Monday, October 27, 2008

Weekend Outing II

Sunday we went hiking in Hasbaya, a UN controlled area in the far southeast of the country. We had to submit copies of our passports in advance.
Syria to the east, Palestine (Israel, on your map) to the west, Malaysian and India UNIFIL troop encampment across the way. Rather a long ride to get here--more than two hours from Beirut.

And a fairly long hike--five hours--along the Lebanon Mountain Trail, the 200+ kilometer trail running pretty much the length of the country. Here is an LMT trail marker.

We passed pomegranate trees, cactus fruit, grapes, quince, persimmons trees with fruit so large you could barely fit them in your hand, and lots of olive trees along the way. It started to rain as we reached the persimmon tree. What to do but stand there under the tree, eating persimmons. Here is friend Buchara, searching for some good ones.

The land here is a little dryer, a little less steep, less green than in the north. There is a statue of St. George slaying the dragon, next to his footsteps supposedly preserved in the stone.
In Beittedine castle just yesterday we had seen "St. George" standing above the dragon with a decidedly Muslim headdress. We will have to research that a bit.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Weekend outing I

Saturday we went to Saida (Sidon in English) in the south and to Beiteddine Palace in the Shouf mountains, with two elemenetary school teacher friends. We had wanted to rent a car, but a one day rental is hard to find, so we went the car and driver route. Salim ferried us around in his US-made minivan.

Saida is about 30 minutes' drive south of Beirut. We visited the very nice souk (= bazaar, market) there, and the beautifully done soap museum. Soap used to be made from ash and olive oil and laurel, and handmade soap with can still be bought by the kilo in Lebanese grocery stores. Here is a rack of drying bars.

After the museum we stopped for coffee and "white coffee"--hot water with orange bloosom essence. Well, the teachers all went caf--I went floral. The orange essence was distilled on site.

Then we drove to Beiteddine in the Shouf mountains, Druze country. The palace was built in 1788--not considered old in these parts. But it was designed by Italian architects and has lovely Ottoman touches. And it houses the best collection of Byzantine mosaics perhaps in the world--better than we have seen in museums dedicated to the mosaics in both Cyrus and Syria. Better--well, they are all amazing! There are lots here, and very well preserved--below is a photo of a smaller one. They were unearthed in 1982 in the middle of the Civil War, in an area under control of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who had them taken to Beiteddine to preserve them out of harm's way. Well done!

Photos show a palace doorway, and one of the rooms in the hamam (bath) in the palace.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The weather is lovely now

High 70s, a little breeze. Persimmons are plentiful and fabulous, soft and squishy--definitely a standing over the sink, swooning type of experience. And pomegranates are in all the fruit stalls--mostly they are not red, but green with rose highlights.
And we don’t have mosquitoes this year, at least yet. No rain to speak of, only once since last Spring actually! I think they have had some in the mountains.

There were lights on the main shopping street (Hamra) near us, celebrating Eid.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Excellent adventure

Tom got several days off for Eid al Fitr (end of Ramadan), so we picked a spot on the map of Lebanon that we hadn’t visited (getting harder), found a hotel on the “cottage inns of Lebanon” website, and booked a rental car. The destination was Hermel, in the far north east, across the mountains and up the Bekaa Valley, in an area little visited by tourists.

Tom did a great job of driving here for the first time, and there was much joy at being able to stop anywhere we pleased and wander at will. So, we made a lot of stops on the way to Hermel .

First was the mouth of a river just outside the city, where various conquering armies of the ages have carved inscriptions into the steep sides of the gorge. They include those from Nebuchadnezzar II, the Roman Emperor Caracalla, and various French generals. Most are difficult to see--hence no photos here.

We headed away from the coast and into the hills. Next stop was for a coffee and a manouche “cocktail” (fresh cooked flat bread with thyme mixture and cheese). Thus fortified, we continued into the mountains.

Next were the ruins of Fakra. There is a tower with an inscription in Greek, dating from 43 AD dedicated to Emperor Tiberius Claudius, but the tower predates it. Not a whole lot to see, but wow anyway.

Next a quick peek at a natural bridge:

Over the mountains and into the northern Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold. Every male child we pass seems to have a realistic looking toy gun. We ask for directions several times and people are very nice. T stops to get a coffee, but the store sells only coffee in bags. The store keeper invites us to her house for a cup!

Next stop, the Hermel pyramid, a 27 meter (88 ½ feet) high tower built in 175 BC, in the middle of nowhere.

The area reminds me of Ellensburg, the Manastash. Brown rolling hills with scrubby bits of vegetation, and then, hidden in a low valley, a narrow, lush green belt and the Orontes River (Nahr al Assi in Arabic).

Going through a small town we get briefly stuck behind a walking wedding party that filled the street.

We had to ask for directions to the hotel several more times--each time we were greeted with a big smiles and helpful directions. With no street names and very few signs, finding it was a challenge. We knew the hotel was at a waterfall; at one point we were at the right waterfall but on the wrong side of the river. But we made it, and found ourselves the only guests there.

The hotel’s restaurant is on the river at the base of some lovely waterfalls, about 60 feet wide and dropping about 20 feet (see photos). The room is basic but comfortable, and though we have no cell phone reception here in the river valley, there is satellite TV with a bazillion (400) channels, including Qatar 1, BBC Arabic, Turkmenistan TV, Dubai Sports 2, Spacetoon, MBC Persia, Libya Educational, a Russian station in English, Nickelodeon in Arabic, and lots of others beginning with “Al something”. We catch some of the VP debate on Kurdistan TV… The second night we watch the original Spiderman on TV--they have edited out the two kisses!

Photo is us at breakfast

RAFTING! Tom talked me into it--seeing the falls next to the hotel where the trip would end made the prospect all too real. But it was great fun, and the falls were definitely the grand finale. Most of the trip was paddling along the lovely, quiet river, startling the occasional fisherman and stopping to pick berries or at one point rescue a floating watermelon… Some kind soul at the hotel got some great pictures of us going over the falls.

We also went to Deir Mar Maroun, an old 3 storey cave monastery carved into a hillside above the Orontes. It had blackened ceilings from years of cooking fires. We walked along the River to try to get to the source of the Orontes. We know we will see the other end of the River in Antakya (Antioch) in Turkey on our Christmas trip, and thought it would be way cool to see both ends. We found a clear blue pool and jet of water seeming to emerge for sheer rock. A man showed us a magical place nearby, where a shelter has been made of reeds lining the river bank.

Dinner both nights we were the only ones there… There had been a few other customers during the day but by 7 pm we were alone. Yet all the traditional mezze dishes were available, along with fresh trout (a real rarity in Lebanon). The owner sat with us for an arak for a few minutes.

The stars were fabulous--so unlike Beirut.

We set out the next morning on the last phase of the adventure, across the Bekaa and back over the mountains by a different, not well traveled route that would hopefully get us to the cedars and back to Beirut. After a number of false starts we locate the road (no signs!). Winding, climbing, spectacular scenery, few guard rails, some sections with big potholes, all with thankfully very little traffic. An odd sight: a flotilla of Harley Davidsons, dozens and dozens of them, pass us by. We later learn it is a 3 day Middle East tour that began in Beirut.

We take the time to visit the Khalil Gibran museum in his hometown of Bcharre. We wind our way along toward Beirut, through the ski areas and along the spectacular Qadisha Valley.

The next day we will be back up in this area for a hike!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Page 6 news (in a 10 page paper)

Two headlines:
De-Mining Team Clears 87,000 square meters of land
Israel Buying Safer Bomblets to Avoid Repeat of Casualties during Lebanon War*

"...The de-mining team handed over 87,00 square meters of arable lands to their owners in the Marjayoun area after three months of mine clearing operations." There was a ceremony, with the Canadian Ambassador. Apparently Canada had sponsored this bit of de-mining. The article said that "4,596 mines planted by Israeli forces were cleared... Since the 2006 war with Israel 195 civilians have been wounded from unexploded munitions and 20 killed." (these numbers are higher in the other article)

The other article said that "The Israeli army is stocking up on self-destruct cluster bombs ... The army has reduced its purchases of U.S.-made cluster bombs, instead buying Israel-made M-85 cluster bombs, which contain a mechanism to destroy themselves if they fail to explode immediately on impact, according to the report. Cluster munitions spread bomblets over a wide area from a single container."

"The United Nations estimates that a million cluster bombs were dropped on Lebanon by Israel between July 12 and August 14 in 2006 in the conflict with Hizbullah. About 40 percent of these did not explode on impact and are spread among villages and orchards in south of Lebanon.
According to a U.N. report in June, at least 38 people have been killed and 217 wounded by bomblets exploding since the end of the fighting."

"In May, delegates from 111 countries agreed a landmark treaty in Dublin to ban the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions by its signatories. However, the agreement lacked the backing of major producers and stockpilers including Israel, China, India, Pakistan, Russia and the United States."

* is this good news?