Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sunrise to sunrise

Sunrises really are a lot more spectacular than sunsets. You go from pitch black darkness to gentle dawn and then, all of a sudden, the golden-red orb of our neighborhood star pops up over the horizon! Then again, maybe I just don't get to see nearly as many sunrises as I do sunsets, so they only seem more spectacular? Sunrises do have a tendency of happening insanely early after all...

I had plenty of time to contemplate all this while standing on the road passing by the settlement of Ein Gedi in Israel at 4 o'clock in the morning

It was dark still. 4 in the morning is too early for the Sun too

Irina and I were standing here at this unfathomable hour of the morning (night?) because for sunrise, we wanted to get to the top of Masada, a famous nearby mountain peak. And an Israeli stronghold against the Romans two thousand years earlier - we'll get to the history lesson in a moment. In the mean time, Masada is best accessed from the hostel that sits at the base of the mountain. Unfortunately that hostel was full. So was the hostel in Ein Gedi. We were instead sleeping at the Ein Gedi Kibbutz, quite grateful for the generosity of a couple guys we had found through couchsurfing. Having free accommodation at the kibbutz was very awesome, unfortunately it wasn't doing us much good in terms of getting to Masada in time for sunrise - our hosts recommended getting up early and hitch hiking - the Israelis are quite practical like that. So, here we were at 4 in the morning, on the highway outside of Kibbutz Ein Gedi. We spent an hour here. Perhaps ten cars passed us - none of them stopped. We muttered bad things about the drivers. I don't quite remember what else I was thinking or feeling during the time, but mostly I was unhappy about not being in bed. I vaguely remember Irina being not entirely pleased with me either, but the details escape me... Did I mention my distaste for waking up at 4 in the morning? I also don't like the uncertainty of hitch hiking, especially when after an hour noone stops, and you end up giving up and going back to bed. Actually, that's not true - going back to bed felt wonderful! I could see the first signs of dawn lighting up the Eastern sky on our walk back to the kibbutz...

The morning rolled around. We had gotten an additional five hours asleep since our middle of the night escapades and, feeling rather refreshed, were determined to conquer the stubborn mountain the next morning! Over the course of the day, the one and only taxi driver in Ein Gedi was located and his monopoly-inflated prices to take us to Masada the next morning were agreed to (Ein Gedi is not a big place). Then we met Katya and Sam and convinced them that they needed to see a Masada sunrise too, and thus the monopoly-inflated taxi costs came to be split four ways. And off we went the next morning - I can't remember what time we got up, but while it was certainly still before sunrise, it felt a lot less horrible than the night before... or maybe we were just developing a tolerance for the pre-dawn insanity?

Catching the sun rise over the Dead Sea from the top of Masada, that's what it's all about!

Celebrating our triumph at the top

As for the history lesson... Masada (meaning 'stronghold' in Hebrew) is a sheer-sided plateau rising high above the Dead Sea. It was once a palatial retreat of Herod the Great, who, I presume, was a Roman governor appointed to rule the lands of Israel. Things aren't meant to last though, so Herod died, the Jews revolted against the Romans, and a group, called the Zealots, established Masada as their base. We'd probably call a bunch of zealots holed up in a mountain-top stronghold terrorists today, but I digress... The Romans, in short order, came back and laid siege to the fortress. The zealots all committed suicide instead of being captured. This image lives rather vividly in the hearts of the Israeli Defense Forces today, who take their oaths at Masada.

In modern terms, Masada is a big rock rising up above the Dead Sea, with 750 steps leading to the top. At the top, there's extensive ruins and excavations of the historic site, and spectacular views of the Dead Sea, surrounding mountains, and the sun rising over all of them, if you climbed the 750 stairs early enough. Which we did, because we are a determined bunch!

The Roman ruins at Masada

Surrounding sheer cliffs

A couple of days passed. We left Israel and made our way over to Dahab, on Egypt's Sinai peninsula. Not having seen any pre-dawn hours of the night for a whole three straight days, I felt the need to follow in Moses' footsteps and watch the sun rise from the top of Mt. Sinai, which is conveniently located on the Sinai peninsula... Picking up a few new commandments may have been a nice bonus, but wasn't a must-have. Irina had wizened up and upon learning that the way to the top of Mt. Sinai involved 3,750 steps - an even 3,000 more than Masada - chose to stay by the beach in Dahab. I joined the tourist horde and headed for Sinai.

The sunrise was mildly disappointing, which would be a theme for Egypt - some amazing sites, yet the experience as a whole? Mildly underwhelming and disappointing. Now Masada is a big place at the top - we actually lost Sam for a while. But there's not a lot of people there - it looked like maybe a dozen people were doing the sunrise climb, and a couple of Birth-right tour buses showed up from the other side (the weak and lazy among us can take the easy road on the far side of Masada, which goes just about to the top of the mountain. Not that we were making judgments about our collective superiority...). That's Israel. Not so here - Sinai is in Egypt, and the Egyptians are very enterprising about putting together rushed, overcharged, and not-very-well organized tours for their attractions, so while there's a lot less space at the top of Mt. Sinai, there is a hell of a lot more people up there - easily over a thousand in time for sunrise. On top of that, we left Dahab at 11 the night before, which got us to the base of the mountain a little before 2, and to the top some two hours later. Which, much as I had pointed out back in Dahab, is not when the sun rises.

It was a clear night with a full moon, so no trouble following the windy path to the top. Avoiding the persistent camel peddlers along the way - much harder!

So, we waited at the top. More people arrived. A lot more. Egyptians came by offering to rent rather disgusting-looking blankets because, you know, it gets a little chilly at the top of a 7,500+ foot mountain, at four in the morning, when you aren't moving about for an hour and a half. I tried to sleep; it was a fruitless effort - the thousand people kept popping into existence all around me. We were one of the first groups to reach the top and picked out a nice vantage point to watch the sun come up. Over the hours to follow our vantage point was packed with a litany of new tourist groups, chattering away in German, French, Russian, and most other languages of the UN (except Hebrew, of course - relations are still a little tense with Israel). Finally, around 5:30 the sun showed up. Actually, there was some debate about this - most thought it was just the Moon. Judging by time and compass direction, I was fairly certain it was the Sun (especially as it kept rising), but, admittedly, the spectacle was awfully subdued - there was a lot of haze in the air, so there was none of the bright brilliant reddish-golden radiance, just a pale yellow orb slowly and quietly making its way up into the sky. Producing precious little light or heat at the time.

Yup, that's the rising sun!

The mountains of the Sinai peninsula all around are a pretty amazing site though!

I was excited to be up here, haze or no haze!

Mt. Sinai, of course, has a ton of Christian tradition, so there's a chapel up at the top. The stairway leading up to the top, the '3,000 Steps of Repentance' was built by a monk over a thousand years ago

And on the way back down... the crowds, oh the crowds!

We took the Steps of Repentance on the way down, which wound through a spectacular canyon with the sun, higher and brighter by now, lighting up mountains on either side of us. At the bottom of the canyon we could see St. Katherine's monastery, the oldest continuously operating monastery in the world. A brief visit to the monastery was also a part of the tour - it too was rather disappointing.

But at least it is an awesome site on the way down through the canyon!

A three hours ride in our very uncomfortable minivan later, I was back in Dahab. I probably should have gone to bed, but instead I went wakeboarding - I have my priorities

And it was the right choice anyway! I heart the wake the Malibu puts up...

In between climbing mountains in pre-dawn hours of the night, we spent a lot of time lounging on the beach - yes, I know, it's a hard life. First was the Dead Sea, which was simply spectacular - the concentration of salt and other minerals is amazingly high, so nothing lives in the water, it stings horribly if you ever get it into your eyes or mouth, but, you don't sink! You lie down and just kind of gently float on top of the water - it's the coolest feeling, I've never felt anything remotely like it! Jesus supposedly walked on water in the Sea of Galilee, up in the North of Israel - good thing because it would have seemed so much less miraculous to do so down here!

The Dead Sea! That's Jordan on the far bank

Just lounging about

Yup, you don't sink! Don't take your flip flops off either - you'll definitely know about any cuts you had, even if you didn't know you had them before. Getting a fresh cut on the rocks below would bring horrible pain!

Or you can take a little nap in the water - just put your sunscreen on!

The water is actually incredibly good for your skin - note the high content of salt and other minerals by the shore. Unfortunately, the Dead Sea is gradually disappearing as Israel and Jordan have diverted a lot (too much?) of the waters feeding it, so come see it now while it's still here!

We also spent a day on the beach in Eilat, on the Red Sea, which I found fairly underwhelming, but Irina explained about the minimum number of days a modern human being has to spend in the sun on the beach every year in order to maintain their sanity and health, and headed off for the beach. I did not entirely see her point and went off to run some errands, which felt useful and productive, and, in the end, were largely a complete waste of my time - I suppose her theories must be correct!

My final tally:
- Masada: awesome, just hard to get to in the morning due to lack of transport options
- Dead Sea: amazing, go see it before it disappears!
- Eilat: nice, but if you've come all the way down here for the beaches, just go to Egypt, where the beaches are better and the prices are lower
- Dahab: perfect! Easily my favorite place in Egypt
- Mt. Sinai and St. Katherine's Monastery: I guess if you are here, you ought to go see them (historical significance and all), and the sunrises are usually more spectacular than what I got, but I was underwhelmed.

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