This month I went to Libya with Grant and Masha. Libya requires you to be on an organised tour to get a visa and as such it is probably the most expensive place I have ever visited. It was still worth t though.
On our first two days we saw the Roman ruins Sapratha and Leptis Magnam. Sapratha is pretty amazing and has a huge reconstructed roman amphitheatre. Leptis Magna is in another league altogether and is probably the best roman ruin I have seen in my journeys around the Mediterranean. Leptis Magna’s main advantages over other roman sites around the Mediterranean are that an African Roman emperor called Septimius Severus was born here so it flourished under his rule. Also no later city was ever built on top of it which definitely helped preserve it. On the down side most of the good statues etc were plundered by the French and are now on display at Versailles. The beach at Leptis Magna is even lined with beautiful green marble pillars that never made the final boat to Europe for some reason. A disappointing but not uncommon story.
THE GREEN BOOK
The Green Book is a series of three small books written by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi the revolutionary leader who took control of the country in a near bloodless coup in 1969. The book is an excellent window into the mind of Libya’s leader. You could argue that the world of politics would be a better place if more leaders wrote long essays about what they actually think. The opening section is a tirade against democracy because in a democracy up to 49% of the people are being ruled by a dictatorship that is against their will. The good Colonel who has been the self appointed unelected leader of Libya for nearly four decades seems blissfully unaware of the concept of irony. Other parts of the book are better. Like he believes women are equal to men and has passed numerous laws strengthening the rights of women to the point where the legal rights for women in Libya are probably the best in the Middle East. I think is hugely impressive for a Middle Eastern man in the 1970s considering most other men in the Middle East are still at the prepubescent pinch and stare stage nearly four decades later. The other quite cool thing about the Colonel is that his personal body guard is made up entirely of women in blue jumpsuits. Grant has likened this to the Robert Palmer video, addicted to love. Hot.
While in country we listened to loads of Arab music which apparently often comes from Egypt and sometimes Tunisia. Masha put on her iPod one day and I was staggered to learn that neither our driver or guide had ever heard of global super band U2.
Like most middle eastern countries the drivers in Libya seem to lack a sense of self preservation. I admit they don’t seem as bad their neighbours in Morocco or Egypt but they are still pretty mental.
Libyans think nothing of suddenly stopping on the side of the motorway or even the narrower onramps leading onto the motorway. They don’t even seem particularly concerned about pulling right over to the side of the road. On our first day here we even saw a guy driving the wrong way down the motorway. By the time we left ten days later we had seen dozens of vehicles on the wrong side of the road for a variety of reasons. To make matters worse for the gutsy locals the roads seem to be very poorly planned. They’re brilliant if you want to go from a to b but there are almost no facilities for turning left across oncoming traffic which leads to the ubiquitous and unnerving sight of vehicles doing u-turns across the middle of busy multi lane motorways.
The pedestrians aren’t much better either. The lack of official crossings and the fact that drivers completely ignore the few that there are means that the pedestrians have perfected the art of calmly walking through fast moving traffic.
From Tripoli we drove to Ghadames. On the way we stopped off at the very photogenic Qasr Al-haj, a stone grain store built in the second half of the 12th century. Next stop was Nalut with a cool hilltop grain storing castle with spectacular views.
On the way we saw signs of massive construction of infrastructure in the desert. The road we travelled on was well maintained and a huge water pipeline was being dug into the desert and hundreds of new power pylons were being erected.
After the castle Grant noted that the guy who quietly offered us the souvenirs he had personally carved was the first person to try to sell us anything in our four days in Libya. This is exactly the opposite of all other countries I have been to in the Middle East. In other countries the main tourist sites are lined with numerous shops all selling the exactly same stuff and the shopkeepers stand out front verbally accosting every tourist that walks by. They even use all the same lines to get you interested like: “welcome”, “where you from”, “just look, look is free” and “I give you special price”. This last one is my favourite as it often roughly translates to “if you are dumb enough to by this I will put another floor on my house”.
To complicate matters further when a Libyan shopkeeper gives you a price this is usually the actual price of the merchandise, not double, quadruple or even ten times what a local person would pay.
The Libyan approach kind of refreshing and makes for a much more relaxed travel experience. But at the same time part of me misses the constant pressure and the relentless battle of the wits that you get in other Middle Eastern countries.
At Ghadames we visited the beautifully restored old town which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The old town is made up of 1250 houses with several mosques and religious schools. The traditional Islamic doctrine that men and women should be separated meant that outside the house men went about their lives in the passageways and tunnels on the ground level while women lived on the rooftops under canvas canopies. The town was constructed in such a way that women could cross the whole town without leaving the rooftops or ever seeing a man once.
After a hot mornings walking we headed out to the desert salt lakes of Ain ad-Debanah which are a beautiful place to spent a hot afternoon relaxing. Once refreshed we headed to the historic castle of Ras ah-Ghoul where you can see over the border into Tunisia and Algeria. To finish the day we climbed some huge orange Saharan sand dunes to watch the sun set over the desert.
After Ghadames we drove back to Tripoli so we could fly even deeper into the desert in southern Libya. Driving isn’t an option because of the huge distances involved.
The internal flight on Air Libya was interesting to say the least. We were delayed over three hours and when we walked out onto the tarmac we found our luggage on the ground next to some trolleys. Not sure why this was but we all had to pick up our own bags and put them on the trolley so that they would be loaded onto the plane. While we were doing this two children were running around the tarmac under the wings and engines (that were warming up) throwing their soft toys up in the air. All this while two cabin staff, a couple of baggage handlers and several airport security officials watched them or just chatted quietly amongst themselves. Two bags were left over after all the passengers had boarded so the helpful cabin staff just threw them on the trolleys anyway. The cockpit had the new reinforced doors that have become the norm since 9/11. But because it was Libya Air the pilots flew with the door open. Well I guess some countries are net importers of bombs on planes and some are net exporters of bombs on planes.
The next day we got up early for a long drive through desert to the prehistoric rock engravings at Matkhandoush.
That night we slept in beautiful orange sahara sand miles and miles from civilization and any other human beings.
Chatting to Khari, our guide and driver the subject of my recent woman troubles came up. Harry is very good looking and has many local girlfriends in Libya as well as foreign ones in Italy, Ireland and Spain who are chasing him. Khari has stated that he cannot be with just one woman. I am not sure what the local euphemism is for a guy like Khari but If I had to make one up I would probably go for, he has a women at every oasis.
Khari had the following advice for me (and all men):
- Women want sex strong. Sometimes up to seven times a night.
- You cannot talk to a women like a man. Women everywhere have the mind of a child.
- Always listen very carefully to women. But don’t take any action.
This is timeless desert wisdom handed down from father to son through the sands of time until I got hold of it and put it in the internet.
I the morning we visited the mud-brick ruins of the ancient capital of Garama. It’s quite run down and it doesn’t really compare to the roman ruins on the coast. Here’s a hint for ancient city builders who want to foster a legacy of tourism that will keep your descendants in business with tourists. Don’t use mud-brick. Even if your city is in a really dry place where it only rains once every few years a mud-brick city will still last a lot less long than one made of stone.
Later we went for a swim in one of the beautiful oasis in the Ubari sand sea. The oasis was quite salty which means that any little cuts or scratches you might have really sting but it also means that you are massively more buoyant that you are in fresh water or even the ocean. The other really weird thing is that the water gets really warm about four or five feet down so your feet are kept nice and toasty while you swim.
The Lonely Planet describes the local museum as terrific. The LP for Libya was excellent but you got the feeling that the author had been in country too long and had maybe drunk the kool-ade a bit because the museum was actually pretty average.
After that we flew back to Tripoli for a look at the amazing national museum and then flew back to London.
LIBYA AND TOURISM
The main barrier to tourism in Libya is the fact that the government won’t let you have a visa unless you are on an organised tour. Because of this visiting Libya is very very expensive. To put it in perspective I have probably spent more money visiting Libya for ten days than I spent in nearly two months in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.
Libya also probably suffer from a bit of a PR problem because of their governments involvement in global terrorism including several bombings, assassinations and the infamous Lockerbie bombing where 270 people were killed when a Libyan bomb exploded on a passenger jet over Scotland in 1988. To their credit Libya have made massive steps to compensate for their mistakes in the past and Libya have now been welcomed back into the fold of by the mostly-good countries. From all of the construction we saw it seems that regular Libyans might now be reaping the benefits of this change of heart.
To help with their PR efforts I have come up with some slogans that the Libyan tourist board can use free of charge:
- Libya: we did some bad things but we’re sorry and we’re better now
- Libya: we’re on your side now
- Libya: way more honest than Egypt and Morocco
- Libya: come now before thousands of other tourists wreck the place
- Libya: where the beer is alcohol free
- Libya: it’s great for your liver
- Libya: surprisingly good
Libya is full of amazing sites that compare favourable to other countries in the region and it is still reasonable untouched by the taint of western tourism. If you want to see it like this give your bank manager and go now. If you are on a budget then wait a few years until they are more open to independent travel and then get in quickly.