A Travellerspoint blog

Petra - Sore Legs and the Kiwi Bedouin Woman

Jordan

sunny 24 °C
View Around the world on joshuag's travel map.

For your sake, I hope you've got a fast internet connection because this blog entry contains a whole bunch of photos. It's also another one of my long blogs so find a comfy seat, make yourself a hot cup of something and settle in fo the ride...

I'm also warning you that if you plan to visit Petra one day this might spoil it a little for you so you might want to stop reading it now, just don't say I didn't warn you.

So finally, I had arrived in the Kingdom of Jordan, Aqaba to be exact, which is the second most important city in Jordan (after Amman). Even though the ferry trip had only taken a little under three hours, the whole process had lasted for almost the entire day. It begun with a long wait to board the ferry, then came the trip itself and it finally ended with a torturous wait at the port in Aqaba while the two-finger-typist immigration official entered each tourist's passport details into his computer. Our wait was further prolonged by the official's overly optimistic attempts to multitask by simultaneously talking on the phone and drinking tea while he was working. It didn't matter though because once my passport was stamped all was forgotten and I was all smiles as I headed towards the door and the waiting mob of taxi drivers beyond it.

I was hoping to spend a little more time relaxing at the beach, but the same wind that had blown through the Sinai Peninsula was also blowing through Aqaba so I didn't stick around for long. There isn't much to see or do in Aqaba anyway unless you want to go diving or snorkeling. Aqaba marked the first place ever where I've been able to see more than two countries all from one spot.

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The view of Egypt and Israel from the shores of Aqaba in Jordan (Saudi Arabia is off the frame directly to my left)

After a short two hour bus ride, I had arrived in Wadi Musa, the town located at the edge of the famous ancient red-rose city of Petra. Wadi Musa is located within a valley, hence the name "Wadi Musa" which actually means "Valley of Moses". It's quite a small town and the center of it consists of little more than one roundabout and the streets that radiate from it. Most of the hotels, stores and restaurants are all situated a short distance from this roundabout and the entrance to Petra is only about two or three kilometers away. I stayed in a small budget hotel called "Petra Gate Hotel" and even though it was extremely simple, it had some of the nicest staff I'd come across in my travels.

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The roundabout in the center of town in Wadi Musa

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Sunset at Wadi Musa on my first night

After breakfast the next day, Nasser, the hotel owner kindly drove me right up to the gates of Petra in his car while giving me some helpful suggestions on which parts I should visit. I had been looking forward to visiting Petra for so long that I had even started to get worried that I would be disappointed. It was not to be though because these next few days easily became one of the highlights of my trip so far. You can buy one, two or three day passes to enter Petra and without even thinking about it, I bought a three-day pass (it was a decision I didn't end up regretting, but my legs sure did hold it against me by the end of the third day).

Once through the main gates, you still have to walk about 800 meters to the entrance proper of Petra, which marks the start of the famous 1.2 km high-sided Siq, which is like a canyon but created by tectonic forces rather than by flowing water. On my first day I arrived at around 9:30 am and this was definitely tourist rush hour. There was no use trying to fight it, no matter how fast or how slow I walked, there was always a large tour group either behind or in front of me. There were also regular horses galloping past me pulling small carridges full of lazy tourists.

By pure luck, after about ten minutes I was in a gap between groups of people so that I didn't feel so claustrophobic, though I could still hear the crowd's voices as they echoed all the way up and down the weaving Siq.

Then all of a sudden...

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First glimpse from within the Siq of the amazing Treasury facade, probably the most famous of Petra's sights

The Treasury was much bigger than I had thought, and far more intricately carved, though it does show its age by the looks of some of the worn out carvings on the facade. In case you are interested, Petra was built by the Nabataeans in the 3rd centry BC. They carved palaces, temples, tombs, storerooms and stables from the sandstone cliffs. They were forced to abandon the city after it was hit by several earthquakes, including a massive one in AD 555. Petra was recently voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

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A full view of the Treasury after emerging from the Siq

The Treasury was more likely a temple, though it got its name because of the misguided local belief that an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure in the top urn. The urn even had some bullet holes in it courtesy of some of the hopeful Bedouin who tried to get their hands on the treasure.

Many Bedouin tribes used to live in Petra until they were relocated by the government in the mid-1980's into a newly constructed village at the edge of what became Petra National Park. You can see the village from several places in Petra and many of the Bedouin still travel into Petra every day to make their living selling tea, souvenirs and horse and camel rides to tourists (just as they did when they lived inside the park).

I knew there was much more to see in Petra than just the Treasury, but I never knew exactly how much. The place is huge and there couldn't have been a better backdrop to all the carved structures than the surrounding red sandstone cliffs and narrow winding valleys.

Just past the Treasury, the valley widened and just around the corner was a long stretch known as the Street of Facades

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The Street of Facades just around the corner from the Treasury

Further along the valley, you came across another famous sight in Petra, the huge Theatre with its worn out seats

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The Theatre in Petra

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A Bedouin woman walking along valley just before the Theater

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Looking back down the valley a little bit further along from the Theatre

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I liked this scene of a small rock which appears to be supporting a large portion of a cliff that had broken off

I spent most of the first day exploring in and around the Royal Tombs which actually appeared to be larger than the Treasury. Surrounding the Royal Tombs were a series of narrow paths which lead you to dozens of caves dotted over the cliff sides. I was jumping around from rock to rock and down steep paths like a mountain goat.

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The Palace Monument, one of the monuments along the row of Royal Tombs

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Shot taken from hill leading to the Crusader Fort, in the background you can see the impressive Royal Tombs carved out of the cliffs, just below the center you can see a line of people walking along the Collonaded Street. To the right of this where the columns are is the Great Temple.

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Qsar al-Bint at the end of the Collonaded street, one of the only free standing structures in Petra, the rest are all carved out of the cliff walls

In addition to the tombs and temples, there are also hundreds, probably thousands of caves in the park. The caves were not only good for exploring (even though most weren't very big), but they also provided much needed refuge from the baking heat of the sun. It was very refreshing to enter the cool air of the caves though unfortunately some of them were obviously used as urinals by the Bedouin working there and most likely many of the tourists also.

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One of the views across the valley from inside one of the caves

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A Bedouin man resting, his donkey was also resting under the shade of a nearby cave

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The "Love Lion" souvenir shop, I don't think I saw the self-proclaimed ladies man himself, but most of the Bedouin men working there (at the tea stalls and as horse, camel and dokey drivers) had the same type of style - they all had dark eyes which looked like they were wearing eye liner; which as it turns out they were wearing a type of traditional make up made from kohl.

By the time I left the first day, it was starting to get dark and the number of tourists had dwindled to a mere trickle. Walking through the Siq in the fading light while almost alone was an awesome experience. Unfortunatly the photos I took at that time didn't turn out so great even when I used a flash, it was just too dark and too big for it to have an effect. I had been walking or standing for the best part of seven hours that day, punctuated only by a couple of short breaks at the tea stalls where I'd have a mint tea and a quick snack. My legs barely had the energy to carry me out of the park towards the main gate and I wondered how I was possibly going to be able to return for two more days, let alone for just the next day.

I had a beer and a huge meal at one of the restaurants near the entrance to Petra before I headed back to the hotel for a hot shower and then straight to bed so I could rest my feet.

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The view of the hills of Wadi Musa at night from my hotel window

Because I went to bed so early, I was up at 6 am the next day, which for anyone who knows me, is hugely uncharacteristic of me. I took the opportunity of this natural early start to head out to Petra before the swarms arrived. Quite fortunately my legs didn't feel bad at all and I was rearing to go again. This time the walk through the Siq was much better, no crowds and plenty of time to take photos without people getting in the way. Parts of the path through the Siq were still paved with the original stones, some of them even still bearing the worn down paths from centuries of passing carridge wheels.

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Original paving stones through the Siq

My mission for day two, was to visit the Monastery, which many people say is the best part of Petra. To get there you not only have to walk all the way to the end of the main valley, which is about 40 minutes from the entrance to the Siq, then you have to walk up a long and steep winding path through one of the valleys. I only saw a few other people on my way up the path which was absolutely perfect. The views down the valley from along the path were truly breathtaking, though that could have been the long climb up, either way I was out of breath.

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Some of the thousands of caves in just a small section the valley leading to the Monastery

After about an hour on the winding path, I finally arrived at the top. I didn't even realise I had reached my goal until I turned around and this is what I saw...

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The incrdible Monastery, bigger and more impressive than the Treasury - The path up to it from the valley floor ends just to the right of this photo and as you can see my early start payed off as no tourists were staning in front of it

I was glad to see a tea stall with a shaded area opposite the Monastery where I could enjoy a mint tea while taking refuge from the sun

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About to enjoy my mint tea with a view of the Monastery from shaded tea stall

The Monastery wasn't even at the highest point in the area, there were several taller peaks with lookout points close by where you could not only get brilliant views of the Monastery, but also many of the large valleys in the surrounding areas.

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The Monastery from path up to lookout point, to the right in the background is the main valley floor where the Collonaded street and the rest of Petra is located

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At the top of one of the lookout points - I finally found it!

I hung around the top of the valley walking around the Monastery and between the various lookout points for a couple of hours before the crowds started arriving, then it was back down the winding path, through the valley floor and up another winding steep path towards an even higher point, called the High Place of Sacrifice.

It was getting busier, but not too many people were climbing up the steep paths yet (most people buy a single day pass and do their climbing late in the afternoon) so my walk up to the High Place of Sacrifice was also quite peaceful and quiet. The towering cliff walls provided plenty of shade along the winding paths and there was a cool breeze blowing through Petra so my second climb wasn't at all unpleasant. About 40 minutes later, I finally reached the top where I got some of the best views of Petra and the surrounding areas.

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Me very near a steep cliff at the High Place of Sacrifice, behind me on the left is the main valley floor and the facing cliffs where the Royal Tombs are located - I only look calm because I hadn't really looked down yet so my vertigo hadn't kicked in, I turned around as I stepped away from the edge and the world started spinning (not good when you're a couple of meters away from certain death)

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Side view of the sheer cliff at the top of the High Place of Sacrifice, I stood near where those people are sitting to pose for the previous photo, almost makes me feel sick thinking about it

The views in all directions from up there were incredible and I ended up staying up there for a couple of hours. When I did finally decide to come down, one of the Bedouin women who sold trinkets up there, tried to serenade me with her flute. She wasn't really playing music, it was more like random music notes but she did enough to earn a couple of Dinars. She asked me if I was married and when I told her I wasn't, she immediately pulled out a couple of photos of her daughters... but they were baby photos! The photos looked ancient and so did she so I'm sure her daughters were no longer babies, but for a moment there I thought she was trying to sell me some very young brides. Her feeble attempts at matchmaking put a whole new spin on the old "misleading blind date photos" trick.

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The Bedouin woman who played the flute for me, and then tried to set me up with her daughters

Once down from the High Place, it was time for a good rest and yet another mint tea. There are a couple of large tea stalls right in the middle of the valley floor on either side of the main path. It was a good place to sit and watch the opposing cliff walls turn different shades of red as the sun set over the valley.

Again it was a huge struggle to walk back to the park's entrance, but my hunger and need for a shower finally got me back to the hotel.

On my third and final day in Petra, I decided to take a different route into Petra. Just near the entrance to the Siq, there is another path to the right that begins through a tunnel. This path is actually a water channel and the tunnel had been created by the Nabataeans along with a small dam near the Siq's entrance to divert the flash floods which often devastated Petra. Officially, you were not allowed to take this alternate route into Petra without a guide because it's a little more difficult and there was a chance you could get lost if you wandered off the main path, but I'd read about it in Lonely Planet and Nasser from the hotel recommended it and told me it would be easy for me. It was also a clear, bright sunny day with not a cloud in the sky so the chance of rain was virtually zero. At first the guards tried to stop me going, but after a lengthy argument where I told them I'd already walked through it with a guide, they finally let me do it but only after they took all my details at the guard booth. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my Petra experience.

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The tunnel over the alternate path into Petra through Muthlim Siq

The tunnel was only about 50 meters long then after that it became a rugged valley just like the main Siq but narrower in parts and with some tricky parts where you had to climb down a couple of large boulders. I didn't find it hard at all, but I wouldn't recommend it for someone who's not so good at climbing around. There was only one place in this Siq where you could take a wrong turn at a point where it formed something like a T-intersection. I had already read and been told that you simply had to take a left at this point so it was not a problem. The best part was that it was completely silent, there was not another tourist in sight for the entire one and a half hours it took me to get into Petra's main valley floor. Once again, even though it was sunny, the breeze was cool enough for it to be bearable and even a little cold if I stayed in the shade too long.

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One of the boulders I had to climb down from in the narrow part of Muthlim Siq, an alternate path into Petra

I made it back into the main area in the valley where the tea stalls were located and rested for a while. While I was there I heard a couple of tourists talking about some Kiwi woman selling books about Petra. This wasn't the first time I'd heard about a Kiwi woman and a book about Petra. As the local Bedouins who manned the tea and souvenir stalls asked me where I was from, almost every one of them replied with, "Ah! Kiwi! We know Kiwi woman who wrote book about Petra", and then they pointed in the vague direction where the main tea stalls were. I thought they were talking about some renowend archeologist or a travel writer from New Zealand who'd written a good book about the site and that one of the souvenir stalls was selling it. But after hearing these other tourists say she was there, I butted in their conversation and asked them who and where this Kiwi woman they were talking about was. They pointed at a small stall that I had already walked past many times over the previous few days.

I walked over and saw a large crowd of people huddled around talking to a slight, western looking, red headed woman in front of shelves full of books and souvenirs. Behind her was a large poster advertising her book, it wasn't an archeological book, nor was it a tourist hand book for Petra, it was her true story entitled, "Married to a Bedouin". Her name is Marguerite van Geldermalsen and she was born and raised in New Zealand to Dutch immigrant parents. She had travelled to Petra as a backpacker back in 1978 and ended up meeting and then marrying a Bedouin man who lived in one of the caves in the middle of Petra (prior to their relocation). She moved in to the cave with him and they eventually raised three children. It was quite an interesting story and I ended up buying a personally signed copy of her book. If you want to know more about her visit her website: www.marriedtoabedouin.com. She greeted me with an unmistakable kiwi accent and we chatted for a while before she was mobbed once again by several people wanting to buy her book.

Mum: I had her sign the book for you and I'm sending it to you as an early birthday present. You should have received it by now and this blog post has explained the mystery package ...so you can open it now! Chances are with you being you, you've heard of this woman and have already read the book, but at least I'm pretty sure you don't own a personally signed copy from the author so snap!

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Kiwi Marguerite van Geldermalsen - author of "Married to a Bedouin" - holding the book she'd just signed for me

Soon after buying my book, I headed towards my final mission in Petra, and that was to reach the lookout point above the cliff tops opposite the Treasury.

As I headed past the Royal Tombs towards the start of the winding steps that led to the lookout, I walked past one of the Bedouin women who have souvenir stalls set up along the paths and she recognised me (I had walked past her several times over the previous days and I always said hello to the women), she yelled out, "Come, come. Have some tea! No money. No charge". It was an invitation I couldn't refuse. She cleared room next to her on the rug she was sitting on and she stoked up her little fire on top of which she balanced her little smoke-blackened kettle. When it was ready, she handed me a small glass of piping hot tea and I nearly dropped it as it burned my fingers. It was the sweetest tea I had ever tasted, actually, it was the sweetest drink I have ever tasted. Her English was quite poor, but we managed to communicate with what she did know and lots of hand gestures. Not long after I sat down, a small kid, probably about three years old, from the stall next to hers waddled over to us. She had food all over her mouth and fingers and she was trying very determinedly to rub the top of my head (I had just shaved that morning and she had obviously not seen many shaved heads in her short life). My host saw that I was trying to avoid her sticky looking fingers so she got a stick and waved it in the air to scare the child away. It seemed to work because the child ran away, but I realised she was giggling so of course she came back for more. I just gave up avoiding her and let her touch my head which seemed to satisfy her curiosity.

A little while after an older kid arrived who I think was related to the woman. His English was much better and I talked to him for a little while.

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Drinking tea with Bedouin boy and woman in front of the Palace Tomb - I asked them both if I could take this photo and they both happily agreed so it's funny how the kid looks so angry, before I took the photo he was smiling away so I figure he might have put on his "I'm a tough guy" face just for the photo

After a couple of glasses of tea, I thanked the woman and contined on my final quest. I begun my one and a half hour climb up some winding steps along the side of the cliff. Again the views along the way were amazing, but then as you are probably tired of hearing by now, the views were always amazing. I finally reached the look out just as a large group of French tourists were leaving which was good not only because it was nicer being there alone, but being there on the narrow ledge with other people would have made me a little nervous (my vertigo started to kick in again).

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Me at the lookout on the cliff opposite the Treasury - It may appear that I have an amazed look on my face but in fact it's a mixture of that and a bit of fear, note that I'm a fair distance from the edge which was once again a scary looking sheer cliff.

After a mini picknick at the lookout, I decided to head down before it got dark so I could make my final walk out of Petra through the Siq and finally back to the hotel.

It had been a long three days and my legs had had enough. I abandoned my initial plans to leave Wadi Musa the next day and instead stayed another night. I spent the enitre next day relaxing, reading the book I'd just bought and chatting with a funny Dutch couple whom I'd met a couple of days before. When the Dutch woman saw me in the lobby on my last day, she yelled out, "Oh my god, you're a negro!" (her English wasn't the best) Of course she said this in an entirely friendly tone and she was just commenting on the tan I had aquired from walking around Petra for three days, but the way she put it and how she said it was so hilarious, especially because the lobby was packed with people talking and when she yelled it out across the room everyone stopped talking and turned around to look at me.

Anyway, that was Petra! I was blown away by it and if it weren't for my sore legs I could have gone another day (which I could have done because the fourth day is free if you buy a three day pass like what I had). It's going to be very hard for the upcoming destinations to top Petra! I just really hope it's not down hill from now on.

If you made it this far, I'm impressed at your dedication, hope you enjoyed it.

The next day I headed north to Amman where I'd end up taking an even longer rest, my legs still needed lots of recovery time.

Until next time!

Posted by joshuag 13:58 Archived in Jordan Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

Dahab & Nuweiba - Snorkeling and the Red Sea Ghost Town

Egypt

sunny 30 °C
View Around the world on joshuag's travel map.

So I departed from Cairo on an overnight bus trip to Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula, my body still riddled with dozens of itchy mosquito bites and my eyes heavy after having lost so much sleep battling the ravenous blood-suckers. I was so tired and the bus was relatively comfortable so I could have easily slept for the entire journey if it weren't for the unfortunate interruptions at all the police check-points to have our passports and ids checked.

My sleepless night was soon forgotten, however, as daylight broke while still on the bus and I finally got a proper glimpse of the amazing Red Sea coastline. To our left I could see the bare and rugged brown mountains rising from the desert, to our right the shimmering blue waters of the Gulf of Aqaba. It was pretty much how I had imagined it to be, except for the power lines, a few half completed concrete buildings and a sprinkling of wind-worn plastic bags clinging to small shrubs by the side of the road.

Much like the other final destinations from each country that I've visited, Dahab and Nuweiba became like rest stops. Once again my enthusiasm about the country I was in had begun to fade a little, but only because a new country was just around the corner and I was eager to get there. Dahab was exactly what I thought it would be like, very touristy, but still relaxed enough and not full of the large resorts which usually ruin seaside towns.

I stayed in a mid-range hotel called "Red Sea Relax Resort", which sounds flash, but it wasn't, or at least my room wasn't. The hotel was very nice and in addition to the regular and expensive private rooms, there were also a few dorm rooms which catered for the backpacker crowd. The best thing was that even though I stayed in a six-bed dorm, I got to take advantage of the rest of the hotel's facilities, like the pool, restaurant, free buffet breakfast, free internet and a small "private" beach. The food and service at the restaurant was mostly terrible, but the rest of the hotel wasn't bad at all.

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The pool at the hotel in Dahab - even though the sea was quite warm, the pool was pretty cold

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The "private beach" in front of my hotel in Dahab

Dahab doesn't really have what I would call a beach, there's only a little bit of sand near the shore and most of it consists of pebbles and sharp coral. In most places the depth of the water would have easily reached at least six to ten meters within only a few meters away from the shore. But it's the depth and coral that makes Dahab famous around the world because it's all about diving and snorkeling there rather than swimming, though I did do plenty of the latter.

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The view from the balcony of restaurant at the hotel

I don't dive, and although you can do diving courses there, it's really expensive and I was perfectly happy to rent some snorkeling gear for a mere 10 EGP which let me see as much underwater sealife as I could have hoped for. It was immediately obvious why it is such a popular diving area, the reefs are amazing and there was an abundance of colourful coral, fish and other sealife all along the coastline. Close to shore you'd be swimming along over a flat bed of sun bleached coral which was only about a meter deep, then all of a sudden a deep cavernous hole would appear below you. The crystal-clear water gave you the feeling like if you were floating on air after diving off a steep cliff. It probably wasn't wise to have let out such a big "Wow" with my lips wrapped around a snorkle as it led to a mouthful of sea water - lesson learned!

The rest of my time in Dahab I spent swimming, relaxing on beach loungers and hanging out, eating, drinking and smoking sheesha with some cool people that I'd met at the hotel.

Fortunately the main stretch along the waterftont was a pedestrian only street so it was the first town in Egypt I'd been to where my ears weren't bombarded by noise of car horns every two seconds.

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Small bridge on the main stretch in Dahab along the waterfront

On clear days you could see Saudi Arabia on the other side of the Gulf, and even though it remained mostly sunny the whole time I was there, a few days after I arrived, a faint haze appeared in the horizon and in the evenings the sea and the sky became of the same colour and both merged into one.

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Having a couple of beers on the balcony of the hotel's restaurant - In the background the view of the sky merging with the sea, sitting on the left is Øyvind (or it could have been his twin Einar) from Norway who were also staying at the dorms of the hotel

I could have stayed in Dahab for a few days longer, but the dorms were all booked out and the wind made the sea choppy and not so nice for swimming or snorkeling, so I decided to move on to Nuweiba which is where I'd be catching a ferry to Jordan.

I could have gone straight to the ferry terminal after arriving in Nuweiba, but I wasn't quite ready to leave Egypt yet so instead I had decided to stay there a couple of nights thinking it would be like Dahab, but less touristy and more relaxed - I was partly right. This is how Lonely Planet describes Nuweiba: "Most of the year Nuweiba has the catatonic feel of a post-apocalyptic beach resort" - I couldn't have put it better myself. The hotel I stayed at made me feel like I was in the movie "The Shining", but set at the beach. It was totally isolated, located several kilometers away from both the port and Nuweiba City. There were at least 40 rooms at the hotel and I was the only one staying there apart from a trio of older French women. It was really peaceful but in a spooky kind of way, I half expected a kid to turn up at my door wiggling his index finger while saying, "Redrum. Redrum", in a croaky voice... if you've seen the movie you'd know what I'm talking about.

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The view from my hotel room in Nuweiba

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The view of the hotel in Nuweiba from the beach, it was eerily quiet

It was very strange to be eating in the large restaurant all by myself - it felt like I'd been given my own personal catering staff

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The hotel in Nuweiba at night, the empty restaurant and lobby are in the background

I decided to take the long walk to Nuweiba City so I could stock up on some supplies, but even at the center of the city it still felt like a ghost town. The beach in front of the hotel and all the way to Nuweiba City wasn't any more livelier either. It was lined from end to end with deserted and disheveled beach huts which were slowly being swallowed up by sand dunes. It's a good place to visit if you want to know what Earth will be like when "all the humans are gone".

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The deserted beach huts along the beaches of Nuweiba

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Some half collapsed and sand filled beach huts in Nuweiba

Even with all the isolation, I did make a friend in Nuweiba beach. We met as I was lying on a sun lounger on the beach with my eyes closed and I suddenly felt what I thought was someone licking my hand...

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The friend I made in Nuweiba, he and I hung out at the beach most of the day - he loved to stand in the shallows and chase fish

On my last evening in Egypt, I settled in my hotel room to watch "Lawrence of Arabia" so I'd have some extra inspiration for my upcoming journey through Jordan.

I finally made my way out to the International Ferry terminal to catch the fast ferry headed for Aqaba. Surprisingly, only a small minority of the people who took the ferry were tourists and this was reflected by the seemingly ad-hoc process required to board it.

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Boarding the ferry from Nuweiba headed for Aqaba, Jordan

So, I'd survived yet another country and as per usual here are my last thoughts on Egypt...

What did I dislike about Egypt?

  • I'd be lying if I said travelling through the country wasn't full of hassles, but they were a breeze to deal with compared to what I experienced in India.

  • Even though there were some hotels and restaurants where the staff were really polite and professional, unfortunately in most cases the service was quite terrible. Some of it is probably due to the constant churning of rude tourists (and locals) that go through the country which have left the service industry jaded and worn out. Another likely reason is that staff aren't paid very well and this is hardly conducive for friendly and enthusiastic service. The worst examples of bad service were once again taxi drivers and at train (and some tourist site) ticket booths. It's almost as if one of the job requirements to sell tickets is to be as lazy and unhelpful as possible. Also, the vast majority of hotel staff were young men and in Egypt most men's attitudes towards women is still a little backwards. This meant they constantly and unashamedly tried to chat up the female guests by asking them personal questions or using sleazy chat-up lines.

  • I've said it before and I'll say it again, not being able to take photos at some sights or museums was very annoying and being told I couldn't take photos only made me want to do it even more.

  • And last but not least, another thing that annoyed me (once again) was the chronic queue jumpers - I decided what they need in Egypt (and also in China and India) is men patrolling queues with cattle-prods or stun guns to keep these sneaky rats in-check.

What did I like about Egypt?

  • Well obviously all of the sights were absolutely amazing and I was rarely disappointed. Abu Simbel, Aswan and Luxor were great and I'm definitely glad I returned to Cairo, if only to pay a visit to the Royal Mummy rooms at the museum. There were also so many other incredible places that I didn't even get to visit but at least I felt like I had visited the best of them. I just wish it was easier to do it more independently without restrictions on where I could go or having to rely on tourist buses, personal drivers or police escorted convoys.

  • Even though above I complained about some of the local population, I did also meet many warm and friendly Egyptians during my travels. In fact some of my most interesting conversations were with people who at first were trying to sell me something.

  • The food wasn't my most favourite in the world, but I did develop a taste for Koshary, which although simple, it was quite yummy, cheap and sold everywhere.

  • I also liked how lively Egypt is at night. In most places I visited, I could walk out of my hotel late at night and there would still be plenty of people out and about shopping, eating, drinking tea and smoking sheesha.

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Some of my admission tickets to sights in Egypt, I spent about 1000 EGP on tickets which is about NZ$250 which is not too bad considering how many places I visited

Alas, Jordan awaits and I'm definitely looking forward to it, so for now I'll say ma-as salama!

Posted by joshuag 15:36 Archived in Egypt Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Return to Cairo - Mummies and the Hostel Masacre

Egypt

sunny 15 °C
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First day back in Cairo, I saw a woman in the middle of downtown eating icecream. Not worthy of a mention in a blog one might say, but she was wearing a full burkha at the time - just try to imagine that!

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View of 26th of July Street, Downtown, Cairo

Anyway, I returned to Cairo, mainly because it was an easy stop-off point before my next destination in Egypt, but also because I wanted to revisit the Cairo Museum. Although the first time around the museum was great, I rushed the best parts and missed quite a lot, including the Royal Mummy room which I ended up really regreting. On my second visit, I was alone and I had all day to explore.

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Cairo Museum

Once again, I was really frustrated by the "no cameras" rule and the same goes for all the tourist sights I visited in Egypt. I payed perfectly good money on admission fees and I wasn't allowed to take a few snaps!? Ok, I can understand that they might not want camera flashes (a flash going off every 10 seconds would be annoying for everybody, not to mention the dubious claims that it damages artwork), but to ban cameras all together - bollocks!

Anyway, I digress. Now that I'd visited several monuments, temples, tombs and other smaller museums around Egypt, I could put a lot more of the Cairo Museum's exhibits into perspective. The Royal Mummy room was truly incredible; There are actually two mummy rooms, each one housing about 12 mummies, the main room contains just pharaohs and the second one has a mixture of pharaohs, queens and a couple of nobles. It was absolutely incredible to be able to come face to face with some of the great Pharaohs that I'd read so much about and whose faces I'd seen depicted in countless statues and wall reliefs. These weren't just museum exhibits, they were the bodies of royalty and that fact wasn't lost on me as I walked around the temperature controlled display cases in complete awe. Without a doubt, my favourite mummy belongs to Ramses II who ruled for an incredible 67 years. The top of his head was bald but he still had golden hair locks around the back and sides of his head. A style which seemed extremely fitting for a pharoah of his stature. Other impressive mummies were that of Seti I which was really well preserved and the mummy of Seqenenre II whose twisted arms, cracked skull and smashed face bones show that he died a truly violent death.

It's a shame not having my own photos to show here so once again I have to be a shameless cheat by borrowing some from the internet just so I can show you a glimpse of what I got to see (copyright of all photos in public domain)

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Mummy of Ramses II in Cairo Museum, one of the greatest pharaohs of ancient Egypt

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The well preserved mummy of Seti I, son of Ramses I and father of Ramses II

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The beaten and twisted mummy of Seqenenre II

I know I've already gone on and on about how I could blend in like an Egyptian in previous blog posts, but I have to mention a really funny thing that happened to me in the museum. I was staring at some exhibit near the entrance to the Tutankhamun galleries (I forget what it was I was looking at now) and I noticed a small woman standing next to me who I thought was also looking at the same display. Then as I glanced at her, I realised she had been standing there staring at me the whole time. I saw that her mouth was moving so she was trying to tell me something but I hadn't noticed because I was listening to my ipod (best way to experience the museum in my opinion). I pulled my earphones out and realised she was saying something in Japanese. She must have been in her late 50's to early 60's. I couldn't understand a word she was saying so I said, "Wakarimasen" ("Don't understand"). Then she gestured with her fingers over the length of her eyes and then pointed to my eyes and then pointed behind me at one of the two life-size statues Tutankhamun flanking the door way. I guessed what she was trying to tell me so I pointed at my chest and said, "I look like ...Tutankhamun?". She nodded, I blushed and said, "Arigatou gozaimasu!". She then nodded again with a satisfied look on her face and walked over to rejoin her friends who all looked back at me as they smiled and nodded at eachother. So there you have it, Pharoah Josh!

Anyway, enough self flattery for one blog.

Warning: The following blog portion contains graphic content that may not be suitable for younger readers, discretion is advised.

The tragic events which ocurred on the night of the 6th of March at the hostel I stayed at are a little difficult to report. The "Hostel Massacre" as it has now been dubbed, unfolded over a three hour period in the early hours of the morning. The African House Hostel, which is supposedly very popular with backpackers, is housed inside a large and grand old building in the middle of Downtown Cairo.

Unconfirmed reports had the body count at 72, but there were several mutilated body parts found scattered throughout the area which suggest a much, much higher death toll. None of the victims have been identified though most of the bodies have now been removed from the scene and were lined up ready for identification.

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The victims of the hostel masacre

What is now believed to be the murder weapon was found nearby, next to several of the victims severed limbs and covered with blood, most of it thought to belong to the suspect.

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The suspected murder weapon

No witnesses have been found, but an anonymous tip stated that the suspect, a male in his early thirties (though he still looks much, much younger) had supposedly been harassed and attacked by the victims over several hours leading up to the massacre. The suspect is still at large and is believed to still be bearing the marks from these attacks...

Well, I can look back and laugh about it now, but at the time it wasn't very funny. While I was sleeping and even during my killing rampage, I suffered a relentent and vicious attack from a vast army of mosquitos. The word infestation doesn't come close to describing it. I only got the idea to collect the corpses after I'd already killed dozens of them and I realised how ridiculous the situation had become. By the time my industrial strength DEET (80%) came out, it was already too late. I should have got out of there when I had the chance, but on the second night I moved rooms and got one of the staff to spray my room an hour before I went to sleep, but this had little effect and the incredibly high ceilings (4 meters) only served to give the little blood suckers refuge.

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Typical skyline in Cairo - taken hostel's balcony in the Downtown area

It was with huge relief when I left the hostel the next evening and boarded a bus headed towards the Sinai Peninsula.

Thus my second excursion to Cairo had ended, off I went again!

Posted by joshuag 18:42 Archived in Egypt Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Luxor - Tombs, Temples and a Sand Storm

Egypt

sunny 24 °C
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Fallen a bit behind with these blogs... but here I go again...

Even though Cairo boasts the pyramids at nearby Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur, Luxor is easily Egypt's sight-seeing capital with a large concentration of tombs, temples and museums within a reasonably short radius of the city center. There was so much to see that I decided to make Luxor my base for at least a week (it eventually turned into ten days).

I arrived late in the evening and after a short walk from the train station, I was in a small and slightly decrepit hotel along one of the main roads. The room was bleak, the bathroom was tiny, the towel provided was stained and as stiff as cardboard (I could have constructed intricate origami shapes with it) and the climb up five sets of stairs did not make for a very homely base for sightseeing. It was a good place for one night but it was definitely not going to do for the long stay I'd planned. I spent the majority of my second day in Luxor walking around trying to find a decent replacement.

My new hotel was much better, it was situated on a side street off the main souq (market) of Luxor and it had a downstairs restaurant which served very decent food. They even supplied soft clean towels even though they weren't much bigger than my back-up travel towel.

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My hotel room in Luxor, at first I thought they didn't provide towels (many budget hotels don't), but they were sitting on the bed staring right at me (literally) in the shape of swans, or they could have been cobras, I couldn't really tell

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Entrance to El-Souk, the main souq in Luxor

In the photo above, you can see a parked "calèche" (horse carriage) at the entrance to El-Souk. In addition to the fellucca captains along the river bank (who seemed even more persitent in Luxor than they were in Aswan), tourists also have to contend with all the calèche drivers calling out "Calèche! Calèche!", every time they walked past one of them. Some of the poor horses looked skinny, tired and their drivers whipped them really hard making them run just to show off or so they could get back to the prime pick-up locations. Not surprisingly, I was never tempted to take a ride on one of them.

At the new hotel I met a friendly 62 year old Malaysian guy called Seong who lives in Norway. He was interested in going to the Sound and Light Show at Karnak temple and asked me if I wanted to come along. I'd read that the show was pretty cheesy but I thought, heck why not, how many times am I going to be in Luxor? As I expected, it was disappointing and was definitely not worth the admission price. The lights were fine and I don't think they went over the top like some of the cave light shows I'd seen in China, instead it was the commentary that ruined it. A large group of us followed a guide along a preset path, stopping when we reached temporary rope barriers so we could listen to the over-the-top dramatic narration from loud speakers. The actors voices, accompanied with hollywood action movie style music, tried to tell the story of the Pharaohs who built and added to the massive temple complex over the centuries. The worst part was that while the crowd rushed towards the last stop along the way, poor Seong lost his footing while climbing some uneven steps and he crashed to the ground splitting the side of his head on one of the stone steps. He was ok, but some blood started gushing from the side of his left brow. Luckily some staff were at hand with a first aid kit and the wound was cleaned and a bandage was promptly applied even before the next set of commentary had begun. Even though I'd been in Egypt for a couple of weeks by that stage, I was still surprised when, as we were leaving, the guy who applied the bandage demanded E£ 5 backsheesh ("tip") for the first aid service. I have a feeling that's why it was so dark along the path and why the first aid kit appeared so quickly, it was probably quite a lucritive business for the first-aid guy.

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The avenue of sphinxes at the entrance of the Karnak Temple Complex at the beginning of the Sound and Light Show

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Sound and Light Show at Karnak Temple Complex

The next day I visited the Karnak Temple Complex by myself during daylight which was of course much better, the only problem was that as soon as I got there, Luxor was battered by a sand storm from the west and my face received a good sand blasting as I walked along the large open area before the main entrance. There were benefits to this torture, however, because many tourists chose to stay away that day and it wasn't as crowded as it could have been.

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The sun being blocked by sand storm at Karnak Temple Complex

Once inside the main temple areas, the huge walls provided some shelter from the wind and the sand it carried with it. The sand storm receded by late afternoon, but for the first few hours most of the tourists hung out in the central enclosures so I had the outer ones all to myself. I always like to walk into dark, hidden away rooms in the remote parts of temples when there's nobody there. It kind of feels like you're discovering it for the first time. It's also better because when it's absolutely quiet, I don't get distracted by the noise of the buzzing crowds and their footsteps so I can fully appreciate where I am.

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Dark store room at the back of Ramses III Temple at Karnak - A shard of sunlight passing through a hole in the roof caused a nice effect as it illuminated the dust hanging in the air

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Inside the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak

The center piece of Karnak is undoubtedly the Great Hypostyle Hall. It was planned by Ramses I and built by Seti I and Ramses II, three 19th Dynasty Pharoahs. It covers an area of 5500 square meters and contains 134 huge stone pillars. The pillars were so close to eachother that it was impossible to find a spot where I could get a photo that captured the true scale of the place.

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The pillars of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak

A large area on the south side of the complex was closed to tourists at the time because several of the large pylons (gates) were being restored. To keep people out a "caretaker" was placed next to a gate. I'd read that beyond the gate there were some pretty impressive colossi statues and the "caretaker" was of course happy to "sneak" people through for a little backsheesh.

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The "caretaker" guarding the Seventh Pylon on the south side of Karnak Temple - you can see the scaffolding in the background being used to restore the Eighth Pylon.

Usually I'd have no problem paying a little backsheesh to these guys as it is their only source of income (I paid plenty of it during my time in Luxor, particularly when I went to the Valley of the Kings) but at the time I had no small change in my wallet and I still wanted to take a look. So I walked around the side and I found that there was an unmanned gate there that I could easily step over. So I did.

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The statues of Tutmosis III on the other side of the Seventh Pylon at Karnak - the "caretaker" is just on the other side of the gate

Personally, I don't mind too much when temples are in ruins or even if they are restored using the same original blocks; it's when the temples are resotred using brand new blocks that kind of ruins it for me, or even worse, when they use concrete to fill in the gaps. Luckily most of the temple complex is still in ruins and many of the walls that were standing had been rebuilt from the original blocks.

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View of some of the ruined walls of Karnak Temple Complex looking towards the Great Hypostyle Hall

Throughout all of Egypt, I saw several wall reliefs where depictions of some Pharaohs had been chipped away in ancient times by another pharoah who for some reason wanted to wipe away all memory of one of their predecesors. Fortunately it appears as though it was quite a rare practice otherwise all but the last few pharoahs would have been wiped from existence.

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The figure of a pharoah chipped away by a later pharoah

The whole Karnak Temple Complex is so big that I spent about five hours walking around and even then I could have easily seen more but the place started closing and we were herded towards the exit by a line of impatient security guards. It was probably just as good because I had walked so much by the time I got back to the hotel I couldn't stand up anymore.

Another day, I visited the Luxor museum which was really impressive, with lots of amazing statues and artefacts found in temples and the tombs on the west bank. My favourite exhibits were a large alabaster statue of Amenhotep III carved side by side with a statue of the great crocodile god Sobek and the two Pharaoh mummies, one of Ahmose I (18th Dynasty) and another which is believed to be Ramses I (19th Dynasty). Frustratingly, no photos were allowed inside so I have to cheat and show you these photos I pulled of the net (they are in the public domain).

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Statue of crocodile god Sobek and Pharaoh Amenhotep III in Luxor museum, hard to tell how tall it is from this photo but from memory it was about 3 meters tall

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Believed to be the mummy of Ramses I - It had been stolen from Egypt and found in a small museum in Niagra Falls (of all places) then sold to another museum in the US and eventually it was returned to Egypt as a gesture of good will

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Some statues outside of Luxor Museum - this is my own photo and I think these statues are copies but I'm just guessing.

The Temple of Luxor is another attraction in Luxor which is impossible to miss because it sits right in the center of the city. I must have walked past it dozens of times while I was there. It looks just as impressive as the Temples at Karnak, but it's much smaller and hardly worth the admission price because you could get decent views (and photos) of it by just walking around its perimeter.

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The Temple of Luxor from balcony of restaurant

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The large columns of Luxor Temple

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View of Luxor Temple at night - A mosque had been built on to the side of it and can be seen lit up at the center of the frame

At the hotel I also met Melissa, a Brit who'd just landed a job there as the hotel's tour organiser. She had just returned to Luxor after having previously worked for Animal Care in Egypt (ACE, web: http://www.ace-egypt.org.uk) which is a non-profit organisation that provides free vetenary care for neglected and abused animals as well as education for their owners and local children on how to treat and look after them properly. Because Mel had lived in Luxor before, she knew quite a few people there whom she introduced me to. I ended up paying numerous visits to a bar owned by a close friend of Mel's, an Egyptian guy called Shaady. The bar, called "The King's Head Pub" can be described as a typical English Pub but with a slight Egyptian flavour in the form of statues and posters. Through Mel I also met an English guy called James who worked in Luxor and hung out with us at the pub or back at the hotel.

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James, Shaady and Mel at The King's Head Pub - just after an international football match between England and Egypt (sadly England won 3-1, but the place was electric after Egypt scored the first goal - I was rooting for Egypt of course)

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Me mixing myself a Long Island Ice Tea

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Me drinking my Long Island Ice Tea... We went "clubbing" in Luxor that night, and by "clubbing" I mean a group of about ten of us filled the small and previously empty dance floor of a local hotel - I think we made the DJ's day and it ended up being a quite good night

I ended up being the first person to buy a tour from Mel which made her quite pleased. It wasn't a tour as such, in fact it was one of their chepest offerings, the hiring of a driver for the day to tour the west bank, but at least it was a sale.

Alas I payed my long awaited visit to the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut. The driver met me at the hotel early in the morning and we walked over to the public ferry docks from where we would catch a ferry, then walk to his waiting taxi. The trip across the Nile on the ferry only took a few minutes and the fare was only E£ 1 which was very reasonable. Just as we were docking on the other side, I spotted a yellow hot air balloon coming in to land near the dock. I somehow knew that something wasn't quite right by the direction it was heading and the speed it was carrying but as I looked around nobody else seemed worried. Then suddenly everybody else caught on when we heard and saw several people yelling and running along the banks of the river. The balloon was coming in fast and low and heading straight towards a row of docked felluccas. They needed to gain altitude, and fast, but I couldn't understand why the balloon pilot wasn't turning up the flame. Suddenly the sides of the balloon fabric collided with the mast of one of the felluccas and I thought for sure it would tear and they would all end up in the Nile. At the last minute the pilot cranked the gas and they started climbing out of trouble. I couldn't see the faces of the tourists inside the balloon's basket but I bet they would have been slightly terrified by the whole ordeal.

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The hot air balloon moments after it crashed in to the mast of the nearside fellucca

My driver turned out to be the "strong and silent" type. He wasn't the friendliest guy I'd ever met and he had a serious and almost angry look on his face for the entire day. It didn't get any better once he found out I was an atheist. "A Christian?", he asked me. "Nope", I replied. He followed up quickly with, "Non believer?". I said, "Yep", and that was pretty much our conversation except for when he asked me where I wanted go go next. It didn't bother me too much because the rides weren't very long and all he did was drive me around, once I reached a site, he waited in his car near the exit and I was off on my own again.

My first stop was the Valley of the Kings. Once again no photos allowed there and you weren't even allowed to take cameras past the gate. My small camera was safely stowed in my pocket and by the time I reached the desk where you could leave your cameras, I'd already passed the xray machine and metal detectors so I decided I was just going to pretend I didn't have one on me. There are at least 63 Pharaoh tombs in the valley but not all of them are always open to tourists. With one ticket you can only go inside three of these open tombs. There were only about 12 to 15 tombs open on the day I went and the more popular ones were of course crowded with people. I chose to go to the tombs of Tuthmosis III, Tuthmosis IV and Siptah based on what I'd read about them and which ones looked biggest in the scale model of the valley displayed at the visitor's centre. Each tomb that I went to was very different to the last in terms of arrangement and wall decorations and my favorite was probably Tuthmosis IV mostly because I was the only one in the tomb at the time and also because the tomb was quite deep, it had a couple of dark side chambers and it had some well preserved wall paintings in one of the antechambers.

I took a risky photo inside Tuthmosis IV's tomb only because I knew the tomb's keeper was a long way up near the entrance and I was completely alone. It was risky because I'd heard that it was common for the tomb minders to confiscate naughty tourist's memory cards. This and I had just witnessed a guy almost loose his camera when he stupidly took it out while he was inside the tomb of Tuthmosis III while the tomb's minder was standing nearby.

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Sneaky photo of the sarcophagus of Tuthmosis IV in the Valley of the Kings

Just before I entered the tomb of Tuthmosis IV, a gust of wind created a mini dust tornado and I got some of it in my right eye. I was alright in the dark, but while walking out in the sun my eye hurt a lot and was watering so much it looked like I had been crying. Even my surly driver asked me, "Are you unhappy?", when I got back in the car. It only got better after I used half my precious drinking water trying to flush it all out. All in all, the tombs were amazing and I really enjoyed them despite the stupid restrictions.

My next stop was the Temple of Hatshepsut which was amazing in itself, but was even more awe inspiring because of the amazing backdrop. No camera restrictions there so I'll just let the photos do the talking.

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The distant view of the incredible Temple of Hatshepsut

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The amazing rock cliff backdrop behind the Temple of Hatshepsut - as you can see the tourist crowds were out in force

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Painted reliefs in Chapel of Anubis at Temple of Hatshepsut

My last sight-seeing spot for the day was the Tombs of the Nobles which were just as impressive if not more so than the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, at least in terms of wall decorations. Some of the Tombs of the Nobles were definitely better preserved and the walls were painted more intricately, in a few tombs even the ceilings had been painted. There were around 15 tombs open to tourists and I paid to see eight of them. The tombs were scattered over a wide area on the side of a hill and I had to give in and agree to pay a guide to show me the way to the tombs I had tickets for. Even though the entrances were labelled with the Noble's name, there were no signs along the paths so without a guide I would have wasted a lot of time in the baking heat looking for the right entrances. I wouldn't be surprised if at one time there had been signs on the paths but the guides had removed them in order to guarantee themselves some income.

No photos were allowed in these tombs either, but if I was the only one in the tomb at the time (which was quite often the case) then it was almost guaranteed that the tomb's "minder" would walk up to me, look around in a shifty manner and encourage me to take photos with the mutual and silent understanding that I'd be paying them backsheesh for the privilege. This was on top of the backsheesh they expected from everyone just for entering the tomb. I knew all of this was coming so I'd come prepared with plenty of E£ 1 notes in my pocket.

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Relief on wall next to entrance to Userhet's tomb - Userhet was one of Amenhotep II's royal scribes

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My guide leading me up the hill towards the next Nobles tomb

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Reliefs on wall in Ramose's tomb - Ramose was a governor of Thebes (Luxor) under Amenhotep III and Akhenaten

After the tombs of the Nobles I was definitely ready to return to the hotel so again I met my driver who whisked me back to the ferry docks, while still giving me the silent treatment.

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Luxor from the west bank of the Nile

That ended up being my last sight-seeing excursion in Luxor except for a quick visit to Mummification Museum which although was quite interesting, it was very tiny and definitely not worth the E£ 40 admission charge. I could have visited several more sites on the west bank, but I was suffering from temple and tomb overload so decided to skip them and perhaps give myself something new to see should I return to Egypt one day.

So that was that for ancient Thebes, a couple of days later I headed by train back up to Cairo which was a good jumping point before my next destination in Egypt.

Until next time,
as salaama.

Posted by joshuag 00:43 Archived in Egypt Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Aswan & Abu Simbel - Blend in Like An Egyptian

Egypt

sunny 35 °C
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The 12 hour overnight train journey from Cairo to Aswan was quite comfortable despite the fact I had a seat and not a berth on one of the fabled tourist sleeper trains that everyone recommends. Compared to the trains in India, the ride was smooth, quiet and there was no sign of any rodents wandering down the aisles so I was happy.

Before arriving in Aswan, I expected the city to be crammed full of tourists and all the things that come with them, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a relatively small city with a rather relaxed and quiet atmosphere. Yes, there were dozens of river curise ships docked along the banks of the Nile, but most of the package tourists they carried seemed to prefer to remain on board unless they were shopping or being carried to a sight seeing spot by large air conditioned tourist buses. This was not surprising because with bars, restaurants, swimming pools and large top deck areas for sunbathing, these floating hotels offered almost everything your average package tourist would need or want. The only times I'd see large groups of western tourists would be those wandering around the river side restaurants or shopping at the souqs (markets) in the evenings; this was a good thing for me because they did a good job of deflecting all the attention from the shop touts and felucca boat captains.

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Cruise ships docked on the banks of the Nile in Aswan - because there are so many cruise ships, they were typically double or triple docked alongside eachother.

The views across the Nile River were impressive once you could find a spot clear of cruise ships.

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The tombs of the Nobles embedded into the steep slopes of the hills on the west bank

Whenever I walked along the Cornishe An-Nil (the road along the Nile river bank), I would be approached every 50 meters or so by a man wearing a galabiyya (men's full-length robe) and head wrap asking me if I'd like to hire a felucca (small single mast sail boat). Once they realised I was not interested in a felucca ride, they would hush their voices a little and offer me some "very cheap" hashish or marijuana.

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Elephantine Island with some feluccas sailing around in the foreground

These felucca captains turned out to be Egypt's annoyance equivaltent to the ricksaw drivers of India, though at least some of these captians had a sense of humour, I'd say largely thanks to them indulging in generous amounts of their own supply. This sense of humour was best illustrated by a conversation I had with one of these captains:

As I walked along Corniche An-Nil, a man walks up to me wearing the typical fellucca captain garb and he starts a conversation:

Man: "Hello my friend"
Me: "Sorry, I don't want to hire a felluca"
Man: "No! No! No! Why you think I try sell you ride on felucca!?
Me: "What do you do?"
Man: "I'm a felucca captain"

We both started laughing

In fact, I'd say in general that Egyptians do have a sense of humour - I wouldn't say that it's the best sense of humour, but at least it's a sense of humour. They like to have a laugh about most situations. Sometimes this helps keep things friendly when you are bargaining or declining their offers but at other times it can be annoying because you can't get a straight answer out of some people - especially some of the younger Egyptian men who think they are hilarious and charming.

One evening as I wandered through the main souq towards my hotel after dinner at a restaurant next to the Nile, it became apparent to me that I was blending in a lot more than I thought. There were other more obvious western tourists (blonde hair, bumbags) walking along ahead and behind me and they were getting lots of shouts from the touts but I was almost ignored.

At one point one of the young guys standing outside the stores shouted out one of the typical tout's opening lines, "Where you from?". Instead of my usual response which was to shout back, "New Zealand", while I kept on walking, I decided to have a laugh so I stopped and said, "You have three guesses". Straight away he knew the game, and said, "And if I get it right, you come into my store?", I said "Yep", and I held up three fingers. "America!", was his first guess so I lowered one finger. He then started fishing, "Where is it? In Europe?", I said, "Sorry, no hints. You have to guess", He said, "Australia!", I lowered another finger. I think he'd recognised my accent but had confused it with the Australian one like a lot of Egyptians tend to do. Then he said, "Help me out, is it in Europe?", I said, "Sorry no help, you have just one more guess", and I started turning so I could walk away. He looked up and said, "New Zealand!". I turned around and walked past him and into his store with a sheepish grin on my face while saying, "Ok, what have you got?". He and his friend sitting next to him were quite chuffed he got it right, so much so that he didn't really try to sell me anything. I just looked once over his shelves and told him, what I was really after was a decent Sheesha pipe (flavoured tabacco water pipe) which his store didn't sell (this was true to a large extent). To my surprise, he pulled out his friend's Sheesha pipe from behind the counter and started explaining to me all the things I should be on the look out for while shopping for one, like the quality of the steel stem, the ball bearing in the valve, the type of glassware, the type of hose, etc. He didn't even attempt to sell me his friend's pipe which is what I honestly thought he would try to do.

We then walked outside where he offered me a seat on a stool he pulled out and put down next to his. I ended up sitting there with him for a couple of hours in the middle of this busy bazaar, talking about all sorts of crazy things while drinking hot cups of tea. His name was Sayed and he had studied Social Work at University, but he'd found it hard to find a job so he'd got his tourist guide qualification, hence he spoke near fluent English. His main job was as a guide but he also worked at his friends' stores in the souq for extra money. I must have blended in really well because I had a couple of people walk up to me speaking Arabic who thought I was running the store. I'd look up at them in total amazement wondering how they could possibly think I was a local or at the very least Egyptian. It was a really good feeling that I wasn't being looked at like a typical tourist. My careful choice of clothes and recent tan were paying off.

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The main souq in Aswan

Another time as I was eating in a restaurant, there was a couple sitting in front of me and after the girl got up to get something, the guy asked me, "Excuse me, are you Egyptian?". I was so surprised by the question, the tone of my response came out all wrong, I said, "Do I look like an Egyptian?", with a very slight emphasis on the word "look" as if I had been offended by his question or that I thought he was stupid or something. In reality I was just genuinely curious about whether he was really serious. In a slightly defensive manner, he said, "Well I'm from Bahrain, so I wasn't too sure". Immediately I realised how it must have sounded but by that stage I didn't know how to recover from it so I just said, "No, I'm from New Zealand", then his girlfirend came back to the table and not surprisingly he didn't try to continue the conversation.

All I can say, is that it's nice blending in a little after being looked at like an outsider for so long. As long as I walk around with a look of confidence and I'm not carrying my black satchel with me, most touts tend to ignore me, or at least I confuse them enough for them to have to ask, "Egyptian?"

My first excursion in Aswan was to the nearby Nubian museum which I ended up really liking. Not only was it virtually empty because most tour operators don't take groups there, but it is also very modern, has a really good collection and best of all, you could take photos inside (this is what all tourist attractions in Egypt should be like). It was a sweltering 36 C day with no wind so even the ten minute walk there from my hotel felt like I'd traversed a desert; this gave me a perfect excuse to walk around the air conditioned museum for a few hours taking my time at each of the exhibits.

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The view of the Nubian museum as you walk down the main stairs

The museum focuses on the southern parts of Egypt (Upper Egypt), or what used to be known as Nubia, and the temples found within it, though it does have exhibits from other parts of Egypt.

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The mummies of a priest's wife and a ram for Khunom the local deity of Elephantine Island - from the Ptolemaic period

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The colossus statue of Ramses II (19th Dynasty) in the Nubian museum, it is 8 meters tall and used to stand at the temple of Garf Hussein

The museum also focused a lot on all the monuments that were saved from the flooding waters of Lake Nasser which was created when they built the huge High Dam just south of Aswan. One of the most impressive achievements was how they rescued the temples at Abu Simbel, that is, the Great Temple of Ramses II and the Temple of Hathor, which were both carved, side by side, out of a mountain. There was a scale model there of how these temples looked before and after they were moved with respect to the flooding water line.

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The scale model of the Great Temple of Ramses II (left) and the Temple of Hathor (right) before and after they were relocated - they moved each of the 2000, 10 to 40 ton blocks 210 m away from the water and 65 m higher than the original site.

I felt like the night watchman as I walked through most the musuem virtually alone - it was just me, and the guards - absolute bliss.

My next excursion was to the actual temples at Abu Simbel and Philae Island. I could have gone and stayed at the actual village of Abu Simbel, but the hotel I was staying at in Aswan offered a day trip tour of several sights in one day for a decent price so I opted to do that instead. The tour only included transport to the sites and not a tour guide which was perfect because I would hate to take a tour with a tour guide. Even though a tour guide may offer you a little insight into a particular attraction that you might have otherwise missed, the downsides are that, it costs money, they take you around at their own pace, they only show you what they think is interesting and worst of all you are herded around in a big crowd like sheep by a person waving a big coloured flag. I'd rather read up on what I'm going to see beforehand as well as carry a guide book around with me which would usually explain everything a guide will tell you, only better.

Unfortunately this tour I took was also not ideal; firstly because to travel around in certain areas of Egypt on a tourist bus, you need to go on a police-escorted convoy, and secondly our time at each site would be limited. The police-escorted convoys are there to supposedly protect tourists following several terror attacks a few years ago, but from how I saw it, it was a complete farce. It would make absolutely no difference to determined terrorists and in fact make tourists an even bigger target.

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Tour buses lined up and ready to go on the police-escorted convoy from Aswan to Abu Simbel at 4 am

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The little mini bus which took us to Abu Simbel, the other passengers were independent travellers, mostly backpackers who were also staying in budget hotels in Aswan. I took this photo so I could distinguish it from the dozens of other minibuses parked outside the temples

A few hours later, we finally arrived at Abu Simbel only 40 km north of the Sudanese border and the famous location of the Great Temple of Ramses II and the Temple of Hathor. Dozens of other tourist buses were already parked outside the gates so I knew straight away it was going to be swarming with tour groups but it didn't bother me much because as soon as caught sight of the temples as I walked around the side of the rocky hill on which they were (re)built, I was completely gobsmacked.

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The Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel - WOW!

It was absolutely amazing and even though they weren't sitting at their exact original location they were still awe inspiring.

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Close up of two of the colossi statues of Ramses II - Again, WOW! - the small statues at his feet were some of his wives and children

One of the colossi of Ramses II had lost its head in ancient times and even though they had relocated the entire temple further up the hill to save it from the flooding lake, they (fortunately) didn't attempt to reconstruct it, they instead just placed the head fragments at the base of the temple in the same relative position where they had been found.

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The broken head pieces of one of the colossi of Ramses II

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Yes, yes, I was there

About 50 meters to the right of the Great Temple of Ramses II, is the smaller temple of Hathor which is largely dedicated to Ramses II's favourite queen Nefertari (not to be confused with queen Nefertiti, wife of pharaoh Akhenaten and step mother of the famous pharaoh Tutankhamun)

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The Temple of Hathor

Photography was prohibited inside the temples, but I poked my tounge out at this ridiculous rule and waited patiently for the perfect moment in between roaming guards and the swarming crowds to take snaps of my favourite wall scenes, one of which was that of Ramses II slaughtering his enemies. It was hard to capture entire scenes because I had to be quick and hide behind pillars while I took the photos.

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Relief inside the Great Temple of Ramses II slaughtering some of his enemies with a mace

After about an hour and a half, it was unfortunately time to head back to the bus for the trip back to Aswan via the Temple of Isis on Philae Island via the High Dam. Although the High Dam was one of the stops on our tour, the 30 EGP admission fee was definitely not worth it. Although it may be an engineering marvel, the views from on top of it weren't particularly special. I think I was expecting a much taller structure but instead it was only half impressive in terms of its length.

Luckily we didn't stick around very long and we were on our way to the Temple of Isis on Philae Island, well actually Philae Island was also flooded by the rising waters caused by the High Dam and the temple was moved stone by stone to higher ground just like the temples of Abu Simbel. The actual island the temple sits on is actually called Agilkia Island, but since the temple was moved there it is also known as Philae Island.

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Philae Island as we approached on the ferry

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The first Pylon of the Temple of Isis from the outer Temple Court on Philae Island

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Kiosk of Trajan (Pharaoh's Bed), on Philae Island

You were allowed to take photos inside the Temple of Isis, but the reliefs were badly lit so not so many of my photos came out very well.

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Reliefs inside the Temple of Isis at Philae Island

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Some reliefs and hieroglyphs inside the temple of Isis

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A plain dressed policeman... yes, very inconspicuous

I spent a few more days in Aswan just to kill some time and relax a little. It's amazing how much the heat takes out of you when you are walking around in it all day. My original plan was to take a couple of days to sail down the Nile up to Luxor on a felucca but when I learned that there are so many restrictions on how far feluccas can go and how most of the trip would end up being on a mini-bus, I abandoned the idea and opted for the train instead. Besides, a felucca ride would have been better had I met other travellers in Aswan but the hotel I was staying at wasn't very conducive to meeting other people.

The day before I left I tried to buy my ticket at the train station in Aswan, but this turned out to be a complete waste of time. There must have been only about five people officially ahead of me in the queue, but people kept on jumping the queue by entering through the exit row and I ended up standing there for over 45 minutes. The women seemed to be the worst, they just thought they could stroll on up, jump the queue and buy their tickets without a problem. In fact, most of the men in the queue would stand there and do nothing except for a couple of older men who tried their best to complain and yell at these queue jumpers, and although they moaned and complained loudly they didn't do much about it, especially with the women queue jumpers. I, as a foreigner didn't think it was really my place to start yelling at people so I put up with it for as long as I could. Just as I finally reached the window, a woman arrived and tried to stick her hand in the little slot to buy a ticket ahead of me. My patience had run out and I bumped the woman out of the way as I told her, "Oh no you don't!" (Deja vu - this scene seems to be occuring quite often throughout my trip). Then I asked the man at the window for my ticket and he replied with, "You need to buy it on the train". My jaw dropped and after asking him to repeat what he said, I just laughed - what else can you do? So I turned around and started walking out the exit row past a very grumpy looking woman who I purposely barged my way through. Behind her I noticed a few men were smiling and a couple of them clapped. One of them gave me a high-five and said, "That's how you handle them!" - he was referring to how I'd dealt with the woman queue jumper. I could have walked out of there feeling really grumpy, but because of that little moment, I left with a big smile on my face instead.

I still don't understand why, if they approved of how I'd handled the woman, they had not done the same thing. Perhaps it's because it was an older woman (maybe in her late 40's) and despite the level of oppression women suffer in this part of the world, muslim women still get a certain level of respect by men. For foreign women, it's a different story - I've never witnessed so much sexual harassment in my life, it's not rampant, but it does happen often. Basically, if you are a woman and you're not wearing a burqa or a head scarf, you are a target.

Later I learnt I was pefectly entitled to buy my ticket at the ticket window, but the bastard just didn't want to sell it to me because they can make more money by selling it on board by charging you an extra "tax" or "fine" of some sort. Anyway, you gotta laugh, what else can you do. The sooner you realise that's how Egypt works and that corruption is rife at every level, the easier and less stressed your visit will be. At the end of the day, the extra charge was only around 10 EGP (around NZ$2.50).

I bumped into this poor donkey standing outside the hotel as I was leaving Aswan.

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Donkey standing on side of road

It probably spends most of its life walking around in the sun with two large tanks of hot tea strapped to its sides... and it's probably one of the lucky ones. Have I mentioned, most animals in Egypt get a pretty raw deal, especially if they are "working" animals (more like "slave" animals if you ask me) - they are made to walk around in the scorching heat of the day, being parked on the side of the road with no shade, pulling really heavy overloaded carts down the road, being whipped to go faster when they are obviously already going as fast as they can, it is not pretty my friends.

Alas, on this sad note it was time to move on and make my way back north (down the Nile) to a place with a much higher concentration of monuments... and tourists.

Ma-as salama

Posted by joshuag 17:17 Archived in Egypt Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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