On any normal morning, Beirut’s largest bus and taxi station is packed with drivers, eagerly jousting for the custom of travellers heading to Damascus or Jordan.

Now the station lies virtually deserted, with just a few stalwarts waiting to make the same journey they always have – albeit using dramatically different routes.

As he swings his 1980s Chevrolet caprice classic onto the main highway leading north towards Syria, Tony Daoud, a driver from the Christian district of Ashrafieh in east Beirut, says that times have changed.

"For years, I've done a return trip from Beirut to Damascus every day.

"Each way would normally take about two and a half hours, depending on traffic at the border.

"Now it takes about double that time to get to Damascus – although I’m charging $50 instead of $10 for a place."

Few options

With few of Lebanon's main roads spared from Israeli air strikes, residents wanting to leave their war-torn country now have two options - hitch a ride on one of the few ships still evacuating foreign nationals, or take the coastal route up to Syria.

The main Beirut-Damascus highway was one of the first targets of Israeli rockets. Israel said it was trying to strangle alleged weapons supply routes between Syria and Hezbollah.

Later, even relatively minor roads into the Bekaa came under attack, almost totally cutting off the valley from Beirut and isolating the previously frantic Syrian border crossing at Masnaa, through which tens of thousands of people had fled in the earlier days of the conflict.

The coastal highway running north from Beirut has also been hit, but is passable.

Grinding to a halt

Near to the Casino du Liban, which overlooks the largely Christian port town of Jounieh, cars grind to a halt.

The road to the border at Masnaa
has been heavily bombed

Five days earlier, Israeli rockets had hit the Beirut-bound lane of the motorway as it passed over a small valley. But the bridge is still open, and, in true Lebanese style, drivers simply steer around the cordoned-off rubble in a single slow-moving lane. 

Further north, we are diverted off the highway just before the port of Byblos, which, with a claim to being one of the oldest continuously-inhabited settlements in the world, is celebrating its 7,000th birthday this year.

The route north continues by a single-lane road, passing under a destroyed bridge, now a mangled mess of metal wire, tumbledown concrete blocks and grey dust, before rejoining the highway once again.

"Relax, you are in El Mina, the city of waves and horizon," says the overhead sign as we approach Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, 85km north of the capital.

Tripoli

And whilst Tripoli might well be a relative place to relax, unscathed by air strikes, its waves are tainted by the catastrophic oil spill which has spread north from Jiyyeh, south of Beirut, where Israeli rockets hit a fuel depot in mid-July and sent thousands of tonnes of oil into the Mediterranean.

Above Tripoli we turn inland and drive across verdant countryside.

Fields of olive groves, fruit trees and date palms rush by on both sides of the road, whilst a handful of children lead a cow alongside a dilapidated tractor. The apparent tranquillity, however, is deceptive.

"Look, this is where they hit," says Tony, as the cars in front suddenly brake to swerve around a small crater, the metallic wreckage of what could have been a small garage strewn at the side of the road.

Despite the potential risk, dozens of lorries still clog the road in both directions around the chaotic border crossing at Abboudiyeh, which is not used to this volume of traffic.

'Lira, lira!" shout the money-exchange touts at the border point, brandishing thick wads of Syrian notes at those looking to get rid of their Lebanese currency before entering Syria.

Many, of course, have no cash at all, leaving Lebanon with just a handful of belongings and no idea of when they might be able to return home.