Roadtripping Jordan: The north (2/2)

This is a continuation of my experiences doing a solo roadtrip through the entirety of Jordan. The first episode covered me journey through the south of the country, click here to read that first!

From the previous post, I’ve just arrived back in Madaba and had a late dinner before hitting the hay for the night. We now set off the next morning, where I kick off a long day of traversing the north.

Bible sites, GPS misadventures

My main reason to stay in Madaba was that it is closer to the airport, and also less of a urban sprawl/big city mess than Amman, which suited my driving skills and/or traffic temper perfectly. Another reason is that Madaba is locate ideally for roadtrips, as various sites are located very near Madaba.

My first stop was just a short 15 minutes drive away, slightly north-west, towards the dead sea. The stop was the place called Mount Nebo. This place is a famous biblical place, and as so attracts a fair amount of pilgrims and other tourists. The mount, which is really hardly a mountain at all, is known from the bible as the place where Moses first sees the holy land, upon which he succumbs to the glory of god. The body of Moses is also buried somewhere on the mountain, so it is a holy place. The reason Moses could get a glimpse of the holy land from here, is that the holy land stretches out around mount Nebo in a flat plain down at the same levels as the dead sea (aka. very low!). It is in fact possible (on a clear day, which this was not in any ways unfortunately.) to see as far away as Jericho, Jerusalem, and even Hebron and Nablus. But the conditions must be REALLY favorable to see that far. On this day it was very cloudy and humid, so I was lucky to even be able to see the dead sea.

The mount Nebo site has a monument near the entrance that was put up in the year 2000 celebrating 2000 years of christianity, and honors all the people of the book. It preaches peace amongst the different religions. It’s very nice, albeit also utopian. Further inwards, you reach the Moses Memorial Church, which is a church build on the top of the mountain. The exterior of the church is renovated, but the interior contains some impressive original mosaics. Moses burial place is not exactly known however, only that it is somewhere on the mountain.

Next to the church is also a great viewing platform with the great views of the holy land.

Mount Nebo is a nice stop, even if like me you’re not religious. It doesn’t take long to traverse the entire site.

From Mount Nebo I drove on towards a town called Iraq Al-Amir, which is a small town with a well preserved greek temple located at the bottom of a valley. It is not a very well known place, and my stop was also mostly meant as a stop on the way to the larger city of As-Salt. It is a shame however, because this place is one of very few greek temples in Jordan, and it is fairly well preserved.

But here is where my first GPS misadventures began. Iraq Al-Amir is supposed to be a short 30 minute drive away from Mount Nebo, but my GPS-app (Maps.me) took me out on quite some ‘interesting’ route. Instead of taking the main roads, it quickly directed me out onto some small dirt roads, being barely 1 lane and going down steep hillsides without any guard rails of anything. This was already scary enough, but then a truck came the opposite way. Somehow, with great care, we managed to pass each other. But at this time it was also raining, and the dirt road was getting more and more soggy, making this road in every way more and more unsuitable for my regular car. At one point, at the bottom of the valley, there was a make-shift bridge consisting mostly of  stacks of earth covering a few concrete pipes, crossing a small stream, that had bloated a bit due to the rain. This passing was clearly not made for regular cars, but going very slowly, I managed to crawl my way across safely, just barely scratching the bottom of the car. From here the road went up the other side of the valley again, through similarly bad roads as the ones encountered before. At the top of these roads, it turned out I was entering a construction zone, and there was a big gate – which was luckily open! – in front of the path going forward. I cant even imagine the anger if that gate would’ve been closed. Making my way along the road, passing construction crews who looked at me a little puzzled as to what a regular guy was doing there, but otherwise not approaching me (it did appear as a regular road that wasn’t actually closed off to normal traffic, just not one where other people would be driving at the time). One plus was that the road did now become proper, asphalt again! And I was just a short distance from Iraq Al-Amir. The drive having taken closer to an hour than the predicted 30 minutes.

Having taken this alternative route did actually end up paying off however, as this road had great viewpoints of the valley in which the Iraq Al-Amir temple is located in, so I got a great view of the temple from above, that the people coming along the usual road didn’t get. Worth it? I’m not sure.

Iraq Al-Amir being off the beaten path also meant there was just 1 small family there. Even though the site isn’t very big, so that was still enough to spoil the experience a little bit. But it did also mean that the security guards/ticket person invited me in for a cup of tea, which was very welcome in this mild rain weather.

The Iraq Al-Amir temple (actually the temple itself is called Qasr Al-Abd, the surrounding city is Iraq Al-Amir) is a old greek temple, and it has some well preserved murals of lions. It is also unique for being built from some of the largest single block stones in the entire middle east! It is a very impressive structure, that is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area. There’s also a flock of goats grazing in the temple grounds!

Even more GPS misadventures, passing through As-Salt

Finishing off the sight-seeing at the temple I drove off again towards the next stop. I had planned to make a stop in the larger city of As-Salt, but as we shall see it was not to be. The route suggested by my app started out good, taking me along some solid asphalt roads. But unfortunately it wasn’t long before it took me off on another extremely sketchy journey. I suddenly found myself on some gravel roads again, going through a hilly terrain with a collection of small farms. It definitely wasn’t a regular road. The roads I was directed to take kept getting worse and worse, until finally I was directed onto what was 2 wheel tracks, very clearly made for 4x4s, going through a field completely overgrown with weeds and overbrush. It definitely didn’t seem right, but I stupidly just complied with the GPS. That was the first mistake. The tracks kept getting less and less visible in the overbrush, and i had flowers and bushes on all sides of the car. Not small flowers either. Eventually the wheeltracks just vanished all together, leaving me to guess on the road (the GPS still showed the supposed road, so I could kinda navigate). The overbrush blocked my view and I had no idea how long it would go on for. I could see on the GPS that a cross-road was approaching, and i just prayed it would be a proper road. After driving blindly through so many flowers and brush, leaving me almost on the verge of tears as I imagined myself getting the car stuck in this place, the path finally cleared an revealed a small old asphalted road. Praise the lord!

I had a stop to check the car for scratches, but also to check the map to see what the best possible route from here on would be. Sadly the options weren’t great. But this was by far the worst part of the whole trip. It might not sound that bad, but sitting in the middle of it, alone, was terrifying.

After a comparedly uneventful drive, I made it to As-Salt in the end. But very delayed. The original purpose here was to stop at a viewpoint with a great view of the city, which is supposed to look amazing from above. After not finding this vantage point, and not having much time to spare, I just decided to drive onwards to the next stop – Jerash – further north. The good thing about this was that Jerash is a very big tourist site, and there’s a good connection with highways going there, through As-Salt. Finding and connecting onto the highway through the labyrinthic and chaotic traffic of As-Salt was however an entire adventure in itself, giving me my first taste of proper arab traffic, which is very stressful for the record.

Eventually I made it onto the highway, and was on my merry way north, after a stressful morning.

Surprising Jerash/Antioch

Jerash is perhaps better known as Antioch, which has had a significant role in the history of the region. In the current day it remains a massive and impressive collection of roman ruins, including large temples, a hippodrome, a shopping street, a huge square lined with pillars, an amphitheater etc. Before coming here, ashamedly, I didn’t actually know that the place was the historical Antioch. Similarly I didn’t have any idea just how large the place was. I thought it was just the hippodrome. But I was pleasantly surprised when I entered the complex. It is absolutely massive! It will take a few hours to traverse the entire site. But I didn’t have endless time available, so I made my way around to the main sights rather than taking in the site in its entirety. Pictures speaks louder than words in describing this place.

I spent a good 2 hours in Jerash, and it was well worth it. The ruins are very well preserved, and there’s a great collection of all different kinds of roman structures here.

But I had no time to waste, and set off for the next destination.

Yet more GPS misadventures on the way to Ajloun

The next destination was to be the old castle of Ajloun, which is almost always visited along with Jerash, as they’re located very close to each other. The connection to the city of Ajloun is very good, and it’s a easy drive compared to the first part of the day. But unfortunately, after entering the city, my GPS screwed me up again. It directed me down a street that turned out to be a one-way street, and one of the main roads leading out of the city at that, so it was very heavily used, especially at this time of day, almost at the beginning of rush hour. I made it down about halfway the road before I realized I was not supposed to go this way, as the locals honked at me like mad. It was a scary experience, and I frantically tried to turn around on the 1 lane road. It took a little while of panicky driving back and forth, with people honking like mad. Then I just blazed back up the road, and at the first opportunity pulled over. People kept honking as they drove past me.

I had already had a good view of the castle, placed on a hill high above the city, and also taken photos of it before this incident. As the maps didn’t immediately reveal any easy path up the castle, and in combination with it already being rather late, and me not really having any big urge to go see castle ruins from up close – I’d already seen the castle in Karak on this trip, and so many other castle ruins around the world. So I decided it wasn’t worth it trying to make it up there, but that my time would be better used just going on. I still had a small hope that I would be able to make it to the final stop of the day, Umm Qays, and then make it back quickly and visit the Jesus Baptism site located near the border with Israel, nearby the dead sea. This site closes at 7 p.m. spoiler: I didn’t make it to this site, not even close.

Is my GPS actually trying to kill me? Straight north to Umm Qays

From Ajloun you connect onto the north-ward highway fairly quickly, making the trip all the way up north, to the top part of Jordan quick and easy. That is, if the highway didn’t go straight through several small cities, where the speed limit is suddenly 40 km/h, and people just walking around. It gets kinda frustrating at times. I’ve never experienced highways designed like this before.

To make things even worse, my GPS decided to trip me off one more time. At one point, even though I had just passed a big sign saying to go straight for Umm Qays, along the highway, my GPS directed me to take a left off the highway. This way was going straight to the border with Israel, and a search area where cars are checked before going to the border. Shit. If I had been check by these guards, my passport with stamps from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon etc. would probably have caused a lot of fuzz and delay for absolutely no reason, as I wasn’t even going to enter Israel. Luckily the GPS told me to take a tiny little sideway right before the checkpoint, and luckily my little side trip didn’t stir enough suspicion for anybody to stop me. Phew. Then a little later the GPS directed me to go back onto the highway. This little side-trip had absolutely no purpose. Infuriating. Don’t be an idiot like me and just blindly trust your GPS.

As if that wasn’t enough, when I entered the highway, the GPS told me to enter going against traffic. At least I didn’t just blindly follow this instruction. There was a place to do a u-turn very nearby, and so off northwards I was once again.

When you reach the northern-most part of the country, the last few kms to Umm Qays, which, by the way, is located on top of mountains, goes through some fun mountain roads. As you reach the top of the mountain, you have to go through a few military check points where your passport is checked. There is a very good reason for this. Umm Qays beyond just being at the northernmost part of the country, borders not just Israel, but also the disputed/occupied Golan Heights (syrian territory occupied and effectively annexed by Israel) and even Syria proper. This is a high-risk area.

But this was also the exact reason why I came to Umm Qays. The view from the top of these mountains, are absolutely splendid. You have a full, clear, view over the Golan Heights, which are very much exactly that, a bunch of mountains and hills peeking up from the landscape. Between the Golan Heights and Umm Qays, is a deep valley, that is highly militarized between the Israelis and the Jordanians. Beyond just the view of the Golan Heights, you also have a clear view of the Sea of Galilee over on the Israeli side of the border. It is by all means a magnificent view.

Umm Qays itself is a roman ruin site, with more beautiful coloumns and ruins of beautiful buildings and structures. They’re also located in a beautiful green area. It would be worth coming here just for these ruins – the view over the Golan Heights as well as Israel and Syria is just nice bonuses.

As it was almost 6 p.m. when I arrived, and this place also being off the usual tourist trail, I mostly had the entire place to myself, with just 1 small family picnicking at the vantage point of the Golan Heights, and another foreign tourist wandering around the site. It was nice to have this place almost to myself.

I went almost directly to the vantage point, and took in the views, and exactly the magnitude of what I was looking at. Heavy. Then I wandered around the ruins for a while, and finding other vantage points revealing more of the Sea of Galilee in the distance.

It was a very peaceful and solemn time at Umm Qays, and probably one of the most underrated places in all of Jordan, a place that more people should visit. Especially if you have a interest in history.

Towards 7 p.m. and the sunset time, I left Umm Qays and drove off to a sunset viewing point that I had heard about previously, it offers a better view of both the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights than you get at Umm Qays, and it is very nearby. It is also enroute to Lot’s cave, but I skipped this part of the journey. Going through another military check point I eventually made my way to the vantage point as sun set over the Sea of Galilee and Israel to the west. Splendid.

Now began the drive back. My GPS said the journey would take around 1,5 hours since it’s basically highway the entire way. Unfortunately it ended up taking closer to 3 hours. The highway going through the cities were now even more slowed down by the fact that these cities come to life at night time, so there were a lot of people just walking around the highway lane, and even a few night markets set up right on the highway. It took great care and patience to get through.

To make matters even worse, at around 70 km from Madaba, the system warning suddenly turned on, telling me to safely pull over and stop driving, accompanied by loud beeping noises constantly. Uh oh. I pulled over, checked the manual for this specific warning, which said that you should be able to continue to drive, but it would be advisable to get the car checked soon. Stuck out there in the middle of nowhere, and without a local sim card to call the rental company (and also no functioning phone number to them…) I decided to risk it and just drive on. Being frustrated by the beeping very quickly. 70 Km is a long way when you have to sit through constant beeping the entire time.

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Eventually at around 10 p.m. I finally reached Madaba. I parked the car, hoping to deal with the warning in the morning, because right now I just needed to head out for some dinner, and fast! I also secretly hoped the warning would just disappear on its own overnight after the car had cooled off a bit. Sadly it didn’t.

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Chicken dinner

Madaba & Amman

This was to be my last full day in Jordan, my flight home was in the night. Finally it was time to explore not just the city that I had been using as my base, Madaba, but also the capital Amman.

The very first thing I did this day, was go check the car – Yep, warning and beeping still there. Bummer. I decided to not do anything, since first of all I didn’t have a working number to the rental office, and secondly I would return the car that same night, and wasn’t planning on driving this day. Also google had told me that if the car kept driving, it most likely wasn’t anything serious, most likely just a computer glitch. So I happily ignored it, and set out to explore Madaba itself.

The old town core of Madaba is luckily small and easily traversable on foot before noon. There’s a few sights of note here. One is the Saint George’s Church of The Map, which was located right across from my hostel. This Church is the oldest church in Madaba, and it is famous for hosting a floor mosaic from the 6th century, with a map of the entire holy land area, which was a first for the time. It shows most of Jordan, Israel/Palestine and parts of Egypt and the Mediterranean etc. There’s a museum connected to the church with a lot more information about the map, and how to read it, as it is not very intuitive. Also it is labelled in greek, so the english instructions sure help!

After seeing the map (and dodging the massive crowds) I strolled on down the narrow streets of the old city, down the the next church, The Church of the Beheading of St John the Baptist. Yep, you read that right. This isn’t just a church in honor of St John the Baptist, nope it is actually a church in memorial to his beheading!

There’s a shrine to the beheading in the cavern underneath the church. This church also has a small museum connected to it, with a kind curator who will guide you around. The museum has a exhibition of old pictures of Madaba from the early 1900s when it was still a small dead town. It is fascinating to see how the city has rapidly grown in the past century.

The actual main attraction at this church is however the bell tower that you can climb up into for a great view of the entirety of Madaba. It is a little of a climb to get all the way up, having to carefully maneuver around the ropes connecting the bells to the ground floor. The platform around the clocktower is also very narrow. But it is worth the effort, and you’re able to walk all around the clocktower for a full panorama.

After visiting the churches, I did a little bit of the obligatory (for me) souvenir shopping – which isn’t hard to do as the streets of Madaba are lined up with multiple souvenir shops. I picked up the mandatory fridge magnets for the collection.

There’s a last place in Madaba that is usually mentioned as a place worth going, the archaeological park. It is however just mostly more mosaics, and at this point I didn’t care for seeing more mosaics. Lunch and then Amman was calling!

I sat down at my usual cafe for a cup of tea, a pizza and the last piece of kanafe of the trip. The pizza I ordered turned out to have an absurd amount of cheese on it, even though I had just ordered a regular pepperoni pizza. It was a bit much, so I ended up leaving about half of it, but still swallowed all the lovely kanafe!

Then it was time to go to Amman.

Rather than drive there myself, both to avoid a breakdown of the car, and also because I was confident that the traffic in the capital would be more than I’d be able to handle, I decided to take the local mini busses running between the Madaba bus station and the city center of Amman. This would also actually allow me to relax during transport for once. The bus station in Madaba is about 15 mins of straightforward walking from the city center, so it is no problem. It is a benefit to be able to read the arabic script here however, as the signs on the mini busses are only written in arabic script, but there’s plenty of people there to direct you if you can’t read it yourself! I didn’t have this issue and jumped into the first bus for Amman. These busses generally leave when the bus is full, or mostly full. There’s no time table for these busses. Luckily this bus was already mostly full, and since there’s ample opportunity to pick up more people enroute, we departed almost right away after I had entered the bus.

The drive takes about 40-60 mins depending on traffic. I paid about 1 dinar for this trip with the locals. Most other tourists don’t use these transportation options, and I didn’t see any other foreigners either on the way out or back, so this is the way to do it if you want to travel like a local.

Amman is a city build upon hills, and it is build so densely together. I was dropped off at the center of the city, in a place that is at the bottom of the hills, so there were intimidating hills full of brick houses on all sides. It made me feel very claustrophobic, but I also really don’t do well with big busy cities.

I walked off towards the Amman Citadel Hill, which hosts a variety of roman and islamic ruins, with great views of the city, and also provides a green breathing-hole in this hectic city. The way to the citadel went along a lot of more or less steep hills. You’ll have to be fit to get around in this city! Traffic is so congested that it wouldn’t really help much to get a taxi really.

The Citadel Hill is very beautiful. It is a large area, hosting various different ruins. The roman part is the most grand, but if you’ve already been to Jerash, don’t get your expectations up too high! Seeing the ruins silhouetted against the sprawling inhabited hills on all sides did provide a good contrast of old and new.

Various points around the site has marked “view points” where you can get good views of both the extremely dense city core stacked with brick houses and the the giant Raghadan flagpole flying the jordanian flag from the Raghadan palace, one of the royal residences. It is a beautiful view, but still gives me a little bit of claustrophobia.

Another viewpoint gives a view of the little modern city core with skyscrapers rising in the distance. It is only a hand-full, but it is good to see that there is also a part of modernity in this city. Yet another place offers a view of the greatly preserved roman amphitheater located down below (outside the Citadel hill area).

You can easily spend a few hours just wandering around the place and taking it all in. The entrance area also has a nice little kiosk which is nice for a refreshment on a hot day of wandering the hills of Amman. Equally, there’s some nice and clean toilets here as well!

After the citadel hill, I was already fed up with Amman to be honest. I just wanted to go back to Madaba, rest and prepare for the departure later that night. And actually I had tinkered with a little plan for the last sunset which I was excited to fulfill. So I walked back down to the same bus stop where I was dropped off earlier. Since there’s no official time tables, it is anyones guess when the next bus will come. I figured that there would be a steady stream of busses going between Madaba and Amman all the time, but it took around half an hour before a bus for Madaba turned up, actually with the same driver as on the way out there! The drive back did go through the rush hour traffic, so it took longer and also had a lot more passengers, at one point having over 5 people standing up. I, as the foreigner, was however not asked to give up my seat for a woman, but instead a woman sat down next to me, effectively freeing me. I’m not going to lie, I did cheer inside at this. I wasn’t in the mood to stand up in a fully crowded bus at that time.

After slowly getting back to Madaba, I walked back to my hostel and had a quick rest before setting out for my final plan of the trip.

Final sunset & returning the rental car

The plan was to take the car for a final spin, going out to watch the sun set over the dead sea. Even with the car still beeping and giving warnings, I decided to risk it and drive off. I had picked a viewpoint from my map-app, and set off. But as the road took me to the very top of the hills overlooking the dead sea with a perfect view of the sunset, and at least 10 minutes drive from the original view point, and the sunset approaching, I decided to settle down at this place instead. There also weren’t any other people here, so it would be a nice peaceful sunset, just like I had imagined.

I had brought my final snacks and drinks, and enjoyed them while watching the sun slowly set over the dead sea and the west bank. It was very solemn, and good closure to this trip.

After the sun had set I returned to the hostel, packed up, showered and then went out for the final dinner of the trip. I wanted to spoil myself and so ordered 2 appetizers – 2 kinds of mushrooms, I just love mushrooms! And for main course I had a dish I had never tried before, called treedeh on the menu, but it appears to be a variety of fatteh as I discovered later. It consists of crispy bread mixed up with garlic sour cream, cooked eggplant and some minced lamb meat. It tasted heavenly! Great final meal!

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Then back to the hostel to sleep a few hours before having to get up at 1am to drive the car back to the rental company and head to the airport. Should’ve been easy, but oh boy..

When I picked up the car, we also made a written agreement that I would return the car on that night at 2 a.m. I was specifically told that it would be absolutely no problem, and that there would be someone to take me to the airport, so I shouldn’t worry more about that part. Given that the office had been open at past 2 am the night of my arrival, I readily believed this arrangement, and didn’t make any backup plans just in case. It should be said here that the rental office is located 6 km from the airport, out on a deserted road running next to the highway. It is mostly a industrial area with a few other rental car offices, no residential buildings or anything else.

I arrived at the office at around 1:45 a.m., and there was nobody at the office at all. Shit. I decided to wait it out, because it was possible that the guy would just arrive on the clock. When the time reached 2 a.m. and still nobody had showed up, I started to panic a little. I was now stuck out here, my flight departing in about 2 hours, and nobody in sight. I couldn’t just drive myself to the airport, even thought that was a tempting prospect. I also really wanted to hand in the car in person to clear out the system-warning situation. But it wasn’t to be. So I just dropped the key into the “key return box” and started walking up the road, hoping for one of the other offices to be open and able to call me a taxi (I didn’t have a local sim, so I was kinda stuck). Luckily before long a car came driving towards me. I thought at first it was the rental car guys who had just been a little late, but it wasn’t. Instead it was 3 local men who asked what I was doing, and after quickly explaining the situation they offered to drive me to the airport for free, which was a really nice gesture, and definitely saved the end of my trip.

The flight home from there was pretty mundane.

But the next day, as I was on the train going the last stretch home from Copenhagen, the rental car company texted me on WhatsApp adding what in the world I had done to the car, and also deriding me not having notified them about me returning the car.. The nerve..

I gave them a piece of my mind, which they choose to ignore, along with any kind of apology for almost making me miss my flight. Then they said they had the car checked at a workshop, and they said that they had found “a strange substance other than gasoline” in the tank of the car, and had had to replace the tank of the car. This of course sounded extremely bullshitty, and I definitely didn’t put anything in that tank. But they demanded I pay 200 dinar out of the 250 dinar deposit I had paid. I wasn’t in much position to stop them. So after having had a bad experience with these guys, ACE Rental/ERAs both on arrival and departure, I can only recommend to never use this company in the future.

And with that, the Jordan journey is at a end!

 

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