Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bhutan Retrospective (April 2008)--Land of the Thunder Dragon

Thunder Bay, June 25

I can’t believe that more than two years after visiting Bhutan, one of the least-visited countries in the world, an exotic Himalayan kingdom that had been on my radar screen for over a decade, I still haven’t written anything about the unforgettable ten days I spent there in April, 2008 with Joanne, during the spring Thingyan (Buddhist New Year water festival) break from teaching in Yangon. Now that I have some time on my hands and some inspiration (why have I been so tired for the past two months?), it’s time to remedy that omission.

The two things that most people know about Bhutan, surely one of the world’s more obscure countries, are that it costs $200 a day (minimum) to visit, and that its far-sighted king Jigme Wangchuk has chosen an unorthodox model of development that includes the idea of Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross National Product, as being the best way to measure the well-being of a country. I knew a little more before we went, such as the fact that Bhutan, in stark contrast to many other Himalayan countries, has done an exceptional job of maintaining forest cover, and the fact that there has been an exodus of Nepali-speaking people from Bhutan over the past twenty years to refugee camps in southeastern Nepal, as a result either of Bhutanese discrimination (the refugee’s version of events) or of a crackdown on illegal immigration (the Bhutanese government’s version). However, I still didn’t know much, and I was eager to see what the country looked like as a result of following its own path to development.

Once you accept that visiting Bhutan is going to be expensive (that $200 figure is accurate, with a possible discount down to $160 a day during the monsoon season), it’s pretty straightforward to arrange a visit. Although visitor numbers were kept low for years, the government is now pushing for an increase, and essentially anyone willing to stump up the necessary cash is welcome to come and visit. Joanne and I Googled tour operators in Bhutan, found a few who wrote back quickly, and chose the one that sounded most promising. The nice thing about having to pay so much money is that we got to write our own tour, picking the places that sounded most interesting, and even arranging to split up for three days to do different things (a remote festival for Joanne to photograph while I went hiking). It hurt to part with so much money, but I figured I’d never be so close to Bhutan again with enough cash in my pocket, so I winced and signed up.

Our flight from Yangon to Bangkok was on the slightly dodgy airline Myanmar Airlines International. The aircraft was actually painted in the colours of Bhutan’s Druk Air, with only a tiny MAI logo above the door to show that MAI sometimes leased the plane. We flew in at 9 pm and scooted to a nearby cheap hotel for a few hours of rest. At the truly hideous hour of 2 am, we woke up again and headed back to the airport. To our amazement, the check-in desk at Druk Airways, the Bhutanese national carrier, had a very long lineup, mostly of Indians on shopping trips. Bleary-eyed, we checked in after a long, sleepy hour of waiting and made our way out to the very same plane we had disembarked from 7 hours earlier. Too bad we couldn’t have just slept on the plane overnight!

We flew to Calcutta first, where the Indian shoppers were exchanged for more Western tourists. The approach into Paro airport was as dramatic as we had heard, with the airplane banking in through a deep valley, rather like Luke Skywalker flying in to attack the Death Star. We deplaned onto the tarmac and stood blinking in the sunlight, before taking a few pictures of ourselves with the airplane. The terminal building, like all structures in Bhutan, has to adhere to traditional architectural styles, which meant that the arrival hall, both inside and out, was a rare counterexample to Douglas Adams’ remark that no language on earth contains the expression “as beautiful as an airport”. We were one of the last pairs of tourists to make our way through the immigration queue, where our visas were stuck into our passports and where we met the man who would be our guide for the duration of our visit, Ghalley.

We spent much of the day poking about the town of Paro, and driving (nearly two hours) from Paro to the capital, Thimphu, surely one of the least-known capital cities in the world. All the way Joanne and I had our noses pressed to the glass, trying to see as much as possible and see how reality matched up to the Shangri La tourist brochure image of The Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Paro boasts an impressive dzong, the first of many of the solid, rectangular forts that we would encounter throughout the country. The walls are massively solid, sloping inwards like Lhasa’s Potala, painted white and ochre, while the gently sloping roofs look almost Chinese except for the small gilded spires. Carved wooden balconies hang below some of the upper-floor windows. Photographing it, on the banks of a rushing Himalayan river, with men and women in traditional dress crossing an old prayer-flag-draped suspension bridge in front of it, I felt that I really was in a country with its own rich historical traditions. The dzong, like much of Bhutan’s architecture and religion, is very similar to what you see across the Himalayas in Tibet; the Bhutanese, like the Sherpas in Nepal and other cultures in the Indian Himalayas, are a Tibetan people ethnically, linguistically and religiously. In fact the English word Tibet is said to be a corruption of Bhot, which is also the root of the name Bhutan. The people look quite Tibetan in their features, although with an admixture of the Indian subcontinent in them; looking at my Bhutan photos, the faces almost look Burmese at times.

As we drove around, we noticed that not everyone was wearing the traditional dress (kiri for the women, gho for the men), and Ghalley explained that to work in the tourism or government sectors, or to visit a government office, traditional dress had to be worn, but otherwise it was optional. We saw a number of young people dressed in jeans and leather jackets in downtown Thimphu, trying to look vaguely rebellious. The gho is best described as a checked knee-length dressing gown, worn with knee socks and shirts with huge white cuffs that fold over the sleeves of the gown. The women’s kiri is a floor-length wrap-around skirt, like a Burmese woman’s tamein, worn with a short jacket above.

The country looks relatively clean and extremely uncrowded by the standards of the region; with only 700,000 inhabitants (compared to 27 million in Nepal), Bhutan is a relative minnow. We saw quite a few cars, many of them quite new, and well-paved roads, and the general look was more prosperous than Nepal or rural India. We were told that a typical government office job pays about $250 a month, far above the average in the Indian subcontinent. In fact, when we drove by a road construction project, we saw Bihari labourers from India breaking rocks; Bhutan imports them since Bhutanese are apparently not crazy about doing menial work for low wages.

The landscape was pretty vertical, with fairly steep-sided valleys carved out of high mountains. The reason why the airport is so far from Thimphu is that Paro is one of the very few places with enough flat land for aircraft to land. Bhutan, unlike Nepal, has almost no low-lying plains; the boundary with British India was drawn at the foot of the hills. This explains a large part of why Nepal is so much more densely populated than Bhutan. There certainly was tree cover, but much of the landscape looked much drier and rockier than I had anticipated, far from the lush forests of central Nepal.

One of the quirks of Bhutan is that the import and sale of tobacco is forbidden. Prohibition being as ineffective as it is, there is apparently a thriving trade in black-market cigarettes from India, but I didn’t see anyone lighting up openly. I did see a man with a furtive, unlit cigarette cupped in his hand in a building in Paro, while there was a definite whiff of tobacco smoke in the Thimphu post office. Given the tremendous health burden that smoking puts on a country, the prohibition seems like a good idea, making Bhutan one of the only countries that has decided that health benefits should trump tax revenues.

As we drove around, one of Bhutan’s most distinctive idiosyncrasies was everywhere to be seen. Phallic imagery, held to be useful in driving away evil spirits, was unmissable: painted on white-washed walls wrapped in dainty ribbons, standing out proudly from doorframes above yak skulls, or dangling in outsized carved wooden form from the eaves of houses and monasteries, phalli were everywhere. The Bhutanese seem to be as obsessed with the erect male member as were the ancient Greeks and Romans!

The traditional architecture that had so charmed us at the airport and at Paro dzong was everywhere in evidence. It worked on houses, generally constructed out of adobe and timber, but on modern concrete blocks, the paint job did little to hide the essentially modern and ugly nature of the buildings. On the other hand Thimphu looks a lot nicer than most cities of its (small) size in the developing world, so maybe the slightly fake paint job is better than the alternative. Thimphu is a fairly modern creation, a bit like Bhutan itself; the first king of Bhutan, the current king’s great-grandfather, only took the throne in the early 20th century, and Thimphu became the capital even later, in the 1960s. It sprawls slightly across the valley floor and a short distance up the pine-clad slopes of the Himalayan foothills, looking like a cross between a Japanese provincial town and a very small, very clean version of Kathmandu.

We drove around the town briefly, passing crowds of citizens paying their respects to the new government ministers appointed since the country’s first-ever democratic elections, held just two weeks earlier. The men wore ceremonial white scarves draped over one shoulder like small togas; we were told that a man’s rank could be read from the colour of his scarf, and these white scarves were the badge of the common people, while yellow, red, green and blue showed various grades of nobility and royalty. We also were passed by the king’s car, which was accompanied by one of the smallest official motorcades in all of Asia.

The rest of the day passed in a long nap, supper and a good night’s sleep. Supper was a delicious confection of cheese and chillies that Joanne liked so much that she tried to get it served at every subsequent meal. We awoke the next day refreshed, ready for a day of poking around the capital. We began the day by walking out of our little hotel and staking out a spot on a bridge over the river for taking pictures of people. We were fortunate in our choice of location, with crowds of schoolkids crossing the bridge to get to school, and hundreds of farmers and city-dwellers headed to and from the market and bus depot, making for a good cross-section of the population. The students all had to wear uniforms based on traditional dress, albeit accessorized with stylish sneakers and knapsacks. A few monks, dressed in the same Burgundy colours as in Tibet and Burma, stood out in the sea of kiris and ghos worn by the adults. Wizened old faces of bow-legged farmers contrasted with the porcelain doll complexions of stylish young women from the city.

After breakfast, Ghalley arrived to take us off on our city tour. We covered an amazing amount of ground in a single day, visiting no fewer than eight different sights. We started off at the thaksin reserve, where the national animal, looking like a cross between a deer, a goat and a bison, wanders around a fenced-in enclosure in the hills above town. The king decided some time ago that it was un-Buddhist to keep a wild animal in captivity and ordered the reserve closed down, but the thaksin kept wandering back to their old enclosures, so it was decided to keep it open to help out these animals who had become accustomed to the free handout. We kept driving steeply uphill to the end of the road at a telecom tower, where thousands of multi-coloured prayer flags hung in crazy profusion from every branch of every tree. After absorbing the vast views over Thimphu and the mountains beyond, it was back down the hill to a small nunnery (populated by some of the least motivated nuns I have ever seen but visited by some wonderful old female pilgrims) and then a school teaching the traditional arts of the country. The students seemed about as absorbed by their chosen arts as the nuns had been, with the only signs of animation in the courtyard during tea break as boys and girls flirted and exchanged mobile phone numbers. Some of the Buddhist thangkas and murals and sculptures showed promise, but overall the quality of workmanship was underwhelming. However, it was good to see that the government is trying to keep traditional arts alive as the country modernizes.

The weekend market, our last stop before lunch, was much more rewarding, at least in terms of local colour. Every second stand seemed to be selling hot chilli peppers, and the women could easily have been from Burma’s Shan State with their weather-beaten friendly faces and brightly patterned kiris. There was a great variety in facial types, with some classic Mongolian and Tibetan features and others looking as though they had stepped off the streets of Calcutta.

At lunch we handed over our bundle of $100 bills to the owner of our tour agency to pay for our tour, and had an interesting chat with him. He said that the former king, Jigme Wangchuk, the architect of Bhutan’s modernization, had watched the self-destructive demise of the Nepalese monarchy and decided that the Bhutanese system of government was going to have to change from a benevolent absolute monarchy to a limited constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. Even though most Bhutanese probably would have preferred the king to remain in office and continue to hold the reins of power, he decided that one way to avoid the sort of nepotistic corruption that blighted Nepal was for him to abdicate in favour of his son, thus eliminating the power base for the families of his three wives which were widely perceived as becoming too wealthy and powerful for the good of the nation. The elections which had just occurred were another step along the path to developing a modern state; the party which had won a surprisingly large majority was viewed as being opposed to the royal ex-inlaws.

We headed out, sated with momos, and made a brief drive-by visit to a memorial gompa to the third king (the current king’s grandfather) before heading to the day’s photographic highlight, Changantha Lhakhang, a small, brightly coloured monastery full of painted prayer wheels and dedicated pilgrims. Joanne had me working as a photographer’s assistant, spinning prayer wheels to get just the right effect. As we left, we met another family of pilgrims with about eight teeth between them, and Joanne managed to get them to pose for her with the mountains and the monastery in the background. We finished our tour at Trashicho Dzong, the king’s official residence and palace. It was huge and imposing and almost completely empty, although at the end of our visit, the king drove by and there was a flurry of activity of soldiers and officials keeping the few tourists motionless and out of the way.

Cities are all very well, but a Himalayan kingdom’s highlights are, by their nature, outdoors. We had chosen to walk up to the isolated Gasa hot spring east of Thimphu to begin our whirlwind tour of the countryside. Joanne absolutely loves hot springs, and I have to admit that after a day of hiking or skiing, there’s nothing that feels better than a good soak. We drove out of town for three hours, crossing a 3050-metre pass, the Decho La, which was completely swathed in dense fog. Ghostly cedar trees peeked through here and there, adorned with thousands of strings of Buddhist prayer flags; our driver and Ghalley helped Joanne add our contribution to the fluttering colourful tangle. A memorial gompa commemorated modern Bhutan’s only war, a brief fight in 2003 against Indian rebels sheltering in the south of the country.

Our road descended into another steep-sided valley, and then passed through the town of Punakha and then headed uphill along a dirt track in ever-increasing states of deterioration. After a series of dramatic, erratic switchbacks, we tumbled out of our vehicle in a tiny hamlet at an elevation of 2300 metres. Our outsized caravan was slowly assembled: two cooks, a muleteer and his assistant, our driver, Ghalley, five mules and enough food for a battalion for a week. Joanne, worried that she wouldn’t be able to make it three hours up the valley to the hot springs, had opted for her own mule, and we set off with me strolling alongside her as she perched a bit precariously on her saddle. On the steeper downhills, as we crossed small streams, the mule owner had her get off and walk, and sometimes she would forget to climb back aboard, meaning that she still limped into the hot springs with a sore knee and ankle.

The walk was wonderful, passing through dense rhododendron forests punctuated with bamboo stands and waterfalls and alive with dozens of species of birds. It reminded me strangely of the highlands around Nikko that we visited many times during our stay in Japan. I wandered along happily, looking for birds in the dense undergrowth and absorbing the surroundings. The skies, leaden at first, began to drop drizzle as we progressed, and when we finally got to the hot springs, the rain settled in for a prolonged fall. Our entourage set up our tent, and we wandered out for a soak in the tubs, not terribly crowded at this point in the afternoon. There are few things as enjoyable as soaking in hot water while cold rain or snow pelts down on you. As far as atmosphere and cleanliness go, the pools finished a poor second to any Japanese onsen, but it was fun to see the local Bhutanese enjoying themselves, as they gathered in increasing numbers as dusk approached. After a delicious meal in our cook tent, Joanne and I wandered out for another soak, this time barely finding space in any of the pools. At least the rain let up, so that our night sleeping in our tent wasn’t too soggy.

After bathing one more time in the early morning in a failed attempt to beat the crowds, we retraced our steps to the car, spotting more birds (red-vented bulbuls, whistling thrushes, grey-headed flycatchers and a host of unidentified species). The ground was richly carpeted with exquisite wildflowers. For one of the first times in our visit, the grey skies parted and we had views of distant Himalayan giants, as well as an imposing dzong looming above the dense forests on a distant ridge. Joanne’s mule was behaving mulishly, and I burned some calories whacking it across its backside with my walking stick trying to get it to move. It took nearly four hours to get back to the car, and after a picnic on the richly dunged grass beside the road, we swayed down the rollercoaster road back to the pavement, and drove onwards to the town of Punakha, site of an impressive dzong. There was a large population of monks, many of them young novices, and Joanne and I took lots of photos of them as they clowned around boyishly in their free time. The walls were adorned with exquisitely painted mandalas, and the prayer hall was a thing of beauty. Ghalley gave us a really informative talk about the symbolism of the Six Realms mandala, which had three animals representing the deadly sins of lust (a rooster), hatred (a snake) and ignorance (a pig). We headed up the hill to our lodge, a pretty cluster of cottages that seemed like a piece of Shimla or Darjeeling plunked down in Bhutan. The hotel was full of a group of wealthy bird-watchers, and the gardens were alive with dozens of species. Like all the Himalayan countries, Bhutan is an ornithologist’s dream. Our lodge was perhaps the nicest hotel of the trip, and we slept long and deeply.

The next day Joanne’s new guide and driver arrived, and we drove together towards the east before we split up. Joanne and her guide headed further east towards a festival, while Ghalley and I turned off southwards on a lightning trip to the marshy highland valley of Phobjika. During the winter there is a resident population of extremely rare black-necked cranes, but we there in the wrong season, and so we had to make do with the scenery and a visit to the crane conservation centre. Amazingly, even in sparsely-populated country like Bhutan, conservation efforts for rare species can be difficult because of human population pressure and habitat destruction because of farming, as is the case here. Luckily the king, and his father before him, are quite keen conservationists, as befits devout Buddhists. The dramatic scenery on the pass into the valley made up for the lack of cranes, as did the flowering rhododendrons in the dense forest. Joanne and I said goodbye in the junction town of Wangdus Phodruk and I headed back to Thimphu, daydreaming most of the way through persistent drizzle and greyness.

After a good night’s sleep, Ghalley and I drove back up to the telegraph tower above Thimphu where we met up with our trekking team. Again, the number of people and mules involved in going on a three-day trek was excessive; I was employing 5 men and 7 mules. I thought of multi-day treks I had done elsewhere in which I had carried everything I needed on my own back. We set off ahead of the horses, as the cooks had to wait for forgotten equipment to be brought up from the office in Thimphu. It was a relief to be walking essentially on my own, under my own power and at my own pace, the only way to see and appreciate the Himalayas. We walked under leaden skies that spit rain periodically, through moss-covered primeval forests of cedar and rhododendron alive with myriad birds, some of them completely new to me. A couple of hours of steep, steady ascent brought us to Phajo Ding Gompa, a small, remote monastery at 3400 metres that clings to the slopes like the popular image of Shangri La. We waited in the cold for an hour and a half for the horses to catch up with the all-important lunch, and had time to discover that the monastery looked a lot better from a distance. The young novices were fun to watch, though, as they played soccer and a form of bocci in the fields behind the monastery.







Mist-shrouded mountains
With monasteries atop
Himalayan high

Rainbow-framed Thimphu
Shimmers a mile below me:
A good morning’s hike


After our long-delayed lunch, I climbed ahead quickly, stomping up over the vertiginous 3850-metre pass behind the monastery, then settling down in the mist to take pictures and wait for the horses. I felt intensely alive, as I always do walking in the mountains, concentrating on the views and the wildlife, measuring my body against the unforgiving test of the vertical landscape. Once across the pass, the landscape changed entirely to a high-alpine moorland, with the rhododendrons shrinking to dwarfish shrubs. We picked our way along crumbling, rocky ridges, across marshes and along exposed hillsides. The earlier rain turned to occasional snow flurries, but my thermometer never dipped below freezing and walking kept me warm. On our way through one small meadow, we scared up a male and female monal pheasant. They exploded up off the ground, wings beating noisily, then swooped downhill in a flash of iridescent blue and green feathers. I felt lucky to have spotted them, and my good mood continued all through the afternoon’s walk under increasingly sunny skies until we set up camp just above a marshy meadow called Semkhota at 4000 metres. I felt like some early European explorer, sitting on my camp chair writing up my diary as the various staff set up tents, fired up stoves and began plying me with tea, soup and food. I sat writing up my diary and watching birds, completely at peace with the world, until a sumptuous feast appeared (as well it might, given how much food we were carrying!)

After a restless altitude-affected night in the tent, the next day was easy, surprisingly so since I had been warned that trying to walk from Thimphu to Paro in three days was pushing the limits of what could be done. Instead, after less than four hours of actual walking, we set up camp in the early afternoon. I wandered along happily all day along a ridge, past a series of small alpine lakes, overjoyed to be footloose in the mountains. We saw another female monal pheasant, and later watched a small falcon catch a hapless rosefinch in mid-air. The dwarf rhododendrons were alive with several species of rosefinches, the vibrant scarlet of the males standing out against the green of the shrubs. We eventually dropped off the ridge, plummeting 600 vertical metres to cross a river, then climbing half as far up to a sunny ridge full of yak pastures, where we lunched at noon looking south at a magnificent panorama of snow-capped peaks. After lunch, it was less than an hour’s easy stroll to our campsite, in another yak pasture called Jangchulhaka at 3600 metres’ elevation. I sat outside in the sunshine writing, watching rosefinches, sketching and reading, at complete peace with the world.

The final day of walking was again shorter and easier than I had expected. I slept well, awoke early, breakfasted handsomely and then sat at a lookout atop a hill behind the camp, taking photos of the high peaks to the northwest which had made a rare cameo appearance from behind their constant veil of clouds. The forest was alive with birds, including some beautiful black and yellow grosbeaks. Ghalley eventually summoned me and we dropped off our ridge through thick rhododendron forests, along a lower ridge to a tiny, picturesque dzong and finally down, down, down endlessly to Paro. The relentless rhythm of my footsteps as we headed downhill got into my head and I found myself composing songs in my head to the beat.

After a relaxed trailside picnic, we were down at our car before 2 o’clock. We drove down into Paro town and found our hotel tucked into the farm fields beyond, where Joanne arrived a few hours later. She was full of excitement from her drive out to the festival, and had a camera card full of great pictures of dancers, monks and local farmers with their weather-beaten faces and kindly expressions. After dinner, we amused ourselves trying to take pictures of Paro Dzong, lit up at night and dominating the skyline.

Our last full day in Bhutan was spent walking up to one of the undoubted highlights of the country, a key feature of any tourist itinerary, Taktsgang Gompa. Also known as the Tiger’s Nest, it hangs improbably from a seemingly inaccessible cliff face in the mountains just above Paro. We set off early, and by 8:30 we were at the parking lot below, where Joanne was loaded onto a mule that seemed more lively than her mount at Gasa. I set off on foot, keen to see whether I could beat her to the top. It was no contest; I sat at the top for a quarter of an hour waiting for her to arrive, staring across at the incredible piece of architecture that is Takstgang. There were quite a few Western tourists, but they were outnumbered by Bhutanese pilgrims. I noticed that with very few exceptions, the Westerners rode mules up, while the Bhutanese walked. This may have something to do with the fact that the Westerners outweighed the Bhutanese by an average of 40 kilograms, little of that muscle.

When Joanne arrived, we walked down a steep slope to a waterfall and bridge that gave access to the final stairway to the monastery. The buildings, whitewashed with ochre and gold highlights on the upper stories, seem to sprout organically from the rocks, clinging to the cliffs like moss. It’s an incredible feat of engineering, ascribed in myth to a famous Tibetan figure, the 8th-century spreader of Buddhism throughout the Himalayas, Guru Rinpoche, who’s supposed to have flown here on the back of a tiger. It was destroyed in an electrical fire in 1998 and only reopened a few years ago, after an expensive rebuilding.

It was at this point that I made an unfortunate split-second decision that coloured the rest of the day. At the entrance to the complex, visitors are required to leave bags, as the authorities are concerned both about backpacks banging into wall paintings and with various pieces of art disappearing into the private collections of tourists. I took my camera with me (even though we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, I wasn’t going to leave it sitting at the entrance), but in a moment of inattention I left my fancy trekking watch, with its altimeter, compass and thermometer, attached to the outside of my camera bag in the pile of tourist backpacks.

The inside of the monastery is impressive, everything you expect a Tibetan Buddhist temple to be: dark, mysterious, full of statues and colourful mandala paintings, redolent of yak butter. We wandered around happily absorbing atmosphere, finally emerging to find my watch, predictably, gone. I was outraged; the bag had been left in an area overseen by a surly Bhutanese soldier who was completely unconcerned about the theft. This did nothing to endear him to me, and his abrupt, dismissive answers soon had me yelling at him. I was certain that the soldier was either inattentive and incompetent, or else had actually stolen the watch himself. It was foolish of me to have left the watch on display rather than attaching it to my wrist, but I had been lulled by the fact that we were in a Buddhist haven of Gross National Happiness, and at a place of worship and pilgrimage. I hate having things stolen, especially something that was a cherished gift from Joanne, and I vented my annoyance on the sneering soldier before stomping off back down the mountain. Checking the rest of our possessions, Joanne found that one of her two bags had been opened, although nothing had been taken. Presumably the thief had been interrupted by tourists arriving; this was just as well, as in Joanne’s other bag there was a purse full of dollars that would have been a far more valuable prize.

The rest of the day followed unpleasantly, with telephone calls, complaints to the police, and a summons to the office of an arrogant army major who, in classic bully style, tried to shift the blame onto the hapless and blameless Ghalley. I was having none of it, but as an outsider I was able to ignore the blusterings of the officer without worrying about the consequences; Ghalley left worried that somehow he was going to end up getting blamed by the army for the theft, when in fact he was about the only person who couldn’t have stolen the watch.

The theft left a pall over that last day, although stumbling across an archery competition on our way back to our hotel redeemed the day partly. Bhutan’s national sport is archery, and the only Olympic medal ever won by the country’s athletes came from a female archer. Driving through town, we spotted a cluster of people holding bows and Joanne insisted that we drive over to watch. The men wore traditional ghos with a series of blue, green, red and yellow scarves handing from their belts, but their bows were expensive modern composite competition models. Their precision was impressive, especially given the enormous distances over which they were shooting (well over 100 metres). A reasonable crowd had gathered to watch and cheered each shot with genuine enthusiasm. Joanne and I tried to capture the moment of release with our cameras, but I found it an almost hopeless task. Joanne was much better at freezing the arrows as they left the bowstrings. It was a nice bonus to see the archery, as we had hoped to see a competition in Thimphu but hadn’t been in town on the proper day. Walking back to the car, we were amused to realize that we were walking through knee-deep patches of wild cannabis, which the Bhutanese call "pig grass". I wonder if they have chilled-out pigs with goofy grins and ridiculous appetites?

That evening we dined well, slept long and deep, and drove to Paro airport the next morning. Despite the expensive, tedious annoyance of the stolen watch, I was very impressed overall with Bhutan overall. Its scenery is impressive, it is doing extremely well at preserving its fragile Himalayan environment, its economic development seems to be far more equitable and well-thought-out than in India or Bangladesh or Nepal, and its culture seems to be standing up well to the tsunami of creeping global uniformity overwhelming other countries in Asia. Even its politics seem to be headed along the right path. Given unlimited time and money, I would gladly go back to Bhutan and spend a couple of weeks trekking across the high passes and mountains of the extreme north of the country. If I had the chance to teach or work there in some capacity, I would go there in an instant; a better country for hiking, biking, photography, bird-watching and immersing oneself in a fascinating culture would be hard to imagine.

As we flew back towards Bangkok and our connecting flight to Yangon, both Joanne and I agreed that our visit to the Land of the Thunder Dragon had been one of the highlights of our time in Burma, and were glad that we had paid the money for the privilege of seeing one of the most interesting countries in all of Asia. Country number 72 on my lifetime list gets special billing as one of my favourite destinations so far.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Libya Retrospective (December 2009)

Libya might not immediately spring to mind as a prime tourist destination, but it’s been on my mental radar for over a decade. In 1998, while travelling with Joanne through the Middle East and North Africa, we tried to get Libyan visas in Morocco and Tunisia and were turned down (“Why don’t you apply in your own country?”). We did get as far as reading the Libya section in the Lonely Planet North Africa guide, though, and it sounded wonderful: Roman ruins and spectacular deserts. In 2004, we talked about doing a Libya trip over Christmas, but I ended up resigning from my school in Cairo, and instead Joanne and I rendezvoused in Indonesia to go diving on Pulau Weh; this was unfortunate timing as we arrived just in time to be caught up, but not swept away, in the great Boxing Day tsunami that devastated the Indian Ocean.

Fast forwarding five years, Joanne and I both still wanted to see Libya, so when we decided to meet up in Italy at the end of my cycling blitz through the Balkans in December, 2009, we started arranging a Libya trip as part of our travels. Unfortunately, since our first attempt in 1998, all sorts of new rules have been introduced to force tourists to take a guided tour and to have a tour guide with them at all times, while the black market in foreign currency which once made Libya relatively cheap has disappeared with the end of economic sanctions. All this ended up making our trip pretty exorbitantly expensive, at least by my cheapskate standards, but we figured that the opportunity cost of not going now and trying to arrange to go another time would be even higher. We bought Air Malta tickets to take us Rome-Tripoli-Malta-Sicily, and found a travel agency that came well-recommended, then gritted our teeth and paid for the tour.

The process of getting a visa proved to be a ridiculous soap opera for me. Both of us had to get a stamp put in our passports translating the information page into Arabic. This in itself is ridiculous, as most Arabic-speaking countries, or the Chinese or Iranians or Armenians or Ethiopians for that matter, seem to be able to figure out Roman script just fine. I’ve heard that the reason is that Libyans have (or had in the past, perhaps) passports written entirely in Arabic, and that the EU made them translate the information pages into Roman script, and that Colonel Gaddafi wanted to have a tit-for-tat retaliation. Whatever the reason, the Libyans won’t help you out by telling you where such a translation stamp can be found, and to complicate matters, the stamp is supposed to be authorized/notarized/something-ized by your country’s foreign affairs ministry, or at least by your embassy. Some internet searching turned up a place in Ottawa for Joanne to get it done, but my attempts throughout the Balkans were less successful; many translation services didn’t have a rubber stamp to stamp things into the passport, and the Libyans wouldn’t accept a translation on a separate slip of paper. I struck out in Sofia and Tirana, and was getting really frustrated when Joanne found a place in Rome that would do the job. It was actually a bit hit or miss once we got to Rome, but it all worked out; the translation bureau was used to doing this sort of thing, had a rubber stamp and did the translation of my name and date of birth a couple of days before our flight.

The flight down to Tripoli on December 18th was a far cry from the days during the post-Lockerbie air embargo on Libya, when most travel to Libya involved flying to Tunis and then catching buses and taxis for the long overland drive to Tripoli. We had a long delay in Malta, spent listening to the increasingly improbable tall tales of an old British man, and it was after dark when we got through immigration and wandered out to find our tour guide, whom I will call Hisham to avoid getting him in trouble with his government. At least paying the big bucks got us a guide with perfect English; Hisham had grown up until age 14 in England, where his father was studying and working. By the time we made it out to the car, we’d learned that his family was Berber (the indigenous non-Arab population of much of North Africa) and that he had little patience for the pontifications of “the Colonel”, the man who for 40 years has ruled Libya with an iron fist. He complained of the repression of the Berbers by the Arabs, a complaint common to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. We drove through the sprawling concrete suburbs of Tripoli in the dark, looking for a place to eat, and ended up in an open-air café close to the harbour, with sea breezes ruffling the palm trees and the old city with its monumental gate lit up by floodlights.

We stayed not in a hotel but rather a small apartment building owned by our tour company above their offices, where James, an immigrant from Ghana, worked hard to keep the rooms immaculate and our breakfast plates full. Across the street was a police building, and we were warned not to take any pictures in this direction, as the secret police would be watching and would not be amused. On the morning of the 19th, Hisham arrived and we set off to see the sights of Tripoli. It’s a city with an ancient past; its name harks back to the Tripolis, or Three Cities, that occupied this stretch of coast in classical times: Sabratha, Leptis Magna and Oea (the ancient name for modern-day Tripoli). It was a major port in the Muslim period, ruled over by a Turkish governor nominally subservient to Istanbul, but with a fair amount of local autonomy. The old city has a number of old mosques and bazaar shops from the Ottoman period, while in the surrounding neighbourhoods Italian colonial architecture crops up here and there. Most of the cityscape, however, is dominated by generic concrete boxes in various states of disrepair. Tripoli certainly doesn’t exude an air of great prosperity, despite the large oil revenues that flow into the country. Hisham said that most Libyans believe that Gaddafi has become personally immensely wealthy along with his relatives and associates, while the country as a whole has languished economically.

Our first stop was at the National Museum, a storehouse of the historic and artistic wonders of the country. The two great attractions of Libya for tourists are the Sahara (which, short of time and money, we were going to have to skip this time around) and the great classical ruins along the coast. The best sculptures, mosaics, coins and other artefacts from the various ruins are all in the Tripoli museum, and we had a wonderful morning taking pictures of mosaics and marble torsos. The museum was almost deserted, except for a gaggle of art students from Tripoli university who were gathered in a room full of nude sculptures, practicing their life drawing. I guess in a Muslim society, you’d be unlikely to have nude models posing for your art class, so this seemed a clever compromise. There were a few interesting pieces of cave art, as well as the jeep that a young Gaddafi drove during the military coup that installed him in power in 1969. At the entrance to the museum there is an amusing poster showing Gaddafi and his new best friend Silvio Berlusconi ogling the marble statue of a nubile nude female: very appropriate on both counts!!

Hisham, Joanne and I then wandered around the old town of Tripoli, visiting a few mosques and old buildings, and letting Joanne magpie around the silversmiths’ shops. One of the few real vestiges of Roman Oea is the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, standing in a square in the old town. It was carved to mark the visit of the Roman Emperor to the city, and was subsequently buried in drifting sand, preserving its carving quite well. The arch now sits a couple of metres below the present street level. One of the nicest restaurants in Tripoli faces the Arch, and Joanne decided that we should have dinner there one night. It became a running joke between Joanne and Hisham as to whether our tour budget covered a meal in that café of stew cooked in a stone amphora which had to be smashed open to serve the food. Every day Joanne would ask whether tonight was the night, and every night Hisham would claim it was too expensive.

That afternoon Joanne took a nap, Hisham went off to work out at his gym, and I walked around the streets, trying to get a feel for the vibe of modern Libya. There was heavy traffic on most streets, although not of flashy new luxury cars. Most of the vehicles seemed to be second-hand cars a decade or more old, many still sporting the country stickers of where they had been imported from: the Netherlands, Germany and, most commonly, Switzerland. The irony is that Switzerland and Libya have been locked in a ridiculous diplomatic row for the past couple of years that started when Geneva police arrested (and subsequently released) one of Muammar’s sons and his wife for mistreating their Filipina maid while visiting Switzerland. The Libyan government has reacted with its usual impetuous nature and banned oil exports to Switzerland. It has also arrested two Swiss businessmen who were in Libya when the row erupted and kept them in prison for over a year. The Colonel has been handed extra ammunition in his campaign by the silly Swiss vote to ban the construction of minarets, allowing him to claim that Switzerland is the epicentre of an anti-Islamic crusade against Libya and calling for a jihad against the Swiss. Somehow the rest of the EU was drawn into the dispute, and for a couple of months after our visit, EU nationals were unable to get visas to Libya.

This sort of diplomatic flap is nothing new for Libya, nor unique to Switzerland. While we were planning our trip, Canada and Libya had a spat over the Colonel’s decision to visit Newfoundland on his way back from the UN General Assembly, and the Newfoundland Lieutenant-Governor’s refusal to turn over her official residence for Gaddafi to stay in; a subsequent request to allow the Colonel to erect his tent in the LG’s garden was also a non-starter. Subsequently the Libyan government, or at least part of it, declared that no Canadian tourists could come to Libya, a declaration that was denied by the Libyan embassy in Ottawa, but which was confirmed by travel agents who reported that Canadian tour groups were being forced to cancel their trips to Libya. Luckily we both have EU passports in addition to our Canadian ones, and the ban on EU visitors hadn’t yet come about, so we got in without a hitch.

The streets of Tripoli are full of pictures of the Great Man himself. There are two forms: either towering posters in which he always seems to be smiling (in an “I’ve got all the money and you don’t!” sort of way) and clasping his hands together or holding his Little Green Book, or small photos on display in businesses and for sale in shops which specialize in his image. The other popular subject for posters is the African Union, a brainchild of Gaddafi’s that was implemented on September 9, 1999 (9-9-99, as the posters point out) to increase African unity. Not many concrete steps taken so far, but a great forum for Gaddafi to strut his stuff on a friendly stage. I walked by the headquarters of the International Popular Committee for Gaddafi Human Rights Prize (really; I’m not making this stuff up!) and was amused to see that it was closed and seemed not to be in use. Maybe it’s not really so popular?

The next day was spent exploring our first big Roman ruin: Sabratha. We drove west for an hour, through heavy Tunis-bound traffic and scrubby, dusty countryside, to reach a sprawling site beside the Mediterranean. Both Joanne and I really liked the place, almost completely deserted and with lots of layered sandstone contrasting photogenically with the blue skies. Sabratha was first a Phoenician port, and one of the most striking structures is the Tomb of Bes, a rather over-reconstructed Phoenician tower tomb dating back to the 4th century BC, looming skywards like a missile, albeit one with cute carved lions at its base. The rest of the site dates from Roman times: a couple of forums, merchants’ districts, the ancient port which once exported wild animals, slaves, ivory and olive oil, the theatre district and the vast, beautiful theatre. The houses still had mosaic floors in place, while the baths and public latrines were easily discernible. A few columns and headless marble torsos balanced in place beside the sea, and the stones of the olive merchants’ warehouses were still stained with spilled oil. The theatre was magnificent, with its three-story backdrop of Corinthian columns looming high behind the stage, and the seats sweeping back above the passageways. I’ve seen a lot of Roman and Greek theatres, and the only other one I can remember that is this large and this intact is the striking black basalt theatre of Bosra, Syria.

We snapped lots of photos, followed the polished presentation of our endearing local archaeological guide Mufta (“My name means ‘key’ in Arabic; I am the key to unlock the secrets of Sabratha!”) and sat gazing out over the Mediterranean, the transportation highway of the classical world. Just beside the ruins, a series of wooden fishing vessels were pulled up on the beach. Mufta told us that these were some of the boats used to smuggle illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa into the EU via Europe’s soft underbelly: Malta and Sicily. Colonel Gaddafi encourages the trade as a way of annoying the EU. Libya itself is full of migrant workers from south of the Sahara; most menial labour is done by men from Niger, Mali, Ghana and Burkina Faso, willing to work for $10 or $20 a day, wages for which no Libyan would bother getting out of bed.

We were just on our way out of the site, back to the car, when we realized that we had skipped the museum. We argued with Hisham about whether it was covered in the tour price (for what we were paying, it certainly should have been) and then trooped back into the museum for 15 minutes before it shut for lunch. We were both glad that we did, as the museum was stuffed full of fantastic statues and some exquisitely detailed mosaics, my favourite form of Roman art. I don’t know whether I’ve ever seen such finely detailed mosaics as I saw in Libya on this trip; they seemed more paintings than arrangements of coloured tiles. Subjects ranged from abstract geometric designs to life-like depictions of animals, birds and fish to mythological scenes. My favourite in Sabratha was a huge floor from, I think, a Byzantine church featuring an immense and detailed peacock.

We returned to Tripoli through, of all things, a rainshower. My status as a rain god, able to bring precipitation to the driest places on earth (the Sahara, the Atacama, Central Australia, the Taklamakan) was reinforced. It was a break in the usual weather pattern that we experienced, in which sunny, pleasant mornings gave way to very strong afternoon winds blowing up clouds of dust and sand.

Early the next morning we set off on a long road trip. Hisham drove while Joanne busied herself with tunes; there was fundamental disagreement over what was great music, with Hisham a huge fan of dance music and techno and Joanne and I more dinosauresque in our tastes. Our route led us southwest, through increasingly dry countryside, towards the ancient caravan town of Ghadames, down near the point where Tunisia, Libya and Algeria meet at a point. We passed through a few dusty, featureless towns before turning off to see a couple of ancient Berber granaries, fortified enclosures of dozens of rooms, often several stories above ground level and accessible only by precarious pseudo-ladders of dried and cracking tree branches driven into the adobe walls. They looked like Escher engravings, their jumble of rooms and storeys seemingly optical illusions. Historically each room would have held the grain of a different family; the various families of a district would have united to build a fortified joint storehouse to guard against the ever-present threat of bandit attacks or raids by desert Arab Bedu.

The first granary was down in the dusty, featureless plain, but the second, Qasr Nalut, was up on an escarpment, nestled amidst the crumbling arches of an abandoned Berber village (the inhabitants had been built a new village of soulless concrete nearby in the 1970s). The views down to the plain, the wonderful jumble of arches and irregular walls and the general air of deserted desolation was a welcome relief after hours of dust and decrepit trucks. We stopped for lunch in a nearby town, and then our highway meandered up and down across a sandstone plateau before entering a long wadi that led eventually to Ghadmes, 600 km southwest of Tripoli. We arrived in the late afternoon, and I spent the remaining hour of daylight walking through the walled date plantations to the old town and having a quick sneak preview before our official tour the next day.

The next day was spent prowling around the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site now completely uninhabited. Once again, as at Nalut, the government had built the inhabitants of the traditional adobe medina a new town of concrete apartment buildings. The new town lacked the atmosphere and beauty of the old one, but had running water, electricity, indoor plumbing and lots of parking, so the inhabitants quite gladly moved house. The old town was left to crumble for a decade or more before foreign visitors and UNESCO pushed the government into preserving the town before it crumbled into dust. The result is fairly amazing, a museum town quite unique in feel.

The town is out in the unremitting sunshine and heat of the desert sun; even in December, the temperatures got pretty warm by mid-day. In order to keep houses and streets cool, the town was built as a maze of covered tunnel-like streets with courtyards and houses opening off these corridors. The Stygian darkness is pierced by dim skylights set into the roofs every once in a while, giving rise to a striking banded pattern of light and dark as the passageways curve gently away into infinity. With no outdoor clues to help, I was soon hopelessly disoriented, although Joanne did a much better job of keeping her bearings. We were both glad to have Abdul Rahman, our local guide, to show us the way around. Some of the houses are being renovated; their owners still have the keys, and see the potential for tourism to generate some revenue. Small groups of labourers from Niger trundled up and down the corridors with wheelbarrows, repairing walls, whitewashing and then painting colourful geometric designs on them. Benches were built into the walls for neighbours to sit and chat, whiling away the long, hot afternoons. They were unoccupied now; the vast caravan trade that made Ghadames one of the most famous towns of the Saharan trade network, a commercial rival to Timbuktu, is gone now, as is the street life, the markets, the cries of merchants, the bustle of camels and horses. There is great aesthetic beauty to old Ghadames, but it is a melancholy beauty that cries of loss and bygone greatness.

For me the highlights were the mosques, their whitewashed minarets a glaring contrast to the blue skies, their courtyards a welcome escape from the gloomy labyrinth of the covered streets. After taking hundreds of photos, we finally made our way past the deep spring which made life possible in Ghadmes and to a restored old house for a lunch of roast camel. The house, decked out in traditional finery, was cool and spacious, and we reclined on cushions on beautiful rugs sipping tea and admiring the painted decorative flourishes on the walls. We climbed up to the roof and looked out over the sea of other rooftops, punctured here and there by palm trees or minarets. From above, it was clear how much of the town was in ruins; some of this damage dates back to an air raid in the Second World War, while some comes from the exodus of Ghadames residents to the bright lights of Tripoli, leaving their old family houses to decay. Looking out over the town, for the first time since arriving in Libya I felt as though I was in Africa, rather than in the Mediterranean world. I could feel the pull of the Sahara, and regretted that we weren’t headed south into Niger and Chad, following in the footsteps of many generations of camel caravans before us.

We ended the day by driving to an old Turkish fort a few kilometres out in the desert. Ras al Ghoul (I had never realized that the English word ghoul comes from Arabic) wasn’t much to look at, but nearby were some rather scenic dunes. We climbed up dutifully, hoping for a breathtaking sunset, but the sun merely faded into a gray haze on the horizon, leaving Joanne and I to blow bubbles over the Sahara sands (trying in vain to recreate pictures we had taken eleven years earlier in Tunisia, not far from Ghadames). I wished we had enough time and money to head out into the deep desert, but it was not to be.

The drive back to Tripoli was uneventful, with a stop at one last Berber granary and then at a small Berber village situated spectacularly on the very edge of a vertiginous escarpment. We took photos of ourselves leaping upwards near the edge, then got back into the car for the rest of the long drive back to Tripoli and our familiar guesthouse and the ever-smiling Charles.

The next leg of the trip involved a flight to Benghazi, the second city of Libya, 700 km by air, or over 1000 km by road, to the east, on the other side of the Gulf of Sirte. We bid a temporary farewell to Hisham at the airport, as in Benghazi we would have a new minder for the next three days. Saad was a bit older and quieter than Hisham, but spoke excellent English, acquired while studying aeronautics in the UK. We sped away from the airport, headed northeast towards the Greek ruins of Cyrenaica, racing the clock to fit in all the sights before they closed.

First up was Tocra, a small and largely unexcavated city beside the sea. Although there was little in the way of actual sites, Adbul Marwa, an enthusiastic local guide, helped bring the jumbled stones to life. The real highlights, however, were an Italian fort (built out of the stones from the Roman city in 1912) and the tortoises that overran the site, butting shells with each other in a funny mating display. There were some fine mosaics in the Byzantine church and attached bishop’s palace, while the walls of the gymnasium were still covered with two-thousand-year-old schoolboy graffiti.

We sped along the coastal road to Tolmeita, ancient Ptolemais, another city still largely buried beneath the sands of time. We scarfed down a quick lunch beneath the trees of the museum before admiring the usual marble sculptures and mosaics and taking a quick run through the ruins. Only a few blocks of what was once the main city of Cyrenaica have been dug out, but they attest to the wealth of the city, and to the engineering prowess of its inhabitants. Vast subterranean cisterns stored 6000 cubic metres of water beneath the forum. We listened as Hakim, our guide for Tolmeita, told us how the city had suffered in the great Jewish Revolt that convulsed Palestine, Egypt and Cyrenaica in AD 115, and then the massive AD 365 earthquake, before slowly sinking into oblivion after the Arab conquest and the establishment of new cities. It was amazing to think of how many decades of excavation still remain in Tolmeita and Tocra, and how many artistic treasures and historical surprises are still buried beneath the farmers’ fields there.

Our last stop of our whistle-stop tour was probably the most interesting. We raced along back roads away from the coast, through limestone hills that provided a lush contrast to dusty Tripolitania; no wonder the Italians were such eager colonizers of Cyrenaica in the early twentieth century. Just before closing time, we drove into Qasr Libya, where construction in the 1950s had unearthed an unexpected find, a floor decorated with fifty mosaic panels, apparently from a Byzantine church. The quality of art was a bit cruder than in the breathtakingly detailed Roman mosaics we had seen elsewhere, but they were fascinating nonetheless. There were personifications of rivers like the Tigris and the Euphrates, and also of the little town of Olbia-Theodoria, where Qasr Libya now stood. There were plenty of animals and fish, including an unexpected scene of a deer eating a snake. The highlight, however, is the only known contemporary portrayal of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pharos of Alexandria, the monumental lighthouse at the entrance to the harbour. It is shown as a massive square tower, accessed by a drawbridge, topped with a large statue of the sun god Helios; behind it is another statue atop a smaller structure.

We drove at a more leisurely pace, through the gathering dark, through the green countryside towards Al Bayt, the modern town where we were staying. By a happy coincidence, a conference of Libyan doctors was ending that evening at our hotel, and we were able to gorge ourselves at their final-night buffet.

We awoke the next morning, Christmas Day, to a rise of exceptional beauty that set the scene for a wonderful day. The day was devoted to the main tourist attraction of eastern Libya, the Greek city of Cyrene. On the way out of al-Bayt, we stopped in to see a ruined temple of Asklepios, the Greek god of healing. Not much to look at, but a nice deserted, wind-swept site on the pretty plateau. We got to Cyrene early and found, for the first time all trip, a number of other Western tourists, mostly Italians driving their own four-wheel-drives on their way to the Sahara. Our guide for the site, Abdul Gaafar, was the former archaeological boss of Cyrene, and was very knowledgeable and keen to share his stories of the city’s glorious past.

Cyrene, like the other cities around Benghazi, lay on the eastern side of the fundamental fault line dividing the Mediterranean in pre-Roman times. To the west lay predominantly non-Greek city-states, mostly Phoenician; the three cities around Tripoli were all founded by Phoenicians. To the east lay the Greek-speaking world, of which Cyrene formed a part. Even after the Romans turned the Med into their own private lake, that boundary was important; to the east of it, in places like Cyrenaica, Greek remained the language of business, everyday life and even government, while to the west Latin prevailed. That boundary would later become the boundary between the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire and the Roman Catholic states of the west. This meant that the cities we saw in Cyrenaica had long Greek histories before the Romans ever showed up. This meant lots of Greek inscriptions to be seen, and often two quite separate city centres: a Greek agora and a subsequent Roman forum; a Greek theatre sculpted into a hillside and a later Roman one built free-standing and impressive; small-scale Greek baths and huge Roman ones; Greek temples and then huge, bombastic Roman ones.

Cyrene has been extensively excavated, and so there were a lot of details to catch our eye: graffiti and inscriptions in the old Greek gymnasium, mosaic floors, wonderful statues. The gymnasium has had all the columns around its edge re-erected, giving a vivid feeling of what the place must have felt like in its heyday. The inlaid marble floors in an opulent villa built by one of the Emperor Hadrian’s freed slaves spoke of the luxury of the Roman period. We walked down from the upper city to the old holy sites of the lower Greek town, past Greek baths excavated into the rock of a cliff, to the old temple of Apollo. I loved the feel of the town, and even the hordes of Libyan tourists who showed up as lunchtime approached couldn’t take away the blue skies, the golden stones and the air of history. Some of the Corinthian capitals, in place of the usual acanthus leaves, had instead the leaves of the medicinal plant Silphium. This plant, endemic to Cyrenaica, was one of Cyrene’s major exports but was harvested to extinction in Roman times.

We had lunch with crowds of Italian tourists, and then drove a few kilometres to the vast Temple of Zeus; it is one of the few temples that the Romans rebuilt much smaller than the grand Greek original. The city was badly damaged during the Kitos War, the second of three large-scale Jewish revolts against Roman rule; in AD 115 Jewish diaspora communities in Cyrenaica, Egypt, Cyprus and the Levant rose up and killed their Roman garrisons and the Greek and Roman civilian populations, inciting bloody reprisals by the Emperor Trajan. According to contemporary accounts, almost 220,000 people died in Cyrenaica alone, and the land was left depopulated, requiring colonists to repopulate it. The original Greek temple was one of the largest Doric temples in the Mediterranean, an Archaic structure of massive columns that owed much to Egyptian temple architecture. After the temple was torn down by the rebels, the Romans rebuilt it on a much smaller scale inside the original enclosure; maybe this was because the town was no longer such a huge population centre. The sandstone of the temple was so full of fossil seashells that it seemed to be more shell than sand.

From the Temple of Zeus, we drove through a pretty, deserted countryside, atop the limestone plateau with its maquis scrub; from the surroundings and the azure waters far below, we could have been in Sicily, or Montenegro, or southern France, or southern Turkey. No wonder the Greeks and Romans, and later Mussolini’s Italians, so loved the area: it reminded them of home. Abdul Gaafar and Saad pointed out the ruins of villages, the small mounds of prehistoric ruins, the berries and flowers and herbs. It was a wonderful afternoon to be alive and to be driving down to the Mediterranean out of the Green Mountains. We ended up on the coast at Apollonia, once the port for Cyrene. Again, not much was excavated, and most of that was Byzantine (Joanne and I had little patience for most Byzantine ruins, with their ponderous churches, sloppy workmanship and re-used stonework.) On the other hand, the theatre is wonderful, facing out to sea (how did audiences keep their eyes on the stage with such a magnificent natural backdrop), and even the Byzantine churches had lovely columns carved from striped marble that caught fire in the late afternoon light. The sunset over the Green Mountains and the ruins of Apollonia was a perfect way to end Christmas.

On our way to the airport on Boxing Day, we stopped by one last historic site, a remote and obscure piece of prehistoric Berber art, a series of surprisingly modernist figures carved into rock at a tiny village called Slonta. The carvings were completely unlike the classical formalism we had been seeing for days. Here strangely misshapen faces, carved to follow the natural contours of the rock, peered out of odd corners of the stone, beneath bulging elephants or atop a sinuous snake. It was hard to make out figures at first, but as our eyes adjusted to the style, we could make out human figures dancing and sitting, and clusters of faces staring out urgently like Gothic gargoyles. I wished we could have stayed longer to look at the carvings and try to decipher them, but time was ticking on inexorably, and we were several hours from Benghazi airport. We hurtled across the lush green fields of the Green Mountains, through an area much favoured by Italian settlers in the early 20th century, pausing for a moment to savour the Fascist colonial architecture, now abandoned and derelict, in a farming town. As we approached Bengazi, we passed through an area where overgrazing and over-cultivation had turned the land into a dust bowl. We then dropped down to the coastal plain, away from the greenery, and made it to our flight with time to spare.

After a lazy afternoon and evening in Tripoli, spent getting an awful haircut and eating excellent Lebanese food and Turkish pastry, we were ready for our last full day in Libya. We had saved the best for last: Leptis Magna. We already knew that it ranked up there with Ephesus, Pompeii, Palmyra, Petra and Baalbek as one of the greatest classical ruins in the Mediterranean world. We just hoped it would live up to the hype. We needn’t have worried. Leptis Magna was, in fact, magnificent. The amphitheatre and the Circus Maximus, outside town beside the Mediterranean, were immense and very impressive. The Circus actually had seats facing outwards to the sea so that mock naval battles could be staged for the amusement of the crowds. We made our way into the heart of the old town, via the huge port complex beside the silted up harbour.

The city of Leptis Magna was always an important port for the Romans. Its hinterland produced grain and olives for the Roman market, but it was also an important export point for slaves, wild animals for the Roman Coliseum and ivory. Its most important export, though, was an Emperor. Septimius Severus, who rescued the Empire from civil war in AD 193, was born in Leptis, and lavished funds on it to tart up his hometown, particularly before he came on an official visit. As a result, everything in Leptis is on an epic scale. It’s also well-preserved, since it was deeply buried in sand over the centuries, preserving walls and columns a couple of stories deep. For tourists today this is perfect; instead of foot-high wall foundations, you’re surrounded by a storey or more of Roman masonry and marble, allowing you to see what the city would really have looked like. It’s a bit like Pompeii or Herculaneum, except on a much bigger scale.

We started with the elaborate Arch of Septimius Severus, commemorating the big guy’s trip home. It’s covered by wonderful carving, although the originals are now in the Tripoli museum. In places, you can see where the carvings were left unfinished, perhaps because of the death of the Emperor in 211. We wandered through to the monumental bath complex, with brick walls still 2 storeys high. It’s one of the largest Roman baths I’ve seen, and it was only one of several equally impressive baths known to have existed. The Severan Forum was huge, full of impressive carved Medusa heads and arched arcades; it must have been even more impressive, even more a statement of the wealth and power of the Empire, back in its heyday. Behind one of the enclosing walls, the judicial basilica, the law court, was covered in amazing carving of the labours of Hercules, of centaurs and warriors and satyrs. Inscriptions in huge carved letters proclaimed the greatness of various emperors.

Down towards the sea, we came upon less bombastic architecture at the octagonal market. There were standardized measures of length, volume and area to prevent cheating, and reliefs of trading ships carved on the walls. Everywhere there were massive columns, carved from striped marble and granite of exceptional quality, probably imported all the way from Egypt. These were so well carved and so well preserved that in the 17th century, the French consul to the area shipped off dozens of the columns to France, where they now decorate the Palace of Versailles. Other columns lay on the shore, where they were abandoned during subsequent, interrupted attempts at looting by the French. Some of the columns bore Corinthian columns with silphium leaves, as in Cyrene. Here and there we came across old Phoenician inscriptions, and we kept an eye out for the phallic depictions scattered around the site. Unlike some other Roman cities, these were not signs to the local brothel. Instead, they were supposed to ward off the evil eye, and one carving shows a phallus with legs (and its own subsidiary phallus) doing battle with the evil eye. There are so many inscriptions in Leptis, lining the excavated facades of the streets, that it would take experts years to translate and catalogue them all. We felt very much part of the bygone city as we wandered through the grid of streets.

We finished up at the theatre, with its wealth of carvings and its theatre district. Inscriptions over the grand door report on the renovation of the complex by a local magnate. Smaller carvings report on particular plays being performed, like tattered posters of plays gone by. The theatre is hardly as impressive as Sabratha’s, but it’s still a wonderful structure, with the distracting view of the Mediterranean waters behind, and the vast sweep of the ruins visible in all directions from the upper seats.

We drove back to Tripoli more than satisfied with our overdose of classical ruins. That night, as Hisham picked us up to take us to dinner, Joanne asked once again if we were going to the Marcus Aurelius arch café to eat stew-in-an-amphora. Hisham said no, and started driving towards a fish restaurant before pulling a U-turn and heading towards the arch. The stew was worth all the anticipation, baked to perfection in its clay jar before being extracted by smashing the top. We dined well, staring out over the lit-up Roman arch and basking in the historical ambience.

Our last morning in Tripoli was spent at our guesthouse, relaxing. We left slightly left to catch our flight to Malta, and this caught up with us as we got stuck in endless traffic, and then Hisham got pulled over by a traffic cop. He searched long and hard for his driver’s license, but when he finally found it, the cop spotted that Hisham had two licenses (one that he had lost, replaced and then found months later) and promptly wrote him a huge ticket that probably cost him a few day’s profits from the trip. As we drove off, Hisham grumbled that he’d had about as much of Libya as he could take and that he should move back to Malta and its nightclubs and beautiful women. (He was off to Malta in 2 days’ time for a New Year’s party holiday.) We made it to the airport just in time, passed on the opportunity to buy the famous “Stamps of American Aggression” for sale in the souvenir shops, said goodbye to Hisham, and headed off on the brief hop to Malta, glad to have entered the strange modern world of Muammar Gaddafi and the fabulous ancient ruins that are its highlight.