Back to Cairo

Just a brief one to wrap up as we had no option but to stay our last night in Cairo again to be able to make our flight the next day. We took a day train from Luxor back up here, a 10 hour journey which costs a pittance compared to the rather expensive night train we took down to Aswan before. This time it was daylight of course, so you could get a look at life along the railway.

Our first class car:

A passing train shows how they travel in 3rd class (yes, this train is moving!)

They still have the old signal boxes in use, a bit like Cornwall in fact! Bizarrely there’s nobody in this shot, but normally there’s all sorts of people walking along the tracks who think nothing of stepping on the signal rods and cables as they go. You’d think that might cause a signal to raise!

We had the morning to kill in Cairo, and we’d deliberately left the Egyptian Museum until this day so that we had something to do to kill the time. We don’t have any shots of the inside as we didn’t bother about getting a camera permit, but the place is piled high with hundreds of sarcophagi and statues and God knows what else, mostly not labelled so you had no idea what you were looking at. One of the more interesting rooms was that of mummified animals, there was all sorts in there – baboons, crocodiles, dogs etc. Then there was the rooms of human mummies which you have to pay a little extra see but that was definitely worth it, you can get very close to them in their glass cases and see all the detail. Mostly they’re Pharaohs that have been removed from their tombs.

Then there’s the Tutankhamen  collection, of his sarcophagus and all his treasures that were buried with him in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. It was remarkable stuff, that’s for sure.

Here’s a token couple of shots outside the museum.

We did a bit of window shopping after that as we went back to the hotel to recover our bags. They have these rather eerie faceless manikins in the shop windows.

A man runs the gauntlet to sell his bread:

That brings us to the end of a very rewarding week in Egypt, bringing with it some blessed heat which we’ve been way overdue for. Everything went off without a hitch really, not bad considering our itinerary was a fairly complex one on a tight timescale. On top of that, I managed to not resort to physical violence at any point, even when being asked for the 100th time in an hour where you’re from, or being ripped off for the 500th time in the same hour 🙂

Posted from Cairo, Cairo Governorate, Egypt.

Luxor – East Bank

The east bank of the Nile at Luxor, where the town is, has two main attractions for tourists in the shape of Luxor Temple and Karnak. Luxor Temple is right in the town, a stone’s throw from the ferry, and was buried for years under sand and silt until it was rediscovered in 1885.

There’s an amazing “avenue of the sphinxs”, which they now know leads all the way up to Karnak, which is a good mile away at least, and are now being excavated.

Inside the temple:

The main facade:

Not sure how clear this is, but a sign in this supermarket proudly declares that there is “no hassle” here – Egypt’s latest buzzword for tourists. Left of the picture is Lisa, arguing with the proprietor over the cost of a bottle of water, which counts as hassle in my book. Yup, even for groceries you have to haggle for your goods.

On the way up to Karnak, I got a puncture in my rear tyre in a really awkward spot, far away from the accomodation where we rented them, and far from any shops or restaurants. We were under a bit of time pressure too as the day was pushing on and this was our last chance to see Karnak before we had to leave. In desperation, I found a sort of a travel agency and asked them. A guy walked with us on foot for a good 10 minutes to a mechanic, who couldn’t helpm but he took us to a small boy who went and woke his father who happened to have a bicycle repair business nearby and opened up especially for us and did a thorough repair for E20, or 80p. Everyone who really helped us and saved our bacon didn’t want any tip or to rip us off, everyone else did! 🙂

Now mobile again, we made it to Karnak:

One thing you’re not supposed to do with ancient monuments is touch them or sit on them.

We feel a bit lost in here, this hall has a total of 134 massive columns like these, and they’re mostly totally intact.

The night before we’d also caught the sound and light show at Karnak after dark. It was cheesy but quite cool at the same time.

The rather impressive public ferry takes you over the Nile for E1.

After a hard day’s temple viewing it’s nice to dip in the pool right on the banks of the Nile. Swimming in the river is not a good option, as it’s got the sewage of Tunisia, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt in it 🙂

One of our last dinners in Egypt, accompanied by the local beer called Stella, which has nothing to do with the more famous Belgian variety and a bottle of local plonk, which wasn’t half bad actually.

Our room service people got creative in our room…

… at the same time as someone was creative outside the restaurant area with the day’s supply of bread.

Posted from Luxor, Luxor Governorate, Egypt.

Luxor – West Bank

Described as the “world’s greatest outdoor museum”, Luxor is 100 miles or so downriver from Aswan. Although rather bigger, it’s similar in as much as the town is on the east bank of the Nile, but the ancient temples and so forth are to be found on both banks. Wanting to avoid the noise and hassle of the town again, we stayed on the west bank which is very rural, essentially on a banana plantation about a mile south of where the public ferry docks. To save a long walk, rather than use that we took a cab on the east side down to where the hotel sends their own boat to pick you up and drop you directly in the hotel.

We had our own cabin, very tastefully done and extremely large and private!

The bathroom is nearly as big as some bedrooms, and continuing an obsession I seem to have of pictures of them, here’s the shower.

We used a couple of bikes for our two full days there to get us easily about, as distances on the west bank are well within reach, and they also let you take them on the ferry to get around the east bank too. The ride up from the hotel towards the ferry and the sights of the west bank through the farm lands was delightful in itself.

They use these simple pumps to lift water from the cess-pit of a canal to irrigate the fields:

We woke up a couple of camels, they look like they may be hubby and wife, don’t they?

We first went up to the Valley of the Kings, fairly high up in the desert and well beyond the fertilising influence of the Nile. There must be 30 or more tombs up there, dug into the sandstone, including that of Tutankhamun. We don’t have a lot of pictures up there as you’re basically not allowed to use your camera unless you bribe the guards on top of the normal baksheesh you have to give them anyway. We went inside the tombs of Ramses III, Ramses IX and Merenptah which are three of the more impressive ones. We didn’t bother with Tutankhamun’s as it’s a fairly hefty surcharge on top and is apparently fairly unimpressive inside compared to the others anyway.

Cycling up there is up a fairly long, steady climb which is not too difficult, even in the soaring heat.

A cemetery in a remote spot halfway up to the valley:

There’s stuff like this littered all over the west bank, scores of tombs and statues everywhere:

Some of the few signs of civilisation on the West Bank, even though this looks  more like a postcard. I suppose that’s the weird effect on the lighting due to the sand.

This was a lunch stop at “Restaurant Mohammed”, close to the main ticket office, which is to say it’s in the middle of nowhere. It was probably the best meal we had though:

The restaurant’s resident cat, who seems to be bored of my advances:

 

Later in the day we did Medinat Habu, yet another mighty impressive temple mostly attributed to Ramses III. It was common for the pharoahs to have baboons as pets, and these are often depicted on the walls, sometimes they have them mummified with them too.

This room depicts lots of murder scenes:

Even at this point, I still struggle to believe that this stuff is some 5,000 years old.

You can get an idea of scale by looking for the Little Lisa in the doorway here:

Our last main stop on the west bank was the Tombs of the Nobles, there’s about 600 of these all in the same area, dating between the 6th dynasty and the Graeco-Roman period. We managed 5 of the 600, you buy tickets for them from the central ticket office, but when you get out there to the deserted site, you find that the actual tombs are locked, until a guide springs out from behind a rock and unlocks it for you. You have to give him some basksheesh, of course, and when you’re out he points you towards the next tomb your ticket allows you to go into, of course this time a different guide appears from nowhere to let you in. 5 tombs, 5 guides, 5 lots of baksheesh….

You’re not allowed to take photos as usual, but I did pay over the odds to one of these dudes to get a couple of pics inside Amenenope, we think it was.  The grate on the right of the first picture covers a shaft leading down into deeper parts of the tomb, where robbers would’ve dragged out the sarcophogus from at some point.

I remember as a child back at home when a baker used to deliver bread to our door. It still happens on the west bank.

Posted from Luxor, Luxor Governorate, Egypt.

Aswan

Anyone who’s known me long enough will know I was something of a Madness fan back in the day, an 80s Ska band whose one of their more obscure singles was called “Night Boat to Cairo”. I couldn’t manage to arrange that, but got fairly close by taking a Night Train From Cairo to Aswan, some 1000km up river from Cairo. In fact, this night train is the only one that foreigners are technically allowed to use along the upper Nile valley, all day trains are off limits. We travelled in style in first class, which gives you a private compartment with 2 bunk beds in it which convert from chairs for day use. There’s a wash basin in there, and a very good dinner of your choosing and a mediocre breakfast are brought to you by the porter.

The first challenge was actually finding the train in Cairo station. Much of the signage is in Arabic and although many people you speak to seem to have some grasp of English, it’s still hard to get much from anyone that makes much sense. Mostly you get given a vague arm movement which is sending you in any direction that’s away from them, and after going between about 6 unidentified windows around in circles, we try our luck on a random platform. It wasn’t the right one, but people were jumping off the far end of the platform in their droves onto the tracks with big suitcases on their shoulders, running across multiple lines, literally right in front of moving trains. In the end, a lad whose job it was to sweep the platform sent us to exactly the right spot on the very long platform the train was coming in on, and he didn’t even want any baksheesh for it.

The Egyptian method of fair – dodging differs from ours:

Not sure how clear that is as I was trying to be subtle taking it, but there are three people in the unused adjoining door. All trains seemed to leave with people in there, as well as with people running down the track chasing them as they left to grab the bottom of the doorway and climb on, like you see on films.

It was a bit of a rough ride, the train stopped a lot at seemingly random moments and rattled on the buffers so hard we were almost thrown out of bed several times. We were 2 hours late on the 13 hour journey in the end and later found out that the loco was broken, and the driver had to get out and start beating it with a large hammer to get it going again.

If you’re wondering why I went for the no. 2 haircut all over, it’s because the temperatures here should be in the early 30s at this time of year, but there’s a bit of a heat wave going on at the moment and today we’re facing this:

For anyone in Lisa’s possie not familiar with these new fangled temperature scales, that’s a toasty 108F.

Aswan is a fairly small town, right on the river bank, but we opted to stay on Elephantine Island in the middle of the river right opposite the town. There was an indigenous group of people in a region called Nubia, south of Aswan stretching down into Sudan. The whole area was basically submerged when the High Dam was built in the 70s and created Lake Nasser over their villages. One of the places they resettled to was Elephantine Island which remains very rural with no vehicles and only dirt paths winding in between colourfully painted houses. It really is a world away from the town opposite and was blissfully quiet at night. We stayed in a small guest house on the west side, directly opposite the botanical gardens on Kitcheners Island, an even smaller island on the way to the Nile’s west bank, run by a Nubian man and his Italian wife. What with the sunset over the temples of the west bank and the coloured lighting of the botanics after dark, it was something fairly spectacular.

You get to the island on one of two public ferries. Whilst we were waiting for it we negotiated with a “felucca” captain for a trip that evening. A felucca is a small wooden sailing yacht that traditionally ply the waters of the Nile and is a good way to get to Luxor from here in 3 days or so, if you have the time, which we don’t.

They rip tourists off on the ferry by charging double the normal fare, so we had to fork out E2 each, that’s 5p. Women must sit at the front of the boat and wait for the men to disembark first from where they sit at the back. Again the dodgy camera work is me trying to be subtle :

We took a walk to the south of the island which just takes a few minutes through the twisty maze of alleyways between fields and houses to reach the ruins of Abu a collection of temples and tombs dating back to 3000BC. There is also an interesting “Nilometer”, basically a staircase down into the river, with graduation marks on it to monitor the river depth. They used this as a way of gauging how prosperous the next harvest would be.

A donkey watches TV in an alleyway of one of the Nubian villages:

The Nilometer:

Looking towards Aswan from one of the temples:

This temple has been restored. They have rendered the missing bits of stone and have stencilled on how the hieroglyphics would have looked:

After Abu we took the other public ferry over to Aswan to find our felucca. Our captain was nowhere to be seen, despite him making us promise to him that we’d be back. In Egypt, once you shake on a deal, neither party must renege on it. Instead, another guy approached us with the “do you remember me?” scam, despite the fact we’d never met him. He tried to get us on his motor boat, but we didn’t fancy doing that really. Instead we tried to go for a drink in the Old Cataract Hotel of Agatha Christie fame but after looking us up and down they wanted E200 each to even go in there.

Instead we went back over to our island and found a strange “crocodile house”, a restaurant come heritage centre, filled with artefacts collected by some Brit who used to live here, for a fish feast:

Next day we opted for a car with driver to take us out to the boat landing which takes you over to Philae Temple on Agilika Island, just up river from the Aswan old dam. It was relocated here after it was submerged for much of the year due to the dams.

After this we stopped off at the Unfinished Obelisk which would’ve been the biggest ever created. Unfortunately, just before they were about to start inscribing it, it cracked and they had to abandon it. It lies here ever since:

On the way back we stopped for a well needed beer on a riverside pontoon bar and found a new felucca captain to charter. He and his mate took us around for an hour but there was very little wind, so they ended up rowing it with a couple of the bench seats they removed from it, whilst Captain Matt took the helm. They complimented me on my navigation skills, telling me I must have done it before (I have)

After all that excitement, why not enjoy a cocktail in the observation bar in a weird 5-star resort on our island:

 

At a “souq” (market place) a donkey delivers a shipment of Egyptian carpet:

Next day, with a slightly heavy heart, we had to leave Aswan and head downriver to Luxor. As we waited for our ferry at the ungodly hour of 6am, who was waiting there but our original felucca captain, who sheepishly admitted he’d found another fare and blown us out. Shame on him!

We tried to arrange a shared taxi of some kind to visit some temples en route, but no luck so we took the train instead. This is a day train which foreigners are not allowed to use and they will not sell you a ticket for. It’s a well known trick that you just board the train anyway and buy a ticket from the conductor. Answers on a postcard please…

Just for fun:

 

 

Posted from Aswan Governorate, Egypt.

Cairo!

Determined not to be ripped off by a taxi driver, we went for the local bus option to get from the airport to downtown and hopefully near to our hotel. This has to be the cheapest airport transfer ever at just 10p, helped by the kind bloke next to me who rode with one of our suitcases on his lap as the bus was packed. There’s no hope of the conductor moving through the bus to sell you a ticket, instead when it appears to be your turn, you pass your bank note forwards from person to person. Moments later, back are passed two tickets and your change!

This was early in the journey, it got much busier later:

As expected, the traffic in Cairo is insane, though in the hour or so we were on the bus, only one car crashed into us. The door was open the whole time as people were jumping on and off, allowing the smog to fully penetrate our luggage, clothes and lungs etc. We got into conversation with a few of the locals, I don’t think it’s too common for tourists to be on a bus like that, including an ex-serviceman who seemed to have a load of shirts with him, available to buy. I didn’t buy any…

We got to our downtown pension which is a wonderful old colonial building with one of those shaky old lifts to get you up there. The room was blissfully quiet as it looked out into some kind of courtyard as opposed to the constant traffic and horns of the street.

Next day we chartered Mohammed and his car for the day to take us wherever we wanted to go, as most places are at least very difficult if not impossible to reach by public transport. First stop was the pyramids at Giza, which were relatively quiet at the time of day we got there. I’d read that this is the most traumatic place to visit for most people in Egypt due to the hassle factor from people touting everything from wooden Buddhas to rides on their malnutritioned looking camels and horses, and we were pestered probably on average every couple of minutes or so, but they were fairly easily deflected really. Instead we went on foot around the two main pyramids and the Sphinx. The ticket for the site was 120 Egyptian pounds which is under £5 since the government let their currency float a year or two ago and the exchange rate changed from around 10 to 1 to 25 to 1 almost overnight.

For an extra E300 you can go inside the Great Pyramid which we opted to do. In true Egyptian efficiency style, I had to leave the area, go back to a ticket office, queue at the Great Pyramid window, next to the general area ticket window where the tour bus crowd were starting to queue up at by now (they would have to queue twice if they wanted a Great Pyramid ticket too) and reenter the airport style security area to get back in. You crouch and semi-crawl up a steep tunnel to get to the King’s Chamber about 8 by 5 metres, which is plain apart from an empty sarcophagus. They think the place was ransacked at least 600 years ago and they’ve no idea what happened to the bodies. At E300 for this, compared to the E120 for general entrance, this is definitely what you’d consider a rip off, but then perhaps they put the money towards further excavation and exploration.

They take your camera off you at the entrance to the pyramid, but they don’t take your phone. Probably just an excuse for the guard to get some “baksheesh” in the form of a few Egyptian pounds. This is Lisa descending the shaft with a few million tons of stone above her:

Then we drove off to Saqqara, about 10 km further south and very much out in the desert, which is the home of the world’s oldest pyramid and indeed stone structure in the world, the Step Pyramid of Zoser. This dates from 2650 BC whereas Giza is 80 years or so younger than that. It’s in very real and imminent danger of collapse since an earthquake and a couple of botched restoration attempts, so it might turn out to be lucky we saw it when we did!

The complex has a whole load of tombs, accessed by really deep shafts in the sand, guarded by cobras :

A shallow tomb entrance :

It’s too deep to see the bottom, but there’s an entrance to a tomb in the bottom of this:

The stone door of a tomb:

These two guys are Liverpool fans, they said. Apparently there’s an Egyptian who plays for them :

Saqqara was a great place to visit, very quiet compared to Giza and very little in the way of hassle.

After a hard day of sightseeing, what better way is there to chill out apart from with tea and hasheesh?

Tonight we’re off well up the Nile to Aswan by sleeper train and to some serious heat!