Back from the brink

At last, I’ve got the site back online. Don’t know quite what went wrong there – a major upgrade of the database software underpinning the site went awry. Had to use a bit of scorched earth policy on the server to get this baby going again.

And I am so glad that I didn’t lose all our data. If we’d had to start from scratch it really would have sucked!

Anyways, is back online!

Another day, another holiday

Obviously Lebanon hasn’t had enough unplanned national holidays – 13 so far this year – so the government decided last night that today would be a national day of celebration to commemorate Hizballah’s exchange of prisoners with Israel.

In case you haven’t seen it in the media (eg here), Hizballah is returning the bodies of the two soldiers kidnapped in mid-2006 (the kidnapping that prompted the war which killed over 1200 people). In return, Israel has released five Lebanese prisoners, one of whom was sentenced to 542 years in jail for murder back in the 1970s.  Israel has also exhumed the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinians so that they can be reburied in their homelands.

It is quite fascinating, and a bit unnerving, to watch the pride and celebration surrounding the freeing of five convicted killers. Whereas the different factions were shooting the bejesus out of each other two months ago, they’re all completely united on this victory for “the resistance” (ie Hizballah).

Needless to say, Alex’s work didn’t close for the day.

Australia’s railway heritage in Lebanon

During the Second World War Australian military engineers played a key role in the construction of the main railway line running through Lebanon from Tripoli in the north to Haifa in Israel. This bridge is located just north of Byblos and is one of the few remaining examples of this rail line, most of which has now been built over.

Here you can see the Australian Commonwealth Military Forces insignia.

I recently posted with photos of disused steam trains in Tripoli, here.  I’m not a trainspotter, honest.

Some more info on Lebanon’s old rail network can be found here.

An outbreak of peace in Lebanon

In case you haven’t seen it in the news, Lebanon’s politicians have reached a compromise agreement to end the 18-month deadlock that has paralysed the country. The deal should see the election of a president on Sunday and, hopefully, will allow for a return to normal government in the lead up to the 2009 parliamentary elections.

The most immediate impact of this decision was an announcement by the opposition that the tent city protest in downtown Beirut will be packed up – something we never really expected to occur during our stay in Lebanon.

This is going to be such a shock for us – we’ve only known the tent city, which sectioned off large parts of downtown and had killed this previously vibrant part of the town. For Alex it was a particular drag as the security measures put in place to guard the government offices from the protesters also made it impossible to walk the short distance down to the cafes of downtown – seriously curtailing his ability to get a cappuccino and muffin for morning tea each day!

So anyway now that the protest is packing up it looks like the additional security barricades will be going too.

We won’t know what to do with ourselves if we have unfettered access across downtown!

To mark the occasion, here are a few photos of the tents being dismantled.

Tent removal Tent removal UN House

Lebanon\'s media watching developments The army can\'t believe it either A wall of razorwire, which will be the next thing to go

More exploration: Bcharre and Tyre

We’ve been doing lots more exploring while Nanna’s here. On Saturday we drove north up into the mountains to visit the Bcharre (pron: BESHARAY) region and to see the famous Lebanese cedars. Then on Monday we headed to the southern city of Tyre (pron: TEER).

Bcharre district

Bcharre is one of a number of towns on a ring road around the gorge-like Qadisha valley – known as the Holy Valley because of the number of monasteries, churches and hermit caves there and the Syriac translation of qadisho as “sacred”. The scenery is really dramatic, with all the townships clinging to the sides of the steep valley and the middle east’s tallest mountain, the snowcapped Cornet El-Saouda, towering overhead.

The Bcharre district is where famed artist and author Khalil Gibran (third bestselling poet after Shakespeare and Lao Tse) was born, and it was a major centre for migration to Australia (everyone there has a family member who lives in Australia).

Qadisha valley Qadisha waterfall Bcharre The Lebanon cedars The other Parramatta Road - not in New South Wales


Having done a recce to Tyre several weeks ago, we decided to take Nanna to southern Lebanon to explore the ancient Phoenecian, Greek and Roman ruins of this city which dates back to 3000 BC.

First stop was a drive past the Crusader Castle at Sidon harbour, then a detour when we spotted a toy shop selling kids bikes (Nanna wanted to buy Mitchell a bike, so that he could inflict more damage on our furniture). We then continued south to Tyre, a squeezy drive through the old city and stopped at the ruins of the old Roman port. The beautiful mosaic road runs straight into the sea, where a large section of the town’s sea wall has now vanished under the Mediterranean. You can still go snorkling among Egyptian and Roman columns on the sea bed.

We next took advantage of the beautiful Spring weather to go and sit on the beach. Sheridan did very well walking along the soft sand (with a little support from Alex and Nanna) and Mitchie had a great time digging out sandcastles and throwing spades of sand into our faces. Oh how we laughed!

As the afternoon lengthened we ventured on to a neat little ice cream cafe overlooking the sparkling sea, with the Israeli headland 20km to the south. The proprietor looked at us like we were the most boring people he’d met as we each ordered a two-scoop ice cream. The reason for this quickly became apparent, when a Lebanese couple ordered a giant plate covered with sliced fruit, about 15 different flavours of ice cream, assorted toppings and with wafers and other crap sticking out all over the place. It was completely outrageous. Still, we were fairly content with our piddly little ice creams (until the next morning, when Sheridan and Nanna copped a bit of food poisoning).

Final stop before returning to Beirut was the Al-Bass archaeological site, which contains a Roman cemetery, a triumphal arch, and the largest Roman hippodrome (think chariot racing in Spartacus) ever discovered.

Sidon’s sea castle Roman triumphal arch One of several stadia at the Tyre Hippodrome

Mosaic road Playing at the beach More playing at the beach

Beach time Ancient windows on the world

Nanna’s here!

Nanna arrived on Monday morning (at 2.30am) and will be staying with us here in Beirut for three weeks. We’re all very excited – Mitchie especially, who is showing off like crazy.

This isn’t her first trip to the Middle East, and she’s visited us previously when we lived in the UAE. Still, I’m interested to see what she makes of Lebanon. While she’s here we’ll be heading out to see all the sights like Byblos, Baalbeck, Tyre and maybe a quick flight over to Cyprus too.

All in all it’s a great excuse to explore.

Totally piste

After mooching around the house all day yesterday we decided to check out Lebanon’s ski slopes, so we headed up to Faraya. Located less than an hour’s drive north-east of Beirut, Faraya is the most commercial of Lebanon’s ski areas. The town of Faraya itself is pretty horrible and run-down, but the ski resort above is much nicer. The snow there is great, soft and powdery and really deep. There was a huge dump a few weeks back (see here) and when we got there it was snowing lightly.

Amazingly, despite being less than an hour away and it being Sunday, there was hardly anyone there. In Australia ski fields with snow like this would be absolutely packed in the height of winter. Friends tell me it’s usually much busier. I can only assume that the threat of overcast weather, and the current security situation, might have encouraged people to stay home this weekend.

Nonetheless, we had a good time. Unfortunately mummy had to stay in the car while Mitchie and I checked out the snow, which was a bit sad for her. This was Mitchell’s first visit to the snow, and as you can tell from the photos, he was a bit non-plused with the whole snowflakes falling from the sky and freezing cold wind thing. We made up for it with a nice lunch and then excellent hot chocolate at the Intercontinental Hotel. Yummo.

080217_snowman01.jpg Snowman Snowboys Poor mummy, stuck in the car Pencil man Breadman Faraya valley Faraya valley Faraya valley Faraya resort

Did the earth move for you?

Well, as if the uncertain political and security environment isn’t enough, today we had a 5.1 richter earthquake in Beirut. I was sitting at work talking to some colleagues and all of a sudden the whole building shook. Rang Sheridan and she was working away on the treadmill, hadn’t noticed until Fina came in and told her (Sheridan’s excuse is that she’s shaky enough as it is).

There was a little bit of damage around town, but nothing significant. This is the third tremor to hit Lebanon this week, with the first two focusing on the southern coastal city of Tyre.

Beirut and the Lebanese coast has had its fair share of tectonic activity over the years. Beirut was completely destroyed by earthquake in 1759, and previously destroyed in 551 AD and 349 AD. Tsunamis have hit the coast in 306 AD, 881, 1752 and 1952.

It’s been a while since the last big quake – I wonder if this means we’re overdue? (How’s that for a cheery thought)

A day at the rally

February 14 is the anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In response to the 2005 bomb attack a massive number of Lebanese people turned out in Beirut to mark the event. It has now become a significant anniversary, particularly for Hariri’s son Saad and his followers.

So what better way to spend a free day in Lebanon than to take a wander down to Martyr’s Square and hobnob with fellow ralliers? The organisers claim that more than one million people were there. In my professional opinion the number’s much closer to 100,000, but that’s still a lot of flag waving footy fans!

080214_01.jpg 080214_02.jpg 080214_03.jpg 080214_04.jpg

Oh, and I’m not sure what purpose an RPG (second photo, guy on the left) has to do with crowd control though… (RPG = rocket propelled grenade, used for destroying tanks)

Brrrrr! It’s mighty cold!

Hooley dooley, it is seriously cold over here at the moment. For the past couple of days it’s been stormy with gusting winds, thunderstorms (thunder is never welcome when you’ve had two car bombings within a month!), mega amounts of rain and frequent hail storms. Snow is falling as low as 500 metres altitude, which over here is the outer suburbs of Beirut. In fact, on my way to work this morning I was overtaken by a car with big clumps of snow on top of its roof and boot.

Kind of surreal in a mediterranean coastal city.

I had Mitchie in the car this afternoon and there was a steady downpour of sleet (is it correct to say that it was “sleeting”??) which was very pretty as it accumulated on our bonnet, but I was sure glad we were in the nice warm car and not on foot. This sort of weather is especially unpleasant in Beirut, as the few drains that there are tend to be blocked, so the roads turn into rivers. It is impossible to walk around and not be drenched up to the knees – and remember that I’ve got long legs!

Of course at this point it will be very obvious to many readers that we’re Australians and still completely overwhelmed by a marginally cold climate. One of these days we’ll have a posting to a genuinely cold country and will think nothing of driving to work through metre-deep snow drifts.