28.12.2008 - 31.12.2008
Time for the main event. I walked past a number of swimming pools before reaching the actual Dead Sea. The is a faux beach above compete with deck chairs and huts before you go down to the craggy brown shore. I was glad I brought thongs. In I went keen to see how buoyant one can get. The slightly (naturally) oily but very salty water meant my chest was always out of the water and floating on my back most of body was exposed. It was quite freaky, particularly as just on the other shore was Israel and the rocket/missile conflict could be faintly heard as part of the recent flare up. I wondered if it was possible to drown here, apparently it is and keeps the lifeguard in business there – obese Americans try to float on their stomachs and don’t realise that their legs are the most buoyant part of the body so their head goes under and they are unable to right themselves. The mud is said to have therapeutic properties so that was applied dried then washed off by many beach goers. Once I was out I was glad there were beach showers as the water leaves a peculiar feeling. It was soon dinner time and after an unsatisfying self catered lunch, after observing the horrendous buffet prices, I had to cave for the cheaper room service options, being located in the middle of nowhere with no transport. Had an early night due to adjusting to the time zone shift and having poor sleep on the 15 hour plane journey the previous night.
Breakfast was pretty average but I took the free food opportunity with zeal. Then I left for Amman by a very pricey taxi (it cost more than the ride from the airport). Traffic was light due to the public holiday for Islamic New Year. I arrived at the hotel about an hour later and got freaked out by the lift that went down from the lobby – the building is on the side of a hill, I entered at the top. One of the main reasons I choose the hotel was the location, next to the main bus station. However, this closed a ‘few months ago’ and was now a major construction site for a huge multi billion dollar urban redevelopment project. This shattered my plans for budget travel to Petra the following day so I organised a car and driver at the hotel. I then hit the streets of Amman and headed straight down (literally) to downtown. Amman is situated around 7 largish hills and this coupled with extremely limited public transport makes it hard to get around without taxis, which thankfully are quite affordable. All taxis I take are tuned to the BBC worldservice in Arabic, which is different from the televsion situation where CNN is the only English channel available across the country (and apparently the region). First stop was the Roman theatre and forum which has amazing acoustics, despite being designed thousands of years ago. It was good to back in a city with people and regaining some independence in comparison to a resort. However walking the streets I had to be careful with the local culture regarding women, despite it being a relatively progressive city with about half the woman not wearing headscarves I had to remember no to make eye contact or talk to them alone, as this could cause consequences for them, not for me – the perks of being a single male traveller in the middle east. I then took a cab up to the Hercules Citadel, which had more Roman ruins and a Byzantine church, but the best part were the fantastic views of the city. I was happy to see these remnants of ancient western civilisation as a sort of consolation for not being able to see similar things in my original planned stop in Greece. My time there coincided with the time for the call to afternoon prayer that was deafening and echoed across the hills of the city. I imagine the Islamic world was much quieter before electricity arrived. I also discovered that all the buildings look so similar because they must all use the same boring light stone on their exteriors. The journey back to the hotel was longer than anticipated as major roads were closed to try and deter further protests about the Gaza airstrikes that had peacefully occurred the day earlier. Many embassies were also heavily guarded. I hit the sack early as I had a predawn start the next morning to begin the 2.5 hour drive to Petra.
I woke and was one of the first at breakfast, which was quite good with many pancakes on offer and a make-your-own-roll-for-lunch station. I waited for about half an hour before the driver showed, apparently due to the rain and fog that began overnight. We left only to be quickly snarled in rush hour traffic. We made it to the main highway down the centre of the country and drove through large patches of fog, which made me glad I took my jacket. The drive was long but the weather improved as we ventured south and it was a nice opportunity to see the countryside. Mosques are like churches (duh) in Europe in that they are everywhere, every tiny community has one and the landscape is dotted with them like mobile phone towers. We turned off the main road for Petra and this became windier and began to descend quite rapidly. The modern Petra is full of tourist facilities all perched on the side of a hill. The gateway to the UNESCO heritage site approached and I purchased my entrance ticket (at typical prices similar to Angkor). The walk began past significant donkey stables where I was offered rides numerous times. The landscape is immediately striking largely consisting of various coloured sandstone. It reminded me of the Kimberley region. The path soon narrowed in the Siq, which is obviously what the Dolby Digital canyon trailer is imitating. This then lead out to the most iconic of Petra’s sights, the Treasury (apparently as seen in an Indiana Jones movie?). This hand carved rock edifice was very impressive but I was dismayed to find the stairs leading up to a higher vantage point we closed for renovation. I then dodged more tour groups and glimpsed the theatre (bigger than the one in Amman) and headed off the beaten track up to the High Place of Sacrifice. Thanks to my trusty guidebook these steep stone steps provided a fantastic view over the first part of the historic site. Many people were shocked that I had no guide (there were many signs at various points saying don’t go this way without a guide, meh guide schmide) and used no travel agent. However the guide book was geared to a much older audience and I managed to cover routes in at least half the time it suggested. Once at the top I took a moment to catch my breath and rehydrate before going down the back. This route lead past many caves that were still inhabited by Bedouin tribes people so I couldn’t be too inquisitive. Many sell handicrafts in all manner of places through out old Petra. Once I reached the riverbed I was finally alone in this grand place. I almost got lost locating the main part of ancient Petra but I found it and got great views of the East Cliff temples. I then quickly made my way further into the site, past restaurants (?!) to the stairs leading up to the monastery. These stairs were narrow and fat old white people (many Spanish) clogged the road, which was made worse by the even fatter older whiter people on donkeys. It was quite a challenge to avoid them all plus their shit. The Europeans would stagger a distance then take a smoko to regain their strength. I finally made it to the top to find a less ornate version façade but it presented an impressive optical illusion of size. One savvy entrepreneur had established a small café overlooking it and monopolised the seating. I quickly dashed down as my driver had indicated that if I stayed too long the (already expensive) rate would go up. I walked the 5 km as quickly as I could, even considering a donkey cart or camel ride but I was usually faster than them anyway. After weaving past masses of tour groups disaster struck, something that never happens to me, I got a very painful cramp in my quad. I took a sit down and gave it a quick massage before pressing on, as I had no choice due to the time constraints. Thankfully my expert physio skills worked wonders and I reached the entrance just in time. On my exit I noticed many more tour groups descending into Petra and was thankful that I began in the morning as they would not be able to see half of the stuff in a couple of hours, as the site closes at sunset. After buying some lunch (3 chocolate bars and a large bottle of water) I collapsed in the car and we set off for Amman. The drive was relatively uneventful except that our vehicle was stopped ‘randomly’ 3 times by the police. One of these stops involved the Lebanese driver getting a written form in Arabic (fine of some sort?). The highway patrol here seem to be quite keen on filling government coffers, resorting to such charming tactics as placing speed cameras in parked old cars. These stops cost some time and we finally made it back to the hotel after dark. I was far too tired to walk anywhere for dinner in hilly Amman so I resorted to room service and ordered a local dish which came in a big portion size and was very hearty with lots of meat and vegetables, just what I needed after a big day of conquering ancient monuments. Another early night was had due to an earlier start the next day to get to the airport.
I rose too early for a hotel feed so straight to the airport I went. Cabs are plentiful here with one in every four cars being a taxi. The hospitable driver (like most Jordanians) offered me coffee/tea, cigarette or after refusing all these “you want woman?”. Smoking here makes European laws look draconian. You can smoke everywhere here, inside offices, restaurants, shops etc. The drive south to the airport was quick but as we went on the fog kept getting thicker and thicker which worried me as I had a connection in Frankfurt with little room for error. But then again running madly around Frankfurt airport is something I have become accustomed to. After going through security to get into the building checkin was simple and soon I was upstairs in the newly refurbed Crown Class lounge. Touted as the second biggest in the Middle East (I wonder who has the biggest…?) it was quite impressive and I gorged myself on all manner of food offerings to keep costs down; I currently have one paid meal per day. This was also the first bar I had seen in the country, which is apparently not a dry country; though I did not seek it out. The view slowly improved as the sun rose dispersing the heavy fog. The entertainment here was superior to Cathay lounges, which merely featured a transplanted economy class size seatback screen, including the same content, onto a business desk. Here there was a large flatscreen surrounded by a small ringed couch attached to top quality headphones ready to play a multitude of entertainment. There were flights going to places across the region including Baghdad, see you really can go anywhere with Oneworld. I headed down to the gate and guessed we would be bussed to the plane judging by the absence of a plane and jetbridge. The airport is undergoing a tripling of capacity and as such is in a bit of disarray, for example we went down to the bus via an emergency exit stairwell. This was the slowest airport bus ride I have ever taken and was made even more excruciating when I later observed we went the long way around. The parking areas were quite bizarre, presumably due to the construction, with aircraft parked in unused taxiways. The entire RJ A340 fleet was present in this manner. I sighted our plane to observe there was a last minute switch to an A321. This slight increase in size was puzzling with only approximately 25 passengers, including a disproportionate number of screaming brats. There were only 2 crown class passengers so I assume that this route, like the hong kong-bangkok segment, is not covering costs. However, less is better for my fellow passengers and me so we left quickly and on time. However things became a little worrying as we flew relatively slow and low over Israel as I watched the ETA grew later minute by minute. Thankfully we picked up time on the remainder of the flight and arrived slightly early. In a somewhat unusual situation the royal Jordanian narrowbody fleet all has AVOD PTV’s, but its longhaul widebody fleet only has mainscreen. I availed myself of this nice little system for the journey, which had a very similar rhythm to a Sydney-perth flight. I promptly disembarked into terminal 1, a rarity for a oneworld airline. To my surprise we walked right into the departure concourse, no separation like many other international terminals that require security screening of all transit passengers. I reached immigration and was viewed more of an annoyance than something warranting attention, my passport was not even scanned into the computer, it almost wasn’t even stamped! Then one is thrown out into the main part of terminal featuring checkin and shops, which was not what I was expecting. I guess it expedites things for business travellers and those with no checked luggage. There were clear signs to the baggage claim area which required going back into a passenger only zone (no checking of this though) where my bag arrived soon enough in a seemingly quiet time for arrivals, with customs officers looking rather bored. I then went onto automatic pilot and reached the fernbahnhof with plenty of time to spare. I went to DB lounge (travelling 1st class) for a bit then went to the freezing (literally) platform and got in position. The series 1 ICE ran perfectly on time and I lamented at wasted $5 on seat reservations as I had the entire car to myself. The journey to Koblenz was on a high speed line only at the beginning before slowing as we ventured into the scenic Rhineland. The photographs my parents had shown me a couple of months ago burst into life with cruise boats passing old churches and castles in various states of repair in the relatively clear winter afternoon. We also passed several vineyards cultivated on ridiculously steep hillsides with strange little (small train?) tracks running down up and down them for servicing the property. The change in depressing Koblenz Hbf was smooth and the connecting IC appeared quickly so I didn’t freeze too much on the platform. Again I had a whole compartment to myself, though this may have been because the heating didn’t really function well in it. We passed through Cochem (Mosel) and continued to follow the river. The sun began to fade and darkness had well and truly fallen by the time I reached Luxembourg, which was a jumpstart to my rusty French, after practicing German on the train and at the airport. There was light drizzle here as I navigated through the smallish station undergoing renovation. The hotel was a cinch to locate and I swiftly ditched my bags to find some food and what every man wants on New Years Eve, a beer (even more since coming from the middle east). I was dealt a double blow with the supermarket being closed and the few shops in the station also closed for the festivities. I ventured up the main drag to find the usually reliable Maccas even closed! This was worrying as they are usually open 24hours in big centres and it wasn’t even that late. I thought I was in luck when I saw the big red/white Q of quick, but it too was shut. I was getting hungry and running out of options. I passed numerous cafes and restaurants of all varieties willing to spend whatever was necessary to get a descent feed but none were open, not even the late night stalwart, the gyro/kebab stores. Finally I found culinary salvation in the most obvious of places, the local Chinese restaurant. Why didn’t I think of this earlier, I thought? They were happy to see me too as I was their fourth customer of the day. I ordered some takeaway and downed a local brew while I waited, which was very good (Bofferding). The food was not the cheapest but I was desperate and it was a generous portion and the beer was cheaper than the ripoff minibar, but alas not as cheap as a local supermarket (but cheaper than anywhere at home!). I hot footed it back to my lodging, scoffed the food and eagerly awaited the year to come; listening and watching people set off firecrackers all over the place and witnessing for the first time a hiccupping drunk.