Friday, 25 April 2014

Bus to Beiteddine (Part Two)

The beauty of the Beiteddine Palace was accentuated by the absence of a horde of tourists. I probably ran into four people while exploring the grounds. There was also the occasional minder making sure we did not enter blocked off areas. My friends were right -- this place is pretty.

Mosaic from the 5th-6th century in the former stable
I was ready to leave after wandering around for about two hours. With every step towards the mid-afternoon, I began the task of plotting my way out of this town. There were a few cars and minivans parked outside the Palace. I could ask for a ride, I thought.

The inner courtyard
Then again, who knew where they were going, and what sort of characters would occupy those vehicles? Let's not forget their impression of this lone traveller who refuses to speak Arabic. Could he be pretending? After all, he looks like one of us. At least that's what my tour guide had said to me a couple of days earlier. I had also been mistaken for an Israeli, although why an Israeli might be wandering around so openly in the streets of Beirut escaped me (Oh, and did I mention being stopped by the police because they wanted to see my passport?).

Outside the stable
I walked back to the same road my taxi driver had left me. There was no sign of traffic. The town itself looked like it was snoozing on a holiday. I took the road we came from and chanced upon a woman (probably in her 50s) waiting by the side of the road. So there is a bus that comes here!

'Allo. Bus, Beirut?'
'Bus,' hand gestures pointing in the direction of traffic, trying as best as I could to explain the roundabout I initially got off at, 'Beirut?'
More Arabic.
'Ok.' I took whatever she said as a positive sign.
'You don't speak Arabic?' she seemed to ask.
'No Arabi', I said apologetically.
'La', this time I felt like an idiot, although on the plus side, I had remembered the Arabic word for 'no'.

We watched cars go by every other minute. Their occupants looked at us as they passed. I imagined them thinking 'what an odd pair that is'. Five minutes passed. Another ten. She says something in Arabic and I simply nod. After several checks with her watch, she tells me I'm better off walking to the spot where I got the cab. I thanked her and walked.

The fourth side of the courtyard, looking out to
the hills and valley
A few more cars whizzed by. It was past two in the afternoon and all I had eaten was a hearty breakfast. If there was anything useful the guide book said about this place, it was that you should pack your own lunch because there aren't many food options near the palace. I pulled out the bagel I picked up at a cafe near the hotel and continued on my way. There was time too for a couple of selfies (which didn't turn out as well as I'd have liked) and a video narrating what had transpired so far. Charbel later told me he laughed at the video because I had mis-pronounced Beiteddine (bayt-AH-din instead of bayt-UH-din, which means something else altogether).

Twice in Singapore I had been offered lifts (without my asking) while walking down the hill from work and on the side of an expressway near my army camp. The drivers on this stretch proved to be less friendly -- I tried hitchhiking three or four times. On the bright side, the valleys and hills -- bathed in generous sunlight -- were offering themselves for a visual treat.
On my way to the roundabout

The roundabout was a mere 20-30 minute walk from the palace. As I approached, I took hurried steps, ready to sprint, in case I spotted a bus in the distance. All I got were a few cars stopping to buy fruits or some sort of snack from a lone vendor. At this point too I entertained the thought of hitchhiking. It would make for a good story, something my friends back in Singapore would say was a brave thing to do. But fate had other plans because the bus arrived some minutes after. Out of habit, I checked with the driver if it would go to Beirut. He nodded, and I took a seat in the back.

what I think is the bus stop next to the roundabout
Before I actually got to Beiteddine, I had thought of visiting a village close to the town which is said to have classic Arab architecture (as pointed out by the guide book). I have to admit the thought of possibly missing the bus back to Beirut (they stop running by the late afternoon it seems), and my little misadventure itself, got the better of me. All I wanted, as I surrendered to sleep in the lap of the droning bus, was a nice cold shower. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Bus to Beiteddine (Part One)

"Ya Allah!" he shouted as his eyeballs returned from the rear-view mirror to their sockets. My gut feeling was right. I may very well have missed my stop. Speaking slowly, I tried to ask the woman in front of me if the bus does indeed go to Beiteddine Palace, as I was told. "Yes," she seemed to say in Arabic. A couple more unintelligible words sprang forth from her mouth, but it was her hand gestures that spoke best. I was relieved. But beyond that, I soon got a feeling that the driver, and the woman in front of me, had already made up their minds about me: the driver through a few more glances in the rear-view mirror, and the woman in front, who was already processing the bits of information she had gleaned when she turned towards me to explain the bus route.

'Why isn't the dimwit speaking Arabic?'

More on that later. But first:

The Beiteddine Palace is a 19th century construction which sits on the edge of a hill. The outer courtyard is flanked by three walls, and the fourth side opens up to glorious views of the valleys and hills. You cross the vast courtyard to the opposite side of the main gate and find, on your left, the royal stables, now home to Byzantine mosaics from the 5th and 6th century AD. Some of them are quite remarkable, considering the effort that has been put into preserving them. The inner courtyard, with its fountain, is on the first floor and gives you access to handsomely furnished rooms previously used by the President.

With details like these in my guide book, I had decided to give Beiteddine Palace a visit. Organised tours bring tourists here, but I had decided to venture out on my own with the Lebanese transport system. My confidence was boosted by the lines I scanned in the book:

..bus to Beiteddine..
..Beirut to Beiteddine..
..Cola transport hub..

I decided it was not going to be difficult. Yet I failed to recognise the signs. Cola itself wasn't what I had imagined a transport hub to look like. It was a collection of minibuses and taxis basking in the spring sun at what would, at best, be described as a large carpark. The signs on the window were all in Arabic, so I enlisted the help of a young girl (an undergraduate studying hospitality management) who eventually hooked me up with the bus I'd need. I was reminded of a similar situation in Kiev when I visited in 2012. There too I was trying to get to a site which is a little outside of the city centre. There too a woman helped me, albeit with rudimentary English.

As we headed south of Beirut and negotiated its temperamental traffic, I was seduced into a short nap, waking up just around the time the bus started its gentle climb up Mount Lebanon. The guide book said the journey would take about two hours, and by this time we had covered 45 minutes. This is also why I sat in the back of the bus observing the towns that passed every now and then, including a little shop selling goods from the Philippines.

By the time the driver exclaimed in horror, we had crossed the 75th-80th minute. As it turned out, this was a loop service, and soon I was reintroduced to the towns we passed, and the roundabout at a three-way junction where I was supposed to have alighted. As the bus pulled away lazily towards Beirut, I stood in the mild heat, looking at the road I had to take. How far is the palace from here, I asked myself.

'Habibi!' I turned around. 'Taxi?'


The broad smile on his face showed he had already identified the scent of confusion I was emitting. I would have hopped into his taxi even if he were to take me across the border to Syria (OK maybe not). He drove an older model of a Mercedes Benz, one you would rarely see now on the roads in Singapore. The road descended down the side of another hill, passing another palace along the way which offers its rooms to the well-heeled. In about ten minutes, I got out of his cab and paid the fare. It was a short walk down a smaller road to the entrance to the palace. This had better be good, I thought to myself. But as I pulled out the cost of the admission ticket, another question planted itself in my head:

how was I supposed to get out of here?

Friday, 4 April 2014

Why not Lebanon?

Finally, I've checked Lebanon off my list! The desire to go took several flips and backflips in no small part due to the cost of flying and the security situation in the country. I have to admit I was apprehensive as the date to fly drew near, no thanks to the conflict in neighbouring Syria. But my fears were unfounded, and, as some have pointed out, I'm back in Singapore in one piece. In any case, I believe that if something has to happen, it could happen anywhere.

So here, ladies and gentlemen, is what I did during my eight glorious days in this gorgeous country.

On my feet

Urbanista, a cool cafe in Gemmayzeh
Beirut is actually pretty walkable, especially if you quickly learn how to cross the roads. I explored on foot the districts of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael. There are plenty of bars, cafes and eateries in these areas. Some art galleries (e.g. Plan Bey) also dot the long strip of road that stretches from Gouraud to Armenia Streets.

Downtown Beirut: you'll find here Al-Amin, the blue-domed mosque near the Place des Martyrs which has four 65-metre-tall minarets. The mosque also has a beautifully decorated ceiling (below, left). By the way, slain former prime minister Rafic Hariri is buried here. Right next door is the St George Maronite Cathedral. No photos are allowed in here.

A stone's throw away is Place de l'Etoile where you'll find more restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, and an iconic 1930s clock tower with its four-faced Rolex clock. It was a gift from a Lebanese-Brazilian emigre. The area is also home to the parliament building, two cathedrals and a museum.

A little further north from here is Beirut Souks -- a mega shopping area home to some 200 shops, some of which require substantially deep pockets. There's also a very good bookstore if you're interested (Librairie Antoine).

I tried reaching the nearby Grand Serail, which is a majestic Ottoman building now housing government offices, but was turned away by several police cordons. They've stepped up security in the area, possibly following the assassination of a former minister in December 2013. What you can do, however, is to walk further northwest of Beirut Souks to Zaitunay Bay. Take a stroll along this waterfront promenade, which is home to several yachts, and some high-end cafes and restaurants. Until around 10 years ago, this part of Beirut was quite dead. It's still relatively quiet, which is quite something for a city whose soundtrack is dominated by honking cars.

Continuing west past Zaitunay Bay will eventually take you to the Corniche, a favourite spot for Beirutis. Grab a cup of coffee and people watch, or if you prefer, look out to sea, the shoreline of coastal Lebanon (it's nicer at night when the homes on the hills are lit up), or count the number of planes that glide overhead as they get ready to land at the Rafic Hariri International Airport in the south of Beirut.

In West Beirut, you'll find Raouche, Hamra and Ras Beirut. Raouche is where you'll find Pigeon Rocks, Beirut's famous natural offshore arches. Hamra and Ras Beirut are the university districts of the city and are filled with hotels, bars, cafes, restaurants, and shops. It's the preferred base for most travellers and is also home of the American University of Beirut (right). I managed to get a walking tour of the campus thanks to a Singaporean I met during my trip. There's a museum here which houses archaeological artefacts.

Also, look out for street art all over the city. Some of it is very good.

Organised Tours
I signed up for three day-trips with Nakhal Tours:

A walk through the Cedars
Sidon-Tyre-Maghdouche (in the south)
Cedars-Bcharre-Khozaya (in the north)
Baalbek-Aanjar-Ksara Winery (north/east)

Aanjar, Baalbek, the Qadisha Valley and Tyre are all listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Aanjar has the best preserved Islamic archaeological site in Lebanon, while the temples in Baalbek, have been said to be better maintained than the 'stones' in Rome and Athens.

As for Nakhal, their tour rates cover transportation (pick up and drop off at your hotel), an English speaking guide (they were very good) entrance fees, lunch and taxes.
Tyre's hippodrome, the second
largest in the world

Here's a further endorsement: I accidentally left my wallet in one of the tour buses one evening and after frantic calls to the tour agency, had it delivered to me the same day (the fact that I made a complete fool of myself is something else altogether).

Independent tours

The following are day trips I made on my own from Beirut. These too were day trips (except Byblos and Harissa, which were done together).

Byblos: the medieval port city of Byblos has a charming souk, ruins, and a line of restaurants along the harbour (left). The ruins go back to as far as the 3rd millennium BC and some of what you'll see is from the 12th century, particularly the restored Crusader Castle. There are great views from the city ramparts, especially during sundown. You don't necessarily need a guide here because information boards are present throughout the site for you to make sense of the complex. There's also the nearby Church of St John the Baptist, which marries Arab and Italian designs, sprinkled with remains of Byzantine mosaics.

Harissa: Not only is it home to the Basilica of Our Lady of Lebanon, the mountain town of Harissa also provides spectacular views of Jounieh Bay down below. You can drive up or reach the top by cable car.

How did I get there?: I was lucky to be driven to these sites by a friend I got to know via Couchsurfing.

The remains of the Great Palace at Aanjar
Jeita Grotto: This is one of Lebanon's greatest natural wonders and a huge tourist attraction. Personally, it didn't do very much for me because I'd been to a similar cave in Halong Bay. But I suppose the size of the upper grotto is something else altogether. There's also a lower grotto where you can explore the cave in a short boat ride. Note though that photography is not allowed. I'm guessing it's because flash lights will damage the stalactite and stalagmite crystals. So do the right thing and leave your cameras/phones/devices in lockers at the entrance of each cave.

How did I get there?: The onward journey was made by taxi from Beirut via a contact I had gotten to know. Getting out of Jeita wasn't very difficult either. Taxis usually wait at the main entrance and can take you to the main highway (10USD) where you can hop onto a bus (1,500LL) that takes you to the Doura bus station in Beirut. From Doura, you can hail a servis/taxi for your onward journey. Alternatively, you could get a cab from Jeita to Harissa or some other destination at an agreed price.

Beiteddine: This village is home to the 19th-century Beiteddine (bait-uh-deen) Palace, which sits majestically at the edge of a hill surrounded by terraced gardens and orchards. After you pass the main gate, you will see a three-walled courtyard (above); the fourth side provides great views of the hills and valleys. In the forner stables on the ground floor as you walk into the palace, you'll find a lovely collection of Byzantine mosaics dating from the 5th and 6th centuries AD. A double staircase from the outer courtyard will lead you to the Palace proper. Pack a lunch basket or sandwich when you visit,

Baalbek's famous six columns; the two
people on the lower plinth give you a sense
of the scale of the pillars
How did I get there?: So I thought I should be able to travel to the palace on my own from the Cola transport hub, based on what the guide book said. I was on a bus that would drop me where I needed to go; I didn't know that I'd have to take a taxi from a drop-off point to access the site a couple of kilometres away. Thankfully the driver signalled the stop to me, after I had gone on an extra 45 minute ride with him through some random villages. The return trip to the drop-off point was a 20 minute walk along the road because I could not get any taxi/bus from Beiteddine. If you're thinking of visiting the palace, my suggestion is to get the bus driver to inform you where you have to get off, if indeed you're planning to take the bus. But if you don't fancy getting 'lost' the way I did, arrange for a taxi from Beirut. It will cost you more but at least you'd be assured of the return trip. Note too that there are no buses back to Beirut once the sun goes down.

Before you go...

Zaitunay Bay in downtown Beirut
Safety: Contrary to the bad press from the media, Lebanon is pretty safe. The only time I had trouble was when I took a photograph of a building I wasn't apparently allowed to (a police officer came over and demanded I delete the photographs). Having said that, do keep track of the developments in the country. The Daily Star is a good resource, and you can download the app on your smartphone for updates. Also, avoid South Beirut (a Hezbollah stronghold which has nothing much for tourists anyway) -- although I was told it is generally safe as well.

Currency: Bring in US dollars. Virtually everyone accepts them but you'll receive Lebanese Pounds (LL) as change. Most places would stick to a standard rate so don't worry about making any losses (at the time of my visit, 1USD got you LL1,500).

Getting Around: There are three forms of public transport in Lebanon: buses, 'service' taxis and private taxis. Buses within Beirut should cost around LL1,000. Service taxis mean the driver can stop and pick up other passengers along the way. Here you'll pay LL2,000 (however if you're planning to go from one end of Beirut to the other on servis, be prepared to pay more). Ask before you get in if it's a service or taxi. Private taxis require price negotiation before you hop in, and you'll be the only passenger(s). And oh, the cabs (both service and taxis) can be identified by their red number plates. I add this here because the vehicles come in a wide range of models (from a Toyota to an old school Mercedes Benz).

If you need to call for a cab, try Geryes. They're available 24-hours and offer pretty good rates. These guys do airport transfers, take you around Beirut, and can arrange for rides to other parts of the country as well. These are their contact details:

+9613222600 (mobile)

Your passport: Carry it with you everywhere you go, especially if you're taking day trips out of Beirut. You pass checkpoints when you enter/leave each governate in the country and the police/military may want to check your papers. And yes, don't take pictures of the personnel or the checkpoints. It's not worth the unnecessary trouble.

Night life: It might come as a surprise but the Lebanese capital is known as one of the coolest cities in the Middle East. Walk the streets of downtown Beirut and you'll more likely than not find Beirutis fancily dressed, more so when they're out partying (did I mention the flashy cars that they make their entrance in?). You won't find a dearth of bars to get your fix -- from holes in the wall in Gemmayzeh/Mar Mikhael, to establishments in downtown Beirut. Of course, dancing is optional because, hey, the point is to pout your lips, see and be seen!

Getting there and away: Beirut is the only point of entry if you're flying in, and here's a short list of airlines that will get you there:

Middle East Airlines (national flag-carrier of Lebanon)
Qatar Airways
Etihad Airways
Egypt Air
Air France
British Airways

Getting in by land is pretty much impossible because of the conflict in Syria. And don't even think about crossing the border from Israel. Speaking of which, if there's any indication that you've visited Israel, you'll be denied entry into Lebanon. Same goes for some other Middle East countries so do your homework before you embark on your journey.

Visa: Most foreigners can get visa on arrival at the airport. If you're Singaporean, just show up with your passport.

On the politics of Lebanon and the region, Beware of Small States by David Hirst seemed to me a good resource.
Lebanese/Arab authors:
Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (the tour to the Cedars/Bcharre/Khozaya takes you to his museum)
Amin Maalouf (Samarkand is my favourite so far)
Elias Khoury (I tried Yalo but gave up)
Rabih Alameddine (An Unnecessary Woman)
Anthony Shadid's House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

Incendies (2010)
Where Do We Go Now? (2011)

If you need more info, don't hesitate to ask. For more of my images from Lebanon, I'm on instagram: @kevusingh