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  • Post published:02/01/2022
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Swap snow for the deserts of Jordan on an alternative Christmas break and discover the delights of Petra and the Dead Sea.

It’s Christmas Day and I’ve woken up in a Bedouin tent in the desert. It all feels very biblical, except instead of sleeping in a stable, I’m under canvas and there are camels spitting rather than cattle lowing.

Spending Christmas Eve in a desert in Jordan was far from traditional. The festive tipples were limited to Coke or Sprite, because this is Muslim territory, and we played charades in a communal tent and performed some inelegant belly dancing, which had our Arabian hosts alternating between grimaces and the giggles.

Christmas Day dawned bright but chilly, as winter days do in the desert. I wriggled reluctantly out of my sleeping bag, fastened my hiking boots over socks that I had worn all night, and legged it for the toilet block 200m (656ft) away.

Some fellow campers were already up and queuing for a breakfast of hummus, pita bread, jam, feta cheese and olives. A wall of camel-hair blankets enclosed the camp in a valley of massive rock formations that look like melting candles, as if smooth rivulets of stone had trickled down in the relentless summer heat.

But this was deep winter, so we donned scarves, beanies and mittens and waited for the sun to struggle higher and burn away the chill.

It’s the same every Christmas. Since I don’t have any family, I plot my escape from the UK with a bunch of strangers. The results are unpredictable but always entertaining. So here I was in Jordan, wishing happy Christmas to a motley crew in a Bedouin camp.

And it felt fabulous. We scouted around for firewood during a 4-wheel drive so we could light a fire and drink mint tea. We watched the chefs excavate metal pots filled with huge chunks of lamb that cooked for hours on coals buried in the sand. We ordered more soft drinks and played silly games to pass the evening, then went outside and looked for shooting stars.

Admittedly, Jordan doesn’t top the holiday wish list for most people. However, the country offers two notable attractions, Petra and The Dead Sea.

Petra is one of the most amazing sites in the entire Middle East. After an earthquake in 749AD saw the already declining city abandoned, Petra lay hidden from the western world until it was rediscovered in 1812. Now, it’s a place you’ve seen a hundred times before you even arrive. It’s in books, brochures and films and anything else that needs images of something glorious and astonishing.

So we all knew exactly what to expect as we offloaded into a coach park ominously bristling with souvenir shops and postcard touts, and started the long walk down a gravel path towards an extraordinary passageway in a solid wall of rock.

After about a kilometre, I saw a narrow opening, and excitement bubbled as I walked inside, dwarfed by steep, towering cliffs. Hordes of tourists stride though here every day, but if you hang back, you can sometimes lose the crowds and gaze on the magnificent secret chasm in solitude.

You run your hands along the pinkish stone and admire a tree clinging to the rock face with not a grain of soil to feed it. You see sunlight casting beams into the narrow gorge to illuminate slabs of rock. Then you stop at a viewpoint and gaze up through a crack in the rocks to see a floating pink angel. It’s a brilliant architectural flourish designed so your first glimpse of the mystical city is an angel hovering ethereally on high.

Finally I emerged into a massive open square with the pink-tinged Treasury and its angels straight ahead.

The ancient city was carved by the Nabateans and at one stage an estimated 30,000 people lived there. Yet no houses have been found, only beautiful, but to me quite baffling, facades of temples leading nowhere. Art for art’s sake, I suppose, and I guess civilisation wouldn’t have progressed very far aesthetically-speaking if a practical person like me had been in charge.

You need a whole day to do Petra justice, and even then there were areas I barely touched as I walked past the amphitheatre, scrambled in and out of tombs, and made the strenuous hike up the mountain to the Monastery to admire yet another massive façade.

After Petra, our final port of call was the Dead Sea. It’s very well named, because there’s absolutely nothing to do there except spend your time in one of the four hotels that line its most popular stretch of shoreline.

The water itself was slimy, dirty and uninviting. But it was the Dead Sea, so even on a cold winter’s day, there was nothing for it but for me to strip down and wade in.

I expected the buoyancy to bob me up like a cork, but as I continued to wade in deeper, my feet remained firmly on the ground. So I lifted my feet, lay back, and did the classic Dead Sea duck impression. It was fun for a few minutes, until I waded out and wondered how to get the slimy, mucky film off my skin. This dense black mud was supposed to leave my skin all gorgeous and gleaming. But with no sun to dry the mud to a hard clay, the only way to clean up was to slop through the hotel feeling like the creature from the black lagoon and wash under a hot shower.

Duty done, I searched in vain for the next bit of Dead Sea entertainment. There was no town to explore, just a building site where new hotels were due to spring up. Eventually we did what all tourists do, and congregated in the bar.

A trip to Jordan is more of a cultural exploration than a fun-in-the-sun affair. It’s beautiful in a stark, barren kind of way. Petra is an absolute must, while the Dead Sea is an almost irresistible, natural oddity.

Environmentalists believe it will eventually dry up completely. At least I could say I saw it before it disappears for good.

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