Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Voyage to the Hidden City, Pt. 2

Sorry I've been gone for so long - I try to put something down every two days, but the past week has been crazy. Anyways, last I wrote we had just got to the town of Wadi Musa, which occupies the valley outside Petra.

Our first decision was also our best one - Joe and I decided to get up and over to Petra as early as possible, and we arrived about half an hour after it opened, at 7:30. There was still a greyish early-morning glow and as we walked down the road to the entrance of the Bab Al-Siq(literally Door of the Shaft), the Bedouin were just bringing out their horses so they could try to get tourists to ride them. But we passed on that and headed into the narrow valley that leads into Petra. The Siq is a narrow, winding passage of crimson sandstone warped into bizarre whorls by some ancient stream.

We walked down, taking pictures, and the walls of the canyon began to close in. Then, after at least a kilometer, we saw a crack of light. As we approached, we saw the classic shot that any photo-series on Petra has - the facade of the Treasury gleaming in the sun as we walked down the path. You know, the Indiana Jones thing. But it comes at you as a surprise, and it really is breathtaking.

We admired it for a while, having the place almost to ourselves aside from a few camel, two tourists and some Bedouin. It was really amazing - the peace and quiet, the solitude all contributed to the majesty of the sight. It wasn't nearly the same at the end of the day when it was swarmed with people - much less stirring. Anyways, we moved on - we were planning to do the Lonely Planet guide's two-day itinerary in about eight hours.

We walked down the valley, passing more tombs and carvings on either side. There are almost no buildings as such in Petra - just magnificent Classical Greek-style facades that the Nabateans carved for their tombs, store-rooms and palaces. They actually lived in tents, and I can't blame them - I wouldn't want to live in those artificial caves. The more I thought about it, the more I realized things haven't changed that much in 2000 years. There are still Bedouin with their camels and goats, still open-air markets in the middle of the city, still people coming from a long way to see the tombs and temples.

We passed the Ampitheatre and the Tombs of the Kings, all of which were almost entirely abandoned. There were a few other people walking around taking pictures, and lots of goats. Then we set off down the old Roman rode that runs down to the only free-standing structure in the area, the Qasr al-Bint: literally, Palace of the Girl. I have no idea why. Really, it's not all that impressive -although from an engineering standpoint, it's more difficult, the cliff-side facades just look so much cooler. And over time, the soft sandstone from which they were built has slowly eroded, leaving them with a weirdly melted look.

After a quick stop in the Nabatean Museum, we set off down the Wadi al-Deir, the long canyon at the end of the Petra valley. At the entrance to it their was a sign warning "Danger! Do Not Go Beyond This Point Without A Guide", in English. We were skeptical, and looking around, we didn't see any guides! So off we went. The climb was really nice, winding up through the sandstone valley, with a little side hike to a hidden, forested glade with the "Lion Tomb." We wound up further and further, catching glimpses of stunning vistas and marvelous sandstone formations, and making more than a few wrong turns. I guess if we had been blind and stupid, we might have been in some danger - there were a couple of paths that dead-ended into sheer drops. But it was no more perilous than your average hike.

Finally, we saw the summit of the climb in sight, with a tent set up to serve tea, coffee and hookah. It looked interesting, but not all that great - the view had been better further down. A British guy who had climbed the last five minutes with us quipped "I've half a mind to write to Lonely Planet about this."

Then we turned the corner. And there it was, "The Monastery", another facade easily the equal of "The Treasury"(both those names are misleading, they are neither!), but with a much more commanding view. We rested at the summit for a while, snacking on bread and peanut butter(a cheap traveler's best friend!) As we headed back down we ran into two of our travelling companions sipping tea and shisha, and talked to them for a little while. Their plan was even more ambitious than ours to go overland to Amman and then Damascus!

As we descended, we began to see more and more tourists. Then the donkeys laden with overweight Latino tourists - as well as other AUC students(not overweight, though) - started passing us, hogging the whole narrow stone path. By the time we got the bottom, the Wadi was flooded with tourists heading up to the site that we had enjoyed in relative peace and solitude. And of course, there were "guides" and touts offering to lead people up what was essentially a totally linear hike now filled with people going both ways, and offering the "official" warning sign as evidence of the danger!

We made our way against the stream and then headed for our final destination, the High Place of Sacrifice. This was essentially a cliff in the middle of the Petra valley with a long, long series of steps leading up to it. We made our way up, the sun now blazing down on us, and probably drank a good .75 litres of water apiece making it to the top. By the time we got there, 45 minutes of stair-climbing later, we were pretty beat, so we decided to make the High Place of Sacrifice the High Place of Lunch. Yeah, you guessed it - pita and peanut butter! And the best part - we'd done the Lonely Planet's two-day itinerary before lunch.

The view of Petra was pretty spectacular, but unfortunately the haze made it a lot less photo-genic than it could have been. I guess the valley kind of traps the hazy moisture. Finishing our lunch and finding ourselves surrounded by Russian tourists, we made our way down the other side of the cliff through another little valley with smaller, more finely-carved tombs and relics, including the house of the man who controlled the water cistern for pilgrims on the pilgrimage route.

Reaching the bottom, we had walked over 12 miles. We had to plow our way through tour groups to get out, and some Arab film company was even setting up a film shoot in front of the Treasury facade! It was utter madness getting out, and then we had to walk another mile to the town center to get money from the ATM. The fudgesicle thing I had on the way up was the best food I have ever tasted!!

We were so tired, the evening was pretty low-key: nap, wake up, eat dinner, have drinks in a 2000-year-old Nabatean cave tomb, a bit of al-Jazeera and then bed.

No comments: