The Silk Road, China

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Beirut - a tale of two cities

We decided to go to Beirut. Partly because James had shown how easily it could be done, but mainly because Chris wanted to. For me, going to the sea meant that my trip would span all of Asia from coast to coast.

The drive over the snow capped mountains from the Syria down to the coast was spectacular. However, as we neared Beirut, evidence of the recent conflict became clear as our car picked its way around a road bridge destroyed last summer by Israeli bombers.

There are many reasons why Beirut might be described as two cities: the old and the new... the Christian and the Muslim... However, what follows are some more light-hearted observations during a fleeting visit.

Buoyed by rave reviews in our guide book about the buzzing nightlife and fantastic cuisine, our expectations were high. We hunted down the hostel with the best review in the heart of Beirut and were somewhat... disappointed to find one of roughest places I've ever encountered located on what must have been Beirut's premier road for "super" night clubs. We checked in and headed out for supper, only to wander through deserted streets (each signed with a district, rarely with a street name) before finding our lovely (albeit tiny) restaurant. Finding a drink after supper proved even harder - of the two recommendations in our guide book, one was closed and the other did not serve alcohol. Having trawled most of Western / central Beirut by this point, we had managed to bump into an off licence and therefore resigned ourselves to drinking a quiet beer on the peer looking out to sea. Lovely, but not quite what we'd expected! The next morning we were determined to find the people in Beirut. But again, we found an impressive - but deserted - newly built "Downtown" area centred around a Rolex clock tower.

At this point I had to contact James for advice on where we had gone wrong. Some advice followed by text and also a kind invitation to his fiance's family house for lunch. We discovered over lunch that the 'heart' of Beirut had shifted away from the normal "downtown" area due to the ongoing Hezbollah demonstrations, which were based out of hundreds of tents in the town centre. This fact was then conclusively proved on Saturday evening when we visited the heaving bars of Germayzeh. One single lane road in particular was packed with bars all of which were overflowing with people. Amusingly, because cars are such a big deal in Beirut, everyone had to pull up to their bar of choice (music up, windows down and top down (if possible), although this meant enduring at least a 30 minute wait in horrific traffic. But most importantly, we had finally found the real city of Beirut. We were very impressed (perhaps a little intimidated by the scene, particularly decked out in our finest "travel gear!") and had an evening out with James, Zeina and Christina (a friend of theirs) which was a reminder of the London nightlife that we won't see again for some time.

If there's a moral to this story, perhaps it's that things change very quickly in the Middle East. Bur encouragingly, despite enormous difficulties, people quickly adapt in the attempt to continue living their lives.


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