On a side note, it is funny how the phrase “Luvly Jubly” managed to travel around the world as I have heard it a number of times as a response when people find out I am from England. I like to think there was in the past, a cockney somewhere who was having a bit of joke, saying it was official for something and because of that it got transported around the world. After waking up at 7 we took breakfast on the rooftop with early morning views of the ruins just temping us to go in and explore. Following this, we set off and began walking into the huge area that the ruins of Palmyra occupied. We started at the bottom of the colonnaded street and walked up it exploring, stopping to take pictures and climbing on the extensive remains. It was magical, especially in the early morning light, our only company seemed to be the occasional camel herder asking us if we wanted a ride.
Well I have been here nearly 2 months since arriving in January. I am still working away at the UN but am making use of the numerous cafes and courtyard restaurants found in Damascus. Despite this and exploring the city and its sights some more, I felt I needed to get out of Damascus for a weekend. So with this in mind my housemate, another friend and I decided to travel to Lebanon as it is close by and easy to get to. Recent events have calmed down in the country and also more importantly there had been a fresh dumping of snow in the mountains.
I therefore decided to travel to the mountains to visit the mystical Faraya Mzaar Ski resort, reputedly the best ski resort in Lebanon. We left during a cold crisp evening from Damascus and headed across the border into the night. We had made sure that the private car (a normal thing in Syria) knew exactly where Faraya mzaar was. He was sure and there would be no problem he said. However once across the border near the town of Baalbek in the Beka Valley our taxi driver stopped telling us another taxi will take us all the way.
However he still wanted paid for his journey, and he wanted to be paid a lot, far more than the journey’s worth. Its always a great moment in learning a language when you can argue coherently with a taxi driver. So this is what we did with him and his 7 friends, for an hour! The main thrust of the argument was that he wanted paid in full to where he had taken us (not even half way). However we argued he had lied to us and not taken us where we wanted to go so therefore we would only pay him for the journey he had done. He did not like this and used many excuses to try and persuade us to pay him.
They ranged from “how was I meant to know where Faraya is?” to “Faraya, I do not know this place, what did you say? Faraaya, oh I know where that is!” and then the classic “they told me they wanted to go to Baalbeck”! After rebuffing his arguments, he timidly asked for money because he “had a family to think about”. That would be plausible if we had not just crossed the border in his private car that was a brand new Mercedes Benz. After paying him the right amount for the journey, we left and arrived in Faraya at 11. Our hotel was like something out of The Shining film, completely empty, décor from the 1970s and 1980s and run by two ghostly but extremely friendly and helpful old men. They had been running the place for 40years and despite being a little confused by life they were friendly and even made us pizza to eat. We got our rented gear and headed to bed.
In the morning we all thought there had been a mistake, we had been given 1970s and 1980s ski gear! I was sporting a fluorescent green all in one while my housemate had a grass green one and the final friend I traveled with had a black and white patterned number! All of us had fluorescent orange and green skis. Oh well, least it is warm to wear! Arriving on the slopes we were greeted with a lovely view of white rolling hills and a pleasant 11 degrees centigrade. After teaching my friends to ski in the morning, I began to explore the mountain properly. I took a lift up to the top and from there I could see the Mediterranean sea stretching out in front of me, blue and in the sun, and Beirut on the coast looking peaceful and calm. Behind me was a moonscape of rolling white hills as far as the eye could see. The skiing was not bad, with a lots of enjoyable red runs and a bit of challenging yet fun off piste runs.
After a tiring day we explored the nightlife of Faraya, or as it turned out lack of it! We wandered up to the only restaurant in town and had mezzeh (lots of small Dishes) in effectively a conservatory in someones garden (the food was cooked inside the house). Then we wandered along the main road to one of two bars, we chose the second one because it was the busy one with four people inside! Sat next to a lovely warm fire and made it feel a bit like Europe and chatted the night away.
The next day it was skiing in the morning then a service taxi down into Beirut. We shared a taxi with a curious American who amongst other things asked us “is Syria full of Terrorists, Do you need to carry guns with you in Syria and do the border guards open your passport at the border?”! Arrived in Beirut and had a whistle stop tour around the centre of the city, the parliament building, Rafik Harari’s grave (the assassinated prime minister of Lebanon in 2006) and the blue mosque. We then met my friend who is working in Beirut for a late lunch in a lovely French restaurant on a street called Gemeyzie, where all the good restaurants are in Beirut. Then it was a taxi ride back to Damascus with a man who set Diamonds in jewelry as a job and was sharing the taxi with us. A normal weekend in the Middle East!
The next day I hired a taxi to take me over to Damascus, once the driver realised I had been before he drastically brought the price down to the correct price. So for about £12 I had a 3 hour taxi ride into another country! My driver Ahmad was chatty and with my broken Arabic chatted about his family, what I was doing and where he was from. After climbing the steep mountain road over the anit Lebanon Mountains we dropped into the Bekka Valley. It was as stunning as before Christmas, snow covering the tops of the mountains with the wide fertile valley below basked in sunlight. Here they grow wine, and before Christmas, a few friends and I visited the Kasara vineyard. In the lovely surroundings, we toured the small visitors centre and the caves behind which stored the wine. It was apparently begun by the Romans but may have had prehistoric origins. After passing the turn off for this I was stamped out of Lebanon and we drove up another mountain road to the Syrian Border. Here I acquired a visa easily with two New Zealand guys and heading into Damascus by lunchtime. Two hours later I had a house to stay in, and friends to go out and eat with. Nice!