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 Egypt Sat 29 October 2005

Egypt is called Misa by the people who live there so why do we call it Egypt? Who knows?
We stepped out of the airport into the cool Egyptian evening air, and onto a bus. From the bus, Cairo looks a bit scruffy but I was kind of expecting it this time. The Ramadan festival decorations and lights are notable by their absence. The hotel is similarly scruffy but clean enough and comfortable. And that is about all there is to say about Saturday.

 Sunday 30th October 2005

After a few minutes on the bus a pyramid appeared over the tops of the apartment blocks on the edge of the city. The apartment blocks all looked like they were constructed by the owners, following the same architectural plans scribbled on the back of the same Egyptian cigarette packet. Concrete cube skeletons filled in with a patchwork of odd brick (some looked like mud-bricks) and breezeblocks. Some buildings are decorated with a splattering of mud, or washing hanging out of the window. Most have been constructed with a view to extending upwards in the near or distant future but appear to be in the process of gentle decomposition.

Round the corner a collection of pyramids came into view. I had heard that they were close to the city and indeed there is only about half a mile of desert between the two. By today's standards of building they are not much of an achievement but when you think of the size and weight of the stone blocks and that they were assembled more than 3000 years ago you can appreciate why they are so fantastic, or is it that we cannot bring ourselves to believe that there were smart people so long ago. Mind you, the effort required to stack all those huge limestone blocks to the height of 130m or so seems a bit much to bury one person.

Our trip into the bowels of the pyramid was cancelled due to dodgy lighting so we walked round the outside instead, running away from the postcard sellers and 'camel taxi' drivers. Upon reflection I think the view from outside was much better than stumbling through a metre high passage for 20 minutes with only an empty room as a destination. Then again, I can't now say that I have done it. Around the bottom the pink granite blocks that were used to clad the pyramid can still be seen. At the top you can still see the limestone cladding but most of the cladding was removed by king Mohamed Ali (before he became a boxer) for other buildings.

Just down the hill is the Sphinx. A huge carving of a pharaoh's head on a Lions body. The story goes that the rock they were quarrying was not good enough for pyramid building blocks so the pharaoh asked the workers to carve it into the sphinx.

After a quick stop to pick up falafels in pita bread ( the local fast food), we went on to the museum where they have a huge collection of Egyptian artefacts including Tutankhamen's death mask and sarcophagus that I first saw in the British Museum when I was very young. The statues are very impressive, especially the granite ones, polished to a shine, still perfect after quite a few thousand years. There were even wooden statues that had only cracks to show their age.

For the rest of the afternoon we lounged in the hotel bar drinking beer, talking and admiring the view of the Nile. There was even a hubble-bubble but the scent given off from the burner at the top was nicer than the stuff you breathed through the pipe and water (although some would disagree).

The meal was a sample if a number of Egyptian foods including a starter of tahini (a paste of sesame seeds) on its own and with aubergine, a main course of rice, roast chicken, lamb kebab, falafel and salad.

At half past eight we set off for the train station to catch our overnight train to Aswan. The roads are chaotic with no traffic controls and a free for all but it seems to work and we arrive at the station ahead of schedule. The station platform is crowded with people carrying boxes, sitting on luggage and chatting. If it weren't for the electric commuter train running on a raised concrete viaduct it would be just like an old movie. There were many indistinguishable trains stopping at the station but Kelly (our guide) said that our one would be the only one that would stop there at 10:15, which surprised us Brits. The train was a bit worn at the edges but 3 of us had a compartment to ourselves which made the ride a bit more peaceful even if I did have to resort to sleeping on top of the rucksacks just to get comfortable.

 Monday 31st October 2005

The night passed uneventfully if not restfully and in the morning we were treated to the sight of the Egyptian desert passing by our window. This is a hilly, rocky and sandy desert all at the same time. In the valleys where the water collects a few plants manage to survive and some of these are large enough to support a small oasis and have been cultivated and settled. The villages are built in the same ramshackle way but when it came to the roof, many are topped with a few branches and a handful of grass. I suppose it is more important to keep the sun out than the rain.

At last we arrive in Aswan and while a taxi takes our bags to the hotel we walk the busy streets with fruit, meat, fish and trinket stalls. After a good lunch at the hotel we all hop in a couple of taxis and weave our way between the many obstacles out of the city to the Philae Temple. This temple was submerged when the old dam was built but in the 70s was moved to a higher neighbouring island and is now a wonderful place to visit. Many of the carvings on the walls were defaced by the Christians for being the wrong gods but there are still lots left. The stones may have been cleaned and restored a bit when they were moved but they managed to create a wonderful atmosphere. The warm sun and blue sky probably helped too.

The outboard motor on our ferry boat failed one metre from launch and we drifted across the peaceful Nile to the sound of hammer blows to the engine until we collided with the boats moored on the next island. Here we transferred to another boat with an equally dodgy looking outboard motor.

We had the rest of the afternoon to recuperate before dinner so I strolled out to haggle for batteries and water, a most un-enjoyable experience, the weekly shop must be a nightmare.

At seven p.m., we strolled along the bank of the river Nile enjoying the warm evening air and the lights of the city. On the opposite shore a temple was lit up in competition with the tower of a hotel. We ate at the 'Aswan moon', which had a restaurant floating gently on the Nile. I had grilled fish, which was very nice while Tracy had Tuna Pizza in expectation of continuous falafel diet in the days to come.

 Tuesday 1st November 2005

Our wake up call came at a shocking 3am so that we would be ready to depart at 3:45. Since the 1997 bombings at Luxor, the police insist that the tourist coaches travel in convoy every half an hour. Unfortunately we missed the 4am convoy by a couple of minutes and had to wait for the 4:30 one. The whole thing seemed a bit silly when all the faster coaches raced off into the desert leaving us alone on the desert highway. How a convoy is supposed to defeat terrorists anyway I can't imagine.

At 5:30 the sun began to rise over the desert to reveal the sand and rock in all its glory. In some places were tall cones of rock erupting from the desert, which may have provided inspiration for the Egyptian pyramids.

Finally we reached Abu Simbel where our guide gave us a lecture about the statues and carvings in the temples depicting old Egyptian kings giving gifts to their gods in return for help to kill all their neighbours across the desert. The temples were impressive in their sheer size on the outside but sizeable rooms had even been cut into the sandstone and completely covered in carvings, some of which still had colour. After what seemed like only a few minutes we were hurried back to the coach to join the last morning convoy back to Aswan at 9 a.m.

For dinner today we took a small motor boat up the Nile towards the Old Dam and stopped at a Nubian village on the west bank. The quayside was packed with other boats but our captain forced a gap to the bank where previously there was none. The concrete steps of the quayside led up to the sandy lanes between the mud brick houses and our guide led us a winding path up the steep sand dune between them. One house had an open topped room with two camels languishing inside, others had roofs of branches or even mud brick roofs formed into an arch. Our guide explained that the mud bricks help to keep the heat out in the summer and in during the winter.

We stopped at a house for hot hibiscus tea. Everyone had to take their shoes off even though the floor was just sand scattered on concrete. The main living area was a central open-air courtyard with rooms leading off from it. We were free to wander around and saw into the kitchen, bakery, one bedroom and a storage room, all were indeed a comfortable temperature. Further up the hill we entered a second house where we ate a meal of rice, beans, chicken and salad (sound familiar?). Unsurprisingly there was a cloth laid out with hand crafted souvenirs for sale and, as they were not hassling us to buy them. I took a look and found a black stone carved scarab for myself and a white stone cat for my sister. I seem to remember her having a thing about Egyptian cats when we were growing up. When we left, Aswan was all lit up on the opposite bank. The little Nubian village was lit by lights on the side of the occasional house to guide us round the camel and donkey poo.

 Wednesday 2nd November 2005

Tracy's birthday, hurrah! Kelly the tour guide had peeped in our passports and so knew all our ages and had bought a card and some chocolates to celebrate.

The day was marred for me by the onset of a little battle between native and alien bacteria in my tummy but I managed to quell the fighting by sending in a cocktail of drugs. I decided to take an extra kip instead of the camel ride into the desert to see a monastery.

Later on we boarded two feluccas between the 14 of us which were to be our home for the next three days. We sailed on the 'Elphantin' and the others took the 'Getaro'. I was dismayed to see there was no toilet but fortunately the cocktail was keeping my internal battle at bay. The deck was covered by foam mattresses and a low sunshade making a comfortable lounge with limited standing capacity. This is just what we wanted, warm and sunny but with shade. The traditional felucca had no engine so we sailed with only the sound of the water lapping against the bow. Along the bank we spotted egrets, king fishers, kestrels.

We stopped for lunch by the bank and were immediately surrounded by a gaggle of soggy schoolboys who dragged themselves out of the Nile to see who we were. I was allowed only dry bread and salad due to my sorry condition.

The green belt of the Nile does not extend far from the river. There is a couple of metres of sand, then a few of grass, followed by small crop fields up the bank of only a few metres square. At the top of the bank were fields of a few tens of metres square then a few houses before the sand dune ended sensible habitation.
After lunch we set sail for the afternoon. The scenery passed serenely by and allot of lounging was done. We sailed on until just after sun down when the wind died down and moored on the bank. A hole was dug and a toilet tent erected for the delectation of all. On board separate buckets were filled with Nile water and disinfectant, one for hands and one for feet. The crew had been frying Nile Perch all afternoon and now it was served with podded peas, carrots and rice. After a few drinks by candlelight it was time for bed.

 Thursday 3rd November 2005

We woke just before sunrise, cleared the decks, took a stroll along the beach then cast off to have breakfast floating in the river.

Once the sails were set again there was nothing to do but relax. Barry tried fishing and the rest of us spotted fish for him to catch until his line fell in and that game was over. Kelly had a book of birds but we had spotted most everything there was to spot. The banks were covered in grasses, palms and date trees. Further along we could see crops, which could have been the sugar and corn that are reputed to be grown in the area.

Just before lunch we stopped at Kom Ombo to see the temple there and were immediately surrounded by a school of interestingly dressed children. Some were in traditional Egyptian attire but there was a little policeman, soldiers and what could only be described as little tarts. On the walk to the temple we were continuously surrounded. I am sure they were all asking for money but I languished in my linguistic ignorance and chatted cheerfully back. One little lad pulled out a One Egyptian Pound note to show me what he meant so I put out my hand and he gave it to me. I thought about doing a runner but decided I might be mobbed by his mates, so I gave it back. He put it back with its only companion in his wallet, introduced himself as Ahmed and became my faithful companion for the next hour and a half. Well, he hung around anyway.

The temple, although structurally incomplete contained many excellent wall carvings, some even with colour. There were a fair amount of repairs including what could be varnish over some of the coloured carvings. In one of the little rooms were three mummified crocodiles in glass cases which the guard said were 3000 years old. They were only 3 or 4 foot long and in quite good condition considering. Barry aptly suggested that they must have had good dentists for their teeth looked no less formidable. The exit fee was 2 pounds. Earlier, one of the other tourist police repeatedly pointed out features of the carvings but asked for nothing in return. Instead he kept nipping out to peep round the corner. I wondered whether he would loose his 'street cred' if he were spotted divulging information for free.

The afternoon flew by as we sailed leisurely down the Nile for the rest of the afternoon with only the occasional jelly-baby flinging contest between the boats. Then. all too soon the sun had set, the centre board was raised, the sails lowered and we had grounded on the bank for the night. It was a good spot with a sandy beach, a stretch of cultivated land left fallow and then a pine tree wood sheltering more cultivation. I met a local who introduced himself as Mahmod, and his mate, walking back from their fishing trip. Apparently they had caught 6 fish as long as his forearm.

Our supper tonight was chicken which Waleed (aka Ziggy) had boiled then fried in herbs and spices then served with pasta and courgette. Desert was Guava halves, yummy.

After dinner the crew built a camp fire then proceeded to sing Nubian songs accompanied by tabla and hand drum. Before long the passengers had joined in and were dancing the Hokey Kokey round the fire. The music then took a distinctly European turn with Nubian variations.

The breeze was still up by the time we went to bed but we were still toasty under our blanket even though we had unfolded it to single thickness. At least this night the diesel trains were too far away to be heard and the cruise ships seemed to stop quite early.

 Friday 4th November 2005

I met Mahmod again as he walked down to the river for another hard days fishing and he offered me a lemon. He seemed to indicate that a cluster of five of them were called a bund but it as not till later that I realised he meant 'pound'.

While black and white Kingfishers hovered and dived for their breakfast, the crew prepared egg fried pita bread and scrambled eggs for us.

At times during the day there are so many cruise ships that the feluccas have to do some nifty tacking to avoid them. At other times our two boats have the Nile to our selves and the peace is priceless. We can almost imagine ourselves to be in the time of the Pharaohs.

At our lunch spot the locals take great interest in us as we take a dip in the Nile. It is very clean unless you count the fertile mud at the bottom and the weeds but further out it was sufficiently weed free to swim against the current. Up on the bank was a small hibiscus plantation and date palms, neither of which appeared in our lunch.

Further down the river we passed through what appeared to have been a sandstone quarry with squared off gaps in the banks and building block sized marks on the walls. Little temples and caves were cut into the sandstone bank. I could just imagine the little caves being customs houses and the ancient Egyptians shipping stones down the Nile to the pyramid building site.

Hasoon told me he was becoming bored of being a felucca captain but there is alot of unemployment and retraining is expensive. The owner of the boats has money and is at a Luxor university retraining to be a tour guide. When Hasoon was 17 the biannual rains were a bit heavy and many of the mud brick houses in his village were washed away and had to be rebuilt.

This night we stopped on an island covered in fields with a donkey tethered in one and a water buffalo in a straw corral. After the sun set over the horizon, a sickle moon went down there too, and then the stars came out to play. Later on we were lulled to sleep by the drone of the cruise boats as they plied their way up river then rocked to sleep as the bow wave hit us.

 Saturday 5th November 2005

The crew woke at about 4am and cast us adrift to drift on the current until it was light. They are forbidden to sail until it is light but drifting presumably is OK. The rest of us stayed in bed. When it was light they raised the sails and before long we had stopped at a small dock. This was our cue to get up, pack our bags, eat breakfast and go ashore for the last time.

On the dock we boarded 2 mini-buses and set off down the dirt track between fields and through villages of visually derelict but apparently lived in houses, to Edfu temple. Either this was a plain temple by comparison or we were getting an overdose because although this one is unique in having a complete roof with a building within building within building kind of construction, we could not gather up much enthusiasm. The centrepiece was a sacrificial table overlooked by a granite telephone kiosk, or was it Dr. Who's tardis? In one of the rooms was a model of the boat to the underworld but we made sure not to join the queue.

Back on the bus we make for the tourist convoy, complete with police escort that will take us to Luxor. The drivers all jockey for position on the starting grid then hurtle along, each trying to get to the front of the queue. Its a bit like whacky races. There seems to be a general rule of thumb to drive on the right of roads but most drivers wander between the left and right and only drift back to the right when another vehicle comes the other way. The most popular mode of transport in rural areas seems to be the donkey drawn two-wheeled cart, handy for getting your produce back to town. Others just ride donkeys but bicycles are also popular.

Our driver is first to the hotel but only by a few seconds and not without many near misses.
After a hurried lunch we jump in some horse drawn carriages to be taken to Karnak temple. This one is just like all the others but has 132 tall columns in the main part and a couple of obelisks behind. Our guide was very good but did complain about the few chunks of stone that were taken by other countries. What he seems to forget is that without the enthusiasm and money from all those archaeologists from other countries, all these temples would probably still be buried in the sand and the Arabs that now inhabit Egypt would likely be none the wiser.
The calesh was faithfully waiting for us when we got out of the temple and we enjoyed a peaceful ride back with relatively few hands clutching at us to look, buy or give.
In the evening Kelly took us for a walking tour of the local area and showed us a book shop where all they said was hello and price tags were present so we whiled away the rest of the evening there.

 Sunday 6th November 2005

After yet another wake up call in the dead of night we made our way across the river to meet a herd of donkeys that were going to bear the burden of our weight to the valley of the Kings. I was carefully paired with a sleepy looking little chap sporting a moth eaten collection of rags where the saddle should be and some bits of old wire and string instead of a bridle. I felt sorry for him even before I got on.

Before long we had trotted out of the city and suburbs and out into fields of crops and the occasional 40m high statue to a god that was once big but is now small. The road turned into a dusty track into the desert hills but my donkey climbed sure-footed over the stones until we were high over the flood plain of the Nile. The track wound gently round the top of the hill then sidled precariously close to a 100m cliff edge. Donkey reassured me he was not tired and still surefooted. For fear of pushing our luck we walked the donkeys down the steep bit on the other side. Just short of the tombs we let the donkeys go and ran the gauntlet of the trinket sellers. They were quite persistent and willing to walk quite far in the hope of a sale.

The valley of the Kings is just a concrete path running between holes in the rock face. We met up with the guide who told us all about his choice of 'tombs of the day' while we ate our breakfast. The good old Pharaohs were keen to hang on to their stash of wealth even after death so that they could take it into the next world. They were worried about other greedy buggers grabbing it for their own stashes so they had their tombs dug in remote places then covered them over to make them difficult to find.

The doors to the tombs are sadly missing. It would have been nice to break the seal and creak back the door to reveal the treasures hidden behind. Now there is just sanitary concrete architrave and safe steps down to the substantial entrance. Inside, the carvings and colour on the smooth walls of the perfectly square passage were amazing. To think that they had been preserved like that for something like 3.5 thousand years was almost unbelievable. We visited 3 tombs and each was different in size and number of rooms, passages and steps. Each one would take decades to complete and sometimes the poor diggers had to rush because the ungrateful Pharaohs would die young. Sometimes the wall carvings would peter out further down the passage to be replaced by outline drawings or even nothing. If you looked closely you could see areas where the builders had used plaster to smooth the walls where the sandstone had chipped away unevenly. Apparently they used flint stones to chip away the sandstone and in other areas you could see the marks left by this laborious work.

Sometimes where a passage met a flight of steps, large niches were dug out on either side, sometimes with square pillars, like a room to contain the flight of steps. The first tomb was quite small, just large enough to fit the huge pink granite sarcophagus with a metre or so to walk round. The carvings were much the same as in the temple with humans and other animals with all their heads switched round, sometimes with funny hats or holding symbolic objects, other times killing each other. One scene was of lines of girls walking up ramps to a snake pit but I am sure it was just harmless fun.

Other tombs had little rooms leading off from the main one another had a mummy in a glass box so that you could see the hole in its head where the brain was sucked out.
There were many other tombs in the valley but only a few were open and our ticket was good for only three. That was OK with us though for you can have enough of walking in other folks graves.

The next stop was yet another temple but to get to it we had to trek over the dust and rock strewn mountain in the heat of the sun. We were walking in cool November sun but I can see why the Egyptians like to sit around and drink tea all day.

On the other side we peeped into a tomb entrance but it was protected by a dry stonewall and an iron gate so we saw nothing of interest. There were many such holes in the hillside and the guide said they were still discovering more.

Hatshepsut temple backed into the hillside and had a wide road leading up to it. There were flights of steps leading up to two further levels. Many of the walls, pillars and statues were heavily repaired being perhaps ten percent original but it gave a very good impression of the scale and grandeur of the place while being otherwise unremarkable.

The donkeys were waiting patiently for us in the midday sun so we set off through the desert, past a village and back to Luxor for lunch.

As this was an action packed last day we set off in a calesh (horse drawn, four wheeled, canopy covered carriage) through the streets and markets, out into the country and through a rural village. Our driver seemed to have brothers of all ages round each corner and did a grand job of keeping the sellers and begging children at bay. Nothing in this place seems to be quite complete. Houses are missing the top floor, a window or a lick of paint. The streets are never swept nor the rubbish collected. I can imagine that in the heat of the day it is much preferable to take a nap.
After our relaxing ride we summoned up some more energy to walk along the riverside promenade to the bookshop. The nearby shops were also hassle free so we browsed there too. Back along the promenade we spotted a little shop with price tags on its little stone carvings. Not just prices but good prices. The basalt pyramids I had previously haggled down to 2 for EŁ55 were 3 for EŁ35 here, rats. The prices were so good that I bought an obsidian goblet for EŁ25 and 2 basalt cats for EŁ8 each. I was for once a happy shopper.