Friday, August 31, 2012

Jordanian Expedition

We were told that we would get a visa on arrival, but the immigration people were extremely rude and even after showing complete booking details, they reluctantly stamped a visa and said we were to stay there for no more than a week. It was not a good start to the trip.

We had pre-booked a self-driven car from Reliable Car Rentals. The car looked decent, reasonably clean. We were assured it is 'reliable'. They had someone drop the car at the small, congested, over-crowded airport. He was the first friendly face we saw in that country. The ATM at the terminal wasn't working so we had to walk to the other terminal with our luggage to withdraw some local currency. There was a limit of 200 Jordanian Dinars (JD) with which we paid for the car.

We drove into the city (a fair bit away from the airport) and felt it was just the opposite of our experience in Turkey. There were barely any people walking on the streets. The houses or offices were sand-coloured blending with the desert landscape, and the small windows had heavy grills. It almost looked like a prison. Or maybe it was the unfriendly reception at the airport that made us think that way. We checked into our hotel in Amman and were not inclined to step outside at all - even to buy a local SIM card. We ordered room service - even though it was very expensive.

The next morning, we left early to go to Petra. We were told to take the King's highway but even with the GPS it took us ages to find it. There was no one we could ask. Finally at a signal, we asked the car next to us who also didn't know what we were talking about, but the lady in the backseat rolled down her window and asked us to follow them. They would show us where to turn. Finally we were on our way. It was to be a 5-hour journey with a stop at Madaba to see some historic sites significant to Christianity. But once again, no one understood why we were there and we could not see any tourists either, so we weren't able to figure out where these sites were exactly. We drove on.

There are no sign boards for Petra. The signs point to villages on the way, so you need to have an idea of the route - kind of like joining the dots to make the picture complete. We didn't even bother to stop for food. We were still not comfortable here. Once we were in the desert, we couldn't see anyone around for miles. Just sand and rocks as far as the eye could see. This is when it hit us - if anything went wrong with the car, we would be stranded in the blazing sun, with no shade, no water, no food, and no one around for miles and miles. We should have bought a SIM card. Although I don't know how much of a help that would've been.

One of the places we stopped to ask directions, we met a young guy who spoke some words of English. He asked us to drop him to the next village which would be on our way. He hopped in and tried to chat as much as he could. When he reached the limit of his vocabulary, he dialed his friend who told us that we are not too far from our destination. He seemed friendly and harmless. He smiled a lot and seemed genuinely happy to have us in his country. At another place we stopped at to ask for directions from a man next to car, the man could barely speak English but gestured us to follow his car. He would point us to the turn. I guess it was only the airport staff that were morons.

Finally, we saw sign boards pointing to Petra. We had booked ourselves into Marriott. It took us a while to figure out how to get there. The hotel is about 10 kms from the main site but is offers such a spectacular view of the mountains that we were glad we booked this place. Since we had a car, we didn't have to worry about getting to Petra either. The hotel looked a little deserted though and the restaurant was closed by the time we reached. The coffee shop was open thankfully and we had a burger.

We decided to brave the sun and have a quick look at Petra. The we would go again the next morning as well. The 1-day pass is 55JD but if you take a 2-day pass it's just 60JD - so it makes financial sense to take that. It also gives you enough time to look around at places you missed on your first visit.

As we entered the main gate, there were horses to take us to the Siq - supposedly included in the ticket price - but they still charge you 2-5 JD. We decided to walk since we were not to keen on overworking the poor animals. The 1km walk to the Siq seemed to take forever in the sun. There was no shade. But the Siq was just magnificent. The red stone carved by nature and the glorious shade it offered was a thing of beauty (refer to the poem Petra).

 As we neared the end of the gorge, we got excited even more because we knew what came next thanks to Indiana Jones. As you walk the last few metres, you can see the Treasury building revealing itself in parts through the narrow crack in the gorge. And when you come out into the open, a magnificent structure stands before you - still capable of taking your breath away even after 2000 years.

After ogling at this masterpiece, we moved ahead. It was just too hot to explore all the spots, but we somehow made our way to the museum (which wasn't a big deal, so we could've skipped it). We decided to return early morning the next day to beat the sun and the pesky sellers selling everything from jewelery, and silver items, to rides on camels, donkeys, horses or horse carriages. The animals looked tired from the heat and work. We went back to the hotel to enjoy the sunset from the lobby balcony. All our meals were at the hotel. We didn't venture out anywhere apart from the main site.

The next morning we woke up early and had a quick breakfast. We were at the gates by 7am. The walk this time around was a breeze. There were barely any tourists or locals around, so we could admire the place in peace. We had planned to walk up to the Monastery after the museum plus some 800 steps.

We crossed the Street of Facades that has tombs of important people from the city, including the royals:
The theater, reminiscent of the Roman ruins we had visited in Turkey:

 The Great Temple:
And finally the steps leading up to Al Dier - the Monastery:

The steps are not well-formed all the way through and you need to be careful while walking up. It is even more dangerous for those making their way on a donkey. One wrong step and down you go. The views get better as you go up. It took us about 40 minutes to get there, with resting time in between. The Monastery is much larger than the Treasury, but not as magnificent. It was worth the trip nonetheless.

 The walk down was much easier. We also took a detour to the Byzantine temple with its mosaic flooring depicting the land of plenty that Petra once was.

We didn't have the energy or patience to visit some of the other sites like the High place of sacrifice, which also involved lots of steps. But we were happy with what we saw. By 2pm, we left Petra and headed to the Dead Sea by the King's highway. This time, we jotted down all the village names that we would have to cross. By this time, the GPS was also behaving and had a better idea of the route.

We reached Movenpick Hotel and Spa in about 3 hours. The lobby was crowded like a fish market. It took us 30 minutes to check in. Since the holy month of Ramadan was just around the corner, people were taking a break now as they would be fasting for a month in a week's time. We were handed a map of the resort at check in. It is a 90,000 sqft resort and beautifully laid out. We walked up to the sea for a quick dip in the waters where you don't drown, and the sunset.

We had initially planned to get a massage as the icing on our cake that was this glorious 2-week vacation. But at a minimum of 100+ JD, we decided to just rub the therapeutic clay ourselves from the beach and get a massage back home. Since this area is lined with resorts, there was no point in venturing out for food. We ate at the restaurants here which was brilliantly expensive, but at least the food was good.

Being almost 500m below sea level was not a picnic though. It was very hot and just walking up to the restaurant left us panting for some cool air. I refused to eat in the open air and wanted the air conditioner. We realized it was no help, and worked against us because it became like an oven inside.

Breakfast was lavish but crowded by the time we got there. We just went for another quick dip before 11am and didn't leave our room again till sunset. We left late in the afternoon for the airport. late check-out was not an option as the crowds from the city were still pouring in. We reached the airport in an 90 minutes. We drove super slow because our flight was late in the evening and we didn't want to go into town. And considering that the airport was so badly equipped, we preferred to spend as much time in the car as possible.

We dropped the car of at the airport parking (which took us another 40 minutes because of the crowd), made our way to the check-in counter and immigration (where the officials again made jibes at our expense - morons) and into the over-crowded waiting area. We were starving so ordered a set-meal from KFC. It was horrible. To top it off, we were informed that our flight was 3 hours late (this was a recurring theme on all our flight to/from Jordan as we were in transit at Amman even on our way to Turkey). The immigration officials needn't have given us a warning to get out in a week - we were more than ready to leave in 4 days.

Verdict: Even though the place and the people we met in Jordan were nice, the airport experience and the attitude of the airport staff left us very bitter. We would not recommend this place to our friends unless they really, really, desperately want to visit Petra.

And yes, the furry pageant from Jordan:

Turkey Travels (Part 4)

Day 7: We took the bus to Izmir otogar. Just over an hour's journey. From there we had to take a cab to the Movenpick hotel on the other side of town. It has one of the best unrestricted views of the Aegean Sea among all the hotels. The staff was very friendly and courteous. They even gave us a map and pointed out the places to see.

We had planned to go to Ikea (near the otogar where we had arrived), so we couldn't do any of the stuff they recommended. After shopping, we came back in time to watch the sunset at the pier. The small garden and road-side cafes are a good place to hang out in the evening. The stray dogs there each had a large piece of bone they were gnawing at - I assume a gift from the local eateries.

Dinner was at Sushico, a sushi place as the name suggests. Wasn't the best we had eaten, but it was good and a change from all the Turkish staples we had been eating so far.

Day 8: We got picked up around 10am to go to the historic city of Selcuk and our first stop was the house of the Virgin Mary. Apparently it was her final resting place (although it can't be said for certain).

The next stop was Ephesus. It was a particularly hot day and with very little shade, it was difficult to walk around. It was also very crowded. 3 cruise ships had docked nearby, we were told, which was the reason for the buzzing crowd. The place has a very interesting history and our guide pointed out details that made it more so. The houses with well-preserved mosaics were not part of the tour since there is a separate fee to enter. We weren't even given the time o explore it on our own. If you are very particular about visiting it, make sure to check with your travel guide. The library was the highlight of the place. Beautiful carvings. The amphitheater is the largest semi-circular one that existed in ancient times seating over 44,000 people.

We also stopped at the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. All that remains is a lonely column, but when you think of the scale of it and how it would've been in its glory, it is astounding. It was nesting season for Malibu storks, so a bunch of them were to be seen in most parts of the city.

We went to a carpet co-op for lunch where we were shown how carpets are made, how silk is extracted, and the variety that Turkey offers in terms of carpet. We were also taken to a leather shop - all part of the tour package. We got back to the hotel around 6 in the evening - all tired out. We decided against stepping out that day and chose to enjoy the sunset from the hotel lounge. It had a great view and you could step out on the viewing balcony for better ones, and to interact with the visiting gulls. Dinner was at the hotel itself.

Day 9 & 10: We left Izmir for Istanbul by flight. We stayed at the Ferman Hotel and our room had a super-amazing view of the Blue Mosque. We spent both the days shopping at Arasta Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar. We revisited the Blue Mosque, and took a walk around town. On Day 10, we left for the airport for our next adventure in Jordan.