2005 Time-out Diary
Wandering around Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon

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09-11 December 2005

Friday 9th December 2005    day 151     whereami     Satellite view

Damascus, Syria
Up late after my late night - about 10:30. Packed and checked out and stopped for a shay in the hotel. Got joined by Isabella, the french girl from last night, she cribbed a few ideas from my Syria guidebook and gave me some pointers for Lebanon - nice girl.

Set off about 12:30 and walked the 2km to the bus station. No bus until 4pm, I asked around and found one at 3pm but that's still 2 hours away. Tried next door at the service taxi place. Turned down a 500SP offer and accepted a 200SP offer - same as the bus price. Did the usual passport checks and climbed in his total wreck of a 1950's Chevrolet. A few joined us and we eventually got going about 1:30. Got to the border about 2:15 and pulled up 0.5km short by some shops. We were all told to get out, and he seemed to be looking for another car - I couldn't make out what was going on. He asked for his 200SP and I refused - this isn't Beirut! We waited and waited, then all back in and we doubled back 0.5km towards Damascus and stopped and waited again. He kept telling me there was no problem when I tried to find out what was going on.

Eventually we got into a different car and drove to the border, the original driver climbing in too. At the Syrian border he again asked for his 200SP and both drivers emphasised that that was it - no more money. They obviously needed to split it so I paid up and the original driver went off. I still don't know what it was all about but it was a waste of a good hour. We left Syria, I had to pay 100SP exit tax - I left Syria with 28SP in syrian money - about 30UKpence, maybe I cut it a bit fine!

Through no-mans-land and to the Lebanese border. I changed by 34JD surplus from Jordan to pay for my US$15 visa - straightforward. The border was the most militarised I've seen but it didn't cause any problems. And so into Lebanon.

We drove for 1km, stopped for the driver to do some shopping. Drove 1km, stopped to talk to his mates. Drove 1km, stopped to get the tyres pumped. We finally got going and then stopped again in Zahle. We were told to get out - this is as far as we go! I said I'd paid to go to Beirut!! But he just looked away and said we stop here. I kept on at him and asked for some money back but he just grunted. I was bloody furious after all the messing about I'd already put up with, but there was nothing I could do. I just swore at him to make my feelings clear, grabbed my bag and walked to a nearby minibus.

The whole journey was a total #%ck-up from start to finish - 2 total-wreck cars, a mystery car-swap that took an hour, and now thanks to my misplaced trust they've dumped me only halfway there and I can't do anything about it. I wanted to bash their heads together.

Got in the packed minibus and they crammed in a few more before we set off to Beirut. A long steep climb up the mountains and a terrific view west from the top. The sun was setting and everything below halfway down the mountain was lost in mist. It looked like snow or the sea, or like looking down on clouds from a plane. Little islands poked up through the mist here and there. We descended into the mist but it soon cleared again and we arrived in Beirut about 5pm.

I told them where I was heading - I've got a hotel and a street name - and they dropped me off and pointed me up a major turn-off. I haven't a clue how far it is so flagged a service taxi who dropped me under a massive sign indicating my road - 2000LL. £1 = 2,613LL. I guessed my road was a major road so I still have no idea how far. I walked more than 1km and flagged a taxi. He pointed me back the way I'd come and didn't even try for the fare - a good helpful bloke. I walked back and kept going until I was almost in the centre. A policeman asked where I was going and pointed me back again but only a few hundred metres and down a side road. I walked and walked, couldn't find it and still wasn't certain I was on the right road. I flagged down another taxi who didn't seem very sure - and took me to a street of 5 Star Hotels - er no mate, have another look at me! I again told him the road and we went into a posh hotel to ask. They put him right and we drove back where we came from and I spotted the hotel. He asked for 10,000LL - I pointed out that we were only 0.5km from where he picked me up, "yes, but, round and round", I gave him 4000LL (still too much) and left to the sound of his complaining. Irritatingly I was within a whisker of the hotel when walking.

Into the hotel, they've got one dorm bed vacancy for 6US$ - that'll do me. Hung around in reception while they sorted it out, checked in and dropped my stuff off. 7:15 - nearly 7 hours to get here!!

Went straight out to look for something to eat, an atm and a Lebanese guidebook. Got my money, found a Virgin Megastore with a whole rack of travel books - not one for Lebanon! I was in a poncey area and 90% of shops were expensive Armani boutiques or jewellers. The only food around was in trendy restaurants to be seen in. Walked around for an hour and gave up. Found a little supermarket near the hotel and bought some bread, cheese and biscuits and went back to the hotel. Bread and cheese on our scruffy balcony. Joined by 2 syrians from Aleppo who shared their tea and cakes, I shared my biscuits and we had a bit of a broken chat. They're working here, "we trade from Syria to Lebanon", what do you trade? "some things". Did my diary.

Bit of a dodgey day really. Ropey rip-off journey, took me ages to find the hotel, unappetising one meal all day, no guidebook - but I'm here and it seems ok.

I wasn't expecting to like Beirut much, I don't generally do modern cities, and the little I've seen has been no surprise. Money rules here - and there's plenty of it about. I've nothing against money, like everyone else I'd like more than I've got. But I really don't like conspicuous ostentatious flashy wealth - too much jewelry, too much vanity, too-shiney shoes, inflated egos, etc. The most interesting aspect is the amount of battle scars there are still about. Most buildings more than 20 years old have bullet marks, some have shell marks, and a few are trashed with gaping holes and tumbling walls. There's a huge amount of development though - new buildings going up all over the place.

Having no guidebook is a bit of a pain. If I'm going to keep to my tight schedule I need to get about efficiently - so I need good information.

      High: the view from the mountains - like a picture from a fairytale book
       Low: rip-off taxi thieves that I was powerless to do anything about

Saturday 10th December 2005    day 152     whereami     Satellite view

Beirut, Lebanon
Up and out before 10 - not bad. Got a 1000LL minibus to Cola bus station for a northbound bus. Slow journey through heavy traffic. Lots of shops near the bus station so had a quick walk around looking for a guidebook - no luck. Had a shay and felafel in a café for breakfast - 2000LL.

Back to the bus station and spent 10 minutes trying to find the right bus. Finally found it 750LL and we soon set off - south! I couldn't really see any landmarks, the mountains were invisible (mist) and we weren't near the sea, and there's no sun to navigate by, but I was certain we were going south. At a few stops I thought people were asking for Soar - which is right down south. After all the messing about time was getting on so I decided to stay where I was and go south today. We eventually did a big loop of Beirut and went north. A very slow trudge out of Beirut so I decided to go straight to Byblos. I was going to try and cram in the Jieta Caves too but they'll have to wait. Got to Jeibl about 1pm - the ancient Byblos citadel is there.

Walked around the shops - still no guidebook. Into the Citadel 6000LL for a look around.

Byblos is another candidate for the longest continually inhabited place. Traces of a neolithic settlement have been uncovered. It has the standard history of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders and Ottomans. Quite an interesting place and very well set-out with lots of good information.

Byblos   Byblos   Byblos

Byblos   Byblos   Byblos

The mist had gone and it was lovely and sunny - t-shirt again.

view - NE   view - SE   fishing from an island

The harbour area is surrounded by expensive but nice-looking restaurants - the sea was absolutely flat calm.

nice harbour   nice harbour

Walked back up at 4pm to look for a bus back to Beirut and found one easily. Back to Beirut's Cola station about 5pm. We'd passed a big shopping area so I decided to try and walk back to the hotel, looking for the elusive guidebook on the way. No luck again, not even close. Back to the hotel about 6:30.

Rested on my bed while my gadgets charged - everything's flat. Wrote a quick diary so I can update tonight.

Couldn't find a local internet café so didn't update. Just grabbed a sandwich and went back to the hotel. Got chatting with Jez and Amanda (english) who were trying to get a group up for a guided tour of the south - decided to join them, we're meeting at 8am.

      High: great weather - quite hot in the early afternoon
       Low: frustrating trying to get about without a guidebook, and hours wasted trying to find one

Sunday 11th December 2005    day 153     whereami     Satellite view

Beirut, Lebanon
Met at 8am, Jez and Amanda, John (France), Jeraldo (Spain) and another guy, I've only just realised I never knew his name. My stomach's feeling a bit ropey - last night's sandwich I reckon. And I've got a bloody cold again - I feel generally healthy, fit and tough so I can only think it's close-living with lots of different people that's causing them.

Our driver met us and we climbed into the very nice Chevrolet MPV. Straight down to Sidon where he got our permissions sorted to go right south into Hezbolla territory. Once sorted we visited the nice sea castle there. The sea looked sooo inviting for a dive.

Sidon Sea Castle   Sidon Sea Castle   Sidon Sea Castle

Sidon Sea Castle   Sidon Sea Castle

We grabbed some spiced bread and some fruit and set off again. Went through a Lebanese army checkpoint and on through a Hezbolla checkpoint with a few questions from heavily armed military at both. The scenery is fantastic here, very mountainous, very steep, deep valleys and ravines. All of it quite green, the bigger flatter valley floors are cultivated with olive trees and other ploughed crops.

South Lebanon   South Lebanon   South Lebanon

We drove through some villages where every 50m or so there's a poster mounted on a lamppost of a martyr who's died fighting the israelis. We visited an old israeli prison camp, Kaihim Camp or similar, right near the current border - close to Shaba. The israelis held Hezbolla prisoners here when they occupied huge areas of Lebanon in the 1980's. The cells were mostly small and spartan, whips, clubs and electric shock torture instruments were displayed in some. A 9 rope gallows stood in the courtyard. It was a pretty grim place - Hezbolla people showed us around and told us some history through our guide. One of them spent 4 years imprisoned here and was swinging a club, about which they used to say "it liked the taste of strawberry juice".

The camp is high in the mountains and overlooks the rebuilt lebanese town of Shaba and israeli occupied territory beyond - the Golan Heights. The mountains to the south-east (left) are in Syria. Israeli military installations were clearly visible on the mountains across the valley. This is a hot place, the syrians, lebanese and israelis all have major problems with each other. The valley was bombed by israeli jets only 3 weeks ago - "bombs falling like rain".

view south - from the prison   view south - from the prison

Kaihim Prison Camp   Kaihim Prison Camp   Kaihim Prison Camp

Kaihim Prison Camp  
Then further west again along the border following the barbed wire fence some of the way to where there was an israeli settlement right up close to a lebanese village. A cut-out Bush showed the local's feelings for him.

Bush as Israel's friend   Israeli town through border   valley from border point described below

Then up to a hilltop fort we might be able to see - but it was closed. We got out to look around anyway. There was an israeli military station, a UN station and a Hezbolla station all within 100m of each other - no sign of anybody about. We weren't sure they were manned until Amanda made the mistake of photographing the Hezbolla station - 2 soldiers suddenly appeared, took her camera and formatted her SD card - deleting all her photos of the day. She was a bit upset but we weren't going to argue with these guys! - and they were justified.

Then north back across the valley to visit the Beaufort Castle. An old Crusader castle that had been used by everyone right up to the israelis who largely destroyed it when they left a few years ago. The yellow flag flying is that of Hezbolla.

Beaufort Castle   Beaufort Castle   stunning view from the top of Beaufort Castle

From the castle, across the valley we could hear shots being fired in the area we'd recently left and our guide seemed to think there was a skirmish going on somewhere.

Time was getting on but we decided to head for Soar/Tyre as well anyway. Long drive and it was dark when we got there - 5:30. The ruins we'd come to see were closed so we called it a day and drove back to Beirut - back about 7:30. Paid our 25,000LL each (21,000+tip for the good guide).

Sat around in the communal area chatting and we managed to recover most of Amanda's photos using the hotel PC.

A very interesting day. We saw some places that are seeing regular action and we were made to feel welcome by everyone - apart from the camera incident, and that was understandable. A grand day out with Hezbolla.

      High: I wasn't expecting to get so close to the border - quite a powerful experience
       Low: feeling a bit rough today - bad stomach and a cold

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