Free Book

Epilogue: Bhebbak Mouwt

me.jpg

Twenty years is a long time to live anywhere, especially in a country as unpredictable as Lebanon.

I can honestly say that for the first ten, I felt like I was waking up to a new country every day thanks to the sheer adrenaline rush of living in a country that like Almodovar’s women, was perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Lebanon had - and has – reason to feel unstable. Two ghastly neighbours, both of whom have repeatedly invaded and occupied it, both of whom still pose an existential threat. Political and religious schisms never properly healed and periodically exacerbated by external players seeking to stir the pot either for their own benefit or to keep the country off-balance. Irregular electricity, failing water supplies, terrible pollution, environmental catastrophes, the never-ending loss of built heritage, the relentless flow of the young and the talented to stabler, more promising countries, poorly-paid jobs, the extortionate cost of living, the selfish, corrupt, bloody and perhaps worst of all inept political class, stupid outdated laws, gross inequality, rising poverty and marginalisation - on paper, the country made absolutely no sense, which was why it was a miracle to me that it existed at all.

From time to time, and especially when the rest of the region became engulfed in the turmoil and wars that followed the Arab Spring, articles would appear in foreign, but also some Arab newspapers about when perennially-unstable, shaky Lebanon would be ‘next’, when it too would succumb to the weight of its own history and fall prey (again) to its sectarian and social demons.

On visits home, once I’d assimilated the convenience of 24-hour electricity, endless water and fast Internet – not to mention Amazon, PayPal and other modern conveniences - I’d quickly grow bored. The lack of real news, the stultifying boredom of security, the endless rules and regulations. In the UK, everything is permitted, but so tightly regulated, it becomes impossible. Or at least unpalatable.

In Lebanon, almost nothing is permitted, and yet everything is possible. Especially if you know the right people, or are adept at ignoring the rules, which seems to be a Levantine neccessity for getting through the day without loosing your mind entirely.

I do not seek to romanticise. Life in Beirut, especially these day, is hard and is getting harder with every passing day.  As a foreign resident and a freelance journalist, I was subject to much, much less of the day-to-day bullshit that sours Lebanese tempers and ultimately, enjoyed the luxury of knowing that whenever I wanted, I could pack up and leave said bullshit behind.

Living there made me appreciate the UK, at least my version of it, much more. For all its faults, Britain does at least attempt a semblance of caring about its citizens, seeks to deliver the services they pay for and, as has been proven in the past, will defend them when the country is threatened. Lebanon? Well, let’s just say that on the official level, none of that applies. When Israel invaded in 2006 - the fourth of perhaps fifth tim it has invaded Lebanon since 1968 - the State was nowhere to be seen and the military had been confined to barracks.

While I’ve never been bullish about Britain - the result of being called called too many unpleasant names as a child, not to mention brushes with the National Front as a teenager - with family in India and a childhood spent growing up in an assortment of Developing World countries, I have never taken for granted the many and important freedoms and rights that I enjoy as a result of being one of its citizens. If the price of safeguarding those privileges, hard-won through decades, sometimes centuries of struggle, is stultifying regulation, then it seems a small price to pay for security and services. But although I like my country, and often love it at times, even on my best days, that love pales beside the crazed obsession I felt for Lebanon every day, almost until I left. 

I say almost every day, because in the end, I stayed too long.

By my estimates, I overstayed by six years. I should have left in 2012, when it became clear that I was no longer able to overlook the daily assaults on dignity that living there entailed – the increasingly aggressive public sphere, the crumbling public services, the rising cost of living, the dire political drift – but I did not, because I did not want to leave on a low note.

Then I should have left immediately after finishing my walk in 2016, when fresh from 28 magnificent days in the mountains, I was abuzz and ablaze, head full of the incredible heritage, staggeringly beautiful landscapes and warm, generous if idiosyncratic people I encountered along the way. That walk, every painful, bloody step of it, rebuilt Lebanon for me, deepening my love for it but also reaffirming that it was time for me to leave. And yet, I did not.

In the end, I did not leave until February 2018, almost two years after I began my walk from Marjayoun. The delay - or so I told myself - was to permit me to finish this book. Writing it in Beirut would make more sense, I reasoned, for if I was in Lebanon, it would be easier to look things up, call people and find any information I suddenly found I needed. But of course, that did not happen. Sucked back into the miasma of everyday malaise, of power cuts and water shortages, of mounting piles of rubbish and simmering discontent, of angry taxi drivers and surly salespeople, the golden, glorious experience I had just had became slowly obscured, not dimming or diminishing, but disappearing into the distance.

I tried, half-heartedly to write, but not making any money, I spent most of my time chasing stories and trying to pitch to publications that particularly since the country’s association with refugees and the Syrian civil war, were no longer interested in the kind of Lebanon I wanted to write about, and I was damned if after almost 20 years of writing about the positives, I’d start writing the kind of doom-mongering features that still sold. And so when I did leave, I had the outline of the book, but I didn’t have a single chapter finished.

Even though I stayed, I did manage to leave before my love could sour, a fear that had begun to overwhelm me in my last years there. And for that, I am eternally relieved. To leave a country I had loved for so long with a bad taste in my mouth would, I think, have been one of the worst of all possible outcomes. I cannot tell you why it was so hard to leave. I am a past master of saying farewells. I have lived in and left many countries and have no doubt that I will continue to do so in the future, but leaving Lebanon was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Whether part of me didn’t want to, or I just couldn’t imagine what to do next or where, doesn’t matter. I hung on, even when every day gave me a reason to leave. For that, I lay the blame firmly on the endless charm of life in one of the most fucked-up, fascinating, irritating, intriguing, hopeful, hopeless and eternally seductive cities - and countries - on earth. 

So I miss you, Lebanon. I miss your charm and your ease. I miss your beautiful mountains, and bastardised coastline. I miss your laughter, your flirtatiousness, your surprise. I miss your people, who embody a little bit of everything and everywhere and perhaps as a result, are of no one and nowhere in particular, which for them makes them lost and for me makes them universal. I miss your fluidity, your flexibility, your guile.

In these fractured times, I still find much to admire in you. You are the first truly post-nation, nation and your people, when they aren’t enmeshed in petty rivalry and threats, have for all of their existence and the last 40-odd years in particular, been asking, answering and where necessary, re-asking and re-answering the very issues that almost everywhere else in the region now finds itself asking; who are we, what do we want, where are we going, how important is diversity, how can we all live together equitably in difference, what is the meaning of freedom, tolerance or acceptance? And if they get those answers right, tiny Lebanon can be the archetype not just of the region’s future, but perhaps of the wider world’s, too. Cosmopolitan, creative, cultured, Levantine, where others see black or white, Lebanon sees endless shades of grey, and where they see a wall, it sees doors through it. Endlessly adaptable, willing to cross lines, to change shape, to be other, Lebanon follows the path of least resistance, of compromise and at its best, the hybrid, ambivalent, variegated culture that results is big enough to house all difference.

Ancient land, eternally in the Now, forever hung-up on the past, question, answer, cauldron of nearly all the 'isms' currently tearing the world to pieces, textbook example of the limits of private initiative and the need for central government, paean to the beauty and possibility of diversity, roadmap to chaos, blueprint of a better world, passionate friend, implacable enemy, heartless, headless and munificent, I miss you, sometimes painfully, but with this final chapter, we are done, you and I.

I love you.

I will visit.

But I am never coming back.

Chapter 34: The End of It All.

Church.jpg

On our second to last day, we return to the bottom of the cliff at the end of Sahel el-Qammoua and trail along its base for a while.

Overnight, we’ve become a large group, as people have come in to walk the final two sections of the trail with us and so once again, the camaraderie of the trail, built up over almost four weeks, is diluted by a flood of fresh faces. 

At first, the trail meanders gently up and down. In what turns out to be my final act of clumsiness on this trail, which has already gifted me scrapes, stubbed toes and bruises from being careless with where I put my feet , I manage to trip over a branch and fall straight into a large holly bush, from which I emerge with an few extra cut or two. 

We don’t climb much today, in fact, we’ll lose more altitude than we gain, and for the most part, we’re walking through forests, less impressive than those above on the sahel, but still very pleasant.

Early on, we pass high above Akkar al-Atiqah, a small and unassuming town with a very ancient history. It’s one of a handful of Levantine cities mentioned in the ancient Amarna Tablets, which means that it has been around for at least 3400 years. Apart from the remains of an Arab castle, briefly controlled by Raymond de Sainte-Gilles, the Crusader Count of Tripoli, there are few historical remains left there today but then the town’s greatest contribution to history was one of flesh and blood, as little old Akkar al-Atiqah produced the only Roman emperor of Lebanese birth. 

Severus Alexander was born somewhere down there in some sumptuous villa in 208AD, when Akkar al-Atiqah was known as Arqa. Fourteen years later, he was the second-youngest head of the mightiest empire in the world, all thanks to his grandmother, Julia Maesa, who having ensured that her grandson, Elagabulus became emperor first, then had him adopt his cousin Severus as heir. Elagabulus himself was Syrian, born about 80-or-so kilometres away on the other side of the current border in the city of Emesa, modern-day Homs, which has been decimated by Syria’s civil war.

Apparently famous for his “unspeakably disgusting life” (the words of Barthold Georg Niebuhr, 19th century German historian, not mine), Elagabulus venerated the god after whom he was named in the form of a conical black meteorite he brought with him from Homs. It seems he earned his reputation for his lengthy relationship with his blond slave charioteer, Hierocles and public marriage to another man, Zoticus, an athlete from Smyrna. Perhaps an early iteration of the Party Boy, he was also fond of heavy cosmetics, shaving his body and wearing wigs.

Roman statesman and historian Cassius Dio claimed that the Emperor “set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by.” A canny Levantine, he apparently also had numerous agents “who sought out those who could best please him by their foulness. He would collect money from his patrons and give himself airs over his gains; he would also dispute with his associates in this shameful occupation, claiming that he had more lovers than they and took in more money.”

Julia, it seems, did not approve and came to see Severus as a better choice for the throne, and for maintaining the family dynasty. Once his position in line was assured through adoption, she had Elagabulus assassinated. Severus managed to rule for 13 years before he met the same fate, and while it may not always be good to be the king, the journey from (Lebanese) country boy to Roman Emperor isn’t an easy road, even with someone as determined as Julia Maesa by your side, so perhaps surviving 13 years as the centre of the Ancient World isn’t too bad, after all.

A little further along, we come across two men loading wood onto donkeys. It’s illegal to take wood from the mountains without a license, which is in turn, very difficult to get. They claim to be soldiers, though they aren’t in uniform, but as they don't want to be in any photos and get defensive when I try to photograph their donkey, which is decked out in a colourful saddle, I assume that’s probably not the case. 

Just before lunch, we come across a Red Cross van parked on the edge of a cliff. At first, it looks like there's been an accident but it turns out that they’re a engaged in a training session, which has been organised for our benefit. Lebanon has no dedicated mountain rescue service, so the Red Cross serves multiple functions and is held in great esteem for the incredible bravery they showed during the civil war, when they were often the only ambulance or rescue service willing to plunge into the thick of battle.

We watch the crew winch a 'victim' up the cliff. It's rather fun and on the second rescue, get to hold the rope and help haul the victim to safety. Afterwards, we have a long lunch under the trees as the volunteers tell us a little more about their work. 

From here, it’s all downhill but the descent is gradual. The forest has given way to scrub, which soon peters out, and we are walking along bare ridges, covered in tree stumps and a solitary tree, sole remains of the forest that once covered them.

Entering the Helsbane Valley, the greenery returns and we arrive at Sarkis and Bakhos, a 9th Century church in the middle of a grove of trees on a small hilltop. It’s in ruins, and although it has been partially excavated, trees still grow out of its upper levels, their roots twined through the stonework. We’re shown the remains of a fresco on one apse and a small catacomb, which was probably reserved for the priests, which has several Crosses of Jerusalem carved on its lintel. 

The church was abandoned about 400 years ago, when its congregation moved to a more convenient location lower down the valley and as is often the case, appears to have been built over a much older Roman temple. Robin tells us that in October, the ruin flickers back to life for a day, as local congregants come up to celebrate the saints' feast day, before abandoning it once again to silence and the occasional visit by hikers and ramblers, like us.

At the bottom of the valley, we pause for a while at the spiritual Disneyland that is Mar Challita, an ancient church that has been rebuilt and 'expanded' to include acres of saints in kitsch niches, faux stained glass, cheap chandeliers, gaudy carpets, heavy perfume and piped church muzak. It’s so cloying that my first impression is of a wedding cake designed by Gucci for Liberace - less Outsider Art than Omigod Awful.

As for Challita himself, if the way the statue in the first courtyard is dressed is an accurate indication, he was a Crusader, so my first thought is that the story of his sainthood is going to be, shall we say, interesting? But it turns out he was a Roman general and a former governor of Egypt, who was beheaded in 4th Century when Rome briefly reverted to pagan rule. As for his depiction in classic Crusader regalia, well, that’s anyone’s guess.

The leaflet claims that his remains were buried here, though that’s at odds with the official story, which says Challita was transported to Constantinople after his decapitation in Antioch. Curiously, for the leaflet lists the saint’s many and attested miracle, nowhere is it mentioned that Challita is venerated in part for his ability to cure afflictions of the male genitalia, which i’ve always thought might help explain why there are so many shrines dedicated to him across the region. 

As usual, the church was built on top of a Roman temple and for decades, lay in ruins on land of the woman who currently owns it. Its rebuilding and transformation into ecclesiastical theme park is the fulfilment of a promise she made when her son fell ill, and promised the saint that she’d rebuild his church if he would grant her son another 10 years of life. According to the story, he did and for the next 10 years, mother and son worked on restoring the church themselves, and then a decade after he was healed, he died. She decided to keep going, and has been at it for the better part of the last 30-odd years, building here and adding there, all in her own inimitable style. She still greets visitors to ‘her’ church and unsurprisingly, looks quite worn out by her years of hard labour.

According to Google Maps, we are only 19 minutes walk from Qobaiyat, our destination for the night, although of course, it takes us longer, as we follow a green, shaded watercourse into town, not the road. 

As we sit down to a rich, hearty meal at the convent we’re staying at for our final night, and which seems somewhat at odds with a life of abnegation, the reality that my long walk is almost over sinks in, and although I am tired, I am unable to sleep. I will miss this trail, with its discoveries and revelations. I will miss the wilderness and the freedom, the beauty and the exhilaration. I will miss and the simple pleasure of learning every day that just when I think I can’t walk any further, that I have reached my point of exhaustion and that there is no way in Hell I’m going to get to the top of that mountain, I am able to do it anyway.

The end, when it comes, feels like an afterthought. 

In a final twist, the last section, normally a quick 7 to 8km walk, has been expanded to 17, so that hikers along for the last day don’t feel cheated. After a month of sometimes very inaccurate estimations of how far and how long we will be walking each day, these ‘surprises’ have become something of a running joke, and so I’m secretly pleased our last day will be no different.

For some reason, perhaps because for the first time in weeks, I am no longer able to be here, now, I remember very little of that last rolling section to Aandquet, a village that even friends of mine who are from north Lebanon have never heard of before. I do remember that it was hot. Brutally, hot. That my feet ached and that for the first time in weeks, my thoughts were fixed on home and Beirut, not on the excitement of the day ahead.

I’m not sure how I expected our walk would end. I knew there was to be a small ceremony to mark our arrival and the completion of the 8th Lebanon Mountain Trail Throughwalk. I also knew that there would be certificates for those who started at the beginning – Salam and I – speeches from the mayor, and then a buffet, after which a bus would arrive and drive us back to where we began, in the parking lot of the LMT offices in Hazmieh, a suburb in the hills of Beirut. 

I think that secretly, I hoped for a small crowd, a few cheers, maybe a banner across the road. But there is nothing. Just Aanquet, silent, somnolent, deserted. I enter the village almost alone. The other walkers trail behind and Joseph and Robin have been side-tracked by some of the LMT staff that have come up to celebrate the end of the trail with us. 

Looking around, I see an LMT sign outside a roadside restaurant, where the ceremony is to be held. Suddenly feeling the whole of the last 28-days in my knees, calves and soles of my feet, I drag myself inside to get something cold and fizzy to drink.

As no one was there to clap for me, I hang my boots on the window ledge and clap and cheer as Salam, Robin, Joseph and some of the other walkers who joined us for the weekend, arrive. Some seem happy, some do not notice, a few look at me like I am mad. Perhaps I am, after all, it is infernally hot and I have just walked all the way from Marjayoun. 

I want to congratulate Salam, but almost as soon as she is inside, she disappears with some of the folk from the LMTA, no doubt discussing the state of the trail. I do not know the other walkers and they do not seem any more inclined to talk to me than I am to them. So I receive my certificate, say my ‘thank yous’ and listen to the speeches. Goodbyes can be made in the bus, on the way back to Beirut. 

There is nothing more to do now but eat, and wait. 

Or just wait, for the buffet, though lavish, is uninviting. In place of the myriad local, regional and village delights we have been lucky enough to sample along the way, our final meal is bog-standard standard Lebanese fare. There’s hommous and tabboulehsfiha and rqaeq jibnehmoujaddarawaraq anab and makanek, and for those who want it kafta and djej mishwe. It looks tasty, but it’s generic. There’s nothing here I can’t find in any Lebanese restaurant, anywhere in the country, so I fill up on salads, with a couple of kibbe and rqaeq jibneh and return to my window perch.

And so after 28 days, five missing toenails and nine blisters, my 470-kilometre odyssey comes to an anticlimactic end, as I sit alone, one hot May afternoon at a table in a glorified shisha café by the side of the road in a sleepy northern village that is just a few minutes drive from the border, and the ongoing war in Syria.

Tashea to Aandquet  Section 1 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Tashea to Aandquet

Section 1 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Chapter 33: Wait, Is This Switzerland?

Alma.jpg
Qammamine to Tashea  Section 2 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Qammamine to Tashea

Section 2 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

After one of the most magnificent dinners we’ve had on the trail to date - amongst the cornucopia of dishes is a salad made from an edible leaf that only grows in Qemmamine - I tumble contentedly into bed. 

As we entered the village that afternoon, I’d noticed the village’s two large mosques with trepidation, fearing that the dawn adhan would echo so loudly off the surrounding mountains that I’d be jolted awake, whether I sought to make prayers or not. I needn’t have worried. I was either too tired, or else the good folk of Qemmamine haven’t succumbed the curse of the cities, where every mosque appears engaged in a competition to see which can be the loudest, for my sleep was deep and uninterrupted.

Thankfully. With a mammoth trek ahead of us today, it needed to be, as we’ll be covering two sections of the trail in one go. Consequently, we’re taking a slight detour from the standard route and rather than wind all the way around on a flatter but much longer trail, we’re going to follow an old shepherd’s path straight up Wadi al-Jahannam, the Valley of Hell. 

But first of all, we needed to cross the Nahr el-Bared. Aptly named, the Cold River is best known these days for the Palestinian refugee camp down on the coast that is named after it. Or was named after it. In 2007, an ‘Islamist’ uprising led to a 5-month battle with the Lebanese Army during which the entire camp was flattened. Many of the fighters, who were widely believed to have been armed and encouraged by Syria, as part of its attempt to ‘prove’ that an unoccupied Lebanon would always be dangerously unstable, fled upstream into the mountains above Sir el-Denniyeh, compounding the area’s already unfortunate reputation.

Here though, the rushing, tumbling Bared River has yet to pick up such unfortunate connotations, and as we cross over a tributary, which cascades from above in a series of falls and rapids, I notice that some enterprising soul has placed an old chair on a rock in the middle of the stream, the perfect place come the summer, to sit and quite literally chill.

We reach the main body of the river a little further up and walk upstream until we find a rock shelf where the icy water is fast-flowing, but shallow enough to ford. Taking off our socks and boots and socks, we roll up our trouser legs and wade to the other side. Then, we prepare to enter the Valley of Hell. 

Lebanon isn’t short on strangely named valleys. There’s Skull Valley, for example, which was the site of an ancient battle. There’s also Dog Valley, which the Greeks named the Lycus, or Wolf Valley, for the howling sound the wind made when it blew down it in the winter. But why should a valley be known as Hell when it’s as close to Paradise as it gets? When we were briefed on our route, I did ask how it ended up with such an ominous name, but no one seemed to know. It’s only when we begin to walk up it that I come to I understand. Steep, torturous and taxing, hiking here is going to be, well, Hell.

Perhaps because we are not following the proper trail, Joseph looses his way a couple of times. For a while, we balance along the edge of a small water channel, which he thinks will take us back to the goat track we had been following, but this only strands us in thick, thorny undergrowth, through which we are forced to hack our way forward. After much scratching and cursing, he spots the track, but it is now a hundred metres or so above us and the only way up means climbing along a visibly unstable rock-fall.

Somehow, we manage not to die and from here onwards, the path is clear, worn into the earth by thousands of tiny hoofs. It’s still tricky though and climbs steeply, crossing numerous streams, though these are narrow enough to balance our way across using submerged rocks. 

Crumbling jal, the stone terracing used all over Lebanon, begin to appear. There’s no telling how old these particular terraces are. They look ancient, but untended, they decay quickly, so they could be a couple of decades old. The oldest found so far in the country, up in the hills above Byblos, date back almost 12,000 years.

Usually, jal are built near farms and sure enough, a little further along, we arrive at a dilapidated, windowless stone home that from the looks of it, is still used part of the year. There’s a small beaten earth terrace in front, under the shade of a massive pine tree, which protrudes into the sheer drop down to the river below. It’s a beautiful place to stop for a quick snack, and I sit on the edge of the terrace,  dangling my legs over the edge, eyes closed as the light through the branches plays across my upturned face. 

From here, the only way is up. We’re now high enough that we’re able to see the mountains we walked past yesterday, peeking over the valley walls. The climb is relentless, and taxing but just as it seems like it will go on forever, we reach the bottom of a pass, which is being used as farmland.

There’s a spring ahead, and with water running low, we walk in its direction. Arriving, we’re greeted by a truckload of sullen teenagers, armed with guns and a Kalashnikov. They grimace sourly when they see us. They’ve also come to the spring for water, and several massive 200-litre barrels sit in the back of the truck. After a brief discussion, they somewhat reluctantly agree to let us fill up our tiny canteens first. their attitude strikes me as odd. The Lebanese are not normally so ungracious, especially not in the countryside, but perhaps being teenagers, this is the best they can manage. Our paragons of adolescent grace must be out hunting for more than water, given their guns, unless filling up at a spring is a perilous pursuit in Hell Valley. 

At the very top of the pass, we reach a cluster of houses, most of which look like they were last lived in during the 1950s. There’s a man sat on one of the porches, and he gets up as Joseph walks over to greet him. It seems he’s to be our local guide for the day. Sensibly, he’s decided to meet us at the top of the valley, rather than endure the hike up from Qemmamine. Having just finished that Trail of Tears, I feel mildly short-changed. Should guides not suffer, too? Still, as he’s waiting patiently with with coffee and chocolate biscuits, I decide to cultivate charity towards him. Besides, it’s time for lunch, and I’ve always found it difficult to maintain resentment in the face of food.

Peeling off in search of shade and tree trunks and rocks to lean against, our lunch is accompanied by the delicate staccato of machine-gun fire and the pop, pop, popping of hunting rifles. The Lost Boys have found something to shoot after all. Tucking into a deliciously toasted Akkawi cheese and salad wrap, to which I added a handful of walnuts and pomegranate seeds that morning, I chew contentedly and hope that what they have found to shoot is each other.

Already feeling like I’ve walked the length of Lebanon, I ask Robin how much further we have to go and instantly feel like a child in the back of a car on a long ride. He pulls out a map and indicates where we were, are and where we’re going. Despite our strenuous hike through Hell, we’re barely a quarter of the way.

Fortunately, the trail from here onwards is much more even and after a final climb, which takes us up to an overhang above a field full of boulders, the trail begins to descend, as it will for the rest of the day. Even more fortunately, the trail is beautiful, which always makes walking a pleasure.

Towards mid-afternoon, we arrive on the edge of a wide, high-altitude plateau known as the Sahel al-Qammoua, an area of farmlands and grassy plains, surrounded by thickly forested hills covered in fir, cedar, juniper and Shouf trees, behind which the occasional snowy peak can be seen. It’s all so pastoral (and pastural), that were we to pass a herd of little blonde girls in pigtails and dirndls, snacking on Toblerones, I probably would not have blinked.

But it seems we are the only extraordinary sight to be had today. Just before the Sahel begins in earnest, we reach a wide and fairly busy road, and from the way the passers-by gawk at us, we must look like we’ve fallen from the stars. Perhaps they aren’t used to seeing hikers up here. Perhaps it's the women in tank tops. Perhaps it’s my ridiculously floppy hat or neon green technical shirt. What ever it is, we’re causing a scene. For the first time in Lebanon I am confronted by drivers slowing down to stare - or rather to stare at people, because Lebanese drivers slow down to stare at accidents all the time - but as a most of them sport the same bushy beards we saw down in Sir el-Denniyeh, we probably do look like aliens, and anyway, the gawking is mutual.

It takes about an hour to reach the far end of the Sahel, by which time I’m exhausted. I’m also loath to leave. Qammoua is transcendentally beautiful, lush and green, it really does look more Alpine than Levantine. It also marks the end of high country, for while the mountains do continue north and into Syria, they do so at a much lower altitude. 

Just before we reach the end of the plateau, we spot a family camped out in the rocks to one side. From their set-up, they’ve been there for a while, living, rather than camping, which makes me wonder if they are Syrian refugees. Sahel el-Qammoua might not be convenient, but it is lovely. And quiet. Especially compared to a war zone, so I wouldn’t blame them, if they are.

We push through some trees and suddenly, Mount Lebanon stops as we reach a dramatic cliff. Two hundred metres below us, the soaring mountains we have been walking through for the last for the last 27 days reappear as a froth of foothills that ripple north and across the border into Syria.

We arrive at this Lebanese World’s End shortly before sunset. The land below is wrapped in mist and shadow and the hills roll off into the distance for as far as the eye can see. Once again, the entire Eastern Mediterranean lies at our feet. It seems like we ought be able to see the sea, but we are a bit too far inland, not quite high enough up, or there is too much mist, for the Mediterranean is not visible. 

What we can see, though, is glorious. And so as the air turns to honey and the colours polarise, we stop to enjoy Golden Hour, even though we are still five kilometres from our beds for the night.

Tired feet and aching muscles are momentarily forgotten as we sit on boulders facing the sunset. A gentle breeze whispers through the trees. It is quiet, up here. The only sounds are birdsong and the faint peal of church bells mingled with the muezzin’s call.

Sitting cross-legged, I close my eyes. The end is literally in sight, and soon my trek will be over. I wonder what it will be like to return to Beirut, to everyday life, to not have my day laid out in front of me, to trade the simplicity of placing one foot in front of another for the necessities of rustling up commissions, going to the shops, cleaning the house, to give up the ever-changing panoramas of this last month for the flicker of a computer screen and the view out of my home office window.

The sun is in my face, shining warm and red through my eyelids. I breathe it in, letting the light flow into my veins and wash around my body. Pushing conscious thought away, I sway slightly as Nature crowds back around me. Beneath my hands, the rock softens and a connection is made, the earth and I become not quite one, but no longer entirely two, either.

The moment is perfect. Balanced, powerful, peaceful. Adrift in such splendour, such belonging, I find myself struggling to believe that somewhere down there in the shadows of the indigo-coloured foothills on the far side of the Syrian border, a nation is at a war.

Chapter 32: Agatha Christie Died in My Room

Sfeera.jpg

The Syr Palace Hotel in Sir el-Denniyeh is equal parts melancholy and delight.

Built in 1934, it’s a dusty and slightly decrepit testament to the most fashionable furnishings of the 1930’s and 40’s, with a sprinkling of pastel 80’s Neo Deco knock-offs offered up as a concession to modernity. 

My room, a vast echoing chamber with a massive and (for the first half of the 20th Century) luxurious bathroom is even more Period, and mercifully devoid of the airbrushed Duran Duran flourishes that ‘enliven’ the public areas below. The dark wood bed is every bit as rigid and uncomfortable as ones I used to sleep on in 50¢-a-night hostels in the subcontinent and the wardrobe door doesn’t fully close. But there’s a pink tasselled bedside lamp, even if it barely illuminates the bedside table, and a wobbly writing desk in one corner, a reminder of the days when people sent postcards not Selfies, and so I’m discretely charmed.

I set the ceiling fan creaking resentfully into motion, because having been shut up since oh 1945, probably, the room is slightly musty, though the sheets are starched to perfection and the towels delightfully perfumed. Slumped moistly on the bed post-shower, I’m drowsily entertained by the thought that this is a room in which Agatha Christie could quite easily have lived during her Middle Eastern sojourns. Or died, for even with the fan on and the windows open, it is intolerably hot tonight.

Of course, it was not always this way. Once upon a time, when Sir el-Denniyeh was a popular mountain resort, the red and white splendour that is the Syr Palace was the place to see and be seen. Smartly-dressed families would drive up from Tripoli to spend the weekend, foreigners would come for the summers and the hotel's vast, vine-shaded terrace, with its tinkling fountains and legion of snappily-clad waiters, echoed with laughter and smouldering passions, as guests flirted, plotted coups and drank in the sweeping view over the river and the valleys below as they drank up their cocktails.

Then the bad times came. The summer holidaymakers stopped coming, as did the weekenders. During the war, this previously mixed town found itself forced to choose sides, and so it underwent massive demographic change. 

As the money dried up, conservatism crept in. Cosmopolitanism gave way to rigidity. Neatly clipped moustaches to straggly beards. Long hair was pinned up and then covered, and the Palace’s bar was strongly ‘encouraged’ to turn its cocktails into mocktails. No great loss, for by then, there were few in the town that would openly drink alcohol, anyway.

After the war, Sir el-Denniyeh remained neglected. Its conservatism received fresh encouragement from the Gulf, and attitudes hardened further. Ignored by the State, and surrounded by the wilds, which were as ideally suited to hiding jihadists on the run as they had previously been to bandits of a more pecuniary kind, the town and by extension the region around it developed a reputation for extremism. 

If that reputation was not unfounded, it was unfair, for it was not the inhabitants who were extreme, but rather those who came here to hide. The families did not return to summer, the tourists did not visit and the bar developed a layer of dust. But even in decay, the Palace remained the grandest place for miles and so it found new life hosting weddings, coming to life for at least a few hours on select summer nights. Marooned in time, mouldering but magnificent, the Syr slumbers, its hallways filled with the ghostly sighs of more graceful years past.

None of whom, thankfully, disturb my sleep and so after an excellent and much needed rest, we are back on the bus after breakfast to return to the trailhead in Kfarbnine. Well, we will be eventually. First, we’re making a stop at Sfeera.

There, amidst a cluster of drab homes, probably as poor and unkempt as they were in Roman times, are the remains of the temple built for Septimus Severus, future emperor of Rome, who lived in Lebanon for 4 years and whose heirs built the Coliseum. 

It’s an impressive site, small but much more intact than many of the hundreds of temples strewn across the country, most of which are no more than a pile of stones. But then Severus chose wisely, for not only was this spot relatively isolated, it also occupied a strategic position and commanded cracking views inland and along the coast, so it was worth preserving. By way of proof, we can make out the smudges of Homs and Tartus to the north, as well as the chain of small islands off Tripoli. On very clear days, it’s apparently even possible to see the coast of Cyprus. 

Sfeera, which was quite grand with satellite shrines dotted across the hillside behind, is a rare example of a temple dedicated to a man rather than a god. Though it wasn’t unusual in Rome for Emperors to be deified - Caesar, Hadrian and Augustus all had their own Imperial cults (as did Livia, so it wasn’t only about the boys) – elevation usually took place after their deaths. Perhaps Severus wasn’t willing to wait to die to be made a god, or didn’t trust that it would happen. Whatever his reasoning, he seemed to believe that as your mother probably told you, if you want something done properly, you ought to do it yourself. 

Sadly for Severus, his act of self-aggrandisement was never completed. No one really knows why and while I doubt he would be pleased to find his temple in ruins today, it might tickle him to know that he hasn't entirely been forgotten. The town that grew up around the temple is named after him. First called Severus, it became Sephiros, then Safira which finally became today’s Sfeera. Immortality, then. Of a kind.

When we do get there, Kfarbanine smells every bit as fragrant as Fradis.

We climb quickly out of the village, passing a rusting mobile water driller, just like the ones the Israelis would bomb in 2006 claiming they were missile launchers, then we continue down into a scrubby wadi past rows of beehives and climb in earnest all the way up to Tallet Hankoufa, from where we are presented with jaw-dropping views of thick forests and the snow-covered peaks behind Hermel. I’m reminded again of just how beautiful Akkar is, a far cry from what I'd always thought of as fairly dry and topographically unimpressive region. 

We wander through more ruins, clustered on the crown of the hill, the remains of an old village perhaps, parts of which have been refashioned into shepherd huts and animal pens. 

Our steep ascent is followed by an equally steep descent. At the bottom, we’re suddenly hip-deep in goats. The song of shepherd boy drifts down from somewhere above, serving as delicate counterpart to the sound of bells and of goats farting. Something around here must be making them gassy. 

We stop briefly at a spring, Ras al-Ain, where ice-cold water flows out from under a big rock. As we fill up, a young boy rides by on a donkey. He pretends not to notice us, but is unable to entirely hide his secret smile of delight at becoming the subject of so many photographs.

From here, the trail runs uphill and along a small, narrow and very rocky wadi that leads up to a vast, grassy plateau covered in buttercups and daisies that sway in the breeze. The pasturelands are ringed by low hills, covered in gnarled old oaks. The clouds have rolled in on the way up and it’s cool enough for our breath to steam, but after several days of walking in blazing sun, it’s a welcome change. At first, anyway. It’s elysian up here, so we decide to stop for lunch, lolling in the knee-high grass, watching the clouds roil overhead and by the time we're ready to get going, I’m shivering. 

Thankfully, the chill dissipates as soon as we get walking again and on the way down, still under the spell of the scenery, we stumble onto an illegal construction site. In a bowl hidden from sight, the trees have been torn out and lie on the ground, roots shrivelling in the sun, ready to be turned into firewood. The earth here is rich in iron oxide, which leaves violent, bloody scars on the landscape where digging machines and tractors have gouged up the surface.

The vista is so violent, that we stop and stare. Like a Greek chorus, the sense of judgement and distaste we radiate is palpable. One of the walkers takes a couple of photos. The digger grinds to a halt and two men, one fat and one smoking, amble uneasily towards us. 

They attempt conversation and are met with stony silence. Then they try to offer us coffee and when that fails, the fat man slinks back to a hut on the other side of the destruction. Joseph engages the smoking man in conversation, while Robin leads us away. We turn our backs, cold anger streaming off us, and walk away. The men watch until we are no longer in sight. Then the digger starts up again.

When he catches up a couple of minutes later, Joseph confirms that the dig is illegal, and explains that in the past, encounters between walkers and despoilers like these have lead to fist fights, which is why he trod so carefully, and why Robin whisked us away so quickly. Given their obvious unease, especially at having been photographed, he exchanged small talk with them to defuse the situation. Personally, I think they should be shot. Or quartered. The destruction was so wanton, so unforgiveable, that I wish Nature could bite back. 

The descent to Qemmamine is deadly and we hack through fresh thorny undergrowth and clamber over rocks and along paths made treacherous by layers of wet pine needles, oak leaves and loose stones. The descent is relentless, down, down, down with no relief until we hit the dirt road just outside the village, which like most of the settlements we’ve passed in these parts, isn’t easy on the eyes. 

Once again, the setting is spectacular. Qemmamine is crammed into a vertiginous valley, hemmed in on all sides by sheer walls of rock, thickly forested where the trees can find purchase, that rise thrillingly and vertically above us, far into the sky, peaks wreathed in cloud. Although we’re not as high up as we were just a few days ago, these mountains feel much taller. 

For most of its length, Mount Lebanon resembles the seafloor it originally was; a chain of soft, rounded peaks that overwhelm with open, expansive views, rather than raw, physical presence. Not in Akkar. Here, the peaks thrust, rather than roll, and their flanks are riven by narrow, plunging river valleys. They sharpen and become serrated and as the forests thicken, the vertical difference between the valley floor and the pinnacles increases, so that in places you find yourself craning your neck awkwardly to be able to take in a sheer rise of a thousand metres and more. 

I’m no slouch when it comes to poking around Lebanon’s off off-the-beaten-track nooks and crannies but nowhere I’ve been in the last 18 years has prepared me for Akkar. Compared to the rest of Lebanon, this part of the country looks like it has only just been made and so wind and water haven’t had time to smooth its edges. It is magnificent, yet more proof of the incredible beauty of this tiny, abused little country. And of how much has already been been lost.

It’s no surprise that such a wild region should also be home to Lebanon’s most remote village, for incredibly, Qemmamine was only linked to the rest of the country by a paved road in the 1990’s. While this makes me wonder how magical this place must have been before electricity, roads and satellite television arrived, I’ve been to enough wild, remote places not to romanticise too much. The convenience of modern technologies may have made taken the edge off life, but there is a good reason our ancestors were so quick to adopt it, when it came along.

Our entrance to the village leads to another inadvertent moment of comedy. As we walk towards the homes we’ll be staying in for the night, a young boy rides by on a very unhappy looking donkey. Not only is the poor thing loaded down with what looks like half a forest, but his rider decides to show off as he passes, and tweaks the poor mount’s tail to make him bray. And bray our little donkey does, bray and break free from the boy, who loses his grip and falls on his backside with a resounding thump.

Setting off up the road at an extremely determined pace, Donkey makes a break for freedom, forcing the boy to chase after him. The boy's mother, who has seen the whole performance, is even less impressed. Catching up, she gives her son a slap so tight, he almost goes sprawling again and then rushes over to appease Donkey.

Still braying, but this time in triumph, Donkey is led gently home, boy beside him, head hanging low.

Kfarbnine to Qemmamine  Section 3 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Kfarbnine to Qemmamine

Section 3 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Chapter 31: Drama, Destruction and Ambarees

Kfarb.jpg

Today, I’m reminded that however fit I think I am becoming, walking Lebanon’s mountains can still be exhausting.

Our trail, which leads us from Horsh Ehden to Bqaa Safrine is what my Granny, had she been the kind of woman prone to expletives, might have described as ‘fucking knackering’. 

The 25 kilometre walk, which rises a total of 1000m and loses a total of 1450m, winds across the uplands along treacherously rocky, ankle-turning trails and to add to our woes, not only is the trail fairly dry in terms of freshwater springs, it’s also fairly exposed and the day is blazingly hot.

What we get in exchange, however, is a sense of complete isolation, and god-like views across the whole of northern Lebanon and a significant sweep of the Syrian coast all the way to Tartus. 

Up here, we’re in juniper country and these slow-growing beauties, the few that have survived being turned into houses or firewood, anyway, are gnarled, ancient and, in Lebanese terms, quite massive. As we crunch across the dried berries that carpet the ground beneath them, the air fills with an intoxicating, if mildly medicinal smell that immediately reminds me of gin.

After the lush, flower-filled meadows and shady cedar and oak groves of the Ehden Reserve, the stark landscapes of the jurd, seem rather lifeless; rolling hills, rocky outcrops and scattered (and thorny) bushes. To survive up here, an area used for hundreds, if not thousands of years, as grazing land for vast fleets of goats, nature’s little omnivore, locusts in horned form, you have to be tough.

In the mountains of Btellaya, just after we’ve passed out of the boundaries of the reserve, we come across our first spring and the rather curious Mgharet el-Hawa, the Cave of the Winds, named for the ice-cold draft of air that blows out of it all year long. For the most part, Mount Lebanon is a massive slab of limestone and as most limestone often is, it is riddled with caves, crevices and cracks. This one, a rather small affair that barely deserves to be called a cave, is linked to a similar opening on the far side of Mount Lebanon, which funnels wind blowing across the Beka’a Valley through the mountain and to the coastal side, cooling it in the process. The draft is surprisingly powerful, even though the air is quite still - well, it is on this side of the mountains – but it is very cold. It’s as though we’ve stepped in front of a natural air-conditioner, which in a way, I suppose we have. It feels so good, that I stand in front of it until my teeth start to chatter.

Not far away, we come across what I take at first to be the ruins of some ancient dwelling. It turns out to be a goat farm, at least during season, but at the moment, it’s still deserted. The farm is known for its yoghurty ambarees, which is curdled in large ceramic pots. It’s one of the few places in Lebanon that still makes the cheese, for despite being one of the oldest kinds of cheese in the world, ambarees is endangered, which is pity given how delicious it is, but tastes have apparently changed and so, like so many other living artefacts (glass-blowing in Sarafand, pottery-making in Rashaya al-Fawkhar), it runs the risk of dying out, and bringing to an end in our lifetimes a chain of production that stretches back thousands of years.

The farm is a curious affair. With few windows and no visible door, it’s more wall than home, and it sits atop an outcrop, roof and walls covered defensively in thorny branches. It doesn’t look like anywhere I’ve seen before, in fact, it reminds me more of the archaic antler and horn-clad buildings of Nepal’s Upper Mustang Valley than it does of Lebanon. Like the cheese its owners come here each summer to make, it looks unspeakably, unimaginably ancient and possibly haunted. The kind of place that superstitious travellers might utter a protective prayer while passing.

It isn’t the only structure up here, though. Robin points to a suspiciously flat hilltop in the distance and tells us that what we can see is the site of a Roman outpost, somewhat inexplicably known as the Aisha Fortress, though who Aisha might be and why a Roman outpost would be named after her, no one seems to know. The part of the jurd affords strategic views and has plenty of water, which explains the outpost and why today, the high-altitude meadows are home to itinerant farmworkers, gypsy rather than Bedouin, who also roam across the Levant, moving with the seasons. It also explains why later we encounter a section of Roman road and find evidence of Roman waterworks, a massive stone-cut reservoir and the remains of an old village near a grove of absolutely gigantic oak trees and slender cypress above the village of Douraiya. 

With Bqaa Safrine now not too far off, I get a second wind. When we finally limp in to our destination for the night, I cannot remember ever feeling quite so tired, but the delicious smells emanating from the kitchen and a brutally-powerful shower revive me sufficiently that I am able to acquit myself magnificently at dinner.

The following morning, for the first time in a long time, I am in pain.

And a little sunburnt, as I had sweated profusely and been lax about reapplying sunscreen.

As usual, our day begins with a climb. Our destination tonight is the former mountain resort town of Sir el-Denniyeh, which had its heyday in the middle of the last century. We won’t be walking the whole way, though, as it’s too far off the trail. Instead, we’ll stop at Kfarbnine and be bussed from the end of the trail to the hotel we’ll be staying in, and then back to the trailhead again the following day. Family accommodation is difficult to find in these parts, apparently, and so we’ll be staying at an old Deco resort, which was very popular in the 1920’s and 30’s. 

Initially, the trail isn’t too bad, there’s a great deal more tree cover today and with high clouds, it isn’t as hot but the trail quickly becomes difficult and it isn’t long before I am sweating profusely again.

Given that the tallest mountain in Lebanon is now several days behind us and that the chain dissolves into foothills once it enters Syria, which is not that far away, I’d expected the scenery here to be pretty rather than spectacular, but it turns out that Akkar, the region where we are now walking, is one of the most beautiful parts of the country.  

I get the first intimation that my expectations are about to be overturned as we sweat our way around the side of an otherwise unassuming mountain along a steep and very rocky trail, when we turn a corner and are treated to the kind of view I didn't think existed Lebanon. 

A magnificently wild-looking mountain appears. At the top of a boulder-strewn scree slope down which tumbles, gushes and roars, the snowmelt swollen waters of the Naba Sukkar (Sugar Spring), Ijra al-Qa’alat as the craggy, weathered massif is called, is a far cry from the gently rolling heights of the rest of Mount Lebanon and reaches through the clouds, crenellations thrust into the heavens. Though not especially high by Lebanese standards, from where we are standing, it towers above us, a sheer, indomitable slab of stone.

There are massive natural rock formations on a rise about halfway up the mountains, and whether it was the mist wreathing the peaks, the roar of the river as it splashed down the slope or the triggering of some long-dormant racial memory hardwired into my genes, my heart caught in my throat. Wild and untamed, the mountain radiated a powerful pagan presence, an aura of holiness, that is so palpable, I’m surprised I haven’t yet fallen to my knees. 

As we climb, the sound of water makes the air vibrate and the clouds begin to roll in, sweeping up the valley and completely obscuring the view. Slowly, we to disappear into the mist, until we are each walking in our own private world. 

I feel the old gods watching. Their presence is tangible here, an area that perhaps is too high and too remote for the coruscating power of monotheism to reach, and through the shifting mists, some of the rocks begin to look like unworthy travellers turned to stone by vengeful gods. 

I’m not the only one to have experienced that vibe, for I later learn that there's a Roman temple up there somewhere, probably built on much older Phoenician remains and as by and large, the Phoenicians tended to stick to the coast, they must have found something special about this place. This was some Levantine Olympus, perhaps and had the mists parted to reveal Ares dallying with Demeter or Hadad getting saucy with Shala, I wouldn't have been entirely surprised.

The spell is broken as I hear what can only be the swoosh of a passing car. There’s a brand new road up here, gods dammit, which connects the Beka’a with the Denniyeh region and Tripoli. It's infrequently used and already crumbling, probably some White Elephant project, or perhaps a way for the Shiite fundamentalists of Hezbollah, who are strong on the other side of the mountain, to keep an eye on the Sunni fundamentalists that Akkar now has a reputation for producing.

Whatever the reason, the road has also permitted local youths to access areas they could not easily reach before and as we draw up to them, I see that those massive, ghostly stone pillars are covered in ugly graffiti. My heart breaks slightly, although on such a day, even this mindless intrusion of modernity – if mindless declarations of love and sad political sloganeering counts as such – cannot detract from the incredible power of this place. 

The clouds have now truly closed in. I can barely see more than a metre or two ahead. I’m almost on top of Robin before I see him standing by the side of the trail, pointing down the scree slope towards the river, which we’ll need to cross to carry on.

In the summer, this would be a simple proposition but fattened by melting snow, the river, though not wide, is a raging torrent. Falling in would not only get you wet, it might also lead to being swept over one of the dozens of small waterfalls, some of which are not that small, along its course. 

We stop at a point where the water is more shallow and hunt around for suitable rocks to throw into the river, to form a makeshift bridge. With all of us engaged, we soon manage to get enough in place to hop carefully across, and Joseph strings a rope across, so that no one slips and falls. It's a moment of slight drama but eventually, we get across safely. As we wait for everyone to cross, we squat beside a concrete water channel that is so steep and so fast flowing, it looks more like a slide at an aquapark than an irrigation channel. 

From there, we thread our way carefully through the boulders, across the scree, slipping and occasionally sliding, sending showers of pebbles tumbling down the mountainside. Just when it feels like we may never be warm again, we finally break through the clouds, and in an instant, warmth returns to the world. 

Unfortunately, we exit right beside a massive new highway, still under construction, which is apparently also going over the mountains to the Beka’a. Quite how many fucking roads an area this sparsely populated needs is anyone's guess but official disdain for nature means that roads like this are being carved unceremoniously through the mountains all over the country, utterly destroying the places they pass through.

We eat lunch there, perched on top of a large outcrop that has somehow managed to survive being razed. Curiously untouched, it is covered in trees and flowers and birds flit between the branches. It was a lovely, if cruel reminder of what had so recently been lost and while life on the outcrop continued much as it had since the beginning of time, it is obvious that once the highway opens, any lingering magic will quickly wither in clouds of fumes, birdsong replaced by impatient honking, so that no one passing this place in the future will ever suspect the beauty that once had been.

Beside the outcrop, which commands sweeping views of the uplands of Denniyeh far below us, the track drops steeply through lush fields and follows beside the concrete watercourse we saw earlier, which here snakes along the side of a cliff. We walk beside it and on it in places where there is no room to walk beside, and it isn’t always easy to keep from falling in. Winding around the cliffs, the channel flows past terraced orchards in full bloom and soon civilisation, in the form of the fragrant village of Kfarbnine, comes into view. 

It’s by far the poorest place we have walked through so far, a reminder of just how overlooked, underdeveloped and underserved the Denniyeh region has always been and the reason why when the fundamentalists washed up here in the 80s, they found such fertile ground for their divisive ideology. 

Though Kfarbnine is desperately in need of development, its inhabitants are warm and welcoming. Those that remain, anyway, for there are a noticeable number of empty and abandoned houses. This is where we are due to stop for the day and as we wait in what passes for the village square for the bus to arrive, a carload of bearded, robed fundamentalists (all with the shaved upper lip and prominent prayer marks on their foreheads that the Egyptians call ‘zabib’ or ‘raisins’) drives past, then stops for a closer look, possibly because all of us, including the women, are wearing t-shirts and most of us are in shorts. 

With a glare, they drive off in a car that looks far too expensive for these parts, towards the gleaming (but sadly unattractive) new mosque on the edge of town, which apart from the municipality, is probably, the nicest building in town. It’s certainly the largest and while it may have been funded by local emigrants, from the looks of it, it’s probably a gift from one of the Gulf Countries, possibly even the same country that funded the nice car the dour gentlemen were driving earlier. Looking around, I can’t help thinking that of all the things Kfarbnine needs, a big new mosque probably isn’t at the top of the list, but then who needs jobs, running water, 24-hour electricity or even a comfortable home when you have somewhere shiny to go and submit your complaints to God? 

Horsh Ehden to Bqaa Safrine  Section 5 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Horsh Ehden to Bqaa Safrine

Section 5 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Bqaa Safrine to Kfarbnine  Section 4 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Bqaa Safrine to Kfarbnine

Section 4 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Chapter 30: Into the Lands of the Lord of the Snows

Ehd.jpg

Shortly afterwards, we turn into the Qozhaya Valley, which together with Qannoubine makes up Qadisha.

Spelled with both a ‘k’ and a ‘q’, the name Qadisha is derived from the Syriac root word meaning ‘holy’, and as in Syriac, the letter ‘a’ is pronounced as an ‘o’, people would have spoked of the Qodisha, rather than the Qadisha Valley. It’s testament to the persistence of their linguistic roots that the inhabitants of this region still pronounce it that way in Arabic, a language that wouldn’t have been widely spoken up here until three or four hundred years ago. Indeed an old Levantine equivalent of ‘when pigs fly’ roughly translates as ‘when Christians speak Arabic’.

We hike along the thickly forested valley, which is narrower and not as deep as Qannoubine. Our goal is a monastery, St. Anthony of Qozhaya, which is where we will be spending the night. After a while, it comes into view, floating above a sea of pine trees, which must be laden with pollen, for when the wind blows, shimmering clouds of golden dust blow from trees, covering the surroundings in sticky, heady powder. 

Like the other monasteries in the area, St. Anthony’s is carved out of the side of the valley. Surrounded by pines, its red tiled roofs and weathered sandstone façade makes it look like we have stumbled into Provence or the foothills of the Italian Alps. 

It’s been a long day, and I’m eager for a rest. As we wind up the valley, we drop down to a small bridge across the river and then climb back up the other side to the monastery, a cluster of buildings built over the original rock-cut chapels and rooms, which are well over a thousand years old. One of them in the lower levels of the main building, has been turned into a museum and amongst other exhibits, proudly displays an early 19th Century printing press, which according to its plaque was purchased from Thomas Long and Sons of Edinburgh. Qozhaya has a long history of printing but this one, though venerable, is a mere stripling compared to the original press, which began churning out pamphlets and books in 1610.

Not many places in the region did. For a long time, printing was banned in the Ottoman Empire, ostensibly on the grounds that Arabic, which was the language of God, should not be produced by anything as soulless as a machine. The Empire’s non-Muslim citizens, however, who read doubtlessly inferior books of dubious authority anyway were eventually permitted to use the press, a concession that was to inadvertently give Ottoman Christians and Jews significant advantages over their Muslim counterparts a couple of centuries down the road.

In Lebanon, there’s a running dispute over which monastery was the first to print an Arabic-language book. If you insist that the book has to be printed in Arabic script, then the title goes to Kinchara, where the first locally printed Arabic-language Bible was produced in 1734. But Kinchara was not the first monastery to print a book. That title belongs to St. Anthony’s, which produced a bilingual Syriac-Arabic psalter in 1610, but as both the Arabic and the Syriac texts were printed in the Syriac alphabet, which is closely related to Arabic, Kinchara maintains that the title is theirs. Lebanese disputes about who did what first generally tend to involve Syria, so it’s worth noting that the first Arabic-language books printed in Arabic were produced in Aleppo in 1706. Though this pips Kinchara to the post, it doesn’t come close to Qozhaya. That said, it’s probably worth noting that first book printed anywhere in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t in Arabic or Syriac but in Hebrew, with Jacob ben Asher’s Arbaah Turim appearing in Constantinople in 1493 courtesy of the Ibn Nahmias brothers, who had just been expelled from Spain following the Reconquista.

After a night made significantly more jolly by the unexpected appearance of a friend, who plans to hike the trail for a couple of days, and has come bearing a sackful of rather excellent chocolates and a small bottle of brandy, I settle in and sleep like the dead.

The next morning we get off to a very hot start, with a windless march straight up the valley, during which we rise 600 metres or so over the course of two hours. As mornings go, this one feels interminable. Although we do pass a rather pretty waterfall and are walking in the shade of trees, the views aren’t inspiring, but then as I was woken at 5am by one of the other walkers clumsily crashing about the dormitory room, I’m not in the most accommodating mood. 

We reach the outskirts of Ain Tourine, a village that is apparently in the process of being rebuilt. Between the rubble-filled roads, torn netting on the buildings and ripped up cobbles, it looks more like a post-war zone than the pretty village we’ve been promised. I’m momentarily mollified by an adorable puppy, which squirms with glee as I scratch his back. Dogs bring out an almost maternal instinct in me – something the sight of babies never does – and I’m tempted to wonder if in my past lives I wasn’t always necessarily human. 

As we straggle along the main drag, which will be delightful once the reconstruction is finished, a beaming silver-haired woman in her late 50’s, comes out of her house to greet us bearing an artfully-balanced tray of cups and a steaming rakwe from which she dispenses thick, sweet black coffee with laughter and smiles. We all immediately fall in love with her, and she revels in the flood of attention. 

It’s decided that we’ll take an impromptu break and having dispensed her coffee, the woman, whose name entirely appropriately means ‘the grace of God’, begins reading the finished cups, overturning them on the tray and scrutinising the patterns left in the dregs. It seems that we’re all marvellous, glorious and have glowing futures ahead of us, which is rather nice to hear, whether or not you place any stock in the perusing of coffee grounds.

Elias, who for our sins remains with us today, has been somewhat diminished by the loss of his adoring chorus but as he doesn’t know how not to be the centre of everyone’s attention all of the time, he whips out his nay (yes, that would be a kind of flute…) and attempts to distract us from God’s Grace. His little show feels desperately needy and sad, but then he lost my sympathy five minutes after we first met him. Still, from the looks on some of the other walkers’ faces, I can see that I’m not the only one who thinks he’s a crashing bore. 

Leaving Ain Tourine, the trail takes us through fields of tall, silvery thistles. The ground is a bit loose underfoot and naturally, Captain Clumsy ends up falling face-first into them. I emerge with trousers full of prickles and soon develop a surprisingly itchy rash on my arms, which go red and puffy. Thankfully, Robin is on hand with a miracle spray. I’ve been bitten, stung and pricked by countless plants and noxious creatures over the years and never suffered an allergic reaction, so I’m a bit surprised at my body’s vehement response. Probably falling face first into a large patch of thistles didn’t help, but I resolve to give any future patches the widest possible berth.

On the outskirts of Ehden, we reach an old 17th (or possibly 7th Century, I wasn’t paying close attention) shrine to some saint or another and in a last desperate bid to get attention, Elias the Execrable begins ringing the bell frantically. Perhaps he’s trying out for the role of Qasimodo (though he may want to work on his charm), perhaps he’s been huffing glue, perhaps he was deprived of oxygen at birth, whatever the explanation for this paroxysm of demented campanology, the gambit fails. We file by, pointedly ignoring him. I can only imagine the tribulation that bringing that child up must have been and hope that his parents had access to an ample supply of Prozac.

We wind through the streets of Ehden and make our way towards Mar Gerges Cathedral, outside which there’s a statue to Gibrayil al-Sahyouni (or Gabriel Sionite), the 16th Century polyglot from Ehden who worked on translating assorted religious text from and into Arabic at the College Royal in Paris and at La Sapienza in Rome. Inside, there used to be a mausoleum for Youssef Bey Karam, the 19th Century nationalist freedom fighter and rebel who died in exile in Naples but his body has been moved to the lovely 8th Century Mar Mamas, while the cathedral undergoes rennovation.

After a very early lunch on the famous main square, which is ringed by bars, cafes and restaurants, we climb out of town along a series of old, arcaded sandstone staircase and then along a track that takes us up to the ridge above. It’s a long and gruelling ascent with relatively little tree cover, though the wind does occasionally cool us off. The views from the top of Jabal Mar Sarkis are breath-taking. The red-roofed sprawl of Ehden lies directly beneath us and although it is a bit hazy, we can see all the way out to the snow streaked slopes above the Cedars in the south, up to Tripoli and the coast to the north, and down into the Arz Valley, which is where we are heading next.

But first, we’re allowed a short break. We sprawl out on the rocks at Harf Ehden, on an outcrop near the top of this mountain named after an early Christian martyr. Sarkis and his companion Bakhos (they come as a pair) were officers in the Roman Army who were humiliated and tortured in an attempt to force them to renounce their secret belief. They refused and were separated to break down their resolve. Bakhos was removed to Barbalissos (Qala’at Balis in northern Syria), where he was beaten to death while he was being tortured, while Sarkis was moved to nearby Resafa, an ancient fortified city of Akkadian origin, where he was beheaded.  

Resafa, a city built mostly of mudbrick with a high quartzite content, which I remember made the walls glimmer in the harsh sun when I visited the sprawling, completely deserted site shortly before I came to Lebanon, was renamed Sergiopolis during the Byzantine era, when a basilica was built over the spot where the officer - now a saint - was executed and buried.

As I sit there on an outcrop covered in crosses of different sizes, swinging my feet over the several hundred metre drop, I’m reminded of the early ‘90s book by American academic, John Boswell, who uncovered evidence that Sarkis and Bakhos were invoked during male same-sex union ceremonies performed in the first centuries of the Church. Naturally, Boswell’s book was widely denounced, with ecclesiastical authorities huffing angrily about shoddy scholarship and the blatant misinterpretation of ancient texts.

Whether the early Church performed same-sex unions or not – and the evidence appears to suggest that it did - the saints’ own hagiography clearly refers to them as erastoi, the Greek word for lovers in the physical sense, so it seems that homophobia (and possibly misogyny) was something the Church learned later in life.

Surrendering the heights, we leave Ehden, a town supposedly founded by the descendants of Shem, son of Noah, and home of the great statue of Baal Loubnan, the Canaanite God of the Snows, and make our way along the Arz Valley side of the mountain.

After another short climb, we arrive at the outskirts of the national reserve, where we’re greeted by one of the reserve’s coordinators and guided to a sunny hilltop, where trays of cedar saplings and a stack of shovels await. 

An hour or so later, we’ve planted them all, adding in our small way to the mammoth task of restoring Lebanon’s long-lost forests and as we resume course, following a narrow wadi down to the eco-lodge where we’ll be spending the night, I feel quite proud of my little sapling. Should it survive climate change, careless feet, forest fires and ravening goats, it will eventually grow to become part of the Million Cedar Corridor. As I look down the valley to the coast above Tripoli and north into Syria, I’m happy that wherever in the world I may end up next, a part of me is growing slowly in the mountains of the Lord of Snow. 

Qozhaya to Horsh Ehden  Section 6 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Qozhaya to Horsh Ehden

Section 6 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Chapter 29: Cowshit, Connections and the Scent of Sanctity

Qan.jpg

The day gets off to a cracking start with a long and in places, extremely steep descent from the edge of Bsharre, down, down, down into Wadi Qannoubine.

We are following one of the old walking trails to the valley floor, which lies some five to six hundred metres directly below the town. It’s narrow, rocky and extremely slippery in places, really not much more than a faint outline most of the time. There’s no room to make mistakes, and so where the trail is either excessively narrow or otherwise precarious, chains have been attached to the cliff walls, to make things easier. 

As it is the weekend, our ranks have once again swollen, and so we are forced to make constant stops to allow everyone to catch up. This time, though, I’m not complaining. Making our way down an almost vertical cliff, the views are absolutely incredible. Qannoubine, one of two valleys that make up the area known as Qadisha (the Syriac word for ‘Holy’), is a riot of spring greenery. On both sides of the valley, multiple ribbons of silvery water fall frothing from the plateau and above us, some of the tallest peaks in the country, rise into the clear sky, their uppermost slopes still streaked with snow. 

Qadisha is an UNESCO World Heritage site and with the exception of a few families, living here is not permitted. As with a couple of the country’s other World Heritage sites (Lebanon has five, in all), that protected status is now under threat, thanks to thoughtless construction work and the laying of new roads commissioned mostly by the Maronite Church, which really ought to know better. 

For centuries, Lebanon’s assorted waqfs, religious endowments which in Lebanon are Christian as well as Muslim, took their responsibilities seriously, and were scrupulous about maintaining the vast swathes of land they own. Since the Civil War, they have been less conscientious and the bulwark they once provided has begun to fail. With few other sectors of the local economy performing well, the modern Lebanese state is aggressively, almost mindlessly construction-oriented nature, building so heedlessly that at times, you might be tempted to wonder if it were not a practitioner of the Great Work, the legendary Masonic goal of leaving the imprint of Humankind on every single atom in the Universe.

At the moment, it is only UNESCO status that prevents Qannoubine from being overrun entirely. The villages on the plateau above already encroach visually, and old dirt track, used by wanderers and church-goers, are slowly being tarmacked in direct contravention of the agreement.

Qadisha has a storied history as a place of refuge in time of religious persecution. During the Mamluk era, it was home to a community of Christians (and later of some Sufis), known in Greek as kaino beino or the ‘Community of Life’, who lived a strict, Biblical lifestyle. It is from this term that the name Qannoubine evolved and is why Qadisha is also sometimes referred to as the Valley of the Saints.

Now viewed rather dewily as ‘pure, decent’ folk, one can only imagine the puritan fervour, not that dissimilar to the Salafism running rampant across the rest of the region at the moment, that must have characterised their everyday. Still, it was this history that led to the building of dozens of rock-cut churches, chapels, monasteries and nunneries, and which attracted hermits, who made their homes in the caves and crevices that riddle the valley’s steep walls, some of whom came here from as far away as Ethiopia.

As we continue our descent, Mar Elisha, the monastery where the Maronites threw off ‘heresy’ and officially became Catholic, comes into view. Glommed onto the side of the cliff a hundred or so metres above the valley floor (sanctity always comes at a cost) it is a gleaming sandstone beacon in a sea of green, while above it, the snow-streaked slopes of Jabal Makmel glitter in the sun. 

When we eventually reach the bottom of the trail, my knees are rubbery from the strain. Though it’s good to be back on level ground, the trail here disappointingly gives way to a section of tarmac road but thankfully today, there is no traffic and soon, the road veers off across the valley floor and switchbacks up the opposite valley wall, our trail becoming a cool, tree-shaded dirt track, that winds along the bank of a river, which is in full post-winter flow. 

We pass several more waterfalls, including one that tumbles spectacularly from the plateau high above us and through a massive keyhole in the walls of the gorge. Qannoubine may not be pristine, but it is incredibly impressive, a kind of Lebanese Grand Canyon (though greener) that in places is almost a kilometre deep, more, if you take into consideration the height of the mountains all around us.

We begin to see some of the old hermit caves. Around 35 have been found so far, many still bearing traces of flaking murals and calligraphy, some in Arabic, but most in Syriac, Greek and, in places where Ethiopian hermits lived, Amharic, as well. There were so many Ethiopians here at one time – a Roman-era saint from Tyre is credited with the conversion, explaining the ties between the two countries – that one of the nearby monasteries was given over to them, which would no doubt surprise many contemporary Lebanese who can only conceive of Ethiopians as domestic workers. 

The trail meanders along the valley floor and we continue to lose altitude, albeit more gently. Sometimes it disappears altogether and, in a reprise of the trail to Baskinta, we end up walking along a wide concrete tube that contains sewage, rather than water. It’s old and tatty, so we have to be careful not to fall through holes in places. 

Our local guide today is every bit as annoying as Georges. Clearly, there’s something about this region and the people who live here. Elias is tall, tattooed and a native of the valley - his family is one of the few permitted to live in Qannoubine itself. This should make him the ideal person to lead us. Unfortunately, he is also very much in love with himself, and seems appears to walk with an invisible mirror suspended in front of him, so relentlessly does he preen. 

He also sings, God help us, and at the top of his voice. In this, he is aided and abetted by a handful of other walkers, amongst them the gay couple and his apparent love interest, a slightly older woman who feigns constant terror, clinging to his arm every time the slightest bump appears in the trail and screeching like a chicken being plucked, singlehandedly reversing the work of generations of feminists in the process.

Perhaps noticing the way our self-obsessed chaperone discretely but inappropriately cops a feel of Chicken Woman each time she attaches herself to him, the portlier of the two chorus queens, who is obviously interested in the one muscle Elias hasn’t yet flexed in public, attempts the same gambit. But when his second, admittedly artful attempt at a ‘stumble-and-grab’ is rewarded with a frigid glare, he dusts himself off and finds consolation in flirtation via sing-along. Between Chicken Woman, the Chorus Queen and Narcissus, we have descended to such a level of camp that this point, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Barbra Windsor come wobbling out of the undergrowth.

The sewage pipe at least is wider and flatter than the water pipe, so our walk along it proceeds at a fair pace. As we get deeper into the valley, we pass the remains of the occasional ruined home, though how old these remains may be is difficult to tell. The few hamlets permitted to exist in Qannoubine, which are quite literally no more than a couple of houses, are all along the far side of the valley, where the walls of the gorge are less sheer. 

As the trail rises from the valley floor and up into pine forests, we catch a glimpse of a number of ruins dotting the wall of the far side of the valley, amongst them the remains of Mar Semaan, the ancient Maronite patriarchate, which is built into a series of caves. We also pass beneath the remains of an old hermitage-cum-monastery just beneath the town of Hadshit, which Joseph says still had traces of 4th and 5th Century frescos the last time he was there, though as the ruins are not protected, there’s no knowing how much remains intact. Like their 18th and 19th Century European counterparts, when faced with a wall of medieval frescos, the response of too many local visitors is to carve their initials into the plaster. So much of Lebanon’s unique and impressive heritage remains undiscovered and uncatalogued, and most of what is known is unprotected. Properly managed, it would make the country far more money in the long run than pointless construction, but as the political ‘elite’ here - and indeed, in so many other countries, these days - repeatedly demonstrates, the environment and heritage are only useful in so much as they can be used for immediate profit.

Shortly before lunch, we climb up to Our Lady of Qannoubine, a monastery that was once also the seat of the Maronite Patriarch. The church is full of teenage second and third-generation Lebanese emigrants, back in the fatherland for the summer to discover their roots, but once they file out, we’re able to admire the remaining 12th century frescos (most didn’t survive the mandatory whitewashing required by Ottoman authorities), including a psychedelic number depicting St. Stephen and the Virgin. The big draw though, is the surprisingly well-preserved mummy of Patriarch Youssef Tyan in a small chapel next door to the rock-cut church. Tyan died in 1820 in an ‘odour of sanctity’ - which apparently means that his corpse emitted a ‘fragrance’ after death - and was first buried under the church, before he was later exhumed and placed on view in a glass coffin. I can’t help feeling a stab of pity. He looks good for a 200 year-old corpse, but to be place on display like a rack of lamb, seems an ignominious end.

We have lunch in a cave at one end of the monastery and then resume our walk. From here, the trail drops back down towards the river and after a while, we pass Abou Joseph, a fairly well-known restaurant, popular in summer months and at weekends, which is strangely empty today, but perhaps its still too early for lunch.

From here, we climb steeply out of Qannoubine, through a side valley and down to Fradis, a rather remote village between the two main valleys of Qadisha area. The village’s name is unusual. Some say it’s Byzantine, some that it’s Canaanite, but the most commonly accepted story is that it’s a corruption of the Persian word ferdows, or Paradise - though how a Lebanese town would end up getting a Persian name isn’t clear. The thickly forested valley it occupies certainly deserves the description, but the village itself is a cluster of fairly unattractive buildings. We make entry beside a row of animal sheds and so if this is, indeed, paradise, our first impression of it is that it smells overwhelmingly of cow shit. 

Immediately, we’re greeted by a cheekily cheerful, possibly inebriated cowherd, ciggie dangling from his lips, who insists on introducing us to his prize Frisian, which he informs us, only half mockingly, that he’s willing to sell us for a mere $2000. Gender not-withstanding, the cow is called Obama. Being no expert on the average price of milch cows in Mount Lebanon, I can’t tell whether the name has been given as homage or as a joke. Perhaps if he were to name a pig ‘Trump’, all would become clear.

Walking into the village, which is more attractive within than from without, we hear music and we stop at a rather vigorous spring to fill up. In a nearby house, there’s a party going on. The day is warm and our spirits are high - mine especially, now that Elias has stopped singing - and we begin to dance. We quickly attract attention. Some of the children at the party lean out of the window to watch and a neighbour comes out onto his porch, where he stands beaming, clapping in time and shouting ‘aiwaaiwa’ (‘that’s it, that’s it’) as we dance, until the host of the party emerges to see what the fuss is all about. 

As greetings are exchanged, we learn that his name is Richard and that the slightly sulky, sleepy-eyed little girl he’s clutching in one arm is his daughter, who has recently broken her arm. Momentarily distracted from pouting, she raises one arm, which is wrapped in a shiny new cast. Hilariously, Richard is a childhood friend of one of the women walking with us today. This leads to a great deal of hugging and cries of joy, as neither has seen the other since they were children in Guadeloupe. Of all places. Naturally, this felicitous reunion means that we’re invited to the party and we we learn that when he left Guadeloupe, Richard lived in Paris for a while, but missed the countryside and so when on a trip to Lebanon one year, he fell in love with a girl from Fradis, he decided to move with her back to her village. 

It is a classic Lebanon moment. Nowhere else would someone born in the Caribbean and brought up Paris end up in a remote mountain village, where one day, he would chance across a friend he had not seen since they were both children. I’ve witnessed so many of these unexpected encounters over the years - some less desired than others - that I’m no longer surprised by them. After all, Lebanon is a small country and the usual six degrees of separation that pertain elsewhere, are often reduced here to one, or at most two. This means that for the most part, almost everyone, from the Prime Minister to the owner of a cow called Obama, can be reached by asking friends if they know someone who knows them.

The trail calls and eventually, we are forced to make our goodbyes, with Richard and his friend vowing to remain in touch from now on and Richard’s wife inviting her and her family to ‘come for a coffee, anytime’ and we leave in flurry of goodbyes, as though we had all now become sons and daughters of Fradis.

After the fun and laughter, the stairs out of Paradise feel especially steep. We slog our way upwards dutifully, crossing the narrow road to which the stairs lead, and follow the trail upwards and over the crest of the hill, where we get our last glimpse of fragrant Fradis, already lost amongst the trees. 

Bsharre to Qozhaya  Section 7 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Bsharre to Qozhaya

Section 7 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Chapter 28: Treasures in the Trash

Arz.jpg

We’ve been put up the Karam Hotel for two nights, as we have our second day off walking. Built back in the days when the Lebanese, and many other Arabs used to take to the mountains to escape the summer heat, sometimes spending weeks, even months at a time in their cooler confines, it doesn’t look like it has been redecorated much since 1975. 

Lebanon is chock full of hotels (and bars and restaurants and offices) that exist in a timewarp, although many fewer than when I first arrived, when it was still possible to scour rubbish dumps for almost pristine 60’s and 70’s furnishings, chucked out by families that had spent the 15 long years of the war abroad and recently returned, wished to bring their homes up-to-date.

Such were the pickings that some of the savvier local and European antiques dealers employed scouts tasked with finding thrown away Retro gems, which by the late 90’s, had once again become fashionable. A friend of mine found a warehouse full of carpets and prints by Verner Panton, which were still in their original packaging and another lucked upon a pair of mint condition Elephantau Chairs by Jean Royère, who became the subject of renewed interest after a retrospective of his work was arranged by Tom Ford. I don’t know how much he eventually sold the Royère chairs for, but the French interior design boutique that bought them from him put them on sale for $20,000. Each. 

By the time I arrived in ‘98, most of the really big finds had been found, at least the ones that were in good condition - though I did stumble across a dusty old shop in Hamra selling vintage Adidas. My own forays to the dumps netted me a set of locally-made copies of a famous late 60s Danish sofa set that were all but indistinguishable from the originals, a gorgeous pair of Finn Juhl lounge chairs (which heartbreakingly broke shortly after I had them refurbished) and a pair of low, rotating fibreglass veranda chairs straight out of Space Odyssey.

The Karam is less 50’s fabulous than 40’s Fine, with the odd anachronistic touch from the 70s and 80s thrown in for good measure. The rooms are spare, but spacious and although the dining terrace overlooks the main road – even today, many Lebanese restaurants tend to face towards the flow of traffic, rather than the view, to make them look more popular and enticing – it proves to be a pleasant enough place to while away the hours.

Not that I get much chance to do that, as the following morning, just after I’ve finished washing my clothes and tended to my emails, my friend Mouna arrives with camera crew in tow. We are going to fake part of the walk up around Al Arz, and then shoot an interview, which we plan to add to the shots I’ve been filming along the way, in the hopes of making a short documentary, a taster that we can later use to see if there’s any interest in turning the walk into a TV series.

On the drive up, Mouna tells me about a local family, the Aridas of Berqasha, who owned silver mines in Mexico in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. In her declining years, the matriarch of the family, who had remained in Bsharreh, summoned her descendants back to Lebanon, where they disembarked some time in the 1940’s laden with so many belongings that they had to hire a mule caravan to carry their luggage up the narrow, twisting trail to the village. Fresh out of Mexico City, a wealthy and cosmopolitan city at the time, and returning in the style to which silver barons must have been accustomed, the long, dusty trek up into Mount Lebanon probably had Arida fils wondering what the hell kind of hick country their grandmother called home. Clannish even today, in the 1940s, this part of the country must have been suffocatingly close, especially to people brought up in a bustling city, and one can only imagine the whispering that must have accompanied (and succeeded) such a theatrical arrival.

I experience a faint echo of that notoriety as I return to the Karam late in the afternoon, trailing clouds of glamour, as the appearance of a film crew that morning had not gone unnoticed, but any baronial pretensions I may effect are quickly quashed by the discovery that tonight, I will have roommates, from the looks of them, an older, closeted gay couple. 

I wake slightly tired, as the older half of the couple spent much of the night loudly, if mellifluously snoring. Breakfast is unusually sparse, or possibly just normal. If one thing has been a constant along the trail, it is the effusive hospitality of our hosts, who have always presented us with far more food than we could possibly consume. 

We get off to a delayed start, and as it is Friday, we have been joined by a number of day walkers, and so we are now a group of 20-odd. I still haven’t quite managed to get used to these weekend influxes, which dilutes the dynamic built up during the week, when we return to our core group of four. But it is fun to see fresh, eager faces and now, 21 days in, watching them strain impatiently to get going reminds me of that first, bright morning in Marjayoun, which already feels like a thousand miles and many years ago. 

Thankfully, we skip the long climb out of town along the tarmac and are bussed to the start of the trail. Having walked down that part of the trail, I can't say I'm heartbroken. It is very hot today, and nothing would be less fun than walking with cars for the first twenty minutes.

We’ve been told to be careful with our water, as there are few potable sources of water along today’s route, which begins deep in farmland, where we walk through terraces of cherries, apples and pears. The trail is good and surprisingly flat, once we’ve made our ascent, but as it is quite hazy, the normally stunning view is somewhat diminished. We can already see the entirety of today’s trail, which will lead us around the high cirque at the top of the Qannoubine Valley before swinging around the other side of the valley, where we will drop down to Bsharreh, which is almost directly opposite Bazaoun. 

The view for most of the day will be of the wall of brownish-grey peaks around the cirque, which give onto a stark and otherworldly high-altitude plateau and the underwhelming ‘peak’ of Qornet el Sawda, the highest point in the Middle East, which tops out at 3088 metres. Mind-bogglingly, the Martian-like terrain of the plateau is being touted as the future location of an überdeluxe ‘resort’ for the überwealthy – the kind of people who travel everywhere by helicopter. Naturally. The fact that should this ‘resort’ ever be built, it would pollute one of Lebanon’s main water sources, not to mention ruin the pristine landscape, just to permit a clutch of billionaires to ‘live’ there for a couple of weekends a year, apparently is not a consideration.

As we climb steeply up through the fields above Bqaa Kafra, at 1650m, Lebanon’s highest continually-inhabited village. Al Arz/The Cedars (or to give them their full name, The Cedars of the Lord) come into view as a patch of dark green in the middle of the vast bowl-like cirque, and we begin to drop down, reaching the outskirts of the reserve at almost the exact spot where Mouna and I were filming the day before. Today, we have to circumnavigate a broken main, which is spewing water wastefully into the air. Ageing infrastructure accounts for almost 50% of water loss in Lebanon, a country that increasingly runs dry each summer, despite being most water-rich nation in the Middle East.

The reserve is still protected by a stone wall that was paid for by Queen Victoria, who had a soft-spot for Lebanese cedars and is credited with starting the craze for them in Britain, where the wetter, cooler climate results in faster-growing, though much shorter lived trees. The ones here in The Cedars are amongst the oldest in Lebanon, the largest of which are several thousand years old.

While the wall looks almost as ancient as the tress, it does keep the reserve tidy, which is more than can be said for the area immediately around it, which is awash in rubbish and rubble from construction and new roads. As sights go, this one is sad and desolate and I can only hope that the next time I visit the Cedars, I won’t have to hunt for them in the middle of some flashy, gated country club.

Inside the reserve, ur-Lebanon reasserts itself and as we are directed to a spot to sit and have lunch by the ghastly Rudy Rahme statue carved out of the remains of an ancient cedar that died after it was struck by lightning in the 90's (an ignominious end for such a venerable elder, on both accounts), the glimpses of snow-streak mountains between the trees, the chatter of birdsong and the delicate scent of cedar on the breeze makes it possible to forget the chaos that surrounds us.

After lunch, we wander around the reserve. As one of Lebanon’s top attractions, I’ve been to The Cedars countless times with friends and visitors but despite this, it’s even more beautiful than I remember. The only source of irritation today is our local guide, Georges, who doesn't seem to be fully in control of the gaggle of hikers he’s inherited for the next two days.

We’ve been joined by local guides periodically along the trail. Most are fairly new at the job and so getting them to lead allows Joseph and Robin to determine whether they know what they are doing, where they are going, and what they are talking about. 

Georges does not and we are repeatedly forced to wait for him to show us the way, not because he is a slow walker, but because he is easily distracted by the sight of bouncing breasts, of which today there are a surfeit. One particularly galling wait occurs as we are forced out of Eden and onto the busy, ugly road outside the reserve, where for no discernible reason we stand waiting sullenly until Georges remembers he’s supposed to be in charge and finally leads us into the rolling hills on the other side of the row of roadside shops, all selling things that were probably recherché in the 1850’s, but which today, no one seems to want. How any of them make a living is anyone’s best guess. 

Like the low hills on the other side of the reserve, the land here is disfigured by new roads and plots for holiday chalets, and we discover that last year’s track has once again become a freshly-tarmacked road. Hot, dusty and for some reason full of flies, it feels like we’re walking through the Valley of Death but after a while, we follow a trail beside a sign pointing to Cedar Heaven, a restaurants/resort above us that somewhat ironically, turns out to be located next to a new industrial estate. 

Perched on the edge of a cliff, the rather melancholy restaurant may not be the first place I’d go to have a meal, but it is blessed with an absolutely jaw-dropping view out over Qannoubine and what appears to be half of the Middle East.

As we wait for all the hikers to catch up, we sprawl in the deserted rockery-cum-garden and I strike up a conversation with one of the day-walkers, an English woman called Lauren, who has apparently chosen to study Arabic in Tyre. As we chat, she tells me that her landlord is convinced that she’s a spy. Having been accused of that myself on a number of occasions – though mostly for being a journalist, rather than for being a foreigner - I can see why a man from Southern Lebanon, a place that has seen more than its share of suspicious foreign visitors in the recent past, might make such an assumption, especially with the presence of a large corps of UN staff and soldiers billeted in the town. His frank appraisal of her doesn’t seem to have put him off and Lauren credits much of her Arabic ability to the conversations she’s had with his family at the many home-cooked meals to which she has been invited.

There is a large metal cross at the far end of the garden, which apparently marks the trail down to Bsharreh. It is a steep and in places rather tricky descent, that leads past a large, heavily eroded obelisk that sits above four rock-cut Phoenician tombs, but half of the trail has been obliterated by a massive landslide, so we are forced to make a short, and even steeper detour along rocky goat tracks. 

When we reach the bottom of the trail, we follow a rocky riverbed down to a dirt road, at the end of which waits our bus. From here, the only way into the town is along a busy main road, and while getting onto a bus does feel a bit like cheating, it beats dodging traffic.

We stop off at the Khalil Gibran museum, a collection of the writer’s personal belongings; books, minor antiquities and furniture, as well as a rather nice Armenian tapestry of Christ, and a collection of the author’s paintings, a few of which are interesting in a Blakeish kind of way. Gibran, a native of Bsharreh, is also buried here, which is surprising given the disdain for the town and its people that is evident in his work, but when one is the author of the second biggest-selling book in the English language (The Prophet is beaten only by the Bible), one can be snippy, and still end up a hero.

Bazaoun to Bsharreh  Section 8 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Bazaoun to Bsharreh

Section 8 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

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