Ice cold in Aqaba: author and travel writer Amanda Hemingway recalls her Christmas visit to Jordan on a riding holiday which purported to follow "in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia.".

Author:Hemingway, Amanda

IT WAS CHRISTMAS DAY ON THE ROAD from Amman to Petra, and sleet spattered against the windscreen of the bus. Somewhere beyond the sleet, a spectacular landscape showed itself intermittently: vistas of yellow-grey rock, plunging valleys, a distant glimpse of the Dead Sea. From time to time we halted and ventured outside; I shivered in my inadequate jacket (who had told me the Middle East was warm?). Screaming winds tried to pluck us from the ramparts of a Crusader castle, and we dived into ancient churches, admiring mosaic animals and maps of a smaller world, and desperately grateful for shelter. After a stopover in Petra, we were to spend five days riding through the Wadi Rum desert, and I had already made up my mind this was not my idea of fun. If the weather didn't improve, I was going home.

By the time we got to Petra the sleet had stopped and there was all the welcome of a warm hotel, a bath and a bar. The 12 of us--all strangers bar two couples--started to bond over drinks and a hot buffet, including melt-in-the-mouth roast lamb and 20 different things to do with aubergine. Several bottles of local wine accelerated the bonding process. Wine in Islamic countries is more about cost than quality, but we weren't in a mood to be choosy. The Mount Nebo red was drinkable, while the St George had a curious musky, smoky flavour which might have been due to input from his dragon. I went to bed well fed and warmed, trying not to contemplate the immediate future.

Boxing Day was spent exploring Petra. Cool overcast conditions were ideal for walking, and we made our way down the deepening cleft between walls of red rock, until the cliffs opened up and the legendary facade towered above us, far huger and more impressive in real life than on film or TV. To describe it would be superfluous, it has been done so often: "the rose-red city half as old as time". Visitors are limited to 3,000 a day, a number easily dispersed in this gargantuan world of tombs and temples, where the living dwelt in the houses of the dead and hollow channels brought water, camel trains, food and trade. Nowadays a few tented cafe areas, a string of lavatories, a handful of hawkers selling rugs and souvenirs, instead of detracting from the ambience, give some idea of what it must have been like when the city was alive. I rode back on a camel, the largest I could find, swaying precariously on its hump as we trotted along, recalling too late that I have no sense of balance. Then in...

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