Friday, December 27, 2013

Golan Heights – Between Heaven and Hell

Last week I visited the Golan Heights twice. On Wednesday, I drove up to Mt. Hermon with a friend to do some skiing.  On Friday and Saturday I went up with a group of friends and we hiked two segments of the ‘Golan Trail’ (שביל הגולן). The winter storm that blew a week earlier covered the Golan Heights with fresh snow - the whole area turned into a “fantasy land”. The Israeli side of the border was filled with visitors who came up to play in the snow. But on the Syrian side, you could hear explosions and heavy machine guns, as the battles raged between pro and anti-government forces. It was a surreal experience.

I haven’t been to the Mt. Hermon ski resort for several decades. My first visit, roughly at the age of 15, was with my family. We rented a single pair of skis and took turns. I remember mounting the skis, and immediately starting to slide uncontrollably. Fortunately, it was on a rather level ground, so my “adventure” ended up with a minor collision with a fence.  

View of Syrian side of border
Can you spot the smoke columns?
This early ski experience was more than enough for me. I didn't attempt skiing again for almost 20 years… I supposed that living in California, 4.5hrs away from Lake Tahoe, helped reshape my opinion of skiing. I took some lessons, gained more experience and managed to turn myself into an intermediate skier.  Last week’s visit to Mt Hermon gave me an opportunity to conquer that mountain, and erase the memory of my early “trauma”.

I must admit that our little ski trip was not without trepidation. I was pretty sure I could handle the ski slopes better than last time. But my concerns revolved more around handling the crowds. “You are heading to Mt. Hermon? You must be crazy!” another friend of mine retorted. “You have no idea what a mayhem you are going into!” he added. I was told to expect long lines, fist fights at the bottom of the ski lifts, and numerous rowdy skiers who will threaten my safety and ruin my day. He was proven wrong.

We arrived at the Mt Hermon ski resort later in the morning. We breezed through the equipment rental and quickly found myself at the ski lift. The lines weren’t too long, and people were generally cordial to each other. The ski runs were at decent intermediate level, and the skiers and snowboarders were no better or worse than the ones I encountered in California.

The only caveat I could think of was that some parts of the ski runs were covered by a rather thin layer of snow. Granted, this was the first snow storm of the season. Another storm or two could turn skiing at Mt. Hermon into a great experience. It wouldn't pale in comparison with some of the Lake Tahoe resorts I visited. And it is only 3.5hrs from home.

My second trip was to another part of the Golan Heights. My wife and I are members of a group that tracks the Golan Trail. It is a 125km long trail that stretches from Mt. Hermon at the north, to the southern section of the Goal Heights. We are doing a couple of trail segments each visit, so it will be a while before we are done. 

The segments we did last weekend were around Tel Hazeka, about 35km south of Mt. Hermon. The area around Tel Hazeka was covered with snow - about knee deep. The hiking trails have been partially cleared, so we altered between stumbling in snow and plowing through mud. I know it sounds like a potential torture, but we were very fortunate with the weather:  blue sky and sunshine, which made the hiking experience quite fun. After all, how often do you get a chance to roll in the snow in Israel?

The daily segments we tracked were relatively short: 5-6km each; plus we made plenty of stops for refreshments, freshly brewed coffee and sweets. Along the way we met dozens of other Israelis who came to watch and play in the snow. It was simply a white-weekend celebration.

That is if you were on the Israeli side of the border.

While we were having fun and enjoying ourselves, we could constantly hear the sounds of battle on the other side of the border. Most of us have served in the army, and some even had combat experience. What we heard didn't sound like a small “gang war”. We heard the sound of shells, mortars, rockets and heavy machine guns. This was “the real thing”.

We climbed to an observation point and could see the Syrian territory below us. The battle was raging in some of the towns that were a few kilometers away. Every once in a while we could spot a bright flash, followed by a sound of explosion and then a cloud of smoke. People were getting hurt there.

The Syrian side of the border was also covered with snow. But we couldn't spot any visitors or weekend travelers. After all, who would think about building a snowman when mortars explode all around them?

I can’t even begin to explain the feeling of dissonance. On one side of the border – weekend travelers merrily play in the snow, and children engage in snowball flights. On the other side of the border – a battle rages where men, women and children are being killed.

The Golan Heights is a piece of land where a thin fence separates Heaven from Hell.

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