THE BIG READ: Syria: what's next?
In Aleppo a woman told us she had no problem with the Assad regime. Her city was pro-government, she said, and wanted no part of the protests that were flaring up in the rest of Syria.
"But don't drive around other parts in a car with Aleppo registration plates," she warned. "They will throw stones at you."
That was a year ago this week.
Now Aleppo is a flashpoint in what looks like a civil war. Observers estimate the death toll since March last year to be more than 23000 - and this is a conservative figure because the deaths of many pro-government fighters have not been reported.
Protests and their violent suppression were concentrated in Homs, Daraa and Latakia when we entered the country from Turkey last year. One of the travel guides we read on the way described Syria as "the friendliest, most welcoming rogue state in the world".
In Turkey we filled our 4x4 with enough petrol to drive through Syria all the way to Jordan. We had charted a route through Aleppo in the north, past Damascus, eastward to Palmyra and from there to Bosra in the south.
Rebels were rising up against an oppressive regime that has had political and military control for four decades. The Arab Spring, it was reported, had finally reached authoritarian Syria. The rebels had had it with Assad and demanded democracy. They wanted the vote. They wanted economic growth. They wanted to root out corruption. They wanted freedom.
The problem is, at that stage, no one could really say who "they" were. The general narrative was that the uprisings were spontaneous. Western media were quick to frame the Assad regime as oppressive and cruel, and the rebels as noble freedom fighters.
And, hey, Assad does look like an unsavoury character. Driving around Syria, you get the idea that he has put a lot of time into mixing extreme nationalism with a personality cult.
Billboards seldom display adverts for mega brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald's. Syrian flags are everywhere. And Assad's massive face looks down from the walls of buildings, billboards and banners.
His poses are cheesy: he's often pictured looking into the distance as if seeing a bright future somewhere beyond an oil well, or donning a pair of sunglasses that were high fashion when his dad, Hafez, was still running the country.
Assad became president in 2000. Before that his father had ruled, from 1971 until his death.
Hafez was the flag bearer for a political brand called the Ba'ath Party. The name might ring a bell because its namesake was the ruling party in neighbouring Iraq for decades with Saddam Hussein at the helm.
Hussein's fall after US military intervention in 2003 did a number of things.
First, it saddled the country with hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Second, it signalled a power shift in the Middle East. Maybe not officially, but it gave Turkey more prominence as a trading partner. Cities like Aleppo, in Syria's north, and Gaziantep, on the Turkish side, benefited from a booming trade in goods. both legal and illegal.
We encountered a petrol- smuggling operation at the Bab el Hawa border post, at which heavily subsidised petrol was carried over, on everything from donkeys to SUVs, from cheap Syria to expensive Turkey.
Third, it showed that strongmen like Assad were living on borrowed time.
Whether it was the Arab Spring that suddenly kicked a Syrian revolution into gear, or a slow spreading of instability from Iraq, it was clear from the start of the uprisings against Assad that Syria would change.
But what is worrying is the nature of that change. Will Syria become another Iraq or will it stabilise and turn into something more like Tunisia?
Indications are that it will be more like Iraq.
Assad will leave a power vacuum in his wake. And it is not clear if the Syrian National Council - a sort of government in exile based in Turkey - has the broadly based support needed to unite a country after a civil war.
Though the SNC has links to the Free Syrian Army, a paramilitary group prominentin the uprisings, it is not clear how its hierarchy works.
And, though oppressive, Assad's regime is secular. Will a new Syria be ruled by Islamists?
These were the questions ordinary Syrians could not answer a year ago and probably will not be able to answer now.
But, in a country in which oil is running out and instability kills trade and tourism, any new government will need a plan.
Syria's greatest assets are the unique ruins of structures built by Assyrians, Romans and Crusaders. Tourists will flock there to see them. We were the only ones there on the day we visited them.
But no one will go to see the ruins of a failed Syria.
- Strydom and two friends were on an overland trip from Amsterdam to Cape Town