Day Trippin' Tripoli, the one in Sham

Tripoli, aka Tarābulus / Tarabulus al-Sham, was not on top of my list of tourist destinations. Like many millenials who travel to Lebanon, I had watched the Vice documentary about the armed urban conflict and decided best to stay away from Tripoli. My Airbnb flatmates Ian and Dan held a similar impression of the city when they arrived in Lebanon for their holiday. Dan was especially worried that something wrong might happen. Ian was eager to see the city because it is closer in architectural style to his hometown, Damascus, than Beirut. But our host Ibrahim said that it is a cool city and showed us a short documentary on the reconstruction efforts since the conflict. I was also hoping we could visit the bookstore that burned

We set off on July 15 and made jokes about getting shot by crossfire. The same jovial middle-aged Lebanese driver who took us to Jounieh also found us again and offered to take us to Tripoli as well. At first he did not even recognize us, even though I think we stand out as a odd group of tourists. Ian, who continued to act as our trusty translator, said we didn't have the money and opted to take a bus for 5000LL per person.

At the bus stop in Beirut

On the way north, we passed by the same places we visited before; Jounieh and Harissa, which I might write about in a future post. The main highway artery is right next to the sea. We shared the bus with soldiers and a classmate from Arabic. There was supposedly 1 hour wifi for free but we didn't log in successfully. I snapped more shots of the road while Ian and Dan slept. 

When we arrived at the last stop, we were a bit at loss because there was no Google Maps. But I had the tour book with me from Ibrahim, which showed that the famed Citadel was at the bank of the river, so we ambled towards the river. On the way, we passed by bazaars and busy streets.

 Now I look back at the photos, I am surprised that the architecture maintained some uniform style, even though a lot of them are dilapidated. Clearly someone put in some effort in urban planning. 
But I have yet to read into the history. I took a lot of photos of the landscape and buildings that had religious significance or signs because I noticed the use of calligraphy was different from the signs in Beirut. 

(Colonial) Clock tower

We stopped by a very beautiful shop with tourist ornaments on the 1st floor and generic cosmetics on the 2nd floor. The architecture was beautiful.

As we left from the bazaar area, political posters began to appear. We also looked at the Syrian street from afar.

On the way to citadel, we passed a shop that sold religious CDs and cassettes. Ian interpreted the shopkeeper's brief explanation and I remembered my anthropology Professor's work on Islamic soundscapes.

Instructional DVDs on proper conduct in Islam with English translations

Skull caps imported from Turkey

We hiked along the river a while and found a very unconventional route that took us to the foot of the citadel but not the main entrance.

#OfficiallyLost #Tripoli

We even passed by a private home right next to it. The home seemed very peaceful with lots of (stray) cats.

We passed through an ancient alleyway. It seemed as old as the citadel itself. 

After stepping over a gully that had a dead rat in them, we made it to a grave which led to a side entrance of the citadel.

Pictures of the tombstones and flowers. Very picturesque graveyard and probably the only predominantly Islamic grave I have been inside.

At this point I still have not seen anything that "makes" this place a tourist spot.  

At the darwaza of the citadel

Stray cat at the citadel

What impressed me most was the birds eye view of the city as well as the presence of the Lebanese army. We found an army post with tents in a very secluded corner of the citadel. Even after centuries, a fort will more or less function as a fort. I have not seen any similar form of army presence at the Great Wall in Beijing or the Red Fort in Delhi, which is telling about the precarity of Lebanon. A guard emerged from his tent, saw us and shooed us away from the premises. 

There were also dungeons and I was kind of spooked, afraid that there might still be dead organic matter lying around. It reminded me of some former royal places in India.

We had lunch at a normal looking joint because there was chicken roasting by the corner. Most of the people who worked and patronized there are from Syria and they also talk with Ian about his British-Syrian origins. The cashier guy was so generous and warm, when he heard how far we traveled from, he gave us falafels for free. I was a bit unwell (shang huo) and didn't want falafels; Ian was a bit annoyed with me that I didn't eat meat and thus created more issues for him in terms of solving the food logistics. But I decided to eat them anyways. 

Beautiful archways in the old part of Tripoli

At some point while we we were wandering in the bazaar, we were apprehended by some youngsters. They were hired by the soap-selling shops and wanted us to buy some soap. We entered in a courtyard with a very classic fountain, one that reminds Ian of his home in Damascus. I also saw the soap-making bucket and was impressed by the antique-style set up. One girl who worked at the same shop said she learned English from watching English television. I was shocked and finally accepted the fact that I would have to learn languages through other means. I bought two bars of soap for 12,000LL. The male shop keeper also said that he had customers from China who bought soap by the ton.

I asked the soap-seller where I could find the bookstore. He was fluent in English, had heard about the bookstore, but was not sure about where it was and thought it might be closed. I realized I might leave without visiting it. 

I also realized that most books available are very generic.

I wanted to visit a mosque but all of them were closed. So we just snapped shots outside of them. Mamluk architecture is so different from other architectural styles I have seen in the same area.

Lovely street calligraphy

We passed by this cute kid and stylish car. They look like they were headed to some event. Ian was still full of energy while Dan and I were beat.
We asked several people for the directions to the bus station and many of them told us that the buses were already finished. Still, we persevered just in case there were buses left.

A tank parked on the street. We passed by an army point in the city. One officer said hello to me. Other boys on the street also notice I am Chinese and say "ni hao". Ian gets a great kick out of it; one of them chuckles in a very silly way after he said ni hao and Ian was so amused by the corniness of it all and repeats the anecdote time after time.

I also bought some string beans for 1000LL. That was definitely cheaper than what I would get in Beirut. At last we found the bus station but the last bus to Beirut indeed had left the dock. We luckily found a minivan and packed into it. The Americans we saw from the castle also joined us in the bus. We learned that most of them study about the Middle East at Harvard. But the one we talked with the most was exchanging at AUB from Georgetown University. His name was Hank.

On the way back, Hank and Ian discussed their impressions of the city.

Ian: Beirut is capitalist and divided. It's very different than Tripoli's vibe.

Hank: The latter is connected more to Damascus. It was never considered part of Mount Liban until the 1920s partition of the Ottoman Empire and official establishment of the French Mandate.

Beirut rose into prominence during the 1800s. More people came and missionaries took advantage. Western trade oriented. It was very rich until civil war.

Then the conversation shifted to the Shia neighborhood in Beirut: Hank explained that in the 1890s, Dahiya became part of Beirut. The inhabitants were mostly village people and more conservative than the heart of Beirut. Hank lived there in 2015 for several months. He also gave us a brief overview of his understanding of Syrian history: the French favored Alawis and minorities because they were part of the war zones. The Alawis suffered a lot from the late 1800s famine as well. Alawis were heavily divided in their attitudes toward the French. They were not a coherent group until the Assad family came into power. The first Assad removed religious authority and dismantled "Alawi" as a religion. The French gave them social mobility. It would have been difficult for them to achieve mobility otherwise; although there were also Alawi tax collectors (which is a relatively high social position) in 1860s.

Later I lost track of the conversation and focused on the beautiful scenery.


 Then we arrived in the Armenian town of Beirut; Ian, Dan and I took a bus back to the promenade close to where we lived while the others took a taxi. We arrived at the promenade just in time for the sunset. 

End note: I wrote this a bit later than I expected, and may have left out some details. Overall I should accept that blogs will not reflect experiences as they were, but rather filtered through memory and time. I really appreciated Ian's role of interpreting and guiding us, even though Dan and I also got fed up with him sometimes. The trip would not have happened if I did not have their company. My blog's readership exceeded 5000 hits last month! Thanks to all of you for reading!