DAY 72 – TRIPOLI, THE CEDARS AND BYBLOS

Being woken at 7am, after three hours sleep, was an unexpected and unwanted surprise for both my hangover and me. But since I was awake I got moving and went and saw a few places around the country. Lebanon is great for this sort of day tripping because it is so small. Tripoli in the north is a nice city with an okay but overpriced citadel. Bcharre is a scenic little mountain village inland along a massive mountain gorge. The biblical cedars (and before you ask, yes I went sight seeing to see some trees mentioned in the bible) of Bcharre were also very nice and it was good to get out in the forest for an hour or so, despite my hangover. in all fairness they were nothing compared to the mighty kauri you see in the beautiful forests of New Zealand. Isn’t it great when travelling makes you realise how special your own country is?

Bcharre Cedars, Lebannon

Back home I was asleep by eight thirty and stayed that way for twelve and a half hours.

DAY 71 – BEIRUT, BABE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD

Got up to a place called the Jeitta grotto. The Jeitta grotto is an impossibly huge and beautiful series of limestone caves in the north of Lebanon. Actually it’s one big cave but you have to visit it in two parts. The first is a massive cave complex that winds its way deep into the mountain. The second is much lower and has to be explored along an underground river in small electric boats. Very cool and extremely beautiful. The stalactites, stalagmites and associated limestone art are the most amazing I have ever seen anywhere. To give you an idea of how grandiose and extensive the caves are they make the limestone caves at Waitomo seem like a small hole dug in the dirt in your backyard. sorry Kiwis. In typical Lebanese fashion they have completely over done the whole place in order to justify the extortionate entrance fee. The unnecessary perks include a cable card ride that saves you a five minute walk up a gentle slope and a road train that saves you two two minute walks back down the same slope. Personally I’d rather do the walks and save the money but that’s because I am a broke bastard.

Train at Jeita Grotto, Limestone caves north of Beirut, Lebanon

Have spent the day walking around Beirut and have decided to go on record and say that the women in Lebanon (but especially Beirut) are the most beautiful women in the world. I’m going to clarify that last comment to make sure that there absolutely no room for error and that we are all on exactly the same wavelength here. On average, Lebanese women are undeniably the most stunning drop dead gorgeous collection of babes that this planet has ever seen. And it’s not just one or two absolute stunners who are dragging up the average. It’s loads of them. Loads I tell you. In an entirely unrelated matter I have completely overstayed my transit visa and am an illegal overstayer as of last night.

DAY 70 – BEIRUT DAY TWO

Beirut is an amazing city of unparalleled contrast. Most of it was shot to shit in the sixteen-year war and has had to be knocked down and rebuilt. Only a small part of it has actually been completed so it is not uncommon to be walking through parts of central Beirut with its beautifully designed modern European looking buildings and come across a building with literally thousands of bullet holes (or worse). Amazingly some of these building still have people squatting in them. Some are too derelict even for that. Apparently a major stumbling block towards the redevelopment is that they are unable to track down many of the owners who were scattered around the world during the war.

Another consequence of the war and the ongoing trouble with the Israelis (they keep bombing the power stations) is that the utilities are a little unreliable to say the least. On my first night in Baalbek I was in bed asleep by eight-thirty when the power went out and there was nothing else to do. In Beirut I was unable to have a shower on my first day as my hotel had had no water for 48 hours and all three of its tanks were empty. Since then they have lost power several times a day. The power is also a little unreliable in the Internet cafes, which is a tad more inconvenient >:(

Speaking of Internet cafes. It really bugs me when you enter a smaller family run cafes with nobody online and as soon as you open (and start paying for) a connection to the local Internet Service Provider all the local kids all jump on (for free I guess) and start choking up the bandwidth with ICQ, online gaming, video streaming etc. little cheapskate toerags.

I took a look at the one of the hard rock cafes here in Beirut (they have two for some reason) and they had a quote on the front wall from the a Beatles song “the time will come, when you see, we are all one.” now I know these are the do-gooder ramblings of permanently stoned hippies who are completely out of touch with the real world. And I know that the people they were primarily interested in becoming one with were the huge numbers if young girlies who followed their band. But. It struck me that the words have a deeper meaning that a few people around the globe could sit up and take notice of at the moment. Take Lebanon for example. Ten years ago their multi race, multi religion country was embroiled in a vicious war where people were being shot faster than you could say “is that ak-47 loaded Mohammed?” and they have made peace work.

Brand new Beirut, Lebanon

War wreckage, Beirut, Lebanon

I weighed myself on a big set of scales in a delicatessen today and found that I only clocked in at a paltry 82 kilos. That’s 180 pound for anyone stuck in the eighteenth century. This is eight or nine kilos down on my full ‘beer drinking London weight’. This came as a bit of a shock because I wouldn’t say I look that much different. Certainly not eight kilos. To rectify matters I have cut all the crap out of my diet (fruit, veges, bottles of water) and have started to concentrate on the grease and sugar food groups.

Last night I met Sako (the Lebanese guy I met at Petra) for drinks. Sako is a top guy and I would say a completely unique person in the Arab world. Firstly, he doesn’t have a problem with the Israelis and is prepared to take them one at a time based on their individual merits. This is pretty rare in itself. Even more shockingly Sako doesn’t believe in using his horn while driving (his Mercedes). He thinks it is rude. Unfuckingbelievable. To put this into perspective – I would be prepared to bet that I have not been in a vehicle in the last seventy days that has not used it’s horn at least once.

DAY 69 – BAALBEK AND BEIRUT (MONDAY)

Baalbek is a roman temple complex half way between the Syrian border and Beirut. The site is much smaller than other ruins but the temples are much bigger and amazingly intact. Definitely worth the entry fee.

Roman ruins, Ballbek, Lebanon

Roman ruins, Ballbek, Lebanon

Lions head, Roman ruins, Ballbek, Lebanon

Roman ruins, Ballbek, Lebanon

Roman ruins, Ballbek, Lebanon

Caught a bus to Beirut and saw loads more anti-aircraft guns on route. Upon arrival a local guy adopts me and shows me how to get to my hostel by catching a bus across town as he is going that way. His English is utter rubbish but he insisted on showing me around and kept trying to pay for stuff. He even followed me to my hostel and said he would ring/visit me later. I really didn’t want a guide as I have the Lonely Planet for a friend after all. I especially don’t want one that I can’t hold a proper conversation with but I don’t know how to tell the guy so I avoided him by staying out until really late. Also he is of the opinion that America deserved the terrorism, which doesn’t make him flavour of the month as far as I am concerned.

Cruising around Beirut I am amazed by the lack of comments/attention I receive. Even the FREAK shirt only got one mention (“What is frek?”?). In every other country I have been on tour to the locals delight in calling out to the floppy hat wearing/bald guy. Theories for this phenomenon (or lack of) include:

  1. Beirut is far to sophisticated for that sort of childish behaviour
  2. Something else (more thought needed here)

SYRINA HIKU

Some things are free here
Locals are very friendly
Something is fishy

Once again much love you all as per and I promise that I feel completely safe and that I won’t do anything dumb(er than usual).

READ THIS BIT VERY CAREFULLY

I am okay. I do not think that I am in any danger. And this is not just bravado, I am being deadly serious. I have to be. It’s my life I am talking about.

Thank you to all of you who have expressed concern over my well-being but please do not worry about me because I am keeping completely abreast of current events and the feeling in the streets and I am absolutely positive that I am complete safe here. In short: trust me I know what I am doing.

ON TO THE TRIVIAL TRAVEL STUFF

Spending time in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon has made me realise what a total pack of wankers the Gypos (Egyptians) you meet as a tourist are. Even the other Arabs think this about the Gypos. That’s not to say that the entire population is made up of bad apples but the ones who are drawn to the tourists are sharks and we are no more that bloody pieces of meat waiting to be ripped off. I am telling you this now because the Syrians, Jordanians and Lebanese have made me realise that this part of the world is filled with genuine, honest, hospitable and generous people. And I have nothing but good things to say about the rest of the Arabs. Except the ones who hang around at bus stations and the taxi drivers of course. They’re wankers everywhere.

DAY 68 CROSSING THE LEBANNONESE BORDER

My Krak tour driver said in no uncertain terms that Kiwis can’t get visas for Lebanon on the border. He even sited several instances where Kiwis were turned back while Aussies were let through. I was pretty rattled by this news at Lebanon has no embassy in Damascus and getting a Lebanese visa would involve an expensive and time consuming trip down to Amman the capital of Jordan for a visa. If it came to that I decided to flag Lebanon. To get some additional info on this I spent the morning trying to do the email thing in Hama. This proved a little tricky as the internet connection between Hama and Damascus had been down since the previous evening. When it came back on at midday I was able to check my email and send a couple of emergency emails. One to my mum assuring her that I was ok and one to my London friends who might be able to confirm or deny the visa rumour. In the end it took a whole hour to read a few emails and to send two. I was planning to email again an hour or two later but I think the ‘repaired’ internet connection between Hama and Damascus was a piece of string with a tin can on each end so I decided to take risk it and take a run at the border instead.

The border was pretty stressful. Apart from the fact that I had paid for an expensive bus all the way to Baalbek I knew the rules said I couldn’t go. At the Syrian departure point the border guard took my passport, thumbed through it roughly, which is enough to make me sweat by itself. I had to perform more emergency repairs on it in Palmyra as the photo page had separated completely from the cover and a passport in that sort of condition can be confiscated on the spot. Then he has a long look as a manual and talk to a superior. After this he tells to one of the guy from my bus that there is a problem (in Arabic but I can tell by the way everyone reacts). Then he leaves my passport sitting around for a while and read the manual again. Then the supervisor again who sends him back to the manual. At this stage I’m worried so I tried talking to the guy, which can’t have made any difference because there wasn’t a person in twenty miles who spoke English. Eventually they decide to let me leave Syria and I get to mix it up with the Lebanese border guys. Which turns out to be a piece of piss, they stamp me with a free 48 hour transit visa and send me on my way in under fifteen minutes. Which is pretty quick for this part of the world.

FIRST IMPRESSION OF LEBANNON

I have never seen a real armoured personal carrier before. I have never seen real tanks dug into a protective bunker before. And I have never seen a camouflaged anti-aircraft battery and command bunkers before. Well I had seen them all within ten minutes of crossing the border and they’re everywhere in this country if you keep you eyes open.

SECOND IMPRESSION OF LEBANNON

The women here are incredibly fit. Incredibly. And they dress code isn’t the shapeless black thing with a hood and mask that is common across the rest of the Middle East. The dress code is painted on jeans and tight t-shirts. Guns and babes, what a country and where do I sign up.

Arrive in Baalbek at 8 and book into a hotel. Am offered drugs by a complete stranger on the street about 38 seconds later. Go the Lebanese I say.

DAY 67 – THE KRAK DES CHEVALIERS

For the first time in Syria I paid for an organised tour from my hotel instead of making my own way around the various sights I wanted to see. The bonus of this is I got to see another castle (completely crap), a monastery (also completely crap) and drive along a beautiful mountain road (you guessed it, crap) before getting to the Krak des chevaliers. The Krak was worth the price of the tour alone though so all was not lost. Especially since the Krak is the fourth site in Syria that my ISIC card has allowed me to pay the ninety percent off student price. Bonus. Very dodgy admittedly. But bonus all the same. I wont bore you with details of the Krak except to say that it was a wickedly big crusader castle (easily the best so far) and this geek had a way cool time exploring it for a couple of hours.

Krak des Chevaliers, Syria

Hubbers at Krak des Chevaliers, Syria

Krak des Chevaliers, Syria

The drive home along the boring old motorway was way better than the ‘beautiful’ mountain road. We saw several insane individuals (and families) crossing the motorway on foot. A couple of vans badly overloaded with foam mattresses (what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen) and one guy who was obviously sitting the practical component of a Cairo drivers permit by driving down the wrong side of the motorway into oncoming traffic.

Truck transporting foam. What is the worst that could possibly happen? Lebanon

That night I toured the town (still no brothel) in search of a place that could repair my caterpillar sandals, which needed to go into the shop for the fourth time. Walking machines my fucking arse. The shoe repair shop was a real family affair with three generations of males from the family (and friends) sitting around drinking tea. With traditional Syrian hospitality the shoe repair guy did my sandals for free and refused any money. The old guy outside the shop raised the subject of the terrorism and said sorry. He then went on to explain in badly broken English that America and Israel have been killing Arab women and children for a long time. I tried to say that a lot of people were dying on every side and that the entire killing was bad. This only seemed to sadden him and he got up and rode off without saying another word. I felt like shit for being so rude when they had been so hospitable so I bought some sweets for the shoe repair guys kid.

My poor handling of this situation reminded me of two Arab guys I have met in the last few days. One was a Jordanian translator who worked in Jordan and China. He paid for my bus back from a castle in Jordan and refused any money. The second was a Syrian economics student who got me down to the ruins at Bosra at the local price, got me into the castle for free, gave me food at his house and guided me around the ruins for free. Both were intelligent, reasonable and thoroughly likable guys. And both said they would pick up a gun and start shooting Israelis tomorrow if given the chance.

DAY 66 – THE ROAD TO HAMA (FRIDAY)

Up at eight after another nights sleep that was heavily disrupted by mosquitoes. I must be the flavour of the month in the Middle East at the moment because they sure go to a lot of effort to drain me. Last night I was sleeping in high winds five floors up. Only the hard as fuck Special Forces mosquitoes could possibly get me in those conditions. As a result I spent the better part of the day in a foul mood. I made my own way to the basilica (ruined church) of St Simeon for next to nothing. The church was built on the site where wacky old saint Simeon spent the better part of 36 years sitting on a variety of pillars. Wouldn’t it be great if all fanatical religious nutcases only wasted their own lives? After that I journeyed back to Aleppo in a taxi where I paid the same price as the locals instead of the one thousand percent mark up the driver originally suggested. Naughty Syrian taxi driver.

Water wheel, Hama, Syria

On the bus to heading south to Hama I decided to catch up on my lost sleep until the Syrian guys sitting around me helped me pay the local price for a coffee. I’ve been drinking coffee in Syria for several days now and this is the first time in have paid the local price for coffee which is a mere forty percent of the silly tourist price I have been paying. After my fix I was a box of birds again (Hi my name is Carl and I’m addicted to coffee) and started to make small talk with my new friends. Their English wasn’t crash hot but we chatted about the usual stuff until one of them raised the subject of the recent terrorism in America. For the record there is no way I would have raised the subject myself. I indicated that I thought it was bad then one of them made a comment in Arabic and they all laughed. I though this was pretty cold to say the least. The spokesman of the group then went on to say that the act was ‘in sha Allah’ or the will of Allah. The way he said it made it perfectly clear that they had no regrets at all about the tragedy. Needless to say the conversation ground to a halt shortly after that. Very shortly after that. The problem is if you look at it from the Arab point of view then you can see why they don’t give a flying fuck about Americas suffering. Half a century ago Israel invaded the Arab lands and America has given them loads support ever since. More recently America are the driving force behind the bombing and sanctioning of Iraq, which has caused a lot of suffering to another group of Arabs. Despite the political posturing of the various Arabic leaders there is clearly a lot of solidarity between the regular Arabs on the street. So if you hurt one group then you make yourself an enemy of a good percentage of the regular Mohammed’s (Joe’s) here. I know this attitude selectively ignores several poignant facts but this is the way they tend to see it here and from their point of view the logic is chillingly sound. The same cold hearted bastards who shrugged off the atrocities in America then went on help me off the bus in the right place and onto the service taxi into downtown Hama. They even had a full on yelling match with the conductor to make sure I wasn’t scammed an extra fours English pence. Damn them and their damned legendary Syrian hospitality.

I had a couple of hours before sunset to explore Hama, which is a coincidence because that’s all it takes. Hama would most accurately be described as a ‘delightful’ town on the river Orantes. I deplore using the word ‘delightful’ and I wouldn’t use it if it weren’t exactly the right word for this Hama. Surprisingly I completely failed to find the brothel.

Hama is also quite cheap which is good as I may be stuck here for a bit while the Israeli/Jordanian border is shut.

DAY 65 – ALEPPO

Woke up at 8.30am for some inexplicable reason. Now the truckers have left town my rent was due to treble due to my vastly reduced buying power. To save money I moved to the roof of another hotel.

Spent the day exploring the town. Aleppo is a great little town with cool mosques and a great citadel. It looks and feels really European with tree lines streets and big green parks. This is due to Aleppo’s historical role as a trading post between Europe and the Middle East.

Aleppo Castle, Syria

Aleppo, Syria

The biggest park has the bizarrest water feature I have ever seen. The designer must have been given the brief “get as many litres of water in the air as you possible can”. The result is a rusted pipe over the top of the water that connects to a small spraying rock (possibly an ugly carving or some sort) in the centre, which blasts shit loads of water into the air. Some of it actually lands back in the pond.

A good piece of advice for visiting Arabic cities in the summer would be to visit them during the day and then come back at night when they take on a new life all together. It’s almost like visiting a different city. With this in mind I set off to explore Aleppo at night. Spotting a nightclub I decided to see if there were anyone inside worth having a beer with. The guy at the door stopped me and said to come back in half an hour because they were closed. That seemed like far too much effort so I decided to flag it. As I was leaving the bouncer gives me a knowing look and said “Seventy girls here at nine. Seventy girls here at nine.” A little belatedly it dawns on me that I was about to walk into a brothel. In my defence it did look like ‘just a normal club’ and it was on a main shopping street packed with families and everything. That makes Aleppo the second Syrian city in a row to have a thriving red light scene and somehow I have managed to stumble on them both within hours of arriving in town.

DAY 64 – OFF TO ALEPPO ON ANTIPODEAN TRUCK

More CNN and in the morning. I heard on the news that Israel had closed its Egyptian and Jordanian borders and invaded southern Lebanon. This threw my travel plans into complete disarray. I felt like a completely selfish wanker for feeling ‘put out’ by the disaster.

The ruins at Palmyra are pretty extensive and well worth a visit but you kind of get the feeling that they are a little ‘new’ looking in places.

Instead of catching a bus to my next destination I hitch a ride with one of the Cairo to Istanbul trucks that frequent this area. The bus is mostly filled with Aussies and Kiwis and has a fair number of fully paid up members of the knitting club (and maybe ever a regional coordinator or two). Luckily I find myself in the company of a couple of excellent kiwi chicks that are fully paid up members of the drinking club (funny that). As you can imagine there is a fair bit of van fever.

One English guy on the bus was scammed by the Gypos to the tune of 218 English pounds for accommodation and sight seeing for his first three days in Cairo. For comparison it took me about two weeks in Egypt to blow my first 200 squids. This is the worst I have heard (so far) and I can’t help feeling sorry for the dude even though he totally asked for it by being an absolute plonker.

The journey to Aleppo took much longer than the regular bus would have because we got lost and ended up stopping at a carnival in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Great fun on the rides including the world’s slowest dodgems, which were free courtesy of more excellent Syrian hospitality. At the carnival I tried another traditional local drink for the first time. I don’t know what the locals call it but I’m calling it ‘diluted cow shit tea’. I have chosen this name because the drink has the look, smell, texture and taste of cow shit mixed with hot water.

Hubbers on a ferris wheel, somewhere in Syria

Local guys in Aleppo buying blond Kiwis drinks

Ten hours after we set out we finally arrived in Aleppo and the drinking club decides to go out for a few more drinks :). At the pub groups of local guys buy the kiwi girls (they’re mostly blond) food all night long. Finally got in at 5am.

DAY 63 – (TUESDAY) SEPTEMBER 11 IN PALMYRA SYRIA

Today I got up early to go to the Syrian national museum in Damascus. Apparently its quite good but there are no plaques saying what anything is. I wouldn’t know though because it’s closed on Tuesdays for some inexplicable reason. The only reason I can come up with is that they close it for ‘come-down Tuesday.’ surely not.

Then I caught a bus to Palmyra. Arrived at Palmyra to the news of the tragedy in America. Spent most of the night watching CNN or similar in a total state of disbelief. On the streets and in the cafes and restaurants tourists are stopping each other to spread the news and express concern. The local people are similarly glued to their televisions. They too seem stunned by the news and (I assume) as horrified by the atrocity as the westerners are. If any feel any different they surely aren’t sharing their feelings with this 6’4″ westerner.

Roman ruins, Palmyra, Syria

Roman ruins, Palmyra, Syria

Roman ruins, Palmyra, Syria

Roman ruins, Palmyra, Syria

Ruins, Palmyra, Syria

Hubbers at ruins, Palmyra, Syria

One of the Germans at the hotel had a small radio and I try to fall sleep while listening to the BBC’s horrifying reports of from America. My thoughts keep returning to revenge I want even though I know I am being infected with the same disease that enabled these sickening acts to be committed in the first place.