Lebanon

Interlude Two: Kismet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I trudged onwards.

“Hey, where are you going?” 

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

“Get in. I’ll take you”

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

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

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

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

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

I ignored him and kept walking.

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

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

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

I made as if to cross the road again.

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

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

He sighed. 

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

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

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

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

I said I did.

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

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

Samir laughed. 

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

I smiled, relaxing.

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

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

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

Samir laughed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 22: Sun, Saj and Sannine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baskinta to Kfardebian

Section 14 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Chapter 21: Adventures in Breathlessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mtain to Baskinta

Section 15 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

 

Chapter 20: Mud, Glorious Mud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falougha to Mtain.

Section 16 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

Chapter 19: Walking on Knives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ain Zhalta to Falougha

LMT Section 17

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

 

 

Chapter 18: Of Double Agents and Deceitful Weather

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Dinner gathers us together, but it’s a muted affair, as everyone is exhausted.

The day’s walk hasn’t been particularly tough, especially after the marathon slog that was Day One and Two of the walk, but the cumulative effect of hiking long distances every day is taking a toll. 

Apart from aching knees and a sore back and backside, which are all par for the course, my feet are a bloody mess and my toes have been pounded so often against the toecap of my boots during the long, rocky descents that five of my toenails have turned an ominous shade of black. Obviously, I am going to lose them at some point, but this worries me less than the fact that three of them are also as plump and puffy as a suckling pig on market day, and hurt to the touch. 

I consult Joseph, who confirms my suspicion that they are infected. It’s too late to pop out to the chemist, as the shops are all shut, but one of the other walkers, an older American woman in her 70s called Judy, kindly offers me a tube of antiseptic ointment, which I subsequently apply conscientiously morning and night, until the inflammation subsides and my nails drop off.

Quiet and self-possessed, Judy gives the impression of being rather shy but turns out to be one of the more interesting people I will meet on the trail, which she is hiking for the first ten days.

Although she now lives in Hawai’i and is obviously a graduate of the Flower Power generation, as we get to chatting, I discover that she briefly lived in Lebanon in the early 1970’s, just before the civil war. For reasons that she never fully explains, she was studying Arabic at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, the infamous language school first opened by the British Army in Jerusalem in 1944 and later moved to the mixed Druze-Christian mountain town of Shemlan, which overlooks Beirut, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1947.

Given its close ties to the British government and original mission of training army officers to speak Arabic, MECAS was known locally as the ‘School for Spies’, especially after Kamal Joumblatt, father of Druze chieftain Walid, accused the school of training MI6 and CIA agents. 

Whether or not this was true – and it seems unlikely that intelligence operatives would not have studied there with or without the school’s connivance, British spy, George Blake certainly did. 

Born George Behar - his father was an Egyptian Jew – Blake was summoned to London from his studies in Shemlan in 1961 to defend himself against the accusation that he was a Soviet double agent. Under interrogation, he confessed to having switched sides during the Korean War, during which he was captured by the Korean Peoples’ Army and detained for three years in Pyongyang. 

He had been passing the names of British and American agents to the Soviets for years. As many of them had been eliminated by the KGB as a result, he was sentenced to 42 years in prison, the longest ever handed down by a British court at the time.

But Blake wasn’t the only Soviet double agent working in Beirut during the 50’s and 60’s, which as an ‘open’ city was overflowing with single, double and who knows, maybe even triple agents of all kind and creed at the time, nor was he the most famous. 

That distinction belongs to Kim Philby, one of the key members of the Cambridge Five spy ring, who defected from Beirut on a Soviet ship bound for Odessa one stormy January night in 1963, two years after Blake’s arrest.

The son of St. John Philby, a Sri Lankan-born British colonial civil servant, who served in India and what was then known as Mesopotamia before converting to Islam and becoming advisor to Ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia, Philby had been living in Beirut since 1956, where he worked ostensibly as a correspondent for The Observer.

If his father had been a life-long Arabist and Orientalist, a term that had greater cachet before Edward Said turned it into a synonym for bigotry, and led a life that can only be described as ‘large’, Harold Adrian Russell (he was nicknamed ‘Kim’ after the famous Kipling character, a somewhat prescient choice), was drawn more towards the Communist World, and studied Russian at London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies before becoming a spy. 

Philby had been a double agent almost from the start of his career in espionage in the 1930’s, although he doesn’t appear to have been especially highly regarded by the KGB as an agent. 

His career almost ended in the mid-50’s, when he was fingered in the investigation into fellow Cambridge Fivers, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. While Philby was exonerated, the taint of suspicion was enough for him to be cut loose by both MI6 and the KGB, and it was only after he moved to Beirut as a journalist that he eventually resumed working for MI6 before coming under renewed suspicion in 1962, and defecting to Moscow the following year.

Although he is largely unknown in Beirut these days, Philby rented an apartment on Rue Spears and had a beach hut in Saint Simon. While the hut (and the beach) are long gone, swallowed up by the growth of Beirut’s southern suburbs during the war, the apartment survived. Like much of the surrounding neighbourhood, it lay empty for decades after the war and intrigued by his story, I tried to visit it on several occasions but was always denied permission by the landlord, although I did see glimpses of it in surreptitious footage shot as part of a documentary about Philby produced by the BBC a few years back.

Never the most successful of spies, moving to the USSR must have been hard, as he traded life in the Middle East’s most freewheeling city for virtual imprisonment in a cramped apartment in Moscow, where he discovered that he was not, in fact, the high-ranking KGB officer he’d been led to believe but rather, was a bit of an embarrassment. 

He appears to have led a mostly desultory life in Moscow, convinced in his final years that his Russo-Polish wife was also reporting on him, but his reputation was somewhat rehabilitated after his death, enough at least for him to be honoured on a Soviet stamp shortly before the collapse of the USSR.

Judy could not have known either Blake or Philby. She arrived in Beirut almost a decade after Kim’s defection, and claimed that she only heard the rumours about her school after she had left, herself. Despite this, she seemed remarkably well-informed about MECAS’ association with espionage and the way she spoke about her time in Lebanon made me rather suspect there was much more to the determined septuagenarian than was permitted to meet the eye. 

Feet slathered in antiseptic and boots tied using a method I found on YouTube, which promised to minimise slippage inside the boot, we set off from Barouk to Ain Zhalta, home of a gallerist friend in Beirut, who together with his wife has been transforming his sleepy Shouf mountain village into an artistic retreat, complete with printing press, engraving centre and annual residencies for expatriate Lebanese painters.

The trail begins with a long, and in places, fairly steep climb out of town. We’ve begun at about 600 metres and the goal is to wend our way back up to about 1800 metres, where we will remain until the descent to Ain Zhalta later.

The trail meanders through patches of pine and young cedar forest but a couple of hours in, the skies darken ominously and as it begins to rain, the wind picks up. It seems we’re in for a storm and as not all of the Sunday hikers have brought appropriate clothing, Joseph and Robin decide that it will be safer to take a lower track, instead. 

As we are now three or four hundred metres above that track, we are forced to make a very steep descent along the very rocky bed of a river, which is dry, but slippery as a result of the rain. Never the steadiest person on my feet, I manage to fall three times, twisting my arm quite badly. 

There’s a lot of grumbling from some of the long-distance walkers and the more serious weekenders about ‘part-timers’ mucking up the trek. This discontent intensifies later when the storm fails to materialise, and so after another round of consultation, Joseph leads us back up to the original trail. 

The sun has now come out, so this early afternoon climb is hot and gruelling. Thankfully, our surroundings are delightful, a thick forest full of towering, centenarian trees, whose branches dapple the ground with shimmering patterns of light. As clouds scud across the sky at high speed, the air is heavy with the fragrance of cedar and pine, the silence underscored by birdsong and the crunch of boots on ground. 

Emerging from the forest weary and sweaty, we finally stop for lunch at nearly 3pm beside a camouflaged concrete box that is known rather whimsically as the ‘Japanese Room’. This small bird watch funded by the Japanese government overlooks a seasonal meltwater lake fringed in lush, waist-high flower meadows. Neither lake nor meadows last much more than a couple of months, a brief explosion of glory before the summer turns the grass to straw and the lake to a sun-baked expanse of thick mud.

But for now, it is paradise.

Long fingers of silvery-blue snow are nestled in the hollows around the lake, which glitters golden in the afternoon sun. Of Japanese and birds, there is nary a trace, though we do see signs of boar activity, with evidence of rooting around the trees. After a hard day’s climb, the pause is a welcome opportunity to shuck boots and shed socks and allow the warm sun, cool grass and gentle breeze to soothe battered feet and morale.

Barouk to Ain Zhalta

LMT Section 18

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

 

Chapter 17: Lamartine's Cedar and the Lost Lady of Joun

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We wake to the dizygotic delights of a breakfast of fresh, crisp manqoushe oozing cheese and za’atar and cool, cloudy skies.

The first two hours of the walk present the unappetising prospect of a gruelling vertical climb from Ma’asser to the Cedar reserve on the peaks above, and honestly, I can’t be bothered. 

As the weekend walkers hit the slopes with all the pent-up energy and eagerness accumulated by their week as wage slaves, I thumb my nose at gratuitous torture and decide to save my knees for a more worthy goal – like making it to the end of this 480-km long walk - so I hop on a minibus and arrange to meet the rest of the gang in the reserve.

The Shouf Cedar Reserve is home to some very distinguished trees. The oldest amongst them are as much as three thousand years old, which means that when they first sprouted, the Assyrians still ruled Phoenicia, but most are much younger, barely a few hundred years old.

Although the ancient copse of cedars up in Al Arz gets more attention - largely for its cinematic sexiness - the Shouf Reserve is a proper forest and has far more trees. Reforestation began here in earnest during the civil war, when this swathe of the mountains was under the control of Druze clan leader, Walid Joumblatt, who for all his manifest faults and bloody complicity in massacres, at least cared enough about his fiefdom’s environment to legislate its preservation – something the rest of the country is still happy to ignore.

By the time I get off the bus, which has coughed and chugged its way up to the road-head outside the main entrance to the reserve, the clouds have lowered and it's absolutely freezing. Shrouded in mist, the trees are magnificent, their vast horizontal planes and solid bulk softened, dissolving and rematerialising in the swirling clouds. 

For some reason best known to God, the reserve shop is closed and so I can’t even buy a cup of tea to keep the chill from my bone, so by the time the first walkers stagger into view, wearing the kind of expressions that confirm to me that taking the bus was the correct choice, I feel like I am on the verge of pneumonia. After a short pause, to allow stragglers to limp their way to the top, we set off into the trees. 

Extolled for its scent in the Song of Songs and valued by the Pharaohs for its longevity and resistance to pests, Cedrus Libani has been considered a sacred tree since ginger-locked Gilgamesh travelled from the sun-baked plains of Uruk to the snowy peaks of Jabal al-Sheikh in search of its resin, for the Sumerian demigod had been told the cedar was the Tree of Life. 

Interestingly, the cedar is also sacred in India, where it is known as the deodar, and it has been associated with Shiva, Lord of Time, Destruction and Dance, for thousands of years. Clearly, there is something about this particular tree that inspires universal reverence - perhaps its size or the fact that it can survive for thousands of years. 

I had learned the previous day during our introduction to the Biosphere, that the cedar is a monoecious species, a kind of botanical hermaphrodite, which means that each one possesses male and female reproductive systems, and they are able to reproduce by pollinating their own cones, effectively cloning themselves. Once pollinated, cones mature on the branch for three years, changing in colour from green, to striped, to brown, at which point they release their seeds on the wind. 

Lebanon’s forests were already under attack by Roman times. Scattered all over Mount Lebanon you can find stone edicts erected on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian, that prohibit the felling of trees between altitudes of 350 and 2000 metres. But it was during the Ottoman period, that Lebanon’s forests were really put to the torch – quite literally - as trees were cut down to warm homes all over the empire.

Today, pollution, rising temperatures and decreased snowfall has weakened many of the older trees, making them vulnerable to a fairly common arboreal virus. It has wrought havoc in one of the larger reserve to the north, Tannourine, although Joseph tells us that the situation is slightly better now than it was 10 years ago, largely thanks to the aggressive pruning of infected boughs. 

We stop for a quick talk by the cedar that French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine apparently liked to sit under and stare out over the valleys below to the coast. Lamartine was rather taken with Lebanon, despite the fact that his daughter died in Beirut, and it features prominently in the account he wrote of his travels in the near east, the Voyage en Orient

His love was reciprocated, for today, he not only has a cedar and a school named after him, he’s got an entire valley, too. All that for spending a couple of months wandering about composing verse. 

Mention of Lamartine reminds me of poor old Lady Hester Stanhope. Archaeologist, adventurer, shipwreck survivor and probably the only woman to propose to Ibn Saud, she lived in Lebanon decades longer than the poet, spoke Arabic, wore men’s clothing and became a formidable political force in the Shouf mountains, but today, not even the ruins of her palace in Joun bear her name. A case of classic sexism? Or did the Lebanese feel more comfortable commemorating a Frenchman who wrote a book about Lebanon and left, than they did commemorating an Englishwoman who played politics, and stayed?

For obvious reasons, I’ve always found Stanhope’s story far more compelling than Lamartine’s - Nineteenth Century male Orientalists are ten a penny,but you can count on one hand the number of Nineteenth Century European women who became powerbrokers in the Middle East - though I have to admit that when it came to picking a pretty view, Lamartine knew what he was doing. Not that we can see the coast, today, between the dense canopy and the louring skies, we’re lucky to be able to see the valley floor below.

As we head off through the trees, I get chatting with one of the weekend walkers. Despite his youth, Rabih is a judge in Beirut, a job I cannot say I envy him, for between overt threats (four judges were shot in court by a gunman who is still on the lose, just weeks after I arrived) and political corruption, Lebanon’s judiciary is anything but safe. Or independent. 

Naturally, I don’t find out that he’s a judge until we’ve had a lengthy conversation that amongst other things, involves confessions of my drug-fuelled youth.

Rabih tells me that his job involves fighting absolutely everyone, from the criminals and their clans and political supporters, to the police and the politicians. This constant uphill battle became so overwhelming, that a few years earlier, he had considered giving up his position and briefly tendered his resignation. 

Turning him down, his superiors suggested that he reconsider, so he was given 2 years’ leave, and took up a position as a legal advisor in Abu Dhabi. The environment in the emirate was completely different and although he says that he appreciated the opportunity, he also found it frustrating. As he read it, Abu Dhabi had the desire to change but didn’t always have the means, because the push for reform was constantly hamstrung by the pushback from tradition. 

It was this that prompted his return to Beirut, for while Lebanese officialdom may not seek change, as things are working perfectly well for the oligarchs and kleptocrats, the country’s more liberal environment and history of progressive politics means that it has the means to do so.

As we talk, it becomes clear that Rabih’s experience abroad reinvigorated his belief in the necessity of enacting change at the judicial level, and of tackling Lebanon’s post-war miasma in earnest. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he nevertheless describes himself as an ‘angry man’, and says that there is something wrong with anyone who sees the world as it is and is not angry, themselves. 

He’s curious to know why, as a journalist in Lebanon, I don’t write about politics, adding that some of the most influential political writers in the region are foreigners - but as he mentions Bernard Lewis, I suspect he's talking more about influence on US foreign policy, than internal Lebanese politics. He’s also curious about my reasons for leaving Lebanon after such a long time, especially as I share much of his passion for his country, and he asks if in deciding to leave, I feel like I am giving up. 

I have often wondered as much, myself. 

For almost two decades, Lebanon has been my personal cause, fought culturally, rather than politically. I can’t say that I don’t feel a twinge at the thought of going, but I have reached a point where I want to leave while I am still in love with the country, before my relationship sours permanently. 

As I tell Rabih this, I can’t help but think again of Lady Hester. In her final years, she was a shadow of her former self, increasingly destitute and so isolated that towards the end, she only received visitors by night, and never allowed them to see her fully. Did she look back on her years in the region with regret? Or did she die knowing that she had lived her life even more fully than most men of her generation? 

It strikes me that Lebanon is no country for old anyones, for although families are much closer and thus far more likely to take care of an elderly relative, age is still perceived as a diminishment. Fifty is old, sixty is ancient, seventy, well you might as well be dead, whereas in the less family-oriented parts of the Developed World, old age has now become an opportunity to start over and become someone new, though whether this is more evidence of implacable Calvinism or a more humane approach that recognises that not every senior citizen believes their lives should revolve around grandchildren, I’m not sure.

The walk continues through the Biosphere, alternating between open grassland and swathes of thick, lush forest. The clouds still limit the view, but it is a more enjoyable walk than the previous day, if only because of the beauty of the immediate landscape. We stop for a leisurely lunch in a copse of cedars, many of which, sadly, seem to be ailing. 

Not long after we resume walking, we begin a lengthy descent to our stop for the night in the town of Barouk, following a rocky and at times quite treacherous path. 

After about an hour, we pass two couples as they emerge from a clump of bushes. Our presence is clearly unexpected and discombobulating. The men are Lebanese, but the two women are of eastern European origin, and are clad in short skirts and pencil-thin stilettos, the kind of clothing that doesn’t seem especially suited to hiking, especially not at the time of year.

Eastern European women suffer from an unfortunate stereotype in the Middle East, as many of the first to arrive came as ‘entertainers’, and while I have seen Lebanese women take to the hills (and even the swimming pool), in heels before, the way they are readjusting their clothing and smoothing their hair, as well as the faint trace of embarrassment the two men radiate, which gives them the air of randy teens caught in flagrante by their parents, does suggest that the only wildlife they have come here to appreciate walks on two legs. 

Because there are so many of us walking today, we have inevitably divided into smaller groups, and so rather than leave anyone behind, we stop and wait by the side of the trail until everyone catches up again. 

It takes the final arrivals almost thirty minutes to arrive, and it turns out they were waylaid on the trail by the Ambassador of Byelorussia and a US Ambassador-at-Large, who was also apparently wearing heels, and so after the couples we chanced across earlier, I wonder if they too weren’t busy playing geopolitics amongst the trees. 

 As we reach the outskirts of Barouk, we stop at a memorial to journalist and author, Rashid Nakhle, who was also the composer of Lebanon’s national anthem, which of course means an impromptu round of Kullina Lil Watan (All of Us for the Nation), and from there, we drop down into the meadows along the river and wend our way towards town.

Ma’asser el-Shouf to Barouk

LMT Section 19

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

Chapter 15: Stairways to Heaven

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Jezzine was a grand town, once.

Grown fat on trade, as well as remittances from its far-flung sons and daughters – amongst them the father of the man who for a while, was the wealthiest in the world, Carlos Slim – it filled up with gracious family homes, red-roofed, triple-arched windowed Levantine beauties, like the Kenaan Palace, which we walk past enviously on our way out of town.

Parked insouciantly, incongruously, in front of its graceful arcaded exterior was a lime-green 1970’s American muscle car. The disconnect between it and the house was so absolute, that for a second, I felt like I had wandered into a Tennessee Williams play, where the muscle car belonged to the equally muscular, but impecunious lover of the ageing chatelaine, or perhaps of her brother, the soft-spoken and never-married funny uncle the kids all loved and the adults all talked about in hushed voices at family gatherings.

I scanned the street for more likely owners, as I really couldn’t imagine it belonging to the Kenaans – even if granddaddy Maroun had been a (political) tearaway during Lebanon’s push for independence in the 1940’s – but none of the neighbours jumped out at me, either.

As we left the town behind, following an old, beaten-up tarmacked road that reminded me of an advert I saw for Range Rovers when I first arrived in Lebanon, which had the tag-line “Because in Lebanon, all our roads are off-roads”, I saw that the hillsides were covered in terraces, most of them overgrown. 

Agricultural terracing isn’t exactly unusual in such a vertiginous country, but the terracing here was particularly extensive, and testified to a time when these slopes would have been a hive of activity. The big crop was wheat, apparently. It must have been backbreaking work, so I wasn’t surprised they’d been abandoned. Even people growing fruit trees in the mountains are becoming less keen, and they require less work, less water and are much more lucrative.

Robin explained that the reason these terraces were abandoned had a different cause and most of the higher altitude terraces in this part of the Shouf region were abandoned after the earthquake of 1956, which also destroyed 6,000 buildings, mostly in and around Sidon. 

The terraces remained abandoned, due to a succession of political earthquakes that followed – a minor civil war in 1958, political upheaval in the 1960’s and the growing destabilisation created by the presence of the Palestinian guerrilla forces, the Fedayeen, and the assorted political reactions to them. 

By the time the region settled again, times had changed. Agriculture was no longer desirable and terraces far away from towns were viewed as too much of an effort to farm. It seemed to me a great pity, not only because of the lost jobs each ruined terrace represented, but also for their impact, for where they were still in use, the intricate Escher-esque geometries they formed were mesmerising. 

How long Jezzine’s slopes had been terraced is anyone’s guess, but recent archaeological research suggests that Lebanon may be home to some of the oldest terracing in the Mediterranean, and some of those studied in the Batroun region, further to the north, may have been in use for up to 12,000 years.

I digest this food for thought as we stop to refill our canteens at a roadside spring. The water is pure and icy, as refreshing splashed on faces and necks as it is drunk. After years and years of drinking happily from Lebanon’s springs – drive through the mountains and you’ll see people filling up jerry cans all over the place - I’d become more cautious after people started getting sick and it was revealed that toxic waste had been leeching into many of the country’s aquifers for years, even into some of those that still produced bottled water. But the guides only permit us to all to fill up at springs that have been rigorously tested by the LMTA, the association running the trail, which also conducts regular check-up to make sure their recommended springs remain clean.

As I pop the cap on my camel pack, I see something moving in the ferns ringing the basin of the spring and to my utter astonishment, a tiny freshwater crab emerges, pincers waving uncertainly until, spooked by our presence, it scuttle off across the road to take refuge in a thicket of brambles.

I’ve seen bulbous land crabs in the Maldives, which live in the coconut palms and look like giant alien ticks, but they stick close to the coast, as they need to return to the sea periodically. I’d always assumed freshwater crabs actually lived in the water, but apparently they spend even more time on dry land than their land crab relatives. Even so, finding one so high up in the mountains was a bit of a surprise.

We smell a large goat farm before it comes into view. The unmistakable scent is borderline unpleasant in a playground ‘ewww’ kind of way, but it marks the point at which we will turn off the road and head up and into the wilds. The goats munch aimlessly as we wander past, observing us with their golden slitted hyphen eyes, and a large guard dog barks in the distance, warning us that we have been seen. A little further beyond, up a small valley, lie the picturesque remains of a tumbled-down farmhouse that perch precariously above a row of arcaded stables that are intact and still seem to be in use. It’s apparently another victim of the ’56 Earthquake and it sits in small bowl lined with the remains of terraces. 

Though we haven’t regained the height we were at the previous day, the views are spectacular, and as we climb along the valley wall, we look down and over the pine forests of Bkassine as we wend our way gently upwards towards the fortress at Niha. 

Lebanon is better known for its cedars, but it has far more Umbrella pines. They are grown here as a cash crop, prized for their soft, slightly sweet kernels, which are liberally used in Lebanese cuisine.

To me, they are the quintessential Mediterranean tree and their rounded canopies (hence the name) and soaring trunks make them look like lollipops, or drifts of green clouds supported on sticks. Seen from a distance, they coalesce into an undulating treescape that softens the unforgiving flanks of Mount Lebanon, covering the rocky slopes in fluff. 

That evening, as we chat over dinner, I discover that every part of the tree can be used. The cones and needles are sold for fires and its pollen produces a thick, dark honey, prized for its medicinal effects. The real star, though, remains the kernel, which has been traded for at least 6,000 years and can fetch upwards of $40 a kilo.

Umbrella pines require minimal tending and even a small copse can be a good little earner, but only as long as the trees remain alive, which explains how pines have, by and large, managed to avoid the fate suffered by their less ‘useful’ brethren – and a landowner trying to persuade me to purchase a plot of land up in the north of the country once explained that if I chopped down and sold all the trees on the land, I would be able to make my money back, and more.

The vast expanse of pines here, which cleans the air much like an oversized car freshener, is Lebanon’s largest forest. It’s also apparently the largest in the eastern Mediterranean. However true that may be, walking through it is a delight to all the senses; the dappled sunshine on the forest floor, the refreshing scent the needles release as they crunch underfoot, and the gentle buzzing of cicadas. It’s enough to make anyone want to sling up a hammock and drift off to sleep but as we’ve only just begun our day’s walk, it’s a bit premature to be thinking about slacking off. 

We reach the rocky outcrop that is the Niha Fortress a couple of hours later. No one knows for sure when people first began to tunnel into the rock here to expand on the network of natural caves, but it was first mentioned in 975AD, and was later captured and enlarged by the Crusaders, who used it to control the important Sidon-Beka’a Road. Badly damaged and then rebuilt in the 13thCentury, the fortress was used by successive conquerors, including the Abbasids, the Mamluks and the Ottomans. 

Now no more than series of enlarged caves, including storerooms, water reservoirs and a stable, linked by internal tunnels. Originally, the fortress would have been protected by a wood and stone façade, which not only made it secure but also created extra space, making it more capacious than it looks today, which rested on the shelf of rock that runs just below the lowest level of caves.

Walking along the shelf is a vertiginous experience and the first time I did it, back in the late 90’s, there were no barriers to prevent unwary explorers from taking the express route down to the valley floor below. 

Emir Fakhredddine, who spent years on the run from the Ottomans is said to have holed up here for, as he sought to escape the Pasha of Damascus, who was under orders from Sultan Murad IV to bring him to trial in Istanbul. Unable to dislodge him otherwise, his pursuers eventually discovered his water source and poisoned it with animal blood, forcing him to flee. He escaped by rappelling down the cliff, a feat that - as they say in Mexico- takes some cojones, even with modern equipment, none of which was available in the 17thCentury. Cojones seem to have run in the family though, for legend has it that his daughter, unwilling to be captured by ravening Turks, blindfolded herself and her horse and galloped off the cliff to her death. 

Parts of the fortress can be visited, although the upper levels can only be reached by climbing, and there is a labyrinth of rooms and corridors that have yet to be excavated on the other side of a small chasm. No one knows how extensive the network of caves may be, but the attempted plundering of a previously unknown cave just above the fort – by robbers wielding a bulldozer, no less - suggests there are plenty of secrets left to discover. 

It’s a popular place to visit and there are plans to increase access by bridging the chasm, to open the other half of the shelf to visitors, and building steps to the higher rooms to obviate Spiderman-style antics. 

Niha’s other claim to fame is that it is home to a troupe of hyrax – Marmot-esque creatures that are apparently more closely related to elephants than they are to rodents – which live and lounge on the rock shelves below the fort. Until the fortress was turned into a reserve and protected, people used to come up here and shoot them, but since then, their numbers have begun to increase and if you are quiet, they seem happy enough to allow you to watch, from a distance. 

After a quick tour and some hyrax-appreciation, we retire to a shaded rock shelf above the fort, kick off our shoes and have lunch under blossoming trees. The sun is hot, the air cool, and the ground carpeted in thick, lush new grass, and so naturally, we lay ourselves down and sleep.

Jezzine to Niha

LMT Section 21

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

Chapter 14: Death by Goat Tracks

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At first, the climb out of Ain Zibde is easier than I had expected, a fairly gentle meander along wide agricultural tracks, but then the fun begins.

The mountain suddenly becomes much more vertical, as the track peters out and we are confronted by an intimidating 45 degree incline, which we will have to navigate on barely discernable tracks, which Joseph says have been made by goats. 

The disadvantages of only having two feet, neither of which are hooved, quickly become apparent on this rocky mountainside, as toes are stubbed, ankles are twisted and tempers are tried. The climb is tortuous and our pace is immediately reduced to a plodding. Not exactly the fittest walker, my lungs go into overdrive, and I wheeze my way upward, following a trail that in places is barely wide enough for one foot at a time.

We have 600 vertical metres ahead of us before we will once again reach anything approximating flat ground. I’m ashamed to say that it doesn’t take long before early morning bounce gives way to vexation and I grump my way (silently, at least) up the slope, cursing fate, geography and plate tectonics.

Fortunately, the views over the vineyards of Kherbet Qanafar to the north and Lake Qaraoun to the east are absolutely amazing, even though the Beka’a is partially obscured by a hazy, silvery veil of mist mingled with smoke from winter fires. Magnificently, the snowy peaks of Jabal al-Sheikh hover above it all in the distance. 

Although we have not reached the top of today’s walk, the panoramic views are god-like, and after an hour and a half of demoralising slog – which to my darkest delight has tired out even the hardiest amongst us - we stop for a quick break to give our screaming thighs a rest and summon energy for the remainder of the climb, allowing us to bask for a while, in the feeling that we have briefly become all-seeing, if not all-knowing.

A little later, the tracks widen into a trail and the climb becomes gentler as we rise the final 200 metres to the rolling uplands of this part of Mount Lebanon. We’ve reached the top of today’s walk, where we’re at around the 1750 metre-mark, and we will remain up here for a while, until we begin our decent to our stop for the night in the mountain resort of Jezzine. 

Today, we cross from the Beka’a Valley side of Mount Lebanon to the Mediterranean side, and it isn’t long before the coast comes into view for the first time. Lebanon’s narrow coastal strip is the most densely inhabited part of the country, and the location of its four largest cities, which also happen to be some of the longest continually-inhabited in the world - Tyre, for example, has been a city for over 5,000 years and inhabited for at least as long again.

The view from here is relatively more recent and our first sight of the coast includes the old French Mandate airfield at Ba’adaran, which Druze leader Walid Joumblatt used during the civil war, and two jumbles of red tiled roofs far below that are the villages of Mresti and Moukhtara, where the Joumblatt family has their feudal palace. 

As we take another quick break, and possibly to make us feel better about out slog, Joseph relates a story about the historic links between Ain Zibde, where we’d spent the night, and Mresti, one of the villages below. It is about a bride in the 1950s, who travelled over the mountains to her wedding in Ain Zibde on a donkey, because there was no road linking the two villages, and travelling down to the coast, up to the main pass across the mountains and back down to Ain Zibde would have taken several days. Whether her hurry to be wed was driven by longing, or some other, growing concern, he did not say.

The path up here is a series of gentle rises and dips, and winds its way along the top of the mountain, switching between the Beka’a and the Mediterranean side. Though the peaks of Mount Lebanon are mostly bare as the result of ancient deforestation – which flocks of voracious goats have helped maintain, we do see a few low trees, bent almost double by the furious winds that howl over the peaks in the winter.  

Normally, there would still be a lot of snow up here at this time of the year, but it has been a poor winter and most of it has melted, leaving large pools of water fringed with lush, temporary meadows but after a while, we begin to come across thick swathes of snow, surfaces covered in the dust that blows out of the Syrian Desert, to the east. The sun is blazing and its quite hot, despite the nip in the air, so after scraping away the dust, we grab handfuls of snow, by now more ice than flake, and rub it over our faces and heads. The trickle of cool water down flushed faces and sweaty backs is invigorating. I scoop up a handful, form it into a ball and squash it onto the top of my floppy sun hat, where I leave it to melt, as a kind of air-conditioning for the head, it is extremely effective.

This part of the trail is mostly old military roads, cut through the earth during the civil war. In two places, it has been deliberately severed, forcing us to clamber up the hillside and around to continue onwards. These trenches are relics from 2008, when Lebanon experienced a short spasm of violence initiated by Hezbollah and its allies in retaliation for what was perceived as an attempt to shut them out of the political process. They were dug by Joumblatt's men to prevent Hezbollah fighters from using the old military roads to reach Moukhtara. A flash in the sky catches my eye and looking up, I can see a pair of contrails as two Israeli warplanes fly overhead on reconnaissance missions. Since moving here, I’ve become inured to the sight, as it’s an almost daily occurrence, but not only is it a flagrant breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty, it is also a violation of international law, but this rarely gets mentioned in discussions about tensions between the two countries in the press. 

As we are climbing up a large rise, Alfred, whose wife Salam is the only other person walking the entire trail, spots a fox on the far hill. He hands me a pair of binoculars but even so, I strain to see it, until it moves and then it suddenly becomes clearly visible. It’s the largest wild animal we've seen so far, apart from eagles, although there must be plenty around, as the ground is full of mole holes, and there are butterflies, lizards, spiders and large black glossy beetles all over the place.

We come to another break in the road, which looks more like it might be a bomb crater from 2006, and a little later, we walk through a desolate camp, that had been in use by Hezbollah fighters. It's empty now, but when she passed this way two years earlier, they had come out and offered Salam water and sweets. 

The camp may be scrappy, but the views from atop the surrounding rocks are spectacular and take in both sides of the mountain, which is clearly the reason the camp was built here, in the first place.

Especially compared to earlier, the walk has taken on the feel of a Sunday stroll in the park. It is hot, though, and when we stop for lunch in a wide bowl, half filled with snow, two of our companions, Nils and Nasser, both accomplished long-distance walkers, decide it’s time for a snow bath. With admirable Nordic élan, Nils strips off completely, while Nasser keeps on his underwear preserving his Middle Eastern modesty, and they roll around in the snow, heaping it on top of themselves and throwing it at each other like delighted children.

After the enforced cliquishness of the first two days, when we’d been accompanied by hordes of weekend walkers, the group dynamic has become more relaxed and as they walk, people are falling in and out of conversations, and lingering longer after dinner to talk. They are an interesting bunch and at 48, I’m no spring chicken but with a couple of exceptions, the other walkers are older than me. One, an American who normally lives in Hawai’i and who last visited Lebanon in its ‘Golden Age’ just before the Civil War, is in her late 70’s. They’re also in better shape than me, a realisation that is simultaneously inspiring and chastening. 

We meander along the top of Mount Lebanon for the next few hours and in mid-afternoon, begin our descent towards Jezzine. The bare slopes give way first to grassland and then to pine forests. 

Pines are a crop in Lebanon, prized for their nuts, which are used liberally in Lebanese cuisine and the trees are undergoing their spring trimming to encourage growth, so they look naked and a little sad, but also quite sculptural. They prefer sandy topsoil, which makes large swathes of the mountains ideal and for the next few days, we’ll be walking through the largest pine forests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, sand is also ideal for mining, so Lebanon’s mountains are being quarried, often illegally, for this resource, leaving enormous holes into mountainsides. As we pick through the trees, the ground is littered with brightly coloured plastic shell casings, evidence of the lethal and similarly illegal bird hunting that goes on, often with the connivance of local authorities. 

The mountains above Jezzine are striated by crests of rock forced up by earthquakes that run in curving ridges along their flanks. Bizarre rock formations begin to appear, wildly eroded sandstone sculptures in bright shades of pink, yellow, red and orange that contrast starkly with the greenery of the pines. It has a faintly alien appearance, as if instead of southern Lebanon, we are walking across the surface of Mars after centuries of terraforming. 

We descend towards a small river that we will follow almost all the way to Jezzine. We first encounter it just before it rushes through what, for lack of a better description, is a sandstone wadi, that looks for all the world like a piece of Saudi Arabia pinched off and dropped on Mount Lebanon. The river forms an inviting pool beneath a small waterfall. The water is clean, clear and green and on a warmer day and with a little more time, it would be the perfect place for a dip, or at least to cool aching feet. Today, with at least two hours walk ahead of us and the day drawing on, we content ourselves with admiring it longingly as we pass.  Then, as we wind up and out of the mini wadi, we pass into lush, flower-filled fields and knee-high grass. 

The change is so abrupt, it’s almost comical. In the space of five minutes, we’ve gone from Mediterranean pines and Martian landscapes, through the Arabian Desert to Switzerland. I half expect to find a blonde girl in a dirndl just around the next bend. It’s a reminder of how quickly the landscape changes in the mountains, and of the incredible natural diversity to which Lebanon, a land that boasts a dizzying range of micro-climates that range from the sub-arctic to the sub-tropical, is heir.

Our long descent follows the river, air alive with the sound of rushing water and, as the sun sinks, croaking frogs. Before the end, we wind our way up again, and exit on the broad plateau just above the town. Thankfully, it’s all downhill from here and as we enter the outskirts, the final stretch takes us onto the steep concrete staircase that winds between the houses and down towards Jezzine’s famous naba’a, a freshwater spring that flows out of a cave and into a large pool that might date back to Roman times, from where it flows into the town’s justifiably famous waterfall.

The town’s name apparently means ‘treasures’ in Syriac, possibly for its abundant water sources, but these days, its most precious commodity is tourism. Jezzine was a popular summer getaway for those down on the coast. The town’s star has waned in recent decades because until the turn of the millennium, it was occupied by Israel, and so it was cut off from cities like Sidon and Tyre, which historically provided it with most of its visitors. 

We've been walking for almost 9 hours and frankly, I’m shattered. We limp into a cafe and order drinks before heading to our accommodation for the night, which unusually, will be a hotel. 

The relatively greater comfort of the rooms this night is offset by a shockingly mediocre dinner, served to us reluctantly by maids. After our lovely breakfast on the terrace in Ain Zibde that morning, the incredible meal the night before, Antoinette’s cracking manquoshe and the delicious meals and warm hospitality we’ve enjoyed at homes so far, this sudden return to the commercial is jarring, and so as soon as dinner is done, I decide it’s better to retire and judging by the dampened atmosphere, I sense the sentiment is shared.

Aitanit to Jezzine

LMT Section 22

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

 

Chapter 13: A Gentle Stroll

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The following morning, we wake to the smell of freshly baked manqoushe and triangles of dough stuffed with spinach and sumac, a spice that lends a citrusy flavour, which are known as ftayer.

Out on the terrace of our overnight stop in Aitanit, one of the ladies from the village is hard at work. I’m ravenous, probably because I have a slight hangover. 

Our hosts in Aitanit pride themselves on their cooking and dinner the previous night had been an orgiastic affair, a massive spread of village specialities, including a couple of dishes that I’d only ever heard of before, like zingol, a simple but utterly delicious concoction of bulgur wheat balls and chickpeas served in in a tangy garlic-yoghurt sauce, which we washed down with copious quantities of arak baladi distilled in the village.

The meal had begun politely enough but then Maurice, one of the village elders, turned up hallway through. Tottering in on his cane, he deposited himself at one end of the table and proceeded to regale us with stories and zajal, an ancient semi-improvised, slightly sing-song form of poetry that still lives on in Lebanon, most of which I couldn’t follow, and had swiftly obliterated any notion that he was in any way feeble by making his way through at least a half bottle of arak while insisting that we match him, glass-for-glass.

As we had what our guide Joseph had described as a ‘short' day ahead of us, we’d taken Maurice up his challenge – some rather more gleefully than others – and we'd finally tottered to bed rather later than was probably good for ageing persons on a long-distance walk.

Consequently, breakfast is both lazy and subdued. The views made up for the absence of banter and from the terrace, we could see clear out over the steely waters of Lake Qaraoun, Lebanon’s largest dam. The sun is warm, hazy day, even if the air is still chilly, so we’re wrapped up in our fleeces, watching Antoinette, doyenne of griddle and oven, bake an endless stream of delights.

When we’d wobbled down to the dam the day before, at the end of what felt like a death march from Majdel Balhiss, the view had not been quite as inspiring. Several warm winters with relatively little rain and snow that was mostly gone by the end of February, even on Lebanon’s highest peaks, may have pleased Beirutis eager to resume weekends on the beach, but they'd played merry hell on water level. It was at least a dozen metres below where it should be, and several small islands of former valley floor could be seen poking through the water. Less appealing reveals included reefs of rubbish along the shores; tractor tyres, plastic bottles, mats of rotting vegetation washed into the lake and yes, shopping carts (though there can’t possibly be a supermarket within 30 kilometres ) and an expanse of pinkish scum, rainbow-tinted from oil and chemicals, that lapped gently against the massive retaining wall of the dam. This is a lake that much of southern Lebanon gets it water from, including the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Still, it was an impressive sight and it reminded me of Ibrahim Abd el-Al, Lebanon’s maverick post-independence water engineer and Minister of Public Works, who was the driving force behind its construction. Abd el-Al had drawn up plans to proved the entire country with water and electricity through hydroelectric projects, which fell prey to the mighty clash between the public interest and the private sector that still bedevils the country, and many other countries around the world and had he been given free reign, it’s likely that Lebanon, the most water-rich country in the Levant, would not suffer the shortages that plague it today. 

In a region officially classified as arid or semi-arid, water is a major geopolitical issue and one of the key instigators of conflict in the Levant. The 1967 War, in which the Golan, the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai were annexed, for example, grew out of four years of disputes over water diversion projects and dams being built along the Banias and Jordan rivers and the recent war in Syria has its roots in the long drought and water mismanagement that eventually drove farmers in the east of the country to begin demanding political reform. 

Abd el-Al himself was keenly aware of water’s political dimension and had advocated effectively for Lebanon during the crafting of the Johnson Plan, the never ratified agreement drawn up by the Americans for the equitable sharing of regional water sources in the 1950’s. Qaraoun was not part of that particular controversy, as it dams the only water source Lebanon does not share with its neighbours, though that hasn’t stopped some of the more conspiracy-minded from speculating that the Minister’s untimely, and rather suspicious death in 1959, as payback for his activism. 

Whatever the reason, Abd el-Al’s death meant that he never got to see his plan through and with no one to champion it during the increasingly fractious decade and a half of political turmoil that precede Lebanon’s civil war, the plan fell apart completely. As we walked along the top of the barrage, I couldn’t help feeling that he would be simultaneously thrilled and appalled by the scene. 

The smell coming off the big convex griddle is mouth-watering. I’ve rarely met a manqoushe I don’t like but the ones being prepared for us this morning are extraordinary. The redoubtable Antoinette is churning them out by the dozen, flattening the balls of dough on the griddle and then slathering them with kishkza’atar, sojouk or cheese, as well as baking them plain. 

Even more impressively, all the ingredients, including the grain used to make the flour, have been grown on her farm - or in the case of the za’atar and some of the other herbs on the table, collected from the mountains nearby - and the manqoushe are being made from a proprietary blend of grains that she has ground at the village mill to her specifications. 

Antoinette bakes quietly but with ferocious intent and buzzes about, making sure no one’s plate is ever empty for more than a minute and that cheese, jam (both her own, of course) and honey (ditto) are never out of reach. Her energy finds it match in our bottomless appetites. 

But breads are only the Round One. On top, there are also bowls of a thick, steaming porridge-like soup made from the same kishk that in paste form and enlivened with tomato, garlic and bit of chilli, Antoinette is spreading on the manqoushe.

For me, kishk was love at first bite but because of its sour, vaguely vomity smell, it is recognised to be an acquired taste. In its raw form, kishk is a powder made from a combination of mildly fermented yoghurt and bulgur wheat, which is traditionally spread out on rooftops to dry in the sun. It is usually made into a paste and baked on a manqoushe, but in the winter, it is used to make a thick, porridge-like soup, to which chunks of meat can be added. There are as many ways of serving it as there are people in Lebanon, and personally, I like mine meatless and liberally dosed with garlic and toasted pine nuts. It is heavy, particularly if your eyes are bigger than your stomach and you have a second bowl, but it packs so much energy and is the perfect way to start a long day’s walk.

Suitably stuffed, we roll out of Aitanit, stopping by a small spring in the middle of the village to fill our water bottles. There’s a fountain nearby, above which a statue of the Virgin Mary has been placed. Next to it is a small, kiosk-like building that we are told was originally a musalla, a prayer room, although the last of Aitanit’s Muslim inhabitants moved out decades ago. 

 It reminded me of Majdel Balhiss with its prominent mosque, and little calligraphic plaques reading 'god' decorating many of its homes. Like Aitanit, it was once mixed, but its last Christians emigrated over 60 years ago, with most former residents now living in Canada, but the village church remains intact. 

At the risk of sounding preachy, it is examples like this - which are repeated in different forms all over the country - that make up the real Lebanon, the country not of eternal conflict and division, but the country of compromise and tolerance, if not necessarily of acceptance. 

This Lebanon is the only country in the world to observe a joint Islamo-Christian holiday, the March-time celebration of the Annunciation. It is where Muslims once attended Easter Mass, not to worship, but to enjoy the spectacle, where many Christians voluntarily observe the Ramadan fast and where, when there were still caravans, pilgrims departing on the long and hazardous journey to Mecca for Hajj were blessed by all the country’s religious leaders, Muslim, Christian and Jewish.

To me, these examples, domestic in their dimension, said far more about Lebanon than the dramatic headlines and shrieking stories of division and hatred and also explained why, despite the invasions, the occupations, the massacres, the detentions, the 17,000 Missing, the population exchanges and the (forced) emigration, this tiny country resisted the temptation to physically divide, in the end.

The rolling trail we follow is about halfway up the mountainside and passes through a series of high altitude pasturages, some of which contain traces of ruined buildings, and occasionally devolves into a tortuous, rocky track, one section of which curls around a cleft in the mountain so deep that navigating it feels suicidal. 

We’re accompanied for part of the way by Abu Jasseer, a local guide who is kitted out from head-to-toe in military gear a bit like a camouflage Christmas tree, his eyes hidden behind a pair of wraparound RayBans, de rigeur facewear for former soldiers (and hitmen) all over the region. 

Unfairly, I image that he’s what a grunt would look like if it took physical form, the kind of ‘guy’ the Greeks would call a pallikaras, one so self-consciously macho, he’s almost a cliché. When he starts regaling us with tales of hunting wild boar – the mountains here are full of them - and whips out a video of one he’s filmed squealing as it lay dying, my initial assessment feels slightly less uncharitable. 

The route isn’t especially interesting, but the views over the lake are magnificent in places, despite the thick silvery haze, which has completely hidden the mountains on the far side of the valley. 

Above Saghbine, we pass a man ploughing a series of tiny fields with a horse. It’s an incongruous sight, especially in an age of micro-sized Japanese farm machinery. We wave ‘hello’ and when he waves back, we stop to watch for a while. The sound the blade makes as it turns the furrows, the smell of freshly-ploughed earth, the gentle encouragements from the man and the way the horse’s mane catches the breeze transports me to another time, a much harder but also gentler time of callused hands and sun-burned necks, of rising at dawn and of glasses of lemonade at 10. I am returned to the world of today by the loud blast of a horn from the village far below. 

And then somehow, we have reached our destination, the village of Ain Zibde. Today’s walk has been comparatively short and relatively free of punishing altitude changes, more like a stroll in the (high altitude) park, than a trek. 

Perhaps to ensure we don’t feel too smug about ourselves, Joseph reminds us that that tomorrow’s walk will not be so accommodating, and will kick off with a punishing 800m ascent and end with an equally strained 800 metre descent, as we are about to leave the Beka’a Valley and cross over the top of Mount Lebanon for the slopes overlooking the coastal strip. 

It sounds ghastly, but showered, with the sun warm on our faces, plates of homemade cake and cool glasses of toot, sweet mulberry syrup, a holdover from the days when Mount Lebanon was one of the silk-making centres of the world, fourteen hours is too far into the future for most of us to contemplate seriously, and as our hosts bustle about, preparing what will turn out to be a stunning candle-lit dinner on the garden terrace, we even have time for a pre-prandial nap.