Exploring the Jewel at the Heart of the Middle East
Where: Amman, Jerash, Wadi Musa, Petra and Wadi Rum.
Jordan, Middle East. Asia.
When: February 2012
What: Treasury and Monastery at Petra, Camel desert trekking, Bedouin camping, Wadi Rum desert safari, Temple of Hercules, Sand Dunes, Rock Climbing and Gorge Walking, Tea with Bedouin tribe, Capital city buzz in Amman.
How: International Flights, Taxi, Desert Jeep, Serveece, Camel ride.
Counter: 1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Absolutely none - Jordan's that kind of place.
Jordan is the reason I travel. I absolutely loved it. Jordan has a lot to offer a short-stop tourist like me. In a week you can sample the Dead Sea, camel trek across the desert in southern Jordan, visit the world wonder of Petra, the ancient Roman ruins of Jerash in the north as well as sample the real buzz and vibrancy of capital city life in Amman. Jordan was a perfect fusion of Morocco, Palestine and Turkey - not surprising considering their geographical proximity. During any length of visit, the phrases all tourists will hear countless times before they depart for home are "Welcome to Jordan" and "You are welcome." It must be the first words of English Jordanians learn - and many Jordanians have a grasp of at least basic English (a word of caution: their second word is "tip"). Hospitality and respect are ingrained in Jordanians: they are proud to welcome visitors and to have the opportunity to show you around. Indeed, getting around isn't easy as there is a very limited transport network. We fell back on the mercies and 'generosity' of countless taxi drivers who were doing us "nice price". The cost of taxi fares ate away a significant proportion of our budget which was quite irritating as most other things were very inexpensive indeed and the general hope was to 'do Jordan' on the cheap. However, paying by taxi did mean we were able to make the most of our time in Jordan, using Amman as our starting point and heading north, then south, then south east into the desert before heading north again into Amman.
It was only when in the desert that we managed to escape the call to prayer which reverberated around the hillsides of Amman through tinny speakers mounted onto the minarets of mosques. The dawn call waking us up at around 5:15am Jordanian time (making it 3:15am by our body clocks as the UK was two hours behind) was something you just had to get used to when staying in built up areas like Amman: cafes and restaurants turn off their music to observe the prayer calls - leaving diners enjoying their late lunches sitting there in silence. In Jordan religion is at the heart of all that happens. Our desert guide in Wadi Rum disappeared a couple of times behind sand dunes to pray. Despite the madness of some parts of Jordan, I felt completely safe and was not perturbed by people staring at us: Jordan's tourism industry is still in its embryonic stages, especially outside of Petra, and seeing two white people in downtown Amman sometimes turned heads. It's nice to go to a place which feels authentic.
Jordan is an exciting place in which to travel - it has the edginess that comes with a country still under development whilst having amazing opportunities to take some superb photographs in locations outside of the capital. The strict no alcohol and drugs lifestyle of Jordanians means that you are very unlikely to run into any crime-related problems - a feeling of safety underpinned by most Jordanians' respectful and hospitable nature. Jordan's location in the middle of such a turbulent and fractious region has the potential for people to misjudge it. Indeed, travelling around the country we did see road signs pointing towards "Iraqi" and "Syria". Don't let its location put you off, Jordan is a special destination.
Amman is a buzzing, crazy and vibrant part of Jordan - as you'd expect. Activity is frantic on the streets and in the roads - everyone seems to be busy doing something. Amman's economy rotates around small, independent shops organised along family and tribal ties. Many people miss Amman out of their tour of Jordan - heading straight for Petra or the desert when they fly into the capital. Amman doesn't have the kind of draws that other capital cities have but, to expect grand buildings and huge tourist attractions, completely misses the whole point of travelling to Amman. Amman is not about such excesses. Amman is about seeing the culture and religion at play: the shopkeepers haggling, the cars beeping each other constantly, the smells and the general craziness - that is Amman's real draw. To miss out Amman completely from a trip to Jordan would be a great shame. Architecturally monotonous, Amman's hustle and bustle is its main attraction. The ramshackle tenements clinging to the hillsides encircling the capital seen from the Citadel cuts quite an evocative sight. Add to this the call to prayer where speakers on all mosques are synchronised together and the sounds reverberate around the hills making the whole experience a visceral and moving one.
If visiting Jordan you must give Amman at least one day to sample the street culture and see the three hundred and sixty degree views of the capital from the citadel. Amman is not flashy - but it's because it is not trying to be. Amman is too busy getting on with its Jordanian version of Islamic life to care about showing off to international visitors. What's more, staying in downtown Amman is dirt cheap - if you're prepared to rough it a little, that is. We stayed in the Jordan Tower Hostel slap bang in the middle of the action. For £25 per night, we had a hostel/hotel room with a faulty TV set, a separate toilet - and breakfast. Even if the place was a little shabby, Jordanian respect and hospitality more than made up for any material shortcomings (one of which was unplugging the TV plug so I could charge my camera battery only to find that the whole socket came out of the wall in my hand). Once again, to go five star in a hotel, perhaps on the outskirts of Amman, kind of misses the point: we deliberately opted for a locally-owned hotel full of local character and characters. To stay in a generic, soulless and spotless hotel miles out of town, which could be in any city, is an opportunity missed.
Rugs with traditional designs hang out to dry along a wall and, in doing, cut an incredible sight against the city skyline.
Skyline views of downtown Amman as seen from the roof of the Jordan Tower Hostel where we stayed for two nights. This was the view that greeted us on the first morning.
Jerash is nearly 50km north of Amman and cost us 60 Dinars for a return trip in a taxi - about £50. It is one of the most visited sites in Jordan, famous for being one of the world's best-preserved Roman towns - much of which was covered in sand until about seventy years ago when it was excavated. It is sometimes referred to as the 'Pompeii of the Middle East' - and one can see why. We spent an afternoon taking in the immense arches, Corinthian columns, temples, amphitheatres and smaller dwellings with steps and windows. It is quite possible to experience Jerash in a single afternoon and it is certainly worth considering doing if you have time available on your itinerary. It was rather quiet, apart from a couple of rogue street sellers wanting to sell postcards for "only 1 Dinar, only 1 Dollar". The site is quite large and takes at least two hours to navigate around and see everything there is to see - so take a large bottle of water with you if you're visiting between February and October; it was sweltering on the day we visited and there were no opportunities to buy anything along the route. We had travelled straight from Amman's citadel and so by the end of the day we had had our quota of Ancient Rome; there are only so many columns you can look at before it all gets a little bit too much.
Modern Jerash framed by the skeletal remains of the Gateway to the Temple of Artemis as seen from the top of the Artemis steps.
Corinthian columns of the Cardo Maximus strike into the blue sky.
Wadi Musa is the town which has sprung up solely to serve the influx of tourists to the Petra site as there are no hotels or restaurants allowed inside Petra itself. It is unremarkable and tourist-geared - a place with mediocre restaurants and hotels and probably the only place where locals come across as more predatory and less respectful than in the rest of Jordan. Like many key towns and cities in Jordan (a notoriously hilly and mountainous country at the best of times) it resides within a valley with some pleasant views across the hills. Wadi Musa means 'Valley of Moses' in Arabic, but despite this rather grand name will always exist in the shadows of the magnificent sights in Petra. Nothing to see here, move along please.
Travelling like a local: at a pit-stop half-way from Amman to Petra on the serveece taxi.
Petra is Jordan's must-see destination, so much so that it is the symbol of the country. Tell people you are travelling to Jordan and they all assume you're going to Petra. It is not an undeserved assumption, either. The BBC listed it as one of the '40 places you must see before you die'. Petra is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the 'New7Wonders of the World'.
The only real way to get to Petra from Amman is to hire a taxi or a 'Serveece' - a minibus-taxi which takes up to 10 people to the same destination and splits the cost. We opted for this second, cost efficient method to get to Petra - a snip at £4 considering the 275 kilometres in distance. Petra is served by the tourist-geared town of Wadi Musa - generally run down and only useful as a one-night stop-over point. With large numbers of tourists come the usual problems - even in Jordan. Hawkers and locals hassling you to look at their stalls, incessant offering of horse and camel rides and obligatory tourist souvenirs. Luckily, once entering Petra proper (admission costs around £40 per adult) some of the worst excesses of this tourist madness begin to ebb away and you are left alone to enjoy and marvel at the incredible Treasury and Monastery Buildings set amid a truly otherworldly landscape of orange and brown sandstone.
Walking around the once capital city of the Nabataeans (the ancient peoples of Jordan), it becomes clear that what they achieved in this part of southern Jordan was rather remarkable dating back, as it does, to 1200BC. Their buildings are carved out of, and in to, the mountain sides with ornate and grandiose precision. Like Jerash, Petra had an eerie Pompeii or even Lost City of Atlantis feel - a pervasive eeriness which I just could not shake off no matter how many annoying locals offered me donkey, camel or horse rides.
The Treasury Building. If you think you've seen this before it's because (a) you've been here or (b) you saw it in anIndiana Jones film.
A caravan of camels makes its way past Nabataean cave homes with apertures aswindows and doors.
The Monastery building can be accessed by climbing up to 400 steps. The facade of the Monastery cuts a remarkable sight when set against the backdrop of the mountain from which it has been sculpted.
Wadi Rum was the most memorable leg of our trip around Jordan. We arranged, through several emails, to stay in a Bedouin camp in the middle of the Jordanian Desert, staying with a family of Bedouins for one night and one day. In that one day we climbed mountains, ran down sand dunes, walked along a canyon with towering mountains on either side, went camel trekking and were whisked around in a battered jeep to see the sights of the desert - a desert bordering Saudi Arabia. Lawrence of Arabia is famed for passing through this desert and so it is no surprise that this incredible landscape was used as the location for the film starring Peter O'Toole. Camping out in the desert felt like true adventure travel.
I have so many amazing photographs from this leg of my Jordan journey, but I have tried to curate the best - that or risk this section of my Chronicle going on for miles. The vivid burnt oranges and reds of the desert and rock formations were almost lunar in nature. And, apart from one group of tourists we came across briefly at the Burdah rock bridge, it was a desert we seemingly had to ourselves - rock lizards and camels aside. Wadi Rum is definitely off the beaten track for most tourists because it is in the middle of nowhere, but with a bit of organisation, research and effort, a visit here will repay you in memories made. Wadi Rum was my first desert experience, my first camping experience abroad, and my first sand dune sight. Wadi Rum is exactly that - unique and full of firsts.
Taking in the desertscape of Wadi Rum.
A mesmerising sand dune. I later had this photograph published in the July 2012 edition of Lonely Planet Magazine. See it here.
The mushroom rock. - a rock formation so reminiscent of my time in Cappadoccia,Turkey.
travel tips, links & resources
- Amman, Jordan's capital, is well worth a day of your time at least. Many travel guides will dissuade you from travelling here because there isn't much to see - but I loved it!
- This is obvious, but learn a couple of basic phrases in Arabic. These go a long way to building bridges.
- Try to sleep local - this was one of the best things about my time in Amman. Avoid dreadful chain hotels.
- We used bedouinwhispers.com to book our overnight stay in the Wadi Rum desert. I recommend them.
- If staying overnight in Wadi Rum be sure to bring equipment for all eventualities, including a torch and the ability to 'layer up' your clothes when needed - especially if you are travelling in February as we did. During the day weather in the desert is very hot but can drop to below zero overnight.
- February is off peak tourist season in Jordan. Prices drop as do the numbers of tourists. Win win in my opinion.
- Wadi Rum is definitely off the beaten track for most tourists because it is in the middle of nowhere, but with a little organisation, research and effort, a visit here will repay you in memories made and adventures had.
- As with many Islamic countries, be sure to pack a pair of ear plugs to go some way to dampening the sound of the inevitable and inescapable call to prayer. It's definitely evocative and moving during the day but, at 5am, rather less so. Give sleep a fighting chance.
- Jordan is not a dry country, but public displays of drunkenness are frowned upon. Moderation should be the watchword.
- I would advise choosing local accommodation offerings over predictable, and far less rewarding stays, in generic hotel chains. Staying in a very local hotel, despite its material shortcomings, was strangely a highlight of my time in the Jordanian capital. It may have had dodgy electrics, chicken wire on the windows and a mattress made of foam but, ultimately, this is the stuff your future travel tales will be made of.
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