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

Updated: Mar 31, 2019


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.

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 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

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.

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.

Watch your step: thick mud flats surround the Dead Sea in Jordan

Inevitably, this became harder and harder to cross without sinking up to my ankles in thick, hot, gooey mud which burnt and stung my feet, and grazed them with little bits of gravel as I pulled them out, sometimes minus a flip-flop. After finally getting through this last obstacle, I was on the salty crust which forms a kind of 'beach' by the Dead Sea. Stripping down to my boxers, I plunged in to the brackish, salty water. The feeling of being in the Dead Sea is quite strange. At first, you are elated by the whole experience, and bob around in the manner of a child - amazed at seeing a new law of physics in action. I covered myself in mud from head to foot - its healing and restorative properties to the skin are renowned, and people pay a lot for dead sea bath products. After a few minutes however, the feeling of being in the Dead Sea becomes unbearable. The effect of the salt on the little grazes on my ankles was incredible - it exacerbated the pain about ten-fold, and other little cuts on my face and the rest of my body were similarly becoming extremely painful. Also, the slick, salty water - about 30% salinity - sticks to your skin, and feels extremely unpleasant. Using it to wash off the mud isn't ideal. Once you dry off, you're covered in a thin crust of salt. On exiting the water - also difficult, as you have to wade through more hot mud and then try to dry yourself off whilst swatting away flies - you become extremely thirsty. It is about 35 degrees, there is nothing but salt and salty water around you, your mouth even has salt inside, and you have run out of water. You have a long, dusty, uphill trek back to the road to hitch ride back to the bus stop where you hope the shop is still open to buy some water. You sink into more mud, lose your flip-flops, and hike uncomfortably over stony ground back to the road, almost dead from heat exhaustion. I do not exaggerate. I would not particularly recommend the Dead Sea - at least not in the way I did it. It's one place you should shell out a bit in order to enjoy the experience. I wish I had. Be warned.

Obligatory Dead Sea 'floating' shot

Dana National Park - Dix Points

Dana National Park was my next stop. The pun is purely coincidental; the Israeli trans-gender, 1998 Israeli Eurovision winner, Dana International, is unlikely to have named him/herself after this remote and beautiful area. Little-known or visited, it is, and I've become tired of using this cliche about places in the Middle East (though it's so true), a hidden gem. South of Karak, there is quite an impressive mountain range running north-south through Jordan for over 150km, and Dana is hidden away in the middle of this. The bus journey from Karak had been spectacular - it traversed a deep ravine called Wadi Mujib - and I'd taken plenty of pictures on the way. I'd been recommended a camp-site in a biosphere reserve by our hotel owner in Karak, and was picked up from the bus by a guy in a battered old Toyota and whisked to a cliff-top camp-site, completely in the middle of nowhere. It was basic - small huts or tents with oil lamps, lumpy beds and cold showers with hole-in-the-ground toilets outside - but in many ways, it was the most memorable and perfect place I stayed on the entire trip. There was nothing nearby - just an immense valley that opened out beneath me and stretched for miles - and a huge sky above. The village where the bus dropped me was inaccessible by foot and the main road was not even very close. It couldn't have been more 'wilderness' - and it was just perfect at this stage in the trip. I spent two days happily hiking around the area, which was scrubby and stony, but utterly breathtaking. Like Qadisha Valley in Lebanon, it was a huge rift valley, and stunning rock outcrops or precipitous ridges were in every direction - you just had to walk out of the campsite to be out in the wilderness.

'Wadi' - deep rift valley - in Dana National Park

The friendly campsite owner drew a map for me on day two as I attempted to hike to Dana village - there were no marked footpaths or official maps - and pointed out a route which involved going down the very steep valley and back up the other side, before following a convoluted route which an Aboriginal tribesman would have had trouble keeping to. In the still extreme heat, I took the precaution of buying two large bottles of water before leaving - and these were crucial. After several hours of hiking, I inevitably got lost. I decided it was wise to follow a sheep-dog and his herd of sheep - they must be going to the closest village, I thought - and luckily, they did. I had hiked for a good five hours, and on reaching Dana (we got a lift for the final couple of kilometres), I felt pretty pleased with myself. In many ways, it's even more stunning in its setting than where our campsite was, set in a hollow in the cliff of a different but equally breath-taking and deep valley (they are known as 'wadis' in Jordan). My mint tea and humus tasted good, looking down on the silence and beauty from one of the few restaurants in the otherwise lifeless and solitary village. Later, I met and played cards with a Korean photographer and documentary maker. He showed me some clips from the show he had been involved in - which he was making about Jordan - and it struck me how many great things there were still to see in Jordan - I'd left the best to last in Petra and Wadi Rum. He left at midnight, to take pictures of the stars, he told me. When I looked up into the sky, I could see why - the sky was immense, and glistening with the millions of tiny pricks of white light that you just rarely see living in cities.

Big skies: Dana is an incredible place to view the stars

Petra

Petra was next on my list of things to do. I organized a taxi - the buses being non-existent - and I was there in under two hours, for a very reasonable price. Petra is without doubt the biggest tourist attraction in Jordan - and arguably in the Middle East, outside the Pyramids of Giza. I was not really in the mood for a massive tourist trap, having been to Dana and completely in the wilderness for a few days. But on the other hand, you cannot avoid Petra. It is massively popular for a reason - and that's because it is truly a sight to behold. Petra is the sort of place that usually exists only in the imagination. This unique ancient city was hewn from a towering rock wall; few of the imposing facades of its great buildings are freestanding. It's hard to overrate Petra. There's no other sight in Jordan, or perhaps the whole Middle East, as compelling - the locals know it, and they'll charge you accordingly. You could easily spend several days of your holiday there, going on many repeat visits to see more of it - because it's absolutely huge. It stretches over several square miles. It's an ancient (2500 years or so) Nabatean (a defunct Arabic race of nomadic traders) city, which was indeed the capital of the ancient kingdom of Nabatea. It was famously described as "a rose-red city half as old as time" in a sonnet by John William Burgon. UNESCO has described it as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage". No doubt because of such a reputation, it is not cheap to get into - a one day pass is about $40 - which comes in at about double the Taj Mahal in India (about $20). I can't really say anything bad about Petra, other than this slight grumble about the entrance fee. I loved it, and it's probably worth every penny. It's one of the true highlights of any visit through the Levant.

Nabatean Tombs, Petra

From the moment you enter, a long walk down the 'Siq', a spectacular 1.2 kilometre path carved through the towering red rock to the Treasury - famed from Indiana Jones films and redolent of a film set more than a 3000 year old monument - you walk around with your mouth open, unable to believe your eyes you are privileged to witness such beauty. You stroll around a site which is simply huge - two or three days is reasonable if you want to explore it in real depth - and come across endless fascinating tombs carved into the rock, buildings seemingly hewn straight out of the cliff-face which have endured for millenia and will likely endure several more. El Deir, The Monastery at the top of a strenuous mountain climb, gives out to fantastic views out over the surrounding spectacular rocky range, and comes a close second to the Treasury as most impressive site. You think you've seen everything after a few hours, then turn a corner a come over the crest of a hill, and you come across a whole lot more. The Royal Tombs, etched into the rock as if it were carved from clay, is another hugely impressive and unmissable site. Sure, Petra is touristy. But by about 3 or 4pm, all those tourists who got up early to avoid each other are completely knackered, and the place empties - you are surrounded by red rocks and sand that change colour ever so slowly as the sun sets on them - and the magnificent monuments that the Nabateans carved into them. Magical. If you can ignore annoying touts with donkeys and cups of tea for ten dollars. I ran out of batteries and was quoted 9 Jordanian pounds ($12) for a set of 4 Duracell. Now that's what rampant capitalism and a world-class tourist sight does for you.


El Deir Monastery: rewards a strenuous climb with superb views

The Royal Tombs, Petra

Wadi Rum - Lawrentian

My last stop in Jordan was Wadi Rum. This place is accessible by one public bus - at 6 o'clock in the morning - and I sleepily got on it, limbs still aching from the previous day's strenuous hiking in Petra. The bus took us through some early morning fog in the surrounding mountains and over to the small Bedouin village of Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum is a valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock in southwest Jordan. It is the largest wadi (valley) in Jordan. The name Rum most likely comes from an Aramaic root meaning 'high' or 'elevated'. The area is now also one of Jordan's important tourist destinations, and attracts an increasing number of foreign tourists, particularly trekkers and climbers, but also for camel and horse safari or simply 'day-trippers' from Aqaba or Petra. In contrast, there are almost no local or Arab tourists though nearby Disi (not actually part of Rum) attracts young people from Amman at weekends. Popular activities in the desert environment include camping under the stars, riding Arab horses, hiking and rock-climbing amongst the massive rock formations. Jabal Rum (1754 metres above sea level) is the second highest peak in Jordan. I went there as a day trip just to feel a bit closer to the nature that Lawrence of Arabia fell in love with and described in such detail in his "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" - which he named after the famous pointed rock formations just outside Wadi Rum. I had run out of money by this stage in the holiday, and, when faced with a big sign outside the protectorate of the desert national park listing all of the various excursions available - ranging from $15 for an hour to over 300 for a three day excursion with camels, horses, four by fours and whistles and bells - felt somewhat impoverished.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: T.S Lawrence country

Dune: the distinctive red sands of Wadi Rum

I elected, much to the chagrin of the somewhat over-eager looking Bedouin hanging around, to go for a nice, free, walk - by myself. I may not have got to see as much as most do when they go to Wadi Rum. But then, I'd seen and done all this before, in the Sahara and the deserts of western Rajasthan - so didn't feel it necessary. It would have been a pity to miss this lovely area altogether however - it is truly serene and beautiful, and not really overrun with tourists. Had I had more time and money, I think I would have stayed in this red-sanded desert wonderland. As it was, I did a sweaty 2 hour hike before the sun got too hot - it was already getting off the scale by 11am - and then headed back to the village for shade and a drink before hitching down to the coastal town of Aqaba and the border to Israel. I felt that I'd scraped the surface of it a little bit, and really the place demands a good couple of days of your time. A camel ride, jeep safari or organized hike would have been superb, no doubt. But I was also running out of time. I still had to see Israel and Egypt in less than two weeks. Jordan was a lovely, underrated country and one I would thoroughly recommend to anyone - it's even a great option for a family holiday I would think. If I had had the opportunity to scramble round Petra or Dana, swim the Dead Sea or run around in the Sands of Wadi Rum when I was seven, I think I'd be even more hooked on desert countries than I am. It's got everything for the outdoor enthusiast - I didn't even stay in Aqaba, which is famed for its great coral reefs and so is great for diving and snorkeling. So, what are you waiting for? Just hire a car, don't be afraid to spend some money (ahem..), and get the hell out of Amman. There really is a lot in that great outdoors.

Entrance to the 1.2km canyon, Siq, Petra




This blog was written in the late summer of 2008, three years before the current conflict in Syria which has destabilized the region began. The country is however relatively safe for tourists provided you follow current travel advisories. This is the current state of play for visiting; if The Telegraph is saying it's safe to visit, it must be true.




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This blog is part of a series written during a tour of the Levant. To see the previous/next parts from Lebanon and Israel respectively, please go here:

Part 4/8: The Lebanon

Part 6/8: Israel