Getting to Libya

It’s a public holiday today – Independence Day.  They are celebrating 71 years of independence since King Idris became their first head of state.  I’m not making that up – his name was Idris.  There must be some Welsh blood in there somewhere.

Libya flag

Welcome to Tripoli, the capital of Libya.  It’s sunny and 18 degrees. Getting here was not easy and things here are, let’s say, a little bit tense.  Tourist visas don’t exist so it was a case of obtaining a working visa, not an easy task.  We flew in via Tunis and were met by our official guide at Tripoli airport.  This isn’t a place to wander around alone.  Our guidebook was published in 2002 and a lot has changed since then!

Today was also supposed to be the day of Presidential elections but they got postponed on Wednesday, hence things are even more tense than normal.

King Irdris (top Rt)

Many Libyans were looking forward to casting a vote and getting a taste of an election process – maybe next month.  One of the candidates was Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of former leader Muammar Gaddafi.  Some of the other candidates were equally controversial.

After being taken on a tour of Tripoli, seeing some of the ancient buildings in the Medina built in the 4th century, the modern Tripoli and the blue of the Mediterranean, we have escaped back to our apartment to make Independence Day dinner. We had Mbatan Batata – stuffed and fried potato wedges, accompanied by couscous and fried vegetables.

Here’s wishing you all a Happy Christmas. May your couscous be free of sand.

To get a feel for what it is like in modern Tripoli through the eyes of actual independent travellers I recommend these two videos: Drew Binsky – This Is Libya and Indigo Traveller – Walking the Streets of Libya’s Capital City

Travel whilst in Libya

There’s a lot of Libya.  It’s one big country.  But as everyone will tell you most people live along the coast and have done for generations.  This included the Romans.  They build a huge city here called Leptis Magna, the largest Roman city in Africa.  Our local guide took us the roughly 150km ride to see the remains.  There was hardly anyone there.  I made my usual weak jokes about how it will be nice when it is finished which didn’t go down too well and I was told the remains would have been even more intact had the French not nicked a lot of it, shipped it back to France and incorporated it into the chateau of Versailles. 

You may like to see Drew Binsky’s visit to Leptis Magna

Libya Highest Point

The highest point in Libya is Bikku Bitti,  2,266 metres (7,434 ft).  It is located in southern Libya, near the Chad border and is incredibly remote, deep in the Sahara Desert.  Add to that that the area is extremely arid and littered with landmines and ordnance, the risk of bandits and it is illegal to visit.  It only has one recorded ascent, by British mountaineer Ginge Fullen.  I say only one recorded ascent but when he got up there, with a couple of guides, on his third attempt, there were same cairns at the top.  That must in one way have been somewhat disappointing.  There is an interesting report of the successful expedition, but no summit photos mind you.  It states that on reaching the top Ginge left a bottle up there with Gadaffi’s Green Book inside which he had signed and dated, a toubou knife along with some M&Ms inside a cairn along with his walking stick. 

For our trip, Alex and I went well prepared.  We weren’t going to let a scarcity of water defeat us so we took a very long hose pipe, heavy and time consuming to lay but worth it in the end.  I had told Alex it only rains there once every 30 years but we still took our macs – after all we are from Wales.  It took an age to reach the summit and boy were we glad to find a packet of M&Ms someone had left us and a knife to open them.  We left an tin of spaghetti hoops and a copy of the Western Mail. 

Libya Train Journey

You just wouldn’t believe how difficult it was to get to go on a train journey in Libya.  Ian told me it wouldn’t be easy, there being no railways, but I was up for the challenge.  First we had to overcome the problem that tourists aren’t allowed into Libya at present.  Going under the guise of a pair transport consultants overcame that hurdle.  We soon hooked up with our guide/fixer who had connections in all sorts of places. 

To say Libya hasn’t a railway isn’t quite correct. It doesn’t have a functioning railway.  It has a short section of track and one train – and boy, what a story there is behind it.  The train is an Italian IC4 ‘given’ to Colonel Gaddafi by then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2009.  I say ‘given’, it was one of those gifts that had conditions attached i.e. if I give you a train, you give Italy a big railway construction project.   The flaw in this plan was that Gaddafi was overthrown before the contract came to fruition. 

The other flaw was that it wasn’t Silvio Berlusconi’s train to give away.  It was part of a contract to deliver 83 trains to Denmark.  It took Denmark a number of years to discover they only had 82 trains  and what had happened to their missing train.  The giveaway was that the IC4 in Libya had signage in Danish all over it.  

Anyway, this IC4 train is still laid up in Tripoli – until now that is.  Our guide/fixer was very clever and had many friends.  First he discovered that the key had been left on top of the front wheel.  Then he got his friends to give the train a service, some new oil and even to construct some extra track for us to use.

And we were off.  An early start as I know how Ian likes to have his cooked breakfast on board a train.  Before Berlusconi shipped the train to Libya he had arranged for a bit of an upgrade.  He didn’t want to see Gaddafi slumming it after all.  One carriage was converted into a suite and another into a conference room.  Ian and I made best use of these facilities we could, careful not to spill any couscous on the carpet.

Before we knew it, it was time to park up the IC4 back where we found it, lock up put the key back.  Another great international armchair railway adventure.

Reference:   Gaddafi’s Personal Italian High-Speed Train

Libya Geocache

Yes I know I said I was aiming to solve a Puzzle Geocache in each country I ‘virtually’ visit but the problem here is that there aren’t any in Libya.  Instead, I chose to ‘virtually’ visit Acacus – First earthcache in Libya   (GC18KWH) . Anyone who caches with me will know I’m no great fan of Earthcaches (and that’s putting it mildly).  You would have thought being a scientist that I would like them but I’m afraid geology just doesn’t rock my boat.  So to try and make things easier I invited Olddandare to join me. I’m sure I recall him telling me he knew a thing or two about riding camels and picked it up watching John Noakes ride one on a Blue Peter expedition.

This earthcache is in the Fezzan region of Libya in the South-West, where its hot and sandy and as I’ve found out from reading, a long way from anywhere.  It’s an area that used to be popular with tourists but in recent years not so much.  You still need as permit from the authorities to visit and a 4×4 or in our case, some good camels. 

The scenery was stunning and the evenings chilly.  Apart from the unusual rock formations there are ancient wall paintings in the area.  What these reveal is that the area hasn’t always been desert as amongst the paintings are things like rhinos and crocodiles. 

Last night was indeed a bit chilly in the desert, but made bearable by the high quality sandwiches prepared by Olddandare. I did have trouble getting to sleep though because someone kept humming Maria Muldaur’s – Midnight At The Oasis. Not sure if it was Olddandare or the camels.

And could I answer the question on the cache page?  No, of course we couldn’t.  Back to school for us.

Olddandare reported back that he’d had some difficulties with the visa but thanks to my insider knowledge he arrived in the country. We had two types of sarnies representative of the national dish(es) of Libya the traditional tuna and harissa and also Imbattin, which is fried potato and beef. We got sand in them but surely that’s part of the fun of a picnic in the desert?!

He said he could have done with a bit more padding on the camel, and I bet he/she was struggling under the load.

Charity in Libya

In all the reading I’ve been doing about Libya in the past month, migrants and refugees feature highly, whether it be the part migration has played in Libya’s history or the present day migration crisis.  In recent years, stories of migrants and refugees is about the only time we hear Libya mentioned in the UK media.  The country is on the main migration route from Africa to Europe and the last African county refugees visit before embarking on the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean.  Reports often feature stories of exploitation, gangs, imprisonment and violence.  Some of the refugees are from Burkina Faso, the country I ‘virtually’ visited before Libya.  They are fleeing the violence that’s been occurring in the north of Burkina Faso in recent years.  I don’t pretend to have any answers.  It hasn’t been easy for charities to work in Libya but one organisation that seems to be doing so is the International Rescue Committee.  I was interested to read that their roots go back to founder Albert Einstein.

Libyan Film

Lion of the Desert filmLibya doesn’t appear to have an established film-making industry.  I therefore had a search around to see if I could find any films that had been filmed in Libya.  I came across ‘Lion of the Desert’, a 1980 film about the Second Italo-Senussi War, starring Anthony Quinn as Libyan tribal leader Omar Mukhtar, a Bedouin leader fighting the Italian Army and Oliver Reed as Italian General Graziani.  It also starred Rod Steiger as Mussolini.  Even John Gielgud was in it.  Quite a star cast.  It is set in the 1930s and tells the story of Omar Mukhtar and his men fighting  the Italian colonization of Libya.

A tough film to watch in some ways but educational at the same time.  The last hour of the three was hard going.  It was also a  whole new experience for me – renting a film on-line.  This project is teaching me all sorts of new things! 

Libyan Literature

I read ‘The Bleeding of the Stone’ by Ibrahim al-Koni, Libya’s leading novelist and published in 2003. He has been called a master of magical realism.  I don’t begin to say I understood all the symbolism that was no doubt present but it certainly helped to develop the sense of the area and well as the Bedouin people.  I don’t think I’ve heard of them since school geography lessons. It’s a book about deserts, man’s relationship with nature, spirituality and religion, environmentalism and the effects of solitude as well as a good dose of mysticism.

I also read ‘Green Mountain’ by Gwyn Williams, a Welsh poet who was Professor of English at the University of Libya in the 1960s.  The book is a travel book about the Cyrenaica region of north east Libya.  As you may expect from a book written by a poet, it is well-written with lovely descriptions, and has lots of history.  It’s also a book that contains a snapshot of the time, around the time oil wells were being developed and pre-Gaddafi.

Libyan Music

I was struck with what a high proportion of Libyan music was labelled as ‘wedding music’.  It was only when I read about the average Libyan wedding lasting over a week did I realise why – they need a lot of music to fill that time.  I listened to some Libyan folk and other selections on Spotify including the Libyan Icon playlist

Libyan Food

We made a couple of Libyan recipes over the month.  They certainly reacquainted us with couscous which we hadn’t had for a long while.  It used to be one of our regular starch accompaniments but for some reason had got forgotten about.

I’ve already mentioned the Mbatan Batata – stuffed and fried potato wedges, accompanied by couscous and fried vegetables.   This takes more patience than some dishes as the potato wedges have to be carefully stuffed and fried.  Our son proved he had the necessary patience to make them – thanks.  And very tasty they were too.

I ventured into the kitchen and had a go at making Kusksu (Libyan Couscous with Spicy Beef and Vegetables).  My wife helped by laying out all the ingredients I needed making sure my patience wasn’t tested by not being able to locate thing.  Yes, I know if I cooked more often I would get to know where things are.  For this recipe I needed to make a Hararat spice mix and here’s what went into it:  cinnamon sticks, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, chilli flakes and allspice berries.  They were roasted before being  ground.  The meal was very tasty though I can tell by the quality of my photograph that I’m never going to be a cook with thousands of followers on social media.

Libya Sport

I get the impression Libya isn’t famed for its sporting superstars.  That’s no doubt doing a disservice to the many Libya sportspeople toiling away on the training  grounds. My guidebook, albeit 20 years old now, writes how Colonel Gaddaffi’s son is the captain of the national football team and attempted to bring Pele and Maradona to Libya to make him the best player in the world. I think that’s the same person currently standing in the Presidential election so I guess he is focusing his efforts elsewhere at present. 

As I couldn’t find a big match to follow live I thought I’d take a look back at the Libyan involvement in this year’s Olympic games i.e. the 2020 Olympic Games (good quiz question for the future – When were the 2020 Olympic Games held?). They had 4 participants.   Hadel Aboud competed in the Woman’s 100 meters and came 5th in her heat with a personal best time of 12.70 seconds, not fast enough unfortunately to qualify for the next round. Their flag-bearer was  Al-Hussein Gambour who competed in the men’s single skulls rowing.  He qualified for the finals, rowing the 2000 meters in 7min 47.64sec but in the end ranked 29th, an improvement on his position of 32nd at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Rumours are that the others were competing in the best selfie competition.

Libya Stamps

My selection of stamps may appear strange.  It was a set of three 1979 stamps featuring Colonel Gaddafi and the Green book.  It is in no way meant to convey any support for the Colonel, more  a look back in history.  The Green Book contained Gaddafi’s political philosophy.  It was widely distributed in Libya and abroad in Arabic and in English.   The book contained some interesting ideas, the last being:  ‘Spectatorship in sports, theatre and other entertainments is foolish. People should engage in sports directly, deriving the benefits of athletics for themselves, rather than standing by and watching others perform’. 

Libya Clock

Libya was another good shaped country to make into a clock.  If only all countries were this easy.  It surprised me how much of their borders were straight lines.  I think that stems from the resolution of relatively recent armed conflicts with neighbouring countries such as Chad.

π— π—²π—²π˜π—Άπ—»π—΄ 𝗦𝗼𝗺𝗲𝗼𝗻𝗲 from Libya

A perfect conclusion to our ‘trip’ to Libya. We met up with Shoruk from Libya for a chat. Shoruk is a charming and bright young lady who my wife taught A-level chemistry.  She has recently gained a degree in Architectural Studies at the Welsh School of Architecture here in Cardiff.  It was lovely to learn some more about Libya from someone who has lived there.  It was great to find a home for the Libya clock and even nicer to gratefully receive some gifts including a picture and some homemade cakes. Thank you Shoruk.

I also met briefly Libyan Adnan Arashi and his son-in-law who run McSims Maltese Bakery on Senghenydd Road. Their pastizzi signature bakes were very tasty. They gave me lots of hints about Libyan food as well as some history and what to look out for as a tourist.

Farewell Libya

I must admit there are some categories here that I haven’t quite got to grips with as yet such as Geography / History / Current Affairs / Economy / Nature / Science etc.  I don’t mean in relation to Libya specifically, I mean in relation to this ‘challenge’.  I don’t just want to sit here and repeat what’s written on Wikipedia and other such websites as it is dull for me and easy for readers to do that themselves.  After all, I may get things wrong. 

Instead, I now bid farewell to Libya. The people I have met and seen on videos are smiling and welcoming. The country is going through difficult times in recent years.  I wish them all the best. 

Progress to date:  Armchair Travel Challenge

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