Journey to the East

Several decades ago, in this month, two young men, who’d escaped from school and had started to enjoy their gap year, decided to go east.

One of them had managed through his mother’s work to obtain a free airline ticket. He was to act as accompanist to a mentally-ill Sicilian person who was to be repatriated to his family in Catania.

His friend joined him a little later and, after a train journey to Messina, they crossed the straits and started to hitch across the heel of Italy. In some respects this was the most dangerous part of their journey since they were warned of a confrontation with a mafia gang at the booth of a service station where they had been invited to spend the night. Reaching Brindisi safely the two took the ferry to Patras and touched Athens where they stayed in the city’s youth hostel,

The next part of the journey took them through Northern Greece to the border with Turkey. The weather at this stage was getting colder and colder and by the time Istanbul was reached it was positively freezing.

Istanbul was the first taste the two had had of the mysterious east and they enjoyed visiting the City’s old quarters, Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque.

The longest, and perhaps most uncomfortable, train journey either had taken took them across the Anatolian plateau through Syria, where they visited the great mosque of Damascus,

and finished up in Beirut.

At this point money problems stared to afflict them and one of them took a job as a barman at a ski resort in the Lebanese mountains. Baalbek was visited:

A meeting with a Swedish guy who drove a Volkswagen van enabled the two to reach a still-divided Jerusalem.

A dip in (or rather a float on) the Dead Sea was a must:

Amman’s Roman theatre was also explored:

Then it was a journey through Jordan past the H4 border post and into Iraq where they arrived in Bagdad. After a few days in the thousand and one nights city the next stage took the two to Basra where they were hosted by the British consul there.

A journey to Kuwait was rewarded by a chance to gain some extra money, both through giving blood and also by writing up travels so far and broadcasting the script on the English-speaking section of Kuwait radio.

Another van, this time driven by an English person, took them through the unstable Iraq-Iran border past the amazing ruins of Persepolis

and the graceful architecture of Isfahan and Shiraz

to a Teheran still ruled over by a Shah.

Thence it was towards Afghanistan via Meshed and past Herat and Kandahar to land up in Kabul.

The descent down the Khyber Pass to Pakistan was accompanied by ever warmer weather. It was now March and the torrid heat of the Indian subcontinent plains was building up. A stay at the hill station of Murree was welcomed.

From Lahore a train was taken towards New Delhi with, of course, the obligatory border transport hiatus where one had to walk a mile across no-man’s land to India.

A stay in Varanasi (Benares)

was followed by a crossing into Nepal and Kathmandu where a full month was spent at the mythical blue Tibetan guest-house and restaurant. Cycling and walking around the Kathmandu valley recharged one’s batteries before starting the return leg.

More of Northern India was visited, including Jaipur and Agra.

Then it was a return crossing into Pakistan and back to Kabul. Here a truck with a home-ward bound expedition in the Hindu Kush Mountains took one directly back through Iran and Turkey to Istanbul. Thence it was through Greece and Italy to come home to the UK from Catania airport.

This was a journey of a lifetime and one which changed the outlook of both protagonists for ever. The world’s diversity was opened out for them, the exposure to different cultures was seminal and the encounter with some of the world’s most amazing and often strangest sights was stunning.

It was also the journey of a lifetime because it would be difficult to repeat such a hitch-hiking trip today. Parents would have been dissatisfied with just an occasional post-card and no cell-phone calls. Certainly, the UK’s foreign office would have strongly discouraged such a voyage, especially by two teenagers.

Yet such an expedition was all the rage in Sergeant Pepper year. The hippy trail was a central experience for the youth of that distant decade and one which laid the foundation of social changes which radically transformed attitudes and views.

It’s so sad that practically every country journeyed across then has since been torn apart by inner conflict and exterior meddling. Some of these have been worse than others. Will one ever gaze peacefully on the ruins of Palmyra for example? And as for the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan…

There are no prizes for guessing who one of the two who came back, changed and chastened by their oriental voyage, was….




The Grandeur that was Rome

The term “Desert castles” covers a wide genre of ancient buildings, several of which were on our itinerary today.The first we visited turned out to be a caravanserai for travellers crossing the long trail to Bagdad. It was built around a courtyard and the upper floors, in particular, had beautifully carved arches giving a gracious environment for any princely ranks who might have stopped overnight there.

The second castle-like structure we visited was perhaps the most extraordinary. It was the bath house of what remained of a sheik’s hunting lodge. Once the desert was filled with gazelles and other fauna, much of which has, unfortunately, since disappeared (although efforts are now being made to reintroduce some of them). The building dated back to the umayyad period before strictures on the representation of animals and humans were imposed in Islamic art. The walls and ceilings of the bathhouse were, therefore, covered with the most delightful paintings of animals, artisans at their craft and erotic looking ladies at their ablutions.

The third monument we stopped at in the seemingly endless desert between Amman and Bagdad was a true castle and, what was more, one which Lawrence of Arabia used as a base against the Ottoman Turks. His room was a beautifully arched chamber and I am sure he must have had great dreams of conquests in it.

If you are dreaming about Roman towns forget Pompeii, much of Rome, let alone saint Albans. There is one Roman town which for sheer size, magnificence, completeness and originality of conception tops them all. As soon as I walked through the main gateway built by the same Hadrian who built that wall Salmon would have recently loved to re-erect I knew I was entering no provincial Roman town like Pompeii but a great capital of an eastern province of the empire – a capital built to impress with its wealth, power and grandeur.  

We walked down the colonnaded cardo, or main street, and visited the main theatre. This great city of jerash had three of them beautifully preserved and still used today!

Thousands of years before Bernini’s great square before Rome’s saint Peter’s Basilica jerash had its own version in the magnificent, almost perfectly preserved, rotunda – a masterly piece of town planning.

We made our way back though streets rutted with Roman chariots and wagon wheels and exited the imperial town through Hadrian’s gate whose stones were now ablaze with the rays of the setting sun. I have never been so overwhelmed by the grandeur of Rome as l experienced it at Jerash.

How Jordan amazed us, even on our last day in the hashemite kingdom!

Back to the Crusades

From the end of the eleventh century to the end of the twelfth Jordan, as indeed much of the near and middle east, was under the control of the crusader knights. Frightened by the expanding power of the seljuk Turks which menaced the holy places the Western powers launched the first crusade. Baldwin was crowned king of Jerusalem, the pilgrims felt safe again to visit Palestine and security was reinforced by the construction of some of the most formidable castles ever built.


It was our privilege to visit two of the best of the castles on our departure from Petra on our way towards Amman.


The first of these amazing strongholds was at shobuk and a fine sight it was crowning a hill with views towards the dead sea and commanding the route from Damascus to Cairo.

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We were able to spend more time exploring the castle at Barak, which is possibly the finest of them. Built on seven levels we explored extensive underground passages connecting sleeping quarters, kitchens and dungeons.

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The crusader kingdom of Jerusalem could have lasted rather longer than its hundred years were it not for the fanatic ruthlessness of Reinauld. Massacres involving throwing down muslim prisoners from the sheer drop surrounding the castle with their heads enclosed in boxes so that the victims remained conscious until the last, plus the total murder of whole towns’ women and children, did not present a very attractive picture of Christianity.  What saved the situation for the locals was the rise of Salah uddin who uniting tribes led a counter attack and personally slaughtered Reinauld.


Plus ca change….


Amman is essentially a modern city and its population has grown from a few thousand in 1946 to well over five million today, a number likely to increase considerably with the flux of refugees from Syria and Iraq.


It certainly is unrecognizable today since my early visit there in the hippy trail days. Jordan’s capital is not unattractive, built on several hills, colours by the white limestone from which it is built and commanded by the world’s tallest flagpole with the world’s largest (30 x 50 meters) flag flying from it.


Before checking into our hotel we visited the imposing citadel with its impressive Roman and Umayyad remains. The views over Amman were wonderfully extensive and the area was very well laid out with the remains of a temple to Hercules and an interesting museum.

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We feel a bit sad realising that tomorrow will be the last full day we’ll spend in this wonderful country. How time flies when you’re enjoying yourself!

A Rosy Place?

Petra is the high spot of any visit to Jordan and it does not disappoint! In fact, it’s even more overwhelming than any description or photo could ever hope to achieve.


We spent much of our day there yesterday and were glad that we wore a decent pair of walking boots and brought our treking sticks with us. The area covered is vast and the heights very varied too.


After entering through an informative visitor entrance we soon found ourselves in that amazing gorge or siq with sheer, ever tightening sides, hoping at every corner to come across Petra’s great icon, the treasury. Instead, we met with tombs, acqueducts and other monuments. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish natural rock formations from the buildings the mysterious nabateans had erected during their long occupancy.


Then, through a crack in the gorge, there it was, the so-called treasury. This extraordinary creation reminded me almost of a Borromini creation in Baroque Rome , with its broken pediments and concave features.


Yet clearly, Borromini could not have known of these buildings which were only brought to the attention of the Western world through the subterfuge efforts of the Swiss explorer Burckart in 1812.


The siq now opened out into the city of the living and we entered a colonnaded street with a great temple on one side and a nympaeum or fountain next to an ancient pistachio tree on the other.


Now our climb was going to start. To reach the greatest of the Petra buildings one has to go up almost a thousand steps and each one is worth it for at the top is the so called monastery, perfect in its setting overlooking a canyon of immense dimensions.


Inside, like the majority of Petra’s buildings, there was little to see. All the glory was on the outside.


Then the long return to the entrance gate (of which there is only one) commenced.


Sunset was starting and the huge wall of the royal tombs became ablaze with almost rainbow colours. For the real beauty of Petra is the intimate communion of extraordinary sandstone formations with the exquisite sculpting hands of those long gone but never forgotten people who had made this place the eighth wonder of the world.





Towards Petra

We left Aqaba around lunchtime for Petra. The landscape was, as usual, quite stunning and climbing high on the king’s highway the views became ever more spectacular.

Our hotel was more than satisfactory and we settled in well to join up later for a trip to a Bedouin camp where we ate splendidly on lamb and vegetables. The method of cooking the meat was interesting since it involved burying the pot below ground and building a fire round it when smouldering into embers was covered with earth and cooked slowly for around six hours.

This was truly slow food on a grand scale. We ate against a backcloth of giant cliffs tinged with the rays of a full moon and inside a camel haired tent.

Again an oud player supplied traditional music.

Suddenly we heard the patterning of soft rain and the effect of this in our desert surroundings was quite magical.

We returned early from our feast as tomorrow morning we have an early start to visit that highlight of our adventure in Jordan, Petra.

Wadi rum or Mars?

We spent the morning in Aqaba. Famous for its part in the Arab revolt of 1917, when El Oren (Lawrence of Arabia) helped king Abdullah to defeat the Turkish garrison there and pave the way for the eventual entry into Damascus, it is a pleasant enough place with a nice waterfront overlooking the gulf. We walked to the old fort in front of which is a huge square with one of the tallest flagpoles I’ve ever seen. Normally the flag symbolising the Arab revolt is flown from the top of it but on this day it wasn’t.

Near the fort is a small museum showing archaeological finds such as pots and other artefacts which show that Aqaba dates well back to at least Neolithic Times. The fort itself was in course of restoration but, apart from a giant front gate and some interesting inscriptions, there was nothing remarkable about it except, of course, its historical significance in those seminal events of 1917. Incidentally, I was told that the Aqaba sequence in David Lean’s film wasn’t filmed here but in Spain since the director didn’t think the place looked authentic enough!


However, at least then Aqaba was a somewhat sleepy fishing village. Today it is fast expanding with many new hotels among which was the one we stayed in –  a classy Hilton built in 2011.

We returned in time to join an expedition heading for Wadi Rum- that extraordinary desert landscape so beloved of Lawrence.

Wandering in our 4 by 4 truck we circumnavigated mountains that seemed to have been constructed by alien civilizations in the form of giant temples, eerie palaces, mysterious canyons and gorges eroded into shapes that defied imagination.


I felt I’d been transported into a different planet. Mars perhaps? There were so many shades of reds and yellows and blacks. And these colours were changing irrevocably as the sun lowered during the afternoon as did the temperature…

On a lonely outcrop we witnessed a glorious sunset and then headed towards a Bedouin camp where we were feted and fed to the sound of an excellent lute player who turned out to be blind.

The camp was clearly used to receiving more guests and I felt it was a bit sad that our little group of eight were the only ones there. The Arab spring and the ongoing civil wars around Jordan were having their effects.

I thought about our scramble up one of the gorges and the quite tiring effort of climbing up sand dunes (although the slide down afterwards was exhilarating). Sandra also did part of the route on a dromedary through the phantasmagorical landscape of weird mountains and gorges.

There was certainly plenty to dream about during our well-earned sleep that evening in our Aqaba Hilton soft beds!


Dead Easy

So here I am back in Jordan after almost fifty years. For it was as a teenager freed from the rigours of a public school education that with a friend I took to a hippy highway that would eventually land me in Katmandu. After Turkey and Syria and Lebanon came a Jordan which still possessed its left bank and its Jerusalem.. alas, now no more thanks to the politicians. The few pictures from the time when bliss it was that dawn to be alive and to be young was very heaven showed us in the classic pipe smoking and newspaper reading pose on the Dead Sea.

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I did not quite repeat that same pose today but fully again savoured the extraordinary feeling of floating, indeed of almost walking on water. Our hotel was great and served a breakfast that kept us free from hunger for most of the day. It was, indeed, a far cry from the primitive conditions we endured back in the days of Sergeant Pepper. But would we have put up with that today? In addition I had a relaxing mud bath and even allowed myself to be therapeutically buried in the sand.

I was sadly aware that the Dead Sea had started to show symptoms which in the case of the Aral sea has become disastrous, spelling the death knell of the earth’s third largest inland water.

Much of the coastline had lowered and the southern end of this lake, which is the world’s lowest recorded land surface, had degenerated into giant salt pans and rather more productive potash mines.

What remained unchanged, however, was the absolutely stunning landscape. Primeval! Sculpted into a thousand shades of red and yellow the rock formations were almost alive and rolled like gigantic geological waves through vast vistas.

Jordan is essentially a crossroads country traversed by pilgrims and warriors alike. We stopped in a lively town and gazed upon a magnificent paleochristian mosaic pavement discovered in a peaceful orthodox church.

We climbed up a hill which displayed almost interstellar panoramas stretching to Jericho, to Jerash, to the sea of Galilee, even to Jerusalem. Nearby was a basilica erected to commemorate Moses’ climb as described in Deuteronomy:

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not crossover into it.” 

By the church was yet another beautiful ancient mosaic of great size and, touchingly close to it, an olive tree planted there by the late (and now sainted) Pope John Paul ll.

It was difficult to have to remind oneself that in the midst of all this wondrous peacefulness, this great hope for all humanity, less than a month ago and less than fifty miles away two thousand people were massacred in a futile war – to comment no further on the horrors which surround this lovely kingdom to the north and east.

But now the bright lights of Aqaba beckoned us to a gulf where no less than four countries converge – Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and, of course, Jordan.