Monday, January 16, 2012

Israel Trip Report Part 5 – Tour of Petra

Trip Report – Israel 2011
  1. United #1273: Orange County, CA (SNA) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  2. United #90: Newark, NJ (EWR) to Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV)
  3. Tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem
  4. Tour of Caesarea, Rosh Hanikra, and Acre
  5. Tour of Petra
  6. Tel Aviv
  7. Grand Beach Hotel Review
  8. United #91:  Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  9. United #311:  Newark, NJ (EWR) to Denver, CO (DEN)
  10. United #403:  Denver, CO (DEN) to Orange County, CA (SNA)

Part 5 – Tour of Petra

Petra was amazing.  I don’t think I can adequately describe the experience with words.  The early morning start, the fairly high cost of the tour, the American tourists in the group that were a bit clueless, and the long day were all worth it. 

Petra is located in Jordan, near the southern point of Israel.  The tour I booked from Tel Aviv included a round trip flight to the Israeli city of Eilat.  From there we would be taken to the border with Jordan and then to Petra.  My alarm was set for 4:30am to allow me enough time to actually wake up, get ready, and head over to the airport.  Unfortunately, the people in the next room either woke up at 4am or were just getting in at 4am.  The thin walls in this hotel passed their noise easily so awoke even earlier than I wanted.  A quick cab ride to the Sde Dov Airport and I was at the airport gate 20 minutes before the airport actually opened.  Thankfully the weather in Tel Aviv was not as cold or wet as it had been the previous few days. 

Sde Dov Airport is a small central city airport.  When I say small, it’s like one of those airports that has the same person checking you in, manning the gate, and handling the luggage.  It was similar to airports I’ve been to in San Luis Obispo (SBP), Sonoma (STS), and Huntington (HTS).  I was booked on Akria, an airline I had never heard of before, which services Israel domestic locations and has some international service to Europe.  Their fleet consists of turboprops and a few jets, the largest is a 757.  I was assuming we would be flying a turboprop given the small size of the airport but was given an aisle in row 26 when checking in.  The terminal is not near the aircraft so once we passed through the gate everyone boarded a bus which drove us past a few IDF C-130 Hercules, small private planes, and then eventually to the Arkia plane, a Embraer E-195.  The plane had a standard 2-2 configuration and decent interiors, however, definite signs of wear and tear wear present on the seats and overhead bins.  The airline utilizes the doors for all of the overhead bins as sellable advertisement space.  It makes financial sense to me but that is a lot of other peoples branding to be on a plane. 

Arkia E-195

The flight was only in the air about 35 minutes.  Take off was smooth down the one runway at the airport.  There is no taxiway at Sde Dov so the plane has to head down the runway then turn around at the end to take off.  We looped around over Tel Aviv and passed through the cloud layer on our way.  Drink service was quick on the 25% full flight and they passed out prepackaged chocolate croissants which were tasty (picture at the end).  Landing in Eilat reminded me of two airports I’ve flown into back in the States.  One side of the city felt like we were landing in Vegas with the large hotels and mountains in the distance.  The other side felt like we were landing in El Paso due to the landscape, brightly colored retail buildings, and cramped roads. 

One problem with booking the tour online, and even a follow up call to confirm my reservation, was that the details about what would happen once I arrived in Eilat were nonexistent.  Two other people also made the Tel Aviv flight for the tour as well, a couple Texans.  We banded together figuring that they wouldn’t leave three people there at the airport.  About 10 minutes later a white minivan pulled up with our driver and we hoped on board hoping we were all settled to go.  After picking up a few more tourists we headed to the Jordanian border crossing.  Similar to the visit to Bethlehem, this crossing wouldn’t be simple. 

Our Israeli driver wouldn’t accompany us through the border but merely collected 55 USD for the border crossing fee and then showed us where to go to get our passports stamped on the Israeli side.   Our group, now totaling 10, walked between the two border posts passing into Jordan where our Jordanian driver met us, collected our passports and processed them.  Now I have another country’s stamp in my passport!  We all hopped into the van and jolted off towards our destination.  The drive would take about two hours to get into the mountains where Petra is located.  Driving along the highway gave us tremendous views of the mountains and deserts.  The stones in the mountains have black bandings running through them highlighting different mineral deposits.  In Jordan, as in Israel, the painted line demarking lanes and directions seem to be merely suggestions rather than rules.  We were often in two lanes or on the other side of the road during the trip. 

We kept increasing in elevation on the main road and eventually turned onto the connecting road to Petra.  About an hour and a half after we left the border crossing we had a rest stop and a tourist shop in the middle of nowhere.  It never fails that on every tour they take us to a shop they are friends with so we can purchase something while using the facilities.  It was a surprise to me as well as the rest of the people on the tour that there were isolated patches of snow on the ground.  It was incredibly cold up there.  Eilat was projected to be in the 70s and with the wind chill in the mountains I’d say we were at freezing temperatures.  It was so cold that the two ladies from Texas who were the clueless ones purchased jackets at the shop for $75 USD each.  They were not the greatest jackets by far.  I walked through the store but didn’t find anything interesting and decided to wait outside in the sun and get some heat.  Outside was a pack of puppies and their mom who all loved tourists and were begging for food from us.  One of the puppies even knew to sit on command so he got more food than the others. 

Jordanian Puppies

Another 30 minutes on the road and we stopped at a scenic viewing point above Petra.  We couldn’t see the city but rather the mountains and canyon ranges were the city was built.  The scenery was incredible.  The shape of the rocks, the scale of the mountains and depth of the ravines was impressive.  It was only a small taste of what was to come. 

Panoramic View

The driver hurried us back inside the van so we could warm up and head the rest of the way to Petra.  The road descended through small towns with sharp turns and oncoming traffic.  Once we started seeing larger and classier hotels along the side of the road we knew we were getting close.  We drove through Wadi Musa to the visitor’s center parking area at Petra where we met the Bedouin guide who would take us town into the ancient city.  He was the best guide out of all the guides I’ve had so far on this trip.  Even just a couple minutes walk down towards Petra and stone carvings in the cliff can already be seen. 

One of the "Three Water Canisters"

The path to enter and exit the site is through the Siq, pronounced “sick”, which a narrow gorge running into the city.  This pathway was used for religious processions as well as bringing water from the aquifers or collecting rain water off the cliff and bringing it into cisterns.  Carvings and places for idols are found along the cliff walls.  The gods of the Nabataean people were once displayed in niches along the cliff.  Petra was a great trading power reaching to Egypt, Greece, Syria, and even China.  The Nabataeans had their own unique art and architectural style but also brought in influence from their trading partners so their buildings and designs would have a Greek pediment for example. 

The Siq

The width of the passage varies and twists and turns as you descend along the path.  Around each turn there is something new and the sense of anticipation builds for seeing Petra.  The city has been described as the “rose-red city” due to the iron oxide within the rock given everything a redish hue.  Farther into the canyon the wind started to pick up as the passage way narrowed.  The crisp breeze was welcomed and heightened the anticipation even more.  Finally after passing stone reliefs of camels caravans we rounded the last corner and saw hints of the Treasury past the end of the Siq.

A Hint of What is to Come

The Siq ends into another large canyon within the mountains and directly in front of the exit is the imposing stone face of the Treasury.  I have seen it in multiple films and pictures but to see it in person is something else entirely.  The size and scale of work needed to complete the carving and remove the rock is incredible.  It is a breathtaking sight even through some of the façade has received damage from erosion, earthquakes, and bullets.  The Nabataean people started working from the top down, removing stone and carving into the cliff face so they wouldn’t damage any work below.  The planning and thought that had to go into such an effort was massive.  Plus great engineering acumen was needed to understand the weight and loading of the sandstone that would be cantilevered or supporting openings and rooms inside.  I just stood looking at it for a good five minutes before walking around the façade and taking pictures.  The Treasury is only one part of Petra though. 

The Treasury

Another small ravine leads towards the rest of Petra.  I knew that there were more buildings and stone facades in Petra but I was surprised at how much of the canyon was occupied by the former city.  Caves and carvings dotted the cliff up to four of five stories off the ground.  There was even class distinction between the larger facades and homes for the wealthy and the middle class and lower class homes on the other side of the canyon.  These homes were also burial sites.  Families would live with the ashes of bones of their dead relatives as a part of their religious beliefs.  Reliefs cut into the top of all of the homes had sets of stairs or crows steps which symbolized their belief of the spirit dying and rising in the afterlife.   

Lower Class

Upper Class
The city has storerooms, temples, markets, and even an amphitheater.   Much more of the city is likely buried under the centuries of sediment that have piled up on the canyon flood in the centuries since the city was occupied.  The Nabataean were the first ones living there until the Romans came and conquered the city in the first century AD.  By the fourth century AD the city was in collapse as the water management system failed.  The great success of Petra came from their ability to harness the natural water in the desert.  They had a water system of drinking water and another for animals and hygiene.  Clay pipes were laid high up on the rock to allow for gravity to pull water into the city.  Remnants of the pipe and water system can be seen high along the cliff as strong horizontal lines. 

Some of the more breathtaking views and elements of Petra are further down.  Larger facades were carved into the cliffs facing south and the lower part of the city.  The caravans and trade entered the city from this end and I can only imagine how it must have looked in the City’s prime as people first entered into Petra.  We had a few minutes to climb to one of the higher points that looks out over Petra before heading back up to the van.  The hike was well worth it for the views of the mountains and city. 
South Cliff Facade
The View South

The walk back to the van took about 35 minutes at a good pace.  The exercise was needed to help warm me up and brace against the cold wind.  Just before entering the Siq I took a few more minutes to look at the Treasury.  I have to say that this part of my trip was the highlight.  And, I must watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when I return home. 

Leaving Petra

Lunch was served as a buffet style at a restaurant in Wadi Musa.  We didn’t eat until almost 3:30pm.  I was so hungry I just dove in so I will apologize for the lack of picture of food.  I enjoyed there hummus and pita as well as a lamb “stew” over rice.  One of the best parts was dessert which was something like a bread pudding that was more of a custard style with plenty of cinnamon. 

The drive back towards Israel was long but went fast as I was able to take a nap.  We had a brief stop in the Jordanian city of Aqaba where we visited another shop and had an opportunity to walk around.  There was a liquor store on the block which I was surprised to find there.  The window display had large bottles of Chevas Regal, Jose Cuervo, and even bottles of Jordanian wine.  I don’t know how good the wine would be though.  The bottle of Chardonnay had a 12.5% ABV.

Aqaba Fountain
Jordanian Wine

Crossing the border back into Israel took some time.  The Jordanians bid us farewell and we crossed the land between countries quickly before entering the Israeli checkpoint.  We had to go through security screening, answer questions about our trip, and pass through customs to meet back with our Israeli driver.  A quick ride later and I was back at the Eilat airport with the two Texan ladies.  We handed out passports to the security screeners and spent about 10 minutes answering questions about our time in Israel and in Jordan, who we talked to, and if anyone gave us items.  Finally we were able to check in for our flight and pass through another security line with metal detectors.  The flight didn’t leave for another 1.5 hours so we grabbed tea and chatted until time to board.

The return flight to Tel Aviv was on an ATR-72-500.  I have never flown on this aircraft type before as I only know of one US carrier to use them, American Eagle.  The turboprop holds 72 and again the flight was maybe 25% full.  The check-in agent was kind enough to give me the emergency exit row seat at the front of the plane so I had generous legroom. Boarding was from the back of the plane as a cargo door and small hold was at the front for luggage.  The row 1 seats actually faced the row 2 seats where I was sitting.  Thankfully, no one sat there.  Drink service was fast again and I enjoyed my second chocolate croissant of the day.  They also passed out wet naps that even have ads on them.  I think something like this should be relative easy to being back to economy service on US carriers.  I would think that the advertising revenue would help offset the costs of that small perk of a small snack and wet wipe.

In-Flight Snack

Landing as quick and then it was back to the hotel to sleep.  I finally have a day without plans other than to walk around Tel Aviv so that means I will try to sleep in if I can.  

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