May 23 2013 Latest news:
Friday, October 19, 2012
If nothing else, Jordan is a country of great contrasts. From the bustling hub of Amman with its sprawling markets and Roman ruins down to the picturesque site at Petra and further south to the country’s only beach resort sitting on the Red Sea, Aqaba, there is something for everyone in between.
Although it should be noted alcohol can be hard to come by except in the most touristy parts of the country but I found it was much easier to get on by being respectful of their customs and traditions.
Without any discernible imports and exports it becomes apparent that Jordan relies heavily on foreign tourists to pump money into the economy. Travelling at the end of September and beginning of October, which is meant to be the peak season, I was reliably informed that it was quieter than it should have been. Whether this is down to the recession or the instability of the region (Jordan shares borders with Syria, Israel and Iraq) is hard to say, but it is probably a mixture of the two. That’s not to say that I ever felt threatened and the people have as kind a nature as all the guide books suggest they do.
Anyway, on to the sightseeing. Say ‘Jordan’ to any Westerner and I reckon nine out of 10 people will say Petra. Indiana Jones has a lot to answer for, but the ancient city is reason enough to go to the country. Petra was named one of the ‘new’ seven wonders of the world in 2007 along with heritage sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru, The Taj Mahal in India and The Great Wall of China, and it is more than comfortable in that company. It is absolutely remarkable. The one disappointment was not being allowed to go inside The Treasury, the famous temple which Indy rushed into in The Last Crusade. My initial thought on spending two days there was that there wouldn’t be enough to do. In the end, that wasn’t enough time to explore the whole city even with getting there at 8am and leaving at 6pm. There are countless mountains, caves, houses and castles to explore with helpful signs around the site explaining where you are and what you’re looking at. There is a lot of walking involved, so like much of the rest of the country it’s not for the faint-hearted but if it ever gets too much you can always hitch a camel or donkey ride. Having said there was only one down side, you tend to get hassled more by street vendors more than you do in the rest of the country (it is Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction) but a no thank you usually does the trick. But it really does have to be seen to be believed, words do it little justice.
But Jordan is about much more than just Petra. This being my first Middle Eastern or Arabic country, by all accounts Amman is a very understated capital city. It kept me occupied for a whole day with an impressive Roman theatre just around the corner from my hotel and the Citadel Hill (which, coincidentally, is up a very steep hill), a site which features a number of different civilisations which settled in Amman and represents a magnificent passage in time.
The other two days I stayed in the capital Amman was used as a base to go out on day trips. Thankfully most of the sites western tourists want to visit are situated on the west coast so it is feasible to explore most of the country while staying in Amman. The town of Madaba is famous for its mosaics, specifically the mosaic map of the Middle East on the floor of the church of St George. It’s definitely worth going to see for a couple of hours. Mount Nebo is most famous for being the place where Moses was apparently given a view of the promised land which God planned to give to the Israelites. Being more than 800m above sea level and with a clear view of the West Bank city of Jericho and sometimes Jerusalem, it seems as good a place as any. The views are equisite.
Another must do in Jordan - swim (or float more accurately) in the Dead Sea. Certainly not worth taking a whole day out of your schedule but the sensation of floating on water is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Try and sink. Go on I dare you. If you really try you could probably float to Israel in water which is 30 per cent salt, but that might raise a few border issues. The Dead Sea purports to be the lowest point on earth, a fact to impress your friends at a dinner party.
One of the most enjoyable trips for me was climbing up waterfalls and trekking through a gorge at Wadi Mujib. This is partly because it gave me some rest bite from the searing heat as the route was covered in shade thanks to the towering mountains either side. But getting to the end and seeing a 20ft waterfall gave me a real sense of achievement. If you’re really feeling like Bear Grylls you can take longer routes (mine was just two hours) but they’re more expensive and can’t be done self-guided.
Which leads me on to another must do and see - a desert expedition. This can take include a number of options, but not being the fittest, I decided to hire a guide and travel around in his jeep. It stopped at regular intervals, to look at sites such as Lawrence of Arabia’s house and run up sand dunes with the occasional walk thrown in. It was a wonderful experience, feeling almost completely detached from civilisation, and the day ended with watching the sunset before heading to an authentic Bedouin camp to spend the night.
The following morning, I took a camel ride back to the town. With it being my first time, I would describe the moment the camel first stands up as being akin to a bucking bronco in an arcade, only with a lot further to fall. So be aware of that. It wasn’t the most comfortable two hours of my life, but at least I can say I’ve rode a camel!
The southern beach resort of Aqaba was a slight disappointment, but it’s a good place to go if you’re into watersports. Hotels and food seemed to be more expensive and the people seemed less friendly. But I guess that’s what comes with being a renowned tourist destination (for Jordanians too) and being either on or near borders to Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The food is excellent if a little repetitive. There’s lots of humus, flatbread, yoghurt and excellent salads, while chicken and lamb kebabs are very prevalent (slightly better than the ones you’ll experience after a night out in England).
Ten days was just about enough, although with a bit more time I might have popped over to Israel as a lot of tourists we encountered seemed to do.
All in all, I would definitely recommend Jordan to anyone for a cost-effective, adventure filled holiday. The currency (Jordanian Dinar) has quite a good exchange rate with the pound. My flights to Amman (bought months in advance admittedly) cost £135 for a return with Easyjet from Gatwick. You can’t say fairer than that.