My tour to Bethlehem was my first trip to the West Bank. That day trip with the Green Olive tour company was a positive experience that encouraged me to re-visit the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
For my second trip, I was interested in travelling by public transport. As I was based in Jerusalem, a Ramallah tour was the obvious choice for an independent day trip.
Ramallah is a distance of 15-20km north of Jerusalem and serves as the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority. A number of countries have diplomatic offices in Ramallah, including my own.
Yasser Arafat was based in Ramallah for the latter years of his political life and is buried in the city’s Muqata’a compound
EAST JERUSALEM ARAB BUS STATION
My Ramallah tour started in the Arab Bus Station of East Jerusalem. With no written information available and unaware of the appropriate bus number, I simply shouted Ramallah. I was pointed in the right direction by several people and within a few minutes the bus was on its way.
I was too busy chatting to an elderly man on the bus to thoroughly examine my surroundings but there was one structure that caught my eye regardless: The Wall.
I’ve discussed the Wall in more detail in my Bethlehem post. To reach Ramallah, the bus needed to get to the other side. To do that we would have to pass through, what the Times of Israel calls, the infamous Qalandiya Checkpoint.
Qalandiya Checkpoint is as military as you can get: watchtowers, steel fences, security cameras, barbed wire, and heavily-armed personnel. It reminded me of Northern Ireland’s British Army checkpoints from that region’s fraught days.
A large red sign indicating that Israeli citizens were no longer permitted beyond the point was now in front of us. Foot passengers were crossing on the far right-hand side while the bus pulled into the side lane which was now bumper to bumper with traffic.
It was surprisingly quick to pass through the checkpoint. On the other side, you were left in no doubt as to your location. While the west side of the Wall is plain grey concrete, the east side is filled with political murals, again drawing parallels between the West Bank and Northern Ireland.
ARRIVING IN RAMALLAH
The bus took a circuitous route around Ramallah. We hit heavy traffic, the bus edging its way towards the city centre among the hooting of horns and general chaos. The bus station is conveniently located a couple of minutes from Al Manara Square, considered to be the centre-point of Ramallah.
WHAT TO DO IN RAMALLAH
The side streets branching off Al Manara Square have a wide selection of cafes and retail shops. Good deals can be had in the clothes shops even without bargaining. I first saw the Stars and Bucks café chain in Bethlehem so had lunch in Ramallah’s Al Manara Square premises. It was a pleasant surprise (great food, people and WIFI) plus the view over Al Manara Square is worth it alone.
I headed in a south west direction where the main point of interest was Martyr Yasser Arafat Square. Like Al Manara Square, this is a bustling retail zone. I then headed to the Old City, north of Al Manara Square, which had more political murals and street bunting.
It’s possible to visit Yasser Arafat’s Muqata’a compound which is the location of his grave. From Al Manara Square head north on Al-Irsal Street for 20-30 minutes until you see a cream/light brown coloured high wall. Entrance to the mausoleum is free and via the right-hand side entrance.
RETURN JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM
Returning to the bus station on Nahda Street I again just shouted my destination and was pointed to the correct bus. It was much quicker exiting Ramallah than entering as our route seemed more direct. On the return journey, the murals and graffiti on the West Bank side of the Wall were now more visible.
Upon reaching Qalandiya Checkpoint everyone got off the bus. We had to queue in a corrugated-roofed tunnel with metal fenced sides. We then had to go through a metal turnstile one-by-one when the lights above us went from red to green.
In the queue before me was a group of Palestinian teenage girls. I was amazed at their nonchalant plucky attitude towards the armed personnel. In fact, I found it an inspiring way to face adversity.
My passport wasn’t checked but the Border Control Entry Permit that I obtained on my initial arrival into Israel was. My handbag had to go through an x-ray scanner. Unlike the workers in the Times of Israel video above, our passage lasted a few minutes and we were soon making our way back through East Jerusalem’s streets.
INDEPENDENT RAMALLAH TOUR: TIPS AND QUESTIONS
Is Ramallah safe? I travelled on my own and felt safe. I found people to be helpful when I asked for directions.
What about the language barrier? Most people I conversed with spoke some English. If they didn’t a nearby eavesdropper would assist.
What about shopping? The currency is the Israeli Shekel. I found Ramallah to be much cheaper than Jerusalem for pretty much everything. The retail centre of Ramallah is more hectic than Jerusalem. Bargaining is common so expect an elevated sound level.
Further tips: Detailed travel information on the region can be found in my Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory Travel Guide.
For current affairs, I highly recommend Richard Crowley’s No Man’s Land: Dispatches from the Middle East as listed in my Best Non-Fiction Books list. Wikipedia’s West Bank page will serve as a quick introduction to the region.