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Living large at the Dead Sea

By Qin Zhongwei | China Daily | Updated: 2012-07-16 14:59
Living large at the Dead Sea

Floating on the Dead Sea is magical and it is said to be nine times saltier than the Mediterranean. Just remember to keep your head above water. Photos by Qin Zhongwei / China Daily

Living large at the Dead Sea

Tourists can take the cable car up the mountain to Masada, but there are faithful Israelis and energetic hikers who challenge themselves by walking along the "snake path" to the top.

Living large at the Dead Sea

The outdoor opera festival held in Masada every year is a classical music gala for fans from all over the world. This year's program features Carmen, probably the most popular opera of all time. Provided to China Daily

The struggle to float is just the first surprise in this magnificent body of water, Qin Zhongwei finds out.

Back from Israel, my friends laughed when I told them that I had almost drowned in the Dead Sea. "How come!" They asked, thinking I was only joking. "Isn't it true that everyone can easily float on its surface?" "Yeah... well," I replied with a bitter laugh, "I forgot one important thing: Watch your step and try not to slip."

I was the first one of our group who was tempted to take a test float, but neglected to pay attention to the hard but slippery rocks beneath water that makes it hard to keep your balance.

I just lost control in my effort to tread water, and flipped over when I had felt so buoyant after leaving the shore.

Fortunately, I managed to stand up after struggling in the water for a while - somewhat embarrassed that I had cried out for help. Apparently people thought I might be just kidding.

If you have the same trouble I did, try to keep your mouth shut. That was the most horrible water I have ever tasted. Later, I finished two glasses of purified water plus two bottles of lemonade but my throat was still burning the whole afternoon. It was really salty!

Driving from Jerusalem, it takes about one and a half hours to get to the waterfront. The journey is not short but it's fascinating.

The cool thing is that you go from a city that is 800 meters above sea level to a place 400 meters below the sea, the lowest known point on Earth.

Our guide told us on the way that, the Dead Sea is actually part of the 50-million-year-old East Africa Rift Valley that stretches from Syria to Mozambique, with the Dead Sea at the north portion of the valley.

Bound on the west by Israel and on the east by Jordan, it forms part of the two countries' border. As there is no outlet for the lake and a lot of evaporation, the lake just becomes saltier and saltier.

At 20,700 square kilometers, Israel is not much bigger than Beijing (16,800), but it boasts a very dynamic landscape.

Tel Aviv is just like Sanya in Hainan with its wonderful beaches, while Jerusalem is so densely green that it is like any city in southern China.

But when we head toward the Dead Sea, the Judaean Desert stretching in front of us is just like China's northwest. The journey is very like an adventure to Gansu's Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, full of endless pale-yellow rocky hills and cliffs by the sides of road.

Some may find the scenery tedious. But it is just like what Tao Yuanming of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420) described as a legendary fairyland called the "peach blossom valley".

At the end of journey, a "Shangri-La" hidden from the outside world suddenly springs into view, with modern facilities and fancy hotels lining the shore and bustling crowds of tourist coming in groups to relax and have fun.

And the crowds, making up a mosaic of different colors and cultures, cannot wait to change into bathing suits and jump into the water.

Many tourists try to take a photo of themselves reading a newspaper or magazine while floating effortlessly on the water. Another must-do for tourists, particularly women, is to enjoy the natural spa offered.

Nine times saltier than the Mediterranean Sea, the mineral content of the Dead Sea is very good for the body, especially the skin. The chloride salts contain magnesium, sodium, potassium, calcium, bromine and other minerals. Meanwhile, the air is said to carry five percent more oxygen than anywhere else.

The therapeutic black mud of the Dead Sea is also much valued for its ability to clean and revitalize the skin. It's a good gift for beauty-loving female friends back home - you can buy the packaged black mud in stores nearby.

Although it is a lot fun in the Dead Sea, you cannot spend the whole day floating on the water. I recommend visiting Masada, a biblical and historical site not far from the lake.

Declared by UNESCO in 2001 as a world heritage site and a symbol of Jewish bravery, Masada is located on top of an enormous and isolated rocky plateau overlooking the Dead Sea.

Meaning "fortress" in Hebrew, the Masada complex was built by Herod the Great, King of Judaea, between 37 and 31 BC. It was later occupied by the survivors of the Great Jewish Revolt against Roman rule.

At the end of the First Jewish-Roman War, when Roman troops surrounded the mountaintop, all the surviving Jewish defenders chose to commit suicide rather than surrender.

People can now take a cable car directly to the top of the mountain. But many tourists, especially Israelis, prefer to walk along the "snake path" by foot to the top.

Some of the palace buildings have been restored from the shattered ruins, and visitors can have a close look of the ancient Roman-style palace, storehouses and even the bathhouses.

The remains of these ancient buildings also hint at achievements that still fascinate archeologists today, such as its complicated water system that collected run-off water from the scarce rain to sustain life for hundreds of people.

It is breathtaking to stand on the mountaintop that overlooks what lies beneath.

Due to the harsh climate of the southern part of Israel, the region remained pretty much like it was 2,000 years ago, except for some modern vehicles and tour buses crawling along the nearby roads.

For classical music fans, there is an opera festival held at Masada every year. Last year Verdi's Aida was presented, and this year Carmen - probably the most popular opera of all time - took the stage in June, featuring Italian superstar tenor Andrea Bocelli.

Unfortunately, our tour ended before this grand outdoor performance started.

As we were leaving Masada I watched the setting up of the stage and lights for the festival, and tried to imagine the tenor voice ringing out here with the desert and cliff as the grand backdrop.

My friends told me to cheer up and that it was a perfect reason to come back.

And, yes, I know exactly where I want to go next year for my holidays.

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Living large at the Dead Sea

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