Thursday, 11 November 2010

Blogger on holiday

Blogger and habibi Helen finally managed to take their summer holiday at the end of October, and in a desire to find somewhere warm and sunny decided to go to the Middle East, Syria and Jordan specifically.

So it was that at 03:30 one Monday morning we arrived at Damascus airport. Crazy time, but for some reason that is when Middle Eastern airports operate. We took a taxi into the city to our booked hotel, through empty streets, nobody walking or driving except us, until we approached a roundabout near our hotel at which point another car lurched out from the right and stopped in front of us. Although our driver had plenty of time to react he decided to drive towards it at high speed and screech to a halt, just missing it. This gave him an excuse to wind his window down and shout abuse at the hapless driver.

He then reversed and accelerated around the back of the car, but to our alarm the other car sped after us and cut in front so that we had to stop. They proceeded to hurl abuse at each other for a minute or so, until, honour obviously assuaged all around, the other driver pulled away and left us with our own driver telling us, "These Syrian drivers are animals". Welcome to irony-free Syria.

In fact, after this early morning incident, despite travelling through many swirling, lane discipline-free high-speed rush-hour motorcades, we never saw or came close to a motoring incident. For which I say, "Al hamdu li Allah".

Inside the Ummayad Mosque
The Khan As'ad Pasha

We stayed for a few days in Damascus, adjusting to the very different culture, taking in some of its wonderful sights, such as the Ummayad Mosque and the Khan As'ad Pasha and eating in beautiful courtyard restaurants like Beit Jabri. We also managed to meet N, a daughter of one of Helen's old friends and her Syrian husband, who proved to be wonderful, kind hosts, offering us a couple of nights in their apartment as we passed in and out of the city.

From Damascus we took taxis into Jordan to end up at Petra, where we stayed for three nights at a 'Bedouin camp site' just outside the town.

Just one of the amazing corners in Petra

Unsustainable tourist spotted in Petra
It proved to be a very comfortable base from which to explore the amazing carved city, a place that I had wanted to visit ever since my father had told me about it and I had seen pictures in Look & Learn. It's an incredibly popular tourist site now (and its sustainability is under question), but it is relatively easy to get away from the crowds who stick very much to the main wadi. As keen hill walkers we were happy to climb the steps and rocky path up to the Place of High Sacrifice and then walk across the hills and wadis that feed into the main valley, discovering many more smaller tombs and caves in the hillside that most people never see.

Did I really walk along that ledge?
On our second day some (very expensive) guides showed us how to walk across the desert and into the mountains to approach Petra from the back, the Monastery.
After walking through the desert, the first sight of the Monastery was astounding
This was perhaps one of the highlights of the whole holiday, two hours of walking alone along mountain paths and ledges, looking out over a fantastic rocky landscape that just stretched into a distant nothingness.

TE Lawrence rides again

Aqaba on Sea

We then decided to push on down to the Red Sea and spend a few days in Aqaba. This is a corner of the Middle East where Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia share a few kilometres of coastline with Israel. By night the lights of Eilat shine out brightly across the water from Aqaba, and it was hard to realise that there was such a political crisis in existence between these nations.

Our one day in Aqaba was spent on a tourist boat, watching the coral reefs pass underneath its glass bottom, snorkelling and enjoying a fine lunch.

From Aqaba it was back doors to Damascus all in one day, staying overnight with N before continuing the next day to Palmyra.

The beautiful Tetrapylon
This is one of Syria's major tourist attractions, a ruined Roman city in the desert. The guidebooks say that sunrise and sunset are the best times, and although a minaret 25 yards away from our hotel room guaranteed our waking up before sunrise we decided on the sunset approach.
The Palmyra citadel
We therefore spent one day wandering around the ruins, slowly making our way towards the Citadel, high on a hill overlooking the city, and then sat on the ramparts as the sun slipped behind the far horizon, leaving its trail of magnificent colours.

Burial towers

Sunset tourists
From Palmyra we travelled on to Hama, a city famous for its norias, or water wheels. These date from the early years of AD, when the Romans constructed a network of aqueducts to service the city and built enormous water wheels to lift the water up to the aqueducts.

Many of them have been kept in service ever since, and while they do not always operate we were very lucky the evening we arrived, when several of them were rotating, creating a very distinctive groaning noise as they turned, which reminded me a little of Jimi Hendrix playing the 'Star Spangled Banner' at Woodstock.

Then it was back to Damascus, and a day of shopping before catching the 03:50 flight back to Budapest. Oh, the shock of it. Arriving in the cool, grey Budapest morning at about seven, taxi back to our apartment, a shower and then on my bicycle to work. Grim reality strikes.

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