Jordan's greatest hits

Friday, January 22, 2010

It was one of the places on my “must-see” list for this trip, and I think it’s safe to say that Petra did not disappoint. What did disappoint a bit were the Imaginative Traveller trip notes, which clearly said we’d have some time on the afternoon of Day 3, and most of Day 4 at the site. Instead we left the hotel in Amman a bit late on Day 3, then we stopped so our guide could pick up his credentials, then we spent an odd amount of time touring around Amman through some of the posher neighbourhoods. After that there was a pitstop at a convenience store so we could pick up some supplies for lunch, because we were told there wasn’t a good place to stop on the way. Once we finally got on the road lo and behold, there was a lunch stop! We were supposed to be there for half an hour, but that turned into an hour. All of this meant that we didn’t roll into Wadi Musa – the town closest to Petra – until dusk, and during winter months the entrance to Petra closes at 4:00pm. Needless to say we were not impressed, especially when we didn’t even get to do the cheesey “Petra by Night” walk because it’s not available on Tuesdays. (It really would have been nice if our guide had known that before he asked us all if we wanted to go.)

But nevermind all that, it turns out that one long day was enough at Petra. We were smart enough to go for an early start, leaving the hotel at 7:00am (early in Jordan and early in Africa are two very different things, thankfully). When we got to the site there were already several large tour buses in the parking lot, but a few of us surged ahead past the inevitable gift shops and headed into the Siq.

Best snack shop EVER.

The Siq is the legendary 1.2km long high-sided canyon sort of thing that leads into the city of Petra. The LP takes pains to point out that it’s not actually a canyon but a “rock landmass that has been rent apart by tectonic forces” but whatever the geological cause, it’s a spectacular walk.

Emma, my roommate, demonstrating the scale of the Siq.

Most people probably know Petra from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and it’s such a spectacular setting it really seems like it must have been designed by Hollywood rather than formed naturally. It’s really fantastic. You wander for about half an hour among these towering rocks and then suddenly you’re staring at the most famous site in Jordan

My first view of the Treasury

It is seriously amazing and improbable - carved right out of the pink sandstone cliff and really well-preserved. I can’t imagine how they managed to plan and carve it out. Access to the inside is blocked off, but there’s not much to see there anyways. It’s called the Treasury because locals mistakenly used to believe the Pharaoh hid his treasure in the top urn of the facade. Whatever it was, though, it must have been important. (I took a lot more photos of it, and of the whole site, but it’s just not practical to include even a fraction of them here. If you haven’t looked already, click on over to the Flickr feed and look at the Petra set.)

It was at this point when we saw the wave of Japanese tourists returning from their visit to Petra. They must have arrived when the site opened at 6:00am, walked from the Treasury to the end of the main part of the valley, and then jogged back. Incredible. I speculated that they probably had the rest of Jordan all of Egypt to see that day, so they were moving fast (“Ok, Petra from 6am to 8am, then Wadi Rum from 9:00 to 9:30. Fast ferry to Nuweib and at the Great Pyramids by noon. 3 minute lunch stop. Pyramids from 12:03pm to 12:30pm. Photo op with the Sphinx 12:30 to 1:00pm. Helicopter transfer to Luxor for King Tut’s Tomb from 2:00pm to 2:15pm. Felucca ride on the Nile from 2:30pm to 2:45pm. Helicopter back to Cairo, visit the Egyptian Museum from 4:00pm to 4:30pm. Free time from 4:30 to 4:35pm… etc.)

Once we had our fill of the Treasury, we wandered along Wadi Musa, taking in the other sights of Petra. “Wadi” is Arabic for valley, so “Wadi Musa” means Moses Valley. The town we stayed in is named after the valley, and Petra is situated in the valley. We passed through the Street of Facades – an area riddled with about 40 rock-cut tombs. Some were quite plain, but the rock itself was really beautiful – much of it was striped and swirled with different shades of red and orange and purple.

Inside one of the tombs

And of course there was the mandatory theatre, and main collonaded street, all familiar from my many forays into Roman ruins. Petra was originally built in 3rd century by the Nabataeans and was a major stop on the caravan routes from Damascus to Arabia. It was abandoned – probably in 555 AD after a major earthquake – but the Romans inhabited it for a while too before it fell into disuse, so that may be why it’s got a Roman feel in parts. Remarkably, it was only “discovered” by the western world in 1812. And that’s all the history you’re getting from me, because I really didn’t pay that much attention and totally cribbed that whole last bit from the LP.

What I did do was take the long hike up a winding path to one of Petra’s better-known monuments, called the Monastery. The hike itself was a bit strenuous, and though the morning was cold I ended up stripping off more and more layers the higher we climbed and the sweatier I got. It was about a 35 minute trek at a steady, heart-rate-elevating pace. Some of the lazier/smarter among us hired donkeys and rode up, though we heard that was a bit scary. The donkey themselves are amazingly sure-footed on the steep steps but have no qualms about passing on the outside to try and get ahead of their mates. Though it was an effort, I’m glad I did it on foot

Some of the 800 steps up to the Monastery.

Our timing was really good all day. When me and my three compatriots (Emma, Fabio and Jammal) arrived at the Monastery we had the whole site to ourselves except for one insanely fit German guy who passed us on the way up. It’s an impressive facade – even bigger than the Treasury, and modeled after it, but you really don’t take in the scale of it unless you see it with a person in the picture.

Fabio standing in front of the main entrance. His head just reaches to the bottom of the doorway. I told you it was big.

We stopped for an extortionately expensive cup of hot, sweet tea with mint (1.50 dinars! They were only 0.50 dinar near the Treasury) and enjoyed having this incredible place to ourselves before we struck off for a nearby viewpoint and then did the long hike back down to the floor of Wadi Musa. After a short, cold, expensive and unsatisfying lunch the four of us went over to the see the Royal Tombs – more impressive facades cut into the rock.

And then, not satisfied with having negotiated the 800 steps up to the monastery, we decided to try and find the back route behind the Royal Tombs to a ledge overlooking the Treasury. And we found it – after another long and sweaty trek up more steps and some serious doubt as to whether were were on the right track. Being the only ones in the area is nice most of the time, but on this occasion I would have been grateful to have run into some people coming back the other way who could have confirmed that we were on the right track. Nevertheless, we persevered and finally found it, and it was a fantastic view.

Here’s a perspective most people don’t get. I do have a couple of pictures of me at this ledge but they are perhaps the worst pictures of me EVER. My now mostly unmanageable hair is frizzed out in all directions, my mouth is hanging open and I look like I’ve gained fifty pounds, not fifteen. Needles to say, those did not make it onto Flickr.

It ended up raining while we were trekking back down from that viewpoint, and we got quite wet. In fact, a lot of our time in the desert was marked by unexpectedly torrential rains, which seemed bizarre. We were actually lucky, though. We heard from our guide that the entire site had to be closed a few days before we were there because a huge rainfall made the place impossible. As we were walking out, it was easy to see how large volumes of rain would make the Siq an ankle-deep river of mud.

We met back at our bus at 3:00 pm after about 7 hours of sight-seeing, climbing, getting rained on, and generally exerting ourselves. All I wanted was a short ride in a warm bus to a comfortable hotel with hot showers and wireless internet. Instead, we drove through more rain to a touristy Bedouin camp in the Wadi Rum desert, about two hours drive away. It was dusk when we arrived and were shown to our “rooms” in goat-hair tents.

Jammal, checking out the accommodations

Let there be no doubt – the desert is COLD. Especially at night, in January, after a large rainfall. Luckily, they had a nice kerosene stove in a big common area kind of tent, and we had our supper in there and hung out enjoying the warmth, thawing out, and relaxing after a long day. My mood was much improved by the time I’d sat near the heater for a while and had some hot food and lashings of sweet tea with sage, so by the time I went to bed I felt pretty good. I even managed to have pass a reasonable night, though it was a bit tricky keeping the mountain of covers balanced on top of me, and I turned out to be absolutely irresistible to the sand flies, which left me with a dozen or more tiny red blotches on my face.

Nevermind all that, though, because the next morning we got to ride camels! After the standard middle eastern breakfast most of us saddled up and went off for an hour of camel riding. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, camels are exceptionally smelly, mostly ornery and kind of ridiculous. Getting onto a camel is not hard, but you really have to hang on tight when they stand up because they accomplish this is a series of three lurching back-and-forth movements, any one of which could pitch you off into the sand. And once you’re up, it’s a looong way down. I think I had the biggest camel in the group, because I towered over some of the others.

Me, waiting for the big lurch

Each camel was lead by a handler, or tied to the camel in front of it, and we walked for about an hour, making a big circle that lead us back to the camp. I managed to get a few photos even though camels do not exactly provide a smooth, camera-friendly ride. Still, it was pretty cool, and I enjoyed it.

Here’s my camel and my camel-driver, neither of whose names I managed to discover.

So we had Petra and Bedouins and camels, and it was still only about 10:00 am – just enough time to pile into the back of a couple of pickup trucks and zoom around in the desert for a few hours! I was looking forward to this too, because we really hadn’t been properly IN the desert yet – like out on big sand dunes – that kind of thing. The jeep drivers delighted in racing across the wet sand (remember, there had been a LOT of rain), and they zipped up dunes and down the other side and generally behaved like boys do when given an accelerator pedal and an open space. It was fun, but breezy. We also stopped a few times to take photos, and we visited another Bedouin guy who made us coffee and tea and tired to sell us stuff.

Inside the Bedouin tent. My driver was the one on the right in the traditional clothing. He was insane, but fun.

When the sun came out it warmed up and the views were quite fantastic. Wadi Rum isn’t a Sahara-style desert with endless ranks of sand dunes and nothing else – it’s got a lot of rock formations and some scrubby vegetation and it was really quite beautiful.

Wadi Rum desert

It seemed like a long drive back to the camp, and I was grateful to finally get back onto our warm and comfy bus. The desert was fun and beautiful, but I was tired and dirty and cold, and very much looking forward to getting to Aqaba, a properly touristy place that promised to have the hot shower and cold beer I’d been craving since Petra. And it did. And it was good.


Viviane said...

Adventures. Amazing views and discoveries. Followed by the good old comforts. And it is good.

Unknown said...

Amazing, amazing, amazing. I so very badly want to go to Petra, & your post only increased my desire. Sorry your guide is a bit of a tool, but you seem to be managing. Looking forward to your next adventure!

Unknown said...

Jordan and Petra sound very cool.

I saw Bruce Watson last night and worded him up on your GSRED thing so look forward to him tuning in.

Happy trails...

Rob H.

Unknown said...

Wow... very cool.

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