A Journey to Jordan: Amman, Petra and Wadi Rum

While I was very keen to travel to Egypt, Jordan was not specifically on my bucket list. But the fact that many friends have done these two together, and our travel organizer Travel with Neel had paired them were the reasons I decided to tag along. All that I knew about Jordan was Petra, a place that is among the New Wonders of the World.

Once the trip was finalized I started looking for more information, especially from trusted sources. This is where I heard about the Wadi Rum deserts, and quite a few of my friends were gaga about it. So, by the time I embarked on the trip, I was much more charged up about Jordan compared to earlier.

We traveled to Amman, the capital of Jordan by Royal Jordanian Airlines from Cairo. The Israel-Palestine war had resulted in tight security at the airports in the neighbourhood, and we faced multiple luggage checks and frisking at Cairo and Luxor airports. As we drove out of Amman airport in the evening, the country looked much cleaner and more developed than Egypt. We came to know that the Jordanian Dinar was one of the strongest currencies in the Middle East, and due to their booming exports of phosphates and other chemicals, it was a rich country.

We checked into Olive Hotel for the night, a decent place with very huge rooms. We would again spend a couple of days here towards the end of the trip. Compared to the places we stayed in Egypt, the food aspect here was a bit lacking. Another thing that we realized over the trip (which may be a wrong perception) is that the Jordanians are not as easygoing and friendly as the Egyptians, in fact, many are a bit grumpy. The attitude towards tourists is also not that welcoming.

The next morning was time to check out and move by bus towards the south of the country. Our first stop was Mount Nebo, mentioned in The Bible as a place from where Moses looked at the Promised Land. Most of the tourists were clicking pictures with the statue of a metal serpent that Moses invoked there. The church next to it is from the Byzantine period, adorned with some impeccable mosaic designs.

En route to our next destination Wadi Rum, we stopped at a store where among other artifacts Donkey Milk and Camel Milk Soaps were being sold. It seems these are good for the skin and even Queen Cleopatra of Egypt used to bathe in donkey milk. 

Soon, we entered the huge desert area and reached Wadi Rum in the evening, with an exquisite sandstone look replete with rock formations in the background. There are quite a few camps for tourists in the Wadi Rum desert, and we checked in one of the lovely rows of cottages at the Mazayen Camp. The huge tent where dinner is served seemed straight out of the desert films we had watched in our childhood, and the spread there was the best in our entire Jordan trip. Wadi Rum was the location where the film “Lawrence of Arabia” was shot.

Wadi Rum was a place that touched our hearts with its magnificent views. In the morning, we took an open jeep ride into the desert passing by hordes of camels on the way and marveling at the beauty of the yellow sandy landscape. This was a major highlight of our short Jordan trip. 

From Wadi Rum, we proceeded to the Lost City of Petra, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World announced in 2007, after a campaign selected them from 200 monuments. The rock-cut architecture of the lost city in South Jordan has really put the country on the world map. Built in the third century BC, Petra was part of the trader route between Europe and Asia.

We had a buffet lunch at Al-Qantara Restaurant in Petra city. This was a completely Arabic lunch with a live Falafel counter, and ambience of the restaurant was totally ethnic. In the afternoon, we went for a walk visiting the different shops near the Petra gate. We saw one place where camel meat-based dishes were being sold, but we were already too full to try that out. Our dinner at the hotel that night served Zarb, the traditional rice and meat delicacy from Jordan, where the meat is cooked Bedouin style in pits.

In the evening, we had the opportunity to take part in Petra by Night, a night walk with a group of about two hundred people through the rock city illuminated by a thousand candles. Petra by Night allows a limited number of visitors only three days per week, and it is not to be missed while visiting Jordan. It seems a very long and arduous walk and we had to rest for a while quite a few times, but the experience is exotic with the limited lights bouncing off the rocks and structures around. The walk culminated at Al Khazneh, the treasury of the ancient city, where a musical performance was held for a limited time. This definitely was another major highlight of our Jordan tour. 

Petra during the daytime becomes a hub of activities. We used buggy coaches to travel to the treasury and then explored the other buildings on foot. The city is huge and in a couple of hours, you can only cover a part of it. The whole area had a festive look with people screaming in Arabic, many small shops, horse-drawn coaches, and camels ferrying tourists around. 

From Petra, it was quite a long drive to Amman and we checked back at the same hotel Olive House in the evening. Though the hotel in Jordan (Olive Hotel) had huge rooms, the dinner buffet was kind of average.

There are quite a few places in and around Amman that merit a visit. The ancient Greco-Roman city of Jerash is the first. The city is supposedly there from the Neolithic age but came to full glory during the Greco-Roman period. The Arch of Hadrian, Colonnaded Street, the Hippodrome, and the theatre are some of the highlights here.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan is important as a pilgrimage center for Christians. This place, bang on the Jordan-Israel border is known due to the baptism of Jesus Christ by St John the Baptist. The Jordan River is only a few feet wide, and beyond that, we could see the Israel flag fluttering across the border. A visit here has to be done under strict vigilance by the Jordan army. There is an Orthodox Church near the site that impressed me.

We then proceeded to the Dead Sea, a salt lake near Amman. The mud pack therapy from the mud here is well-known and most of our group members had a bath in the salt-laden waters.

We also travelled to Amman City Centre and visited the 2nd Century Roman Theatre. The theatre which could accommodate six thousand people, now has an attached museum that gives a complete idea of the culture, dresses, and food of Jordan. We also tried the local dessert Kunafa from Habibah Sweets, where people queue up to buy the sweets. I have had Kunafa on many occasions in India, but this was far better.

On the final day our group split. One group went to the seaside resort of Aqaba, while some of us were booked in the evening Saudia flight to Hyderabad via Riyadh. The journey back was a bit of a bother with an unremarkable and uncomfortable night at Riyadh Airport waiting for the connecting flight, where the infrastructure was not up to the mark, including Wi-fi not working and poorly designed chairs. Actually, Indian metro airports are far better than all the airports we visited during the trip.

In my view, Jordan may not be worthwhile as a standalone trip, but if you are visiting a country near by, do add this to the itinerary. Wadi Rum and Petra will not disappoint you.

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Exploring Egypt: The Death on the Nile Cruise and the Temples of South Egypt

While the pyramid remains the star attraction of Egypt, the southern temples of Luxor and Abu Simbel draw a huge number of tourists visiting the country. One more attraction to that part of the country is the Nile cruise, as any Agatha Christie fan would remember from the whodunit “Death on The Nile”. As we assembled at Giza station at the end of our Cairo trip to travel by the Watania night train to Aswan, we were all looking forward to the second part of our Egypt sojourn.

The Giza station was a sea of humanity with different tourist groups occupying different cafes on the station waiting for their train. There were people from all over the world, enjoying sipping their coffees. The small shops in the station reminded me of India, with similar snacks being sold there. The paid toilets were not clean, unlike other parts of Egypt.

The Watania train is much maligned with many bad reviews on the internet. A group of friends who visited Egypt in February with Travel with Neel rued the condition of coaches, especially the toilets and the quality of food. Luckily for us, we found the train quite clean including the toilets. The coupes in the coaches were very small, but me and my wife are accustomed to tough travel, so they seemed a cakewalk for us. The attendant on our coach was jovial and helpful and the food was manageable. In the company of friends, the overnight journey was quite enjoyable. The loveliest part of the trip is the view of The Nile flowing along the train route for a portion of the journey. Also, from the coaches we could appreciate this part of Egypt which was quite green, with some parts even resembling my native state, rural Bengal.

We reached Aswan around 10 o’clock and headed for the Aswan High Dam on the Nile. This is one of the highest dams in the world, and the view was lovely from the top. We were soon near the Nile jetty at Aswan and boarded the famed cruise that would be our home for the next 3 nights. The cruise would take us back northwards to Luxor passing by many monuments and temples on the way. Our cruise ship Concerto-2 had four floors with around 60 rooms, the restaurant being in the basement. There was a bar on the 1st floor while the rooftop housed the smoking area, another bar, and a swimming pool. The rooms were cozy with all modern facilities and with a large glass window, from which one could see the blue waters of The Nile. 

The buffets that we enjoyed on the cruise for the next 3 days were sumptuous. With soups, a range of salads, many veg and non-veg dishes, live counters, and many desserts and fruit options, most of us indulged in overeating. On the first day though we retired early as we had to travel to Abu Simbel at 4 am the next morning. While moving around in different parts of the cruise ship, I could not help but think about the murder from the Poirot story taking place on the cruise.

Abu Simbel is almost a four-hour journey from Aswan. We left the cruise as early as 4 am and boarded the bus to the location. I am not a morning person, so usually these early trips are a bit of a bother for me. But nonetheless, at the strike of dawn, the look of the desert and countryside worked as a rejuvenator. Abu Simbel is possibly the most visited tourist spot in Egypt after the Pyramids. There was quite a crowd queuing up in front of the main temple of Pharaoh Ramesses II, but the wait was definitely worth it. The huge statues and the lovely carvings inside and outside the rock-cut temples were exquisite. We also visited the temple of Queen Nefertiti. Abu Simbel also has about two dozen shops on the way to the exit where one could pick up a wide variety of memorabilia. 

We were back on the cruise in time for lunch. The cruise started to move for the first time, departing northwards towards Luxor. We enjoyed the scenic Nile River and the surroundings sitting on the top deck and next to the swimming pool, nursing cans of beer. I always find it enchanting to look at the happenings on the river banks from a moving boat, one can get a lot of ideas about the people and their livelihood. There were many cruises which were moving together in the same direction as us.

In the evening after dusk, we reached Kom Ombo temple right on the bank of the Nile. The temple which was not very large was lit up brilliantly. Part of the Kom Ombo temple was built for the crocodile God Sobek, who was revered and feared by the people at those times. We also had a look at the museum just next to the temple that housed mummies of crocodiles. The market here was the cheapest of the entire trip, the vendors were almost ready to hand over goods at any price.

The cruise stopped at Edfu for the night. The next day could be called “The Day of The Egyptian Temples”. We were planning to visit the temples of South Egypt on the eastern as well as western banks of the river. While we would be journeying on our bus from Edfu to Luxor, the cruise would also move to Luxor, a distance of around 80 km, and we would board back at Luxor in the evening.

Edfu Temple was built during the Ptolemaic reign, the period just after Alexander the Great when the Greeks made a sustained effort to embrace the Egyptian culture too. As it is with most Egyptian temples it also has huge pillars and large hallways. After a quick look in, we travelled to the Valley of Kings, another of Egypt’s major attractions. By now, I had a little grasp on Egyptian history, especially from the time of the Pharaohs. The Valley of the Kings, a site with tombs of the Pharaohs was especially interesting as it had the mummy of Tutankhamun, another name familiar from my childhood, for which there is a separate entry fee. We also visited a few other tombs that were open including that of Ramesses II. Again the carvings and decorations inside the tombs were fascinating to behold. 

The lunch on this day was a highlight as we were taken to an African restaurant on the banks of the Nile. The food was wholesome and tasty despite having very few spices, and I especially loved the soup and the roasted chicken served. As I always feel on my different trips with them, Travel With Neel has a special focus on local food on their trips, something that tour operators often ignore.

We then had the opportunity to take a ferry ride across The Nile reaching the huge temples of Karnak and Luxor that were only a few miles away from each other. Frankly, by now the marginal keenness of visiting a new temple had decreased for many of us. But Karnak impressed us with its vastness, with huge columns, statues, and bylanes. Our guide told us that this was a temple that was developed over centuries by several Egyptian rulers. In fact, it is the ruins of a town by itself. Karnak is famed for having a great Sound and Light Show, but we had to miss it due to time constraints.

The temple at Luxor was just a few miles away. It was dusk by the time we reached, and the temple premises were beautifully lit up. The statues and pillars looked beautiful against the light. The Café inside the temple campus rejuvenated us with some good coffee before we came back to board our cruise.

The last night at the cruise was festive. The management had arranged for a cultural program, with a belly dancer to boot. This was followed by a Whirling Darvesh dance. I had missed the latter in Turkey last year and appreciated the fitness of the dancer here. The next morning it was time to go, our flight to Cairo and subsequently to Amman in Jordan for the next leg of the trip was scheduled on the same day.

A big shout out to Ali and Bassam, our guide and organizer for this Egypt trip. Both the brothers were ever smiling, and the latter was a repository of knowledge about Egypt, ready to share with anyone willing to grab it.  Under the able guidance of Indranil our tour organizer from Travel With Neel, they were always forthcoming to sort out any small glitches on the trip. For a place like Egypt with lots of places with historical significance, it is important to have someone with deep knowledge guiding you and Bassam fitted the bill absolutely well.

Also Read: Cairo, Alexandria and The Pyramids

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