The air was choking thick the morning we packed our belongings in Pokhara, and it didn’t improve during the day long bus ride back to Kathmandu. Although our trek to Annapurna Base Camp was undoubtedly a highlight of our trip the smog that sometimes hung heavy, sitting on our lungs and blocking what should have been spectacular views, was an unwelcome reminder of the pressures on our little planet.
News reports tell us the monsoon on the sub-continent has failed twice and the lack of rain means there is nothing to scrub the air of the pollutants pumped into it on a daily basis from all manner of sources. Low temperature incineration of plastic and other garbage appears to be standard practice here in the absence of any other waste management infrastructure. I couldn’t wait to get out of the thick cloying air. I also couldn’t help but dwell on how unfair it seems that we have that choice while others continue to breathe it in.
A matter of hours after climbing out of Nepal’s choking smog the world had shifted around us. We landed in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates for a layover before flying on to Amman in Jordan. Women robed in black with only their eyes peering from behind their veils walked the airport corridors while men in white robes and Arab headdress sat in coffee shops. I still marvel at the miracle of air travel and how quickly it transports you between worlds.
The opulent Amman airport was a world away from Kathmandu’s basic aging infrastructure and I feel a little ashamed to admit how welcome I found the clean, modern and shiny environment. It was around 10.00pm Jordan time (1.00am Nepal time) as we climbed into a taxi before being dropped off at the house of a friend of a friend in Amman’s equivalent of Canberra’s Yarralumla (with the exception of the armed guards carrying automatic rifles over their shoulders).
I’m not sure if it’s convention or regulation, but Amman’s architecture is dominated, almost without exception, by honey coloured square shaped buildings around five or six stories tall. Christina’s place was on the ground floor of a building firmly fitting the mold and although Christina herself was not there to greet us her house was a welcome dose of homely comforts.
We spent three days catching up on school work, making plans for the next two weeks in Jordan and plotting our approach to travel through Europe. We didn’t actually move any further than the local supermarket about a kilometre away. The kids cooked us dinner and I washed dishes for the first time in nearly four months. We are very grateful to Christina for ‘hosting’ us when she wasn’t even there!
We picked up a rental car the next morning with barely enough fuel to get us to a petrol station. We must have been running on vapour after a few wrong turns and a very circuitous roadwork detour stymied our attempts to find somewhere to fill up. We were however spared the inconvenience of being stalled on the side of the road and were soon speeding our way south on the Kings Highway through Jordan’s dry and barren lands.
Petra was on our list of must see places but to be honest I knew very little about it. I guess Emma and I just liked the look of the iconic Treasury building carved into the sandstone cliffs that finds its way into almost every travel book we owned and had drooled over back home.
There is a risk with such places that reality is unable to live up to the expectations we create in our imaginations. Were Petra not more than the Treasury this may have been the case, but there is so much more to it. The Treasury is just the gateway, a dramatic building thought to be designed specifically as a statement of wealth and power intended to leave visitors no doubt as to who was in charge in this neck of the woods. It is actually a tomb, likely to have been built for a King and his family, like most of the other stone carved ‘buildings’ of the city.
The 1.2 km long ‘Siq’ or canyon which leads down to the Treasury has got to be the coolest driveway in the world. It twists and winds with canyon walls up to and over a hundred metres overhead. Every corner makes you wonder whether the next will reveal the view of the massive sandstone edifice of the Treasury. An involuntary ‘wow’ passed my lips as it finally came into sight.
Beyond this grand entrance the city continues with more and more building facades, 50 and 60 metres tall, carved into the rocks all around. Around 2000 years ago, 30,000 Nabataeans used to call these rocky canyon-filled mountains home. It is a truly remarkable thing how the Nabataeans exploited their geographic location on the trade routes between China, India, the Far East, Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome to grow wealthy enough to plumb the desert springs and supply water not only for themselves but for camps of up to 500,000 others living outside the city.
Throughout the site there is evidence of the engineered water management systems which made life here on a grand scale possible. Lining both sides of the Siq itself are the remains of a terracotta pipeline around 10 cm in diameter falling at a perfectly consistent 4-degree slope. The pipe funneled enough water from the surrounding mountain springs to supply 8 litres of water per day for each person living in the city, not to mention filling grand pools, baths and gardens leading some to call it the Las Vegas of its time.
Side canyons in the Siq also bear the remains of dam walls built to protect the city from flash floods and at the top of the canyon a tunnel has been carved through the rock to divert the course of the river channel which created the Siq itself. Having mastered water, the Nabataeans then sold it, no doubt at extortionate prices, to the endless camel trains bearing goods along the trade route from the orient through to Europe.
Nabataean society was also curiously progressive for its time, even by today’s standards in many parts of the world. Women were equal to men and played an important role in politics and society. Queens ruled with their husbands and appeared alongside them on coins – apparently the Nabataeans are the only ancient civilisation found to have done this. In the hereditary system of the monarchy, should the king die with an heir too young to take over immediately, the queen would rule until her son was old enough. According to Nabataean law, a woman’s inheritance was also equal to that of a man and women signed business contracts and ran their own affairs.
We spent three days trekking into and out of the site up and down the dramatic Siq all the time declining the constant offer of horse, donkey or camel rides. Donkeys are the most common ‘taxis’ through the site and are really quite comical on occasions as they are ridden back and forth by fully grown men on the hunt for business.
We were often solicited three times in a little as 30 metres. I started to have a little fun with it, complementing the operators on the quality of their fine animals and thanking them enthusiastically for their generous offer before indicating that on this occasion we have decided to walk. It was a little cheeky I suppose, but so are the unceasing offers which could, if you let them, detract from the whole experience.
At the far end of the ancient city of Petra is ‘The Monastery’, reached by what we probably would have considered a significant climb up through the canyons if we hadn’t so recently been trekking in the Himalaya. The Monastery itself is the second best preserved and most impressive of the facades carved into the cliffs. We ordered the best tasting flat bread and hummus you could hope for and were photo bombed while taking selfies from the former Nabataean tomb where the little café had its chairs and tables.
Beyond the Monastery are a series of viewpoints which knocked my socks off. Perched high above the Rift Valley the view looked out over a huge gorge onto the plains beyond. We were told we were looking down into Israel to the left and Palestine to the right. I had to say it to myself twice for it to sink in. Here we were standing in Jordan looking out into Israel and Palestine. Who would’ve thought?!