Umm Qais and the Eastern Desert

Full set of photos from Umm Qais and the Eastern Desert

What seemed on paper like a perfectly reasonable day of travel turned into one of the most incident packed I’ve had.  Thinking back it seems hard to believe that this all happened in the one day but such is the nature of travel in a small country, you can pack a lot of sights into very little driving.

We began in the maze of Irbid and followed the brown tourist signs to Umm Qais, a Roman ruin in the far north-east of the country, a simple hour long drive in the morning to warm us up.  The signs kept coming, which is lucky because there is no way you could have just figured out the path we took out of the city through the ever chaotic Jordanian traffic.  The scenery once out of the city was lovely with deep rock studded valleys and rock quarries.  Very soon we found ourselves at the gates to the ruins being given an unasked for introduction to the sights by a tout in traditional dress with a huge urn of juice strapped to his back, a bit like Adam Sandler’s waterboy.  This was an unusual site. Touts in Jordan in general were much more casually dressed and pretty relaxed once you said no thanks.  This guy told us where everything was then insisted we all have a small cup of juice.

We said: no, no, don’t worry.

But he insisted: yes, yes, you have juice.

It wasn’t bad juice, dark purple, possibly grape or pomegranate.

We said: here have a tip for your time.  How much for the juice?

He said: oh, whatever you think is fair.

We said: here’s two dinar (roughly AUS$3)

He said: no, no, you must pay at least $5!

We paid and refused his kind offer of a guided tour.  The ruins at Umm Qais are famed for not only the Roman ruins but for having a much later ruin of an Ottoman-era village perched above it.  We headed straight for the Roman ruins which really capture the eye.  These ruins have not been restored as fully as Jerash and are in some ways the more interesting for it.  They are made up of a small theatre, forum and colonnade flanked by shops but the full extent is still buried underground.  The road is incredible, stretching off into the distance and a good ten metres wide. You can still see where the footpath would have been and wheel ruts in the stone from heavy carts pulling their wares into the city.  The road is in pretty good nick considering it’s over 2000 years old. The large stones are a bit wonky but presumably that is down to a few earthquakes since then rather than faulty Roman engineering.  The road slopes off the each side to allow water to run off the surface. In general the Romans were masterful with water bringing it into towns allow aqueducts, creating huge bathing complexes, sewers and drains.  Pity about the lead piping but that’s hardly their fault.

The ruins here are under partial restoration so some columns have been righted and had new stone added but you can see the excavations underway where huge trenches have been dug into the ground and carefully brushed and scraped to reveal what lies below, which is a lot.  Standing at ground level in one part of the ruin you are standing on the soil debris above the ruins of a two-storey Roman house. The excavations have exposed the roof structure, walls and floor as you voyeuristically peer into the earth.  I imagine it’s post-grad students spending their summers working here and they have a lifetime of work to go before being done with this site.

The Ottoman village was built much later in time at the end of the 19th century but they had no shortage of rocks to use, many of them no doubt pinched from the crumbling Roman site.  The village is abandoned now but illustrates a much simpler building style, or maybe just that they had a lot less money to spend.

We had a quick morning tea drink at the amazing cafe, which is really only amazing for the views. Umm Qais is perched high above the Sea of Galilee which is also called Lake Tiberias.  This area borders with Syria and Israel and forms part of the renowned Golan Heights.  Syria invaded Israel in 1948 but Israel pushed back and now its borders include the Sea of Galilee and areas to the north.  This is historically of critical importance to the Israeli water supply.  In a fairly dry country the Golan Heights provides most of Israel’s water.  In fact the 1967 six-day war was in part triggered by tensions over this water supply.

So sitting as this cafe you can see the place where Jesus performed a bunch of miracles (although walking on water seems more likely to have taken place in the Dead Sea), you can see into Israel and the border with Syria, look over an amazing Roman ruin and Byzantine town, all while sitting in the sun with a drink.

So far the day was going swimmingly and on schedule.  Our next destination was the Eastern Desert which is a flat expanse of sand and rock heading out to the Iraq and Saudi border.  This doesn’t sound a likely tourist destination but along the way you can see the ruins of stone forts, hunting lodges and bath houses built in the 7th-8th century by the Umayyads.

The elite used to nip off into the desert for a spot of hunting and bathing away from the prying eyes of the religious authorities.  So with this in mind we headed back down through Irbid, there being no other road around.  This is where the trouble started.  We were going fine following signs towards Amman with Sarah behind the wheel until the signage stopped coming.  We had either turned to early or not in the correct place.  We now found ourselves trapped in the Irbid lunch-time peak hour traffic crawling along in quite possibly the wrong direction entirely.  Being midday the sun was no guide so we just took a few likely looking streets until we had to admit defeat.  At one roundabout we took a left turn and ended up in a quiet residential street with kids playing.  As we slowly drove along taking in the fact that we were more lost than ever a small child ran out in front of the car.  There are many tourist faux pas that you can commit but killing a small child has to be pretty high on the list, right up there with running over a pig in Papua New Guinea.  As manslaughter charges flashed through all our minds Sarah slammed on the brakes and came to a juddering stop just as the kid ran into our bumper.  His brother, whose chasing had been responsible for his little brother running on to the road without looking, plucked his startled brother off the car back by the scruff of the neck and handed him off to another kid to march home while he gave us a piece of his mind in classic Arab style.  We got the impression that he was asking whether we had eyes.  We pleaded innocence with upraised palms and slowly drove off the other end of the street where we found even smaller streets leading who knows where.

Rick, bless him, jumped out and got directions from a guy who said, “Just follow me” and got us back on the right path.  We lost him in the traffic but Rick, bless him, jumped out with a map and got further directions from two guys hosing down some white goods.  We found the missing signs once again and were on our way to the desert.  The road was still far from clear, even on a highway with just two choices.  Ahead of us there was a road in half ruin, one side of the highway completely ripped up with traffic detours (not signposted) leading us to the other side.  In the other direction a better looking road.  All the signs were in Arabic.  We were pretty sure the beat up road was the right road to take but given that this was also the road to the Iraqi border we though it wise to double-check.  Rick once again jumped out and talked to a couple of guys who had pulled over to help us out.  The crumbling road before us once indeed the correct choice so we meandered our way through the concrete barriers on the highway every time the good road ran out and we needed to drive on the other side.  It was a fitting highway to lead into Iraq.

As we arrived at the one small town between us and our destination the call of nature hit almost everyone in the car at the same time.  I have an inhuman capacity to delay going to the toilet so I was ok but pressure was mounting while no obvious toilet spots appeared.  Eventually Rick just pulled the car over into a dirt patch near some houses with a look of intent in his eyes.  Sitting next to a wall nearby were a group of women and children with no barrier between us and them.  Rick was undeterred and pulled the car to a stop.  We had images of the scene from the women’s perspective.  A car pulls up in a cloud a dust and a white man steps out to urinate in full view.  “You can’t do it here,” Jackie pleaded.  We drove a little further up the road and found a similar rubbish strewn field with an uninhabited wall for Rick to relieve himself.  This time the only company were two small boys who came up to try their luck begging but we didn’t tip on that occasion.

A big part of the problem driving in Jordan were the maps.  They were infuriatingly unspecific.  What looked like a simple route through the city in reality became an overwhelming choice of roads with not much help in which to choose other than the tourist road signs.  This came back to bite us once again as we looked for the first desert castle, a hunting lodge built on one of the few hills out here.  What on the map was portrayed as a simple road off the highway became an informal tour of the light industrial zone in the area.  Far from being a remote desert escape the hunting lodge was now swallowed up by the encroaching urbanisation of Amman.

When we finally arrived it was at a beautiful time of day with the sun slowly setting over the desert landscape.  We were the only tourists once again and the caretaker opened the metal door for us. Inside there were glimpses of the former splendour inside with mosaics on the floor requiring just a little imagination to picture how it would have looked in its glory days.  We whizzed through the nearby bath house, which although interesting for showing how the water was heated under the floor, we toured as the sun dipped below the horizon leaching the last heat from the air.  The nights got cold very quickly and really all we wanted to do now was get to our accommodation for the night.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to wing it a hotel room for the night.  This worked fine for us a couple of times in the US.  Sometimes it’s not such a good idea and this proved to be one of those.  Even though it was low season so there was no danger of missing out on a room, we would be entering a town in complete darkness in the border areas of Jordan.  As we sped through the darkening desert we looked up our destination once again, Azraq, and found that we had somehow missed earlier that the guide described it as a “glorified truck stop”.  This didn’t bode well for a good nights sleep.  The town is located next to a misleadingly titled oasis.  Once upon a time this might have been a beautiful spot in the dusty desert but the oasis has long since been sucked, not quite dry, but certainly until it’s just a swampy puddle.  There are efforts underway to restore water but it’s a slow effort given all the wells in the area that draw on the groundwater.

There were three hotel options for us to choose from.  We ruled out the budget choice as it had been a pretty long day.  Of the two remaining there wasn’t much to split them and we only saw signs for one, so off we went through the semi-trailers in the pitch black.  After a few missed turns thanks to more ambiguous signs we at last pulled up outside the Al-Azraq Hotel & Resthouse which did not look all that promising, another dud Lonely Planet recommendation described as semi-luxurious (perhaps the emphasis was on “semi” but this is a bit of a subtle way to get the point across).  The manager seemed surprised to see us, which was reasonable given that we were the only hope of guests and he had no idea we were coming.  The hotel was located well off the main road and was in a very quiet location.  This was its sole attractive feature.  The reception was as cold as a fridge but we took the tour to the equally cold guest rooms which had seen better days.  It felt like the hotel had not had any maintenance done in the last ten years, apart maybe from the stack of grey bricks holding up the sink in our bathroom.  To get hot water we were instructed to leave the tap running for ten minutes.  The heating when turned on, after the diesel generator had started, sounded like industrial machinery.  After the wet sheets the night before this was the first thing Jackie checked in her room.  The sheets were dry but had a brown stain running down the middle.  “That’s an old stain,” Rick assured her.  The only saving grace was a pool which it was too cold to use and it turned out was a perfect spot for mosquitoes to breed and pray on guests during the night, even in winter, as we found out during sleep.

But the day had not finished with us just yet.  As we drove off to try and find what passed for a restaurant in this town we got a flat tyre.  Somehow I have never been in a car that got a flat tyre before but I would have traded a flat on many of those blissfully uneventful car journeys rather than get one now.  We pulled off onto a dirt road.  There was a house in the distance but few streetlights.  Youths appeared from the darkness as we got the spare tyre out of the boot.  Rick got the car jack cranking but he was politely eased aside eventually by a teenager who helped get the wheel nuts back on.  If you must know I was holding the light.

A quick wheel change later and we were heading into the very dim lights of North Azraq.  We found one place that looked like it might serve food and they indeed could cook up some chicken for us.  It was well beyond the point for being fussy so we sat in their unheated and freezing fluorescent-lit dining room featuring white plastic outdoor furniture and waited with bated breath for our meal along with one other customer, presumably a trucker.  Happily we ended on a high point and despite eating in beanies and coats the food was great, a quarter piece of chicken with a huge mound of spiced rice and some salad.  After the meal we dragged our weary bodies off to bed where Sarah honestly feared that she would never get warm again.  We cracked the chemical hand warmers Sarah had stashed in her bag and blissfully entered the darkness of sleep with heater on full and ear plugs inserted.

Full set of photos from Umm Qais and the Eastern Desert

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