Getting in to Lebanon was a bit of a gamble. We’d been warned that privately owned diesel vehicles were prohibited and our subsequent research had mostly supported this warning. With Syria off limits, the only way in by car was by ferry to Tripoli, a town to which the Foreign Office advised against all travel. The easier – and probably cheaper – option was to park Landy in Cyprus or Turkey and fly in and out of Beirut by ourselves.
But by this time we’d been on the road for over four months and were enjoying life as a lively team of three. Having become such an integral part of our project – and brought us safely through Europe and across North Africa – it didn’t seem right to ditch her now. Without Landy it just wouldn’t be worth it – our time in Lebanon would be merely a holiday, not part of Shifting Sands. So aiming to get through Tripoli in the shortest time possible we booked our ferry to Lebanon.
Our wish to keep the team together (and a hefty dose of international politics outside anyone’s control) meant that from our starting point in Haifa, Israel, our journey – via south and north Cyprus and Turkey – had taken six days, three boats and two passports each. As well as Landy’s concerns we had immigration issues of our own: we had to hide all evidence of having ever been to Israel, Palestine or the Golan Heights. And we’re not very good liars.
The night before boarding our final ferry from Taşucu Anne-Laure glanced at the official French and Belgian advice on vehicle entry to Lebanon (we’d previously looked at English websites) and was confronted with a conclusive ‘NO’. Having already purchased our tickets this was a bit of a problem. But on the positive side at least we now had nothing to lose by trying…bar being deported immediately back to Turkey and made to pay for the privilege. We wryly agreed that whatever happened at least it would be an experience.
Leaving Taşucu Port a couple of days after our arrival from Cyprus, we’re now on first name terms with the people working here and the crew of the ferry Lady Su. Checking the vehicle – which two days ago had meant a thorough inspection – now merely involves glancing at it from a distance of 50m: ‘Oh yes, very nice car! Everything same?’
‘Yes, everything’s the same.’
‘Good, you may go. Very nice car. You want to sell?’
Despite sleeping for most of the boat journey we find ourselves the beneficiaries of sweets, tea, watermelon and loo paper – generous gifts from friendly fellow passengers, although we are well aware that the loo paper is just opportunistic offloading of a pointless item to the only people on board who could possibly want it.
Arriving in Tripoli Anne-Laure is told to enter the port on foot and Lucy instructed to join the queue of cars waiting to disembark where she notices with trepidation that all the engines are being examined.
On Landy’s paperwork our fuel is listed as ‘heavy oil’ which we hope will be confusing enough to get us through but anyone who knows anything about engines will swiftly recognise ours as diesel if they actually get to look at it. An official approaches: ‘We need to check your engine in case there is a problem’. Brimming with fake confidence, Lucy smiles broadly ‘But there’s no problem with our engine!’. He doesn’t look convinced but wanders off and soon becomes distracted. Landy and Lucy make their exit as quietly and unobtrusively as Landy’s 43 year old diesel engine allows and shakily breathe out.
We proceed to immigration: ‘Have you ever been to Israel?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘How long do you want to stay in Lebanon?’
‘Two weeks please.’
‘Right. I’ve given you 59 days. That’ll give you time to find husbands while you’re here.’
A couple of hours later we’re stamped into Lebanon, out of Tripoli and on our way to Beirut. We can hardly believe it.
There’s an unusual noise coming from somewhere under the cab but the journey is short, it doesn’t sound too serious and we’re quite tired. Deciding this is a problem for another day we turn up the music and carry on.
We know where we’re meant to be going but Beirut’s traffic-packed one way systems are confusing to the uninitiated so we stop to ask directions. Nobody recognises the name of the building nor local landmarks so in desperation we ask a nearby concierge where we can find another concierge called Akram – which leads us straight there.
For the first time in months we have the luxury of our own apartment courtesy of family friend Sylvia, a university professor, currently away on sabbatical. Situated in the Hamra district close to the American University of Beirut our apartment comes with a bedroom each, a balcony and two cats for company, but the biggest treat of all is the kitchen where we can make breakfast and brew our own coffee. All of which is especially convenient as Beirut proves quite expensive.
Our first outing is to meet our London friend Giulia and relax with a yoga lesson…which turns into a late night, coffee, drinks, food and socialising…a state of affairs that continues almost unbroken until we leave Beirut eight days later.
Walking to meet Giulia on the far side of Gemmayze we notice that the districts of Beirut are distinct in character and run mostly in a line, connected by road but with no public transport worth mentioning and very few trees. Construction is ongoing all over town with massive skyscrapers dominating the view almost everywhere you look, with some stunning – often dilapidated – old buildings sandwiched between them.
Approaching the embassy area we’re stopped by a soldier who diverts us through an unpleasant traffic filled tunnel with no pavement. We discover quite a few areas of town and coastline are off limits to the general public.
We pass through the central Downtown area, gated off to traffic – and pedestrians in places – and home to the glitzy Beirut Souks (the curious hybrid word ‘Souks’ pluralising in English the Arabic word for market, although in this case it’s actually a swish designer shopping centre), and the only area of Beirut with clear signs of town planning in its build.
Flattened in the civil war of the late 1970s and 80s it has been painstakingly reconstructed in the original style, an artificial history that sits in weird juxtaposition to the rest of the city where genuine Ottoman and French Mandate buildings are being steadily demolished. In most districts differentiating the old from the new couldn’t be more obvious whereas a casual Downtown observer could be forgiven for believing their surroundings to be old.
Full of shops and a few cafés but with barely any residents Downtown has an eerily unnatural feel to it now. On the seaward edge lies a large reclaimed area that was given to people forcibly evicted from their original Downtown homes to make space for the new centre, but as of yet there are no buildings on it at all. Ironically, all over the city people lament the lack of urban planning but the only area that has been carefully designed feels like a caricature of its earlier self and is characterless in consequence.
Gemmayze, where we end up, is more fun. With a greater proportion of older buildings, power lines hanging over the road and a Mediterranean ambience, Gemmayze stretches out in a long line of bars and restaurants with an equally long line of SUVs hooting at one other and zipping through what appear to be optional red lights.
One of these bars is hosting the weekly CouchSurfing get together where we spend a couple of hours before heading on to at least two other places, making new friends in each. Vans line the road selling food to the party-goers and we’re surprised to find the midnight snack of choice is a hot baked potato.
We end our night with a walk towards Bourj Hammoud to check out an old set of train tracks now in disrepair. It was clearly once possible to travel through Beirut on public transport but in 2014 we face the choice of walking home or taking a cab.
Gressy, Stephanie and Jimmy
Our friend Marwan from Cairo puts us in touch with Gressy, an architect, and she suggests we meet one evening in front of the Gemmayze police checkpoint.
Gressy is zany and brilliant, knowledgeable and passionate about the architecture of Beirut. She talks us through the impressive designs of Bernard Khoury (some topped with what look like anti-aircraft guns), the brutalist ‘Egg’ and the many lovely old buildings being torn down to build the ubiquitous skyscrapers. We hear the value of Beirut real estate is so high that it’s practically impossible to persuade owners of historic buildings not to sell them to developers. It becomes apparent that the preservation of old buildings versus the profit involved in their redevelopment is a hugely controversial topic. There’s a workshop on this subject while we’re here – in Arabic so we don’t stay long – but Gressy and other friends report that it’s positive and informative.
We find the NGO presence in Beirut particularly heavy with a vast range of causes being fostered, such as painting staircases between older houses. We are sceptical about how useful this is but Gressy is pro, explaining that an interest in the stairs inspires people to engage with the surrounding buildings as well, all of which helps in the fight against constant demolition.
Gressy introduces us to Stephanie and Jimmy, an energetic couple who spend their free time riding their motorbike around Lebanon. We are already hearing mutterings from folk in Beirut about the dangers of travelling to other Lebanese towns so it’s refreshing to meet people who are clearly undaunted by this and who enthusiastically discuss the beauties of their country over a superb Armenian supper.
Omayma and Soulafa, demilitarisation
As well as imparting useful husband-finding advice the border guards told us that Landy is an almost identical vehicle to those used by the Lebanese military and we’ve now seen enough of these to realise this is true…and definitely not the look we’re aiming for, especially as our time in Lebanon coincides with the first mentions of IS in the Western media.
Exploring Beirut, we consider how to de-militarise. Landy’s spare wheel on the bonnet has a cover that balloons in the wind obstructing our vision, held in place since France with bungee – now perishing – so this seems a good opportunity for a more permanent fix.
One morning we pass The Art Work Shop in Hamra and, enticed by the bright coloured crafts in the window, find ourselves having tea with owner Omayma and her daughter Soulafa explaining our slightly unusual dilemma. We leave the shop an hour or so later with a plan – and a bag stuffed with bright pink and orange flowers knitted by Soulafa’s aunt Samia.
The next day we breakfast together on manoushi, a traditional Lebanese ‘on the go’ pizza type snack, and wander around Hamra looking for some rope.
With some beautiful old buildings marooned in a sea of tower blocks and dripping with nostalgia, Hamra has an exotic but slightly unsettling time warp feel to it with an undertow of sadness in places. Joggers in florescent clothing exercise along the corniche alongside vintage cars, we see dated ‘modern’ architecture from the 60s and find creaky old fashioned fairground rides playing music unheard of since our childhoods. Buildings from Beirut’s heyday, the Sporting Club for instance, feel encased in another era – an odd feeling in a city that seems to be evolving and modernising at a disturbingly rapid rate everywhere else you look.
There are people feeding the many street cats who seem to be very much part of the community, most noticeably in the grounds of the AUB – despite strict signs forbidding this. We hear that everybody owns at least one cat, so with two in our apartment we feel we fit in quite nicely.
Soulafa takes us to her family home, one of the remaining old buildings in Hamra. It is absolutely gorgeous and makes us, too, feel nostalgic for an earlier – somehow more authentic – Beirut. It’s strange to feel so sentimental about a place we barely know.
Back on mission, we buy a long length of rope in a rope shop – from a man whose name apparently actually means ‘ropes’ – and introduce Soulafa to Landy.
We’ve arranged to meet people on the other side of town so Soulafa sets to work, enlisting the help of a local fisherman to create a spectacular web of knots and fishing floats. On our return the three of us weave it over the spare wheel and attach the flowers…suddenly looking substantially less military.
She tells us that people are suspicious of our car and had hovered around questioning her as she worked, with one shifty-looking bloke even asking if she had guns for sale.
Creative Space atelier, Sarah and Sarah
We spend that afternoon with Sarah and Sarah, founder and administrator of the Creative Space atelier, in the Armenian district Bourj Hammoud. Congestion is such that it takes nearly an hour to cross town in a taxi so we’re glad we discussed the price beforehand and feel we’re finally beginning to find our feet in this frenetic city.
Creative Space runs a free three year educational programme in fashion design open to talented students of all backgrounds who would otherwise lack the resources to pursue higher education. Initially Sarah would go into the refugee camps looking for potential students. These days students often approach the atelier though to ensure that all young people have the opportunity to apply the outreach programme is ongoing.
There are nine students at present, women and men aged 16 to 25. As well as teaching design and the practicalities of dressmaking the atelier attempts to negate other potential disadvantages, making a point of introducing students to influential people who could benefit their careers, actively pursuing their mission statement to ‘Make designers not clothes’.
In future they’d like to offer recognised degree courses but face some bizarre challenges in the accreditation process. The qualifying criteria is very specific, with requirements such as the institution having to have a certain sized car park. This bureaucracy does not stop them excelling in their field and students from the atelier have recently won both first and second places in an international fashion competition. Sarah also recognises a positive side to their current lack of accreditation in their freedom of curriculum.
Bourj Hammoud, Ed, Venetia and Zeina
Beirut provides a fairly secure, relatively Western lifestyle to a large ex-pat community. There are many foreigners working for NGOs and aid agencies here and it’s a good base for journalists reporting on some of the more volatile countries nearby.
We have lunch with Ed and Venetia, English journalists and friends of friends living in Gemmayze, and their Lebanese friend Zeina who is doing a masters degree in London and gives us great tips for our onward journey from Beirut.
They take us to Onno, a busy little Armenian restaurant in Bourj Hammoud. We hear that during the civil war the Armenian community remained predominantly neutral allowing them greater freedom of movement than most and consequently the advantage of being able to source the best ingredients. Everybody raves about Armenian cuisine and we can see why.
Food is clearly an important aspect of life in Beirut. We notice that some of our friends are observing the Ramadan fast, although many are not. We join people breaking their fast over an incredible Iftar meal in Hamra on the last day of Ramadan and enjoy the lunch of our lives in a restaurant called Tawlet where every day a different chef prepares a meal typical to their region.
Ed and Venetia have lined themselves up with an action packed afternoon: they’re taking 150 Syrian children from a rural Lebanese refugee camp to Beirut’s only public park, followed by fairground rides and an Iftar supper. A few days later we end up celebrating the festival of Eid al-Fitr at their house and get the impression that their lives here are varied and good fun.
We spend the afternoon checking out Bourj Hammoud, the most characterful district we find in Beirut. It’s slightly more run down than the other neighbourhoods we visit – more akin to what we’ve seen in previous countries. There are small shops selling spices, sparkly bling clothing and all sorts of tat. Christian icons and shrines pepper the district and there are huge stripy curtains billowing on the balconies to protect apartment residents from the sun.
We go into a music shop that’s been run by the same family since the 1960s. The proprietor plays us cassette tapes of Lebanese music on stereos that were probably state of the art when the shop was originally opened.
Sylvia puts us in touch with her ex-student Salwa, an urban designer, and we meet on one of the final days of Ramadan. She exudes an air of peaceful confidence and doesn’t mind us drinking huge creamy lattes despite the fact that she is fasting. She’s one of the most interesting people we’ve met and clears up a lot of our confusion on subjects as varied as town planning, culture, civil marriage, religious sects and how sectarianism influences domestic politics.
We’re told that demand for services critically outweighs supply to the extent that there is a daily power cut of three hours in Beirut – six hours outside the city – and it is now obligatory to install generators in any new building.
We discover that Hezbollah is a mainstream Lebanese political party with a large number of supporters – by no means the underground organisation that we’d somehow assumed. In fact they have their own museum akin to a fairground attraction aimed at family days out. Zeina suggests we visit but sadly we run out of time.
We hear that there are 18 religious sects within Lebanon and the government is set up so that sectarian power is carefully balanced: the president is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Head of Deputies a Shi’a Muslim. This system is fairly effective in terms of keeping the peace, however, it means there is never a strong enough government to act decisively, allowing outside players to influence internal affairs – which they seem keen to do: the current instability in Lebanon is widely laid at the doors of Syria, Israel and Iran for example.
The election process is bureaucratic and slow moving. Lebanon currently has no president at all and next year it will be the end of the deputies’ term of office too so the chances are that soon there will be no deputies either. ‘What happens then?’ we gasp, ‘Nothing’ replies Salwa, ‘Life will just go on and nothing will get done’.
The political situation is met with fatalistic good humour in other areas of the city too – we see a shop noticeboard advertising a sale that’s ongoing ‘Until we have a president’.
Salwa tells us that her parents’ main goal is to buy her brother a house. There is a social expectation that on marriage a groom must furnish his wife with a home, whereas unmarried daughters are likely to remain living with their parents so buying an apartment for her is of secondary importance.
We meet Ziad, a Druze in his mid 20s, who has recently left a high powered but uninspiring job in Dubai. By the time we sit down for a beer together we’ve already crossed paths by chance on several occasions and this is not unusual – even after just a couple of days in Beirut we’re regularly running into people we know.
We drive along the coast in Ziad’s car, surprised to find a sprawling neighbourhood of shacks immediately adjacent to one of Beirut’s ritziest areas. Ziad explains that the occupants settled here a couple of decades ago and no government since has been powerful enough to evict them.
The issue of civil marriage – or rather the lack of civil marriage – in Lebanon is oft cited by friends as a problem and we finally understand why when Ziad tells us of the dilemma faced by a member of his family who wants to marry a Muslim.
With no marriage available outside of a religious setting, unless you marry within your sect one partner will always have to change religion to accommodate the marriage ceremony. The consequences of this can be severe – for example Druze who converts to Islam for marriage cannot attend the funerals of their own parents.
It’s complicated enough when both families agree to the union but – as in Ziad’s relation’s case – young people often face fierce opposition from family members and the social implications of this are vast.
We hear how parents often won’t agree to an undesirable marriage as they’re concerned that their community will view them as weak or too liberal. Consequently they often prefer to disown their offspring than back down and, knowing the couple is likely to flee to Cyprus for a civil marriage, they neatly cast themselves into the role of victim – plagued by a disobedient child – creating a huge family rift in the process.
Ziad tells us this split is normally resolved when the first grandchild appears and the wish to see their grandchildren causes grandparents to quietly rebuild the connections they have previously broken.
A possible silver lining to an elopement is that a traditional wedding in Lebanon is phenomenally expensive – Ziad says that in order to get the bride and her parents to agree to a marriage the groom and his family are often expected to shell out $50,000 and a huge diamond ring plus a nice apartment and car for the couple and even then it is customary for the wedding guests to complain about the quality of the food. We now understand why Salwa’s parents are so focussed on buying her brother a home.
Leaving Beirut, suspicion
It’s time to leave Beirut. We have two nights and three days before our ferry out of Tripoli and we’d like to explore other areas of Lebanon before our time here is up. It’s a small country with no great distances to cover so we have lots of options detailed to us with great enthusiasm by Zeina, Stephanie and Jimmy. But some of our other friends are rather more concerned.
We discover that many people consider the other areas of Lebanon to be really dangerous and they are constantly telling us where we can’t go. A typical conversation would be:
‘Can we go north?’
‘What about our ferry back from Tripoli?’
(Panicked expression): ‘Go through quickly, straight to the port – don’t stop for anything!’
‘OK so where can we go?’
Lebanon feels quite segmented – perhaps as a result of the 18 religious sects – and it’s clear that people are suspicious of those outside of their ken. If they don’t know an area or if it’s not where their family is from they tend to advise us against going there. Conversely, we are welcomed everywhere we go so develop the habit of listening to friendly concerns then following our own judgement. We end up travelling pretty much as we please (Landy permitting anyway)…although we never do make Byblos.
We decide to start with Zahleh. After eight nights in buzzing Beirut it’s a relief to be heading into the lush green countryside towards this quiet little resort town. Zahleh has a predominantly Christian population and caters mainly to Lebanese holidaymakers.
Landy’s new noise – the one we’d ignored on the way to Beirut – is getting louder but we notice it stops when we press the brake pedal. On examination the wheels are all slightly different temperatures so we adjust the brakes and continue experimenting with this until our arrival in town. The noise improves each time but consistently creeps back.
Built across both banks of a small river with stunning period architecture Zahleh is a far cry from glamorous Beirut. We check in to an 150 year old hotel that has been run by the same family for two thirds of that time and head out to explore. A food and entertainment arcade has been built at the top of town utilising the river in a series of sprinklers and we end up in a restaurant opposite a large family group celebrating Eid al-Fitr and drinking beer…an unusual dichotomy in our experience but it doesn’t seem to bother anybody. We have a lovely meal and go to bed.
In the morning – our last full day in Lebanon – we set off towards Bsharra via Baalbek, a distance of 96km from Zahleh (1 hour 23 minutes according to the internet), which will leave us just 53km from the port so we can catch our ferry the following evening without spending a night in Tripoli.
Annoyingly, further noises on our way to Baalbek cause us to stop again and investigate. This time three brakes seem fine but the fourth – one with recently relined pads – is overheating so we remove the wheel for a proper look. We choose a secluded place to work but have barely loosened the wheel nuts when we find ourselves the central local attraction and the recipients of a large bottle of water, recently refilled from a nearby tap which we do our best to politely avoid. The brake pads look OK although they’d benefit from new springs but to access replacements would involve unpacking the entire boot so we adjust them to the minimum friction and carry on.
Things don’t seem quite right but with sub 150km to cover before the deadline of our ferry to Turkey – where we’ll have plenty of time to fix things – we’re keen to push on.
Baalbek, headquarters of Hezbollah, is about 15km from Syria. We plan a quick pit-stop to check out the immense ruins of Heliopolis, home to some of the largest Corinthian columns in the world. We’re well aware that the Foreign Office wouldn’t be too happy about our being here either but some of our – slightly less distrustful – friends in Beirut have given us the OK and we’ve learnt to trust our instincts. Besides, we have no intention of being here by nightfall.
So we grab a scrummy manoushi from two smiley ladies in a bakery and do a whistle-stop tour of the ancient temples which we discover are the spectacular backdrop for the Baalbek International Festival, a celebration of music and Lebanese culture, opening tonight. We’re tempted to hang around but it’s mid afternoon, hot, and we’re still 63km from our destination on the far side of a formidable mountain.
Back in Landy we start up the hill ahead but immediately roll backwards uncomfortably fast, yanking at the handbrake and just avoiding a collision with a smart looking BMW. Our brakes have gone completely.
Somebody swiftly moves the BMW.
For the next few hours every man who walks past tries to help, which in principle is nice although some are rather less helpful than others…and a few are downright dangerous.
The first ‘assistant’ is a nearby shopkeeper who, seeing us careering backwards, steps up with some useful advice: ‘To drive up a hill you should engage first gear and use the handbrake’. Thankfully, Anne-Laure – the driver at this point – doesn’t hear him.
We realise our brake master cylinder is broken and luckily we have a spare so we get to work.
A couple of soldiers in tanks instruct us to move but – realising this isn’t going to happen – they stick around to make sure we’re OK instead. The shopkeeper sweetly returns with some dates and mineral water.
Blokes pass by offering mechanical help which we know from experience is always a disaster. We smile at one ‘No thank you,’ and carry on with what we’re doing but he decides to take the bonnet off anyway, nearly dropping it with the unexpected weight of the spare wheel on top. Lucy’s head is directly underneath it and comes within a whisker of being crushed.
Soon afterwards, a black 4×4 roars around the corner and crashes into us, scraping all the side panels without slowing down and rocking Landy on her chocks before disappearing up the hill, a panel falling from their car. It’s some consolation to see that Landy is barely scratched. Somebody returns but our friendly shopkeeper chases them off.
We notice that amid these offers of help everyone is incredibly suspicious of one other – even more so than our twitchiest friends in Beirut. Every wannabe assistant has instructed us not to accept help from anybody else.
It’s slightly strange and we’re a little bit shaken, the heat from the sun has gone and it’s almost dark.
Joe, Ali, Muhammed and Zeinab
Out of nowhere comes a voice in perfect English: ‘Are you OK? How can we help?’. It’s a family: Joe, Ali, Muhammed and Zeinab, on their way to meet friends. They leave their phone number asking us to update them on how we’re doing.
Not much later we realise that our half inch socket is too short to access the final bolt on the brake master cylinder. It’s a job for the morning with light and better tools, so we reattach the original cylinder and call Joe.
Returning straight away, he blocks the top of the road with his car and our military friends do likewise at the bottom with one of their tanks. As we’re about to pull away the shopkeeper rushes over with a free pizza.
We drive very slowly up the hill to their auntie’s house where we’ve been invited to spend the night and where – despite serious water shortages – they insist we use the shower.
On their terrace overlooking the Bekaa valley we get to know each other over pizza and 7UP and with the bright stars above us and magnificent floodlit ruins below we very much count our blessings. We know it’ll be a race against time tomorrow – but that’s tomorrow’s problem. Right now we’re quite content.
The longest 63km in the world
The following day starts well with a sensational Lebanese breakfast and a mechanic called Abess who arrives with a long 13mm socket. Between us we replace the brake master cylinder.
We chat to Mohamed, Ali, Zeinab and their mother. They live in Nottingham but come here every summer and their Lebanese roots are clearly important to them. It’s good to see, especially having met so many young people in Beirut who have mostly negative things to say about Lebanon and seem disinterested in their heritage.
Joe advises us on our forward route and he’s pretty wary, pointing out villages that are especially dangerous and one in particular that we hear is run by a local drug lord. We’re told not to talk to anybody, not to take a wrong turning.
Aware that we’re behind schedule they kindly escort us out of town and we follow as fast as Landy will allow. But just five minutes down the road our brakes are binding, overheating and stinky and we have to pull over. Mechanic Abess – knowing we’ve driven Landy from the UK – tells us we’re using the brake pedal too much. Through slightly gritted teeth we suggest that perhaps our new cylinder is the problem…even we know that the first rule of mechanics is that if something’s not working it’s almost always the last thing you’ve messed with. Does he really think we’ve managed to get a 1971 Land Rover from England to Lebanon without knowing how to drive?
He readjusts the brake master cylinder and all seems OK…but only for a few more kilometres when we have to adjust it again. With grease up to her elbows Lucy looks around for Anne-Laure (slightly wondering why she isn’t helping) to see her squatting by the side of the car taking photos of a field of weed. And then a wild dog wanders past on the other side.
The sun is boiling and so is our car, we’ve got drugs growing on one side and unexpected feral creatures on the other. It’s all a bit surreal and what follows is probably the most frustrating day of the whole trip, a race against time to catch our evening ferry just 116km away in Tripoli.
The cylinder needs adjusting a further 20 times. Our brakes and engine are constantly overheating – at one point we think our brakes are actually on fire and come close to letting loose with extinguishers – and at about midday, with the sun at its highest, a crack develops in the plastic lid of our radiator overflow tank and steam pours out. We can’t go anywhere until we’ve hitched a ride to the nearest village – which happens to be exactly the one that Joe was so concerned about – and bought some epoxy glue to repair it with the help of George and Maroun who stop when they see us on the side of the road with our bonnet up. Luckily we have 50l of water to replenish the radiator with when it’s all cooled down a bit.
George also imparts advice: ‘Oh don’t worry – everyone’s nice in this village. But don’t trust the army’.
It turns out we’re unable to follow this edict either and are slowed down further at an obscure checkpoint in the middle of nowhere when we’re stopped by soldiers who ask Anne-Laure if we’re lost. ‘No, we’re fine thank you’. They enjoy telling us how they don’t believe us, finally asking: ‘Can you point to where we are on a map?’
‘Go on then’.
We doggedly limp on. Tonight will be our eighth boat journey so far – and our third on Lady Su – and if past experience is anything to go by we’re sure she won’t be leaving on time. Despite our problems we’re somehow still confident that we’ll make our ferry.
The end of the race
Stopping frequently to cool down, we judder our way through the giant cedars populating the dramatic landscapes of Mount Lebanon. In winter this is a ski resort but the holidaymakers today navigate the terrain on quad bikes.
We finally have phone signal and call the ferry company, confirming our hopes that Lady Su is indeed running late. The race is still on.
But Lady Su is the ultimate victor. We’re in the town of Bsharra – birthplace of Khalil Gibran and 53km from Tripoli – when we hear that she’s on the point of disembarkation. Anne-Laure manages to transfer our tickets to the next ferry free of charge, but this is not for four days.
We’re absolutely deflated – we really thought we’d make it. To make matters worse, we’ve just booked our Eurotunnel ticket back to England and our family and friends have taken time off work to coincide with our arrival in France which is now looking to be delayed – especially at the pace we’re going.
It’s been a long hot exhausting day and the sun has not quite set but we’re no longer in a rush. We find a hostel on the outskirts of town and Anne-Laure asks to see the cheapest room. Wilfully misunderstanding, hostel owner Tony takes her up several flights of stairs to the penthouse – at £100 per night. On another day we would have gone somewhere else on point of principle but once he eventually shows us to the dorm room we’re too tired and filthy to care.
Later on we venture out for an uninspiring supper giving Landy a good kick on the way past.
Bsharra, Khalil Gibran’s town
The upside of this is we unexpectedly have four days to try and fix our mechanical problems and catch up with other bits and pieces in advance of what’s likely to have to be a much swifter journey through Turkey and Europe than anticipated.
Over breakfast we spread maps out on the terrace and highlight the route taken in each country we’ve travelled through. After such an irritatingly slow day it’s nice to remember how far we’ve come and makes us a bit more forgiving of Landy.
We make use of the internet to really get our heads around Landy’s brake problems and then set to work readjusting the brake master cylinder exactly as specified in the online Land Rover forums. We remove the wheels, examine, clean out and adjust the brakes, and replace the springs on one of the brake shoes, working on the smooth flat surface directly outside our hostel and – as always – taking all necessary safety precautions.
Tony appears while Landy’s on her axle stands with both front wheels removed. ‘But maybe it will fall?’ he asks helpfully, prompting a long hard Paddington-esque stare from Lucy and an equally helpful response: ‘Yes, maybe it will fall…if there is an earthquake’.
Everything seems OK when we go for a test drive so we return to the hostel happier, shower, and then head out for a delicious rotisserie chicken and chips washed down with cold Almaza. Things are looking up.
Really broken brakes
To absolutely ensure no more racing against Lady Su we decide to leave for Tripoli in the morning which turns out to be a good decision as our dramas are far from over. Driving down a mountain pass our brakes fail completely and Anne-Laure has to bring Landy to a stop using the gearbox over a distance of several hundred metres, three or four hairpin bends and a steep drop in gradient. We realise that our new brake master cylinder isn’t working any better than the original one we replaced in Baalbek, and we don’t have another spare.
Lucy removes the useless master cylinder while Anne-Laure hitches a lift into town with a family in search of the part we need, returning later to report that there are no spares this side of Tripoli but that the family in the car live nearby and have invited us for lunch. Sarkis, Gretta, Gregory, Norma-Jane and their cousins Farah and Mira are welcoming and relaxed and so prepared for us that it’s easy to imagine that foreigners in broken cars appear on their doorstep on a weekly basis.
We’ve had quite enough excitement for the last few days so when Sarkis calls for a flat-bed tow truck to take us the final 35km to the Tripoli industrial area – where his friend Omar, a 4×4 mechanic, will be waiting – we don’t argue.
After lunch we find the tow truck man has already attached a chain around Landy’s spring and is trying to drag her aboard despite the fact that the handbrake is on and the runners up to the flat-bed are only just close enough to mount. Glancing at the chain Lucy jumps in to steer her into place and Anne-Laure (and every man present) gives directions. We’re making progress until without warning the chain dislodges and Landy catapults backwards into the road. It’s our second lucky escape of the day and cements our view that anybody ‘helping’ needs to be seriously supervised. We should have checked the connection more thoroughly instead of assuming the tow truck guy knew how to load vehicles onto his flat-bed just because it’s his job.
Despite our various breakdowns and near death experiences we find the scenery between Baalbek and Tripoli utterly magnificent, although this final 35km is even steeper and windier than the rest of it so we’re glad not to be attempting it without brakes.
After the debacle of mounting Landy on the flat-bed there is no way we’re allowing anyone bar ourselves to take her off again when we reach Tripoli. Lucy climbs into Landy to Omar’s shouts of ‘Stop! STOP! You have no brakes!’
‘It’s OK, I know’ she responds, ‘I removed the brake pedal myself’ waving it at him out of the window. Anne-Laure (plus all the men…again) directs the car down the ramps and we dismount without incident.
Omar examines everything before agreeing with our diagnosis. Completing the tests we leave Landy overnight, Omar kindly driving us to a hostel in town. We ask him not to start work on Landy until we’re back in the morning. ‘I wouldn’t dare’, he responds.
By the time we’ve found a room and showered it’s late and we’re absolutely exhausted so we head for a snack stall we’ve been told about that’s just around the corner. It’s shut but a bloke called Mohamed shuffles over and offers to take us to one a bit further away down a warren of badly lit passages. Deciding to trust him we follow, ending up with a really good manoushi that he insists on paying for before directing us home, saying goodnight and disappearing into the darkness.
Tripoli turns out to be a gorgeous city, possibly our favourite in Lebanon, gritty in character and oozing dilapidated charm. People swarm along disorienting streets beneath glorious Mamluk arches and as the melodious sunset call to prayer wafts past our ears on our hostel balcony we see neon lights around the minarets and houseboats rocking by the shore.
Not for the first time we are truly appreciative of the fact that we’re doing this journey under our own steam. We’ve had little choice in coming to Tripoli but no grant giving body would have allowed it. We are in sole control of our movements and able to weigh up the risks and make decisions on our own behalf. And right now there’s nowhere else we’d rather be.
Working with Omar on the brake master cylinder is a long process involving lots of trial, error and bleeding of brakes. He’s genuinely helpful and it’s only when he says he can’t get hold of parts until Monday – the day of our ferry – that we realise he’s given up his weekend to assist us.
We end up with a hybrid of the two faulty cylinders and a new seal. On testing, it seems to work – although the seal is 25mm in diameter rather than the inch we think it ought to be. But we’ve done our best, and with a long drive through Turkey and Europe ahead we’ll no doubt find out soon enough whether this is sufficient.
Leaving the workshop we’re covered in hydraulic fluid and although we’ve long since checked out our hostel lets us use their shower before driving – cautiously – to the port. Boarding Lady Su we head straight for the now familiar sofas – the most comfortable beds on board – and fall immediately asleep as the ferry pulls out of port.
At times we found Lebanon quite tense, with a pervading military presence in the form of checkpoints; soldiers; guns, tanks (and Land Rovers) – and spies, too, if we were to believe our friends. We were given confusing and contradictory advice which seemed to stem from an innate fear of the unknown: we were often warned by friends against the people in the next town – where we would arrive and be met by equally friendly people who could hardly believe we had passed through the last place unscathed.
At the beginning of our trip these warnings could be a bit alarming but by Lebanon we’re used to it and our own experiences could not have been further from this. We were befriended and welcomed, fed, watered, housed and looked after by civilians and soldiers alike.
By the time we reached Tripoli – a town we ourselves felt we had reason to fear – we found it surprisingly familiar. We discovered that there’s something in the atmosphere of a Mediterranean city that’s unique to the Med and common to all of the older coastal cities whether in Europe, the Middle East or North Africa – so in a way, not so unknown after all.
Lebanon is often described as the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ partly due to secret banking but also because Westernisation is not a new thing. Beirut has for many years been the playground of wealthy foreigners – both Western and from the more conservative countries nearby – to the extent that ‘Hi, kifak, ça va?’ is a recognised Lebanese greeting.
The country has long been open to experimentation, a multicultural safe haven for persecuted people, and this is still true today. People are largely free to live, dress and behave as they choose: we met unmarried couples living together and independent women with their own apartments, went to a public screening of a controversial film and discovered there are plans to reopen the recently restored Maghen Abraham Synagogue – an act of inclusivity unheard of in most countries nearby.
With 18 distinct religious sects and sizeable refugee and ex-pat communities, Lebanon is a nation of minorities and everyone seems to rub along together. Even the suspicion we encountered can be seen as a by-product of this diversity: in a world where everyone is allowed to be different there is a lot of unknown to fear.
As a geographically tiny country in a region that many believe to be becoming rapidly more insular, Lebanon’s liberal entrepreneurial spirit allows it to punch above its weight. Beneath the ever changing surface, it explores the relevance of freedom, versatility and acceptance in today’s world – as it has done for centuries.
The buildings of Beirut come and go, yet the sun still shines, the breeze still gently blows and the waves still lap against the shore, and it’s in its all-embracing tolerance of others that Lebanon’s real cultural legacy still lies.