Travelogue of Jen and Andrews Epic Journey Through Pharaonic Lands, 23-31 July 1999
Arrive in Egypt. Cairo airport is a zoo! We make it through customs under the steely gaze of soldiers and police armed with semiautomatic weaponry. This, we later learn, is only a taste of things to come. We leave the airport it is hot and sticky outside and are shepherded onto our bus, to be joined by seven others. It turns out there will be only the nine of us together for the week on the tour, which is nice. We are taken to the domestic terminal of the airport to await our flight to Aswan. Where we wait. And wait. With little information as to the scheduling from Jules Verne, we have no idea when we will reach our ultimate destination, the cruise ship. Our 1.15 am flight is finally ready to board at 1.45 am. And what a flight it is!! The plane is like nothing I have ever seen before the cabin is about 4 feet high and 6 feet wide. It seats only 19 people! Unbelievable! We buckle in and diligently read our flight safety cards. But we arrive safely after an hour and a half. By the time we wait for our bags, get on the waiting bus, drive to the ship, check in and get to our rooms, it is almost 4.30 am. A. and I have been up for 22 hours! We collapse into bed for what turns out to be a grand total of one hours sleep!
We return to the boat, have breakfast and take time to check out the ship. Its amazing much better than we expected. Its like a floating hotel. Our room is fantastic, with a double bed, nice bathroom with a good shower and constant hot water supply (a luxury on some tours weve been on in the past!). We have a huge picture window looking out onto the Nile were almost directly on the waters surface. The rest of the ship is lovely, with a nice bar and lounge and a huge sundeck with a pool and jacuzzi. We head back to the restaurant where our lunch is a sumptuous five-course affair I cant possibly finish it all. The service is excellent too. Were thrilled with the whole place.
We get to know the others on the tour as we all sit together at mealtimes. They are all from London and the surrounding area. Theres John and Susan, Esther and Harry, Ted and Michelle, and Michelles mother Roma. We are all happy with the ship but surprised that there are so few people on it. It can take over 120 passengers but this is apparently a slow week of the low season as there are only about 25 people on board including ourselves! On the one hand, its great, because we can almost pretend were on our own personal cruise. But on the other hand, its a little eerie like the setting for an Agatha Christie novel!
This afternoon we head out again. We visit another temple, this one dedicated to the god Horus, at Edfu. We dock and climb into rickety carriages drawn by scrawny-looking horses which are waiting to take us to the temple. I get pulled up next to the driver and hang on for dear life as the carriage lurches through the potholed streets. It is so hot about 45 C and I feel sorry for the poor horse which is forced by the driver to gallop madly along. We arrive at the temple precinct and have our first encounter with the Egyptian merchant. There is a small bazaar built up around the temple entrance designed to extract money from tourists. We are pulled off our carriage and ushered into a stall. Not knowing the ways of Egyptian merchants, we comply, which turns out to be a big mistake. Within minutes we are dressed in robes and Egyptian headgear and the merchants are demanding our money. We try to politely refuse but it gets us nowhere. After about fifteen minutes, Said comes in search of us and says something angrily in Arabic to the merchants, who immediately lay off. When the group is together again Said explains to all of us how to deal with the merchants and their aggressiveness. We learn that even making eye contact is seen as a show of interest and the only way to get out of the situation is to keep walking and saying no. It seems rude but over the next few days we become pros at it and realize it is the only way to deal with the situation.
The temple offers some welcome shade the heat is oppressive. Again we see amazing statues, hieroglyphs, and this time wall paintings the colours still so bright after over 3,000 years. A testament to the dry climate. After we leave the temple grounds, our friends the merchants, whom wed hoped to avoid, find us again and offer the Egyptian gowns we had been looking at, at the price wed originally offered to pay (about 10 pounds sterling they were originally asking 40!). In exasperation, we take them and when I get back to the ship I discover the one theyve sold me is stained!! Swindlers!!
On returning to the ship we thank God for air conditioning, shower, nap and then go down to the restaurant for dinner, another five-course affair. Tonight the cuisine is Egyptian, which we enjoy very much. We watch the sun set over the Nile from the deck of the ship, then I retire while Andrew stays up on deck to watch the ship navigate the Nile locks. We have another very early rising tomorrow.
We arrive at the Valley of the Kings. Difficult to believe were really here. Its very bleak just sand and rock, no vegetation of any kind. The difference between this place and the river banks is stark, yet were only about a half a mile inland. We get off the bus at the ticket office and then board these funny train-like cars for the ride into the Valley to the tombs themselves. At the side of the road a sign in Arabic and English commands us to look at the glory of the ancient. We arrive at the entrance to the Valley and spill out of the train-cars to follow Said, who is determined to beat even the small crowd which is already here at 7.30 am. We can tell already the heat is going to be oppressive. When we got off the boat is was comfortable perhaps mid-20s but now that the sun has risen it is probably about 35 C.
Said takes us through three tombs which he considers the most impressive. In the first one (that of Ramesses II) we are alone, which is wonderful. We also see the tombs of Ramesses VII and IX and are amazed by the painting and carving inside. Theres really no vocabulary to describe it. I found the last tomb, Ramesses IXs, particularly eerie as, when we reach the innermost chamber, we find our way barred. There had been a cave-in up ahead and the chambers there are closed. Peering into the darkness at the empty space beyond was really creepy reminding me that I was standing in a resting house for the dead. Of course it should be dark, silent and terrifying, not brightly lit and filled with noisy ignorant tourists.
Having been given the choice of which additional tombs to visit in our spare time after our guided tour, we bypass that of King Tut. Said tells us that the interior decoration is no more impressive than some of the others weve seen, and that other than the inner sarcophagus which contains Tuts mummy, none of the original contents are inside theyre all at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which well be seeing later in the week. It also costs an extra 15 pounds sterling to get in! The Egyptians realize how much extra money they can make from the type of tourists wanting to visit Tuts tomb at any cost and tick it off their Been There, Done That list. So we decide not to bother and leave the hordes already assembled there to queue for their chance to go inside.
We later jump back on the bus for the short trip to the adjoining Valley of the Queens, where Said takes us to see the tombs of Queen Tyti and Prince Kha-em-waset. These are among my favourites as they contain amazing paintings -- the colours are as fresh and bright as if they were painted yesterday, not over 3,000 years ago. We sit in the shade outside after our tour, drink water and try to cool off, but its a futile effort. Its 8.30 in the morning and the temperature is already 42 C. The only positive thing is that it is so dry, our sweat immediately evaporates, so at least we are not feeling sticky which would only add to our misery.
But there are more sights to see, so we press on. Our next stop is the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, constructed circa 1500 BC. An amazing sight, but also sobering as this is where 50-odd tourists were killed by mad Islamic fundamentalist gunmen almost two years ago. As a result there are even more than the usual numbers of police and soldiers with big guns patrolling around. I dont feel so safe though looking at the site, its obvious why the gunmen chose it. Standing on the ridge above the temple, they could fire at their leisure as there is absolutely no shelter of any kind. Scary. We depart the Valley, stopping en route back to the ship at an alabaster shop (a local product) where the owners understand the Western way of shopping and where we are left in peace to browse and buy. Later, we stopped at the strange Colossi of Memnon for a few pics.
Another groaning five-course lunch aboard ship, showers and then its on to the awe-inspiring temple complex of Karnak. I had been looking forward to the visit but I now find it difficult to appreciate the site fully because of the searing heat. It must be 50 C by now. The temple is built on a massive scale but I can only manage to trudge along beside Said for his tour and then collapse in the shade afterward. Back on the bus and to the air-conditioned comfort of a perfume factory. We are given a talk on how traditional Egyptian perfumes are made as well as the techniques for making the beautiful glass and crystal perfume bottles which are an Egyptian specialty. Of course it is all a veiled sales pitch, but still I buy some lotus blossom perfume oil and a small gold and glass bottle to put it in as a souvenir.
Back again to the ship for dinner and yet another shower. Afterwards we take a dip in the pool on deck and watch the sun go down. Then we are back off to Karnak for a sound and light show, which is a little on the melodramatic side but enjoyable nonetheless. Im glad weve gone now that it is dark and the heat is not so oppressive, I am able to enjoy and appreciate the temple, which is particularly awe-inspiring in the dark. It is built on such a massive scale you feel completely dwarfed. And the antiquity is almost impossible to grasp the oldest parts were constructed around 1900 BC. We return to the ship thoughtful and sleepy from the warm night breeze.
Unfortunately the visit has to be kept short as we have to go back to the ship and pack up, as our wonderful cruise is coming to an end! We enjoy a final lunch, distribute tips all around to the crew (an integral part of travel in Egypt, weve discovered) and say our farewells to Said, who has been a wonderful guide. We leave together for the airport and another scary flight back to Cairo aboard the same type of tiny plane we flew in on! Not only that, but we discover after were in the air that its a training flight for the Egyptian pilot! Theres an Aussie at the controls but that doesnt stop the plane from fishtailing alarmingly as we come in to land at Cairo. Eeee!! Still, the flight was much better in the daytime we had amazing views of the Sahara, the Nile and the Pyramids from the air.
We meet our new guide, Caroline, at the airport and we leave for our hotel, the Mena House, which we are all looking forward to as weve all heard its one of the great hotels of the world. And it is wonderful as we pull up, set in beautiful grounds and with the Pyramids literally right behind it. We are all very excited until we are told we are to be housed in the garden wing of the hotel hm. We get the suspicion that we are about to be ushered to the budget end of the hotel with the rest of the riffraff. A. and I are given our room assignment. It looks great we have a Pyramid view but alas it also has two single beds! We head back downstairs, explain our situation and ask to change rooms. Sadly the only ones available are at the back of the hotel facing the rather dirty and noisy street. Oh well we keep the curtains closed. The room is alright standard hotel fare but the bathroom is a bit grotty. Not what we expected from a five-star hotel! We meet with the rest of the group for dinner and find that John and Susan have complained about the state of their bathroom to the management. Hm. Nonetheless, we enjoy a meal together on the patio of one of the restaurants. Cairo is much cooler than Upper Egypt, and once the sun sets it becomes quite comfortable. We have a walk around the posh part of the hotel after dinner and are suitably impressed its like the inside of a jewel box. Were definitely housed with the rest of the poor folks! Ah well. To bed.
Such treasures notwithstanding, we are happy to leave the museum. With conditions like that , I have begun to understand why the British Museum is so reluctant to give many of its Egyptian artifacts back! We head to the central bazaar of Cairo, the Khan el Khalili, and have lunch in a restaurant arranged by the hotel. The food is Egyptian and we all enjoy it thus far weve had no trouble with the food though most of us are trying to be careful. We spend a little time wandering in the market afterwards but find the merchants still too aggressive, though theyre quite tame compared to the ones we encountered in Upper Egypt.
Afterwards we are taken to visit sites in Old Cairo, including the Citadel (a medieval fortress) and the Alabaster Mosque. This is the first mosque Ive ever been in and its quite amazing very cool and breezy inside with beautiful domed ceilings and chandeliers, and of course beautiful white alabaster everywhere. We make our way quite slowly back to the bus were all tired this afternoon and head back through Cairo. By now we have all noticed that the overwhelming impression Cairo gives is that of decrepitude. We are amazed by how many half-finished buildings there are everywhere, and how dirty it is. Caroline says it is because there is very little municipal control over building or public works in the city. Also, the abundance of half-finished construction everywhere is apparently due to the fact that if a particular district has a large proportion of such buildings, the tax assessors charge the residents a much lower tax bill than they would a nicer, finished area. Also for tax purposes a house isnt until it has a roof, so they just dont build roofs.
We return to the hotel, have a nice swim, dinner, and then were off to another sound and light show, this time at the Pyramids. They are literally a five-minute drive from the hotel. This is our first up-close look at the Pyramids and the Sphinx, at twilight, and they dont disappoint. The show is quite good and were all quite awestruck by the sight. Amazing. We can hardly believe were here!
Back to the hotel and bed. My innards are beginning to feel suspiciously wobbly. Uh oh.
However, we all summon our strength for the sights to be seen. We stand at the base of the Great Pyramid of Cheops and marvel. Huge. We buy tickets to go inside. Im quite excited about this prospect until we actually get in. We discover that to reach the Kings Chamber in the heart of the Pyramid, we must climb up a stone shaft at about a 40 degree angle, bent double (the shaft is only about four feet high). It is only about three feet wide and there are people coming down at the same time as we are trying to get up. There is no way to turn around and get back out so we are forced to go on. It is not a very pleasant experience and strikes me as incredibly unsafe. It is hot, stuffy, and a difficult climb takes almost ten minutes to reach the chamber. We stop for a picture A. is ecstatic, he thinks the whole experience is amazing but I find the trip down and out of the pyramid even worse than coming in as I keep bashing my head off the roof of the shaft. I keep envisioning myself scrunched up in the heart of this mountain of rock. Its a relief to get out.
Afterwards we have free time which A. and I spend wandering around the three pyramids and taking pictures . Its very nice except for the fact that we are constantly harangued by Egyptian men riding horses or camels, trying to cajole us into taking rides or offering to pose for pictures. We decline the latter since we know that they will expect to be paid for their services! The omnipresent vendors here are also very pushy, pressing free gifts into our hands and then demanding money for luck! We have heard of instances where tourists accept free rides on camels but are then not allowed to dismount until they pay! But we manage to escape their clutches, and the views across the desert with camels and more pyramids in the distance are majestic.
After some time spent wandering around and taking pictures of the Great Sphinx as enigmatic as wed imagined we regroup and head for Sakkara Country Club where we have lunch. Andrew suddenly takes a turn after feeling a bit funny all morning and it becomes apparent he has also been struck by the Pharaohs Curse. After some discussion with the rest of the group, we determine that we must have been made sick by the rice pudding we had for dessert at lunch the day before, as five of the seven of us who ate it are now unwell (the two who escape unscathed are the only ones out of our group not to get sick at all during the trip). After lunch I have a serious relapse and feel very ill indeed. A. and I manage to stagger through the sights at Memphis the ancient Egyptian capital about which Caroline is able to provide little information or context. Its just a mass of archaeological excavation sites and a museum with some statuary brought from other areas. Disappointing. We travel the countryside on our coach, passing through seriously decrepit and depressing villages. There is so much poverty here. We reach the site of the Step Pyramid, the forerunner to the pyramids at Giza, which is an amazing sight but by this time A. and I are feeling so miserable we cant appreciate much. I give the last stop of the day more ancient tombs a miss and remain on the bus. Caroline realizes how lousy most of us feel so we head back to the hotel early. As soon as we return A. and I collapse into bed.
At least today is a scheduled day off, and we had planned to stick around the hotel, enjoy the amenities and relax anyway, so we are not missing any major sightseeing. We nap, read, swim in the pool and generally take it easy. We have booked a sunset ride out into the desert tonight with the rest of our group and definitely dont want to miss that. Thankfully we feel much better by the time evening rolls around and the ride turns out to be one of the best things weve done on the whole trip. We are driven to one of the many stables at the edge of the desert and head out in a caravan of Arabian horses and camels. I choose a camel to go out on, and is getting up on it ever scary! Its hard to get used to as well the camel has a strange lurching gait and I hang on for dear life for the first ten minutes or so until I get used to it. Theyre such funny animals theyre smelly, they grunt and break wind a lot, but they lumber along placidly with those stupid dozy grins on their faces. But what an amazing way to travel the sun sets as we head out to the dunes above the Pyramids. We get some wonderful pictures. The journey is only spoiled by a wily vendor who cons us into buying vastly overpriced Cokes that we dont even want. A few moments of anxiety as the desert police (who patrol the sands around the Pyramids on camelback, carrying big machine guns) approach and apparently tell our guide he has to take us back as its getting dark. So we return, and I swap my camel for an Arabian for the ride back. What a great evening. Selling these services to tourists is obviously big business. We are pretty happy with the way our ride was conducted, as it was arranged by the hotel, and the animals we rode looked well cared for. But this isnt the case with every stable, and as we are driven away back to the hotel we see a lot of scrawny-looking horses, and even, horribly, the carcass of a dead horse in the yard of one stable upon which a pack of dogs are dining. Thats Egypt for you. Awe-inspiring majesty side by side with sickening squalour.
We head back to the hotel for exotic fresh juice drinks an Egyptian specialty and a meeting with Caroline about tomorrows sights in Alexandria. I have a bit of a relapse no doubt brought on by the lurching gait of the camel and we hit the sack.
We are also quite alarmed by the degree of security we have while here. While everywhere we have visited in Egypt has had a considerable security presence because of the terrorist threat, here in Alexandria we have personal security. An armed guy in plain clothes accompanies us on the train from Cairo; he is joined by another armed colleague when we arrive in Alexandria, and both board the coach with us. Then we discover that everywhere we drive that day, we have a policeman on a motorcycle ahead of our coach, and a truck full of armed soldiers behind!! Unbelievable! I didnt even notice the armed guys until A. pointed them out, however of course he had the entire situation sussed out within minutes. When we questioned Caroline about the situation, all she would say was that the company always lays on extra security for Alexandria because there is not much of a tourist industry there. We all find this explanation somewhat dubious but arent sure what else to think. Bizarre and scary.
We head off for our lunch, which is laid on for us at the summer palace of King Farouk. On the way there, we pass the medieval Citadel of Alexandria, reputedly on the site where the famed Lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) used to stand. We enjoy a nice meal and have a short tour of the palace, taken over by the government and turned into a posh hotel after the king was chucked out in the 1950s. We then take a stroll out onto the beach and enjoy the sea breezes off the Med its very humid here.
By 5.00 we head back to the station, return to Cairo on the train, enjoy a last meal together with the rest of the group at the poolside restaurant, and then pack and head for bed. Our last night in Egypt!