A Travellerspoint blog

Egypt

Dahab & Nuweiba - Snorkeling and the Red Sea Ghost Town

Egypt

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

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)

Cairo - Pyramids and Sheesha Pipes

Egypt

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

I'll skip ahead just a little and start with this photo...

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I saw the Pyramids of Giza!!

Ok, back to the beginning... After so many years of dreaming about it, I am finally in the land of the pharaohs.

During my first evening in Cairo, I sat alone on the hotel's roof top lounge and just enjoyed the seranading calls to prayer echoing from the mosque minarets all around me. I must admit, my eyes welled up a little as it reminded of where I was and how long I'd waited to be here. Luckily Egypt is a sandy and dusty type of place because the old "just got some dust in my eyes" excuse might come in quite handy. For the first day or two, I really couldn't believe I was actually in Egypt... now I must... resist... the urge... for an... "I'm in de-Nile" joke, aargh! Darn it, too late!

I chose to stay in the center of Islamic Cairo which is surrounded by grand mosques and souqs (markets) intertwined with residential areas. What first struck me about Cairo was that almost every building has the same monochromatic dark tan colour. It's hard to tell if this is the colour of the building materials or whether it is just a thick layer of dust coating every surface. Something else I noticed immediately was that every third or fourth building has a top floor which looks either crumbling or half finished but with no signs of any building work going on. It looks like the city was hit by a large earthquake, then everybody started rebuilding but couldn't complete it because the money had ran out.

I spent several hours walking around the old, yet somewhat touristy, suburb of Khan al-Khalili. The area is littered with souqs selling tacky souvenirs such as stuffed toy camels, alabaster pyramids and skimpy belly dancing costumes. Alongside these souvenir stores are the more traditional fabric, spice, silver and gold merchants which give the place a little more respectability. There are also plenty of cafes, some of them entirely populated by local men and others filled mostly by tourists who are perhaps there for their first taste of sheesha (flavoured tabacco water pipe).

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The Mosque of Sayidna Al-Hussein on the edge of Khan al-Khalili in Islamic Cairo

I went inside the great Al-Azhar Mosque and spent a while walking around and taking a few photos. I then took advantage of the quiet atmosphere and sat down outside on the long carpets lining the edges of the central courtyard. There, next to rows of men reading the Qur'an, I sat and read my Lonely Planet (they had their holy book and I had mine).

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The great Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo

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Women walking around inside Al-Azhar mosque

Although the area was busy during the day, at night it really came alive. Buzzing crowds of both young and old people, locals and tourists, swarmed around visiting the mosques, shopping, fending off touts or just sitting in cafes chatting with friends. On the more serious and less touristy spots, gangs of serious looking Egyptian men sat around rickety tables in dimly-lit, no-frills cafes playing backgammon, smoking sheesha and drinking tea. With my night-owl tendencies, I knew straight away that Egypt was going to be my kind of place.

There was no doubt about it, I had arrived in the Middle East and it was absolutely fantastic. Sure, the traffic was still insane, the touts were out in force and the language was completely foreign, but it somehow felt more managable than China or India. I was quite surprised that while I walked around (without my "touristy" satchel), I attracted virtually no stares and most touts left me alone. Perhaps I'll be able to blend in a little better in Egypt - probably thanks to the remnants of my Goa-induced tan.

My hotel room was quite shabby and not nearly as clean as it ought to have been, even for a budget hotel. Within minutes of entering, I spotted a medium sized cockroach surveying the walls, there was a dark and irrecognizable dried-up substance splattered on one of the walls and on a hook behind the bathroom door, there hung an old and slightly stained woman's bathing suit - though it could also have been super-sized underwear, I didn't investigate further. Believe it or not, I somehow didn't care too much about any of this. I think after travelling for this long, I've grown quite tolerant of such things and I was just glad I had somewhere where I could put my pack down as well as sit and cool off under a wobbly ceiling fan.

The next day I went to the Cairo Museum with Halle whom I'd met at the hotel the previous night. Halle is from the US and was taking a short break from her work in Rawanda for an NGO. The museum was amazing and nowhere near as confusing or disorganised as I had read it would be. Photography was strictly forbidden inside so it's hard to describe; but I can say that it was one of the best museums I have ever been to, at least in terms of its contents. Tutankhamun's treasures were of course amazing and they weren't limited to the famous golden death mask, but also his two golden sarcophagi and the large gilded wooden shrines which encased them by fitting each one inside the other. Just as facinating were some black and white photos of these items which were taken as they were found in the tomb chambers back in 1922. By pure chance I had read in the news the day before that DNA of the malaria parasite had been found in samples of Tutankhamun's mummy which means he had most probably died from malaria and not just complications from a severely broken leg as it was previously believed - I felt pretty darn smug when I overheard one of the uninformed tour guides still telling the old the broken leg tale - I felt like leaning over and saying, "He's lying". Another favorite part of mine in the museum was the Animal Mummy room which housed a collection of dusty mummies of crocodiles, cats, dogs, rams, baboons and jackals. I do slightly regret not going in to the Royal Mummy room, but the extra price seemed steep at the time (100 EGP) and visiting the museum a second time was still not out of the question.

Halle was leaving that evening for Sharm El-Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula, but we still had enough time after visiting the museum for a coffee and my first taste of sheesha in a small cafe in Khan al-Khalili. I chose apple flavour sheesha and I have to admit, I now see what all the fuss is about because I quite liked it. It tastes nothing like tabacco and the flavoursome water-cooled smoke not only smells nice, it also almost feels soothing to the lungs (don't worry, I realise in reality it's hardly lung soothing).

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Halle smoking sheesha with me at cafe in Khan al-Khalili

The next day I met Sarah and Sarah - convenient names for someone like me who usually forgets them before the handshake is even over. They are both teachers from the New York (though one of them is currently teaching English in London) and they were in Egypt for a short trip during their holidays. After chatting for a while, we agreed to visit the Pyramids of Giza together the next day. That same evening the hotel's owner invited all of his guests for a party on the hotel's roof top to celebrate his birthday. It turned out to be quite a treat not only because there was lots of free food, including birthday cake, but he'd also organised a traditional Sufi band and dancer to come along and perform. The music and the dancing was quite entrancing and we were quite lucky that we got to see it. The Sufi dancer was basically spinning constantly for about 30 to 40 minutes; I couldn't believe how long he was able to sustain it. The dance reminded me a little of the amazing Whirling Dervishes from Turkey which I really hope to see one day. There was quite a nice mood the whole night with everyone eating, clapping and eventually dancing (yes even me and there wasn't even any alcohol at this party).

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Sufi band and dancer performance at hotel in Cairo

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Some nice light effects caused by the Sufi dancer

Early the next morning we set off on our journey to see the pyramids. We decided to hire a car for the day which would not only take us to Giza, but also Saqqara which has several other ancient monuments and is only about 20 kms south of Giza. I still remember the very first peek we got of the pyramids rising out of the desert (or more precisely, out of the buildings) as we drove down the highway. I remember thinking how incredible it was that this was the same view seen by hundreds of millions of people for over four and a half millenia, albeit with very different foregrounds.

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My first glace at the Pyramids of Giza

We finally arrived at the front gates of the pyramids, but not before the driver took us for a detour to a store offering us the hire of a horse or camel for the day. We all politely declined and we departed amicably, I guess you can't blame people for trying to make a living. Once we got our tickets, we passed through the usual metal detector and x-ray machines as we entered the compound in front of the Sphinx. This is where the real hassles started, firstly with a couple of agressive camel touts, one of them even saying, "Alright, F#@k off!" to me after I politely declined. Then it was a group of young Egyptian men pleading and harassing Sarah & Sarah for a photo with them. The young guys, who we unfortunately bumped into again a couple more times along the way, just wouldn't take no for an answer. Luckily they had a friend with them who eventually saw sense and pulled the rest of them away. All of this and we hadn't even walked past the Sphinx yet! Fortunately, the rest of our walk the pyramids was much more relaxed. We were able to forget these hassles and just gaze at the amazing ancient structures with only a few camel touts here and there which were relatively easy to get rid of. I'll skip the historical commentary and just get on with the photos...

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The Shinx in front of the pyramids of Menkaure and Khafre

We made our way anti-clockwise around all three pyramids, starting with the Great Pyramid of Khufu, then the Pyramid of Khafre and finally the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure.

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The Great Pyramid of Khufu

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Up close to the pyramid of Khufu - yes, I actually touched it!

I lost count of all the "jump" and "walking like an Egyptian" photos we took along the way, but it was hilarious and we provided quite a lot of amusement to some of the local and tourist onlookers.

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Yes, we just had to do it... several times!

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At least I think I have the right shaped head for this pose

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Standing in front of the Pyramid of Menkaure with Khafre's in the background - Wow!

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The Pyramid of Khafre - It's the second largest, though because it sits on higher ground, it looks taller than the Great Pyrmaid of Khufu - it's probably my favorite one because of the relatively intact cap

In and around the pyrmaids there are several other monuments like funerary temples and some smaller Queens' pyramids

We were almost on our own by the time we reached Menkaure's pyramid so it was absolutely brilliant. At that point it felt just like how I'd always imagined the pyramids to be like, quiet and with the illusion that they are located in the middle of the desert.

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The view in between the Queens' pyramids next to Menkaure's Pyramid

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Nice shot of a lone camel on top of distant plateu

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Sarah looking at the view from near Menkaure's funerary temple - Ok, so I asked her to pose like that, nobody who's already wearing sunglasses and a hat would voluntarily try to block the sun with their hand

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Us at the end of our loop at Khafre's Valley Temple near the Sphinx

We met up with our driver outside the gates and set off on our way to Saqaara. I must say, in New Zealand the thought of passing another car while other cars are coming the other way would have sent me into a rage, but here (and also in India and China) everyone does it all of the time and I was only half terrified. What's worse is that in Egypt they drive on the right hand side and I was sitting in the front passenger's seat; so to me it felt like I was in the driver's seat but with absolutely no control of the car whatsoever. I think the driver might have noticed as I repeatedly pressed my foot down on the floor of the car where the brake would usually be, though this didn't cause him slow down at all.

We only had a couple of hours to spend at Saqqara because they closed at 4 pm (way too early in my opinion) so we ended up walking around the area quite hastily. The most famous monument at this site is the Step Pyramid of Zoser, which is the oldest pyramid and in fact the supposed to be oldest stone monument in the world. It was in the process of being restored which meant that it was partly surrounded by scafolding. This has been a recurring theme in my travels, the views of a lot of famous buildings and monuments have been shrowded by ugly scafolding which don't make for very good photos.

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The Step Pyramid of Zoser, the oldest stone monument in the world

As we walked past the front of the pyramid, an eager guard waved us towards him and while looking around pretending what he was doing was "against the rules", guided us through the barriers and around the back of the Step Pyramid. We knew some backsheesh (tip/bribe) would be demanded eventually but we were curious so we followed him. He pointed to some small holes on the rock wall of a small building attached to the base of the pyramid. Looking through the hole, you were confronted with the face of a statue staring back at you. This was supposedly a statue of Zoser and later I learned it was common to place a statue of the king in a Seradab (basement) attached to the pyramid that he had been buried in.

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The statue of Zoser in the Step Pyramid's Seradab

From Zoser's Funerary Temple Complex surrounding the pyramid you could see several clusters of pyramids, some nearby and others in the far distance. This area was obviously the true birthplace of Egyptian pyramids and one vast necropolis.

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The distant Bent, Red and Black Pyramids of Dahshur as seen from Zoser's Funerary Temple Complex

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A man and his donkey from Zoser's Funerary Temple Complex

There were dozens of tombs and monuments in the area but we were running out of time so a quick check of our LP revealed that our best bet was to visit the supposedly impressive Mastaba of Ti only a short distance from the Step Pyramid (or so we thought). So we headed out on foot through the desert using the small map in the LP and the small guard post huts on top of some of the hills to guide us.

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Camels in the deserts of Saqqara

We ended up walking for some time through the desert until we reached what we thought was the correct spot marked by a nearby guard post. A man came out of the hut and after we mentioned, "Mastaba of Ti", he unfortunately pointed to a different hill about 1 kilometer away. By then it was nearly 4 pm and there was no way we could have made it there and back before the site closed so we had to turn back.

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Sarah walking up ahead through the desert at Saqqara in our vain attempts to find Mastaba of Ti

We took a slightly different (and faster) route towards the carpark and even though it was only about 5 minutes after 4 pm, we spotted two trucks in the distance full of police men who were howling at us trying to get us to hurry up and get back to the entrance. We had just been walking around in the desert for a couple of hours so not even the sight of them waving guns in the air made us walk any faster, I thought, "What are they going to do, shoot us for being late?". We met our driver near the gang of over zelous police men and even he mentioned that he'd been looking for us. It was amazing how little we cared even though everyone around us was having heart attacks. They could have fired warning shots over our heads and I would have still been smiling - perhaps it was the heat and the lack of food.

When we finally made it back to the hotel it was getting dark and my new companions were also leaving Cairo that evening, but we had enough time for some Koshary and a quick trip to a cafe for some tea and Sheesha.

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My Koshary - it is supposedly Egypt's national dish. It is entirely vegetarian and consists mostly of rice, lentils, pasta with a tomato-cinnamon sauce. It was delicious and nutrituous

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Sarah smoking Sheesha in cafe near Al-Azhar Mosque

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Me smoking Sheesha

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The cafe in a souq near Al-Azhar Mosque

And that was that for Cairo, from then on, I'd be heading south up the Nile to do some serious ancient site explorations.

Lastly, anyone who's read my India blogs might remember the "child clinging to leg" incident in Delhi; well I now have a photo of the event thanks to Roberta who was alert enough to capture the moment. It's now included in my blog entry: "Delhi - What Planet Am I On?"

Posted by joshuag 02:49 Archived in Egypt Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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