Outside Terminal 1 at Dubai International Airport at 11:30pm, ready to begin my trip to Libya.
Libya was my final MENA (Middle East and North Africa) country left to visit, and this was my third attempt trying to enter the country.
After the Libyan Revolution and ouster of Gaddafi, there was relatively stability with airlines such as Emirates, Air Malta, Tunisair and Turkish Airlines flying into Tripoli.
In May 2014 I had booked a three day trip to Tripoli flying from Malta and onto Tunisia. Just before I applied for my visa, visits by foreigners were suspended due to upcoming elections, and soon after the second Libyan Civil War erupted. Tripoli International Airport was subsequently heavily damaged during militia clashes with 90% of the airport's facilities, 20 airplanes destroyed and all flights into Libya by international airlines permanently halted.
For my second attempt, near the end of 2015, I was planning to join my friend Jordan on a visit to Western Libya, crossing overland from neighbouring Tunisia. However the border was temporarily closed in late November after a suicide bombing in Tunis that killed 13 presidential guards using Semtex explosive traced to Libya. I decided to pull out of the trip due to the uncertainty.
Earlier this year I had read a blog written by an American traveller, Randy Williams, who had flown in from Tunis and spent New Years in Tripoli. After contacting the same Libyan travel agency, plans quickly crystallised for a three night stay in the Tripoli for my third attempt at visiting Libya.
After checking in for my Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, I went through immigration, security and then headed to the Marhaba Lounge for some dinner.
With international airlines no longer flying into Libya, the travel agency booked flights for us from Tunis to Tripoli (TUN-MJI) on Libyan Wings (YL). To position to Tunis I travelled on Turkish Airlines (TK) via Istanbul.
After the destruction at Tripoli International Airport (TIP) in 2014, Tripoli's Mitiga Airport (MJI), formerly used as a base by the US Air Force from 1943 to 1970 and located 8 kilometres east of the city centre, became the main international airport for the country.
The Libyan visa was my most expensive visa to date. Unfortunately tourist visas are currently not offered and the only way to visit is on a business visa. The visa invitation and pre-authorisation was $350, and then another $160 payable when I got the visa at the consulate in Dubai.
Our return flight from Tunis to Tripoli on Libyan Wings was $350 and the four day / three night tour cost was $650 per person, including hotel, guide, escort / driver and all food and entrance costs.
The TK 777 waiting at the gate.
Having just taken the same flight to Istanbul just three weeks prior there was definitely a sense of déjà vu.
Enjoying the light snack from Do & Co before putting on the eye shades and ear plugs to get a few hours sleep.
Joining the throngs of people at Istanbul Atatürk Airport just after 6am.
Turkish Delight for sale in duty free.
Enjoying a Zeytinli Açma and a Turkish coffee at Starbucks.
The TK A320 for the 8:30am flight to Tunis.
Flying over Atatürk Olympic Stadium just after take-off
Hot breakfast served as we head towards Tunis.
Descending towards Tunis–Carthage International Airport just after 9am and my third continent in less than 12 hours.
Ground side after changing some dollars for Tunisian dinars. Customs had also asked what my profession was after noticing I was carrying a DSLR. Luckily they were satisfied when I said I was just a tourist.
The flight to Tripoli wasn't until another six hours so I headed outside for a bit of a walk. Boulevard Cheik Zayed, named after the founder of the UAE.
The boulevard ran along the edge of Lac de Tunis. It was pretty quiet but was lined with restaurants and seemed like the kind of place that really comes alive in the evening.
At Gelato Stellina where I grabbed an early lunch of a Nutella & banana crêpe and a hot coffee.
Just after 12pm I started to walk back towards the airport.
Back at the airport I caught up with my friend Jordan, who had just arrived on a Air France flight from Paris.
Check-in for our Libyan Wings flight to Tunis opened just after 1pm.
Tripoli's Mitiga Airport had been closed for the previous two days after battles between competing militia's in the nearby Al-Ghrarat district. During the fighting a Libyan Airlines A330 was also damaged by stray gunfire.
Libyan Airlines had hence subsequently suspended flights to and from Tunis due to their grounded A330, and we were hence fortunate that Libyan Wings aircraft had not been affected by the battles and our flight today was operating as scheduled.
After successfully checking in we grabbed a quick snack before passing through immigration and security.
The Libyan Wings Airbus waiting at the gate. Libyan Wings is a privately owned Libyan Airline with a fleet of two A319's that fly three times daily between Tripoli and Tunis, and once daily between Tripoli and Istanbul.
In our exit row seats shortly after take-off. After the earlier failed attempts to visit Libya it felt great to finally realise that I might actually succeed!
A small but quite impressive meal served on the one hour flight.
Our approach into Tripoli was uneventful and we were soon on the ground and taxiing to the terminal. On the way we passed quite a few derelict Soviet-era military aircraft including a MiG-25. It was quite exciting to finally see one in real life, as they are one of the few aircraft built primarly from stainless steel (to cope with the high temperatures experienced with flying at speeds close to Mach 3).
Disembarking at a remote stand next to an Afriqiyah Airways A319 that had just arrived from Khartoum.
After the bus dropped us at the main terminal we went inside to join the queue for immigration. There was a queue for foreigners that was unfortunately quite long with the recent flight from Sudan. While the line for Libyans went quite quickly, our queue moved very slowly and it took us over an hour before we were finally stamped into the country.
After immigration we were asked briefly our purpose for our visit to Libya. Myself and Jordan were travelling on business visa's organised by the travel agency and visiting Libya as 'engineers'. As Jordan worked as a software engineer and myself as a chemical engineer, we both just stated as such when we were asked what types of engineers we were.
Jordan and his bag made it through the X-ray machine ok however I was pulled aside when they spotted my DSLR camera. When I was asked if I had a permit for it, I said it was just for personal use, but they still weren't satisfied and asked who was meeting us at the airport.
Our escort, Salem, was luckily waiting for us and after he exchanged some words with the airport official we were on our way and off to our hotel in the city centre along with our guide Yousuf.
A welcome drink at the Victoria Hotel after we arrived at just before 8pm.
My room for the next three nights in Tripoli. I had medicore expectations but was pleasantly surprised with the clean and modern room.
After agreeing to meet up with Salem and Yousuf in the hotel lobby at 9am tomorrow, myself and Jordan headed up to the top floor to the hotel restaurant for dinner.
And looking down on the city below at the end of day 1.
After a decent sleep I met up with Jordan again for breakfast just after 8am. Jordan's room was on the eastern side of the hotel and he said he woke up to the sound of automatic gun fire in the direction of the airport!
Looking over to St. Francis Catholic Church and Tripoli harbour and the Mediterranean Sea beyond.
An old Cadillac parked on the street near our hotel. The red graffiti on the wall says "God is greater & Libya’s Dawn".
Just before 9am we met up with Salem and Yousuf again and then drove out to the western side of the city.
We then arrived at our first stop, the Janzur Museum.
Janzur is the site of Punic catacombs dating between the first and the fourth centuries AD. The complex was accidentally discovered in 1958 when a farmer discovered one of the underground tombs.
Inside the small museum that was built over one of the most significant tombs discovered.
Arabic and English text describing some of the recovered antiquities.
Clay olive oil lamps.
A large clay jar dating from the second and third century AD that was used for keeping the remains of the deceased after cremation.
The main royal tomb with its white walls covered in still vivid paintings of everyday life with various people and animals.
Yousuf said that the paintings were original, with no restoration required after being well preserved after almost 2,000 years in the sealed underground tomb.
More jars that were used to store remains of the deceased.
Exploring the rest of the site outside of the museum. Alot of the cemetery remains unexcavated.
One of the Punic burials, which are also the oldest of the cemeteries on the site and date from the first century AD. They consist of a rectangular, open pit with built-in steps along one side for easy descent to the burial room dug underneath.
One of the olive tree's remaining from when the site was originally a farm. Yousuf said that the farmer that discovered the tombs was given a job as a watchman but else wasn't compensated for losing his land when it became an archaelogical site.
Passing by a bullet ridden cartoon mural of Gaddafi as we drove east back towards the city centre. The arabic text at top is a poem that reads:
The tent and the womb and the women know me.
Tyranny, and arrogance and injustice.
I was accompanied in the headship by the chair solo.
Until the Arabs and the non-Arabs were surprised.
Those who despise us, we have to shoot them.
With rockets, since everything after me is nothing.
Adidas & Reebok.
We then drove down an alley in a residential area and parked beside to what seemed like someones backyard.
Beneath the yard however was another underground catacomb looked after by a single caretaker.
Yousuf said that it had been broken into by vandals a few years ago and significantly damaged. Some of the wall paintings were luckily still in good condition however.
It was hard to believe such beautiful and historic images were protected by a single padlocked door.
Cinnabon. We then drove back towards the city centre.
At quite a colourful and trendy local café where we stopped for a mid-morning break.
The place was delightfully decorated with retro American posters.
And a full complement of different types of coffees available. It was really surprising to see the menu in only English too.
12 Libyan dinars for an Oreo milkshake. $9 at the official rate but much less at the going black market rate.
Upstairs where the café was decorated with a more classical look complete with a piano player. It was quite surreal to be in such a cool, quirky place with Tripolitans enjoying coffee and cake while militia's were battling each other only a few kilometres away two days ago.
Salem (left) and Yousuf (right) posing for a photo.
Enjoying a hot cappuccino and poundcake. Yousuf said that Egyptian and Morrocans used to perform most service jobs in the country up until the revolution when they fled the country, and that now local Libyans had to fill these roles.
And having a chat outside with the piano man, a friend of Yousuf's.
Driving through an upmarket area of Tripoli where there were some very nice houses.
Our next stop was the Commonwealth Tripoli War Cemetery, located in the Mansura district.
During the North African campaign of World War II, Tripoli was an important Axis base until taken by the British in January 1943. It then became a medical centre, and the burials in the war cemetery were almost entirely from the hospitals.
A cross in the middle of the cemetery. There were caretakers making sure the cemetery was kept in immaculate condition and Yousuf half-joked that it was the cleanest place in Tripoli.
As well as United Kingdom there were graves for military personnel from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.
Next door was the now disused Italian Municipal Christian Cemetery and which was unfortunately now in ruins from both neglect and vandalism.
A damaged gravestone lying in the grass.
At just after 1pm we headed to a local restaurant for some lunch.
Soup to start.
Followed by some tasty lamb and couscous.
After lunch we headed towards the Medina along Al Kurnish Road, passing by the JW Marriott. The five star hotel opened on the 15th of February, 2011, just days before the Libyan Civil War began. Guests and staff were evacuated to Amman two weeks later and the hotel has remained closed ever since.
That El Emad Towers.
Passing a Toyota Technical outside the Port.
We then stopped to explore the Tripoli Medina / Old City.
The Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 and the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors.
It was constructed in 165 by Gaius Calpurnius Celsus to commemorate the victories of the Roman–Parthian War.
We then walked through Tripoli's Medina Quarter.
The labyrinth of streets and alleys were a real delight to walk through and explore.
French Street, named after where the French Consulate used to be situated.
Graffiti that says "The west (of Libya) sat down, so cut off the free".
The Historic Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, dating back to 1647 and the oldest Orthodox church in North Africa.
Continuing our walk through the medina.
A crystal adorned Djellaba for sale, a long, loose-fitting outer robe with full sleeves that is worn in North Africa.
The entrance to Gurgi Mosque, located in the heart of Tripoli Medina.
The mosque was commissioned by Naval Captain Mustafa Gurgi and built in 1834 during the Ottoman era.
The Clock Tower in the distance with a large, bustling crowd just below.
The crowd was people negotiating the exchange of Libyan dinars for dollars and euros. Although the dinar is officially fixed to the US dollar by the Libyan Central Bank at the rate of 1.37, Yousuf said the current black market rate was about 8 dinars to the dollar.
Credit and debit cards, both international and domestic, are no longer accepted in Libya also.
Crescents, the symbol of Islam and used to adorn the top of minarets.
At a café in the medina.
And a strong espresso for a mid-afternoon caffeine fix.
Fridge magnets for sale, despite almost zero tourists visiting the country for the last few years.
Jordan with Salem and Yousuf walking through the souq.
The flag of Libya painted on a door. Originally introduced in 1951 following the creation of the Kingdom of Libya, dropped during the Gaddafi era and reinstated follwing the 2011 Libyan Revolution.
And at the end of our very interesting and fascinating walking tour through the medina.
Libyan flags flying on the edge of Martyrs' Square on Albaladia Street.
Martyrs' Square was known as Green Square under Gaddafi, Independence Square during the monarchy and as Piazza Italia (Italy Square) during Italian colonial rule.
Libyan rebel groups took control of the area in August 2011 during the Battle of Tripoli and started referring to it as Martyrs' Square to commemorate those who died in the fight against the government.
Tripolis Festival 2017. Despite the lack of stable government and sporadic fighting still ocurring within the city, it was great to see life still carrying on with some sense of normality.
Enjoying a cup of tea beside Saraya Lake. A mother and daughter to the right were quite curious to see a couple of westerners in the city and introduced themselves and we had a bit of a chat.
Paddle boats on the lake.
Ice cream truck. We then walked east along Sharia al Fatah Street.
We heard a bit of a commotion, and after walking closer realised it was a parade of Libyan boys and girls in traditional dress.
The parade passing in front of the former Tripoli Cathedral. Opened in 1928 during the Italian Libya colonial era, it is now known as Jamal Abdul Nasser Mosque after conversion during the Gaddafi era.
The kids were all part of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.
Yousuf said that they were from throughout Libya and not just Tripoli and were wearing traditional dress from different parts of the country.
The girls wearing very elaborate dresses.
Lots of vibrant colours and adorned with gold and beads.
Normally the locals were apprehensive of people pointing a camera in their direction, but as everyone had their smartphone out taking photos and video it was much easier to also snap away without any issues.
Quite a fascinating and immersive spectacle to experience.
The parade then entered the old Governor's Palace built during the Italian Colonial era.
A sculpture of a dove made from bullet casings in front of the Palace. After independence it became the Royal Palace of Tripoli and the official residence of King Idris of Libya. After the 2011 Libyan Revolution it is now a public library.
Boy scouts in uniform.
Speeches being given outside the old Palace at the end of the procession. The parade was definitely one of those serendipitous travel experiences which we were very fortunate to encounter and enjoy!
We then walked to a Souq Dahra. A Libyan cat having a big stretch!
Pulses and spices.
The souq was built during the Italian Colonial era.
For dinner we headed to a nearby Turkish restaurant. After the exodus from Libya of Egyptian, Morrocan and other foreign workers, it was quite a surprise to see these Turkish gentlemen still here.
I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and went to turn the tap on but nothing came out. However there were bottles of water next to the sink to use instead. Later Yousuf said that parts of Tripoli had been without water for almost a fortnight after the pro-Qaddafi militia of the Magarha tribe in the south of the country disabled a pumping station after their leader, Al-Mabrouk Ahnish, was captured and detained.
A large glass of Ayran to quench to thirst after all the walking.
And some tasty chicken döner at the end of a very interesting and immersive day of exploring Tripoli.