A Travellerspoint blog

Real desert, real expensive, real short stay

And pretty bloody conservative too - Jordan!

We decided to keep our time in Amman short, based on various peoples moans and recommendations. Found a cheap room (by Jordanian standards) and set up a base, covered the floor with our stuff and made it messy enough so that it felt homely. Our first full day we took a walk around the city, spending most of the morning (early afternoon) looking for a bank that would accept our cards, and having found one we stood and pondered for quite some time what else there was to do. The Planet was back at the hotel so we tried to follow the 'discover the city for yourself' tactic so expounded within the guidebooks (they know that we hate them), but to no avail. We wandered high and low and stumbled across several tourist sights, all of which were intending to charge us extortionate amounts to go in and none of which seemed worth it. We climbed a hill and got to the city's citadel, but as we arrived the hour struck 6 and it immediately closed. We tried hopping over the fence but were caught by the po-po and so were ousted. They didn't have guns, yet were somehow more threatening than the Syrian tourism-guards. It was probably their matching clothes, which at least gave some vague suggestion of organisation. Having neither the energy nor the resources to attempt a subtle break-in under close supervision, we decided to retire to an internet cafe. The trouble with the currency was that 1 dinar was equal to 1 GBP, yet it was split into 1000; the coins were then 1/2, 1/4 as well as 10 and 5. But 10 wasn't 10, I think it was 1/10, or 100. Either way, we on several occasions ended up spending about 1 JD for a can of coke before realising later that it probably wasn't the best way to keep under budget. Nor was my plan to buy a baby duck from a pet shop and take it with us to the sea, but after about 20 minutes deliberation it was decided that it was more likely to die with us than in a cage so reluctantly I agreed not to home him. The best thing in the entire city was, no doubt, a small cafe we discovered on the way towards the centre. They had the standard chicken-grilling vending-machine-style contraption yet here the smell was so good that our stomachs forced us to settle down and get something. One whole chicken, 4 JD. Fantastic hummus, spicy, great texture, exactly the kind of stuff that I'd had a craving for for about 3 months before we even started the trip. Over our 2 day stay in Amman, we must have eaten about 5 chickens altogether. Yummy.

Enough with Amman, let's go to the Dead Sea. Our driver told us about his brother who was a banker, and upon learning that we were British showed us his CV and phoned him up with the intention of us helping him out with finding a job in a London bank, but presumably his brother told him to stop being stupid so the conversation never reached us. It was wildly hot when we arrived, completely sweltering. It was difficult to walk even a short distance without becoming exhausted, drenching your t-shirt in sweat and the pondering the real question of whether you will die of dehydration or skin cancer. The Sea itself was amazing, it glistened like nothing else I'd ever seen, almost like a huge pool of glitter. There was barely any wind so most of the time it was completely flat, and the hills of eretz could be easily seen, only a few kilometers away. The hotels each cost about 100 dinar for each night, spa and pool and this and that included - we did a recon and of course, it was solely middle aged overweight foreigners enjoying the benefits of the beach - and so of course we set up the tent. What a great spot we found, about 10 yards from the water's edge, shaded and camouflaged by trees, far away from the road, next door (with an easy sneak-in entrance) to the private beach, and best of all there was endless rows and rows of glorious firewood. Planks and planks and logs and twigs and everything Ray Mears could dream of. In the evenings it was still so warm that even a t-shirt was unwanted, and as a result the fires were literally just to give us light and send smoke signals to the Pally's on the other shore.

We spent a day being leisurely on our neighbouring beach, two pools, showers, mud and an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We spent literally hours there, bobbing around in the sea (technically lake) and discussing whether it was worse to get the water in your eyes or your mouth, followed by a shower and a dip in the pool, or some sunbathing. Someone said that it was up to 38 °C which is easily believable, though it necessitated frequent and expensive ice creams and water. Swimming's fun was minimised after I broke my nose - it looked great in front of all the horrified tourists, grinning and covered with blood - so spent of the rest of the evening measuring the swell on the loungers before investing in the restaurant - it was also expensive and so paced ourselves tactically, finishing off with about 6 plates of food and desert each. We filled ourselves so another trip to the faraway shop was rendered unnecessary, and then set off the next morning (early afternoon).

We could have done Petra, but at $50 it just didn't seem worth it. Granted it seems equally not worth it to come all the way out here and not go and see it, yet at the cost of a week's food and with travel costs on top, the decision was already made for us before we knew about it. So instead we took a huge, totally southerly road all the way to the furthest tip of Jordan, just before it becomes Saudi. What a great drive, desert on both sides with raging mountains behind, Israel's and Jordan's totally indistinguishable with the remnants of the Dead Sea in between and then nothing but black dunes and straggly plants. Palmyra stand aside, this is the real desert. From our hotel window, you could see both Israel and Egypt, and we were only about 20km from the Saudi border. The temperature throughout had already been stupidly hot but this took it to another level. 43 °C was the figure quoted by taxi drivers, and whatever it was we were literally incapable of doing anything at any respectable speed, being forced to take regular and long breaks in our room just lying in our underwear with the air-con blasting away and the fan on. Even the wind was blazingly hot - it was like the rush of air you get when you open an oven door, yet you can't duck away from it. For some reason, though, the entire town was filled with tourists. It was certainly quite a wealthy spot yet we couldn't discern any real touristic value except for its proximity to all the other countries. Either way, two more days spent there and we were shocked at how quickly Jordan had swallowed all of our money - dollars included - so we resolved to get out as quickly as possible. Wadi Rum will have to be left behind, we headed for the port on the morning of our third day (actual morning this time) only to find out that, hey presto, it was the only day that a ferry for Egypt wasn't leaving. Well, suggested the taxi driver, why not go over land through Israel? Why not, we thought, as we instructed him - "to the frontier!"

Posted by kmaw 10:59 Archived in Jordan Comments (0)

Final Fling with the Syrians

Damascus - capital city, but still bloody Syrian

The arrival to Damascus was quite gentle, service taxi driver dropping us off about 10km outside of town for no discernible reason. We asked him why he couldn't drive us into the centre of town, as he was the rest of the passengers, but he didn't seem to understand or mind and so drove off with us bemused but not missing the entertainment of the situation. We were again pleased to see the ever-present smiling face of Al-Asad, still pretending that he wasn't a dictator, up and down every street in sight, and with a final look at his encouraging wave we flagged down a taxi. Bloody Syria, we had forgotten in our days of speaking any of three languages in Lebanon that nobody understood a word of anything but Arabic here. The small amounts I've picked up are sufficient for a drunk conversation to impress the listener before reverting to English or, if necessary, further impressing with French, so the battle over the language barrier ensued again. Remembering that even if they pretend to know where your hotel is, the taxi drivers almost certainly don't even know where they are, so we instructed him to take us to a street that we remembered the name of and off we went. Using our memory as a map, we swiftly (slowly) found our way to the right place. Turning up at what was listed in the Planet as the best hostel in all of Damascus, and images of a Syrian Talal exploding into our mind, and were stopped in our tracks by signs of 'Thankyou for not drinking alcahol' [sic] and people sitting quietly to themselves, thoughts of mingling far away. Negotiating another roof mattress, we dumped our stuff and forced ourselves upon the first two travellers that we saw, before some supper and a forced bedtime at about 1am as everything outside had closed, everything inside had closed and everybody else had gone to sleep! Body clocks going mental having been used to sleep at 4am earliest, we settled down for some disgruntled sleep.

Damn, that roof mattress was cold! Waking up before sunrise shivering, wandering around for some spare blankets, finding none and so curling up waiting for the sun to arrive to heat the room. Apparently, they don't have spare blankets! We asked, they denied. Upon waking, we got some breakfast and set off into the city - ah, Friday. Deserted streets, no shops open, if we hadn't got breakfast at the hotel then it would have been another processed food breakfast day. We walked around, climbed a tree, and then went home as it was raining. But it did strike us as funny how many backpacker overlaps there were - we saw in that hostel several people who we'd already seen and met, and others that we'd met we knew indirectly by mutual traveller-friends and so on. It's like one big Middle Eastern backpacking class - graduation photo?

After another night of unwelcome quietude culminating in a raging debate about the middle classes and the potential immorality of private schools, we settled down to another unwelcome cold night. Final day in Damascus, and still we can't think of that much to do. A month of Lebanon had put Syria in such stark contrast that our antipathy towards the country seemed vastly expanded. Not that I regret going there, but certainly it is not a place that would be top on my list to return to. Once in a lifetime is enough, I think. We set off for a walk after some delicious little pizza things - good food Syria, I'll give you that - and headed up one of the hills that looms over the city with the intention of looking down upon it. A few hours later we were sweating, perched on a bench on the top, silenced by a combination of our fatigue and the panoramic view of the whole, sweeping, sprawling city. A good finale to our time in Syria, I think: beautiful, disorganised, and bloody exhausting.

We awoke and set off for Jordan quite early and so assumed that we'd be there before sunset, for once. Well, we were wrong. Bus at 3 didn't leave until 4 of course, and the nicely spacious back seat that we had to ourselves became deeply unpleasant after the remaining seats were taken up by very, very fat men. I took solace in Nietzsche, but even he became unsympathetic after a time. Border crossings took hours and we didn't arrive until late but none of that could overshadow our boosted passport coolness and a new country on the list. However - Jordan is said to be boring and even the locals on the bus agreed that one week was plenty, and perhaps most sadly of all is that Petra costs $50 entry! The obviously extortionate exploitation has us considering whether we will actually go...

Posted by kmaw 11:40 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

The Final Chapters of Talal

Yep, we finally left Beirut!

0 °C

According to the computer, it's the first of May which means that I've been away for two months. It doesn't really feel like that long, although I suppose that would imply that two months is itself a long time. Strange how things which happened in Aleppo or Tartus, for example, seem so long ago when re-reading the diary entries, yet going to work and being in Oxford doesn't. Another thing to consider as I put off writing, as there is not really a huge amount to write about. It's a different style of entry, perhaps, to before, as the earlier ones in Syria predominantly were focused on the places that we have been and so forth, but our time in Beirut is comprised mainly of great conversations or fun parties that went on in the hostel or out.

Well, I'll talk about the few other trips that we did during our second stay - to Sour, or Tyre, depending on language. A fun day out in a quiet little town, pretty much the geographical peak of Hezbollah's popularity so yellow and green flags everywhere, as was Nasrallah's cheeky grinning face and UN troops. Loads of Unifil, in their 4x4s and tanks littering up the side of the road - I've become quite a lot more cynical about the UN since being out here, several rants to several probably indifferent people about how it's fundamentally flawed and as a result will continue to just be a waste of time, not just in peace-keeping situations. We wandered the streets and pondered how much it would be to rent a little rowing boat and cruise off but that plan got nipped in the bud by the M16-toting militia who said that all foreigners needed permission to leave the gate of the harbour. Instead we settled in to a great cheap restaurant and had some fantastic fish in a very middle-aged manner, it was great. We chatted to the owner of the place about the war (of course) and his prediction (soon), as well as about Qana - not about the bombings, but before when it was discovered (or something along those lines) that it was the spot in which Jesus turned water into wine (the owner was a Christian), apparently a load of nearby Muslims sent their children to break the statues in the gorge and so even before the bombings it was completely trashed. It is so hard to work out what is real and what is just sectarian racism, so who really knows. Even in Bcharré there was intense racism, it being a very strong Maronite place - we met a guy who slated all Muslims saying that they were barbarians and it was because of them that the whole country was dirty because they themselves are dirty.. In downtown Beirut we saw some graffiti that has a crossed out star of David with an arrow saying 'Fuck Jews' - it is so arbitrary now that it is several generations down the line, simply just inherited antipathy towards various others with no real justification.

Another time we visited Shatila - surprisingly few people, even who were staying here, know what it is - the Palestinian refugee camp in South Beirut. Of course, we had hundreds of warnings not to go there as it is dangerous and full of bad people, but naturally we ignored this kind advice as it is most likely founded also in plain racism. Not really sure if we actually made it to Shatila or just to Sabra, which is another refugee camp nearby, there were massacres in both in 1982, graveyards were all over the place. There were Hamas martyr posters all over the place, glorifying those who had died in suicide bombings, and recruitment posters stuck on to bullet-holed buildings and trashed vans. The place was clearly poor, but I must admit that it was not as bad as I was expecting. That could be because we did not go in far enough, but there certainly wasn't a higher level of ostensible poverty than elsewhere in the poor areas of Beirut. On the walk home, we walked through the heavily Shia areas and much like in Sour there were Nasrallah's all over the place, along with the flags and certainly no tourists whatsoever. In the next war, much like in the last one, that will probably be the place first and worst hit if Beirut gets bombed again.

For the most part of our remaining time we just hung out in the hostel, going out for food and for bars, but not any long trips anywhere. It certainly wasn't a waste of time though, fantastic late night talks about any number of subjects with various people staying in the hostel, finishing when the sun comes up in true Beat fashion, people watching in Downtown or falling in 10-minute-love with some beautiful girl, it was a crazy time. Goodbyes were long and sad, but friendships were solid and future travel plans were certain. The flag that I appropriated I got people to write on and so now it is covered in fond memories as well as (ironic?) Zionist propaganda and warm welcomes back to the hotel from the owners. One final Maghlouf sandwich and one final Lion bar (feed the addiction) and we were in a service taxi to Damascus again, passport stamps signaling the end of what was a great stay in Lebanon. What a fascinating country, what an eclectic combination of paradoxes, I will certainly be back and not just because the owners of the hostel promised half price dorms!

Posted by kmaw 08:03 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

Beirut: Part II

The Reckoning

The second in the long awaited trilogy in the struggle to free ourselves from the supreme laziness of Talal's. The return to the hostel was certainly more anticlimactic than we had imagined, without a single person in the sitting room to greet us with a wild and spontaneous party. Instead we sat around and waited for people to start turning up - brutally slow internet meant that we were reduced to just literally sitting and waiting, with the effort required to dig a book out of the bag being rendered as far too big. To cut a long and somewhat tedious story short, we soon (it wasn't soon) got a big group together with the plan of going out for the evening - it was a Friday - to celebrate our clearly long awaited return. Diego was working at the bar again, and apparently Max had also got a job there - for the first time in his life - so we headed there and consumed plenty of free shots whilst waiting for the others to come. What ensued was a fantastically crazy night that will go down in the annuls of Gemmayze history, again going wild in Charlie's without even having to buy myself a drink as for the first time in my life girls were actually volunteering to buy them for me, and then out to a nearby club before sneaking into an abandoned house that had been half blown up, presumably in the civil war, to round the evening off. A hangover that, for the first time in my life, was probably worth it.

Several days passed and several things have been written in the diary, but presumably none of them are chronological and one activity doesn't imply a following day either, so who can really tell how long we were there for. At some point, for the second or third time on our stay, a passing comment about pyjamas was misunderstood by the crazy Druze owner of the hostel and again followed the standard drill of shouts of "pack your shit and get the fuck out!" and a string of swearing in Arabic. As per usual, in keeping with all of the other times that we got kicked out (for partying too loudly or too late or not clearing up after ourselves, the usual jazz), we were in fact not kicked out, but after then the owner took a serious disliking to BJ which didn't really dissipate for the rest of our stay. Arguments followed about whether it was morally right to suck up in order to be allowed to stay, but irrespective of the result, we were staying and so all was well. We took a trip to Byblos, a town about 40km north of Beirut - the great thing about Lebanon is that it is so small that it is a) easy to fight a proxy war there, but more importantly b) it is also easy to go anywhere from anywhere, just for a day trip. We overshot Byblos on the bus there by a few towns and so walked around a completely deserted village - it was a Sunday, apparently this was a particularly Christian area or something - and after getting some ice cream we headed back. Arriving in Byblos we headed straight for the coast, cool harbour, rich people in expensive boats, jet skis and the such like. We noticed a beach a few minutes walk down the coast and so headed in, and found ourselves having apparently sneaked in to a private place, plush deckchairs everywhere, four pools on different elevations with ponds in between, everybody speaking in French and not a hijab to be seen. Certainly a hang out of the elite, it felt quite a lot like we had stumbled into a set of the OC, or in fact actually were in the real OC. We had an expensive coke and then settled into some deck chairs to get some tanning done, nearly causing an eclipse, our bright white torsos were so dazzling to the sun. It was quite surreal being part of that demographic, enjoyable for a few hours but certainly strange and most likely harmful to values or outlook if you were to grow up in it - far more rich than the average Lebanese, with enough money to get away on a number of different methods of private transport if a war ever were to start, not a care in the world for the people left behind.

Posted by kmaw 06:25 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

Cedar Trees and Stormy Seas

Mixing fact with metaphor since 1990

Setting off from Syria to Lebanon, we were again pretty late (I can't actually remember, but I'm assuming it was based on previous records as well as the fact it was about midnight when we got into Tripoli), and had a huge hassle of a trip. Apparently there are no buses from Tartus to Tripoli, even though it is just down the highway, so we had to take a bus to Homs and then another to Tripoli, back down the road we came from. We weren't too bothered though as the prospect of getting back into Lebanon was a pretty exciting one, cheap falafel versus expensive bars... The border took ages and another supper of several Lion bars (have limited myself to one a day) and a packet of crisps followed, culminating in a free, month long visa. Our excitement about the arbitrary generosity of the border control only slightly outweighed our disappointment that the stamp was about a quarter of the size expected. I found myself pondering the question of whether it is worth paying £10 for a better looking stamp - well, the passport is sticking with me until 2020 so it could be an investment..?

We finally arrived in Tripoli, and, well, it was a hole. The hotel that BP had recommended us was of course expensive and full, with a locked front door necessitating an expensive public phone call in GCSE French to find out these drearily anticipated facts. Heading next door to a worryingly named 'Palace Hotel', we were relieved to see cracking paint and unisex toilets and settled on the cheapest room they offered. Food, shave, discuss what was to be done the next day, alarm set, banter, alarm unset, sleep. We set off when we woke on a walk around the city, guide-less. What better way to really see the city than by immersing yourself in it and wandering around, rather than only seeing the tourist attractions and none of the real deal? Of course, the recommended monuments were not to be found, and instead we stumbled across endless highways and long concrete walls and sewers. We walked so far that I think we left the city, but the sprawl renders my guess completely unknowable, heading along the beach line. VW Campers with plastic picnic chairs chained to them, presumably for rent, gave rise to Nazi jokes which were quickly silenced after we found one hippie van sporting a picture of Jesus nestled next to another one of Hitler. Bugger this, let's go into the countryside.

Too late to get a bus to Bcharré, we opted to get a taxi and were quickly barrelled into a beat banger by a seemingly aggressively enthusiastic maniac. Well, his driving reflected his mental state and what followed was probably the single most frightening drive of my life. Heading up into the mountains on twisting roads next to an abyss, overtaking a lorry around a corner at 90kph or simply just swinging over to the other side of the road, presumably to get a better racing line for the apex. We looked on, resigning ourselves to the funny side of our imminent doom, until a few too many near misses forced us to plead him to go a tad slower. Our attempts were met with a proud cry of "I'm Schumacher!" and an increase of speed. Highlight of the journey was probably when he was describing how in the mountains the cloud renders visibility pretty low. Of course, language barrier meant that gestures were easiest for conveying meaning - one hand over his eyes to represent clouds, the other hand plunging downwards, pedal still flattened and steering wheel rolling around merrily. He took our shouts of 'no!' for misunderstanding and so was kind enough to demonstrate again a few more times. Somehow we arrived in one piece at the village and deposited outside the hostel. We called him crazy and wished him not to die on the way down, to which he laughed hysterically and roared off. Haven't checked the local obituaries yet..

Heading into our dormitory we met a couple of Canadian girls and an American named Tamara. The Canadians were thoroughly bemused by our excitement at one's complaint of 'having to get another passport in Damascus because the old one was full', and even more by our scouring and judging: "Bolivia, triangular stamp, nice. This page only has one stamp on it, what a joke! Oh, Thailand, minus 10 points." Bunk beds were greeted with glorious vigour at their similarity to pirate ships, but the fleet was disbanded after an old Hungarian couple came in and complained that we were on their bed. Avast, sea dog, and they subsequently left, complaining that they wanted a room to themselves. Land lubbers. The next day we went with Tamara on a great day trek scramble through the Adisha valley, about five hours of stunning scenery, steep cliffs and waterfalls, a river running through the bottom and Maronite monastries built into the caves in the rock. As the day progressed, the clouds came lower, finally enveloping the top of the cliffs so that when we climbed our way back to the road the visibility was about an arms length, as the kind taxi driver had described, and we hitched a ride back in a car still decked out from the driver and his passenger's wedding the previous day.

We had planned to go to Baalbek from here, but the road was apparently much too snowed in to get there so we headed up to the Cedars, the uppermost part of the mountains and at the base of the ski resort. The landscape here was even more stunning with snow-capped peaks overlooked us, with us overlooking the valley below, and cedear trees everywhere reminding us of why the national flag features one. We set up the tent and collected wood from the fire, reminiscing about how long ago it was that we were in Q. Jabar whilst letting Ray Mears down in our consistent wrong identification of which trees were actually dead and which were just pretending, with green on the inside. Scratched arms, inflated masculinity. Heading back down to the inhabited area with a couple of cafes, a quad bike rental ($1/minute, unbelievable!), tat shops galore and a hotel, we found out that in the night it gets down to about -1 and that we would bloody freeze. Haggling at the hotel, we agreed on a price for a tiny room, climbed back up, packed up the tent and had the fire anyway on a hilltop to the setting sun. Night fell and we clambered into our sleeping bags next to the glowing embers and we gazed up at what are the best stars I have ever seen in my life, in every tiny area of the sky there were dozens and the lack of light affecting the vision as well as our height made it breathtaking. Shooting stars aplenty, we discussed in true hippie form how it was so crazy to have wars and kill each other when there was such beautiful enormity emphasising so well the inconsequential futility of it all. Maybe the peace talks should be held on a mountain in sleeping bags, then they'd get somewhere. Why doesn't anyone ever look up any more, man?

Posted by kmaw 15:23 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

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