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Sunday, 20 March 2011

Jordan Part 2 – Petra & The Dead Sea

(...Continued from Jordan Part 1)


We drove from Wadi Rum for the best part of the afternoon and arrived in Wadi Musa / Petra as the sun was setting. We were staying at a place called ‘Alanbat’ hotel, which seemed nice enough: the staff were welcoming, there was an outdoor pool (nearly frozen over and in need of a going over with a net), there was an on-site ‘hamam’ and the place was clean. What? We don’t even need to pitch our tents? Where’s the catch? Did our local payment cover us sleeping in one of the plush rooms at this hotel?

The view from a toilet stop just before we reached Petra. You can see the crack that forms the siq.

The catch was we were all to sleep on the cold concrete floor of the storage room in the basement. The truth is, it sounds a lot worse than it was: we had our own toilets and showers (male and female) and plenty of plug sockets to get everything charged in time to take in the awesome site of Petra we were due to see the next day. At the very least, twenty of us sleeping so close amongst each other made for a very entertaining couple of evenings as snorers went to sleep with guilty consciences (or not, as the case may be) and sleep-talkers considered putting a sock in it, sentiments shared by those suffering from the deadly night flatulence. On that note, those who went to the loos mere metres away down the echoing hall did so at their peril: the layout providing the perfect amphitheatre to break the nocturnal silence and entertain those not yet asleep. Somebody fell foul to this on the first night and as I looked up to share a laugh with Allison who had also heard it, she just said “note to self: don’t fart when going to the toilet at night!”

Yoich in his "pyjamas".
Everybody still asleep on the cold floor of the hotel's storage room. (If you look closely enough, you can see Berbs flipping me the bird.)

The next morning we set out early by mini-bus on our first of two days exploring the ancient hidden city of Petra. Cue the Indiana Jones theme tune.

I’d actually been to Petra the previous year (May 2009) on a whim when on a cheap last minute package holiday in Sharm-El-Sheikh (Egypt). Our hotel was offering day trips to Luxor, The Pyramids or Petra but I could only afford one. I opted for Petra thinking I’d never get the chance again – little did I know that within 18 months I’d have visited Petra a second time and been to Luxor and The Pyramids too!

We queued up at the ticket office across the road from the main entrance to the beginning of ‘al-siq’ (the mile-long narrow passage that leads to ‘Al Khazneh’ aka ‘The Treasury’) and after the usual deliberation and indecisiveness that we’ve come to expect from travelling en masse, we all got our passes sorted; some opting for just the day pass, some for two day passes and others for a candle-lit night tour as well. The day pass I got was called an 'Overnight Pass' it cost 50JD (71USD) and was called 'overnight' to differentiate between tourists spending more time in Jordan and just those on day trips from Egypt or cruises (more details on Petra entry fees here). The majority of us opted to chip in for a guide that morning as well. Prior to getting the guide, I managed to offend another one who was pushing his services by saying that I’d been there before and that The Treasury was pretty much all there was to see! Well, that’s what I thought and how wrong I was...

After a gentle stroll down passed the ‘Djin Blocks’, the ‘Obelisk Tomb’ and ‘Bab As-Siq Triclinium’ and the spot where a dam had been built (and being told about flash floods that, in years gone by, had claimed the lives of a group of French tourists) we were met by two guards in a kind of Roman costume at the entrance to al-siq. We pondered the idea of posing for a photo with them and Elisa even considered some ‘cuppage’ but then she thought of the accompanying tip requests and decided against it.

The ‘Obelisk Tomb’ and ‘Bab As-Siq Triclinium’

The beginning of the 'siq'

The 'Roman' Guards that Elisa considered 'cupping'.

For about a mile the siq meandered through sheer rock walls that ranged between 90 and 200 metres in height. The path was marked along the way by points of interest like the original terracotta gutters, various shrines, tombs, altars and rock carvings but these all paled in comparison to what was bathed in sunlight and peaking at us through the end of the siq...Al-Khazneh (The Treasury).

Looking up the 200m high walls in the siq.

One of the numerous tombs and altars we were shown by our guide along the way.

As with a lot of people, The Treasury at Petra first entered my consciousness thanks to Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade. When I’d first visited it a year before, it took my breath away and I owe that to the guide at the time: he’d purposefully distracted our eyes for a good 5 minutes (by pointing up to some non-existent, “multi-coloured stalactites”) before making our gaze follow his pointing finger to the Treasury. Amazing. 

This time around was still good, but the ‘wow factor’ had already been used up on the previous visit. The difference now being that last time I was here, being the ignoramus that I am, I genuinely thought that this was all there was to see. In my defence, I don’t remember our guide telling me to the contrary as I left him and the group and hiked up Jebel al-Madhbah to the ‘High Place of Sacrifice’. The other dampener on the last time I was here was that I was struggling with a crippling case of Rameses’s Revenge courtesy of my hotel’s buffet.

Al-Khazneh (The Treasury) in all its glory.

L to R: Pat, Berbs, Tanj, AK, Kay, Dan, Elisa, Big Don, Gabaroni Cannaloni.

We hung around here long enough to have a coffee and get a few group photos and then our guide took us on through the ‘Street of Facades’ and past the amphitheatre to the start of the ‘colonnaded street’ where the valley opened up into a plateau where you could see the full splendour of the city. We finished our tour on a small hillock overlooking the ‘Qasr el-Bint - The Temple of Dushares’ and here I realised how much I’d missed out on last time around.

Souvenir and curio stall by 'The Street of Facades'

The big squarish boulder (in the centre of the photo) marks the start of the hike up from the Street of Facades to the 'High Place of Sacrifice'

Homeless & Kimbo on their way up to the 'Royal Tombs' which lie opposite 'The Theatre' and over look the rest of the city of Petra.

Kay & Elisa - Tempted by tomb-raiding.

Tanja's moving on from Pat.

The 'Urn Tomb' (one of the 'Royal Tombs')

'Palace Tomb' on the left.

This little scrote picked up a cat and threw it at an otherwise laidback dog...just to entertain us! 

Look at the fear!

The 'Colonnaded Street'

The guide directed us to where ‘ad-deir’ (‘The Monastery’) was and by all accounts, it involved a fair old hike that took an hour or so. At this point, I was glad that I’d already seen the High Place of Sacrifice the previous year as I didn’t feel like hiking to there AND the Monastery. (I think Spence and Allison or Ish and Son did both in a day, they said it was a bit rushed, but I take my hat off to them for doing it anyway.)

So after another coffee and taking time out to look at the mosaic floors of the Byzantine church, we took off down towards Qasr el-Bint, took a right and began our steady ascent up the rocky path to the Monastery. Along the way we were of course pestered by touts offering camel rides and souvenirs but the banter was light-hearted and I never felt they were being as pushy as the Egyptian touts had been. We occasionally stopped off to see some of the tombs and caves along the way and by the time we reached the top, we probably only had about ten minutes to marvel at the Monastery before we had to turn back. Any longer and we’d have missed the mini-bus home.

Out with the new...

...and in with the old.

Berbs & Elisa scrambling up towards the 'Lion Triclinium' on the way to The Monastery.

What the Dickens? Is that Yoda spying on us from atop a mountain in Petra?

...Nope...It's just a guy on a donkey. Put it back in your pants, Star Wars geeks!

He proceeded to show off by standing on his donkey.

(I think this was for Elisa's benefit.)

The Monastery - Ad-Deir.

Elisa - great ball skills - or so Gab tells us.

Donkeys are awesome. Sad, quiet, head down and get on with it.

Back at the hotel and feeling well and truly knackered after a long day of hiking around in the sun, Kimbo, Ish and I booked into the hamam...but I had a challenge to take on first: The night we arrived at the hotel, Berbs and I had promised each other we’d jump in the near-frozen pool and tonight was the night it was going to happen. A few of the gang gathered around to watch and take photos whilst Berbs and I jumped in at the count of three. We managed to do a length of the pool before our gonads retreated to the point of no return. Kimbo Slice represented for the girls (albeit with a token dunk by the pool ladder). Just for show, we got out, jumped in again and did one more length and then Kimbo and I shivered away back inside to join Ish in the hamam’s steam room.  After a relaxing couple of hours of getting scrubbed, massaged and thoroughly prune-like in the steam room and Jacuzzi, it was back to our comfortable sleeping bags on the cold, concrete floor of the hotel’s storage room.

Looking out towards Petra from the hotel at sunset.

The pool at Alanbat Hotel - not frozen, but not far off.

Berbs (right) and I get ready for the countdown.

The gonads retreat.
One more time for good measure.

Time to warm up in the sauna.

The next day a lot of the guys ventured off to explore more of Petra but a few of us were satisfied with what we’d seen already and chose to stay behind. Besides, Ish, Son, Spence, Alli, Gab, Elisa and I had all booked to go on the ‘Petra by Night’ tour that evening (not bad for just 12 Jordanian Dinars – that’s 15USD at time of writing).

After a day of blogging, reading and generally just chilling out, we were treated to some excellent Italian pizzas courtesy of Gab (our authentic Italian chef) who was ably assisted by his Homeless apprentice. Soon after pigging out, our mini-bus arrived to take us down to the Petra ticket booth again in the early evening. Once there, a hundred or so tourists gathered around for a quick brief from an unnamed guide who explained that this was a relatively new thing that they had started to offer. The large group of us walked along the siq in pairs and kept as much decorum as possible so as not to ruin the ambiance. I have to say it was a pretty magical experience ambling through this world famous canyon with nothing but the candles (in brown paper bags) and the light of the stars and moon overhead to guide you.

This new spin on the Petra tour returned the Treasury’s ability to take my breath away – when we reached it, the open square in front of it was lit up with hundreds of the same candles that had marked the sides of the siq and a lone musician was playing a flute/recorder/whistle. As he played on, we sat in awe-induced silence, supping on teas we’d been provided as we had sat down. We were treated to two more solos from different musicians on different traditional instruments before having a few minutes to wander around and take more photos of this makeshift open-air concert hall.

Ish - not happy with being blinded by the paparazzi.
Son, likewise.

The next day we took off relatively early for a day of driving towards the Dead Sea. On the way, we stopped off at a non-descript town for the newly-formed cook group of Son and I to do our cook group shop. By late afternoon we were 423 metres below sea level; the truck had parked up for some bush camping near the shore and the engine was still running when I saw Dan, Gab and Berbs disappearing off into the distance, stripping as they ran and giggling like little school girls. Within seconds they were frolicking around in the Dead Sea shallows and the girlish giggles had turned to yelps and screams of giddy excitement. I was there with them within minutes and sooner or later, everybody else followed suit.

The beginning of our descent to more than 400 metres below sea level.

Dan, Berbs and Gab left us for dust down this path...

...and were the first to get stuck in...

...everybody joined in pretty quickly though. (They're not lying in the shallows, this is in water that's about 10ft deep.)

I’d heard a lot about the Dead Sea (as I suppose most people have) but nothing had prepared me for just how salty it was, how dead it was, and it was. Your lips burnt at any touch of the water; if any of the water got up your nose it felt like you were snorting fire; and you were temporarily (and painfully) blinded if you got a splash in your eye. I’d anticipated as much and came prepared with my goggles so I could swim down and explore what lay beneath the surface...or so I thought.

Swimming underwater was almost impossible. I tried duck-diving down and ended up with my backside in the air and two legs kicking around frantically just suspended in the same position, not getting anywhere. I’d never experienced anything like this in my life before. You hear about the Dead Sea and expect to be buoyant, but not this much. We were all just floating around effortlessly on the surface with legs and arms sticking right up into the air. I tried to at least sink a bit by holding on to a small boulder, but after a while gave up trying to beat nature and just settled for floating around with said boulder on my chest.





Me with a boulder on my chest (partially obscured by my beard). 

Eventually the excitement subsided and everyone sauntered back to the truck, hurriedly looking for some freshwater to rinse the rapidly drying salt off their bodies. Yoichi, Homeless and I were the last out and we thought we’d see what the world-famous therapeutic properties of the Dead Sea mud was all about. We caked our torsos, face and hair in it before rinsing it all off again and joining the others back at the truck where I had cook group duties to perform.

Caked in Dead Sea mud.
Yep. Definitely 'The Dead Sea' - not even any mussels in it.


Me n Yoich  - as the sun sets on the Dead Sea. (This photo was on my camera, but it was my good friend Mr Homeless that took it.)

The passengers weren’t the only ones gathering around to get a bowlful of Son and I’s fabled chicken tagine – flies were swarming in their thousands. The photos below don’t do it justice, but there really were flies everywhere – mainly buzzing around inside and clinging to the outside of the truck. I took a little bit too much sadistic pleasure in nuking them all with some bug spray and Ish and I were picking dead flies out of our locker areas for days afterwards.

We ate well around a good campfire that night and the next morning were up early to collect some Dead Sea mud (apparently this stuff sells for serious $$$ as a skin treatment) before setting off on our way to Syria. We’d arrived in Jordan in Aqaba on 11th December and 6 days later (Friday 17th December) we were ready for the penultimate country on the 'Ultimate Trans Africa Overland' itinerary.


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