Posts Tagged ‘dead sea

23
Dec
10

In Israel

Intro

Something is worth more when everyone is fighting for it. This is definitely true for this piece of land which resides within the so-called fertile crescent. To be fair, Israel hasn’t even been particularly fertile for some time, with sweep of deserts and dead water. But geography has dictated that it is the middle of Asia, Europe and Africa. While civilizations from each continent expand and decline, Israel changes hand as frequently as the hand of the centennial clock ticks.

Nevertheless, that could be that. Israel could have been nothing but a desolated war-zone. That is, if it’s not because of the religious significance that has been attached to it.  Judaism originated in the area, while Islam and Christianity were brought in as Israel was taken over by civilizations observing those religions. Each religion established their own holy sites in Israel, and in particular Jerusalem, an act which brought in pilgrims and wealth, which in turn only further reinforced the desire of every party to take control of this piece of land.

Israel has had a long and colourful history and yet its story is showing no sign of slowing down. More recent events involves the struggle of land and authority in the Palestine region and the Gaza Strip. In this rather peaceful age, rockets flying daily across the Gaza border seems to grab international attention every other day. But I suppose, after so many years, people in here should already be used to being in the spotlight.

My Itinerary

I started in Ben-Gurion Airport on the night of 13 December 2010. Headed to Jerusalem for 3 nights. While there, visited Old City mainly, including Dome of the Rock, the 4 quarters (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Armenian), Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Citadel. Outside the Old City, also went to the City of David, Mt Zion, the Garden Tomb and the German Colony.

Within the 3 days in Jerusalem, I spent half a day in Bethleham, visiting the Church of Nativity and their Souq.

After Jerusalem, the next destination was the dead sea. I went to Ein Gedi Spa for dead sea floating, Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and stayed overnight in the HI hostel. Next morning is up the Massada and then down to Eilat.

2 nights were spent in Eilat. In the end I didn’t go to Petra or Egypt, but instead went snorkeling in the Red Sea and hiked up Mt Zefahot.

Then it was a long bus trip up to Tel Aviv, broken up by a hike in Maktesh Ramon.

No time was spent in Tel Aviv but instead went further up to Haifa and Akko the next day. Visited the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa and the old city in Akko. Also in Haifa took the only subway system in Israel.

Finally back to Tel Aviv for the last day and just chilled out on the Mediterranean beach after seeing Old Jaffa in the morning.

Flight back to London from Ben-Gurion Airport, after 8 days and 8 nights in Israel.

Reflection

First of all, despite what it appears on the news and what your friends and family tell you, Israel and the Palestinian Regions can be a safe place for travelling. The constant news reports on the political instability and the conflicts in the Gaza strip created a false impression that the whole of Israel is unsafe, but from the perspective of travellers, as long as troublesome areas such as Gaza is avoided, Israel is a safe place. When I was in Jerusalem and even the West bank, I definitely felt safer than when I was in a lot of the Western European Cities. One thing for sure, you won’t find as many drunks on the streets of Israel. People are generally very nice and helpful, and also most of them speak English to a certain extent.

What stands out in Israel is its culture and to a lesser extent its variety of landscapes and natural beauty. Man-made architecture scores highly in neighbouring Turkey and Egypt but is very lackluster in Israel, so do not arrive with an expectation to see great buildings or ancient temples, etc. Actually, it is best to arrive with just an open mind and let the surroundings sink in. Culture is often something that can’t be captured on camera but can only be slowly absorbed and understood through observation.

Saying that about man-made architecture, there is still one structure which is certainly worth a venture into. That is that underground water tunnel in the City of David next to the Old City in Jerusalem. It is an unlit 500m passageway built around 800BC for channeling water from a spring into the city. Water still runs through it so visitors have to wade through it in their own torch light in about 20 minutes. I was the only person in the very narrow tunnel for the whole time and all I could hear was the water splashing noise from my feet and its echo. The eerie atmosphere was almost scary and I had to remind myself not to think of horror stories, but this often had an opposite effect.

Wandering in the Old City of Jerusalem, through its busy and narrow alleyways and thousand of shops, is fun and interesting. There were bells from the churches ringing while call to prayers were announced through the towers of the synagogues. When nearing the Jewish Quarter, there is suddenly a high concentration of people in long black overcoats and black hats with a round rim. Passing through Via Dolorosa, you see various plaques on the walls, each highlight something that Jesus has done on his way cruxification. I overheard from the tourist guides that one is for marking Jesus comforting a crying old woman. Christians definitely don’t even let go of the tiniest detail!

In Jerusalem and Bethleham, you unavoidably will catch glimpses of acts of faith from the various religions present. At the Western Wall, which is open 24 hours a day, Jews frantically bow to the wall, humming phrases from the Koran. In the Church of Nativity, Christian pilgrims queue to crawl into this hole in the wall and kiss the spot on the ground which is supposed to mark where Jesus was born. Suddenly, the Muslims seem to be the sanest of all three religions.

Getting away from all these religions and histories, the dead sea is an unmissable and unforgettable experience. From the painful walk down the beach over the salt crystals, to the moment my whole body started to float upwards as soon as I lifted up my feet, and then to bathing in the tremendous view of the rocky mountains on the Israeli and Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, all these add up to an experience I won’t find anywhere else in the world. But for the dead sea mud which seem to be raved about for its skin treatment value, I don’t see its benefit. In fact, the only thing it did was to make my skin drier and more uncomfortable.

The less than 10km of Red Sea coastline within Israeli border is fully utilised as port facilities if it has not already been filled with beach umbrellas and sunbeds. This is possibly the place with the highest concentration of outdoor activities in Israel. There are scuba divers, snorkellers, kitesurfers, windsurfers, sunbathers and don’t forget the hikers. Even in the middle of winter, the temperature still rises above 20C during the day, and the water is just about warm enough with a wetsuit. So although the quality of the coral reef and tropical fishes are slightly questionable, you do feel the energy and buzz around the place. And undeniably, the free sunbeds by the kitesurfers is one of the best place for procrastination in winter, when the sunshine is good and the wind steady, with colourful kites decorating the skyline and surfers swooshing past.

People who have flew into Hong Kong before 1998 will fondly remember the Kai Tak Airport, especially for its close proximity with the city and residential areas. The airport in Eilat takes this even further and the airport runway is like a knife stabbed into the heart of Eilat. The end of the runway is just across the street from the city’s main shopping mall and an aircraft can literally be only 20m above my head if I am on my way from the hostel to the seaside.

The biggest disappointment of the trip are the 2 biggest cities in Israel, Tel-Aviv and Haifa. In the words of a fellow traveller, “If you come from the UK, then Tel-Aviv is just another city.” To me, Tel-Aviv looks like those European Cities 15 years ago, and can only be forgiven for being in the Middle-East. Haifa was probably the first city where I wanted to get away from. Other than the Baha’i Gardens, the whole place seemed dirty, messy and crowded. Perhaps it’s due the the winter season, and all the locals might have gone to Eilat for holiday, there is a distinct lack of vibe and character in both Tel-Aviv and Haifa.

Everywhere I go in Israel, and on all the public buses and train, there are young people dressed in their army uniforms, serving their compulsory army service. Soldiers carrying rifles are commonly seen and security guards sit outside every shopping centre and banks. It seems to me Israel has done more than just to keep their citizens safe, and has gone further to show off their military presence. They want to portray themselves as a powerful nation, just like the Americans. Funnily enough, all the Israelis I have spoken to use an American accent. I have also met numerous tour groups from the US taking school kids to visit Israel. Perhaps the feeling is mutual?

Photos

Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem

Jews facing the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Christian kissing the rock which represents the one where Jesus lied on after cruxification, in the Church of Holy Sepulchre

Old City near Damascus Gate, Jerusalem

Church of Nativity, Bethleham

A bunch of American school kids frolicking in the dead sea

Just had to add this one as it's classic!

Sunbeds on the beaches of Eilat

Scuba diving, Windsurfing and Kitesurfing, Eilat

Taken on my way to the beach, just to show how close is the airport

Maktesh Ramon - it isn't possible to fully capture the scale of the crater

Baha'i Gardens in Haifa

Old Akko - touristy but not just tourist-oriented

Azrieli Tower, Tel-Aviv




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