After celebrating the new year in Prague with my friend and brother, I headed off to Lebanon alone. For some reason I couldn't convince anyone to come to Beirut with me. I guess most foreigners knowledge of Lebanon only goes as far as knowing about fairly recent wars and would assume that it's a dangerous place to visit. In fact Lebanon has been totally safe for more than a couple of years is a beautiful country with a diverse culture and many great places for travellers to visit. It was one of the 'must-visit' countries on my travel itinerary.
I took a flight with a short stop-over in Budapest. Hopefully I will return to Hungary in the near future to see more than just it's airport.
I landed in Beirut at around 3:10am, about 10 minutes late. The taxi that I had arranged through my hotel was waiting for me and the driver made it clear that he was not happy that I was late. I tried to tell him that 10 minutes is standard variance for a long flight but he just huffed and puffed. When we got to the hotel I said "it's 25 American dollars, right?" He replied by saying "yes, but you were late, I had to wait for you!". I told him "No worries, I will give you a tip, here is $30, is that good?". He snapped at me "It is ok, but it's not good."
I tried to pay him but he wouldn't take the $20 note because there was a slight crease down the middle, which is completely standard. He made a real fuss over examining all the 20's I had and choosing the most unspoiled one. By this time it was approaching 4am and I was NOT AMUSED!!!!
So this was the first Lebanese person I met, great first impression to give to someone visiting his country, what a true hero he is. One of the worst things about visiting any country is dealing with taxi drivers. Guaranteed to be unfriendly and to try every trick in the book to scam you.
I went to sleep as soon as I checked into my hotel and woke up at mid-day. I just got ready, picked up a map that was in my room and headed out into downtown Beirut, not knowing where I was going or anything. Just strolling around the city. That probably isn't the most advisable thing to do when you are in a city for the first time to be honest.
A lot of the buildings downtown are really decrepit and there's even buildings covered with bullet holes from the previous fighting. However I stumbled upon a really nice campus that belongs to the American University of Beirut. I was able to walk straight past the security guards at the gate by walking beside a group of students returning to the campus. I would make a good James Bond! :)
The campus was a really nice contrast from the run down city outside. Very beautiful with some very nice buildings, areas to chill, cats running around everywhere, big sports field and right on the sea front. I took a walk around and ate some nice food in one of the restaurants. People were staring at me as I ate. Yes, I stuck out like a sore thumb hahaha, oh well.
After leaving the campus and taking a walk along the sea front I happened upon Hard Rock Cafe, which is my favourite restaurant chain. I wasn't even looking for it. It was like IT found ME. Even though I had already ate I couldn't resist and went in to stuff my face with those delicious fajitas. Omnomnomnom.
After leaving Hard Rock it was absolutely lashing down with rain. I tried to cut back through the university campus to get back to my hotel but this time the security guards wouldn't let me pass. I tried to find alternative way around and that proved to be impossible. The traffic on the roads wasn't moving at all, but I still looked for a taxi. When I found one, he wanted to charge me $15 USD for a ride that should be $2-3 USD. I never let myself get taken advantage off so I started walking in the rain.
I then saw 2 students come out of the university and asked them to help me. They tried to sneak me in but we got stopped by the guards. Then they said that we were just going to the gym which was right next to the entrance so we got in, pretended that we were going to the gym and then I was able to freely walk back through the campus and out to my hotel. Easy game!
That night I went out in the city and had a few drinks and some delicious Lebanese food, but got an early night to prepare for some epic adventures next day.
I booked a tour as part of a small group with a guide. First thing in the morning we drove out of the city into a village and stopped at a cafe to try some local made cheese which was excellent, and then onto the town of Anjar where there are some ruins from the 8th century.
We then headed off to Baalbek where there are ruins of temples that are much, much grander and better re-constructed. It is a truly awesome place to see with your own eyes, at times jaw-dropping. For such an amazing place there were not too many tourists walking around and being noisy like you would see at ruins in Greece for example.
We spent a lot of time in Baalbek. The weather was great, clear sky, no wind, about 16C, so I was walking around with a T-shirt on. The tour guide was wearing a big jacket and kept asking me if I was cold. She said "I feel cold just looking at you!". Only 2 days ago I was in Eastern Europe dealing with extremely sub-zero temperatures, the weather in Lebanon certainly felt like T-shirt weather to me.
We were then taken to a 5-star restaurant and given a huge table full of Lebanese food to share between us. It was glorious, all sorts of delicious meats, pastries and dips, most of the food being very healthy too.
After our bellies were full of lovely Lebanese food we went to visit Chateau Ksara, which is a wine company with its base on top of some old caves that were found in the 1800's. The caves are used to store the wine. So we got a tour around the caves (I took some video but it was worse than useless given how dark it was down there).
We were then taken for some wine-tasting.
I tried about 6 different wines, all delicious. I think when you taste wine that you are supposed to swill it around in the glass, sniff it, sip it and spit it into the sink thing. What a waste of good alcohol, I just gulped it down! :-)
Of course, straight after the tasting they led us into their shop to try to sell us some of their wine. I think everyone bought bottles except me. The wine was nice but I hate anyone encouraging me to buy stuff in that manor so I didn't buy any.
All in all a great tour, lasting the whole day, from dawn til dusk. You'd think I'd be tired after all that? Hell no! I took a trip to Jounieh to visit the Casino Du Liban where they spread the unlimited texas hold thems. It's quite a taxi-ride from downtown Beirut to Jounieh, about 45 minutes. By the time I got there it was after 9pm and I had get up early the next day to fly to Malaysia, so I wasn't impressed at all when I had to register to get in the casino and the whole process took more than half an hour.
The casino was really grand and nice, like something you'd see in a James Bond movie. Everyone was dressed in very smart shirts and suits, then there was me - dressed in a hoodie and jeans that haven't been washed since I started travelling a couple of weeks ago.
There were only 4 tables of poker running, (this was a Friday night) - 3 tables of 2-5NL and 1 table of 10-25NL. Everything in the casino is played in US Dollars. I had to wait forever to get a seat. I was railing the games and every seat at every table was filled by an Arab guy, no westernerns at all in the games, with everyone playing LOOOOOOOL bad! The 10-25NL game looked even softer than the 2-5NL tables, but I didn't have enough hard cash on me to play it without buying in short. All the games were being played very deep - the buyin restrictions are min 50BBs and max 300BBs.
A seat finally opened up at 2-5 and I was rewarded for my patience with QQ on my first hand dealt. Of course some guys doubled me up with ace high, ty ty. The game was wild, someone was getting felted every single hand, and they'd just rebuy another 200BBs like it was nothing. An old Arab gentleman at the table busted and rebought 3 times in 3 hands. It was simply ridiculous, a standard hand would be, 2/5 Blinds, one guy open raises to 30 preflop, another guy pops it up to 100, various donking around until they eventually show down with J9 and A6.
I didn't play a single hand for 25 minutes, just waiting for a good hand like a nit, when I picked up AQ and made a nut straight versus a lower straight to stack a guy for about his 5th time this orbit. And that was that, basically played 2 hands, and won the maximum. I couldn't stay any longer because I wanted to get some sleep ahead of a long flight the next day. But just that one hour in the casino more than paid for my whole trip to Lebanon, flight / hotel + everything else. Easy game.
Next stop on my travels - Malaysia!