Magazine article Geographical

High Hopes: As Lebanon's Tourism Industry Slowly Begins to Rebuild Itself Following the Recent Conflict with Israel, the Opening of a New Mountain Walking Trail That Follows Old Paths and Tracks That Date Back to Pre-Roman Times Is Bringing Hope to Remote Communities. Nick Haslam Was among the First to Sample the Trail, Which Offers Glimpses of a Way of Life That Has Changed Little for Centuries

Magazine article Geographical

High Hopes: As Lebanon's Tourism Industry Slowly Begins to Rebuild Itself Following the Recent Conflict with Israel, the Opening of a New Mountain Walking Trail That Follows Old Paths and Tracks That Date Back to Pre-Roman Times Is Bringing Hope to Remote Communities. Nick Haslam Was among the First to Sample the Trail, Which Offers Glimpses of a Way of Life That Has Changed Little for Centuries

Article excerpt

We were a mixed group of walkers of varying ages and backgrounds setting out from a scented cedar grove high in the Lebanese mountains. Below, the valleys rang with the song of nightingales, newly arrived from their spring migration from Africa, and, above, the first swifts of the year arched across the cloudless blue sky. Gilbert Mouhkeiber, a resourceful mountaineer and long-distance hiker shouldered his pack. 'We have 25 kilometres to cover today,' he said. 'Let's get going:

He, along with several other members of the group, had spent the past year prospecting and laying out the Lebanon Mountain Trail, which now extends north-south across the country for 350 kilometres at altitudes of between 1,400 and 2,100 metres. Now, he was to lead our group on the first ever through walk of the central section of the trail--140 kilometres in eight days from the northern village of Tannourine to the town of Falougha in the hills above Beirut.

We were eight all told, each with a specific task to perform along the trail. Keen walker Georges Abi Rachid worked as topographer and was carefully noting our route with the aid of a GPS unit. Rafic Saliba, who had spent most of his working life as an engineer in the harsh deserts of Saudi Arabia, is now a professional walking guide in the mountains. My job was to note route changes and prominent landmarks using a small voice recorder. The others were keeping general records for use in the final compilation of a detailed map and guide book to be published in the coming months.

Funded by a grant from US development agency USAID, the creation of the Lebanon Mountain Trail, known as the LMT, has been a long-cherished dream of many walkers in the area. Joseph Karam, a Lebanese expatriate and director of the Washington-based firm ECODIT, which has been working on the project for nearly two years, was one of the main instigators in the trail's creation. 'Nowhere else in the Middle East can you walk from a coastal climate to the snowline in a few hours; he said, as we strolled through the pretty mountain village of Tannourine. 'We have modelled the LMT on the Appalachian Trail in the States. If all goes to plan, the trail could bring much-needed income into the mountains, where the local economy is often very fragile"

Following ancient drovers'trails, shepherds' tracks and the occasional metalled road, the trail links Muslim and Christian villages, passing through woodland, arable land and the jird--rough mountain terrain that is snow-covered in winter and used as high pasture land during the summer months. Wherever possible, walkers will stay with villagers, and we had spent the previous night at the home of the Harb family above Tannourine with extraordinary views across deep terraced valleys. Roused at 6am by the curious children of the house, we breakfasted on Kiske--a traditional savoury porridge laced with goat cheese and lamb; known locally as the knee bracer for its ability to sustain men working for a day in the steep fields.

Here in the mountains, walkers are a rarity, and outside Tannourine's little village shop, which sells everything from shot gun cartridges to medicine, an old man sitting in the morning sun eyed us curiously. 'Are you looking for gold?' he asked. 'No, just walking,' said Karam, explaining as we walked on that trading routes from Syria to the Mediterranean, which date back to pre-Roman times, passed through the mountains. Local people believe that merchants fleeing highway robbers buried their treasure and that these pots of gold can still be found, hidden in caves.

Simmering heat and snow

Our first day took us through steep valleys along narrow paths beneath long abandoned terraces, a tangible indication of the large number of peasant farmers who had once toiled here. Over the past century, thousands have left Lebanon seeking a better life abroad and village populations are declining. A large part of the US$2million USAID grant will go towards the creation of lodging facilities for walkers on the trail and the training of local people to work as guides. …

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