I’M NOT SURE WHEN I HAD THE BRIGHT IDEA OF WALKING FROM ONE END OF LEBANON TO THE OTHER.
I seem to recall it surfacing during an Arak-fuelled conversation some time in 2006, shortly after the August War between Hezbollah and Israel when getting up into the mountains and far away from the dull ache of shattered dreams and lives seemed the best of all possible escapes.
Of course, I didn’t follow through. The rupture in life as usual that the war opened, closed just as swiftly. For the next decade, though not exactly swept into a maelstrom of work, I found myself enmeshed in the curious admixture of activity and postponed pleasure that is modern life. And naturally, I was just too busy to even contemplate something as time-consuming as a month-long walk through the Lebanese mountains.
Then this January, I was once again wrenched out of life as usual. My mother, who had been fighting Stage Four cancer, was rushed to hospital shortly before New Year.
As I had decided to spend the end of the year in Iceland, blissfully ignoring my email, it took my relatives a couple of days to get hold of me. It then took a couple of days to get back to England. If you are wondering how many people spend the winter in Iceland, let me tell you that booking a seat on flight out of Reykjavik around New Year isn’t as easy as you might imagine.
Finally, on the morning of January 4th, I got to the hospital. The doctor was blunt. My mother wasn’t going home again.
The news wasn’t unexpected. When first diagnosed, my mother had been given 3 months to live but somehow, she had hung on for almost a year. It was still a shock. As I sat by her side, I began to feel a growing disquiet. The bustling, lively woman I had always known had been reduced to silence, a motionless person so thoroughly immobilised by pain and drugs she wasn’t even able to turn her head.
Over the course of our last days together, the one thought that kept running through my mind was that I needed to move; to walk, run, stand, dance, shout, sing, do jumping jacks, anything that affirmed my great good fortune to be both alive and able.
Just after 2am on January 8th, my mother passed away. Once the necessary phone calls had been made and the post-mortem procedures initiated, my first fully conscious act was to email the Lebanese Mountain Trail Association and sign up for the month-long walkthrough they organised each Spring along Lebanon’s first national hiking trail.
And that was how a few months later, on a cold afternoon in mid-April, I found myself walking precariously in single-file along an old concrete water pipe made slippery by fallen leaves and rain, on a thin sliver of a ledge, halfway up a cliff opposite the mountain town of Baskinta.
I’d just passed the midway mark when the person in front of me wobbled rather worryingly. A misstep here would be fatal and abruptly, the full import of what we were doing registered. I barely had time to wonder whether as snap decisions went this one hadn’t been half-baked when I was overcome by an almost transcendental clarity.
The world became perfectly still. Beneath my feet, I could feel the thunder of the waterfall we’d just passed reverberate gently through the pipe. Above, the peaks were hidden in cloud, tendrils of which swirled 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, was brightly illuminated, an island of sunlight in an otherwise grey day. From up here, it was 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 clouded the terraces. Cherry perhaps, or apple. Maybe both. I could hear the tinkle of goat bells from somewhere below and the distant but unmistakable echo of a bus honking its horn on the other side of the valley. Wind rustled through the trees, making the mist swirl and all around, the air filled with birdsong.
All of a sudden, the universe seemed to crowd in. I was aware of everything and everyone, plugged so directly into Life, I could almost feel the blood flowing through my veins. The feeling was exhilarating. It wasn’t until I noticed Joseph, one of our guides, watching me intently from the end of the pipeline that I realised I had stopped dead in my tracks. I’d was also holding my breath. Exhaling, I flashed what I hoped was a reassuring smile, gave him a thumbs up and after a last look around, resumed my balancing act across the abyss.
Some 470 kilometres long, the Lebanon Mountain Trail runs from Marjayoun, a now sleepy town in formerly Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon that looks down over a vertiginous escarpment into the Galilee, to Andqet, an even sleepier village in formerly Syrian-occupied northern Lebanon, which is now just a few kilometres from the war in Syria.
After running from Marjayoun into the rocky, arid Anti-Lebanon and the foothills of Mount Hermon, on the other side of which lies Syria, it crosses the southern Beka’a Valley and then runs straight up and over lush Mount Lebanon to the forested Mediterranean side of that range to the town of Jezzine. From there, it winds its way north, oscillating between the 1200 to the 1500-metre mark, dipping as low as 600 metres and rising as high as 2200 metres until it ends in Andqet.
The Trail is split into 26 segments, each conceived as a day’s walk, each starting and ending in a village. Most segments cover a distance of between 16 to 20 kilometres, with the single longest day being a 28-kilometre slog that rewards South-North walkers with the truly awe-inspiring end of day spectacle of Qamouaa, an almost Swiss idyll of a plateau, where the peaks of Mount Lebanon abruptly collapse into foothills that roll all the way to Syria before stopping. From up here, a point we reached fortuitously at Golden Hour, just as the sun was setting over the sea, we were able to see all the way up the Mediterranean to the Syrian coastal cities of Tartus and Lattakia.
While the trail is designed for walkers of every level, it’s fair to say that most days are gruelling. The reason is the terrain. Not only do days begin with steep climbs and end with long descents – villages favour lower elevations – but the cumulative elevation gain and loss is high, as much as two and a half thousand metres some days. The quality of the trail also varies. Its course tends to follow farm tracks and ancient walking trails but often, you end up walking along much narrower trails, goat tracks, irrigation channels and from time to time, those aforementioned water pipes.
But it is immensely rewarding. Lebanon, as the Lebanese are fond of saying, is a very small country (well it is until you starting walking from one end to another) but it is incredibly diverse. The landscape not only changes from day to day, in sections it changes from metre to metre. One day, near Jezzine, we passed through thick Mediterranean pine forest, into an Arabian sandstone gully, twisting walls painted orange and red and then out into an almost Alpine flower meadow. All in the space of less than 500 metres.
Lebanon’s topography, best described as a narrow coastal plain, backed by two north-south mountain ranges that top out at 3080 metres, between which lies a high-altitude valley, make it is home to a dizzying array of microclimates, everything from the sub-tropical to the alpine.
The south is generally warmer than the north and so the seasons unfold over the course of several months, depending on both latitude and altitude and so the flowers that were just beginning to blossom as we set off from southern Lebanon on April 2nd, were still just beginning to blossom when we reached the northern end of Mount Lebanon 27 days later.
The trail is a perfect microcosm of Lebanon; the great, the ghastly and the utterly unexpected. It’s a world where you can walk through millennial oak trees and follow tracks through flower-filled grasslands, only to suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a brand new road, ugly housing development, ski resort or more sadly, Syrian refugee camp and then just as quickly lose yourself in almond orchards, leafy river valleys or ghostly Karstic uplands, where the exposed limestone has been sculpted by millennia of wind and rain into fantastical shapes; an eagle’s head or a crouching tiger here, a protective deity or a huddle of elephants there.
Camping is not discouraged but is not encouraged either, for apart from removing the last excuse Beirutis might have for not engaging with their hinterlands, the LMT was created to encourage regional tourism, help revive rural economies and encourage villagers to preserve their fading culinary and cultural traditions.
And so, at each stop along the way, the NGO behind its creation, the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association has arranged accommodation in local homes. Walkers get to stay with families and eat regional specialities, dishes made from produce grown by your hosts or their neighbours or else foraged from the mountains.
The window this offers opens onto the wealth of Lebanese cuisine is astonishing. I sampled dishes I thought I knew well, but which in the hands of the families that prepared them, became completely new.
Over the course of our first five days, for example, one of the dishes we ate every night was potato kibbeh, a vegetarian take on the more famous meat and bulgur wheat version, which resembles a stuffed, fried meatball. We had kibbeh that were fried, baked and grilled over charcoal. We had plain kibbeh, kibbeh stuffed with yoghurt and mint and kibbeh stuffed with an unctuous meat preserve called qawerma. Some were rolled into balls, some served as mash. One version even came without the bulgur wheat. They all tasted different and yet they were all potato kibbeh.
Then there were dishes that even the Lebanese hikers had never heard of because they are only made in a handful of villages, or in the case of a simple salad we ate deep in the mountains of Dinneyeh, in a single village, because the delicate, nutty green it is made with doesn’t grow anywhere else.
A less stated goal is to introduce Lebanese of one region (and usually religion) to Lebanese of another, for although the civil war ended in 1990, continued instability and decades of mistrust mean that many Lebanese still do not know their own country, preferring to stick to areas where they feel comfortable. So the trail leads through villages that are Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shi’ite and makes a point of including sacred and historical sites that represent each sect.
This year’s walkthrough was split into two groups. Our group, the smaller of the two and codenamed Team Wolf, was led by the redoubtable Joseph and the irrepressible Robin. Studies in contrast, the former was as taciturn as the latter was effervescent, both fountains of knowledge, Joseph a master of wildlife and local legend, Robin a trained archaeologist and historian.
Together, they would lead us through forested valleys, across icy streams and up, up into the cloud-kissed highlands. We would poke around 2,500 year old Phoenician tombs, strewn casually across a hillside, walk along Roman roads, in places so perfect, they looked like they’d only just been laid, visit Crusader fortresses and spend nights in crumbling, ornate palaces. We’d visit the sanctuaries of saints and seers, the raging waterfall by which Adonis was killed by a wild boar and where in the great temple to his lover Aphrodite/Astarte, sacred orgies once took place, the Druze mountain top shrine where Job lived and suffered for nine years, the caves the first Christian hermits inhabited in Qadisha, the Sacred Valley, mosques that began life as Phoenician, then Greek, then Roman temples.
We’d enjoy an impromptu afternoon dance in a village called Paradise, which as we arrived, smelt overwhelmingly of cow dung and clamber laboriously up the Valley of Hell to be rewarded with panoramic views straight out of Heaven. We’d pass the village that lost 50 of its inhabitants on the Titanic, explore an underground military hospital left by the French high on up on the mountain pass between Beirut and the Beka’a and pass reminders of the more recent past, trenches dug by the Syrian army, tanks captured from the Israelis, homes and walls that still bore traces of the civil war.
We’d eat pastries made of grains not only grown by the woman who baked them for us but ground by her as well, drink wine made by monks, pick wild asparagus as we walked and gorge ourselves on squishy berries, crisp sour plums and tart young green almonds, eaten whole, their downy flesh wrapped around liquid centres that would eventually become the nut, which burst with a citrusy splash as we bit into them. We’d scoop snow into cups and ladle rose and mulberry syrup over the top, a natural Slushie known to generations of village children as Ba’asama.
We’d walk through fields of Lebanese orchids, wild tulips and rare black iris, through scented cedar forests and miles of pines, see foxes, hyenas, wild boar and wolves and experience a country none of us thought still existed, the gentler, softer Lebanon, where the courtesy, hospitality and traditional pace of life were still alive, where the heat and hustle of the coast, never further than 15 kilometres as the crow flies, was as alien as the stars at which we gazed every night.
And we’d sweat. Forty-seven and completely out of shape, the last time I’d walked any great distance had been at the age of 24, when I’d done the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Oh, there had been day-hikes since then, even one four-day jaunt along a section of the LMT back in 2011, but nothing serious. The first week was sheer hell. I’d collapse into bed at the end of the day, barely able to summon the energy to shower or eat. The second week was a killer. I’d get up each morning with a new pain in some hitherto undiscovered muscle. But somewhere between the second and the third week, I silently hit my stride. I was still stiff first thing in the mornings but gradually I went from being amongst the last to arrive to being amongst the first. I no longer stumbled or slipped quite as much, nor was I as easily winded and almost overnight (or so it seemed), my clothes became pleasingly loose.
But on April 2nd, those wonders were all still to come and the morning we set out, it seemed for a while as if we’d never get going at all.
We’d woken at 5:30am, an unpleasant prospect the night before that turned out to be much easier than expected but almost 4 hours later, we still hadn’t left town. To say we were eager to get going didn’t do our collective energy justice.
The problem was the press. Our starting point, the pretty town of Marjayoun, with its stately Lebanese homes, all red tiles and triple arched windows, hometown of the late New York Times correspondent, Anthony Shadid and major market town on the long-defunct trading route down to Egypt, was knee-deep in television crews.
They’d come to cover our departure for although this was the seventh time the LMTA had organised a walkthrough, we were still news. The town’s mayor had organised an official send-off, complete with piping hot tea and a seemingly endless supply of some of the tastiest cheese and za’atar saj (a savoury flatbread the Lebanese often describe as a kind of pizza), I’d ever tasted.
While that did take the edge off the inevitable speeches and obligatory pressing of flesh that followed as beaming, we posed for photos and answered shouted questions, we were chomping at the bit.
Suddenly, we were on our way. Well, almost. The camera crews apparently needed the perfect shot of us walking out of town. As we’d set off the second the cameras stopped flashing, impatient to get into the hills, Joseph and Robin were given the unenviable task of rounding us up and returning us to the old market square, so that we could set off in a more telegenic phalanx.
I discovered that getting a group of restless hikers to stand in one place just to be filmed is rather like attempting to coral cats. Fifteen minutes of frantic marshalling, as passing cars honked their horns and beaming but bemused townspeople shouted ‘hellos’ and ‘welcomes’, Team Wolf was finally organised in a cohort tight enough to make a Roman commander proud. Still, we twitched impatiently.
After an eternity, the cameras began to roll and the signal was given for our walk to begin, this time slowly enough to let the cameramen get their shots. In something like a controlled trot, we burst out of Marjayoun’s confines, past the lovely old homes, the picturesque storefronts and cobbled streets and out into the southern Beka’a.
The temperature was perfect. The sun was warm and the wind was cool, the sky as flawless as a Sri Lankan sapphire. An unfelt weight I had been carrying since January, but possibly for years more, fell away. Footloose, I was fancy-free.
The trail beckoned. Open and rolling, it crossed the plains and up into the foothills that broke like waves against the majestic flanks of Mount Hermon, passing through lush green valleys that purpled, then faded into violet as they rose up, up towards the sky, where a mantle of thick, white snow, sparkled brightly in the morning light.
Originally Published in DestinAsian Magazine