magical Egypt

Posted from Giza Governorate, Egypt.

great pyramids

Hello Egypt!

We were packed into the van, glued to the windows like children at a candy shop. Our tour leader, Islam (yes, that’s his name,) was giving us advice and information about what would happen and how things work, but it was difficult to pay attention. The medley of traffic was mesmerising, daunting, and so chaotic that I couldn’t stop wondering how it wasn’t just a big snarl of metal. Then Dan says, ‘I can’t believe none of you have noticed the pyramids yet.’ There, through the van window, like fake theatre scenery, like a movie backdrop I had seen in dozens of documentaries stood the Great Pyramid, so recognisable, and yet so foreign. Were we really here? Was I finally in Egypt?

Cairo traffic

Cairo traffic is probably worse than Toronto traffic. Lanes are just suggestions.

In the 10 days to follow I would experience a jam-packed schedule that flew us to Aswan, took us on a journey south to Abu Simbel, brought us to Luxor and a Nubian village, while also introducing us to the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, on ground and by hot-air balloon, carried us overland again to peaceful Hurghada, and flew us back to Cairo. There would be more than one 4 a.m. wake-up call, and very few that came after 6:30 a.m. There would be beers by the pool, shawarma, horse and carriage rides, boat rides, and so much more. This is magical Egypt, and it was the most amazing trip I have ever been on.

I’ve never been on a tour. But my usual style of backpacker budget travel didn’t make much sense for Egypt. The revolution was over, but there were still uncertainties that filled my head. Family and friends were even more wary. So when some friends of mine in Toronto told me about a tour they were doing in Egypt, I sort of begged to be allowed to join. It’s been on my bucket list for a long time.

sarcophagus

The things one expects to see in Egypt – one sees.

The tour company, Encounters Travel, took care of our airport transfers, guides, transportation, most bathroom breaks, and most other things we required, but were unaware of. We paid a lump sum for our entry fees at the beginning, minus special entry fees. The hotels were Egyptian five-star, the transportation was in a passenger van, or plane, or boat, and I hardly ever had to move my own suitcase.

To be fair, this was a trial tour, not the usual one offered by Encounters Travel, so we had a bit of special treatment. But if they ever offer this tour in the future, it’s absolutely worth it.

The Nile River supplies life to Egypt. The desert is never very far away.

While it was the most hectic and non-stop journey, it was so efficient I’m not sure we missed anything. And while I was tired at the end of it, I was also more filled up with the love and mystery of Egypt that has held me captive since I was a child.

I wrote a bit of a journal for each day, but if you don’t want to read it, the photos tell the story just as well.

DAY 1 – welcome to Egypt

The security in Egypt is at a higher level then anywhere I’ve ever traveled. The revolution may have ended, but there’s still some unease. Our tour guides, (whose access to areas of the airport and other places would continue to baffle me) meet us before the baggage claim, before immigration, in the arrivals hall. And they have flowers for each of the women in our group. They guide us through the entire process of exiting the airport, getting our visas, even exempting us from having our luggage x-rayed for the umpteenth time.

great pyramid

Just a regular day in Cairo with the pyramids lurking in the background.

From the airport we zip down the unmarked highway passing brick buildings that defy my limited knowledge of engineering. There are momentary glimpses of the desert, and terrain that appears impossible to erect buildings upon, but somehow the Egyptians have defied those odds as well. There’s a part of me that keeps dreamily looking out the window, I am, after all, finally in Egypt, but the tour operators need our attention to explain some points to us about what to expect. I’m half paying attention to both. And then the pyramids come into view. It’s surreal and I tell my brain repeatedly that they’re real, I’m in Egypt.

Mena House wedding

The view of the pyramids from our hotel left little to be desired. They were setting up for a wedding.

Our hotel, Mena House, is the oldest hotel in Egypt, a palace that was built some 400 m from the Great pyramid of Cheops. The view is spectacular and unreal. Our magical welcome team pulls some strings and gets us into our rooms by 9 a.m. None of us have really slept on the 10.5 hour flight from Toronto, despite the extra space from it being half full – a clear sign of the lack of visitors choosing Egypt. After breakfast – an ample buffet spanning many cultures – everyone gets some sleep.

In the evening we could see people climbing the pyramid, whether this was legal, or a movie crew, or someone was making some extra spending money. Look on the left hand side.

Not much is accomplished on the first day. Beers are enjoyed by the pool, there’s a tour of the hotel with access to the Churchill and Montgomery suites, but fatigue settles in and it’s an early night.

DAY 2 – pyramids and the museum

I touched the great pyramid. And then I walked on it. A few selfies later, then some more pictures, and it still hadn’t really sunk in. It really didn’t matter what happened on the rest of this trip – a lifelong dream had happened. A large part of me really wanted to pay the extra money to go inside the pyramid, but our tour guide, Waleed, told us it was absolutely over-rated and there was nothing to see. I trusted his advice, even though a small part of me, the esoteric part of me that thought it could connect me with some kind of unknown universal energy, would regret it.

Selfie time!

There were a lot of tourists, by my standards, but Waleed, an Egyptologist who has worked in the industry since well before the revolution, told us this was quiet.

sphinx

When you can’t go right up to the Sphinx, you do the best you can.

We went to a view area and took some more photos, and then drove over to the Sphinx. You can no longer go right up to the Sphinx, but Waleed bribed a guy who allowed us through a gate where we could gain a closer and unobstructed view of the monument. I couldn’t help imagining what it was like 20 years ago when people were allowed to go right up to it and touch it.

camels desert

Camel rides are offered, but not too many tourists were keen.

The time at both sites was short, and part of me would’ve liked more time to wander around the pyramids, but for what we were trying to fit into one day, we had to get moving. And to be fair, while the pyramids are the most well-known sites in Egypt, I will come to learn they are not the best sites.

saqqara

The ruins at Saqqara aren’t as popular as those of the pyramids, but this makes them even better.

At the next site, Saqqara, we climbed inside the oldest step pyramid in Egypt. It was astounding, walls covered in hieroglyphics and the ceiling bathed in stars. But the museum here. While many tours might skip it, it has older artefacts than the Cairo Museum, including the oldest mummy in Egypt. The Cairo Museum, however, is nothing to shake a stick at. After our history lesson from Waleed, and a quick run through of the museum, he took us outside to show up the most recent discovery of a statue uncovered that originally was thought to be of Ramses II. It sat on the lawn, half unpacked, some caution tape staked around it, and a cat lounging in its shade.

Tut canopic jars

Part of King Tut’s tomb, these are the canopic jars that held his organs.

The newest addition to the Cairo Museum.

In the evening we went for dinner on the Nile at an upscale place called Sequoia. While the bill equaled some $35 each for the meal, it included alcoholic drinks and appetisers. Egypt is cheap. 

DAY 3 – on to Aswan

Our flight to Aswan didn’t depart until 12:20 p.m., which meant we could sleep in until after 7 a.m. Traffic is hit or miss in Cairo, so we had to give ourselves enough time to get to the airport.

aswan dam

Waleed teaching us about the history of the Aswan High Dam.

The one hour flight was mostly filled with tourists, which was encouraging. After we landed Waleed took us to see the Aswan Dam. There are armed guards at the dam that asked to see our driver’s credentials and do a walk around of our bus. It is very illegal to take photos of any military staff or posts, which is one photo rule none of us broke. The dam itself wasn’t that spectacular, to be fair, but it was interesting to note that on one side there are crocodiles, and the other side there are not.

Afterwards we went to see Philae Temple, which had to be moved piece by piece because of the flooding, and subsequent lake the Aswan High Dam created. It’s on an island and the only way to get there is by boat.

Philae Temple

The beautiful temple was defaced on some parts by the Greeks and other invaders, scratching out the faces and bodies of the Gods depicted in the stories.

hieroglyphics

Some cool hieroglyphics I found on the temple walls. They depict myths, Waleed says.

This temple was dedicated to Isis, the mother of Horus and wife of Osiris. Our guide takes every opportunity to teach us about the dramatic and intricate ancient Egyptian history. I worry there will be a test at the end of the tour, and I haven’t been fully paying attention. 

Movenpick Aswan

The view from our hotel in Aswan. The boats on the water are feluccas.

We were given a bit of a free evening, at our hotel, the Movenpick. The hotel is on a small island in the Nile, so each time we came or left we had to take a ferry.  Most of us had an early night as we had to be up bright and early for our trip to Abu Simbel in the morning. But we had time for a few beers at the pool.

DAY 4 – Abu Simbel

arabian desert

We stopped on the way to Abu Simbel to watch the sun rise over the Arabian Desert

There was no armed police escort to Abu Simbel. Everything I read said two convoys go each day – one at 4 a.m. and one at 9 a.m. with police escorts, and then they return, respectively, at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. But here I was being told we would leave at another time because there are no more police escorts. And having no clear understanding of what had changed I was concerned, but reluctant to tell anyone about my misgivings.

About 280 kms from Aswan, and 40 km from the Sudanese border lies Abu Simbel, the site of two ancient Egyptian temples of Ramses II and his favourite wife Nefertari. The creation of the Aswan High Dam, and subsequently Lake Nasser, created a conundrum for the future of these temples, and many others, as the lake grew. While the temples of Ramses II and Nefetari no longer reside in their original places, they still stand in much of their original glory from the time they were discovered in 1813.

Abu Simbel

The temple of Ramses II

abu simbel

The Temple of Nefetari. Ramses II loved her so much he put up two statues of her in between the four of himself.

I talked to our guide who told me police escorts are no longer required because the Egyptian army had established permanently manned guards 30km from each point on the roads in between the temples. The reality of having an armed guard on each bus heading towards the temples wasn’t cost effective.

abu simbel

As one can see there aren’t many tourists here.

During the revolution, our guide tells us, tourism died in Egypt. While it was making a slow comeback, it was nothing like it used to be. This was evident at the pyramids, and by how empty the parking lot was at Abu Simbel. It’s great for us as tourists, especially if you’ve ever experienced the throngs at the Colosseum or Buckingham Palace, but not so great for the Egyptian people who rely on tourism for a living.

abu simbel

The empty parking lot makes me wonder how many tourists and buses used to come here. Waleed tells me the parking lot would often be full.

The cost for the temple is 80 LE. Guides are not allowed to guide within the temples, and no photography is allowed, though it’s clear many tourists ignore this request. Many guards/watchers will take a bribe/baksheesh and allow you to take photos, but some, so we were told, will tell you it’s ok and then turn you in. If you’re caught you stand to face a fine and have your entire memory card wiped. 

abu simbel

The sign said absolutely no photography inside. This is inside Ramses II temple.

The temple of Nefetari once contained a solid gold statue of her highness. She was Ramses II favourite wife, thus him having a temple built in her honour into the side of a hill. Ramses II, often called a great liar, was so vain and arrogant that he had statues erected of himself all over Egypt, often hijacking other temples and rededicating them to himself.

The most amazing part of these temples, beyond their intact inscriptions, is that they were so expertly relocated at a time when the technology to do so was lacking. 

abu simbel

This massive head fell off a statue from the Ramses II temple during an earthquake.

The drive back to Aswan didn’t seem quite as long. Some of us slept, again, a combination of early mornings and jet lag. I even had a chance to water the desert.

We were given a few hours of free time, which, as would be the theme of the trip, turned into beers at the pool.

Nubia

Our boat captain, Fuzzie, picked us up and brought us to his village where we feasted on amazing Nubian food.

camel ride

One of our crew decides to try a camel out before dinner.

bram

Getting ready to eat dinner warmed and heated in traditional clay pots.

For dinner we were picked up in a motor boat on the river and taken up the Nile to a Nubian village where we had traditional Nubian food. I had chicken cooked with a heavy tomato sauce. There were breads, and soups, and hummus, and tahini, and moussaka. After dinner we were invited to dance with our host’s family, and pay witness to the crocodile they keep in their living area (caged) to ward off bad spirits. We took the boat down river back to Aswan, full and ready for bed.

DAY 5 – on to Luxor

The early mornings continue. It’s a necessity, really, but it’s this part that makes me wonder why I signed up (begged) for a tour. Today we were told to be ready to leave by 7 a.m., however, Mummy Tummy attacked a member of our clan. Bowel movements had become a hot topic of late, as some of ours were moving, and some of ours weren’t. Everyone gets to know each other very well in a group when they spend so much time together. It was a bit of a late start.

Edfu Temple

The grandiose Edfu Temple is astonishing, towering at 36m.

Edfu Temple

This passage way led to the High Priest’s quarters.

On the drive to Luxor we stopped about halfway at Edfu temple, the most intact temple in Egypt from the Greek Period. Surrounding the temple are remnants of mud brick homes and walls. The temple itself, though not entirely there, is massive. Some of the carvings are defaced, like in many temples we’ve seen, work of the Greeks who felt this vandalism was a testament that these were not true gods, otherwise, such acts would be impossible.

Edfu Temple.

Another empty parking lot in Egypt. But to be fair, we were there a bit early.

We reached and left Edfu temple by midday, but the parking lots were near empty. Shop keepers shouted at us to come see their wares, but we evaded them and left by an alternate exit. They were mad. We’ve been told that tour operators have to keep local merchants happy otherwise they will create problems for them. While we meant no offence, the reality is nearly every single thing I’ve seen in these shops I have also seen in Thailand, Vietnam, Costa Rica and Mexico. And all those same things are probably made in China, or Bangladesh.

Waleed picked up some falafels from a shop on our way out of town, and while we parked on the side of the road waiting for him, people waved as they walked past.

Egypt roads

The roads run through inhospitable terrain. But they are well made.

niqab

It was common in Nubia to see women dressed in niqabs head to toe.

egypt roads

Speed bumps are everywhere as a means of traffic control.

Our stay in Luxor was at the Steigenburger, a luxury hotel, by Egyptian standards, on the Nile River. Our guide gave us 2.5 hours to chill, which most of us used to have beers by the pool.

The plan for the evening was to take a felucca to the Luxor Temple, but to make it more fun, they invited a jewellery maker to join us for the boat ride. We drank some beers, watched the sunset, and bought silver and gold hand-made Egyptian motif pieces that we would collect five days from then in Cairo.

silver in egypt

Doing some jewellery shopping on a boat. There’s a first time for everything.

The Luxor Temple at night is something else. All the columns are lit up in such a way that it adds to the sheer size of the structures at this site. Built into the side of the temple is a mosque whose original front door now sits some 6m above the ground. Karnak Temple is three kilometres from here. They’re connected by a road called the Avenue of the Sphinxes. Nearly 1,600 statues have been uncovered and are believed to post-date the temples by 1,000 years. In order to recreate the original avenue they have had to evict people who had homes along the ancient road.

Luxor

Luxor Temple is an astonishing complex of columns.

avenue of the sphinxes

The avenue of the sphinxes is flanked on either side by statues. It has yet to be completed.

After a short horse and carriage ride back to the hotel, I was knackered and went to bed early, without dinner. The next day we were meant to start at 7 a.m. again – but this time we were seeing the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens and I wanted to be fully rested for that.

DAY 6 – the valleys and Karnak

Some months before our visit the Egyptian authorities opened Queen Nefetari’s tomb to the public at $75/entry. The tomb had been closed to the public for over 15 years, but for £1,500 (GBP) special guests on private visits were allowed entry. Queen Nefetari, who also had a temple at Abu Simbel, was Ramses II’s most beloved wife. Her tomb is, by far, the most magnificently preserved tomb in the Valley of the Queens.

We took a quick motorboat ride from our hotel down the river, meeting our van who had left an hour before us. When we arrived at the tomb, some 10 minutes later, we were the only ones there. The supervisors allowed us 15 minutes, rather than the usual 10, despite continued efforts to limit exposure to the delicate paint and drawings inside. Only 150 people are allowed to visit the tomb each day, and in some years time they will re-evaluate what affect this exposure has had on the tomb.

Photography isn’t allowed here, so naturally, we snuck some photos. Just don’t get caught. The fine is high and they will wipe your entire memory card. The images are a bit yellow because it’s dark and using a flash wouldn’t just get you caught, but it’s not good for the paint. 

It is something beyond compare, intricate, detailed, colourful – beautiful, in so many ways, that one truly needs to see it to believe it.

There weren’t a lot of tourists here, or guards, which allowed me to snap a few photos.

Photos in the Valley of the Kings are also banned. At one point they used to be allowed, but Waleed said they were outlawed because people took too long, taking dozens of photos of the same things, and not moving the process along. There is also the issue of people innocuously using flashes by mistake, which is, regardless a big no no. Entry to the Valley of the Kings includes the visit of three tombs. I can’t recall the name of one tomb we visited, but the other two were Ramses IV and IX. 

Afterwards we stopped at a shop to look at, and in some cases buy alabaster, a porous stone that is particularly common in Egypt. We made our way over to Dier el-Bahari to see the tomb of Hatshepsut, an Egyptian queen. We also stopped by to take some photos of the massive statues of Amenhotep, and the Colossi of Memnom.

Hatshepsut temple

Hatshepsut was the longest reigning female pharaoh in Egypt. Other tombs surround the temple.

 On our way back to our hotel we had a lunch of river fish and rice on the motorboat and leftover beers from the night before. The schedule also afforded us our biggest span of free time, five hours. Needless to say, we all had a lovely time, by the pool.

Nile fish

One of the best things about having a guide in Egypt is he always knows the best places to eat!

That night we went to the sound and light show at Karnak Temple. It was epic and the dialogue reminded me of the scene from Superman when his father is talking. The voice is done by Omar Sharif, and it’s rather grandiose. I think I would’ve liked to have seen the temple in the day, but we had already packed so much into the schedule, that it wasn’t really feasible. And I wouldn’t have wanted to give up the free-time.

We all had an early night again, which was becoming the norm, because even though we were headed to Hurghada the next day, we were leaving at 4:40 a.m. to do a hot-air balloon ride over Luxor.

DAY 7 – Hot Air Balloon

My body is not happy with me. I’ve been fighting a cold the entire trip and these early morning risings haven’t been helping. Today we had a 4:10 a.m. wake up call and 30 mins later we were jumping into a motorboat on the Nile. But it’s all for a good cause. Today we’re to take a hot-air balloon ride over Luxor – the only place in Egypt where these rides are allowed.

Luxor balloon

When you’re up in the air, nothing else matters.

Before the revolution there used to be 20-something companies (so I’m told) that ran balloon rides over Luxor, but as tourism fell the companies diminished, now leaving only a few. The previous morning I watched as six balloons took to the air. Maybe I didn’t watch for long enough, because as we got ready to go up there were at least 15 balloons there. Maybe some were owned by the same company, swallowed up due to the economy, or maybe I was misinformed.

Luxor balloon

The sunrise was something else.

The balloon ride was amazing. We didn’t fly completely over the Valley of the Kings, but near to it. We watched the countryside sail beneath us, and saw the sunrise behind us, illuminating the Nile. For nearly an hour we zipped along, and then it occurred to me that we were moving quite fast. Maybe a bit too fast.

The balloon pilot kept looking for a place to land, but trees got in our way, then we were stuck over a canal for a bit, at the mercy of the wind, and then there was a cellular tower, and then more power lines, then a row of houses. We kept going up, and then down, and then back up again. Finally he bid us to assume our landing positions, which was crouching inside the basket and holding onto some ropes. And then we waited. And waited some more.

Luxor balloon

We were safely on the ground, but a whole bunch of balloons still had to land. Farmers aren’t entirely opposed to balloons landing on their crops as they’re well compensated.

The pilot got rather frustrated with his co-pilot, and we could tell something wasn’t right. First we hit the sugar cane. And then we hit the ground, smooth, but fast. The basket began to tip over, and then we were in the air again travelling straight ahead at speed. The basket came sliding in, and began to tip again, and then we popped up one more time. The next time the basket hit the ground and we nearly completely tipped onto the side, but the pilot managed to deflate the balloon and the basket righted itself. We were stopped.

So after the eventful morning the rest of the day was a bit of a drag. Kidding. We went back to the hotel, had breakfast and checked out. Our next destination was Hurghada – where we will be resorting it for three days at the Jaz Aqua Viva before heading back to Cairo.

Jaz Aquamarine

I sent this photo to my family to let them know how terrible of a time I was having in Egypt.

The drive through the desert was rather uneventful, apart from a stop we did at a police station to use their rather nasty toilet. But I will always remember that first view of the Red Sea.

DAYS 8-10 – Hurghada and home

The resort was amazing, posh and probably the ritziest place I’ve ever stayed. We relaxed, enjoyed the all-inclusive feature, used the pool, the water park, went to the beach, and snorkelled around some amazing reefs. I’m not going to elaborate, as it was fairly standard for an AI hotel in a tropical location, or so I’m told.

On our last day we flew from Hurghada to Cairo. Our mission on this day was to go to a perfume shop where they sell the oils that constitute all perfumes – but these ones are undiluted with alcohols or other liquids. The owner knows nearly every perfume on the face of the earth, and already has a mixture of it in his shop. Most of the people in our group bought a pack of six bottles, except for me. My luggage was already tipping the scales, but our tour guide bought me a bottle of sandalwood oil – concerned with my rheumatoid arthritis, and knowing it could help. I’ll be sure to keep him updated. Afterwards we picked up our jewellery.

perfume shop

Less than a day left and we’re smelling the most amazing concoctions of oils.

After a rather personal lunch we stopped by the oldest market in Cairo, and one of the oldest in the world. While touts and shop keepers were beckoning us to buy stuff, it was a rather normal market, and hardly as aggressive as I’ve experienced in SE Asia. My friends bought some things for their Shisha pipe at probably one-tenth the cost it would be back in Canada.

Cairo market

The Cairo market is one of the oldest markets in the world.

As it got late it was time to check into our hotel, the Meridian – for a few hours. Most of our groups’ flights were leaving before 3 a.m., so while we all checked in, I was the only one who got to sleep through the night. I was flying out to Munich at 10 a.m.

To sum up

There wasn’t a single moment I felt unsafe in Egypt. Not one. While there were plenty of touts badgering us at every tourist spot, it was fairly normal, and some of it seemed interesting. Camel rides, more tours, private tours, food tastings, temples and more temples. It really is a magical place. But realise you just can’t see it all in 10 days. We definitely tried.

encounters travel

The first tour I’ve ever done in my life. I’m glad it was with a well-established company.

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