Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lebanon: My last days in the country

Chapter Nine - My last days in the country

At this point I wanted to make a short excursion into Syria, to visit some friends I had made during my trip last May. Back at Beirut's Cola taxi stand, I got out of the bus, and accidentally (?) was exactly at the right spot for service taxi thither. It cost $10 only. Unfortunately I must have been around at the wrong day, at the wrong time, because it took ages to fill up the taxi. I was waiting for over two hours when I asked the driver for the third time how many people he'd gathered. I think to please me he said : "We need only one more..." When that 'one more' hadn't appeared after yet another twenty or so minutes, I decided it was time to pay for the spare seat. As it turned out he had found only one other person, a Palestine girl living in Damascus but studying in Beirut. Clearly he hadn't expected me to pay for that other seat, but he had to leave now, hadn't he ? :-)

Going by taxi was a preferable option to the buses as it didn't include the time-losing stops for refreshments and 'duty free shopping' which you have to take for granted when taking the bus. There was only one brief stop at the Chtaurama Market, the supermarket in Chtaura where all service taxis to and from Damascus seem to make a stop. You can have warm food as well there and everything is cheap enough.

At the border, both the Lebanese and Syrian sides, everything is very relaxed. The only requirement is that you already have a Syrian visa. You get stamped out by a grumpy Lebanese official, and after that you're stamped in by a friendly Syrian custom official. There are of course also customs checks, but these too are very straightforward. At the Lebanese side are some people offering to change Lira to Syrian Pounds. I suggest you do that. There's no catch involved and the moneychangers seem to be very reliable. The going rate will be the black market rate of Syria, which was S£51 to the Dollar at the time I was there. Bringing in more than S£5000 is officially not allowed, but nobody checks. Surely the Syrians know about this, as when you go (back) to Lebanon, there's also a moneychanger on the Syrian side who'll change Pounds to Lira. It's all tolerated though.

Approaching Damascus is always a great sight. Suddenly you see the city, occupying a vast area, lying between the mountains. Travel time had been two hours and 45 minutes, a massive time saving over the bus; I'd seen five hours reported in Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree.

This is a Lebanon travelogue, so I'm not going to say any more about Syria (after all I only went there for a visit), except perhaps that the Alaa Tower Hotel I in Damascus is still as good as it was before, and costs US$ 32, and there's now a direct bus from the capital to Raqqa; it takes approximately seven hours.
The fare to get back from Sham (Damascus) to Beirut was $20, and no bargaining. This is the twice the price I was asked to pay in the other direction ! On top of that, there are self-appointed porters at the taxi stand who'll grab your backpack, even if you don't want it. There was nothing I could do to prevent it; it was more like a small riot, honestly ! Unnecessary to say they expect a tip... The trip in one of the famous big, yellow American cars took over four hours ! This was due to big delays at the Syrian side of the border, where customs officials are very thorough in this direction. Getting stamped out and in was a breeze though, and I saw people obtaining a Lebanese visa in a matter of minutes.

I was back in Beirut. I went to the Embassy Hotel on Rue Makdissi, almost opposite the post office (from where I sent the postcards which never reached their destination). The hotel's a friendly place where a single rooms costs $40 (incl. taxes). It's not too bad but the bathroom's tiny and could do with some attention. The price is too steep for what it is. There's a garden indeed, but it's only a poor representation of what a garden could/should be. Rooms at the back are quiet, considering this is Hamra, and the only noise you'll ever hear, comes from the jets departing from the airport. I got cleaned up a bit and went for a bite. I felt like a 'real' pizza for a change, and dropped in at the Pizza Hut on the corner of Rue Hamra and Rue de Rome. It's what you'd expect it to be. It's quite expensive, but the people serving you are very friendly. Mostly they're students and are interested in making conversations. The ice cream in the Hut is the best I had in Lebanon ! Really, you should try it !

Having nothing to do in particular that afternoon, I walked all the way to one of the south-eastern suburbs to get an impression of the war damage. The suburbs still have most of the visible damage today, I think. It was really a sobering experience !
I had one full day left after that. First thing I did in the morning was changing hotels. I went looking for Hotel Mace, but somehow couldn't find it, and nobody knew it. I suspect the name's been changed. I tried several other places in Hamra, but at the cheaper ones I was told they were full. I ended up at the Mayflower Hotel, which I'd describe as upper-middle class. It's very friendly and welcoming of backpackers. The hotel has some sort of English atmosphere, making it very pleasant to stay. Many of the guests were UN personnel. The price of a single room is US$ 65 plus 16% tax, but if you ask for a deduction you'll get one : $55 plus 5% tax. The rooms are a bit small but still nice and the beds are extremely comfortable. There's A/C, a well-equipped bathroom, international telephone, satellite TV, room service,...

This last day, I decided to make a day trip to Lake Qaraoun and the Litani Dam. First I took a service taxi to the Cola taxi stand. There I changed for a service taxi going to Chtaura. It cost LL 5000 and took only about five minutes to fill up. It had been raining early morning, making the mountain roads very slippery; there was also a dense fog on the summits. In no time I saw twenty, thirty accidents, all of them caused by excessive speed or reckless driving. Luckily my driver was careful and thoughtful !

The only option to get to Qaraoun from Chtaura is by ordinary taxi, and it's no bargain ! Hiring a cab for the whole afternoon, taking in the sights I wanted and with plenty of time for photo stops was $50. Mohammed, the driver, was a very nice fellow, and he knew exactly what I could be interested in.

Lake Qaraoun Lake Qaraoun is a very beautiful place. The Litani Dam was smaller than I expected, but made for an interesting visit nevertheless. Qaraoun is in the deep south of the Bekaa Valley, and is very close to Hezbollah fortified firing positions, which are still occasionally subject to Israeli/SLA (air) attacks; some of the strongholds can be seen from the dam. Strangely enough, there's only little visible military presence around the lake. It's recommended to do a tour around the lake and Litani River. There are several eateries and cafes, and the views are good from everywhere.

We returned to Chtaura where I had some great food in some restaurant, but I forgot the name. There are two identically named places next to each other. It's supposed to be the best eatery in town, serving all kind of 'sandwiches'. It's cheap. Everybody should be able to point it out to you as it's well-known in the vicinity.

I spent my last evening in Beirut, but didn't make it very late, as I had to get up at 4.30 the next morning to be at the airport in time. I went to make a final telephone call home to tell my family everything was all right and I'd be back soon. A convenient place to make a call, is a place near the Tourist Information Office/Ministry of Tourism (which are both apparently permanently closed). It's easy to find. Just go south from the Pizza Hut. It's halfway down an empty gallery on your left after a short walk. I realised that at night this can be a dark, uncomfortable place to some people.

For the next morning I had arranged a taxi to take me to the airport. It cost $15 including 'pick-up fee' and tip. A taxi from any hotel is $25. If you just stop a taxi in the streets, the driver will always quote you a too high a price anyway, usually $20, but will eventually come down to around $10-15. Only occasionally you'll bump into a driver who's honest and will take you for - say - LL 5000.

Check-in, security and customs checks at the airport are all very straightforward. I had kept some Lebanese money to pay for the departure tax, but there wasn't any ! Really ! No departure tax ! I went to the airport bank to change the money back to Dollars, but again - just like when I'd arrived - it was closed. This is really a big drawback. Banks at airports should always be open 24 hours, IMHO.
Otherwise the airport's modern, but still has only limited facilities.
The flight was on time, and four hours and fifteen minutes later I was back in Paris, where I took my connecting flight to Brussels.
End note

My stay in Lebanon has been some sort of revelation to me, seeing the damage of war I had seen so often on TV for real. There are lots of interesting and/or beautiful sights to take in and the people were often overwhelmingly friendly. With a history of being 'attached' to the West so closely, it is hardly surprising that it has lost quite a bit of its Arabic authenticity, unlike - for instance - Syria. Still, it's exactly this partly Westernisation which makes the country quite unique in the region. It's like visiting a mixture between Syria and France. It's an easy country to get around in, as distances are small. However, it's not a cheap place and therefore won't generally be on a shoestring traveller's list. Still, if you have lots of time, a combination of service taxis and walking should get you around quite cheaply, but then there's also the high price of accommodation to take into consideration. Still, if you have the money, give Lebanon a try. You won't be disappointed. I surely wasn't!

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