Sun, sand, friendly locals, naked frescoes and a deviant hitchhiker – discovering Qasr al-Kharana, Qusair Amra and Al-Azraq
08.04.2012 - 08.04.2012 29 °C
When travelling to the massively under-populated and decisively dry east of Jordan, one has to be prepared for a multitude of unusual sights, ranging from camel crossings and suspiciously looking barb-wired areas to panzer-tank road signs, hitchhiking policemen and frequent reminders that Syria and Iraq are a mere wrong turn away. Most of this, of course, we did not know when we se off early morning in a quest to visit some desert castles, a wild-life reserve and a black basalt fort famously used by Lawrence of Arabia. But unprepared were we not – the Duke in his foresight packed something like ten litres of water, and clearly learning from his past mistakes, a similar amount of sun screen. We were going to get dangerously close to the desert after all.
Despite being generously offered to drive, I even more generously declined, remembering our experiences of the previous day. Driving in Amman is so much more enjoyable when you have the time to repeatedly declare that your map, contrary to the road signs, is in English, and therefore you unfortunately cannot help to find the right way out, but if it was down to you, you would have turned right at the previous junction. Mere two hours after we set off, not a little pleased with ourselves, we victoriously concluded that we probably just left Amman. Our suspicion was confirmed with a rare appearance of an English sign, which I could successfully reconcile with our map.
Once we were on the only main road heading east, relieved that he probably had a few hours without having to face another confusing junction, even the Duke relaxed a little. The only fact spoiling our marital bliss was the military precision with which he followed the speed limit, being continuously noisily overtaken by just about everyone else on the road including a pre-WW2 tractor and a fully loaded oil-tanker.
We thought that by now we were familiar with just about every challenge of driving in Jordan, but we were wrong. What we didn’t anticipate was the possibility to actually drive right past a sight we set off to see because once again, the signs were less than optimally placed after the junction to the actual sight. We quickly realised our mistake and cautiously pulled into a car park surrounded by tour busses and chauffeur driven Mercs.
Qasr Al-Kharana is a well preserved desert palace sporting 61 rooms spread on two floors, with visible signs of fairly recent occupation by local shepherds. The temporary use of the most magnificent sights as animal stalls is apparent throughout Jordan. Until the fairly recent past when Jordanians realised there is money to be had by preserving and presenting their rich history, castles, Roman ruins and elaborate forts were regarded by locals as shelters against the harsh sun, sand and wind, leaving permanent damage in form of wall engravings and fire soot.
As soon as we finished our walk around the site and approached the strategically placed coffee / souvenir shop by the gate, local men accompanied by bored looking chauffeurs visibly lit up at the prospect of breaking up their lazy morning by talking to two strangers. Happy to comply, we accepted an offer of a Turkish coffee and a seat, only to be instantly descended upon by the only fluently English-speaking man of the bunch, who proficiently monopolised the conversation. As became customary throughout the trip, our dare-devil spirit demonstrated by not having a driver with our rented Citroen C3 earned head shakes and raised eyebrows. On the positive side, it became extremely practical when trying to politely decline never-ending offers from taxi drivers to take us to the next must-see site.
During this impromptu break we not only learnt that many Jordanians have relatives in Germany, generally as a result of university studies, but also that the grandfather of one of the locals used to keep his goats in the desert castle. We further learnt that contrary to what the current landscape might suggest, a few decades ago this area was covered in lush greenery with generous herds of deers and antelopes. Well, there was no evidence of it now. Another theme which extended to other parts of Jordan, courtesy of Amman channelling out underground water to accommodate the rapidly growing city.
It was also during this break when I started harbouring suspicion that there is some kind of a pan-Jordan training rolled out to all locals, in order to present Jordan as a friendly and welcoming place to the suspicious outside world. Irrespective of age and their knowledge of English, first contact with every man, woman and child would always start by ‘Hello. Where are you from? What’s your name? Welcome to Jordan’. By contact, I also mean the 90% of the time when people literally run up to us to take our picture and welcome us to their beautiful country. Their almost tangible effort to reassure everyone that they are a peaceful nation and not every Arab is a terrorist was moving. In turn, we did our best to frequently use the couple of words we knew in Arabic, which was very much appreciated.
Positively upbeat by our first successful stop outside Amman, we continued towards Qusair Amra. Rather unusually, interior walls of this little castle are covered in colourful frescos depicting decadent scenes with native animals and nude women, albeit unimaginative engravings took their toll here as well. No wonder UNESCO decided to take this rarity under their wings.
For me, however, the most memorable part of this stop was an uber-friendly security guard who took shine to the Duke. Luring him into a dark corner at the back of the castle, the unsuspecting Duke engaged in an elaborate game of trying on a Bedouin scarf (which I took a picture of), only to be rewarded by a shower of kisses from a stubbly Jordanian (which I was prevented from snapping by laughing too much).I would swear I even saw a tongue but the Duke swore he wouldn’t.
Our brisk departure from Qusair Amra had nothing to do with the possible sexual dangers lurking in the corners of frescoed rooms, but more with a bus full of French tourists who decided to see exactly the same places as us, at exactly the same times. Being selfish as we are and preferring to see sights instead of the backs of wide-brimmed hats, we embarked on a quest to outdrive the bus. We started well by leaving before them, but despite not getting lost this time, by the time we arrived at Al Azraq, they were already there.
As a town on a junction to Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Al Azraq is conveniently set-up to accommodate pass-through traffic of truck drivers and policemen, but that’s pretty much it. Dusty streets with non-looked after houses are covered in ever-present litter, with little giving away the presence of once prominent Roman castle serving centuries later as a basis of the legendary Lawrence of Arabia defeating attacks from Damascus.
Having found the black basalt fort by the trademark tour bus parked outside, we ventured in and were positively surprised by its size. Its scale is in a stark contrast to the two much smaller sandstone castles in Qusair Amra and Qasr Al-Kharana. Especially impressive are the massive basalt doors at the main entrance into the fort, which we feebly attempted to open before being rescued by an amused looking guard. There’s nothing like a first impression.
Before I was willing to even consider looking for the Shaumari wild-life reserve which was supposed to be somewhere in the vicinity, I needed food. It was an early afternoon and my stomach insisted on being fed. Fortunately, a few hundred meters down the road from the castle we spotted a sit-down restaurant. Unfortunately, the bus got there first. Another unfortunately, the prices were monopoly-driven, taking advantage of the painfully obvious lack of decent alternatives in the area. Too hungry to care, we sat down to enjoy what turned out to be a very decent, though overpriced meal.
Travelling is so much better on full stomach and so we didn’t even mind when after half an hour drive on the world’s pottiest road, a sign informed us that Shaumari Reserve is closed for ‘reconstruction and development’. Not repelled, we skilfully located another nearby Reserve on our map, this time the Azraq Wetlands, and headed there instead.
Trying to repair the damage to formerly fauna and flora rich areas caused by lack of water, a number of reserves has recently been opened in Jordan, in an attempt to reintroduce locally extinct species. The Azraq Wetlands, although registering first successes, are still waiting to see if the millions of birds historically choosing Jordan as a half-way stop during their south migration will return.
The Wetlands were open, but we were the only guests there and soon realised that with the scorching early afternoon sun, given the chance, most birds will be having their siesta somewhere shady and quite probably out of the reach of my camera. Instead, after briefly consulting our map and a travel guide to reassure ourselves that there is nothing else worth a stop around us, we folded back into our boiling car and started to drive back to Amman.
Being strangers in a middle-eastern country, we were not quite sure what was the right etiquette for encountering a hitchhiking policeman accompanied by a middle-aged man with a handlebar moustache. Not convinced that our failure to stop wouldn’t trigger a message to the nearest machinegun-armed truck along the road with instruction to stop us by less agreeable means, we pulled up. As a punishment for our naivety, we had to put up with an hour of increasingly suggestive remarks from the non-policeman (the only English-speaking one of the two) who took it upon himself to find out my age, convince me to drive the car or at least to take off my sunglasses and to tell him about how I like to swim naked in every available body of water I find myself near. Let it be noted that this was the first and only time in Jordan I felt labelled as ‘an easy western woman’ which subsequently made me rather uncomfortable. But then again, he did have a policeman with him so kicking him out didn’t seem particularly clever.
Duke’s discomfort, on the other hand, was demonstrating itself by aggressively breaking the speed limit for the very first time, in an attempt to offload our unwanted cargo asap. So much so, that me of all people had to ask him to slow down so that we wouldn’t be accused of kidnapping an armed policeman. After what seemed like eternity, we hit Zarqa, which was our cue to stop and wait for them to alight from our car, which they fortunately did. That’s not to say that they didn’t try to convince us to take them to Irbid, which is near Syrian border and so in the completely opposite direction to where we needed to go.
Once back in Amman, we surprised ourselves by how easily we located the Amphitheatre and even found a good parking spot.With about three hours to go before sunset, we took our time admiring the impressively preserved Roman site with great views of the Citadel Hill, before moving on to take a walk around the neighbouring souks.
Unlike the shopping area we visited the previous day with clothes boutiques and gold-stores, these stalls offered a multitude of household goods and fruit and veg, as well as furniture and carpets. I love browsing through souks and soaking up the hustle and bustle of the locals going about their everyday business and tourists searching for the perfect souvenir whilst avoiding getting ripped off, so we were in no hurry to get back to the hotel to clean our dust-covered corpses and prepare for dins. We even found a store selling freshly squeezed orange juice and so it was a while before we finally settled in for our last night in Amman.