Interview with Chris: Bahrain, Kuwait, Eritrea, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus

Lebanon, Beirut

After visiting Qatar and Oman for Christmas,  I had to fly back to the States to return to work.  Chris stayed in the Middle East to do a little more exploring. Here’s an interview with him about his six-country tour:

So, tell me about Bahrain.

“Well, it’s a small island and most of it is one big city. A lot of bars, nightclubs, and nightlife catering to the Saudis coming over on the weekends. I visited Bahrain fort using public transportation, as well as the old souq, but mainly it’s a lot of skycrapers. The city is pretty spread out, not a very walking friendly.”

What was Kuwait like?

“Kuwait was pretty similar to Bahrain. The main downtown has skyscrapers and businesses, with a big souq/mall area in the center. The biggest tower is closed to the public, but you can go up inside the iconic Kuwait Towers, which look like giant balls skewered on sticks. The view from the inside is very nice. Public transportation is readily available but not all the places I wanted to get to were on a bus line. I went to the Al Qurain Martyrs Museum, where a bunch of Kuwaiti resistance fighters tried to hold off the Iraqis in 1991. It was closed when I got there, but the caretaker let me in after I told him I was in Desert Storm in 1991. The fish market and the corniche are a really nice area to walk around. “

Eritrea is a hard country to visit- tell us about it.

“Getting the visa prior to going was difficult but I finally managed one from DC. The visa only gets you into the capital- if you want to visit another area of Eritrea, you have to get a permit from a government official in Asmara. Asmara is a sleepy town with really nice people who are eager to speak to the few tourists they get. It has some nice old Italian buildings and a coffee culture. You can visit the tank graveyard from the war with Ethiopia (you will need a permit). I took a 3 hour bus to Massawa- spectacular scenery as you go from 9000 feet to sea level. Hardly any guardrails on the road so I was glad the bus was pretty slow. Massawa was practically deserted- it took “sleepy little town” to a whole new level. Very few tourists, a few business owners. I was able to do some snorkeling with their dive center but since there wasn’t any other tourists, we couldn’t organize a dive. Even right off the island of Massawa the coral was pretty good. A lot of the times the restaurants didn’t have much available on the menu but did generally have spaghetti and injera.”

What did you do in Jordan?

“In Jordan I visited the city of Amman, and then went up to Umm Qais to see the Roman ruins right at the intersection of Golan Heights, Syria, and Jordan. Then I went to Jerash to see other ruins. I took a public bus down to Petra and hiked all around- get the two day pass, it’s worth it. I went very early in the morning and there were no other tourists yet. I met a Swedish guy in the hostel back in Amman so after taking the public bus to Petra, he and I wound up sharing a taxi on the way back to the capital so we could see the Dead Sea. Jordan was great- the food, the beer, the people. A little chilly in the wintertime but not freezing like up in Europe. Definitely worth a visit”.

Did you go to Lebanon just because Deah has already been?

“(Yes). I spent all my nights in Beirut and used it as a base- I did a winery tour in Bekaa Valley where we visited three wineries, and saw the Roman ruins at Baalbek- the local microbus system is easy once you figure that out. Byblos is just a short hop up from Beirut and it’s cool to see the Phoenician ruins and crusader castles, as well as where the alphabet began. Also north of Beirut is Tripoli, kind of like a border town, so close to Syria. They have some crusader castles up there too. South of Beirut there’s Tyre and Sidon, and you can see where soap was originally made. There’s two UNESCO sites down in Tyre- it’s easy to take public buses from Beirut down to the sites. In Beirut itself it’s fun to wander through the various neighborhoods- the walking tour was really nice, and you can visit the big mosque. I stayed at Saifi Urban Gardens hostel, which also has a bar and a language institute, so it’s a nice mix of locals and tourists, and of course great beer.”

What do we need to know about Cyprus?

“From Beirut I flew Cobalt Air into Larnaca, which felt like an off-season beach town. I wanted to get to Nicosia, so I took a public bus to get there. Nicosia is a nice walled city, but it’s split in half with a UN-guarded line between the Greek southern part and the Turkish northern part. There’s no problem getting back and forth, as long as you enter Cyprus from the south (the southerners consider it illegal to enter the northern part first). The two sides of the island have a different vibe- Greek food versus Turkish food, lira versus euro, Keo beer versus Eres. While on the Turkish side I took a bus over to Girne, which has a big castle that was variously controlled by all the different empires over time. It has a nice little harbor and locals there spending a day at the coast. I also visited Limassol, which felt like a beach town with a small Byzantine crusader castle.”

From Cyprus, Chris flew Aegean Airlines to Frankfurt, and then Wow via Iceland to Washington DC, taking advantage of their $99 one-way fares. Overall, he says, the hardest part of the trip was the variable weather with lots of rain, but still a fun, off-season foray into an area he’d always wanted to visit.

One week in Lebanon? You can see it all

Deah at Cedars, Lebanon

Although we’ve only been back at work a month, it’s time for a vacation- Ramadan is ending and we have off for Eid Al-Fitr.  So my colleague Diane and I decided to head to Lebanon, just three hours away from Sudan by a BMI flight.

girl in front of roman ruins Aanjar Lebanon

We arrived in Beirut and felt a bit discombobulated at first- the high rise apartments, the beach, the mountains, it was all so different from Khartoum.  The first day I went to the mall and had Starbucks! and a movie! and bought two sundresses!!  I know, I know, not what you’re supposed to do on a cultural vacation, but all things I couldn’t do in Sudan.

The next day I was ready to sightsee.  First stop was a day trip to Sidon, home of a small crusader castle, the Musee du Savon, and a very cool souq.  I spent a pleasant day in Sidon walking around and seeing the sights and learning about the Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Muslim, Crusader, Turk, and Mamluk history of Lebanon.

roman ruins at Sidon Lebanon

The next day I went on a day trip to Byblos (both Sidon and Byblos are one hour from the capital, so no reason to change hotels each time).  Byblos is where the alphabet began- the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet was “aleph” and “beth”.  A cute little fishing harbor, strongly reminiscent of Greece (not that I’ve been there yet), and a great museum dedicated to ancient fish fossils.  I bought a fish fossil that is 80 million years old!  And of course some Roman ruins and a crusader castle to explore.  On the way back I rode up the mountain in a “teleferique“, basically a ski lift/cable car contraption that quickly gets you to the top of a mountain and lets you see amazing views and get some fresh air. If you click on the link I made, and wait a second, you’ll get a little animation that actually feels like you’re on the “terrorferique”!

roman and greek ruins at Byblos Lebanon

On Friday we tried to go to the museum in Beirut but it was the start of Eid, so it was closed.  Instead we hopped on a bus and cruised over the mountains almost to Syria, to visit the ancient Phoenician city of Baalbeck, dedicated to the Phoenician sun god Baal.  Later the Romans built some of the last pagan temples (dedicated to Jupiter, Bacchus, etc) before the conversion to Christianity.  Baalbeck is the most well preserved site of Roman ruins in the Middle East.  We saw some great ornamentation and amazing architecture and thoroughly enjoyed our day there.

roman ruins baalback lebanon

The next day we decided to pack a day bag and head up to the Cedars ski resort area for some cool air.  Although it was only September, and no snow, the area is still great for cooler weather and the famed Cedars groves.  We went through Tripoli, stopping only for some pastry and coffee, and then took a smaller bus to Bcharre, a small mountain village that hosts a great hostel (Tiger House) and also the Khalil Gibran museum (author of The Prophet, who was born in Bcharre).  Along the way we met two British guys, Joe and Fraser, so we hung out with them for the rest of the day and visited the Cedars park and shopped for souvenirs, and found a bar to drink beer and smoke nargileh (hubbly-bubbly, hookah, whatever).

Friends in front of cedar tree in Lebanon

We should have just stayed in Bcharre another day, it was so beautiful, but Diana and I wanted to have lunch at Pepe’s fishing club in Byblos and go see the Jeita grotto, an amazing cavern.  Lunch was awesome and the cavern- wow.  The upper cavern is explored on foot while the lower cavern is explored by boat.  Seriously, this place was great.  There’s a contest to name it one of the 7 wonders of the natural world and they have my vote!

inside Jeitta grotto Lebanon
Jeitta Grotto

Another day trip the next day to the south, visiting Tyre and stopping briefly in Sidon again.  Tyre is very close to the Israel border so lots of armed checkpoints, tanks, guns.  But everyone very friendly (well, as long as you’re not Israeli).  In Tyre is the largest remaining Roman hippodrome in the world.  And of course that’s where my camera battery ran out!  But luckily Diane’s was still going strong so she was able to capture the moment.

roman ruins at tyre lebanon
Roman Ruins Tyre

We ran into Joe and Fraser again and decided to go to Zahle the next day and spend the night and track down this Lebanese winery we had heard about.  Zahle is a cute little town up in the mountains, halfway to Baalbeck, on the west side of the Bekaa valley.  We found the winery, which includes caves going back to Roman times, which were expanded to tunnels during Muslim/Crusader times- altogether 2 km of tunnels, where they now keep the wine as it ages.  We toured, we sampled, and then we walked through the town and collected a dinner of roast chicken, cheeses, and breads, and ate in the upstairs reception room of our 18th century mansion-turned-hotel.  Along with our wine we had bought at the winery, our after-dinner conversation went on until midnight, complete with a spirited discussion of Israel, Palestine, and the Bible.

friends at bar at ksara winery zahle lebanon
Ksara Winery, Zahle

The next day Diane and I went to Aanjar, a Muslim Ummayyad capital city from the 700’s.  The ruins were practically deserted, perfect for wandering around and taking pictures.  That evening we returned to Beirut and went to Gemmayze Street, the area of the bars and nightclubs, for a final visit out on the town with our new friends.  The next day, we finally visited the Beirut museum– one of the best in the world, not too overwhelming, and with a fabulous documentary about the ways the museum protected the artifacts during the Lebanese civil war- and then we all went to the mall to see one last movie, eat one last sushi dinner, and do any last minute shopping.  And then suddenly it was time to return to Sudan.

Pigeon Rocks lebanon beirut
Pigeon Rocks, Beirut