The Middle East (Part 5/8) - Jordan - Oasis of Calm

Updated: Mar 31, 2019


The Treasury, Petra, Jordan
In the Pink: The Treasury, Petra

Jordan: under the radar Jordan. What springs to mind? A tasty, crunchy, though somewhat difficult to eat breakfast cereal? A blonde who used to go out with Dwight Yorke? An ex-basketball player? All true, and I think fair to say all more in the public consciousness than the country itself. The country is, much like Syria and Lebanon, pretty much out of the international spotlight most of the time, even as far as tourism goes - excepting Petra of course, which many do on day trips from Israel. Jordan, like Lebanon and Syria, is in a very tough neighbourhood internationally, but it manages to keep under the radar, and in fact it has in recent years steered itself through the choppy seas of middle eastern politics quite admirably. It's managed to broker a peace accord with Israel, most noticeably and significantly - no easy task, considering the huge number of Palestinian refugees that flooded into the country after Israel became a state, and after the 1967 six day war, when the West Bank was taken away from Jordan and came under Israeli control. More recently, large numbers of Iraqis have come into the country since the fall of Saddam. Having been to Lebanon, Jordan didn't really hold any fears for me - there have been very few cases of bombings in the country even in the recent turbulent times - and there have almost never been any cases of foreigners experiencing problems in the country. Quite the contrary, as a tourist one is almost overwhelmed in Jordan by hospitality; one of the first phrases you hear as you enter the country is "Welcome to Jordan" and the number of times you hear kids and grown men in the street say as you are passing "You are welcome" is something striking, and heartfelt.

Downtown Amman, Jordan
Amman: flagging as a tourist destination

Amman: low-key capital

Amman is the first place you come to on entering the country from the northern side (from Syria), as I did after another tiring bus journey, this time from Damascus - about 6 hours. Oh for rail travel in this part of the world. Amman is not one of the great cities of antiquity. Indeed, coming from Damascus, and having seen Aleppo, Istanbul and even Beirut, Amman feels like a huge disappointment. It's a very large city (4 million plus) and has endless non-descript suburbs - many refugees living on the outskirts in semi-shanty towns and camps. It's got a handful of sights, including a so-so citadel on a hill and a Roman amphitheatre, both of which can be seen in the first morning you are there. Erm, and that's it. The downtown area is totally non-descript, there is little for the tourist to do, especially during Ramadan when all the restaurants and bars simply close down during daylight hours, and there are scarcely any parks or open spaces (rivers, castles or gardens) where you might get away from the noise and fumes of the traffic and the crowds of people. In my opinion, and I think I'm onto something here, the best thing about Amman is the road out of it. Yes, perhaps I should have given it more of a chance, but I wasn't in the mood. I had plenty more to see in the country, and Jordan is not at all renowned for its cities. It's an outdoor kind of place. I was itching to don my Indiana Jones hat and explore. I did meet one interesting character in Amman, in my hostel. An American guy - Texan - caught my eye in the common room (he seemed itching to talk to someone) so I got into conversation. He turned out to be probably the most well-travelled person I've ever met - that is, if you consider the term 'well-travelled' to mean 'how many countries I've been to'. This guy had visited 147 - he said was 10 short of having been to every country in the world. He was in Jordan as a stop-over before getting his visa to Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I pointed out that it was not possible, currently, to get an Iraqi visa unless you were a journalist or aid-worker, and that Saudi visas are only given to individuals who have work there. Unperturbed by this, he told me of his raison d'etre. He seemed to be on a kind of travelling train-spotting mission, a bucket-lister par excellence, ticking off as many countries as he could before he popped his clogs. When I asked about some lesser-visited central Asian countries like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, he became a bit hazy, and his recollections of Moldova, Belarus and Armenia amounted to little more than transiting across by train. In fact, he didn't seem to have spent much time anywhere, including the Middle East - he just seemed to fly into one country before applying for a visa to get to the next one. His knowledge of Jordan was scant - he wasn't aware of Petra even - possibly the most famous Jordanian sight of all. As for Syria, which, he'd just left, he'd flown into Damascus at night and taken the night bus straight to Amman - so he admitted he hadn't seen much of that, either. When I asked him where he most enjoyed on his travels, he seemed stumped, and finally, after some head scratching, came up with "Y'know, I guess nowhere's quite like the States - but Australia came close". When I queried the reason for him doing all this and going to all these places, he replied simply and with a knowing smile, "because they're there". I couldn't argue with that.

Amman's Roman amphitheatre, Jordan
Amman's amphitheatre - some rare Roman antiquity

Travel headaches

I left Amman after less than 24 hours, without a heavy heart. I hadn't expected much, so it didn't disappoint in that respect. I spent a night in a place called Madaba. This was a mildly interesting place which was famous for its mosaics, and was an important Christian town historically, with some old churches. Not that you would really notice that being there during Ramadan. Being there towards the end of Ramadan, as I was, the Muezzin calls - especially the morning ones - went on much longer than usual, so any church bells tolling were well and truly drowned out. The hotel I stayed in there had a thin wall and window right next to the mosque, and the imam's call to prayer went on from 4.30am to 5.30am without a pause. You do get kind of used to being woken up by the morning call if you're a light sleeper whilst travelling through the Middle East - but this wasn't one of those pleasant holiday moments where you wake up feeling you are somewhere exotic and then roll over and go back to sleep once it's stopped. This went on seemingly forever. Combined with some nasty bedbugs, this meant I had a virtually sleepless night. When I finally did drop off, about 6am, I only got two hours sleep because they were digging up the road outside the hotel and the drilling started like an unpleasant hammer to the head at 8am sharp. I left in a ratty mood, which wasn't improved when I found out there was no public transport from Madaba to, well, pretty much anywhere except back to Amman; it was a kind of trap, where if you wanted to go anywhere, you had to do it by taxi. I took one up to Mount Nebo, where Moses was said to have looked down upon the Dead Sea and the Promised Land. Disappointingly, it was flooded with tour buses, particularly ones with eastern Europeans aboard, and we could not convince any of them to let us hitch a ride to the Dead Sea. Taxis were asking extortionate prices to drive down there - $50-$70 - so I was forced into the irritating move of backtracking to Amman where I could get an onward bus to Karak, and make my way down to the Dead Sea from there. Jordan is the worst country I've ever been for public transport. There are no trains, like every country in the Middle East, but there are also no regulated bus companies running except from one major town to another, and only very irregular mini buses to smaller places - which there are fewer of than normal during Ramadan. So you're basically left with hitching (easier than most countries but not ideal), taking a taxi everywhere (and there weren't service taxis so that's expensive), or hiring your own car (very expensive). All in all, a big headache to get around.

Karak's Crusader Castle, Jordan
Karak's Crusader Castle

Karak

I got to Karak late and after a tiresome journey back to Amman and along the desert highway. The scenery however had been inspiring - wild and empty, the country felt more desert-like than any we'd been in so far. When I got to Karak, I really started to get into Jordan. It's an ancient town built on a hill, at the top of which is a very fine Crusader Castle with, as usual, arresting views of the surrounding countryside. I ended up in yet another disappointing hotel though, and the state of the bathroom does not bear remembering - the contents of the toilet seemed to flood the floor every time it was flushed, and the whole room stank. Our hotel owner was a really genial and welcoming guy however, and very apologetically moved us into a new room the next day. Next day, I strolled around the castle and as usual had the place pretty much to myself, without paying anything to get in. The place had a rather forgotten air about it, but should definitely be on people's itineraries - not as stunning as Krak de Chevaliers maybe, but well worth a look. I had got a little castled-out really, and had also become a bit blasé where spectacular Roman ruins were concerned, but that's not to take anything away from the startling beauty of these places.

Eastern shore of the Dead Sea, Jordan
Dead quiet: the deserted eastern shore of the Dead Sea

The Dead Sea - on the cheap

From Karak, I made my way down to the Dead Sea. Or at least I did after one aborted attempt, when I got on the wrong bus and ended up going in completely the wrong direction. It was only when I noticed we were going up, not down, that I realized the mistake. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth - 400m below sea level - so logically, all points to it are above. When I did get on the right bus, it descended for several hundred metres, and the air became several degrees warmer and stickier. When I got dropped off by the bus, about 2km from the lake shore and not far from where some archaeologists believe is the biblical site of Sodom and Gomorrah, the temperature had risen to about 35 degrees and there was not a breath of wind. The Dead Sea is not, contrary to some people's mistaken belief, a sea at all - it is a large lake, in the rift valley which runs up from Aqaba and splits Israel and Jordan, right up to the sea of Galilee in northern Israel. It is the saltiest lake on earth - not because of its low altitude, but because of the evaporation levels - leaving the 'sea' utterly devoid of life - hence its name. Purchasing a large bottle of water, I made my way, with the aid of a guy who gave me a lift a few hundred metres in his pick-up, to the lake's shore. The area I had chosen to bathe was dictated by one factor - where was cheapest and easiest to get to without spending money on a taxi - so instead of ending up in one of the plush Dead Sea resorts where they have lovely civilized things like freshwater showers and deckchairs with shade (actually there aren't many of these on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea - most are in Israel), I trudged down to a completely deserted shore, miles from the closest house or shop, not another person in sight. I passed a goatherd who stared at me as if I were mad. As I neared the serene and utterly bereft wilderness of the shore, white with the salt deposits of the Dead Sea, I came to an area of mudflats which it was necessary to traverse in order to get to the lake.