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.  
Waterfalls                                       
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 www.lebanontrail.org 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. 

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