Team VA's Wonderings

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

You’re strangely dressed. For a Knight.

Day 38 Petra by Night
I had a bit of a ratty day: no one could tell me how much my washing was going to cost, I couldn’t find the post office, Hertz had told me to return Apple to a hotel-when it needed to go to their office (why are companies with big names so shit), taxis drivers kept beeping me and the place I really wanted to have lunch (and my first proper meal in some time) was shut. And the internet was rubbish, then they tried to overcharge me and didn’t apologise when I pointed it.

And yes, that is all very petty stuff.

I didn’t managed to get round to dinner; I think a small part of me didn’t fancy the idea of Petra by Night becoming John puking by candlelight. So I grabbed a Snickers (where is that a better name than Marathon) from the minimart opposite the Moon Valley and started down the hill to the visitors’ centre. I took a bite and half a dozen strides later all thoughts of the day’s crap were banished by the single thought-‘I’m going to Petra’. The biggest grin spread quickly across my face and then it started.

Der der der, der der der, duh duh duh, duh duh duh duuuhhh. With the help of Indian Jones, that grin grew to massive proportions. A sense of perspective instilled my sense of excitement. I feel I’ve waited a long time for this.

Naively I thought the dozen or so people waiting when I arrived meant it would be a small crowd, but I reckon there were 150 or so by the time we set off. I was a little surprised as I felt very young and the visitors appeared to have been shepherded out of comfortable hotels. The number of couples under 50 and backpackers was low. Seeing as we were going to walk the Siq in silence and singlish file, then sit in front of the treasury, none of this seemed to matter a jot. As long as I wasn’t too close that bunch of Americans whose volume was set to 11.

Let’s not mess about; it was a brilliant night and left me hungry for 8 hours time when I’ll return in the light and will see so much more. The Siq in itself is a marvel; it is simply wonderful. The Siq is like a gorge/canyon, except it was created by a rent in the earth rather than water: it’s ¾ of a mile long and on average it is about 4 or so metres wide, at times stretching up to 200m. In the moonlight, full and strong enough to create a full shadow of me, the approach to the Siq had felt a little plastic, a little like a film set (this is other rock formations). The Siq maintained an atmosphere of its own. The Siq’s shape was continually changing and the moon and stars came and went. While I knew I wasn’t alone, it was a very contemplative embassy.

It’s no exaggeration that a trip just to walk down the Siq would have been worth doing, but the knowledge that the Treasury-Petra’s most familiar sight-is around one of the Siq’s winding corners adds an extra layer of excitement and poignancy to the walk. If you asked the world’s greatest architect to design an approach to a building, or a stadium, or a square or anything and you asked for that approach to combine beauty with increasing suspense and excitement, there’s not a chance in hell they’d come up with anything to rival the Siq. I found myself slowing down as I went into corners; I was thinking the Treasury might be round this one and then the Siq will end; much as I wanted to see the Treasury, I also wanted to prolong the Siq. I don’t know how deliberate on the part of the Nabataens was the use of the Siq as the way to the Treasury, but I can’t believe it was just a happy accident. It’s genius. It makes you think about where you are and where you’re heading-in both senses.

My thoughts turned to the new 7 wonders and the approaches to the other 4 I have visited. There’s fun, but little peace or dignity, in the madness that surrounds the Taj Mahal; braving the fake centurions vying for your photo posing custom can raise a smile at the Colisseum; the mad taxi drive up to Christ the Redeemer in Rio prepares you for the mad crush around what is a very large piece of concrete; Machu Picchu with the Inca trail and the sun gate makes you work for it and gives you a lot of thinking time, but I don’t think it has the magic. You can keep ‘em all; the Siq is the dogs. (It’s worth adding here, after my visit during the day, that the area of Petra is one of phenomenal natural beauty; worth a visit even without the efforts of some of the world’s most extraordinary architects).

After stumbling for a while on the paving that the Romans had put into the Siq, the ground turned to sand and I took the last turn and saw the Siq’s last trick-the famous framing of the treasury that my camera is nowhere near good enough to capture. Tonight the Tresury is more of a feeling, an outline of what I can expect tomorrow. With the ground in front lit and the Bedouin making music, it oozes beauty and atmosphere. Sadly, these were the best I could manage.

We sat and drank mint tea and despite the number, I had a sense of everyone being in their own place. Of course when the music stopped, the lights in the tat shop blaze out.

I still don’t get it. Why would you want shopping to intrude on something so ethereal. Plenty of people did; you can hardly blame the Bedouin. And they do take Visa.

It’s great to think I’ll be back tomorrow to see this all in so much detail.

Day 39 Petra by Day 1
Let’s start with the controversy. If I were to level a criticism against Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a film, needless to say, that only Empire and Withnail could compete with for the movie of the 80s title, is that it might leave you with the impression that Petra is the Siq and the Treasury. This would be grossly unfair, as the film never mentions the city, but the two have become intertwined. As a result, I would suggest that many of the Jones generation fell in love with Petra, without ever knowing what it was they really loved.

Petra is big. They sell 1 day, 2 day and 3 day tickets. You know what I bought just after 6.30 a.m. this morning (winter opening time). This should have resulted in a rather more steady approach to Petra day 1 than actually happened. I left the site at gone 5.30, when it was nearly dark. I had to go on the internet and initially could barely feel my hands from tiredness. I got stuck in.

Still loving the Siq in the light although I must have been seeing things when I thought I saw a Moai in the rock. It was so quiet-I only saw one other tourist while I was in it and I took my time-that sounds were magnified. The flapping of a bird’s wings, the wind and the chatter of 2 bedouin on their way to work all dominate the sound waves. In the light, I could see the many carving and reliefs with which the Siq had been decorated.

Just to make me marvel at the Siq even more, the arrival of the Treasury caught me by surprise. Fortunately I managed to compose myself and get my camera out.

I don’t think there is anything you can possibly to do to improve that view. As a teaser for what’s to come, it is perfect.

I got to the Treasury quite early, but as more people dribbled out the Siq I began to wonder about whether to stay for the best light to hit the Treasury. Just as I heard the first coachload of noisy buggers approaching, I noticed there was a hike that led high above the Treasury. The tour group’s spontaneous round of applause sent me speeding past the Treasury to find the stairs up. A kilometre or so further down, I headed round the back of the Royal Tombs (stunning, but for another day) and started scrambling my way up.

You all know that I am at the very peak of my sporting abilities. I can pinpoint buttons on a remote control with both thumb and fingers; this skill is seamlessly extended to involve both hands when the Sky box and widescreen TV both require adjustment; even this manoeuvre can be accomplished accurately while I cradle a phone to my ear. From here, judicious control ensures pizza can be ordered without missing Monty winning yet another Ryder Cup singles match.

Giving this Olympian standard, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that this sporting pedigree combined with a diet that hadn’t shown much regard for food in the last 4 days proved to be no preparation for going up a cliff like a mountain goat. I’m now a little tired, sat 200m above the Treasury, having probably climbed twice that distance to get here. In truth it wasn’t the hardest and no one else is here-bizarre as it is in LP. And the sun is out.

Just looking at this one again makes me feel a bit sick.

The rock all around the Treasury had given it great protection from the elements: the rock walls are high and the walkways are narrow. Down on the ground it’s actually quite hard to get a picture of the whole as you struggle to get far enough away. The parallel up here is that you need to get near the edge to see it all. The rock walls are quite sheer.

This topography has left the Treasury in wonderful shape. I’m not aware of restoration and I could see no sign of it. I think this is the real deal.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one to come up here, I was just the first. I had to myself for a good half hour and then only 3 French joined me. I spent a good hour up there, but as I started to walk back, the people were flowing up. It’s all in the timing you see. I noticed I’d slipped back into the hiker’s cheery ‘Hi’ as I passed folk: unable to speak, one guy just gave me a filthy look. He had a long way to go.

As I mentioned before, there is so much more to Petra than I had expected. I’d planned to spend 3 nights here, giving me 2 days at the site, much of which I thought would be spent lingering at the same sights. It’s so big that I’ll need to be a little careful to make sure I see and hike round all the bits I want to-as well as returning to some favourites on the last day. I went back passed the Royal tombs and headed into the colonnaded street. This is the Roman bit of Petra and it shows that the Nabataens knew a thing or two as it looks pretty sad here in comparison. Freestanding structures just don’t survive as well as those hewn out of rock.

By the way the Nabataens made their money by taxing trade and trade routes; they lived in tents, which is Petra consists of so many tombs and public style edifices like the Treasury.

At the end of Roman Petra, it was certainly time for lunch. I was walking towards the buffet, but just before was a few steps to the Al-Habis museum. Well, I might as well take a quick look. Just as I was about to head into the museum, I saw a sign pointing round the hill to the crusader fort; just a quick look couldn’t hurt? Now I’m up here. So lunch went back an hour; I am the king of getting distracted and I never did make it in the Al-Habis museum. Got a great view over the Roman part back to the Royal tombs.

And an insight into how they built these.

Start at the top and work down it seems.

Lunch is buffet or buffet. With no breakfast, recent fasting and the exercise my supply of snacks had proved woefully inadequate, so it was going to have be buffet. This was bad news for 3 reasons: firstly it was expensive-a 3 day Petra ticket costs 31JD, make your choice of the 2 buffets for 3 days and you’ll need 30-39JD; secondly, as it’s a buffet, I’m honour bound to eat my money’s worth and after lunch I’m climbing to the monastery-that’ll test my stomach; and thirdly, I haven’t brought my big plate. I went with the Bedouin tent buffet, which was 3JD cheaper than the Crowne Plaza one, where other folk had been expressing their displeasure with the range of options. Still, I guess the Crowne Plaza don’t take the washing up away in a wheelbarrow.

Good thing I’m no coffee drinker-Nescafe is a premium brand in these parts. I still puzzle at the way Johnny Walker has made itself THE whiskey outside the countries that actually make the stuff. Marketing is an evil practice. As people were settling up for lunch, I heard one American asking a total stranger, ‘Where’d you get the Jordanian money?’. They just don’t help themselves.

Indy was lucky. If they’d put the grail in the Monastery, he’d have had another big hike, where he’d have to contend with the Donkey Derby. There are lots of offers of donkey rides up to the Monastery (it’s a good climb), donkeys flying up and down (they seem to have right of way) and plenty of donkey shit. I decided not to make any jokes about people who ride the donkeys, just in case, but I held out to the lunch test. Donkey ride probably wouldn’t help settle your stomach come to think of it.

Sat in front of it, I’m just shaking my head. This is amazing. If it wasn’t for the Treasury, the Monastery would be Petra’s signature hole.

There’s a nice vibe up here. Maybe it’s because almost everyone has earned it: only the women donkey riders escape the hike or the spud squashing.

There are some viewpoints further up from the monastery and again I am struck that this would be a place to come to without man’s efforts here. It’s like a mountain range as you look out.

I half wished for snow; OK I 1/16th wished for snow, but the thought was there.

Slightly reluctantly, I turned and headed for home. It took me 2 hours to get back to the hotel.

I am seriously battered. Circumstances have come together to make this as physically wasted as I can remember being. But, boy did I have a great day.

Day 40 Petra by Day 2
Today I took the Wadi Muthlin route into Petra, which bypasses the Siq and Treasury. Instead I shall end up entering the city from the far side of the Royal tombs. Wadi Muthlin runs perpendicular to the Siq from the dam just before the Siq’s entrance. I did feel a slight wrench at missing the Siq, but I’ll be back tomorrow.

The Wadi feels like a dried up river-sand, small stones, rocks and the occasional boulder line its path. However, it’s more accurate to describe it as an intermittent river, subject to flash flooding when it rains. Not that that should be a concern today as it’s dry, sunny and generally lovely.

This is much narrower than the main Siq: at several points I had to lower myself down. The colours of the rocks were beautiful, but I’m not sure if the sun ever penetrates the Wadi walls to make them look their best.

In other parts, I felt the rock looked like it had been melted. It was the kind of alternative route that was interesting enough when you have time. I noted again that not all the Bedouin are selling stuff to tourists and that others still live and work here amongst the ancient city.

Once again I headed past the Royal Tombs and chilled out for a while at the theatre, where I came across a whole new form of tour group-groups with colour coded baseball caps. At least 3 different groups went by clad in their matching hats. I tried not to smirk.

The hike through the Wadi hadn’t been so taxing, but I thought a breather would help prepare me for my next stop-the High Place of Sacrifice. Apparently the Nabs quite enjoyed a bit of sacrifice up in the clouds, so the High Place of Sacrifice is accessible and well-renown, rather than unique. Slightly out of breath, I pottered around taking in the views before spotting where I’d come from.

While I was near the altar (a fairly simple affair), this kid kept pointing out where the sacrifice happened, the channels the blood flowed down and, to his obvious disappointment, that only donkeys and goats were sacrificed.

It’s nice to have time not to rush here, due in part to yesterday’s lunacy, so I’ve treated today more like a hike. Ignoring the blood, sacrificed donkeys and goats I spent a good while enjoying the views and the picnic I’d assembled. Even up here the sound of Petra, baying Donkeys, drifts up.

From what I understand the Nabataens had a trading empire, not a military one. I like the idea that a creation such as Petra has no military significance, or apparent human cost.

I took the back way down from the High Place, so rather than return to the theatre I would arrive in the Roman city. I felt sorry for the traders on this route-more than one of them asked me if there were any more tourists coming. This was in the early afternoon; it’s not a main thoroughfare. Why became clear at the end:

Well you could have told me before I started. I stopped off at the remaining sights in the Roman City, including the Church and its mosaics. Although many looked like ice cream sundaes to me, it was nice to see true heroes honoured

If the Nabs could see into the future, they were certainly laughing at tourists with their urban planning: the walk back home at day’s end is a complete swine. It’s uphill from the city to the treasury, along the Siq, from the Siq to the entrance and from the entrance to where everyone’s staying. Hardly surprising that you are constantly offered a range of taxis-camel, donkey, horse and yellow. I am still resisting the call of the donkey.

This was a good day, a different day; it didn’t have the same magic as yesterday, but was more of a hiking and scenery day.

Day 41 Petra by Day 3
So back to the Siq and the Treasury. I love that no one knows what it is. The name comes from the tradition of the Pharoah’s treasure buried in the Urn at the top. Believers have shot at the urn to try and get it to spill the good stuff.

The building may be the tomb of King Aretas IV, who reigned around the time of Christ. He must have been some king.

I think the Treasury is the only interior visitors cannot access. To get an idea of how the façade dominates the interior, you can see in. In the centre, the steps ascend to floor level and the ceiling is below the height of the 6 lower columns; the room is not as deep as it is wide and although there is a door at the back, there doesn’t seem much more. I think the 2 side doors from the main chamber lead to the 2 small rooms at the side, accessed by doors left and right at the level of the bottom of the columns. There is no upper storey interior-wise. It is about as opposed to the ‘form follows function’ ideology as you can get.

Everyone stayed in bed today. I saw and heard no one the whole way from the entrance gate, down the Siq and to the Treasury. Then for a good while, when the guys from the shop shut up and turned off their music, I had the Treasury to myself in total silence, with just the occasional bird moving the air. It was very special and I was definitely lucky-all day this was quite substantially the quietest of the 3 days I spent at Petra. I doubt many folk get the Treasury to themselves in these post Indiana Jones days.

Which reminds me I have an Indy update.

The scenes with the tanks and so on look as if they may well have been filmed in the area. It’s hard to say where or how close as there are no recognisable reference points.

When Donovan spots the ‘canyon of the crescent moon’ in his binoculars, that is not the Siq. You see a single canyon depressed into a fairly flat landscape. If that is real, I don’t think it’s anywhere too nearby.

When the good guys finally get to see the Treasury, I’m sure they are in the Siq. The exteriors are clearly real.

For the closing sequence they again ride off into the Siq-something you can’t do however tempting it is. You can only a ride a horse from the entrance gate to the entrance of the Siq half a mile away. I’ve seen people do it, I’ve no idea why. The way certain nationalities applaud the brave members of their group on horses makes me think it may be a daredevil thing.

Still on the end of the Last Crusade, when they’re on the flat plain, riding into the setting sun as the credits start to roll, they’re somewhere else. Having ridden up the Siq, they’d been on that mean uphill climb back to Wadi Musa. I guess Spielberg felt the Movenpick hotel would wreck the shot.

As I have spoilered above, none of the Treasury interior in the film is real. The Nabataens weren’t too bothered about the inside; all Petra’s building contain largely plain and empty spaces. There’s the very occasional niche and more common coffin space.

And it’s still a brilliant film-they’re very brave to make another.

Oh, and after all that on the Treasury, here I am.

I walked around a few little sights, found some more mad coloured rock

had a picnic and still felt sorry for the donkeys. Several times I walked round a corner or through a doorway and there stood a donkey, often not tethered, looking mournful. Perhaps it is their way-Eeyore wasn’t a ray of sunshine.

So, on the home straight, having walked past them 5 or more times, I finally made it to the Royal Tombs. So many of the structures were tombs. I love the fact that, unless your tomb was particularly cheap, part of it would be a funerary dining room/banqueting hall. It must have been some comfort as you went the way of all to know that your nearest and dearest would still pop round dinner. I think I see a great way of the Juxon Street Xmas having a very long life.

The Palace tomb,

on the left of the Urn tomb, has the largest façade of all. I wondered how long this would be the case, as quite a lot of the pieces on the ground looked to have recently fallen from the top.

Sitting outside the Urn tomb, looking over the city below, I felt sad as I checked the map and realised I was done. Just the walk up the hill to go-via the Treasury and Siq one last time.

It took a while for me to drag myself away from the Treasury. I stood for some time in the square in front, before edging my way up the Siq, stopping frequently to look back. It was like walking away from a girl you know you’ll never see again: you keep stopping to steal a final glance until you turn one last time and you can’t see her anymore. She’s gone and you feel a little empty.

Special place Petra.

I have to admit I had the feel of much of this post written in my head before leaving Amman. I was pretty confident about Petra.

I was right.

You should go.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Where am I?

Wadi Rum. But I leave for Aqaba in 7 hours.

Yes-the camels have left me sore.

Yes-I have been mercifully quiet.

Yes-I have been to Petra.

Yes-I have written an absurdly long post about it.

Yes-it contains many tedious, nerdy references to Indiana Jones.

Yes-I did watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at my hostel (I even copied the DVD onto my hard drive so I can keep watching it).

Yes-the post has so many photos that they almost certainly won’t all load when you get the page open on your browser.

No-that won’t stop me loading all the photos up.

No-you can’t see it yet. Have you not been paying attention? It’ll take hours to load all the photos.

Sneak preview? What do you call this?

In the meantime, if for some ridiculous reason you have never seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and I recently met a perfectly sane and reasonable person who hadn’t) GO AND WATCH IT.

If you have seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, well you know how good it is, so go and watch it again. (PARENTS the DVD is in the box set, it should be easy for you to find and borrow).

Go on. What are you waiting for?

Oh, you’ve just this second finished watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Well, watch Raiders instead. Then, watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Road Trip…..

…or sex on 4 wheels.

Day 35 Amman to Karak
Look at her

isn’t she a beauty? Given the colour, I christened her Apple and to stick with the theme put Coldpay on the iTrip all morning. Then I whisked her off to the hills over the Dead Sea for her first photoshoot. Apple’s registration is 2652, which must say something about Jordanian car ownership.

I spent 15 mins at the Hertz desk getting nowhere, when another man came in. Turned out I had been talking to a driver up till then. Still, he gave me great directions to get out of Amman, which was probably worth the delay of nearly an hour. I was heading up into the hills to reach the Dead Sea panorama complex; even though it was quite steep, we never needed 1st gear. Hertz had given me dire warnings about the roads, but it all seemed good to me.

The Panorama complex is a right mixed bag. It has spiffing views over the Dead Sea,

a restaurant, conference hall, amphitheatre

(I know where I’d be holding my conference) and ‘the utmost entertaining museum in Jordan’. It costs less than 40p to get in and, apart from at least 5 staff, I was the only person there for the hour and a half that I hiked round and was impressed by the museum. They show a video, which details the shocking drop in water levels in the Dead Sea: a metre a year may sound a lot, but that’s vertically. In the 4 years from 2002-5, the 4m drop in height corresponded to 30m retreat horizontally. There is talk of creating a canal to the Dead Sea from the real sea.

Sat in the car park I got very excited as I looked at the map. Rather than return to Madaba, get on the King’s highway, head south and get back off the King’s Highway into the hills, the map offered me a nice road through the hills. I followed it for 5 km or so and then I got to the bit they were still building. So I had to turn round, but eventually I reached the village of Mukawir and the castle where Salome danced and John the Baptist lost his head. The ruins themselves are perched on a reasonable hill that I hiked and come a distant third in the Wow stakes to the views and the howling wind. I didn’t linger as once again I was looking at the Dead Sea and the weather was getting biblical. Happily it had been sunny at the panorama before, so I had finally seen over to the other side.

The extra drive gave me a chance to think some more about Jordan’s road signs: there’s something more than charming about roadworks flagged thus ‘we work for you, sorry to disturb you.’ You are welcomed to and thanked for coming by every district and signs all refer to places, not road numbers-I think that gives a sense of people knowing their country. Sadly they’re not big on making speed bumps at all obvious, so when we weren’t behind a local Apple and I got some good air.

On the way back from Mukawir I finally found a lunch spot. Sitting in Apple on the road side, eating chilli flavoured Mr Chips and a Tiger bar, I thought how often the cheapest hire car was a Chevrolet-Apple is a spark and has a curious feature that when you put the wipers on, the top third on the left hand one comes clean off the windscreen.

Next on the way was Wadi Mujib gorge, Jordan’s grand canyon. It’s one of those things that’s massive, but didn’t creep up on me, so much as emerge fully formed when I turned a corner.

They should film car ads here. It was quite daunting enough to make my legs a little wobbly. As Apple and I eased our way the (vertical) kilometre up the other side of the gorge, it was James’ turn on the iPod and once again I had to wonder how they failed to sell an awful lot more records. Especially of Millionaires. They’re touring in April, go see them if you can.

It was getting dark (due to clouds not so much the time) and there was some rain, so I had decided to skip the Roman ruins at Ar Raba. In the event, that just seemed too rude as the ruins were right on the roadside, on my side of the road. So I only had to put on the brakes and then my coat. Half an hour later I was walking into the Towers Hotel in Karak. The castle was closed, but that can wait for the morning. When I finally found a place to eat, there was talk of snow again. That’s the third consecutive day I’ve been threatened with snow, I wonder if my luck will run out.

Day 36 Karak to Dana Day 37 Dana to Wadi Musa (Petra)
‘It wasn’t meant to be cherie’.

It’s fair to say that the last 2 days didn’t quite work out. I spent most of a pretty cold night in Karak throwing up and most of the following night in Dana with it coming out the other end. This has allowed me to reflect in the wisdom of laying down some good reserves over the years so that a few days without any proper food isn’t too much of a problem.

Health aside, there was some more fun. Karak castle may be the windiest place on earth. It was cold as it was, but the wind chill was making it plenty below and I missed that balaclava I bought skiing in Lapland. I decided to bail on it fairly early, but then got lost in the castle-good bit of design I guess. Apple’s heating is pretty good and by the time I was heading in the right direction, I was starting to defrost. I missed the next stop altogether, although it was a hike up a steep hill, so I’d probably have bottled it anyway. Which led me to Dana. The plan here was to have a little afternoon walk, then have an early start and hike to the remote and apparently fantastic eco lodge at Feinan. This was already sounding ambitious when my first choice for a bed for the night proved to be full; my second (and final) choice proved to be empty, but very nice and friendly. I made a decision that I’d bale on the hike if I didn’t have a restful and healthy night. I didn’t.

I took my time to emerge this morning and was feeling a little guilty until I heard the road out of town was shut. This was a bit concerning as I really didn’t want another dead stop in Dana. So I had tea with the tourist police, while waiting for the road to open. I didn’y have to wait too long before being released into snow, ice and cloud-15m visibility. Fortunately Jordan’s roads are fairly empty (of cars, if not pedestrians). I kept to about 30km an hour until I headed over one rise and the cloud was gone. It even started to warm up a little.

I am really disappointed about missing out on the eco lodge, it’s lit entirely by candles. I guess it probably wasn’t to be even had I felt well. I’d seen a bit of the route on arrival and could see none of it today as cloud swallowed the Wadi (valley). I suspect it would have been neither safe nor sensible to try and hike 14km through that. While that hasn’t always stopped me in the past, I think the added factor of the cold might well have done. It was possible to drive 120km to the place where you could get a 4x4 to the lodge, but that drive looked like it would be through even more snow and cloud that the Petra route: and getting to Petra would have been a long haul from there.

So I guess it’s fate’s way of telling me to come back in the summer.

On the plus side? Firstly, you’ve been saved the lame Eurovision gags I was thinking up around Dana. Secondly, I’m at Petra a day early and should save a day’s car rental when I take it back tomorrow. Thirdly, I’ve decided to award myself a day off: gonna take it very easy tomorrow and then go the candlelight tour in the evening, which should be on after a few days snow delay.

No complaints-I’ve done very well at escaping (non drink related) feeling crap. I think back to most people in the altitude of South America.

In any case the day wasn’t over. Checking into the Moon Valley hotel, where I took a practical decision to get a room with an en suite, I noticed on the desk a copy of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade-I’m saving it for the moment. Then walking up the stairs they had a poster reminding folk to vote for Petra in the new 7 wonders (Jordan must be the smallest country of the selected 7). I really hope I’m back on form for Thursday as there’s plenty of hiking to do here and you might have gathered I’m a touch excited about Petra.

I’d made a positive decision to skip Shobak castle on the way from, as I felt it might not be blessed with toilet facilities. I had forgotten about Little Petra, my other planned stop for the day. This was partly because I’d had visitors-I got through 6 hitchhikers today and because it turned out to be byond Petra. So I took Apple for one last trip.

Some will be disappointed that Little Petra isn’t a Beckonscott style recreation, but a small siq 8km from Wadi Musa. Even without man’s intervention, the rock formations here would be quite something.

I found the walk quite tiring, but I think it was a good warm up for the main event.

Okay. Now I want the sun to shine, for the photos and my chilled bones. I think I’ve earned it.

Day 38 Wadi Musa
I’ve just been to the visitor’s centre to buy my ticket for the candlelit trip down the siq to the treasury and I’m loving this.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

All around Amman

Day 30 Damascus to Amman
I’ve just been told there’s been a bomb in Damascus, which is apparently being blamed on Israel as the victim was a member of the Hezbollah hierarchy. This may have been a good day to leave Syria and decide not to go to Israel (I was doing some planning on the bus and I don’t want to give up bits of Egypt or Jordan for Israel; also I’m simply not sure I’m comfortable with giving Israel the legitimacy of tourism).

The bus to Amman leaves at 7.30 a.m. or 3 p.m. I persisted with my early approach and was looking for a taxi at 6.45. There’d been more rain and as the taxi moved through the largely empty streets, everything took on a Shed Seven feel as we chased rainbows. Although the kilometres between central Damascus and the Al Soumarya bus station are only categorised by concrete ordinariness, I felt a certain wistfulness. I’m going to miss Syria; I’m glad it sits between Turkey and Jordan, as that’s how I ended up coming here.

I soon understood why there are only 2 buses a day to Amman. I started wondering why there wasn’t just one as I set off with just 7 travelling companions. Much of the route looked familiar as I think we largely went the same way as to Bosra, so I got stuck into reading about Jordan.

After we’d got our Syrian exit stamps, I got back on the bus, but soon noticed everyone else was standing around outside looking at the luggage compartments. Rather than appear like a disinterested foreigner, I went out to join in the staring. Turned out there were a couple of Syrian officials going through some bags: I think they were both official-one was in uniform and the other, who was bent over into the luggage compartment, had an automatic tucked in the waistband at the back of his jeans. I was sorely tempted to lift it; on balance I figured stealing a gun at a border post, which had a number of armed men, might end badly. Still, I’ve seen movies and it was asking for it. At the very least if he carries on like that, he’ll end up with a bullet in a buttock.

I met the nicest old chap from Syria. Our communication was pretty feeble on a verbal level, but they were much smiling and hand on heart. He even rubbed my head when I did my favourite bus trick and tried to brain myself on the overhead luggage racks. Twice.

Bus time is good musing time, and I was daydreaming about mosques and remembered some of the things I’d seen in mosques. I think it’s fair to say they’re used by the community in a lot more general ways than churches. I wrote previously about my photo shoot in a mosque, I’ve seen plenty of picnics, lots of kids playing, one running round in borrowed high heals, people chilling and, best of all, one guy cutting his fingernails. Try that in Canterbury cathedral. There’s a noticeable less commercial feel than many European churches give off.

I thought about starting with this next bit, but I thought it wouldn’t be good to start with a bummer (so I chose to talk about a bomb instead). I have some really disappointing news from Jordan. It has certainly shocked me. A few years back John A and I received a Stanford postcard of King Abdullah of Jordan, noting (somewhat unnecessarily) that he had a doppelganger. Now King Abdullah may still be on the throne, but he’s clearly gone astray somehow as he no longer looks like Adams Junior. I don’t know how this terrible circumstance has come about, but it’s certainly not a result of Abdullah being put on a pie free diet.

I guess it’ll save me some money on postcards and fridge magnets. I think I may need less time actually in Amman than I had envisaged. A quick stroll this afternoon took in several of the sights, including a funky little art gallery with this installation.

I don’t know what it means either. I have plenty to organise as I hope to do 3 day trips from Amman (including the old chariot racing) and hire a car so I can make a number of cool stops on the way to Petra, which public transport just wouldn’t work for.

Did I mention I was going to Petra?

Day 31 Dead Sea
America’s bible belt may be an area populated by a large number of folk whose favourite hobby is thumping, but this is the real deal. Here they have the actual places from the bible-Jericho, Mt Nebo, the Jordan river, the East bank where Jesus was baptised, Jerusalem, Bethlehem. John the Baptist, Jesus and Moses were all in action. Trumpets blared and walls fell down. It certainly gives things some context. 4 of us set out from the hostel this morning to see some of these places and end up floating in the Dead Sea. Shame the weather was crappy.

We started at St George’s chapel in Madaba, which contains an extraordinary mosaic from 560 A.D. Only about a third remains of what was once a regional map of 2 million pieces. I like the way there are fish in the rivers, boats on the dead sea and Jerusalem is blown up so that you can see a limited plan of the town.

It is surprising just how disorientating a map becomes when it is the opposite way up to what you expect. The fact that the writing on the map was in Greek indicated an influence from a country that would have arrived in the region from the Med; therefore from that angle, Egypt was to the right and modern day Jordan to the top. We got there in the end.

Madaba even has a mosaic school, they take this stuff seriously. Sadly mosaics are a bugger to photograph and this wasn’t helped by the fact that the old ones all looked in need of a good clean. I guess this takes more than a bucket and some soapy water, as when we got to Mount Nebo I read about a mosaic that took 30 years to restore. With that level of commitment, I’d be tempted to say a little dirt never hurt anyone.

Mount Nebo is where Moses saw the promised land for the first time. The Good Lord had told Moses that he would ascend a mountain and look out over the promised land and on seeing it would die. When Moses finally got up Mount Nebo he supposedly was still sprightly and had all his faculties, but was 120. Personally, I think he knew where the promised land was all along, he just led everyone else round in circles so he could rack up a really large age. Sadly there was some restoration happening on the mosaics here so we couldn’t see much: I hope that piling up 4 foot square block of mosaic outside the chapel is standard practice in the mosaic restoration world. The low clouds put pay to any sweeping panoramas, but you certainly got a sense of how much could be seen-we could see Jericho and the Dead Sea clearly. I’m sure after following Moses all the way from, the ancients were more than happy with what they saw.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan is the location of the baptism site. You can only go accompanied by a guide, who was at pains to stress that we were in a military zone. He was less impressed when I enquired why so many churches were being built in said military zone: it turns out that Jordan is making religious tourism one its targets ad the churches are being built for pilgrimage.

There is some disagreement over the location of the spot where John splashed Jesus with water, but comment consent now has it in a place 60m from the Jordan, which is now a muddy streamlike thing. The Israelis diverting the water is apparently the cause of this. I wasn’t entirely convinced as the reasoning seem to be based on the supposition that 3 churches built and destroyed within the space of 100 years were an attempt to mark the baptism spot. Seeing as this was in the 6th century, I feel it left plenty of time for rumour, myth and legend to have comment consent building churches in the wrong place. Anyway, a mosaic marks the spot

ever seen a web address in mosaic before?

Then we headed down to a wooden landing area where you could actually get in contact with the Jordan. I dipped by finger in and placed a spot on my forehead (and no I don’t know why), but felt it was a little cold for swim. When I turned round I was doubly surprised: a soldier had emerged to keep an eye on us (he had enough ammo to shoot us all up several times over). Perhaps more surprisingly was the Russian ladies who had changed and were emerging in a variety of gowns (and a nightdress for Granny). This is when the significance of the spot really struck me, and as a mere tourist I began to feel a little intrusive. On a chilly, dank day with rain coming and going, these ladies were going to indulge in a spot of self baptism in a muddy river. Good on them. It was so brown I thought they’d emerge like they’d been in Willy Wonka’s river. Two of them bobbed down to the shoulders 3 times; the other two totally submerged 3 times. Bizarrely the soldier followed them down to the water.

While all this was going on a large bus load arrived at the equivalent Israeli site across the river-so an easy stone’s throw. They applauded the attempted drowning with great enthusiasm. I noticed they had two soldiers, fully body armoured and the rest, who were happily having their photos taken with tourists. It seems the Jordanian army isn’t so keen on showing its softer side.

When I took this, with Nicole snapping in sync, we got properly told no.

Then it was Dead Sea time and the weather got properly biblical. Filthy black clouds blocked out the sun, while the staff tried to sweep the rain off all the paved areas. As we walked across the sand towards the water lightning crashed into the sea, the rain intensified and the wind blew all the signs over. These had concrete bases. We retired indoors for a while before trying a second assault. It was really only the photo op that got us in there at all and while the water wasn’t hot, at 400m below sea level, it was manageable. I was a bit gutted I forgot to take my book out, but it was an extraordinary feeling, half your leg from your knee down was thrust out of the water. Going on your front was brave as you became very unstable and it tasted foul: the one drop that went in my eye stung like hell. I’m sure if this wasn’t natural it would be described as an environmental disaster.

I think it was worth it.

That’s no more effort than lifting up your arms.

On the way back I felt sporadically itchy and if I ran my hand across my skin I get mineral deposits on my hand. I stupidly didn’t wash my shorts, which dried with a cardboard like stiffness. Which was nice.

Day 32 Desert Castles
Another day, another day trip. Steve, Nicole and I were back and were joined by Jay and Garrick from New York.

First up was Qasr Kharana, which illustrated one of the issues of fortifying in Jordan’s Eastern desert.

It’s flat as a pancake. In fact this is most likely an early conference centre; it lies on the trade routes and has about 60 rooms, some of which are very out of the way. Driving on, there were frequent reminders of the neighbours.

So the world heritage listed Qusayr Amra. LP had promised that the visitor centre displays included this text ‘None of the painting of Qusayr Amra portray scenes of unbridled loose living or carryings-on.’ Well no one could find it, though there was general agreement to try and get more unbridled loose living and carrying on into our own lives. Perhaps the museum changed their text after seeing the book. They’d have been kidding no one after all.

There were a number of painted ladies, who were perhaps a little less than decent. No one knows quite what this small fortification was for, but the baths and decoration rather suggest it was used by the boys for weekend getaways. I thought it a little like some nuclear power installations.

So onto the last stop Qasr Al-Azraq. We probably had the most fun here as this was a real scrambling around kind of castle. Lawrence was here, the man really did get around, I must find and read 7 pillars. Here’s his room above the gate

Now I know some of you thinking this travelling lark is pretty soft, but today Nicole managed to show just some of the work that goes into a shot like this.

One doesn’t just teleport into such a position.

Just one false move…… I look a bit like I’m creeping about so I can disable a tractor beam (30 seconds after writing this, iTunes pops up Star Wars, spooky). This reminds me of something that has been troubling me the last few days: just who was the coolest man of our childhoods? Was it Han or Indy? I think Magnum and Daley Thompson are scrapping for a rather distant third. Of course for Hughesy that’s an easy question-Noddy Holder.

Back in Amman and after a 2 hour lunch, I took a quick butchers at the Roman theatre, which seemed to be of a particularly steep pitch.

I was feeling a bit tired and culdn’t be bothered to go right up to the top, but I has no choice. After a call of ‘Mister, Mister’ and a wave of a camera phone, I was led up to the uppermost level. Very nice the view was too. Hope you enjoy the photo. Maybe I should get some signed ones to give away……

Day 33 Jerash
A day of ash. We visited Ajlun castle, then on our way to JerASH saw the aftermath of nasty looking car crASH and then I spent the evening eating and hubbly bubblying with ASH, who was staying in my hostel. That tabloid journalism job is mine.

Ajlun castle was a more classical feeling castle

than those in the desert: it was on a hill that was steep enough to persuade us to get a taxi, so the views were lovely. This was just a brief stop before we headed to Jerash, where the Romans had a city of somewhere between 15 and 30 thousand people. In this town there were 2 theatres and a hippodrome that seated 15,000: this was the smallest in the empire-the Circus Maximus took 157,000. It was here that chariot racing took place. With those crowds and those population, you can be assured that the punters loved it.

I can’t imagine there’s anyone reading this who can’t imagine the raw excitement of a Roman Chariot show. I’m sure you’d all travel a long way to see such a thing, so you don’t need much from me here. It was a bit amateur dramatics, but we had the legion performing some manoeuvres

The quality of the marching was quite dreadful, but there was little time to reflect before the slaves came on for some gladiator fighting.

We were a very generous crowd and spared all but one of them, mainly because he was beaten by a Rambo lookalike. Then the chariots.

12 dinar? We robbed them. And then I nearly got away.

Take away what some barbarians would call tacky tourist gimmicks and Jerash is still a stunner:

And in one of the theatres a band tests the acoustics.

I chatted to the piper and there was a Scots regiment here when the British were about the place.

Getting back was something of a farce, but I blame the Americans: they’d spent two days joking about their friend and how she’d never make it to the hotel.She and Ash were in the foyer waiting when we bumbled back in.

Day 34 Amman
After 4 nights sleeping in Amman, I finally spent a day in the city and it’s been one of those days. The of them can be booked on line, 2 of them had mail addresses that bounced and 1 had a duff phone number. Suddenly Hertz wouldn’t let me book my car on line and a misjudgement of map scale had me walking 40 mins to do it person. The museum of Jordan’s political history that I wanted to go to turned out not to be next to the Iraqi embassy. Or anywhere else. Perhaps that wasn’t a great loss.

I was a little out of puff, but happily Hertz had some very comfy chairs. The lady of Hertz was off on her spiel. Did I want to hire a driver? We have this car and that car. Seeing as the office is in the Grand Hyatt-a nice man in a suit directs you to security screening before you reach the lobby, she was probably used to a different kind of customer. After a while I interrupted her, the gist of which was ‘I want the cheapest piece of shit you’ve got’. Seeing as there was a 85 dinar invoice on her desk for an airport transfer, I think 145 for a four day one way hire was a result. Even if it is a 800cc car. I’m hoping that wasn’t quite right.

My visit to the Wild Jordan was more successful, not least as I spent half hour with a future Miss Jordan. I am booked into the eco lodge at the Dana nature reserve, but you’ll have to wait for the next instalment to hear about that one. The plan seems to be coming together. All things being equal I will get to Little Petra for lunch on Thursday, then move onto Wadi Musa (the village by Petra) in time to dump the car, dump the bags and buy a ticket for the candlelight tour. This would mean my first experience of Petra will be at night, walking down a candlelit Siq to the treasury.

I just hope all this talk of snow proves to be bogus.

And John climbeth Jebal Alexander-Qala to the citadel of ancient Philadelphia, and upon the summit he sayeth to King Abdullah ‘Cometh on then, showeth us your flag.’

And Abdullah surely did.

Perhaps that could be a passage for the newest testament. That is the highest freestanding flagpole in the whole wide world. The North Koreans have a bigger one, but they’ve had to support it with cables. It’s 127m high: Abdullah has 3 lovely children, so it appears he’s not compensating for anything. I understand there’s another big bastard at Aqaba. The ruins atop the hill were nice, but not too spectacular. After a couple of hours I wandered down for juice, cake and to write this lot.

I was going to head off for a Turkish bath and chips after this, but I’m not sure I can be arsed. After all I have bought a dozen DVDs for £7.