Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jordan: Aqaba & Return to Amman

Chapter Nine - Aqaba & Return to Amman

We returned to Rum the next day. I felt sorry that we had to leave so soon. It was again after dark that we headed back to the Desert Highway and then on to Aqaba. The Dominican woman accompanied us. There was one checkpoint between Rum and the highway. Driving along it was still nightmarish ...

Before approaching Aqaba, there was a checkpoint but from what I saw it was a customs check. We didn't need to stop. From there, it was another stretch of road running through the pitch black darkness, and then suddenly the lights of Aqaba came into sight on our right-hand side. On the left everything was dark except for some street lights. Gee, this city was a lot bigger than I had expected. We looked for a turning off to the right but couldn't find one. After a couple of miles, the city was behind us. Strange. Then a little bell rang: that city we saw, was on the other side of the water. So, it couldn't be Aqaba. It was Eilat, in Israel! We had become so fixated on the lights that we had failed to see that there actually was a town to the left of the road as well. What a difference! Aqaba, a small town mainly hidden in the darkness on the left, and there on the other side of the Gulf the modern city of Eilat with lots of high buildings, bathing in light.

We had to find a hotel first. The Red Sea Hotel has singles/doubles for JD6/8. They were clean but stuffy. The extremely friendly old manager and his son told us they also had some '1st class' rooms for JD14. We checked them out and they were indeed better, but certainly didn't warrant the price difference. Next was the Nairoukh 1 Hotel. The only room left was a triple for JD18 (which was actually the price for a double). We could also use it as a double for JD15, and the third person then had to sleep on the roof for JD3. The first suggestion applied most to me, but the room itself also didn't warrant its asking price. Bargaining down was impossible. The receptionist kept pointing at a sign posting official prices. No Problem. There are enough hotels in Aqaba. Third on my list was the Amira Hotel. Rooms were JD14/18 (taxes included) and they were much better than in the previous two places. There was a toilet and hot shower en suite, also TV, a fan, air-conditioning and a fridge filled with all sorts of drinks (except alcohol of course) and sweets. The place was OK, but still I tried to bargain down. To no avail. Here too, the receptionist pointed out the quoted prices on the official sign. Okay, we took it. The staff were friendly as well. Fourth on my list would have been the International Hotel; I heard that it's a very good place. Well, maybe next time...

It was already way past eleven when we headed out on the street to find a place to eat. There were some shawarma stands, but the Dominican lady, Noris, wanted something less common after spending two days in the desert. Why not? At this late (for Jordan) hour, we ended up at the Ali Baba restaurant, the "most expensive place in town" according to the locals. There is a very extensive and varied menu, listing everything from felafel and shish kebab to tournedos, 'Sophia Loren' steak and the sadly inappropriately named 'Diana' steak. All of the latter were JD7, and they come with chips and salad. Not bad for the most expensive meat dishes at the "most expensive restaurant". We ordered. "Sorry, but the kitchen closes at 10", one of the waiters who were swarming like flies around our Dominican friend said. "No, no, it's open", another one shouted. "No, it's closed", the first one said again. A hefty discussion started. At the end, the kitchen was definitely re-opened. Clearly all the men were fascinated by the exotic appearance of Noris and didn't want to disappoint her. There we were, having supper at Ali Baba's two hours after the kitchen had been closed. Nice though ... We really were all very hungry!

The next morning we went to have breakfast at the Amira Restaurant (near the Post Office, round the corner from the hotel). Yes, it has the same owner (or at least his family) as the hotel we were staying in. This seems to be the case quite often in Jordan. The breakfast was the usual boring stuff, but here a baqlawa was thrown in. Price: JD2. We also came here at noon to have lunch, but decided to head for Ali Baba's again instead. The prices are right (it's definitely cheaper than Ali Baba); the problem was that most dishes were only available from 1 pm on. What nonsense is that?

Virtually next door to the Amira Restaurant one can make a telephone call at the music shop. The price is JD2.5 per minute (no minimum).

As far as sights in Aqaba go, they aren't very exciting - bar one. The museum costs JD1 to enter but is plain boring. A walk alongside the nearby waterfront is free and nice enough. Also free is the Fort. It's a nice place to sit for a while and talk to some locals. Both at the Fort and the museum (with Visitors' Centre) the people are helpful and friendly.

Aquarium The best of all places to visit in Aqaba is no doubt the great Aquarium. In true Jordanian tradition it looks like a construction site, but inside is one of the best public aquariums I have ever seen. The fish (and other creatures) seem to be really well cared for and the displays as a whole give a very good overview of the marine life in the Red Sea. Recommended and well worth the one Dinar entrance fee.

In the afternoon we had to head back for Amman as our flight was leaving at 1.30 at night. We planned on getting a couple of hours' sleep in some cheap hotel in the capital before heading back home. The Boeing 767, with its restricted leg room, wasn't going to be a place for a nap, that was clear. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. I was about 20 kilometres out of Aqaba on the dangerous Desert Highway when a passing truck threw up a rock that hit our windscreen. A big crack was the result. The truck was going really fast, and there was no way I could make a quick, safe turn, and even then I would never have been able to stop the truck without being hit by it. So, we were stuck with the damage. What did I need to do? I decided to get a police report for the insurance. My friend reminded me that the blokes at Avis had told us we only needed a police report in case of an accident. Was this a real accident? I wasn't sure. I looked for a police post, but couldn't find one, and as we were heading back to Amman anyway, we decided to go straight to the airport and ask the people at the rental office. A police report had to be made against an unknown third party, so I could - I thought - have it done at any police post. We drove on. Along the way I saw at least four bad accidents involving trucks, two of which certainly had been fatal. At about 100 kilometres from the capital it started to rain. There was a strong wind blowing, causing sand columns to rise from the surrounding desert. I heard later that it was the first rain after the drought. I was doing about 80 km/h (50mph) when suddenly an oil tanker just ahead of me started skidding and made a 180 degrees turn. At the same time I felt our own car starting to skid, but I managed to keep it on the road. There was not much to be seen on the road surface, it was just wet. What actually happened, was that the rain had mixed with the sand that was flying around (and which is always present on Jordanian roads) and the oil (which is likely to be present with all those trucks) on the road. The result was a thin layer so it felt as if one was driving on ice. I immediately lowered my speed to about 50 km/h (30mph). A jeep driver had his own opinion on the matter and passed us doing at least twice our speed. A couple of miles further on, I saw him spinning around like a top. He was very lucky there was no precipice there. He recovered from the spin and continued ... at more or less the same speed as before. A couple of miles further on I was lining up behind a slow-moving truck. Before I knew what had happened I was facing the driver as he spun. This happened several times more before we finally reached the airport. There I heard that a Boeing had started skidding on the runway, but everything was fine. Great news! ...

I went straight to the Avis rental office, but it wasn't manned. I had the man at the airport Information desk page them over the PA system. After a while someone turned up. I told him that we were returning the car and asked what I had to do about the damage to the windscreen. We went outside to the car and he made a damage report (the windscreen was the only damage) and told me that it was "no problem". Phew! Glad to hear that. Inside again, at the desk, he filled in some forms and - without any expression - told me : "That's 450 Dinars then, sir." I couldn't believe it. I explained to him that I had asked about this kind of damage, before and after we had picked up/dropped off the car, and every time had been told not to worry. He told me windscreen damage was not covered by the insurance. I asked if I would be insured if I totalled the car. Affirmative. I told him this was too crazy to be true; one could then just as well wreck the car somewhere on the desert road and have nothing to pay. I insisted on talking to the station manager or making a phone call to the Avis Head Office in the States. Normally, if you have problems with a rental car, you get it fixed, ask for a receipt and present that receipt to the agency. Here they just told me "JD450", a vastly exaggerated price for a Mitsubishi windscreen. I could buy one in Belgium and send it to Jordan for less. He took me to the station manager, who was an even bigger con-artist. He said: "Normally, sir, a windscreen is JD450, but for you I'll make an exception - JD250!" In a matter of minutes, the price of the windscreen had dropped JD200 - 286 US Dollars!! It was clearly a rip-off - and they call themselves an international rental company? I was pretty angry by then and eventually they admitted that if I had a police report, I wouldn't have to pay anything. I had to go to the airport police (who are about 2 kilometres out of the airport actually) and ask for a report. That was all. At the police station they were very surprised to see a foreigner and nobody spoke a word of English. Anyway, they were polite. With gestures and drawings I explained the problem. They called in a General to solve the matter, because they didn't know what to do. When the General arrived, he didn't speak any English either. He asked where the accident had happened. I smelled some shit hitting the fan and told him it had been in nearby Jiza due to the terrible weather. He said that I had to get the report from the Jiza police then. You can imagine what would have happened if I had said that it happened near Aqaba; we only had a few hours left before check-in.
Fortunately, we located the Jiza police station quickly enough. At least there some of the officers spoke a little English. We were directed to Captain Youssef who supposedly spoke English very well because "he went to university." Captain Youssef was lying on his bed, making a phone call. "Just a second. Let me finish my telephone call, OK?" The call lasted not a couple of seconds but at least half an hour. Luckily, Youssef did speak English very well and I could explain the problem to him. We went outside to look at the damage and he just had to laugh because it was so minimal. He wanted me to call Avis but I explained I had already paid them a visit. He then ordered somebody to make the call anyway. We were offered tea and had to wait. One hour. "Sorry but it's very busy with all the accidents. I will give you a police report but it must be made by the Traffic Police. We are the Bedouin Police." Two hours. The traffic policeman came in. Hohoho! This man really looked like he'd just walked out of a comic book! But I had other things on my mind than laughing. He didn't speak English, but I could make out from the conversation between him and Cpt Youssef that he wanted money for a report. Luckily, the Captain had taken a liking to us and persuaded him not to ask for a bribe. After 20 minutes a blank report form was put on the table. The officer ordered me to get the car papers, so I did. But he wasn't satisfied. He needed the insurance papers. We didn't have these. "Get them at the rental company." I needed to drive back to the airport to pick them up. My friend got up to accompany me. "Not your friend. Your friend stays here!" What nonsense.

Back at the Avis office I explained to the manager that I needed the insurance papers, but he denied that. I told him to call the police station himself to sort it out, because I wasn't planning on driving around all night. Reluctantly he did, and after a long (and hefty) discussion announced that I could go back to the police and pick up the papers. No more hassles. When I arrived back in Jiza, the papers were almost ready. It was utterly ridiculous having to wait that long for a stupid piece of shitty paper. However, what mattered at this point was that we did have it, at last. Back at the airport we handed it over to Avis. "Okay sir. Everything is OK now. That'll be 25 Dinars, please." "Why?" "For administration, sir." I didn't have the time or inclination to start another discussion, so I paid.

Moral of this story? Renting from Avis in Jordan is not recommended, and I will never rent from Avis again anywhere! This was an international company acting worse than a local firm. Perhaps I was partly to blame, but the least one can expect in such situations is assistance. That's what you pay for, isn't it? They didn't assist - quite the contrary!

The airport check-in was very straightforward. There were no hassles. I have read messages on UseNet from people worried about the X-ray machines at Amman airport. Well, I can set their minds at rest; as an experiment, I put a 1000 ASA film through the detector twice and the pictures were still perfect. Departure tax was JD10 to be paid in Dinars of course. There are banks where you can change money if necessary, but they ask a commission of 500 fils. Except for a small but extremely expensive snack bar there is little in the departure hall. The best things are the excellent 'rest benches' that are available. They are very comfortable for catching up with some sleep on if you're leaving late at night.
End Note

Well, that was a little report about my trip to Jordan. I hope it was useful in some way. Although it was not the most exciting country I have been to, it certainly was a nice experience to be there. The people were friendly and helpful. Arab hospitality is renowned throughout the world and Jordan is definitely a country where one is really treated to it. It certainly is not the cheapest country in the region, but it's still cheap enough.

Jordan: The Magical Desert of Wadi Rum

Chapter Eight - The Magical Desert of Wadi Rum

We headed south along the King's Highway. The whole road was under major reconstruction and it was only after 40 minutes or so that we reached the town of Tayyibeh, only about 15 kilometres further on. It's a rather quiet place, which the Taybet Zaman hotel complex cannot seem to change. I would think twice too before spending an outrageous JD110 or so plus taxes in a place where nothing much is happening. But then perhaps you should come here because of that. At Ras an-Naqb the King's Highway joins the Desert Highway and that's where things start to look much more dangerous on the road. The sun was setting, and especially in the dark, this stretch of highway is a nightmare. Trucks were everywhere, travelling at very high speeds (often much faster than ordinary cars) three-abreast despite there being only two lanes. Looking for and taking the turn to Wadi Rum was highly risky. A jeep that was passing us even though we were signalling a left turn, was itself being passed by a truck going at least 130 km/h (80mph)! We were forced to miss our turning and turn back further on. We were glad to be off that road, though my friend and I love driving.

It was an hour after sunset when we arrived at the village of Rum. I had expected a tiny, quiet place but that was not really the case. Rum was bigger than I expected and there were quite a lot of people, especially at the Rest House. Wadi Rum desert vistaWe paid the obligatory JD1 for entering the Wadi Rum area and it was at the tiny office that we met a Bedouin who offered us a jeep trip. The cost was JD60 for two. This included supper, camping a night out in the desert together with him, breakfast in the morning, dinner, drinking water and a jeep trip of a whole day, lasting until past sunset. This sounded nice enough, but it was also expensive. We told him we would think about it and went to see the prices posted inside the Rest House. The official price was JD45 for a full day, lasting from the morning until sunset, but not including a night out and no food and water. I went back to the Bedouin and tried to bargain down. He wouldn't budge. Not 100 fils. He explained that we could have a night out in the desert including the meals for JD15 per person, but then we would have to return after sunrise. To extend the trip to a full day it would cost us another JD15 per person. I decided to check with some other people offering jeep trips, but everyone in the village seemed to know already that we had been approached by the first man, and wouldn't go below that price. They offered several other formulas, yes, but the final price was always about the same.
We had a drink at the Rest House. Very expensive at 750 fils for a Coke. A place to sleep on the roof was JD2. According to a woman we met, from the Dominican Republic, we shouldn't bother. She had slept there the night before and had been awake most of the night because the whole area had been very noisy and there were lots of mosquitoes! The idea of sleeping out in the desert only became more appealing. We decided that we would take the trip for JD60. After all, we had little choice left but to try it on our own - and that's not really the best of ideas if you don't know the desert! The Bedouin also acted as a guide, which otherwise costs at least JD5 an hour, so taking that into consideration it wasn't that bad. We went to have a meal at his house. We saw one of his wives running around through the kitchen window. About an hour later the meal was ready. Hmmm! This is going to be delicious! ... Huh? What's that? This is a breakfast we're getting here! The same dull stuff we were already used to. Exactly! The flat bread, processed cheese, marmalade and yoghurt. What a treat at 8 in the evening...
Then we headed out into the desert. About 5 kilometres or so from the village we saw a huge campfire. We headed for it and met some people who were on an overland trip from Britain to Nepal. It was nice talking to them. We went on to sleep in a quite secluded spot not very far from Mt Khazali. We slept in the open, lying on a rug in our sleeping bags. It was a great experience. It wasn't very cold, only in the morning when there was a bit more wind did it become somewhat chilly. In the morning we saw the sunrise (unfortunately it was a bit cloudy) and the Bedouin prepared our breakfast, making a fire from some dead wood he had gathered. It was the same food we had eaten in the evening.
Breakfast eaten, and before the sun was too high, we went for a 2 hour walk to see the graffiti in the Mt Khazali canyon. The surrounding desert was very beautiful in the, as yet, soft light. One thing that is really a pest, are the aggressive flies. Soon all of your back and face is covered by these bloody bugs, and the more you try to get rid of them, the more they attack you. Anyway, we made it (he-he) to the canyon. The graffiti is interesting, but the canyon itself is not that baffling. One can use ropes to climb further inside. The ropes are totally unsafe, however and should be avoided. On our way in, we were greeted by a man whose head was bleeding severely. A rope had snapped... I climbed a couple of rocks but decided it was too dangerous to continue.

From there we continued by jeep to see the obligatory sights such as a couple of rock bridges (including the Burdah Rock Bridge), Lawrence's Well, the Nabataean and Thamudic graffiti on the mountains' walls, the big red sand dune and a selection of the best-known mountains. Then it was back to the Bedouin's house for tea and dinner. Dinner was good: chicken. The only problem was that it lasted from 12 until 3.30! The Bedouin did nothing but sleep. We sat there, bored at first, but then decided to go with the flow. At 3.30 our friend woke up and we went to visit the Desert Patrol fortress in the village. The policemen with their long khaki robes are highly picturesque, but they have become very bored of tourists taking their picture. Not exactly an exhilarating experience, but nice anyway.

Sunset over Wadi Rum desertAfter that we headed back into the desert. It was an exciting drive as we flew over the fine sand at speeds that were sometimes around 100 km/h (60mph)! It becomes even more of an experience in the back of the open jeep and you know that the steel belting on all four tires is visible, making the jeep drive as if it were on snow. As you can imagine we did make tremendous progress. In seemingly no time we were near the desolate Saudi border. Just in time for the desert sunset, which was stunning! Only the sunsets I saw in Sri Lanka and Thailand are comparable. We were standing on a small hill that rose up from the desert 'floor'. Everywhere in the distance were warm coloured rocks and mountains. Not a soul in sight. This was an absolutely great experience.
We stayed up there until it was completely dark. Then we headed back, but our guide needed some fuel for his jeep (it consumed over 20 litres per 100 km!). He went to pick it up at a Bedouin camp. These nomadic people were very friendly and hospitable! We were invited for tea and - later - to spend the night in a goat hair tent. After our guide had agreed, and we had made arrangements for picking us up the next day (without paying extra), we stayed with the Bedouins close to the Saudi border and had a great time and a good night's sleep! This was one of the best moments of the trip, definitely! The scenery was much better than near Rum village with a genuine, much more desolate feel.

Jordan: Picturesque Petra

Chapter Seven - Petra (of Indiana Jones fame)

From Shobak it's only a short distance to the most famous site in Jordan : Petra. Petra was the capital of the Nabataeans, an Arab kingdom in pre-Roman times. It was conquered by the Romans and expanded and adjusted by them. Petra was hewn out of a sandstone terrace. The varying colours of the rocks make it very picturesque. It occupies a considerable area, including numerous individual sites often separated by several hundred metres, not only in horizontal distance but also in height. There is plenty to see ! The sights vary in size from smaller carvings on the outer walls of the rocks, to rock tombs and huge, monumental temple facades, for which Petra is best known.

If it wasn't for Petra, Jordan would be a lot less popular with tourists than it is now. And if it wasn't for the movie 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', Petra would be virtually unknown to the public and a lot less crowded! Anyway, crowded or not, it's still a very, very nice place to visit although most of the magic is probably gone.

The magic goes completely when you realise that the entrance price to the site is an amazing, scandalous JD20! However, most visitors would probably need at least two days to feel they had explored enough of the site - just a day would leave one wondering what else one had missed - and then the two- or three-day passes are certainly much better value for money: JD25 and 30 respectively. The price makes it one of the most expensive historical sites in the world. Jordanians pay JD1. I can live with a two-tiered price system, but this is really pushing it! It is not just very expensive for a developing country, it's bloody expensive even for a Western country! Maybe tourists should pay more, but where does one set the upper limit ? If they would ask me JD100 to enter the site, I'm sure I coùld pay it, but should I ? Of course this is a totally exaggerated amount of money, but in my opinion so is JD20. JD10 would be fair, with JD5 for every day extra. Unfortunately, with all the tour buses arriving, the price is much more likely to go up, instead of coming down as the government once promised.
We bought a two-day pass (but I'll describe the visit as if it was on one and the same day to avoid unnecessary confusion).

The tickets must be dated and signed before entering the site. The date and signature match are not properly checked. The man just looks to see if it is signed. If it is, you can pass. However, problems can arise when entering the Siq. There the ticket is checked again, and if it is one of your consecutive days, a counterfoil is torn off. The date is thoroughly checked but the signature isn't. So it is possible for visitors to pass on their tickets. Probably one could buy a three-day ticket for JD30, and then sell it to another traveller for JD10 or even 15, keeping the cost reasonable for both. Question is, will there be someone wanting to buy it from you? And the officials just might pick yours for a date check...

The Visitors' Centre was only interesting to me because there was a toilet. The tourist policeman manning the info desk is uninformative and unfriendly. The centre is open until 10pm, not until 5. You can only hire guides until 5pm, but the centre is definitely open until 10. Guides are officially required for the hikes to Sabra, Jebel Numair, Jebel Haroun (Mt Hor) and the Snake Monument, because it is 'too dangerous' on your own.

Food and drink within the site is hellishly expensive. It's much cheaper to stock up on snacks and water at one of the Wadi Moussa supermarkets, but do you really want to lug all that stuff around ? On our first day we were at the site from roughly dawn 'til dusk, and needed a lot (!) of water during that period. I was already carrying a bigger-than-average photo bag (a necessary evil as it's one of my hobbies). The second day, I bought what I needed in Petra and felt much more comfortable. I saw many young people entering Petra with backpacks loaded with stuff from the supermarket and hiring a horse. For the JD7 they forked out, they could easily have bought Coke or water inside and saved themselves the hassle of carrying their packs around.
Even in ancient times there were only a couple of entrances to the rock city. The famous Siq (a gorge through the rock, created by tectonic forces) was the main one, and is the entrance which all visitors today have to use.
The Khazneh, Petra
The Siq, however, is not immediately behind the ticket booth. A sand track, 500 metres in length, leads to it. There are only a few attractions along the way. First, one arrives at the Djinn Blocks, big square stone blocks, which were supposed to contain Djinns, spirits which protected the city from evil entering it. Further, on the opposite side, is the rather beautiful Obelisk Tomb.
Hiring a horse to take you to the Siq entrance is JD7. It's certainly not worth it. And besides I wouldn't hire one of those unfortunate animals, even if I was tired enough to drop. It's not a coincidence that there is an animal clinic near the entrance! On the way back, we were offered rides on horses (and in carriages) for as 'low' as JD2. Still a lot of money for a 500-metre ride/drive !
The walk through the Siq took quite a while. It's rather plain inside, but you should keep an eye out for some statues hewn from the living rock and cut over the water channels one can also still see. I think many people miss the statues because they think there is nothing inside the Siq and because they are heavily eroded. There are some other things too, such as engraved stones.
Just when I started thinking "When will this ever end ?", the stunningly beautiful Khazneh (Treasury), illuminated by the sun light, came into sight. Even amid the presence of the many other tourists I had to share the site with, I was still very impressed. Most of the magic is unfortunately gone. One should definitely not expect to find the solitude seen in the final sequence of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', although the Jordanian tourist offices try to make you believe that. Never mind, it's great!

If you want a drink after you've seen the Khazneh, walk on to the corner after which the theatre comes into sight (just before the start of the trail to the High Place of Sacrifice). A Coke in the tent at the very corner is 500 fils (ask for a bottle, not a can), which is not bad (the supermarket price is 350 fils). In the adjacent shop, you can bargain well down on the asking price of the guidebooks. I got as low as the price asked in Amman, which must make this the 'cheap' area of Petra (if you visit the giant drinks stand past the Qasr al-Bint, you'll be hit with JD1 for a Coke or large bottle of mineral water).

The Theatre is great too. It's not built but hewn from the solid rock, an incredible achievement ! Nearby are a necropolis, consisting of many rock tombs, and the so-called King's Wall, also known as the Street of Facades because that's where the monumental, 'royal', rock tombs are located. A visit to these tombs with names such as the Urn Tomb, Palace Tomb and Corinthian Tomb, involved climbing quite a few stairs, but the rewards were high. Apart from the beautifully coloured sandstone they're plain inside, but extremely beautiful on the outside. I was very impressed ! There are more monuments on the expanse to the north; the Mausoleum of Sextius Florentinus is the most remarkable of those.

The Bedouin women selling necklaces, rings and other jewellery near the street with the facades are very persistent. If you do want something from them, just ignore them for a long time. I didn't want anything, but the prices asked dropped by at least 60%!
We backtracked past the theatre. A short but tough hike brought us up to the High Place of Sacrifice. We made it in 20 minutes, ignoring the two drinks stands on the way. Before the final ascent to the sacrificial platform, we passed a couple of stone obelisks and a building which looks like a ruined watchtower. The views from everywhere up there are truly stunning. The Sacrificial Place is very plain, though still interesting enough. You can see the place where victims (most probably also humans) were sacrificed to the greater glory of the Nabataean gods. There are a couple of small altars, one with a drain for the blood, which is constructed in such a way that the blood would run all over the rock (The Nabataean gods were often represented by rocks).

The best thing about this hike is the descent. The path winds its way past several monuments and offers views of nice scenery almost all the way. We made some diversions off the beaten track too, so in the end this little trip took up the best of our day. It was very much worth it. Following the path down from the High Place of Sacrifice, there are two more monuments after the Triclinium, namely the Renaissance Tomb and the Broken Pediment Tomb. The former is the most architecturally complex tomb. The latter has - as the name suggests - a broken pediment, possibly caused by an earthquake. They're both worth a look.

A sometimes not so easy to spot sand track leads down to the Colonnaded Street, which is lined with monuments : a marketplace, Nymphaeum, Byzantine church, baths and a couple of temples. None of these is very interesting and mainly for serious archaeologists. The Temple of the Winged Lions may be of importance, but it's also a big disappointment in terms of what is to be seen. On the other hand, nobody seems to visit it, so we had the place to ourselves, for once.

At the end of the Colonnaded Street is the Temenos Gateway, the elaborate entrance to what lies behind it : the Qasr al-Bint Firaun, translated as the Castle of the Daughter of the Pharao. It's certainly not a castle, but a temple which was very likely dedicated to the main Nabataean deity Dushara. It was probably the most important temple of the rock city. It's not incredibly spectacular, but it is very interesting because it was built instead of hewn, a remarkable thing in Petra.

We continued past Qasr al-Bint and two museums. The only one worth visiting (in my opinion) is the Nabataean Museum. The collection is small but good. The collection in the Forum Museum is rather meagre; one room wasn't even lit.

We climbed to ad-Deir (the Monastery). This requires some effort. On the way, there are at least four drinks stands. On the way up is a sign to the Lion Tomb. It's not that impressive, but it's not a long climb either.

At the end the path, the Monastery was on our right. A short stroll through the loose sand, and we could admire the majestic facade in all its glory. This was truly the most impressive monument in Petra, in my opinion. Even better than the Khazneh. It's really huge!, although it doesn't appear to be. Only when I saw my mate standing in the eight metre high doorway, I realised how big it really was. I could verify that when we climbed up to the urn at the top. If I were to do it again, I'd give it a miss; the climb is far too dangerous. For the first five or six metres, there are no steps or anything. You just have to climb the bare rock. Later there are steps but they are sometimes heavily eroded and sprinkled with fine white sand. A couple of youngsters who were ahead of us nearly found out what this can lead to - a 40-metre vertical drop! On the last section, one has to clamber over some boulders but it is not as dangerous. I think as long as you're not scrambling around all over the hilltop or the urn not much damage is done to the monument - though possibly to yourself. Once at the top, the view is great. It's only up there that you can see how big the urn really is; people are totally dwarfed by it. It is really impressive, but even so does not outweigh the danger of the climb. Not recommended.
We followed several other paths in the area, but none of these took us to interesting monuments. They did offer some spectacular scenery though.

The Sand Bottles made in Petra were the most beautiful I saw anywhere in Jordan. They're also the most expensive. A small, simple one is JD5; one with a a more complex design is JD8. A medium sized bottle (they àre specially, but not particularly great, blown glass bottles here, not empty whisky flasks) is JD15, and a large one JD25-30. The sellers here won't come down much initially, but after a period of constant haggling you can have the medium sized one for JD10, but that's really it. They do make nice souvenirs!

We stayed in Wadi Moussa in the Peace Way Hotel, which was excellent. The rooms are very nice. The price was JD25 per night for a double room, excluding taxes and breakfast (JD2 per person extra). I managed to get them included in the price, but I'm sure that when business is brisk (e.g. in mid-summer) you won't be able to bargain. The hotel is worth the money, compared with most other places to stay in Jordan. Breakfast consisted of the usual flat bread, an egg, processed cheese and just enough marmalade for two slices of bread. If you can avoid it, don't make telephone calls from this (or any) hotel. It will cost you dearly! I couldn't avoid it, and had to pay JD10 for a 4-minute call to Belgium. The same applies to changing money, although the rate was not thàt bad: 680 fils to the $1 in the hotel as against the Bank rate of 700. There is, however, an exchange office of the Arab Bank not far from the Petra Palace Hotel, heading towards Wadi Moussa. I didn't check, but a sign at the office said it was open 24 hours.
It was in the Peace Way Hotel that I had the most unfortunate experience of my whole trip. The bathroom was equipped with a nice big bathtub. One problem though: no plug. "Oh well", I thought, "Let's just shower then." I got shampoo in my eyes and while reaching for my towel missed my footing and took a massive tumble. During the fall I instinctively reached for support, and somehow jammed my middle finger under the bathroom door, causing the flesh to tear away from the first knuckle-bone. I pulled my finger back, but because it was jammed I simply opened the wound even more. I had to disinfect and even stitch the cut (three, if you really want to know). Not exactly an evening to remember. When I was a child, my parents always told me never to stand upright in a bathtub. The one time I ignore their advice ... Oh well!
One cannot eat in the Peace Way Hotel. They recommended the Arabian House restaurant, just after going right at the central roundabout heading for Petra. Apparently the restaurant is owned by a relative of the Peace Way Hotel manager. We checked it out and found the food excellent and cheap. How about this? Three 'pieces' of felafel each (on the house), 12 more pieces ordered by us, two generous plates of shish kebab, three portions of chips, a side dish and four Cokes for JD10. That's JD5 per person! The waiter was a great bloke, a Tunisian who had become stranded in this part of the world; his plane ticket and money had been stolen in Antakya, Turkey and he was working in the Arabian House to buy a new ticket.
The Petra Burger joint near the Petra Palace Hotel has apparently been closed. One can get excellent hamburgers at the snack bar in the parking area at the Petra site. They're expensive at JD1.50 each, but soooo tasty!

In Wadi Moussa, we also took a look at 'Ain Moussa, the 'Moses Spring'. It's Biblically important. I'm avoiding the term 'historically', because it's not quite possible to prove that Moses indeed did strike the rock here. So it's a 'must-see'. What can one say about it? Well, it's a spring and the water is reported to be drinkable.

Conclusion : Petra is more than worth a visit. Although it has to be shared with a big tourist crowd, the ancient rock city is, in a word, fabulous! It is the absolute highlight of a visit to the country, and should be at the top of everyone's list, even if visiting several Middle Eastern states.

Jordan: Heading South on the King's Highway

Chapter Six - Heading South on the King's Highway

On to Muqawir, the place of Herod the Great's fortress. One can see the remains of the palace on the 700 meter high hilltop from some distance away and it's quite picturesque. You can drive up to the caretaker's hut, which is where the stairs to the top start. The caretaker is an enormously friendly and helpful man. We established a real friendship with him. He's so nice! He went out of his way to make our visit worthwhile, and shared the contents of the knapsack that his wife had prepared for him with us. He never expected a single dime and even rejected the money! He accompanied us to the top of the hill and told us there were two ways up: one is the new set of stairs, winding around the hill's circumference, the other goes straight up from the start of the new stairs. The caretaker, who was called Saud, told us that it is much more interesting to go the latter way because you then also come to a large cave in the hillside where he said John the Baptist was beheaded. It seems pretty sure that John indeed had his head severed near here, but there is some doubt about exactly where it happened. According to Saud it was in that cave. The stairway dates back centuries and is not always easy to spot. It is recommended that you ask Saud to come with you. He will also point out all the things worth seeing. The climb is not that hard and you soon find yourself standing at the top amid the few remains of the fortress. They're not impressive, but the views (over the Dead Sea among others) and the total absence of a tour bus crowd again made up for this.

At the entrance of the stairway, two Muslim girls had exposed their wares (no not those wares, silly ..!) - handmade 'Bedouin' rugs. They carried the label 'Original hand-made Beni Hassan', but were not at all beautiful, many of them even downright ugly. Some of the creations were one colour only and looked like jute sacks. Great was my astonishment when I turned the label to look at the (fixed!) price: JD45 for the smallest jute sack rug (30 x 30 cm), and JD250 (that's US$355!) for the biggest (80 x 150 cm). For that amount I could have bought an excellent carpet on Crete, or in Kashmir or Turkey. We left, but not before saying farewell to Saud, our new-found friend. He kissed us good-bye in the Arab tradition and waved to us until we were out of sight. But not out of heart, I'm very sure.

Wadi al-MujibFrom Muqawir, we drove back to the King's Highway and followed it south. The views were uninteresting until we reached the Wadi al-Mujib, an enormous canyon about 1 kilometre deep. The Wadi has an incredible, spectacular beauty. The best place to look out over it is from the viewpoint built near the entrance to the canyon. It simply amazing! You can see the road winding down it, and a few moments later you're on your way down those bends. Descending, the scenery is great. At the bottom is a long bridge over the river (dry at that time of year). The seemingly totally useless post-office at the bottom was closed. The climb out of the canyon is just as spectacular.

Just out of it is a brand new place to stay - the Trajan Resthouse. It was not completely finished but one could stay there. It certainly looked OK, and had we known it was there, we would have certainly spent a night there. It's conveniently located about halfway between Madaba and Kerak. Ideal if you want to explore the region at a leisurely pace, like us.

A little bit further on, just before entering the Talal municipality, we had a bad experience with local children again. We were driving at about 70 km/h when some school children formed a "chain" and blocked the road. We could choose stopping, or not stopping and running them over. Guess what? We chose the first option. The little pip-squeaks were all over the car. And I do mean all over! They were clambering on the hood, on the roof, everywhere, shouting like mad. They demanded money. We had opened the car's window to ask them what was going on, but as soon as we did they actually jumped into the car. Two of the little brats were lying on our laps. And they weren't planning on moving before they had received some money. As there were soon about fifteen of them, you can imagine... We were completely blocking the road and unable to move an inch. We tried to drive on, but as soon as we did, one of them lay down in front of the wheels. I got very upset, and tried to scare them away, to no avail; it had the opposite effect. Luckily a driver coming the other way came to our aid and angrily chased the kids off. We couldn't thank him enough !

We continued on to Kerak, but made a brief stop in ar-Rabba, a small town on the way. We used the time to stock up on some goods at the local shops. The people aren't really used to visitors it seems and are really friendly. The small town also has the remains of a Roman temple, but they are only worth a quick look. There's no charge.

A short while later, we arrived at Kerak. It's a pretty town. Suddenly you see the castle and the walled town on a hill before you. It still looks impregnable. The walled city is also very nice to walk around in. It has a very oriental atmosphere. It's less pleasant to drive around; the one-way streets drive you nuts. At one point we had to get the car up a hilly street so steep that we had to constantly burn rubber to be able to reach the top. Just stopping for a moment would've had us sliding down to the bottom.

The castle grounds are a nice place to visit, especially in late afternoon before sunset. The views over the valleys below are magnificent. The castle itself is big but not very interesting. It costs JD1 to enter. Included in the price is a visit to the museum (close to the castle). The displayed artefacts sometimes have a very good explanation attached and there are also excerpts from the diaries of archaeologists - a nice touch ! One shouldn't worry too much about falling into gaping holes because they all seem to have been closed off. The Lonely Planet guide mentions that one should "ask the museum caretaker to show you the underground vaulted rooms." Well, I tried but with the bus-loads of tourists coming in, he wasn't at all willing to do it. That was a major let-down.

My best experience in Kerak was talking to the Iraqi who runs the Gifts House / Castle Gifts shop (the two have merged). He's an incredibly nice bloke to talk to. He and his family fled Baghdad after the Gulf War. He ended up in Jordan, his wife and children in Holland. So far he hadn't been able to get a visa. It was hard to hear him talking about that and about the war. He gave us a very good description of what a beautiful and lovely country Iraq could have been, and actually was once. I sincerely hope he gets re-united with his family.

The Pizza Sewar in Kerak has closed and merged with the adjacent establishment, the Peace Restaurant; they are now the 'Ram Restaurant'. The menus still bear the Pizza Sewar's logo. The pizzas are good, very filling and cheap, and the service was very friendly. The 'waiter' wanted us to have some music to listen to. So he went out and returned with a kind of ghetto-blaster. He and another man then started messing with cables. It looked as if they still had to install the lot. That done, they went out to fetch a cassette. Of course, in the meantime no pizzas were prepared, but who cares? They were trying to make us feel comfortable. And it was funny too. The restaurant is owned by the same person who runs the nearby hotel of the same name (Ram Hotel, not Rum). Of course, they tried to steer us thither. Oh well, why shouldn't we check it out? There are rooms of different size and quality. Check several! The cheapest come at around JD5. We wanted one with an en-suite bathroom. Asking price was JD20, but we could easily bargain this down to JD15 and have breakfast included. As a hotel guest, you are entitled to a 20% deduction at the Ram Restaurant, so taken as a package, the deal is certainly not bad. Well, it wasn't bad for a room with a hot shower, toilet, TV and fridge. It soon became clear that we could forget about the television and refrigerator - they were just there for decorative purposes! The electric plug socket contained the pins of a previous plug and was thus unusable. My friend opened a cupboard and the whole thing came apart. Not usable and irreparable by us. At the slightest move we made, the beds made a sound as if a just-married couple was having a rough night in them. At 4 in the morning the muezzin called us to prayer. As we're not Muslim, we wanted to stay in bed and sleep, but the muezzin did his utter best to prevent us from doing so, and succeeded ! When we wanted to flush the toilet, we had to lift the lid of the cistern to do it. Fortunately the shower was hot.

When we went down and had our (included) breakfast, the (otherwise friendly) Sudanese receptionist had completely 'forgotten' about breakfast being inclusive and there was no persuading him that it was. We were charged extra for it, and also for the 'complimentary' tea that we had drunk when we checked in. The price was around JD2. There was also no way to make this chap see that we wanted to keep our passports in our own custody. Insisting didn't help at all.

Just a little too much went wrong at this joint to recommend it. I'd advise everyone to check out another place. The Cottage Hotel (with repaired sign, by the way) looked pretty good!
From Kerak we drove towards the Dead Sea. We wanted to visit the Sanctuary of Lot at Safi. The road along the Dead Sea was rather quiet and offered pretty good views of this natural wonder, although there is a lot of industry in the area. There's nothing to Safi, but the sanctuary is bloody hard to find. Nobody seems to know it, and nobody speaks English. Eventually we got a peek at what was supposed to be the cave where Lot and his daughters took refuge after fleeing from Sodom. The cave is on a hilltop overlooking the Dead Sea. Nearby stands a salt pillar which is supposed to be Lot's wife who was turned into this when she ignored God's warning not to look back to Sodom which was being destroyed. There are also Byzantine monastery remains. There's not much to see, but it's always nice to stand at a historical or Biblical site. Evidence proving the authenticity of the site is provided by Madaba's mosaic map on which the monastery is mentioned.

From Safi we drove to Tafila. This took us through part of the magnificent Wadi al-Mujib. The scenery is at times stunning. There are several natural viewpoints along the way which make a great place to sit for a while. One could do worse than get some provisions before leaving Kerak and then have a picnic at one of those viewpoints. We did. Several Jordanians who were passing by, stopped to have a chat. Nice!

There's not much going on in Tafila. We searched for the Crusaders' building but couldn't spot it or find out about it because the locals couldn't give us any information.

Next stop: the Crusader Castle of Shobak. We had been at several places that provided great views over the surrounding countryside. But everywhere the surroundings were in some way inhabited. Not so at Shobak. The countryside around the hilltop fortress is really desolate. The views over the Wadi Arabah are very good.

The castle itself is also of interest, although it's quite ruined. Restoration is almost complete. Best of all are the Arabic inscriptions by Saladdin. We took a look at the 365 steps that go down to the underground well. It was very dark in there and the descent looked quite dangerous; there was loose white sand all over the eroded steps. When our flashlight failed, we decided to skip it, although the very friendly caretaker would clearly have been only too happy to lead the way down. Near the entrance is a souvenir shop housed in a Bedouin tent. Take a look, if not for the souvenirs, then for the man who runs it. He's really friendly. We were offered tea and food ... and also antiques. Real antiques, definitely ! My view on buying antiques in these countries is not to do it. To quote Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movie (well, this is how the country gained fame with the public after all): "This stuff belongs in a museum"...

Jordan: Madaba - mainly, but not all, mosaics!

Chapter Five - Madaba - mainly, but not all, mosaics!

I loathed the idea of having to spend another night in Amman, and decided to continue on to Madaba and hoped that its only place to stay, Lulu's Pension according to Lonely Planet, had vacancies. Luckily for us, it had.

The place was easy enough to find. Signs to it are practically all over the city. The pension looks like an ordinary house, which it is. You have to open the iron gate and ring at the door. It has its name in pink-and-green neon lights on top of the roof, illuminated at night. I must confess that if I passed such advertising with that name ("Lulu's Pension") in the West, I'd more likely think of this place as a dubious joint, no doubt! It was with that thought in mind and a smile on my face, that I met the proprietor, Lulu and her daughter. Lulu is a great character and a very classy, older lady. It feels very odd to talk to and 'do business' with a woman in this country. The reason is that she, like many other people in Madaba, is a Catholic. Lulu told us that sometimes when she's out shopping and people arrive, they think it's closed or full, but that's not necessarily so. Therefore, she says, it's best to ring in advance if you can.

The rooms are spotlessly clean, spacious and nicely carpeted, but otherwise undecorated. The two of us stayed in a triple. I also saw a more cramped single room and a very nice one with a double bed. Bathrooms are shared, but there are two so there's no queuing problem. Both are also spotless, and one has a lovely, large bathtub. Great to have a soak in! The price was still JD10 per person. Breakfast is included, but it's 'self-service', meaning you have to prepare it yourself from what you can find in the kitchen. And there isn't much: tea, old frozen bread and some jars with marmalade. But I'm not complaining. This was the best place to stay in the whole trip, and great value for money. There is a huge living room where you can sit and talk to other travellers or watch TV. There's also a writing desk. Open the drawers to find a real treasure chest of information on Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, India, Malaysia, and many other destinations. All the information left by other travellers, and some of the other material to be read here, are real gems! On a clipboard is more information on Madaba, including notes by other travellers. This place was absolutely the best!

To return to the hotel situation in Madaba, it's no longer the case that there is just one place to stay. There are three now, at least that's what I was told. I'm sure of two, and a third was pointed out to me, but the signs were in Arabic only. The second is just called 'Madaba Hotel'. It's rather basic, I gathered. There are some signs pointing the way.

It's nice to see some accommodation here as Madaba really is a nice place. We intended to spend the night, take in the sights in the morning and continue on. I loved the place so much that we ended up staying for two days.

Apostles' Church mosaicFirst, we went to see the so-called 'Archaeological Park'. The entrance is near the Church of the Virgin and costs JD3 now. The same ticket does however entitle you to visit the Museum and the Church of the Apostles, too. The bloke in the ticket office was kind and helpful. The Archaeological park was, surprisingly, very well designed. The system of ramps and viewing positions works very well. The entrance fee is worth what you get in return for it, a rare thing in Jordan. Regardless of where you buy the ticket, ensure you don't pay the fee again at another of the sites you have access to, as nobody will ask if you've already bought one and will just hand over a new one, and if you're walking around asleep you'll have paid JD9 in the end, instead of 3.

Several mosaics from locations outside of Madaba have been moved here to preserve them. And some are very beautiful. Others are still in their original sites. The best of those are definitely the mosaics in the Church of the Virgin and particularly the Hippolytus Hall. The architects have done a great job here: they have covered the old buildings (of which the lower walls can still be seen) with new constructions, thus preserving them ànd the mosaics that lie inside. Alongside are walkways and ramps, some of them elevated to give a good overview. However, they could've been even better, because the best photographic viewpoints are inaccessible. Of less interest are the Church of the Prophet Elias and the Crypt of St Elianos.

After having seen the Archaeological Park, the Museum was below average. I think it would be a better idea to eventually get it integrated into the former, as on its own it's definitely second rate. Like I said, entrance is covered by the combined ticket of JD3. The place is open every day now, and no longer closed on Tuesdays, when, as I was told, the chap who used to man the ticket desk had his day off. The staff are friendly. The 'Banche & Satyr' mosaic in the Traditional House of Madaba is the best piece in the museum, although the 'house' is not well illuminated. The mosaic depicting 'Paradise and its Fruits' is now housed in the 'Byzantine Room'. The room where some of the traditional costumes are displayed, is interesting enough.

The Church of the Apostles (the third and last place included in the JD3 ticket) has some stunning mosaics, very well worth a visit. Most fellow visitors didn't seem to agree with me on that - I think they were poorly informed or only interested in the map at St George's Church - because the place was virtually deserted. Perhaps it's because it requires a walk out of the town centre?

Little is left of the old church itself, but what there is, has been covered in pretty much the same way as at the Archaeological Park. There will eventually be similar ramps and viewing positions. The place is very much under construction, and the mosaics are still being restored. The most important one (dating from 578 AD) can already be seen. A rectangular band with a very nice personification of one of the seasons on every corner encloses a medallion depicting Thalassa, the personification of the Sea. It is really beautiful and the whole mosaic is big, measuring roughly 5 by 10 metres. When visiting, ask one of the attendants to wipe the mosaic with a wet cloth. You will be stunned by the incredibly lively and intense colours. Baffling, really! The staff at the entrance are very friendly and informative; they also do their uttermost to learn the foreign languages they hear. Ask for a guy called Mouafak. He's a really nice bloke to talk to. I ended up spending a couple of hours in the church. (If you visit, please give Mouafak my best wishes!) It's possible to buy a little photocopied booklet with information about the different mosaics of Madaba.

Mosaic Map, St George ChurchThe famous mosaic map of Palestine & Lower Egypt in the Church of St George was as nice as I had expected it to be - interesting and something that should be on the itinerary of every visitor to Jordan. Entrance was JD1, certainly not too much, but asking a fee to enter a functional church is not something I can approve of. I know it happens elsewhere in the world too, yes, but still...

The small church is full of tourists and it's sometimes hard to get a good look at the map. They have started to impose a limit, with only a certain number of people at a time allowed inside. Luckily for us ànd for the mosaic, it's fenced off by a rope so it's impossible to tread on it. Strangely enough, everybody who calls himself a guide seems to be exempt from this and they hop happily all over it, pointing at the parts of interest. Besides the map, it's worthwhile to have a look at the interior of the church itself. It's quite plain, but rather beautiful nevertheless. Photography is no problem. I heard that earlier, at times when there were few visitors, the map was covered with a carpet. Those days seem to be a long way in the past, but should it be the case, you can ask the man at the small booklets/postcards stand inside the church to have it removed.

Of lesser interest was the Burnt Palace and its mosaic. It's still very much a construction site. We couldn't enter the nearby Martyr's Church - and there was no way to talk my way in - but the chap manning the shop of the "National Society for the Preservation of the Heritage of Madaba and its Suburbs" (phew!) showed us some pictures of what to expect when it's opened to the public. The main mosaic there is amazingly beautiful! It's too bad we couldn't see it. The man at this shop, which incidentally is cheap enough, is amazing too! He speaks excellent English and is an endless source of information, much better than the Tourist Information Office staff! He showered us with folders and brochures of all kinds and showed us hundreds of pictures from all kinds of books. He also proudly showed us the official documents from the city council of Ravenna, Italy, that confirmed that Madaba is officially twinned with their city. If you visit Madaba, visit him too. You won't regret it!

Signposted all over the town and impossible to miss is Madaba Zaman, a handicraft 'village' that claims it will show you 'the real Jordanian traditions'. It's clearly very touristy, but it can be nice to get an impression of some of the handicrafts: carpet weaving, mosaic making, Hebron glass blowing and making 'Petra' sand bottles. There's a quite pricey cafe and restaurant.
Recommended by many travellers as the best place to eat in town was (surprisingly perhaps) the Mankal Chicken Tikka. It turned out that it was, in terms of price & quality. The food was cheap and the service was friendly. Across the road from the church on King Hussein Street (which no-one in Madaba seems to be able to point out to you), is a good shawarma stand.

If already in Madaba, one shouldn't miss out on a visit to nearby Mount Nebo, the alleged site of Moses' death. A taxi from Madaba costs at least JD5 but, as another traveller told me, extremely hard bargaining may bring this down. He said that Jordanians pay just one JD ?? We had our own car, so no problem there.

The church on the Siyagha peak is where the tourists flock. And lots of them too! Upon entering the grounds, we were presented a 500 fils entrance ticket. The fee is per group. If you're alone, you're considered a group. The ticket salesman, who pretended to speak practically no English (I asked him some questions about the place but he seemingly didn't understand a word), asked if we were together with a bloke from Paris who was walking behind us. We said we were. I saw no need to make him pay another half a Dinar. We were handed a ticket and proceeded. The Frenchman thanked us and asked what exactly had been going on. Suddenly the ticket seller spoke English. He had overheard us and knew we weren't in fact together. He was angry and insisted on us buying another ticket. I started pretending to speak no English, just as he had done, but this got him only more angry so I handed him another 500 fils. We hadn't been exactly honest, but neither had he. At the time, I really disliked that bloke. Actually, I still do. If it was to do with money, he miraculously spoke another language. Paying the entrance fee entitles you to a card (one per group obviously) with a layout map of the site. There's not much to it. Just the church and the modern bronze sculpture outside on the platform in front of it. It's new but very nice all the same. It symbolises Moses lifting up the snake and Jesus on the cross and was done by Fantoni of Florence. The views over the barren Promised Land (including the Dead Sea) from the terrace are fantastic, and so - to a lesser extent - are those from the parking lot. Inside the newly erected church building are remnants of the old basilica and the Siyagha mosaics. The mosaics, as well as the church, are again beautiful, especially the main one.

When we were there, a bus-load of elderly German tourists was tramping around the holy place, making more noise than you'd hear in a Weinkeller in, say, Rüdesheim. The doorkeeper was not impressed. Neither was I. In consequence we, and all others after us, were lumped together with them. We left with what you could call a Weinkeller hangover, so decided to explore the area further, which was quite rewarding: nice views all around! It was one of those times you consider yourself very lucky to have a car at hand.

The hot spring resort of Hammamat Ma'in was next on our list. The drive there from Madaba is very pleasant, offering great views - especially from the hilltop before going down towards the resort. You can barely see Hammamat Ma'in down below in the valley. Beige and dark red-brown rugged mountains all around. On your left-hand side you see the road winding down the steep hillsides. Incredible! The road goes down fast. It's very steep. Suddenly - almost before you see them coming - you're flying over some pretty high artificial ramps in the road. Just as you're wondering what the hell they're for, you have to slam on the anchors to make the compulsory stop at the gateway to the resort. Just entering it costs JD2. Crazy! There seems no way of avoiding this, other than doubling-back to return to wherever you came from. I found the whole resort a depressing place. It must have looked OK in its hey-day, which in fact can't have been long ago, but now it feels like you're wandering around a place that has been closed down. Luckily, the 25-metre high waterfall made up for a lot of this. Indeed, it doesn't only look great, but also feels good after a dusty day in the hills.

I checked out the places to stay here, but they were far too expensive for my liking and for what they offered. I would only get more depressed if I was to pay the c.100 US Dollars that the Ashtar Hotel asks for a double-room. Maybe some Jordanians, used to a drier-than-dry climate, think they're in paradise when they come here, but I certainly didn't. Perhaps I'd consider paying that amount in a European resort, but definitely not here! The Drop & Shop Supermarket there at least has some cheap things on offer (cheap for this place, but still expensive in general). "A bag of crisps and a Pepsi, please..." Can't say I felt sorry when I left the place. On our way out, the men at the gate decided to give us a hard time over our tickets, which we couldn't produce quickly enough. Some good advice: cherish and store them in a place where you'll always have them handy. They will actually be required to be able to leave, or you will have to pay another JD2! As if we could've entered the place with a car without passing through the gateway... Nuts!

Jordan: The Desert Castles

Chapter Four - The Desert Castles

I knew there was no hotel in Mafraq, but I wanted to make sure, so we went there to check it out. Mafraq is just a small town, the last place to speak of before the lone desert road shoots off towards Iraq. It would make a great base to do some exploring of the desert castles, like the one at Burqu'. There wasn't anything going on, but the locals were very friendly. We ended up spending a couple of hours here, just talking - or trying to talk - to the people. I asked if there was a hotel, and everybody told me there was one, seemingly along the road to Zarqa. They told me there was no sign, at least not an English one. I couldn't find it at all, so I finally asked at the police station. There, an officer told me that there was no hotel in Mafraq and that I had to continue to Zarqa. I think there may very well be a hotel or place to stay, but that foreigners are not allowed or supposed to stay there. Why else did all locals say there was a place? Further east in Asia, I'd think it was to please me, but here...

We drove back to Amman and stayed at the Bdeiwi Hotel.

We started the Desert Castle Loop from Amman, heading out to al-Muwaqqar. This road was quite desolate, so with little traffic. What drew my attention were the many animal road kills. Several small rodents, birds and even a donkey with its legs up in the air were lying on the asphalt. The road is quiet enough for the animals to stroll onto, and when a truck or car then passes by, they have a very good chance of being run over.

Qasr al-KharanehThe first castle we visited was Qasr al-Kharaneh. It looks plain, but still nice, and I'm sure that once its unremarkable appearance ensured it had a very desolate feel about it. It is hard to have that feeling now though, because the whole site is surrounded by barb wire, and almost next door is what I think was a power or relay station. There's also a large antenna pole close-by. But for us, what really took it out of its former isolation were the noisy tourists who had arrived in a couple of coaches. Sitting and absorbing the atmosphere was virtually impossible. We took a good look around and left. The caretaker demands (that's right, not "expects") a 1 Dinar tip, by the way.

The situation is not much better at Qusayr 'Amra, although we managed to arrive about five minutes before the tour buses did. When you're alone there, the place is absolutely great. The frescoes are unfortunately heavily damaged, but one can still very well make out what they're all about: nude women. The dome with the map of the heavens is fantastic.

As soon as the tour groups had taken over the place, it was hardly possible to study the paintings further. The tour guides even tried to remove us - some nerve! Eventually, we went outside (own decision!) and waited for the buses to leave, but more kept arriving. After a more than fair time, we packed our things and left. This small place was far too crowded for its own good. Fortunately, we had seen what we wanted to see. We ignored the caretaker, who had been sitting in the shade for the whole time and done nothing for us.

When we arrived at the oasis of Azraq, it was time to have a meal. We went somewhere with signs in Arabic only. (This of course means nothing, as almost all places in Azraq, except perhaps the Tourist Rest House near the castle, only have signs in Arabic). The place was kind of big, and nice enough. There were small triclinium like rooms at both sides of the restaurant where one could lie down and eat, and afterwards sleep. Nice, but we didn't need sleep at that moment, but this may help to identify the place. The restaurant did some different kebabs. I had shish-kebab which was only very average, and not cheap at all. The owner was a very rude to us as well as his own personnel. It reminded me of situations I had come across in India, when somebody "important" from the upper caste was shouting at a casteless person. A place to avoid. The Tourist Rest has similar high prices, by the way, but the staff were friendly and spoke English. The food is better too. I'd go for that one, if given the choice now. On entering Azraq, turn left (towards the castle) instead of right, into town.

We didn't bother going to the Shaumari Reserve. We had talked to some other travellers and they had told us that they had seen virtually nothing in the sense of "wild" animals. We decided we could better spend our time in the Antwerp Zoo when we got home.

Azraq castle was certainly worth the visit. It's very ruined, but there are still many nice things to see, such as the vaulted room above the entrance where Lawrence of Arabia had his headquarters, the adjacent rooms which still bear the evidence of the repairs with palm branches carried out by Lawrence's men, and - in my humble opinion the highlight - the enormous stone slab out of one piece of basalt that served as a door. It really required considerable force to open/close it.

The caretaker of Azraq Castle Again, unfortunately, it is crowded with people from tourist buses. The old caretaker gets almost literally suffocated by people wanting him to show them the old photographs of his father and Lawrence (the bloke's father knew Lawrence). Sometimes the old chap has to move out of the place to get some air. Really! This is the perfect example of a native completely ruined by tourism. I observed him carefully and noticed that most people, on leaving, handed him a half or whole Dinar bill. I started thinking that this bloke wasn't the simple, modest man that he looked. Standing before me was a rich man! Let's say he gets 500 visitors a day. (From what I saw this is not unreasonable; I heard that there are many more visitors in summer, and less in winter, so it's a fair average). And let's say he gets only half a Dinar from half the visitors. That's 0.5 x 250 = 125 Dinars. Per day. That's 125 x 30 = 3750 Dinars (roughly $US 5360) per month. Practically tax free. I couldn't discover how much, if anything, he got paid by the government for his taking care of things. Unbelievable! I expect he probably gives a lot of that money away supporting a large family. Or does he have to give it to his employer, the state? Dunno, but anyway, one shouldn't do this type of calculation while travelling. Is this the money-crazy Westerner in me? No, not really; I heard one of the tourists say "he's a poor man", and started wondering... Oh well, I probably totally miscalculated the whole thing - at least that was what another traveller told me when I suggested it to her.

OK. We continued our "loop" and headed for Hammam as-Sarakh. It was easy to miss. Luckily it lies just besides the road and I spotted it while whizzing past. It's not that impressive in terms of size, but it's a nice little building, well worth a quick look. We could just walk through the gate. There was no caretaker in sight. And no other visitors. No tour bus loads. Lovely! Beside the baths lies a deep water pit, covered by a metal safety grill.

From the baths in east Hallabat it's only a short trip west to the Qasr al-Hallabat. If you have a car and drive up to the gate, the caretaker (who has his tent right at the entrance) will open it so you can continue your drive all the way up the hill to the castle, so you don't have to hike (unless you want to, of course).

The castle itself is a major disappointment; all of it is in a state of ruin. Except for some Greek inscriptions on some of the crumbling stones, there's nothing to be seen here. On top of that, some of the inscribed stones have been included into odd walls "they" have tried to re-erect, but have been placed upside-down, so you have to stand on your head to read them - clearly this isn't the work of serious archaeologists.

We were at the Qasr al-Hallabat at sunset, and I have to admit that it was a bit of a magical place to be at that time of day. We climbed some of the (firm) higher walls and watched the sun setting. There was no-one else around. This, combined with the impression of desolate location you get, made for a really great feeling. It turned out that this was the nicest spot - no, experience - of the whole day! A place doesn't need to offer mind-blowing sights to be impressive - at least for me. What it needs is simply atmosphere. I imagine that had I been at al-Hallabat in the middle of the day I would have been far less impressed by it. So, my advice: do the loop as we did, heading in this direction. Take your time at all the other places, and you'll arrive at the best time of day. I'm sure if you do the loop the other way, and visit this place first (in the morning), you'll be very disappointed! Upon leaving, the caretaker expects a JD1 tip (as usual).

Jordan: The North, perched between Israel & Syria

Chapter Three - The North, perched between Israel & Syria

We headed for Jerash. The drive there, through busy and uninteresting Zarqa, was unimpressive. For those who want to stay in Zarqa, there are a couple of small places there. Just ask around.

I knew that the ruins of Jerash could only be more interesting than Amman, and they were! They can easily compare with those at Ephesus, in Turkey! Entrance to the ruins is now JD5; in this case the price really is justified. For this kind of extensive ruins you'd pay similar fees everywhere. The Visitors' Centre was - in good Jordanian tradition, it seems - a building site, and inaccessible. Highlights were Hadrian's Triumphal Arch, the Forum, the Temple of Artemis and the Nymphaeum. Like most museums in Jordan, the one here amid the ruins was small and quite uninteresting to non-archaeologists. The people there were friendly though.

One should allow at least three to four hours for a stroll through the Roman city. From within the new city of Jerash you can shoot good overviews of the ruins. Just drive up the hills a bit and use a strong enough telephoto lens.

In Jerash we ate the best bread of the whole trip. There's a good bakery on the Y-shaped intersection of Abu Baker as-Seddiq Street. It's number 13 if I recall correctly. The bread is very inexpensive and fresh out of the oven; it's delicious! It's very strange that there is no hotel in Jerash. Although it's an easy day trip from Amman, if you want to continue north, it's a drag to have to return to Amman. We ate at the al-Khayyam Restaurant, just across the road from the entrance to the ruins. An average meal of shish-kebab, two or three side dishes and a drink each was around JD4.5 per person. Service wasn't particularly friendly. The views are alright.
Something incredible was to be seen here: to get rid of the insects that attacked his meat, the guy at the grill found no better way than to spray the meat with repellent. I couldn't help laughing out loud in astonishment, but at the same time made sure I wasn't getting a piece of this 'chemical food'! Perhaps it was my imagination but I thought I noticed some bigger-than-average flames licking the meat when it was placed on the grill plate ...

Avoid buying in the souvenir stalls/shops nearby. The guys there are friendly enough, but everything is way too expensive. Don't fall for the sand bottles either. They're not expensive, but then the quality isn't particularly good either, and they use artificially-coloured sand, which I hear tends to fade after a time. Better buy a more artistic one with natural coloured sand at Petra. It'll be more expensive, yes, but with some hard bargaining you can end up with a little jewel for the price. That is, of course, if you want one ...

It's only a little over 20 kilometres from Jerash to Ajlun. The drive goes through what you could call pine forests. It makes quite a nice drive, although it's probably more impressive in spring when everything is greener.

From quite a distance away one can see the Qala'at ar-Rabad, the castle on the hilltop. When you drive into town, the first thing that strikes you is the beautifully situated mosque. Entry to the castle was JD1. There's not that much to be seen inside the castle ruin, but the views from the top are great!

The people in Ajlun were very friendly and helpful, and so were the guys at the ticket desk of the castle. First thing we were asked was as usual: "Where do you come from?" "From Belgium." "Belgica? Good guns! Very good!" This also happened to us in Egypt. It seems Belgium does a fair amount of weapons exporting to the Middle East. But what's new, right?

From Ajlun we continued to Tabaqat Fahl to see the ruins of Pella. We took the road that runs along the West Bank, or Palestine if you like, via Kurayyuna. The ruins of Pella are disappointing themselves, but they have the advantage of being very nicely situated, scattered over some hills. Australian archaeologists are still working on the digs and restorations, though work had stopped for the coming winter. The view from the Government Rest House looking towards Israel, especially at sunset, is great. The food there wasn't very good and hellishly expensive at JD15 for just some pieces of chicken and orange juice for two.

The proprietor, Hussein, is a good source of information, but unfortunately he's also definitely gay and comes on strong! Beware! I have no problems with gay people, but this guy is very pushy and doesn't know when to quit. He started off telling us some stories about how great Israel really is, which I found very strange for an Arab. It turned out that he regularly stayed in a kibbhutzim and he told us with a 'sensuous' voice : "Oh, there are so many nice boys in Israel." I realised what kind of guy we had in front of us, but my (male) friend seemingly didn't. He soon found out though, because as soon as I went off to the toilet, Hussein started telling my mate how much he loved to have his, well, errm, thing, sucked. Again the Israeli boys seemed to have played a major role in that too. My companion made it clear that he was not that kind of guy, or should I say gay? To no avail. Hussein kept coming on ... "Ooh, Philippe (my mate), that sun in my face is so annoying. I'll come sitting next to you." He did, putting his hand on his leg. I could only just keep my friend from striking him. After finishing our 'meal', I asked if there was any dessert. Hussein said: "Not here. But in Jordan we have such good desserts. Maybe we can go licking some ice creams in Irbid?" Yeah, right. I ignored the last bit but stupidly asked if the desserts were sweet. "Ooh, very sweet", he smilingly answered, looking at Philippe. I couldn't help but laugh out loud, because it actually was kinda funny at the same time. Well, it was for me, not for my friend.

When we arrived at the Rest House, I had asked Hussein if we could stay at the guesthouse mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. He had been affirmative. Now, after all his gay crap, I told him we were leaving for the guesthouse. He insisted on showing us where it was; to be honest we needed this, as we couldn't find it ourselves. As we approached our car, I told him to sit in the front, next to my pal, so he could point the way. I didn't want him behind me... He 'sensuously' said : "Oh yes, I know Phil likes me." Shortly afterwards, we arrived at a small house with no signs or anything. He showed us a room. It smelled odd, it looked odd, and we felt odd. This could have been the guesthouse, but if so it was also clearly his place. Hussein made some more really dirty remarks - the sign for my friend to decide to leave, which we did. I felt that if we stayed, something violent would happen. We made it clear that we weren't planning on staying there. He didn't give us a hard time over that though, probably because he knew that homosexuality in Jordan is something to be careful about. We headed for Irbid, which isn't far away.

In Irbid, I checked out the Hotel al-Amen. It's a very friendly place, and rooms were JD8 for a double, JD6 single. The room was clean enough too, but to reach the bathroom we had to walk down a corridor, across the reception area and then along another corridor. A bit too much at night if you're in a hurry! I went to the nearby al-Umayya Hotel on King Hussein Street. There they wanted JD20 for a double with toilet and shower in the room. A colour TV was also thrown in. Bargaining was not possible. I decided to take it anyway, and some other travellers who had just arrived seemed to agree with me on that. The staff are friendly, but not genuinely so.
Virtually next door is a very good supermarket where you can stock up on cheap foodstuffs and drinks, and any other things you may need. If you leave the hotel, turn right immediately and continue to the corner of the street. Turn right at this corner, then immediately cross the street. There you'll find the best shawarma that I ate in Jordan. It's excellent and cheap. The guy that prepares it, is a friendly dude on top. Recommended!

There's not much going on in Irbid but it's quite a pleasant place to spend some time, as are most university cities in the world. The Museum of Jordanian Heritage at the Yarmouk University is indeed the best I saw in Jordan. On top of that, it's completely free. Strange, as I found this the only one worth paying for. The people at the university entrance and at the museum's reception desk were very kind and helpful. Across the road from the university, to the left of the Chicken Tikka and Delicate Restaurant, is a photo shop. To the left of it, is a restaurant that bears only an Arabic name. It's really good. The tropical fruit shake here is absolutely delicious. No, it's heaven! A complete and tasty meal of kebabs, including the fruit shake, some side dishes and two cokes was only JD4.5 per person. Unbelievable! Recommended!

For a university city it's surprising how little English is spoken in Irbid. In fact, it seems that not many people in Jordan master English. In some of the Jordanian Tourist Authority brochures I came across was the statement "...and many Jordanians will surprise you with their English language." Oh, yes, they did surprise me! I was surprised to find that almost nobody speaks it, and the ones who do, are mostly awful at it. Oh well, I guess I don't speak Arabic very well either. But then, English is my second language just as it is for them. Some people I mentioned this to remarked that I was expecting too much from these folks. Perhaps that's true, but I am not just talking about the man in the street, I am also speaking about the university students. One guy who had graduated as an English teacher was horrible at it. The lack of being able to communicate seriously hampered travel sometimes, but luckily the people are kind and helpful enough, so almost always somebody will be found who speaks English well enough to be able to help you out.

From Irbid we went to Umm Qais, the site of ancient Gadara. Judging from the enormous parking lot at the entrance, the people here are certainly prepared to receive lots of visitors, probably in the future, as right now it's still rather quiet - although the tour buses have made their entrance. It cost 1 Dinar to get in. Golan HeightsThe ruins themselves were (again) rather unimpressive. Their location however, with views over the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights makes up for this. The museum with some mosaics and statues is the most interesting of the lot. There is a very good (but rather expensive) little book shop, where you'll have no problem finding little booklets about almost all archaeological sites in the country. Tony Howard's guide 'Walks and scrambles in Rum' is readily available for JD4, as are heftier works like Insight Guides' guide to Jordan. It's also a good place to inform yourself before joining a dig if you're interested in that. If you don't want to spend any money here, you can pick up a free copy of 'Occident and Orient', a publication of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology, the people working on the excavations in (among others) Umm Qais. It's pretty interesting. The person manning the desk is very friendly and informative. We had a drink in the Government Rest House which is an incredibly nice place to sit and sip. Service however is dreadfully slow, especially when a busload of tourists has arrived. We had to wait twenty minutes before we were served. The waiters aren't exactly friendly if you just order a soft drink. They've got used to more affluent tourists already, which you can judge from the enormous collection of tour company stickers on the doors.

From Umm Qais we continued right up to the border, to the baths of al-Hemma. There were a couple of military checkpoints along the way. The first was almost round the bend from the Umm Qais site. The soldier stopped us and said hello. We replied and handed him our passports. He said he didn't want to see them, but wanted me to open the boot of the car and look into our luggage. When I opened both, he was looking the other way, totally uninterested. Strange! He walked to the front of the car again, and asked my friend (who was driving): "You have Mercedes at home?" My friend hasn't, but noticing the guy's deep interest, he replied: "Yes." The soldier smiled widely and said: "Yeeeess. Mercedes good! ... Go!" We could continue. He waved us good-bye until we were out of sight. On the way, we could see military bases and watchtowers on both sides. Just before entering al-Hemma we had to pay a road tax of 1 Dinar, but not so for coming back. The restaurant by the baths is a great place to sit. It's very quiet and relaxed. There's not much to the baths themselves. The water wasn't that smelly, but I wouldn't jump into it either. It occurred to me (again, maybe) that most sites in Jordan aren't really places you should go to for their impressiveness. They are places you must go to, to sit and absorb, if you know what I mean. And then, they're always great.

The food in the restaurant was good enough, and not particularly more expensive than elsewhere. Possibly it used to be, but now that prices seem to be higher in the whole country, the difference is gone.

The children in al-Hemma are crazy. They came begging for money and/or sweets when we were in the car and didn't give up when they didn't get any. They grabbed the roof and windows and held on whilst we were driving. They insisted on getting the can of Pepsi that was in their sight. A bloody dangerous thing to do, for us, too. You can imagine what'd happen if you hurt one of the little brats. Finally, to get rid of them, I had to literally throw the can of Pepsi out of the window.

Also beware of the giant wasps here. They're present in the whole of Jordan, but in al-Hemma they were aggressive! Some locals at the restaurant who had ordered some sweet desserts or something, had to flee from their tables, to avoid getting stung! And they couldn't return to their places. The wasps were feasting on the sweetmeats. Shortly after, the whole table and the chairs were inhabited by over a dozen stray cats, who joined the wasps in the feast and ate the chicken leftovers. The locals stood and watched. The waiters chased the cats, but wisely didn't chase the wasps! Only minutes later, the cats returned and were having a ball again. Nobody bothered anymore. It was a lost battle.