Egypt Day 5 and 6 – Alexandria, Cairo, Aswan

Egypt, Travelogue — By on March 12, 2011 12:35 pm

Woke feeling a bit groggy, but flung open my balcony windows and soon came round. I had breakfast, this time ordering a Spanish omelette – not wishing to repeat my mistake of yesterday. I sat contemplating the previous night and the characters I’d met.

I took a stroll to the train station, and this time found the sleeper train office open, and fronted by a fat and very grumpy-looking Egyptian with a grey moustache and and an oily face. I told him I wanted to get the 9:30pm sleeper train to Aswan. He told me it left from Giza station, in Cairo. This meant I had to get the 3 hour train to Cairo first. ‘Must leave now!’ he barked. It was 10am. ‘Just check if they have seats on the train to Aswan, I’ll sort myself out for Cairo,’ I replied. ‘You got passport?’ ‘Why would I need my passport for a within-Egypt trip?’ ‘Must get passport!’ He barked.

I was slightly pissed off at this inconvenience, but it was my fault. I went back to the hotel, showered, changed, packed confidently, and headed back to the train station again. This time, the fat grumpy Egyptian had gone on an extended coffee break. Somebody went to find him, and he came back in an even fouler mood than before. They’re so lazy, Egyptians as a whole. Always doing the bare minimum to get by. Mind you, when you get paid the bare minimum, you tend not to be too concerned about customer service, I imagine. He sat down at his desk and I waited patiently as he checked for seat availability, already predicting what he would say. ‘Train fully booked. Tomorrow?’ I tried to keep smiling. ‘Never mind, don’t worry, I’ll find another way.’ I began walking out. ‘Wait!’ the fat man bellowed. ‘I call big boss now on special phone, ok? SPECIAL PHONE!’ he shouted, making an elaborate show of pressing a few random numbers on it and getting through, or at least pretending to. Suddenly, a ticket became available, and, of course, I slipped him the baksheesh he was expecting for ‘going out of his way’ for me. As soon as I gave him the 20LE, he became suddenly very helpful, and even smiled. He told me how to get to Giza station from Cairo Main station. His sour face was suddenly jolly and friendly and the ice had been broken, the turning of the wheels oiled by a little baksheesh.

I bought a ticket on the 5pm train to Cairo, 2nd class. I figured that would give me enough time to get to Giza and onto the night train for Aswan. I still had 4 hours to kill, so went to a coffeeshop / restaurant I’d visited once before for a double espresso, Santos. I ordered a chicken parmesan sandwich and cheese garlic bread which was the worst food I’d ever tasted apart from the beans yesterday. I watched the crazy scenes of relentless traffic of cars, horses, trams, people, and the comical attempts of 2 traffic cops to bring any kind of order, then I went to the Crillon and got my bag, before hailing a taxi to get me to the station on time.

2nd class was nice – air-conditioned, trolley service, decent seats, nothing wrong with it. I sat next to an engineer who lives in Cairo, and travels to and from there to Alexandria for work a few times a week. He was reading a ‘shortened classic’ series in Arabic. It was a Charles Dickens’….Great Expectations. He told me he reads one every train journey. They’re short, so he said three hours is enough for one. A good way to study English. It’s hard to get my students to read ‘Mr Men’ for enjoyment.

The journey was nice and smooth, and we got to Cairo Main station at 8pm. I found the Metro just outside, and took a packed train to Giza, and from here I walked to ‘Giza Station’, and waited on the platform for the sleeper to arrive. I managed to get a few chapters of my book read before it turned up half an hour late. Loads of Chinese tourists were going to Aswan, in a huge group. I found my cabin, but found myself in a carriage full of Chinese. Two of their party were in another carriage, and wanted to swap with me. One Chinese man was especially keen, offering to take my bag to the other carriage for me, which I politely refused. ‘OK, go!’ He said, and I gritted my teeth and took a deep breath. Someone needed to teach him polite forms and polite intonation. Fortunately, being used to the rude Chinese that tend to be mass-bred in Singapore, I didn’t take offence, and moved to my new carriage to be met by a Peruvian bloke, who couldn’t look more South American if he tried – short, plump, curly, shoulder-length hair, dark eyes and eyebrows, a little beard. He was studying in London to get his MA. A very nice chap. He told me he’d been sold a tour of Egypt as soon as he’d arrived at his hotel, and had signed up for it, but now regretted it. He was on a cost-cutting budget tour of Egypt with zero independence. I told him I’d nearly signed up for the same thing (and wanted to add: ‘but I wasn’t that stupid’, but bit my lip). I’m too skeptical and experienced to do that though. He told me about Giza, and how he’d paid $100 for a 3 hour camel ride. I told him he’d paid at least 10 times too much. $100! He even tipped the camel driver $10. It’s suckers like him that feed the hungry touts and have them thirsty for more!

We were served dinner, a truly awful meal of chicken on the bone, rice, salty fish, bread and butter, a meal that made any airplane meal look like a 5-star banquet. I gingerly nibbled my fish, but that was all. The Peruvian gobbled his fish, chicken and rice greedily. He was starving after a night in the desert previously with the

Bedouin, where he’d been served meagre portions of simple Bedouin food. Still, he was experiencing a lot. A night in a desert, a night on a train, a night on a felluca on the Nile to come. We chatted and exchanged Lonely Planets for bedtime reading. I wanted to read up on Syria and Lebanon, he wanted to read up on Egypt as the Egypt pages in his second hand Lonely Planet guide to the Middle East had been ripped out, something he only discovered after buying it. Absolute novice. The bunkbeds were slim, and I remember sharing such a space with a moody ex on the train from Hanoi to Sapa and back. This was far more comfortable and mentally calming.

I slept reasonably well, considering the relentless trundling of the train along the tracks. Awoke to scenes of parched desert, whitewashed mosques, bony cattle and wandering Bedouins. It was noticeably hotter when we got off the train in Aswan. It had been a 14-hour journey. I took a taxi with a driver called Hamed, who took me down the Corniche to Hathor Hotel. I checked out a room. Not bad. Nile view was 75LE a night. Nice rooftop with a swimming pool and wonderful views of the fellucas cruising the Nile. I wandered to Horace Hotel and took a look there. Much worse, and not that friendly. Back to Hathor and checked in. Had the whole day ahead of me, so pondered for a while as to what to do. Resisted the urge to call Hamed, and instead wandered off on my own into the warm sunshine. Aswan…..marking the country’s ancient southern frontier, a laid-back and pleasant place of some 230,000 people. The gently-flowing Nile river cuts through it, and on the sparsely-populated West Bank, the desert stretches off as far as the eye can see. Friendly Nubian-folk (the darker-skinned folk of Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan who have their own indigenous language and unique culture) inhabit Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile, around 2,000 of them. On the busier East Bank, cruise ships dock and markets selling all kinds of spices and other things bustle with the buzz of commerce and tourism. I liked it straight away.

I took a stroll by the Nile. It was beautiful. Fellucas criss-crossed the Nile between the East and West Banks, motorboats and the occasional cruise ship went past. I could make out sandy cliffs over on the West Bank which is where the Tombs of the Nobles are, with St Simeon Monastery behind them. The Nile was glowing a kind of vibrant silver / blue, and I wanted to get on a felluca and get on it. Fortunately, Captain Mohammed saw me from his spot on the grass, and offered to take me to the West Bank on his felluca, for 40LE an hour, which was pretty reasonable.

Mohammed was an interesting character who had sailed fellucas all his life. He had amazing grey-blue eyes set in his leather-brown face. He wore his years of experience in each and every wrinkle. He loved to smoke hashish, and promised a joint for me when I returned from my camel ride, which he was already arranging for me with his cousin who lived and worked around the cliffs just north of Kitchener’s Island where we were now heading. The felluca ride across the Nile was wonderfully relaxing, and Mohammed and I had a smoke as he steered the vessel, helped by the wind in the sails. Other boats crammed full of tourists powered by, and not for the last time, I felt very happy and relaxed to be out on my own and free, nobody bothering me nor telling me what to do or where to go. Bliss.

Moored at the small beach, and was met by a man who owned a camel. I’d set myself up for an expensive scam, and I knew it. I bargained from the felluca. His first price was 250LE for a trip to the Tomb of the Nobles and the Monastery and back, but I managed to get him down to 150LE, still too much. Perhaps the Peruvian’s uselessness had rubbed off on me. He took me to the starting point, just next to a Nubian village, and here loads of camels were trotting around, some with kids as young as 8 on their backs, driving them expertly. My camel driver, Mahmoud, took me to the foot of the Tombs of the Nobles, a sandy area with tombs cut into the cliffs, where dignitaries of Elephantine Island were buried. Mahmoud’s mate and his mate’s mate were guarding the entrance to the first tomb, and I knew why. It was locked, and needed a key to unlock it and take a look inside. I went in somewhat reluctantly after the first guy, and was followed silently by the other. I was on guard, as anyone would be flanked by 2 Egyptian men deep in a tomb in the middle of the desert. As I left, the predictable request for baksheesh came. I gave one of them 5LE – a fair amount for such a small thing, but he insisted his silent friend be paid too. What for, I don’t know, so I strode off quickly, with the first man following me hoping to lead me into some more tombs that he would so kindly unlock. I lost him eventually, though he hung around for a while, and I managed to make it into a tomb that another guide was a showing to a couple of people. Lots of wonderful reliefs and clever hieroglyphics in here, and I managed to take a few photos too. I continued my climb, and got right to a small tomb on the top called Kubbet al-hawa. The climb was worth it, and I was rewarded with sweeping views of the Nile and Aswan on one side, desert-scape on the other. This was a wonderful spot to watch the hive of activity on the Nile. I spent a few minutes appreciating the view, then skidded back down to my waiting camel.

Mahmoud gave me the reigns this time, and told me it was the same as steering a horse. Simple. Left pull, camel goes left, right pull, camel goes right, pull back, camel slows down…click your tongue or yell ‘yallah!’ and it goes faster. Easy. And so I guided the camel over the desert to the Monastery of St Simeon, with Mahmoud running behind in his white thobe. Dating back to the 7th Century, this crumbling monastery, surrounded by a 10m high wall, could at one time accommodate 300 monks. I’d picked a good time to go, the sun was setting and the amber light cast on the ruins gave off a warm and intimate feel to the place. After a nice walk around, I boarded my camel again for the butt-crack chafing bollock-crushing ride back to base.

I mistook the bills in my wallet for a cheaper amount, and ended up paying a whopping 250LE for the privilege of the camel ride – but it was almost worth it. I’d done it before in Pushkar, India, but there was nothing much to see in that scrubland, and I was tripping out from a bhang lassi the night before, so this one was an altogether better experience. Mohammed was waiting for me, and he’d rolled a sizeable spliff, which we shared. We sailed around Kitchener’s Island as the sun set, creating beautiful silhouettes of fellucas and other vessels as they shimmered in a zig-zag way across the Nile. We met 2 other fellucas, and all tried to get through a narrow channel at the same time, resulting in us crashing into each other. The captains were rushing to change the degree of the sails, steer the boat, and ‘push it’ away from cliffs and the other boats. We were in a felluca jam, but fortunately got out of it in one piece.

Got back, paid Mohammed, and I had a beer in a local’s place in the Nile, followed by a kebab feast and 2 more beers at Salah ad-din. I got a table right on the Nile, and enjoyed the relaxation, and the fact that I didn’t need to speak to anyone. Left to go back to the hotel, via the colourful souk, where I had to politely decline several invitations to ‘join me for tea’. I’d booked a trip to Abu Simbel for the next day – with a 3am start! This meant waking up around 2:30am,, the earliest I’d ever got up to see anything. There was almost no point sleeping, but I could still get 4 or 5 hours in. I slept well. What a good first day in Aswan.

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