Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Wednesday, November 22, 2006 19:20:39|
Arabia 2006: 13 - Allepo, Syria to Beirut, Lebanon
Saturday, November 18, 2006
The restaurant was approached with trepidation this morning. No one was there, but the food warmers were in place so I checked, only to find nothing in them. Cold eggs and yukky meat started to look good compared to nothing!
I went to the front desk to be informed that I was the only guest in the hotel, and they'd have to find someone to cook something. After 20 minutes in solitary in the dining room a young fellow appeared, using both his words in English to ask what I wanted. To keep it simple I order two fried eggs, soft.
A few pieces of Arab flat bread were delivered, a cup of tea, and eventually after some time an omelette cooked to death, accompanied by a small piece of very bland cheese and a slice of tomato. I ate it gratefully, but must give this the low breakfast of the trip award!
We were on the road before 8:30, watching desert gradually change to fertile fields as we came into irrigated areas. We reached the City of Homs in about three hours. This is an agricultural and industrial city of 2.5 million dating back to 2,500 BC, with an oil refinery and a big university, A famous battle between the Hittites and the Egyptians was fought here in 1,250 BC.
From Homs we turned toward the Mediterranean to reach Krak de Chavalier, a very large castle built over a 45-year period by the Crusaders, starting in 1110. They had a small castle as a start, built by the Kurds in 1099. The castle has 13 towers in two high walls with a moat in between. It overlooks a fertile valley filled with farms where seventy percent of the population are Christians.
After a thorough exploration of the castle we stopped at a restaurant overlooking both castle and valley. This time there were 21 dishes of appetizers accompanied by Damascus beer before we got to the specialty of the house, BBQ chicken.
After lunch we drove to the City of Hama, an agricultural and industrial city of two million people with a steel mill, aluminum smelter and a university. It is famous for its huge wooden water wheels that date back 2,000 years. These 25-meter (82') high wheels are turned by the river, lifting water to aqueducts that deliver it to farms for irrigation.
The van is great for these long jaunts. I can stretch my bum knees out across my choice of the two rows of seats in the back. Fakir is a good driver - he takes no chances but moves along quickly. Drivers don't overtake on the right - they tailgate and blow the horn until the vehicle ahead moves over.
Tonight we stay in Aleppo, population 4 million, also a university city. It has 200 mosques and 85 churches.
The BeitWakil Hotel is in a 476-year-old building in the old part of the city, accessed by a walk through streets too narrow for a vehicle. When I discovered my room had two short single beds, I told reception there was no way I could fit in them. The hotel has no double beds so the best they could do is put me in a room where they could push two beds together - great, except they are different heights!
The rooms are tiny, with shutters that open onto a balcony circling an open courtyard that serves as access to the rooms. Open shutters give full access to the room from the balcony. The room is stifling hot, and the air conditioner blows only hot air, so it was an uncomfortable night with little sleep! The hotel advertises itself as four stars, but I'd give it a 2 ½ or low 3 in the quaint but bloody uncomfortable category.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
This morning we drove 45 km into an area of volcanic rock where 70 "dead" cities of stone buildings are located, the local equivalent to ghost towns. Centuries ago the water ran out and they were abandoned.
Our final destination was the ruins of the church of St. Simeon in a hilltop dead city. The church was enormous, built in the 5th century in an octagonal shape around the base of a pillar that St. Simeon is reputed to have lived on for some 40 years. The top of the pillar is apparently in the Louvre in Paris. It appears he gained fame for preaching to people from his perch, 40 years of pole sitting eventually earning him sainthood. He lived from 385 to 454 AD. The church is on a high hill covered with cyprus trees, looking out over many of the dead cities and to the mountains of Turkey 15 km away.
When we returned to Aleppo we visited the great mosque, built in 720 AD, then wandered through the souk. The souk, or main market, winds for blocks through covered passages built in the caravan days hundreds of years ago. The walls form arches overhead giving the impression of walking through a castle. Hundreds of vendors operate small shops along both sides.
We came out of the maze of passages in front of the citadel, a fort built on the site of a 1,600 BC Hittite temple in the 12th century to defend against the crusaders. After tea with our driver, Fakir, in front of the citadel, Hanna and I climbed the entrance steps across the moat and on into the giant structure. It had some interesting defensive innovations. The king's chambers were in the citadel, and the royal audience chamber has been restored to its former magnificence.
The tour done for the day, Hanna guided us through a maze of back passages to a restaurant with almost no markings for our final lunch together. The restaurant was beautifully done, and lunch the best yet. This time the beer was from the local Aleppo brewery. Cost of lunch for 3 - $17.
After lunch we went several flights below ground into caves where conspirators met during the French occupation planning the fight for independence. This area is now a bar and nightclub. At the bottom the beginning of the tunnel to the citadel could be seen. These were common hundreds of years ago for access to the citadel in case of attack.
At the hotel I finished the last journal entry and walked to an internet café a few blocks away to send it off before spending a couple of hours wandering the maze of narrow streets. Surprisingly enough, I found my way back to the hotel!
Monday, November 20, 2006
I gave up trying to sleep early, so was sitting in the sun by the car in the square near the hotel when Fakir & Hanna finished their breakfast, well before pickup time. About half way to the Lebanese border we stopped at a restaurant for tea. Hanna knew the owner, so there was nothing for it - we had to have a variety of plates of food with our tea. While we were sipping I showed them photos on my laptop of some Central Asian countries. When we went to leave there was no way we could pay, the owner insisted it was his treat.
Like many Arab countries, Syria has a young population - the median age is 20.7 years and life expectancy is 70.3 years. There is a big literacy rate difference between men and women - with men over 15 years old 90% are literate, women only 64%. Military service is compulsory at age 18 - reduced from 3 years to 2 recently. For those continuing their education military service is deferred until after graduation and is 1-½ years.
It was about 3 hrs 40 minutes to the frontier, where Hanna looked after all formalities while I waited in the car. I was then transferred to another car driven by Achmed, the fellow who picked me up from the airport in Damascus. The vehicle we had been using is diesel, so not allowed in Lebanon.
After fond farewells to Hanna and Fakir, who were great at their jobs and truly good travelling companions, we drove several kilometres to the Lebanese checkpoint. Here we met Waad Khalifeh, the guide for Lebanon. He quickly shepherded me through the formalities and we were headed for Baalbeck, driving through the Beqaa Valley below the snow capped 3,100 meter (10,100') Lebanon Mountains, where there are three ski resorts.
The cool, fertile valley has an altitude of up to 1,150 meters (3,770') and produces 60% of the agricultural output of Lebanon. The Syrians occupied it until April 2005. Baalbeck, a pleasant city of 60,000, has extensive Roman Ruins that were protected by sand and dirt for centuries, so are in very good condition.
The immense Temple of Jupiter, built in the first century AD, has 128 granite pillars brought from Aswan, Egypt in the main courtyard, which measures 88 X 48 meters. (289'X158') The temple became a church in 395 under the Byzantines, a mosque in 635 after the Muslim conquest and was turned into a military complex by the crusaders in the 12th century. The complex also contains a temple to Venus, and a very well restored Bacchus temple with 16 meter (52') supporting columns.
Baalbeck experienced many conquests. It was inhabited in 4,000 BC, was Assyrian in the 8th - 7th century BC, the Persians took it in 538 BC, Alexander the Great in 332 BC and the Romans in 64 BC.
Our next stop was the Ksara Winery, one of 3 in Lebanon. They produce 2,500,000 bottles of wine annually. The wine barrels are stored in over 2 km of natural caves, with a consistent, perfect temperature. After a walk through the caves, there was a generous sampling of their products - I found the whites particularly good.
To reach Beirut we had to cross a 1,550-meter (5,080') pass before descending into Beirut. The drive was considerably lengthened by a descent through switchbacks into a deep valley, and then a climb up the other side. A modern four-lane bridge towered far above us, however it was bombed by the Israelis this year and won't be useable again for at least five years.
We made a stop at a restaurant for an enormous Lebanese meal. Lebanese and Syria food is quite similar, served with many plates of appetizers before a main course. We finally arrived at Le Meridien Hotel in central Beirut, where I crawled into a comfortable king size bed and slept for 11 hours.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
The driver from yesterday had returned to Damascus, and a new vehicle with driver, Said, picked me up. I asked to skip the museum in favour of going to the office of Flying Carpet Airlines, which Waad found by phoning for directions. It wasn't easy, as it is on the fourth floor of a building with the entrance off the parking lot in the back.
The people with whom they share office space let us in to wait until the airline folks showed up. Hopefully they will be able to fly to Baghdad on Thursday, as aviation authorities in Iraq have not permitted them access for two weeks. I purchased a return ticket, and got instructions on how to find them at the airport. They told me that most nationalities, including Canadians, do not need a visa to visit Iraq - but all Arab countries do.
Our next stop was the Air France office, where over a period of almost an hour, by involving the manager, assistant manager and an agent, they were able to put together my Continental/Air France ticket for the 24th - a major relief after all the back and forth negotiations! I could not buy an upgrade on the class of ticket Continental arranged. With the flight nearly full and bulkhead and exit rows taken I may have to stand all the way to Paris but hopefully they will arrive in time to make my 55-minute connection. No room for error!
We then strolled through the centre of town, which was totally destroyed during the civil war and has been rebuilt in the old colonial styling by a consortium of international investors. Two destroyed buildings built by the Ottoman Turks were rebuilt according to the original design. In the process they discover Roman baths and other ruins, so in downtown centre there are three areas of Roman ruins, one of which they believe may be the first law school in history.
At the entrance to the road up the Dog River, north of Beirut, there are inscriptions left by conquering armies, dating from the 2nd millennium BC until 1949. We drove up the river to the Jeita Grottos, taking a cable car to the upper grotto. So far 8,400 meters (27,552') of cave have been explored in the complex. The caves are skilfully lit to highlight the amazing stalactites and stalagmites, and to illuminate the paved walkways. The footpath in the upper cave is 750 meters (2,460') long, and in the bottom cave a boat takes guests 500 meters (1,640') into the cave on an underground river. Of the many caves I've visited around the world none have been as spectacular as these.
Our next stop was to take a cable car, then a funicular, to a church with a huge statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking Journieh, also north of Beirut. There was a great view of the area from the top. Journieh is an expensive, largely Christian residential area. Although all areas are mixed to some degree, the area north of Beirut is more Christian and the area south is more Muslim. Israeli bombing was confined to the south - there was no damage in central or north Greater Beirut.
The temperature is comfortable, in the mid 20-degree range, and palm trees are common. Traffic is heavy during peak hours in Beirut, with lots of noise from honking horns. Of the four million Lebanese one million live in greater Beirut. Palestinian refugees account for 450,000 of the population. Arabic and French are the commonly spoken language, and many people speak English.
The city is very clean, but everywhere there is evidence of the civil war, which raged from 1976 to 1991. It seems there is not a building in the city that is not riddled with bullet holes. A lot of investment has been put into restoration or replacement of buildings, but shells of destroyed buildings, some in prime locations, are still a common sight. Apparently wealthy Lebanese who left the country own many of these. Well known international franchises are seen everywhere in the modern, bustling city.
Waad says in 1974 Christians comprised 63% of the population, but now the country is only 39% Christian due to the number who have left.
Waad has applied for immigration status to Canada. To apply he had to pay over $US 1,000, which he will lose if he is turned down.
When we returned to the hotel after a drive along the Corniche, or waterfront road, I invited Waad in for a goodbye drink. Everyone was glued to the TV, as the 34 year old Minister of Industry had be assassinated a few minutes before. Political assassinations have become frequent, and have included not only members of government but journalists as well. Dozens of billboards along the highway have photos of different victims and what is left of their blown up vehicles. Each billboard has one assassinated person, with the inscription "They did not die in vain. We will not forget". The difference this time is that the minister was shot.
We drove by the site where the former president was assassinated. It must have been some bomb - they say it would have had to be a truck to hold the amount of explosive that were set off. The crater caused is deep, and almost as wide as the road. Buildings on both sides were badly damaged.
I spent some of the evening watching news reports on the latest assassination, checking BBC, Euro News and CNN. It was hard to believe I was in the same city, as they re-fought the civil war, and made current announcements over a background of video of flames taken during the civil war - making it appear that the destruction being shown was current. There must have been mass disappointment that they couldn't stir up any kind of insurrection. On local TV one party leader after another were shown appealing for calm, a call that was obviously heeded. The people here want to avoid a repeat of the civil war at all costs.
Today is flag day, the day the Lebanese flag is raised all over the city in preparation to celebrate independence day tomorrow. The assassination was timed perfectly to have all celebrations cancelled, replaced with three days of mourning.
This was to have been the best year since the civil war began for tourism in Lebanon - it has grown gradually over the past four years, and bookings were at an all time high. Many people invested in tourism projects, and then came the Israeli attacks and the cancellations rolled in, turning this year into one of the worst. The international media will insure it stays down with their civil war scenes on TV, and promises of non-existent Hezbollah riots in the streets.
The international media place a lot of emphasis on the pro-Syria and anti-Syria factions, as though this was the foundation of the various parties. That is not emphasised in local media. US based CNN insinuated that Iran could be involved in some conspiracy to destabilize Lebanon, something not mentioned in European broadcasts and discounted locally. Various local people I've talked to say it is possible Syria is involved, but very unlikely, as they have nothing to gain and much to lose if found out. The feeling here is that the problems are internal, that the source is one of the many conflicting factions struggling for power within the country. I knew the Lebanese situation was complicated before arrival, but it is far more difficult and complex than I could have imagined.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Said, the driver, picked me up at 10 AM this morning to drive me to the Sheraton Coral Beach Hotel. We drove around the city in very light traffic. It is a holiday, Independence Day, and the first of three days of mourning. The poor media will be hard pressed to conjure up scenes of rioting and mayhem on this quite, sunny morning.
The Sheraton Coral Beach is one of the city's best hotels, with two swimming pools and a private sandy beach on the Mediterranean Sea. For a huge room, complete with sofa and two armchairs, office area and king bed I'm paying $86 per night - regular rate, not travel agent rate. There are few guests; most are UN troops whose price is $45 single and $55 double for rooms. If you ever wanted to visit Lebanon, this is the time to do it!
It is a day of rest and catching up for me - I've been remiss in writing, so am putting down the activities of the last few days and will try to get it off tonight. Tomorrow I will hopefully get to Baghdad, Iraq and back on the Flying Carpet!!