Written by on September 29, 2012 in General, Middle East & Gulf States with 2 Comments

My flight on Royal Jordanian went by quicker than I thought and I woke up just before landing in Amman, and after a quick layover, I was en route to Beirut.  Despite US State Department warnings against all travel to Lebanon, I’d met several travellers this summer who’d gone and said it was fine and awesome, and I didn’t want to go to the Middle East and exclude it from my itinerary.  Plus, I was up for an adventure, and told most people I met that I was Canadian 🙂

On the drive into central Beirut, we passed through the newly built downtown and the impressive Mohammed al-Amin Mosque.

I arrived at Talal’s hostel in about half an hour and before I was even checked-in, I met Lyenne (an Indonesian who grew up and lives in Amsterdam), as well as Martino and Hassan (both from China, although each travelling solo), who invited me to join them for dinner.  Lyenne turned out to be one of my roommates in the $11/night 3-bed dorm room I’d booked for the week and we became fast friends.  The hostel was only a few blocks from a popular neighborhood called Gemmayze, which had a strip of bars/restaurants about 4 blocks long. We went to a place that had come highly recommended for budget travellers called Le Chef, and it didn’t disappoint.  I peeled off early to head back to the hostel to watch the US Open final between Murray and Djokovic. The TV in our room didn’t have the tennis channel, but the lobby did, so I settled into a couch for the marathon match, with Murray finally finishing Djokovic off at nearly 5am.  That, plus the 10-hour time difference from SF has definitely wreaked havoc on my sleep schedule. Hopefully I’ll pass out early and be on Lebanese time by tomorrow, although it was going to be tough to wake up early to join my new friends for a trip South of Beirut to Tyre and Sidon.

The next morning, we met and walked around the block and down to the main street to catch a service taxi, which you may share with several others hopefully going in the same direction, where 6 of us crammed in to an ancient Mercedes with a crazy old color-blind driver at the wheel, completely indifferent to whether the few streetlights in town were red or green.  He dropped us off and we quickly found and jumped on a minibus to Sidon for the bargain price of 2000lira (about $1.50 each). It was the same cost for the bus to Tyre.  It was smart to sit next to window as it was really hot and the bus didn’t have air conditioning…although I am now very windblown and there is no help for how my hair will look in any pictures today!  The ride followed the coastline to show some of the poorer areas of Beirut, with typical cinder block apartment buildings, many unfinished and abandoned. A couple soldiers were on the bus.  One named Ahmed made friends with Hassan and warned him to be careful in Tyre and even gave him his phone number, just in case anything happened.  Lovely. Lonely Planet (and the US State Department) gave big warnings against going South of Beirut, but of course where were we going on Day 1 of my Lebanon visit?  South!  Sorry Mom!

More soldiers were at the bus station in Sidon.  A few were also now on our minibus headed to Tyre.  I also decided to be a skiing instructor from near Whistler, in case anyone asks what I do back home 🙂  The scenery changed quite a bit as roads were flanked with groves of banana and citrus trees and all of a sudden it felt more tropical. The buildings were still pretty run down. We started passing through some arches that were constructed across the road that looked like a combination of some sort of checkpoint and a political advertisement. Weird. One of the posters showed a fifty-something gray-haired heavy-set guy wearing a suit, with a Hawaiian lay around his neck, a big fake smile and flames behind him in the background. Wtf?? Wish I had guts to ask someone who it was, but I was nervous enough and wanted to remain as inconspicuous as possible and just laughed to myself.

Luckily, everything that day turned out just fine….at least in Sidon and Tyre.  I think seeing so many people in military uniforms kind of freaked me out. Anyway, after getting the wrong directions from about 10 different people, we finally found the entrance to the roman ruins at Al Mina. It was well worth the journey for the setting alone…a huge site of mainly columns and ancient pathways/streets made a great backdrop for pictures.

Even though we were baking in what felt like 100+ degree temps, we took our time and enjoyed the site. At least this kid found somewhere to cool off!

We made a quick snack stop at the same place we’d had lunch and then got in a service taxi to the Al Bass ruins which boasted having the oldest and largest hippodrome, which at one point held over 20,000 spectators for chariot races around the 3rd century. It wasn’t as pretty as al Mina, but was a lot more impressive.

We jumped on the hour long minibus back to Sidon, and arrived around 540p, leaving 20 mins to check out the few sites there were to see there, including a Khan, the souks and a sea castle. Sadly, Lonely Planet was wrong and the closing time at all of the above was 4p, not 6p, and everything was closed, with the exception of a few trinket shops and places trying to get rid of the baked goods or super-smelly fish before days end. After Lyenne did a little shopping, we caught the minibus back to Beirut.  What a great day!  Lyenne and Hassan were both so amazing to hang with and I’m sure will be lifetime friends.

Despite wanting to hang with Lyenne and Hassan again the next morning, there was a group from the hostel that had arranged a mini “tour” to several places I wanted to see, but that they had already gone to the day before I arrived. After dealing with the several modes of local transport the day before, i was looking forward to having one car with a/c for the day and thought the $40 price was justified. So, me, Jan (31, a super laid-back German guy), Antonino (50ish, super-annoying Sicilian gy), and Tomasz (28, fun, Polish guy), met George, our kooky driver for the day, and headed out.

Our first stop was the Jeita Grotto, about half an hour from Beirut. We hopped on a cable car that took us up the mountain and had to check in our cameras at the front. Booo! Of course, I had my iPhone in my pocket, as did Tomasz, so we were able to sneak in a few photos of the huge and fantastic cave.  Hands down, Jeita is the best and biggest cave/grotto I have seen in the world, and I have seen a LOT of caves in my travels.

The Lebanese have done a great job of adding walkways that must have gone 800 meters into the expansive cave with spectacular formations of almost white stalagmites and stalactites. The walkway almost hovered in the middle and allowed visitors to look up and down below where every now and then you could see the water running nearly 50 meters beneath us.  It was awesome. I feel like I say that a lot about the sights I’ve been seeing, and wish I had more adjectives in my vocabulary to differentiate between levels of awesomeness. I’m going to work on that!

Anyway, after exploring the upper grotto, there was a cheesy train, similar to ones I’d seen all over Europe this summer to transport lazy tourists, that we had to take down the hill to the lower grotto. We went in and boarded a boat that took us deeper into the cave. Definitely a bonus and I now understood why there was a hefty entrance charge. I don’t understand why they didn’t allow pictures, but we snuck a few with our phones anyway. Hehehe 🙂

Our next stop was Tripoli, another place I’d been warned not to go. Definitely got a little nervous as we drove down the street with the where several had died in a skirmish only a few weeks before.  You could see the stray bullet holes in the buildings and billboards, and tanks and soldiers with big guns every 200 meters.  Whoa.

I can’t believe they let me take a few photos.  Tripoli didn’t seem to have any nice buildings or mosques or interesting architecture…or anything really for tourists to see…which I suppose made it even more interesting to see from an “off the beaten path” perspective.  It did have great souks, where they sold everything from gold to furniture to perfume to several types of food. There was also a lot of crap! I bought some homemade Bvlgari and Issey Miyake perfume for almost nothing and met a nice couple at soap shop, so ended up buying some lavender soap, too. I’m definitely going to smell good on these next few legs!  To pass some time while Jan continued shopping for his wife, Tomasz and I decided to smoke some sheesha with the locals.

Around 4, we hopped back in the car and headed to Byblos, an almost cute seaside city with an interesting old town built around some Roman ruins that overlooked the sea.

The sun was beginning to set and we wished we could stay longer, but knew our driver was getting anxious as the tour was running long and we didn’t want him to cut out the rest.

Our last stop was in Jouniah, where we took a teleferic (kind of like a ski lift) up a hill to a point that overlooked all of Beirut, which is much bigger than i thought it would be.

As we rode up the lift, we caught the bright pink sun dipping into the sea. It was a strange ride, as there were high rises built up on either side and we were looking straight into people’s living rooms. At the top, we climbed some stairs and then headed up some ramps that wound their way up to another lookout from the Lady of Lebanon, a large lit religious statue that was almost the same size as the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio.

This whole experience and the views actually reminded me a bit of those from Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio, except Beirut doesn’t have any real beaches, even though it stretches along the water. Rio is much more beautiful, by the way.

We finally got back to the hostel around 830 after our very long but productive day of sightseeing. I’d told my roommates, Lyenne and Rosana, a sweet Italian who’d just moved to Beirut to study Christian and Muslim relations in the Middle East and was staying at the hostel while looking for a more permanent apartment, that we’d meet up for dinner at 930, so had just enough time to get ready. The six of us all piled in a taxi (that normally would sit only 4) and went to the Hamra district, which is near the University, for dinner and drinks at a couple funky places, before turning in around 2.  I’ve now been to two of the streets that are meant to showcase Beirut’s “nightlife”, but I must be missing something as neither was very exciting. Maybe because it was a weeknight ? Not sure, but I will keep trying to find it.  We turned in early, as the guys and I had planned an 8am start for the next day.

The next day the same group had decided to try to combine 2 day trips into one, although sketchy information about roads being open over a mountain range made it unclear how the day was going to turn out.  We met early and took a service taxi/minibus combo to Baabeck, crossing up and over some beautiful but stark mountains and then down into the Bekaa Valley, where we could see across to another mountain range which separated Lebanon from Syria.  The checkpoints increased, but as we were on a minibus, rarely did anyone look inside or even noticed us.  The Bekaa Valley is a known Hezbollah training ground, and another place I suppose I wasn’t safe travelling to, but after great reports on Baalbeck, I didn’t come this far to not go.  I’m so glad I did.  Baalbeck definitely has the most impressive Roman ruins I’ve seen.

BETTER than Ephehus.   The sheer size of the Venus and Jupiter temples is amazing, hopefully demonstrated by how tiny we are in the pictures.  How did they build this so long ago??  I know…slaves.  But still!?!

We spent a few hours roaming around the almost empty site.  Crazy that there are no tourists here!  Or, were we being crazy tourists to even come here?  I had to laugh when someone tried to sell me a Hezbollah t-shirt outside the gates.

Anyway, we were all starving, so stopped off for some lunch and asked around about buses over the mountain to Bcharre, but no dice.  We did find a one-legged taxi driver that agreed to take us for $80!  Hilarious.

So, we climbed into his beat up car and headed up an amazing windy road with at least 50 switchbacks up and over the Lebanon mountain range, making frequent photo stops, despite a soldier at one of the checkpoints who told us to not take any pictures until we reached the summit.  We quickly found out why, as we passed several civilians in trucks with very big guns hanging out the windows.  I was definitely nervous going over, but it was all well worth it when we reached the 2800m summit (view down to Bekaa Valley in prior picture with me and our driver) and looked down the other side to the Cedars ski resort.

OMG – it was like we were looking down from an airplane.  Amazing.  Temps had dropped considerably and we were all freezing, but it was exhilarating.  We all did the requisite “jump” picture as felt like we were on top of the world.  Well…the top of Lebanon, anyway.

We stopped in the small town of Cedars for a bathroom and beer break, and raced down the hill to Bcharre, a picturesque town that sits atop the Qadisha Valley and beautiful gorge.  We were enjoying the temperature change, as the town was fogged in, although we didn’t like the fact that we’d just missed the last minibus back to Beirut by 10 minutes, making the last leg of our “tour” a lot more expensive.  As the sun was going down, we ran around taking a few pics while we still had light, and although a couple of us were up for staying the night, a couple wanted to get back to Beirut at any cost, so we did some haggling with taxis and finally settled on one that was going to take us a quick tour to a Monastery at the bottom of the gorge, and then on to Tripoli, where we could try to catch a minibus back to Beirut.  It ended up being well worth it in the end, as just the drive down into the gorge was spectacular, and there was some sort of service with music happening at the monastery just after dark, which made our quick visit more special.  Too bad it was so foggy and we didn’t have much time.

I don’t know how we had the energy, but I wanted to catch up with Lyenne, so Tomasz and I met up with her and headed back to the Hamra area for some drinks/food, and tried to do a bar crawl but ended up getting a bit lost.   We somehow ended up in a VERY local place that was down a few steps and had live Arabic singers.  We were definitely the only tourists there…and probably the only that had come there in months or even years!  Lyenne went home, but Tomasz, me and our new friend for the night, Mahmood (sp?) decided it would be fun/interesting to stay.  Several beers, sheesha and lots of dancing later (yes…I apparently know how to dance to Arabic music), we found ourselves closing it down at 6am.  Such a fun and unexpected night!

After 3 days in a row of heavy touring and a big night out last night, I was psyched to have virtually no plans whatsoever the next day. Woke up at noon, Lyenne and went for coffee in the modern “souk” (which was a very upscale outdoor trendy shopping mall), and had plans to meet Tomasz back at the hostel to spend the afternoon at a beach club, but soldiers and jeeps with big guns were blocking the road as the Pope was in town and his cavalcade was going to be going right past our hotel at some point in the next hour or so.

Waited and watched a bunch of cars eventually speed by…did not see the Pope, and it was now after 4p and not worth spending the money to go to the beach clubs, where they don’t even really have a beach, for them to just close at 6p. This was not the first time the Pope messed up our plans that weekend.

We were all hungry, but I split off to go get my sushi fix at the trendy spot we’d been walking past every day.  Good sushi and a large Sapporo for $20.  Nice!  A lot for a backpacker, but relative to any good spot in the US, I was quite happy.  No one wanted to go with me as all are on a Lebanon holiday for only a week and looking for local fare every night/day.  Fine, but I’m sure I’ll get plenty of middle eastern food over the next 6 weeks, so glad I treated myself.  Lyenne and I jumped on a minibus to check out a local shopping mall 15 mins away, as she is a shopping fiend and I realized I’d packed wrong and needed to pick up a few neccessities cheaply.  We were meeting up for dinner at 930, so had to rush a bit. Thomas had met a cool Spaniard named Gordon who’d just arrived at the hostel, so we invited him to join us.

Before we left I got into a somewhat heated discussion with the guy running my hostel, who made a blanket statement that he thought all Americans wanted there to be fighting in the ME. It then led to him stating that he thought that all Americans believed everything that was portrayed in the anti-Islam film that was just released and that the US government was actually behind it. He was probably regurgitating whatever garbage the Arab media was putting out there. Wtf?? There was a bald guy with a really creepy hole/indentation in his head that joined in and started raisin his voice, eyes bulging. All of a sudden I realized I shouldn’t be having any conversations with people who had formed their opinions from the sensationalist media and I was just going to get myself in trouble if I continued.
 So I awkwardly and quickly excused myself and we went to dinner at Cafe Hamra, a cool hipster spot near the university and had a blast. Gordon had just come from Jordan and made a great addition to our little “crew”, with some great travel stories and good energy. We decided to stop for one more beer at a bar on the main drag to try to scope out the clubbing situation and met a guy that directed us to a club called White, which is supposedly the best in Beirut right now. We all piled in a taxi and headed to White around 230a. But, everyone was leaving when we got there. We found out the club was closing at 3a because the pope was in town. WTF?!? Noooo!  Second time in the same day the Pope interfered!  Such a bummer as we had to heavily negotiate with a taxi to take us back to Beirut. A $40 mistake and now most places in town were closed. We all took it a a sign that we should probably call it a night.

I slept in again and slowly motivated to go grab coffee and catch up on the latest news. I found a Starbucks and was excited to have my typical watered down iced coffee rather than the local sludge they call coffee that I’d been getting around Beirut.  Wifi was slow, but fast enough to read everyone’s worried messages about the situation here. I’m definitely on high alert and paying attention to everyone and everything, and definitely watching what I say in public, especially after last night. That said, everything here seems ok (besides our hostel guys). There is definitely increased military presence in town due to the Pope being here, but otherwise the city actually felt quite empty today. It was really HOT.

We went back to the hostel to change and go to cool off at a nearby pool, but was surprised to find my American friend John and his friends had checked in. Yay! I’d randomly met John at Ruth’s Chris in Newport Beach earlier in the summer and we’d exchanged emails knowing we’d be in the ME at the same time. Today/tonight is the only day we’ll cross paths, but it was so great to see him!  We agreed to meet up later, as Lyenne, Tomasz and I were anxious to get some sunshine.  We walked through the new and modern souks to stay in the shade en route, as it was a scorcher today.  

We had been told that we could go to St George’s Yacht club and pay $20 to get in to enjoy the pool.  We got there at 3 and it closed at 6, which was way too early. Weird they don’t stay open til sunset. Still, it felt like a little oasis and we enjoyed every minute of our escape.

John, Sally and her boyfriend all went to Le Chef and traded travel stories and recommendations as they had just come from Jordan. Such a small world to be in Beirut at the same time!  I had to say goodbye to them early as Lyenne, Tomasz and I had plans to try out the Beirut nightlife one more time. We headed to Buddha Bar first, which was even more beautiful than the one in NYC and Paris, although the crowd and music were lacking, so we moved on to check out Iris, a rooftop bar overlooking the city.  Annoyingly, they were closing early because the Pope was giving his mass in Beirut the next morning. Are you fricking kidding me?!?  It was only midnight! The mass was supposed to start at 10a.  Ugh. We then tried another rooftop bar called Fly, which had a gorgeous view, but also closed early. Tomasz had to leave to catch his 4a flight, so after hugs and promises to all get together in Wroclaw or Amsterdam or Berlin next summer, he was on his way and Lyenne and I went back to Buddha Bar to see if it had gotten any better as we knew it was still open. It was def open, but the music had changed to “Oriental pop”, which is almost as bad as the Serbian turbo folk I hated back in Montenegro, so we called it quits at 2a. So much for powering through the night to stay awake for my 615a taxi to the airport.

As if the Pope’s visit hadn’t already messed up enough of our plans, when I headed down to catch my taxi to the airport a few hours later, we learned that the road was blocked, and now we had soldiers and military vehicles every 100 yards in both directions. OMG! Get me out of Beirut!!!  I thought I was going tone stuck, but luckily we found a guy that walked us through a few backstreets and into a taxi that knew how to navigate around the street closures. I made it to the airport just in time. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so anxious to leave a country, but am happy that Jordan was the next stop as it seems like the safest place to be in the Middle East right now.

Lebanon was quite the adventure, and I was happy to leave but sorry to say goodbye to my new friends.  It happens in every country.  It’s amazing how fast you become friends with people while traveling…and how easy it is today to stay connected and hope to see each other again.  I love it!

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  1. Tomasz says:

    Great blog Debby! Reading about our adventures in Lebanon brings back good memories and makes me feel as it was only yesterday 🙂

    If there is a will, there is a way so.. see you in Wroclaw, Amsterdam or somewhere else! 🙂
    Have fun in Israel!

  2. john p says:

    Deb, Just got back from Morocco and Gibralter Wednesday b/4 Thanksgiving. Loved Fez and Marekesh. Went Rick’s in Casa. Next stop for me is Kosovo and Albania April 28. Then Haiti to volunteer June 23rd. Glad you are having fun. I saw your folks b/4 I left at Ruths. I have dinner more with them than my own family. Good luck and stay in touch. John P.

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