Chapter 27: Of Cedars, Ascetics and McMansions


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