31 October 2012

The Dead Sea

For our last night in Jordan we decided to splurge and booked a room at the Movenpick Resort & Spa on the Dead Sea. We chose to upgrade a little which got us a charming room in the village (vs the hotel proper), free wifi, and, best of all, free spa access.

We stayed in the Nebo building

Stairs. Sigh
 Honestly I was too busy with the spa, which was awesome, the pools, and the beach to bother taking too many pictures of the hotel and grounds. You can check out the hotel website if you really care. All I can say, is that I hope the next family member of mine who decides on a destination wedding is a little more creative than the three people who got married at the exact same Mexican resort and chooses a place like this instead!

Hotel Spa

The spa was really fantastic. It even included one pool filled with Dead Sea water. Kind of an intro to floating!

One of the 5 or 6 pools

Unfortunately the day and a half we had here were both very hazy. The weather was plenty warm but there wasn't much of any sun. That did not stop us from enjoying the beach though!

Movenpick beach

Which thanks again to the drop in tourism was nice and empty so we had our pick of lounge chairs. It was kind of like Mexico during swine flu.

I was bummed to not have remembered to buy a waterproof case for my smaller camera because once you got in the water you could see that the rocks along the shoreline were deeply crusted in salt. It almost looked like there was a layer of snow and ice on them!

I was the only one on the beach in tie dye!

We made our way down the beach to the water which was really easier said than done. There's a ramp thing to help you get in the water or, you can do what we did, and pick your way veerrry carefully through the rocks. The sand doesn't go all the way to the water line and the rocks that are there are both very slippery and sharp.

Getting the full mud experience!

But once you successfully navigated the sharp rocks it was totally worth it to mud up!  We wouldn't have noticed the mud urn had some other tourists not pointed it out to us. The mud is really more clay than mud-which makes sense because clay is good for your skin whereas I can't imagine mud would have enough minerals in it to really do anything for you.

You're only supposed to stay in the water 20 minutes max each dip so we went in a couple times. Sarah's very informative guide book suggested not shaving several days before in case you nick yourself-because the water was stingy enough even without any cuts! And before I left a friend of mine told me to make sure and not get any in my mouth. Which is about as helpful as telling someone not to look down. Of course I got water in my mouth. Not deliberately, the mud on my face was really starting to sting and while trying to get it off I ended up with water in my mouth. It was totally nasty. Happily there's a life guard on the water and one of his duties is to hang on to fresh water to help people wash off their faces/mouths when this happens.

To top off the Dead Sea experience, Sarah grabbed a newspaper at breakfast. Why, you might ask, did we need a newspaper? To do this of course!

Yes, I have this picture

I really enjoyed the floating. After a while it seems so natural that you wonder if the water, which actually looks greasy because of all the salt, is actually doing anything special. Then you try this newspaper thing in a regular pool and utterly fail. Yes, the water really does make you float that much.

Would I go back to Jordan? Totally. Would I climb up to the monastery at Petra again? Absolutely not. Would I pay scandalous amounts of money to float in the Dead Sea some...you betcha!

26 October 2012

The Road to the Dead Sea

After two rather exhausting days in Petra we were ready for a good float in the Dead Sea. However rather than going straight there we decided to take a longer route and enjoy some of Jordan's other historical points. First stop; Al-Karak.

Upper bailey

Lower bailey reconstructed
I was pretty excited to visit Al Karak (or Kerak). For one thing, it was another castle for Sarah to tick off her 12 in 2012 list. For me, I've always been interested in the Crusades although from an admittedly more romantic Robin Hood, Orlando Bloom movie aspect.

Somewhat more acceptable stairs

The church. It's about as big as it looks.

While it was a functioning castle, Kerak saw many masters and many times with the city to which it belongs having been inhabited since the Iron Age. While only in Crusader hands for 46 years during the twelfth century, its role as one of the largest Crusader strong holds in the Levant is still very significant because of its control over the caravan route between Damascus and Egypt and the pilgrimage route between Damascus and Mecca.

Fossils embedded in the castle walls
Also not nearly as fun as a Harry Potter castle, it was nonetheless pretty interesting. An unofficial tour guide attached himself to us and after initial hesitation, we decided just to go with it. It ended being a good choice. He spoke pretty decent English and lead us around the grounds and through the tunnels and chambers of the castle, explaining what the various rooms were. He also assured us that the castle's former residents were not midgets; we (even Sarah) just had to duck under doorways because excavation didn't go all they down to the original floor level :)

Centuries old kitchen
My only argument with our guide was that he did give us the power tour; so I did not have enough time to readjust my camera settings every time we went in and out. Although in the end I suppose it wasn't that big of a deal since, aside from the kitchen shot above, most of the chambers were empty and uninteresting to just look at.

A horse would never have fit under that opening
Walking through this particular castle did kind of crush my romantic dreams of living in one though; at least one of this medieval design. Obviously since it was a strong hold, windows that were more than mere arrow slits were few and far in between. Aside from that though; chambers were small, corridors and stairways narrow, and the rooms an unending maze I cannot imagine being able to find my way through. Maybe I just needed to not be a servant and assume that those of high birth would have airy chambers.

Because obviously I wouldn't be a servant.


Our next stop was to the city of Madaba; one of the few in Jordan with a large Christian population. Madaba's main industry is tile and mosaic making and it's biggest draw is the sixth century mosaic map showing Jerusalem as the center of the world. Unearthed 1864, during, one assumes, the construction for the 19th century Saint George Greek Orthodox church in which it resides, the mosaic was once a clear map with 157 captions (in Greek) of all major biblical sites from Lebanon to Egypt. The mosaic once contained more than 2 million pieces, only 1/3 of the whole now survives.

6th cent mosaic map
And while the map was pretty cool I'm afraid that I didn't much bother with a lot of pictures of it, preferring to photograph the church itself.

I love Orthodox churches. They're so very colorful and I was happy to get the opportunity to snap a few pictures. My experience with Eastern European Orthodox churches is that they are usually no photography zones.

Also I think it's interesting that despite the schism that split the Catholics and the Orthodox, one of the things that remains similar is art. While European Christian art tends toward a more Renaissance style; the Byzantine style used in much of Orthodox iconography is still very common in Catholic iconography as well.

Our third and final stop on the way to relaxation was at Mount Nebo; the final resting place of Moses. Having missed the Tomb of Aaron at Petra and sitting through the interminable 10 Commandments probably as many times as I am years old...I was really intrigued to see where Charlton Heston, er, Moses, ended his journey when God forbade his entrance to the Promised Land.

More mosaics
The cathedral at the top of the mount is still under construction. As such the mosaic floors that have been uncovered are being held in tents until such time as the cathedral is completed and they can be moved into it.

Rolling stone used as a door

Despite the temptation it offered, I did not try to see if I could move the rolling stone to test the viability of whether or not any of Jesus' followers could in fact have got Him out of His tomb.

Aaron's snake wrapped staff used to cure people of snake bite

Soon to be cathedral on Mount Nebu
While a representative sculpture of Aaron's staff (because no that's not the real one above) stands close to the church, I was told that that the actual staff was planted down there by that tree so that all may gaze upon it an be cured.

View from the mount
RANDOM GUY: Have you seen Aaron's staff and the place he planted it?

ME: Well I saw the staff thingy...

RANDOM GUY: He planted it right down there by that tree (pointing down the slope).

ME: Ahh, which tree?

RANDOM GUY: That one right there (ubiquitously jabbing his finger).

ME: Oh, oh yeah of course; that tree. Thank you.

Your guess as to which tree is 'that tree' is as good as mine.
Marker commemorating a visit by JP II in 2000
His Holiness John Paul II visited Mount Nebo in 2000 and this monument was put in place to commemorate his visit. I love JP II, I really do...but this thing is just further proof that I neither 'get' nor really have any use for modern 'art'.

Up next...do witches really float; or the Dead Sea!!!

25 October 2012


Ah Petra...I think if people know anything about Jordan they know about Petra. Or at least they've seen whichever Indiana Jones movie was shot here. Personally of all the ancient cities I have privileged to visit-this has been my favorite. The buildings were carved right into the mountains for Pete's sake. I just don't think you can beat that.

The way to Petra
If you're going to Petra the first thing you need to know is that holy cow the entrance fee is high. Like, dude. It's 50JD (roughly $75). However what is nice is that you can purchase multi-day tickets for what turns out to be a steep discount. A two-day ticket is only 55 JD and three-day is 60 (or 65?) JD. The next couple things you need are lots and lots of sunscreen and water. After you pass through the entrance gate there's still a kilometer to walk before reaching the Siq.

Genie rocks
You won't be bored though because there are some things to see along the way. Like the Obelisk Tomb and genie rocks.

Obelisk tomb

You may also hire a cart or take a horse (horse included in the cost of your ticket) to the Siq. However after looking at the state of the poor creatures, Sarah and I decided to walk. The horses are very sad.

It is a burning burning hot sun though, even in October, so sunscreen, water, and even a hat are highly recommended.

Entrance to the Siq
Once you get to the Siq, a narrow gorge which is the eastern entrance to Petra, you finally find shade. I was very happy with how much shade there was throughout the entire site. I enjoyed walking through the Siq almost as much as anything too. The gorge was really interesting and I enjoyed the sharply rising, twisty-turny cliffs.

Niche (probably for light?) at the Siq entrance

Inside the Siq

Enjoyment aside though, the walk through the Siq is also quite long. However just when you think you can't take it anymore...


View of the Treasury at the end of Siq

The Siq opens up right onto the Treasury, arguably Petra's most famous and most photographed feature.

That's Sarah-she's very tiny

In close in shots of the Treasury I don't think you can really appreciate its immensity. Having tiny Sarah in the above picture helps...but I also think pulling the frame back a little provides an equally good idea of just how freaking huge the structure is.

Again-BAM! It's really big

Detailing on the top of the Treasury

The area in front of the Treasury is a large gathering place with a vastly overpriced cafe, gift shop, hawkers, tour group assembly points, people trying to get you to buy a donkey ride through the site, and camels. I *heart* camels!!


I liked the white one best

Once you're done oohing and ahhing over the Treasury, you head off to the right (because to the left is a dead end) to greater Petra. We were pleasantly surprised that it wasn't overrun by people; in fact it was pretty empty. The conclusion locals seemed to have reached, which we learned from shopkeepers, was that the tourists who used to number 10,000+ daily were staying away both because of the general global economic downturn, and because of Syria.

One pointed out, which I thought was interesting, that foreigners seem to think of the Middle East as a unit and if there's trouble in one country, then obviously the entire region is a roiling mass of violence. However, if there's trouble in Europe (like the riots in Greece and Spain) it doesn't stop anyone from going to say France or Italy. And in fact, both Sarah's and my mom were concerned about whether it was safe to go to Jordan. Sarah assured her mom that I was going first and would make sure it was safe for her. My assurance was less than assuring as I told my mom it didn't matter if people wanted to burn down the US Embassy-I wasn't going to Jordan to take pictures of that.

Don't know what this is-random building #1

I decided to confer with Wikipedia to see if I could match up some of my pictures with its map of Petra. Not only can't I, but wow we missed a lot! You really could use all three days if you wanted to see everything. There are a lot, a lot a lot, of different trails you can take to see tombs and temples and such that are scattered about on top of the mountains. We knew we were ignoring some of them, but I didn't realize how many.

Houses maybe? Shops?

If you do decide to go for all of them; I suggest either a rigorous pre-trip training regime that combines regular cardio with stair climbing. For at least 12 hours a week for two months. There's a lot of climbing and a lot of stairs. And we know how much I love stairs.

Urn Tomb
We started late on day one and since you have to be out before dark it was just a short visit. Our last stop was the Urn Tomb. Frankly I wasn't even sure I was going to make it up there. I have no idea who or what Urn was-my thoughts were more on survival than Sarah's excellent impression of a tour guide (she even makes grand gestures while reading from her book or signs).

Top of the Urn Tomb
But eventually make it I did! Little did I know that this would be the easiest climb. So temporarily safe in my ignorance I savored the view from the top and enjoyed exploring its chambers. Although explore might be a little too grand a word. I was more like, walk inside and look around because they're empty. And dark.

Inside the Urn Tomb

They were interesting though if for no other reason than they demonstrated the multi-coloredness of the rock. One of Petra's nicknames is the Rose-Red City which I think is more obvious when you see the inside of the buildings.

Obviously I should have paid more attention to Sarah's guidebook and all the various signs because now I don't really know what any of these are are.

More camels!

On day two we moved pretty swiftly through the first part of Petra as we'd devoted a couple hours to it the day before. Walking past the trail up to the Urn Temple we noticed a turn off we could have taken while we were up there. Finding another way up We poked around this (below) tomb and then followed an arrow sign that was supposed to lead us to a church I think, but we stopped looking for it when the path ended at the edge of a cliff. Out of view of the picture to left was yet another staircase cut into the rock which apparently lead to yet more tombs. Sarah took pity on me and we did not go up the staircase. I mean stairs are bad enough on their own, but when they're cut into the face of a mountain and don't include handrails?! That just spells disaster.

Corinthian tomb (l) and Silk Tomb (r-out of pic)
After going back down the trail to reach the main Petra thorough fare, we came across a lovely cafe/gifts shop. There are many cafes and gift shops actually that line the main pathways of Petra. This one was a very welcome site as the sun was quite hot over head and we (i.e. I) were pretty tired from clambering around mountain top tombs and almost walking off cliffs because a sign told us to. In any case, if you're ever in Petra I highly recommend this particular cafe. It had ceiling fans which kept it nice cool and the prices weren't highway robbery. I had a mint lemonade-something I discovered while in Lebanon and now would happily drink every single day if I could. I probably spent more money on mint lemonade than on anything else during this trip!

What I call the 'half-way cafe'

Once we were sufficiently refreshed we pushed onwards towards what I will forebodingly (which is a word and is spelled correctly even though Firefox thinks different) refer to as - the trail to the monastery. It doesn't really sound all that foreboding does it? And I know Sarah's probably rolling her eyes. But darn it all, 800 or more steps! 800!!

Hadrian's gate in the background there

The colonnaded street above leading to Hadrian's Gate (dude seriously got around!) was likely lined with shops and such. How I wish they were still there as window shopping would have been a great excuse to delay taking the trail to the monastery.

Only free standing structure in Petra

Here also were gathered many donkey and camel drivers trying to entice people into renting a ride (on the donkeys) up the mountain to the monastery. I was torn about the donkey really. While I had no desire to make the journey on my own feet and a friend recommended I take the donkey-someone else told me that the donkey ride was 'both thrilling and terrifying'. Not really a great recommendation that. And while I'm sure the donkeys are far more sure footed than am I (what isn't really?), perching precariously on an underfed donkey while it trudged up the mountain for its upteenth trip pf the day...eh.

There were many tombs and interesting rock formations on the way up to the monastery. However I didn't take all that many pictures because I knew from my experience on the Great Wall that I was going to want my hands free and not worry about falling and breaking my camera. My Nikon 200 went back into the camera bag and I stuck a small Coolpix in my pocket for some quick shots along the way.

Of course I also used every excuse I could think of to stop for a break along the way up. Oh look, a tomb! Oh look, goats! Oh look...an interesting cloud! Sarah, who may have reached sainthood by the time we got to the top, stayed with me for the entire climb, bought most for my excuses to stop, and helped make up excuses for my utter lack of in shapeness. I was pretty frustrated that I was so out of breath considering I go to the gym for dance classes and other cardio 5-6 times a week.

We stopped briefly for a breather at a cafe and discovered that we didn't have far to go after that at all. Everyone we passed from that point promised that we were almost there. And we were, around a corner, up a few more stairs, then down a few more. The problem was, even though I was literally steps from the end, I almost didn't make it and was convinced the end (my own, not the path's) was at hand. Sarah's long suffering silence prompted me on though and I gathered what little oxygen was left to trudge on.

The Monastery Al Dier
The monastery is even larger than the treasury and if you compare the picture further up of Sarah by the Treasury compared to the itty bitty speck that is Sarah in this picture-you have some idea. It was pretty vast. I could barely see into it's depths and I had to stand on tip toe to peek over the wall below the opening.

Everyone says that, whether you climb under your own power or take the donkey, it's worth the trip once you get up there. Eh. There's also a cafe at the top that's only mildly over priced but I bought a well deserved coke anyway. We stayed up there for a while, mostly I suspect, so I could gather myself for the trek down. Going down stairs is physically easier but far more disturbing to my mental faculties.

My brother-in-law said that we absolutely should not miss the High Place of Sacrifice-which is apparently located roughly above and to the left of the Treasury (so above that dead end) and reached by a trail. We did not go there. And if I ever go back to Petra I highly doubt that I'll go then-unless jet packs for personal use have been invented by then.