The glaring sun is reflected in the sea. At our feet: Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Behind us lies “Bekaa Valley” and in the North the Syrian Desert is stretched out. Our day started in a street café in Beirut. Over Arabian coffee and croissants we enjoyed the approaching spring’s first rays of sun.
In the meantime we are in the snow, on the “Dome du Mzaar” summit (2465m), the highest point in the winter sports resort of Mzaar (ex Faraya-Mzaar). It is the height of winter here; there are over three metres of snow. We can hardly wait, to leave our tracks in the glistening powder snow. Already we have our boards strapped to our feet- everyone has picked their line for descent. The view is unsurpassable. On our descent enormous fountains of powder snow are shooting over our heads. We are plunging into the slopes and into pleasure – there is no stopping us. This is what snowboarding should always be like. After our first deep snow descent in the Middle East we can hardly believe it. We are a ‘mere’ four hours flight away from Germany, in a country that almost everybody knows. Hardly, however, for its perfect winter sports conditions, alas…. This morning we realised quickly that winter sports aren’t exactly the most widespread national sports.
On the way to the skiing resort we have to pass a Lebanese army check-point. We are permitted to pass. The cars parked on the parking space pompously flaunt the wealth of the ‘winter sports enthusiasts’. Even the fixation techniques, with which the – mostly state of the art – skis are transported on the car are extravagant to say the least: to our surprise they are fixed, by the aid of magnetic attachments, directly onto the bonnet. When we first saw this ski presentation we burst out laughing. We received friendly but irritated looks for this, and found out later that this appeared to be the common way to carry your sports equipment here. Yet sports do not play the major role here. What counts is to see and be seen. Nearly everybody is bustling around the main lift, close to the parking spaces and many are just using the lift to reach the sun terrace of the nearby restaurant. The other chair lifts are hardly in use; here, on the other hand, we find perfect freeriding conditions: untraced slopes of powder snow.
On the previous evening we were in Beirut and had arranged to meet Judi, a snowboarder on the Lebanese snowboard team, for dinner. When he picks us up from the hotel in Beirut he proudly presents his new car which he had just gotten for his 18th birthday: Mercedes S- Class, black with lots of leather. Later on George, a friend of Judi’s, arrives on the scene. His car is substantially smaller – he drives a Porsche.
After dinner we plunged into Beirut’s nightlife. Lebanon is a cultural mix of Islam and Christianity. But this, we had not expected: Clubs that are elaborately styled by designers and party addicts that dance light-heartedly until the early morning. And the people of Beirut have a lot to catch up on; girls in mini-skirts dancing on aquaria in which piranhas are swimming. The whole front of the bar is made of glass, which is nothing out of the usual, really. However between the panes of glass a multitude of exotic fish is swimming. This is roughly how I visualise a pet shop for the super-rich. Unluckily the prices for drinks easily reach the level of Munich. But we don’t want to miss the experience – we have to pay the penalty the next morning.
During the atrocious civil war, Lebanon rose to a sad prominence; Beirut, above all, where fierce riots took place. Before then Beirut was known as the ‘Paris of the east’: splendour and glamour in Arabia. Within a short period Lebanon became synonymous for desperate civil war, and we too primarily associated fanatic Hisbollah fighters, road blocks and completely bombed out houses with the small country.
When we heard about the Lebanese ski team of the Olympic Games in the seventies we had become curious. Somewhere these athletes must have practised back then, and these mountains must still be there today. Here, snowboarding and bathing on the same day is supposed to be possible. Curious, we set out. ‘We’ meaning, the former world-cup pro rider Burgel Heckmaier, the freeriders Lars and Sven Gitterman, photographer Thorsten Indra and myself. After having arrived in Beirut, we still have some time: we dive into the cultural life of the pulsating capital. Beirut is once more beginning to bloom. You can feel and see the outset everywhere. When we first ramble through the city the influences of the different cultures become apparent and we are greeted with effusive cordiality:”Where are you from? “, we are often asked. The reactions to our answers are exceedingly friendly: “Oh Germany, welcome to Lebanon, have a nice journey! “. At first I was rather surprised at the friendliness and was even a little diffident after some previous (zum besseren verständnis der vorzeitigkeit) negative experiences in Arabian countries. Later on I feel ashamed of my initial mistrust. Nobody wants to sell us anything or con us. The people here are simply unbelievably friendly and obliging!
On the way to the beach we discover the district of ‘Centre-Ville’. It was almost completely destroyed in the civil war and used to be the cultural centre of Beirut. The mixture of Arabian and Italian Baroque architecture was rebuilt lovingly over a long period of reconstruction. The first street cafés and shops are already bringing new life into the city centre and the horrors of the war are hard to imagine. In the cafés you can deem yourself to be right in Paris and especially at the sight of the attractive Lebanese ladies. If you go another two streets further, however, to the ‘Place of Martyrs’ the traces of the house-to-house fighting are still to be recognised – and suddenly the thought of war doesn’t seem so far any longer.
Our driver picks us up at the hotel and first of all we get stuck in the traffic chaos of Beirut. Innumerable Mercedes-Benz cars – from 1950ies models to the newest s-class. I have never seen so many cars by the brand with the star. Seen them so concentrated. ‘Made in Germany’ seems highly in demand here. From the ‘Avenue de Paris’ we see the snow covered mountains that loom beyond the city for the first time. It is only the end of February but the temperatures are t-shirt adaptable. We can hardly imagine to go snowboarding the next day.
From Beirut we travel through hilly landscapes. The snow covered mountains are glistening in the sun. Slowly they are growing. Too slowly for our liking, we can hardly wait to arrive there. Eventually (geändert da sonst das konzept der vorfreude weg ist) we reach Mzaar (ex Faraya-Mzaar), the biggest ski resort in Lebanon. There is snow here, luscious three metres of it! The enormous walls of snow along the roads are keeping us from seeing too much, we are driving through an ‘open air tunnel’. Although we are so far south, astonishingly there is more snow than in the Alps. The resort of Mzaar is relatively modern: 16 lifts, of the newer design and plenty of room for descent. From the highest peak of the region (2500m) we set out on our first off-piste descents. The Mediterranean powder snow is so unbelievable to ride that we proceed right down to the road. There however we have to realise that we are now situated four metres above the road. It is only with great difficulty that we reach the street below. We make it in the end and immediately make for the lifts again. It is one of the best days of this winter, and this although each one of us spends about 100 days on the snowboard each winter. We have arranged to have dinner with Sara, Judi and George from the Lebanese snowboard team. Antoine, their coach comes especially from Beirut to meet us. He and his brother Habib import snowboards to Lebanon, organise snowboard races and attend to the young snowboard talents. The two don’t look like they have money troubles.
After the meal its party time. We are still knackered from the long night, in Beirut, when we had a few drinks to the coming days. The exuberant mood of our Lebanese friends is highly infectious – and there was a bad weather forecast for the next day anyway: we could sleep late.
Burgl cracked the joke of the evening when she asked Sven and Antoine whether all Muslims were Christians. First she caught some irritated looks for her religious knowledge, then everyone broke out laughing and we all had a giggle for the next couple of hours on account of this slogan. Whacked and tired we leave for the hotel late at night. Burgl, our party-girl and religion-expert wants to keep partying and remains at the club. It is still snowing and we are glad to get to bed.
We are standing on the summit with our Lebanese friends. It has snowed heavily during the night, over 30 cm. Instead of the predicted bad weather, our short sleep was disturbed by our early-bird Lars’ triple roar: “Suuun! Poooowder! Get uuup!”. Our ears are still booming from the disco-night. Yet, Lars is right. Within record time we are set to go. Luckily the packing is an automatic procedure – every motion practised a thousand times.
The dignified Lebanese winter athletes don’t seem to care too much about powder snow. They prefer to use the ski-runs: how lucky for us. Again our Lebanese friends are shocked when we tell them that, on no account will we use the runs, even though they are, as our Lebanese argue, so magnificently prepared. Having been freeriders and powder snow enthusiasts for so many years, we simply can’t miss our chance in these dream conditions, much as we’d like to. We fell for the Lebanese powder, the view of the sea and of Beirut regularly taking our breath away: we never want to leave… unhurriedly we are drawing our tracks in the powder slopes. We find numerous snow cornices going down along the gullies. We each get our own gully and we can let off steam to our heart’s content.
We are on our way to Cedars the second largest winter sports resort in Lebanon. A stop at the 7000 year old seaport of Byblos is an absolute must. We have a meal in a traditional Lebanese restaurant. In the restaurants there are up to 40 different hors d’oevres which are consumed with flat bread. Olive oil pickles, sesame pastes, grilled vegetables, different sorts of salad etc. This is so opulent that no one is hungry anymore when the main course is served.
We continue towards ‘Cedars’. The mountain pass weaves through innumerable mountain villages up the valley. In the full moon we reach the high valley of Cedars. The village lies at an altitude of 1950 metres and is surrounded by snowy peaks of around 3000 metres, brightly illuminated by the moon. ‘Cedars’, was mainly famous for its cedar woods. Sadly, the woods were almost completely cleared and the valuable wood was exported. What remained is a small forest which is now protected by nature conservation. New cedars are planted again. The trees can reach an age of up to 1500 years, but only grow very slowly. It will take a very long time until there are prospering woods once more.
The resort of ‘Cedars’ is not as big and modern as that of ‘Mzaar’. There are but a few, rather ancient lifts, although the highest one reaches up to 2800 m above sea level. “Why are the other lifts not in use?” I ask the owner of the lifts. He looks at me uncomprehendingly, points to the plane practise lift and tells me how wonderfully the slope is prepared. At my repeated question concerning the closed lifts he explains that the only lift that goes up the mountain is an army lift and is therefore reserved to the soldiers who are practising to ski there. This is getting a bit much, we think: we are supposed to snowboard on plane terrain just because the Lebanese mountain infantry is practising to ski? “There is, however, always a possibility”, he says, grinning broadly, and writes us a letter of reference. At least this is how we understand the scrap of paper written in Arabian. The lift manager hardly speaks any English.
There are two soldiers sitting in the lift hut, scrutinising us grimly. They read the note and, after a short discussion, they give us a day ticket. We queue up at the lift. To say that we stood out, with our colourful snowboard gear, would be understated. The soldiers, in their uniforms resemble a motley crew of mercenaries. The ride up with the lift is a very special experience. The lift is at least 50 years old and doesn’t seem to have ever been maintained. Half way up there appears to be the regular place of disembarkation. But I don’t want to get off before the steep part! This however is just what the wildly gesturing ‘disembarkation-soldiers’ are signalling me to do. I decline just as vehemently and point further up. They jump aside at the last moment and clear the way, shaking their heads. Arriving at the top I find out why: the ramp at the end of the disembarkation platform is missing! I jump off the lift and come to a halt just before the abyss. Luckily part of the catwalk is still there on the one side. From here I can warn the others of the danger of crashing; by means of shouting. From the highest point of the resort it is not far to the ‘Quorned as Sawda’. With 3087 metres it is the highest peak in Lebanon. With snow shoes we climb towards the peak. The way turns out quite strenuous and long. It takes us over three hours to reach the summit.
The ascent was worthwhile. We enjoy the marvellous view of Lebanon. From the Mediterranean the green hills rise and become alpine in the high valley of Cedars. In between the canyon of Kadisha Valley is bedded. Below us lies ‘Cedars’ with its last cedar trees. Towards the east we overlook the barren ‘Bekaa Valley’. It is the biggest viticultural region of Lebanon. The wine is especially fine, the Romans already started to grow wine there 2000 years ago. The snow cover extends down to 1200 metres – it only comes to an end where it reaches the first olive groves. In the distance we can make out ‘Baalbek’. Here there is one of the biggest and best preserved roman temples. ‘Baalbek’ was the most important Roman base in the Middle East.
The view reaches to the ‘Anti-Lebanon Mountains’, lying opposite, a little lower but also snow covered. To the north we see the Syrian Desert. Unbelievable! From the deeply snowed up summits we perceive all imaginable climatic zones from the desert to the sea. Time is pressing. We reach a ridge dropping towards the east and are looking for a suitable descent that will lead us back to ‘Cedars’. At the end of the ridge a gully drops down over 1100 metres of altitude: steep and interspersed with rocks. From the sea clouds have gathered. The atmosphere in the evening sun is becoming mystical: the valley is glowing under the low sun; the clouds reach up to just below ‘Cedars’. Everyone picks their line. After a breathtaking descent we reach the village tired and content. Our landlord welcomes us with hot tea, the traditional Lebanese water-pipe and local culinary delights.
On the way back to Beirut we pass the famous Kadisha Valley. At our feet the Mediterranean is glinting invitingly in the sun. A little later we reach the nearby beach of ‘Tam Tam’.
Now we want to find out: boarding and bathing on the same day?
So, here we are; just back from snowboarding at a level of 3000 metres with descents of over 1000 metres of altitude. From ‘powder-high’ to ‘paddling-fun’.
Now we want to dive into the still quite wintry waters. We just have to get in there now. After having shown off in front of our friends: “We’re going to Lebanon, bathing and boarding, in February”. We make Lars go first, he had always had the biggest mouth of all. With a running start and a loud “yeaaaah” he jumps into the water and dives into the first wave. As there are no visible signs of ‘frostbite’ on his face we dare to go in too. And with a temperature of 19° C the water is really quite tolerable, even pleasant, warmer than a mountain lake in summer, after all!
Before the civil war broke out it was considered chic to combine winter sports with a seaside holiday in Lebanon. 30 years later we can state that this combination is unique.
Back in Beirut we meet up once more with our friends from the Lebanese snowboard team. Within a short time we had become friends in spite of all differences. Together we go to one of the most fashionable clubs in Beirut. The ‘BO-18’ is the club of the party-crazy youth. The name ‘BO-18’ was taken over from a bomber-plane that dropped bombs regularly on the Lebanese capital during the war. The roof can be lifted automatically, which it is at night. Under the starry sky there is partying and dancing until early in the morning. The Lebanese have their own ways of coping with events of the past – and partying wildly certainly is one of them.
Although the wounds of the long civil war are just starting to heal, we are leaving Lebanon with a feeling of hope. In spite of all the horrors of war, the Lebanese seem to have managed to leave the shadows of the past behind them. On the road to a peaceful future the Lebanese could become an example for the crisis and conflict stricken Middle Eastern region.