A Travellerspoint blog

Syria - Damascus

Enchanting sights and smells in the world's oldest city

sunny 20 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

We were a little worried about our trip to Syria. We had heard and read lots about Syrian Immigration - long waits and even longer delays (we'd actually been told to avoid any line that had an American, as Immigration loves to make them wait) and hawk-eyed border guards who would scrutinise your passport for any evidence of Israeli stamps and are even suspicious of travellers having two passports for that reason. So it was with some trepidation that we journeyed onto Damsascus.

We shared a taxi with two other Syrians, and shared sweets and breakfast pita bread with them on the way. One was a young boy called Omar, who made us feel terribly old when he proudly showed us his passport which listed his year of birth as 1993. Hmmmm, who can remember that year like it was just yesterday? Omar spoke very little English and took quite a shining to Chalky, even though it was Jac who conversed with him in pidgin Arabic. Who could blame him," Chalky later said, "it was probably like travelling with Buck Shelford for him". Omar grinned and happily pointed out olive groves, fields of tomato plants and nuclear power plants along the way

The Jordanian border was an easy experience, we got stamped through quickly in the large, metal shed-like office, and the machine gun-toting Customs officer gave our packs a casual search. We then drove onto the Syrian border, firstly driving through a small, open-air carwash-esque contraption, being sprayed with goodness-knows-what liquid, as if the only half-functioning nozzles would kill what the air wouldn’t carry across anyway. We then sat in the car for a while, as the driver, Omar and the other passengers went into a big white Hotel near the Immigration Office (we guess for those who like to sleep on their decision to cross the border first). After waiting and waiting, finally the driver joined us with bags of what looked like Duty Free shopping. We tried to ask him if it was best that we get started on what would be a long Syrian visa process, but he waved it away and instead wanted us to enter the hotel with him. It turned out that he wanted to use us for our maximum Duty Free cigarette allowance, and loaded us up with two cartons each and led us around the shop, pointing at us to the cashiers, as if that would allow us to skip the long lines of men waiting. It worked though and it turned out he even got 16-year old Omar to buy his share too. Later we wondered how many times our driver scored cheap cigarettes per week.

Despite our fears and expectations, the Syrian visa experience was a cinch! All we did was fill out an immigration card, and unlike our guide book detailed, there was no ominous “Have you visited any Palestinian Territories?” question (they really do hate the ‘I’ word). We did however, have to pay a whopping US$184 for our tourist visas. Jac gamely (or dangerously, depending on the outcome) enquired as to why the visa wasn’t free because isn’t the Syrian Government trying to encourage tourism? “Before” was the reply we simply received as the border guard gave our passports a brief flick-through for The Stamp. So after only 10 minutes and hardly any pain (except a financial one) we breezed through with ease. (It was later, when we were planning to travel to Beirut that Jac realised it was the Lebanese Government that offers free visas to build tourist numbers. The hazards of having a two-country Lonely Planet!)

Once arrived in Damascus, our Syrian friends flagged a meter taxi for us. We headed to Al Merjeh (Martyrs Square), dumped our packs in our windowless, teeny-tiny hotel room and set straight out for Souq al-Hamidiyya,

And what an experience it was! To paraphrase Lonely Planet, the Souq was a cross between a Parisian passage and a Middle Eastern bazaar. A vault of corrugated iron roofing blocked all sunlight except a few torch-beam shafts of light, thanks to French aerial machine gun fire in 1925. The main thoroughfare was lined with mainly clothes emporiums and handicraft shops, and crowded with women wearing hajib (headscarfs), shopping in groups, boys selling lit-up spinning toys and bubbleguns, and groups of men huddled around vendors squatting on the ground, demonstrating vegetable-decoration cutters and plastic geometric pattern makers. Old men wheeled their trolleys through the throng, shouting out the buns and pastries they had for sale.

We wandered into the handicraft stores, selling olive and orange wood backgammon sets, richly decorated furniture intricately set with mother of pearl mosaics, gilded jewellery boxes and lavish Oriental carpets. One shop we visited was called “Tony Stephens” and inside was the elderly owner himself, along with his two middle-aged sons. His walls were pinned with photos of Tony and various dignitaries and celebrities like Jimmy Carter and Nicole Kidman, as well as wives of various ambassadors. We browsed the wares on offer - copper pots, tiffin boxes, silks and even antique riding spurs. One of Tony’s sons showed us an array of backgammon sets (‘serious’ boards were extremely heavy and not decorated at all) and also showed us how wooden mosaics are made - skinny, angular slivers of wood are delicately glued together to form the desired pattern, then 150 to 200 pieces are finely cut from a 30cm-long piece. We chose a cedar, walnut and rosewood backgammon set, and Tony’s son gave us some black and white counters, warning us against vendors offering us camel bone counters as there are no such thing.

That night we visited “Al Arabi” for dinner. As our guidebook promised, the menu was offal-heavy, with “cheep tasticles” (mutton or just really good value?) and “sheep brains fried with two eggs”. Were we game enough to try these specialities? What do you think?!

Our time in Damascus was spent walking through the city, gazing at the differing architectures of the Damascene palaces, houses and madrassas (schools). We also explored the different areas of each souq - leather quarter, the stationery quarter, haberdashery quarter and metal work quarters, and watching the locals go about their daily shopping, buying spices, herbs, rice and medicinal goods. We stopped to do the same - good-naturedly haggle over half a kilo of mishmish (dried apricots) or sample some freshly roasted cashew nuts, offered from a smiling vendors outstretched hand.
It was fascinating wandering the narrow, medieval alleys of the world’s oldest continually-inhabited city, and walking past the tiny street-side shops, poorly lit but with an air of industriousness, their owners all hammering and toiling away, or warmly greeting passing friends, and content in their little enterprises.

What was warming were all the men of all ages who we passed and called out to us, “Hello, welcome to Syria!”, whether it be a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of socks and tissue boxes for sale, a young teenager leaning in a shop door or an old man sitting and smoking on the street. All they wanted was to happily greet us and elicit a smile and a “Shukran!” (thank you!) in return from us.

Also charming were the taxi drivers, who upon hearing Jac’s attempts at asking for a ride in Arabic, would then spend the whole journey rattling to us in Arabic, their sentences peppered with the ubiquitous “aywah” (yeah, eh, innit ), despite us protesting that we only spoke “Arabi schway” (i.e. very tiny amounts of the language). We soon learnt that a lot of nodding and repeating of the last word of their sentences made us great conversationalists.

We also paid a visit to Umayyad Mosque, which is Syria’s most significant religious structure and in sanctity is only second to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Firstly to enter, Jac had to be covered in a beige cloak, which she put on in the “Putting On Special Clothes Room”. Once inside, it was a splendid sight. The walls near the entrance and above the Prayer Hall were decorated in gold and green mosaics, which was meant to depict the Barada Valley and the paradise that the prophet Mohammed saw in Damascus. We looked around the huge, shined courtyard and noted all the fixtures: the square ablutions fountain, the gold-topped columns flanking it, the octagonal-shaped Dome of the Treasury where the riches of the mosque were once kept, then we sat on the steps of the Prayer Hall to take in the scene before us. There appeared to be many Muslims in tour groups of about a dozen, with their leader waving placards of flags. We originally thought there was some sort of demonstration gathering, but the swarm of people seemed to just be flocking to the eastern wall, which housed the Shrine of Hussein. Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet, who was killed in Iraq (in perhaps similar fashion to his contemporary namesake). Many of the visitors were women clad in black cloaks and burkas, Shiite Muslims visiting from Iran.

We decided to poke our heads into the eastern wing The interior was painted turquoise, with ornate mosaics and patterns on the ceilings. We stood back and watched the pilgrims all clamour and crowd around three separate parts: one a small glass and wooden room, which contained a red prayer mat; another a rounded silver alcove, that was the most crowded with visitors all pushing to get in front of it; and the third a small silver tomb or some sort with gold Arabic inscriptions and three arches on one side. All three shrines had men and women praying nearby, pressing themselves against them and touching the shrines and then their foreheads as if to be blessed. It was close to one of the five prayer times of the day, so we left the mosque. We could hear the singing call to prayer of the muezzin as we left, his voice echoing throughout the city from loudspeakers atop the minarets.

As a result of spending some ten days in Damascus (we also returned before we left Syria for Lebanon), we accumulated quite a few souvenirs, such as ceramics, copper lamps, antique silverware and backgammon boards. We learnt pretty quickly that parcels cost pretty much equal to send as it did to buy them. We frequented the Parcel Office often, and each time were helped by a Don-Johnson-look-alike-minus-the-80s-suit, who we weren’t sure whether he was working for the Office, or just free-lanced for the commission he earned from helping customers wade through paperwork send parcels. However he did run around each time for us, explaining for us at the various desks we flashed our passport to, and expertly boxed and fastidiously masking taped our packages for us. What we did have to sort for ourselves however, were our own packaging and boxes.

This is where we felt the genuine hospitality of Syria, and indeed the whole Middle East. We had to scour the souqs ourselves, and Jac would often stop to ask for directions or simply where we could find things. The friendly locals fell over themselves to help us, often gathering in number as they talked and argued amongst themselves as to the best place to find what we were looking for. Most Westerner strangers would shrug and say a polite sorry if they didn’t know, but the Syrians very helpfully wrote the Arabic words for Warat bubble (bubble wrap) and filene carton (polystyrene box), and even led us to areas they thought might have them. You think you could never find those items at the best of times, but with their help, lots of sign language, and new Arabic vocabulary learnt, we finally found them. And what a sense of triumph and achievement it was when we discovered the shop that had been scrawled down for us, that had a foot-tall gigantic roll of bubble wrap or the small warehouse that had sold huge 1.5mx2.5m sheets of polystyrene! That and some big plastic boxes we bought did the trick. However it was truly hilarious, the very next day after the drawn-out polystyrene search, as we went sightseeing we saw several, no dozens of sturdy, pristine polystyrene boxes lying around the streets, stacked tauntingly beside rubbish skips and beside fruit juice stalls. We couldn’t do anything but laugh, and cringe at the huge mess we’d made at the Parcel Office, snapping our huge sheet up into little bits.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Damascus, with its old-world feel and ancient culture. Next stop was Aleppo, in Northern Syria.

Around the Souqs and streets of Damascus

Souq al-Hamidyya - the bullet-holes care of the French
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Inside Tony Stephen's
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Umayyad Mosque
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Bab al-Nafura
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Stationery lane - even Valentine's day hits the Middle East
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Salah ad-Din (Saladin, the Crusader's mortal enemy)
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Traditional-dress shop
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Where you pick up your hijab
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Souq al-Bzouriyya
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When you need the direction of Mecca in a hurry
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Filming in the souq
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Souq Saroujah
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Straight Street
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Bar Saloon: Shall I learn Arabic fast?
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Trying Syrian Arak
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Umayyad Mosque

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Jac cloaked being both a woman and an Jedi
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Visitors to a shrine and tomb
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The richly gilded mosaics
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Damascene and Mamluk architecture

Madrassa az-Zahariyya
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Azem Palace
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Beit as-Sibai
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Dahdah Palace
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Some of the Middle Eastern food we ate

Damascene subway
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Tasty felafel wrap
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Candied apricot and marzipan in Souq al-Bzouriyya
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Pistachio ice cream and ‘mahalabiyye’
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Freshly-squeezed Pomegranite juice
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Pyramids of Syrian sweets for sale
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Some of the sticky treats we sampled
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Posted by JacChalky 12:33 Archived in Syria Tagged round_the_world Comments (3)

Jerash, Umm Qais and Ajloun Castle

Epic Roman ruins, another view of the Promised Land, and barely making a Castle visit...

sunny 20 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

Our final day trip out of Amman was out to see the Roman ruins of Jerash and Umm Qais, and the Islamic Castle Ajloun. This time Hani took us with a chatty teacher from Brisbane and a French professor from Montpelier. We were originally headed first for Umm Qais and then Ajloun, but Hani diverted off course to take us to Jerash because the Hippodrome show (where else can you see real live chariot racing?) was only once a day, at 11am in winter. The trip was only an hour out of Amman, however we got to know Jenny and Emanuel well (especially Jenny!) by the time we arrived at the sprawling Roman ruins.

And what ruins they were! The site had been inhabited as early as the Bronze Age (some 3,000 years BC) but annexed by the Romans in 63BC and built into the huge city it is now. We were pleased to discover we were practically the only visitors to the site (in fact, that continued throughout our travels - off-season travel may be cold, but there's no fighting the crowds for photos!) We wandered through the ruins, marvelling at the huge columns, temples and artifacts - there were even chariot ruts remaining in the original Roman road.

The site was incredibly well preserved. Littering the path were huge, intricately-carved boulders that looked like they were just done yesterday (and would make a great garden table or piece, we secretly thought). It truly felt like the Romans, just like the Egyptians were merely a cleverly-executed hoax, as all their ruins and artifacts were just too good to be true... We spent a good couple of hours climbing stairs to temples, hopping on column capitals for the odd sneaky shot, and pretending we were great orators in the amphitheatre. Surprisingly, brightly-coloured yellow spring flowers were everywhere which added colour to the grey, stony sights.

We decided to have an early lunch in the ruins of the Hippodrome, in anticipation for the show. We had a soundtrack to our snack - the huge speakers in the stadium blared out the score to Gladiator (does Hollywood know this?) as we munched coriander and banana pita breads (not together, that is). The small crowd gathered as the show time neared, and then... trumpets started and a voice, an odd British/Dutch/American(?) hybrid introduced the Roman Army. We were talked through the ins and outs of Roman military strategy, while the dressed up Roman Arabs demonstrated formations and fighting techniques to Latin commands from the General. We had half expected it to be a budget, tacky affair, but it was a great show, if only reminding us a little of the Roman army in Asterix and Obelix. After the army of Caesar (the Caesarians?) showed us their might and strategy, out came some gladiators. More resembling barbarians than Russell Crowe (well, he was a Roman General), they fought it out for us and we got to choose whether the loser lived or died - thumbs up or thumbs horizontal. The last spectacle was a galloping chariot race to the blasting movie soundtrack. After the show we got to take photos with the Romans, and Jac even had a short go on the chariot.

After Jerash we headed to more Roman ruins, this time Umm Qais. Being a little ruined-out, we headed straight for the look-out, which gave us a view of the controversial Golan Heights, one of the sources of the Syrian/Israel conflict, the Sea of Galilee and Israel, Syria and Lebanon. We were a little overschedule, so it was back to the car and try make it in time to Ajloun Castle!

Ajloun Castle was a Islamic army stronghold, sitting on Jebel Auf (Mount Auf). The large fortress was built by a commander and nephew of Salah ad-Din (Saladin) in the late 12th centure and was one of the very few built to protect against Crusader attacks. Unfortunately by time we arrived the ticket office was closed, despite many a En sha' Allah along the way (but we still had five minutes to go!) but a loitering coach driver suggested we just drive up to the castle and see if we could still be let in. We raced up to the top and luckily Jenny and Emanuel sweet-talked the caretaker into letting us in. We raced around the castle, unfortunately not exploring very far and snapped like crazy until it was time to leave and the gate was locked behind us.

The drive back to Downtown Amman was about two hours, during which we chatted about ourselves, and by the end of the trip we'd exchanged emails and Chalky and I had received an offer from Emanuel to house sit his apartment in Montpelier, as he spends six months of the year in Thailand. We said goodbye to our trip companions then had one last errand to do, being our last day in Jordan. A few days ago we'd bought some magazines from Bustami bookstore and were short some small change which the shop worker waved away, but we insisted we'd bring back. We stopped at a local sweet store and bought some sticky Arab sweets to take with us, to apologise for being 3 days late in repaying him (one of the days was Friday, when everything is closed). We ended up spending three times the amount on the thank-you cakes - presented to us by the sweet shop simply on a plate with a fork - and headed to the bookshop, much to the worker's amusement and his elderly superior's confusion. We probably landed the worker in trouble for loaning out change, but at least they had a treat for the evening! We paid one last visit to our smoky 'Eco-tourism' café to say goodbye to Jordan.

Jerash Roman ruins
The Arch of Hadrian
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Oval Piazza
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The column making Chalky look small... or Chalky making the column look big...
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Chariot ruts in the Roman road
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The nymphaneum
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As if it were carved yesterday...
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Temple of Artemis
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The old and the new
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Jac showing off her non-existent ballet skills
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Chalky and the bright 'spring' flowers
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A big-arsed lizard
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The Theatre
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Jac giving her best recital of The Iliad
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Chalky was going to do a one-man Manpower show but...
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Hmmm that would look great in the back yard
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The Hippodrome show!
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The head chook
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Shall he live or die?
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Chariot races
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Geddy up!
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Faster, faster, yeehaa
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Umm Qais
The view of Golan Heights (Israel/Palestine) and Sea of Galilee from Um Qais
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Local transport
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Ajloun Castle
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Chalky tries one on for size
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Us and the view
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Posted by JacChalky 07:52 Archived in Jordan Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

The Desert Castles

Sandy havens...

sunny 10 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

Another day trip we took was out to the east, to see the basalt and limestone Arabic Desert Castles. This time our companions were an Australian woman, whose husband was working in Amman, and an Estonian tour guide, who was researching for her next tour and very unhappy that she was turned away at the Syrian border for merely having caught a connecting flight through Jerusalem, and therefore unable to research the country.

On the way to the castles we drove through the wadi (desert), however it was not as desolate as others we'd seen, and even had tufts of green here and there. En route we saw signs pointing the way to Saudi and Iraq borders - a stark reminder of exactly where we were again.

The first castle we visited was Qasr Kharana, about an hour outside Amman. It was a lone, sandy-coloured squarish structure, which had interesting arches and windows around a central courtyard. There were army officers patroling the interior, carrying bulky guns, some content to lazily greet us, others sternly warning you against entering dangerous parts (which looked pretty safe, maybe it's militant health and safety?).

Built before the 8th century, Qasr Kharana is one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture. Far from being an actual castle though, it is unclear as to what this Qasr was used for, as it wasn't for military purposes - the castle has wall slits but they are the wrong height and shape for archers. Also it curiously lacked a water source such buildings usually had close by. Our guide book suggested it was a hunting lodge and trade caravan stop. We spent just under an hour climbing stairs and wandering the chilly rooms, imagining hunters and caravan tradespeople smoking and playing early backgammon. After visiting, we joined the locals for sweet tea by the fire.

The next castle was Qasr Amra, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its highly-decorated frescos. Also built in early 8th century, the castle was quite small, being only small part (the baths) of the original castle that existed. The frescos were very well preserved, and enigmatically at odds with the Islamic religion, as they depicted naked women, wine drinking, and even a bear playing a banjo and a dancing monkey (we think some herbs may have been imbibed during creation).

What was unique was the dome above the caldarium or hot bath, which apparently had the zodiac on the ceiling, as well as constellations. Wikipedia later told us that it is apparently the earliest painting of the night sky painted on anything other than a flat surface, and is very accurate, even showing the north pole correctly.

An old Bedouin man pointed out the interesting parts to us in a school-teachery manner (such as chiding Jac when she asked to be shown a particular scene he had not yet reached) and then settled into playing a rababah for us and we were left to admire the frescos listening to his music.

Third on our itinerary was Qasr al-Azraq, a younger 13th century castle which was built by Romans and utilised by the Ottoman Turks (and even T.E. Lawrence during the Arab revolt). Built of black stone (the main door is 3-tons of the stuff!) and also extensively restored, the castle was a sprawling, open square stone fort. Inside we explored what was left of rooms and stories, however there wasn't a lot to see, except for some stone tablets which were found in the nearby oasis, which were carved with decoration and animals.

Fourth and last of the desert castles was Qasr al-Hallabat, which was also originally a Roman stronghold but converted into another hunting lodge by the Arabs. It had been heavily, but unfortunately shabbily restored - we spied blocks of stone with Roman writing that appeared to have been re-laid sideways! There was a guard eying us up as we explored the castle, however he later showed us a hidden part that was still being restored and housed an exposed mosaic floor.

Our final stop was to the nearby Hamman al-Sarah, which was an ancient bathouse, but was in the middle of some heavy reconstruction and there wasn't much to see. Back to Amman and a big thank you to Hani, our patient driver!

Qasr Kharana
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Qasr Amra

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Bathing scene
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The bear playing the banjo to a dancing monkey
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An naked dancing woman
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A local man playing a rababah
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Qasr al-Azraq
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Qasr al-Hallabat
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Greek-inscribed blocks stacked the wrong way
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Mosaic floors
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Posted by JacChalky 06:41 Archived in Jordan Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Mount Nebo, Madaba, The Dead Sea and Karak Castle

Moses, mosaics, marine and moats

sunny 15 °C
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The first of three day trips we took out of Amman was to see north and east of the capital. We were joined by a fellow Palace Hotel guest, Doug, a quiet but affable Canadian guy in his 50s, and set off early with our driver.

About an hour’s drive through countryside took us to our first stop, Mount Nebo. This was where Moses was said to have looked over the Promised Land for his people and but told by God that he would never go there, and it‘s where he later died. The mountain itself is not as rugged and bare as expected, and was more of a big hill, than say Mount Sinai. There were carved stone rocks with Latin, English and Arabic which were both memorials to Moses and a declaration that this was a Christian holy place, and a huge, rolling stone that was once a fortified door of a Byzantine Monastery. The main sight was a huge, partially-restored 500-year old mosaic floor that was unearthed in a nearby church and housed on the mountain in a big outdoor tent. The mosaic depicted hunting scenes, with gazelles and peacocks among the many animals. Beautifully well-preserved Greek columns and mosaics were inside a small museum, as well as a map showing the Christian pilgrimage routes in the Middle East to Mount Nebo. Also on the mountain was a lookout, allowing us to see the valley below, with River Jordan on the right, the Dead Sea on our left and ahead across the valley, Israel with Bethlehem and Jerusalem pointed out on the viewing platform.

Not far from Mount Nebo was the mosaic town of Madaba, which had several small ruins, which had mosaic floors being dug out. At one sight, the Burnt Church, one of the workers took us to a muddy patch, bent down and started scooping off the dirt with his hands, and slowly uncovered part a mosaic floor. It is very rare these days to see something ancient being unearthed right in front of you! The main highlight was St George’s Church, where builders found a huge 6th century mosaic map of religious sites in the Middle East, which digging the foundations of the church. It was fascinating seeing parts which were the Nile, Egypt, and also Jericho, Bethlehem and other Christian places. The church itself was also vividly painted and had modern mosaics of biblical scenes adorning the walls.

On the way to Karak Castle, we descended down to the Dead Sea, which took some time getting to, as it’s 408m below sea level. As our Lonely Planet pointed out, the world’s fish were all swimming above us! Unfortunately it was an icy, windy day and access to the beaches were only via resorts, the cheapest of which charged NZ$30 each so we decided not to experience the floaty saltiness. Besides we also realised… we forgot our togs. We stopped at a lay-by to view the salt crystals on the rocks and also Israel across the water. It was odd however, seeing a body of water that had no bushes or plants growing on its shores, nor birdlife flying over the water.

The last stop was Karak Castle, a Crusader castle that, like many of them, had seen many battles for control by the Christians and Muslims. It was everything out of children’s book - narrow arrow slits for defence, turrets to climb and dark, dripping cavernous rooms in the belly of the castle. The Castle was apparently occupied by a sadistic French Crusader King, who enjoyed torturing the prisoners in the nine spooky rooms off a dark hallway deep within the castle, and also would fling prisoners down the sheer drop over the castle walls - but he would put a wooden box around their heads so they wouldn’t lose consciousness when they hit the ground. Also across the valley you could see a hilly village, which once was purportedly Sodom and Gomorrah.

After a long day seeing these Christian sights, we returned back to Downtown Amman and farewelled Doug, who was headed south to Petra.

Chalky and the Rolling Stone
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The mosaic at Mt Nebo
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Ancient Greek inscription
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"For the salvation and offering of Matrona"
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Ancient Greek inscription
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At the top of Mt Nebo - directions to Bethlehem , Jericho and the Dead Sea
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Around Madaba
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More mosaics among the ruins
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St George's Church - contains the 6th century map of all major biblical sites
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Inside St George's
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A mosaic of a biblical scene
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The mosaic map
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The Red Sea!
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Frothy and salty
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Salt stalactites
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The scenery on the way to Karak
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Karak Castle
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The view over the valley below
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A glimpse of what was supposedly Sodom and Gomorrah
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The wall from where prisoners were flung
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Salah ad-Din
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Posted by JacChalky 05:33 Archived in Jordan Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Amman

Ice, Ice, Baby

sunny 3 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

The journey to Jordan’s capital was by another minibus. First thing in the chilly morning we walked to the station to find one, haggled with a driver to establish prices for the journey, then told him (using small Arabic words and lots of sign language) thanks, but we need to go get our packs. As the buses were fairly frequent, we took our time having breakfast, packing and checking out of our hotel. We turned up at the station some 40 minutes later to find the same minibus waiting, full of locals, engine running, and the driver standing outside, looking for us! Whoops - turns out that sometimes metaphors don’t translate. We hopped red-faced into the bus and smiled apologetically as the passengers squeezed in even further to accommodate our packs.

Five minutes later and we were on the mountains, driving through thick snow and ice! Our driver, unfazed, drove through the white out, despite no visible road ahead and we marvelled at the snowy bushes and hills, trying hard not to think about the bus’s tyre condition. Who would have thought there would be snow in the Middle East! Thankfully once we descended onto the Desert Highway the conditions just turned wet and cold.

About two hours later we arrived in Amman, to a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Jac’s attempts to find out where on the map we were were waved away by the taxi drivers who are eager to take us to Downtown for JD10 (NZ$20). Jac always travels with her Rip-Off Meter on High Alert so got down to some serious negotiations and got the fare down to NZ$8 (however was still probably paying well over the odds). We offered to split the cab ride with a middle-aged English bloke, and emerged that he was far from being the fatherly type, and instead more of the South London Bank Robber type. After exchanging niceties he told us he travelled for 8 months of the year, every year. Amazed, we asked him what he did. He said he lived in Amsterdam and declared he was a ‘good honest criminal’, which was such a relief because we had started to worry he was one of those bad, dishonest ones. He was only in Amman for 12 hours, had been there before and didn’t like the place, and was only going to a hotel to take a shower before he hopped on a plane to India to meet a ‘bird’ from El Salvador. He added that the south of India was not what it used to be - it was one big hedonistic party playground before the authorities tightened up. We ordinarily would have invited him to our hotel to use our bathroom, but we dunno, something made us decide against it…

Our hotel in Downtown, ‘Palace Hotel’, which had a good write up in Lonely Planet, was anything but a palace and a bit of a flea-pit for the relatively astronomical rate of NZ$60 a night. However it was raining and freezing cold, so we decided to go with it for a night and try find somewhere better the next day. That evening we found the strangely-named but women-friendly ‘Eco-tourism Café’, that had nothing eco or tourism about it, but free WiFi, algeela, backgammon boards and hot tea - an appealing combination which saw us return each day after walking the city. It was awfully icy cold and like most of our days in Amman, we wore every layer we brought with us and in the evenings took liberal swigs of Jaegermeister we kept for such emergencies!

Downtown Amman is a sprawling quarter at the bottom of hilly neighbourhoods, with Roman ruins languishing among the hustle and bustle of markets, shops and traffic. The buildings are very clunky, concreted beasts, and although appear better built than say, in Egypt, are the same featureless, bland buildings we’ve seen around North Africa. Less touty than other main cities, you can disappear among the crowds and observe daily life undisturbed.

The Nymphaem and Amphitheatre were a little hard to find, mainly to one of us not knowing left from right when reading the map, and being convinced that the locals were wrong and clearly pointing us in the wrong way. We did get to see a lot of Downtown though, as a consolation. Like most of the towns we’ve visited, the small local shops selling like goods are all clustered together, and we passed kitchen goods street, rotor engine alley and mattress quarter. We found shops selling melamine anything and everything, Saddam Hussein banknotes and even nun-chucks, batons and shotguns! Jac stopped at a small cafe that had several glass bowls of white deserts on offer, as well as pictures of the proprietor in his shop with Jordanian royalty. It turns out the desert was called ashta and was a milk-custard that had fragrant syrup, sultanas and nuts drizzled on top. It was a little muted in taste, but if it’s good enough for royalty… The food in Amman was typically Middle Eastern - rotisserie chicken, khoobz Arabi Arab flatbread, nuts and soft cheese being street food, and in the eateries we tried Bedouin fare like curiously-named ‘Jews Mallow’, a slimy but delicious soupy spinach dish, and moolookhiye, lamb cooked in yoghurt, served on rice and garnished with blanched almond slivers and flatbread.

While in Amman we also walked around the upmarket Abdoun area and its surrounds, and also blissfully enjoyed the odd non-Arabic meal - steak, noodles and Mexican. As soon you climb those hills from Downtown the wealth is immediately evident - Audis, Porches and Mercedes all cruising the streets, fashionable bars, modern shops and European-looking houses. At one restaurant there was a school-aged girl celebrating her birthday with a large table of friends - for the first time we saw girls without the traditional halib headscarf on, mixing with their more conservative friends. As each guest arrived the birthday girl excitedly took them to the window and pointed out - turned out one of the aforementioned luxury cars was her birthday present!

We stayed in Amman for about 8 days, and took day trips out to see the surrounding sights - Mt Nebo, the mosaic town of Madaba, The Dead Sea, Crusader Castles, Jerash Roman ruins, and Arabic Desert Castles. Jac unfortunately succumbed to the freezing cold weather and was bed-ridden for two days. And our Palace Hotel did end up being palatial compared to the other budget-price digs around, and had really good day-tours and had the best soft, fresh flatbread at breakfast we’ve tasted in the Middle East.

Holy moly! The bus to Amman
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A bit of Jaeger for warmth
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Downtown Amman
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King Hussein Mosque
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Where you pick up your keffiyeh
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A cart of fresh dried dates
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Arab spices
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Downtown market - vendors all yelling prices for their fruit and vegetables
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Monster cabbage
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Palestinian herbs?
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ABC Bank - they know their 1-2-3s
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Fancy a Softi Softi or a Rich & Rich?
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Guns don't kill, Ninjas do
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A Bedouin and his sons selling herbs and capsicums
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Boiled goats head is actually a Middle Eastern treat
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Hilly Amman
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Abu Darweesh Mosque
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The Ashta desert shop that has been frequented by Jordanian royalty
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Jac tries the Ashta
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Chalky warming himself with a Waitangi Day algeela
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The 'Ecotourism' cafe we visited daily... nothing terribly Eco or tourism about it!
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Posted by JacChalky 05:32 Archived in Jordan Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Wadi Musa and Petra

Indiana would have been proud...

overcast 15 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

Our trip to Wadi Musa from Aqaba was by local mini-bus, where we were joined for the two-hour ride two American Jewish girls who were weekending from Jerusalem, a Korean guy who’d also arrived from volunteering in Jerusalem (however much to his dismay he was assigned dishes for a month) and a bunch of locals. Jac had managed to haggle our fare down 20% but as locals hopped on the bus en-route, it appeared that us tourists were heavily subsidising the local price. C’est la vie. The way mini-buses work in Jordan is that you can flag one down at any stage along the route and jump on, and the bus was soon packed with men carrying several bags of blankets, sports bags and household items that they squeezed in with them.

Once in Wadi Musa, a dusty, hilly town, we avoided the hotel touts and checked into our pre-booked ‘Hotel Anbat II’, however were redirected to the next door (and much more plush) ‘Anbat III’. The town pretty much exists because of the nearby site of Petra, however being off-season, it felt a little empty. We paid a must-visit to ‘Cave Bar’, which was set in 2,000 year old cave tombs. No where else in the world can you drink beer and Dubonet and smoke algeela in the small alcoves that are as old as JC himself!

2,000 year old Cave Bar
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We walked down to Petra from Wadi Musa (only a 15-minute walk away) and as soon as we reached the site, we saw smooth, yellow rocks and the hills are littered with holes, signifying 1st century AD Nabatean tombs. Our Lonely Planet informed us that Petra was the capital of the Nabatean people, who were Aramaic-speaking Semites. Some look almost Roman with classical-style ‘triclinium’. While we ambled towards the entrance of the imposing ‘Siq’or gorge, Bedouins on beautiful, sleek Arabian horses galloped past us.

Interestingly, at the Siq entrance we happened upon a Bollywood movie in full production - a beautiful Indian girl in bright peach sari did several takes running into the arms of her beau and being dipped for the camera, while Indian pop blared in the background. A couple of crew talked to us - one, a Jordanian, proudly told us he’s been involved in Hollywood movies for 20 years, including Indiana Jones, and gave us his business card. One to send to Peter Jackson, perhaps?

Only superlatives can describe the Siq. Impressive, imposing, majestic, towering, awesome… (an aside - Jac has just asked Chalky for a word. He thinks and goes: “…Big”.) You’ll have to see the photos to get a small glimpse of how terrifically ginormous the Siq is. We walked along the original Roman road through the 2km Siq in pure awe, gazing at the swirled red, pink, brown and yellow hues of the smooth rocks. We also spied the odd tenacious tree, growing stubbornly through the cracks in the rocks. The Nabateans were pretty clever people, as evidenced by several aquaducts cut into the sides. In places the Siq is wide, some 10m across, and open and sunny, in others it is noticeably cold and dark as the rock almost joins above our heads. As we walked we tried to imagine what it must have felt like for the Swiss explorer who discovered Petra after it lay empty for a millenia - he disguised himself as an Arab pilgrim who wanted to sacrifice an animal - and laid eyes on the magnificent Siq for the first time.

After each twist and turn we wondered if were ever about to emerge from the Siq, until the familiar sight of tourists standing and snapping gave the game away. At the end the narrow opening gave us a glimpse of the famous ‘Al Khazneh’, or Treasury, which almost seemed surreal at first, appearing through the darkened crack of Siq almost glowing in sunny contrast. However once we approached the opening, it suddenly loomed in front of us, a spectacular sight. We looked around us for any sign of Indie but sadly all we saw were Japanese and Spanish tourists jostling for camera position.

We spent the whole day walking around Petra, climbing all the way up to the High Place of Sacrifice and passing some poor beleaguered donkeys being struck by their adolescent owners along the way. The High Place was at the top of a flat mountain and bore the remains of the altar as well as platforms and deep baths. It started to get really windy and cold so we didn’t stay at the top for long. On the way down into the valley we stopped to have sweetened tea with a Bedouin woman. We gave her an orange and some cheese pastries, as she didn’t have many provisions with her. She gracefully accepted then, then shared her pastry among the ‘bis bis’ (cats) that kept her company among the ancient tombs. All the way back to the main path the craggy hills were dotted with old tomb sites. Most you could climb into and wander the darkened caverns, some unfortunately, smelled like someone couldn’t hold onto their pants fast enough.

At each of the main tombs the local Bedouin were selling souvenirs and ‘antique’ Roman coins and Nabatean artifacts. One old vendor we passed enthusiastically began talking to us in broken English and showed us a Nabatean coin that had a couple fornicating on it! Chortling, he pointed at us and then pointed at the coin, as if that would broker the sale. We laughed and replied ‘shukran, shukran’ (thank-you, thank-you, as in ‘no thanks’) and then he proudly told us he had 10 children and all from only one wife! We were suitably impressed and he asked us if we had any. ‘La-la’ we replied, and tried to explain that hopefully in the future, but adding ‘En sha’Allah’ for good measure.

All the climbing and walking worked up an appetite so we stopped to have lunch, which consisted of homemade cucumber, tomato and luncheon sandwiches on the ubiquitous flat bread, all prepared with the Swiss knife and melamine plates we bought in Aqaba. We tucked into our hearty lunch and we ate while perched on a cleft of a cliff, dangling our legs and watching the action below us. Certainly was the most scenic picnic venue we’ve ever had!

The day turned really icy cold and windy, so by about 4pm we decided to call it a day after wandering the tombs and Roman ruins, and taking photos of all the adorable Bedouin kids playing in the cold and selling souvenirs. We could have easily stayed longer, as there were more sights to see and hills to climb in sprawling Petra. Before we left we bought a few pieces of turquoise off a stall owner, who informed us that it would likely snow the next day. We walked back through the amazing Siq, then shivered back to our warm hotel. At the door of Al Anbat II we passing a mini-bus load of little local kids who all crammed themselves out the back window to shout "Hello, hello, hello, hello!" at us - the first of many warm Middle Eastern greetings we received.

As you can imagine, we took a billion photos but have tried to post a succinct summary of what we saw, but to say we've posted quite a few is an understatement!

Walking towards the Siq
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Arabian horses galloped past us
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Nabatean Obelisk or 'Nefesh' tombs, built in 1C AD
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A Bollywood movie set
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Entering the Siq
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The Siq is 'THIS' big!
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A glimpse of The Treasury
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Nabatean tombs
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The view as we climb towards the Place of High Sacrifice
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Made it to the top!
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The High Place of Sacrifice
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Jac by the Lion Fountain
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A striped tomb on the way down
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A Bedouin woman who we shared tea with
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The Soldiers' tomb
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Inside the Soldiers' tomb - fantastically swirled rock
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The jolly (and virile, as he informed us!) Bedouin souvenir seller
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Chalky infront of the many towering tombs
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Our homemade lunch atop a cliff
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Jac infront of an impressive tomb
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A cute Bedouin kid, who was in love with his yellow elephant
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Huddled in his father's jacket against the cold
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Roman ruins
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"Hello, hello, hello!"
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Posted by JacChalky 04:57 Archived in Jordan Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Jordan - Aqaba and Wadi Rum

Bedouin and T.E. Lawrence country...

sunny 20 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

We arrived at the Nuweiba port in Egypt at midday, purchased our 'fast' ferry tickets (as opposed to the 'slow' ferry option) for the 2pm Red Sea crossing, which about an hour later, would see us berthed at the Aqaba port in Jordan. Sounded easy enough, right? Fast forward five hours later and we were still in the crowded terminal that is more like a warehouse and smells like wee. No amount of sign language and wristwatch-tapping could ellicit any show of interest from the officials, other than a 'yes, you again' smiles and a finger held up each time to indicate how many more hours we must wait. Only one more, whatev!

One must be patient when catching an 'Egyptian' timed ferry
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Our cramped 'transfer' bus from the terminal to the ferry
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Our transport across the Red Sea
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However one mustn't be too ungrateful when the time comes, and we surged forward with the crowd of mainly men towards the officials at the hull entrance and smiled in hope of being 'allowed' onto the ferry. From there we were bossed around further into a line on the side of the hull while huge forklifts and our luggage were loaded into the hull. Once above however, the 'Princess' ferry was surprisingly nice inside and we were treated to B-grade Arab action movies on the TVs above the seats. Steven Seagal, eat your heart out.

Finally, at about 7pm, we arrived into Aqaba and were pleased to discover that the port is part of a special zone that for some reason gives visas out for free. We tried to catch a cab into town, but were quickly annoyed by the taxi-driver's obscene prices - JD10 (NZ$20) for the six-kilometer ride in! Jac did her best Asian negotiation skills and got two young Aussie backpackers to join us in order to split the fare. Thankfully there were also kind Jordanian locals who approached us and affirmed our beliefs that the taxi drivers were blatantly ripping us off.

The next day we explored the seaside town, and found our daily breakfast venue - a small stand that sold soft white pastries filled with spinach, mashed potato or mince for about NZ25c each. The town is cute, the locals all sit on the beach having mezze picnics, there are makeshift tents on the sand, and little kids swim despite the huge oil tankers anchored not far away. Locals earn a crust by selling cheap goggles and blow up rings along the water. We also wandered past bakeries that had huge, steaming round flat-breads hurtling down metal slides from the ceiling and bagged immediately for sale. The food market was an eye-opener too - hooks and hooks of hanging goat carcasses, with their furry heads still attached and (ahem) appendages hanging on display as if to attest the virility of the creature you would be buying. We tried roasted 'farooj' (chicken) for dinner, which are roasted in a big glass oven outside, twenty of them rotating horizontally on skewers. The food was fresh and the local "Petra" beers had an alcohol content of 10% - shivers!

Boys hard at work making crumpets at a bakery
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Piping hot pitas literally falling out of the oven
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Butcher's shop
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We spent about four days in the small sleepy town, mainly because we wanted to extend our visa past the 14-days we were initally granted, but we happened to arrive at the Arabic weekend (Fri/Sat) so decided to wait for the office to open and also take an overnight trip out to Wadi Rum, some two hours north-east in the desert.

Wadi Rum is one of the many vast deserts in Jordan, which the nomadic Bedouin inhabit. T.E. Lawrence lived with the Bedouin in Wadi Rum and eventually sympathised and joined the Arab cause against the British in 18-eightytwentyfortyseventhreenineish. We hopped on the back of an open 4WD truck with a lovely Danish couple and a hilarious Spaniard who spent the whole day bopping to music on his headphones (he told us it was Michael Jackson). Our Sudanese driver had been described as somewhat of a human desert compass and he deftly sped us through the desert. We struck it unlucky (or lucky?) and got blasted by a sandstorm, which whipped our faces and taught us why the Bedouin swathe their heads and faces in their red-and-white checked scarves.

We climbed soft red sand dunes, ambled along craggy rocks and admired the desert from above. The desert is impressive - magnificient, ginormous rich red and brown mountains sit in the flat sand, with little foliage. The mountains don't look spectacular in the distance until you realise a little moving white dot at the base is actually another 4WD, speeding across the desolate terrain.

We visited one of the Siqs - a narrow gorge cut into one of the 'Jebels' (mountains), reaching from the rock floor all the way up about 100m to the top of the rock. Inside, it was noticeably chilly and contained ancient Nabatean carvings on the rocks, everything from feet, ostritches to even a woman giving birth. We were disappointed to discover we couldn't go in very far (the siq stretches about 150m) due to huge water pools from recent rains. Outside we said hello to two old Bedouin men who were proffering 'Roman coins' among other 'antiques' for sale, and joined another for tea inside his tent. Other sights we saw are 'Lawrence's spring' (sadly now a concreted hole in the ground) and a natural 'bridge' formation amongst the rocks.

Speeding towards Wadi Rum village on the back of our 4WD
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Bedouin goats headed towards the village
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Sandstorm whips across the plains
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Jac covers up against the sandy blast
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Sand dune
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Chalky working his gluts and quads at full pace
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Race you to the top!
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Spot the poser
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The view from above
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Entering the Siq
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Ancient Nabatean carvings
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Us in the Siq
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Us on the 'Big Bridge'
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Our 4WD driver
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Found on the sand
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Warning - grouchy, spitting transport
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Unfortunately the rain set in, which cut down the sights we were meant to see, and makes the ride at the back of the truck bitterly cold (and well, wet). We headed to another part of the desert about an hour away, and we parked up and had some warming sweet tea, shared around the chocolate and nuts that we had on us, and had Spanish pop playing in the background thanks to our our friend.

Afterwards it was to the Bedouin camp for some dinner - mutton, chicken in rice, with salad and flat bread. We then bade farewell to our desert trip companions, and settled in by the fire for the night. It appears we are the only people staying at the large camp, that has some 30 tents. We share an algeel (Jordanian Arabic for water pipe) and talk to one of the camp workers, who is Jordanian. His family lives in Israel but for some reason (not disclosed due to either the language barrier or the true unsavoury reason) is barred from visiting even though his wife is there. The camp is surprisingly warm despite the cold, and we quickly fall into a deep sleep under a pile of about five fleecy blankets in our tent.

Our Bedouin dinner
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Sitting in the camp
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We had the whole place to ourselves
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Back in Aqaba the next morning we discovered we'd been kindly 'upgraded' - from a tiny room to a small room (but one that had a balcony), but as it was being cleaned we walked again to the 'Aqaba Special Economic Zone Administration' (Immigration Office). Turned out our visa was actually for a month, so no extension was needed. Hooray. Back near our hotel, we sat like sore thumbs at Al Firdous café. "Cafés" in the Middle East are strictly the preserve of men only, and they sit for hours, smoking and playing cards or backgammon. However lucky for me, Al Firdous was women-friendly and plus I was accompanied by my 'husband', which helped my cause. Actually, further on in our travels in the Middle East we realised that most of the outside world was 'men only', as we saw hardly any women out and about, except shopping at markets. Hardly any of the shops, offices, hotels or restaurants had women working, especially so in the small towns.

We hung out with an algeel, some coffee and 'shai ma'nana' (sweet tea with fresh mint) and watched the local men huddled around small industrial-metal tables, playing cards and greeting every second man that walked by, and also the busy cafe owner, a big guy who controlled the remote to the flat screen TV encased in a specially-made metal casing. Playing on TV was Arabic music videos, many of which featured seductively dancing women in low-cut floaty dresses. While they weren't as flagrant as, say the Pussycat Dolls, they were a stark contradiction to the conservative modesty that is so respected in the Middle East. The influence of the West, perhaps?

We discovered that the final of the African Football Cup was being played at Al Firdous, so we returned an hour before the game to find two flat screens set up, and a projector, the entire small courtyard was crammed with plastic chairs, and filling fast. Egypt, ('Masr') was playing Ghana, and was clearly the favourite. We joined in, yelling at the players and hoping that Egypt would score. Some of the fans roused the crowd with drumming and chanting and the cafe was packed, men even sitting in the tree in the courtyard. The score was an anguishing 0-0 until 3 minutes before full time, when a newly-subbed Gado (apparently the Egyptian team's wonderboy) sunk one in from outside the box. The cheering from the cafe was deafening and glitter bombs were popped, and the whole cafe jumped to their feet and and danced. After the game the streets of Aqaba were filled with the roar of men parading the streets and waving Egyptian flags. We joined the masses in the street then watched the celebration from our hotel balcony (that upgrade really made the difference), awed at the level of passion and elation, and a little glad that there were no rifles being waved in the air also.

Local men wiling away the hours at Al Firdous cafe
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The favourite to win, Masr
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Tension as it remains nil-all at half time
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Elation (and drumming!) as Masr clinches victory
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Crowds gather, celebrating in the streets
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Cheering hordes, waving Egyptian flags
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Posted by JacChalky 09:11 Archived in Jordan Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Dahab

Diving with Nemo and Dory and freezing our butts off on Mt Sinai

sunny 28 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

Dahab was meant to be a three-day stop to do some diving and to chill out, but quickly turned into nine blissful days, where we forgot about time (and our mounting hotel bill!).

It took us two days to get to Dahab, the first day was spent travelling for three hours towards the Sinai Peninsula, only to have to turn back to Cairo for another three hours, due to road floods. However the second day, ma sha' Allah (God's work be done), the roads were open. We arrived in Dahab on a mini-bus to be greeted by “Jimmy”, who was the fixer of all fixers - a gregarious, cowboy hatted enigma who swanned in and out of our days, making sure we were ok and organising everything and anything we wanted.

However upon our arrival, Jac had visions of ‘Hostel III’ when Jimmy redirected us away from the hotel we'd booked, to a sister hotel called"Shams", which was much, nicer and was also right on the water. The staff instantly treated us like friends and all who passed us said a cheerful hello. A little too good to be true? However all suspicion was soon forgotten when we were joined by Sally, an Aussie girl who’d been on our Intrepid Trip, who was staying at Shams and thankfully appeared not have been skewered/abducted/brainwashed.

Dahab is a super-chilled seaside village, with wooden restaurants lining the pristine shore, decked out in low tables and colourful cushions, and Jack Johnson and Bob Marley playing. The stunning reef is right by the shoreline, with clear blue warm water and exotic fish visible from the shoreline.

Shams - Dive shop and rooms
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Shams restaurant - right on the water
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Dahab promenade
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Making Dahab's waterfront a camel-free zone
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The mode de jour in Dahab is: dive, chill out, read, sleep… then repeat. We dined at either of two favourite places, a Chinese restaurant (hey, who doesn’t enjoy dumplings and noodles after two months of unleavened bread and kebabs?) and at our Shams Hotel where Jac befriended the affectionate but tenacious cats who did everything to charm you then steal your steak. Never before have we seen omnivorous cats who devour chickpeas and pita bread!

Just another afternoon in the sun
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Jac with one of the sweet but voracious cats that lived at Shams
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Creative room service
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Tinfoil-tastic meals at Shams restaurant
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Sally had done her Open Water dive course with the Shams Dive shop and raved on about Ehab Mohammed, her instructor. Jac decided to follow suit with Ehab, who was a yogi-like Dive Instructor who was terrific and calm (even when Jac had beginner’s underwater panic barely 2m underwater!). Enthused by the serenity and beauty of reef diving, she decided to go straight onto her Advanced Dive Course. Few beginner divers get to do their ‘drift dive’ lesson in the famed Blue Hole, which is a 100m deep sink hole that drops off immediately from the reef, and has claimed the lives of many who try to reach a tunnel 60m down that leads you through to the surface. Exhilarating was an understatement!

Jac with Ehab on her Open Water... no Jac, the regulator is in your right hand...
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Jac happy after her first Open Water Dive, love that mask face!
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Jac and Chalky in a bubble curtain near The Canyon
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Jac and Ehab at the bottom of The Canyon - first 30m deep dive!
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Headed to the Blue Hole - memorials to those who perished attempting the infamous daredevil 80m dive
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The entrance to the sinkhole
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Jac about to hop in
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Going down.....
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And down.....
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In the Caves
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Exploring the reef
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Nemo
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Dory
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Red fish
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Bluefish
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A deadly lionfish
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Nemo and Nemoette
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It's a bit clammy on the floor
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Strike a pose
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Karate Kid vs Kill Bill
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Watch out behind you!
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Chalky and his dive buddy, Omar
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Jac and Ehab
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We decided to take a side-trip to Mount Sinai and St Katherine's monastary, as the former is where Moses climbed to receive the 10 Comandments and also where he sighted the 'Promised Land'. We had the option of going overnight, to see the dawn, or during the day to see the sunset. We chose the latter and afterwards incredibly glad we did (more on this later!).

Like most of of our Egypt experiences, the minibus that picked us up arrived on 'Egyptian time' and we set into the desert hills inhabited by the Bedouin people. The hills used to be underwater so there are a raft of fossilled shells and aquatic life in the rock, many dug out and sold on the roadside.

St Katherine's is visited by many Orthodox Christian pilgrims as it's the site of The Burning Bush and Moses' Well. We fight through the crowds around the Burning Bush to visit what isn't the original bush itself, but a descendent of the original tree. People are all jostling to have photos near it and to pinch leaves off the beleaguered tree. The Well of Moses is less impressive, being a small bricked hole in the ground, but has interesting frescos of Moses and his receiving of the Ten Comandments. What was really beautiful was the Orthodox Church, which was decorated in gold-plated hanging lamps, framed icons and richly painted throughout. St Katherine's bones were resting in the church, but unfortunately for us agnostic tourists, no photos were allowed of the humble but beautiful church.

The Road to Mount Sinai
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St Katherine's
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The crowds gathered around the Burning Bush
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The Burning Bush
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Atop the Orthodox church
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Church spire
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Frescos of the story of Moses
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After visiting the Monastary we then headed up Mount Sinai. The 'real' way was up some 3,000 steps, which were carved by a monk in penance (for what we need to wiki). Unfortunately due to the icy weather and rain, the steps were largely iced over and too dangerous to climb. Instead we had to take the camel trail. Jac took the low-maintenance method of going by camel, while Chalky walked the six or so kms of windy uphill trail. However what was unavoidable was the last, sweaty crude 750 steps to the top. It would have been sweaty had it not been terribly cold, with a freezing wind blasting us the whole way. We met Tony and Rachel, a Canadian couple who used to run an organic farm and interestingly were part of the 'Wwoofer' organisation (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) that host voluntary workers for bed and board.

Once at the top the view was spectacular, however we could not spot what would be the 'Promised Land' that Moses supposedly saw. The craggy mountains, glowing with the afternoon sun were awe-inspiring. However, can you believe that it was so bitterly cold (even with multiple thermal and woollen layers) that we could not bear to wait half an hour for sunset? We set back down, and grateful that we didn't do so in the dark, as the loose rocks were slippery. Once darkness fell however, it really started to be unbearable. We swear, we have never been that miserably cold in our whole lives. We were so glad we decided not to stay atop the mountain overnight (no tents, just open stone shelters) to watch the sunrise. And we understood how angry Moses would have been, after trudging up the immense mountain (no steps or camels there), receiving the comandments from the Almighty, chiselling them into heavy stone tablets, and carrying the darn things all the way down, only to find his clan were celebrating and worshipping a gold cow! Perhaps that was his punishment for actually receiving 25 commandments and tossing 15 of them on the way down to create his 'Top Ten' to save his struggling arms...

On the way up Mt Sinai (beats 2,250 steps vertical)
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A tiny gold monastary atop a mountain
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Jac on the camel as Chalky walks (holding camera)
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Now for 750 steps straight up...
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Jac was last seen hamming it up for the camera...
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Nearly there...
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At the summit! Freezing but happy
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The magnificient mountains
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You wouldn't think there'd be ice in Egypt...
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The setting sun on the mountains
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Much warmer (and happier!) having dinner with Rachel and Tony at Shams
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After nine days of blissful relaxing and diving, we decided to leave for Jordan, which involves crossing the Red Sea by ferry to Aqaba. We were disappointed the day before we left, to discover that we might have to stay in Dahab for a few more days, as arriving to Aqaba on an Arab weekend (Thurs, Fri) meant that all accomodation in the small town was packed and prices sky high. However Jac was too good in finding a room, so it meant we farewelled our Egyptian home away from home.

Posted by JacChalky 04:54 Archived in Egypt Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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