Miserable Border Crossing: Amman to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by Bus - Part I
Tel Aviv, Israel and the Palestinian Territories
It's only 68 miles (110km) between Amman and Tel Aviv as the crow flies, but my laborious journey from Jordan to Israel took over 12 hours, two Israeli interrogations and $43 in transportation to cover the distance.
Having traveled within about 50 countries—many of those multiple times over—I'm certainly no stranger to border crossings. Some of the most arduous, longwinded of those have been here in the Middle East (I'm looking in Syria's direction). But today's extravaganza really took the cake—making it all the way to the #1 spot for my worst border crossing to date.
Reaffirming my intention to leave in the morning with him last night, my lackluster Jordanian CouchSurfing host didn't quite understand why I was departing the flat so early. Even though dozens and dozens of 'surfers had segued though this city with the use of his couch and shower, none apparently had shared with him the appropriate point where one should get transport to the western border, or just how notorious the Israeli immigration interrogations and delays are in these parts (even more so for travelers like myself who have Arab nation stamps in their passport).
What I was in search of was a bus, minibus or shared taxi that could take me from downtown Amman to the Jordanian immigration checkpoint at the King Hussein Bridge crossing, about an hour outside of town. But despite how well-traveled a route this is, I found very little information regarding how to get there from the city.
While the capital of Jordan seems to excel at highways and general roadway construction, the city truly fails miserably when it comes to the organization and cohesion of onward transport. That is to say, this capital city doesn't have a real bus terminal. International bus company offices in the downtown area serve as arrival/departure points, with these locations scattered at random within the city.
The guidebooks for the region are terribly out of date—easily in excess of a half decade or more—and online blogs and travel forums weren't of much use. Again, despite how well worn the trail is between Amman and Israel, there's surprisingly little written about it in detail online.
Most coherently written resources pointed to a location in the city called '7th Circle'—the seventh large roundabout on a primary artery in town. My host also said the same location, but in the type of perplexed tone you'd get from a high school student trying to answer an exam question after smoking their entire stash of marijuana.
But as I'm sure you've surmised by now, 7th Circle is not the place to go if you're trying to go to the King Hussein Bridge crossing. You need to depart from the (new) 'Jordan Street Buses Complex'.
Sadly, it took running around in a taxi for the better part of an hour to arrive, drive around searching and relocate with the proper destination—a real mess of a morning when both the clock and taxi meter were ticking away.
A shard taxi (driver + four passengers & their stuff shoved into a decrepit Caprice) will cost five Jordanian dinars (US$7) and take 45 minutes from the Jordan Street Buses Complex to reach immigration. Supposedly a bus makes the same trip from this location for two or three dinars, but departs only once around 8 a.m. (though I'm unable to verify this).
So after departing my host's apartment around 8:00 a.m., I'm finally in a full taxi and on my way to the border by 9:30. 45 minutes later I'm dumped near the entrance to Jordanian immigration, and after some running around am happily stamped out of the country at 10:30.
You're Not Visiting Israel, Right?
King Hussein Bridge Exit Stamp for Jordan. Evidence of my departure (this slip of paper) was later collected by the bus company that shuttled me between checkpoints.
The Jordanian officers know you're going there—though they don't ask about your onward travel plans—but officially you're not getting stamped out of Jordan when you leave via the King Hussein Bridge crossing. The Jordanians (again, officially) presume that you are traveling inside the Palestinian territories, and provided that you return to Jordan within the one month validity of your original entry visa into Jordan, will not stamp a new entry into Jordan. This can works wonders for travelers hoping to avoid the Israeli passport stamp stigma that would keep folks from entering some neighboring countries (a real problem if you're traveling overland from south to north, from say, Cairo to Istanbul).
Ah, but just because you're not technically leaving Jordan doesn't mean the Jordanians won't charge you the five dinar for the overland exit tax (…another $7)!
No Man's Land Fleecing
One of the more flagrantly greedy moves I've seen at a border crossing was here, as all travelers (no taxis or personal vehicles allowed) are forced to fork over 4JD (…another $6) to ride the bus between the Jordanian and Israeli checkpoints (just 3km). Passengers pay extra if they bring any luggage with them, stored on your lap or under the bus, and must wait until the vehicle fills up before it will depart.
The fact they these folks are filling a 50 passenger bus to capacity each time it rolls across the border and charging this amount to do it is just not justifiable. Increases in this price are commonplace, as there's a monopoly on the forced service and there's simply no alternative for many. We're talking around $300 for each busload of people ferried between the two immigration checkpoints, spaced less than two miles apart.
The buses making the crossing have totally unpredictable schedules. In the winter months when the number of travelers is modest, the huge 50 passenger bus might take an hour or two to fill up. During the summer months when families on school holidays want to be with relatives on either side of the bridge, the number of travelers is so high that passengers spends hours and hours waiting to complete the crossing.
With the exception of senior officials no one is allowed to use their own means of transport. This means that tens of thousands of persons trying to make the journey from Jerusalem and the West Bank to Jordan and vis a versa have no choice but to use public transport. The Israelis forbid vehicles with Palestinian (West Bank) license plates to travel across the river using their own cars. Israel allows vehicles with Israeli plates to leave but the Jordanians refuse to allow such vehicles to enter saying that they would have to go to the northern Jordan river crossing between Israel and Jordan. Israel is not equipped to allow transport vehicles with Jordanian plates to enter using this bridge.
[Suffering to Cross the King Hussein Bridge]
For such a short distance the bus journey was annoyingly long. I was fortunate that my bus was already full of morning passengers waiting for transport across the military zone, and was off just shortly after getting aboard. Even so, this didn't prevent the trip from taking a full hour to transit from one control point to the other.
Midway our vehicle crossed the King Hussein Bridge, a new concrete structure that straddles one of the most pathetic excuses for a river I've ever seen. All that's left of the mighty Jordan River at this point is a tiny creek. The bridge with a mighty name was scarcely longer than the bus itself, with the creek (a dozen or so feet below) mostly engulfed by a border of reeds and sandy dirt. Blink and you'd miss it.
Just after the bridge crossing everyone was required to disembark and flash a passport at the likely disinterested clerk behind the mirrored booth window, idle in the heat, and then return to the bus once it'd been confirmed empty. It was 11:30, and I only just crossed the geographic border.
A queue of more buses were waiting ahead of us, as the Israeli checkpoint wouldn't allow the vehicles to unload their 50-person holds until the prior batch was (initially) processed.
Israeli's militarized checkpoint was the closest thing I've seen to an airport without the planes. Passengers were unloaded from buses and began queuing in a line intended to separate people from their luggage (for the purposes of security inspections). Carts are provided for large loads in the long line in the sun as baggage handlers lethargically slapped stickers on backpacks, suitcases and boxes while applying a claim sticker to the back of your passport (just about the same as you'd get when you check your luggage with an airline).
At some point during the queuing process the Israeli guards (all looking about 20 years old, most in civilian clothing to compliment their M-16) started yelling and telling people to back away from the building. People were ordered to leave their belongings on the ground and walk to a sandy/grassy area a twenty or thirty yards from where we were standing.
A tourist started to take photos, and was verbally reprimanded moments later.
We all stood there for a good 15 or 20 minutes in the heat before being ushered into an adjoining waiting area to get those out of the sun who most certainly shouldn't have been instructed to stand in the ant-laden sod.
Eventually we all returned to the luggage processing queue and waited for our turn fork over our bags, no explanation given or expected.