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

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12-14 December 2005

Monday 12th December 2005    day 154     whereami     Satellite view

Beirut, Lebanon
Slept in late to rest and get rid of this cold - up at 11am and I do feel better. Stomach suddenly sorted itself out too in the late evening yesterday.

Packed a few essentials in my small pack. I'm leaving the big pack here and staying a night or 2 in Tripoli (the lebanese one - not Libya!). Took both packs to reception and paid my 29,000LL bill. The manager took a 2nd 50,000LL note from me and said it was a fake, and ripped it nearly in half. I told him to give it back and he ripped it again, and again. He's a bit of a joker so I wasn't too worried. He finally gave me my pristine note back. My cold-befuddled brain didn't quite know what had happened - and I'm still not sure. This is another great hotel - they're very friendly and helpful.

Surprised to see a young japanese girl still here - we've been bumping into each other all around Syria and now here - she overslept and missed her flight to Cyprus.

Walked to the front and got a 1000LL service taxi to Cola bus station. Well nearly, caught a 500LL bus the rest of the way! Quick 2000LL felafel breakfast and got the same 750LL bus as 2 days ago north. Got to Jbeil and walked down to the dual carriageway for another 1500LL bus to Tripoli (or Trablos I finally realised they call it). Most major road signs have arabic and english markings, the english says Tripoli - but nobody knew what I was talking about.

An older soldier in the front seat was laughing with the driver about my pronunciation "shripply - ha ha ha" and called me up to the front. I said I wanted to stay where I was - I just want to look out the window, not get dragged into some silly incomprehensible conversation. The bloke in front of me gestured that I should stay where I was, so I did. Nice views from the bus of mountains to the right and sea to the left. Quite misty again today and it never quite burnt off.

Got to Tripoli about 3pm, walked around the corner straight into my Tower Clock landmark. I was looking for the hotel recommended by Isabella in Damascus and soon found it. Strange building tucked away in an alley - bullet marks around the door. The reception's on the 2nd floor and the building has a hollow centre down to the 1st floor - a little indoor village.

It's a family run place and they were eating so they quickly showed me to a $10 room that I took. They've got $7 dorm beds but I fancy some privacy. It's really nice here - very homely, I feel like a lodger rather than a guest.

Everyone talks about prices in US$ in Lebanon. I don't know if they do between themselves or if it's just for foreigners - but it doesn't help - you end up with calculations based on 3 currencies in your head instead of just 2.

Went out for a quick wander to catch the last of the daylight. I'm very near the Tower Clock that is in the centre of the old town. I had an expensive 1100LL shay in the plaza and looked around at the heavy war-damage. There was clearly some serious fighting going on here. Went walking to find the sea but couldn't get near it. Picked up some salad, tahina, bread and fruit and went back to the hotel about 6:30 for a healthy feast and a diary catch-up.

Switched on my freshly recharged phone to find a message from Chris (sister), apparently Hemel Hempstead's ablaze. The fuel depot less than 1km from my old office has exploded. We saw a big UK fire on Al-Jazeera last night but only caught a brief eyewitness brummie accent before the arabic overdub - so we assumed it was in Birmingham.

Out at 9pm to find an internet café - eventually found it. Poor connection but I got things done. The Hemel blaze looks pretty serious. Also noted that a Lebanese MP was killed by a car bomb this morning in Beirut. And got an email from Simon - nearly at his Antarctic post. 1500LL for a tedious 90 mins.

Back to the hotel, quick chat with the family then . . . . that's funny, don't remember putting my rucksack down . . . . left it at the bloody internet café!! All my valuables, money, passport etc.! Thankfully it was still there, the manager barely raised an eyebrow when I collected it. I can't believe I did that - I feel glued to the damned thing, I often think twice about taking it off in the shower!! It did give me an excuse to go walking again I suppose - these grimey battle-scarred backstreets are something else by night - you feel like you really shouldn't be there, but it feels pretty safe at the same time.

      High: I like Tripoli, lots of character and much less glitz
       Low: where's me rucksack!!

Tuesday 13th December 2005    day 155     whereami     Satellite view

Tripoli, Lebanon
Couldn't put my book down last night and still carrying the tail end of my cold so up a bit late (like I need a reason?). Got a surprise breakfast delivered to my room - just a pot of viciously strong shay and a croissant. Out at 10:30 - grabbed a poor shot of our indoor village on the way out.


Went to the Tourist Office to get some brochures and maps - given up on the guidebook now. Got some useful stuff, mostly in french but I'll manage. They seemed stangely keen to get rid of me so I made myself comfy in one of their armchairs and read up for a while, mainly for the hell and amusement of it.

Decided to just wander around the old town and the souq for a while. I'm morbidly fascinated by all the war damage. Most of it looks like it could have happened last week. Unlike Beirut, Tripoli wasn't destroyed - just badly damaged - so it's not been rebuilt. The buildings around the central plaza are a real sight. Most of them have shops on the ground floor and pretty much everything above (4 or 5 floors) is empty and trashed. I wasn't sure about the etiquette of photographing this stuff so asked a soldier - who of course said it was ok. Even so I was careful, often pretending to take a photo of something else - quite an easy trick with a digital camera.

Tripoli   Tripoli   Tripoli

Tripoli - war damage   Tripoli - war damage   Tripoli - war damage

Tripoli - war damage   Tripoli - war damage

Tripoli - war damage   Tripoli - war damage

Tripoli - war damage   Tripoli - war damage   Tripoli - war damage

After 2 or 3 hours of old town and the narrow, grimey, twisty-turny and interesting souq I headed up the steep hill to visit the citadel.

7000LL ticket - pricey for what it was. It wasn't all that great but the views across Tripoli were good in all directions. I was the only visitor, and enjoyed a quiet picnic lunch right on the top looking over Tripoli to the Med.

Tripoli - citadel   Tripoli - citadel   Tripoli - citadel

sarcophagus   sarcophagus

Tripoli   Tripoli   Tripoli

And some more shots of the damage visible from the citadel.

Tripoli - war damage   Tripoli - war damage

Tripoli - war damage   Tripoli - war damage

Slow wander back through the old town and back to the hotel about 5pm - pretty knackered, walked all day.

Stayed in my room for the rest of the evening and just read my book - tired, and there's nothing else here I'm desperate to see.

      High: it's amazing seeing all this damage
       Low: the citadel was a bit of an expensive let down, apart from the views

Wednesday 14th December 2005    day 156     whereami     Satellite view

Tripoli, Lebanon
Up and checked out about 10am. They couldn't change a sensible 50,000LL note for my 30,000LL bill so I lost all my small notes - bloody change!

The plan today is to see the remains of the cedar forests and get back to Beirut. As usual I've no real idea about how I'm going to achieve it. Got a 1000LL bus to Chekka, about 15km south on the coast - I was just dropped on the dual carriageway. I didn't go in to Chekka, I started walking east inland towards the mountains on what I thought was probably the right road. I need to get to Bcharre but it wasn't signed.

Stopped a service taxi, clarified that I was on the right road and got in to go as far as Amoun. As I got in the car stalled and wouldn't restart - "no benzine". The other passenger got out and we waited for another service taxi but the driver got back from the garage with a can of petrol and topped up before one arrived so we climbed back in. He was dead keen to take me to Bcharre for $20 and came down to $15 but that's way more than I want to pay. We stopped in Amoun and he and a local taxi insisted that there were no service taxis or minibuses to Bcharre. I paid him his 2000LL and went to have a look.

Amoun is very quiet - no service taxis or buses to be seen. I kept walking anyway, it's a lovely clear day and I was happy to walk a while. A big fancy roadsign said 21C - not bad for mid-December! I walked through Amoun and through another village - about 5-6km up a steep climb - and was starting to think I'd maybe need a taxi. Stopped for a rest and a girl walked by, smiled at me and fell over - so it's not just me that stumbles on these terrible pavements. A packed minibus came by - I squeezed in for Bcharre - excellent.

The poor old overloaded minibus really laboured up the mountain, the scenery was great - snow-capped mountains and all the way down to the sea. The minibus emptied out a bit and I got a proper seat. Someone tapped me on the shoulder "remember me?" - a japanese girl I'd bumped into in Hama and Damascus with her friend I didn't recognise. We got to Bcharre about 3pm, 2000SP, and a taxi offered to take us to the cedars for $10 - too much. We found one for 10,000LL for the return trip + an hour wait. He was a good old boy and offered to take the girls on to Tripoli for 2500LL each - very cheap because he lives there and it's time to go home.

Got to the cedars. The "Cedars of Lebanon" were the original source of wealth in this area. They grew all over the mountains and were highly prized as they grow straight and tall, and cedar's a very tough and long-lasting wood. Ideal for big temples and especially shipbuilding. More recent generations used them for firewood and decimated the forests. All that's left now of the original plenty is a small protected enclosure of a few acres, about 1200 trees. A cedar tree is central on the lebanese flag.

It was closed and our taxi was keen for us to just take a few snaps and get going but I said I was going to ask around. The locals immediately told us to just climb over the fence, so we did. Nice walk around the pathways, the cedar is a great looking tree.

the cedars   the cedars   the cedars

the cedars   the cedars   the cedars

the cedars   the cedars   the cedars

the cedars

We're pretty close to the snow level so it's a bit chillier up here - definitely not 21C anymore. Several people have told me that it's been unusually warm this year and there's not much snow - the taxi driver told us that this time last year there was 0.5m of snow where we were. There's ski resorts up here and we could see a ski run that was almost snowless - not good for business.

Another claim to fame here is that Bcharre is the birthplace of Gibran Khalil Gibran who wrote The Prophet. I read it a while back after seeing it referred to or quoted in so many other books. He's now buried here and there's a museum but it was closed.

I decided to take the cheap ride back to Tripoli. I won't get back down the mountain for that price and I can easily get a Beirut bus from there. 3 men joined us as well so there was a tight squeeze 7 of us in the old Mercedes. Easy enough run though - paid my 6000LL - a good bargain. Walked over the road straight onto a 3000LL Beirut bus - couldn't be easier. The driver and conductor seemed to be having great fun collecting the fares and joking with everyone. They were behaving like drunks, though they weren't, I've no idea what it was all about. Got to Beirut about 6pm and dropped off at Dera station - only a vague idea where I am. Walked a while but Beirut is very pedestrian-unfriendly, it's all dual carriageways and slip roads. Gave up, walked back to Dera and got a 1000LL service taxi back to Talal Hotel.

Stayed in the little communal reception area just chatting until midnight. Got an email from Mark at Dixons telling me that the head office was badly affected by the explosion and fire. One building has lost it's roof, the sprinklers came on in the main building and the site is still closed pending structural surveys - wow.

      High: getting the "non-existent" minibus to Bcharre - a rare victory over the lying taxis
       Low: losing all my small money to the hotel

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