Around the world in 125 days
When our group were in Palmyra, some members talked about going to Lebanon, which is just next to Syria. We have heard a lot about this beautiful country, especially about Beruit (the former 'Paris of the Levant') when its civil wars had been headline news. Since we had two days in Damascus, even though our tour, for some reason, did not include a stop there, the second day would give us the opportunity to make a day trip to Lebanon. But we had only single entry visas to Syria. We asked Mohammed about this situation and he said there was no problem at all. On return from Lebanon, we could apply for the Syrian visa at the border. It would cost us about $100 for the trip itself and US $40 for the visa to come back. He would do all the arrangement for us. So on the second day, six of the group, two Scottish ladies, two Australian ones, and us, got on a small bus and headed to Lebanon. Mohammed also came along as our guide.
The roads were rather hilly. They wound up and down thru valleys and mountain ranges before gliding down toward the coaster region. When we visited, Lebanon was under Syrian protection or occupation, depending to whom you talked. We went thru some Syrian checkpoints and saw more Syrian soldiers than Lebanese ones.
The first place we stopped in Lebanon is called Baalbeck, in the Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah has its headquarters and training camps. We were admittedly a bit nervous at first, fearing it might be unsafe. But in reality there was no problem at all. The reason to visit Baalbeck was to see the colossal Roman ruins there. At the entrance, Mohmmed found us a local guide to give us a guided tour of this site. The buildings here were even taller and grander than Palmyra. It is mostly a giant temple complex dedicated to the Roman gods. This is the largest religious complex known in the whole Roman Empire. Most of the structures are just massive, like the remaining six standing columns of the huge Temple of Jupiter. And then there is the Temple of Bacchus etc. I was truly impressed. and wondered how these people in the old days were able to carve out these gigantic stones, and get them here, designing and building such incredible structures. The place is full of detailed and delicate carvings. For example, you could see giant lion heads carved up on the wall. Nowaday, some temples are more than just for sightseeing. They are also used as a backdrop for concert events.
In the afternoon, we went to a gigantic cave called Jeita Grotto, located 18 km north of Beruit. The complex was very well laid out. I said this because this place looked as it could have been designed by someone from Disneyland. There was this red tram that took tourists from the parking lot to the entrance area. Here you would find facilities for information, ticket and food. We decided to have a nice sharwama for lunch. Then after you got your tickets, you rode small aerial gondolas, like what you find in Disney, to get to the upper chamber. This cave has two chambers, one higher than the other. In the lower chamber, you could even ride a small boat, silently gliding thru the underground lake.
Inside these caverns, one could see huge stalactites and stalagmites of various shapes. Some looked like columns. Some looked like draperies. There were also big open areas that looked like the inside of a huge cathedral. There was water at the bottom and the light reflecting from it made the scene totally surreal. You almost felt like you were dreaming. All of us were totally impressed by these caves. They are probably the biggest ones we had visited so far. Bigger and deeper than the one in Majorca or the one in Barbados. If you visit Beirut, do not miss this place.
After the Grotto, we finally arrived at Beirut. Beirut is used to be the banking center of the Middle East until the civil war. Still, some people were doing very well here. I saw cell phones and Mercedes all the time. There were Western-style restaurants everywhere. We found their ATMs can even dispense either US dollars or local currency.
Beirut is right on the Mediterranean Sea, and they have a beautiful coastline and tall palm trees. You feel like you are at the French Riviera. The best place to see this is their Corniche along the coast with open green spaces and a long seaside promenade for jogging and running. One section of the Corniche has a cove with some very unusual rock formations in the water called Pigeon Rocks. One of these rocks has a big hole in the middle and we saw some power boats going thru the opening. From the promenade, which is sitting on a cliff, I could look down and watch a lot of young locals having fun, enjoying the water activities.
Beruitis go here simply to stroll, or enjoy a leisurely cafe nargahileh (water pipe with flavored tobacco).
Before going back to Syria, we also passed a war zone area. There were tall buildings with big holes on the side. Some of them had bullet holes all over and people are actually still living inside. The reason that these buildings did not get fixed was because the owners had gone away and as a result they were taken over by squatters.
I certainly wish we could spend more time in Lebanon. This country has a lot of potential, with its beautiful coast and climate. People would have a very good life here if only they can live peacefully. This is definitely a case of having something beautiful then messing it up by politics, religion, and of course the big conflict about what it means to be happy. Basically, one camp here wants to be happy by enjoying things, and other groups want to be happy by being religious.
© Dave Cheng 2000