We left the calm and safety of the Cairo airport and made our way into the throngs of Egyptian cabbies waiting hungrily outside the sliding glass doors. It was seven in the morning here. We’d left Toronto 10.5 sleepless hours prior excited and nervous about our time in Egypt.
After resisting many cabbie offers we made it through the crowd. Jesse lit up a smoke and we surveyed the drivers. Our meagre attempt to haggle failed and we were too tired to try harder so we accepted the over-priced fare and got in the old car.
It’s early January, the coldest month of the year with the temperature dropping to 5 degrees at night. We kept the window up (our cab driver was cold) and smoke filled the car as we raced through the city to downtown Cairo. The lines on the road proved useless as the multi lane highway jammed up with vehicles expertly weaving around one another, straddling the lines and utilizing the shoulder as another half lane. There are 20.5 million people living in Greater Cairo.
The city is grey and brown, blending into the desert it sits on with a blue vein of life running through the centre. There’s an old world elegance visible beneath the deteriorating buildings, a reminder that Egypt was once a popular vacation destination for Europeans in the first half of the 20th century.
For the first few days in Cairo jet lag woke us up before the first call to prayer echoed around the country. We wandered the streets at a pace that would have been too slow for the day crowd. Eventually we settled into an outdoor cafe where we drank coffees and watched boys scrub the previous days dirt from the vinyl floor. The sun finally rose, a welcome warmth from the frigid night, and slowly Cairo would come to life.
By the end of our busy days we often found ourselves back at the same cafe where we joined the locals in playing dominos and smoking shisha.
Cairo bears little to no visible signs of the Arab uprisings of 2011 albeit the lack of tourists. There’s still a metro station named after Mubarak, the ousted president. Tahihr Square, once flooded by protesters, is a vast block of pavement with cars buzzing around it and people dashing across roads between them.
However a feeling of desperation hangs between our encounters with other people. There’s been a drastic drop in visitors since the revolution and the Egyptian pound is worse off than the Canadian dollar. We’re lied to, deceived and mislead often in an attempt to make money which meant we travelled with our guard up. Every once in a while our faith would be restored with a genuine and honest person, but for the most part everyone was looking for a tip or backshis (bribe). As we spent more time here our empathy grew for their plight and we could almost forgive the number of times we felt taken.
Even when paying triple Egypt is an extremely affordable destination. You can get incredible street food for under a dollar, a lifeless hotel room for $10, a ticket on the metro for 15 cents and, most surprisingly, a ticket into the pyramid complex for $3.
Egypt today can thank their ancient ancestors for the impressive pyramids, tombs and monuments and the arid landscape for preserving them so well. They’re likely the only reason there’s a tourist industry here today. They don’t disappoint.
The Pyramids, Giza
The last standing of the seven ancient wonders of the world.
We took the metro from Tahrir Square then flagged down a local bus the remaining 10km to the pyramids. When you first catch a glimpse of the fabled structures their size is hard to grasp. It’s not until you are at the base of The Great Pyramid that you realize each block used is almost as tall as you are. And there are thousands of blocks reaching towards the gods.
These massive structures are over 4000 years old. This ancient Arabic saying feels appropriate today: “Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids.”
The Egyptian Museum is a pink building that sits on the north of Tahrir Square and is one place that is full of tour groups every day. Once inside, there are thousands of artifacts to look at. It could be the best Museum in the world, but it’s not modern or organized and even important artifacts are haphazardly placed on a shelf without a label. Somehow, this felt fitting with the Egyptian style and even added to the charm. We focused on the wing containing the treasures found in King Tut’s tomb, the only one that wasn’t found by tomb-raiders until it was discovered by Howard Carter in the early 1900’s.
After pharaonic rule and before Islam was introduced, Egypt was primarily Christian. As we walked out of Mar Girgis Subway station the fortress of churches, towers and monasteries sat 30 feet below us. This is how much the land has been built up from sand and debris in the thousand years it’s been there for.
We descended the stairs and instantly the noise of Cairo receded into the background. We were left to our own devises to slowly walk around.
Later, many people told us we were crazy to spend so much time in Cairo (6 days), but we were waiting for market day. A dusty 30 minute drive from Cairo is the Bi’resh Souq Gamal (camel market) where hundreds of camels are bought and sold. You can’t help feeling a little vulnerable surrounded by these awkward shaped creatures that tower over your head and mew loudly in your ear. One leg is bent and tied so they are left with three legs, but this doesn’t discourage the occasional one to break loose and gallop awkwardly through the crowd with reckless abandon.
City of the Dead
The most peaceful part of Cairo is a large cemetery where the poor live among the dead. The cemetery resembles a small city with a concrete jungle built up and around tombs. Amongst these are simple living quarters. A few funeral processions rushed by us but otherwise it was a nice break from the noise and hustle of Cairo.
We chose to visit the Mediterranean coast as a day trip from Cairo. The train takes you through 2.5 hours of lush farmland on the way. Alexandria used to be the capital and an important port on the trade route between Europe and India and then later a strategic position in the First World War. Throughout the day we took the local train that snakes its way through the market. It moves slower than we could walk so we easily jumped on and off.
We left Cairo on the night train to Aswan. A private sleeping berth made the 12 hour journey very comfortable as the train gently rocked us to sleep.
Aswan feels like a breath of fresh air -literally. The air quality is noticeably better than the smog filled streets of Cairo. We passed through the souq (market) without the attention of every shop owner, but the closer you get to the Nile an onslaught of felucca captains hassle you incessantly.
Aswan is the closest large city to Lake Nasser, the biggest man made lake in the world. The high dam, just south of Aswan, separates Lake Nasser from the Nile River, restricting flooding and drought. All this was built on top of what was once a Nubian village. The residents had the choice of moving south to Sudan or North to Aswan. The Nubians that migrated north have a mix of African features and the middle eastern features of their neighbours. There is a noticeable difference in culture as well and we felt a much more laid-back and content vibe when visiting them on the west side of the Nile.
By the end of most days we are exhausted and fall asleep early with the chill of January waking us throughout the night. Tucking in at 9pm made our 3am wake up call manageable. We boarded the mini bus to Abu Simbel and watched the desert sky change from moonlight to dawn on the way.
The Abu Simbel Temples are two massive temples once carved out of the mountainside. When the Aswan high dam was built they were painstakingly moved to higher ground piece by piece. Out front are four larger than life statues of Ramesses 2 and his queen, Nefertiti. Their purpose was to impress and intimidate Egypt’s southern neighbour (now Sudan) and discourage attacks.
Once back in Aswan we boarded a cruise ship and prepared to move north up river. We spent the first night docked in Aswan and left the following morning. It was a much-needed relaxing few days sitting on the top deck and watching the sun set over the Nile. We stopped at two temples along the way; Kom Ombo one evening and then Edfu the following morning. We killed time reading books, stuffing our faces at the buffet and sharing travel stories with Ken from Canada and Andy from Texas. Three days and two nights later we arrived in Luxor.
Luxor is the most visited city in Egypt due to it being surrounded by Ancient Egyptian history. The Valley of the Kings is the main draw. Over a period of 500 years, tombs and chambers were built for pharaohs and nobles, including King Tut. Over 60 tombs have been uncovered so far and they are still digging. We entered three and descended long tunnels with painted hieroglyphs surrounding us on all sides. At the bottom are covered tombs, also often covered in hieroglyphic stories of the afterlife.
The Sahara desert occupies the majority of Egypt, but only hosts a tiny fraction of its population. It’s a totally different side of Egypt that we wanted to experience on our return trip north to Cairo.
This is where it starts getting weird. To the west of the Nile is a string of desert oases – a lush reprieve from the inhospitable Sahara desert. They sit a few hundred km apart and there’s a paved road that runs through them.
We had read one or two accounts that you get a police escort upon arrival to these oases. We didn’t take that too seriously, assuming this experience was an anomaly. We were wrong. The police spotted us in the train station at Aswut waiting for a bus to the southern most oasis. For the next five days we were escorted by the police through the desert. An armed officer guarded our hotel room while we slept, another walked around town with us, ate lunch with us, got us on the bus and there was always another one waiting for us as we exited the bus at the next destination. They were really friendly, but didn’t speak English so after the initial polite greeting it was like having an awkward, silent babysitter. When we finally got an explanation, it was ‘tourists are very important to us and we want to take care of them.’ It seemed like an awful lot of resources just for us, but considering only one or two tourists take this route every few weeks I guess it’s manageable.
Our first stop was Dakhla Oasis. Here we visited El Quaser built in the 12th century and took a motorcycle into the desert where we played in the dunes, ate lunch and gazed at the sandstone mountains.
Our next stop was Ferafra where we booked an overnight desert excursion. We crammed in a tiny truck while our guide drifted through the many landscapes of the Sahara. Eventually we set up camp, lit a fire and watched the bright orange moon rise from the horizon and light up the desert with it’s soft glow. Our guide went to sleep and we walked around under the stars feeling like the last people on earth.