Friday, November 05, 2010

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, Lebanon has some of the biggest, most complete Roman temples that I have ever seen. I can only imagine what the temples looked like in their prime. They are ridiculously huge. I am guessing I have never heard of the site for a couple reasons. One, Lebanon is considered dangerous. Two, there are other great sites like Palmyra, Syria near by. Three, it is a stronghold of Hezbollah, the extremist Islamic group.

The Hezbollah flag.

Hezbollah wants Israel to give back 12 square kilometers of land and have tried to achieve that aim with violence. In addition to this, they are probably the best NGO in Lebanon. They have tons of social and infrastructure projects going throughout Lebanon. Their peaceful agendas are far reaching. No one knows where their money comes from, but a lot of people suggest Syria and Iran since they have made Israel such a large part of their focus. These motivated individuals are why I chose not to travel down to Southern Lebanon. There is not any major activity going on, but I didn't want to risk getting caught in a flare up. This town was just on the way and not supposed to be that bad.

The ride down the Anti-Lebanon mountains from the Cedars was not quite as brilliant as I had hoped. I definitely got up some speed, but the road was not nearly as well taken care of. Also, I didn't descend all the way back down to sea level. Oh well. The Bekaa Valley that Baalbek sits in is very fertile. I am not sure if the population is smaller or maybe it is because there is so much quality farming, but I didn't see the same poverty that I saw in Northern Lebanon on the coast.

I swear every time I see these valleys that are fertile, they look dry to me. I see more dry brown dirt than I do green plants. However, each time a guide tells me that there are tons of farms and there always are. I might be biased by the lush green in the northern eastern USA. No matter how dry it looks, they always have enough water to wash their cars and spray down the sidewalks instead of sweeping them.

Don't take photographs of military checkpoints.

The Lebanese government must be a tiny bit worried about Baalbek because there were three major checkpoints in a low density population area. I passed through one with three tanks. At one with a single tank, I decided to finally take a picture. I stood in the middle of the road so I did not look sneaky and the guard could clearly see me. Mistake. Though he did not stop me from taking a picture, I got to have a chat with their superior officer. They accepted I made an innocent mistake, but insisted I delete the picture. I would have been happy to comply, but the camera shop in Budapest, Hungary broke that button when they fixed the power in my camera. I said we could connect it to a computer to delete it, but they didn't have a computer. This whole situation was very reminiscent of getting pulled over and searched on the way to my brother's wedding. I didn't have the invitation and had not bought a gift yet. The real trick was that I couldn't open my truck because the lock was broken. Luckily, they let me go. So did the Lebanese army.

The closed sooq in Baalbek.

On the way into town, a guy on a motorbike stopped. We chatted in Spanish and he invited me for a meal. Another guy, pulled over, but only spoke French. These were odd because people usually seemed to speak English. Two guys in a car who did speak English invited me over for tea. Unfortunately, the situation seemed a bit creepy and I took a pass. I am not sure what it was, but it didn't feel right. It was probably nonsense, but better safe than sorry.

The entrance to the Baalbek temple complex.

Eventually, a teenager on a motorbike guided me through the streets, lined with the yellow Hezbollah flag, to the temple complex. I was in awe because they were so big. I'll let the pictures of the Temple of Jupiter and Temple of Bacchus speak for themselves.

Looking into the Great Court.

The Great Court.

Great Court, Temple of Jupiter, and a final view of Temple of Bacchus.

The Temple of Jupiter was the biggest temple in the Roman empire. It is often called the Temple of the Sun. It was surrounded by 42 columns that were 20 meters high. Nine of those lasted until the 20th century when an earthquake toppled three more. Some of the blocks were so big, 60 tons, that a single Roman crane could not lift them. One weighed 100 tons, but it was a corner block so I am guessing they didn't have to lift it. They aren't sure how the Temple was built because of those heavy blocks.

The steps leading up to the Temple of Jupiter.

The only remaining columns of the Temple of Jupiter.

A lion that used to be part of the Temple of Jupiter.

The Temple of Bacchus is the smaller of the two temples, but is a more complete. I actually don't think the Temple of Jupiter was ever completed. The Temple of Bacchus was built in the 2nd century AD in the Roman style. It sits on a 5 meter platform to make it look even more imposing. The inside is one of the more ornate temples that I have seen.

Temple of Bacchus and view of Temple of Jupiter columns.

Temple of Bacchus.

The inside of the Temple of Bacchus.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Cedars, Lebanon

I am blogging like a madman, but running out of steam. This one might be sloppy.

The beautiful Mt. Lebanon mountain range.

My finest two days of biking came in the mountains of Lebanon along the Qadisha Valley to the Cedars, Lebanon's oldest ski resort. The resort took its name from the small grove of cedars in the area. Some of these cedars are 1500 years old and are the same type that were cut down all over Lebanon hundreds of years ago, some to build Jerusalem's Temple of Solomon.

A stereotypical cedar tree.

Leaving Tripoli, the directions were confusing and traffic was bad. I was glad to go, even if it was uphill. I might not have been so happy to go if I had known that I would be doing 2100m of climbing by the end of the day. Despite a lack of signs, I managed to make it without getting lost at all. The people I talked to were great at keeping me on track.

To answer someone's question about how black olives are made, they are grown. The green ones are not fully ripe. The black ones are.

On the way, I saw small towns that were not struggling with pollution or poverty. I saw the first signs of the olive harvest. Some people smack the branches with a stick to knock the olives down onto a blanket. When they are done, they just shake the contents of the blanket into a bucket. I can't believe that it is such a labor intensive process. I never saw it automated. No wonder olive oil is expensive. In the mountains, I also saw just-off-the-tree green olives for sale. You can't eat them until they are processed, but I guess people do that on their own at home. Count me out for that. I don't like the way they taste. By the way, I can't remember who asked but the black olives grow on the same trees as green olives, but are left on longer to fully ripen.

The Qadisha Valley.

Farther up the mountain, there were apple orchards. A couple guys tossed me some of their fresh pickings. Delicious. Picking apples was not quite as neat as seeing the olive harvest, but it did make me miss home quite a bit more. I hope there is still some apple cider around when I get back. Jen, I still don't understand Massachusetts cider doughnuts thing.

Another view of the Qadisha Valley.

Biking up into the mountains returned me to being at peace. I had been having a hard time centering myself in Syria because of the noise, heat, and traffic. The one exception might have been the night I camped in Serjilla. The mountains were just quieter and their beauty was inspiring. The Qadisha valley kept getting better the higher I got.

A little taste of home.

In the town of Bcharre, I stopped for a quick break. I was low on money and trying not to spend too much. I wasn't sure whether to buy a small thing of chocolate milk to get liquid protein to help my legs recover, to buy some internet time, or both. It was just interesting to see that an hour of internet is worth the same as a sweet cold drink. That is quite a bit different from Santorini where I bought a sweet cold drink for more than my lodging.

The town of Bcharre nestled up against the mountains.

When I finally arrived at the Cedars, I was tired. It had been a 2100m climb over 65km. Part of me hoped the resort was at the top of the mountain so the next would be all down hill. It wasn't. Oh well. Since the Cedars is a winter ski resort, I wanted to get a nice place for cheap instead of camping. It took a little doing, but I was finally able to find a great place and negotiate from $70 to $40 for a suite instead of a single room. I had a great balcony view. It was a rare treat for myself. I have trouble justifying indulging myself for some reason. If a good friend was there, I would happily nudge us into the better place. I don't know what the difference is. Maybe I don't think I deserve it. Maybe I like to be cheap by nature and won't inflict my cheapness on others. I don't know.

The view from my hotel in the Cedars.

At the hotels, and at so many businesses in the Middle East, it is really tough to tell who is working and who isn't. Of course, the touts make it clear. However, a lot of times people are just sitting around talking. They might interrupt their conversation to help you. They might ignore you. They might look up just to be curious about what you are doing even if they don't work there. The trick, just like with European dining, is to speak up to find out who is who. I am just not as courageous about doing that when I don't speak enough of the language. When I did do it and it was the wrong person, they usually pointed me towards the right person.

I believe both of the carvings in this tree in the cedar grove are of Jesus.

Town was a quiet tourist affair. The cedar grove was great to walk in. Dining to the smooth tunes of Michael Jackson, Eminem, Britney Spears, and Scorpions was also fun, or at least funny. I didn't expect to hear that collection coming out because I had not heard American music in a while. It had been slowly fading away since Turkey.

Do not attempt to climb this tree.

What else . . . the Tibetan girl who cleaned the hotel was watching a Bollywood movie. I watched a good bit of it as well. I have no idea what is going on in those movies, but they always entertain me. Of course, I never watch full ones. I don't think I have the stamina for it. I believe they are usually three hours.

The view from the 2700m mountain pass I had spent 1.25 days climbing.

After my best attempt to stay in bed and sleep late, I gave up. I think I made it until 6am. My mind just kept spinning up more and more. It was time to ride! Of course, my legs were tuckered and I had 600 more meters to climb up the mountain pass. It was a long, slow ride. I had hoped to summit Lebanon's highest peak, but the directions I had were to turn at a giant advertisement. The giant ad turned out to be a 2 foot by 3 foot government sign. When I realized my mistake, I wasn't willing to bike down the hill to have to come back up what I had already done. My legs were tired and I had far to go. When I reached the top, there was an old military look out and there were still bullet casings on the ground. I don't know if these are from recreational shooting (I don't think this happens), the Civil War, civil unrest, or Israeli incursions.

A view of the paves road I climbed and the dirt road leading to Qornet as-Sawda (3090m), the highest point in Lebanon.

Signs of the an all to recent past.

If you ever visit Lebanon, visit the mountains. Simple as that. They are gorgeous. Next up, the Bekaa Valley.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Northern Lebanon

My ride to the Syrian-Lebanese border was pretty uneventful. I stopped at a fruit stand to get a snack. While there, I tried to reach a friend's friend to meet up with them, but it wasn't meant to be. I want to say next time, but how many times does one person visit Syria? However, he is a bike tourer, so who knows. He also aspires to ride 100km a day. That could be a good pairing for me. His next tour is the 88 Temples in Japan. 1400km in 14 days. That sounds downright delightful.

Life at the Syrian border was not as delightful. I had to go to one office, then another, then another. Half the guards wave you over to chat. I assume I have to do something official. They just want to know what your story is and don't ask for any documentation. Anyway, while trying to get my stamp to leave the country, I was pointed back out of the building. I left and went to the last checkpoint. They sent me back because I didn't have a stamp. Eventually, someone pointed out that I needed to buy a 500 Syrian Pound piece of paper. The store was selling it for 600. The stamp said 500. This seemed pretty clear cut. I ended up paying 600 after a lot of back and forth. When I left Syria the second time, it was only 500. Grumble, grumble. I wonder how many times I can write that about things. It is only a $2 difference, but I get really caught up in the principle.

After leaving Syria, I passed through almost an entire Lebanese town before reaching their border control. Things were a little easier. I thought I needed money for a visa. An on the street changer tried to give me a really crappy deal. In the standard Middle East way of things, about five guys gathered around to watch. I don't like it. I decided to go back to a different money changer who had a much better rate in the town I had passed through after leaving Syria. The guards stopped me. When they found out why I was going to get money, they said the visa doesn't actually cost anything for US citizens. The money changer tried to be helpful after I did not need his services. I just can't make that transition so quickly. Oh well.

The lush green of northern Lebanon.

The olive trees I had heard so much about from Kate that add a little flavor to your hummus.

When I finally got underway in Lebanon, I wasn't thrilled with the welcome I got. A couple people on motorbikes buzzed me. A few other screamed from roads or the sidewalk to try and scare me. On the other hand, when I finally got past that, the roads were in great shape. The trees were huge. It seemed lush compared to Syria.

A shanty town on the beach.

Then, I found the more populated part of northern Lebanon. It was dirty. It was poor. Poor in the country can still be functional. Poor near cities comes across as poverty. There were camps of people with houses made out of scraps. The kids were digging through garbage piles for who knows what. They were right on the beach though, which has to have a few perks. I would not have been brave enough to eat fish from those waters though. The cars were emitting a ton of pollution. When I went to the mountains later, I saw this thin line of black hovering above the coast. Ick.

A fisherman throws a net off the trash covered beach.

Interacting with people was a mixed bag. I crossed armed check points, some armed with tanks. The soldiers were all very friendly. I talked to a couple random people about my plan and the end of the conversation left me a little concerned if I should have revealed so much information. I can't name a single thing that gave me this feeling, it was just a hunch about the people I was talking to. There were many others who were absolutely brilliant to talk to. One of these guys gave me my best falafel in Lebanon. I'll remember those guys in the long run. One of the guys invited me to stay at his place. I should have taken him up on his offer.

The view from my falafel lunch stop.

My second armed check point. I was too nervous to take a photo at the tanks one.

When I finally arrived at Tripoli, my crappy Lonely Planet guide book steered me wrong. The one hotel was closed and another was quadruple the price. I can't believe how much it cost for what it offered. Also, every place wanted dollars. They don't want Lebanese money. I assumed they would tie themselves closer to the euro than the dollar, but who knows. Maybe they know the dollar is making a come back that I don't know about. After an hour or two of trying, I found a place to stay. I found some dinner and took a stroll on the waterfront promenade. When I stopped to use the Internet, I think we lost power fives times in an hour. The store operator assured me that this was the norm which baffled me. They had the computers hooked up to an external power supply and only the monitors to the walls. Every time the power went out, the kids would groan because their shooter game had been interrupted and one would run somewhere to turn the power back on. I assume they were flipping a fuse.

Tripoli, Lebanon (yes, that is a horse on the beach).

My first day in Lebanon was all over the place. I hoped the traffic and pollution got better. I hoped I kept finding friendly people instead of people thinking they are clever enough to scare a biker. Though I was happy to be biking again, the reservoir wasn't deep enough to deal with too much nonsense. On to the mountains. On to the goodness.

This cat was using this as the world's largest cat litter box.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Crac des Chevaliers, Syria

Crac des Chevaliers


In my notes about today, I have that I hate squat toilets. They are prevalent in the Middle East. I'm just not a fan. Part of it is that I just don't squat much in general. My hips have lost that flexibility, so in that light it is good for me. On the other hand, no matter how many times I do it, I just can't get used to it. I don't want to either. I am sure there is a dissertation somewhere on which is better. These little things are why we travel. By immersing ourselves in parts of these other cultures, we learn about them, but also push ourselves behind our comfort zones and learn more about ourselves.

The bus tour from my hotel.

I like the charging system where locals get a discount. They do it in Hawaii too.

The entrance hall to the castle.

The moat between the outer and inner walls.

Another area that I am not getting used to is the bargaining or people trying to rip people off. At the bus station, there was oddly no buses to where I was going. Then, there was one, but after a taxi driver talked to the bus driver, they said the bus might not run. It was weird. The driver suggested I take the taxi. I ended up grabbing the taxi to try and stay ahead of schedule and not spend the night somewhere I had no desire to be, but something seemed off. I decided not to care. My cab driver got me to care when he dropped me off and didn't have any change. He would make no effort to get change either. He felt it should be a tip. Grumble, grumble. I have tried getting used to that part of life here, but it just isn't happening. I can bargain more, but I get grumpy. Actually, I am getting better. I just walk away more now instead of letting myself get pulled into it. Slowly, but surely. Oh yeah, in the bargaining department I forgot that when I went from staying in a room to camping at the same hotel, the price only went down 100 at first.

A guard tower.

The outer courtyard.

The chapel inside the castle.

This hotel lacked in a lot of stuff, but it was right next to the castle. Also, it was also host to a 21 day bus tour full of 20 Commonwealth countries people. I got to chat with Australians, Brits, and, my favorite, Kiwis (New Zealanders). The one Kiwi girl tried to convince me that she was unfit. I have never heard of such a thing. They are all so active, but maybe that is because I hang out with ultimate players. Anyway, their tour was going from Cairo to Istanbul along almost my same route so they had a lot of great tidbits. It was great to get some non-guidebook advice from people who had been there recently. I was able to offer them the same, but they didn't have nearly as much need of advice because their tour is the tour, minus a few extras.

The inner courtyard.

The inner castle.

I think this was the commander's room.

I guess I camped twice in Syria. I wrote earlier that I only did once. I didn't use my tent this night. Anyway, after a slow morning breaking camp, I went down to explore the castle that TE Lawrence called 'the finest castle in the world.' It was originally built in 1031, but expanded in 12th century by the Crusaders. Whoever controlled this castle, basically controlled Syria because a fresh army of 4,000 was able to sit inside and wait for anyone who wanted to pass through the area. The castle was never taken by force. When it fell to the Mulmuk sultan Beybers, the Crusaders negotiated safe passage to Tripoli after a siege. They had 5 years of supplies left.

Another view of the inner castle from the tallest point in the castle.

A view of what they were defending.

Another view of the space between the inner and outer castle.

The castle captures all of my childhood musings of what a castle could be. There was a moat. There were arrow holes overlooking the outside area and inner courtyard. There were holes in the floor to pour oil through. There were secret and trick passages. It was great. The one part I struggled with was where they would have kept 4,000 people. Did all of them stay in the castle or did they spread out around the castle until they were attacking or defending? It might not have been the prettiest from the outside, but on the inside it had not been turned into cushy living quarters or a museum. I think that is why it kept so many childhood ideas about castles alive.

Two guys keeping the castle clean.

The Khaled ibn al-Walid Mosque in Homs (I might have just loved this because it had grass).

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Palmyra, Syria

The Syrian desert.

The mountains near Palmyra.

I arrived in Palmyra, the hotels said they were full. If you talked to them long enough, something always became free. Eventually, I grabbed a double with someone else in the same boat as me. They made me miss my delightful Istanbul travel partner.

A camel and rider in Palmyra in the early morning.

Tetrapylon at Palmyra.

I don't think there are any quality midrange or cheap hotels in the Middle East. Well, there are for where we are, but you get what you pay for. Those same low end hotels give you more in other places. Our Palmyra hotel and its staff were a little weird. It always seemed like they were trying to rip us off. It didn't help that I didn't get much sleep with our room's window over a busy road. Oh well. I think there is a movie, maybe Syriana, with Brad Pitt checking into a hotel room in the Middle East. What I remember from that scene is pretty much what you get. If you pay over a hundred you can get a midrange US hotel room or, if you are lucky, that fabulous boutique hotel I found in Aleppo. What else? They will say yes to any request even if they don't understand you. They want your business or maybe they want to please, but the answer is always yes.

The Palmyra ruins at sunrise.

The ruins at sunrise.

My morning started really early because we were told sunrise was at 5:50. I thought it was around 6:30, but decided to trust them since they live there. We were at the ruins by 5:15 to catch the morning colors before the sun comes up. It was still very, very dark. The morning colors did not start until after 6am. Grumble, grumble. I think sunrise means something else in Arabic. Stumbling around the site in the dark, we found a dog's turf. He wasn't happy. He let us know. However, being up that early was worth it.

The rising sun give these ruins that pink tint that everyone talks about.

The monumental arch and entrance to the Palmyra ruins.

The Great Colonnade at Palmyra.

The site is amazing at sunrise. There were very few people around and it felt great to wander and let the imagination go. The site was so big that the imagination had plenty of places to go too. Sunrise is the only time that I saw the rose colored stones that people were talking about. Perhaps, I just couldn't distinguish the slight pink color in full daylight. Maybe, I'm a little color blind. Who knows.

The tetrapylon with the Towers of Yemilko in the background.

The Temple of Baal Shamin.

I know the site is huge. One tour bus rolled up when the sun was almost up. However, even with ten or twenty tour buses, it would not matter too much because the site is so big. You can always spread out and find your own spot, at least at sunrise. Later on, the touts and heat will track you down. This is the first Roman site I have visited that looked like an entire town because it was spread out and not just one or two buildings. Palmyra grew a lot in the 2nd century because it was a link between Eastern and Western empires.

The motorbike driving touts were back!

A sarcophagus.

The Towers of Yemilko, multistory burial chambers.

A view overlooking almost the whole site of Palmyra into the blinding sun.

Camel rides, get your camel rides here!

On the mountains behind the Roman ruins there were two different sites that make for a great backdrop, the Towers of Yemilko and the Qala'at ibn Maan. The towers are multistory burial chambers. The Qala'at ibn Maan is an old castle. I think I tried to sneak them into the background of every photo that I took. There were quite a few. This is another blog where I didn't know if there were too many good ones or a bunch of so-so ones. It was hard to narrow it down.

The Temple of Bel at Palmyra.

This block was great because everyone was laying down underneath it to see the carvings underneath. Without a tour guide, I also had to lay down to see what everyone was taking a look at.

The inner temple of the Temple of Bel at Palmyra.

This lion guards the museum.

After a long morning exploring the site, I decided to head back to the more populated part of Syria. The afternoon sun was making me wilt and I thought riding an air conditioned bus would be the best way to weather that heat. Getting on the bus was a fight again. One guy said 100 for me and 50 for the bike. The driver said 200 even though it was a full size bus that had nothing underneath it. I finally was sick of the crap. I just grabbed my bike and took it off the bus. The original guy came over and had an energetic talk with the driver. I got on for 150 and was off to Homs.

There were a lot of places in Syria advertising things that were especially good for me. Apparently, cowboys are the definition of virile.