Thursday, 4 February 2010

Jordan Day 6. Little Petra and the Dead Sea

Little Petra is a mini version of the real thing; non-commercial, especially at 8 am in the morning. We walked through a small valley with tombs all along the sides - that is to say there were big holes cut out in the rocks. The sun was coming up and turning the tops of the rock formations into a vibrant pinkish gold.

Ibrahim drove us along an amazing rough road through rocky outcrops. The road had been sealed once, but there was not much seal left. We only saw one car. Reached the Dead Sea late in the morning. He left us at our resort for 24 hours. It couldn't have been better planned. We were full to the brim with our Jordan experiences so it was great to stop dead in our tracks.

Of course swimming in the Dead Sea was the first thing to do. The resort was huge; it took 10 minutes to walk from the hotel down past three swimming pools, two fountains, and several sunbathing areas, to the sea. It's quite amazing when you reach somewhere you've heard about all your life. In we went, and sure enough, you can float lying on your back with your head sticking out, virtually as if you were sitting down on the beach with your legs stretched out in front of you.

There is so much salt in the water that it's a saturated solution. You can see all the salt swishing around you. You have to be careful not to get it in your eyes. It doesn't come off by showering when you come out of the water; you need lots of soap.

After we'd had a bit of a float, we went and got brown mud from a pot on the stony beach and wiped that all over our bodies, to soften and smoothe our skin. Great photos!

We spent the rest of the 24 hours just lazing about, eating a delicious dinner, enjoying doing nothing as we thought about the whole amazing week! Jordan is the most fabulous country and JD Tours is the best possible company to go with. Travelling in January – the off season – made this a very economical option for us. We loved the people, we loved the country. We didn’t want to go home.

I'm writing this in Singapore Airport; the sun is shining, and I'm half way home. Yay!!! This is the end of my blog. Hope you've enjoyed reading it. Wendy

Monday, 1 February 2010

Jordan Day 5. Wadi Rum

31 Jan. Left for Wadi Rum at 12 noon, driving along the tops of hills in fog. We were on the road which leads to Akaba on the Red Sea, the only port in Jordan, so it wasn't surprising to see lots of huge trucks. Had a short hold up because a truck/trailer unit had jack-knifed further ahead. The police had it well in hand; they were letting cars and vans through but the big rigs had to wait.

When we arrived at Wadi Rum, we swapped from our van to two four-wheel drives. The drivers wore long robes and had the customary local red and white checked head-dress with two black cords around it. Our first sight was the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a formation named in honour of T E Lawrence who helped lead the Arab revolt during World War I. It's a tall rocky mass that looks a bit like pillars.

The area is sometimes called the Mountains of the Moon. A wadi is a valley, but this huge area (1000 sq km I think) is more like a wide plain with great mountainous formations rearing up out of it, with rounded tops and stripes of different colours all the way down. Great lumps of stone are piled at the bottom of many of them, and there is sand, sand, and more sand in every shade you can imagine from cream to orange to brown.

As soon as we passed the Bedouin village, we left the sealed road and drove on the sand. It was amazing, stupendous, breath-taking! Just a pity that the sun wasn't out at first - we were so lucky yesterday to have sun at Petra. A few people were out there on camels, which really added to the atmosphere. Eventually there was some sun which really brought out the orange and pink colours of the sand. Bedouins in a tent offered commercial hospitality - drinks of tea. They were based near a narrow canyon - really just a split in the rocks.

There was quite a lot of growth; scrubby green bushes, leafless small trees (well, it is winter) and small plants with a foothold in the sand. The book I bought says that spring flowers burst out at the first sign of water.

At times, when you looked into the distance, you would have sworn there was sea water, because of the ripples in the sand, but it was just a paler colour. We saw some graffitti - a drawing of a camel and some Greek writing. Then the sun broke through as it was heading down the sky about 4 pm and that made for great photos.

Yet another fantastic day on the most fantastic trip of my life!

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Jordan Day 4. Petra at last

30 Jan. So now I have seen Petra! WOW! It lived up to all my expectations and more! We were at the gate at 8.20 and started down the Sik (the road through the rocks)with our guide. The tops of the great rock formations were gleaming pink in the sun. The guide pointed out features like the water channel that runs all the way down, a formation in the shape of an elephant's head, the remains of a man's legs, with the feet of two camels behind him.

As we went round the bends (just wide enough for horses and small carriages, the anticipation and expectation rose. Will it be round the next corner? We knew it was 1.2 km down, and finally there it was, the keyhole view of the Treasury that is so famous. It is heavily Egyptian, and the front is greatly eroded when you look at drawings of it done in about 1840 by David Roberts. But of course The Treasury was just the first of so many fantastic sights.

We walked on through the rocks and came to open ground. As the area widened out, we could see that all along the sides there are caves in the rocks. They tower above the valley. Bedouin tribes used to live in the caves but the government resettled them in houses in the 1970's. However, eight families still live there.

High up on the rocks to the right are the royal tombs. These consist of enormous rooms cut into the rocks, with the outside cut to look like buildings. These structures are amazing!

Below the royal tombs, are normal sized ones for ordinary people. All around are great outcrops of rocks in layers of dull red, pale blue and grey swirls - I have never seen anything like it. We came across the son of the NZ woman who wrote the book 'Married to a Bedouin.' He had two stalls selling her book and jewellery the two of them had made. She had been living in Sydney until recently, but has moved back to Jordan because her three children live there.

On and on to the Roman city, with remains of huge temples, a gigantic altar and the market place. Easy walking on the grand paved street through the middle. Our guided tour ended at the start of the path to the Monastery. It was 10.30 and we had been walking for two hours - that perhaps gives some idea of the immensity of the site! We had a drink and then -

Off to the monastery. They say there are 850 steps, but in fact much of it is going up easy rocks; the steps are only there when the natural rock would have been too steep or rough to walk up. One of our group went on a donkey but the other six intrepids decided to walk. The rock formations are out of this world; something like the Grand Canyon in the US of A; probably even more spectacular as there are so many different colours and shapes. All this area looks thrust up rather than eroded.

Finally we came to the top and there was the monastery. It appears to be only a facade, with one large room cut into the hill. Goats with kids were running around and there was a goat herder keeping an eye on them. Onions were planted all over the area in the sand; thick sea green leaves sticking up. We have seen them for sale in the markets.

Needed a bit more time at the top really, but it was best to keep with the group. So we retraced our tracks; down from the monastery, back past the Roman town. I went up on the left hillside to look into the huge royal tombs and we walked and walked and walked. Finally arrived at our hotel at 4 pm. We calculated that we had walked at least 8 km. What a day! A day to remember for the rest of my life!

Jordan Day 3. Churches and Karak Castle

On Friday 29th we set off at 8 am to Madaba. Friday is the Moslem holy day, and the first day of their weekend. First Ibrahim drove us through the area where the embassies are. As you approach one, there's a sign, 'No Photos'. Security is very tight. There were four utes with machine guns mounted on top, plus a large number of armed men in grey with army helmets and big guns at their waists. Can you guess which nation's embassy it is!

We drove out of town at 1100m above sea level. The road goes down to 1470m below. At Madaba we looked at three old churches with great mosaics, if only somebody would clean them. The most famous is the map of the Middle East on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Kerak Castle came after that. I was so excited to visit this Crusader Castle which I knew about from my history studies. It is high on a hill, rearing up above the town as you approach, and three times as high above the fertile fields on the other side. Sandie and I didn't want any lunch, so we dashed all over the place together. You would think that no one could possibly have got in. There's a story about an assault on it. The assaulter was told that a wedding was going on. He asked where this was taking place, and redirected his bombardment to other areas.

Four 14 year old girls chatted to me and I took their photo in their pretty coloured scarves.

Jordan Day 2

Thursday 28 Jan

We left at 7.35 am, heading north to Um Qais. Had an hour there. A wonderful, junky old ruin, that has not been developed as a tourist site. It was Greek, then Roman. Up above is a Moslem village, now overgrown with weeds. There's a theatre, a main street that stretches for 2 km, ruined temples. Only four other people there. Because it's the off season, there are very few tourists, relatively speaking.
It's great to do things early in the day. I found a lone red anemone and pinned it on my jacket. Ibrahim said that the area would be covered with them in a month.

It's a beautiful day. We can't believe how warm it is and neither can Ibrahim. This is supposed to be winter, but the cold snap disappeared just before we arrived.

Next visit was Ajloun Castle, a massive fortress with a great 'fosse' (ditch) around it. Think 30m deep and 15m wide. I was sure it would be impregnable.

The highlight of the day - in fact it took the rest of the day - was Jerash (with the emphasis on the 'Jer'). This is the best Roman ruin/excavation I have ever seen. We started at 2.15 with the Roman show. James would have enjoyed it.

First a very small legion of about 20 men marched onto the hippodrome. They demonstrated their weapons. The pila is the throwing javelin made of steel and wood. Use that for poking holes in your enemy or his horse. The scuta is the shield. Bash your enemy with the knob on the front, or thrust the top of the shield up under his chin. The way they fought was: they lined up in nines. The front nine fought for 8 minutes then withdrew to the back (if they hadn't been killed or severely wounded). Thus there were always fresh soldiers coming forward. They showed us a formation with shields in front of them and the famous testudo (tortoise) with the shields in front and over their heads.

Then the gladiators came out and fought. We had to put thumbs up if we wanted the vanquished one to live, and thumbs sideways if we wanted him to die. NB: not thumbs down - they said that was incorrect. After that three chariots had a race round the hippodrome.

We spent an hour and a half walking around the site. It is huge, with massive temples, a great oval market place, three theatres. And only one third of it has been excavated. After a huge earthquake in 749, the people abandoned the city and built Baghdad, which was completed in 756. Debri blew in for almost 1300 years. Excavation began in the 1920's. It is amazing!!!!!

Jordan Day 1

It was so sad to be leaving Egypt on 27th Jan. It's been even more wonderful than Russia. We left Cairo at 11.15 and flew over a desert area laid out with streets. Lots of empty sections, but houses in between with green lawns and swimming pools. It looked like a new subdivision.

The flight evened out at 17,000 feet, so the landscape was quite clear. It's exciting to fly over features you recognise - first the Red Sea, then desert, some quite rocky, with areas where the sand between the hills looked like rivers. The flight only took an hour and a quarter. When we entered the airport, there was Raed, the JD Tours rep, with an orange sign with my name on it as arranged. He took the passports and got the visa stamp for us. When he came back, he told us with a serious face, "I'm very sorry to have to tell you that Petra is shut for one month for maintenance." My rational brain said this couldn't be; my emotional brain almost blew a gasket! Then we saw the grin on his face.

Outside the airport, we set off on the drive to the city with our driver Ibrahim. Amman is called 'the white city' because all the houses are made of creamy white limestone blocks; no colour is allowed. It's very clean; we saw men picking up rubbish in the street. The population is 6 million, of whom 2 million live in Amman. Ibrahim says he knows 1 million of them. His family has 40,000 members. We think he means there are 40,000 people with the same surname.

We went to JD Tours to pay for our tour; it was great to meet Jasmine who had been my email contact; a beautiful Jordanian who had got married just before Christmas and was all smiles when we wished her well.

Off to the Citadel on the hill. It has been there since ancient times, but was particularly developed by the Romans. There's a bronze age cave on the way up among the Roman ruins! Inside the museum at the top, I was blown away! They have items dating back to 8000 BC, which is the early Neolithic period. But the most exciting thing was some pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are dark green and came from Qumran, on the northwest of the Dead Sea, where they were found just a few km from the shoreline.

As the sun was sinking in the sky, there were fabulous photo opportunities, with houses and rows of flags gleaming in the sun. The Jordanians are very proud of what they have achieved with their tiny country. Ibrahim says it only takes 4.5 hours to drive from north to south; if that is correct, considering that the speed limit is 80 kph, it must be about as far as from Taupo to Wellington.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Back to Cairo

Written 26 Jan. Yesterday, 25 Jan, we drove back to Cairo. So at last I have access to Internet and have finally caught up. Tomorrow morning 8 of us head for Jordan, seven in my group, and the rest go off in various directions. I think 16 of the 30 are actually going home to NZ.

I'll try to blog from Jordan. This mammoth effort has taken me two hours and 2 minutes. Just for interest, the cafe I've found near the museum - a two hour walk from our hotel - charges 5 pounds an hour. The hotel charges 89!

NB. I didn't walk this far just for the Internet; it was great to cross the island in the river and see the Cairo Tower up close.