Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Irbid, Jordan

Manuela, Cecilia and Francesco on the beach in Aqaba

Well, it has been quite a few weeks (almost) since the last update. Since our wonderful time on the beach we have been very busy with a couple of Jordan's better known sights, such as:

Campground in Wadi Rum with view of some of the mountains and ravines.

Wadi Rum:
Wonderful, extraterrestrial landscape. Which explains why they filmed part of Mission to Mars here, not to mention Lawrence of Arabia. We spent a few days here hiking and climbing around the some of the rock formations nearby.

Campfire at Bedouin camp near Petra
A pre-historic town carved out of ravines, valleys and mountains. Famous for the "Treasury" which is shown in nearly all documentation of the city, and also in films like "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade".

Amman Beach; Camping on the Dead Sea!
Dead Sea (Amman Beach):
The only "real" public beach on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. Known for water you can't sink in, and of course those "beauty treatment" mud baths.

Exploring Wadi Rum
After leaving Aqaba the road headed into the hills with a vengeance, first real curves and hills we have had since Morocco. As soon as you turn off the main north / south highway to Amman and head to Wadi Rum, the scenery really begins. A little like monument valley in the USA (see nearly every cowboy movie ever made), or maybe the Bungle Bungles (Purnululu NP) in Australia (not in any cowboy movie that I am aware of), and partly Grand Canyon (USA), or Karijini (Australia). The rock formations in the distance with the sand was really amazing, and just got better and better the further we rode towards Wadi Rum.
Instead of going straight to Wadi Rum we decided to take a little ride around the area with a stop to Al Disah which is on the "other" side of the Wadi Rum (there is only 1 road going into the area, and at a fork, one goes to Wadi Rum and the other to Al Disah). Here we wanted to ride our motorcycles on a dried lake bed just after the town, which we had heard about from Ennio (an Italian MC rider) whom we had met back in Tunisia. We just rode off the road and onto a totally flat surface broken up in millions of almost even sized chunks in wonderfully strange patterns. After riding around on this for a while we exited back on the outskirts of Al Disah and headed to Wadi Rum. One thing we noticed is that there were a lot of "Bedouin" camps on this side also, and they looked pretty busy, with 4x4 going off in all directions.
We had agreeded to meet our Swiss friends Francesco and Manuela at the visitor center so we parked our bikes and had a look. The visitor center is right in front of the "Seven Pillars" named after the book of the same name by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and has an outstanding view over the whole area. The visitor center also has a nice restaurant and an informative display of geological and cultural information of the area. Eventually Manuela and Francesco showed up in their WV bus and we headed into the park (after paying the obligatory 2JD entrance fee). One is only allowed to drive to the end of the paved road in Wadi Rum, after that one has to arrange for a guide preferably from the visitor center, as they manage the booking for the guided tours in the area. In Wadi Rum we setup camp at the Wadi Rum Rest House which is just at the entrance to the town. Here there is a restaurant, and tent accommodation available. We pitched our own tent and our friends parked next to us at one end of the compound right below some wonderful climbing rocks.

The following day after being besieged by locals who wanted to know if we were interested in going to the desert and offering their services in this endeavor, we decided to head off on our own and explorer a canyon which lay just across from the town. Apparently there is a way to go from this side of the canyon to the other on some fairly easy "scrambling" paths. Unfortunately after a day of scrambling around and having a grand old time, we still hadn't found the proper way through, so we called it quits and headed back to camp. We were totally dead, the heat and the exertion of climbing up, down, around, through, over, under, in between all the rocks, canyons, boulders, ravines and valleys had really taken their toll. But we were elated, it had been a lot of fun, if sometimes a bit scary and fustrating not being able to find the right path.
Due to our efforts the previous day, we had decided to book a half day tour with the local guides (though the tourist office of course, this insures that the moneys is evenly distributed between the guides, and tribes in the area, and cuts down on the hassle and husselers in the area). We specifically wanted to see a couple of the rock bridges and some of the desert and then get dropped off at the exit of the canyon we had been trying to go trough the previous day. This should make it easier to find the way, and we would get to visit some of the sights along the way.
This turned out to be a brilliant idea, and the cost split between the four of us made it "fairly" reasonable. The guide took us into the desert and showed us the various rock bridges (Burhda Rock bridge in particular, was really stunning. Perched high up on the mountain, with a nice wide span). The rock engravings seemed bogus (to our untrained eyes), at least some of them were definitely fakes or recent, but the guide insisted they were all "real". On the way we stopped at "Lawrence's House", probably a misnomer, but nevertheless the spot commanded a very beautiful view of the entrance to various valleys and open desert on the other sides. If Lawrence really lived here he certainly picked a militarily strategic position. The "house" itself is just a crumbling wall in front of a rock formation. After 4 hours or so we were then dropped at the entrance (or exit) of the canyon, and the guide pointed in the general direction we had to take.
To no avail. Within 50 meters we were already "lost". Well, actually you are only lost if you care where you are, and we didn't, at least not really. We had water, and food, and we found a couple of waterholes in the ravines, so everything was peachy. An hour scrambling around, and Cecilia decided to do the logical thing, and that was to start from the beginning, and sure enough, she quickly found the start of the path. Independently, Francesco had found it too, by climbing a fairly difficult section and finding the path above where it started. So we were off.

The hike was pretty easy in the beginning, and went through some fantastic landscape, and whenever you weren't in a canyon, you had some stunning views of rock formations and the valleys, really fantastic. For me the most fun was the climbing and scrambling around. No ropes or gear necessary, only a couple of sections were really a bit tricky, the rest was just straight forward, but a lot of fun. We had a picknick underneath a huge boulder which had fallen and blocked the ravine, but which one could climb underneath to continue further. The day was even hotter than yesterday so a nice break in the shade was very welcomed. After two hours we emerged on a plateau where we could see where we had been yesterday. Only when we had made it down, could we see that, the previous day there had been no way we would have spotted the path! Very tired and happy we made it back to camp for a well deserved ice cream and a cool drink. What a day!Leaving Wadi Rum :-(

Treasury, Petra (Francesco and Cecilia in the foreground left!)

We left Wadi Rum two days later after a day of rest and relaxation as well as taking care of some practical matters, and headed to Petra a short (100km) distance away. Once back on the main road to Amman, the road climbed very steeply and after the turn-off to the "Kings Highway" it ran along a high plateau, with excellent views towards the plains and Israel the distance. At one view point, we stopped and waited for Francesco and Manuela to catch up. As soon as we stopped, we were besieged by American tourists, wanting to know everything about us. I haven't had to speak this much English in a long time. They were very impressed with Cecilia riding her own bike! In short order Francesco and Manuela showed up and we continued to Petra. After spending a couple of hours looking for appropriate accommodations we settled for a "Bedouin" camp in the direction of Little Petra, just outside of Petra. There are two such camps here and one was twice as expensive as the other, so we of course chose the cheaper variant. Francesco then spent nearly and hour haggling with the guard and in the end negociated a further discount of 1JD per person (2 Sfr.), in the end it was still pretty expensive though.

The camp itself was deserted, we were the only guests, and it was very relaxing and quiet. The camp turned into a 1001 Nights Fantasy at night. When they turned the generator on, the hills glowed with a "thousand" points of light. They had placed lights in many of the holes in the rocks around the camp. Some in various colors, and the grounds themselves were also bathed in light. Very impressive. It turns out their main business is as a venue for tour groups to have a night in the desert with food and a show. Sure enough the manager showed up with a troupe of singers/dancers (all men) and they rehearsed for a show the following night. Very interesting, listening to them perform and being the only audience. As soon as they left, they turned the generator on and then the real light show started. It was totally dark, with only the light of the stars glowing in the sky, and then late, the moon came out, and the hills glowed with soft moonlight. Very beautiful. We slept very well, in the totally deserted and quiet "campground".

The next morning we made out way to the entrance to Petra in Wadi Musa. We got a three day pass and started to go in. First you are besieged by "Guides", horse riders offering a ride down to the entrance to the city gates (they can't go further) 200m further down, or horse / donkey carriages who can take you all the way into Petra (~1.4km in). Once into the city entrance, you have to watch out that they don't run into you as some go pretty fast through there with their carriages. At the city entrance proper, the road goes into a "ravine" which you then follow until you emerge at the plaza in front of the Treasury. The whole walk is surreal, they have carved a water channel along a wall, as well as niches, and even the remains of some figures (camels, a person leading camels), and when you look up you have sheer walls on either side, or you go through overhangs making it look like a tunnel in some places. Very impressive, and I didn't even mention the color, and coloration of the various rock strata. Depending on time of day and position of sun, it ranges from, light brown, to deep red or light pink. The first glimpse of the treasury is through nearly touching canyon walls. Hollywood couldn't have designed something like this. In the plaza itself there were quite a few people milling about and the usual touts selling jewelry and drinks etc., as well as touting, camel and donkey rides to the city proper (another 600m down). The Treasury itself isn't much inside, a huge room carved out of the mountain, but what I really found fascinating is the details on the columns and the entrance itself with the pillars. Additionally there are a couple of smallish side rooms, again everything carved out of the mountain.

After spending some time in the plaza just watching the tourists and marveling at the Treasury we continued further down the valley to where it opened up into an open area between the rock formations. Here on both sides are huge "buildings" carved out of the rocks. These are actually tombs of varying shape and sizes, carved into the mountains on both sides of the canyon. We then took a sharp left and climbed up the mountain to the left of the Coliseum and headed up to the High Place of Sacrifice. Half way up we stopped and had lunch on a nice rock outcrops giving us a stunning view of the valley below as well as of the tourist making their way up, huffing and puffing, or often sitting on a donkey being guided up the mountain. Just below the top there is a snack bar across from the 2 obelisk, near these "obelisk" my GPS reported that there was a Geocache, so we explained to Manuela and Francesco what that was, and all set off to try and find it. We did find it in the end, a brand new micro-cache, with no entries in the log. We made our entry and hid it back where we found it and continued up to the High Place of Sacrifice. Here there is a great view over the whole area. There is an altar and some niches here where apparently sacrifices were made (of what no-one is really sure). We had a good look around before walking down the mountain on the other side.

This side lead to the Lion fountain, and the Tomb of the Roman Soldier as well as a number of tombs and other structures, again don't imagine anything build out of the ground, rather everything carved straight out of the naked rock, incredible. Just the stairs going down where great, with 90 degree turns and a sheer face on the outside, you always had to watch your step. The lion fountain was a lion carved into the mountain, with a fountain at the bottom, and the most fascinating thing was the way they carved channels into the rock to guide the path of the water to cisterns or in this case a fountain. This is seen all over Petra, everywhere there are water management measures implemented. With the scarcity of water around here I am not surprised that when it did rain they would want to make the most of it.

Before coming back out on the right side of the Coliseum we stopped and did some "archeological" digging of our own; in the garbage heap. Apparently here for eons the inhabitants (30,000) dumped their garbage and as long as you don't bring a shovel, they don't mind you scavenging around for pot shards and other detria of various civilizations (Nabetean, Byzantine, and Roman). We did find a couple of interesting looking pot shards with patterns painted on them, probably only 100 years old if that, but hey, lots of fun anyway. We then sat in the Coliseum and were very impressed with the acoustics, I stood on center stage and did my best stand up comedy (quietly), they still heard me in the back and just shook their heads! So much for show biz.

So ended our first day in Petra. That night back at the camp, we had an excellent dinner of Roasted Chicken, and fruit salad for dessert, topped off by a lovely campfire. While eating and cleaning up we watched as a number of people were making preparations for tonight's party. And promptly at 21:00 a busload of tourists showed up. All the lights were turned off and they were lead along a path lit by brown bags filled with sand holding a candle. Once in the middle of the camp, the performers started singing an the lights went on. Everyone went ohhh, ahhh, they were very impressed, and rightly so, it was very well done. Then they all ran off to the buffet tent, guess that was to be expected. Their dinner consisted of lamb and chicken roasted on a fire, with potatoes straight from a larger fire in the middle of the tent. Once they finished eating, the show started. Our troop from last night, this time dressed in "traditional" white robes and some sporting a holster with a gun, started, singing and dancing. Some songs were accompanied by a drum and a flute, the rest were just chanting along to clapping hands. Very rhythmic and almost hypnotic. After the singing and dancing, our night watchman took the stage and played an instrument similar to a violin, with a single string, and a bow which he drew across the instrument while resting it on the ground. The sound similar to a cat being strangled. This he accompanied with what sounded like a chant. Later the campground manager showed up and played something like a Lute (a short round guitar, almost). Lots of fun and very interesting. After a couple of hours everything was over and everyone left and we were again alone in the dark. Excellent.

The second and third day in Petra were more of the same, but different. Lots more huge structures and tombs. On the second day we also spent a while finding another Geocache hidden above the police station in the middle of Petra proper. It was a lot of fun scrambling around the rocks and enjoying the view and the incredible architecture while looking for the cache. We found it eventually and spent the next 30 minutes just reading all the entries in the log and adding our own comment. Afterwards we headed to the Monastery on a mountain opposite of where we were. This turned out to be a huge, as in very large, building. The entrance is higher than a house. The plaza in front was all carved out of the mountain, incredible. Nearby we also enjoyed the view over towards Israel, 22km in the distance.

On the last day in Petra, we started by walking through the "Tunnel" next to the entrance to the city. There was a "guide" who tried stopping us from going this way, saying it is too dangerous and we weren't allowed to do it without a guide. A classic method to earn some business. We ignored him and continued. The walk led along a dried river bed, through canyon and ravines, in places so narrow that you had to walk sideways through them. This is probably the best canyon walk any of us have ever done! Towards the end there were then the signs of the Nabeteans who had carved funerary niches in the walls of the canyon more than 2000 years ago. Completely surreal. Not to mention the Water conservation measures they had taken on the canyon itself, by damming part of it, and redirecting other parts, very impressive. By now we were pretty worn out, with all the sights so the last day we quit fairly early (only 6 hours), and headed back to camp and relaxation. Our Swiss friends ate dinner with us and then left for Amman and we settled down for a nice little campfire with our friend the Fiddler who came over and made us Bedouin tea on our fire (which he had lit for us), and told us about being part of an Finnish archeological excavation on Mount Aaron back in 2000! Turns out our night watchman besides being a musician, is also an archeologist, and a Sheik (leader of local a Bedouin tribe). His wife and mother are in Lyon France, where his mother is being treated in the hospital (for what we couldn't quite figure out). Strange world...

The following day we headed north to the Dead Sea, where we spent a few days relaxing on the beach. We decided to skip the Dana nature reserve, which is another tourist draw in Jordan. As we neared the Dead Sea, from the southern end, we were immediately aware of an increased security presence. We were stopped 4 times by military checkpoints, between going down to the Dead Sea and the northern shore where the beach lay. This was the first time since Egypt that anyone was so interested in our Passports and where we were going; and I was just starting to get used to not being checked every 10km anymore! The first thing one (well, I) notices about the dead sea is that it is, well, dead. There are no boats on it, no fish in the shallows, there is nothing growing along the banks, no waves either for that matter. At the northern end there are the hotels, and beaches, further south there is nothing (besides military checkpoints). We set up camp, after waiting 2 hours for the previous occupants of our chosen spot to vacate it. And enjoyed a wonderful sundown over the hills of Jerusalem in the distance. The following day we started the day early by a nice float in the Dead Sea. The salt level in the Dead Sea is so high that you literally float, you can't sink. This makes swimming pretty difficult, getting your feet down a maneuver in it self. Floating in a certain position you will suddenly spin around. Lots of fun. The rest of our time here alternated between laying in the shade reading, floating in the sea, and just plain relaxing. Later in the afternoon our Swiss friends showed up from Amman, they had managed to take care of what they need to do and decided to come down and say hello.

The following day we left the Dead Sea, Manuela and Francesco heading back to Amman where they were going to wait for their paperwork for Syria to come through and we headed up the Jordan valley to Irbid. The Jordan valley is very similar to the Nile valley (surprise surprise), lots of military everywhere, particular in the northern end where we neared the Golan heights and Syria, no problems getting through, though once they wanted us to open our boxes. After explaining how much work that was they just waved us through. In Irbid, there is no camping so we found a fairly cheap hotel and asked about prices, negociated the price down to what we could afford to pay and confirmed that we could put our motorcycles in front of the entrance to the reception. Unfortunately when I went to get the bikes, the Tourist police wouldn't let me drive it down to in front of the reception (the road was blocked). Naturally I informed the hotel of this, and this then started a huge discussion between the hotel staff and the police. In the end we waited an hour for some other police to show up, they inspected the content of our boxes and luggage and then allowed us (reluctantly) to park where we wanted to. A real production, the hotel staff was very apologetic, if not apoplectic that the police was being so "difficult". We don't know what exactly the problem is, we have never had a problem with the Police, if anything the hotel will say we can't park somewhere. Nevertheless, Irbid turns out to be a great little town. It is a university town, no tourists anywhere to be seen. Too bad that they don't have a campground. Not much to "see" or do, but excellent to get a realistic feel for life in Jordan.

Next update coming after Syria, since apparently (according to our guide book) there isn't any Internet in Syria! Can that really be? We shall see.


Anonymous said...

Hi Khim and ceilia; I am really impressed by your trip. Len and I will be in Switzerland in July. If you guys are back, we love to see you and hear more about your world travels. You should think writting a book about traveling the world on bike.

I will keep on following you on your trip. Kind regards, Deana

Anonymous said...

i love jordan (-:

Anonymous said...

i love jordan :-)