Thursday, October 16, 2008

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).

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