Historic Holy Land: The South

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November 8th 2014
Published: December 19th 2014
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The second part of my trip to the Holy Land took me outside of Jerusalem to explore the rest of the country. Leaving Jerusalem as another terrorist incident occurred, I boarded my bus that drove eastwards towards the Dead Sea.

Whilst Jerusalem and the area around was very hilly, eventually you get to a huge valley, marking the border with Jordan, which at the bottom is the Dead Sea. As you then wind down the hill side there are some plaques denoting the elevation. And it is not long before you reach the "0m - Sea Level" sign. Fair enough, except when you look out to your left, you see the valley continues even further. Then it goes down "-200m", and you're still barely half of the way down. Passing by the Masada, I eventually arrived at the spa resort of Ein Bokek, lying 426 metres below the sea level, the lowest dry point on the planet. It is a scary thought that you are so low, but luckily the nearest sea is around a three hour drive away, and I wasn't there for too long.

Getting out in a lovely 27˚C, I took a short walk to the public beach, and then took a dip in the Dead Sea itself. The feeling is quite sensational, as even in my tiny frame you start to float immediately, and in any position you fancy - arms spread out, arms crossed on your chest, arms crossed behind your chest. Swimming backstroke there is a beautiful view whichever side you lay. On one side you look at the resort town itself with the large beachfront hotels with their palm trees and a backdrop of the stunning mountains, whilst on the other side you the Jordanian mountains reflecting in the very water you are lying.

After having a float for around an hour, I then took a shower, got back changed and took a little walk to the Petra Shopping Centre - the lowest place to shop in the world, before waiting at the bus stop for my onward bus to Eilat.

Eilat is the southernmost city in Israel and is separated from the rest of the country by the huge Negev desert. From Ein Bokek at the edge of the Negev it took around three hours of almost emptiness to reach the resort on the Red Sea. Taking an early night, the following day I was collected at my hotel at 6:30am (no problem, as sunrise was already 2 hours earlier) to take me to the Jordanian border, for I was on a day trip to Petra.

Arriving at the border to enter my 45th country, it soon became clear I was the only member of our group for the day below the age of 35, and one of the few without grey hair. But this was no problem, as it made it easier for them to talk with me. I got many questions about why I was travelling alone, where I was from, where I had been before, from the mostly Americans who had toured all around Israel in the last fortnight, and made friends with the other two Brits, Tim and Wendy from Bath, who it turned out would subsequently be on my flight home two days later.

Crossing the border into Jordan was no problem, and we met our guide, Ali, on the other side where we were given a quick view of Aqaba, the Jordanian port on the other side of the border. Going to a vantage point, we could see the Gulf of Aqaba, where Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all crowd over this small area of water. We then drove up the country, passing Wadi Rum, before getting into the mountains on our way to Petra.

Arriving at Petra was again very commercialised, with salesmen trying to send all types of tacky gifts, scarfs and bangles. Ignoring them we carried on our walk down into Petra, with the rocks getting more and more steep and the track getting more and more windy. And then it hits you - the Treasury. Carved out of the sheer rockface and opposite the Siq (the pathway into the whole area), it is one of the most beautiful sights in the world. Ignoring all the commercialisation and the hundreds of tourists around who are all wanting that same shot as you it is still and impressive site that goes beyond the photos, and it was amazing to think until the 1980s this was still inhabited. Whilst we didn't get to spend that long in Petra, for me it was not much of a problem, as I'd seen most of what I had wanted. And after taking lunch we headed back down to the border with Israel.

Leaving Jordan was no problem, but coming back into Israel after walking across no man's land was not the case. As the lady at the border gate did a check through my passport there she saw my stamp from the UAE. Before I knew it, I was asked to place my bag down at the side, walk through the security scanner and sit on the bench on the side. Whilst she called for back up on her walkie-talkie and the guy with the huge gun turned up, I sat there and waited....eventually after showing my passport to her colleague another lady came and "asked me a few questions".

Where was I going in Israel? How long had I been in Jordan? How long was I going to be in Israel? Where had I already been? Who did I know in Israel? Where do they live? Who did I know in Jordan? With who else was I travelling? Why did I come to Israel? Why did I go to Jordan? Where do I live in England? What is my job in England? What did I study? What is the relevance of that to my job? Can I just clarify everything all over again?.....Even if I had written an autobiography on my life she still would have found something to ask me!

But I remained calm, answered her questions, for she was only doing her job, and she then escorted me to the security check, when she became more human and asked me if I liked Petra - yes, I said, it was still worth the effort of getting there. After passing this, I was then finally allowed to make my way to the border control. "Why are you coming to Israel" said the border guard - "Oh for God's sake...here we go again, can't she just ask the lady I just told my life story to?!" I thought to myself as I rolled my eyes..."I am holidaying" I said, before she asked me the standard, "who do I know in Israel?", "Where do they live?" questions. She then asked me what my job was...as I said admin. "Oh, computers?". I nodded "Why do computer people always travel alone?". As I laughed this off I then got the standard "Welcome to Israel" as I was handed my passport and allowed to reenter the country and continue my journey.

On my final full day in the country I woke up in Eilat, and took a little tour of the city, heading down to the beach before taking the bus back up to Tel Aviv. I then arrived just before the sunset, which would enter the Shabbat. Having checked in at the hostel I then headed off to Old Jaffa - the oldest part of Tel Aviv, where the Old Port was illuminated.

Old Jaffa was a pleasant surprise, being much nicer than I had imagined - Whilst Jerusalem is the Old City with all the history, Tel Aviv for the most part is a modern secular city, so to find some historic pretty buildings that looked so pretty was rather surprising, and gave me something to enjoy on my final night. I then headed up the promenade walking towards Tel Aviv proper, before heading back towards the hostel via McDonalds and the most amazing McFlurry I've ever witnessed (tonnes of M&Ms AND Mango Sauce, scattered throughout the ice cream).

The following day was my family reunion, as I was picked up outside of my hostel and taken to my aunty's house, by her husband and spent the day with her and her family. Having only met her once since I was little, it was also time for me to have a catch up and ask lots of questions about her life since she moved to Israel. I was taken on a tour of their village, where the wall separating the Palestinians from the Israelis is visible, as well as a tour of their house. "It's very much the same as you have in England...well, except this room" I was told as I was led behind the kitchen..."oh it might be a pantry or something" I was thinking, before I saw the thick walls and solid iron door that is clearly used as a shelter in the event of rocket fire. "We only used it four times during the summer" I was told...

Enjoying a lovely barbeque and catch up I was taken back to the airport after a week's long travel. Once again I was subjected to many questions, and ranked 5/7 on the security risk scale, but after few real problems I headed through into the departure lounge, where after a proper Granny wave I met up with Tim and Wendy from my Petra tour again, telling them all about my day with my aunty, and them telling me all about the rest of Petra after we left and they stayed an extra day. They then asked me what I thought of Eilat, or "Benidorm on the Red Sea" as they called it - not that they'd been to Benidorm - I agreed with them on that, and I hadn't been there either! We then made our way to the plane for a particularly boring 5 hour flight in the dark, with no newspaper, Internet, entertainment or view to look at. But eventually we landed back at Luton, and after saying goodbye to my new 'besties' I headed home to rest!

Despite being a little nervous about going after everyone repeated the same line - "oh, is that safe?", I'm glad I went as I saw so much, and it really did feel safe. Had I not seen the news and heard there was all the trouble going on, I wouldn't have even known. And anyway, I lived to tell the tale!



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