Entry Info

Parting from the friends, I started the preparation for going to Lebanon the next morning. It took about 20 minutes to go to the bus terminal located at the outskirts of the old town. As the driver intentionally stopped in front of the Service taxi terminal, I could immediately hop in to the Service. When I used Services, the center of the back seat was always appointed to me as I'm quite skinny to fit in the space. Surrounded by big Arabic guys for 3 hours, making a little conversation using my poor vocabulary, it was a classic Service trip indeed.

Again passing the border was surprisingly easy. No sooner had I shown my passport than the officer, who was bit arrogant to Europeans, became very friendly. I really appreciate being Japanese. The cost of the visa was 25000LBP(16USD) for 14 days. However I had a little problem here. Despite the fact that they accept Lebanon pounds only, there are no ATMs or even money exchanges. Luckily as I found an ATM just over the gate, saying in body language "I just gotta use it!" I managed to cross the border temporarily. I like this flexibility.

Up the Lebanese mountain range, where you can even ski in the winter season, the Service continued driving. Lebanon was certainly adorned with green although the other Middle East countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria appeared to me the Countries of Sands. I hadn't seen the scenery of trees and mountains for a long time. Once the road started descending, the sight of the Mediterranean Sea, which I'd never seen before, came into my view over Beirut city.

Basically, I didn't book the accommodations in the Middle East after Dahab. One reason is hostelworld.com which is a sort of a lifeline for accommodations doesn't work well in the area. And most importantly, there are anyways no problems without reservations. Even if the first candidate was full, it was quite easy to find an alternative. The staff in accommodation also seemed like to get used to accepting the travellers who don't have particular schedules. Therefore, I arrived at Beirut just having two names of accommodations but a problem occurred this time. The first candidate, Talal's New Hotel was full and the second one had closed already. Thanks to the taxi driver, I finally managed to find the bed for the night though it was bit overpriced (30USD for a twin room plus 6USD for the net) in this area where the cost of dorm room was 10USD. Anyway just for time being, I'd stay in this accommodation and booked for Talal's from the 4th night.

Not only this accommodation problem, Lebanon especially for Beirut is often avoided by budget backpackers for the higher prices than the other Middle East countries. Actually, one piece of sandwich cost about triple than in its neighbor Syria. You need at the very least 10USD per person for eating out Downtown but with the same budget you could go to a nice local restaurant with 3 friends in Amman. Nevertheless, I believe I would "lose" if I avoid going Lebanon just for the monetary issue. Besides I wouldn't be able to go to Europe which is much more expensive than Beirut.

And I found Beirut is in a way quite reasonable if you have not too tight a budget. The dishes from the restaurants are quite high quality but not so expensive. For example, one Italian pizza with a glass of fruit juice was about 15USD; a premium beef steak with a glass of red wine was about 30USD. Although it is said that it's quite expensive as a Middle East cities, it's definitely cheaper than Tokyo. Besides, both of their quality of service and taste were quite high presumably because of the many competitors around the area. The services which are very friendly yet respectful to the customers were totally different from the snobbish restaurant in Damascus.

But how come Beirut is such a "rich" city? Blooming with the astronomical amount of money from the oil, Beirut in fact had been once the central of Islamic finance until 70's when the notorious 10 year civil war and the following Israeli air strike. Some people say Lebanon is "Swiss in the Middle East" but this metaphor comes not only from the Lebanese mountain range as beautiful as the Alps. Due to the repeated war and the confusion, most of the funds escaped to Dubai but there are still many banks in the city. Besides, the stores of Bang & Olufsen and Vertu, Porsche and Ferrari parked parallel, I could find Downtown has got more luxurious cultures than Tokyo. Though it doesn't have skyscrapers, the atmosphere of the city was similar to Dubai.

Nevertheless, there are still many marks of wars on the town despite the tremendous amount of funds invested for the reconstruction. You can find abandoned buildings with huge bullet holes in the Old city and soldiers with machineguns everywhere. In the Downtown, there are so many new Roman style buildings guarded by the solders but they are totally standardised making me feels as if I'd been in a theme park. There were not many pedestrians in the daytime and quite a few "Opening Soon" signs were displayed on the perfectly polished show windows. While there are signs of wealth, the city wore a strange melancholy. I hope to visit this city again when all reconstructions have been completed and the new stores start working.

Entry Info

We used a "Service" taxi which is a sort of shared taxi arranged by the accommodation to go to Damascus from Amman. With the 3 girls I met in Dahab and Petra, we set off to the North again.

The Syrian Visa Issue

Thinking of Syria, visa issues often come to mind. According to the information from the net, it would be a very hard work to get a Syrian visa after departure from Japan. Perhaps, the embassies in Istanbul or Cairo could grant it. Nevertheless, the current situation seemed very different from the info. The guy from my Cairo accommodation told me that it is impossible to get a visa from the embassy. The travellers from the North that I met in Dahab said they could get the visa at the border without any problems. Besides these, the guy of Amman's accommodation assured us that the Syrian border would issue the visa to the most foreigners except for Americans. Anyway we had no choice but to trust their words and go to the border without the visa.

And the result was, it was a snap indeed! The driver who had many experiences guiding foreigners to here helped us a lot. He explained the detail of the immigration card which was written in Arabic only. After filling out the form, what we had to do was just submit the form and pay for the visa. They didn’t even ask any questions. The officer at the counter only said "Oh, Japanese, Welcome!" That's all. Maybe there are more questions and procedures to enter Australia.

There are two kinds of visa available for Japanese at the border, a Transit Visa for 48hours cost 8USD and a Tourist Visa for 14 days cost 24USD. But the officer at the border was quite amiable and even though one Japanese girl with me declared that she would stay in Syria for 10 days and go back to Japan directly, he somehow granted her aTransit Visa which is actually cheaper but only for 48 hours. He confirmed it will be fine in her case. For my case, I applied for a Transit Visa as I was planning to go to Lebanon on the next day and the visa was issued immediately.

However the prices and their attitude vary significantly according to your nationality. Just for reference, I asked people around us, Koreans had to pay slightly more than us and British and Australian were charged more than 100USD for a single visit visa. As far as I asked the Transit Visa was granted to Japanese only. I really feel privileged at being Japanese. I should keep and improve this good reputation towards Japanese during this trip with appreciating our forerunners.

Incidentally, the reason why Syria is so harsh granting visas to people from English countries is without any doubt related to the Palestinian problems. The founding of Israel and the big confusion afterwards were originally triggered by the British government's contradictary promises made with Jews and Arabs at the end of WW1. Well actually I didn't care about this story before this trip. Those history and geography topics had been just a lullaby in the classroom but once visiting the actual site, those stories became interestingly realistic.

Special Dinner at Damascus

For this occasion, I stayed in Damascus just for one night and headed to Lebanon on the next day. (Therefore I'll write about Damascus later). As the fellowship with the girls would be over here, we decided to go to a nice Chinese restaurant together. But according to a guidebook Damascus has only one Chinese restaurant in a luxurious hotel called Cham Palace. Though the book said it would be reasonable, the building of the hotel looked the real five star. A lobby with a big fountain, restaurants with formally dressed waiters, the 3 girls were bit overwhelmed with the situation. About myself, I wouldn't be touched with this degree maybe thanks to the first class trips.

The quality of the restaurant was not impressive unfortunately. The taste of the meals was good but the service of the waiters was terrible as if they misunderstood that luxurious means just snobby. Maybe our jeans looked too shabby but not having had my companions, I would've got out from the restaurant for their superior attitudes. The real luxurious services are usually full of hospitality. I suppose in the Middle East countries probably apart from Dubai, those expensive places rarely have their strong competitors and tend to neglect the quality of service. They should be able to make it better as they have a great culture of welcoming travellers.

Going to Lebanon

As mentioned before, I was going to Lebanon from the next day. It would be quite new in a way as I hadn't travelled alone for more than 1 month since Luxor.

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