The plan was for a trike tour of Libya, it just wasn't to be...
I had hoped to spend April 2003 riding my trike thru Libya and into neighbouring Tunisia, but the Libyan didn't happen
Anyway, I spent some time touring the coastal sights and spent a few days wandering in Tripoli without the trike; what follows are some thoughts on my experiences
As a rider I guess it's only natural that even on the way from the airport the first thing I noticed were the roads, traffic conditions and signage. So, let's get this over with. Roads are great; not too much in the way of shoulders so cyclists just have to share the road and whilst the drivers seem quite mannered (compared to those in Cairo for example, where traffic lights and/or lane markings seem just advisory) they drive fast; very fast! In Libya it's just speed limits that seem to be advisory only, I didn't see anyone run traffic lights and pedestrian crossings were more or less respected (you just have to get accustomed to cars whizzing centimetres behind you or making a last minute detour around you a few metres in front of you). Thankfully, traffic is mostly light, and quiet; horns seem to be used much less than Tunis or Casablanca or Cairo. Road signs are only in Arabic, but distances are not shown in Roman rather than Arabic numerals. Why is it so?
Tripoli looks much like any other city in the Mahgreb, mostly low rise with just a few high rise towers here and there. The immediate difference is that Arabic only seems to be the norm for all signage. Makes a passing acquaintance with Arabic necessary for finding your way around town (that is when you've 'lost' your ever present nice 'security' man from the tourist police and you're wandering solo). In the main cities like Tripoli or Benghazi, many have some English and everyone is very friendly, asking for directions tho is quite another thing, it's the usual three people, five different answers...
The Medina is totally free of hassle, a nice place to wander. It's a mostly residential area, with the requisite narrow wandering lanes, small shops and mosques. There are a few 'tourist' type places, mostly offering stuff made elsewhere - lots of pharonic papyrus or pyramids with golden 'rain' - with local offerings of berber style carpets and animal pelts - snake, antelope and fox. While they may be made elsewhere, the must have offering may well be the 'genuine' Rolex wristwatch with a smiling Gadaffi face. Yours for just 15 dinar + no haggling!
Those guide books that claim Libya to be a culinary wasteland are pretty well right. Restaurants that cater for tourists (and/or up market businessmen) have standard fare: Libyan soup, salad and fish/chicken/lamb either grilled or with couscous. The cheaper places frequented by the numerous labourers from sub-Saharan places offer much the same, albeit at half the cost and without the trimmings offered at the more expensive places. At the upper-end places, tables are invariably set with a full array of cutlery and at least two wine glasses - the 'red' wine glass for soft drink and the larger 'white' wine glass for water. As a 'dry' country - alcohol is prohibited - there are a zillion different varieties of soft drink including an amazing range of alcohol-free beers, some imported from Germany others home-grown
The markets are pretty standard for the region, plenty of fresh fruit + vegies at reasonable prices plus the usual faintly gory butcher shops. Loads of eggs, fewer live fowls but plenty of fresh (and frozen) chicken. Plus the usual spices and other exotica like fresh dates. Lots of good food; you can only assume that eating at home is a totally different experience than eating out
The patisseries tho are a different story, the baklavas and such give those in Syria a run for the money. A bit expensive, they can work out to around 5 dinars for a quarter kilo - the smallest quantity readily available - but well worth it
Hmmm, roads + food. A cyclists view of the world. So be it. Much of the coastal lands are flat or undulating, with a fair amount of agriculture together with the ubiquitous olive trees and goats. Not too far inland tho there are some steep escarpments that would make challenging riding. The switchback roads are in good condition and drivers for the most part take the climbs (and descents) carefully and at slower than usual speeds tho there are plenty of breaks in the roadside barriers where they have been flattened by toppling vehicles. Plenty of wrecks along the roadside too. But the most common roadside sight is rubbish. Cast off junk lies in great piles all along every road, every fence and tree seems festooned with discarded shredding plastic. Again common for the region, it's just that, well, it seems even more evident here
What else? Well, I guess I should mention the truly wondrous Punic, Greek and Roman sites that are dotted along the coast. Most have been restored in the early twentieth century - arguably the only good thing the Italians did in their former colony - and some have been restored better than others have, but even so, they are simply indescribable. Sabratha to the east of Tripoli, Leptis Magna to the west of Tripoli. Apollonia, Cyrene and Tolmeita to the west of Benghazi. Leptis and Cyrene are vast - the Cyrene site for example covers over 250 hectares - and both warrant at least a full day of exploration. Entry fees are negligible (3 dinars), but camera fees add up quickly (5 dinars here, another 5 for a different part of the same site plus another 5 for the museum etc etc and if you're using a video camera, well it's 10 dinar here and 10 there instead of 5) plus a local guide seems almost compulsory (another 50 dinar). Still the guides are actually good value, better than just hauling your Lonely Planet around. The National Museum in Tripoli has extensive collections of statuary, mosaics and such from each sites and it too is worth a visit. The Gaddaffi galleries are meant to be OK too, but they were closed when I visited and so all I got to see was a green (what else?) Volkswagen that once belonged to The Man
So was it worth going?
A visit to Libya is worth the drama that almost all that venture there seem to have in actually getting their visa. It's just a pity that I travelled by bus rather than by bike. Maybe next time, enshallah