Chapter 19: Walking on Knives

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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