Egypt - 2007

I have had some doubts about visiting arab countries so Egypt had not been on my todo list for a long time. Additionally the country's reputation as the new Canary Islands raised some doubts. But after visiting British Museum and seeing their Egyptian collection it was pretty obvious that this is something I need to experience.

After a quick one-week tour I must say that I am more than impressed by the history and the sights: Pyramids, Egyptian Museum, Temples of Luxor and Karnak, Valley of the Kings... Additionally Dahab is one of the most pleasant chill out spots I have come across so far - a really nice surprise after the chaos and hassle that you are bound to experience in most of the other locations. As expected scamming and hassling are a real pain in the ass - I haven't experienced such behaviour in any other place. Even the moto drivers in Cambodia are good people compared to Egyptian taxi drivers and touts.

But anyway I have a strange feeling that I may return to Dahab some day - it is not that difficult to get to Petra (Jordan) from there. Don't expect too much heat at this time of year - it was actually quite chilly especially after sunset!

Check out the photo gallery.

Places visited:

  1. Cairo
  2. Dahab
  3. Luxor

21.12.2007 Helsinki - Cairo
It's Christmas time again and for the second time in row I'll be spending it in a sunnier and warmer location. I have mixed feelings about the country - as said the history is the main attraction for me but the growing mass tourism, scamming and other hassle sound a bit scary.

I'll be flying Turkish Airlines - never used this airline before. I quickly realize that this will hopefully be the last time - the plane is more than fully booked and there seems to be more seats than on an average Ryanair flight. Still this is not a budget company! The stewardesses are a bit rude but at least the food is decent. Anyway the flight from Helsinki to Istanbul is a memorable one as the guy sitting next to me seems to have some kind of ADHD syndrome. The guy keeps talking all the time (a mixture of Turkish, Finnish and English), reads a book for a couple of minutes and keeps making nervous moves all the time. Additionally he keeps hiccuping / burping all the time and that makes me wonder when he is going to throw up. Fortunately that does not happen!

There is an unpleasant five-hour transfer in Istanbul - the good thing is that there is a Burger King so it is an excellent chance to enjoy a Double Whopper meal. After an uneventful flight to Cairo I end up in the immigration queue at the airport. The process does not take that long and I proceed to the arrivals area where somebody from the hotel should be waiting for me. I easily locate a lady with a sign that has my name. The first thing I notice outside is the chilly weather - it must be below ten degrees. Rather cold even though it is already way past midnight!

The next thing that strikes my eye is the traffic. In general most of the cars are basically moving wrecks and as expected the driving is more than reckless. If you ever wonder where old Peugeots, Ladas and Fiats from the 70s end up it must be Cairo! After a half an hour drive I arrive safely (?) in the hotel - not too much of luxury but seems decent enough. As it is already 3 AM I quickly go to bed...

22.12.2007 Cairo
I wake up around ten o'clock as I arrived so late the night before. I don't have much of plans for the day expect a visit to the Egyptian Museum later in the afternoon. As usually in a new location I just keep a couple of hours by wandering around in the downtown. The traffic was crazy already in the middle of the night and now it seems to be even crazier. Actually it feels even more dangerous than in India as there is very few motorcycles around - most of the traffic consists of those ancient cars. Taxis are numerous and are the probably the worst I've ever seen - some 60s Peugeot model seems still to be pretty popular here! Another interesting thing is the huge number of policemen and armed guards. Seems that there is some kind of officer in every corner - probably because of recent acts of terrorism. 

I soon realize that the downtown area is not the most pleasant place I've been to. Some architecturally interesting old buildings from the colonial era but also lots of ugly concrete constructions. It is easy to get lost as streets can be narrow and there are very few street signs (and most of them are only in Arabic). As it is already late and after getting lost a couple of times I head to Egyptian Museum. As expected the place is huge - some people spend even two days there! There are dozens of big and small rooms that have thousands of artifacts - anything from small skarabees to huge statues! The most fascinating artifacts are the objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun and the mummy exhibition that has the bodies of about ten ancient kings. There is also a room for animal mummies - a bit grotesque but still interesting. You can easily spend several hours in the museum just by wandering around! Unfortunately most of the artifacts are lacking proper signs so you can just guess the origins of many of the objects.

I return to hotel to rest for a while. It is already dark when I start my second walking tour. I need to buy a night bus ticket for tomorrow so I need to locate the bus station. I don't feel like getting lost so I try one of the ancient Peugeot taxis - after some bargaining the driver takes me to a place that is near the bus station but not exactly there! After some walking I finally find the place and buy a ticket to Sharm el Sheikh. I return to downtown by underground that seems to be very efficient and cheap way of transportation. After some more walking I end up in a restaurant near my hotel to have dinner. I order some random Arab dishes with strange names - pretty good indeed. I return to hotel and ask the owner to arrange me a driver tomorrow so that I can visit several sites with pyramids. Apart from Giza the other sites are so far away that you need to get there by car.

23.12.2007 Cairo
I wake up early as my driver should be coming at 8:00. It is actually almost 9:00 when I finally get moving as the "assistant driver" is finally located. It seems that two people are needed because the other guy can drive but does not know the directions! The car is a fairly new Huyndai that has already had its share of bumps.

It is not a long way to Giza (it is in the middle of some local suburbs). You can easily see the pyramids from a distance and the closer you get then you soon realize the sheer size of these fascinating things. As soon as I leave the car there is some guy offering vastly overpriced guide services - I politely refuse and continue to the site. After passing the entrance gate there is a good view including Sphinx and all the three biggest pyramids. Sphinx is unfortunately somewhat eroded - it is still impressive but would probably be even more if the head was still intact.

I make my way up to the pyramids. They are just huge! But actually they look much more impressive from a distance - erosion has also hit them pretty hard. Another thing is the numerous touts that are trying to sell camel rides and guide services - what a pain in the ass! It is also possible to go inside the pyramids. There is a very narrow corridor with steep stairs that takes you to the bottom of the middle pyramid - this something not for the claustrophobic!  It is really hot and humid inside and there is not much to be seen (except tourists). The same applies for the whole area - there is not that much except the three main pyramids and Sphinx. And they really are best seen from a distance.

As the touts are getting to my nerves I'll continue to my next destination - Saqqara. The location is some 30 km outside Cairo. The pyramid is smaller than the ones in Giza but is quite impressive as it is built in the form of steps. There is also a temple and some tombs in the area. There are fine desert views and it is much more peaceful there than in Giza. After Saqqara I continue to the final site for the day - Dashfur. This is the most remote location of the three and is in the middle of desert. There are two main pyramids - Red Pyramid and interestingly formed Bent Pyramid. You can go inside Red Pyramid which proves to be again a sweaty experience.

Outside an armed guard wants to offer me guide services - I follow him to some small temple and then the guy obviously starts asking for money ("You have something for me?"). I don't like the situation as he has an assault rifle (loaded?) in his other hand... I just walk away and head back to the car! On the way back we stop at local "garden restaurant" to have late lunch that proves to be an excellent selection of some local dishes. Then it is time to return to Cairo, it takes a while as the guys want me to visit some carpet store and the traffic jams are getting quite bad. An interesting thing on the way back is the suburbs of Cairo where basically all the buildings are just half finished - typically just the lower floors are inhabited.

I rest for a while in the hotel before making a visit to the local bazaars in the area of Islamic Cairo. It is what you expect from a bazaar - lots of narrow streets with small shops and enormous amount of hassle. Seems that I am there too late as many of the shops closed already. I don't feel like buying anything so I take the metro back and spend a couple of hours at the hotel before I head for the bus station. 

24.12.2007 Cairo - Sharm el Sheikh - Dahab
The night bus proves to be a painful experience. The main reason is the numerous military checkpoints where the bus needs stop and then somebody comes to check the IDs of all passengers. This means that you wake up at least once an hour so it is pretty much impossible to sleep properly. It is 6 o'clock when the bus finally arrives in Sharm el Sheikh. It really cold and the bus for Dahab won't be leaving before 7.

It is interesting to see how the terrain has changed from desert to sandstone mountains - beautiful but gets a bit boring after a while. After an hour I arrive in Dahab - the bus station seems to be in the middle of nowhere. I have booked a four-star hotel from a big resort for a chance - I though about enjoying some extra comfort during Christmas time. The place is actually a walking distance from the bus station and looks exactly like a typical resort: a big area with pools, tennis courts, private beach and numerous bars and restaurants. The beach looks really good so not a bad choice.

I take a nap after the terrible bus ride before going to the beach. Sun is shining and it is warmer than in Cairo but definitely not really hot. The sea is hardly warm enough for swimming. It seems that there are not many people staying in the resort - probably the bombings that took place the previous spring have kept tourists away? The main activities seem to be windsurfing and diving - there are lots of dive shops around.

As sun sets down I decide to skip the hotel's Christmas party and head for the backpacker district in the downtown area. It is not too crowded there either. The main attraction is the beach boulevard that has numerous bedouin restaurants. It is the perfect concept for chilling out and having dinner. There are mattresses on the floor and low couches to sit on. Many of the restaurants have open fires in big pits. What is the best thing is that many of the places play ethnically influenced chill out sounds in the background - even though I'm not a big fan of such sounds it seems to fit to this setting perfectly. There is lots of fresh seafood available - you can handpick your fish from a bowl with ice when placing the order. The food is excellent and the atmosphere feels like heaven after last night... But still I feel rather tired so I'll be sleeping in the hotel before ten already. And yes - I almost forgot that it was Christmas Eve - fortunately there was not much of Christmas hassle in Dahab...     

25.12.2007 Dahab
Christmas day is again a sunny one. There is complimentary breakfast buffet being served - it proves to be a good one and I try to eat as much I can. The weather is still a bit chilly but just warm enough for sunbathing. That is pretty much the agenda for the day. There is an interesting sight of a dark Egyptian guy dressed as Santa Claus with some kids from the hotel walking on the beach. What is even more absurd is the carnival horns they are using to make lots of noise. Egyptian definition of Christmas?

After sunset I again head for downtown Dahab. The intention is to book some activities for tomorrow. There are lots of small travel agencies around that arrange anything from camel treks to excursion to Jordan. I decide to take a half-day snorkeling trip in the morning and then a sunset camel trek later in the afternoon.

I have dinner at a bedouin place called Funny Mummy that seems to be quite crowded. The atmosphere and the soundtrack are again excellent but the fish I ordered is nothing special. But otherwise the place is just perfect - it also has the biggest fires so far. I end up staying there for a couple of hours just by drinking Egyptian tea and solving some sudoku puzzles.

On my way back I locate a shop that sells pirate cds (basically CDR discs that have been copied manually). They seem to have these "Bedouin Chill" compilations played at the restaurants so I decide to buy a couple of them even though I don't like the idea of supporting piracy. But it would be pretty much impossible to buy them back home.  

26.12.2007 Dahab
I wake up early to have a proper breakfast before the snorkeling trip. The dive shop on the beach has a big yacht that takes you to some nearby spots for just 20 - sounds like good value for money. There is just me and two English ladies aboard. The first spot is called "3 pools" and is actually pretty close to coastline. It is quite windy but fortunately the visibility is still good. Water is a bit cold but not too cold - the ladies are wearing wet suits that could have been a good idea.

3 Pools is one of the better spots I've been to. There is lots of different varieties of fish and coral. No junk to be seen and not too many people around - just a small group taking diving lessons. Underwater life is always as exciting and it has been a long time since I did a proper snorkeling trip the previous time. The next spot is called "Napoleon Island" and is a bit further away in the open sea. The water is also getting somewhat colder. There is nobody else around so you enjoy complete silence - the variety of fish is even better than at the previous spot. It is gradually getting cold so I return to the yacht and watch the windsurfers. The captain keeps flirting with the Brits for a long time - it probably happens on every trip?

We return to hotel in the afternoon. I have some time to spend on the beach before heading once again for downtown area. My camel ride starts from the travel agency where they take me by car to the bedouin area of Dahab. There are lots of camels everywhere - basically on the streets and back yards of local people. My "driver" is waiting in a very modest small house. It is a very crude brick construction with open fire and dirt floor. I sit inside for a while to have a cup of tea. There are two old ladies there but seems that they do not speak any English. A bit of awkward moment!

Then my camel seems to be ready - the next thing is to mount the creature. The camel has kneeled so that is rather easy - the scary part begins when the animal stands up again. The saddle does not quite feel safe and you could probably hurt yourself badly if you fell! A young bedouin starts guiding the camel to the mountains - it is soon obvious that the animal is not willing to co-operate and wants to go the opposite direction. It takes a combination of weird sounds and some bashing with a stick to get animal to the correct direction - and at the same time I'm getting more and more worried about falling from the saddle. Riding that poor thing is not the most pleasant experience - maybe if you had done horse riding it could be a lot easier.

Anyway it takes about half an hour to reach a small peak in the nearby mountains. There is some kind of camp there and we leave the camel there. A narrow path takes you to the summit - from there it is a good view to the sea and over the rooftops of Dahab. I enjoy the scenery fow a while and watch the sunset. After that it is the time to return to the bedouin village. This time the camel is also more co-operative! I am more than happy to dismount the camel for the last time. A bit scary but memorable experience after all...

The driver takes me back to downtown area. It is time to have dinner - there is a place with a promising name "Chill Out Cafe" so I decide to give it a try. The music is really good and the grilled squid is excellent so not a bad choice again. After dinner I spend some time by lounging at Funny Mummy and then return to hotel. A good day with interesting activities!

27.12.2007 Dahab - Luxor
It is time to move on again. My final destination is Luxor where I'll be staying for two days. Because of tight schedule and long distances I have booked an EgyptAir flight from Sharm el Sheikh to Luxor. Should be pretty much convenient compared to taking the 14-hour bus ride via Cairo! The flight takes off at ten o'clock in the evening so I spend the day at the pool area. For some reason the water in the pool terribly cold - a lot colder than sea water. It is somewhat painful to walk as my soles have dried too much and have started peeling off. I obviously need some plasters to be able to walk tomorrow in Luxor.

There is a bus at five o'clock to Sharm el Sheikh so I leave the resort late in the afternoon. It is already dark when I get to Sharm el Sheikh and I think about making a brief visit to downtown area. Seems that taxis are vastly overpriced so I decide to go directly to airport instead. The route actually goes through the downtown area that proves to be a really unpleasant looking complex of big hotels, shopping malls and clubs. Basically like any resort town in the Mediterranean area...

So I spend a couple of hours at the airport by reading a book. The flight is delayed by half an hour - otherwise it is such a short one that nothing really happens. In Luxor there is the usual hassle with taxis - again there long rows of ancient Peugeot 504s waiting there. Interestingly they change the driver in the middle of the highway - both of them are speeding consistently. There is yet one surprise left when I arrive in the hotel: they seem to be completely unaware of my booking (made by using Hostelworld). Fortunately there is a room available and it seems decent enough. The city seems almost as chaotic as Cairo and there constant noise coming from the street. Fortunately I have earplugs (as always)! 

28.12.2007 Luxor
I wake up around nine o'clock and enjoy the breakfast buffet at the hotel. I decide to leave the visit to the Valley of Kings for tomorrow - there is a lot to see on this side of Nile as well. Luxor Temple is just a couple of blocks away from the hotel so that is an obvious starting point. Banks of Nile are also just a couple of hundred meters away. The first thing you are bound to notice on the streets is the unbelievable amount of hassle. Touts, touts and touts. Horse carriage rides, felucca boat rides, souvenirs... As Lonely Planet warned: this is the harassment capital of Egypt (or should I say world?). Some of the guys are really aggressive and the way they keep calling you "friend" is really annoying.

I spend about one hour in the Luxor Temple that is already quite packed with tour groups. Anyway the place is impressive and there is lot more to see than at the pyramids. There is lots of fairly well preserved hieroglyphs and beautiful statues. And of course the big obelisk. Interestingly they had later built a mosque inside the temple!

But Luxor Temple turns out to be rather modest when I get to Temples of Karnak about an hour later. First of all the area is huge - at least one square kilometer. There is a big complex of constructions from various eras, several pylons and of course countless statues, sphinxes and obelisks. The place is also quite crowded but because of the size of the area it is not really a problem. I get the familiar feeling of awe as in places like Angkor Wat and Chichen Itza - how did the people build this beautiful thing? I spend about two hours just by walking around and admiring the fine details of these fascinating constructions.

It is already late afternoon and I decide to take a break at the hotel. There is a rooftop terrace with swimming pool that offers a good view over the city. Actually the city looks rather ugly from this perspective - as usually there ugly concrete buildings in every direction. Anyway the terrace is a good place to watch the sunset. After sunset I continue exploring the downtown area. "Museum of Mummification" sounds interesting but the place is actually a disappointment - the collection is very small and apart from one mummy of a high priest there is not much to be seen (especially when you have visited Egyptian Museum already).

I have dinner at restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet - surprisingly it is a big disappointment as the food is tasteless and waiters are having continuous difficulties in finding the correct tables. I continue wandering to the local bazaar area which offers the typical selection of souvenirs, clothes and everything else... The amount of hassle is getting unbearable again and I continue to the more peaceful area around my hotel. Fortunately there is a souvenir shop nearby that claims to have fixed prices and "no hassle". That is actually true and I easily find exactly what I'm looking for - a small Anubis statue made of basalt stone. I return to hotel and spend a moment at the terrace before going to sleep.

29.12.2007 Luxor - Helsinki
The agenda for the last day in Egypt is to visit the sights of West Bank. Basically this means the Valley of the Kings that is a huge area filled with temples and tombs - main attraction being the valley itself. I check out in the morning and still the guy at the reception is completely unaware of the Hostelworld booking and tries to charge some extra. Seems that I need to send some feedback to this previously reliable service.

I take the "National Ferry" to the other side of river Nile. The intention is to rent a bicycle from there as it is the most convenient way to visit the sights that are scattered all over the huge site. There is a very annoying tout that obviously wants to rent a bike for me but as the guy is so rude I fortunately locate another shop nearby. I have seen better bicycles though - additionally the "Made in China" sign is not the best reference for me. 

After a couple of kilometers of cycling I reach the entrance to the site. You need to buy tickets for various sights and tombs individually so the first thing is to decide which of the smaller attractions you want to visit. I buy a ticket to a nearby temple and for two tombs. The temple proves to be interesting because of the beautiful and well preserved carvings - it is rather small compared to Luxor Temple but is interesting to how the hieroglyphs would have looked like in full colour.

My next destination is Valley of the Queens - it is lot smaller than Valley of the Kings and there is just a couple of tombs that are open. Anyway the experience of visiting the first tomb is really a memorable one. It is a bit claustrophobic inside the small tombs but the artwork on the walls is really beautiful. Unfortunately photography is not allowed (for obvious reasons). I continue my tour to visit two "Tombs of the Nobles" in the area between the two valleys. There is actually a village in the middle of the area so locating the tombs is a bit of challenge. There is just a few tourists so you can basically explore the tombs on your own (except for the "temple guard" who is taking care of a particular tomb). Again, more beautiful artwork and the biggest tomb so far.

Then after a couple of kilometers of cycling I arrive in the main destination today: Valley of the Kings. It is already late afternoon but there is still a steady flow of tour buses coming in. The area itself is interesting - as expected it is a large valley surrounded by steep sandstone mountains. There is about twenty tombs that should be open for the public even though many of them seem to be closed for renovation. The admission includes visits to three tombs. For some of the tombs you need an additional ticket (for example to the tomb of Tutankhamun). I decide not to buy additional tickets and I check out a couple of tombs recommended by LP and then a random one. The difference to the previous ones is that these are really huge complexes! Typically there is long corridors with stairs, a number of rooms and then main chamber with sarcophagus. And of course coloured hieroglyphs and carvings everywhere. The most remote tombs in the area are really peaceful - seems that most of the tourists just stay at the area near Tutankhamun's tomb.

Apart from the tombs there is not that much to be seen so I'll start cycling back. On the way back there is still time to visit the impressive temple of El-Bahri that is built under a steep mountain. Interestingly there is a Finnish tour group there so I join a guided tour in Finnish for a while! There is the usual selection of interesting artwork but I'm gradually feeling that I'm had my share of it for today... So it is about the time to return to the East Bank. I return the bicycle and take the ferry back to the other side - there is a beautiful sunset just when the ferry makes the short crossing to the other side.

There is still some time in the evening before my flight takes off so I have dinner and make a visit to Luxor Museum. The place is not as big as Egyptian Museum but the collection is very well presented. I'm starting to feel exhausted so I return to hotel and spend my last hours in Luxor at the rooftop terrace. Then a short taxi ride to the airport and the painful journey back begins. I have three flights - first from Luxor to Cairo, then from Cairo to Helsinki via Istanbul. No problems nor lost luggage so after about 12 hours I arrive in Helsinki.

Anyway a good trip again, lots of interesting sights and sunshine. Could have been a bit warmer and less harassment but at the moment I don't really care! 

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