Thursday, October 16, 2008

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"...

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