We’ve been trying for weeks now, maybe even months depending on when you check the calendar, but constantly our plans to explore the eastern desert have been derailed. Lately it’s been constant illnesses but finally it seems that our attempts at herding cats may have paid off this weekend. This is generally the last chance to travel as a group before many of our friends return to their home countries. Even with a few last minute drop offs we are undeterred to finally get out and see a part of the country none of us have yet explored, the sparsely populated and under visited eastern deserts. The eastern desert is a huge expanse of land bordering Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq that includes black rock deserts, scorching heats, and even a wetland that in my opinion I need to see to really grasp how that is feasible. So now finally 6 of us were getting set to pile into a big car and just go and see where we end up. Truly my type of adventure, with no plans and no expectations; just good friends and an open road.
It was early morning when I set out from my apartment. We ended up renting a 4 wheel drive in case we found the need and even though two of our friends couldn’t make it we ended up finding a new willing addition we had met the previous day. I am always reminded how small the world is when I discovered our new friend was from the same town in the USA that I also lived in. We really had no idea where we were going, but opted to leave early in the morning to make the most of our time. I drove around the empty early morning streets of Amman picking up the fellow travelers. Everyone seemed quite excited about the adventure ahead, there was a feeling that we had not really gone anywhere recently and generally we all went our own ways, so to have us all together in the same car made the time go by much quicker. Several folks behind catching up on some missing Z’s from the prior evening and others engrossed in an intense game of digital backgammon.
Where do we go from here?
I’d like to say we had a plan. Actually heck I’m happy to say we didn’t, but most people imagine we had some sense of where we were going. That is the benefit and drawback of tourists books, they at least provide an idea of what is out there. People were shouting out names of things they saw or heard about or read on streets signs as we passed by. We took a quick detour from our trajectory towards Azraq and saw a castle and a hammam en route.
Our car lurched into the desolate castle parking lot. If this wasn’t Jordan I would have imagined the place abandoned or at least closed. But I’ve gotten accustomed to the fact that so many tourist attractions in this country are just unvisited. It is amazing such ancient and interesting historical attractions end up being unseen by so many travelers and locals in this country. The first two attractions were just the first two we happened upon, Qasr Hallabat and Hamman Sara. Really nothing special and I was hopeful that future sights would be far more interesting than these ones. Maybe the farther we venture from Amman the nicer the views would be?
I enjoyed both of them overall. I was curious though how accurate both of the reconstructions are. Sometimes reconstructions like this leave me very disappointed since they tend to recreate what was and lose the original pieces in the making. Sometimes tells me these are a bit like that as well. I’m often disappointed in the use of a bit too much concrete here in Jordan as I saw such actions in some of the large castles. These seem to still be nice overall so I have at least some hope for the reconstruction of the Qasr coming up.
So far the voyage was nothing to write home about, but we were only scratching the surface. We had been following the Lonely planet guide to which I’ve seen adorning many a book bag around Amman in a variety of languages. Even one of our car-mates –X- was enjoying a love / hate relationship with the author “Jenny” who he would blame for a great deal of the issues he found in Jordan travels. I was starting to sympathize with him. But in reality most of the best sites were farther afield, and we opted to try to go out and see them.
Welcome to Azraq
The capital of the Eastern Desert, the little town of Azraq was certainly not easy on the eyes, but it was the biggest place going in this area. We checked into our hotel (more on that later), and decided to find somewhere, anywhere to get a bite to eat.
We toured around town the dusty streets of Azraq scoping out the local restaurant scene. In terms of options there were not many to be seen in this small desert town. I’m not really sure how many tourists make it out here for very long, especially those who are not on some sort of tourist bus. But we spied some chicken grilling outside and it looked good to us.
Finger lickin’ good
We peered into the place, there were a few tables occupied by locals and a few others milling about inside. We surprised the proprietor and were greeted warmly. I suppose 6 random travellers must have been a shock to a probably local establishment. He shuffled us into the back room and cleaned off a table for us and scrounged up a few stray chairs. And to our surprise they brought out a heaping pile of chickens for us to feast upon. I don’t know if it was the long day or the desert heat but this was some of the best chicken that I have had. It was fall off the bone good and it had been grilling for who knows how long.
I do apologize for the quality of the photograph. I was up against some really hungry (including myself as well) travellers and they were not keen on waiting for me to take a photo, so I snapped a quick photo before they revolted. The only downside I saw from the lunch though was in typical tourist fashion they brought out a bunch of extra items which we didn’t order. I think I was the only one who cared about this though as my friends were too busy stuffing themselves with chicken and hummus to feel outraged.
We decided since we only had two days the best use of our time would be to visit the far off places first and work our way back. We opted to attempt to visit Qasr Burqu, out in the desert close to the Iraq border, about 2 hrs likely from where we were now. We had a 4WD vehicle and we best make the most of it. According to the tour book it would require open desert driving, some luck, and perhaps some survival gear. We had none of that, well maybe hopefully some luck, but we would see how accurate all that is, and give it a shot anyway. What kind of adventure would it be otherwise?
This wasn’t the desert we expected
A stark, barren landscape awaited us as we sped out of town. I didn’t think it could look any more barren but the landscape turned black. I was surprised, but there was a lot of old volcanic and other rock out here in the Eastern Desert. It makes it look surprisingly uninhabitable.
I tried my best to get a few decent shots of the dark rocky landscape surrounding us as we sped quickly down the road. There was not much out there, an occasional small encampment, or a building (police or otherwise). While many tourists and even many Jordanians don’t venture out this way, this is a popular transit road for vehicles from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, so the roads were not at all unpopulated.
I certainly don’t know if that building was populated or not. Honestly I would at first imagine not, but one really never knows in this part of the world. You do find Bedouins in this area of the world and it’s amazing how they adapt to both modern living and still hold onto their traditions. These days however they tend to use Toyota 4WD trucks over the old school camel although they still do move with their herd and family as the weather and conditions change. I would love to have the opportunity to spend more time and explore. Even more strangely there were a large number of dogs out here who constantly attempted to suicide themselves by leaping in front of our car. I don’t know if they just felt they had nothing to live for out here, but it certainly scared us each time it happened, and it happened enough that it was simply not just some random one off occurrence.
The whole desert is a path
We approached the last outpost of Jordan, Ar Ruwayshid, which was the last major town before the Iraq border. I think it did cross a few of the members of our group that they’d want to go on further, but I think we for many reasons opted to stick with out “planned” route.
We looked around for the “path” that our tour guide specified for how to get to the Qasr, but it’s description did not seem to match anything we passed. It is quite possible that things have changed significantly since publication.
We found a couple local kids wandering through a small neighborhood and we stopped to asked them where the Castle was. They pointed in a general direction of the vast desert in front of us and say that way.
“Is there a road or path to the Castle” – we asked again in our best Arabic.
“The whole desert is a path” – they answered back and laughed.
They were right though I suppose, the desert was a road, rocky and a bit intimating perhaps, but still a road. Strangely, Google seemed to come a bit to the rescue here as we discovered the castle sure enough showed up on Google Maps, somewhere about 22 or so KM off the road in the desert near a small lake. Yes I was curious to see if the lake was actually there, and if the Google map location was in any way accurate. But either way there was only one way to find out.
We definitely couldn’t argue with the local kids’ logic on going forth, so we took their outstretched arm as our initial bearing and drove between several of the houses until only the open desert lay ahead of us. The landscape was barren, really barren. I had seen desert before many times, either from a tour, or from the side of a road, but I hadn’t really ventured untethered into the desert myself. None of those in the group had, so this was unchartered territory for all of us.
We did see a structure or two built out there. I imagined this was probably in the event of a sand storm or something. I doubt it was a make shift bus station or something else! But generally there was not much out there but dirt, sand, and rocks. We basically continued to keep our bearing based on the GPS arrow and Google maps, slightly correcting as we drove along. -T- the driver probably was getting annoyed as I constantly corrected his heading slightly as we rocketed along our path.
At one point splitting our path was what appeared to be a fenced in area. Someone had built up the dirt around a large piece of land that cut directly in where we needed to go. We had no idea what this could be, and whether our eventual destination was on the other side of it. It was incredibly wide too and we didn’t really know what we’d find if we tried to go around. So driving beside it we would an entrance into it.
It was a fairly rocky area, and we still had no idea why it was cordoned off, but we were closing in on the eventual lake. As our luck would have it, we had to exit this area as our lake was not to be found in the interior. There was no easy exit like there was when we got in so we attempted to jump the fence if that was possible. Well, it wasn’t so easily possible and we ended up sinking in the sand and our SUV drifted unharmed back down to the base. We were thankful we didn’t flip the car or something worse. There was nothing else to do except find an exit and luckily we were able to find one without going too far off course.
We made our destination and did not spot the lake or castle. We were exactly where the mark said we should be, and driving around a bit we noticed that the location was close but not completely accurate. It didn’t help that the murky water blended effortlessly into the desert surroundings.
We were also lucky that today seemed to be overcast and cloudy. The weather here in the summer can top 100 with scorching heats radiating from the ground below. It was actually a bit chilly and we had experienced some rain earlier as well. I’m sure the rain was well received by the parched land.
Ok guys, remember where we parked.
We wandered off to check out the lake and the ruins nearby. I was amazed it was an actual lake out here. We were way off where I would have expected such a lake to exist, I would have imagined it to be a dry lake bed at the very least. It was even stated in our book that this outpost existed during the Roman times to help protect their lands from tribal incursions. It was stunning really, you saw just vast desert in every direction you looked, we really felt that we were beyond the reach of civilization. I would imagine that people would have been stopping here for centuries along desert caravan routes between major outposts and city states. However the occasional lost sandal or empty soda bottle sadly jarred me back to present day reality.
Not as unexplored as we expected
We wandered down towards the ruins in the distance checking out the cracked parched ground surrounding us. We saw a few insects wandering among the cracked land, making me realize that the desert landscape isn’t as barren as you imagined. We even found a sadly dead toad who likely ended up stranded when the puddle he was in evaporated and he couldn’t return back to the lake nearby.
A bit further into the distance we noticed the castle among several ruins and went over to investigate. The castle itself was in surprisingly decent condition given it’s age. I think perhaps it’s distance from civilization aided in it keeping it’s present state and also probably prevented it from being reconstructed as well. Off in the distance on the far edge of the lake we spotted a tent sitting there along the lake’s bank and realized we probably were not the only folks visiting this afternoon.
We ended up running into the other folks here as well and chatted with them a bit. They were some locals who were visiting here for the day from the local village (which I had posted photos of earlier in the post), and it seems to be popular with locals who were here in the area. They were excited to meet some random tourists up here. I don’t know how many folks actually venture out this far in the eastern desert who don’t live out this way. Among the expatriates and other tourists I had met, I had yet to meet anyone else who visited Qasr Burqu, although several people seemed to have expressed interest in eventually making it out this way. We did however get a nice group photo with a few of the locals as well as seen below.
In general there was not much more to do in this part of the eastern desert. I suppose we could have tried to drive the road into the Iraq or continue north over the desert and attempt to sneak in. However neither of those seemed to be very good options honestly. There were more people trying to get out then trying to get in and I suppose that should give us enough pause on such an endeavor. Maybe one day things will be good in all parts of the middle east that such travel will be easy. So we ended up deciding to make our way back towards Azraq for any local places around there and our dinner plans as well.
I’m going to continue this post in another post however, as I realize this post is getting really long and in the interest of time and attention spans.
Check out part 2