Sunday, December 31, 2017


After seeing most of Eastern Asia during our time in Hong Kong, we made our first foray into the Middle East (unless you count Dubai, which is kind of a world of its own), and all in all, it was a major success! Surrounded on all sides by Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, Jordan is a real oasis of calm in a noisy neighbourhood. When we told people we were coming here, there were a few raised eyebrows, and the common question of "Is it safe?", but in our 8 days here, we never once felt uneasy. There is an understandable military and police presence around the major areas, and tourist numbers are only just starting to increase after a few barren years, so now is the time to get in! A beautiful country, with great people and few tourists; Jordan should certainly be top of your to-do list.

The only negative thing I have to say about our time here were the flight times. We arrived into Jordan's capital, Amman, at 4:10am, almost 10 hours after leaving Dublin via Istanbul. We picked up the odd hour of sleep here and there, but there was nothing we were looking forward to more than getting to our hotel and conking out in a big comfy bed. Unfortunately, we had to wait in the breakfast room for about 4 hours until the first guest had checked out and we could finally lie horizontally! 

Whenever I have trouble getting to sleep at night, I think back to moments like these and how grateful I am to have a bed beneath me!

After getting a few hours of shut eye in our room, we were ready to get out and see the city. I had a good feeling about the place right from the start, as our taxi driver from the airport was playing The Corrs. It's always nice to hear Irish music around the world. He played a bit of Shania Twain too, though unfortunately not "Amman, I feel like a woman".

Amman itself is quite a nice city. We had a few days here at the start and end of our trip and there was enough to keep us busy. We were staying on the strangely named Rainbow Street, which was not rainbowy in any respect. Being honest, this is what I was expecting:

At least you couldn't fall off the side here!

Our first stop was the Roman Amphitheatre, which was built in the 2nd century, back when Amman was known as Philadelphia (interesting fact!). It's a really impressive place, historically and aesthetically, and gives a nice view of the surrounding area. The theatre itself can hold 6,000 people, and this is the way modern theatres should still be built! Even from the top, you still have a great view. It is quite a steep climb up though, and if you fall, it's a long way down. Still, worth it I say!

From there, it was up to the ancient citadel which overlooks the city. It is said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world (another interesting fact!). A cool place to spend a bit of time, with more great views of Amman.

We finished the day with some dinner for our Dinar, a traditional meal of Mansaf, which consists of lamb, rice and yoghurt, and is the national dish of Jordan. It was fine, but we won't be trying it out back in Dublin. The desserts, however, were great! We just randomly picked out the exotically named Muhalabiya and Aish Elsaraya from the menu, but you can't go too far wrong with desserts.

Aish Elsaraya in particular (the one on the right) was amazing! Pistachios are an underrated nut!

The next day, after a good 13 hours of sleep, we headed northwards to the ancient Roman city of Jerash. Now, I know they say there's no place like Rome (or something similar), but there is, and we found it here. It's a real Rome away from Rome!

It was a bit of a trek getting there, as we had to first make our way to the Tabarbour Bus Station in the North of Amman, and then get a minibus from there towards Ajloun, hopping off at Jerash itself. Not the most straightforward journey, but it was worth it. Jerash was great! And not really crowded either. Tourism in Jordan as a whole has taken a real hit in recent times, as a lot of people are avoiding the Middle East full stop. But well, it was good news for us! We had previously bought the Jordan Pass too which covers your entry visa and all of the main tourist attractions in the country, well worth buying.

Jerash is said to be one of the largest and best-preserved Roman cities outside of Italy, and it's as you'd expect I guess; columns, arches, all that jazz. And not one, but two amphitheatres! I always knew I'd be playing in venues like this one day...

...empty ones!

As I mentioned, there were two amphitheatres, and if one being completely empty wasn't strange enough, then the other having an Arabian lad playing the bagpipes was a million times stranger! And I don't even mean a Middle Eastern instrument  similar to the bagpipes, I mean proper Scottish ones!

If getting to Jerash was awkward, getting back was somehow even worse! You'd think all roads would lead to a nation's capital, but seemingly not! First, we had to go back to the junction where we were dropped off, which was easy enough and we even found a minibus heading back to Amman straight away. Unfortunately, like in many countries, buses don't leave at set times, and instead wait until the bus is full, which in this case took the best part of an hour. Anyway, we eventually hit the road and it was smooth sailing for the next 40 minutes, until the bus pulled up and everyone was told this was the final stop. There was a lot of shouting in Arabic, which all went over our heads, but we did at least get the gist that this was not Amman...

So, not knowing where we were, or in what direction we should be heading, our fate was really up in the air. Even when we found another minibus, we got differing opinions on whether or not this would take us where we needed to go. We didn't have much choice so we hopped on board this mystery bus, ready for the next part of our journey to who knows where. All we knew at this stage was that we weren’t in Amman, and were possibly heading towards Amman, but also maybe not... And that’s where our new Jordanian saviour came along! I can’t type his name but it was something like Haiha, and without him we’d probably still be circling the outskirts of Amman today.

He was a merchant from Jordan who travelled around the Middle East selling machinery. He informed us that we were on the wrong bus, but this one was at least heading towards Amman, and that he’d get off with us and put us in the right direction. And true to his word, we got off about ten minutes down the line, and he stood with us on the side of the road, flagging down taxis in the dark to get us back home. He even flagged down a cab at one stage and sent him away again as he was going to overcharge us! We eventually got one anyway and he told the driver in Arabic where we needed to go and how much it should cost. He even apologised that he couldn’t get it at a cheaper price! What a guy! I wish we had a picture of him.

We have these moments less and less as we generally plan things quite well, and always know where to go and how to get there. But sometimes things go wrong, and you become completely at the mercy of the people around you. It’s in moments like these that one person can make or break your day, and really gives the whole country its reputation in your eyes. It happened to us in Myanmar, when Zaw Hein helped us out when we had nothing, and that’s a memory that will always stay with us. And today was the same; this person could’ve just stayed quiet and gone about his own business, but he chose to go well out of his way to help two strangers in a foreign land. We’ll most likely never see him again and didn’t even fully catch his name, but his gesture will forever give a positive impression in our minds of his entire country. It’s because of moments like these that whenever I’m walking through Dublin and I see tourists with maps or generally looking lost, I always make sure to suppress my shyness and go over and help. Even if they don’t need it, I hope that small gesture makes Ireland a tiny bit brighter in their eyes.

The next day, it was down to the Dead Sea, and although our previous day's tribulations had a happy ending, we took the easy way out this time around, and just hired a driver, instead of connecting buses with buses again. You'd think visiting the Dead Sea would be a straightforward affair, like visiting any body of water, but no. Most of Jordan's access to the sea is owned by a long strip of hotels, and you need to buy a day pass to get your feet wet. We even had to book our visit in advance, give our names at the hotel gates and have our car searched upon entry. At least we knew we'd be safe here! Once inside, we had a float around, covered ourselves in mud and took a bunch of photos. Have an ol' Dead Sea scroll through them:

We all float down here...

These hotels are enormous and most seemed half empty. The one we were in had 5 swimming pools but only a handful of people. These places must have been packed during the boom times, but tourism has obviously dried up in the recent ka-boom times.

Speaking of drying up, the dead sea itself has dropped significantly, with signs showing what the water level was like from years ago. It’s already the lowest place on earth and it’s only getting lower. I’m surprised we didn’t see Garth Brooks around, I’ve heard he has friends here…

We also drove past the site where Jesus was baptised. We could have stopped for a look, but then again, Jesus has never visited Mayfield, so fair is fair.

The next day, we had to travel down to the south bus station to get to Petra (how about having just one central bus station, Amman?!). We’ve already reaped the benefits of the low tourist numbers in the country (and would do so again), but this time we saw the other side of things. As there were so few people, transport was a lot more scarce and, what you’d assume would be the busiest route in the country, ended up costing us an hour waiting for our empty minibus to fill up. Anyway, on to Petra, where we would have a full day and a half, which was the perfect amount of time.

On the first day, we arrived in the late afternoon, so we had a few hours to get a feel for the place before hitting it hard the next morning. As an added bonus, at that late stage of the day, most people were leaving, so we got a very rare, uninterrupted shot of us in front of the treasury, Petra's most famous spot! And we even managed to sneak a camel in!

Over 2,000 years old and carved right out of the rich, rose-coloured rock, Petra is one of the most incredible sights you'll see anywhere in the world. It's just so unlike anything else! And it's not just the building above either, or any of the carved buildings for that matter, the whole area is incredible. We just got a small glimpse of it on the first day, but it was enough to whet our appetites for an early rise the next morning.

Not many places on Earth would get me up before dawn voluntarily, but this one was worth the effort. Even though it was pretty quiet during our visit the day before, we passed a lot of big tour groups on their way out, so we knew it had the potential to be packed if we didn't get in there first. It's a bit of a walk from the visitor centre, through a narrow, winding, desert path before you get to the main area, so we scooted off and built up a sizeable lead on everyone else, and wouldn't see another tourist for hours.

What a great way to see the treasury too. You twist and turn through this rocky passageway, back and forth, back and forth, and then, you get that sweet first glimpse, as though you're the first people on Earth to discover it...

From there, it was a climb up to the monastery - the second most famous spot, an hour's walk away. Again, we motored on, and there wasn't another soul to be seen, except for our new buddy, who followed us, or rather guided us, the whole way up.

He even had a little neckerchief on!

The monastery was just as impressive as the treasury, the only minor negative was that the sun was on the wrong side, so this one is probably best visited in the afternoon, but we weren't going to wait around for that.

There are lots of other things to see around Petra besides these two, and as we had made such an early start, we had plenty of time to walk around and see everything. It was all just so photogenic; the views, the buildings, the people, the animals... it wasn't too hot, wasn't too cold, everything was just perfect!

And what better way to finish off our afternoon than looking down over where we started the morning with a couple of cold Cokes.

A solid day's work done, we got lunch, strolled back to the hotel and were lounging by the pool before 2pm! There may be something to be said for early starts...

Our day wasn't over yet though, and that evening we headed back to the old city for Petra By Night - a candle-lit view of the treasury with music and stories. The experience has the potential to be a whole lot better than what it was, but it's still worth doing. You start at the visitor centre at 20:30 (in fact, they opened the gates at 20:15, so it was a good thing we were there early), and travel through the canyon which is lined with candles. We again made sure to motor on to the front of the pack to get an uninterupted view, and when we got to the treasury, we had the best seats in the house - in front of a constellation of lanterns.

It was the perfect view, that is until the people at the back of the pack started streaming in and just sat anywhere and everywhere amongst the lanterns. What's the point of setting it up so beautifully if people are just going to sit wherever they want and ruin the effect?! Worse than that, any remaining ambiance was ruined by constant camera flashes and general obnoxiousness. The girl next to me even knocked over a lantern, setting it (and almost herself) on fire, didn't notice, and I had to push her out of the way, while throwing sand on the flames. She didn't even say thank you either!

On the bright side, we got to see it in its full majesty for a few minutes at least before the hoards descended. It really does pay to be the early birds.

They also put on a little show, which was altogether terrible - the music was terrible, the speaker was terrible, it was all just so badly done - but the view was great and that's all we came for...

And on Halloween night too! I’m sure there’s a good Petra-fied joke in there somewhere…

The next morning, we were up early again to catch a bus down to our next destination - the deserts of Wadi Rum. We booked a tour, as it's the only real way to see the place, and when we arrived, it turned out we were the only ones booked on it! Private tour! We had a great day, which started with tea and chats in the tour owner's house. We met his wife and kids and had a grand old time learning about their life.

He started off as a tour guide himself, but when his father died, he inherited a small herd of camels (Edit: It turns out the collective noun is a 'caravan of camels', who knew!?) which he sold for like 30 grand and built a desert camp for tourists. Camels are worth a lot, it seems!

We then met our local Bedouin guide, Muhammad, and headed out into the desert. We just spent the day driving around, drinking tea and learning about the local culture. He even taught us a tradional Bedouin game using sticks and stones. It was called something like "gatar", but I can't seem to find it online. I know the rules anyway, so ask me for a game in real life!

I don't have anything extra to add. It seems like we didn't get up to much, but we really had a great day! I'll just let the scenery do the talking...

Wadi Rum has a real Red Planet feel about it, and so unsurprisingly it has been the filming location for movies like The Martian, Star Wars and Transformers, as well as more Earthly films like Lawrence of Arabia.

Quite a lot of movies have been filmed in Jordan actually, and you may have recognised Petra too from Indiana Jones. That night, we even watched another Jordan-themed movie...

Space Jam! We actually did...

And here's a video diary too from the desert:

That was the final highlight of the trip, as the next day was just spent travelling the length of the country, from Wadi Rum all the way north to Amman (via Aqaba). It took half the day, but it was a pretty smooth and comfortable journey, and certainly could've been a lot worse.

Back in Amman, we had another full day, as our flight home wasn't until 3am the next morning, so we could enjoy a proper lie-in for the first time in days. We just walked around the city for the last time, had some lovely food, and of course our holiday wouldn’t be complete without an escape room or two. It was actually one of the most enjoyable ones we've done too!

And that was Jordan! We had a really great time here and I only have positive things to say about the place. It's such a culturally and historically rich part of the world, and one we hadn't seen much of before, but would love to see more of in the future.

For now, our next stop will be Helsinki & St. Petersburg for New Year. In fact, that's where we are right at this moment! I'm currently writing this blog entry on the train and we've just crossed into Russia. It'll probably be a long time before I get around to writing about this one (if ever), so signing off for now. Happy new year!