The thaw in relations cracks open a tantalizingly closed door. On the other side are such marvels of the ancient world as the ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna; the vibrant capital city of Tripoli, poised between dilapidation and rehabilitation; 1,250 miles of Mediterranean coast; oasis towns still visited by camel caravans; and the intelligent, self-sure Libyan people, who met me with eager curiosity on my visit in late April and early May.
Best of all, Libya, like China in the 1970s, remains largely untouched by the despoiling hand of commercial tourism. There's a prevailing air of naiveté and freshness unlike any I've ever felt.
Visitors have been trickling into Libya all along. It received 300,000 foreign tourists last year, mostly Europeans drawn by Libya's fabled Roman ruins, considered the best outside Italy, and its sandy Saharan south, which in the last decade has taken the place of strife-torn Algeria as a destination for desert treks.
There's nothing easy about visiting Libya, especially for Americans. A U.S. State Department warning, citing the country's sponsorship of terrorism, remains in effect, and tourist services are unsophisticated. Except for the new Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel in Tripoli, accommodations are rudimentary. At tourist sites, printed information is scant, and guides speak halting English. Changing dollars for Libyan dinars is an ordeal; credit cards are rarely accepted; alcohol is banned, in adherence to Muslim law. And just try to get a visa.
At the time of my visit, tourists could enter the country only as part of a group, with a letter of invitation from a tour company. So I joined a desert trekking party organized by Mountain Travel Sobek, a Northern California adventure travel company. The journey, billed as the first American tourist venture into Libya since travel sanctions were lifted in March, featured a week of hiking in the Acacus Mountains near the Sahara oasis town of Ghat, followed by a three-day extension seeing the sights around Tripoli on the coast, which interested me most.
Because I am living in Paris, I applied for a visa at the Libyan consulate there. After gathering the necessary papers and having the first pages of my passport translated into Arabic, I got a visa in a week.
A farewell drink
My fellow trekkers from the U.S., whose visas were applied for at the Libyan consulate in London, weren't as fortunate. Two days before the group planned to rendezvous in London, their visas still hadn't been issued. Ten of the 16 people who had signed up for the trip flew to London anyway, hoping to get the documents before the flight to Tripoli.
We gathered on a Saturday night at the Polo Lounge in the Heathrow Airport Radisson Hotel. Gin and tonics flowed freely, though no one was quite sure whether they were imbibing one last time before a dry week and a half in Libya or drowning their sorrow over not getting to go. Because I had a visa, mine was a farewell drink.
Trip leader and Mountain Travel Sobek co-founder Richard Bangs, a veteran of first descents of wild rivers in China and Ethiopia, wasn't about to be left behind. He contacted Soleiman Abboud, a Libyan tour operator, and in so doing let a genie out of a bottle. Abboud arranged for an associate to fly to Bonn, Germany, get the visas from the Libyan consulate there and return to London, delaying the group's departure by just one day.
Meanwhile, I flew to Tripoli, where I was met by Ludovic Bousquet, a Sahara Desert guide for Hommes et Montagnes, the French company with which Mountain Travel Sobek had subcontracted to organize the trekking part of the trip. With him was local Libyan guide Bilal Aghali, a willowy fellow in a billowing white robe, who told me immediately that he was mentioned on Page 203 of the Lonely Planet guide to Libya. (He is.)
They took me by van to Aldeyafa Hotel, on a street in downtown Tripoli surrounded by construction sites; nine hotels are due to open here in the next year, they said. The rooms at the Aldeyafa were small, ugly and airless, but the baths were sparkling clean and oversized. Breakfast was yogurt, muesli and Nescafé.
The three of us headed out to see the city on foot. Bilal immediately pointed out a white Hyundai. "They all came at once," he said. "Everybody has them. We call them anthrax."
When I marveled at the fake Christmas trees in shops along Omar al-Mukhtar Street, named for a martyred hero in the resistance movement against early 20th century Italian colonial rule, Bilal said they would be used the next week for decorations in celebration of the prophet Muhammad's birthday. Then he showed me how to cross the street in Tripoli, where the roads aren't divided into lanes, there are no stop signs and vehicles move in herds. You walk out bravely, with a raised hand and index finger pointing heavenward, as if to say, "Fail to stop at the risk of Allah's wrath." It worked.
I could spend more time in Tripoli, which has about 1.5 million people, a fourth of Libya's total population. It has been many things since the Phoenicians founded it about 500 BC: a Roman colonial hub that sent grain, slaves and gold from central Africa to the Imperial capital; an outpost of gilded Byzantium; home port of Barbary pirates; and the seat of colonial aspirations of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini before Libya gained its independence after World War II. It sits beside the Mediterranean, all white and toothpaste green, decorated everywhere with portraits of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Kadafi, not sure whether it is going to join the 21st century or continue to molder on the North African coast.
In the city's heart, on Green Square, where both Kadafi and Mussolini addressed crowds, I found a lone touristy gesture: a man with a tawny gazelle, skittishly posing for pictures with visitors. Streets to the east, with shuttered balconies and Baroque plaster molding, speak of the Italian colonial period, which started in 1911 and left many Libyans fluent in Italian, eating pasta and bearing Italian last names.
To the west of the square are the walled old city and castle, which date largely from the era of the Ottoman Turks from 1500 to 1800 and house the Jamahiriya Museum, where I saw much to admire and intrigue: its extraordinary cache of sculpture, mosaics, coins and other treasures from the classical world; Roman friezes from the triumphal arch in Leptis Magna; a polished marble statue of the Three Graces from the Greek satellite city Cyrene in eastern Libya; and Kadafi's battered green VW bug, which got him around while he engineered the 1969 coup that toppled King Idris I.