Chapter 27: Of Cedars, Ascetics and McMansions

Baz.jpg

After nineteen days of walking, the last of my blackened nails, infected during the first two days of the walk because I wasn’t tying my boots properly, finally drops off.

I’m left with three very pink unprotected toes on my right foot and two on my left, including the big toe on both feet. A couple of the nail-less toes have toughened up sufficiently that they’re no longer irritated by socks, but I make sure to wrap the other three up in cotton pads and gauze. Won’t do to have my now naked toes getting re-infected.

On the plus side, I no longer creak when I get out of bed in the morning and it doesn’t take me quite as long to recover at the end of the day. Having two trekking poles has helped. Stubbornly, I only used one for the first two days and broke the second stick when I used it for the first time on the third day, and so had to buy a replacement when I popped down to Beirut on our day off in Dahr el-Baidar. 

Since then, I’ve been walking with both sticks and it’s done wonders. I admit to being resistant. The poles are a bit awkward until you get a rhythm going and using them felt like a concession to age that ego wouldn’t permit me to make at first. Now, having walked with and without them, I’m a convert. Helpful at keeping you steady while you navigate rocky terrain, proving leverage/stability as you clamber up or down rocks, they’re also cracking during long descents, when they prevent your toes from being hammered against your boot caps…

Perhaps I’d have lost fewer nails if I’d just used them from the start.

Today, I’ve decided to take the morning off. When we arrived in Tannourine the previous evening, we were whisked off from the head of the trail in pick-up trucks to a B&B not far from the cedar reserve, which is a fair way above the town. In the interests of hiking the entire trail, Joseph and some of the others have decided to return to where we left off yesterday and hike back up to the reserve. 

Frankly, I can’t be bothered and and so together with three other hikers, including the only other through-walker, Salam, I trundle off to the reserve to enjoy a morning amongst the cedars, while we wait for the four other walkers to catch up.

I love the reserve in Tannourine, though not as extensive as the one in the Shouf, the topography here is more charming. Perhaps because it is hemmed in on either side by the hilly landscape, as you wind up and down the trails that run amongst the towering trees, it’s possible to imagine that this is not just some enchanted grove and that beyond the reserve’s borders, the ancient woodlands that once covered these mountains still extend towards infinity.

When the walkers eventually arrive two hours later than anticipated, Salam’s husband Alfred looks exhausted. To my surprise, Joseph, who has been requesting regular updates about the progress of my blackening toenails, tells me that I should consider skipping the afternoon walk too, as the trail will be tough on my toes. I tell him that I'll think about it but when I turn up ready to go after a quick lunch, I think he's surprised, and possibly a little impressed. 

With Barbie gone - back to her all-pink beach house, no doubt - we’ve been joined by Sami, an older and somewhat severe man in his late 60’s, who keeps his own company and prefers to maintain a slower pace, and so I find that for the afternoon, I'm walking in the lead, rather than lagging behind. 

The climb out of the reserve is steep but not impossible and after about an hour, we reach the highlands of Jabal Mar Semaan, a mountain named after the church on top of it that is dedicated to the 5th Century anchorite, Semaan al-Almoudi. Though the view is not especially memorable – at least not yet - the terrain is so high and the vista so open that it is only fitting the mountain be named after a Syriac ascetic who spent the last 37 years of his life living on top of a series of old Roman columns. 

Though he began modestly - his first perch was just 3 metres off the ground - Semaan’s daring grew and his last perch, on which he died, was 15 metres off the ground, which ensured that he was exposed to the full rigors of a northern Syrian climate; sun, rain, dust, wind and snow. Known in English as Simeon Stylite, the hermit originally took to a pillar to escape the people who flocked to him for advice. The strategy backfired, somewhat as the sight of an ascetic atop a pillar began to draw the curious, as well as the Christian. As the crowds grew, he was forced to find ever taller columns, which only brought in larger crowds. The higher he rose, the smaller his living space grew. In the end, Semaan lived on a platform less than a metre square, his food and water hoisted up to him in a bucket, his bodily wastes similarly hoisted down. A low balustrade prevented him from rolling off when he slept, which apparently wasn’t very much of the time. 

Even perched 15 metres above the ground, he couldn’t entirely escape and eventually, he began to give afternoon sermons to gain himself peace for the rest of the day. Despite this flaw, Semaan’s fame inspired copycats. Over the course of the next couple of centuries, Stylites popped up on columns, some purpose built, all over the Levant and Greece, and the trend even made it to the much chillier wastes of Orthodox Russia, where freezing on top of a column apparently remained in vogue until the 15th Century, which probably says as much about Russian sensibility as it does about Russian devotion.

Even in places where the climate was more benign, some Stylites felt it wasn’t sufficiently mortifying to sit on a column, and so stood upright instead. One such, Saint Alypius of Paphlagonia, a region on what is now Turkey’s Black Sea Coast, stood for 53 years, even sleeping upright and when he was no longer able to stand, he chose to remain aloft and lay on one side for another 14 years until he eventually died. I suspect that this desire to get high was in some ways metaphorical, as well as literal. isolation and self-abnegation have been used as universal tools to unlock the metaphysical, which makes me wonder how many of the 53 years Alypius spent up, he spent tripping.

Of course, a desire to escape the madding crowds probably factored into the decision to take to a pillar. No stranger to misanthropy myself, I can see the appeal of removing oneself from the world - especially one in which it now seems likely that however briefly, Boris Johnson may become Prime Minister. Though were I to take to column one day, I’d plan to have a larger and better sheltered platform, either located much, much further from people, or else properly sound-proofed. And with excellent wifi.

We wend our way across the hillside along goat tracks. The going is good, if a bit slippery at times, both as a result of the rocky terrain and the profusion of gurgling snowmelt springs that have turned stretches of the trail into deep pools of icy water and expanses of sticky mud.

For a while, I lose the track. I’m quite a bit ahead of the guides and the blazing here has either been obscured or else has faded, but after a bit of a scout, I find the signs again and follow the trail around the mountain, where the nondescript view abruptly gives way to a jaw-dropping panorama of the Qannoubine Valley below us, and to the right, the bowl of snow-streaked mountains that wrap around the famous grove of ancient cedars up at Al Arz. 

On this side of the mountain, rivulets of water race down the slopes from patches of snow above us, making vast meltwater pools along the trail. A few hundred metres on, we come to a long, dusty finger of snow that runs all the way down to trail. Gleefully, for it is quite hot, I scoop up a handful of glittering ice crystals, and plop it on my hat. Though now I have my ersatz A/C back, I find it's less needed, as we’ve risen high enough that the temperature has fallen quite sharply, sun now obscure by high altitude clouds.

As we begin another long climb, we pass by new construction of some kind. There’s no road nearby, so I can only hope it's for agricultural terraces rather than a building, for once one of those appears, others inevitably and rapidly, proliferate, as the ‘development’ of the road that rises up from Jounieh to Harissa demonstrates so depressingly.

On the mountains behind Al Arz, I notice a series of high-altitude terraces, covered in lines of green fuzz. The trees are far too high up to be fruit-bearing, and Salam later tells me that they are cedar saplings, part of the reforestation project that aims to link the grove at Al Arz with the reserve at Tannourine. Passing a massive reservoir, by far the largest we've seen along the entire trail so far, we slowly rise upwards to about the 1900-metre mark, not high enough to see over the mountains on the far side of the valley, but enough to feel like we are alone in the world. 

Lebanon is a small, and quite crowded country, the majority of its four or (if you count the Syrian refugees) six million inhabitants are squeezed into the narrow coastal plains and increasingly wash up into the lower reaches of Mount Lebanon. This means that the impression most visitors, and indeed residents get, is of a single strip city that with a few gaps here or there, runs almost from the Syrian to the Israeli border. 

As development follows the roads, even as you drive up to the ski resorts at Faraya for example, you never entirely feel that you’ve left the city behind. But get off the roads, or look out of the window as you fly from Beirut over the mountains heading east, and you realise just how much of the country (thankfully) still remains untouched.

It is these moments of boundlessness that I am finding so rejuvenating. Even when the trail isn’t particularly beautiful, just being outdoors and alone, far enough from ‘civilisation’ to ignore it, is an intoxicating experience, so blissful that at times, it is almost overwhelming. For here, in these hills that are forever in view from the bustling coast below, another world somehow still lives on, one that runs on a different clock. Even now, as metastasising villages and holiday resorts gobble up wild hillsides that were still virgin when I first arrived, paving over raw beauty in a tsunami of shisha bars playing hishik bishik music, mini-malls and fast food joints, ugly apartments and litter-lined roads, a culturally richer and infinitely more interesting, not to mention breathtakingly beautiful Lebanon survives, a country that appears have no connection with the one below.

The red tiled roofs of Hasroun, the village next to where we'll be spending the next two nights, for as Day 20 approaches, we have another day of liberty to hand, come into sight far below us. It’s become quite chilly and so I scrape the remaining snow off my cap, wishing I'd brought a light vest of some kind, but soon enough, we begin our winding, tortuous descent and I quickly shrug off the cold. 

As we drop down, we end up walking through apple orchards and for the first time, I am able to smell their scent. Soft petals dance on the breeze and skitter across the trail in swirls of white, reminding me of Japan at the end of cherry blossom season, when the wind blows the blossoms off the trees, creating sakura-fubuki, brief ‘snowstorms’ of pink petals, and deep, downy drifts of fallen flowers.

For the most part, the descent is easy, although the last half takes us onto tarmac. It seems the farm road here has been ‘improved’. Just on the outskirts of Hasroun, we pass through a field dotted with wild tulips, which I had no idea were native to Lebanon. Joseph and Robin talk animatedly about what they’re looking forward to eating later and my stomach growls in sympathy.

On the edge of Haroun, we walk past an unfinished house that is large enough to make the most egregious American McMansion look like a studio in Ikebukuro. 

Judging by the supersized portico, forest of faux Corinthian columns and massive statue niches on the road, it has been modelled after a Roman temple but looking at it, it is difficult to imagine how this unfinished monument to overweening self-regard could ever become a home. Even by nouveau standards, it is so wildly out of proportion with its surroundings that it is probably visible from space. This is not some cosy familial retreat, but rather the shell of some Las Vegas casino or Bugis Street brothel, Pablo Escobar’s Lebanese hideaway, Hef’s second Playboy Mansion. 

It is every bit as inconspicuous as it is understated, and as we pause to gawk, and giggle, I wonder what statues the two massive niches on either side of the driveway are destined eventually hold - the owner and his wife, perhaps dressed in togas? As we joke that the owners will probably need to cover the walls with every hamsa in Lebanon just to keep the evil eye at bay, a car drives by, and both the driver and his passenger spit out of the window as they pass the house. 

It’s clear that Bazaoun is wealthy. The homes are beautifully restored, the old Ottoman lion head drinking fountain works and the streets are tidy and neatly planted. Cars tend towards the more expensive and the few people we see wandering around look well-heeled. Apparently it has grown rich on money made in West Africa, where Lebanese emigrants have worked for generations, some of them in less than licit trades, such as blood diamonds. 

Hasroun is pretty but with a massive new highway is being built to link the coast to Bsharreh, a town further up the valley which is home to one of Lebanon’s warlord-politicians, Samir Geagea, it might not be for much longer. We enter Hasroun proper, passing a number of lovely old traditional sandstone villas and then a mansion, the usual red-roofed Italianate beauty but with slight Place des Vosges pretensions, in the form of two beautifully carved, lichen spackled stone lions guarding impressive curlicued iron gates. 

A little further on, we reach Bazaoun, our final destination. Like the cities strung along the coast, these two villages on the lip of the vertiginous Qannoubine Valley have run out of room to expand and now bleed into one another. We only know we’ve passed from one to the other thanks to a large sign stretched across the main road simultaneously wishing us a pleasant onward journey from Hasroun and a warm welcome to Bazaoun. There's an old home right on the boundary line and I joke that maybe the owners can probably sleep in Hasroun and eat in Bazaoun. Robin says that in that case, maybe they pay two municipal taxes, as well. The thought is hilarious and we both laugh. Not at the thought that a single house might be subject to tax in two municipalities, but because as we both know, most Lebanese do their level best to pay no municipal tax anywhere at all.

Tannourine to Bazaoun  Section 9 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Tannourine to Bazaoun

Section 9 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

Chapter 26: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Laq.jpg

In retrospect, much of today is awful, though it begins pleasantly enough.

As we stroll through the sleepy village of Aaqoura, which we learned the day before has more churches than inhabitants, at least during the week, we’re treated to an explanation for the surfeit, which apparently has less to do with devotion than it does deep pockets and family feuds. 

Apparently there are 42, in addition to rock-cut chapels, one of which was originally a Roman temple, that pepper the surrounding hills and the village is known for having one of the oldest churches in the country (and hence, the world), the 4th Century chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul, which was built into a tomb once reserved for Astarte’s priests. It’s also home to a cluster that date back to the Middle Ages, though the process of constant renovation and repainting, as well as the forced whitewashing of many church murals during the Ottoman period, means that few Levantine churches look their actual age. Most of the 42 are more modern though, built in the last 200 years.

Like many Lebanese villages, Aaqoura has a long history of emigration and it was remittances flowing in from far-off lands that first fuelled the church building. As in many other faiths, one way a sinful Christian can guarantee themselves a better place in the afterlife is to build a house of worship; a chapel or, if they have heavier amends to make, a church. 

It isn’t unusual for even the smallest village to have several churches, as Lebanese Christians come in 12 officially recognised denominations, and each prefers to have their own church. Intractable divisions, another feature of Lebanese and particularly Lebanese village life, also helped add houses of the holy as families splintered, building their own church or chapel, so that they didn’t have to bend head (or knee) with cousins, brothers, aunts or grandparents to whom they no longer spoke. Throw in a dash of remittance-fuelled ‘keeping up with the Khourys’ and you have on your hands a boom.

Regardless of their reasons, the church-building Aaqourans of yesteryear have left quite the architectural legacy, everything from the traditional to the contemporary, though I imagine that come Sunday, when its bells start to toll, the village isn’t as quiet as it is this morning.

We’ve barely left the last houses behind when we’re forced to find a new route. The trail has been completely washed away by a winter landslide, when one of the medium-sized water reservoirs that dot the apple orchards above the village to burst its walls.

Our only option is to take to the old road out of town. Not only will this add 4km to what is already going to be quite a long day, but it's mostly tarmac and concrete and very, very vertical. For a while, the gorgeous views back across the village and the massive escarpment that towers above it help but even so, we’re off to a gruelling start.

Once we get back into the apple orchards, the going become more pleasant. Still, we’ve got close to a two-hour climb ahead of us, as we are headed for the outskirts of the ski resort up at Laqlouq, which is 800 metres above Aaqoura. When we finally make it to the top of the mountain, (in my case, without my favourite sunglasses, which I manage to lose somewhere along the way) dusty and sweaty from a relentless uphill slog on what is the hottest day so far, we are treated to a last, utterly breath-taking view over the lovely Afqa Valley, by far my favourite stretch of the trail since we left the Beka’a.  

As we enter the outskirts of Laqlouq, I notice a brightly painted truck parked outside a shuttered house. Lebanon has its own tradition of painted trucks, neither as spectacularly decorated or as large as their South Asian counterparts, but still quite endearing. Most look similar and I’ve often wondered if they’re the work of the same small group of painters. The paintings are a mixture of warnings to keep one’s distance and naive tableaux, the most popular of which are sunsets, the seaside or nature in all its glory, the latter especially ironic when the truck is being used to haul rocks from the illegal quarries eating up the mountains. Most are also emblazoned with supplications to the Divine, perhaps in the hope that however recklessly one drives, God or at least one of their saints, will be flattered into co-piloting. 

Inside the cabin, the religious décor often continues with miniature qu’rans, crosses, amulets, prayer beads, nazars (the blue eye), hamsas (the Hand of Fatima), zulfikars (the sword of Ali ibn Abi Talib, a Shi’ite symbol) and Druze stars, which depending on the driver’s affiliation and fervour, hang from the rear-view mirror and sometimes decorate the dashboard, as well.

Common to them all is a panel painted in the colours of the national flag, complete with a lovely cedar in the centre. Though clearly an expression of vehicular nationalism, as I walk past it today, the panel serves as a subtle reminder that were it not for incredible initiatives like the Shouf Biosphere, which we spent three days walking through earlier, and the Tannourine Reserve, which we will reach in a day’s time, as well as the Million Tree Corridor, which will eventually link the cedar grove of Al Arz with the forest in Tannourine, we would all be that much closer to a future in which, thanks to climate change, pests and reckless environmental degradation, a panel on a painted truck may one day be the only place to see good old Cedrus Libani in its country of origin.

We’ve barely crested when we’re taken on another short climb up a steep, and in my opinion, entirely avoidable hill. Muttering under my breath, I’m momentarily appeased when, as we crest the hill, we’re faced with a glittering expanse of white, a large and very deep drift of snow that has somehow managed to linger. We crunch our way across, occasionally sinking to knee height and crossing the road at the drift’s base, reach the spring at Ain al-Abiad. 

Out of season, winter prematurely over and summer yet to arrive, Laqlouq feels post-apocalyptic, with boarded-up buildings and uncollected rubbish drifting across flyblown streets. We refill our bottles from the spring, the water, fresh from the slopes above, barely a degree or two above freezing. Though it would be difficult to describe the stop as picturesque, it is welcome, and I take the opportunity to wash off the dust and thoroughly soak my hat and t-shirt, to cool off.

As we relax for a while by the spring, Robin trots off and returns with a carrier bag full of snow, which he’s dug out from beneath the icy crust of the drift. He breaks out a bottle of rose syrup and adds a glug to the snow and voilà, we have our first taste of a traditional delight known as Ba'sama.

The syrup, which turns a bright orange when mixed with the snow, is far too sweet for my tastes, but I can imagine that made with Mulberry syrup, or a bit of pomegranate molasses, it might be quite lovely. I notice that everyone else is just as delighted as I am by the experience. Ba'sama is a forgotten treat in these days of refrigeration and ice cream, but there's something quite exciting, renegade almost, about eating and drinking from the wild, and we’ve happily munched our way north, snacking on herbs, fruit and other edible plants on our way. I’m reminded that much as the UK used to import chunks of Canadian lake ice in the 18th and 19th centuries, the snows of Lebanon were once wrapped in straw and shipped from Byblos and Batroun to the imperial courts of Memphis and Thebes, where the Egyptian god-kings used it to keep their honeyed drinks cool. Though the illusion is difficult to maintain when tattered plastic bags and discarded cigarette cartons skitter across the road in the breeze, I do briefly feel like a pharaoh.

Leaving Ain al-Abiad, we walk through a plantation of sickly young cedar saplings that look like they might not last the summer, and then through limestone uplands to reach what until the previous year had been a very old Maronite church. Recently renovated to within an inch of its life, the evocative traces of centuries of devotion have been comprehensively erased, taking with it the building’s erstwhile charm, so that we are left with yet another ancient building that looks like it was built yesterday - a curious irony in one of the longest continually inhabited regions in the world.

We set off towards the stunning sinkhole at Baatara, where a waterfall plunges through a partially collapsed three-layered cavern. The trail to the sinkhole is quite steep and follows a fairly narrow path but after a number of pauses, we get there just before two in the afternoon and after having a quick look - Baatara is one of Lebanon’s natural wonders and I’ve been a million times, but it never fails to impress - I use the opportunity to sprawl beneath nearby trees and have a quick snooze. 

After lunch, the going gets really tricky. We clamber out of the valley the sinkhole lies in along a rocky goat track, which soon leads us into a treacherous, ankle-turning landscape of sharp karstic limestone rocks, over and between which we are forced to scramble. After an hour and a half, during which we barely cover a kilometre, the track finally opens out and descends sharply into a lush, grassy valley. 

As the rest of the group is still picking its way through the limestone maze, we pause to allow them to catch up, enjoying the gentle flicker of the cool breeze across sun-redenned faces and limbs. As I lounge in the flower filled meadow, my eyes are drawn further down the valley to an old Lebanese home or rather, to a new Lebanese home, complete with triple arched mandaloon windows and Marseilles tile roof, which has been built in traditional style. 

Perched on a rocky outcrop, it has the air of a castle, dominating its surroundings as completely as any Crusader, Assassin or Mamluk fortress and that looks quite capable of controlling the valley below it. Joseph later tells us that it belongs to an officer in the Lebanese army. A rather well-paid army officer, judging by its size. 

The rest of the walkers arrive and we set off again through a narrow, plunging river valley. The scenery is stunning but the track is awkward and slippery, and I fall twice, adding to the ma of cuts and bruises spreading across my body.

Having wound our way slowly down to the river, we cross it carefully and then inevitably, begin the steep climb the other side, to emerge in Chatine, another one of those mountain villages that only fill up at the weekend. It’s packed full of lovely old Lebanese homes, a number of which are abandoned and falling apart and as usual, the sight of them gets me to daydreaming about buying one and doing it up, which of course I could, if I had a million or so dollars to spare. Decay, in Lebanon, inevitably comes with an eye-watering a price tag.

One though, a spectacular ruin at the end of a narrow dirt track on the far edge of Chatine, might almost be worth the money. Removed from the rest of the village, it sits in splendid isolation on a spur of land formed as the side valley Chatine occupies joins the main valley that runs up to the town of Tannourine el Faouqa, where we’ll be stopping for the day. Jutting out into the void, the spur commands uninterrupted views out over the steep, thickly forested valleys and up to the snow-capped mountains that rise above Tannourine, the ruined house sailing on a sea of green.

Thankfully, for as we paused briefly in Chatine, there had been dark talk of still having nine kilometres walk ahead, our stop for the night comes into view. All we have to do is wind our way down to the bottom of the valley and then back up the other side, and we’re done, the by now traditional end to the day, which inevitably begin and end with a steep ascent. It’s been a long, hot day and I’m exhausted, but with the pinkish glow of the setting sun on the snowy mountains ahead lighting our way through the deepening dusk, I feel a sudden burst of energy. Today has been endless and I’m grimier than usual. I’m in need of a shower and a nice cool drink, and I can’t wait to free my poor feet from the Iron Maiden embrace of my battered boots.

Aaqoura to Tannourine  Section 10 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Aaqoura to Tannourine

Section 10 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Chapter 25: Young People, These Days!

Sehta.jpg

We take few last photos of Afqa, then slog uphill to the pickup point, passing an ancient Muslim tomb in the field next to a newer church, evidence of the region’s changing demographics over the centuries.

We’re spending the night at a delightful guesthouse run by the Germanos family in the nearby village of Majdel Aakoura , Guita’s Bed and Bloom.

Our hostess greets us old style with trays of sweets and jugs of icy rosewater flavoured lemonade, and as we sprawl in her garden regales us with family history. As the sun sets, the golden light turns the air to treacle, a Lebanese mountain speciality that is especially soothing today as we sprawl on woven straw mats on a lush lawn that is more daisies than grass. Fat bees buzz from flower to flower, occasionally stopping on noses or arms to determine whether we too can be mined for pollen, before realising we’re useless and buzzing on.

The talk turns vaguely political, as we perhaps prompted by a series of recent stand-offs between the Maronite Church and the Shi’ite villagers of nearby Afqa over land ownership, some of the group begin discussing Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria, Assad’s future and the floods of refugees being driven across the border. Already in 2016, the number of arrivals was noticeable, any by the time I left Lebanon in a couple of years later, refugees had added 50% to the country’s population – so numerous were they, that separate queues for Syrians were eventually set up at government offices, embassies and at the airport. 

The evening is too lovely to spend on war talk and when we are summoned to dinner, an unbelievably lavish spread of incredible soups, freshly picked water meadow herb salad and heavenly dumplings in garlicky yoghurt sauce, it turns to more pleasant discussions of the region and its history. Afterwards, Guita, who comes from a princely family and so is a Sheikha, talks a bit about the profound social changes wrought by one of the militias during the civil war, which worked on existing cleavages to exacerbate divides in the region – the after effects of which are still reverberating through the area. Hence the land disputes in Afqa.

A group of walkers decide to spend the night on the roof to better see the stars, which are out in full splendour tonight. I decline and while I do mildly regret my decision later - a night under the stars would have been magnificent - I’m equally glad when I see their bleary eyes the next morning that I didn’t stay up until 4 in the morning carousing. 

We’ve a tough day ahead and after a bouncy high-speed ride in the back of a truck to the start of the trail, which begins by an old summer camp at the foot of the escarpment that towers over the area, we begin the long climb back up to the 1800 metre mark.

Guita has decided to walk with us for part of the way, as like the rest of the mountain, this is land that has belonged to her family for many generations, its purchase funded by the years her ancestors worked in San Salvador. She is very attached to her land, and takes her role as Sheikha quite seriously, so much so, that she's selling a plot of land she has elsewhere in order to be able to keep hold of the land in Majdel. Though it’s obviously good, as Mel Brooks once famously remarked, to be the king, being landed gentry apparently isn’t any easier here than anywhere else, these days. 

We assemble for the start our hike beside a rather jaded donkey, which has clearly seen more hikers than we’ve had hot dinners, then for the next three hours, it's a steady climb, for the most part on pretty decent farm roads. I talk a bit to Doctor Beatrice, who's also a member of the trail’s board of directors and she explains the association’s drive to encourage people to sponsor of segments of trail – a process that involves either donating money or time, as sponsors are responsible for regularly walking their section, to make sure it remains in good condition, paths aren’t overgrown (or abruptly fenced off) and litter is removed. 

I suggest that she use her position to persuade wealthy Lebanese to cough up cash by promising them that as long as they continue to pay for it, their section of the trail can be named after them. I’ve long though that playing on the vanity/ego of Lebanon’s wealthy, who think nothing of dropping $20,000 on a handbag and who build chalets the size of city apartment blocks, is something of a missed opportunity. There are so many projects in Lebanon that languish because the State cannot (or simply will not) fund them, and I’d much rather have a Roman Temple named after Omar Hammoudi or a public park named after Mouna Bseiso than go without. Think of the number of libraries, hospitals and other public facilities that are named after millionaires elsewhere.  

I can tell the good doctoura isn’t particularly impressed, nor does she seem especially keen to keep talking to me now that her message has been delivered, even though she was the one who first struck up conversation, so I take my leave and speed up, passing one of the day-trippers who is now, as he will be for much of the rest of the day, on his phone, doing business deals. I rather wonder why he’s bothered to come along at all.

Even though we’re on a farm road, parts of the walk are quite steep, but the sweeping views more than compensate. We rise up through swathes of twisted juniper, crushing berries under foot, releasing clouds of slightly bitter, resinous perfume. 

A little further on, we pass a spot where Joseph says he discovered a cave that had been sealed at some point in the past, possibly during the civil war, when it may have been used as an arms cache. Perhaps even earlier, as old caches dating back to WWI have been found closer to the coast. 

Winding ever upwards, we finally crest the mountain, where we are rewarded a jaw-dropping view over the villages of Qartaba, Aaqoura and the entire valley all the way down to the coast. We’ll be overnighting in Aaqoura, from here, a pretty swathe of red-roofed houses that washes up the walls of a distant cliff, and we can even make out part tomorrow's trail to the cedar reserve in Tannourine. Briefly, I understand what omniscience feels like. 

We pause for a while, before making our way to the small and curiously prehistoric-looking shrine of Saydet el-Sehta, a low, circular structure made of piled rock, on top of which a large illuminated cross and a statue of Mary gleam whitely against the intense blue of the sky. 

The sun is fierce and its quite windy, so when we stop here for lunch on the concrete terrace, I try to find somewhere sheltered to tuck into my food, which includes some of the dumplings from the night before – the yoghurt sauce warmed by the sun.

Afterwards, I climb on top of the stone structure and stand next to statue to get the best view yet of the villages and the valley below, then I take a short nap under a nearby tree, sunlight dappling my face.

Continuing onwards, we pass through a massive and rather pungent flock of goats, under the watchful gaze of a rather wild-looking guard dog, who wags his tail as he growls, frustrated perhaps because his owner has told him not to bark at us. The plateau undulates gently and as we follow the dips and rises, streaks of dust-covered snow begin to appear. The breeze has gone and it’s quite warm, so I stop periodically to grab handfuls, more ice than snow, to scrub my head and place handfuls on my hat to cool down, much to the collective amusement. The ground here is strewn with stone goat pens, topped with thorny branches, that remind me somewhat of the Neolithic huts of Skara Brae, though these face the (far-off) Mediterranean, rather than the Atlantic.

As we begin our descent, we pass boulders composed entirely from the fossilised remains of marine worms and shellfish. Lebanon is home to some of the richest and most varied marine fossil beds in the world as 100 million years ago, most of the country was under water, its mountains formed when the African and Arabian plates collided with European and Asian plates – a process that politically-speaking, you might argue has been happening ever since.

Lebanon’s geological make-up gives the ‘Lebanon is not Arab’ school solid, if ironic support; for just as some Lebanese insist that they are not Arabs (which technically is correct, at least on the genetic level), the sliver of land that is now Mount Lebanon is not even part of the Arabian plate, which begins with the Beka’a Valley. Perhaps rather unfortunately for them - for there is a degree of racism in the way this particular theory is sometimes presented - tectonically speaking, Lebanon is African.

If you read Wikipedia, it will tell you that the earliest known account of Lebanese fossils is attributed to the Father of Lies, Herodotus himself. That said, as Mireille Gayet, Pierre Abi Saad and Olivier Gaudant point out in their lovely book, Fossils of Lebanon, that claim can’t be verified, for although the Greek historian does discuss fossils in his Histories, he doesn’t make specific reference to Lebanon’s.

As they explain, the earliest verifiable reference was made by Eusebius of Caesarea, the 3rd Century Bishop of Palestine, who in his Armenian Chronicles writes that “I have seen certain fishes, which were found in my lifetime on the highest peaks in Lebanon. They took stones from therefor construction, and discovered many kinds of sea fishes which were held together in the quarry with mud, and as if pickled in brine were preserved until our times, so that the mere sight of them should testify to the truth of Noah’s Flood.”

The sight similarly amazed Louis XI, who was given a fossil of a fish as he departed Sayette, today’s Saida, on his way back to France after the Seventh Crusade. Apparently, it “was the most marvellous in the world, for when a layer of [the stone] was lifted, there was found between the two pieces the form of a fish. The fish was of stone, but lacked nothing in form, eyes, bones, colour, or anything necessary to a living fish.” The description, which appears in de Joinville’s 1248 account Des Saintes Paroles et des Bonnes Actions, goes on to describe le roi as likening the fossil to a Tench, a freshwater fish, proving that while Louis may have been a king, and (if we ignore his zealous expansion of the Inquisition and eradication of the Cathars) possibly a saint (yes, he has been canonised), when it came to smarts, he was rather more lacking.

But back to the walk. The final descent takes ages. As we rattle our way down, I remember walking up this way a few years earlier and remember it being a hellacious climb. Going down isn't much better and hemmed in on either side by sheer rock walls, it’s hot and there’s no view. 

Eventually, we hit tarmac and walk up into Aaqoura, a tiny village that is famous for having 45 churches, practically one per family that used to live there. As we meander into the village, dusty, sweaty and weary, we pass four elderly widows, like elderly widows all around the Mediterranean, dressed completely in black, who are having very jolly coffee on the trellis-shaded terrace outside one of their houses. They invite us over for a cup as we pass, and can't believed we have just walked from Majdel and up and over the mountain to Aaqoura. Clearly, they think we might be missing a few marbles.

“Don’t they know there’s a road now?” the eldest of them stage whispers to her friend, as she surveys us with barely concealed alarm. “Wahiyet ‘aadra, I swear I don’t understand the young these days.”

Afqa to Aaqoura  Section 11 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Afqa to Aaqoura

Section 11 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

Chapter 24: As We Have Always Done

Afqa.jpg

Barbie is bobbing along the track ahead. I suspect Robin may have the hots for her, as I noticed him rubbing her foot as I passed by the lounge on the way to bed the night before. His ministrations obviously worked for today, she’s even pinker and more bouncy than ever.

As we swing around to the opposite side of the valley, our walk at first is uninteresting, as it is fairly flat and takes us mostly through orchards. Up above us, the streaks of snow on the peaks make me think of the whorls of vanilla between the stripes of chocolate on a Cornetto. Rarely have the slopes of Faraya looked so toothsome.

We pass another mazar, or commemorative shrine, this one complete with photos and a statue of Mary on top. It was put up in memory of a young woman who fell off the cliff here. Like the others we’ve seen along the way, public memorials commemorating a private loss, it is an invitation to pause and give thanks that one is still alive.

The view this morning is back across the valley and up at the escarpment we walked along yesterday. It’s nice but not breath-taking, although in places, long plumes of water fall from crevices in the opposing cliff wall, temporary waterfalls that will dry up once the snow has all melted. They are too far away to hear, but further along, a low buzzing fills the air as we pass rows of brightly painted hives, which reminded me of rows of beach huts.

Honey is produced all over the country. It’s made from orange blossom in the south, from cedar and mountain flowers in Mount Lebanon and from pine in the Beka’a - though now that someone in France has trained bees to make honey from cannabis plants, there are parts of the Valley that might want to get in on a more lucrative kind of sweetener.

These bees are feeding off wild thyme and rosemary and it has them buzzing about us. As a face full of stings is not the way I want to start my day, I keep a respectful distance. Even so, I attract a number of curious drones, which crawl on my arms and ears as I crouch to take a photo of the hives with the mountains behind. They seem to be trying to find out if I am salty or sweet, but when I don’t deliver up any pollen, fly off peacefully. 

Curiously, despite the relatively poor state of Lebanon’s environment and especially the widespread use of pesticides, the illicit dumping of toxins and the abundance of cell towers, colony collapse does not appear to have made it to these shores. I make a mental note to ask someone about that later, perhaps Robin, but of course, I forget. 

As we pass near the village of Hrajel, once the site of a large Roman encampment, we peel off up into a small wadi that leads off the main valley, which is a panorama of horizontal lines, created by steep rows of terraces. 

There are a scatter of buildings and from their condition, it seems we’re walking through a fairly poor area, but amazingly, even this nothing of a hamlet has its own tiny church. It barely has room for a pew but does have an absolutely enormous statue of Mar Sharbel outside. 

Complete with black robes and long, white beard, Sharbel is one of a number of Lebanese saints canonised by Rome in recent decades,and was born in one of the highest and most isolated villages in Lebanon, Bkaa Kafra, much further to the north. He’s widely venerated, with statues of him appearing almost as frequently as those of Elijah, who is popular with the Greek Orthodox. Somewhat comically, the statue is almost as large as the church. 

It’s a lovely day and the little wadi is quite beautiful, if dusty. There is a cluster of isolated farmsteads a little further along the track, and I assume the church must be theirs. If the name of the sweet and fast-flowing freshwater spring where we stop at to fill up is any indication, the hamlet is either inhabited by a single family or by people who know each other very, very well, for it is called Ain Ana, a rather unusual name that translates simply as ‘My Spring’. As there is no indication of who the ‘Me’ in question might be, it’s safe to assume this is not something the locals need explaining.

As we reach the end of the wadi, we have a short but steep climb to the plateau above. It’s lush and green and quite lovely, until we start to encounter the tell-tale colourful cartridge casings that indicate hunters frequent the area. As we turn a corner, we stumble onto their ‘camp’, a rotting sofa under a tattered plastic tarp, with piles of rubbish strewn everywhere, empty bottles of booze and hundreds, possibly thousands of spent cartridges on the ground. 

My blood boils. Bird hunting is big across the Middle East, much of it carried out illegally, out of season. Lebanon is a particular offender. It lies along a major migratory route and every year, some gurning idiot posts a picture of his ‘great kills’ on Facebook; tiny dead bodies, and some large ones, laid out on the bonnet of his souped-up BMW - though this happens less frequently now that some of them are being tracked down and prosecuted.

It would be one thing if the birds and other animals were being killed for food, but most of the time it’s for sport. Though how much actual ‘sport’ is involved in sitting on shit-stained sofas, getting hammered and shooting anything that moves, is beyond my comprehension. Hunters claim to love the outdoors and nature, though the condition in which they leave their sites would suggest otherwise. This is such a beautiful spot, but now, like so many others, it has been utterly despoiled. 

Further on, we walk past a shooting range/resort, empty for the season, bullet holes peppering a sign for an organic farm nearby. Talk about scary neighbours. The lodge, which is built completely out of scale to its surroundings, is unfinished and ugly, but does at least have spectacular views and as we come over crest of the mountain, my breath is momentarily taken. The Adonis Valley of old stretches out before us in a magnificent 180 degree panorama. 

Walking on we leave death behind us, and climb up and wind through grassy meadows, sprinkled with wildflowers to an abandoned shepherd's hut. Long and rectangular and made of stone, it has a few small openings for windows and a flat, compressed earth roof. It’s remarkably contemporary. Enlarge the openings and replace the metal window grilles with expanses of sliding glass and this would be the perfect Modernist getaway – further reminder that the mid-century Minimalism of Gropius, Corbusier, Van der Rohe et al was inspired by the simple cubic structures of traditional Middle Eastern architecture.

It appears to be abandoned and I remark to Robin that it would make a rather lovely addition to the Lebanon Mountain Trail. An overnight stop perhaps, or somewhere to enjoy lunch. 

That we do in the grassy meadows next to a small Shi’ite shrine a little further ahead, as the call to prayer echoes around us from the village of Afqa below, an incongruous sound in what is now, with a few exceptions, the solidly Christian uplands. 

We are permitted a short nap and the welcome opportunity to free toes from boots, which is made all the more delicious by the delicate play of light across my face and the rustle of wind through the branches of the apple tree under which I am sprawled.

It’s a short break though, and with several hours still to go, we pack up and continue onwards, entering the top end of the Adonis Valley, proper. The mountains here are covered in juniper, which can grow as high as 2400 metres and may once have grown even higher. Something about the lines of greenery and snow, and the shape of the mountains make it looks as though we are somewhere in the Rockies, or the Dolomites. 

Scrambling up a small hill, Robin points towards the far end of our route, where the top of the massive cave known somewhat disarmingly as the Afqa Grotto, can be seen. We’re here to take a look at a curious Roman inscription carved into a rock on the side of the hill, which is thought to mark the end of something, an ancient municipal boundary of some kind, lost to the passage of time.

The sun is hot and there’s no shade. From the Rockies, we pass into Arizona, as temperatures rise and every footfall creates clouds of dust. The valley won’t be pristine for much longer, as the tell-tale traces of construction suggest, but a few sweaty kilometres later, we arrive at the mouth of grotto and the source of the Ibrahim River, which at this time of year is fat and furious, fed by melting snow. The roar the river makes as it plunges out of the grotto cascading through rocks to a second fall into a deep, deliciously clear pool, is deafening.

I’ve never seen the grotto at this time of year. Afqa has usually been a mid-summer visit; a chance to escape from the heat of the coast, by which time the flow is much less fierce. By late June or July, it’s quite easy to get deep into the grotto and, should the mood take you, walk from this side of Mount Lebanon to the other, where you would emerge in Yammouneh, a pocket valley high above the Beka’a.

Whether that's still possible, I don’t know. In the past though, priests walked underground between the temples to Astarte/Aphrodite on either side of the range; the spectacular one here in Afqa, which attracted pilgrims from all over the Ancient World, and the smaller one on an island in the seasonal lake in Yammouneh, as part of their annual celebrations.

The trip up the Adonis Valley to Afqa was once a major pilgrimage route, and the trek from the coast near the town of Byblos, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, took three days, with feasting along the way. The revelry reached its peak at the temple, infamously the site of ritual prostitution and sacred orgies, after which, the pilgrims returned, sated, and in some cases, pregnant.

The temple marked the site of Adonis’ death. He was killed on the banks of the river by a boar sent variously by a jealous goddess whose advances he had spurned, or by an angry god seeking vengeance on the demi-god that had stolen his consort’s heart. Whoever was responsible, the boar is said to have gored the Most Beautiful Man in the World in his thigh, and as he bled out by the river, his blood turned its water red.

It’s likely an allegory for spring, for amongst other things, Adonis was the god of fertility, propitiated to ensure a good harvest. Each year, then as now, mountain fields fill with bright red anemones known colloquially as the Blood of Adonis and for a few days, the river turns a reddish brown. This is either a result of the first snowmelt dislodging mineral-rich build-up deep inside the grotto, or Afqa honouring the demi-god who died here, depending on whether you grew up reading Shelly or science.

Sadly, there’s not much left of the temple today apart from a rubble-strewn stone platform, though blame for that lies with the Emperor Constantine, who after seeing the Light, ordered it torn down in a vengeful attempt to erase its powerful associations with fertility and sex.  

Unfortunately for old Constantine, his gambit didn’t entirely work. Long after the temple was gone, the people of the valley continued to propitiate Astarte, albeit after a suitably monotheistic makeover, and so when they wished to conceive, Christian women from nearby villages offered up prayers to the Lady of Afqa, while their Shi’ite neighbours instead petitioned The Great Lady. 

In both cases, what they did was exactly the same, the petition solemnised by tying a piece of white fabric to a tree outside the ruins of the temple, exactly as pilgrims to Astarte had done for thousands of years before them. Exactly, in fact, as some women still do today, though whether modern supplicants suspect that Afqa’s original lady was a pagan goddess, is more difficult to say.

Faraya to Afqa  Section 12 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Faraya to Afqa

Section 12 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Chapter 23: Adonis in the Land of Milk and Honey

Faq.jpg

This Sunday, we get off to a slow start. It’s the after-effect of the massive influx of walkers the day before, I think.

Also, we have the other team to say our goodbyes to. Finally, after an age and a half, practically an aeon, we head out of Kfardebian at around 9-ish.

Our core group is now down to a more manageable five, though our numbers will be temporarily increased today by new arrivals; a man who works at the Swiss embassy, a vile American couple, who have just been kicked out of Cairo and who will do nothing but complain about how hideous Lebanon is for the rest of the day, a brassy Lebanese woman and her listless husband, who looks like he’d rather be propping up a bar, and a sour-faced Australian and her Barbie-esque travel-mate - blonde, pink tank top, shorts and sneakers and no day pack. Not even a pink one. I presume she's only with us for the day, especially as she seems to hate walking, but it seems she's going to grace us with her company for the next few days. Joy.

We’re on our way up to Faqra and will be overnighting close to the new reservoir at Chabrouh, below the ski resorts up in Faraya. The trail is easy, but the sky's such a cloudless, deep blue and the sun so strong, that at first, I worry it’s going to be a scorcher. Luckily, there’s a great deal more shade today than we’ve had for a while, and even when we re-emerge into direct sunlight later, we’re blessed with a breeze, so in the end, it isn’t as sweaty as I feared. 

Naturally, we start by walking down to where we first entered Kfardebian. It's almost funny now that we’re going down, to remember how hard it had been to make this climb the day before yesterday. At the bottom, we cut off across the fields, plunging into the cool confines of a tunnel of trees that deposits us in a small pine forest. 

We take a short detour to fill up on water. The spring is dry, to Joseph’s surprise, but then it has been a poor winter, with very little snow. I find myself wondering how soon the government-supplied water at home will get cut off, as has happened most summers for the last four or five years, for precisely this reason.  

As we leave the forest, we begin to climb in earnest. Joseph tells us helpfully that it's going to be hard going and in parts, it is certainly steep, but he's either overstated the difficulty - perhaps to make our new arrivals feel better about being out of breath already - or I'm finally becoming fitter, because it doesn't feel particularly tough. Surprisingly quickly, the ruins of the temple complex at Faqra come into view above us. 

The last one hundred metres up to them are a bit of a scrabble though, mostly because the ground is rocky and some of the rocks are loose, but it’s not especially taxing. The Americans are scowling and muttering under their breath, which I now take to be their habitual state, but Barbie’s barely broken a sweat, so she’s either applied an entire can of anti-perspirant that morning, or else like a camel, she’s good at conserving water.

Arriving at the complex, which I’ve visited a thousand times with guests, we wait for the guardian to come and unlock the gate. Like most of the bored souls paid to look after Lebanon’s hundreds of archaeological sites, many of which don’t get visitors for days at a time, he’s less than impressed with the bunch of old stones he’s paid to guard. He even suggests at first that we just take pictures from the entrance. It seems like the kind of advice that ought to get him sacked, but it’s obvious he’d rather not fiddle around finding the key and is just hoping that we don’t care enough, either.

Some of us don’t, of course. The Americans meander off mumbling about ‘having seen the pyramids and so’, and Barbie decides she’d rather sprawl in the lush grass, take Selfies and play with her phone than learn anything, which at least makes me feel less guilty about my instant stereotyping of her. 

Alia, who accompanied us on the first ten days of the walk, joins us by phone and as ever, is full of interesting information. As the rest of us listen, she explains the site’s origins and its subsequent transition from pagan temple to fortified basilica and then ruin.

Most of the photos of you’ll see of Faqra show the dramatic portico of the main temple, which seems to have been dedicated Adonis, the demi-god associated with fertility, who was said to have in these mountains, but there are several temples at Faqra, most of which don’t get mentioned. 

One, which began life as a temple to Astarte, was later turned into a church dedicated to St. Barbara. Alia tells us that as both deity and saint were known for their loving natures, it’s possible that the re-dedication was deliberate, a way to facilitate the eradication of pagan belief by repurposing the site for Christianity in a way that didn’t entirely contradict its past connotations – much as Christmas and Easter were conveniently grafted onto much older and quite different celebrations.

Back to Adonis. That the main temple at Faqra was dedicated to him is an assumption. No identifying statues or dedicatory inscriptions have been found to prove this one way or another, but as the second temple was dedicated to Astarte, his consort, and as the main temple in a complex was usually dedicated to a male god, it’s assumed that Adonis it was.

I’ve always found it a source of some amusement that in Adonis, who died nearby in Afqa, this tiny sliver of the Mediterranean not only gave the world the epitome of male beauty, but also the nec plus ultra of female temptation and sexual license, for Jezebel, the whore of Babylon herself, was a Phoenician princess from Tyre.

But I digress. Like all good Levantine temples, the ones at Faqra began with the Phoenicians, who mostly built temples along the coast and up in the mountains to propitiate the gods of both regions, but was subsequently Hellenised and briefly Romanised shortly before Rome adopted Christianity. 

Although it looks impressive from a distance, the portico was poorly restored and from closer up, the replacement concrete blocks and rusting rebar, are all too visible. Faqra was damaged during the civil war, when several of the repaired sections collapsed, so it may hold the distinction of being the only temple from the ancient world where blocks of chipped and damaged concrete are strewn amongst the original, more millennial remains.

Though the walls of the temple are largely intact, the rear half is taken up by a massive pile of fallen blocks and columns. This being Lebanon, it’s possible to climb onto them and wobble your way to the back wall, which gives out onto a impressive view of the valley beneath and the sea in the distance. Compared to the now anaemic experience that many other ancient ruins have become, roped off, untouchable and remote, I’ve always rather liked the fact that here, a combination of official apathy, rules-don’t-apply-to-me’ism and ambient chaos means that should you desire, you can treat most of the country’s ruins like ancient parkour courses and while I understand that isn’t terribly good for their long-term survival, it does allow for a greater appreciation of them.

We leave the complex, which is nestled into a labyrinth of heavily eroded limestone, twisted by elements into wild and wonderful shapes including, to my eyes anyway, what looks rather like a herd of elephants, and crossing the road to visit a cluster of sacrificial altars and the impressive ruins of a watchtower/altar on the edge of a precipitous escarpment that plunges vertically to the village of Hrajel below.

Alia returns on speakerphone and points out another interesting fact. Despite their importance, the altars are amongst the few to have survived the Christianisation of Lebanon without being destroyed or reconsecrated, possibly because the area was abandoned shortly after the end of the Roman era.

The altars are moderately interesting, but it's the remains of the massive watchtower/altar, dedicated to the Emperor Claudius, successor of the infamous Nero, who funded its last reconstruction, that catch my eye. It has always struck me as vaguely Asian, probably because of the way trees and shrubs grow out of it. Shades of Angkor perhaps, or even Calcutta, albeit on a more modest scale. 

The view from the top of the sixteen-metre pile is anything but modest though; a panoramic vista of Mount Lebanon, and in winter of skiers on the pistes further up the road at Faqra. 

Originally, the tower would have been a few metres taller with a massive sacrificial altar under a wooden loggia on its top, which would have been accessed by a ramp. Of course, the loggia, ramp and altar have long since disappeared and the only way up is via a cramped internal staircase that was probably only used by priests. The pilgrims that would once have come here to propitiate Zeus Beelgalasos, the Lord of the Mountains, a rather grim figure known for his ‘sharp, rending teeth’ and for starting storms, are long gone, too and although most visitors today seem content to gawp as they zip by in their cars, if they notice the ruins at all, it does still attract the occasional admirer. 

Today, this meant a gaggle of Ethiopian women, decked out in their Sunday best, shimmying to Afropop and striking poses against the backdrop of the tower and the sweeping views of the valley, as a Lebanese guy (someone’s boyfriend perhaps?) snapped away like Litchfield. Looking around, I see we’ve stumbled into a Lover’s Lane as nearby, a couple who look like they had been engaging in some serious lip-locking until we ambled in, blast old Abdel Wahab songs from their white Cortina equivalent, all smoked glass windows and attitude, albeit sans the furry dice. 

We stop for lunch outside a nearby café that dates back to the Faqra of pre-wars years. Its walls are covered in faded black and white photos and other reminders of brighter days. As we sit in the shabby ‘garden’, whose decay is clearly not just a result of the recent winter, I feel rather sad. Like so many other places in Lebanon, the café is a ghost of what it once was, though it’s still possible to imagine it as it was, full of day-trippers, tourists and eager skiers, downing plates of fried eggs sprinkled with sumac, before heading on up to the slopes or deeper into the mountains. I wonder how much money it makes. If appearances are anything to judge by, not much. It’s surviving through sheer force of will and I suspect that once its charming, elderly owners die, it will be bulldozed and turned into something more chic, with a pool and an outdoor sheesha deck in place of the garden. That, or a mall.

We continue along the escarpment edge in the direction of Chabrouh, our stop for the night. As we reach Jisr el-Hajjar, the natural rock bridge at Mzaarat Kfardebian (the farmlands, not the town we slept in the night before) the landscape takes on the appearance of a giants’ playground, with massive blocks of strangely shaped stone scattered all around. We traipse across the bridge, milling around and taking pictures, while two of the walkers, Salam and her husband Alfred, slope off to have a quick swim in the river pools below. 

We’re headed in that direction ourselves, as it’s decided that we’ll take the quick (read: sheer) route to our stop for the night. Apparently the river further up is still too wide to cross, even this bone dry year. 

As we pick our way through the sharp rocks towards the streambed below, one of the hikers falls and hurts her knee for the second time that day, necessitating a stop to patch her up so that she can carry on. Barbie looks like she’s about to ask to be carried, though I can’t imagine she’ll get much more than short shrift if she does, and our ever-delightful American compatriots grumble loudly about how Lebanon is full of garbage and how they wish they had never had to leave Cairo. I find myself vividly seconding their emotion.

The final stretch of the trail takes us across farmland, where we discover the desiccated remains of a baby hyena and, further up, encounter a wild baby tortoise, which is very much alive and, as it snaps the twig proffered by one of the walkers, apparently has quite the bite.

After stopping for a drink at what I’m reliably informed is the ‘best spring in Lebanon’ the Nabaa al-Aasal (Spring of Honey) which is near the Nabaa al-Laban (Spring of White/Yoghurt) – thus possibly the origins of the Biblical ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, though naturally, the Israelis would disagree - we arrive at a youth/community centre run by the Order of Malta. The new and newly-renovated building is not exactly overflowing with charm. It is, however, enormous, and as we are the only people staying tonight, I take advantage of the situation to snag a room of my own.  

We have an uninspiring dinner in the vast, cavernous kitchens, prepared by an extremely funny, wise-cracking lady from Tripoli, who informs us to great hilarity that she is divorced and a smoker, statuses frowned upon by her employers, who are doing their best to remedy both.

Sated, I retire to my room to enjoy a quick read before bed and then settle in for a peaceful night’s sleep….only to be kept awake for an hour by the demented barking of a dog, far away on the other side of the valley. 

Kfardebian to Faraya  Section 13 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Kfardebian to Faraya

Section 13 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

Interlude Two: Kismet

Untitled.jpg

From the moment I first arrived in Beirut, everything went right. Well okay, maybe not quite everything.

The driver who brought me from Damascus ended up abandoning me miles from where I’d paid him to leave me.

I’d heard Beirut was very expensive and that budget hotels were almost impossible to find. People in Damascus suggested the best bet was to try a neighbourhood called Hamra, in the western part of the city. There were apparently places there that rented rooms for $40 or $50 a night, which was apparently about as budget as Beirut got in the late 90s. 

All I knew about Hamra was that it was by the sea and that in the 1960’s, it had been the swinging heart of the Middle East, home to the main drag in a city somewhat unimaginatively dubbed the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. Because this was to be my first time in Beirut, and so I had no idea where anything was, I paid the taxi driver a little extra to drop me off in Hamra. I thought that once I was in the neighbourhood, I could ask around for suggestions. 

One by one, the other passengers got out. It was late on a Sunday and we were driving through an especially desolate part of Beirut, which I later realised was a neighbourhood called Tayouneh. Located along one of the lines that divided Beirut into sectarian enclaves during the war, Tayouneh was especially desolate in 1998, an expanse of pancaked, ruined buildings, rusting, twisted railings and palm trees with their tops blown off, fist-sized holes shot through their trunks.

As we passed a large roundabout, the driver, who was probably still annoyed that he’d been forced to wait for me at the border, abruptly stopped and told me to get out. We were on a deserted stretch of road next to what looked like it might once have been a large park. The wind had picked up and it was beginning to rain again, and there were no lights or other signs of life anywhere. I had no idea where this was but it certainly didn’t look like it could be some former Levantine Champs-Élysées, and as there were no other cars on the road, how I would get to Hamra from here, wherever here was, wasn’t immediately obvious. I refused.

We argued back and forth. The driver insisted that this desolate, bullet-pocked wasteland, possibly twinned with Hell, was in fact the neighbourhood I paid him to take me to. I insisted that as I couldn’t see the sea, I wasn’t in Hamra, so we hadn’t arrived yet.

The driver was no sap. Realising he had an intractable backpacker on his hands and visibly fighting his irritation, pulled over, got out and without a word, removed my backpack from the trunk and threw it unceremoniously a couple of metres down the road. 

 He tapped on the window and pointed towards my backpack, which had landed in a large puddle.

“Bag water,” he said, packing more contempt into two words that were not profane than seemed possible. 

When I didn’t move, he got back in, started the engine and prepared to drive off. Faced with the choice of loosing my luggage or getting out and wandering lost in a strange city in the rain with the night fast coming on, I got out. I’d barely exited the cab when he roared off down the broad but completely empty road. Then the skies opened and it began to pour.

A few minutes later a local cab drew up beside me. In flawless English, the driver asked where I was going.

I waved him off irritably. I had no way of paying. The only cash I had on me was a few Syrian Pounds, the rest of my money was in Traveller’s Cheques. I’d tried to change a couple of them at one of the money changers in Shtoura, when we’d stopped for that incredibly expensive cup of coffee, but the man behind the counter wouldn’t accept them and told me that in Lebanon, only banks would. As it was Sunday and as Lebanon followed the Western weekend, those banks were all closed. 

I trudged onwards.

“Hey, where are you going?” 

“Hamra. Walking. No money,” I replied, rubbing my fingers together and shrugging my shoulders.

“Get in. I’ll take you”

“No money,” I replied. “No Lebanese money.”

“Get in,” he repeated.  “I’ll take you. No problem.”

Figuring this for a ruse and feeling more than a little miserable thanks the rain, which had already soaked me to the bone, I stopped and rather rudely told him to leave me alone. 

With a shrug, he drove off and then seemed to change his mind and stopped ten metres or so away, waiting. I crossed the road and began walking back towards the roundabout. It was cold and by now, dark as well. So far, we’d driven by checkpoints and heavily armed soldiers, and now I had been abandoned by my perfidious driver and was walking at night, in the rain, through a neighbourhood riddled with bullet holes. Understandably, I was feeling a bit paranoid. I assumed the cabbie was up to no good and reasoned that it would be better to walk on the other side, just in case. 

“Hey,” he shouted “where you going? That’s the wrong way! Hamra’s this way. Come, I’ll take you. No money.”

I ignored him and kept walking.

By now, the street was marginally busier. Abruptly, the cabbie swung across the road, oblivious to the oncoming traffic and screeched to halt in front of me. 

I must have looked startled because when he got, he was holding his hands out in front of him, much in the same way as you would walk towards a frightened dog backed into a corner.

“Listen, you’re going to get lost if you continue. I know you don’t have any money. Don’t worry. I’m going to Hamra anyway. Come on, it’s raining. Let me take you there, at least.”

I made as if to cross the road again.

“Seriously. I’m going home. I’ll take you for free.” 

“I can’t pay you anything if you take me,” I said again, defensively. “I’m not trying to bargain. I have no money.”

He sighed. 

“Just get in, will you?” he said. “I don’t want your money.

I looked around. I really didn’t have a clue where I was and the brief flow of cars had dried up again. I was soaked to the bone. I followed the driver to the cab and got in. My erstwhile saviour introduced himself as Samir and then asked me where I was from.

“England,” I said. “Not far from London.”

“London? I have an uncle in Wimbledon. You know it?”

I said I did.

“I’ve visited a couple of times,” Samir continued, “mostly on my way to the US. I lived in Chicago for almost ten years but after the war ended, I came back here. I missed my country. What are you doing here?”

“I’m a tourist,” I said. “I’m here to see the sights.”

Samir laughed. 

“How’s that working out for you so far?”

I smiled, relaxing.

“Are you of Lebanese origin? We don’t get many foreign tourists here these days. Where are you staying?”

 Uncharitably, I immediately suspected if I told Samir I didn’t have a hotel yet, he might suddenly develop a ‘brother’ who did, but who was I kidding? It was Sunday night, I had no cash and I needed help finding a hotel, anyway.

“I don’t have anywhere yet,” I replied. “Do you known anywhere cheap.”

Samir laughed again.

“This city doesn’t do cheap,” he said, catching my dismayed expression. “But I know a couple of places that aren’t too expensive. Let’s see what we can find for you.”

And so Samir drove me to Hamra, which looked nothing like the Champs-Élysées but at least was more of a thriving neighbourhood than the one I’d been dumped in by the Syrian cabbie. We then drove around for an hour, Samir hopping out of the cab at places he thought might fit the bill, until he found me a room that I could afford and which he thought was suitable. 

“Too dirty,” he said, coming out of one place. “Too expensive,” he said, coming out of another. “That one smelled bad,” he said, condemning a third.

Eventually, Samir found me a room in a student hostel. It was basic -  bare bulbs and thin cotton blankets - but it was clean, warm and best of all, the owner was prepared to wait until the morning to be paid, if I left a couple of travellers cheques as collateral.

Somehow, a thank you didn’t seem sufficient but I didn’t know how what else I could do. Without cash, I couldn’t even take him for a coffee.

‘Listen,” he said, as he was about to drive away, “just one more thing.”

Much to my abiding shame, my immediate and extremely uncharitable thought was that the generosity had been a sham and Samir was going to ask for some money, after all.

“You can’t spend your first night in Beirut alone in your room. I just called my wife and told her about you. She told me that I have to bring you over for dinner. Something simple, you know, but you must be hungry. You like Lebanese food?”

To be honest, at that point I didn’t really know, but I was cashless and I was starving, so as I got back into Samir’s cab, I hoped he wouldn’t notice the flush of embarrassment that swept across my face.

Chapter 22: Sun, Saj and Sannine

Sannine.jpg

Despite a morning warning from Joseph that today would be a harder walk, it turned out to be much easier, although it would finally clock in at a kilometre longer. But with less mud, better trails and less gaining and losing of altitude, our walk, which today was taking us from Baskinta to Kfardebian, was both smoother and faster.

As usual, we got off to a slow star, derailed this time by the irresistible scent of fresh bread wafting out of Saj Charbel, a small bakery by the side of a long flight of stairs that lead down to a tumbling brook at the far end of town where we’d rejoin the Baskinta Literary Trail we’d briefly walked along the previous day. 

Still rolling after yet another lavish breakfast, we watched mesmerised as the baker, a young man in his early 20s by the look of him, expertly flipped the thin, coffee table-sized rounds of marqouq bread, a mountain delicacy that resembles a cross between a pancake and bran flatbread, from arm to arm before depositing it on top of a griddle-oven, or saj, with the aid of a plump white cushion. The slightly nutty bread, which takes seconds to cook, comes off the saj hot and chewy and so naturally, we were powerless to resist the proffered rounds, which we tore into strips and wolfed down, as though we hadn’t just finished stuffing our faces minutes before. 

We wandered down to the brook, where we were greeted by a young Syrian refugee, who waved at us and happily took a piece of fresh marqouq one of the other walkers offered him, as his mother looking on shyly from a nearby doorway. Once we were across, we began a long but relatively shallow climb that followed a series of watercourses up through terraces of trees long but relatively shallow climb began until we reached the wide bowl at the base of Mount Sannine, which as we emerged onto the plateau, was revealed in its full panoramic glory.

As much wall as peak, Sannine rises elegantly to a height of just over 2600 metres and is clearly visible from Beirut throughout the year, a counterpoint of white in winter, stained pink by the setting sun in summer and from the moment I first saw it, it became my favourite of all of Mount Lebanon’s peaks, and my eyes would often wander upwards as I navigated Beirut’s busy streets, straining to catch glimpses of it between the forest of towers and confusion of cables. 

Close up, it’s almost mystical. Though the skies are clear today, the peak is often shrouded in cloud and I’m reminded of a black-and-white photograph I once saw of an old silk factory taken by one of Beirut’s most talented photographers and ruin porn aficionado, Joe Kesrouani, in which the ruins of the old stone building are set dramatically against the mountain wall and lowering skies.

In cloud or full sun, Sannine projects a powerful physical presence and it’s little wonder that people once believed it was home to two pagan gods, San and Nine, (hence the name) who were said to live up in its snowy heights. This year, after a crap winter, those heights are only lightly dusted in snow, a symphony of greys, browns and greens, with hints of ochre and yellow from the swathes of wildflowers that meander up its lower slopes. With Spring having sprung, the fields are shin deep in lush, shiny grass, and the fruit trees, almonds, apples and cherries, are breaking into blossom. Wisps of cloud trailed off the mountain, blown into long trails by high altitude winds we can’t feel down here in the bowl, where it is warm and sunny, the sound of birdsong and running water everywhere. 

Continuing onwards, we stop briefly at the rather impressive grave of Mikhael Naimy, a well-known Lebanese poet, philosopher and author, who together with the Khalil Gibran (yes, that Gibran) co-founded the first Arab-American literary society in New York in the 1920’s. A Baskinta native, and just one of the area’s many literary figures – Amin Maalouf comes from Ain el Qabou, nearby - Naimy did much of his writing in hut not far from where he is buried and his face, carved into the rock above his tomb, looks out forever towards the glorious Sannine.

There’s a trail that links a series of sites related to Naimy and other writers, but it’s not the one we’re following today and so, just past the tomb, we turn off and climb up through meadows to about the 1700 metre-mark along a muddy farming road that leads us past workers busily pruning fruit trees. It’s badly rutted and quite marshy, as seasonal springs created by the snowmelt above emerge all over the landscape.

The road loops back on itself, and as we continue back towards the direction we came from, but at a much higher altitude, Sannine is lost to view. We make good time, stopping for an uncharacteristically early lunch in thick grass above Baskinta, which sprawls along the mountainside below us.

As we eat, faint music wafts up on the breeze from the town below, the unmistakable opening strains of Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, an unexpected, if rather appropriate choice of music that has the peculiar effect of making me feel like I’m in the Lake District, not Mount Lebanon and a little later, as we scrabble along a narrow pathway that barely clings to the hillside through the yellow gorse and pines, the scrubland reminds me powerfully of the heathlands around Bournemouth.

Fleeting psychic translocations aside, the rest of the walk is pleasant, if not particularly inspiring. We pass a trio of rock-cut graves, full of thick, green rainwater, which legend has it were carved for the remains of three ancient (and apparently rather thin) princes and a nunnery, uncloistered since the 1940's, which features in Amin Maalouf's novel about 19th Century mountain politics, religion and imperial power-jockeying, The Rock of Tanios

Eventually, Kfardebian comes into view. Naturally, it’s on the other side of a wadi and so once again, we have to descend to the river and climb up the other side, but thankfully today’s wadi isn't as deep as the one we navigated on the long climb up to Baskinta the previous day. 

We arrive at our lodgings for the night exhausted. Here at halfway point, the two teams that have been doing the throughwalk, ourselves from south to north, the other from north to south, are in the same place at the same time. As ouds appear, tales of trails yet to come are swapped, dinner is laid out and bottles of arak are cracked, I realise that it is going to be a very long night.  

Thankfully, I sleep well and the following morning, we take a side excursion into Wadi al-Salib, the Valley of the Cross, at the bottom of which lies the original town of Kfardebian.

I briefly consider staying in. Our throughwalk meet up has coincided with the weekend and by the morning, we have swelled from a group of 6 to a horde of closer to 200. The idea of walking in such a large group of people doesn’t appeal at all, especially as I notice that several of the new women arrivals are wearing high-heels. 

Still, I’m a sucker for ruins and can’t countenance passing up a chance to see an abandoned village down in the valley, which is supposed to be quite beautiful.

Because this side trail is relatively new – well, new as a hiking route, it’s been used by travellers since pre-Roman times – we are required to listen to series of heartfelt but largely missable speeches by the mayor, a local historian, the principal of the town’s main school and someone from the LMTA. I chafe, irritated as much by the desire to get going as by the crowd. I understand the importance of the weekend walkers to the LMT, which is still largely unknown by the wider population, but as a throughwalker, I can’t help feeling their presence as unwelcome.

As we wind through the town to the top of the old stone staircase that leads to trail, I stay close to the front to avoid getting stuck behind slower walkers. It is steep but not difficult, our special guide for the day, however, insists on stopping every five minutes, sometimes to say something vaguely interesting, mostly to catch his breath, which swiftly becomes irritating. I’m tempted to forge on but keep getting called back every time I stray too far. Halfway down to the bottom, the pauses end as we stop by a large rock that seems to bear the faint outlines of a cross. It’s a natural formation, though and the reason the valley has its name, and naturally, there’s a legend that one night a year, the cross phosphoresces, emitting a light that can be seen on the other side of the valley. While I’ve heard stranger things before, given the contemporary trend towards erecting large illuminated crosses in Christian areas of the country, which appears to have gathered steam since the horrific depredations of the IS and its ilk just across the border began, the rock would have to shine pretty brightly to be seen, these days.

The valley is quite narrow and as the trail drops down into the forest that grows thickly on either side of the river, we begin to see abandoned stone homes and then a 19th Century silk depot. Though there are ruins running up and down the river bank, the main village is on the other side, which we cross on a beautiful Ottoman bridge, itself built from the remains of a Byzantine or Roman precursor. 

Wadi el-Salib used to be one of the main thoroughfares up into the mountains, and there have been tracks on both sides of the river for thousands of years. The Romans left staircases and, further down the valley, close to where it opens into the the Nahr el Kalb, the valley of the Dog River, which debouches in the sea just north of Beirut, there are some nice cliff tombs, as well. 

We continue on to old Kfardebian, which was abandoned slowly over the course of the early 20th Century, when a series of disastrous flood persuaded villagers to move onto the plateau above. Most of the old village is in ruins, including the original riverside church of Sts. Peter and Paul (Butros and Boulos) but a few of the 25 or so homes that still stand have been lovingly renovated with EU funding. 

It’s hard to believe now but in the 1910's, Kfardebian produced 5000 kilos of silk cocoons a year and while it wasn’t wealthy, the quality of the homes indicates the villagers made a decent living. Down here amongst the trees, it's cool and green, the light filtering through the branches casts a tracery of light and shadow on the ground and far from the town above, the only sound is of the river and the occasional bird. It is quite lovely, a far cry from the bustle above and while the new town does better in terms of views and gets more sun and so is considerably warmer in the winter, I can’t help feeling that a certain quality of life was sacrificed in the move, but then convenience often comes at a price.

Baskinta to Kfardebian   Section 14 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Baskinta to Kfardebian

Section 14 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Chapter 21: Adventures in Breathlessness

Bask.jpg

 

Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe I’m exhausted. Maybe the stars are out of alignment. Whatever the reason, I begin today’s walk, a 17.5 km slog from Mtain to Baskinta, which Joseph informs us in our morning pre-walk briefing, will be ‘a little difficult’ – in a foul mood.

Twelve days into the walk, I have already learned to take our estimable head guide’s economical but informative briefings with a pinch of salt. Distance is more suggestion than definition, with personal tallies at the end of the day regularly registering at a several kilometres more than supposed, and so we now hear quotation marks whenever a figure is announced - especially when its related to how much further we have to go before lunch, or our beds.

As for Joseph’s estimation of difficulty, that too has become a fond running joke as both our guides appear to be part mountain goat, bounding up and down all but vertical, rubble-strewn hillsides with the energy, enthusiasm and abandon of a golden retriever on the beach. I’ve yet to see either of them out of breath, even after running some distance uphill. Robin, at least, has the decency to be twenty years younger, but Joseph is a grizzled veteran and he smokes, too. My ego would have been crushed, had my toes not beaten it to it. 

The initial 500 metre climb out of Mtain, fuelled by fruit and a fresh knefebreakfast, leads across rocky terrain, strewn with large, heavily-eroded outcroppings of limestone, some of which look like they are the remains of ancient walls or towers.

There are few views, although the panorama over Mtain and down to the coast in the distance could be considered pretty in a low-key way, but then we’ve been so spoiled by magnificence along the trail, that it takes a little more to get hearts pounding than it did that first day in Marjayoun.

As we reach to top of the hill, the walk gets ugly, as we briefly enter the outskirts of Zaarour, a summer destination and private ski resort that has expanded exponentially in the almost 20 years I’ve been in Lebanon. It’s clear that a lot of recent construction has taken place, as last year’s trail has disappeared beneath tarmac and plots have been prepared for the multi-million dollar ‘chalets’ that will soon be built. We pause briefly for a desultory tea at a random roadside shack, as Joseph and Robin figure a new path through what has become a construction site, ahead. 

Because land ownership is still a matter of dispute in most parts of the country, thanks in no small part to the confusion caused by poor record-keeping during the Ottoman occupation of the Levant and exacerbated by the continuous state of instability afterwards, keeping track of the trail and finding detours when it suddenly disappears beneath a road or a house, or is arbitrarily fenced off by landowners, whether legally or not, is one reason the yearly walkthrough takes place. I notice that both guides are busy taking notes and consulting maps.

Eventually a path is found that gets us off the new roads. We drop down towards a large reservoir and emerge at the foot of a narrow trail. It leads uphill through a cleft in the cliff wall and out, onto a limestone plateau.  

Once again, Lebanon does one of its spectacular quick changes. As we leave the fresh bitumen smell and construction clamour of Zaarour behind, we emerge into a landscape of peculiar rock formations, whispering wind and swaying trees. Then, as we turn a corner, we enter a narrow river valley, carpeted in a profusion of wild flowers, where a thin plume of water falls seemingly out of the clouds, to tumble down the wall of rock at the far end. 

It’s pure magic and I half expect to see fairies flitting between the flowers. Walking towards the fall, we clamber across the rocks to the opposite side of the valley and wading shin-deep through daisies, make our way up to the small bowl-like plateau of Al Jawzeh - the Walnuts - that lies above.

There, strewn amongst the flowers, lie the ruins of an old settlement, which appears to have been fortified during the Byzantine period. Massive, carefully hewn blocks are scattered casually all around us, and the remains of walls and outlines of rooms and houses are visible all the way up the low walls of the bowl.

Despite its name, Al Jawzeh is home to only a few trees today. We stretch out on the grass beneath one massive survivor, trunk split open but still growing, grateful for the shade.

The area would once have been thickly forested, as a nearby inscription era attests. It’s one of the Emperor Hadrian’s famous reminders, strewn all over Mount Lebanon, that trees are protected and may under no circumstances be chopped down without permission. However well that injunction may have functioned during his reign, it’s been paid scant attention since. Still, its presence here, as well as the unearthing of artefacts from all over the Mediterranean world and the quality of the stonework suggests not only that the settlement was important but that an old road ran nearby, possibly linking it to the coast and the Beka’a Valley.

Subsequent excavations have revealed that the settlement had its own bathhouse – a relative rarity in such remote areas – as well as two impressive presses, large enough to have produced wine on an industrial scale, so it must have been a fairly important place. 

Quite how long people lived up here isn’t known. Al Jawzeh lies at an altitude of 1400 metres and would have been covered in snow every winter, so it would have been one of the higher altitude settlements of the time. Even today, with modern amenities, Lebanon’s highest village, at least one that is occupied year-round, is only a couple of hundred metres higher. 

It’s possible Al-Jawzeh began life as a sacred site, as the remains of a Phoenician high place have been found nearby, and the far end of the plateau is dominated by a cluster of absolutely gargantuan sarcophagi, large enough to have held a god.

It does seem to have been abandoned some time around the 7th Century, around the time Lebanon was occupied during the Islamic Conquest, but was briefly revived as a mining town in the 12th Century, before being definitively abandoned in the 15th. 

The only regular inhabitants these days are goatherds, who have constructed a makeshift shelter at the far end of the plateau and as we lie beneath the tree, the tinkle of goat bells fills the air as a massive herd joins us on the plateau and the goats begin to munch their way contentedly across the ruins. Little wonder Al Jawzeh’s trees haven’t regrown.

As we munch on snacks of our own, one of the hikers mentions in passing that the site was plundered during the war by one of Lebanon’s more egregious feudal chieftains, Michel el-Murr (Michael the Bitter in English), a surname that perfectly suits its bearer, who carted off statues and columns, which now adorn his garden and living room. 

Resuming our walk, we meander past the sarcophagi, several of which are full of winter rain. Apparently, eleven skeletons were found here, though most of the tombs had been emptied at some point in the distant past, and then as we walk down into the Wadi el-Delb, which sits beneath my favourite mountain, Sannine, the clouds close in and the temperature drops.

We can see Baskinta, our destination for the night, beneath us on the far side of the valley but as usual, we have to go down, then up, then down and then up again, before we get there.

The trail hugs the valley wall at the base of sheer cliffs and in places, we’re walking along rock shelves beneath large, dripping overhangs. As the clouds lower, erasing all traces of the mountains above us, we reach the start of the section of today’s walk that Joseph had referred to that morning as ‘a little difficult’.

Here, the valley becomes sheer and the way forward involves clambering along a water channel carved into the cliff face. Long stretches of the channel, which is reassuringly reinforced with concrete include massive concrete water pipes, and it seems that we must balance our way across them, too. And of course, the pipes have replaced the sections of the rock shelf that have either collapsed, or else bridge massive natural gaps. 

This being Lebanon, there are no handholds or rails on the pipes, though they are quite wide, and as we stop at the first section, which bridges a fairly small gap, Joseph explains exactly how to navigate them safely.

I catch a few nervous glances. Had anyone wanted, they could have turned around I suppose, though Zaarour had to be at least ten kilometres behind us. I suddenly understand why all participants in the throughwalk had been required to sign a waiver. 

And so, a few minutes later, on a cold, damp afternoon in mid-April, I find myself walking precariously in single-file along an old concrete water pipe made slippery by fallen leaves and rain, halfway up the cliff opposite Baskinta. The view, at least, is magnificent. If somewhat vertiginous.

The first section crossed, another looms ahead. From here until we reach the pumping station on the hilltop ahead, the trail is part ledge, part pipe. In places, the ledge is so narrow that even when we’re on it, we’re still walking along the pipe. The sections of pipe become longer until eventually, we come to the final, particularly daunting section that stretches across a huge gap in the cliff face, past a waterfall and then rises steeply up a narrow ravine to the pumping station.

I set off across it and have just passed the midway mark when the person in front of me wobbles rather worryingly. A misstep here would be fatal. Abruptly, the full import of what we are doing registers. I barely have time to wonder whether as decisions go, this one isn’t half-baked when I am overcome by an almost transcendental clarity. 

The world becomes perfectly still. Beneath my feet, I can feel the thunder of the waterfall we’ve just passed reverberate gently through the sturdy pipe. Above, the peaks are still hidden in cloud, tendrils of which swirl down through the forest to wrap around us, turning our side of the valley into a chiaroscuro of mist and mountain rather like a Chinese ink painting. 

Baskinta, though, is brightly illuminated, an island of sunlight in an otherwise grey day. From up here, it is a sprawl of red-tiled pyramid roofs darkened by the rain, punctuated by church spires and the occasional, and generally rather unfortunate, new construction. 

In the valley below, a delicate froth of fruit blossom cloud the terraces. Cherry, perhaps, or apple. Maybe both. I can hear the tinkle of goat bells from somewhere and the distant but unmistakable echo of a bus honking its horn on the other side of the valley. Wind rustles through the trees, making lazy swirls in the mist and setting the birds to song. 

In an instant, the universe crowds in. I become aware of everything and everyone, plugged so directly into Life, I swear I can feel the blood flowing through my veins and the snap and crackle of synapses firing. My pupils dilate, my skin tingles, and the air becomes electric. I am immersed in pure, exhilarating bliss. 

I’m not sure how long it lasted but it isn’t until I notice Joseph watching me intently from the other end of the pipeline that I realise I have stopped dead in my tracks, and that I am holding my breath. Exhaling, I flash what I hope is a reassuring smile and give him a thumbs up. Then, after taking a deep breath and a final look around, I resume my balancing act across the abyss.

Mtain to Baskinta   Section 15 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Mtain to Baskinta

Section 15 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

 

Chapter 20: Mud, Glorious Mud.

falou.jpg

I decide not to spend the rest day in Falougha. I miss my bed and need to get my clothes washed and dried, so when we arrive at our stop for the night, a summer resort not far from the freshwater springs at Saha, I call a cab and return to the comfort of my own home. 

It turns out to have been the right move as shortly after I arrive, the skies open and it rains heavily and steadily throughout the night and for much of the following day, and I fall asleep to the reassuring thunder of rain on my roof.

Rising at five, I catch a cab back up to Falougha but end up running late due to congestion caused by overflowing drains and flooded roads. Concerned that the group might set off without me, I call Joseph to assure him I am on my way and to ask if he can delay the start of the walk by ten or fifteen minutes if necessary.

I shouldn't have worried, for once the traffic clears, the driver makes up for the delay by hurtling up towards Dahr el-Baidar at breakneck speed. Hopping out as we pull in to the resort, I race up the steps to the designated meeting point only to discover to my amusement that the other walkers are still having breakfast. After offering up silent thanks for the flexible nature of Levantine scheduling, I manage to have the breakfast I’d skipped at home; a feast of sumac-sprinkled fried eggs, kishk and za’atar manaqeesh, fresh vegetables and homemade cheeses and yoghurts.

As usual, our walk begins with an ascent, made trickier today by the rain, which has turned the track into a sloppy, slippery and very muddy slog. Circumventing what looks like a particularly tricky patch, I slip anyway, and as I try to regain my balance, I step into a chilly rivulet of rainwater and promptly sink up to my ankles. 

Dirty brown water floods into both boots, soaking my socks and the bandages around my infected nails. Our packs have already gone on ahead of us, so I don’t have anything dry to change into. Grimacing, I  squelch over to a rock, sit and wring as much moisture out of my socks as I can.

The light is magnificent. It often is in Lebanon, which seems to be especially blessed in this department, perhaps because of the proximity of the sea. The wind, which seems to carry the scent of herbs, blows clouds across the sky, dappling the hills in a dramatic play of shadow and light. 

The rain may have turned the ground into a soggy morass but it has also scrubbed the air and the land clean, refreshing and revitalizing the world, making colours richer and bringing far-off objects into focus. The going may be sticky, but it’s a glorious day to be on the trail.

We pass a couple of the small reservoirs farmers in the mountains dig to trap the winter rains, several of which are in the process of overflowing messily, but as we enter the outskirts of a pine forest, the ground finally firms up a bit. The pines are lovely, their rich, reddish trunks stained black by the rain and as we walk amongst them, breathing in their scent, the trees frame spectacular views over the Lamartine Valley and later on, of Jabal Kneisse, Church Mountain, possibly named after a temple that once occupied its summit, and Beirut, which suddenly appears on the horizon much as I saw it that first day, spot-lit through rents in the clouds. 

Abruptly, clouds blow in from the sea and rise up the flanks of Mount Lebanon, and close in around us. Partially hidden by drifting mist, the forest is transformed. As the views disappear and the temperature drops, a silence descends. Birdsong gives way to the whisper of wind and sound of running water. The forest becomes a place of mystery, a nebulous realm that verges on the supernatural. It’s a transcendent moment, a subtle reminder that there is more to this world of which we consider ourselves master than we usually permit ourselves to see. 

Then, like that, the moment passes. The wind picks up, scattering the mist and suddenly, it begins to hail, though thankfully not the golf ball-sized stones we sometimes get along the coast. As we soldier onward, the hail morphs into rain, which quickly becomes a persistent, almost English drizzle that will last the better part of the day. 

It’s become very cold. Through a gap in the clouds, I notice that there is a thick, downy mantle of fresh snow up on my favourite mountain, Sannine, which helps explain the chill. Not that there’s much time to think about that, for after a couple of hours walk, we begin a descent of 700 metres down to the bottom of the valley that lies between us and our stop for the night, the old feudal capital of the Abilama princes, Mtain. 

I’m very glad I’m doing this part of the trail in reverse, and in much cooler temperatures. The descent is quite steep and rocky and long sections involve clambering over and even along the ruins of farm walls and terraces.When I first came this way with a couple of friends in the middle of an especially torrid August, the then dry, dusty and very prickly 2-hour climb came complete with lethal expanses of thorn bushes and the sweaty, ankle-turning climb nearly sapped my will to live, darkening our little group’s collective mood so completely that we quarrelled over nothing, halfway up. 

This time though, there are no quarrels. The thorns, cut back at the end of summer, have yet to rebound and although the rain has made the ruined walls slightly slippery, they prove easier to navigate this time. At the bottom, we stop for a quick lunch at a picnic spot in woods at the bottom of the valley and then refreshed, make our way over a rather beautiful Roman bridge at Bzibdine across what is currently a small, rubbish-choked river – the winter rains also tend to scour improperly maintained dumps higher up in the mountains, and not all of what they wash away makes it out to the sea.

In the distance, we can see our destination up on its hilltop, glittering in the afternoon light. Chrissy, a sweet Golden Retriever we picked up just outside of Falougha, is still following us as we begin to climb towards Mtain. I wonder if she will follow us into town, or whether she’ll turn back and head home, as even for a dog, the 15 or 16 kilometres we’ll walk today is not inconsequential.   

The Roman bridge eventually leads us to a section of Roman road. It’s not the first we’ve walked along, but it has been kept in good condition and the irregularly-shaped cobbles haven’t been torn up or tarmacked over. It winds up the slope towards Mtain through a mix of scrubland and pine, and now that we are at a lower altitude and the sun has come out, the feel is positively Mediterranean. 

Centuries of carts have worn deep grooves into it in places, though for the most part, the road looks pristine, and with few modern intrusions in sight, it’s easy to imagine that walking here is much the same as it would have been 2000 years ago, albeit in our case, in more comfortable shoes. 

Well, perhaps not exactly the same. Though it is uninhabited now, the hillside below Mtain was much busier in the past, and we begin to pass the remains of rock-cut tombs, water reservoirs and stone presses - basins and runnels cut into the rock, which would have been used to make olive oil and grape molasses. Alia, our fellow walker and archaeologist, left us the previous day, but Robin tells us that the earliest ones found in the area so far are Byzantine, and date back to the 5th Century, though the tombs may be much older.

Just below Mtain, the Roman road peters to halt and the trail leads us through old farming terraces, dotted with the remains of water-powered grain mills before a final push up a long and exhausting flight of stone stairs that wind through pines to emerge at the top of the hill beside the ruins of an 19thcentury silk factory.

Silk was once a mainstay of Mount Lebanon. At its peak, it produced almost half a million kilos of raw silk each year, a trade that accounted for 80% of Lebanon’s economy. 

Today, all that remains, apart from the ruins of old factories, are swathes of mulberry trees, the leaves of which were used to feed the worms. Though most have been cut down since the end of the silk trade – which was destroyed by cheaper imports from China after the First World War – enough remain to fill markets with their berries; sweet, slightly watery fruits that are most delicious when turned into a sugary syrup, perfect poured over ice cream, or mixed with iced water in the summer. 

This factory is apparently one of seven built by the Abilamas in the 1850s and the only one still standing today. Former silk factories elsewhere in the mountains, which all seem to have been built to a similar design, have been turned into boutique hotels, restaurants, family homes and in one case, a museum, but the ruins in Mtain have yet to be repurposed.

An elderly Druze woman passes by on her way to the stairs and is clearly unimpressed by Chrissy. I’m reminded that despite their growing popularity in Beirut, dogs are not loved in the Middle East, presumably because of the unfortunate reputation they enjoy in Islam. Still, at least she doesn’t scream and run away, like the hysterical middle-aged woman we encounter a bit later. 

We poke around the mill a little longer and then head towards our destination for the night, an old Abilama palace, crumbling and in need of work, which has been turned into an absolutely delightful hostel. Mtain was once a wealthy capital, as the knot of elegant 17th and 18th century sandstone palaces clustered around its main square attest. Properly restored and tarted up, this sleepy but rather neglected village could become quite the summer hotspot. Though on second thoughts, and considering the swarms that throng the very pretty historic cores of villages like Deir el-Qamar and Batroun each season, Mtain may be better off remaining under the radar, and finding some other way to make its architectural charms pay.

Falougha to Mtain.

Section 16 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

Chapter 19: Walking on Knives

flagg.jpg

As Day Nine draws to an end, I’m seriously considering the heretical notion of skipping the next day and going back down to Beirut. 

I’ve already walked the upcoming section, albeit travelling in the opposite direction, and as we have a scheduled rest day at our next stop, Falougha, and my feet are killing me, the though of spending two lazy days in bed reading, appeals more with every step. 

Thanks to my infected toes, which rub mercilessly against my socks and boots, sloughing off skin and occasionally bleeding, every one of those steps feels like I’m walking on knives, but as I’ve vowed to finish the walk-through even if it kills me, I’m relieved when after another sleepless night, my hesitation dissolves in the bright light of morning.

As a precaution, I’ve decided to double-sock my feet and have swaddled my battered toes in cotton wool and bandages, and while this makes my boots tighter, it also makes walking bearable. 

It isn’t long before I’m glad that I did not bail out. After an initial climb, the undulating, high-altitude trail proves to be both relaxing and relatively painless, and walking it south-north is significantly more visually interesting than the north-south journey I made four years earlier. 

Once we reach the top of Mount Lebanon, the snow-streaked peaks above Falougha remain visible for most of the way, and with the exception of a couple of inclines and one rather long descent, the trail is relatively flat, which leaves us time to concentrate on the scenery, rather than on making sure we don’t slip or stumble. 

The cedar forests of the day before have given way to the open, undulating heights of upper Mount Lebanon. Liberated from its mantle of snow, but not yet sprung into Spring, the land up here is dry and lifeless, but also hauntingly beautiful in its simplicity and the immensity of its skies; vast, cerulean expanses across which thin streamers of cloud travel at high speed. The trail switchbacks between inner and outer peaks granting us glimpses of Lebanon’s coastal strip below, where the soaring flanks of the mountains, riven by deep valleys, collapse into foothills that undulate towards the shimmering Mediterranean, their rolling peaks sprinkled with small red-roofed villages, burgeoning mountain towns and summer resorts. 

As we climb gently up into Dahr el-Baidar, the wide, strategic pass linking Beirut and the coast to the Beka’a Valley, we pass a tiny stone bridge that looks like it could have been built at any point in the last 2,000 years. Perhaps it was built by the Romans, who ran a military road along the top of Mount Lebanon, or else by the Ottomans, who had a toll booth not far away. Obviously meant to span the narrow seasonal river that cuts across the trail here, but which is almost dry already this year, it is an incongruous sight, an almost humorous reminder of human presence in a part of the country that you could almost believe pristine.

Sadly, a little further on, we are reminded that Lebanon’s environment is anything but pristine as we are treated to a prime view of the vast and illegal quarry near the top of the pass.

Mendaciously rubber-stamped by Nicolas Fattouch – ironically Lebanon’s Minister of Tourism for a few years – and who no doubt profited enormously from the deal, the quarry has already eaten away several smaller peaks. It’s a foul blight on the landscape.

Illegal quarrying has been big business in Lebanon for decades and Fattouch is not the first minister in Lebanon or the world, to have abused his position for personal gain. He isn’t even the worst offender in the illegal quarrying sweepstakes, as vast, raw swathes of formerly pristine countryside elsewhere attest.

But in such stark surroundings, this quarry feels especially egregious, and emits an aura of palpable, menacing violence. It is as though some mad, moronic giant has decided to take bites out of the landscape, reducing entire mountains to sand and rubble, valuable detritus that is then carted away by an endless, nightmarish procession of rumbling, parasitic monster trucks that belch toxic black fumes and throw up thick, choking clouds that settle all around, turning the world the dull, uniform colour of dust.

It is a mindless, ugly act of destruction and it turns my stomach. I think of the massive roadside billboards politicians put up all over the place, and find myself hoping that one day, someone will create Photoshopped parodies that pose the smirking candidates against photographs of the atrocities, environmental or otherwise, for which they are responsible. Maybe then, Lebanon’s so-called 'sleeping generation' and their offspring, the 'lost generation' will finally break free from their torpor and demand retribution for the terrible price(s) they continue to pay for letting their country’s political class do as it pleases.

For all of that, the raw power of Lebanon’s landscape is difficult to eclipse entirely and so, once the quarry is behind us, the beauty returns, an act of generosity that is at once a gift and a curse. A gift, because it keeps giving. A curse because it encourages a carelessness that less scenically endowed countries would never countenance. 

As we reach the top of the pass, where it is cleft in two by the raging torrent of cars, trucks and buses that is the Damascus Highway, the air is heady with the aniseed-y scent of shumra, a kind of wild fennel that grows all over the mountains and which is delicious chopped up and cooked into an omelette. Seen against the encircling backdrop of the mountains, even the cellphone transmission towers atop Dahr el-Baidar looked lovely. The light here is especially magnificent, clouds racing by seemingly metres overhead, turning the ground into a shifting tapestry of light and shadow and it felt, in that moment, like we were walking on the roof of the world. 

The Highway itself is another ugly dose of reality. Piles of rubbish, angry dogs chained to a nearby cabin, barking furiously, the cacophony of klaxons, the screech of brakes, the smell of diesel fumes and a shithead of a minicab driver who almost runs a couple of us over as we wait to cross the thrumming highway, and who has the audacity to scowl at us through his windscreen as though we are the aggressors. The hellish stream of traffic is daunting but thanks to the kind intercession of one of the soldiers that guard the pass, who stops the flow long enough for us to scarper across to safety, we are able to cross the road. Within minutes, the chaos has receded and we are deep in the far quieter and far more lovely surroundings of the Falougha Plateau.

As if to complete our return to nature, the clouds close in behind, settling like a wall between us and the road, and as the sun disappears, it begins to get really cold, a reminder that we are still at the tail end of winter, especially here at 1400 metres, so we stop to wrap up. 

The trail winds upwards and we begin to pass old crumbling concrete fortifications that once marked the dividing line between de Gaullist Beirut and the Vichy Beka’a, when Lebanon’s Mandate Era French authorities briefly embodied the WWII split that had taken place in their own nation.

Later, those fortifications would be used and expanded by another occupying force; the Syrian Army, which controlled the pass until it was finally forced out of Lebanon in 2005. Halfway between Beirut and Damascus and a strategic chokepoint in the event of invasion, their camp was massive but poorly built, and so thousands of poorly-dressed Syrian conscripts shivered through the fierce winters up on the pass for years.

The Syrians dismantled most of what they had created, blocking many of the tunnels and underground quarters and munitions storehouses they had excavated into the plateau, but enough remained accessible that when we stopped for lunch, we were able to explore some of them, including parts of an underground hospital built by the French that the Syrians had turned partially into a reservoir. 

The walls here were still plastered and painted a fading blue, though whether this was by the Syrians or the French was difficult to tell. Joseph explained that tunnels leading off the hospital, which was one of the underground nerve centres for obvious reasons, apparently connect to dozens and dozens of chambers under nearby hills, but these have been made inaccessible by the Lebanese Army, which maintains a small camp on the plateau.

After lunch, we keep going, passing line after line of crumbling trenches and then following along an uneven section of the old Roman road badly degraded by heavy military vehicles, a use even the Empire’s forward-thinking emperors could not have foreseen. 

As we pass beneath one of the taller hills, Joseph tells us that the branch of the old cobbled road that leads up its flanks once led to the remains of an ancient temple - probably Greek or Roman and built on top of an earlier Phoenician site - that was ransacked during the civil war by a group of displaced people, who heard rumours that it hid a treasure. 

These erstwhile raiders may not have found their lost ark, or indeed, any gold at all, but the plateau is nevertheless home to an ancient treasure of a different, if less valuable kind, and as we walk, I notice that the ground is strewn with fossilised shells of different sizes, some of them quite large, the best of which Robin is busy dusting off and showing to the other walkers. 

Lebanon is home to some of the best-preserved fossil beds in the world, chiefly because the entire country once lay at the bottom of the sea. Herodotus himself commented on the creatures to be found in its rocks, and during his years crusading in the Levant in the 13th Century, Louis IX, the only French king to be canonised, was given a perfect, fossilised fish, which apparently “lacked nothing in form, eyes, bones, colour, or anything necessary to a living fish”, though whether he ever took it back to France is a matter his chronicler neglects to mention.

As the day draws to an end, we walk past the Lebanese army base and head towards the impressive cliffs above the town of Falougha, where we are greeted with a magnificent, if hazy view over the Lamartine Valley. The trail follows the cliff, winding between its hallucinogenic rock formations, with a very steep drop to one side. The view is vertiginous and in places, it’s obvious that one wrong step would be your last, but we make it across safely. 

There are a few picnickers at the benches on the other side of the cliff, some of whom will no doubt add to the pile of rubbish spilling out of the bins, which haven’t been emptied in a while. The area seems to be a Lover’s Lane, and we pass a variety of graffiti spray painted onto rocks, mostly of the ‘Maher + Maya’ or the ‘Hind Loves Hamad’ kind, though there are more cynical interventions, including a big 'forget it' in Arabic, an overly-compensatory blue penis, a number of very sexual imprecations and then, curiously, some political slogans and what looks like a crudely-sprayed Palestinian flag, near a clump of gnarled, impossibly ancient juniper trees. 

Our final climb of the day is to the top of a nearby hill where the first Lebanese flag was flown by a group of rebellious officers in the French Mandate Army in 1942. Somewhat ironically, it turns out that one of them was the father of one of Lebanon’s least-eminent Presidents, Emile Lahoud, who was know for his devotion to preserving Syria’s post-war dominion of Lebanon, proof that sometimes, the acorn not only falls far from the tree, it rolls downhill, across a busy motorway, through a thorn hedge and into a ditch. 

Although the hill is covered in a forest of baby cedars, through which the trail twists and turns for no apparent reason other than to prolong the walk, our final destination turns out to be a perfect representation of the Lebanese state, circa 2016. Though the commemoratory flagpole put up in recent years is gargantuan, it’s also flagless, and the one flag that is flying on the older pole, is both tiny and at the end of winter, in tatters. Rubbish is strewn all over and the celebratory plaques commemorating Lebanon’s independence have been vandalised and covered in more graffiti.

The group’s response is also a perfect representation of Lebanese civil society, circa 2016. As a visibly disgusted Salam calls the local municipality to complain volubly about their manifest failure to do their job, the others whip out plastic bags and begin to fill them with the rubbish. Ten minutes later, the site is at least presentable; the half-eaten hamburgers, empty beer bottles, condom wrappers and yes, fly-tipped household waste, have all been bagged and stacked neatly by the bin. A patch, then, rather than a solution, but compelling evidence that for many Lebanese, enough has finally become enough, and for me, hope that the country’s next twenty years will not be a repeat of its last.

Ain Zhalta to Falougha

LMT Section 17

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association