Jordan

24-27 December, 2013

I think we had been really lucky with the weather. Storm and high winds was raging in the South of England on the 23rd and glad it quitened on the morning of 24th before we left. A snowstorm had seen some parts of Petra and the roads closed the previous weeks. And I thought we only had to worry about the rain during winter in Petra.

24 Dec. Up at 04:30. BA flight at 08:50. Full flight, uncomfortable seats, unappetising food, flight staff who seemed ill-trained. Landed after 16:00 at Amman and everybody seems confused as to what the local time was. I believed the time my phone tells me (a mistake!). 40JD for the visa and I am glad I changed money in London. I booked the airport transfer via hotel (90JD), and driver whisked us off around 5pm. We had a break at a tourist shop and restaurant along the way for a traditional meal of mansaf (27JD for 2 with drinks, price of which the driver negotiated for us), slow-cooked lamb with rice and yogurt soup. It was good, though I fear my stomach is threatening to revolt over the yogurt soup.

Driver told us of life in Jordan and had practically been a tour guide. Though this made me realise that this is one of those places where everything would come at a cost. Everybody’s expecting a tip as tourism is a big part of this country’s livelihood. Jordanian dinar is almost as high as British pounds, so the amount of tipping needed here would surely hurt.

We were at the Petra Moon hotel around 8/8:30pm. Driver earned himself a 23JD tip and made sure we’re booked for the trip back (though I am guessing he earned commissions for the price of our meals too).

Petra Moon hotel is a short walk from the Petra entrance. We got a free upgrade to a suite and I am thankful for the extra space. Accomodating night staff, morning staff was helpful but indifferent.

25 December. Almost forgot it was Christmas until staff greeted us. A quick breakfast and we were off to Petra. Cash here keeps flowing out – entrance fees of 110JD + 24JD for night tour + 30JD for the guide (optional) for 2 people.

I had wanted to go on horseback (channelling Indiana Jones) here, but the horses were small and did not look like they were well taken care of. So it was on foot all the way. It is amazing how the wind and rains here have shaped the mountains. And the Nabateans (who built this place) are shrewd businessmen, architects, engineers and artists all rolled into one.

elephant shaped rocks, carved by nature

The colours of the rocks are amazing. Guide played a joke on us to add drama on seeing the Treasury for the first time.

The first glimpse of the Treasury

It is a shame that much of the carvings had been defaced through the centuries and the urn shattered because of a belief that it contained treasures (hence it was called The Treasury). But it is still a marvel to behold and is quite well-preserved because of its protected location.

We went past the treasury and into the paths leading to other caves and tombs. There is quite a lot to see inside Petra. And you can climb the rocks and mountains to your heart’s content with only a few entrances cordoned off. But note that health and safety is not in play here. Horses, donkeys and camels can be hired and staff work with shovels and pails cleaning up after. I think, sitting atop a donkey and going up and down cliffs is a lot scarier.

Our guide showed us colourful caves and views from atop the hills. We’ve gone off on our own to climb the stairs (180 steps, and about 1 hour up) to the Monastery (else there is an extra fee). We had tea and coffee with our guide as we rest and he explains (and sells) tours we can take for the next few days to see as much as we can in Jordan.

The Monastery

We’ve had a buffet lunch at the Crowne Plaza restaurant at the Basin (42JD) and made our way back from there. And as nothing seems free here, use of toilets requires tips for the cleaning staff. We were back at the hotel for a short rest after the trek down.

Dinner was another buffet at the neighbouring Movenpick Hotel Al Saraya (90JD) and we finally got to try a Jordanian wine (quite an irony, as this is a country of 95% Muslims who don’t drink). Found out that my phone is giving me the wrong time and I was 1 hour ahead.

8:30pm and back at the Petra entrance, we were to start the Petra by night tour. Quite a lot of tourists. The walk to the Treasury is lined with luminaries. For me, it was all about stargazing, and the stars are really bright here. We were seated in front of the treasury lit by a hundred candles. We were entertained with bedouin music and mint tea. I am sure everyone will have varying reviews of the night tour – I like it because it’s an experience and that I got to do some stargazing. I think it is the tourists themselves who ruins the experience, trying to capture the moment on camera, the endless flashes are annoying. Have seen a few with flashlights, too concerned to see where they’re stepping on and rendered the magic of the luminaries useless. It is hard to take good photos without a tripod (but here’s a great photo from flickr from somebody else)

Tonight I reflected on my dreams as a child. And I never did dare to dream that I’ll see this place. This year alone, I had seen one too many amazing places that I fear ‘amazing’ is becoming ordinary.

26 December. We booked to see Wadi Rum today (170JD+tips). Hotel car took us to Wadi Rum via the King’s Highway, 2 hours. Got to see more of the amazing landscapes along the way (it seems like there is no group tours you can book from here and we were always stuck with the more expensive option of going on a private tour). In Wadi Rum, we got on board a jeep (an old toyota pickup with makeshift seats at the back) which took us around the reserve. Driver acted as a guide, too, but his limited english left me a bit confused.

First stop was at the foot of this mountain.

Lawrence’s spring by the tree (click for bigger image)

Guide pointed to the people climbing up and says there was a freshwater spring by the tree that runs down feeding the watering wells for the animals (Lawrence’s spring – named after Lawrence of Arabia who had set foot here). There was no clear path to go up, you just scramble up the rocks anyway you can. The guide described this as an ‘easy’ climb. The goat droppings did not make the climb easier as you have to look where you put your hands on. The spring itself is not much to look at, but the views from here across the valley is breathtaking.

View from Lawrence’s spring (i love my photoshopped rainbow)

Wadi Rum is an out of this world site. The rock formations jutting out of the pink sands. Constant wind and rain makes them look like cathedrals and huge buildings that have melted away. We stopped by this huge hill made up of pure soft pink sand where kids seem to be having such a fun time. Between a gorge is a cave with petroglyphs on the wall. We climbed atop another hill with a ‘bridge’, we spent a bit too long here talking to a Swiss couple that I forgot to take a picture of the actual bridge. 

There were a number of bedouin camps in the area and some tourists stay the night here to immerse in their culture. The bedouins are nomadic/semi-nomadic tribes who made up some 40% of the local population.

A quick lunch of grilled chicken with rice and fries and a selection of hummus and salads by the entrance (10JD each).

We went back via the scenic King’s Highway again. The landscapes here are magical –  endless stretches of sand change from red to yellow and the sun casts them a golden glow.

Dinner was at seafood and Jordanian white wine at Movenpick Al Iwan (119JD).

27 December. Last day. And as we need to be at the airport at 3, we decided to go via the King’s Highway to Amman so we can see as much as possible (150JD+tips). Checked out at 8am.

First stop was at Shobak castle built in 1115.  We just walked around and stopped to take photos from various vantage points. Next stop was a viewing area to see the ruins of Dana village in Tafilah. Tourists can stay in this Ottoman era ruin to hike in the desolate valleys below. We drove up to 1700m, Jordan’s highest points and overlook the Jordan valleys that borders Israel. Passed by Lut’s cave (Lot who fleed Sodom and Gomorrah) where there is a museum in his honour. Had a peek through the Al Mujib reserve.

From 1700m, we drove down to 427m below sea level to the dead sea. We stayed for lunch in Amman tourist resort. If you want to swim or touch the waters of the Dead sea, you need to reserve at one of the resorts fronting the beach. Amman Resort seems to be the cheapest of the lot at 30JD entrance fee with lunch. It is frequented by the locals and was a bit crowded when we were there on a Friday afternoon. There were a few bikini-clad women here and locals stared. I think it is best to choose the more touristy resorts like Hilton or Movenpick if you intend to swim and bare skin so as not to cause offence, especially after the Friday prayers. That and I’ve seen too many people spitting and blowing their noses (though the high salt content will kill off any bacteria).

Dead sea

The mud and waters from the dead sea are seen as therapeutic as it is rich in minerals. High levels of salt also means there is no marine life in here at all.

After lunch, we hied off to Mount Nebo, a pilgrimage site, as this is where Moses was first shown the promised land. On a clear day, you can see the whole of Jerusalem from the Moses memorial (church was closed for restoration). From there, it was onwards to Madaba to see the ancient mosaics in St George Church. Passed by a number of mosaic workrooms where you can watch mosaics being made.

Flight back was almost empty! You can have an entire row of seats if you want. Though I am convinced most airlines nowadays are just making the economy seats as uncomfortable as possible. I had a lot of space, but my back still ached.

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