A Travellerspoint blog

Egypt

The Wrap Up...

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After saying reluctant goodbyes to our new friends, we checked back in to the Sonesta St George and we amused ourselves by going for a walk through Sharia as-souq (which we think roughly translates to “shop street”) in downtown Luxor, and having a great lunch at a local kebab joint. On our travels through various bazaars and souqs in Egypt it seems as though all of the local shopkeepers have rote-learned the following basic English phrases:

“Hello my friend.” - Harmless enough right?
“Welcome to Egypt.” - Thank you
“Where are you from?” - New Zealand always seems to draw blank looks.
“Welcome to Alaska, lovely country, lovely people.” - You have no idea where it is do you?
“You want postcard, papyrus, maybe alabaster cat? I make very good price...” No thank you.

Their friendly banter is simply a cunning method of getting you drawn into conversation to such an extent that you feel rude simply walking away when they throw in the hard sell. Having said that, Rob almost had to buy something from one of the vendors who had obviously been the butt of a cruel joke – His sales pitch, in near perfect English, was: “Hello, I sell complete rubbish.”

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Lunch on Sharia as-Souq, Luxor

We also visited the Luxor Musuem and Mummification Museum that morning, which were both very interesting but small enough to be thoroughly explored in about half an hour each. Later that evening we went to Sofra, a great little Egyptian restaurant in the centre of Luxor, and ran into Grace and Steve, two Canadian honeymooners we met on the cruise. The restaurant came highly recommended by Lonely Planet, so its not surprising that we bumped into each other there. Both the food and the company were excellent but, unfortunately, one of the mummified geese at the museum rather resembled the stuffed pigeon Eve ordered for dinner which impacted on the overall culinary experience.

On Monday, we flew into Cairo in very high winds which made the landing interesting... It didn't help the nerves when one of the passengers received a phone call just before we touched down! Rob could have punched him – seriously, if the seat belt sign had not been on, that guy would have been in trouble...

The drive from the airport to our hotel gave us our first taste of the infamous Cairo traffic which did not disappoint. We passed a speed camera on the way in, which struck us as rather optimistic because the traffic density made it difficult to maintain a speed above 30kph for any length of time. The road rules in Cairo (if there ever was such a thing) seem to have devolved into an extreme form of anti-etiquette, whereby drivers attempt to cut off as many other motorists as they can while beeping their horn as furiously as possible. Add a million or so pedestrians to the fray and you get pure, unadulterated chaos.

We managed to catch up with Isobel and Martin (two friends we met on the cruise) for dinner at the Buddha Bar on the first evening, and we staggered back to our hotel several hours later somewhat the worse for wear. The next morning we were both a bit green and our guide was 45 minutes late, so we were not off to a good start...

After a shaky start the tour commenced with a visit to the Egyptian Museum which required us to walk through Tahrir Square. There were several thousand protesters still in the square when we arrived. We were lucky the museum was open because it had been closed the previous two days due to security concerns. It was evident that there were still some security concerns – That is the museum beyond the row of tanks...

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The museum itself is looking fairly dated and could do with a major overhaul. We were glad of having a guide who could rush us through all of the important pieces so we didn't get bogged down in the 4000 years of history inside the museum. We could easily see how some people lose themselves for a whole day in there. The highlights were the Tutankhamun collection and the royal mummies. We were not allowed to take photos inside the museum, so here's a photo of a man with a donkey instead...

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From the museum we drove to Old Cairo and visited some of the oldest religious sites in the city including the “Hanging Church” (its not really hanging), the oldest mosque in Cairo (don't ask us to pronounce the name), and the Ben Ezra synagogue. Our tour guide was studying to become a priest, so we think he was a bit more interested in these spots than we were...

Our next stop was the Citadel of Saladin and the mosque of Mohammed Ali (no, not THAT Mohammed Ali!!) The Citadel is a massive medieval fort built on a hill overlooking Cairo. There would have been an awesome panoramic view back over the city towards the Nile and the west bank if not for the smog. We did get our first glimpse of the pyramids through the smog, way off in the distance. It was a pretty moving experience to see them loom over the western part of the city and we couldn't wait to see them up close.

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Mosque of Mohammed Ali

After the Citadel, a two hour drive in rush hour traffic, and an argument with the guide over how much money we owed him, we were in desperate need of a drink. However, when we got back to the hotel we discovered that we had unwittingly booked ourselves into a dry hotel – not a drop of alcohol in the place! We stopped short of getting stuck into a bottle of nail polish remover, and decided to take this opportunity to give our livers a brief reprieve.

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The following day we had a different guide and he was absolutely fantastic. We started the day by driving to Saqqara to see the Step Pyramid, which was the first pyramid ever built. Unfortunately, the exterior is currently being restored with brand new polished limestone blocks, which looks really out of place and kind of cheapens the experience. Like putting new Falcon wing mirrors on a Model-T; or Michael Jackson's face (too soon?).

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We moved on to Dashur to see the Bent and Red Pyramids. These two are off the usual tourist trail and we cannot understand why. They are older than Giza and come with an interesting story... The Bent Pyramid is so named because the guy building it started off at too steep an angle and, realising his mistake, changed it half way through construction making it look, well, bent.

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The Red Pyramid was the second attempt (for the same Pharoah) and is named for the polished red granite that used to cover the structure. We had the opportunity to go inside the the red pyramid which was awesome but literally breath taking. We got out almost as quickly as we got in. It was hot and smelly... We think the air conditioning was broken :P

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After an hour drive back to Cairo we headed to the Great Pyramids at Giza. There are nine pyramids at Giza but it is the largest three that rightly get all the attention. The Great Pyramid (the biggest) is built at perfect angles and at midday it casts no shadow. The knowledge and skill required to build these monumental tombs has unfortunately been forgotten, as UNESCO discovered in the 70s – thankfully that restoration attempt was abandoned! At least we are still able to admire them today (unlike the other six wonders of the ancient world).

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And admire them we did! Eve literally spent hours watching the sun set behind them. We spent the night at the Mena House, which was built right next to the Pyramids in the 1800s as a British hunting lodge. The view from our room was spectacular!!

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It was incredibly difficult to leave that view the next morning and head to the airport for our flight to Cyprus.

Posted by RobandEve 09:23 Archived in Egypt Comments (3)

Nile Cruise Part Two

Aswan to Luxor

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After our little side trip to Abu Simbel, we returned to the boat and met some of the passengers who joined the cruise for the return to Luxor. We went for a quick spin in a feluca (small yacht) around Kitchener Island before dossing down in Aswan for the night. The following morning we were again up early for a tour around Aswan itself.

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There are several major attractions in and around Aswan, but we only had time to see the Philae Temple (which, along with Abu Simbel and about 15 other temples, had to be moved due to the construction of the High Dam), the High Dam itself, and the unfinished obelisk...

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When we got started again, we headed back to Kom Ombo and the passengers that joined the cruise in Aswan got an opportunity to see the temple there. While they were doing that, we caught up on sleep/blog/situation in Cairo etc. We did go for a walk along the shopping strip (aka “The Gauntlet”) and were offered scarves, shirts and bottles of water – everything it seemed for five pounds. The trick, of course, is that when you go to pay for this extremely good deal, the vendor explains that he meant five British Pounds (i.e. multiply by about seven!)

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During the short walk, the honeymoon was nearly bought to a screeching halt... We were approached by a man who could properly be described as a “cheeky little f*cker” who announced that Eve was the perfect height for him and that he would like to take her for a 'ride', offering Rob 20 camels in exchange. Rob, who misheard and thought the man was offering him cigarettes, politely declined and was quite confused when Eve bolted back to the boat. Just as well really, as the next day Rob was offered 20 million camels which is an infinitely better offer and at least gave Rob cause to pause .....

We spent that night docked in Edfu and went to see the local temple to Horus the next day. The temple is considered the best preserved temple in Egypt and the interior of the complex is stunning. We got to and from the temple by caleche or horse-drawn carriage, which was organised by the tour company. It was an interesting experience but they can be very expensive and the drivers apparently have a tendency to take you where they want you to go (i.e. where they get a commission), instead of where you asked to be taken.

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The trip between Edfu and Luxor is about eight hours of constant sailing, with a short break halfway for the lock at Esna, which proved to be a good opportunity to relax. That night we had a galabya party, which involved all the passengers dressing up in customary Egyptian clothes. The highlight (or possibly the lowlight) was the boys giving an impromptu dance revue to Zorba the Greek – not exactly traditional Egyptian, but still, very funny...

The following day was another early start for a tour of the west bank, including the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and the magnificently restored Queen Hatchepsut's temple (known to thousands of tourists as 'Hat Cheap Suit' due to pronunciation difficulties).

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The closest we could get the camera to the Valley of the Kings

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Hatchepsut's Temple

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With some of the locals at Hatchepsut's Temple

We went into a total of six tombs, including Tutankhamun's. The tombs were definitely not what we expected, with white plastered walls and brightly painted carvings from floor to ceiling and in many cases covering the ceiling as well. Unfortunately, due to the revolution some of the most impressive tombs were closed for security reasons, but the ones we saw were absolutely amazing. Tutankhamun's mummy is still in his tomb, with teeth showing and a few remaining curls of hair, along with one of his massive gold gilded sarcophagi (he had four, including one made of pure gold which weighed around 110kg!!). We couldn't take photos inside the tombs, so here's a photo of a man with a donkey instead...

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During the west bank tour we were taken to an Alabaster factory where Eve was once again forced to resist the urge to shop. On the way back to the boat we stopped briefly at the Colossus of Memnon, two massive stautes on the west bank of the river.

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After lunch back on the boat the guys that joined in Aswan were off to see the east bank sights we went to the previous week, so we had an afternoon off. We enjoyed our final evening on the cruise sitting on the top deck (beer and cocktails close at hand) and watching the sunset. We had a marvelous time on the cruise and met some great people who we hope to catch up with again during our travels.

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Posted by RobandEve 05:59 Archived in Egypt Comments (2)

Abu Simbel

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Our first overnight stay in Aswan was rudely interrupted by a 3.15am wake up call. We stumbled out of bed and into the car for the three hour drive to Abu Simbel. We slept most of the way down but managed to wake up in time to catch a magnificent desert sunrise...

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We got to Abu Simbel just after 7.00am and walked the short distance down to the shore of the massive, man-made Lake Nasser. The two temples at Abu Simbel are perched on a cliff overlooking the lake and each is set into a small hill purpose-built to house the temples, which were cut out into thousands of pieces and moved in the 60s to save them from being submerged when the lake was flooded. After walking around the side of a nondescript hill you are suddenly face to face with a 15 metre high statue of Ramses looming over you - the first sight of the temple is absolutely breathtaking and is one of the reasons we wanted to come to Egypt.

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The second temple was built for Ramses wife, Nefertari (not to be confused with Nefertiti), and is not as big, but it is still impressive. We weren't allowed to take any photos inside the temples themselves but the carvings inside are very well preserved and have retained much of their original colour.

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One benefit of the current political situation is the effect it has had on tourism – this probably sounds insensitive but we actually managed to get a photograph of the main temple without any tourists in front of it!! Our guide told us that tourist numbers are about 20% of what they would normally be at this time of year... It is a double-edged sword: good for the tourists who are here, not having to queue for hours to see things etc; but the Egyptian people who depend on the tourist dollar are doing it pretty tough.

The drive back to Aswan was tedious due to the lack of anything even resembling “scenery” and neither of us could really get back to sleep. Arid wasteland would be a good description of the landscape, and we definitely got a sense of isolation as we drove through it. That said, we did see some small sand tornadoes whipping across the road which was pretty cool.

The next photo pretty much speaks for itself...

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Posted by RobandEve 06:31 Archived in Egypt Comments (1)

Nile Cruise Part One

Luxor to Aswan

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We joined the cruise just before lunch on Saturday which marked the start of our “official honeymoon” so we were quite excited. It has been a dream of both of ours to come to Egypt, probably since primary school, so to actually be here is kind of surreal. For the up-river leg of the cruise there were only six passengers on the boat and all three couples spoke different languages, so we each had a guide all to ourselves. The first day saw us visiting the Karnak and Luxor temples which were a perfect introduction to Egyptian monuments.

Karnak temple was built by various Pharaohs since before 1500BC, each one trying to out-do the last (an inferiority complex me thinks!). And so Karnak is a sprawling 2km temple complex which includes 136 massive columns and a amazing obelisk which stands 30 metres and was carved out of a single piece of granite.

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Karnak also introducted us to a large group of Chinese religious tourists who insisted on walking round in a circle in one of the shrines, chanting loudly and generally carrying on like complete twats. Unfortunately this group seemed to be on the exact same tour schedule as us because we couldn't go anywhere over the next couple of days without them showing up chanting like idiots. On a positive note, we were introduced to a bloke called Amun Min (God of fertility), he's the guy in the photo with one arm, one leg, a silly hat, and a massive schlong...

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There is a road running from Karnak leading to the Luxor temple known as the avenue of the sphinxes, which is two parallel lines of sphinx statues standing about five metres apart for the three kilometres between the temples. The avenue is currently being excavated and, according to our guide, several hundred homes and businesses have already been demolished to further the project.

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Luxor temple was originally built by an Egyptian Pharaoh and like Karnak, was added to by subsequent kings including Alexander the Great who went to great lengths to be accepted by the common people. He figured that by depicting himself within their mythology, it would be easier for them to submit to his rule. The idea obviously caught on because the Greeks continued to do this until their reign in Egypt died with Cleopatra.

Luxor temple is a mish-mash of the numerous cultures that have conquered or colonised Egypt over the centuries. The Romans plastered over the hieroglyphics and painted their own frescoes – some of which are still visible today; and the Muslims built a large mosque overlooking the open court of the temple. By the time the Muslims came to Egypt, the country had taken to Christianity and the temples dedicated to the Egyptian gods had fallen into disrepair. Every year when the Nile flooded the layers of silt and mud would build on the last so that when the Muslims came to build their mosque at that site, the mosque's foundations were built about five metres higher than the level of the original temple.

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We spent the night docked in Luxor and got up early the next morning to take a hot air balloon flight over Luxor. We were quite lucky because the pilot told us it was the only day in the past two months where the wind was strong enough to carry the balloons across the Nile, back to the east bank. The bird's-eye view of Luxor was fascinating and the pilot actually took us down to street level (not something that you would be allowed to do in a country with OSH legislation!). Some of the houses were close enough to reach out and touch, and I think we scared the shit out of half a dozen goats and some chickens living on the roof of one of the houses.

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The flight almost ended in disaster as we seemed to run out of gas and after narrowly missing a train carriage we almost landed in a small irrigation canal. Thankfully the ground crew were able to form a human chain, and after leaping over the canal to grab the basket they were able to drag us back over dry land.

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On the way to Edfu the boat had to negotiate a seven-metre lock at Esna and on invitation we sat in the bridge sipping tea whilst going through the lock. We also met "No.1 Captain" and "No.2 Captain" of the boat who although they were responsible for driving the boat neither of them were invited to the "Captain's Welcome" drinks that evening. While we were approaching the lock we were again astonished by the lengths that the vendors and touts go to sell crap to tourists. They row up to the cruise boats as they slow down to negotiate the lock, and hook onto the side. As they coast along beside the cruise boat they throw their products (wrapped in plastic) up to the deck of the boats and negotiations are shouted backwards and forwards.

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After an overnight stop in Edfu we carried on south towards Aswan, checking out the temple at Kom Ombo on the way through. We didn't spend a great deal of time here and it wasn't long before we were sailing through to Aswan...

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Posted by RobandEve 14:31 Archived in Egypt Comments (2)

Egypt

First Impressions

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We flew into Cairo and checked into our domestic flight about half an hour early only to find that our booking was incorrect, and instead of a perfectly timed (considering transit time between terminals) three hours in Cairo airport we ended up being stuck there for six... Not only that, a particularly randy young Egyptian gentleman took a fondness to Eve's bottom within seconds of boarding the bus between the airport terminals and considered it a personal challenge to “accidentally” brush up against it as many times as possible during the short trip. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) Rob did not find out about this until much later, otherwise this blog would probably be being authored from an Egyptian prison somewhere in the Western Desert...

After that interesting little interlude, we arrived in Luxor, collected our bags and set about finding a cab. We had been told before coming to Egypt that no taxis have meters and the fares are all negotiated. We were warned to make sure the price is agreed on before getting in the cab, which turned out to be good advice and completely irrelevant at the same time.

The negotiations went something like this:

Cabbie: “You want taxi? I give you very good price my friend. Where you from? You English?
Rob: “Yes we want to go to the Sonesta St George.”
Cabbie: “OK, OK, (leading us to a busted up old station wagon with “TAXI” hand-painted on the side) I give you very good price.”
Rob: “OK, what is the price?”
Cabbie: “Very good price.”
Rob: “What is a very good price?”
Cabbie: “Yes very good price.”
At this point, negotiations broke down while Rob explained that we were not getting into the car until a price had been agreed on, and at any rate, under no circumstances would we be getting into THAT car.

Negotiations resume:
Cabbie: “OK OK 160 Euros.”
Rob: “What? You must be joking.” (Not quite what was said – but this is a family blog)
Cabbie: “Good price my friend, very far from here.”

At which point Rob uses Google maps on the Kindle (love it!) to point out that the hotel was only seven kilometres from the airport:

Cabbie: “I meant 160 Egyptian Pounds.”

We eventually agreed on 60 L.E. and off we went (in a real taxi). No sooner had we left the airport, the cabbie demanded a further 10 Euro to cover the airport pick up “fee” that he had to pay the airport Police to be able to pick up passengers at the airport. Thus, the seven kilometres from the airport to the hotel was spent with the cabbie trying (forcefully) to re-negotiate the fare. He became quite aggressive and several times took his hands off the wheel to turn and face Rob in the passenger seat and practically scream at him while the cab swerved from one side of the road to the other. We eventually arrived safely at the hotel and gave the driver the agreed 60 L.E. plus another 20 to piss off – So far, not a good first impression of Egypt!

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Thankfully the hotel was magnificent, the staff were awesome and very helpful. So good was the hotel that we didn't leave it at all the following day, which was spent lounging by the pool (overlooking the Nile) and drinking cocktails and beer.

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The following day we checked out and joined the cruise. As we post this we are just putting the finishing touches on the first entry for the cruise between Luxor and Aswan...

Posted by RobandEve 05:03 Archived in Egypt Comments (1)

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