My mixed-bag month in the Middle East

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Jan 26th, 2010, 09:05 AM
  #41
 
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Sorry you didn't get to enjoy the full effect of Jerash but maybe ruins do start to get repetitive after a while.
We had it to ourselves & in sunshine - a big difference.
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Jan 26th, 2010, 02:18 PM
  #42
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Thanks! I was tempted to beat up the ground agent, but I settled for some sharp words and a bad review.
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Jan 26th, 2010, 02:32 PM
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November 1 – 2, 2009: - Petra, Petra, Petra

I had expected Petra to be the high point of my trip to Jordan, and it was. I can't stress too strongly that this is a must-see site. I also can't stress too strongly that you need at least two full days - if I had only seen the Siq and the Treasury and the Royal Tombs I wouldn't have loved the place so much. You need plenty of time, and you need to climb some steps. Even with two full days I didn't make it to Little Petra, about which I've heard conflicting reports.

The first morning we started off from the entrance gate with the same national guide who had bored me the day before, and once we reached the Siq, the 1.2 km long rock passage that ends in front of the Treasury, I abandoned the group and went ahead on my own. This meant that at times I was completely alone beneath the soaring rock walls. While I really enjoyed experiencing the Siq that way, I suppose it wasn’t very authentic – one theory is that when the Nabataeans who built Petra were at the height of their power and influence this route was used for religious processions. I could also imagine it, more prosaically, impressing visiting ambassadors and potential trading partners.

I met up with my group again near the Roman theater (where access to the seats was blocked off) and the toilets. (Don't pay the toilet lady more than .10 JD.) Most of the group kept going to the Monastery at the far end of the site, but my roommate turned aside with me to climb up to the High Place of Sacrifice. As she was half my age, and my lung capacity not what it should be, she made better time than I did, but we met up at the top.

The guide had tried to convince me that we weren't allowed to take our own food in, and that we had to eat at one of the two restaurants near the museum. Since our hotel was quite willing to put up a box lunch I chose to disbelieve him, and of course, we had no problem taking food in. Presumably he got a commission from the restaurants. The two of us ate lunch all alone, high up, facing the altar. Magical.

It got even better after lunch, when we took the back way down. The colors of the veined rocks were breathtaking (and hopelessly photogenic) - beautiful multicolored swirls that seemed almost too regular to be natural. We also passed several tombs – the Nabataean tombs featured a carved facade and a large central room where the mourners could gather for funeral and commemorative feasts, the dead being actually buried in small chambers carved out of the walls. We celebrated our descent with red wine and coffee at the Basin Restaurant – it was getting ready to close for the day, otherwise you can only get in if you take the buffet.

The second morning three of us got up really, really early so that we could have not just the Siq but the Treasury to ourselves. We reached the Treasury around 6:15, and although it wasn’t completely deserted, we shared it with only a couple of couples. Then we walked right through the site and up to the Monastery, pausing only for a cup of coffee at the Tent Restaurant, as the Basin wouldn’t let us in. Up at the Monastery the wind was so fierce I bought a Bedouin headscarf to keep from getting sandblasted. The wind stayed strong all day, and I wound up well-powdered.

Then we visited the Royal Tombs before heading up again, climbing (and scrambling at one point - I think we missed the proper path) behind the tombs to a perch where we could overlook the Treasury. Again, we ate lunch alone in a magical setting. After that, visits to the museum and the Byzantine church were anticlimactic, and I was tired enough to be almost tempted to take a ride in a horse cart on the way out, except that they bounced and swayed so much.

I still had more walking to do, as I had signed up for the optional Night Tour. For this the Siq is lined with candles, and the area in front of the Treasury used for a concert. I didn’t care about the concert, but I did want to walk the Siq by candlelight. By hanging back enough for the crowd to get ahead of me, but walking fast enough to leave the serious photographers (and their annoying flashes) behind, I got the full effect – or almost the full effect, I think it would have been even better if the moon hadn’t been full.
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Jan 26th, 2010, 05:49 PM
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I didn't realise there was a night tour of Petra. I would love to see that.

LALeslie your description of Australians on the go is exactly what I have experienced too. I vote for them as the best travel companions.
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Jan 26th, 2010, 05:50 PM
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Ooops, I was referring to Leanna's description of the Aussies.
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Jan 26th, 2010, 06:15 PM
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Femi - the night tour isn't every night(I think Mon, Wed, Thu), so you need to check ahead of time to make sure you're there on the right day. I've read some reports from people who didn't like it, but I really enjoyed it. I wouldn't have enjoyed it so much if I hadn't been able to lose the crowd, but then I'm an introvert. There are carpets to sit on in front of the Treasury, and I think it was tea to drink. Since I'm virtually tone deaf the music was wasted on me.
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Jan 26th, 2010, 06:17 PM
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Thurs: I hope you know I have copied & pasted most of your comments into my own notes that will go w/ me. So you are going to get to go again in May!! xoxo

I fell and broke my foot in 3 places last year in Mexico....the Gods at Palenque did not care for me. So I am a little nervous about climbing up to the Monastery. I do have a cane I could use for balance but if I slip and fall again I could do damage. What is your opinion about my trying that climb?? It's the coming down I worry more about and slipping in the loose dirt! Whadda think?
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Jan 26th, 2010, 06:31 PM
  #48
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Ouch, ouch, ouch!!! So sorry to hear that. I have a TR on the Europe board titled "The Sore Foot Tour" from my first trip after a broken ankle, so I really sympathize. Plus I have a tendency to get UP to places from which I then have trouble getting DOWN. I take a collapsible hiking stick with me, which really helps with balance.

I think you'll be OK doing the Monastery path. I wouldn't try the path behind the Royal Tombs, and although I think you could tackle most of the path up to the High Place of Sacrifice I don't think you should try the very last part (I wouldn't have done it myself without help). I haven't culled my Petra pix yet, and when I do the numbers will change, but right now if you go to http://kwilhelm.smugmug.com/Travel/C...ddle-East-2009 , use "petra" as the password for the Petra gallery, photo 174 is my roommate on the path up to the Monastery, which may give you an idea.
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Jan 27th, 2010, 05:01 AM
  #49
 
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Where were the pictures of the mosaics in that Petra bunch taken? The one next to the camel/giraffe creature looks like an ice cream soda. Are those new or old?

I clearly need to get back to Petra. My mom & I did as much as we could in one day (she was slow moving) -- I can tell from your pix that I missed a lot.
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Jan 27th, 2010, 06:26 AM
  #50
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Yes, I thought ice cream cone too! (Couldn't resist the picture.) The mosaics are in the church, which is near the museum. They are Byzantine, probably mid 6th century C.E.
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Jan 27th, 2010, 06:52 PM
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Oh wow what great pics. Thank you for your words about the climbing....I too have a love of getting where I shouldnt!! I'll paste these into the notes, then when I get there and get my bearings I can sort it out even better.

Im also checking out your pics of Aleppo, and Damascus etc as we are going there as well.

So glad you came on to give us your report, you have given me a direction and conversation and a place to put some of my excitement! Thank you!!
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Jan 28th, 2010, 07:50 AM
  #52
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Thanks for the kind words, LEANNA! When are you going? Is your itinerary on line?

November 3, 2009: - Sand, Rocks, Camel

The Explore! tour was called “Lawrence’s Arabia”. So I expected that we would visit at least some sites associated with Lawrence while we were in Wadi Rum. I also expected that with a full day at our disposal we would do the trek/camel ride when the light was at its best. So much for expectations. What we mostly did in the desert was hang around.

We set off from Petra with the group split between four 4WDs, and after a relatively sedate drive down the highway, turned off into the desert, where some of the drivers amused themselves with a few mildly adventurous manoeuvers which upset at least one of the women in my vehicle. We stopped at a natural bridge for photos, and rather a lot of waiting around. Then we drove a bit further and stopped again, by an undistinguished rock outcrop. And waited again. For lunch to arrive. A very disappointing lunch with those nasty plastic cheese triangles the only protein.

Then, guess what? We waited again, this time for the camels to show up. The camel ride to the camp site was one of the optional extras – you could trek or ride in the jeep instead. My roommate and I were sharing a camel – she would ride while I walked and then we’d switch. She’d never ridden a camel before, while I had ridden short distances in both China and Morocco. Camel riding wasn’t something I had particularly enjoyed, but I didn’t think trekking through sand would be a whole lot of fun, either. (It wasn't.)

With all the waiting around we had done, we didn’t start the trek/ride until 2:30: the middle of the afternoon with the worst possible light and the greatest possible heat. Who on earth planned this? The head Bedouin had tied my head scarf correctly for me, so I had some protection from the sun, and I tried to walk in the shade of the camels, but I was actually glad when we stopped for another rest, and it was my turn to ride. Until my camel threw me.

Maybe it didn't like people any more than I liked camels? (Love their expressions, but prefer to keep a prudent distance.) It could have been worse – the camel decided it didn’t want a rider on its way up. It got its front legs up, and then, halfway through getting its back legs up, it fell sideways. Fortunately I was able to swing my legs clear, so the camel didn’t fall on top of me, but the sand wasn’t as soft as you might think to fall on. I guess the handlers gave the camel an effective talking to, because it behaved itself for the rest of the day, but after a whole hour on camelback I was more than ready to get off. Give me a horse any day.

While we did visit some mildly interesting petroglyphs, we didn’t see anything that anyone said had associations with Lawrence, and in fact, I found most of the rock formations disappointing – perhaps if you see them before Petra they look better. Or perhaps they look better in morning or evening light. After we visited the petroglyphs we saw a village not far away, and then came around some rocks to see a covey of 4WDs and a flock of tourists trying climb up a sand dune. Our camp was round the next rock corner.

The Bedouins lit a large camp fire, and served a surprisingly good dinner, with plenty of food including both chicken and lamb. I had worried that the night in the desert would be cold, and we did need the fire, but once I settled into my silk sleep sack and the provided sleeping bag I was plenty warm. Several people chose to sleep out. Even when I got up in the middle of the night to trek through the sand to the toilet block, I didn't bother to wrap up. Or take a flashlight - just as the moon had overpowered the candles at Petra, here it overpowered the stars – I would suggest doing a desert overnight during the dark of the moon. (Note - both western and squat toilets, with TP.)

I've been thinking about how this part of the itinerary could be improved, and I think we should have started from Petra after lunch instead of breakfast, and saved the jeep ride through the desert for the next morning. As it was we arrived at our next hotel well before they were ready for us. That way we could have enjoyed both evening and morning light on the rocks, and perhaps have visited Little Petra as well.
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Jan 28th, 2010, 10:40 AM
  #53
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Quick question - I cut the Petra pix down from 200+ to 75 (whew!) - would it be better to leave them in chronological order, or to put all the Treasury shots together, etc.?
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Jan 28th, 2010, 07:09 PM
  #54
 
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Thursday....if you go to www.barakajourneys.com you can see my itinerary. Its the Syria, Jordan & Lebanon trip! You can then tell me what you think.

I bought my air tix today....so its really going to happen...Inshallah!!!!

I was a bit confused w/ the pics as to where I was and when but I think its mostly cause Ive not been there. I'll be ever so much smarter when I return!!!
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Jan 28th, 2010, 07:51 PM
  #55
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I took a quick look at the Baraka itinerary. First impression is that's it's really a Syrian trip with a little bit of Lebanon and Jordan. You only see Baalbek and Aanjar in Lebanon, which hardly counts, and don't get to Wadi Rum in Jordan, although you spend two days in Amman. I didn't check all the hotels, but for Petra and Hama you'll be out of town, but the Damascus hotel looks good. Seems to be a thorough visit to Syria.
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Jan 29th, 2010, 04:52 AM
  #56
 
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I would leave them in chronological order, just my opinion.

Boy, I'm really hoping my camel ride in Morocco is more enjoyable than yours! At least ours should be at dusk and just after sunrise so not the same baking effect.

Your sleep sack - do you have the standard size or the larger? I'm going to order one and remember hating the claustrophobic feeling of a a sleeping bag but maybe a bigger sleep sack would have excess fabric to get twisted around?
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Jan 29th, 2010, 07:12 AM
  #57
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I have the standard Dreamsack. I can get that one twisted... I don't find it especially claustrophobic, though, it's very light.
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Jan 29th, 2010, 12:45 PM
  #58
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Thanks for the feedback. I've left them photos chronological, but added a few more captions.

Aqaba and Dead Sea coming up soon.
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Jan 29th, 2010, 06:11 PM
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I am aware of the route we will take.....I won't see all you saw but I will see what I will see and Im happy.

I have traveled w/ this company before and have always been very pleased with them.

Long ago I decided I won't see it all in this lifetime which is why I'm coming back......richer....so I can travel more!
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Jan 30th, 2010, 09:28 AM
  #60
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November 4-6, 2009: Too Much Pool

When we left the Wadi Rum camp after breakfast (no-one seemed inclined to linger) it turned out that we were very close to the highway. We weren't far from Aqaba either and arrived by 10:00. Unfortunately, our hotel didn’t have our rooms ready, and I was dying for a shower. While I waited I went out to look for coffee, and found a little place on the lower level of a shopping complex. I chatted with a local who said he was a lawyer, but also owned a concrete company. And a taxi company…

I got one of the first rooms available, so I was able to shower and change before we set off for the beach. I hadn’t slept well, and decided not to bother with renting equipment and getting wet-suited up to go snorkeling – the guidebooks said the best Red Sea snorkeling was further south. The tour took us to one of the beach hotels, which offered not-bad food, and a swimming pool. After taking a look at the state of the beach I was just as happy to chill out by the pool.

Aqaba itself, full of tourists, hotels and restaurants, could have been almost anywhere. Not a place I would chose to linger. After dinner a small group of us did find the local market, still lively even at night, but also surrounded by souvenir shops. On the way back to the hotel my Birkenstocks betrayed me again, although this time I fell forward, badly bruising my left knee. I raided the mini-bar in my room for cold drink cars in lieu of ice.

The last full day of the tour featured the Dead Sea. We visited the public beach, rather than one of the hotels, where we found changing rooms, freshwater showers, a buffet and swimming pools – but no spa or massages. Of course, I floated in the salty waters, although I held an umbrella doing duty as a sunshade rather than a newspaper. (No, I did not have anyone take a photo.) And yes, it really is that salty and it really is that easy to float. But you can only do that for so long.

After an indifferent buffet lunch I spent another afternoon by the pool. Now, for some people, especially those escaping a northern winter, sunning by the pool might have been a welcome break. But I live in North Carolina, where I get more than enough sun, and where I have miles of sandy beaches just two to three hours drive away. I visit the beach maybe once every couple of years just to check that things haven't changed. So I could have done without back-to-back beach afternoons. My original plan, to spend time in one of the posh hotels, might have worked better.

I was glad to get back to Amman. The tour leader didn’t organize a farewell dinner, and once again seemed to have no knowledge of the restaurant scene. He sent one group off in a taxi to the Shmeisani district, but I learned later that it's no longer a good place to look for food and they eventually gave up and ate at the hotel. I went off with a younger crowd to a restaurant that a couple of them had found downtown.

Since I didn’t have a plane to catch I ate a leisurely breakfast at the Toledo next morning, before saying farewell to my roommate, and taking a taxi to the Hisham hotel, near the embassy district. The Hisham sounded nice, but I wasn’t actually staying there. They were renovating, and were putting me up in the Canyon Boutique, next to the Jordan Hospital, instead.

Bottom line on the Explore! tour? It provided the hotels and transport I had had trouble arranging myself. I enjoyed the company. But, besides the infuriating behavior of the ground agent, I hadn't been impressed by the itinerary or the hotels, and I especially didn't like traveling around with so many people in a tour bus when I expected a "small group tour".

I had intended to fill in the tour survey when I got home (Explore! wants you to fill in a paper survey and hand it in to your tour leader!) but Adventure Center, their US agent, sent me an on-line questionnaire first. When Adventure Center saw my answers they asked for follow-up, which they forwarded to Explore!. Explore! did send an apology and a discount on another tour, but I don't plan to travel with them again. One less brochure to keep around!
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