Trip Archives: Into the Lion’s Den

Almost three weeks of travelling in the Middle East in early 2012.

Bremen – Amman

I’m going into the lion’s den, as they say. Though via a safe bubble. The lion’s den is the Middle East, the safe bubble is Jordan. It is one of the few Arab countries that haven’t seen any violent uprisings during the Arab Spring. At this time last year I had just safely returned from Tunisia, the country that had started it all.

I will meet my cousin Charlotte in Amman and we will go to Israel for a few days. She’ll fly home from there and I will return to Jordan for a few more days before I fly out again from Amman. No bicycles involved.

Easy flight to Amman, via Paris, today.
On the bus from the airport to Amman proper I met Omar, a Libyan. He’s buying cars in Jordan and exporting them to Libya. He proudly showed me dozens of pictures of his homeland, including many photos of himself and his friends (“this guy died, that guy died”) fighting against Gaddafi.

For the first night I had booked a room in the same hotel my cousin and her group were staying in. On check-in I was told that even though they had received my reservation they were fully booked. Though they said they had organized a room for me in another hotel and they’d cover the price difference. So I got relocated to a 4-star hotel. Not too bad, ey?

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I met up with my cousin after breakfast in her hotel. We then met a friend of hers, Huda, who she’d met during her time in Lund.

Huda then showed us around Amman until late. An incredibly nice girl, she told us loads about country and Jordanian and Arab culture, introduced us to typical Jordanian fares, made numerous phone calls to find out what was the best way for us to get to Israel, and also insisted on paying all the bills, from taxi to food. That’s gorgeous Middle Eastern hospitality at its best again! Shukran!

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Amman – Jerusalem Haifa Nazareth Tiberias Nazareth

Charlotte stayed with Huda last night and I stayed in a hotel not far away. We met again in the morning and called a cab to bring us to the Israeli border. The crossing is called King Hussein Bridge and is located approx. half-way between Amman and Jerusalem. It’s Friday today and thus the beginning of Sabbath, and the crossing is said to close at 1pm. We arrived at quarter to 12 but were told that everything was closed already. If we wanted to cross anyway we’d have to book the VIP service, for US$ 96 per person.

We said good-bye to reaching Jerusalem today and decided to take another cab to the northerly border crossing, called the Jordan Valley crossing, north of the Westbank and a bit south of the Sea of Galilee. That crossing was working longer hours.

The Jordanian border guards wished me luck trying to enter Israel with the Iranian stamp in my passport. On the Israeli side that stamp and the Iraqi one did indeed cause some raised eyebrows and a couple of questions, though it wasn’t serious at all. At the end I was even asked if I wanted my entry stamp in my passport or on a separate piece of paper, thus avoiding any future problems should I travel to any countries on that passport that deny entry to people with evidence in their passports of having visited Israel before. I opted for the stamp in my passport.
So, after 2 hours we were welcomed to the Holy Land. And it greeted us with rain.

Haifa, at the Mediterranean coast, was our destination of choice now. We just didn’t know how to get there. Hitch-hiking was pretty much impossible due to rain and no traffic. Public transport didn’t exist. Taxis were prohibitively expensive. We chose the cheaper option of hiring a taxi to bring us to Nazareth. Half-way there we thought it better to go to Tiberias instead, located at the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. But the driver’s new quote made us decide otherwise again. So Nazareth it was.

With the help of the friendly girl at the local tourist information we found an affordable hostel.

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Nazareth – Tiberias Haifa

During the day we walked around Nazareth’s inner city and had a look at the various churches and places of importance or interest to Christianity.

Joseph and Mary are said to hail from here, and Jesus moved back here, too, hence ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.

Since it was Sabbath busses didn’t go as frequently as during the week. There was only one bus, at 9.15pm, to Tiberias, our destination of choice for today. So we changed plans and decided to go to Haifa at 5pm instead.

We arrived there after nightfall and it took us quite a while to figure out where we were and where the hostel was. The people we asked on the street were kind of rude. :( We managed to find the way ourselves, eventually, and later even found a place that served us superb Arab dinner.

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Haifa – Caesarea – Akko – Tiberias

Over the last days we had decided to rent a car for a week. We booked online and set out to find the car rental office. Took us a while but worked out fine in the end.

We went down to Caesarea, picking up hitch-hikers on the way.

Caesarea is an ancient port town, now in ruins, that was built by king Herod the Great to impress the Romans, specifically Caesar Augustus. We spent quite a while there.

Then we drove to Akko, north of Haifa, to have a look at the old city. It’s a beautiful place and it reminded me of the medina of Bizerte in Tunisia.

Our stop for the night was Tiberias, located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, at the edge of the Golan Heights.

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Day trip around the Golan Heights

The Golan Heights, a plateau at an average altitude of 1000m, was covered in snow. We learned that 3 days ago many roads had been impassable due to heavy snowfall. And the road up Mt Hermon was still not open.

We had lunch in the Druze village of Ma’asada (not sure I got the spelling right). Later we saw Nimrod castle in twilight. Unfortunately, it was already closed for visitors for today.

Near the Syrian border we stopped at a car park and wittnessed a special moment. A bus full of students returned from Damascus through the usually closed Syrian-Israeli border. Their families and loads of journalists were waiting for them. We were surprised that Israeli citizens were allowed to study in Syria in the first place. Though the reason probably is that those people were Druze from the Golan, which belonged to Syria until it was occupied by Israel in the Six-Day war in 1967. Internationally the Golan Heights are still not recognized as Israeli territory.

Basically we did a big tour of the Golan today – east to the Syrian border, then north to Mt Hermon, west to the Lebanese border, and returned back to Tiberias for the night.

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Tiberias – Bet She’an – En Gedi

Today’s destination was En Gedi, a … hm, it is difficult to define En Gedi.
It’s three entities sharing the same name though not the same space. It’s a kibbutz, it’s a youth hostel and a field school (whatever that is), it’s a beach at the Dead Sea.

So from Tiberias we drove south, and stopped in the town of Bet She’an, which we had passed through on our way from the Jordanian border to Nazareth. It is home to an archeological site which includes parts of a Roman city, but also settlements from earlier periods. We spent an hour or two there and then drove on into the West Bank, along the river Jordan. As I should learn later, Israelis don’t call the area along this route West Bank at all. For them it’s just the Jordan valley. Indeed, there are only very few (Jewish) settlements along the road, the only notable exception being the city of Jericho.

Near Jericho is the site where John the Baptist allegedly baptised Jesus in the river Jordan. It is possible to visit this place from both sides of the border (the river forms the border between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan here). The river Jordan is a tiny stream, maybe 5 meters wide. As a visitor you can walk right down to the river bank and even into the water as part of a baptism ceremony – closely watched by heavily armed border guards from both countries.

We didn’t stop in Jericho – it didn’t look very inviting for some reason – and instead continued right through to En Gedi and took a bath in the Dead Sea there. That’s actually a funny experience. And the water definitely burns in the eyes and on the lips, as I know now. Submerging the head is not recommended, but definitely worth a try if you’re a little pain-resistent. :)

En Gedi is located just across the southern ‘border’ of the West Bank, in Israel proper. Both at the entrance and the exit the Israeli military has check points, though we were waved right through without any checks at all.

PS: Hoping for a two-state solution, I’m also filing this entry under ‘Palestine’.

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En Gedi – Tel Aviv

Quite a long day today, and certainly the best one so far.

Masada is another ancient site that’s definitely worth a visit. It is a fortress that sits on a flat-top mountain high above the Dead Sea. It reminded me of Jugurtha’s Table in Tunisia.

We wanted to watch the sun rise from up there and got up early. Or tried to. I’m not good at waking up early and so we were a bit late. That wasn’t a big problem though, as clouds hid the sun while we were still climbing the narrow path to the top.
The view from up there was magnificent, and the history of the place and the archaeological findings are very interesting, too.

Mt Sodom was next en route, a mountain consisting to 98% of salt. It’s quite an interesting sight, and the walk to the summit is a lot of fun. The vistas, however, are even more grand than from Masada.

Not far from Mt Sodom we stopped at a cave’s entrance next to the road. We didn’t know if there was anything interesting to be seen and stumbled into the darkness, armed with just one flashlight. An older couple followed us in and was soon ahead of us. They seemed to be looking for something specific. We didn’t know what that was exactly and turned around. I kind of hit my head at a large rock, it didn’t hurt much but it was bleeding quite a bit. On the way out we met another group of older Israelis. They didn’t go far into the cave and we chatted a bit. One of them spoke German and it was a bit weird for us to be talking to someone who’s family was killed or displaced by ‘us Germans’. He didn’t seem to have any hard feelings, though.

A few minutes later the first older couple reappeared from the cave and asked us whether we had found ‘it’. We didn’t know what they meant, and they explained. We saw ourselves forced to go back in and find ‘it’.

‘It’ is not easily described. The cave had been beautiful so far, no doubt, but in there we had taken a wrong turn somewhere and hence missed ‘it’. From a narrow tunnel all of a sudden we could see an illuminated chamber. That was a wow-sight of its own. Stepping into the chamber we realized where the light came from. The chamber really was a kind of a chimney, probably 30 to 50 meters high, almost round and maybe 4-5 meters in diameter. We could see the blue sky above it.

Our next stop was ‘Small Makhtesh’, an erosion cirque of massive dimensions (there is Big Makhtesh as well!), a couple of kilometers over dirt tracks off the main road. We entered it at the bottom and therefore couldn’t quite appreciate its magnificence – we simply didn’t see it.

We had a short break at the city of Be’er Sheva (pronounced Beersheba), where Charlotte had lived for a little while a couple of years ago while helping with archaeological excavations in the Negev desert.

The last stop before Tel Aviv was in the Arab village of Lakiya. There were two interesting institutions there – Desert Embroidery and Lakiya Weaving – which are run by/for local Bedouin women to teach them the arts of embroidery, weaving and dying, and to enable them to earn money. They were also both closed at the time of our arrival.

On to Tel Aviv. A massive city. We got lost, of course, trying to find the hostel.

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Tel Aviv

I had a bit of a moody day today and just walked about the city aimlessly on my own, sipped a cup of coffee or tea here and there, got a horrible haircut, and did nothing of significance.

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Tel Aviv – Kfar Uriyah

In the morning I dropped of my cousin at the airport. She’s flying back home.

Then I continued to Kfar Uriyah, a village near Jerusalem. Alexander knows a girl there who he’d met in Georgia, too. Ruth had offered to host me for a night or two.

The weather wasn’t so great, so we decided to hop into the car and drive into the West Bank. For the uninitiated, Palestine’s status and situation is at best weird. More realistically speaking, the situation is horrible.

Some parts are under Israeli military control (“zone C”), some are under Palestinian control (“zone A”), and some are a mix (“zone B”). Israeli citizens are not allowed (by Israeli law) to enter the class A areas. Palestinians are not allowed to enter Israel at all. Israel is building a wall around the Palestinian areas to control migration (or for fear of attacks, or for whatever reason).

We drove to Bethlehem, a zone A area, and sneaked in through a gate without being checked. For me it wasn’t risky at all but Ruth, being Israeli, wasn’t allowed in, obviously, and the consequences would have been sever had she been caught. Tough girl.

We walked around the old town, visited the Nativity Church, and had a look at The Wall.

We left Bethlehem and drove to the Arab/Palestinian village of Al-Walaja nearby. The situation is absurd there. The Wall (or some wall?) is being built around the settlement. There is one house that sits a bit outside the village and hence the wall’s perimeter. That house will get its own wall built around it, and it will be connected to Al-Walaja by a tunnel, which is almost finished.
I think this is a prime example of the stupidity and absurdness of the whole situation, but also of the desperateness and fear on both sides. It is clear that solving this entire mess will be difficult at best.

We drove along the wall around Al-Walaja – only a small portion is finished, the rest is a massive building site -, had a look at the tunnel, were stopped by a Hebrew-speaking guy who told us that we were not allowed to be there (but we both pretended to not understand him), drove on and were stopped again by armed Arab-looking IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers who made it clear that we would not be able to continue with our car due to the condition of the track. Later Ruth told me they had said the wall is a bad thing (but again we had to pretend not to understand them). To summarize: The Israeli Defense Forces employ Arabs to guard the building site of a wall (which they don’t like) being built around an Arab village to protect Israelis. Hmmmm…

We stopped at a little shop in the village and had a chat with the shopkeeper. Omar was also the Muezzin of Al-Walaja and a nice guy. I bought some cumin from him and in the end he invited us to a coffee.

We drove on to Jerusalem, which wasn’t far, had a look at the movie schedule, decided to get some wine and go home instead, got stuck with the car in a narrow dead-end alley in the old city, managed to free it somehow, and eventually continued chatting at Ruth’s place over tasty dinner, wine, and nargilah.

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Day trip to Jerusalem

We went to Jerusalem again in the morning and strolled around the Old Town. We were stopped by the police guarding the entrance to the Wailing Wall – it’s Friday and only Muslims are allowed in today. A rude “it’s closed!” sent us into a different direction, a dead-end alley. On our return we wanted to have a little chat with the guards and, pretending to be ignorant in religious matters, ask them why we weren’t allowed in. In English, of course. We had to wait, though, as both guards were busy. One was talking on the phone (with his wife or affair, as Ruth translated for me later) and the other one was sleeping, his head resting on his gun.

We watched them a short while and eventually had to laugh about the scene. The guy woke up and explained – in English – why we couldn’t go in. I jokingly complained that he hadn’t even asked me if I was Muslim. He said he knew I’m not. More chit-chat; and when he asked where we were from and learned that Ruth was Israeli and spoke Hebrew the whole thing got even funnier.

The remainder of the day in a nutshell: We had tea and nargilah in a coffee shop; visited the Jewish part of the Wailing Wall were I got my very own kipa (the tiny Jewish hat); sneaked onto the city wall with the help of a friendly local (Arab); had lunch in East Jerusalem; left the city and drove up a hill to watch the sun set (but it (the sun) somehow played tricks on us); stood by a bonfire with some Israelis of Russian descent and listend to their singing Russian and English-language songs; had dinner in Abu Gosh, a village near Jerusalem famous for its Arab cuisine; drove home with two bottles of wine.

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Kfar Uriyah – Eilat

Ruth had to go to Jerusalem to work early in the morning. She was kind enough to let me sleep in, though. I had to return the rental car by noon and we had lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant afterwards.

I took the tram to the ‘French Hill’ to start hitch-hiking to Eilat. There were about 30 young Jews waiting there already. It took me about 1.5 hours to get a ride. Amir drove what must have been the filthiest car I’ve ever seen or been in. He was a nice guy, though, and took me to En Boqeq, a resort town at the Dead Sea. There I was unlucky at first and when it got dark I decided to take the bus instead.

When the bus arrived the driver showed a remarkable rudeness that seems to be typical for quite a part of the (non-Arab) Israeli population. A grumpy ‘no ticket, no seat’ by him and I was back to square one.

I managed to advance a few kilometers to Zohar junction with a guy named Nil, who handed me a beer (he was having one himself, too) when I climbed into his car.

At Zohar junction I was stuck for a while. Traffic was low and nobody stopped. It was around 7.30pm by now. I walked a kilometer or so to a petrol station. Salem, a proud Bedouin working there, helped me by asking the few stopping cars for their direction. He also offered me a lift for a few kilometers should I still be there at his shift’s end. A young Israeli couple stopped and I asked them for a ride. They didn’t speak English and let me tell through Salem that they weren’t going very far from here. As soon as they had left he told me that they were indeed going as far as Eilat…

Well, Salem found me another guy who finally took me down south to my destination. We arrived at 11.40pm, not without me dying a thousand deaths because what’s-his-name was quite tired.

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Eilat – Dahab

I got up early today to be at the Egyptian embassy as early as possible (i.e. 8am) to apply for a visa. The embassy is said to offer same-day service, that is, apply in the morning, pick up visa after noon.

The visa section opened at 9.30 so I had plenty of time to get a passport photo taken and have breakfast. The application process was easy even though the office clerk wanted me to write down that I plan to go to Cairo, never mind that’s not on my itinerary.

When I came back to pick up the visa he fooled me into believing I hadn’t gotten a visa. “This is problem” he said with a serious face, pointing at my worn-out looking passport. Well, he was kidding.

So I took a bus to the border and left Israel at 4pm. Border formalities were painless and nobody cared about my ‘Danger Mines’ sign I had sneaked into my backpack at Jesus’ baptism site at the river Jordan. :)
Egypt greeted me with rain sunshine – and with a strike. There were no busses going anywhere today or tomorrow.

A taxi driver kind of hassled me from the border to the bus station. He wanted 400 Egyptian Pounds (about 50 Euros) for the 150km trip to Dahab. In the end I paid 200 Pounds. No idea if that’s still a rip-off. Probably it is.

Almost the entire coast from Taba to Dahab is lined with beach-side resorts, hotels, bungalows, and camps of all shapes and sizes. And they’re in every imaginable state of decay. Rotten, unfinished, plain empty, half demolished, some vandalized. Almost none of them sees any guests these days. It was devastating to see, really.

From Dahab I wanted to go to Ras Abu Galum, but that would have involved at least 7km of hiking along the shore and it was already dark when we finally reached Dahab. So I checked into a hotel kind of thing. Very cheap, like almost everything here.

Dahab itself is a horrible tourist trap, though. Souvenir shop next to touristy restaurant for a kilometer or two along the Red Sea shore. Being in that tourist trap I got lured into booking a camel trip to Ras Abu Galum for tomorrow and back the following day. I’ve sat on a camel before, but only for like 10 minutes. I’ll also most likely buy a kilim or two.

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Dahab – Ras Abu Galum

Together with Wladimir from Germany we rode our camels to Ras Abu Galum for relaxation and snorkeling. Wladimir returned after lunch and I stayed. I climbed one of the hills next to the beach; found some dead camels, dogs and the odd goat’s leg, did some more snorkeling, had a chat with Sadah, my host.

The corals are not as colorful as those in New Caledonia, unfortunately, and there are not as many fish and other animals around. And there don’t seem to be any sharks. :(

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Ras Abu Galum – Suez

It was freezing cold at night and my sleeping bag didn’t cope well with the temperatures.
I left Ras Abu Galum at 7am by camel again, then travelled by car to a junction near Suez with Wladimir and his wife. A massive (sand) storm swept over the Sinai today. Visibility was ok most of the time but down to 50m or so twice. The 6-hour trip cost me 100 Pounds (about 12½ Euros) to that point, and one more Pound for a shared taxi to the edge of the city. I started walking towards the center, though without really knowing where the center was. Some random guy stopped me and told me that I should be careful because of “man-catchers” who would be after my money.

I walked on anyway but was still in the outskirts. I didn’t really feel comfortable, even though there was no real reason for that. The locals where friendly and recommended a few hotels. With the help of Ahmad, a taxi driver, I ended up in one of the more expensive places, simply because I wanted wifi… I wrote down his phone number since I’ll need a reliable driver tomorrow.

Later I thought it would be cool to have a quick look at the pyramids near Cairo and tried to contact Ahmad to see if he was available tomorrow morning at 7. I need to be back in Suez in the afternoon.

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