The bleak and blinding road to Jordan's hidden city

A desert kingdom squeezed between the West Bank and Iraq is not an obvious holiday destination. Jeremy Laurance explores a peaceful land of far horizons

First, locate your holiday destination. Most people know Jordan is in the Middle East but not many, I suspect, can place it accurately. Once you consult a map, pause a moment. Yes, it is squeezed between the blood-soaked hills of Israel's West Bank and the scorched earth of Iraq. But - as our guide Kamel put it in a practised soundbite within minutes of our arrival at Amman airport - Jordan is the "quiet house in a noisy neighbourhood".

It is also hot, dusty, and as barren as the moon. If lush meadows and sparkling pools are what you seek, do not go to Jordan. This is a land of pale hills and far horizons, scorching days, glittering nights, parched air and blinding light.

In the northern nature reserves there are twisted, stunted oak trees and by the Dead Sea there are a few windblown palms. But mostly there are only scraps of withered vegetation clinging to a biblical landscape of sand and rock. If England is green, Jordan is beige.

You will enjoy it best if you love emptiness and heat. Not the oppressive humid heat of the tropics but a shimmering dry heat that burns and sterilises and sucks the liquid from every pocket of the earth.

This land seems a long way from the divisions, conflicts and hatreds of its neighbours. During a week spent touring the country my group (composed of a dozen assorted hacks invited by the Jordanian tourist board on what was described as a hiking and trekking holiday) met only courteous people - with the exception of one rude hotel receptionist who showed a civilised and faintly amused interest in us. The Jordanians we met seemed genuinely pleased that foreigners had come to visit in these trying times.

Most visitors come to Jordan for the sites ... archaeological sites, that is. Many take day trips from Israel to see the astonishing ancient Nabatean city of Petra. But with a longer visit it is possible to combine that with desert trekking in Wadi Rum, canyoning in the Mujib Valley or skin diving in the Red Sea at Aqaba. Adventure and culture in one package.

We started with a trip to Jerash in the north, the best preserved Roman provincial city in the Middle East, which boasts a stunning oval plaza and an 800-metre colonnaded street rutted by thousands of chariot wheels. The ruins are compact and undeniably impressive but the setting, on a hillside next to the modern city, is oddly bleak. There were few visitors and we had the place almost to ourselves. Foreign visitors are in short supply today in Jordan. Tourism has dropped by 90 per cent since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent war in Iraq. However, things are unlikely to remain this way for much longer if the rate of hotel building is anything to go by. One more reason to go now before the crowds return.

After a visit to a nature reserve in the Ajloun region in the north - lush and green to Jordanian eyes, no doubt - we set off for Jordan's best-known attraction at the lowest point on earth. The plan was to drive to a hotel buried deep in the hills near the thermal springs at Ma'in and then trek downhill following the stream that flows from the springs to the shores of the Dead Sea.

As we descended the hairpins in our minibus, the dusty hills appeared before us in every variety of beige - sand, gold, ochre, fawn, apricot, rose, cinnamon, pepper. The springs themselves - smoking waterfalls dropping into foaming pools - were sulphurous and, at 40C, held little appeal.

After lunch in the slightly sulphurous hotel we set out on our trek, crossing and re-crossing the boiling stream. We scrambled up banks, over branches and round boulders, sinking on occasion up to our shins in mud. Oleander bushes blocked our path and swept at our ankles. The heat in the twisting watercourse, rising from below and beating down from above, sapped strength and parched the throat.

It was tough going and after a couple of hours some in our party were beginning to flag. Our guide suggested gently that we would not reach our minibus before nightfall unless we increased our pace. So, a decision was taken to cut away from the stream and up the side of the crumbling canyon. As we climbed through a moonscape of desolate grandeur, rocks and debris scattered under us, ending in a cloud of dust 500 feet below.

By this time two members of the party were in considerable difficulty and there were urgent whispered conversations about calling in a rescue helicopter. But along with our guide we had two young policemen (in blue fatigues and army boots, despite the heat) who loped nonchalantly ahead and sat smoking as they waited for us to catch up. But they proved invaluable - silently and politely offering a steadying hand to those in need.

Dusk was falling by the time we found the minibus. We fell upon its bottles of warm water and drank, greedily but hopelessly. Our thirst was beyond quenching.

That night, at the Mövenpick resort and spa on the Dead Sea - a luxury establishment with marble walkways winding through streams, fountains and oleander bushes, its comfortable rooms located in wattle and mud style blocks - my bed was more welcoming than any in memory.

Next morning, the Dead Sea appeared, milky and malevolent. Do not try a sip, as I did. It tastes like battery acid. It numbs the lips, stings the eyes and lingers unpleasantly on the tongue. It contains a cocktail of minerals so lethal that nothing survives in it, except perhaps the odd tourist. Floating in the water is a curious sensation, like trying to swim in an armchair. Locomotion is impossible; arms and legs flail uselessly in the air. I paddled about on my back for half an hour and got out. That's it, I thought. I don't need to do that again. Yet it was a unique experience and I was glad I did.

Next came Petra, Jordan's jewel and one of the greatest sights in the Middle East. The first glimpse of the rose-red city is special, and Kamel, our guide, handled it well. As we walked in through the

As-Siq, the famous narrow twisting gorge, he stopped to point out something behind us. Then he swivelled on his heel and announced: "Petra". And, as we turned, there - abruptly, shockingly - were the carved columns of the Treasury, framed by the high cliffs of the gorge.

Once a city of 20,000 people, few of Petra's free-standing buildings remain. What have survived are the tombs, vast elaborate monuments hewn from the rock in classical style. Hundreds of them.

The hidden city is located on the edge of Wadi Araba, a region of sheer rugged sandstone hills, eroded by the dry winds into fabulous shapes and geological swirls in extraordinary colours from deepest pink to cobalt blue. The best views of Petra are to be had by trekking to vantage points in the hills such as the Place of High Sacrifice and the Monastery, where an entire hill has been carved into a vast tomb.

Petra is about assisting the passage from this life to the next and it has achieved its objective triumphantly. Its citizens and its monuments live again for those who come - 2,000 years later - to view its grand designs, listen to the patter of Bedouin touting donkey rides ("Air conditioned taxi, sir?") and to imagine it in its heyday. Go out of season when you will have the place mostly to yourself.

For real solitude, however, there is nowhere to rival the desert of Wadi Rum in the south. Fine red and pink sand lies about towering jebels, up to 3,000 feet high, their cliff faces sculpted by the wind into elaborate filigrees and extravagant protuberances. In the gorges, the wind whispers and voices echo back and forth.

The desert is not what it was when Lawrence of Arabia passed this way. Camels will as often travel in the back of a pick-up truck as walk, Coke cans litter the better trodden paths and our Bedouin guide, Mzied, served supper in "The House of Hair" (a traditional goat hair tent) before handing out business cards bearing his mobile phone number and email address. But we did sleep under the stars as travellers have for ever - warm and insect free.

At dawn, the rocks opposite our camp changed from silver grey to rose pink to gold. The high dunes of soft sand glowed a rich umber at first. But as the sun rose it bleached the colour out of everything. We were left groping our way, like subterranean animals, in a sea of light.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The writer travelled as a guest of Jordan Tourism. Several companies in the UK offer walking itineraries in Jordan. For example, Explore Worldwide (01252-760 000; www.exploreworldwide.com) offers its 10-day "Lawrence of Arabia" itinerary from £715 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights from London, transfers, b&b accommodation, full board in the desert and the services of a guide. Other companies offering similar tours include Exodus (020-8675 5550; www.exodus.co.uk), Walks Worldwide (01524 242000; www.walksworldwide.com).

Further information

Jordan Tourism (0870 770 6933; www.see-jordan.com).

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