I arrived in Beirut three days before the start of my month-long hike in the mountains of Lebanon, the eastern Mediterranean nation bordered by Israel and Syria. I wanted to explore Beirut before heading off into the countryside, but I knew no one and spoke no Arabic, so I looked for an organized walking tour as an introduction.
WalkBeirut.com received the best reviews. They said its owner, Ronnie Chatah, expressed his obvious love and affection for the city by sharing it with visitors. I checked his website for tour dates.
There were none. A few months earlier, Chatah’s father, a former finance minister and ambassador to the United States, had been assassinated in a central Beirut car-bombing that killed eight and wounded scores more. In grief, Chatah ended his tours.
Welcome to Lebanon, a stunningly beautiful country maimed by past wars and years of sectarian power struggles. If mafia families divvied up a state the size of Connecticut and enforced their authority with the threat of violence—leaving inhabitants to rely on personal connections for services and stability—it would resemble modern Lebanon.
All this makes the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), a 300-mile route north to south along the nation’s rugged crest, a miracle of environmentalism, conservation and civic pride. In a country where the idea of the common weal remains a radical notion, the builders of this trail decided to create something for all Lebanese to enjoy, out of nothing but love for the place itself.
You have to walk it to believe it.
I hiked with the nonprofit Lebanon Mountain Trail Association, a fledgling Appalachian Mountain Club of the Levant, if you will. The LMT is new, its routing completed in 2009 with funding assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Though you can walk it on your own, I chose to join the association’s annual April thru-walk, designed to raise awareness of the trail and its mission.
Most of my fellow hikers were Lebanese, and eight of us made the complete trip. Others hit the trail for anywhere from a day to two weeks. They were a boisterous, friendly group, eager to teach me how to say “Cheers!” in Arabic and to tease me about being an American spy.
During the day, we hiked the Mount Lebanon range, the trail oscillating between 2,000’ and 6,000’ elevation. The range runs the length of the country, rising sharply between the coast to its west and the Bekaa Valley—actually a high plain—to its east. From several places on the trail, we could view the sea like colored glass in the distance. In winter, snow blankets these mountains. In April, snowmelt feeds dozens of potable springs and wildflowers spread across rocky slopes.
Our group hiked south to north, starting in the hotter, lower elevations of the Bekaa region near the Israeli border. We crossed agricultural lands, through fields, olive orchards and small villages. Once out of the south, we began to encounter wooded areas, with umbrella pine, juniper and the legendary, stately cedars of Lebanon. The LMT passes through three nature reserves, where reforestation efforts are attempting to reclaim areas decimated by centuries of human habitation. Much of the trail also crosses rocky open slopes, affording continuous views as one treks.
After summiting Qurnat as Sawda, at 10,131’ the Levant’s highest mountain, we made a steep descent into the lush Qadisha Valley. Maronite Christians first sought refuge in this valley in the 7th century; it is famous for the monasteries and convents built into its precipitous cliffs. We stayed the night at one.
From Qadisha we continued on into the wilder, greener north. We spent a luxurious afternoon in Horsh Ehden, a small remnant forest thick with cedar, juniper and fir. Forty percent of plant species in Lebanon are found there, though it encompasses only .1 percent of the land. We passed through apple orchards and dense vegetation, which in places had overtaken the trail. By our endpoint near the Syrian border, the landscape looked very different from where we’d started in Marjayoun.
The trek was a cultural journey as much as a physical one. On the trail itself, we encountered archeological sites, including Roman ruins; Bedouin encampments; small towns and villages. I snuck off in Bsharre to enter the Khalil Gibran museum, a trove of his artwork housed in a former medieval monastery. Another day our hike through cedars in the Shouf reserve led us to the Druze shrine of Nabi Ayoub, where we were introduced to the beliefs of this offshoot of Shia Islam.
We felt the influence of each region’s predominant religion. In the Shia-dominated south, we saw Hezbollah flags everywhere. In some northern Sunni villages, we hid our alcohol. Crosses stood high on hilltops above predominantly Christian towns.
The hike also gave glimpses into Lebanon’s tough realities, among them deep poverty; exploitation of natural resources; fallout from the Syrian civil war next door; and military tension, internally and externally.
I never felt unsafe. Our trip leader, Christian, and his co-leader, Joseph, knew the trail and the people along it very well. In the south, where United Nations forces still patrol, he re-routed our path one day at the instruction of the Lebanese Army.
With a few exceptions due to logistics, we hiked each day lodging to lodging. One of the goals of the LMT is to support economic development in rural villages, which in turn builds community support for the trail and environmental protection. We stayed at family-run guesthouses, hostels, monasteries, convents and small hotels. When time allowed, we explored our surroundings, taking in the architecture or visiting small shops. We ate local cuisine for dinner and breakfast, typically cooked by our guesthouse hosts, and packed the leftovers for lunch. One of our best meals was prepared by the nuns of the Couvent Mar Sassine.
Before you object to this indulgent state of affairs, let me be clear: You cannot experience Lebanon without sampling its culinary delights and regional specialties. The food here is simply fantastic, the one religion all Lebanese seem to share. My companions never hesitated to instruct me on how to properly enjoy dishes, to the point where several times I was commanded to open my mouth so someone could directly insert an expertly prepared bite.
At one guesthouse, I tasted hindbeh, a delicious dish typically made with dandelion or chicory leaves. (It may not sound like much, but the secret is in the preparation.) The next day, on the trail, I passed a man in a pasture, with scissors and a sack. He told me he was cutting greens for hindbeh, and held out a leaf for me to taste. His friendliness was typical of the hospitality I experienced all along the trail. My attempts to communicate with a few Arabic phrases, high school French and lots of hand gestures were greeted with humor and helpfulness.
Hiking with a group isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and you can hike the LMT on your own (though I’d highly recommend consulting with the trail association during planning, and hiring local guides who specialize in the areas around their villages). That said, nervous as I was about committing to a close-quarters hike with complete strangers for a full month, I’m thrilled I did. The combination of physical exertion and cultural immersion was exhilarating. I cried on the last day. There are many participants who do a section of the thru-hike every year, unable to say a final goodbye to the beauty and unique camaraderie of this trail.
The 2015 LMT Thru-Walk takes place April 3-May 3. For more information, you can consult the association’s web page (www.lebanontrail.org) or find it on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/LebanonMountainTrailAssociation).
About Lisa Robbins
Lisa Robbins is a hiker and freelance writer who loves to explore the world, near and far, on foot.