Cycling Plus #27:
Moonlit riding in Jordan
It's night time as we cross the Syrian border, camping beneath olive groves overlooking Israel. My brother's back in London and I have a new cycling companion. All the way from Holland, Leo's unusual recumbent inspires new levels of boisterous cries and honking horns from an already enthusiastic nation. Following an immaculate highway, giant billboards echo the country's ubiquitous catch phrase: Welcome to Jordan!
Downtown Amman is home to a clutter of cheap hotels and eateries. Past a kebab shop, we turn up a flight of stairs to emerge into a hallway where local guests lounge in long shirts. With its decor of pink and white walls, a distorted mirror and framed excerpts of the Quran, it's a typical budget hotel. Looking out upon this cosmopolitan city, gleaming Mercedes with tinted windows, a Middle Eastern favourite, join the ranks of rattling buses and dusty pickups. Men in chequered red headdresses and starched white robes mingle amongst Western style suits. A few women, traditionally hidden behind scarves and veils, are more glamorously concealed by dark glasses.
Back on the road, we distance ourselves from the main highway carrying the bulk of Jordan's traffic, camping on a ledge overlooking the Dead Sea. Below, a trail twists and turns through rockface hollowed by wind and sand, spiralling downwards to its salty shores. We pause to bob in these surreal waters; from the plateaus of Tibet, I'm now at the lowest point on earth. Stopping at a police station to replenish our water supplies, we soon find ourselves, glasses of sweet tea in hand, surrounded by an enthusiastic lieutenant and his officers. Jordanians are rightfully proud of their country, and we're invited to dinner, a bed for the night, even the services of a bodyguard! Pressing on, we ride across the desert beneath a full moon, gliding over the smooth asphalt that disappears far into the darkness, interrupted only by a few mighty lorries laden with cargos of Dead Sea salt, thundering into the night.
Further south lies the ancient city of Petra, intricately carved into the sandstone rockface. Preserved by a ravine against the elements, it's long been home to Bedouins, the Nomadic desert people. Now, a line of tour buses unload a stream of tourists. This is the Petra of today, the Petra of the tour group. After hundreds of years of obscurity, locals have adapted quickly to this unexpected income. An enterprising Bedouin approaches, brandishing a fan of steel blades, and surprises me with his perfect cockney accent: 'Knife for the wife?!' To witness this change, knowing I am apart of it, is a saddening experience. Yet despite the swarm of fellow tourists, wandering through this network of tombs and archways, set in this rugged and towering landscape, is an awesome testament to the wonders of the past.
Two hundred kilometres later and we're in Aqaba, a city squeezed between Israel and Saudi Arabia, on the Red Sea. Ports attract oddball characters, and we share a plate of fellafels with an Iraqi sailor who extols the beauties of Holland. 'Like Heaven on Earth,' he enthuses. For me, Jordan's desert stars have been as memorable. Declining a last few offers to exchange our bikes for camels, it's time to board the ferry to Egypt.