Sunday, November 17, 2019

Walking across Lebanon through a Revolution or: Stickers, prickers, and thorns, Oh My!

     Almost a month in Iran was followed by us flying to Lebanon.  We are pretty sure that no Americans a year usually fly the Mashhad to Beirut flight.  Mashhad, Iran is a very holy city in the Shia Muslim religion and was full of Lebanese pilgrims flying home.  When it was time for sunset prayer there was a line of people in the aisle praying.  We have flown a bunch around the Middle East but this was the first time we had seen this. 

     We arrived in Beirut and set up residence at an AirBnB that had been found by our friend Amal who joined us 2 days later.  On our first night there by coincidence a British friend we had last seen in Chile was there so we went out for dinner and drinks with her and her friends.  It was a great night with good food, friends, and we were able to freely order alcohol for the first time in weeks.  Amal is a friend from Seattle who is ½ Lebanese/1/2 Syrian but grew up in Dubai.  Like Kathleen and I, she never knows how to answer “Where are you from?”  She was a great resource and huge help in those first days in Lebanon and on the trail with her ability to speak Arabic fluently.  We attribute a big part of our success to her, especially in the early days when we were getting our feet under us.  We spent a day sight seeing before starting the trail.  We first went to the Jeita Grotto which is a huge cave with 2 parts.  The upper section is a walk with huge caverns and dramatic stalactites and stalagmites.  The lower section has a river running through it and there are boats that take you around the lower part.  Very cool but for some reason photography is not allowed.  You are supposed to leave your camera in lockers outside but both Amal and I snuck our phones in.  She got caught taking pictures (twice) in the upper cavern and was scolded.  I managed to sneak a couple from the hip in the lower canyon.  
Sneaky cave photo                  
Sunset at Byblos                     
We then went to the tourist town of Byblos to see the Citadel and harbor and to watch the sunset.  It is a gorgeous little town on the Mediterranean. 

     It was then time to head north and start the Lebanon Mountain Trail.  This is a 450km (275+ mile) hiking trail that traverses Lebanon from near the Syrian border in the North to close to the Israeli border in the south passing through Sunni, Christian, Druze, and Shia parts of the country.  A great way to explore the incredible diversity in culture, architecture, and food across Lebanon while hiking past various old Roman and early Christian ruins and unique natural features.  The trail was first started with a $3 million grant from USAID to help bring development and tourism to some of the rural villages in the mountain. It now consists of 27 sections and is designed to hike from village to village.  There are either guesthouses (home stays) or hotels after each section.  In some sections there are monasteries you can stay at and one night we slept in a convent.  One night we slept in a castle.  The trail designers originally went to the elders of the villages to find out how they used to get from town to town before the roads were built and everyone started to drive everywhere.  They then took that information, melded in the unique natural or historical features of each area (waterfalls, rock arches, sink holes, dramatic cliffs, lakes, Roman ruins, old churches, monasteries. etc.) and modified as needed due to private property restrictions.  
Rock arches                                    
Sinkhole from above                      
Cliff traverse                                  
Lake Qaraoun                                 
Roman temple in Faqra                  
Church in Bcharre                          
St Anthony of Qozhaya Monastery
3000 year old cedar tree                 
There is a website at if you are interested in finding out more about the trail.   This was our main resource for planning.  If you do want to do it, make sure that you contact the LMTA to get the most current GPS track.  Despite there being paint blazes on almost all of the trail there are still a few sections not marked and sometimes the GPS is needed to just confirm that you are on the right track as a confidence marker.  The trails route has changed frequently over the years depending on new roads being built, private property issues, or better trails being discovered.  
First trail marker found on trail        

     The first 6 days of the trail were spent with Amal.  We split the cost of a cab ride to get us the 3 hours from Beirut to the start of the trail in Andqet.  With getting organized and the long drive it was early afternoon when we started.  On this first section we got the full spectrum of types of trail we would be hiking on – paved roads, dirt roads, tracks, trails, goat paths, and the occasional full on bush whack.  This section is not blazed so we had to use the GPS the entire day.  There were a couple of times that we got off the path and had to bush whack to get back where we were supposed to be.  This is where we discovered that pretty much every plant in Lebanon has either a sticker, a pricker, or a thorn on it with the exception of the famous Lebanese Cedar trees.  It is also the section where we saw that the most common type of trash in Lebanon is spent shotgun shell casings.  
The most common trash seen       
This was the first and only night that we had not arranged lodging.  The first couple of places we checked out were either had no one there or were full since it was Friday.  We ended up having to scramble around that night and get a taxi to find a hotel that was open.  After that experience we got more organized.  Amal fit right in with Knucklehead Adventure Tours as she was not at all worried when at first it looked like we might have to bivouac without sleeping bags or tents.  Day 2 was one of the most memorable days of the trip.  Several things were figured out that would help us on the rest of the trail.  Things like the shotgun litter was going to continue and we were going to see people on the trail with shotguns and hear gunshots periodically.  We found out that sometimes where the trail and GPS tracks went were not always the same place.  They would be close but we lost about an hour thinking the trail was on the top of a cliff.  It was on the bottom but we spent a lot of time looking for the non-existent route to the top of the cliff.  It was also where we discovered that the people of Lebanon were going to be as welcoming and hospitable as every other country in the Middle East we have explored.  At the end of the day we were walking to the guest house that we knew about.  As we walked past a random house alongside a road an older couple shouted down to us from their balcony to come up to have tea and apples.  Since Amal was with us she could understand what they were saying in Arabic.  Tea and apples then led to a large meal being served and then they insisted that we spend the night at their house.  They had a prior engagement so they showed us how to use the TV and then disappeared for a couple of hours.  Later they returned with several other people from the village to come see their American guests.  In the US you just don’t hear of people seeing strangers walking by their house, inviting them in, feeding them a feast, and then leaving 3 total strangers in their house while they go to a party.  It was a wonderful experience in trust and openness.  Their house was comfortable, the food was delicious, and the view was panoramic from their balcony.  Kathleen did happen to find a pistol under her pillow in their guest room but we just put it under the bed for the night and returned it when we left.  
Our hosts Abdullah and his wife
The next four days was spent hiking up steep hillsides, along cliffs, across plateaus, and down canyons.  On several parts of Section 4 we had to walk up a functioning irrigation canal with water rushing around our feet.  Since it was a cliff on either side of the ditch there was nowhere else to go.  
Just another day on the trail         
Each day we would pass apple orchards and being Fall it was harvest time.  We were constantly being offered apples (or pears further south) along the trail.  We learned to be careful around herds of goats and sheep.  
Goats always meant dogs         

Before we would pass by the herd, we would try to make sure we knew which way the trail went because a lot of these herds are guarded by mean ass dogs.  The kind of dog that would not think twice about sinking their teeth into your leg.  We always wanted to know which direction to retreat in.  Trekking poles became an essential defense and we also (re)learned that in most of the world dogs know what a rock is so as soon as you pick one up they will back off.  By the time Amal left us we had hiked from the Sunni region into the Christian areas and it was like we had walked into a new country.  We would hear church bells instead of the call to prayer.  Alcohol became available in the stores and restaurants and the villages in general were obviously richer.  When we got to the town of Bcharre it was time to say good by to Amal since she had to return to Seattle.  Amal had been making things easy with her ability to speak Arabic so it was time for us to start relying on ourselves again.  Luckily in the Christian areas more people speak some English and we have gotten good with all our traveling at sign language with a smile.

     On the day Amal left we first starting hearing reports of the Revolution beginning.  The first night of the protests were rough with 2 people dying and 60 police being injured.  After that though the crowds got too big and too widespread throughout the country so the security services backed off.  Huge crowds of people gathered in all the major cities and roads across the country were blocked.  Amal had to catch a flight but managed to get out after our friend Bachar did some automotive acrobatics to get her to the airport the next day.  Lebanon has 13 sects but the major political parties are Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Christian.  In the past Lebanon has been torn apart by these factions struggling for power and there was a civil war that destroyed large part of Beirut and the country between 1975 and 1990 with 120,000 people dying.  Politics there is messy and a balancing act.  The beauty of this Revolution was that people from all sects came out as just Lebanese united against the corruption that has afflicted their country.  Politicians from every party have been skimming money while taxing the Lebanese and they finally said “Enough!”.  No party flags were seen, only the flags of the Lebanese Army.  At the protests were every sect, young and old, middle class and poor.  Many Lebanese told us that they had never been as proud of their country as during these weeks and that this felt like it was finally closing the door on the civil war.  All of this was televised.  All the major media outlets in Lebanon are controlled by 12 families so each channel had its own agenda they were pushing.  There would be split screens between 6 or 8 different cities with people being interviewed and telling their stories.  It was like Lebanon was having a cathartic conversation with itself.  
Typical TV screen this month    
These protests continued the entire time we were on the trail and continued after we left.  We have no idea how this will all turn out.  It is the Middle East and there are powerful forces at work that have a lot at stake so it could go all sorts of ways but at least while we were there we were able to witness the amazing power of the peoples voice united. 

     In the meantime, while the protests were going on, we continued to walk.  All the chaos and excitement were in the coastal cities and the mountain villages were quiet so it was a good place to be.  We would check the internet news when we had wifi and everyone in Lebanon was watching TV constantly so we were able to keep an eye on developments.  The next 11 days we were on our own.  We walked through the Christian areas and progressed into the Druze areas.  Lebanon in ancient times used to be covered with extensive cedar forests.  Most of that is gone now but there are still some cool cedar reserves that we walked through.  The cool forest was always a refreshing change from the more exposed areas we often were hiking in.  The Ehden Cedar Reserve and the Tannourine Reserve were two of our favorites.  
Ehden Cedar Reserve                
Tannourine Cedars Reserve      
Much of the trail was easy hiking but there often sections labeled as “Delicate Passage” on the GPS which meant technical section.  Often there would be chains bolted into the cliff side in these areas as protection from falling off.  
Delicate Passage irrigation ditch
We learned that some of the roughest trail was when it would traverse across hillsides.  This would often follow old or active irrigation ditches that had drop-offs to the side or would be overgrown and difficult footing.  It was also during this second week that the excellent but very hot weather we had the first week turned into cloudy days with occasional rain and thunderstorms.  There were several days where we had to hustle to get across ridgelines quickly to avoid lightning and we got soaking wet on two days.  
Storm clouds rolling in            
It was on one of these ridgelines that we had our worst dog attack of the trip when we got attacked simultaneously by 3 dogs.  Kathleen had to go back to back and fight them off with our poles.  We were able to back them up enough to gather rocks and that drove them away a bit further.  We slowly were able to back away out of their territory but they followed us a long way and then sat on the top of the ridge watching us until we were out of sight. 

It was also on this week that hunting season officially began and the shooting we had been hearing every day escalated into a semi-constant pop pop pop of shotguns going off.  We joked that if a civil war started again we wouldn’t be able to tell from the amount of gunfire though there is a distinct difference in the sound of a shotgun compared to a pistol or rifle.  The Lebanese were hunting songbirds which the eat and consider a delicacy.  Since they are shooting bird shot the range is very close and we didn’t worry too much initially.  We started to call the hunters “Lebanese bears” as we would sing and talk loudly when we could hear the gunshots nearby but not see where the people were.  We learned that if we saw a car slowly driving around the mountain roads there would usually be guns sticking out of the windows.  The hunters were often friendly and would stop and chat.  Even with the precautions we were taking Kathleen was hit by buckshot twice on the same day when we were hiking Section 13.  The first time when two guys were trying to shoot a bird out of a tree right next to us.  We still aren’t sure if it was buckshot or part of the tree that stung her.  Later that afternoon a blast came out of a cornfield and again stung Kathleen on the arm.  Neither time was it close enough to penetrate clothes or skin but it stung.  From then on we started to wear our sunglasses even when it was cloudy as eye protection.  According to the Lebanese though, unless there is blood you really haven't been shot.  
Shotguns and sheesha (and whisky)

     The final sections of the trail we had our Lebanese friend Bachar help us.  He has supported trail runners trying to set speed attempts in the past and knows the trail.  He provided car support and hiked parts of the trail with us as he was looking for a reason to get out of Beirut.  It was nice to have a cold drink available at various points of the day depending on how often the trail crossed a road.  He was also a HUGE help in getting the security passes that allowed us to go into the southern restricted regions near the Israeli border.  With the revolution going on this ended up being more of a hassle than usual.  We had multiple phone calls with Lebanese Military Intelligence and also had to use our contacts at the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association to get the pass.  Rule #1 of Knucklehead Adventure Tours is “Don’t be an international incident.”  Two obvious foreigners with a GPS in one hand and a camera taking pictures of everything in the other without a pass was a good way to get arrested as spies.  Of course, once we had the pass, we never came across a military checkpoint that wanted to see it.  The weather the last week went to pleasant sunny days with that Fall crisp in the air.  Perfect hiking weather.  
Bachar and the support vehicle    

     We finished the 27 sections of trail in 22 days with one day delay when we were getting the security passes.  We finished early enough on the last day that we were able to drive to Beirut in time for the big protests that were happening that Sunday night.  Bachar wanted us to see what the Revolution looked like first hand.  The crowds were large and extended over several blocks.  It seemed very safe as families had brought their little children, there were elderly people walking around, and we even saw a couple of people in wheelchairs.  There were trucks with sound systems on them scattered around the area.  People would sing songs and were literally dancing in the streets.  Lebanese flags were everywhere.  Bachar showed us a secret way into an old theatre that is still partially destroyed from the civil war and we were able to get a ring side seat of the festivities from the roof.  A guy from Tripoli has become famous as the DJ of the Revolution.  He spins records and raps and the whole crowd acts more like a rave than a demonstration when he is playing.  We heard an interview with him and he alternates between more angry revolutionary type songs and then a fun dance song to keep the mood light.  Several people that night were very curious about what we thought of Lebanon and to tell us what they thought about the Revolution.  A night to remember.  
Lebanese flags everywhere     
Flares being lit in the crowd    
Dancing in the streets               

     A couple of days of recovery in Beirut and then we did a quick trip back to the mountains to summit the highest peak in Lebanon, Qurnat as Sawda (Black Peak).  
Summit of Qurnat as Sawda   

We were fortunate to be accompanied by Bachar and his friend Avedis Kalpaklian who is the top Lebanese mountaineer currently trying to summit all of the 8000 meter peaks in the world.  From the top you can see Syria, the Mediterranean, and on a very clear day even Cyprus.  A fitting ending for our time in Lebanon.  Then after 5 weeks it was finally time to move on and head to our next chapter:  India.

     Lebanon made a really strong and positive impression on us.  With so much of the world to see we often don’t consider repeating countries but both of us feel that we have not seen the last of Lebanon.  If you are interested in doing the Lebanon Mountain Trail don’t hesitate to contact us.  It is an amazing trail and we encourage people to go an explore Lebanon.  The trail is an amazing way to get to know the country. 

Monday, October 21, 2019

Maa Iran Doostim (We are friends of Iran)

     A couple weeks ago, we left Iran after our third visit in the last 2 years.  This time we invited 6 of our friends to go with us and it seems like there are now 6 more fans of Iran that will go back to the United States and tell people what the true face of Iran is.  The group consisted of both old friends and some new ones and ended up being a great mix of people.  Like our first time, this trip was a combination of mountains and nature mixed with culture and sightseeing.  
8 Americans in Iran                          

     The first couple of days were a little nerve wracking with the news.  As we flew into Tehran is when the oil refineries blew up in Saudia Arabia.  Our cell phones were full of news as Trump threatened that America was “locked and loaded!”  While we were worried it didn’t seem to phase the Iranians a bit.  There was no rushing to the stores to stock up on supplies and no one really seemed to care.  Over the last 40 years they have seen this sort of thing multiple times and actually went through a horrific war with Iraq in the 80s so they just took it all in stride.  Most Iranians think that Trump is a paper tiger who speaks loudly but carries a small stick.  After a week or so the news mellowed out after it became apparent that neither the US or Saudia Arabia was going to risk a full-blown war.  
Normal shopping day at the bazaar

    We spent the first week hiking in the Alborz mountains.  Tochal is a ski area that is on the mountain just on the north edge of Tehran and is 13,005’ high so we spent the first 2 days climbing this peak to acclimate.  There are shelters/hotels on the mountain so we did not have to camp or really rough it in any way.  That first night we had a perfect view looking over the lights of Tehran.  
Lights of Tehran at sunset              
In the spring the hillside is green and covered in flowers but this time of year all the vegetation was dry and brown.  In the winter there is a ski area with the 2nd longest gondola in the world (over 4 ½ miles long).  People are surprised to find out that there are 25 ski areas in Iran.  
Tochal ski area gondola                 
The first day had some steep rocky sections as the trail went up a canyon past some waterfalls and the second day was just high-altitude hillside.  
Steep rocky trail                                             
and waterfalls                                                 
           Dry upper Tochal mountain                     There was a weird moment at the start of the hike where everyone’s GPS went haywire and started telling us we were going a mile every 2 minutes or so.  It didn’t matter what kind of GPS it was (2 different brands of GPS watch and a hand held GPS).  We wondered if there was some sort of electronic warfare going on.  By the end of the day many of us were feeling pretty sun baked and dehydrated.  On the summit of Tochal we met the champion Iranian SkyRunner Iman Koushki who holds the speed record up Damavand (2 hr 41min), the highest volcano in Asia at 18,403’ which was our next project.  Iman had some of his coaching clients with him that included a young guy and 2 girls.  Turned out Kathleen and her had the same running shoes (Hoka Speedgoats) so they got excited about that.  
Iman Koushki on left                

     After a rest day between mountains we then spent the next 2 days getting up and down Damavand.  Kathleen and I had attempted a ski descent of this mountain on our first trip but the weather did not cooperate.  This time the weather was perfect.  Gorgeous sunny days and even though at that altitude it is always below freezing the lack of wind and sun made it very pleasant days to climb.  The mayor of the town at the base of the mountain (Rineh) came to see us off and wish us luck.  
Mayor of Rineh                      
Slow and steady was the name of the game that day and it allowed everyone to get to the summit.  Some of us felt the altitude more than others but it turned out that out of a dozen attempts by Iran Doostan groups (our tour company) that year we were the only team to get everyone to the summit.  It was the weekend so there were a lot of Iranians but we only saw one other foreigner, a Dutch guy.   We made many more friends on the summit and Kathleen and I even had a friend (Babak) we met on our first trip drive out from Tehran and then run up the mountain to find us.  
Mount Damavand (18,403')          
Halfway up with a pile of Iranians
Sulphur covered summit cone       
On summit with our friend Babak

     We all went to the Caspian Sea after this.  Kathleen and I had been there on our first trip and thought it worthwhile to visit but that time we went there from Dizin which was closer.  From Damavand the quickest way was back to Tehran and around the mountains from the south.  This ended up being more driving and traffic which in hindsight might not have been the best use of time.
Stormy Caspian Sea                   
We got to see an ancient castle/fortress called Rudkhan which was cool and the highlight of this area.
Rudkhan Castle                         

We also visited a village, Masouleh, that people have lived in for over 1000 years.  It is a stepped village where one persons porch is the roof of the house in front of it.  This is in an area of heavily forested hills and provided a stark contrast to the desert we would soon be in.  
Masouleh Stepped Village        
In the valley below there were rice paddies, tea plantations and multiple rivers.  This area was on the rainy side of the Alborz mountains, much like Seattle is with the Cascades.  
Iran is more than desert           
One of the cultural highlights happened while we were here.  We went to a restaurant that was next to our hotel for dinner and it turned out there was an Iranian birthday party going on.  They were a group of retired teachers from Shiraz on vacation. We were invited to join and made many new friends that night and learned some interesting things about Iran.  Anyone who had a September birthday (Kathleen, Amanda, Rich) was included in their celebration. 
Iranian/American joint birthday

     After the Caspian Sea we all flew south to Shiraz and the classic tourist route of Shiraz, Persopolis, Yazd, Esfahan, and Kashan.  This ends up being a lot of mosques, fancy houses, palaces, and gardens.  
Naranjestan Qavan, Shiraz          
Naqsh-e Rostam Tombs              
Tomb of Cyrus, Persargadae       
Wind catchers, Yazd                    
Towers of Silence, Yazd              
Zorastorian flame from 470A.D.
Si-o-seh Pol (bridge), Esfahan    
Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Esfahan  

By the end of 6 days of cramming a lot of sights in they all start to blur together.  Everyone was pretty mosqued out, especially Kathleen and I who had seen most of these before.  Yazd was a new city for us which is a cool ancient town.  The old city seems like it is from a different world at times.  Also seeing this many towns in this short of period meant a lot of time being driven in our bus.  Iran is the 16th largest country in the world so there are large stretches of road between the cities.  At least our bus was comfortable.  am
Excellent driver Amin                
Depending on the town and how conservative it was, people would get up in the morning and go for a jog.  In the parks there would be Iranians working out also – jogging, exercise classes, calisthenics, volleyball, and speed walking.  The women still have to be covered so long pants, sleeves, and head covering are mandatory.  One of our group would wear shorts and didn’t have any problems but one time when Kathleen was running, she was stopped by the Morality Police.  There is a special police force in Iran that enforces the Islamic rules.  Despite having her hair covered and long pants/sleeves she apparently had too much of her neck exposed.  We were stopped and politely told that this was inappropriate and that it needed to be fixed.  
Coed Iranian running club      
Another fascinating incident saw that says a lot about Iran was an attempted purse snatching while in Shiraz.  Iran is listed as one of the safest countries to travel (except by the US government) and is considered to be safer than Europe.  The biggest risk actually is riding in a car or crossing the street.   Purse snatching or pickpocketing is the biggest threat.  While in Shiraz from a restaurant window we witnessed an attempted purse snatching.  The lady held on to her bag and yelled.  Within 30 seconds a dozen Iranian men had tackled the guy.  By the time the police arrived the crowd had grown to about 50 people and they had beat him up a bit.  The cops had to rescue the guy.  We had been told that if you ever have a problem just to yell and make noise and people will come help and this very much turned out to be true.

     After 16 days everyone flew home.  Kathleen and I stayed an extra 1 ½ weeks to explore a new part of Iran that we hadn’t seen.  We flew to Kashan in southeast Iran.  We explored there and the city of Bam where there is a huge citadel though much of the city and ruins was destroyed in a massive earthquake in 2003 that killed over 26,000 people in the town.  
Bam Citadel                    
Ruins of Bam                  
We then spent two days exploring the Lut desert.  There is an area called the Kalouts where the sandstone has been eroded by wind and water into fantastic formations.  It reminded us of parts of Utah or Arizona but was also unique in its own right.  We were able to run in the desert in the morning.  By mid-morning it became incredibly hot there with temperatures well over 100F.  In the middle of the desert the surface of the sand has been measured at 159F in the summer.  It is the hottest place on earth.  The owner of the ecolodge we stayed at told us that he has cooked eggs by just leaving them in the sun but that next summer he wants to try cooking an entire chicken.  Early morning, late afternoon, and night time was when you could do something.  In the afternoon we would siesta and hide out in the air conditioning. 
Kalouts, Lut Desert                  
Lut PanBorama                         
Breakfast with a view               
Remnants of last springs floods

    Our last days were in Mashhad which is the holiest city for Shia Islam outside Mecca/Medina in Saudi Arabia.  There is a huge shrine there and the Islamic Republic government has put a lot of money into this city so it was very modern with a lot of construction going on.  We also spent a night in another ancient village called Kang where people have lived for over 2000 years. 
Kang reminded us of Nepal in ways

     Once again, we were met with 100% hospitality and generosity on this trip.  The Iranian people are fascinated to meet Americans and we have never come across any hostility even when talking to police, army men, clerics, and religious men.  Everyone is glad we are visiting their country and welcomes us.  While many people do not support the American government, it is one of the most pro-American countries we have ever visited.  If you get a chance to visit Iran we highly recommend it.  It is a fascinating and confusing country that proves that government and the people often have nothing to do with each other.