Published: January 5th 2006December 30th 2005
The legendary/biblical 'Cedars of Lebanon' - they are truly impressive in terms of size, just a shame theres so few of them........
Lebanon is a beautiful country with lush green snow capped mountains rising virtually straight out of the glinting blue sea. At least that's how it looked on our ride from the border down the coast into Tripoli - the second city of the modern state and an ancient Phoenican city to boot. It didn't look so nice with constant pouring rain, grey skies and small lakes eveywhere as a result of the somewhat poor city drainage system. But with many of the buildings still in a state of semi-ruin and even those that aren't riddled with bullet holes and shell damage from the civil war, I guess drainage is not top priority. It feels great to be back by the sea after the dusty interior of Syria though. There is a fresh breeze and no smog for once - it has probably all been blown into Syria!
We had imagined arriving by the sea and rushing down for a paddle or a swim, but at the point where the road met the sea the pebbly beach was home to some kind of refugee camp of corrugated iron shacks and tents and people living in some pretty dire conditions, so we kept
The Corniche, Beirut
My favourite part of the city. Taken on Christmas Day.
on cycling. The rest of the coast is either built up or home to similar camps. I never did find out who these people were but suspect they are displaced Lebanese either from the south or other areas during the war who now have no homes to return to.
We arrived in Triploli after experiencing some of the driving skills that give the Lebanese the reputation as the worst drivers in the world. Having taken to wearing a Kafiyeh headscarf to avoid ugly stares and such in Syria because of my long hair I was surprised to see 2 young guys giving me equally evil looks in Tripoli - not because of my hair but because of the headscarf. They asked why I was wearing "that disgusting thing" and understood when I explained I had just come from Syria, before launching into a highly animated description of how much they hated Syria. Once they had calmed down and I had removed the offending headgear they took us on a tour of the city, which involved walking right out to the Al Mina corniche via their neighborhood shop where we got free pepsi from the owner. On the way out we
The 'Bacchus Temple'
passed a now empty building which was formerly home to the Syrian army and had the usual Syrian flag and Assad murals on the walls - both of which had been vandalised with spray paint in a way that nobody would even dare to think of inside Syria.
We had arrived in Lebanon on the day of the funeral of Gebran Tueni - a prominent anti-Syrian MP and newspaper owner in Lebanon who had been killed 2 days earlier by a car bomb. The lastest in a recent spate of such assisinations and this one was also being roundly blamed on Syria by most people. It was dark by the time we reached the corniche but it was still nice to walk along the seafront past local joggers and people out just posing in smart clothes.
We set off to explore the old sity of Tripoli and at the grand mosque met a character called Ali. He soon adopted us and rushed us through the mosque because it would soon be prayer time. We found ourselves being ushured thought the twisting lanes of the souqs in the old city, being informed in great detail about practically every stone we
An indication of how nice the city must have been before the war. One of the mahy old buildings in the centre still scarred by bullet holes and war damage.
passed, many of which we would have never noticed without our "guide". The city was home to many differnet civilisations all of which have used the previous stones and buildings to build the next layer. There were many Roman columns dotted about behind shop fronts and also lots of crusader doors that were later 'islamified'. It was all very interesting but we were concerned that our new friend Ali was going to sting us for the price of a guided tour. So we asked him about this and it turns out that he used to be a tour guide with the Tourist Office but fell out with them over a "soap war". Now because he is so keen to tell tourists about Tripoli and have them return with their friends he does the guiding for free! We were then taken to the only traditional soap maker left in Tripoli and it was lovely. The traditional olive oil soap was coloured and fragranced and moulded into brilliant balls. And apparently there was a rival buisiness just downstairs from the traditional factory that made fake soap. The fake was made by remelting cheap soap and then selling it on.
The 'Grand Mosque' - the square minaret was built to disguise the fact the original tower was built by the crusaders when the building was a church.
us into the Citadel for a cut price and it seems that all tourist attractions in Lebannon have negotiable prices. The citadel however was nothing special after the majesty of Krak in Syria, but Ali was keen to blame all the damage in the Citadel to the recent occupation by Syrian forces.
We decided to stay another day in Tripoli after our tour with Ali had tired us out and it was a good thing too, since the next day we slept through massive thunder storms all day. In the evneing Ben the english cyclist we had met Aleppo turned up at our hostel looking very soggy. We stayed another day to look around the Taynal Mosque and catch up with Ben. The Hostel "Haddad's Pension" is also a bit of an experience, it was extremely kitch with fairy lights, lacy doylies and plastic flowers everywhere. It was basically an old lady's house and advertised itself as "miss your grandma come here"! We managed to get he only double room for $12, but oherwise the $7 dorm beds were the cheapest in town. Lebanon is definetely more pricey than Syria.
Tripoli was a great city there was loads
The Souq in Tripoli
A proper middle eastern souq, as oposed to the luxury shopping centre they seem to be building in the Beirut 'souks'. The portrait hanging over the alley is of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri.
of life on the streets - it felt very middle eastern but it also had a very posh part of western upmarket shops and cafes, with loads of smart cars going about. The main difference we noticed in Lebanon was the extreme lack of motorbikes compared to their profileration in northern Syria, and the fact that nearly everyone spoke some french.
Ben, Robin and I, after looking at a bad weather forecast, decided to set off for Beruit the next day and sacked off the idea of trying to go over the highest point in Lebannon and see the famous Cedars on the way. We managed to get an early start an it was easy cycling along the coast south, but we looked back to see the beautiful mountains totally clear and covered with snow. We were a bit gutted but consoled ourselved with the thought that it would be freezing up there. We stopped for a great lunch in Byblos and Ben and I were astonished when we walked into the supermarket and spent a little while in shock wandering round the european western style aisles, which we had not seen in a very long time. It was
By the sea again
On the coast road from Triploi to Beirut - one of the few undeveloped sections.
really nice to have lunch with Ben at the historical harbour as none of us had cycled with anyone else before on the trip. The harbour also had a backdrop of Roman ruins and very expensive looking restaurants.
Our final aproach to Beruit was a lot easier than expected as we just kept right on the coast and found a newly built road that was still closed to traffic, so we had lots of smoothe tarmac to ourselves. We luckily got the last 3 free beds in dorms at Talal's new hotel and enjoyed one of the best showers in the middle east. The hotel also had a kitchen for guests and contained Romain and Helene, a french couple that we had heard of through other travellers, who were cycling on a tandem. It was a really sociable place with free access to internet.
We checked out the centre of Beruit and were somewhat surprised to find an ultra modern city with extremely expensive designer shops with no customers. Most of the war damage had been smartened up, but there were still more soldiers on the street than anywhere else I had ever seen before. There did not
The origin of books and the modern alphabet, now home to upmarket seafront restaurants, and the customary Lebanese soldiers.
seem to be any atmosphere on the streets though. We later found out that the town is not really itself after the two assasinations that year, also the winter weather meant that people were not hanging out downtowm like they used to. We had a nice cycle along the corniche one day though and could see that in the summer it would be a really cool place to be. The sea is beautiful and the backdrop of mountains and city spreading up them is lovely.
We grouped together, Helene, Ben and an Australian guy called Anthony and hired a taxi to do a tour to the south of Lebannon. We had decided on the cycle down the coast that camping options were few and far between, because Lebanon has very little flat ground and where it is flat it is full of people.
We set off south stopping on the way to get our military permits as we were going to a military area that used to be occupied by Israel. It was a very weird day. As tourists we were used to visiting historical battle sites, but the whole day was filled with reminders that this land
The redeveloped posh downtown area with a relic of the war in the background......
was a very recent battlesite.
The towns and villages were lined with pictures of Hezbollah leaders and martyrs and their flag was flying proudly everywhere. Hezbollah have taken the credit for liberating southern Lebanon. We visited Beaufort Castle, a former Crusader castle that until 2000 had been used by the Israeli army. It was not surprising to see why. The castle was positioned on high gound with good views all around. The fact that it was in a good location for armies long ago made it useful to armies in the present age, but it was really strange to see the old and new barracks side by side.
Our next stop was at Khiam, a former Israeli detention centre for suspected Hezbollah militants (and their families). Here we were taken round by a former prisoner who described the horrible inhumane conditions that he and his family suffered there for four years. The Red Cross had eventually been allowed to visit it in 1995 and after then conditions had improved a bit, but some of the instruments of torture still lay about and the whole thing was extremely chilling. Female detainees, who were held purely as an extra form
Ancient defences dating back to Phoenician times. The concrete and sandbanks are a more recent addition.
of torture for their husbands, brothers, sons etc., were granted a generous 10 minutes of sunlight once every 10 days. But this was still an improvement on the 10 minutes every 20 days given to the men, if they were lucky. The isolation cells were tiny, and Robin was locked in one, for a only a minute or two, which our guide had been kept in for 3 months and 9 days. We were also shown torture rooms and the place where detainees were hung to be beaten and flogged, and where 2 died during such treatment. At the end of the tour we were taken to a small shop where you can purchase Hezbollah 'souvenirs' and make donations to the cause. We left feeling very odd.
Then we went to the Israeli border. Amazingly it was a fence that we could drive right up to. We knew we were being watched by the soldier's tower over the fence. It was really strange to be in a place that has been in the news so much in my lifetime and to look over for the first time at Israel. The main impression was that the farming was much more
Scene of Destruction
The site of the car bomb that killed Rafik Hariri. The ruined shell of a building was a luxury hotel prior to the blast and there is a huge crater in the closed off street.
intense on the other side of the fence, but then that is not so surprising as the land in southern Lebanon is slowly being cleared of land mines even today. The town on the Israeli side of the fence looked so quiet, in fact our guide said that hardly ever are people seen in the streets over there as they live in constant fear!
We went on up to another point on the border where a huge Israeli tower, a UN observation base and Hezbollah positions sit within 100 metres of each other. It was really strange to be there as tourists. The whole day was really a good, but bizzarre experience. We returned to Beirut via the southern city of Tyre where we visited the old roamn ruins on the sea front in a glorious sunset. It was a peaceful way to end the strange day.
Robin and I decided to stay in Beirut for Christmas, since there was a really nice group of people in the hostel and Beirut had loads of Christmas lights up everywhere because there is a large christian population. We had met a really lovely girl called Hanaa one evening in Beruit.
Beaufort Castle, Southern Lebanon
A view to the mountains of the south. The castle was home to the occupying Israeli army until 2000. The flag is that of Amal.
She had been part of a demonstration on the street that had been sitting in silence for 4 days. With so many different parties and sects in Lebanon (80 different religious/political sects) there seemed to be demonstrations daily, so this group of young peole had decided to sit and say nothing in the hope that silence would actually cause people to stop and think about what everyone was shouting about and maybe listen to each other a bit more in the future. The politics and modern history of Lebannon are extremely interesting and very difficult to understand in a short time.
Hanaa invited us to meet her family and on 23 December we stayed at her home in Aramoun. It was a lovely old house set high on the hills above Beruit. The whole family including her 5 year old nephew spoke english fluently. This family are Druze which is a mystical sect of Islam, but they were also going to celebrate Christmas. I suppose that is the advantage in living in a place like Lebanon - you get so many more religious holidays than normal! We were made very welcome and in the morning her mother cooked us
Our guide and former detainee demonstrates the metal box he was kept in for 2 days. How he smiles and laughs now I will never understand.
homemade traditional pizzas. Lebannon quite rightly has a great reputation for food.
We left Hanaa's house by bus and after a few changes were headed towards Baalbek on the other side of the mountains from Beirut. It was Christmas eve and the top of the pass was covered in a thick layer of snow. The other passengers looked doubtfull at our plans to get back to Beirut that night, but we kept hopeful and arrived in Baalbeck. This town is built around one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world (and another former Hezbollah stronghold). The Temple is massive- the size of the stones were astounding and we could definitely have spent longer there on a warmer day, but instead we found ourselves marching quickly round the site as it was freezing. It was still very enjoyable though.
We found Ben and another backpacker Teena in a tea and falafel house and got a minbus together heading back to Beruit. On the road there was a police roadblock and it seemd that the police were making vehicles put on snowchains before continuing. To our concern this did not faze our driver who knew a side road
Beaufort Castle, Southern Lebanon
The castle now also proudly displays the flag of Hezbollah (The Party of God) - who claim the credit for forcing Israel to withdraw.
round the police, coming out higher up on the Beruit road. Ben and Robin were getting more concerned, but then the driver stopped at a garage and found some chains in the boot. He fitted one chain to the bus but the second chain was broken. There was a local family in the bus too and the father did seem to be having words with the driver to be careful on the roads. We continued with our one chain and were stopped by the police, however the one chain seemd to satisfy them and on we went. Just as the snow began however, the driver stopped and took off the chain!! I decided to sing christmas carols and Ben began promising to go to midnight mass that night should we ever get back to Beirut! The driver however drove very carefully and we did not really need the chains despite the police's instistence. When we got to Beruit however the driver made a big show and wanted more money from us for putting on the chains. We appealled to some standers-by who all started laughing and we paid the driver the agreed price.
I went to midnight mass that
A Hezbollah mural at the former detantion centre.
night with our French and Belgian friends we had met in the hostel. The church was packed with hundreds of people and it was a catholic service in french. We were all a bit disappointed because the service was very old fasioned and not very Christmassy. Religion in Lebanon defines so much who you are and what community you come from that even for the Christmas service there was mention of politics. We returned to find that Ben and Robin had started on the wine and were definitely more in the spirit of the season.
Christmas day was really lovely, everyone in the hostel shared a great breakfast with the French and Belgians producing nutella! I had been chosen to dispell Britain's reputation for crap food and had been nominated chef!! In true British tradition I decided to cook a big veggie curry! We had no oven and the curry was really a good choice since we were feeding around 20 people. The pressure was on but we had lots of helpers and it worked out very well, with even the Indian guy who turned up half way through declaring that it was a good meal. The French took
Colonnades from the Roman era at the former Phoenician and Egyptian sea port.
charge of crepes and the Belgians had cooked a no bake belgian chocolate cake. This was all rounded off with lebanese wine and french cheese. It was our first Christmas without some of our families around, but it was really very lovely to share good food with so many great people.
On Boxing day we all dragged ourselves out of bed early and set off in a group of 10 to go back north and up to the Cedars. The French had arranged a chalet and although it was going to be $12 each we thought it worthwhile to see the Cedars in the snow. However when we arrived the guy wanted more money from us. We complained a lot and it was only because we refused to unload the taxi that was blocking the road that he let us stick to the agreed price. However he had not put on the heating and the apartment was freezing!!
We set off for a walk up to the Cedars and revelled in the stunning veiws. We had climbed up to almost 3000m and the day was beautiful with snow everywhere. The Cedars themselves were massive and lovely in the
Massive Bricks, Baalbek
Most of the oldest layer of the site is made out of blocks of stone as larger, if not larger, than these. Nobody fully understands how it was constructed.
snow. It is such a shame that there are now so few left but that is man's nature I suppose. We had planned to stay only one night up there because of the cost, but we found a nice hotel owner at "Hotel Cortina" who let us stay the next night for $7 each including breakfast.
This meant that we decided to stay and try out the skiing. Robin for the first time! I was quite concerned having not skied for 15 years, but I have finally found a sport that I can do better than Robin! I found that I could remember it all which was a relief and Robin managed to enjoy himself despite having no brakes at all! It was very hard though, as it was the first day of the season and the slopes were not piste'd. The snow conditions were terrible, since when all the begginners crashed they all just sank into the snow leaving huge foot prints all over the run.
That night in the new hotel was much better than our freezing night at the expensive 'chalet' and the hotel was full with a group from Beirut who got out drums and
started singing and dancing on the tables. The owner gave us free port and nargiles (hubble bubble pipes) and we had a great time. We stayed the next day and hired snow shoes, since we could not really bear to leave these wonderful snowy mountains too soon. It was really good fun and I have resolved to make myself a pair one day.
Evenutally later that day we returned to Beruit to find Ben and Teena had cooked us a meal and we were ready to set off the next day for one of the biggest climbs of our trip so far - 1400m over the mountains towards Syria again.
There are more photos below