Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Karak and Dana, Jordan

Dead Sea mountains

Our next step ended up being both of us jumping in a cab to the Dana Nature Preserve with a short stop in Karak to see a crusader castle. If we were biking, Karak would have been in our next stop. However, since we were cabbing it, it would be cheaper to just stop for a little while in Karak and move on instead of taking 2 separate rides. This would also give us a little wiggle room later in our schedule. We considered taking the cab all the way to Petra, but we were sick of being in the car by Dana. I chose not to ride because the ride would take up most of the day and Betty would have been traveling solo. She was fine with that, but I believe the reason to travel with someone else is to spend time with them. I would have felt guilty going solo.

Another one of those colorfully painted trucks that I saw all over Syria.

Mountains on way to Karak.

In the past, I have always enjoyed castles the most from the outside. The insides have all been stripped or have been turned into museums. I think just looking at the outside lets my imagination run. When visiting Karak, I had really just wanted to see the castle from the outside. However, the town is built around three sides of it and while we were in the car we didn't realize we were on the open side of the castle until we were under it. Maybe because I never got a good view or maybe because I went inside, it just didn't capture the imagination the way so many castles in Europe or Crac des Chevaliers did in Syria. Worth a drive by? Yeah. Worth a visit? Maybe. It is the biggest castle in the country and they did have some good falafel right outside the entrance, but you can get that anywhere.

Karak valley

View from Karak castle.

The best part of the cab ride might have been teaching the driver about his own country. There are three north-south traverse roads in Jordan, the Desert, King's, and Dead Sea Highways. We got picked up on the Dead Sea highway and he drove us up to Karak where the King's highway passed through. Dana is also on the King's Highway. However, instead of taking King's, our driver tried to go an hour back down the mountains to the Dead Sea Highway, traverse there, and then go back up the mountains. We stopped him and had him go the other way, but he was confused. We didn't understand why until he stopped to ask for directions. Betty said she could see him checking out the new terrain while we were heading to Dana.

King's Highway

A nomadic village along King's Highway.

This lake and black hill are some of the rare natural features that broke up the brown mountains monopoly on the scenery.

We rolled into Dana after dark and settled in for a quiet night. We probably could have spent the entire night marveling at our hostel. The layout made no sense. It seemed like they had one building and they chose to reclaim another that was falling apart to expand to and then another and then another. Where needed, they just built in a new wall. It was crazy. Even inside the buildings, there were steps going in a few different directions. The decor in the communal areas was Bedouin, but the individual rooms all had their own curious themes. I think the room we chose had dolphin stuff in. I should have taken more pictures. Our host was a curiosity too. He spoke English well, but he insisted on finishing every conversation with multiple 'Welcome to Jordans.'

Parking for your transport here, car or donkey.

The Bedouin decor in the Dana Tower Hostel.

More Bedouin decor. This is a different room. Honest (photo by B. Cremmins).

The Dana Tower Hostel and its future buildings to expand to.

In the morning, Betty and I both woke up with wicked headaches. We wondered if it was something in the room, but never figured it out. Our intent was to go on a hike in the Dana Nature Preserve before heading down to Petra. However, after going to the visitor's center, we learned the only hike was a 5 hour downhill into the valley that ended at an ecolodge. It took 7 hours to get back out. The lodge sounded fantastic, but we didn't feel we had time to stay another night or the desire to hike down and pay someone to drive us back out. We decided to just soak in the amazing view from the valley rim and then head onward.

Dana Nature Preserve.

The valley that leads down to the ecolodge.

Luckily, when we were getting ready to leave someone else also was trying to get a cab to Petra. We loaded up my bike and headed out. According to the locals, there were no major hills. According to my map, we crossed one wadi which meant there would be. I really struggled with whether to ride and meet Betty or to take the cab with her. In the end, I thought getting to Petra earlier so both could spent 2 days exploring Petra would be better than getting there late and possibly only having a day to explore.

Shobak Castle

The drive to Petra was more of the beautiful Jordanian highlands. It turned out that the locals were right for a change about how big the hills were. We passed the Shobak crusader castle, stopped in a small town or two, appreciated more of the highlands, and finally arrived at the gem of Petra, Jordan.

It was election in Jordan and these rally tents were everywhere.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Dead Sea Highway and Wadi Mujib, Jordan

The Dead Sea mountains.

Dropping out of the highlands back down to the Dead Sea did not turn out to be quite the bike ride that I had hoped it would be. Instead of taking the same route down, I opted to go another way that would take me over new terrain. I rode the plateau for an hour or two before I got to go downhill. When I did get to the downhill, day light was fading. I was able to enjoy half of the downhill, but it was dark before I got all the way down.

The road across the wadi (river canyon) in the Jordan highlands.

On the way down, I passed a police check point. The regular routine ensued. "Who are you? Welcome, welcome! Where are you from? American? Obama! We like Obama! Where are you going? You are going there? That is too dangerous. You can't go there. Yes, I can. I have been biking since Austria. Since Australia? No, since Vienna. Oh. . . . well, OK. It is very dangerous though. Be careful. Thank you, ma salama." And away I go.

It turned out that they might have been right about the danger. I should not have been riding at dark. As I descended back down to the Dead Sea highway, I saw very few cars but one pulled into my lane as I was going by. I don't know if he was trying to scare me or just wanting to use up the entire road. I didn't like it. I didn't really have a choice about stopping though. Betty had my gear in the cab. I ended up riding at dark because I made a mistake about what time the sun sets. I thought it set at 6pm. It really set at 5pm. I had been caught in a timezone change. Oops!

The Jordanian Dead Sea coast view from our campsite.

By the time, I got down to the beautiful, mountain lined, Dead Sea Highway, it was dark. Very dark. Whenever cars came, I got off the road. As the evening wore on, the wind picked up. It was blowing garbage everywhere. It was swirling. Sometimes helping me. Sometimes stopping me. On one long stretch, I remember leaning to one side to counter act the crazy amount of wind that was blowing. I couldn't believe that I wasn't just falling over. At another point, I was about two feet from my first dog bite. I have had a lot of luck with the dogs this trip because I can usually see the danger coming. In the dark, I didn't see this one until he was almost on me and I was going up a hill. Ugh. Tired legs. Most of the Dead Sea highway is flat. There are some hills. I didn't like them when all I wanted to be is getting is off the road quickly.

Sunset over the Dead Sea.

When I finally rolled into the Wadi Mujib reserve area, it was not clear where the camping was. I had a map, but it didn't seem right. It had me going towards an industrial area and dog filled checkpoint. I thought I must be wrong and continued to the bridge that crosses the wadi (river canyon). After looking around, I realized that the industrial site must be near where I was camping, lovely. I went down towards the site, but luckily some guy stopped me and sent me in the right direction back along a rode that passed the checkpoint with all the dogs barking. I couldn't see them in the night to know if they were tied up or not and I was on a rocky road that I had no chance of outrunning dogs on. I found our campsite a couple minutes down the rocky road.

Our 'campsite' had a fantastic view.

The campsite was not a campsite at all. It was overpriced single room chalets. Each room has a bed, a refrigerator and air conditioning. They share one common bathroom. It was a nice enough place to stay, especially after a tough bike ride, but I had been hoping to save some money by camping. Oh well. Betty had tried to find a campsite, but soon found herself in the uncomfortable situation of being surrounded by men who were trying to help.

The start of the Siq Trail at Wadi Mujib.

The Siq Trail in Wadi Mujib.

The next morning, it was time to explore Wadi Mujib. Most of the hikes in Wadi Mujib require a guide, that cost a little too much. I had heard the funnest hike was the Siq Trail up to the waterfall. Also, it did not require a guide. I had hoped to explore more of the park, but it seemed to strike a good balance between exploring the park, being cheap, and giving us time to get to the next destination.

Watch out for falling dice.

A video of a Japanese guy coming out from trying to go under/around the waterfall.

The hike requires that everyone take a life jacket because most of the hike is in the water. We were visiting at the end of summer, so the water was pretty low. In the spring, you can be forced to swim across certain parts. The start of the hike is in a wide canyon where the wadi is about to run into the Dead Sea. However, as you get up around the first bend, it narrows significantly. It reminded me of the slot canyons of Utah, but not as narrow. The hike ends at a waterfall. In between is a lot of walking, a little climbing, and a few ropes to haul yourself over slippery or steep rocks.

The crazy patterns on the canyon wall in Wadi Mujib.

A close up of the patterns in the canyon formed from the rushing and eddying water in Wadi Mujib.

The colors in the canyon were outstanding. Everything seemed to have a red-orange hue. In some places, it seemed purple. In those colors you could see the different current patterns that had shaped the canyon over the years. We went so early in the morning that we ended up not catching too much sunlight on the way up. On the way back down though, it was good to see the canyon in a different light. I would definitely recommend this hike, especially if you need to get out of the heat or wash the Dead Sea salt off if you went for a swim.

Betty is still a bit hungry from traveling.

Salt capped rock along the salt capped Dead Sea shore (look at the blurry ones in the background).

After finishing up with the hike, Betty and I once again were trying to figure out our next step. Her bike had not arrived yet. It had gone to Brazil. I don't know why it took us so long to decide where to head to. I think it had to do with being lazy, taking a nap, resting in the hammock, and playing on the shores of the Dead Sea. On the shores, it was amazing to see the salt layers that were left behind on the rocks. Some were solid 10 by 12 inch pieces. I couldn't believe that a salt structure could be so strong. When we were finally packed up and ready to go, we went back to the visitor's center to wait for a cab and be attacked by flies. We could have taken public transit, but I didn't feel like switching buses multiple times. Back to the King's Highway!

Oh, the horror, the horror, the flies!

Madaba, Jordan

The Dead Sea.

Getting motivated to go ride up 1200m after a day swimming, getting a massage and other spa silliness, and laying around was not easy. I really wanted to stay put. When I eventually drug myself out the door, I found myself going the opposite way from a large cycling group. They were doing a supported charity ride in Jordan. It was great see so many other cyclists on the road.

The road to the highlands.

The road up to Madaba was great. All of the roads in Jordan are great. Actually, almost all the roads in the Middle East are great. They don't have the wet icy winters that we have so once they lay asphalt, it stays in good condition. The biggest worry is how fast cars think they can drive on those great roads. Luckily, there weren't many cars at all where I was. I was taking a back road and, I guess, it wasn't a popular time to be visiting the Dead Sea.

Steep switchbacks.

The 20km uphill to the highlands plateau was brutal. It was not the steepest terrain I was on, but it might have been the steepest over the longest distance. I can't believe that some of the switchbacks had me gaining 20m of altitude around the turn. I know this sounds ridiculous, but look at the picture. Luckily, the scenery was great which I got to enjoy double because I was biking up the hill so slow. There were a few towns and homes that looked like they might only be inhabited part of the year. Outside of that, it was brown fields and brown mountains with the Dead Sea as a back drop.

Abandoned buildings on the ride up to the highlands.

A home.

Jordan mountains.

When I reached the plateau, I was racing against the sun again. I had underestimated how long it would take to bike up the hill. I barely lost that race and found myself biking into Madaba just after dark. Getting into town after dark made finding my hotel difficult. I had to ask for directions three times before I made it. I really wish I had only had to ask two times. I missed a turn after asking the second time and had to double back part of the way and ask again. On the way back, I hit a car. He cut in front of me from the opposite lane to do a U-turn. I didn't think I could stop in time so I just opted to veer to the left. Unfortunately, he couldn't make the turn in one try. Instead of moving onward so I would have enough room to get around, he stopped and I hit the rear quarter panel. I had slowed down enough that it wasn't a hard collision, but I wasn't happy. Neither were a couple of my fingers.

My hotel's idea of secure wireless access. At least they had Internet.

Shortly after that, I found my hotel and checked in. I expected Betty to show up a little past my bed time. I wasn't sure if I should stay up or take a nap. Knowing Betty, she would be very chatty when she showed up no matter how long she had been traveling which would not jive well with me being so tired. I opted to stay up and hope Betty wasn't that chatty. I should have napped. Betty's plane was an hour late, I think. Then, she had to wait until all the luggage was unloaded to find out they had lost her bike. She got in way past my bed time and was very, very chatty. I was definitely looking forward to chats, but I figured we had three weeks of biking to get those in.

Madaba is famous for its mosaics.

Waking up the next morning offered up a whole series of questions. Questions that we were going to try and solve on not enough sleep. We waffled between staying an extra day in Madaba, which we had no major interest in, to wait for Betty's bike, or to move on via another form of transportation. After wasting away the entire morning, we tabled any decision until we explored Madaba. Madaba is best known as the town of mosaics and the home of the oldest known map of the Holy Land, a mosaic on the floor of the Saint George church. The map dates from the 6th century.

The first known map of the Holy Land.

Our stroll around town must have cleared our heads because when we got back, we were sure what to do. Leave Madaba. It had been a nice enough stroll, but we just didn't have time to hang out if we wanted to see everything we wanted. The airline lost the bike. They should be able to deliver it to us anywhere. We decided to put Betty in a cab to Wadi Mujib along the Dead Sea. I would bike back down, but farther south than the resorts, and meet her there.

A statue in a roundabout in Madaba.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Almost Rags to Riches: West Bank, Israel to the Dead Sea, Jordan

Roaming camels.

When I left Jerusalem, I expected a tough ride. The Judean Hills had been rough on me and I thought there were more. Luckily, there weren't. It was big plateaus and bigger downhills to Jericho and the Dead Sea, which are below sea level. On the way, I broke my maximum trip speed again. This time I hit 75.6 km/hr. I think I could have gone faster but hit the breaks.

This looks like a picture of a camel, but is really a picture of the flies I had to deal with whenever I stopped.

On the way to Jericho, I was riding though the desert. I saw nomadic homes. I saw my first camel farm. There weren't many towns. There wasn't much agriculture. I assume part of this is because Jericho is in the West Bank, part of the occupied territories. I don't think Israel is going to spend too much money on an area that might one day be spun off as an independent state, if the road map to peace is ever followed.

An overlook of a place I can't remember the name of . . .

That attitude might also explain the condition of Jericho. After passing a police checkpoint, I headed right into to town. Town wasn't much to look at. It didn't seem as bad as the high population poverty areas I have seen, but it didn't look like it was going to prosper anytime soon. Languid is probably a good adjective to describe it. After a quick snack, I left the oldest (10,000 years) and lowest (-260 meters) city on Earth to cross the border back to Jordan and play in the Dead Sea.

This kid was so excited about his camel ride.

Leaving was pretty easy. I got hassled a little bit by a plain clothes officer at the border of the West Bank. It is odd to think that so many Israelis said it would be dangerous to visit the area. No one bothered me at all. I don't understand it. I know there were huge lines of locals trying to leave the area that had to be security checked, but no one even seemed to give me a second look. Maybe, I wasn't in the right area. I don't know.

It was interesting to see the commitment to praying while traveling across the border.

At the Jordan-Israel border, it was a lot more chaotic than my previous crossing. The facilities weren't as nice and the waits to be processed or catch the bus (I couldn't bike across again) were a lot longer. My jaded thoughts say that this is because it is the West Bank border that Palestinians use. I passed the time chatting to other Westerners who were getting frustrated with me at watching bus after bus of West Bankers leave for Israeli while we kept being told to wait 5 minutes for the non-West Bank people's bus. Three hours later, it came.

After crossing the border into Israel, I headed for the Dead Sea. I passed up a chance to see where Jesus was baptized. I didn't want to visit anymore monotheistic religious sites for a couple days. I wanted to celebrate what was, in a way, the end of my trip. My friend Betty was going to join me at the start of the King's Highway in Jordan in a day, so MY trip would be over. Ours would begin.

Getting ready for a little R&R at the Movenpick.

I had hoped to camp to save money and then live it up at a spa. Unfortunately, there wasn't much shrubbery to hide behind while camping and there were so many military guys around that I wasn't comfortable trying to rough it. I went to the cheapest hotel and they were full. The spa I wanted to visit was next door. It also happened to be one of the more expensive hotels. I decided I might as well go for it. If I was going to celebrate and experience what the Dead Sea is famous for, then I might as well go big at a place that even has peanut butter in their breakfast buffet.

Dead Sea sunset.

Dead Sea sunset over the pool.

As always, the fancy hotel gave me a lot of weird looks about the way I looked and why I was on a bicycle. However, after a couple minutes I was checked in to my hotel with a free soft drink minibar and heading for my first Dead Sea bob. I say bob because you can't really swim. When you stay vertical, the water comes up to just above the nipples. It looks like people are standing, but they aren't If you try to dunk yourself vertically, you can only get down to your chin and then you bob back up to around just below your nipples. If you lay on your stomach, it feels like you have a floatie on your neck and your ankles. Your back gets bent in an unpleasant way and no one stays in this position for long. Laying face down is a drowning hazard for reasons I can't fathom. Maybe because your back can't bend enough to let you get up for air. No matter the reason, wouldn't you just roll over?

Dead Sea Drowning Hazard: Floating on your front.

People floating on their backs, bobbing (No, they are not standing), and covering themselves in Dead Sea mud.

The best way to experience the Dead Sea is to float on your back. You can pretty easily stay level or just let your butt sink while your head and feet stick out of the water. I always thought fat floated so this seems opposite, but it works. The reason that you float so well is because the Dead Sea is so salty, six to ten times saltier than oceans. According to wiki, the Dead Sea is 33.7% salinity "though . . . some hypersaline lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica (such as Don Juan Pond) have reported higher salinities." I love that wiki had a reference to Antarctica that I know. Anyway, this high salt concentration means you don't want any of this stuff going into your body. If you have a cut, it will burn. If you get it in your eyes, it will sting. If you drink it, you will be lucky if you vomit. I even have it on good authority that if you urinate or fart, that will also be unpleasant.

Infinity pool.

I had only planned to get a massage and use the spa facilities, but then I decided I was probably only going to be at the Dead Sea once so I signed up for the 'what they are famous for' package. Step one was having someone aggressively scrub your body with salt. It was like the Turkish bath, but a lot more abrasive. It was not the most pleasant thing in the world. It works as an exfoliate and makes your pores more receptive to the other things they are going to do like, a mud wrap

Relaxation lounge.

You too can cover yourself in mud.!

Step two was a mud wrap. They take mud from the bottom of the Dead Sea and rub it all over your skin. It is supposed to pull some stuff out of your skin and put others in. I asked what the difference between the mud in the spa versus the mud that people were given for free on the beach was. They said the spa mud was cleaner. I can't imagine much in the Dead Sea being much cleaner or dirtier. I think the only industries on the Dead Sea are mineral extraction. After they smear you in mud, they wrap you in plastic and leave you while the mud dries. Then, you rinse it off. My skin did feel softer when I was done. I'm glad I experienced it, but I won't be rushing out to do it again. Maybe I'll do the free one. The massage at the end was alright, but not the best. That might be because the guy who did the salt scrub, also did the mud, and also did the massage. I am used to specialists in the USA instead of generalists. Oh well. It was a great relaxing morning was quickly undone on my afternoon bike ride up to meet Betty in the highlands of Jordan.

Peace of mind.