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Lebanon's Unique Terrain Is Helping Hikers Connect With Nature, History And Culture

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Lebanon is a small country perhaps better known for its civil war in the 1980s, its nightlife in Beirut, and now a crushing economic crisis. But it's also a country of high mountains and lush green valleys. And this summer, NPR's International Desk has been taking us on audio vacations in a series we're calling Wish You Were Here. Today Ruth Sherlock brings us on a hike in Lebanon's mountains.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: At a car park in Beirut one early morning, I board a bus organized by the hiking group, Liban Trek.

Bonjour.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bonjour.

SHERLOCK: Michel, hi. Nice to see you.

MICHEL MOUFAREGE: Good to see you.

SHERLOCK: The guide is Michel Moufarege. Now in his 70s, he's been leading hikes into Lebanon's nature for decades.

MOUFAREGE: On our way, we have only one stop.

SHERLOCK: We're going to the Chouf, a mountainous region about one hour south of Beirut. We turn off the coastal highway and start to climb. We skirt a gorge where there's lush greenery and waterfalls. Restaurants have set up tables in the gently flowing streams at the bottom.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: We arrive in Mresti, a little village on top of a hill that's backed by high mountains. And we start to hike. We pass orchards of cherry and walnut trees and grape vines. You can smell the wild thyme, and we see two local men picking it and putting it into sacks.

At this point, our walk connects with a major hiking route called the Lebanon Mountain Trail, or LMT. It spans 292 miles from the northernmost tip of Lebanon down the country's mountainous spine to its southern border with Israel. The idea for this hiking route came from the Lebanese American, Joseph Karam, who was inspired by the Appalachian Trail in the U.S. Moufarege helped chart it. He already knew many of the routes.

MOUFAREGE: I drew the trail on army maps. And some - of course, I didn't know all of it. Part of the south I did not know well, so I went there and discovered the trails.

SHERLOCK: Moufarege has explored Lebanon's mountains since he was a boy. With a birth defect disabling his arms, he turned to hiking instead of other recreational sports. He doesn't carry a GPS. Instead, he uses instinct, speaks with local shepherds, or retraces historical caravan routes used for centuries before cars came along. Home to some of the oldest known civilizations, Lebanon is steeped in history.

MOUFAREGE: The area here, there are several places on the top of mountains which are dedicated to prophets of the Old Testament.

SHERLOCK: Moufarege points across the valley to an old stone building on the edge of a cliff, a sanctuary dedicated to the biblical prophet, Job.

We then hike through an oak forest said to be centuries old and reach a high plateau.

The air smells so sweet with all the flowers. You know, the smell is so nice.

MOUFAREGE: The broom. The broom.

SHERLOCK: The broom - oh, the yellow.

MOUFAREGE: Yeah. The yellow flowers are called broom.

SHERLOCK: Yeah.

The trails connect dozens of towns and villages from Lebanon's many different sects. Walkers might stop for lunch in a Christian area and then bed down in a Sunni or Shia Muslim village for the night. In a country where different sectarian groups often remain apart, this is an opportunity for Lebanese and tourists to experience different communities and see places they might not otherwise go to.

TAMARA HADDAD: In Lebanon, we have really beautiful places.

SHERLOCK: One hiker on the walk, Tamara Haddad, who's also Moufarege's daughter-in-law, says she's been surprised by just how diverse the nature is, too.

HADDAD: We discovered many places in Lebanon like, wow, it's Lebanon? I didn't know (laughter) Lebanon was so rich, you know, with landscapes and everything.

SHERLOCK: We talk about how she's seen snowcapped mountains, cedar forests, valleys, caves, cascading waterfalls, and then her children ahead of us spot something.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: It's a little snake. You can see its head poking out. Look.

In recent years, hiking has become much more popular in Lebanon. And Moufarege is working with tour operators to attract more people from abroad, too.

MOUFAREGE: I have a dream to make Lebanon A hiking destination worldwide. I think we have the potential for that.

SHERLOCK: We end the hike in the village of Jbaa, where Moufarege shows us an opening in the rock, a natural spring bubbling up that's safe to drink because it comes straight from the mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BUBBLING)

SHERLOCK: Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, the Chouf Mountains. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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