Tag Archives: desert

Adventures of a Pilgrim: Mecca

The two predominant travellers to Saudi Arabia are expats and pilgrims and I fall into the latter category. Although there has been a slight growth in leisure tourism, religious tourism is a thriving industry, bringing in Continue reading


Welcome to Jordan: Everyday Realities

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Welcome to Jordan

I had heard a lot of criticism about Amman as a city — that it is boring with nothing to do or see. In no way is this true — the city has plenty to offer! It may just take some effort to discover.

I moved here as part of my BA Arabic degree, which meant spending the entire academic year in a country I had never visited before. Having never travelled in the Middle East, this was rather an exciting prospect and, having come not as a tourist, but to stay (if only for a limited period), I wanted to know what the city was like to live in.

Having spent three months here so far, I have built up a list of observations that I found surprising, coming from a European background, which any visitor will notice sooner or later.

Blue skies and all day long sunshine over Amman's busy and often dangerous roads. Photo © Annabella Ahola

Blue skies and all day long sunshine over Amman’s busy and often dangerous roads. Photo © Annabella Ahola


While the assumption is that it is always hot in the Middle East, this is not entirely true. Admittedly, the heat in late August can be overwhelming — over 30 degrees and sunny all day long. But you get used to it very fast: soon 30 degrees feels like nothing. It gets to the point where you almost forget what a cloudy day looks like.

Come mid-September, everyone keenly awaits for the first signs of rain. “Look, clouds!” someone may shout, and everyone goes over to the window in eager anticipation. Jordan is 90% desert, and the climate is respectively a desert climate — scorching hot in the day, cold at night. Houses have little to no heating, and in November a common complaint is how cold it is — colder inside than out.

Amman is hilly, and there is a constant breeze — refreshing in summer, but in late Autumn, 18 degrees makes you think “winter is coming” (summer in Northern European terms!) There is a promise of ice and maybe even snow by January: sounds slippery considering the steepness of these hills.

City layout

The layout of the city (due to its fast growth) makes it very difficult to walk anywhere. Granted, there are a few areas where the pavements are decent enough to walk on, but for the most part, excursions on foot often mean dealing with cracked pavements that can be up to two feet high, and honking horns. Venturing from one area to another, the roads resemble motorways because of the amount of cars and lanes, and pedestrian crossings are virtually non-existent. Be prepared to walk a mile to encounter a bridge, or dare to run across the road fearing for your life.

Amidst the new builds in hilly Amman stands the remains of a Roman Amphitheater picture © Annabella Ahola

Amidst the new builds in hilly Amman stands the remains of a Roman Amphitheater. Photo © Annabella Ahola


The above point means that taking a taxi anywhere is a common means of transport. Buses exist, but they are rare, and no one really seems to know their timetables and routes. The joke is that the bus is so fast you cannot even see it. There are also white servees taxis: a kind of shared minibus. With no designated route, they leave as they fill up with customers. Outside, men shout destinations at passersby, and you get on a bus heading in your direction, telling the driver where to drop you off. Sounds daunting, but it is very cheap — 35 qirsh* for a ride. A taxi across the city will cost you about 2 dinars. That said, taxis might not be easy to get, depending on how busy it is. A driver may even refuse to take you, and foreigners run the risk of getting ripped off. Hence one must always check to make sure the meter is running, or to agree on a price before boarding.


Despite the preconceptions one might have about the Middle East, Jordan is not a cheap country to live in. The dinar is stronger than the pound, and the prices in supermarkets and Western-style malls are similar to those found in Europe. (This is why it is better to leave the malls for a special treat, and stick to local shops and produce.) Prices can vary significantly depending on where you are. A Turkish coffee from a corner shop could cost 35 qirsh, an American-style filter coffee, 2 dinars. In a nicer mall café, this could be 4 dinars including tax and service charge. That said, not all prices are fixed. A good rule of thumb is that if there is no price tag, the price is negotiable. This is particularly true for the souks, such as those in the older part of town. Traditionally, for Arabs, haggling is an art form, and agreeing to the price right away is somewhat disrespectful and makes you look like a fool.


When it comes to the kind of produce on offer, Amman has a lot of variety. In the bigger malls and supermarkets, one finds a lot of the same brands and products as in Europe. No big culture shock there. However, when it comes to more specialised things, such as organic produce, or foods aimed at vegans or people with allergies (tofu, gluten free…) the struggle is real. If these are available, they are rare and difficult to find.

The Taj Mall in Amman, where the likes of Miss Selfridge and Burberry can be found. © Annabella Ahola

The Taj Mall in Amman, where the likes of Miss Selfridge and Burberry can be found. Picture © Annabella Ahola

“If you have specialist needs — like a particular brand of shampoo you like — bring a supply of it with you,” we were advised by our school. But with limited suitcase space, I think I am OK with my hair adjusting to something new, for now.

[*a qirsh is one hundredth of a dinar. 1 dinar is equivalent to £1.11 at time of publication].

Featured image © Anton Mukhametchin


The Emirates: An Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series The Emirates

On the south east border of Saudi Arabia, bordering Oman and sharing the Persian Gulf with Iran, Qatar and Bahrain, seven emirates occupy an area of 83,600 sq. km formed mainly of dune and oasis-filled desert, rocky mountains and fertile plains. This small union of states, well-known for being home to one of the most luxurious destinations in the world — Dubai — has an interesting, perhaps less well known, story.

When I first visited Dubai in 2011, I remember being astonished at how young the city seemed. When I saw the remains of the old city wall, built in 1800, I thought to myself, that isn’t old at all. I wondered how this city, certain vistas of which made it look as if it had been plucked from a sci-fi film, had sprouted up in the middle of the desert. So I’ve decided to find out more about the tax free United Arab Emirates (UAE), where an estimated 7.8 million of the 9.2 million residents are expatriates, where alcohol is only permitted in certain buildings, and where you can allegedly leave your designer handbag unattended in public and nobody will touch it. Continue reading


Meet the ‘stans: Turkmenistan

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Meet the 'stans

Possibly the most interesting country in our Central Asia band of brothers, Turkmenistan is often labelled the North Korea of Central Asia. This ‘stan sits as a crossroad of the region and serves as a vital stop of the ancient Silk Road — the caravan route to China — like many of its neighbouring countries. Nowadays, the country is best known for its vast gas reserves, a former president who developed a personality cult, and the current mad-about-horses president. Both these geezers have enforced an autocratic rule over a rather impoverished state, despite its enormous gas wealth.

Being so closed off to the world is an allure to travellers as it makes us want to check it out more. Whilst its recent ruling may have given it a skewed image, we mustn’t forget that it is a country of great ancient history.

Let’s start with that. Continue reading


5 African Alternatives for a Summer Festival

Photo taken by Flickr user SzB Snappers

Photo taken by Flickr user SzB Snappers

While everyone goes ga-ga for Glastonbury and packs into Parklife, some of us are wondering if there’s more to festivals than broken tents, muddy wellies and people spilling warm cider down your back. Here are my top 5 alternatives for those willing to go further afield and take part in something truly unique. So grab a ticket and make all your buddies stuck at Bestival truly jealous.

1) Fespaco African Film Festival

Not only the largest film festival in Africa, but also the biggest cultural event on the continent, the Fespaco festival is not one to be missed. Alongside advertising African cinema for an international market, this event helps the local communities by funding screenings in rural areas that have never had access to cinema, and uses the festival as an opportunity to educate about social issues. The next festival will take place the 28th February to 7th March 2015 in Ouagadougou.

2) Festival in the Desert

Forget Burning Man, Festival au Désert is the world’s most remote music festival. Hosted by the nomadic “blue people” of the Sahara, this festival boasts a three day line up of traditional Tuareg music with modern African pop, with a few camel races and jamming competitions thrown in for fun. With performers and revellers from all over the globe, this festival is really something else, and not an anorak or Archers in sight. Festival au Désert is held on the outskirts of Timbuktu and normally begins in January, 2015 dates have not been announced yet.

3) International Camel Derby

This remarkable event has taken place in Kenya since 1990, with participants from all over the world competing in a series of both amateur and professional camel races. The festival hosts a range of other events alongside the racing, and camels can be hired if you fancy trying your hand on one of the semi-desert tracks. The derby is located in Maralal, at the Yare Club & Camp from late August to early September.

4) The Wildebeest Migration

Not technically a festival, but nevertheless an awesome spectacle of nature that is a huge draw for both tourists and natives. Thousands of wildebeest and zebra cross the expanses of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara in search for new grazing land. Although this amazing sight happens at a slightly different time every year, July and August are fairly safe bets as the wildebeest start crossing the Grumeti River. Some safari lodges offer packages based around the migration which is helpful when planning a trip. A truly awe-inspiring thing to witness, the photos are sure to rival anything you’ve ever seen on the Discovery Channel.

5) Sauti Za Busara Music Festival

This extravaganza is held on the beautiful Tanzanian island of Zanzibar and features on average 400 different artists over 5 days. Alongside numerous performances of African, Asian, Arabic and fusion music the festival is jam-packed with other diversions. Screenings of African cinema, training seminars on various professions such as music journalism and film-making, and stalls selling everything from local street food to handmade jewellery all run alongside the musical events. A great opportunity to learn more about African arts, meet amazing new people and maybe even find a new favourite band. The next festival is already scheduled for 12th – 15th February 2015.