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Israel and Jordan Dec 2006

Two-week journey to the Middle East on 19 Dec 2006 — 02 Jan 2007: the sights, feelings and thoughts

Narrative by John Joe Mittler, Finland.

HTML version with 375 photos is available at http://www.co-ground.com/travel

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Before taking off...

I searched reasonably priced flight tickets at Momondo.com, and chose to fly with Lufthansa to Frankfurt and then with El Al to Tel Aviv. I also compared the prices of cars at CarRentals.com, and reserved a car from Budget rental. Then I used the HostelBookers.com service to find the cheapest single rooms available in each city. (The average cost was 20 euros per night — but the quality of accommodation was not always comfortable or even tolerable. I would not try it again without budgeting at least twice as much money for the accommodation costs.)

I spent tens of hours surfing for information about places worth visiting, compiling this list of opening hours. (Most of the information on the Internet turned out to be correct when I entered the sites.) I found many helpful maps with Google search engine (including this high-resolution map of Israel), but I also ordered some maps from the Survey of Israel online map store.

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Tue 19 December 2006 (Chanukkah IV)

My flight to Tel Aviv from Frankfurt was scheduled to leave at 14:45 in the afternoon. I was travelling in the best possible company — alone. The Israeli security personnel at the airport may have thought that I was in the worst possible company, though: a young man travelling alone, with visas to Arab countries in his passport. You can bet that the security check was careful and detailed.

At 19:50 the flight arrived at Ben Gurion airport, and I picked my car from the Budget car rental. I was given a Hyundai Getz with automatic gears, a brand new car straight from the factory, only a few kilometers driven. I had reserved a car with manual gears, though, as I had never in my life even tested a car with automatic gears. But never mind, I soon guessed that D means “drive”, and in no time I was speeding on the Israeli highways, heading towards Tel Aviv.

A car with automatic gears proved to be a great idea in the crowded city centers, but quite terrible on the steep mountain roads, where the driving computer often chose a lower gear than would have been reasonable. There must be a reason why automatic gears have not become popular in places like Scandinavia, and this may be the reason.

When I had arrived in Tel Aviv, I wondered where Tel Aviv was anyway, since all road signs pointed to “Ayalon” and other never-heard places. With some luck and some divine providence I ended up on “Derekh ha Shalom”, which is located in Tel Aviv (even though the road signs never told so). After another half an hour in the maze of annoying one-way streets in downtown Tel Aviv, I finally found Sky Hostel, where I had booked a single room and a parking lot for my car. During the evening and night I learned that this was one of the lowest-quality accommodations in entire Israel. (At least I hope so.)

The trip meter of the car showed 40 km at the end of the day.

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Wed 20 December 2006 (Chanukkah V)

My first scheduled destination was Caesarea national park (50 km north of Tel Aviv), which opens at 8 o’clock in the morning. I left Tel Aviv at 6:45, and arrived in Caesarea at 8:15, nearly perfectly in schedule. I spent one hour in the national park, taking photos of the ancient ruins and wondering who the idiot has authorized building a massive coal power station next to one of the major historical sites of the country.

At 9:15 o’clock I continued driving north, ate lunch at Lev ha Mifraz shopping mall in Haifa, and arrived in Acco at 11:30. The pedestrian Old City of Acco is not large, but the road signs are scarce and obscure enough to create the impression of a medieval French labyrinth garden: “Try to guess where to turn next, to reach your destination or to find your way out of here!” A few more traffic signs would do no harm — this is generally true to all cities in Israel.

A 15-minute drive towards north brought me to Roosh ha Niqraa, which is at the border of Lebanon on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. I visited the grottoes by cable car, but the place impressed me less than I had expected, during the 45 minutes that I invested into this tourist attraction. Witnessing the Orient Express train go through the tunnel, on its way from Cairo to Europe, would have inspired a bit more sentimentality than what was now available there — but the railway bridge was blown up in 1948.

At 13:30 I continued driving towards east on highway 899 near the border of Lebanon. I stopped at the hill of Hanitah to take a panorama photo of the fine view towards south, and then I continued further towards east, taking these photos in Adamit and other places near the border of Lebanon.

While driving along highway 899 towards east, the wheels of the car started to make a strange noise, roaring like an aeroplane. I feared that the car might break down at any moment, so I dismissed my original plan to drive south to Nazareth via Ma’alot, and instead I took the shortest route to Tiberias, where I would sleep the next night anyway, having reserved a room in Prima Hotel.

The roaring noise ended after a few kilometers, but then it came back, and then it disappeared again. Finally I learned that the noise was caused by a certain type of asphalt pavement, and there was nothing wrong with the car. But I had passed the junction of Ma’alot long ago, so I followed the renewed plan and drove towards Tiberias, arriving at Lake Kinneret a few minutes before 16:00. A road sign pointing to Capernaum caught my attention here, and I spent the next half an hour among the most humble ruins of this ancient home town of Jesus of Nazareth. (I wonder who is interested in demolished houses anyway? Most visitors cannot get the faintest idea of what the place has once looked like. Carefully planned restoration of the ruins would serve the public much better than a few authentic stones kicked here and there.)

The sun was supposed to set at 16:30, but it became dark only half an hour later. I spent the evening in the center of Tiberias, mostly eating and surfing on the Internet, but also discussing with some local people about environmental terrorism, outrageous sound pollution, and a few disco boats sailing on the lake.

The trip meter of the car showed 330 km (of which 290 km today), as I parked on the street in front of Prima Hotel.

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Thu 21 December 2006 (Chanukkah VI)

Leaving Tiberias at 6:00 in the morning, a one-hour drive towards north took me to the Hulah Valley nature reserve. The noise of thousands of birds could be heard from afar, before any winged creatures could be sighted with the plain eye. I rented a bike to make closer acquaintance with these small flying tourist attractions.

Half an hour of ornithology sufficed for me on this occasion, and then I continued driving towards north. In Qiryat Shmonah there were plenty of soldiers hitch-hiking towards Metullah in the north, but I turned east towards the Hermon region. Being reminded of the popularity of hitch-hiking here (which is almost unheard-of in Scandinavia), I decided that during the rest of my two-week travel I would take as many hitch-hikers as I would encounter on the highways.

At 8:30 I arrived at Tel Dan national park, where I spent an hour of brisk walking in the rather extensive area — actually jogging most of the time, to save time which I knew to be very scarce, since I had planned to reach not only Mount Hermon in the north, but also Belvoir and Beyt Shean 120 km to the south, and all this before sunset. (I would have wished to see also the crocodiles in Hamat Gader and the kangaroos in Gan Garoo west of Beyt Shean, but my tight schedule did not allow me to pay a visit to these creatures.)

One of the highlights of the day was visiting the Nimrod Fortress, which is located a 15-minute drive northeast of Tel Dan. Climbing up and down the steep hills and stairs of the fortress was a rather athletic effort, at least at the pace with which I did it, investing only half an hour to this impressing historical site.

Another 45 minutes of constant uphill towards northeast brought me to the Mount Hermon ski resort at 11 o’clock. (The distance is actually only 30 minutes, but I drove astray in the Druze village called Majdal Shams.) There was not a single flake of snow anywhere on the mountain, but I took the skilift ride to the top anyway, to view the scenes and take some photos.

The visit to the top consumed one full hour of my carefully rationed time, because of the slow and lengthy skilift ride first up and then down. During the ride down from the top I studied my notebook and reviewed my travel plans for the rest of the day. Realizing the scarcity of time and the multitude of places to visit, I said a quiet farewell to the crocodiles and kangaroos. So close, yet too far.

Leaving Mount Hermon at noon, the next two hours and a half I spent driving south along highway 98, through the most eastern parts of Golan Heights. The bird-flight distance from Mount Hermon to Belvoir fortress is only 120 km, but the zig-zag roads near the military zones and on the mountain slopes consumed unexpectedly much time. I also picked two hitch-hikers along the road, but they were travelling to a different destination, and only stayed for ten kilometers in my car.

The landscapes were quite plain in the eastern parts of Golan Heights, except in Mas’adeh where the vegetation was uncommonly bountiful, honestly deserving to be called a “forest”. I was fool enough not to take a photo in Mas’adeh, but I took plenty of photos of the less interesting landscapes, such as the three panoramas below from south of Quneitra, Ramat Magshimim, and the southern end of Lake Kinneret.

The mountain road north of Hamat Gader offered a fine view to the river canyon that serves as the military border zone between Israel and Jordan. The photo below is the left half of what should have become a 180° panorama of the river canyon. The border patrol interrupted this photographic activity, however, because the location where I was standing was two meters inside the forbidden border zone. (Another two meters forward would have been mined zone, so two meters is a very meaningful concept in this place.)

It was 14:30 o’clock when I arrived at Belvoir fortress, which is located along such a narrow and bumpy dirt road that I was quite convinced that I had driven astray, and there could be no trace of civilization behind this forsaken wasteland trail. There it was, however, the ruins of a nice little Crusader fortress.

It took 15 minutes for me to walk around this 90 x 90 m building, and to take panoramic photo sets towards the Jordan Valley and towards southern Galilee. Despite the small size of the fortress, the magnificent landscapes on all sides made me convinced that this is one of the most beautiful historical sites in the region, and the fortress would be a real jewel if it were rebuilt to its former glory.

I continued my race against the clock by returning to the forsaken dirt road, and 45 minutes later I arrived at the ticket office of Beyt Shean national park, half an hour before the closing time. This was enough to explore the most important parts of the ancient city at a casual pace, take less than a hundred photos, and buy some souvenirs from the bookstore.

All tourist attractions in this region closed their doors at four o’clock, so there was nowhere left to go any more. I witnessed the sunset while driving towards Afula (25 km west of Beyt Shean), and it became dark before I reached the McDonald’s near Megiddo. A crispy chicken meal gave me energy to drive another four hours to Mitzpeh Ramon at the center of Negev desert.

Two teenage hitch-hikers were knocking the windows of cars at red traffic lights on highway 6, but again they were travelling to a different destination than me, and only stayed for five or ten kilometers in my car.

It was 21 o’clock when I arrived at the parking lot of Mitzpeh Ramon youth hostel. The trip meter of the car showed 900 km, of which 670 km had been driven today. Taking a well-deserved hot shower in my room, and then surfing on the Internet and watching a basketball game on television, I made the observation that while the low-budget accommodations in Israel are mostly intolerable slums, the Youth Hostel Association runs its business decently. Their price is seldom the cheapest offer, but it most probably will be the best value for money.

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Fri 22 December 2006 (Chanukkah VII)

At 6:30 in the morning I visited the Ramon Crater observation platform, and took some panoramic photos of this massive canyon. Then I started driving towards the Big Crater (50 km northwest of Mitzpeh Ramon), but as I approached the low valleys of northeastern Negev, the weather became so foggy that visibility was limited to a hundred meters. This was not good news for my photographic activities, so I changed my travel plan and turned towards Beer Sheva — leaving the lower valleys of Negev for the afternoon when the morning mist would have cleared up.

On the way to Beer Sheva I took a few photos of the numerous outlawed Bedouin villages, which are lacking any municipal services or public funding. The Jewish state would love to absorb these people into towns with a Jewish majority and a Jewish culture. Bedouins are not Jews, however, neither do they have any intention to become such. They prefer to preserve their traditional lifestyle and live in their desert villages, even if it means political and economical isolation from the Jewish state. Modern sewers may be rare in these villages, but satellite televisions are not.

After eating breakfast in a small Arab cafeteria at 8 o’clock, I visited the so-called “old city” of Beer Sheva. I was unable to find anything old or interesting there, however, so I continued to Tel Beer Sheva national park, which is a few kilometers east of modern Beer Sheva. This place was not open yet, but I took a 360° panoramic photo set from the hill next to the national park.

Twenty minutes of driving towards east brought me to Tel Arad national park at 9 o’clock, where I spent 15 minutes exploring these extensive but rather modest ruins. Then I continued to modern Arad (10 km further in the east), looking for the road to Metzadah, but all the roads north that I tried seemed to lead somewhere else than to Metzadah.

There was an elder gentleman walking by the street in Arad, perhaps 80 years of age. I stopped my car and walked to the man, hoping to get directions to Metzadah from him.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”, I said to the man. But he shrugged his shoulders and said: “Yiddish, Yiddish.”

Then I tried with: “Attah medabber Ivrit?”, hoping that he speaks some Hebrew. But again the man shook his head and said: “Yiddish.”

I master the basics of numerous lanugages, but unfortunately Yiddish is not among them. I decided to try German, and said: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

The face of the gentleman brightened a bit, and obviously he understood what I was saying. He replied in impeccable German: “Was wollen Sie?” We discussed in German for a while, and I received the information that I needed.

I drove from Arad to Metzadah via the western mountain road, stopping briefly at Kfar Nokdim to admire the camels that are available for desert rides of various lengths. (I had planned to try riding a camel and a donkey during this journey, but my tight schedule did not leave me time for desert rides, and the five-minute walks offered near tourist resorts would not count as “riding” anyway.)

At 10:15 o’clock I arrived at the western entrance of Metzadah national park, but my schedule did not allow me to enter the site (which would have taken at least one hour). I took a few panoramic photo sets from the western mountain road, and then I drove back to modern Arad, where I spent half an hour dining and strolling in the shopping mall.

The time and weather were ripe now for entering the low valleys of northeastern Negev, which had been filled with fog on the cool morning of this winter day. The Gorer plain 10 km south of Arad caught my attention with its landscape and location, which seemed not at all unfavourable for human settlement. I stopped my car on highway 259 to take these panoramic photos of the region. (The chimneys of Rotem industrial area spoil the view towards south, but the tall sand piles hide most of the factories, and the rest of the factories could be hidden behind another sand pile or two.)

Driving yet further towards south, I arrived in the Small Crater at 12:20. I only took a few photos of the rocky landscape, and then continued to the ancient Nabatean city Mamshit, which is located northwest of Small Crater, just south of Dimonah.

After exploring the ruins of Mamshit for 20 minutes, I headed towards the Big Crater. Several examples of low-cost industrial architecture caught my attention along the road, devaluing many landscapes in the region. Photography was forbidden in some areas, however, because of the presence of military facilities, so I only took this one photo of a civilian railway bridge. (The ancient cultures knew how to build esthetically pleasing bridges, but this knowledge was apparently lost somewhere during the 20th century...)

At 13:40 I finally arrived in Big Crater — which was supposed to be my first destination in the foggy morning. The arid landscape failed to impress me, but with some water and vegetation the area would certainly become attractive. I photographed this 360° panorama at the center of Big Crater.

Half an hour later I paid a visit to the small pond called Yeroham Lake, which is located ten kilometers west of Big Crater. Despite its small size, the lake is a refreshing oasis of life in the middle of the vast and dry desert. More such oases would be most welcome in different parts of the Negev, to give mankind and animals some moments of joy in the midst of the endless desert.

My next destination was the national park of ancient Avdat, 20 km southwest of Yeroham Lake. I spent half an hour exploring this ruined city, and then continued further south to Mitzpeh Ramon, where I was planning to sleep another night.

The last but not least enjoyment of the day was a visit to the Alpaca farm near Mitzpeh Ramon, where I arrived at 15:15. The lady at the ticket office gave me a small paper bag of fodder, and instructed me to take some of the fodder on my palm and offer it to the alpacas. The animals would then come and eat from my hand.

I followed the advice, and offered some fodder to a sweet little alpaca, but the unruly creature stole the entire paper bag from me, tore it to pieces, and ate it all up in a few seconds. Being thus defeated and humiliated, I retreated to other parts of the farm to take photos, pat the animals, and listen to a lecture about alpacas and llamas.

At 16 o’clock I was back at Mitzpeh Ramon youth hostel. This was the Shabbat eve, all tourist attractions were closed, and the sun was about to set, so I spent the rest of the day relaxing, dining, surfing on the Internet, and watching sports on television. The trip meter of the car showed 1270 km, of which 370 km had been driven today.

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Sat 23 December 2006 (Chanukkah VIII)

I packed my luggage into the car at 6:30 in the morning as usual, and began the journey towards Eilat and the Red Sea, which are 150 km south of Mitzpeh Ramon. The highway number 40 went first through Ramon Crater, and then through numerous other valleys, until it joined highway 90 on the low plains of Aravah Valley, along the border of Jordan and Israel.

At 8 o’clock I arrived at Yotvatah Chai-Bar zoo, which is located 40 km north of Eilat. The place was not open yet, so I continued to Timnah national park 10 km further in the south. Also Timnah park was still closed, so I drove back to Yotvatah and waited until the zoo would open at 08:30. Meanwhile I took a few panoramic photos of the region, which has plenty of low vegetation concentrated in funny humps on the sandy ground. It remained unclear to me how much of this landscape is natural and how much is manmade.

Visiting a zoo is rarely a happy experience for anyone who understands how lively and enthusiastic the animals would be in freedom, compared to the sleepy and meaningless boredom in captivity. I took the risk, and bravely entered the gates of Yotvatah Chai-Bar zoo — ready for the worst. The worst was not to be seen here, however. The animals were generally more lively than the average residents of an average zoo.

Taking a good photo of the leopard below proved to be very difficult, because the animal was constantly in movement. Also a pair of jackals were actually running in their small cage, which is quite rare activity for any large animal in any zoo. (More commonly they just sleep and eat and sleep.) Later on I realized that my timing for visiting the zoo had been fortunate, just before the feeding hour. After a good lunch these predators would turn into the usual sleepy zoo kittens — also in the wild.

After an hour of zoology I continued to Timnah, where I explored the rocky landscapes and ancient copper mines for another hour. Then I continued driving towards Eilat, and took this 180° panorama of Aravah Valley just a few kilometers north of Eilat. (The Red Sea and the beach hotels of Eilat can be seen on the right edge of the photo.)

Two female students were waiting for taxi at a bus stop along the highway, but they were also trying to hitch-hike to save the taxi money. Their gamble paid off as I stopped my car, and they called the taxi company to cancel their reservation. The students were travelling to a study center some kilometers south of Eilat, but fortunately I was heading for Coral World yet further south, so this became effectively a free taxi ride.

I arrived in Coral World at 11:50, and this tourist attraction succeeded in entertaining me for nearly two hours, including a glass-bottom boat ride along the coral reef, numerous aquariums, and a sea-themed movie with seats moving and shaking in unison with the action in the movie. As I walked past a family of tourists, the small children were begging to leave the place and go somewhere else, but the mother replied sternly: “For this price we should spend the whole day here.” Welcome to the world of capitalism, little ones... you will learn that sometimes money talks in mysterious ways.

The next three hours I spent exploring and photographing the beaches of northern and southern Eilat, mainly in the regions of New Lagoon and Coral Beach. Then I checked in at Aviv Hostel, and relaxed for two hours in my room. (This proved to be another low-budget hostel with a good price-quality ratio, having hot water in the shower and a television in the room. Neither of these are available in many places in the same price category.)

At 18:20 I entered the King’s City, a large theme park that contains mainly science-related tricks for schoolchildren and teenagers (while I had expected a more historical theme, for the same age groups though). Some historical entertainment was available too, enough to entertain me for two hours. A three-dimensional movie about ancient Egypt was shown in an auditorium with shaking seats, which also sprayed air or water on the faces of the spectators, when the three-dimensional figures in the movie seemed to nearly touch the audience or splash water on them. The air spray was a nice effect, but the water spray was rather pathetic and certainly uncomfortable for many.

After the visit to King’s City I finished the day with yet another show with special effects, watching the Alien Adventure film at the IMax 3D theater. Having seen two movies in shaking seats during the day, it was a bit disappointing to be sitting still for 50 minutes in this 3D theater. And unlike the historical and educational movies in Coral World and King’s City, this film had no reasonable theme or message. I still prefer the traditional movies and movie theaters, but some 3D shows would be nice variety from time to time — if you also give me the shaking seats.

At 22 o’clock I was back in my hostel room, tired but quite diversely entertained. The trip meter of my car showed 1550 km, of which 280 km had been driven today.

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Sun 24 December 2006 (ChristMas eve)

It did not look much like ChristMas in the warm and sunny morning, as I visited the New Lagoon beach of Eilat at 06:30, to take more photos of the area. Then I left Eilat and drove towards northwest on highway 12, intending to drive along the border of Egypt all the way to Nittzannah. Somehow I missed the junction to the border road number 10, however, and realized my mistake only when I saw a road sign pointing to Uvdah airport. Never mind, I decided to drive to Nittzannah via Mitzpeh Ramon instead, as both of these places were included in my plans for the day anyway.

At 9 o’clock I arrived at the Bio Ramon zoo in Mitzpeh Ramon, which hosts a very modest collection of some small animals that live in the desert. Then I went to the Visitors Center next to the zoo, which has a miniature model of Ramon Crater, and plays an educational film about the processes that once formed this uncommon landscape.

After spending one hour in Mitzpeh Ramon, I continued north and then west towards Nittzannah, which is located on the border of Egypt. Tourists or any civilians are quite rare in northwestern Negev, because it is far from the highways between Eilat and the northern country, and nothing in this region motivates people to come here just for the sake of coming here. (Excluding me, who came here to take photos of the ancient Nabatean cities in this region.)

I arrived at the ruins of Shivtah (25 km east of Nittzannah) at 11:15, and explored this relatively large ancient city for fifteen minutes. Then I continued further towards west, and took a panoramic photo of Sheyzaf sands north of highway 211. (The most northwestern part of Negev is covered by sand dunes.)

At 12:20 I finally reached the ruins of ancient Nittzannah, which is not listed among the official national parks, due to the rarity of visitors in this region. (Shivtah 25 km to the east is listed among the official national parks, but has no service desk or cafeterias, due to the rarity of visitors.) I did not see any other people while I climbed on the hill for 20 minutes.

I had planned to drive from Nittzannah to Eshkol (50 km in the north) via highway number 10, which goes along the border of Egypt all the way to Rafiah and the coast of Mediterranean Sea. All maps have a highway marked between Nittzannah and Rafiah, but none of them bother to mention that the road is not available for civilian use.

I drove to a dead end 10 km northwest of Nittzannah, near a place called Kadesh Barnea. The two-lane highway simply changed into a one-lane military road, and a traffic sign notified that entrance is forbidden for cars. The local people living in the region told me that there is no civilian road from Nittzannah to Rafiah — I wish that the maps would have told the same already beforehand. I returned 40 km to the east, along the same road on which I had come to Nittzannah, and then at Mash.abbey Sadeh I turned north towards Eshkol.

A soldier was hitch-hiking near Mash.abbey Sadeh, and I picked him into my car. We exchanged some national military stories, as I explained how Russian computers would calculate the exact location of a Finnish mortar unit, and how many seconds after firing the exact place would be bombarded by Russians (in a theoretical war scene). He in turn explained what happens to Israeli soldiers on the Golan if they walk carelessly in places visible from the Syrian side of the border — as the Syrian troops have quite accurate snipers, and the state of war has never been officially ended.

After dropping the soldier at his military base, I saw an ostrich farm along the highway, and stopped my car to take photos of these large and flightless birds, which taste very kosher when fried.

I picked another hitch-hiking soldier along the highway, but he was of the more quiet sort, and hardly said a word during the ten kilometers that he travelled in my car. After dropping the soldier off at a road junction, I arrived at Eshkol national park at 14 o’clock. I only took this photo of the nature in the region, and then continued my journey without entering this park.

I chose the shortest route from Eshkol to Ashqelon, which goes via Sederot just outside the corner of Gaza Strip. I was aware of the frequent rocket attacks from Gaza to Sederot and northwestern Negev, but when I tried to calculate the probability of a rocket hitting a target as small as my car, exactly at the moment when I am there, I concluded that the risk of driving on any road in any country is greater than the risk of being hit by a kassam when driving to Ashqelon via Sederot. (Next day I saw in the news that rockets had been launched to Sederot on this day, but no damage was done to cars driving on the highway — as I correctly predicted.)

At 15 o’clock I arrived at the national park of ancient Ashqelon. I jogged from the parking lot to the city wall (to save time, wishing to reach yet one more ancient site before the usual closing time 16 o’clock), and took a 360° panoramic photo set of the region. Then I returned to my car — after being stopped by a park guard and questioned why I was running and why I was taking photos. Well... why not?

There was a site called Tel Ashdod marked on my maps, 10 km north of Ashqelon, and I hoped to find this site before 16 o’clock. I failed to find it, however, and when I asked a local man if he knew where the place was, instead of answering my question, he started with: “Oh, you are from Fiiinlaand! Listen, my friend, I will tell a story to you. Some years ago I was in...”

Five minutes and a colourful story later I was none wiser about the location of Tel Ashdod, and looking at my watch (which in modern slang means the time display of the cellular phone), I decided to end ruin-hunting for the day, and continued driving north towards Tel Aviv.

Arriving in Yafo at 17 o’clock, I spent one hour studying the Old City and harbour, and chatting with an antiquities dealer, who photocopied some old maps of Yafo for me from his books. The sun had already set, so the opportunities for photography were quite limited (with a tourist camera and without a stand). I decided that I would return here some other day, to take more photos in bright daylight.

This day was ChristMas eve (if you have forgotten this minor detail), and Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra would perform Händel’s Messiah oratorium at the Tel Aviv Opera House at 20 o’clock. Leaving Old Yafo at 18 o’clock, I had two hours time to find the Opera House — but I never imagined that I would need all that time, every single minute. This is what happened, however.

I had a map of Tel Aviv with me, and I loosely followed the names of streets on the map as I proceeded towards the Opera House. The trip should have taken no more than half an hour, but an hour and a half later I was still driving around and wondering why the names of streets sometimes matched with the map and sometimes not. I stopped at a cafeteria and consulted the local people, and they told me that while this was a map of Tel Aviv, we were now in Ramat Gan. So that is why the street names were mostly similar, but strangely in a different order...

With less than half an hour time left before the preformance would start, I made a U-turn on Derekh ha Shalom (this funny little avenue from Tel Aviv to Ramat Gan), and felt the same emotional pressure that so many mothers and fathers feel when making last-minute preparations for the merry ChristMas festivities.

Finding the Opera House became essentially easier when I was in the correct city. I drove my car to the underground parking at the Opera House, changed my travelling clothes into a dark suit in the car, and then casually entered the music auditorium, one minute before the performance would start. When I had found my seat, I took this photo of the orchestra and Latvian Radio Choir, and then allowed myself to be entertained with high-class ChristMas music for three hours.

After the concert I drove to Jerusalem, and parked my car on Mount Zion south of the Tomb of David. The trip meter of the car showed 2220 km, of which 670 km had been driven today.

I checked in at Hashimi Hostel in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, and dragged my heavy luggage all the way from Mount Zion to the Muslim quarter. The noisy coolers of the meat shops on Khan el-Zeyt street kept turning on and off, but could not stop me from falling into well-deserved sleep after this eventful ChirstMas eve.

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Mon 25 December 2006 (ChristMas day)

I woke up early on ChristMas day, after 5 o’clock, as the minarets of mosques began to summon people for morning prayer. I assumed that this invitation was not meant for Christians, so I turned in my bed and continued sleeping for another two hours.

After eating breakfast at Jaffa Gate (ice cream and some cookies), I went to Mount Zion to check if my car was still on the parking lot. To my delight the vehicle was unstolen and unburnt in its proper place, so I started driving towards Jericho. (It happened on one of these mornings that another car near mine had a smashed window and some property stolen.)

Jericho is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, so I had to pass a military checkpoint just outside Jericho. The Israeli soldiers stopped my car and greeted me in Hebrew, to which I replied in Hebrew fluent enough to save me from further inquisition. I arrived at the site of ancient Jericho at 8 o’clock, but the place was not open yet, neither was the cable car running to Mount Quruntul. The souvenir shop was open though, so I went there to do some shopping.

I intended to buy a few post cards or perhaps a poster, but after being attacked by the ever so enthusiastic Arab salesmen, I soon found myself at the cashier’s desk with a large Jerusalem poster, a pot of date honey, an ice cream, and a flag of Palestine in my hands. They also became convinced that I need a personal tourist guide, and some minutes later there was a short middle-aged Palestinian gentleman sitting in my car, ready to show me all the wonders of Jericho. He agreed in my presence (or did I actually agree with him?) that we would go to see the refugee camps, then the Winter Palace of Herod, and the tour would end on top of Mount Quruntul. The price would be “whatever I want to pay him after the tour is over”.

The refugee “camp” was actually an urban suburb with unpaved roads and slightly below average standard of living (according to Arab standards of the region). The place looked so ordinary that I forgot to take any photos there, as we encountered nothing that would have caught my special attention.

Our next destination was the Winter Palace of Herod, which was not in a very impressive condition either: the buildings had certainly been magnificent once, but only the foundations were remaining now. A renovated replica of the ancient palace might be very interesting, but destroyed palaces only make me wonder why they are not renovated.

The pace of this sightseeing tour was slower than I would have preferred, and I feared that if I spend too much time with this professional but slowly walking tourist guide, I might not have enough time today to visit also Qumran, Herodion, and a dozen places in Jerusalem. I agreed with the guide that we would watch Mount Quruntul only from afar, without ascending on the top, and I would pay him 100 shekels (equal to 24 US dollars) for his services.

“Only 100 shekels? Not any more than that?”, the tourist guide complained, as I paid him for the one-hour tour. He stepped out of my car, and kept murmuring: “Whatever you want to pay me, I always let the customer decide...”

It took twenty minutes to drive from Jericho to Qumran. I paid the entrance fee, climbed on the roof of the reception kiosk, and took a panoramic photo set of the area. Then I went back to my car and drove away, only ten minutes after having entered the site. (I missed the caves, but my plan for this journey was to see little of everything, instead of seeing everything of little.)

Leaving Qumran at 10:30, I drove northwest towards Jerusalem, and picked a young hitch-hiker who was travelling to a small Jewish settlement on the West Bank, not far from Ma’aleh Adummim. The guard at the gate of the settlement regarded me as a security risk, however, and refused to let me drive in, despite my hitch-hiker’s attempts to persuade the guard. The boy had to walk the final kilometer or two to his home, while I turned back towards Jerusalem.

The weather was favourable for panoramic photography (though more clouds would have been welcome on the sky, to make the background perfect). I spent two hours and a half taking panoramic photos of Jerusalem, from several nice locations around the Old City. These photos are available on a separate page, with a map indicating where each photo was taken.

At 14:15 I visited the HolyLand hotel in southern Jerusalem, hoping to see the model of ancient Jerusalem. I was told that the model has been relocated at Israel Museum, so I left the hotel and continued southeast towards Herodion (which is 12 kilometers south of Jerusalem).

The driving instructions that I had found on the Internet recommended driving first to Ramat Rachel and then towards Tekoa. I could not find any road signs to Tekoa or Herodion in Ramat Rachel, so I stopped at a construction site to ask for help. (New houses seem to be rising here like mushrooms on rainy weather.) The builders told me that the road to Herodion is no longer in use, because the path of the security wall cuts the road, and Herodion is on the other side of the wall.

I heard that there would have been a hiking route to Herodion, but I did not have time for hiking. Instead I went hunting for the model of Jerusalem, which was supposed to be at Israel Museum near the Knesset. But when I arrived at Israel Museum, I only found a construction site proclaiming that the model of ancient Jerusalem was being relocated to this site. The work was not ready yet, and the place was not open for public.

It was 15:30 o’clock already, the sun was slowly beginning to set, and all major tourist attractions would soon close their doors. I finished the more or less scheduled part of the day by taking a photo of the Cross Monastery next to Israel Museum. Then I finished this ChristMas day by driving 130 km north to Nazareth, via highway 6 near the coast of Mediterranean Sea.

I arrived at the shopping mall of Nazareth Illit at 18:30, and ate an unceremonial ChristMas dinner in a fast food restaurant. (Nazareth Illit is the modern Jewish city, a few kilometers east of the older city called Nazareth, which is inhabited mainly by Muslims and Christians.) After the discounted ChristMas meal I drove to Nazareth and started looking for Fawzi Azar Inn, where I had booked a room for the night.

I parked my car somewhere on the narrow alleys of Nazareth (which are not really wide enough for car traffic, but used for that purpose anyway). I tried to memorize the name of the street, which was a number code only (as were all the small streets in this area). Then I started walking towards the assumed location of the hostel, using a map that was not quite detailed enough to be more helpful than annoying. I found the hostel anyway, and then we returned with the manager of the hostel to search for my car, which I had left somewhere on a street named with a number code or something...

When we found the car, the manager of the hostel directed me to a better and safer parking lot — which turned out to be the most annoying parking lot that I have ever seen. The entrance was narrower than my car, and I had to drive with one tyre on the stairway and the other tyre on the so-called street, to get through the ramp that lead to the parking lot.

After clearing this obstacle without ruining the car, there were yet more challenges ahead: the lots for cars where in pairs of two, surrounded by large beton vases on both sides. These beton vases were less tall than the front and rear part of cars, so it was impossible to see them from behind the steering wheel. The vases were simply waiting there like mines to be hit by a careless driver (and probably also by many quite careful drivers). With the help of the hostel manager I cleared also these obstacles, but I was not very enthusiastic about the thought of returning here early next morning to pass all these obstacles and the far too narrow entrance ramp, alone.

The trip meter of the car showed 2525 km (of which 305 km had been driven today), as I left the car on the parking lot and hoped that no one would steal it or destroy it during the night. (An hour earlier I had seen police officers inspecting smashed car windows on the parking lot of Nazareth Illit shopping mall, while I visited the mall to eat my ChristMas dinner.)

We walked back to Fawzi Azar Inn with the hostel manager, and I received a room for four people, for the price of a dorm bed. (This was not high tourist season for Nazareth, while in many other cities in the Middle East ChristMas is a high season with inflated prices and large crowds of tourists.) I left the lights on in my room, and went to the lobby to surf on the Internet for a while.

When I returned to my room, I could easily see into the room from the outside (now that the lights were left on in the room). The large windows of the room had thin red curtains, which gave the impression of blocking light while I was inside the room, but actually did not do so when seen from outside, while the lights were turned on in the room.

One of my favourite hobbies is spotting idiotic blunders made by architects and interior designers, and imagining a law that would send an architect back to school for a year if his design contains major blunders. It is not uncommon to see shower facilities where the showers and their users are visible into the public area outside, when someone else opens the door to enter the place or exit from there. My first hostel on this journey, the Sky Hostel in Tel Aviv, had toilets and shower facilities meant for both genders, with some kind of doors but no locks of any kind.

I turned the lights off in my room, wished myself merry ChristMas, and went to sleep.

---

Tue 26 December 2006

I left Nazareth after 6 o’clock in the morning, and drove 25 km southwest to Tel Megiddo national park, which would not be open so early in the morning. I only took a photo from the road outside Megiddo, and then continued east towards Beyt Shean and the border crossing to the Kingdom of Jordan.

After a breakfast in a cafeteria along the highway, I arrived at the parking lot of Sheikh Hussein border crossing terminal at 07:50. I left most of my luggage and all Hebrew publications in the car, because the law of Jordan forbids importing any Hebrew publications into the country. The trip meter of the car showed 2600 km, of which 75 km had been driven this morning.

The border crossing to Jordan would have taken half an hour only (as there were very few travellers so early in the morning), but I was unlucky to just miss the border bus by one minute — and the next bus would go half an hour later.

At 9 o’clock I was finally on Jordanian soil, and a smiling middle-aged man helped me to find a taxi, after which he asked if I had any “baksheesh” for him. I had already learned from travel accounts on the Internet that this word means “tip”, so I gave him a dollar, and another 25 dollars to the taxi driver for taking me to Jerash. (The taxi prices were fixed, written on the wall of the taxi station, giving the impression that there was no bargaining about the price — for anyone who looks like a western tourist anyway.)

Jerash is located 50 km southeast of the border terminal, and we should have reached it in half an hour, but instead we soon found ourselves in Irbid, which is 30 km northeast of the border terminal. The taxi driver blushed a bit, when he realized that he had driven astray, but he did not comment the issue in any way. I actually enjoyed getting some extra sightseeing in rural Jordan.

We arrived in Jerash at 10 o’clock, and I agreed with the taxi driver that he would wait for me at the parking lot while I visit the tourist attractions of Jerash, and then he would take me to Amman (which is 30 km south of Jerash). These arrangements cost me another 20 dollars.

Local men dressed in traditional suits were playing bagpipe and drums in the amphitheater, as I climbed on top of the theater to take a 360° panoramic photo of the ruins of ancient Roman Jerash.

The walled area of ancient Jerash used to be nearly 1 km². Half of that has been preserved as a national park, and the rest of the ancient city has disappeared under the modern town. Horse race shows are arranged in ancient Roman style on the hippodrome of Jerash, but the show was not running during the winter months as I visited the site.

The air was not very fresh in Jerash, it carried the scent of exhaust gases of cars, to the extent that may disturb some visitors. In the countryside of Jordan the air was fresher, but to compensate this difference, my taxi driver smoked in the car while driving.

At 10:45 o’clock I had seen enough of Jerash, and we continued towards Amman, arriving on the Citadel hill at 11:30. If the air quality had been poor in Jerash, in Amman it was yet worse. Air pollution due to exhaust gases of cars is a common problem in large metropoles around the world, and Amman seemed to be a prominent example of this. A holiday to destinations of this kind might change you permanently, either into an asthmatic or into a nature activist.

I spent half an hour at the ruins and archaelogical museum of the Citadel hill, then another half an hour walking to the amphitheater (which is located one kilometer from the Citadel hill), and yet half an hour exploring the amphitheater and its two small museums.

Just across the street from the amphitheater there was a pet shop selling monkeys, rabbits and other small pets. Monkeys are not a common pet in the western countries — I have no knowledge about the details of this issue, how well monkeys would behave compared to other pets, how large living space they would need to be happy (the cage below looks too small for sure...), and what restrictions the western legislation sets for owning a monkey.

I was feeling a bit hungry, but the numerous fast food kiosks along the street did not look very inviting to me. I had forgotten to take the recommended vaccinations before the journey, so I would not have much immunity if the food happens to be contaminated. I wanted to play safe, so I took a taxi to the nearest international fast food restaurant. The driver suggested the Burger King at the university of Amman, but while we were driving there, I noticed a shopping mall with McDonald’s, and we stopped there.

I picked a Quarter Pounder meal into a takeaway bag, while the taxi driver was waiting on the parking lot, and I ate the meal in the taxi while we were driving to the southern bus station of Amman (from where all buses to Petra depart).

It was 14:15 o’clock as I arrived at the southern bus station, still eating my hamburger. I consulted the local people to find the platform for buses leaving to Wadi Musa and Petra, and I was directed to a queue where five or ten other people were waiting for a bus. When the bus arrived and I stepped in, the driver told that this bus is not going to Petra, and I should go to another queue.

I was directed to another platform nearby, but soon a man in uniform came to explain that also this was the wrong queue, and I should hurry to a bus that was just about to leave. I did so, but again the driver told that his bus is not going to Petra, and the man in uniform must have made a mistake.

The man in uniform orchestrated yet two or three changes of platforms and queues, until I finally was sitting in the correct bus with other foreign tourists, next to a young man from Japan. Majority of the passengers in the bus were local people, and the ticket price was moderate, less than ten dollars. The bus left at 15:10, and the 270 km long trip to Petra took less than three hours, with a 15-minute pause at halfway.

During the pause at a gasoline station I visited the toilet, which was the standard western model (not the “hole in the floor” version that is still quite commonly used in the Middle East). It seemed that no cleaning or maintenance work of any kind had been performed in the toilet for several years: the stench was indescribable, and the doors of some toilet closets were either out of place or hanging askew from one hinge only.

I took the camera out of my pocket to take a photo of the toilet, but then I decided to save my artistic creativity for more cultivated purposes, and photographed this double-decker animal transportation vehicle, on the parking lot of the gasoline station.

As we continued driving towards Wadi Musa and Petra, the bus driver listened to Arabic music from the radio. But then one of the passengers offered a Koran cassette to the driver, and for an hour we listened to Koran verses slowly recited in ceremonial style, and played as loud as the car stereo was able to perform.

I checked in at Petra Gate hostel at 18:10, and spent the rest of the evening with other foreign tourists in the lobby of the hostel. One young lady was from USA, another lady from Norway, two young men from Italy, one from Canada, one from Britain, and several backpackers from Russia.

It was so cold in the hostel rooms that I slept with jeans and jacket on, under the blankets. The chilly temperature of the water did not entice me to take a shower, and naturally there was no toilet paper in the room. I opened the drawer of the night table next to my bed, and found a half-eaten bread — left there by the previous visitor, I hope, but possibly the one before that, or then the one before the one...

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Wed 27 December 2006

A wake-up call from the local mosques welcomed me into a new bright day at 5 o’clock. I felt a bit heavy, and soon noticed that I had fever and flu. I went back to sleep, expecting the fever to be gone in an hour or two. I seldom have fever in daytime.

I woke up again after 6 o’clock, but somehow the day seemed less bright now. The lights did not function in the room, neither in the corridor. The entire town of Wadi Musa was out of electricity, for an hour or so. I used the display of a palm computer as flashlight, and wandered to the dining room, where the cook of the hostel was serving bread and omelettes for breakfast.

The weather was cold and wet, and some of the tourists stayed in the hostel all day because of the unpleasant weather. The manager of the hostel drove me and a Canadian guy to ancient Petra, and we started walking along the Siq canyon towards the Treasury (which became famous as the Temple of Doom in an Indiana Jones movie). I was wearing sneakers (jogging shoes), but I managed to pass the 1.2 km long Siq canyon without getting wet feet.

The rain stopped soon, but the weather was still cold and windy. The wind was so strong that it was difficult to stand or walk on top of the cliffs. Most of the tourists stayed in the deep canyons, but I climbed on the cliffs with the Canadian young man, to get the best photo angles and to visit some of the palace tombs.

Petra is located on high mountains, and on cloudy weather (which is extremely rare here) the mountain tops are covered by a thick fog of clouds. As we proceeded towards el-Deir monastery, which is the farthest and highest monument of Petra, the weather became more and more foggy, and in some places the wind was so strong that every step forward required a considerable effort.

Two donkeys were carrying merchandise from the low valleys to the shopkeepers on top of the mountains, without anyone attending them. For a few dollars we would have gotten a donkey ride onto the top of el-Deir, but the Canadian guy was not interested in the offer, so I declined it too.

When we arrived on top of el-Deir, there was no more than 50 m visibility in the thick fog, and it was impossible to get a good photo of the monument. The photo above was taken from the distance of 25 meters or so — a few steps backwards would have made the entire building disappear into the fog. We were not alone here: we found three Italian women in the monastery, and more tourists were coming up when we descended back to the canyons of Petra.

Our luck with the weather changed for the worse when we were on top of the high mountains. It began raining lightly, and soon the falling water turned into ice. We were not worried about the weather — we could not guess that snow was already blocking roads around Petra, and all tourists would be trapped in Petra for two days. (Some buses got stuck in snow on the mountain road leading to Petra, and nearly a hundred tourists had to sleep overnight in their buses, before being evacuated by rescue troops next day.)

It was 11 o’clock now, and I was planning to take the bus to Amman after the noon. I had reserved a room in Tel Aviv for the next night, and a flight to Cairo for the next day. We started walking towards the lower canyons with the Canadian guy, discussing our travelling plans (which would soon change), and taking photos of the ice-covered cliffs and streets of Petra.

The Canadian guy planned to visit yet some other monuments in Petra, and we parted ways near the amphitheater. I continued walking past the Treasury and through the Siq canyon, to get out of ancient Petra.

I had lost all hope of keeping my feet dry long ago, so I did not even try to avoid the water that was flooding into the canyon. Some tourists were still trying to keep their feet dry, crawling against the walls of the canyon, and complaining whenever a drip of water entered their shoes. These poor souls would soon discover that all efforts of staying dry were doomed to fail...

When I waded through this 1.2 km long canyon, filled with water ankle deep, I can assure you that I got wet from tip to toe. But I was not the only one: there were 200 other tourists trapped behind the canyon, drinking coffee and waiting for the weather to get better. This never happened, and two hours later all the tourists had to wade through these waters (which probably were deeper by then), to get out of the canyons of ancient Petra.

I tried to find a taxi to the hostel, but all taxi drivers had left their cars and gone away. Not having winter tyres, they had no chance of driving their cars up the steep roads covered by ice and snow. Policemen and soldiers were throwing each other with snow balls, and someone was building a snowman in the middle of the street.

I walked for half an hour in the rain to Wadi Musa, and when I finally reached the hostel at 12:30, all my clothes were as wet as they possibly could be. I had no exchange clothing, however, because I had planned to stay only one night in Jordan, and I had wanted to minimize the amount of luggage that I carry around in Jordan. Many other tourists were in the same situation, and we spread our only sets of clothing near the fireplaces to get them a bit less wet.

Shivering near the fireplace in the lobby (which was the only place in the hostel that was not ice-cold), I thought that there might have been better ways of treating my fever and flu than the adventures of this day. The fever returned late in the evening, and on the following days I began to cough. This flu and cough that began in Petra lasted nearly for one month.

I enquired from the hostel manager when the next bus would leave to Amman. All buses had been cancelled, because the roads were blocked by snow, but no one knew when the roads would be open again. Snow kept falling all the time, and in a few hours it became clear that all roads would remain closed at least until the next day. I reserved a room for another night in the hostel, and the other tourists did the same, having no other choice. We spent the evening dining and chatting in the lobby, and someone went to buy beer for everyone.

Finding beer is not always easy in Arab countries. If you go to an average grocery store in a Muslim country, and ask for beer, you will probably get many shrugs of shoulders in reply to your request, until someone will share his knowledge about the smaller shops in less public places, where beer will be available. Expensive hotels and restaurants usually have beer, for a tourist-oriented price.

The manager of the hostel gave directions to a place where beer was for sale at a reasonable price, and two people went there to buy beer for all of us. They brought the local Petra Beer, which has an alcohol content of 8% — twice stronger than the average beer consumed in pubs around the world. Many breweries have difficulties with beer as strong as this: the high alcohol content tends to make the taste yeasty or somewhat bitter. Petra Beer showed no sign of such weaknesses, and its taste was as clear as any average beer with half less alcohol. The scarcity of beer in this part of the world seemed to be taking no toll on its fine quality.

I did not take a photo of Petra Beer cans, but other travellers have done so, and published their photos on the Internet. Here is a link to a photo of travellers unknown to me tasting the 8% Petra Beer. (I found this pic with the Google image search.)

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Thu 28 December 2006

I woke up at 06:30 next morning, and wondered what had happened to the 5 o’clock wake-up call from the mosques. The answer became evident when I tried to turn the lights on: another electricity blackout in the town. This time the blackout lasted nearly all day, blocking access to the Internet, and silencing many cellular phone operators. My phone kept operating all the time, but many others who were using a different operator were unable to call or receive calls.

After eating breakfast at 7 o’clock, the residents of the hostel gathered in the lobby with their luggage, waiting for news about the weather and road blocks. My main concern was how to reach Ben Gurion airport before 19:50, when my flight would leave for Cairo. Some others had a ferry to catch from Aqaba to Egypt, and yet others had reserved a bus ticket from Eilat to Jerusalem.

The police reports about road blocks varied all the time, and for a while we believed that the road south to Aqaba would soon be open. Then we got new information that all power shovels were working on the road north to Amman instead, and the road to Aqaba would remain closed all day.

At 08:30 it was believed that the road to Amman would soon be open, and I entered a taxi. The taxi driver asked 150 dollars for a trip to Sheikh Hussein border terminal, where my rental car was parked on the Israeli side. The price was outrageous according to the local standards, but not so bad according to western standards — for a 350 km ride in a private taxi.

We were able to drive a kilometer or two only from the hostel, and then we had to stop at a road block, waiting for the road to Amman to be opened. We and other taxis packed with western tourists had to wait for more than an hour behind this road block, until the policemen finally opened the road at 10 o’clock. There would have been plenty of time and a good reason to sing “...may all your ChristMases be white”, but I doubt that anyone did so in their full-packed taxis.

Our spirits were greatly raised when the road block was finally opened, but work on the road was not ready yet. We had to drive slowly behind a power shovel that was clearing snow off the road. The queue of cars often stopped for a long time, and no one really knew what was going on. In two hours we proceeded only a few kilometers from Wadi Musa.

After 12 o’clock we encountered a long queue of cars coming from the opposite direction — living proof that the road was finally open all the way to the main highway. (The snowfall was limited to the high mountains only, and on the main highway 20 km away from Petra there never was any snowfall at all.) When the queue of cars had passed us, we were able to go past the power shovel and drive with nearly normal speed.

While the queue was stopped on the snowy road, my taxi driver chatted with another taxi driver on the back seat of our car, and haggled with him a price for taking me to Sheikh Hussein border terminal. They were speaking in Arabic, but I understood enough of the conversation to know that the other taxi driver agreed a price half of what I was paying to my taxi driver. The first driver earned 80 dollars for driving 20 km in 4 hours and a half, and the other driver earned 70 dollars for driving 330 km in 3 hours and a half — plus the way back home.

When we finally got out of the snowy region and arrived on the four-lane highway to Amman, this second taxi-driver did not spare the gas pedal of his old Mercedes Benz, knowing that I was in a haste to catch a plane to Cairo. The speed meter showed more than 160 km/h, but the driver did not care to wear a seat belt. I wondered if there are any speed limits in Jordan, and if it is legal here to drive without a seat belt. Both questions were kind of answered when the driver occasionally slowed down to 80 km/h and held the seat belt on his lap, while passing a police checkpoint.

“I used to be a driver for the king in Amman”, the taxi driver said to me, while we were chatting about various topics. I did not ask how he had ended up driving an old Mercedes in southern Jordan, but the man was clearly a very skilled driver — sort of. Skilled in making narrow passes and forcing three cars side by side on two lanes. Skilled in making many risky things that are common on the roads in Jordan, but illegal in western countries.

We arrived at Sheikh Hussein border terminal at 16:30, and I believed that there still was some hope of reaching my flight to Cairo at 19:50 from Ben Gurion airport. The border crossing took a record-breaking three hours, however — even longer than the airport security checks take. While standing in numerous different queues behind a busload of Asian tourists, I slowly got used to the fact that I would miss my flight to Egypt. I had planned to end the day with a late night dinner on a luxurious restaurant boat on river Nile, but this dream would never come true.

When I finally got out of the border terminal, I called my car rental and extended the hire for another four days. Then I went to the shopping mall of Beyt Shean, and compensated the loss of a five-star Nile dinner cruise with a fast food meal at McDonald’s. Then I started driving towards Jerusalem via the Jordan Valley road.

There were two teenagers hitch-hiking under the lights of a road junction, a boy and a girl seemingly unrelated to each other, possibly from the same school or something. I picked them in my car, as they were travelling to the same destination as I, Jerusalem.

I tried to entertain my guests with music from the radio, but all Hebrew channels were airing talk shows, and music was available in Arabic only. After surfing from channel to channel for a while, I finally chose Radio Sawa, which plays a mixture of Arabic and American pop music. The sound of Arab music was soon mixed by Jewish snoring, as my two guests fell asleep, without waking up before we arrived in the noisy traffic of Jerusalem at 21:30.

The trip meter of the car showed 2730 km (of which 130 km had been driven today), as I parked on Mount Zion, and went strolling in the Old City in search of a hostel room. I took a room at Jaffa Gate hostel, and paid an outrageous price for one of the poorest accommodations that I have ever seen. The receptionist required all five nights to be paid in advance, and a sign on the wall said that there will be no refunds. Later on I found out why such a sign was necessary on the wall — I wanted to cancel my reservation and go somewhere else as soon as I saw my room without a window, and the showers with ice-cold water.

Not having a window in the room had one advantage, though: unlike most other rooms in the hostel, my room was not too cold. After the icy adventures in Petra, I welcomed the warmth of this windowless bunker room, and fell asleep around 23 o’clock.

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Fri 29 December 2006 (eve of Eid Adha)

The morning seemed bright enough for outdoor photography at 7 o’clock. I parked my car in front of Damascus Gate, and spent two hours strolling along the route of the ancient third wall of Jerusalem (which was built in 40 AD, and destroyed only three decades later). Photos taken along the route of the wall are available on a separate page, with a map indicating where each photo was taken.

At 9 o’clock I visited Petra Hostel near Jaffa Gate of the Old City, and paid 10 shekels for a warm shower (which was not available in the hostel where I was staying). Then I visited the modern city center, and refilled my cash reserves at a bank accepting credit card withdrawals.

At 10:30 I returned to the route of the ancient northern wall, and spent another two hours taking more photos of the area north of the Old City. (The four photos above and below were taken in the Jewish Morashah quarter, which is located west of Damascus Gate.)

At 13 o’clock I had seen enough of the northern wall route, and I returned to the Old City. During the next three hours I walked in the bazaars and on the rooftop promenade, taking photos of slum buildings and other interesting details of the Old City.

The building above is a school next to Redeemer’s Church. The “garden” below is a playing area for children on the rooftop promenade.

The 150° panorama above was taken over the Pool of Hezekiah towards east, from the balcony of Petra Hostel near Jaffa Gate.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre (above and below) is decorated in Catholic and Orthodox styles, which include extravagant images of holy persons shining in gold and silver. The alternative site of Golgotha, the Garden Tomb north of Damascus Gate, is maintained by Protestant Christians, and decorated in a more ascetic style that is typical for Protestant Christian shrines.

Life on the other side: a resident of East Jerusalem takes a nap outside the eastern wall of the Old City (north of Lion Gate), surrounded by piles of trash that are waiting to be burnt against the wall of the Old City.

Below are two more photos from the rooftop promenade, taken late in the afternoon.

I finished exploring the Old City at 16 o’clock, and drove to the modern city center to eat dinner. Then I returned to the Old City, and parked my car on Mount Zion. The trip meter of the car showed 2750 km, of which 20 km were driven today.

The rest of this Shabbat eve I spent at the hostel, reading newspapers and studying maps of Jerusalem (planning my activities for the following days, which I should have spent in Cairo and Luxor in Egypt, according to my original plans).

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Sat 30 December 2006 (Eid Adha)

I headed to Mount Zion at 6:45 in the morning, and spent two hours exploring the route of the ancient southern walls of Jerusalem. Photos taken along the route of the wall are available on a separate page, with a map indicating where each photo was taken.

I had some difficulties in tracing my exact location on the map when I walked on this route, because the southern hill of the Old City is mostly empty wasteland, and the few streets that run there had no names (neither on the map nor in the streetcorners). A compass would have been helpful, and a scout would have read the cardinal directions from the sun, of course — but I am not a scout, neither did I have a compass.

I would have wished to take a complete photo set of all houses that are located on the route of the ancient southern wall, but eventually I took very few photos in the south-eastern corner of the route, because I had lost track of my precise location on the map. Most houses in the region have two storeys and a very modest exterior.

After eating some breakfast, I climbed on the walls of the Old City at 10:30, and spent one hour strolling from Jaffa Gate to New Gate, Damascus gate, Lions Gate and the corner of the Temple Mount. Photos taken along this rampart walk are available on a separate page, with a map indicating where each photo was taken.

After the rampart walk I returned to my car on Mount Zion, to have lunch in the modern city center of Jerusalem. I naturally took some photos while walking through the Old City, including these two photos of the coat of arms of the Franciscan organization Custodia di Terra Santa.

At 12:30 I was back in the Old City, and I climbed on the wall promenade again, now strolling from Jaffa Gate to Zion Gate and Dung Gate. (The rampart walk can be entered at Jaffa Gate only, and one can choose to walk north towards Damascus Gate, or south towards Dung Gate.) Photos taken along this 45-minute promenade are available on a separate page, with a map indicating where each photo was taken.

After the southern rampart walk I strolled in the Old City until 15:50, taking photos on the narrow bazaars and on the rooftop promenades. The photo above is from Ararat street in the Armenian Quarter.

In the Visitor Center of Christ Church (near Jaffa Gate) I happened to find a model of ancient Jerusalem, designed by Johann Tenz at the end of the 19th century. This model is no longer considered accurate in all details, as archaelogists have collected more data during the 20th century, but it gives a good impression of the architectural atmosphere of ancient Jerusalem.

After 16 o’clock I drove to the modern city center to have dinner. The rest of the evening I spent at a Messianic meeting in Christ Church, which lasted nearly three hours, and used ceremonial styles borrowed from Judaism, mixed with the latest trends of Western charismatic Christianity.

The trip meter of the car showed 2760 km at the end of the day, of which 10 km were driven today.

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Sun 31 December 2006 (New Year’s eve)

I spent the last morning of the year in the Valley of Kidron, which is just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, on its south-eastern side. I walked to the place via the Cardo, the ancient colonnaded street that once crossed the entire Old City (in the Medieval era of Christian Crusaders).

A few years ago the Jewish city architect of Jerusalem gave orders for the demolition of 88 Arab houses (the homes of 1000 people) in the Valley of Kidron, in the el Bustan quarter of Silwan village. The demolition orders have not been executed to this day, however, because the issue is politically very sensitive, and would provide cheap fuel for anti-Israel protesters and terrorist propaganda.

Under normal circumstances, in practically any country in the world, the demolition orders would have been executed without delay, and without anyone else paying much attention to the issue than the residents of the area, who would need to pack their luggage and move to new homes elsewhere. The houses are mostly amateur or slum architecture, and the proposed national project would develop the area for the common good of all citizens.

But the problem is that in Israel–Palestine a thing called “common good” does not even exist. Large-scale building projects can be “good for Jews” or “good for Arabs”, but hardly both at the same time. This project would be good news for Jews and bad news for Arabs. Therefore this simple and small national park project, which would go unnoticed anywhere else in the world, has caught the attention of human rights organizations even before anything has been done.

To make the political jungle complete, this area is located on the Palestinian side of the Green Line border — or more correctly, inside the international UN zone of the 1947 partition plan, which Transjordan illegally annexed in 1948, and later Israel illegally annexed in 1980. The idea of a national park in this region would be excellent from historical and environmental aspects, but not from political ones — except possibly under neutral international rule.

(Note: These photos are from the Kidron Valley, but not specifically of those 88 houses that have been ordered for demolition.)

I continued walking north along the Kidron Valley, leaving the Silwan village behind and heading towards the valley of Gethsemane, which is just east of the Temple Mount. The paved street ends at the Gihon spring, and the dirt road leading to Jericho Street is a dead-end for cars, meant for pedestrians only.

The valley of Gethsemane is one of the most charming gardens of Jerusalem in the spring, when the vegetation is lush, and Arab shepherds are occasionally seen tending their sheep among the olive trees. Now in the winter the garden was not in its most attractive condition.

Jericho Street crosses the valley near the churches of Gethsemane, and the Kidron Valley continues yet north towards El Joz. The two photos below show the last section of Kidron Valley, from Jericho Street in the south to El Joz and Mount Scopus in the north.

Having seen enough of Kidron Valley, I wanted to take a few more photos of the route of the ancient northern wall of Jerusalem. The waste processing service of East Jerusalem was in full operation outside the north-eastern corner of the Old City, burning garbage that had been piled up against the wall.

The majestic building at the corner of Neviim Street and Shivtey Israel Street used to be a French hospital. Nowadays it is home to Israel’s Ministry of Education. Remnants of the ancient northern wall of Jerusalem lie somewhere under this building, quite exactly along the route that the camera is directed at.

An old house was being relocated into the Mamillah quarter, just west of the Old City. Each stone is numbered, to ensure that the relocated building will be the exact replica of the original house in every detail.

I ate salted pretzels for lunch at 11 o’clock, while walking in the Old City. I was trying to find the model of Jerusalem in the First Temple era, but first I encountered this piece of ancient wall from the First Temple period.

The model of Jerusalem in the First Tempe era was small and not very detailed, covering only one square meter. I was let into the exhibition auditorium together with a busload of American Jewish girls, a group of potential future immigrants hosted by Taglit Birthright Israel. We watched a video presentation that focused solely on the Jewish history of Jerusalem — conveniently omitting the Canaanite, Hellenistic, Roman, Christian and Islamic periods. (Well, someone has to teach the correct patterns of thinking to the next generation...)

At 14 o’clock I quit my explorations of the Old City, and took a warm shower in Petra Hostel. The rest of the day I spent driving mostly in East Jerusalem (without being inspired to take any photos), and studying the numerous maps that I had of Jerusalem in different historical periods.

The trip meter of the car showed 2790 km at the end of the day, of which 30 km were driven today.

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Mon 01 January 2007 (New Year’s day)

The Temple Mount was supposed to be my first destination on the New Year’s Day, but the site remained closed all day — as it had done on the previous day, and on the day before that. A new different political or religious dispute arose day after day, and I never got the chance to enter the Temple Mount during this journey.

I took a photo of Aqsa mosque from afar, and then walked to Mount Zion where my car was waiting for the adventures of the new year.

I spent the next two hours driving in south-eastern Jerusalem, taking panoramic photos of the Kidron Valley region. These photos are available on a separate page, with a map indicating where each photo was taken.

At 9:30 I was back in the city center, where I visited a bank to refill my cash reserves. The communication lines between Finnish and Israeli banks were temporarily out of order, however, so I left the bank as empty-handed as I had gone there.

I drove to Tel Aviv, and visited the store of Survey Israel on Lincoln Street, wishing to buy a few maps. I had emailed them beforehand to check the opening times of the shop (9—13), but as I knocked the door at 12 o’clock, a security guard told me that the shop was closed due to annual inventory.

I returned to my car and drove to Shalom Tower, which was supposed to offer a roof terrace for taking panoramic photos of Tel Aviv. I went to the top floor by elevator, only to find out that the roof terrace was closed due to renovation work.

The New Year could have started a bit more brightly: the Temple Mount closed due to political tension, international bank communications out of order, map store closed for inventory, and now the panoramic platform closed for renovation...

I parked my car at the beach north of Old Yafo, and spent four and a half hours walking and taking photos in Yafo and southern Tel Aviv. The best of these photos are available in the Common Ground section of this website.

Southern Tel Aviv and Yafo seemed to be mainly inhabited by the poorer social classes. Nearly all houses south of the “skyscraper belt” were two or three storeys high, in moderate or poor condition.

I walked from Mered Street to Yehoshua ha Talmi, Amzaleg, Shlush, Gevulot, Kishon, Abulafya, Alfasi, Poriyah, and then several kilometers south along Sederot Yerushalayim (where the four next photos were taken).

A long walk later I arrived in southern Yafo, and turned west towards the Mediterranean Sea at Yefet Street. Mosques seemed to be a more common sight in this region than synagogues.

A new massive building, the Peres Peace Center, was being built at the seashore behind this mosque. There was nothing to be photographed in the foundations, but I took a photo of the pavement of the street — namely the iron cover of an underground sewer, which carried the logo of Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality. Conveniently written in one language only, not to waste ink for the languages of hostile enemy cultures.

I walked back north towards Tel Aviv along the seashore, and arrived in the port of Old Yafo just before sunset. It was slightly ironic to find out that also here the only written languages visible anywhere were the two official languages of the state — namely Hebrew and English — while the only language that I heard people speak on the quays was Arabic.

After sunset at 17 o’clock I drove back to Jerusalem. The bank communications were functional again, and I was able to fill my empty wallet with fresh new cash. I celebrated the event with a pizza slice at Sbarro restaurant.

At 20:30 I briefly visited the Jerusalem Mall, and then I retreated to the hostel to pack my luggage for the flight home early next morning.

The trip meter of the car showed 2950 km at the end of the day, of which 160 km were driven today.

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Tue 02 January 2007

I left Jerusalem before 5 o’clock, and drove to Ben Gurion airport, where I returned the car to the rental. The trip meter showed 3015 km, of which 65 km were driven this morning.

The next three hours were consumed in the usual security checks, the girls at the security desk suspiciously tasting the honey that I bought in Jericho, and all my luggage combed thoroughly with a number of electronic devices.

My first flight was to Frankfurt, where I had one hour time to change the plane to a flight leaving for Helsinki. An hour sounded a long time to me, and I felt hungry, so I went to McDonald’s at Frankfurt airport and ordered some takeaway food.

This proved to be a very bad idea, but I did not realize it before I went to the security check, and the lady went pale when she noticed how little time I had left before the flight would take off. She told me to take my hand luggage and run as fast as I can. This I also did, but the distance to the platform was surprisingly long — a kilometer or two I guess — and my hand luggage was quite heavy (possibly a bit heavier than would be officially permitted).

All other passengers were already in the plane, and the captain was about to close the gate, when I arrived running and dragging my heavy hand luggage. The captain rose his eyebrows, and commented ironically that the distance to the gate is a bit longer than many believe...

I entered the plane, and then we flew home.