A short flight between worlds

A travel story with pictures – shot on a veteran iPhone 3GS (sorry for the dimness).

I was recently in Amman, and had to visit people in Tel Aviv. I used the bus to cross westwards but then, for complicated reasons, shelled out for the short flight back. It’s absurdly expensive – about 100km (60 miles ish) as the crow flies, for a fare of almost £200 (almost US$300). Royal Jordanian is the only scheduled airline operating the route, so they can charge more or less what they like.

The advantage is you’re flying over epic terrain. While the aircraft maintains a low, flat cruising altitude, the land does a rollercoaster underneath you – dropping away from the hills around Jerusalem down roughly 1500 metres (5000 ft) to the lowest point on Earth at the Dead Sea, then back up another 1500m to the Transjordanian plateau. Less than half an hour after glimpsing the Mediterranean Sea, you’re set down in the vast open desert fringing Arabia. You cross the biblical River Jordan. You fly from the place where Jesus died to the place where Moses died. From a country cut off from its neighbours, you reach a country bound into the regional flow of ideas. It’s a journey between worlds.

tlvammroutesAnd TLV-AMM is a surprisingly popular little connection. Israeli carriers are barred from the airspace of most Middle Eastern countries, so to fly east into Asia they must take a circuitous route (in blue on the map) out over the Mediterranean, north over Turkey, then east over the Central Asian ‘Stans before heading south. By contrast, Royal Jordanian (and all other carriers, cheaper Asian ones among them) can fly a direct route east over Iraq, Iran and Pakistan airspace (in red on the map). Flight time to Bangkok is around 11 hours from Tel Aviv – but from Amman it’s 8hrs 20min. To get to Mumbai takes 8 hours from Tel Aviv, or 5 hours from Amman.

So there was an interesting mix boarding at Ben Gurion airport – several Indian-looking couples apparently heading home with a maxed-out baggage allowance, lots of people who looked Thai and Filipino, also laden down with stuff, and a fair smattering of young Israeli backpacker types presumably seeking enlightenment in Goa or Kathmandu or somewhere. All of them were using this breakfast-time hop to connect with shorter, cheaper onward flights from Amman.

Then there was an excitable Dutch family group who seemed to be on holiday. Plus one single Arab business person – a guy in a sharp suit, with an accent that sounded Jordanian. (Palestinians, incidentally, are prohibited by Israel from passing through Ben Gurion airport.) And me.

Oh, and this guy.

tlvamm01He’s the (supposedly inconspicuous) plain-clothes sky marshal, at least one of whom is present on every single Royal Jordanian flight for the safety of passengers and crew. He did wake up just before takeoff, incidentally. Then he read the newspaper, until the businessman came over to say hello; they chatted over coffee and cakes most of the flight.

The aircraft was titchy – an Embraer 175. I’d been seated over the wing, but even before takeoff I moved to the (empty) back of the plane to grab a window seat on the right-hand side.

On the tarmac at TLV, this happened:

tlvamm02A Royal Jordanian wingtip set against an El Al tailfin. Tell me in the comments if you find the visual juxtaposition inspiring, shameful, repellent, uplifting, or just ordinary.

Immediately after takeoff, this view opened up over the poor benighted communities living around TLV’s perimeter fence:

tlvamm03We flew west for a few seconds, then banked around to head east. As we did so, I snapped this:

tlvamm04On the right are the hotel towers by Tel Aviv beach, looking over the blue expanse of the Mediterranean. On the left, lit by a patch of sun, is the hill of Jaffa, once Palestine’s biggest port (mentioned in the Old Testament), and still an important centre of Palestinian population, out of which Tel Aviv grew in the 20th century. More here.

In less than a minute we were flying over what I think is Lod:

tlvamm05Lod has its own, tragic history. It’s now significant as a railway junction – you can see the rail lines merging at a big station in the right midground.

It took me several minutes to grasp how fast we were covering ground. By the time I realised where we were, we’d already passed over Ramallah – too far north to see Jerusalem – and the ground was starting to drop away into the Jordan Valley. This road, wiggling from top left to bottom right:

tlvamm06…is, I think, Palestine’s Tariq Al Mu’arrajat (Road of Curves), coiling from Taybeh down into the Jordan Valley. I wrote about it in this story.

Here it is again:

tlvamm07This time the road crosses left-to-right in midground.

By now the light was changing, and I was able to take a clearer image of the beautiful rolling landscapes of the West Bank, and its deep canyons leading down to the Jordan Valley.

tlvamm08I love that view.

Seconds later we reached the floor of the Jordan Valley

tlvamm09Abrupt cliffs hem in the ancient desert city of Jericho. One of those cliffs holds the place where Jesus was tempted by Satan. The road leading north-south along the floor of the Jordan Valley is visible at the bottom of the frame.

tlvamm10Finger-like canyons cut through Jericho’s soft desert, carrying moisture down into the River Jordan.

And here is the Jordan itself, directly below us:

tlvamm11Fed by canyons to east and west, set down in the wrinkled, folded ghor, the Jordan forms a ribbon of fertility through the desert – though the river itself is almost indiscernible amid the undergrowth.

Here’s another view, showing the tortuous meanders of the river:

tlvamm12Towards the top of the frame you can see a bridge crossing the jungle-like thickets of the river. That is the Allenby (or King Hussein) Bridge, the crossing-point between Jordan and the West Bank – and the only route by which Israel allows Palestinians to leave the country to travel overseas. Here’s a closer look:

tlvamm13Just south of the bridge (towards the top of the picture, though hard to see) is the Baptism Site at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John baptised Jesus.

Now we’re flying over Jordan (the country). Here, again, is the meandering River Jordan:

tlvamm14It is flowing towards the hazy lake at the top of the frame. You can see that lake better on this pic:

tlvamm15That squared-off expanse of blue is the northernmost tip of the Dead Sea – salty, smelly, greasy, hazy, itchy, sweaty and utterly extraordinary. Have you been? You should, even if only once. Floating unaided on a hot, silent sea, flanked by sun-scorched mountains, is quite a thing.

Here’s another look:

tlvamm16Then the land started to change again. I took a quick snap looking back:

tlvamm17In the foreground are the patchwork fields around South Shuneh in Jordan. Then in midground you can see the squiggle of the River Jordan. In the back are the cliffs and ridges of the Jerusalem Wilderness, or Judean Desert, in Palestine.

Seconds later we were flying over the immense canyons feeding rivers down from the high mountains of Jordan’s Balqa region:

tlvamm18That huge valley system in front may be Wadi Shuayb, the Valley of Jethro, coursing down from the old Ottoman town of Salt.

The land quickly rose up to meet us, forming the Transjordanian plateau – high ground flanking the east side of the River Jordan and Dead Sea. Closer beneath us now, threading a path between scattered towns, I could see an old road:

tlvamm19This is what’s known as the King’s Highway, for millennia the main road between Syria and Egypt – and still one of the best drives you can do in rural Jordan.

On the other hand, there’s this:

tlvamm20This is the Desert Highway, known in this section as the Airport Road, speeding south from Amman (underneath us) past the airport where we’re about to land, all the way to Jordan’s southern border with Saudi Arabia.

Then, after heading east into morning sun the whole trip, finally we banked again and the light was kinder.

tlvamm21I love this picture – it’s Jordan.

Here’s another look:

tlvamm22Gentle desert, crinkled like skin.

By now we were on final approach…

tlvamm23But the desert was still glowing. Temptingly empty. I daydreamt, briefly, of spending the rest of my life in sand, without roads or calendars.

And then…

tlvamm24That was it. Tarmac at Queen Alia airport, Amman. Total flight time, from wheels up to wheels down – roughly 25 minutes (I forgot to time it exactly, sorry).

There was some kind of bread thing. A carton of drink. Very little legroom. Or headroom. The atmosphere was a bit odd.

But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.