Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Qatraneh-Mujib discovery



The mission and the challenge was to discover the route connecting Qatraneh to Wadi Mujib. Unusual tough terrain, vicious and deserted wadis, harsh exposed rocks but what we think is one of the best landscapes in Jordan for mountain cycling. Having tried this route several times but failed to discover the ‘secret’ path made me more persistant this time around.

Nassar and Tareq are always looking for real adventures and were kind and were mad enough to join me on this discovery trip! Meeting in Amman as early as 5:00 in the morning when the city was fast asleep, our noisy sounds loading the bikes at this hour, probably made some neighbors wonder.

Even in the hottest of the summer days, Qatraneh is actually cold in the mornings – typical desert weather. A good place to park was the usual Petra rest-house, where we bought water and some snacks, tuned our bikes and double checked our sanity!

It was early, the sun has not come out yet when we started on the broken road pointing directly west. It must have been around 10 degrees and with the bicycle movement, it felt really cold, and humid as well. The first half hour or so takes you to the Bshir palace, which we have visited and toured several times. You can even drive your car to see this palace, the ‘broken’ palace - after the earthquake, I should say. The Bshir palace was, as always, bright and glowing in the sun in the early morning hours. The sun has just came up at this point, and the golden orange light rays woke up and illuminated the structure. A very peaceful and tranquil start of the day – a good sign.

Stopping at this first palace, walking in and around , mostly to prepare for the long day ahead, we did not see any Bedouins though. September is still early in their winter calendar, they would come back to this area in winter proper, October or November onwards. This same area and plateau gets packed (desert proportionality here) with Bedouins, tents and sheep. This area is probably one of the most popular grazing grounds for one simple yet crucial fact: water and the very good rains.

By now, the sun made life a bit more warmer. After inspecting the site, the biggest of the Bshir palaces, we continued further due West. There are no roads beyond this point and what remains only, is the well-packed desert tracks. Pedaling on and on, we enjoyed the scenery around, to smell the freshest and cleanest of airs, and look at the striking blue skies above – what else could we ask for?

We saw, in a distant, some Bedouin trucks and tents but seemed dormant and without much movement. After the second Bshir palace or structure, we cross a couple of small wadis, climb a couple of small hills, then the second smaller palace (or fort). Few kilometers later, the wadi Mujib becomes visible in the horizon and the whole scene becomes increasingly dramatic. This is a very open, peaceful plateau with very interesting colors and the feeling of the packed sand under the wheels made us want to ride stronger and faster. This is when we start forgetting about the motion and one gets abundant energy – only experience teaches you that.

Again, the one major problem in this land is: Drinking water, or the lack of it! We had about 3 liters each but as the weather became warmer, we consumed it like fish. The difference in temperatures is quite dramatic as well, we started at about 10 and it must have been 30 when we finished the ride.


As we approached the Mujib (from the western section) we changed bearing and started heading North, Northwesterly direction.

2nd phase: At this point, the romantic plains come to an end, the descent towards Mujib starts. And please don’t think of this like any previous descents you have done before – quite unusual. First of all, the road is hardly traveled, not even by previous mad cyclists! The sizes of rocks waiting for our wheels, built up in size and frequency, the sun was becoming even hotter than need now. The sheer viciousness of these mountains and wadis was quite enough to challenge our minds more than our legs. Only a few shepherds at the start of the drop greeted us, or we stopped to greet them.

“Does this track go to Mujib?” I asked one of them

“Yes” he assured us, but then again, have they gone on this road, I wondered. Most of the times, Bedouins’ sense of directions and/or distance is not to be trusted, not for any dishonesty or misleading practice but for one simple reason – they live in timeless space where their pace and biological clock is completely different from ours. They might tell you for example to walk in a certain direction for five minutes to find such and such. And you never do! But then again, experience has taught me to speak their language and more importantly, to separate truth from fiction.

The group of kids did not ask us many questions, like they normally don’t. Except for the most immediate one “Where are you coming from?” And when we actually tell them, they are quiet and bewildered!

“Do you sleep here, out in the open nowhere?” I asked them.

“Seems very quiet, not so many Shepherds have returned yet.” I added

“Yes, we are the only ones who came back very early, still the rest of us are east. But they will come back soon.”

Greeting and leaving them in peace, we continued on the mission. Now, it seems there were no more shepherds, dogs or any living thing, the mountains became more and more isolated and the eeriness of the place grew. My camelback stared to feel lighter, bad news if we run out of water around here. Every hour or so, we would stop to stretch our legs and backs and to munch through another sugary snack. To refuel on good snacks is a big must after the first two or three hours of continuous riding. More so, in this extraordinarily dry weather.

“There is no looking back now”, I told Nassar and Tareq. It would be too exhausting to try and go back now, we will have to climb several mountains and more importantly, we will have to give up the trial and this expedition. Both Nassar and Tareq are chubby, funny and very high spirited people – vital components that will make us pass this terrain. If you are with weak-hearted people, the whole flavor of the ride would feel different and one would fall into trouble for that.

The roads diverged and there were several smaller tracks and we did not know which one leads where; good guessing where mostly needed. Unfortunately, your typical ‘road logic’ does not work properly here. You would find it extremely difficult to try to cross from one small wadi to another for example, and worse still , one would lose water and much energy if they attempt some foolish diversion.

Trying some very steep routes combined with some hiking (carrying of the bikes) we ended up in a dead-end! Things did not look good, we had no clue. Fortunately, minutes later, I saw a walking Shepard and goats from a distance. I shouted “hellos” in his direction and he stooped. Communication form tow distant wadis proved difficult. So we carried the bikes and walked down to meet him. He came quickly as well

“Salamu Alaikum” he said and looked at us smiling. “Why are you here? A picnic?” he asked with more smiles.

“You have to give us directions?” I said

“Yes, but you have to come to my tent up this mountain for tea!” he invited us

“OK.” Of course we went, we needed tea, water and some rest.

As we walked, we saw his goats in the shade and drinking from a pool down that small valley. The pool was very green and full of frogs. “Where do you drink from?” I asked him in anticipation

“From here!” he said calmly. Now that was bad news, I am not drinking from dysenteries pond! Only later, he told us that he brings fresh water from another spring up the valley.

His tent was very much less than basic. The level of poverty these people live in makes us, the visitors, very quiet. From shame actually, the embarrassment that we feel when we visit them and compare their lives to ours. A very small tent for him, his wife, sister and two children. One of which we heard coughing drastically.

“Your child is coughing badly” I told him

“She will be OK. We took here sister to the hospital last month and she stayed for two weeks. The doctors said her blood is weak”

Weak?! To put mildly. I wondered what nutrition they have.


The sugar-loaded teas were exactly what we needed. We must have rested and stretched there for half an hour before carrying on the pedal movement. Nassar even took a miniature nap there!

We gave Mohammad the few snacks and fresh dates we had for his children hoping that it will ease her coughing.

From then onwards, we kept going down on the dirt roads until we were releaved to see the Mujib Dam – finally. There is only a small grocery shop near the dam. Without any more hellos, we went for the water bottles.



Notes:

This is probably among the hardest rides we have done in Jordan. We cycled for 50 kilometers in 6 hours flat and enjoyed every moment of it. The challenge is endurance, good handling of the bike and the drinking water. You have to carry more than 3 liters of water as well as snacks. Getting lost, or failing to find the route, could be even more challenging. To turn back would be disastrous. The area is very isolated; never attempt this ride in groups less than three. Accidents could happen and one has to be prepared with the necessary first-aid kit and procedures.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Tea with Abu Suleiman

Abu Suleiman quickly brought the mattresses and cushions and made sure we were all welcome and comfortable. He was genuinely hospitable and pleased to see us. Putting the bikes next to his sheep fence, we all went in the tent to hide from the blazing sun, temporarily at least.

Taking a comfortable Bedouin position means: Sitting on one of the floor mattresses and leaning partially sideways to rest on the side cushions. Abu Suleiman and family hurriedly brought the mattresses and rested them on the floor facing each other and forming a square.

Once inside the tent and under some shade, we realized how cool the shelter was. Because of the general dry climate in Jordan, even in the hottest days of the summer, once under any shade, like a tree or a tent in this case, the cooling effect is always immediate and refreshing. Abu Suleiman talked briskly and with a very orderly manner to his family, like all elderly Bedouins when addressing their wives and children: Make tea, bring water, do this, do that etc… As a gesture of joy and welcome. He also led a goat outside of the tent that, like us, was in search of a cool breeze.



“Are they all your family or have you someone living with you?” I asked him, thinking that there might be a brother or cousin as the case usually is.

“All mine, Al Hamdu-Lilla” he answered, and then immediately added “I doubled the wives!” meaning he married twice. “I have 12 from the first and only 7 from the second!”
I had to reply positively and re-assure him that the gift of God is always a blessing!

“They help me with the sheep and the work” he said, after brief moments of thought.

His son, Mansoor, a fine young man in his late twenties was also married and living with his father and his own children. Abu Suleiman’s big family all live, work and support each other in this harsh climate to insure survival. They had three tents and what looked like hundreds of sheep and goats. Later, Mansoor brought some water in a large metal container which he put on the naked earth for all of us to drink; we sipped and passed the bowl, it was cool and refreshing.

“Even this one, I married him as well so he would calm down and stay” Abu-Suleiman explained about his son, as he put the water container. The young man only smiled and said nothing.

Their tents were conveniently located half way in our tour. It would make a perfect resting spot for all future rides, I thought. In these harsh mountains and terrain, it is always wise to get know the local Bedouins where one can rest, get a drink of water and most importantly, to make friends, get to know their life-styles and try to support, as much as possible, this extinct culture and people.

“Where you born here?” I asked him who looked in his late sixties. Age is a very deceiving when you meet Bedouins; they always look much older than they actually are; obviously, because of their harsh lifestyles and lack of any form of comfort.

“I came here when I was 10-years-old, with my father, in 1947 from Palestine” he answered. I was right, he was 66!

After the sugar-loaded teas, one of his wives, came to greet us carrying a new-born. She was cheerful and found it an opportunity to complain about her husband! For her, a gang of cyclists in the middle of the desert and in this heat probably meant some sort of a relief organization!

“He does not allow the girls to go to school” She complained loudly.

I looked him fiercely straight in the eye, protesting his action. “After the Tawjihi, girls should not go to school, what for?” His excuse came.

“Nowadays, they should go to college as well Ya Abu Suleiman.” In a convincing tone, I tried to tell him, but how could I in this brief few-minute encounter change his mind about something he seemed so sure of. He only nodded and moved his head away as if telling me “I heard that before!”

After the brief rest, we thanked them, shook hands with his two wives and his children and continued on the bicycles for the remainder of the tour - ten kilometers or so to the car. A couple of hills and the growing heat challenged the last drop of the remaining energy we had.



Notes:


The general area and group of villages of Dab’a is about 25 kilometers south of the airport. Dab’a literally means Hyena, which this area was and still famous for. The area’s gentle undulating hills make for a great mountain bike adventure. Our path was along and next to a dry river bed. The rock formations and hidden caves around it are quite ancient, spectacular and look like perfect hiding spots for the hyenas. Desert routes should always be traveled in the very cool hours of the morning; the heat picks up quickly and will cause serious discomfort and severe dehydration. The same area makes for a wonderful cycling experience in the winter season as well.

Never attempt any bike ride without a companion especially if heading for the desert. Orientation, or the lack of it, can be serious and getting lost an easy matter. Always take additional water bottles during the summer months, some money should you need to pay for a ride back home. Always, and I mean always, wear a helmet.

Two very important sites in the Dab’a area: Firstly, the brilliant and beautiful Umayyad desert castle, the Dab’a castle which is conveniently located a few kilometers south of the airport. The structure is in very good condition, very well preserved and sits elegantly in a lower spot surrounded with gentle and soft hills. The area where the castle sits, and because it is rather lower, gathers a lot of rain water thus the greenery and the rain-collecting water reservoir.

Secondly, and looking a few kilometers east of the castle, one can see the Dab’a Ottoman railway station; unfortunately, deserted and neglected today. These fine and elegant structures stand witness to great times in this area – The Ottomans. With only interest, these two fine buildings, on both sides of the railway tracks, would perfectly make an Ottoman museum of some sort, I thought to myself. But where is that interest, I also thought!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Beidha


Regardless how many visits one has been to Beidha or Petra, it is and will always be simply among the most interesting sites in Jordan; for cycling, hiking or for the simple walks, visits and more importantly for the talks, chats and getting to know the local community and residents. Beidha means “white”, a relatively elevated area when compared to Wadi Musa, therefore cooler. Beidha was, seems to me, a summer escape, picnic and playgrounds for the Nabateans. It was also a vast and suitable area to grow barley since Wadi Musa itself has but limited suitable space to grow vegetables, fruits and wheat in smaller orchards. Different crops were later exchanged between the tribes/groups of people living in the general area.

There are three major groups of people around the Petra area that have survived for years, intermingled and intertwined together in a delicate support system mix: The Ammarins, from the Huweitat Bedouins, living and working in the Beidha area, the Bedouls, also of Bedouin origins, now living in “Umm Sayhoon” housing complex who previously enjoyed living in the actual caves of Petra but were expelled and re-located in 1985. Thirdly, the residents of Wadi Musa, who do not belong to any greater tribal origin but consider themselves Ahl Al-Jabal or “The people of the Mountain.”

Among these three groups, it is as if there is an un-announced agreement on the division of labor and responsibility: The Ammarins, mostly dependent on their grain produce and their goats; cultivating the land to grow strictly barley. They used their genius and complex system of cisterns the Nabateans have invented, some of which still remain operational today, but for the most part, they have dried up putting even more pressure on the local residents, their farming talent and their cattle.

The second large group, the Bduls, who historically lived in the caves of Petra and when tourism picked up, they were expelled and relocated to a special housing complex built for that purpose, their new village, “Um Sayhoon”, they work mostly in tourism, cattle and horses. To survive, their natural and spontaneous intelligence and wit have taught them English allowing them to manage their way in other languages as well. The village of Umm Sayhoon, is the best place to hire a donkey