Plodding around Petra

Petra is around three to four hours by road from Amman so I had an early rise. I packed the bread I’d saved from the previous day, some crisps, some water (highly recommended) and a packet of moderately acceptable biscuits and walked up to the JETT office, arriving as they opened at 6am.

I seemed to be about the only person not carrying a suitcase as every other passenger was heading to Petra and staying overnight. Some to see the city for two days, others to continue further down south to Aqaba. I’d opted to just do a return trip and blast my way through the place in a day. Not recommended in guidebooks, but I’m a quick walker and have a short attention span, as proven in various places before now. Angkor Wat is probably the best example. Yes, I’d go back but I still think two days would be too much.

The journey didn’t start too well. The bus was comfy but very soon smelled rather scarily of fuel. Our driver pulled up, checked something, apologised and then drove on. After another ten minutes, he slammed on the anchors as we passed a garage, reversed back and disappeared off to have a word with the staff there.

Half an hour later, we were back on our way and our fears of bursting into a hydrocarbon-related fireball were laid to rest. This meant we reached Petra a little later then we’d hoped, but I was still sticking to my one-day principle.

For those who don’t know, Petra is a huge “city” carved from stone. The natural rock formations are stunning in their own right, but the man-made carvings which have hollowed many of them out are equally as amazing in a different way. If you’ve seen the third Indiana Jones film, then you’ve seen Petra. The scene towards the end where Ford and Connery encounter the Germans and Indy has to undergo the three tests is set in Petra. The enormous carved sandstone building they arrive at is the Treasury which is fairly near the start of the trek through this fascinating region.

I’m just going to rattle on about what I saw and what I thought of it, but if you want a very detailed but easily readable essay on Petra, you can’t do much better than Petra – Myth and reality by Philip C Hammond. And if you want a photo that knocks spots off any of mine, check out the excellent Panoramas.dk site.

Heading for the ticket office (21JD for a day pass), I got talking to Xavier from San Diego and we decided to “buddy up” for the day. Like myself, he was doing the site in a day and heading back to Amman. Unlike me, he’d made it to the Dead Sea the previous day though he paid a fortune for a taxi driver to do it.

Even this early in the day, it was baking hot though we happily rebuffed every offer of a horse, donkey, camel and cart offering to take us to the end. It seems a common way to view Petra is to take some kind of ride to the far end and walk back to the start. We decided to see how long we had by the time we reached the furthest point and decide then whether to get some kind of four-legged transport at that point.

Shade is granted by an enormous natural fissure through which you walk for a few hundred yards before encountering one of the main attractions, the aforementioned Treasury (actually a tomb). There’s also the first of a million little stalls selling food and trinkets, but it’s so easy to ignore as you look at this phenomenal piece of carving. It’s around 2000 years old yet looks like it could have been chipped into shape shortly before its re-discovery in 1812.

The interior isn’t as large as may be expected, though it looks as though there is a basement area which is inaccessible to tourists. The stone inside is swathed in colours, though whether these are natural to the stone, vegetative or painted I don’t know.

Fending off several branches of the camel world’s answer to AVIS (Xavier convinced them he was camelphobic) we walked further to an area with a large amphitheater, and the Palace Tomb set back and up a cliff to our right. As we scaled the heights to see this building, several of the donkeys in the area decided to have a very loud conversation. Frankly, it was a really scary sound – braying and ee-or-ing echoing back and forth across a stone-clad valley. Freaked me out, anyway. Sadly, I didn’t catch it on video/audio. Actually, maybe that’s for the best.

Back down on ground level, we strode up the Colonnaded Street avoiding children wanting a dollar for a photo, cute as they were. Around here we stopped for a bit of a rest as the remaining section is rather steep. One guy trying to rent us a donkey told us “only a quarter way!” I’m kind of used to those fibs and one look at the map told us he was a factor of three out at least – we’d covered three quarters of the trail.

We set off uphill (well, upsteps technically) and after maybe 45 minutes made it to the Ad-Deir and accompanying cosy cafe. The Ad-Deir is an old monastery and another of the larger, more impressively decorated buildings. The cafe is pretty cool and amazingly not stupidly overpriced. I tried a can of “malt flavour non-alcoholic beverage” which tasted somewhere between crap beer and Ovaltine. Meanwhile, an old man sat in the corner playing traditional music on some kind of stringed instrument.

After the brief rest, we rounded the corner to walk up to one of the lookout points and see over the mountains. Petra is pretty high up, especially at this end, and the view was astounding (once we kicked a gaggle of Japanese tourists over the edge when they wouldn’t get out of the way. OK, we politely moved them but I wanted to shove them over).

And then for the walk back. We worked out we had more than enough time, and sure enough despite not giving in and getting some quadrupedal aid we made it back an hour before the bus was due to depart. We spent a lot of time on the free PCs provided to vote for Petra as one of the new 7 Wonders. In fairness, I did vote for it. I also checked my email and the footie.

We didn’t leak fuel on the way home, though we did pass the KFC I’d spotted in the taxi. This was when I realised how far out of my way the taxi driver had taken me. Nuts. Well, it was his fuel he wasted.

As is part of my mission, though, I had to have something from the Colonel so when the bus dropped me off I shook hands with Xavier, flagged a cab and asked for the nearest KFC. As it turned out, there was one even closer and the driver was a nice guy so got a decent tip. I indulged in a “mega-zinger” (two zinger patties on one bun) and taxied it back to the hotel where I realised that I couldn’t get the Champions’ League final on the in-house cable telly.

Walking around the corner to get some cash, I spotted a huge screen playing the game in a courtyard up some stairs overlooking the Amphitheater. Why not? I wandered over and was charged 1JD to go up and watch it, which seemed fair. It was meant to be 1.5JD, but I claimed I only had one and it was 30 minutes into the game so they let me in for cheap.

So there I was, watching Liverpool vs AC Milan on a screen the size of a wall. In Amman. Overlooking a 2000 year-old Roman Amphitheater. With around 100 Jordanian AC Milan fans (and about 10 Jordanian Liverpool fans). Good game, shame about the result (and lack of extra time).

I got to bed around 1am with my alarm set for 6am and a promise of a wake-up knock on the door. Another early bus to catch to Israel.

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