Jordan and Saudi

March 4th - March 18th

“So how long have you two been travelling?”
“Oh, just a bit over ten years...”
What, ten years? All by bicycle? Where did you go?”
“Well, up and down South-East Asia a few times, through China to Europe and back by different routes, the Middle East, Iran, and some more places I guess.”

We were flabbergasted. We were in Jordan, just south of Aqaba, speaking to Katia and Mirko. We had met them the day before, as we crossed by ferry from Egypt. I mean, we had travelled far already, all the way from The Netherlands... and these two remarkable people had done at least 20 times that distance, by bicycle!

“And where are you going now? Back home?”
“Yes and no. We will cycle to Turkey, leave the bikes there for a month and fly to Europe to sell some of our handmade jewelry. With the money we make we will fly back, pick up the bikes, and head to Iran maybe, or north to Armenia or Azerbaijan. From there through Kazakhstan and China to Laos, Cambodia, who knows? But that will take about a year... or more”

As I sit here in Northern Cambodia, on a wooden terrace overlooking a beautiful stretch of the mighty Mekong, I cannot help but get distracted from my purpose: writing my travel story about Jordan and Saudi. Sometimes meeting people define our experiences more than the country’s natural and cultural wonders. Meeting Katia and Mirko certainly got us thinking: how much longer would we be on the road?

Wadi Rum
A kaleidoscope of colors and vistas: Wadi Rum is like a theatre, but of such a scale that it boggles the mind. The stage is multicolored sand dunes, red, beige and sometimes black. Rocky cliffs rise up a kilometer behind this stage, clearer and higher than possible to imagine. The cliffs seem two-dimensional in the shimmering hot desert air, and hide behind each other as your perspective changes. As you move through the sweltering sands, whether by camel or car, the feeling grows that you are inside a picture box, and the cliffs slide behind and in front of each other. The views make you feel small and insignificant in the raw power of the elements, and make you feel young in its timeless setting.
Wadi Rum is a protected area and designated World Heritage Site. We understand why and urge others to visit. It will take your breath away... we spend two days here, camping in the wild, and were hesitant to leave as there was so much left to explore.

Amman
The capital of Jordan, Amman, is a remarkable sight after cities like Cairo, Tripoli and Tunis. Well-build modern architecture, wide boulevards and roundabouts with under- and overpasses, manicured little parks and clean sidewalks. We came to Amman on an important mission: we needed to get our visas for Saudi Arabia sorted, in order to travel onwards to the Emirates and Oman. We had no idea how long the application process would take: many fruitless phone calls to the Saudi Embassy left us none the wiser. This time we would confront them on their own terrain! We would go to the Embassy and not leave until we knew more... at least that was the plan.
After several equally fruitless visits to the Embassy and the Consulate, we had to give in... the Saudi’s had beaten us with bureaucracy. The only way to acquire our three-day transit visa would be through an agent. Do not even think about getting a regular tourist visa for the Hidden Kingdom, unless you are in a tour group of at least four people, all married couples if this includes women.
With our passports and our marriage certificate we approached an agent. To our surprise, the application would only take three days, for a minimal fee. And we would have to sign a document, a solemn statement we would not have sex in any public places while in the Kingdom... of all things unexpected. With the visas in the making, we left Amman to explore Jordan.

Adaba
This quaint little town is resplendent in historic architecture, of which the most impressive is the Church of the Map. Its floor holds an inlaid mosaic, splendidly colored, of the Dead Sea area. At over a thousand years old, it features all the major settlements and trade-hubs of the era, and the ancient caravan routes. The Church itself lies on the King’s Highway, and while inside it is easily imagined how in days long gone the merchants and caravan leaders would pore over the beautiful artwork, perhaps copying it for their own use.

Umm er Rasas
Even more impressive mosaic work can be found at Umm er Rasas, in ruins of Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim civilizations. At first, following the marked pathways, the area looks like just a hilltop, a pile of stones, until you start discovering outlines of buildings and some half-covered arches. Looking further and deeper into the remains of the once solid-brick, meter-thick walls, details will start to appear. Some arches have Templar crosses carved into the centre-stones, and wiping away some dust and sand you will discover remains of mosaic floors, wall to wall. At the end of the field, you will spot a large metal roof supported by steel columns. Do not turn around; this modern structure might seem uninteresting, but it holds the highlight of your visit. Under the roof, protected from the harsh sunlight, lie the remains of an 8th century Church. The structure holds the largest intact mosaic floor in existence from this era. Metal walkways suspended from the roof allow you to view the floor in all her splendor, while protecting it from damage. The finer details include the seals of all the mayor cities in the area, and in the centre exquisitely rendered scenes of hunting and fishing.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the cleanest, best-maintained and organized site we have seen so far.

Dead Sea
Heading further south, down and up through the incredibly deep ‘Grand Canyon’ of Jordan, we decided to camp by the Dead Sea. How difficult it proved to find a place to camp, until we spotted a narrow track leading up into the mountains. As it got steeper and steeper, we realized we would have to follow it to the end, as there was no way of turning Fiona around or reversing back down. In low gear, we finally reached the top of the trail, amazed at the power of our car. Invaluable experience this would prove in Oman, when we really put her to the test. We ended up in a national park, a reserve for endangered mountain deer. With these magnificent animals at a safe distance, and the Dead Sea down the cliffs below us, we spent a hot but quiet night. And got down safe the next day...

Petra
Busy, expensive and touristic were our first impressions of Petra... busload upon busload of people descend upon this ancient city.
Not surprising though, as Petra definitely lives up to its status of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most people reading this will remember the beautiful ancient ruins upon which Indiana Jones stumbles in ‘The Last Crusade’, the magnificent facade cut out of a cliff wall behind an impenetrable gorge. That is Petra, and there is a lot more of it. There are no words to describe our feelings as we wandered down this gorge in the very early morning (under the watchful eye of a tour guide). I will not write more about Petra, as I simply cannot explain the incredible sensation of stepping back through time this way. Petra easily rivals the likes of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the first time you look up at the Eiffel Tower, or your first steps into the St. Peter in Rome. Magnificent!
A warning: Petra is busy, and the site is slowly deteriorating due to it. When we visited, there were rumors of halving the amount of tourists allowed in per day, and doubling the entrance fees. This way only seriously interested, responsible tourists would enter. The fees are 50 Euro’s per person already. Don’t forget, double the price will still be worth it!

Quseir Amra
One of the most famous desert castles of the Umayyad era, all that remains however is a small hunting lodge. Of the castle itself only the foundations still stand. The hunting lodge was used as a royal retreat, and the interior is considered one of the most important examples of early Islamic art and architecture. Frescoes remain on the ceilings inside, including an accurate representation of the zodiac. Though small and uninspiring from the outside, well worth a visit for the inside.

Oh, and if you arrive around lunchtime, just ask the caretaker for the key and you can let yourself in...

Saudi Arabia
With our visas in our passports, we headed out of Amman. What would the border crossing be like, into the country that is famous for its hesitancy at letting non-Muslims enter? It turned out easier than expected. Within an hour, we were at the final checkpoint, the customs clearance. The car needed to be searched top to bottom they let us know. Until they spotted the brown, covered contraption fitted to our roof rack!
“What is that?” asked the customs official.
“Just a tent.”
“A what?”
“A tent, a roof tent, you know, a tent fitted to the roof where we can sleep in. We fold it out at night.”
“Really?” ...astonished look. “Open it!”
So we did. The perplexed faces on the customs officials, as they climbed up the ladder one by one to have a look, we wish we had the nerve to photograph them. The examination of the rest of the car took only a few minutes...

We did not see much of Saudi Arabia. Actually, we saw a lot of it, but only flying by the car windows at high speed. Three days to cover 1900 kilometers is not a lot, through the desert with a broken air conditioner, even though it was asphalt all the way. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi, so it was all up to me. The longest stretch was well over a thousand kilometers, in a practically straight line, just south of the Iraqi border. To cut a short story even shorter, we made it and happily drove into the United Arab Emirates halfway through the third day. What a relief to hand over the steering wheel to Melody, and start dreaming of our next destination. We would only stay in the Emirates for a few days to recuperate in luxury, and then head to Oman, where my parents where waiting.

Katia and Mirko
Since meeting Katia and Mirko eleven months ago, we have traveled halfway around the world. A few days ago, we received an email from them. They are in Laos, heading towards Thailand as we speak. We are now just days away from the Laotian border. Who knows, maybe we will catch up and exchange stories and experiences. I surely hope so, because we have a lot to talk about!

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