Around the world in 125 days
Crossing into Jordan from Syria was not as painful as crossing into Syria from Turkey. Again we took a 'border taxi'. It was still a long wait at the border, with several lines of cars and buses, inching slowly forward to go thru the immigration and customs. For one of the buses, I saw every passenger got out of the bus and open their luggage next to the bus, right on the sidewalk, to be examined by the customs officer. Also they made vehicles drive over a pit on the ground so that someone standing in the pit could check the bottom and see if anything or anybody was hidden underneath.
Rather than sitting in the taxi and waiting with the rest, I decided to wander a bit and walked to the front of the car line. Somehow nobody stopped me and I managed to get all the way to the Jordan side. There I saw a guy sitting on a chair holding up a card with our names on it. He was the guy to pick us up. I introduced myself and led him to our car. Not sure how he did it but with his help, our taxi were able to jump the line to the front and went over quickly. Once we were in the Jordanian side, we switched to another vehicle and he drove us into Amman.
Amman is a modern city with many Western-style stores, cafes, and shopping malls. Jordanians are doing well. I saw a lot of nice cars and big houses. On some major roadways, you could see big posters of King Hussein. He always had this nice and friendly smile on his face. Interestingly, we also saw big posters of this pretty woman sometimes not far from his poster. I believe that poster was an advertisement of something. Or maybe it was Queen Noor. Another thing you notice about Amman is that all the buildings are more or less of the same colour, light brown sandstone colour. I am sure they must have a building code enforcing the colour.
The hotel we stayed was on a small hill fairly close to the University of Jordan, and the street facing the university had a row of buildings full of Internet cafes and American fast-food places. You have McDonald's and Burger King, plus KFC and Pizza Hut, all side by side to each other. Each of these outfits has its own big distinctive logo with different colour. Visiting this plaza would no doubt make some tourists feel at home. Jordan is not as conservative as Syria but you do see ladies covered head to toe from time to time. Since the fast-food area is within walking distance of our hotel, we went there for meals a couple of time.
After checking into the hotel, we met our local guide Talal, a tall lanky Jordanian. Talal told us he could take us to a Jordanian restaurant that evening if we liked. Some went with him but Estrella and I decided to try out the Burger King instead. While there, we saw several ladies coming in, completely covered in black except for the eyes. The immediately question was how were they going to eat? Well, as they say, very carefully. They used the left hand to left the veil up and then used the other hand to put the food to their mouths, hopefully without exposing their faces too much.
Next morning, we visited a string of 8th-century castles spread over the wide desert terrain east of Amman. Some are in ruins, and some are still quite well preserved. The fort called Azaq dates back to Roman times and, at one point, was used by Terence Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). After the Roman times, they were built upon and fortified by the Omayyad caliphs of Damascus. These were nice, but I guess we were kind of feeling castle weary after seeing so many in the last few weeks, especially those big ones in Syria.
On the way back, we stopped in downtown Amman to experience city life and visit the Citadel and the Roman amphitheater, built in the Second Century CE. Romans loved amphitheatres. They just had to build one wherever they went.
Our hotel was a white low-rise building. Looked pretty new. Next to our hotel was a big patch of grass. One night we saw a bunch of sheep grazing on it. I had no idea where they came from, since the hotel was situated in a residential area and there was no obvious way for them to get there.
By the time we got to Amman, I needed a haircut. We found one barber in the plaza. With hand signals, I was more or less able to my hair cut the way I liked. After the haircut, we went a grocery store next door. One fairly young local guy in the store was kind of surprised to see us there. This friendly fellow rushed over with a smile and shook hands with me. He said a few words. I had no idea of what he was saying but it was clear that he recognized us as visitors and wanted to express his welcome. I always find this kind of moment touching. Someone in this world would actually walk up to a visitor from far away, a perfect stranger, and greet him. This instance also reminded me of something that happened earlier while I was at the border watching the bus passengers being searched. There was this one kid maybe about 10 years old. When he saw me he slowly came over, then extended his little hand and without saying a word, shook my hand. Then he ran back to his family. I didn't know if he was a Jordanian kid or a Syrian kid. But I knew he was a very friendly kid for sure.
From Amman, we headed south to a Red Sea resort town called Aq'aba. The desert road we took is called the King's Highway, named for the Jordanian King of course. Located by the Red Sea, Aqaba is full of hotels and provides all kinds of water activities, such as swimming, snorkeling and diving. I first learnt of this place from the movie Lawrence of Arabia. In the movie, he and his camel were glad to see the water after spending days in the desert. In the hotel lobby, we met our tour leader Sharleen, a very nice Australian lady. With her were three new tour leaders in training, plus several new tour members. Most of them were Australians or New Zealanders. There was also a couple from Ireland. They just came from Egypt after climbing Mount Sinai as part of their Mount Sinai tour.
Boy, Aqaba was hot! I found it so hot that it was practically impossible and even painful to go outside. But we had to because it would be ridiculous if we did not see and experience the beaches and water, especially the marine life. Our hotel was not beachfront. So Kay and Carolyn shared a taxi with us to go to another hotel and use its beach to swim. The hotel name was Aquarama and it was recommended by the guidebook. But it was not as great as we expected. The beach was small and there was no coral or fish anywhere to be seen. Even though the Red Sea is famous for its coral and colorful fish. Maybe we were at the wrong beach.
Next morning we went to do some snorkeling in a Royal Water Park. But it was very windy and the water was quite choppy. Strong wind was creating white caps on the water. At the end, we did not really see much under the water.
From Aq'aba, we continued to Wadi Rhum. This wadi was made famous by the movie Lawrence of Arabia. If you have seen that movie, you would remember a scene where the Arabian warriors are riding horses and camels in the desert with all these rocky mountains in the background. We took a jeep tour to go into the desert. The group was split into two jeeps and we charged into the desert and stopped at various places to take pictures and sightsee. Well, I was truly impressed by the stunning scenery. The real things are indeed much better than what we have saw in photos.
Wadi means 'dry river bed'. In the old days, this flat desert was part of a river bed. Sometimes these still flood when it rains in the mountains. The way the mountains with their sheer granite and sandstone cliffs appear to pop up from a flat desert floor, like islands rising from water, is what make this place among the most spectacular deserts in the world.
The only scary part was our two jeeps seemed to take turns breaking down. Each time, the driver had to open the hood and tinker with the engine before it would start again. It would be so much fun if one of them actually had broke down.
After Wadi Rhum, we headed to Petra. It is a unique place hard to describe. You all have seen a bit of it, if you have seen the movie Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Basically it is an ancient city built by the Nabateans around 6th Century BCE, but is hidden inside mountain ranges. The only way to get to it is through this narrow 1.5 km gorge or passage, called a Siq. The entrance to this narrow gorge is so well hidden that nearly everybody forgot it, so the entire city was lost to the outside world for hundreds of years. According to history, the Nabateans were a Northern tribe who came during Roman times and built monumental temples, tombs, and administrative centres, using the money from levying taxes on travelers to ensure their safe passage. (See Queen Zenobia...) The place was later taken over by Romans who, as usual, built an amphitheater, colonnaded streets, and baths. Subsequently it passed into obscurity and was forgotten until 1812 when a young Swiss explorer, named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, heard locals talking about a "lost city" and decided to check it out.
After hiking thru the narrow siq to the end, suddenly you see, thru the gap, a dramatic vertical slice of a 40 meter high structure, called the 'Treasury', carved from solid rock. Going thru the gap, then abruptly you come to this opening and now you can see the façade of the whole thing, with its beautiful columns and carvings. It is an amazing sight. No wonder Speilberg came here for his Indiana Jones movie scenes.
The name Treasury was given it because on the roof there is a giant round urn which, according to local lore, was filled with ancient Pharaonic treasures, and the Bedouin used to shoot at the urn to try to break it open. It may look like a temple, but in fact, it is not a treasury or temple at all. It was instead a royal tomb according to archaeologists.
From the entrance, you can look back and see the narrow gap that you just came thru.
After admiring the Treasury, you can walk to the right. Here the area widens up substantially and then gets wider and wider. Now you see more niches and tombs carved into the solid rock. Keep walking. You will see carved royal tombs and mausoleums. There is even a big 8,000-seat Roman theater. Then there are streets with columns on both sides, and a triumphal arch too. In fact this is a huge complex that would take days to fully explore.
While walking, we happened to see a Bedouin (native) riding a camel, just like his ancestors in prior centuries, but he was talking on his cell phone at the same time. It was like the Sixth Century meeting the Twenty-first Century. In this case, his phone should really be called a 'camel phone' rather than a 'car phone'.
Besides the structures in the valley, there is even more to see on top of the mountains surrounding the valley. Some of the ruins are quite far and it would take days to get there. Fortunately, the second most well-preserved façade beside the Treasury requires only a one hour hike up a fairly steep trail to the top. So the group gathered and hiked up single-file. We must have climbed over a thousand feet to see the 'Monastery', which looks a bit like the 'Treasury' but is even taller. We saw a visitor who tried to reach the top of the Monastery thru the rock face on the left side of the building. He did make it to the top. The hard climb not only let you visit the Monastery, it also provided an incredible view of the surrounding desert.
We spent a whole day there, exploring this totally awesome place. Since there was so much walking, most of us were wearing hiking boots or running shoes. But one Australian lady was going all over the place with a pair of Japanese sandals or 'flip-flop'. Pretty amazing. We did more walking and climbing that day than any other time in our entire trip. I was so exhausted that I was barely able to walk back out thru the narrow passage. We saw some people were riding donkeys instead. I was very tempted to hire one. When we came out of the gorge, I suddenly saw this Movenpick hotel that I did not notice earlier. We had a quick stop and enjoyed some Hagendaz ice cream. But we still had more walking to do. I dragged myself to the park entrance to catch the bus. Man I was so tired and just about to die.
The hotel where we stayed faced a small valley where the houses were scattered on the side of the valley. It was a very beautiful sight. But I did not get any decent sleep there. Muslims pray five times a day, so all minarets had loud speakers calling the faithful to prayer, this followed by an actual very very loud prayer. In general, you can expect to hear calls to prayer pretty much everywhere in Middle East. But this place was the loudest. In the morning, around 4:00 am, the speaker blasted away very loudly for 5 minutes, calling all believers to pray. This was then followed by an even louder prayer itself for another 10 minutes. Having one's sleep interrupted like this so often would probably ruin your days. No wonder most of the staff in the hotel looked kind of grumpy. I doubt I could live at Petra without ear-plugs.
Next day, we got on the road again, traveling along the scenic King's Highway which twists and winds its way between Aqaba and Amman. Madaba is renowned for its Byzantine mosaics and we were supposed to see the oldest map of Palestine which was a mosaic. The only problem was the map was located on the floor of a church. And it would be covered up if there was a function taking place at the church. Since the church was still active, it was not surprising to see a wedding taking place when we arrived. So the group sat outside, checking out the local store while waiting for the wedding to be finished. Eventually, we got in and saw the ancient map on the floor.
According to the Bible, Moses saw the promised land but was not allowed to go in because he had once disobeyed God. After he died, he is said to have been buried near Mount Nebo. But nobody knows exactly where. (In the book of Jude, verse 9, there's a dispute between the Archangel and Satan over his body.) From the top of Mount Nebo, there is a great view of the Jordan valley, the Dead Sea, even of Jerusalem on a clear day.
We were not done with Amman yet. We would see another nearby famous Roman ruin, Jerash. But by the time we got back to Amman, my right ankle was hurting, due to the extreme walking done in the last couple of days. I was quite concerned. It would be a disaster if my ankle didn't heal soon, because my ability to sightsee would suffer greatly. Luckily our tour leader Sharleen had a medicine kit and took out some tape and wrapped up my ankle to give it some protection. She was such a nice lady. I heard Jerash also had a lot of agora (market places), temples, theater, baths, and forum etc. But I decided to take it easy and skip this place. To give my ankle some rest, I just sat outside at the entrance and waited while Estrella went with the group. It was a good move. The following day, I was more or less okay again.
© Dave Cheng 2000