Travel: Spectacularly deserted

Annie Caulfield in eastern Jordan
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The Independent Travel
"You see Petra? Wadi Rum? Aqaba?" Kids trying out their English always ask you this in Jordan. And of course you want to see Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba - the north to south line that's the route through the country's most famous treasures. But there is the other bit of Jordan that sticks out to the East. It looks near empty on the map, so stark there's even a town that's just a map reference, H5.

The Eastern Desert is full of Bedouin who aren't as tourist-sharp as those down south, and they pursue their traditions with little more than a nod of friendly curiosity to the outside world. Then there are the miles of desert. Not beautiful, colourful and piled with spectacular giant rock formations like the famed Wadi Rum. This is the sort of desert people stagger about in going mad - endlessly the same bleak, fawn scrub.

A hire car is the best way out here. On the road from Amman to Azraq, you pass a string of intriguing desert complexes. First is Qasr Kharana, the only desert castle that would seem to have been built by the Ommayed, the first Islamic dynasty, for purely defensive purposes. Others, like Tuba, Mushatta and particularly Qasr al Amra are places that tell you a lot more about the Omayyed dynasty lifestyle.

The Omayyed came from the deserts around the 8th century, battled the Byzantines out of power and made themselves an empire in the region, with Damascus as their capital. The remote castles were places of retreat from their own civilisation, to ensure their desert ways weren't lost. Horses were raced, game was hunted with falcon, saluki dogs and trained cheetahs. They were also havens of off-duty fun - with music, dancing girls and luxury bathing facilities. The walls and ceilings of Qasr Al Amra leap with colourful frescoes of hunting scenes, birds, flowers and very unveiled ladies. There are pictures of conquered enemies and, for more relaxing thoughts, the inside of one of the domes is painted with a map of the heavens with stars in zodiacal constellations.

The round, yellow domes of Qasr al Amra melt into the sand surrounding them as you drive away. And the black basalt fort at Azraq glowers out, forbidding, a few miles down the road. Here, as at Qasr Hababat to the North, the Omayyeds took over a Roman fortification and did it up a bit with baths and a mosque. They used it as a military headquarters and also as a hunting lodge.

Until very recently, this area was green and almost swampy; game was plentiful. The underground water has been pumped away to Amman, helping the city greatly but ridding Azrak of flocks of migrating birds and indigenous wild animals. There's a nature reserve with ostrich and ibex, but it's no longer the sumptuous oasis Lawrence of Arabia found when he made Azrak fort his headquarters in 1917.

The very old guard at the fort will show you pictures of his father with Lawrence and the grim black stone room above the gatehouse where Lawrence slept. The massive stone doors and the great boulders of the walls must have looked reassuringly secure to anyone who operated out of Azrak in troubled times. These days, without revolts to run or quell, the Azraq Resthouse down the road is a more comfortable place to stay. Little terraced cabins are grouped round an outdoor pool and a bar, disconcertingly well stocked with stocky Americans - F16 crews who are based here while protecting Saudi Arabia. Even this isn't as expensive as the big flash new hotel just on the edge of Azraq town. Are they getting that many posh visitors to the fort they need this white-washed extravaganza out here in the middle of nowhere? And what is it that's somehow very odd about Azraq town?

Actually it's two towns. Turn left at the crossroads and you're in a quiet town of polite but taciturn people - Druze who fled from Syria decades ago. Conservative, religious, secretive - they quietly keep shops, farm and go to bed early. The right-hand town is scruffy and heaving with life and neon, like a cheap seaside resort. But the cars are wrong - new, flashy - Cadillacs, Mercedes, a Daimler.

Right-hand Azraq is full of Saudis - but they don't live there. Right- hand Azraq is also a Chechen town, settled by refugees the last time the Russians took against these people. The Chechens have got a fine trade in alcohol going for themselves now. Thirty miles from the Saudi border, every little restaurant has a back- room drinking parlour, every little shop has an under the counter off-licence. The posh hotel wasn't built for tourists, it was built to accommodate all the Saudis fleeing across the desert for a night of fun.

From Azraq, there's a loop road back to Amman that takes in more desert forts and Omayyed fun palaces; or you could drive straight on through desert wastes, see the palaeolithic archaeology sites and get as close as you're likely to get to Iraq without an F16. Or you could go right, towards Saudi Arabia and the spectacular view of the desert available from a high watchtower in the nature reserve. Careful on this road: the flash car drivers might not be seeing straight.

Getting there: Direct flights are available to Queen Alia airport, about 40 minutes drive south of Amman, with both British Airways (0345 222111) and Royal Jordanian (0171-734 2557), pounds 340 and pounds 350 respectively (inc tax). Cheaper flights through discount agents: Trailfinders (0171- 938 3366) on Olympic Airways via Athens for pounds 252, or on Cyprus Airways via Larnaca for pounds 279 through Jetline (0171-360 1111).

Getting around: It is cheaper to book car-hire before you go. Avis (0990 900500), Hertz (0990 996699) and Budget (0800 181181) have offices in Amman. The cheapest deal is from Avis, with a Daihatsu Charade for pounds 181 per week inclusive of unlimited mileage and collision damage waiver. You don't need an international drivers' permit to rent, but it is handy to have one if you are stopped by police.

Red Tape: Visas to Jordan are essential for British nationals (cost: pounds 27) and are available from the Jordanian Embassy, 6 Upper Phillimore Gardens, London W8, in person or by post. Call the information line 0891 171261 for further details.

When to go: Spring is generally the best time. Amman has cold winters and hot, dry summers.

Philippa Czernin

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