At 5:45 I woke up and crept out of my tent and walked out alone in the desert. There is something eerily stark and beautiful about the desert at first light. The only sound was of my footsteps in the sand, as I walked to a good vantage point from which to see the sun rise. All around me was the sound of silence. Nothing moved. Only holes in the sand where desert creatures dwelled, and bird footprints next to camel hoof prints told me life existed here. The sun ignited the sky, and it was as though the desert had been given a new lick of golden paint, it glowed and warmed and the sandy cliff were coloured in many shades of brown, yellow and pink. I’d walked an hour but had a good idea of the way back. I got back to the camp in time for an expected breakfast, but no one was awake. I waited a while, read my travel book, then at 7:30am, a van came with 2 men inside who were to be my chaperones to Petra.
We drove off, leaving the silent camp behind. The drive to Petra took almost 2 hours. After an uncomfortable night in the desert, I reasoned that I deserved a bit of comfort, and so told them to take me to the Movenpick. We entered the hilly village of Wadi Musa, which has sprung up entirely because of Petra, and is a collection of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. Despite my insistence on going all the way to the Movenpick, the sneaky duo pulled up some way short and, in a remarkable coincidence, a car pulled up behind us. The thin, crafty-looking man behind it’s wheel came up and introduced himself as Ali. “You want hotel? I know good cheap one.” “No thanks, Movenpick please.” “But Movenpick very expensive.” “I don’t mind, I have discount.” This was true, almost 50%, as British Council teachers are included on the Diplomatic Privileges list here. I don’t often get the chance to stay in a 5-star-hotel, so I was determined to use this privilege to my advantage. I really needed a hot shower and some creature comforts. I’m not a bedouin, I’m not used to it.
Ali accepted eventually, then got in his car and led the way to the Movenpick. Outside, he tried again to convince me to try a different hotel. Then, realising he couldn’t persuade me, he asked me my plans over the next few days, saying he could take me to Amman via the Dead Sea, Mt Musa and various other points of interest for 80JD. He gave me his card: “I’m the friend of them. Just trying to help” he smiled, patting his friends on the shoulder, who looked disappointed that the hotel scam hadn’t worked, and they wouldn’t be getting any commission. They sulkily accepted my 25JD, and I turned to walk straight into the Movenpick, as it was 10am, and I wanted to get a full day in Petra.
The receptionist was a pleasant chap called Hammed, who seemed to take a liking to me, giving me the British Council rate of $105, and upgrading me from a Standard to a Superior room. Grateful, I headed up to my room. Aah! Luxury! Huge room, free tea and coffee, bath, hot shower. I took a shower, then headed out to Petra. The Movenpick enjoyed the best location in Wadi Musa, with the Petra ticket office being a 5-minute walk away. I bought a 2-day pass for 55JD, and began the walk down to Petra, avoiding the legions of horses, donkeys and horse and carriages hurtling up and down promising rides to the Treasury for deceptively cheap prices. I reached the Siq, the winding passageway that leads, after a 15-minute walk, to the Treasury, an iconic image of Petra helped by being the location of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The 1.2km long siq is canyon-like , but is actually, surprisingly, a single block hewn apart by tectonic forces, rather than a gorge created by water. At it’s narrowest, it’s only 2m wide. I strolled down the narrow path, 200m high cliff walls to the left and right, anticipation building around every corner. I decided to take a video of this once-in-a-lifetime (probably) walk to the Treasury. Unfortunately, the weather had just that day taken a turn for the worst, and rain was threatening. I hurried down before the heaven’s opened. Eventually, I saw the first glimpse, and came out into the open to set my eyes on the Treasury for the first time, it’s sheer scale and grandeur breath-taking, the Hellenistic facade an extraordinary piece of craftmanship. Wow. Six columns stretch up and atop them are floral capitals, while the triangular pediment depicts a gorgon’s head. The Treasury, like most temples in this ancient city, was carved from iron-laden sandstone to serve as an elaborate tomb for the Nabataean king Aretas III (c.100BC to AD 200).
I stood looking at the extraordinary sight for 10 minutes, before the rain drove me to shelter. Ill-prepared Brits in sandals, shorts and t-shirts were sheltering too, and, amazingly, it began hailing. “Like being in bloody Scotland” grumbled one freezing Brit, but, as most Brits do, he was taking the unfortunate change in weather in good humour really, with a smile on his face. After sometime, the rain subsided, and I began my walk around as much of the ancient city as I could in the 5 hours I had before the sun set. Here I was, in one of the ‘New’ Seven Wonder of the World, once home to a staggering 30,000 people. I was walking through history. The passage from the Treasury broadened, and I visited a few of the 40-odd tombs and houses that riddle the walls. Beyond is the Theatre, resembling a Roman-era theatre, but actually built by the Nabateans over 2000 years ago. The 3000 seat capacity theatre must have once been a place for sports, theatre, performance of many kinds.
I climbed up to the Royal Tombs, from the top they commanded an impressive view, but the day was, unfortunately, overcast. Still, I enjoyed the climb up, and visited the impressive Urn Tomb, Silk Tomb, Corinthion Tomb, and Palace Tomb. On the way up, kids as young as 8 were riding donkeys up the steps, smacking them with sticks to make them go faster. Poor, passive donkeys…’as submissive as a donkey’ should be a new comparative phrase. Surely one of God’s stupidest creatures. They hang their heads and plod along mournfully, carrying heavy loads without the attitude or desire to complain, perhaps the most passive and submissive of any animal. And so I climbed up and then back down, continuing to the Colonaded Street, which marks Petra’s city centre, built around AD 106, which was once lined with shops and a market, ending with the Temenos Gateway, built in the 2nd century AD. I strolled around the still-under-excavation Great Temple, and then I began to walk up the ancient rock-cut path of over 800 steps to the Monastery. The views on the way up, and the amazing swirling formations in the rock, were well worth the tiring ascent, and the end vista proved more spectacular than even the Treasury. Again, built as a tomb, and, like the Treasury, with a majestic Hellenistic facade, and again, hewn from sandstone. It’s bigger than the Treasury, though not as intricately carved. Still, I found it more impressive, and only one or two people were here, as there was a sandstorm. Every few seconds I was blasted by sand, which bloody hurt, so had to time my photos carefully. Eventually, it got too dangerous to stay around, and I headed back down, buying a snickers bar for energy. By now it was getting on for sunset, so I walked back to the Treasury to take some more snaps via a bedouin stall for a cup of tea and to buy a few small gifts. It had been a truly memorable day.
I popped into the Cave Bar at the entrance to Petra, which used to act as a stable and has since been turned into the only bar in the world to occupy a 2000-year-old Nabataean rock tomb. Had a beer, and got chatting to a British Indian lad called Daniel from Birmingham, who was also travelling alone. We both showed a passion for travel and adventure, and one beer stretched to two, then we had another drink in the Movenpick bar. After that, I needed a soak in the bath, so we agreed to meet later on in the cave bar again.
I enjoyed a luxurious soak in the bath, and half an hour kip, then headed over to cave bar after a pizza to meet Daniel. We had a sheesha each, and 3 or 4 beers. It was pretty quiet here, and people here drinking were all locals in the tourist trade. Ever keen to make money, they offered Daniel a ‘cut-price’ deal to Wadi Rum for ‘only’ 125JD! A huge rip-off. We talked more, about Indian authors, about girls, about travel….then it was time to turn in for the night.
Another dream fulfilled, another amazing place ‘off the map’. I was happy, but still intended to pop down to the Treasury again first thing in the morning after breakfast to get some better snaps, weather permitting.