Monday, December 10, 2018

Tel Aviv

We took a taxi to our AirBnb, 1 block from the beach.  It was great to be able to be at the beach.  Andrew was brave and actually went for a swim, for me it was way too cold and getting my feet wet was enough.  We looked at the sun-worshipers and the prevalent bat & ball games being played along the beach. The sun sets about 4:30 so days are short and winter is not far away.

The next morning we set out on foot to Jaffa (Yafo), the old port. The port has a long history and is closely associated with the warehouses where the Jaffa oranges were stored before being exported to the world and biblical ties to Jonah & the whale.

We wandered the port and streets before coming to the flea market.  There is a huge market and street shops and plenty of people perusing both.  We looked and didn’t buy anything before heading to Puaa for sublime lunch (cuban Chicken and Meat Sandwich).  We have eaten so well this trip.

We were staying close to HaCarmel market so it was an easy journey.  As usual we enjoy walking around markets and seeing the produce and items.  Coffee in Israel has been excellent.  Once thing we have noticed is an over-use of plastic bags and other packaging.  There has not yet been a movement towards reuse/recycle, instead everthing is put in plastic and placed inside a plastic carry bag.  At the same time we have seen public recycling bins.

What do you mean I can't have more food today?????

The other notable item in Tel Aviv was the number of electric bikes and scooters.  They were everywhere and in much higher concentrations than we have seen anywhere – ever. 

Our final act in Tel Aviv was to have lunch at Miznon before we caught the train to Jerusalem. The restautant was not far from the train station so we rocked up with our suitcases and had a delicious gourmet pita sandwich before getting the train.  

There is a new rail link from Ben Gurion to Jerusalem which we took.  Having been directed onto the train we placed our bags and waited to start off.  We moved 10cm then stopped.  Then another 10cm and another shuddering stop. Repeat this 4 or 5 times and we were looking at each other.  Then an announcement was made in Hebrew and people rushed off the train.  With no clue as to what was happening we quickly followed.  We were directed the the train on the platform opposite, we sat down again and were soon off.  No the most efficient start but a smooth train journey of 30 minutes followed.

We arrived into the new central station and there was no lift but we were directed to the escalators.  And with took escalator after escalator until we saw the light of day.  Reading up later, it seems the line is 80 metres underground – which we can readily believe.  On to the tram and off to our final destination, Jerusalem

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Into Israel and on to Haifa

Another middle eastern breakfast under our belts we drove 1 hour to the Sheik Hussein Border. Here we were meeting our rental car people to drop off the car at 10:00am. They duly arrived and we transferred our bags to an awaiting taxi – compulsory to get across the border. We stopped once to scan our suitcases before being deposited a Jordan immigration. 3 JD thank you very much. There we waited behind a busload of Indians on tour, but we struck it lucky that the next transit minibus (another 3 JD thank you very much) was ready to go, so no waiting around, until we got to the Israeli no-man’s land. There we faced immigration.

We were prepared for heavy questioning (particularly as Andrew has an Iran visa in his passport) and waited for 20 or 30 minutes while trucks and buses were checked before we were deposited at Israeli our luggage to be searched. But no, it was one question each and straight through. It was so good that we were able to grab a taxi and be on the once hourly train to Haifa with 3 minutes to spare. So pretty much 1.5 hours from start to finish was far better than we had hoped.

Immediately from the windows of the train we could see the Israel had harnessed water.  On the Jordan side it was generally brown, dry and unproductive, while we were now in high intensity farmland.

Haifa was only a one night stop and the main reason was to go to the world heritage Ba’Hai gardens tomorrow. So the afternoon we had no major plans except eating and wandering – both of which we managed to achieve.

We dropped our bags at Diana seaport apartments and Andrew was hugely fascinated with the complex electronic look on our room door. Every time we went in or out he had to comment ‘I have never seen such a high tech or high security lock ‘ Every time, it was one of those 2 comments! We headed off to lunch around the corner at Maayan Habira  , Eastern European. Sitting on the pavement we were back in a developed city.

Lunch was huge again and it has been our ‘curse’ for the trip. With a long list of restaurants to try we are only able to do 50% of them because by evening we were still not hungry and just had a light meal. We checked out the German colony and walked until we could walk no more.

The next morning we got on the bus to take us up the hill to the gardens. You can see them from the outside, and also from below.  But to actually visit them you need to do so as part of a tour. The gardens are a holy site of the Ba’hai faith and you are told about the history and beliefs of the faith as you walk. You are also strictly told, dress modestly, no eating, no cell phones, no smoking, stick with your group and if you don’t think you can walk down 800 steps don’t start the tour. The gardens are very structured, and are heavily manicured and maintained. They are lovely.

Gardens done, it was was time for lunch. We went to the highly recommended Ein El Wadi. It was little after 12;00 o’clock and there was no one else there. The personable owner said to us, yes we are open and we are actually a very good restaurant, but you are early, thats why no one is here! The food was delicious and we would have returned if it was possible. But alas we had a train to catch we were off to Tel Aviv

Great Restaurant and lots of fake grass for sale in the city

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

All the things we didn’t see in Jordan

48 hours after Petra we were sitting in our hotel room at the Olive Branch Hotel, just outside Jerash, just over one hour from the border with Israel. The preceding 2 days had been a surreal experience!

We left Petra after breakfast and stopped in the shopping part of town to get some bread to prepare our own picnic lunch for the journey through to the Dead Sea. Some freshly baked unleavened bread and cakes from the local baker seemed a very convenient mid-day meal. Andrew needed another coffee so we stopped for that before hitting the road.

We visited Little Petra, about 15 minutes outside Petra. It too was built by the Nabateans and later abandoned, some think it was a suburb of Petra and used as part of the trading routes. There were almost no tourists there and we had a nice visit.

Back on the road we went to Shobak Castle, another crusader era edifice. It looked nice from a distance. I have to admit we got the the carpark, saw the distance needed downhill walk to get the castle (read and the required uphill to return), and decided to rest our weary legs and simply admire it from a distance.

We couldn’t take the dead sea road to go to Wadi Mujib, where we were booked for the night. A flash flood event two weeks ago had washed out an access bridge and we were advised to take the desert highway. It was fast and the scenery constantly large desert plains and empty, empty, empty. Desert plains don’t provide much shade, so instead of finding a nice shaded spot for lunch we eventually pulled off the road and had lunch at a gravel pit.

The scenery started to change from desert to more arable land, and much more population density. We checked into the eco-chalets which we had chosen because 1. They were part of eco-tourist endeavors and 2. They were away from the big 5 star hotels and masses of guests who would be staying on Friday night, being the weekend. It was really windy and we were advised not to swim today as it was not great. Yes, we said, we will swim tomorrow. We did go down to the water and I put my hand in the water to confirm it was salty and it did have a viscous quality. Little did we know that one hand dipping would be the full extent of our dead sea swimming plans.

Dinner was at six and we joined 5 or 6 other couples partaking in the canteen. A nice buffet meal consumed it was back to the chalets and an early night. We had plans to float the next morning after sunrise in the calm waters seen in every tourist postcard. 11pm fast asleep for hours …
[from outside] knock knock…
[me]  yes???
[from outside] You have to pack up now, water coming
[me] Now?
[from outside] Yes, you must hurry!!
[me] looks around outside … sees the next chalet walking out with bags
Andrew despite looking completely bewildered, packed quickly and we gathered with the others in the canteen. Everyone else looked bewildered also, and there were 8 or 10 policemen and staff. A warning had been issued that there was serious flash flooding risk, we were below the Wadi Mujib irrigation dam. We hadn't seen a drop of rain but the internet was telling us that earlier in the day nearly 4000 people had been evacuated from Petra where actual flood waters had flowed through. In our area 2 weeks early rains had caused flash flooding near where we were and a bus with 20 schoolchildren on a day trip had died.

View of the Dead Sea at night, during an evacuation

All the tourists got in their cars and we were driven from the southern end of the Dead Sea on closed roads to a spot on the highway “where we were safe”. There the police spent a long time trying to find us other places to stay. Eventually a 1:30am, we were taken to a local 5* hotel they had arranged a special price with about 30 km away from the dead sea. Our entire view of the dead sea was in the dark, travelling in a police convoy.

The following day we flagged the Dead Sea due to access issues and drove directly to Jerash via the city of Salt. So we didnt really see the Dea Sea.

In Salt it was market day and we planned to have lunch and wander about. Only when we got there parking was chronic, we walked up the wrong valley and were not motivated to retrace our steps and correct. So we really didn’t see the city of Salt either.

Onward to Jerash at one point it was a little disconcerting to see our direction was Syria, not Jerash, but Syria was at least 100km away, so we didn’t see Syria.

We navigated well and parked in the car park in front of the ruins. To one side was a tourist restaurant ‘Roman Ruins’ and we took the easy option of eating there. It was a pleasant meal.

Fed and watered we headed into the Jerash site. I had been really looking forward to these expansive Roman ruins, considered to be some of the best preserved outside Europe. The Hippodrome was large (chariot track) and before the tourist downturn there had been daily re-enactments of chariot races. Sadly not on our watch but it was a foretaste of the roman city we were about to visit. We wandered up to the main gates, and wondered why they were closed. Only to find out Jerash was closed for the day. All monuments had been closed in Jordan following the flooding alarms. Again it was a blue sky day and I read in the newspaper many tourists were frustrated by this over-cautious attitude. I also read people were being evacuated from areas less than 50km from where we were due to real danger of imminent rains.So we didn’t see the Roman ruins either. 

But we purchased some Baklava and bread for our dinner and we started to contemplate the next day and entering Israel.

Despite the challenges of final 48 hours we had an excellent time in Jordan and totally recommend it – just maybe not in November when rains are forecast.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Jordan: Petra

We came down to the Petra car-park just before 8:00am where we easily found a spot for the car. Even though there are thousands of visitors each day, most of them arrive by the bus-load, so parking isn’t a major problem.

Petra is an archaeological city in southern Jordan.  It was a trading hub and probably settle in the 4th century BC.  It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. UNESCO has described it as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage"  It went into decline after the Roman empire and was largely abandoned until 'rediscovered' by a Swiss explorer in 1812

We started walking the 1.2km route to the Siq and the Treasury. We didn’t choose to ride a donkey or a horse, even though we were asked every 10 metres for the 1st few minutes. Before the Siq there is a separate area or ‘animal lane’ but once in the narrow confines of Siq canyon you have to be alert for the sound of hooves or carts as their handlers race through, in most cases with little regard for pedestrians
The Siq is a lovely pile of rocks. Bending and edges softened the rocks are unique. And it was surprisingly long. Andrew rightly pointed out that there was a subtle incline which would be an upward trudge on the way out.

Eventually we got to the point where you get your 1st partial glimpse of the iconic Treasury. And then you emerge into the open area in front of the stunning building carved into the rocks. And then you start to turn down people trying to sell you trinkets, postcards and camel rides. Again and again.
We headed off the see the area outside the Treasury. The Petra complex is huge and some people visit over 3 days, while others arrive on a bus go to the Treasury and then return to the bus. Everywhere you look there are carvings, or caves, buildings, or other signs of human occupation. That description makes it sound like you are walking in a city, but these are hugely spread-out but visible.

Our plan was to get the Monastery done in the morning while we were fresh. 800 steps and 50 minutes later we were no longer fresh, but we made it! At the bottom donkey handlers offered rides telling us it was 20 minutes by donkey or 2 hours and very hard without. We knew it would take less than an hour and were expecting to exert ourselves – so we kept walking and climbing. Donkeys barrel up the track and you need to kept out of their way. On the way down Andrew got brushed by donkey when its rider couldn't control what she doing and he was over to one side.
We climbed and climbed while the sun shone. We admired the view many times also catching our breathes and keeping water intake up. We knew we were nearly there but needed a rest so we sat on a side wall. There were 2 tourists and their guide coming down and the guide came over said hello to us. We said hello to the nice man. He said you don’t recognise me do you? And we politely said, no – because we had been in the country 2 days and didn’t know anyone. Ah, he said, but you are staying in my house J It was our hosts husband whim we had met very briefly the night before. He said you should keep going you are 2 minutes from the rest area. And he was right, we could have been sitting on a couch 2 minutes further on drinking coffee or juice. So when we got to the monastery we proceeded to sit some more, but had the foresaid coffee and juice.

We sat and faced the Monastery, another cave building. It was possibly more atmospheric because 1) we had sweated our up and we appreciated the view as a result of the effort and 2) there were only 10’s of people compared with hundreds of people at the Treasury.
Eventually rested and watered we started back down the stairs. The donkeys looked mighty dangerous on the downward journey with their riders leaning on all sorts of angles defying gravity while the donkeys stepped delicately down, looking much less surefooted. I heartedly agreed with Andrew when he said “You would never get me on MONKEY going down” although I substituted Donkey for Monkey from his impassioned speech. Neither would I ride a donkey down.

We were carrying a packed lunch and Andrew spotted an area in he shade down a side valley. There were a couple of groups of 2 people there when we arrived and then we had the whole area to ourselves for about 20 minutes while we ate Pita sandwiches, cakes, chippies and an apple. Meanwhile less than 10 meters away we could see the donkeys and people making their way up and down the stairs.
Indiana Jackson and his side-kick

After lunch we meandered back through the complex checking out the things we had missed on the way in.  On exiting we went to the Cave bar where we had a very well deserved beer.  18km and 49 flights of stairs for the day justified the exorbitant price of a beer at  USD $11 or $15 NZD.  Jordan has a very high tax/service charge on alcohol.

The day at Petra was hard work, but very much worth it


Sunday, December 2, 2018

Jordan: Madaba and Karak Castle

We took a 1 hour flight from Beirut back to Amman and then a taxi for the 25 minute journey for our overnight in Madaba. Madaba is much a smaller town than the capital but is the same distance from the airport. It seemed preferable to have our rental car delivered to a smaller location rather than trying to navigate out of busy Amman. 

It was about 7pm at night and after we had checked into the Mosaic City hotel we walked for 10 minutes or so to a Carrefour to pick up some supplies for our time in Jordan (water, biscuits, chocolates – just the essentials) On the way back we saw a sweets shop popular with the locals.Using the international “point-at-what-someone-else-is-eating” technique we procured a plate of sticky, sweet, delicious Kanafah…
The next morning our rental car was delivered to the hotel and once the formalities were complete we drove off in our grey Chevrolet Sedan.

Before leaving town we went to the see the most famous sight in town – the Madaba Mosaic map.  It is in the floor at the St George church and dates from the 6th century AD.  It is considered to be the oldest map of the Middle East.  Andrew was singularly unimpressed with it, maybe had been expecting more?
madaba mosaics
The route for the day was the King’s Highway, a traditional trading route that wound through twisting mountains and smaller towns.  A 6 hour drive with stops along the way.

At the ‘Grand Canyon’ we stopped at the viewing car-park and took a few photos. The scenery is dramatic and the landscape harsh. The coffee overlooking the view was a good break.

desert coffe
Our main stop for the day was Karak, and the crusader era castle. We followed the map up to the castle where restaurant proprietors started to wave us over. They have a win-win practice whereby they encourage you to park in front of their restaurant (after they move the road cones) and hope you will eat with them. Not having any specific place in mind a parking spot and a meal suited nicely.

lunch karak
The castle is large and as one would expect was positioned on a hill to survey their lands. It is included as part of our Jordan Pass, but nobody wanted to check the pass, they just waved us through. I could have been holding two pieces of recycled paper for all they knew! Jordan Pass is 70 JD and purchased before you go into the country. If you stay more than 3 nights in the country it means your entry visa is free and you get access to Petra and a number of other national sites.
It has been restored to some degree but large parts remain in ruins. We had a good wander around, walking off lunch. Then it was back into the car for the remaining trip to Petra.

Everywhere we saw houses built to one level but with steel rods sticking out of the roof. Not just occasionally but constantly. Later we found out that it was often done for when the son of the family married, another could be built upstairs for the newlyweds to live in. And often building was simply done as money was available.  The one below is not finished, but the roof would be put in and the rods stay sticking out for future building
We had a BnB out of the town centre, up on the hills, called logically The Little BnB on the hill. It was a good choice and perfect for our needs. It is run by a personable English woman and her Jordanian husband.  The neighbourhood is a new subdivision and had good views over the town.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Beirut, Lebanon November 3

It was our first time flying Royal Jordanian, and it was fine. Customer service was a tad brusque but that was just a foretaste of Middle Eastern service styles. We had a long 10 hour leg from Bangkok to Amman, Jordan and arrived about 4:30am local time. With 4.5 hours to fill-in before the final leg to Beirut we headed to the Royal Jordanian lounge where we ate and made ourselves comfortable. It was all good until I went downstairs for a wander around the terminal. On returning the desk attendant told me we weren’t eligible to be in the lounge because our next leg was codeshare on MEA not Jordanian. At least we fill in a few hours in comfort before being sent to the public seating.

In Beirut we talked to a taxi-driver from a official company who sent his friend from town to pick us up. That all worked well and $25 and 15 minutes later we were delivered to the Ramada Downtown. Checked in we went for a wander down to the nearby Marina and had a late lunch/early dinner at the Za’atar w Zeit restaurant – a local chain with tasty food.

Feeling OK still we went for a walk around the waterfront and then to a Spinneys supermarket for a few supplies. No meal needed in the evening, and into bed at a early time. Sunset is around 16:45pm and being dark it feels much later.

Sunday was breakfast at…Starbucks. Normally we avoid Starbucks as much as possible, but it was convenient, ½ the price of the hotel breakfast and the coffee was actually very good. Caffeinated, and feeling normal after a good nights sleep we set off to explore. Our destination was the National Museum but we got distracted by the area around parliament and the Nejmeh Square and the recently restored clock tower. Being Sunday morning there were very few people about and we were outnumbered by soldiers 2:1, but they were pleasant enough, some even exchanging greetings with us. We visited St Georges Cathedral built 1767, the Old Beirut archaeological site and had a great view across to the modern Mohamed al amin Mosque.

Back on track we made it to the National Museum to find it was FREE today. Nice! And the museum itself was very, very well done. It was originally opened in 1942 and houses the archaeology collection of Lebanon. During the 1975 civil war the installations were heavily protected which resulted in most of the artefacts being preserved even though the museum was on the frontline dividing East and West Beirut during the conflict. It was only reopened in 1999, and the basement reopened to the public in late 2016
“The director of antiquities then, Maurice Chehab, decided very quickly to remove the small objects from the showcases and hide them inside boxes in the basement of the museum,” says the museum’s curator, Anne-Marie Maïla Afeiche.

“He put them on shelves and then he walled them off, so if you didn’t have the plan you couldn’t even tell that behind the wall the whole collection was protected … The bigger objects like the sarcophagi he couldn’t move, of course, so he decided to protect them by building a cement case around each and every one.”

Closed for two decades and occupied by snipers and militiamen, the museum building was a wreck, with bullet holes peppering the facade and holes in the walls and roof caused by shelling. The basement was flooded with 50 centimetres of water and the humidity had badly damaged some of the wooden and terracotta objects.

But, miraculously, almost everything survived the carnage. The ground floor and first floor of the three-storey building reopened in 1999, but the basement remained closed. This month, Lebanese prime minister Tammam Salam, minister of culture, Raymond Araiji, and Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni, presided over its reopening.
The restoration project was funded by a €1.2 million (Dh4.7m) grant from the Italian government and supported by Italian conservators.

From a report in the The National newspaper, Dubai
Apparently there are 1300 of the 100,000 available objects on display. But the installations and interesting displays in wide open spaces give the space a very good feeling.
Culturally enriched, we walked back down the hill to the popular Armenian restaurant, Mayrig . At 12:30 we were the first to arrive for lunch, the place steadily filled up. And the food was delicious! $53 for both of us.
mayrig day
Having covered a lot of kilometres during the day we had some quiet time before heading out in the early evening to Leila on the Zaitunay Marina for a light meal.

Monday 5th November we returned to the area around parliament to look at a few more ancient monuments. Monday brought traffic gridlock and provided an interesting contrast to our quiet Sunday introduction. From the Al Omari Mosque to the Roman Baths ruins and returning to the Blue Mosque where Andrew went in for a look. Andrew being dressed appropriately, and me not wanting to put on robes.
We then walked down to the American University of Beirut campus but decided to have lunch at Socrates before entering the grounds. Andrew was happy to learn the day’s special was Lamb and we both had a tasty Lamb stew, and some Kibbeh.

The AUB campus is huge with views over the sea and large population of cats. According to the University website after the war a lot of cats were abandoned there and now the University has an actual corporate operating policy on cats. We wanted to see the Historical Museum there. We found it interesting with good items and informative displays. And they had a very nice necklace in the museum shop Smile
A distinctive feature in Beirut are the large numbers of taxis roaming that toot and stop at the prospect of getting a potential customer. Some cars are smart, and other end of the spectrum, are wrecks. But they all sound their horn incessantly, hoping you want to ride with them. In the beginning we acknowledged each taxi, “no, no we don’t want a ride”, our friendly smile and wave said. By the end, we either didn’t even notice them or we consciously just ignored them

Andrew was very excited to see a Maclaren showroom on the walk back to the hotel. He noted 5 models on display and acknowledged they were too low to the ground for it to be a practical car for him (as if he was ever going to get one!) We were staying in a part of town where luxury cars were the norm. After seeing so many Porsche, Lamborghini and Ferraris one becomes a little blasé.

The Lebanese produced Red wines, were very nice and it was good to try a few varieties.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

So Seoul too

The next day it was off to the Gyeongbokgnung Palace.  I had not see this one last time I was in Seoul and was interested to see how it differed from Changdeokgung, which we were planning to visit tomorrow.  Heavily restored but interesting to wander about and watch the people dressed in National Costume.  There is a huge business in renting out national dress to tourists (and I presume a few locals) 

If you wear this costume you get free entrance to a number of historic sites.  You also get free entrance if you are over 64 and show them your NZ drivers licence!  Andrew is cheap to run on sightseeing, not so cheap with his fine food and wine needs!

The palace buildings were interesting and there was a touch of autumn colour starting to make its presence known. There were 2 museums in the place grounds that were well worth spending time in.  The best being the Museum of Folk Culture which was well laid out and had an interesting set of exhibits, including a very good temporary exhibits on International Salt research.  But we both took a photo of an acupressure doll exhibit, slightly random synchronicity
We went to a very popular restaurant nearby for a local specialty – Ginseng Chicken at Tosokchon Samgyetang.  A whole chicken (small chicken) is stuffed with glutinous rice, red dates, garlic, a chestnut and ginseng, in a milky coloured ginseng broth.  It is supposed to be very good for your health, probably much better than fried chicken anyway.  The flesh did just fall off the bone and we shared the experience with 400 of our closest friends in a very busy, slick operation.  There was a queue of 40 people behind us as we went in and just many still waiting when we came out.

After lunch we walked to the Seoul History Museum.  It wasn't very busy and free entry so when we spotted a lift we headed to the third floor following our normal routine of doing the floors and walking down the stairs.  On the 3rd floor we almost felt like we shouldn't be there as there were lights being replaced and lots of maintenance work happening.  But no one stopped us so we kept wandering.  When we got to the stairway we found it blocked off – it we had walked up the stairs we wouldn't have got to the 3rd floor – never mind we saw some interesting stuff.  The area on recent Korean history and in particular the redevelopment of Seoul post 1950 was particularly good.  It was noticeable that the negative aspects of redevelopment (sanitation, food shortages etc)were only presented in Korean not translated to English.

In the evening we headed to the Design Dongdaemun Plaza to look at the Zaha Hadid building which is particularly lovely illuminated at night
Our final day was staying in our neighbourhood and going to the nearby Changdeokgung, particulalry for the Garden which can only be access by going on a tour.  To make sure we got on the 10:30am tour we arrived before 9:00am to get one of 50 tickets available.  Andrew’s senior discount was extended to me, so our entry tickets were a bargain!  We walked around the nearby traditional area.  One nice characteristic was the photos displayed in front of the stores of the people who the stores belonged to, creating a feeling of reality, in a highly touristed area.

We struck it lucky with the tour, because they said we could self-guide if we didn't want to trail the guide.  Andrew and I headed off and it was delightful not to be walking with a big group.  The autumnal colours were even more evident here.
Then off for a final dumpling experience before on the train and back to the airport. 

And to finish a couple from the Andrew-Files. Left – is this woman mimicking Andrew? Right this Andrew glaring at dithering women at Breakfast.  Note the agitated hands and frustration simply pouring off him Smile