We left for Lebanon, as a group of seven, after the end of the week’s classes at Damascus University. On arrival at the bus station just on the outskirts of Damascus we were mobbed by a group of competing taxi drivers trying to ply their trade. After a few minutes of arguments between our group and the drivers, and the drivers between themselves we managed to negotiate a price of $60 for the journey to Beirut. The driver we decided a price with described his car as a taxi kabirah, a large taxi. After being driven by one of his friends to the car, we were greeted with a car that resembled a 70’s coffin, and was most definitely not the size he had described. Following a couple of minutes of arguments about the size of the taxi, seven of us squeezed in for the journey to the Syrian – Lebanese border.
In order to leave Syria we were forced to spend 550 Syrian Lira on tax; it later transpired that the tax was actually 500 Syrian Lira and the extra 50 seems to have been an involuntary donation to the guard manning the first of the border checkpoints. At the next border checkpoint we had our passports and visas checked. For the majority of the group I was travelling with this was rather painless, albeit a slow and drawn-out affair. For one of the people this border checkpoint proved to be the end of his trip to Lebanon. With his visa having expired 3 days previously, he was denied exit from the country and forced to travel back to Damascus. Although in some countries it may have been possible to just buy a new visa at the border without too much hassle, with this particular border it was not the case, and this highlighted the importance of having all of our documents in order when we were planning to travel out of Syria. Soon after this setback our driver confessed that he did not have the correct documents that allowed him to drive people over the border, as a result we were forced to cross on foot. The driver then followed us and the six of us quickly got in on the other side of the Syrian border.
A short drive later and we arrived at the Lebanese border. We were greeted by a group of men clutching bundles of Lebanese money, and we were given the opportunity to change some of our Syrian Lira at what can only be described as a questionable exchange rate. The majority of people crossing the Lebanese border are forced to use this service as a Lebanese visa can only be purchased using the local currency. A 15 day Lebanese tourist visa cost us the equivalent of $18. Although there are some countries that qualify for free tourist visas, the people I was travelling with, Slovakian, Swiss, Austrian and British, did not qualify. Negotiating the Lebanese border was relatively quick, and shortly we were on our way driving at break neck speeds over the mountain pass between the border crossing and Beirut.
The drive from the border to Beirut took us less than an hour. We were dropped at the bus station in Gemmayzeh and walked the short distance to what must be one of the remaining affordable hotel options in Beirut at only $10 a night. On arrival at Hotel Talal we discovered that there was only a room for four people available, but with some persuasion the hotel manager agreed to let the six of us take the room for one night. The Austrian man we were travelling was getting restless, with what he must have thought was endless waiting around, and proceeded to pester us until we gave in and went straight to the beach.
Cheap beach options are scarce in Beirut; prices can range from $5 entrance fee to the simple American University of Beirut beach, and upwards of $20 entrance fee to the more exclusive beach clubs that litter the Beirut seafront. As we were on a budget we caught a taxi to the famous Pigeon Rocks, which happen to be the location of a free beach that the local Lebanese people use. This location is not a beach in the strictest of terms, and involved precariously leaping from a rock shelf into a pool of deep water. Exiting the water involved waiting for a considerable sized wave then dragging ourselves back up onto the rock shelf. Due to the depth of the water and the strength of the current this is only really an option for people who are relatively strong swimmers. Also this would not be an option for people who are squeamish about the cleanliness of the water they are swimming in; there were certainly some pretty vocal protests from some of the people I was travelling with.
After a short swim and a pause to take in the sunset in the background of the Pigeon Rocks, we headed back to Gemmayzeh to eat in a restaurant popular with both the Lebanese and travellers called Le Chef. The restaurant serves simple food of a Lebanese/ French persuasion. As an added bonus none of the main meals cost more than a couple of dollars, something which is becoming increasing difficult to find in Beirut. Again complaints were heard from the Austrian I was travelling with as he had spotted a modern upmarket restaurant across the road, which was in a stark contrast to the smoky basic surroundings found in Le Chef.
Following a nap and a quick shower at the hotel we headed out for what I had hoped would be an enjoyable night out amongst the famous nightlife of Beirut. Sticking to the Gemmayzeh district we headed to the main road which is littered with dozens of almost identical bars and clubs crammed with Lebanon’s most beautiful and successful. Upon selecting a bar completely at random we were welcomed by drinks prices which brought my night out, and that of a couple of others I was with, to a very swift end. Although I went through almost all the drinks prices with a surprisingly patient barman there was absolutely nothing that was even close to being in my price range. Not wanting to go home without having at least one drink after having travelled all the way to Beirut I settled for a 20,000 Lebanese Lira whisky and coke, which is approximately the equivalent of $15. In another attempt to salvage my night I enquired with a police officer as to where to cheapest clubs were in the area. He told me that for the ’small’ price of $25 I would be able to get into what he assured me was a popular haunt in Gemmayzeh. With this I gave in a headed back to the hotel with two other people, leaving the rest of the group to continue with their night.
What we should have realised is that sharing a room designed for four between six, when three of that group intend to go out clubbing and the remaining three are looking for an early night, has no chance of working smoothly. At around 4am we were awoken by a drunk British girl and a drunk Swiss girl, helping an extremely drunk Austrian man into the room, who saw fit to keep us awake for a couple of hours before passing out, leaving us completely unprepared for our planned 7am wake up call to head to the Bekaa Valley and the ḥizbullāh stronghold of Baalbek.
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