Trip to Jordan

This will be my longest post so far, so bear with me! Jordan is definitely one of the most exotic places I ever traveled to, and to be honest, I feel accomplished that I made it there. Jordan is surrounded by areas which currently host the world’s worst wars, so it’s not hard to imagine why I was initially concerned about traveling there. Before my trip I also made sure that going there wouldn’t cause me problems entering US later, since there are new rules about travels to areas with terrorist activities. It wouldn’t. Jordan is perfectly safe, and is doing quite decently compared to its other neighbors. I was also very lucky to have a friend there who spoke perfect Arabic and lived in Jordan before, which surely enhanced my experience of Jordan. While Jordan is generally tourist-friendly, speaking Arabic is definitely a big advantage there, since it makes it easier to do things like organize a tour to Wadi Rum, call taxis, etc. Thank you very much Madison Marks!

The above is also the reason why I went there in summer — I believe it’s much better to travel there in winter or fall when there’s not much heat. However, note that it does snow there in winter, and driving through snowy mountain roads may not be the best things to do. Fall or Spring seems the most optimal.

JordanPass

Before my trip I bought JordanPass. It is an amazing deal if you visit Jordan, and I definitely recommend getting it! It gives you a free visa (which otherwise costs 40JD), and lets you enter Petra (which starts with ~50JD), among all other things. Besides Petra and the visa, I only used it for national museum, but it’s still worth it! Also, it is a good idea to print multiple copies of it, since e.g. the border officers didn’t return the copy to me.

Flight to Amman

I already felt I was in a different culture right after the flight took off — things were less organized, louder, and at some point there was quite an argument in the middle of the plane in Arabic. Unfortunately I didn’t understand what it was about, but it was still interesting to watch. I also noticed that I was probably one of the few people in the plane who didn’t speak Arabic. But I have dark hair, so it happened to me quite a lot that people would speak to me in Arabic, only to find out later that I don’t understand a single word. The funniest was when on my flight to Vienna I was asked to sit in the emergency exit nearby, since there were kids sitting there (which isn’t allowed). The flight attendant explained me this for around half a minute, only to hear “Sorry I don’t speak Arabic” at the end. I bet she was quite frustrated haha

Food at Aspire Lounge in Zurich Airport. PriorityPass pays off!
Arabic!
Take-off!
Airplane food — quite delicious!
Flying over Israel
Desert dunes!

Arrival

I went to the visa purchase line upon arrival, even though I had the JordanPass. You still need to “buy” the visa, even though the visa is free. There were very few people waiting in line — in front of me were two people from Gulf countries, and a guy with German passport who spoke Arabic. I showed my JordanPass when it was my turn, the border guy spoke something in Arabic to his colleague, and then I was asked to follow him to another room. I was like “oh no, questioning”. There’s been a lot of news about European citizens, especially with immigrant background, traveling to Middle East to join ISIS, so I naturally thought it was their concern. In that another room I was greeted by an officer who didn’t speak a word of English, so I was escorted to the office where there was another officer who spoke a bit. I showed him my documents, when meanwhile he was trying to fix his copy machine. He asked me “What is your proficiency?” (he meant to say profession), which made me giggle a bit, but I told him seriously that I’m a software engineer. He then laughingly pointed at the copy machine and asked me if I could fix it, to which I pointed to the computer on his desk and told him that’s what I do. He looked at my documents, and then picked up his phone to call someone. He mentioned JordanPass, and then started reading numbers. At this point I understood what the problem was: their system to verify the JordanPass wasn’t working, so they had to manually verify it. After verification, he wrote something on my JordanPass in Arabic (I guess something like “this guy shall pass”), and told me to go back to the border line. There was a flight from Iraq at that time, so the line for visas was full. The Iraqis were being questioned a lot, so every person in the line took quite a bit of time. Instead of waiting the line again, I found the officer who took me to another room, and asked him if it’s OK to cut the line, to which he didn’t refuse, so I proceed. Just in case, I had all of my itinerary printed out, but they only asked for the first address. After that, they stamped my passport, and I was in!

I have to say that Jordanian officers are overall nothing but friendly. Border officers were very courteous and nice, and even though we gut pulled over multiple times while driving to places, they were just checkpoints, and the officers were never rude or unfriendly. But one thing to note is that they are not always in a hurry, which means it may be a good idea to tell them you have things to do. I told them that I had my friend at the airport waiting for me, so I didn’t have to wait much long in the room.

After I got my luggage, we proceeded to get a car at a local rental company. I have to note that you should not expect the same level of organization as in western countries — the process took quite a time, and for some reason after they charge your credit card with the machine, they also print out and make you sign a form to authorize the charge. This kind of “double charging” is apparently a norm there.

Day 1: Dead Sea

After renting a car we drove to the Dead Sea. I stayed in Holiday Inn, where I was treated quite nicely, just because I was a registered “loyal” member. The “loyalty” was obtained just by registration, so even if you stay once in a hotel, do register for the loyalty program! (EDIT: it may have been because I booked with Google corporate rate)

The hotel was very nice! It’s definitely a good place to go if you want to have a vacation by the Dead Sea. But one bummer was that they closed all the pools after sunset, so no night swimming :( I arrived there at night, so I could only watch the belly dancing show they were having. But instead I decided to go sleep early, so that in the morning I can enjoy the sea.

On the next day, after a nice breakfast, I went to the Dead Sea. At around -400 meters, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth. Its very high salt levels allow no life form to exist there, so it is literally dead. Swimming there is fun — it’s practically impossible to drown, since the water just pushes you up due to salinity. It is also hard to stand straight, since a bit of an inclination in your stance will push your legs in front of you or behind you. The only thing to watch out for is making sure that your face, especially eyes and lips, don’t get any contact with water. I briefly touched my face with my hands, and it hurt for around 2–3 minutes! I saw an Indian guy dive into the water, and he immediately got out and was in significant pain — the lifeguards had to come and wash his face. That’s what lifeguards do there!

Note that Jordan is quite diverse: western clothing is popular there, but you will also see many women entering the sea fully covered. While it may not be a popular destination from western countries, there are a lot of tourists from Gulf states. So keep an open mind!

Mudding

Mudding is definitely something you need to do at the Dead Sea! The mud from the bottom of the sea has a lot of minerals, and is very healthy for the skin. Even after a single application my skin felt better! Though I’m not sure if it was just the mud, or also the saline water. But I’ve been told that if you want long-term effects, you need to do it for a week or two.

Belly dancer
Holiday Inn pool
Mudding!
The sign I wish I saw before rubbing my hand to my face
Red sand! And my hairy legs haha
Panoramic view

Petra

The next day we drove to Petra, to stay there for a day, and then head out to Wadi Rum desert. Drive to Petra was already an adventure for me — I saw rural and suburban Jordan, and it is quite different from urban Amman. Buildings are sparse from each other, and you’ll see herds of goats and sheep, and occasional horses and camels! Here I have to note that the air gets chilly and fresh during and after the sunset. That kind of a chill after a hot day, combined with foreign alphabet and language around me, gave me a really interesting feeling of an exotic location.

We stayed in Moevenpick Hotel. It’s a bit pricey, but a perfect location to tour Petra, since it’s right next to the entrance to Petra. I strongly recommend waking up as early as you can to start the tour, since it get much hotter after around 11am. I also strongly recommend hiking boots — walking around in Petra and climbing up to the monastery is quite a hike, and sandals, like I had, isn’t the most comfortable footwear.

I had to get a ticket to enter Petra, but my JordanPass made my entrance free. But a tour guide isn’t included in the ticket, so I had to pay extra for that. Do get a tour guide if you can afford it — they know a LOT! I paid 110JD to my tour guide(50 for the main tour, 50 for extra to go around Royal Tombs, and a 10JD tip. Tips aren’t expected in Jordan, but I felt like it was the right thing to do), and I believe it was worth every JD! Note that this was for a private tour, i.e. he guided only me. They didn’t do group tours, since they didn’t have many tourists. My tour guide was an archaeologist by training, and he told me not only about history of Petra, but also how the archaeological discoveries were made.

The main part of the tour covers Al Siq (the passage), treasury, and brings you all the way to the bridge from which you can start climbing up to the monastery. The extra part of the tour will take you up to the Royal Tombs, and will give you a closer look to Petra’s carved structures. If you’re down for some climbing, definitely take the extra tour!

Once the tour was over, my guide left me at the bottom of the mountain which takes you to the monastery. It’s quite a climb! It took my around an hour to get to the top, and I was going quite fast (I remember only one person overtook me, whom I overtook later). The monastery is marvelous! But you should not stop there — around a quarter mile more walking will get you to the top of the mountain named “Best view in Jordan”. It offers an superb view of surrounding mountains, and it’s definitely worth seeing! There’s also a Bedouin guy there who offers you Bedouin tea in his tent, among other things. He speaks surprisingly good English, which he told me he learned right there at the mountain! He also told me about how he lets his goats go down the valley where they feed, and come back to him every 3–4 days for a better grass.

Along the route you’ll see many Bedouins offering you donkey or camel rides. I saw some people take it, but I decided to hike on my own for two reasons. First, I wanted to see if I’m fit enough. Second, riding those stairs and hills on donkeys and camel seemed quite bumpy, so I wasn’t sure whether it would be harder to climb up stairs, or keep the balance.

One sad thing I noticed was that most of cafes in Petra were empty. When I asked my guide about it, he told me that tourism in Jordan is suffering big time due to wars all around it. In fact he didn’t have any customer in 10 days. This might have been because of a hot summer, but overall I bet Jordanian tourism is taking a hit.

Water

Pack enough water, but keep in mind that the water you carry makes the climb harder! So unless you’re really financially constrained, it’s a better idea to buy water on the way. A liter of water costs around 2JD (a liter is around quarter a gallon), and half a liter is around 1JD. I had two half a liter bottles with me, and I bought the third one on my way back.

It’s very tempting to consume large amounts of water in a hot weather. But I found that it gulping water as much as possible isn’t the best strategy, especially considering that I didn’t see many restrooms in Petra, and I didn’t find it appropriate to “go behind the bush” in a historical site. I found that the best way to keep yourself hydrated is to consume small amounts of water only when your mouth feels dry. I also used “checkpoints” — like I said to myself I’ll only drink water when my guide drinks (I’m in my late 20s and fit, and he was in his 50s. I assumed I was more capable of dehydration). Or I’ll drink water only when I’m around half-way down from the monastery. Using these strategies, I only drank 1.5 liters of water in 6 hours I spent in Petra.

Saying no when you mean it

Before our tour began my guide gave me a very useful tip: along the road you will see many people offering you to sell stuff, ride animals, or even ask for money. He told me you should not be like “maybe later”, because they remember you when you climb down, and remind you of your “promise”. I actually witnessed this happen! So you need to say a bold no if you mean it.

Another thing he told me is that I should not buy stuff from kids. He said Jordanians believe that those kids should be going to school, and not selling stuff to tourists. The man had a point, hard to argue against that.

Ride to Petra
I don’t know exactly where this was, but it should be somewhere near Amman, on the way to Petra
Same place as above
On the way to Petra
On the way to Petra
View from hotel
Inside Moevenpick
Moevenpick ceiling
Al Siq
The famous treasury!
Monastery
Cliff at “Best View in Jordan”
Best view in Jordan!
Panoramic view
The Bedouin who spoke quite a good English, among with many other languages!
Some Bedouins still try to live in those ancient carvings, but the government is trying to kick them out of there

Wadi Rum

After seeing Petra, we headed to Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum is a small village of around 3000 people, but it’s famous for its mountainous desert. Our guide, Abdul, later told me that everyone in Wadi Rum “has the same grandfather 500 years ago”. There are a few camps and camp operators there, and most of them speak decent English. We stayed in Wadi Rum Sunset Camp. This camp was around half an hour jeep ride away from Wadi Rum. It had nice tents, showers, and even a solar panel! I’ve been later told that it was a project from UNDP, and not their own initiative, but I’m nevertheless impressed! As I mentioned above, tourism in Jordan isn’t very good right now, so we were actually the only people in the camp, except the couple who lived there to maintain it. They also cooked us local Bedouin dinner and breakfast, both of which were very delicious! You should definitely try Bedouin mint tea!

Even though there was a bright full moon that night, the stars were amazing! I took multiple photos with my DSLR camera, which I still need to process. Nights in deserts are somehow magical — cold fresh wind, sand dunes, and silence create a calming feeling of serenity. None of us slept in tents that night, and instead chose to sleep outside. However, the night got really cold, and I couldn’t immediately fall asleep, so I proceeded to sleep back in my tent.

We woke up at around 5:30am to watch the sunrise, and also to have an early start on our desert tour. We opted for a 2-hour desert tour, and camel rides. The desert has many rocks you want to climb, but otherwise it’s quite monotonous. The camel ride was amazing! Unlike horses, camels are very bumpy! Also, getting on and off them requires quite an effort to balance! At the end of my ride Abdul told me that I should have crossed one of my legs over the front bump of the camel, which indeed felt much better when I tried it. So useful to know it at the end of the ride! -_-

Kerak Castle

On our way back to Amman we made a stop at Kerak Castle. It was built by Crusaders, to be later captured by Mamluks. Therefore, it has two architectural styles — one with bigger stones from Crusaders, and more refined finer stones from Mamluks. It had a lot of rooms, tunnels, and passages, which is very interesting to explore! I probably didn’t spend as much time there as I should have, since I was quite tired from touring Wadi Rum. I felt quite gross from having sand all over me, so I couldn’t wait to get back to Amman.

Driving to the camp
Tents
Moon during sunrise
Our camp
Sleepy selfie
If I had to describe Wadi Rum in one picture, this would be the one
Panorama
Sunrise
Bedouin tent
Our tour guide Abdul. He also showed me how to tie the headscarf.
Riding Abdul’s jeep
Camel ride!
Wadi Rum
Desert road
Desert panorama
I believe this was the east side of Kerak castle
Climbing up
and up!
Sunset over the dead sea on the way back to Amman

Amman

After checking in to my hotel near circle 2, I took a really long shower to wash off all the dirt and sand from the desert. My next day started with a visit to King Abdullah mosque, which is one of the biggest mosques in Jordan. There is a huge church right next to it — I believe an example of modernism, tolerance, and diversity in Jordan. After the mosque, I headed out to the National Museum. It was pretty much standard history museum, but due to Jordan’s ancient history, Jordanian national museum had a lot to cover. An interesting thing I found was that apparently there were Circassians living in Jordan — and they look exactly same like Circassian that live in North Caucasus!

After the museum, I was supposed to head back to the hotel, so that we can drive to Madaba. This was the time when I saw the most frustrating thing about Amman — getting a cab during the day is impossible! I’ve been waving to so many of them, and only one of them stopped. But he didn’t speak any English, and didn’t know where my hotel was (now I realize I should have told him circle 2, instead of the name of the hotel). Finally Madison had to order a taxi for me — luckily the museum had WiFi which I could use to message her! Bottom line: don’t count on being able to get a cab by waving to it.

Madaba

As I’ve been told, Madaba was founded by Greeks who ran away from Kerak. I’ve visited the church there, which has a mosaic on the floor dating to Byzantine times. It’s known to be the first ever map of Holy Land. The church small, but one could feel the huge history behind it. I got to climb the tower where I took panoramic pictures of Madaba, and I even got to ring the bells when it was time for it! Actually, I was still on the tower when it was time to ring the bells, so I had to rush down as fast as I could!

Besides its history, Madaba is a nice small Middle Eastern town. Shops, cafes, etc. It didn’t feel as rural as Wadi Rum or Petra, but also not as busy as Amman.

Nightlife in Amman

We went back to Amman after Madaba, and went out in Rainbow street (nothing to do with LGBT, just named like that). Rainbow street is very lively, vibrant, and modern. This is where I saw how diverse Jordan is — conservative rural Jordan is so much different than modern and open-minded Amman! I felt like I can find everything in Amman that I’d find in a western country. I even found a hipster shop where they printed t-shirts in an hour!

The highlight of the night was trying Mansaf! It’s a traditional Jordanian dish made from yogurt which is stirred and cooked for many hours, and it’s very filling! I’ve been told that it’s a dish which usually knocks you out, but it didn’t fill me up! I could have even eaten the second one probably. I guess I have high tolerance for filling food since I usually eat a lot! Haha

The next day I saw Roman theater and Citadel. My JordanPass worked in both of these places! Citadel was quite empty — at some point for around 10–15 minutes there was absolutely no one around me! There are tour guides there, but this time I felt like walking around on my own, armed only with a map of the place.

Coming back to my hotel I witnessed a really weird case of a road rage! It was a traffic jam and the taxi next to me (probably) cut off this other car. Two guys from the other car just came over to the taxi, and started to punch the driver! The passenger of that taxi got out of the car, and went around to fight the guys, but then they started arguing, and afterwards those two guys left. I was totally surprised by this — how could one start a fight in the middle of the road! It actually created a worse situation, since the taxi didn’t move afterwards (my taxi left, so I didn’t see what happened later). Also, I think it wasn’t smart to try to punch someone sitting in the car without first taking him out. The driver could have just pulled him in, and elbowed him to KO. Anyway, that was my thought and action plan at that situation, if those two guys would decide to come to my cab, for whatever reason.

King Abdullah mosque
Inside King Abdullah mosque
Korans inside King Abdullah mosque
The church right across the King Abdullah mosque
Flags in National Museum
Typical Bedouin household
Circassians in Jordan look awfully similar to Circassians in Northern Caucasus!
Traffic
Houses in Amman
Mount Nebo
Greek Orthodox church in Madaba
The view from top of the church
Inside the Madaba mosque seen in the picture above
Amman at night
Hookah bar
Delicious Mansaf!
View of Amman
Roman theater
Temple of Hercules
View of Roman theater
Royal Lounge at Amman airport

Vienna

On my way back to Zurich I stopped for a day in Vienna. It cost 100 CHF less to come back on Tuesday instead of Monday, so I decided that I better put that money into a hotel, and stay a day in Vienna. I’ve been in Vienna once before, when I missed my connection due to huge lines at the border, and got stuck there for a day.

I seem to have a very bad luck with the border in Vienna airport — once again there was a huge line there! Automated border machines didn’t work, and the lines were quite unorganized. I had a hard time figuring out which line was which, since I wanted to make sure I’m in the EU line. None of the lines seemed to move very fast, but towards the end the EU line moved faster.

I took an Uber to my hotel. Fun fact: rides to and from Vienna airport always cost standard 30 Euros. When I came to the hotel, I was informed that I’ve been updated to a suite, and I can access executive lounge for breakfast. Sweet! I got gold status at Hilton hotels due to a deal with Google, I believe this could be the reason for the upgrade.

I went to the city right after I dropped off my luggage in my room. I only had that single evening to see Vienna, since my flight was at 11am the next day. My hotel was next to a U2 line station, so I got off at Karlsplatz to tour the city. It was around 9pm when I got there, and I ended up walking all the way to Taborstrasse to take the same U2 back to my hotel. I didn’t manage to see much — just the Opera and the church. But I did get to have Sachertorte, which was a delicious calorie bomb!

Line at the border
View from my room!
Vienna Opera
A downtown street in Vienna
Sachertorte with Vienna coffee

Thoughts

It was very fascinating for me to witness life in Jordan. Besides my home country, this was the first time I traveled to an exotic developing country. Life is much different there compared to western countries. It’s less organized, more relaxed, and much simple. Indeed it was sometimes shocking to see how simple lives some Bedouins lived. On the one hand, it seems to me that they must have happy lives, since they’re not having a busy office/home/gym/etc life we are used to having in western world. On the other hand, I feel like they have so much less opportunities than I do. Very few of them have an opportunity to get a higher education, travel the world, or do something big for their communities. I was born in a developing country, so seeing such lack of opportunities isn’t very foreign to me. Being in Jordan kinda took me back to those times, where I was thinking that I had to do something miraculous to make it big in the world. It was a refreshing experience to be reminded of the life I used to have, and now I’m definitely more grateful for all the things I have.