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Aswan & Abu Simbel - Blend in Like An Egyptian


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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)

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.

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.

Philae Island as we approached on the ferry

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

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.

Reliefs inside the Temple of Isis at Philae Island

Some reliefs and hieroglyphs inside the temple of Isis

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.

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

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