Lebanon Mountain Trail: A journey into history and heritage
Beirut - “There is magic in the trail. It is not just about beautiful panoramas but about history, culture and heritage. It is a journey walking down history,” said Hana el-Hibri, summing up the experience of trekking the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), which crosses the country from north to south.
The 440km track, partly modelled on the Appalachian Trail in the United States, covers a rugged part of Lebanon that is largely undiscovered.
It took three years of mapping to delineate the trail, a project funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Unlike most hiking trails, the LMT was not created as such but came together by connecting existing footpaths and ancient roads.
“Our mountains are ancient and footpaths existed for many reasons, to connect the villages, or as agricultural roads. You have Phoenician, Roman and Ottoman roads and footpaths where people had walked for centuries before; we just connected them to give the traveller a (unique) way of experiencing all this mountain chain,” said Hibri, board member of the LMT Association, who was part of the first team that walked the entire trail over 30 days in 2009.
The trail winding through the mountains crosses 75 villages, valleys, pine and cedar forests and mountain peaks at an altitude ranging from 600-2,000 metres above sea level.
More than 100 archaeological sites, including Phoenician, Roman and Greek, are found along the trail, which is divided into 27 segments, each ending in villages where trekkers can find accommodations in local guest houses, allowing them to have an intimate experience of rural Lebanon.
Bold hikers can walk the entire track while others can join in at any segment along the way.
Local guides have been trained to escort travellers and inform them about the different regions as part of the LMT Association’s goal of enhancing rural economies.
“They (guides) are young people who know their area very well and they really make hiking in the mountain a far more enriching experience because each area has its own set of flora and fauna, its own myths and history, which is communicated through people like these,” said Hibri, author of A Million Steps: Discovering the Lebanon Mountain Trail, a memoir of her month-long walk of the trail.
“Every single day the scenery changed, every single day I was seeing new flowers, the colour of the soil, the shape of the mountain and the type of the trees on the mountains changed.”
One segment of the trail, the Baskinta Literary Trail, is of particular cultural significance as it showcases 22 literary landmarks related to poets and novelists from the region, including Mikhail Naimy and Amin Maalouf.
“We passed through villages in which one can actually see where writers drew their inspiration from. The Rock of Tanios, which Amin Maalouf wrote about, Becharre and Wadi Qadisha, which inspired Khalil Gibran, and the Lamartine valley,” Hibri said.
In addition to the natural diversity of the trail, staying in guest houses with villagers offers another kind of diversity.
“You stay with almost every single sectarian group in the country,” Hibri said. “I thought I knew Lebanese food but I discovered so many dishes that I had never heard of. Different types of cuisines and making the same dish in many different ways but despite differences they (hosts) all have one thing in common, namely their wonderful warmth and hospitality.”
Hibri recalled one Dutchman, Wim, who participated in the inaugurating trail walk telling her at the end of the trip: “You know, Hana, we stayed with all these people and in every single home I felt so at home and welcome even though I did not understand what they were saying to me.”
The LMT Association organises a guided hike of the entire trail each April but due to higher demand a 10-day walk was added for October this year. The event is used to raise public awareness about environmental issues.
“The association’s biggest challenge is preserving the trail, which traverses through different kind of land ownership, both public and private,” Hibri said, noting that 100km of the original trail was lost to quarries, random roads, garbage dumping and developments.
“Unfortunately a lot of the pictures there don’t exist anymore. It (conservation) is far more urgent than people can appreciate,” she added pointing at her book. Consequently, the trail’s trajectory was modified to skirt the claimed land.
Nonetheless, the LMT is becoming a magnet for conservation as more villages ask to be included on trail loops.
Foreign trekkers have been returning every year to walk the trail, Hibri points out. “Wim, the Dutchman, has come back six times. Adrian, the Brit, has done it three times. They could hike anywhere in the world, but they chose to come back because there is a magic on the trail.”
The Lebanon Mountain Trail website is http://www.lebanontrail.org/ home.jhtm. Hana el-Hibri’s A Million Steps: Discovering The Lebanon Mountain Trail is available online and in libraries in Lebanon