (or you wont be able to live with your wife, or even marry her), to buy your wife jewelery, and all the other usual expenses. One guy who invited us for tea and coffee, Saddam (woohoo!), thought that all Europeans are rich, and a job in Europe would land him a jackpot, but with his level on English I doubt he would have an easy time getting a job.

The Axis of Evil this is not, however they do block facebook...

Posted by Antonxiii 12:18 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Entering the Arab World

السلام عليكم


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After a rather hectic week and 6 day 'detour' (3 days of solid travel from Eastern Turkey to Sakhalin in Far Eastern Russia and back, over 30 hours on a plane etc.), I returned to Gaziantep and miraculously found Chuck again, who'd been traveling around Turkey while I was away. We were now ready to go into the arid world of the Arabs.

Waking up, we had a kebab and some baklava (a local specialty) and took a minivan heading south to a small town near the border, where we managed to get a car heading south to Aleppo, aka Halep, aka Haleb. After some standard beurocracy and waiting around at the border, especially the Syrian side, where we needed to see the doctor, who was inexplicably absent for almost an hour, we crossed over into Syria, and entered a country with yet another alphabet. That makes it the 5th alphabet in the 5th country on this trip, full house.

The level of development immediately got lower, the road got a lot worse, driving standards went from fairly western minus seatbelts to "drive wherever the hell you want at any speed", the amount of donkeys on the roads increased by 1000% (although livestock on roads is waaaay below Caucasus levels). The buildings changed from being quite colourful neat apartment blocks to a monotony of beige and white blocks. The land suddenly lost the irrigation and so the arid scorched grass and bushes were the main feature on the parched landscape, a change from the many fields of green that the Turks had planted what is essentially the same land, still a very far cry from the lush and verdant mountains of Georgia.

From our exploration of Aleppo so far, it is a very mad and bustling city, a trading town since the beginning of time with the souqs (markets) still going strong. A very loud place, with cars honking, the sound of the workmen near the markets still making things by hand, the calls to prayer and the Arab pop music blared out of shops all melding together to create a loud and vibrant soundscape. Amidst all the chaos, the courtyards of the beautiful old mosques somehow retain a stillness and peace about them.

I think we need to wander around the the small winding streets of the old town some more, and drink more of the strawberry and honey juice that Aleppo offers...

Posted by Antonxiii 13:21 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Photos!

Finally


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I have finally managed to put a few photos up.
Find them here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/antonxiii/sets/72157621999451536/

Or on my facebook page.

Enjoy!

Posted by Antonxiii 07:46 Archived in Georgia Tagged photography

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