Sunday, December 24, 2006

Unexpectedly Veering South

When I was in Iran this Summer I began looking into this stage of my trip, taking vague ideas and trying to see if they could work. My initial plan was to skirt the southern shores of the Mediterranean and cross into Europe at the Straights of Gibraltar. Further research quickly showed that option to be impossible due to visa restrictions in Libya and Algeria. Then I thought I'd cross Turkey and enter into Europe in Greece or Bulgaria, but the cold weather in Anatolia dissuaded me from European travel in Winter. So by default, and without much of a plan I headed south into Syria. Almost as soon as I arrived in Syria I received an e-mail from my oldest friend from my schooldays back in Scotland. Michael lives in London now but his mother is currently working in Oman and he invited me to spend Christmas with them out there. Initially I dismissed the idea as I had never considered the Arabian peninsula as part of my trip and it would entail a certain amount of "backtracking". However the more I thought about it the more the idea grew on me: I wouldn't be spending Christmas alone; I would get to see Michael again (I had last seen him in Melbourne) and hang out with him a bit; I would get to go to Yemen afterwards, a place I have wanted to visit for quite some time now; and it would mean that I could escape the cold Winter weather in Europe. So I started looking around for buses that would take me from Amman to Dubai, from where I could get a connection on to Muscat. I was glad to find there were departures every day and so set off for the Saudi embassy to get a transit visa ... and that's where I ran into trouble. They refused me point blank. They would give no reasons, they weren't prepared to discuss it, not even for a transit period of 24 hours, they just slammed the proverbial door in my face and no amount of pleading or grovelling would make them change their minds. That made me really angry as it forced me to have to fly, something I really didn't want to do (because of the increased damage to the environment, the increased cost and also because of the breaking of my principles) especially as there are buses. I've come to the conclusion that the harder it is for you to get into a country the more autocratic they are and the more they have to hide. If that is so then Saudi Arabia must be one of the most repressive in the world. But I have learned not to stay angry for too long, as it just gets in the way of things, and found myself a cheap flight to Sharjah from where it was possible to catch a bus to Oman. And so now I am writing to you from balmy Muscat where I have a view over the Gulf of Oman.

It is early morning on Christmas Day and I wish you all a very merry Christmas, surrounded by friends and family, wherever you may be.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Number 110

From Wadi Rum I dropped down to Aqaba, Jordan's one and only port, on the Red Sea. As their only access point to the seas Aqaba is incredibly important to Jordan's economy, so much so that in 1965 Jordan swapped a whopping 6000 square km of desert for just 12km of coastline (doubling the length they already had) with the Saudis so that they could built a decent container port. Though, along with the port area they gained some spectacular coral reefs that can be easily explored with only a mask and snorkel, or at least could if the northerly winds coming in from the desert didn't make swimming unbearably cold. So, with nothing to really do in Aqaba (it is a horribly soulless tourist trap) and it not being possible to continue further south I headed back towards Amman (I also desperately needed to change my trousers!).

I didn't, however, go straight back, and stopped off along the way, first at Petra. Why return to a place that I had already been? Well, first of all there are some beautiful treks that can be done outside of the main Petra area where you can walk through beautiful tomb-filled canyons completely alone, without another tourist in sight and no Bedouin offering donkey rides; and secondly I wanted to sneek into Petra without buying a ticket just to see whether it is possible, to do my little bit to fight oppressive exploitation of tourists. (Travellers of the world unite!) Anyway, for those of you on tight budgets who wish to see the fabulous ruins it is very easy to walk in from the desert (but don't say I told you). From Petra it was further north along the King's Highway, a route used since biblical times to connect Damascus to the Red Sea which, in places, contains remains of the old Roman road (Nova Via Traiana) and its milestones if you look hard enough, to the town of Kerak and its Crusader castle. Nice place to stop for an afternoon.

The next day I made my way to the remains of Kastron Mefa'a (known locally as Umm Ar-Rassas). Not a name that is known to many people (even in Jordan), but I have given myself a little mission whilst on this trip to try and visit as many UNESCO world heritage sites as possible. And so I had to pay a visit to Umm Ar-Rassas as well (seeing as it was on the way as well). The only problem is that, although it was on my route, the old saying that the shortest route is not always the quickest proved to be very true here. The King's Highway is bisected by the giant Wadi Mujib gorge (think Grand Canyon but only slightly smaller) which means that all public transport goes either via the Dead Sea to the west or the desert to the east. I persisted nevertheless (because I'm a stubborn bastard) and 50km (as the crow flies) and 4 hours later I was there ... and decidedly underwhelmed. The site is just a huge pile of rubble stretching out for about one square kilometre. As I scrambled around the site I was wandering why on earth this is part of my heritage. Then I saw a largeish tin shed off to the side and decided to investigate (as it was mildly more interesting than the rubble). Outside was a sign reading "Church of St Stephanos 785AD". If it was a church it didn't look too impressive. Upon entering you walk along metal gangways and as my eyes accustomed to the darker interior I noticed the reason for the raised walkways: below me was a giant and immaculate mosaic, larger and in better condition than anything I have ever seen. And all of this beside a forgotten, windswept village in the middle of nowhere. When I found the guard (who was sleeping in a little hut, huddled under a blanket from the cold) to ask about onward transport he seemed surprised to see me and said that I was the first visitor in three days and that I would have to leave the way I came (i.e. hitching). In the end Umm Ar-Rassas proved to be a memorable stopover, despite dodgy first impressions, for the remoteness, the challenge of getting there (a record of 8 different vehicles in a day) and the phenomenal mosaics. Plus it became UNESCO site 110, although I'm still a little way off my target of one every week. ;-)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rum Job

Mum and I parted company the other day as she headed back to Amman to catch her plane home. Gone are the restaurants, gone are the taxis and gone are the nice hotels as I revert to my routine of ultra-cheapness. Actually Mum didn't have much luck with the hotels, all of which invariably suffered from some problem or another: no hot water, no heating, no satellite (despite all of these being selling points), dodgy food and incompetent staff. It's as if Basil Fawlty is running the Jordan school of hoteliery. It has made me come to the conclusion that it's often preferable to go for the cheapest option because at least then your expectations are lower and you lose less when everything goes pear-shaped.

Our last day together was spent in Wadi Rum, which probably has the most beautiful landscapes that I've seen in my entire trip, or at least the most photogenic. Situated in the south of the country close to the Saudi border the place is all about colour: blood red sand, intense blue sky and sandwiched between the two sheer, craggy sandstone mountains, ranging from pale yellow to dark grey, sculpted into fantastical shapes (they remind me particularly of candle-wax dribblings) by the windborne sand. If this is what deserts are like then bring on the global warming!

The area is home to the semi-nomadic bedouin, many of whom still herd goats and livein large, rectangular tents, though the camels have largely been replaced by battered old Toyota Landcruisers which are slightly less temperamental and prone to running off for no reason. They're also handy for carting tourists around. There are of course various sites that you are shown on a Wadi Rum excursion, such as a couple of rock bridges, a spring, a big sand dune, some rock inscriptions, and the ruins of what was once (supposedly) T.E. Lawrence's house, but they are just an excuse to ride through the desert on the back of a 4x4. The night was spent in a bedouin tent huddled under thick blankets cowering from the excruciatingly chill northerly winds. The next day Mum left but I stayed for another day to explore the mountains on foot. In the morning I duly struck off to try and find my way through a mountain via a series of canyons that I had been told about by other travellers. It was nice to get away from everything else and be surrounded by complete and utter silence. However the route was more like actual rock-climbing than a scramble and half-way along I had, what Ms. Jackson would call, a severe wardrobe malfunction, whereby one of the soles of my shoes half came off and I got an inconveniently-placed, largish tear in my trousers (luckily my boxer shorts are a similar colour, otherwise I might have outraged the rather conservative bedouins). Because I left my big backpack in Amman I have only one change of everything ... except shoes and trousers, and so I had to call time on my mountaineering exertions and return to a more sedate mode of travel that would be more forgiving on my apparel.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Jordan's premier tourist attraction, by a long way, is the ruins of Petra. The stunning remains of the Nabataean capital are known throughout the world, most notably (at least to people of my generation) due to their use in the finale of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which is shown nightly at many backpacker haunts. What I fail to understand about the film, however, is that Indiana Jones is supposed to be such a hot shot archaeologist and yet, upon arriving at the supposed resting place of the Holy Grail, he fails to comment on its striking similarity with Petra. Not much of an archaeologist if you ask me. Petra attracts tourists like moths to a flame, with not dissimilar results because of the outrageous prices charged for simple services and goods - not to mention the exorbitant entry fee of $30 for one day. (Sorry for harping on about money, especially as my mum is taking much of the financial strain here in Jordan, but I really get irked by excessive dual pricing and the blithe assumption that foreign visitors habitually wipe their asses with dollar bills.) Unfortunately none of this money filters down to the local bedouin population who are reduced to pestering tourists to take donkey and camel rides and selling cheap trinkets. But it cannot be missed, and for good reason too.

The monumental tombs are pretty much all that's left to remind us of the master merchants who controlled the spice trade coming from Arabia (mainly frankincense and myrrh) to the Mediterranean. The desert-dwelling Nabataeans weren't great builders themselves but must have seen many fine architectural gems among their more urbane neighbours and decided to try it out for themselves, carving gigantic facades, with Corinthian columns and Romanesque statues, in the sandstone cliffs of Petra. They didn't quite get the whole point as the insides were left hopelessly plain and unadorned compared to the exteriors; like classical Potemkin villages. Only a few of the hundreds of tombs, such as the famous Treasury (see below), have preserved the intricate details and majestic grandeur of their inception, most have succumbed to the smoothing effects of the wind that has softened the stone to rounded, organic shapes that hint at their original forms - instead of doorways and windows are mouths and eyes, and instead of carvings are coloured whorls showing the grain of the different layers of sandstone.

I, however, found Petra like the child who gets a fancy super-duper toy for Christmas and ends up playing with the box instead by ignoring the ancient tombs and concentrating on the surroundings. I was just enraptured by the surrounding landscape of sandstone mountains changing colour with the sinking sun and the improbably narrow defiles. My greatest pleasure was to strike off for some random peak, scrambling my way up, often finding ancient, hidden stairways cut into the rock, leading to half-forgotten sacrificial altars on the mountain top. Even my mum agreed. I was impressed that on the same day she celebrated her **th birthday she followed me along some pretty tricky terrain, not only managing adroitly, but saying that it was the best part of the whole site. I just hope that when I'm ** that I'll be able to do the same.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Finding Nebo

"And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the LORD shewed him all the land of Gilead (...) unto Zoar. And the LORD said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD."
Deuteronomy 34:1-5

Mount Nebo is where Moses, after 40 years of wandering hither and thither (obviously he was too embarrassed to stop and ask for directions), finally saw the Promised Land ... and then died. Which I think shows that God has a pretty mean, sadistic streak. He could have at least let Moses get to the Promised Land before getting rid of him. I mean the poor bastard was 120 years old. Anyway, the quote is slightly incorrect because you actually descend slightly from the Moab plateau to get to Mount Nebo, which itself isn't really a mountain, but the edge of a cliff that overlooks the Dead Sea valley. And he must have been very lucky to see anything due to the haze which made even the Dead Sea, not 10km away, barely visible to me. Ah well, I suppose they were taking some artistic license whilst writing the Bible, after all it is a work of fiction! There are, however, some beautiful Byzantine mosaics there and in the nearby town of Madaba.

Seeing these various sites that are important to both Christians and Muslims as well as the number of active churches has made me see that the Arab countries of the Levant arefar more mulitcultural than we give them credit for, with the two religions coexisting side by side without any problems. It seems to me that in the West we view Arabs to be automatically Muslim and Christianity as a European religion, whereas neither is true. (Actually, come to think of it, every major world religion has its origins in Asia.) There is a lack of understanding, and perhaps even a lack of wanting to understand, of the Arab world that angers the people here and makes them feel targetted. This was evident when I hitched a ride to Madaba from Mount Nebo - as soon as I got in the driver, without me having uttered a word, went on the defensive of Arab people and their culture (something he didn't need to do as he was preaching to the converted).

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Float To The Bottom

Yesterday was my birthday. And in a break from the tradition of this trip I wasn't on some long horrible journey; instead my mother took me out to a rather swanky restaurant. I know it was a classy place because they had waiters. Honestly, I've been making my own food and eating at street stalls and dodgy establishments (the word restaurant doesn't even come close) that I'm not sure whether I know how to act properly in "polite" society. Though in the end I think I managed not to embarrass my mother too much.

Anyway, last year I visited the Tarim Depression in western China, the second lowest point on earth. But those of you who know me will know that second place is just not good enough and so today I went to the Dead Sea, which lies at a staggering 420m below sea level (and it continues to fall every year). The sea (or is it a lake?) is famous for having such a high salt content that allows you to float effortlessly on its surface (the high salt content is also the reason for the sea's name because nothing can survive the inhospitable conditions). Well of course I had to give it a go. Taking my first tentative steps the water didn't seem any different from ordinary water and I thought I would be disappointed. But after getting knocked over by a wave I discovered that, indeed, I didn't sink. It was the strangest feeling as my brain, conditioned by countless watery escapades, was telling me that I should be sinking when I clearly wasn't. The water felt like water: just as wet and just as liquid, but at a certain point it just wouldn't let me down any further no matter how hard I tried. Probably a good thing too as you really wouldn't want to put your head under that water as it is the second foulest thing I have tasted so far on this trip (after peyote) and it would possibly cause your eyes to shrivel up. Still, people claim that the water has a myriad therapeutic benefits and so the shore is thronged by upmarket hotels offering deluxe spa treatments. Even the public beach has a gift shop selling overpriced "beauty products", such as half a litre of Dead Sea water for the bargain price of $4, or some mud (for facepacks) for $15. Locals, of course, aren't duped and bring their own bottles to scoop up the foul sludge for free. You don't want to spend too long in the spooky water and so I spent most of my time watching Jordanians out for the weekend. The thing that you immediately notice is that most women, though not required to by law, wear hijab, even when taking a dip. Something I, personally, wouldn't recommend for the Dead Sea. You see, after taking a paddle you have to immediately take a shower or be left covered in horrible, salty gunk. The stuff is particularly difficult to get out of clothes as you can see from the picture below. But just because they're Muslim doesn't mean they can't have a good time and so there's beach football and singing and dancing as the sun sets behind the West Bank.

P.S. As a small birthday present to you, my readers, I have finally got my act together and put some more pictures up on my photo album from my trip from Iran up until now (follow the link on the left of my website).

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Jordan has more than its fair share of ancient monuments showing that it's been a popular place to hang out for quite some time. The Romans left their obligatory columns lying around the countryside, even in the capital Amman where there is a 5000-seat amphitheatre in the heart of downtown. After the Romans came the Byzantines with their church-and-mosaic fetish, followed by the Umayyad Muslims. The Umayyads, being the first Muslims rulers, were still trying to get to grips with the austerity of their religion and found an ingenious way of doing so. They built a bunch of castles in the desert in eastern Jordan where they could have crazy parties in private without being spotted by Allah (or at least the clergy). One of these castles is especially fascinating for the frescoes inside depicting musicians, dancing, general merrymaking and even one of a lady wearing only what looks like a thong, possibly the only such existing example of Islamic art. It shows that perhaps Islam was far more tolerant and liberal back then (or perhaps that leaders everywhere and at all times have never practiced what they've preached).

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Model Country

Things were beginning to heat up in Beirut so it was probably a good thing that it was time for me to head on to my next country, Jordan. Not such a good thing was having to pass through Syria on my way there as the intransigent border guards obviously hadn't heard of transit visas and hit me for $52 just to pass through the country in one day. Once in Amman, the Jordanian capital, I was joined by my mother who has flown out to travel with me for a couple of weeks. She's a bit upset that I won't be home by Christmas for the third year running, especially as I had initially said I would be only travelling for a year or so. I can't see what the fuss is about myself as I last saw Mum just 4 months ago in Tehran but I'm not complaining as she has brought some vital supplies (some old socks and T-shirts) with her and will be relieving me of a sizeable quantity of junk, such as entry stubs and brochures, which I am loathe to throw away, that I've managed to accumulate over the period. (I know, I know, I'm just a user really.) Possibly the most important thing that my mother brought with her was a fleece jumper because Jordan is seriously chilly this time of year.

Despite being surrounded by some of the most unstable, chaotic and crazy countries in the world Jordan, at first glance, seems to be an island of comparative serenity. The place is relatively clean and ordered, its citizens relaxed and polite, and most of them even speak decent English. Actually, come to think of it, the place is disappointingly responsible. But that's OK as I'm not sure my mother would appreciate the privations and discomforts of more "gritty" destinations.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Spectator Sports ... Lebanon Style

Here in Lebanon they have a particularly bizarre spectator sport for tourists: demonstration watching. It's not particularly exciting, but there's always the chance of something extraordinary happening. At least they occur relatively frequently and are free as well, a major plus in this relatively pricey country. The latest demonstration was portrayed by the Western media as a Hezbollah, pro-Syrian one trying to topple the anti-Syrian government. Whilst that makes simple headlines and allows people to believe that they understand what is happening in a faraway land, the reality is very different. First of all the majority of people at the rally whose political affiliation I could easily identify (luckily most parties in Lebanon have their own colour) were not actually supporters of Hezbollah, but instead followers of the liberal, secular Free Patriotic Movement (particularly popular among Lebanon's educated young Christians). In fact, doing my own reading into the matter has made me intensely sceptical about the news that we are fed through our media. If respected channels such as CNN and the BBC managed to give such a distorted view of the events (just so that they could fit it into their programming or make it easy enough to digest for the ordinary viewer) as to completely alter the reality on the ground, how can we trust anything they say? I'm not saying there's a great conspiracy of deliberate obfuscation or anything like that, but we rely on the media to be impartial, objective and informed, as it is our window on the world. And since most of us do not have the opportunity to witness news events in person we implicitly trust the news to be correct. But instead of explaining complex political situations we get simple soundbites that end up bearing no resemblance to reality. Today is a bit like the day I watched a popular science programme (that I used to really enjoy watching) about genetics after I had done my degree, and found out that although superficially true, many important caveats and details had been omitted to sensationalise and simplify the topic, thereby giving a false picture. Since then I've found it very difficult to watch science documentaries as I have a nagging suspicion that I'm not being given the entire picture. I doubt that I'll stop watching the news though, but it makes me feel somewhat cheated.

Hmmm, that's not a positive note to end on: I've complained and criticised but given no viable alternatives. The only thing I can recommend is for people to read more, rather than relying on TV news. Newspapers, magazines and books have more room to give detailed explanations that such subtle situations deserve. And although it's impossible to read detailed reports about every news event, we should try and do it for those that at least interest, or affect, us. In today's multimedia world the written world is still the most powerful form of communication.