Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Golan Heights, Israel

My bike at the Sea of Galilee campsite.

My first few days in Israel were brilliant. I was biking. I was hiking. I was camping. I was able to find food to really fill me. I was loving it. My first stop was on the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee. I took a late morning break there. I had hoped that is where I would have camped the night before, but there was simply no way I was making it that far. The campsites in the area are the same as you would find in most places except the camping is free. They only charge you if you bring a car. If you hitch, take a bus, or, my favorite, ride a bicycle there is no charge!

The Sea of Galilee (top of photo) is below sea level. I had to bike UP to this sign.

It was still early in the day so instead of staying the night, I pressed on to the Yehudiya Nature Reserve which is focused on a canyon hike. There is a lot of great stuff in the area, but all the hikes are into and down the canyon. The best one goes down stream a few kilometers, but you have to swim across pools and you need 7 hours. I got there in the afternoon so I was only allowed to walk into the canyon and back out again. It gave me a chance to swim, play by the waterfall, and wash my stinky clothes. There are lots of good arguments that they weren't clean after that washing, but they were cleaner.

Yehudiya Forest Reserve upper waterfall.

When I got back from the hike, I needed to plan out my next move. I didn't know where I wanted to explore yet or which roads to take. A brilliant ranger, Zohar, took me under her wing and gave me a ton of ideas, most of which I followed. She also fed me some hummus. It was gooooood. All the Israeli hummus I had was good. I know Arabs likely invented hummus, but I prefer the American and Israeli take on it. Zohar's biggest suggestion was that I stay the night at Yehudiya and do the full canyon hike the next day. She thought it was the best hike in Israel. I struggled because I didn't really have time to stay around. If I had not hung out at the Sea of Galilee, I could have done it. In the end, my schedule called and I decided a taste was enough and planned to head on to the Golan Heights.

Yehudiya canyon.

Just as I was leaving, I could not find my cell phone. I thought it had fell out of my pocket while I was rolling in the grass at the Sea of Galilee. It was 15km downhill to get it. I wasn't sure if I wanted to go back for it. I finally decided that since I could camp there, an hour of biking to get it would be worth the effort. Just as I was leaving, I decided to do one last search for it. I had not checked my tent for it and, of course, it turned out that is where it was. I had not taken it out of my tent when I had packed up near the border. I was off to the Golan Heights.

Qazrin grocery store

I still didn't have a specific place to go that night. I just figured I would use up daylight and get a little closer to the Jordan River tributaries. As the sun set, I found myself near Qazrin, the biggest town in the Golan Heights. I was hungry and the Golan Brewery was near by. Luckily, it was still open. After being questioned by a security guard about what I wanted, I went in. However, they didn't have any veggie food that I wanted. Tear. I ended up the in the grocery store instead. This was my first real grocery store since Turkey. It was intoxicating. It was like returning to Christchurch after being in Antarctica for a year. I was so excited. I escaped with Ben&Jerry's Dulch de Leche, hummus, pita, and great gouda cheese. When I was checking out, I was in line beside a military guy with a huge gun on his back. No one even gave it a second look because it was normal. There were so many people, plain clothes and uniformed, carrying guns in Israel. Some were at checkpoints, some were at gas stations, some were hiking. They were everywhere. The world thinks that every American has a gun, but I think that is more true of Israel. I would never want to carry out a terrorist attack or even rob a grocery store. I wonder what their armed robbery rates are.

Another reminded that this is still a contested part of the world.

After grabbing another free campsite and a good night's sleep, I was ready for another great day. As I was leaving, I noticed a sign by the fence behind my impromptu campsite. I was about 5 meters from a live military firing zone. I am sure they use all of their ammo in the center of the area and not near the fences, especially since I was 20m from a major road, but it was still eye opening.

Druze village.

When Israel took the Golan Heights from Syria, they forced a lot of people to move. However, some didn't have to. I don't know how they chose, but there are a couple Druze towns in the north still. One of them is so close to the border, that once a week they go to a hill and yell the local news across the border to their Syrian friends and family. I'm told that these Druze communities are regularly petitioning to rejoin Syria. These towns were not nearly as modern as the Jewish towns I saw. Whether they are that happy to be part of Israel or not, it was neat to see non-official Arabic and Hebrew together on the same signs. It implied that some kind of cooperation could work one day.

Looking towards Mount Hermon from the Golan Heights.

Banias spring.

After passing through the Druze towns, I headed for the Banias and Tel Dan spring national parks. I don't know the official reasons that Israel took the land they did in the 1967 war. I have heard for security, and I am sure that was part of it, but I think a lot of it had to do with water in these springs. The Israeli side of the Jordan Valley, that used to be Jordan, seemed a lot more lush than the Jordan side. By controlling the Golan Heights, Israel assured control over these major water springs that supply the Jordan River. In the long run, peace was reached with Jordan through offering up access to water, access that I assume Jordan lost after the 1967 war. Lots of conjecture in this line of thought. Anyone know?

Banias Spring.

Banias Nature reserve.

I've read about a hundred different versions of the Tel Dan Israeli-Syrian flare ups, so take this with a grain of salt. Before the 1967 war, Syria had access to the Dan river. Because the border line was drawn with a wide pencil, Syria used the far side of that line to claim the spring. Israel used the other side of the line and treaty verbiage to define the border and claim the spring. When Syria tried to divert water from the spring as part of a larger plan spearheaded by Egypt, Israel responded militarily. There was some back and forth and then Israel destroyed some Syrian artillery with their largest ever air strike which sent a very clear message. Syria ceased their water diversion activities. It stopped being any issue at all after Israel seized the Golan Heights in 1967.

The Israeli National Parks mascot would convince me to go.

From a tourist perspective, both parks were great. Banias is on the tour bus circuit. Tel Dan is not. Tel Dan was a lot shadier and quieter, but also smaller. The Banias reserve had more hiking opportunities. Both sites have some cultural remains, some dating back to Bible stories. Both feed the Jordan river so I'm not sure why one would be more important than the other. Go visit both. I think that there is actually a third one in the area as well.

The trenches that Israeli used to protect the Tel Dan spring

I had no idea the 100 Acre Wood was in Israel (Note: it isn't).

Tel Dan spring.

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