Thursday, April 18, 2013

Travel in Egypt

Tut's golden coffin
(Cairo Museum)
 I traveled to Africa in 2002, primarily to climb Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Given Pinoy’s “sulitin” mentality (i.e. maximize), I thought I have to include a hop-stop in another country to - well, maximize my trip. Egypt just seemed to be an irresistible temptation given its allure and since it’s “on the way back to Asia”, back towards home. Since I was a kid, I’ve seen movies on mummies, pharaohs, Moses, Mt Sinai, the promise land, Joseph and Mary’s journey, and countless other interesting stories. I knew then that someday, somehow, I will set foot in Egyptian soil to relish those mystical unforgotten past.

I only had a week to spare, so I have to make the most of it. Hopefully there will be a future chance to visit the off-the-beaten places. With only five days, I decided to visit Cairo, then travel South to Luxor, visit the Valley of the Kings (Thebes)-, then stay 1 night in Luxor, travel back to Cairo (no time for Abu Simbel), then spend a day in Giza, finally do some shopping in Cairo and then fly home.

Tut's tomb in the Valley
of the Kings (Thebes)
Fast forward to my day of arrival…

The Egypt International Airport is spacious and relatively modern, not like other exotic countries that I have visited. I haven’t rested during my flight from Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania), so I quickly dozed off during my 5-peso-equivalent bus ride from airport to city center. (Petrol and transport are unbelievably cheap in this place). I almost jolted off my seat when I woke up from a deep nap, fearful that I might have missed my destination-landmark – the Egyptian Library if I recall. I kept myself awake and started my official sight- seeing tour (while still inside the bus). I realized that I was still a bit far from my target destination, the bus crawling slowly towards the heart of Cairo.

Having been in East Africa for 3 weeks, I was somewhat in ‘adjustment mode’ seeing very different racial stock stuffing the bus to full! I have imagined a different Cleopatra in my history readings, and now I understand why her beauty was such a pull for men (or at least the 2 Roman conquerors). Most ladies on board the bus have this powerful aura of beauty. Their faces were not covered at all, most of them at least. Their skin is fair, big eyes like the South Asians, long nose like the Latinas, well … a different kind of beauty! :) Initially I had the impression that Egyptians were Arabs, but according to one article that I've read, Egyptians (though Arab-speaking)actually belong to Eastern Hamitic tribe (native of North Africa) unlike Arabs who are Semitics.

Our bus passed by the Museum and I already saw hundreds of tourists queuing for the ticket. It was just around 8am, too early for a hotel check-in so I decided to jump off the bus and queue in myself to ‘get this Museum thing done’. I was wrong, I didn’t realize how much treasure this place has, one will probably need 2 full days or more, to properly appreciate the grandeur of the place. After the first few set of stones, coffins, mummies, and rock sculptures, I hurriedly run for the most popular, most guarded, and most awe-striking set of displays - - the Tutankhamun treasures. The million dollar riches of the Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the King (Thebes) were all transferred here for safekeeping. (The other tombs and their immense treasures were all looted before the scientific community discovered them). I haven’t seen so much gold in my life! The gold mask, the gold inner coffin with padded precious gems, gold knives, necklaces, bracelets,… everything in gold! Ang sarap i-uwi! :)

Hatshepsut's palace, outside
was a steaming 43C temp

After I ‘satisfied my eyes’ with gold - I continued breezing through the other interesting parts of the museum, and then headed for my still-to-be-found hotel. Budget rooms, of course. I heard there are some dorm-beds in Cairo that will only cost you an equivalent 2000peso per month! No wonder, there are so many foreign students in Egypt spending their summer time walking the streets of Cairo or Luxor or Alexander, queuing for a cheap shawarma lunch, loitering around the parks, and simply having a hell lot of fun and sun in this place.

I met this ‘stalker’ while walking some unknown streets east of the city, and offered me a place to stay (and he offered a lot more). I was hungry and tired, and too tired to argue so I checked out the place he was suggesting. As expected, the place was cheap, pre-historic, more like an after-a-recent-war type of place to stay. But hey, I was not staying for long anyway. The room with bath has a price tag of something like 25 Egyptian pounds (around 250 pesos I think). I quickly settled down, then I went back to the museum (the first visit was not enough), book my ticket to Luxor, then had dinner by the Nile.

I should have known, I visited a ‘honeymoon place”... Perfect views, nice weather, good moon, romantic atmosphere - - the only missing piece… a Date! Waaaah….

I took the long train ride the early morning (heading souwthwest), and was greeted by hot air and wind. Too bad I had to lose a day and spend it in a boring train ride. On arrival, I immediately booked a hotel, ate my Egyptian meal, and looked for a local who could beam me up to Thebes – to the Valley of the Kings. I got a shuttle ride the next day, with a few European travelers. We soon landed, and were slapped by an even hotter air. 43 degrees Centrigrade! The sun was so bright, the air was so dry, the wind fierce, and sky so clear, it was like (as I’ve imagined) landing on Mars. My Oakley and wide-brim sun-hat was no match, I still felt hot and roasted. Walking on, we saw Queen Hatshepsut’s palace, a good work of ‘Martian art’. Then on the Valley of the Kings, the tombs were immense and interesting. We had a hieroglyphics-for-dummy crash course, but I was too busy imagining things in the tomb than listening. It would be interesting though if I did some review of forgotten history, I might have followed the story-telling of our expert-of-the-ancient.
One interesting story I remember was something about the discovery of wooden penises (presumably for fertility rights). I'm not sure how is that connected to another story but apparently, a certain god lost his penis in the river (eaten by fish), which was later 'replaced' by his wife (a fake part like the wooden penis). Anyway, that p-eating incident is the reason why (ancient?) Egyptians exclude fish in their offerings.

Sculptures in Luxor,
so much to see.

Back to the east bank of Luxor after a tiring desert tour, I headed to two other popular destinations, the temple of Luxor and Karnak. The stone monuments and sculptures there are really huge, a small piece of rock-sculp weighs several metric tons. Too bad though that weather and time were not too friendly to have those historic rock-art preserved. I’ve seen a picture of a replica of the Lion guards in Las Vegas, and they’re more neat and complete compared to its original counterpart.

Rode a train again, back to Cairo. This time I was able to save time by riding the night trip. I ejected myself out two stations before Cairo Center. I was now walking through the early morning mist of Giza. The train station to Giza Pyramids is probably around 5km or more. I didn’t have a proper Giza map, so I guesstimated and navi-guessed. At least my direction was right, except that I walked the whole 5km or so stretch to the gates, with my pack of course. Getting my first glimpse of the Cheops Pyramid through the morning mist and smog, was similar to the overwhelming surge of excitement when I get my first up-close glimpse of the peak during a climb. In someways, I felt that I was done for the day. To see the pyramids with my naked eye. Checked!
The PYRAMIDS of Giza!  Truly Majestic!

Wait, no, I have to be up-close and personal! I have to touch it, climb it perhaps, feel it… to complete the experience.

There are 9 pyramids in Giza, 3 of them are the famous and humungous ones, and Cheops - the grandest. I climbed a fourth of Cheops, before I entered (what I call) the ‘gates of time’. The insides of the pyramid are so remarkable and unbelievably more scientific than artistic. Those ancient guys probably hired some engineer from outer space. It took me a bit of time crawling and walking the lighted, but otherwise very dark tunnel – towards the pyramid center, the tomb. For a moment – I just looked around, amazed and in awe, I was actually inside a giant Pyramid – one of humans’ greatest engineering marvel!

I went out again to do full-view pictures of each pyramid. Then came up with this idea of taking them all in 1 shot, in 1 frame. I saw several postcards displaying just that, so I tried to look for the perfect spot. My problem was that, I only have a fixed lens in my point-&-shoot camera. I have to walk away from my photo subject. I ended up walking in the desert with sandals and shorts and sando, probably1.5 to 2km out, before I hit the right spot. Whew! The tourists and locals who were riding horses and camels were of course wondering what the heck I was doing out alone in the desert.

Sphynx behind me, smaller
than I thought

I decided to spend a night in Giza so I could maximize my Pyramid experience. There was this Light and Sound show in one of the hotel-restaurant overlooking Sphinx and the Pyramids. I think it was worth watching it. I was biased of course, I really liked the place and Pyramids’ aura.

But alas - all good things must come to an end. I have to go back to Cairo city center the next day to continue with my city tour, and my shopping, and to catch the plane home the next day. It was my last day of vacation, the last free day of my 1month trip to Africa…and my last glimpse of the dream land which I promised myself to visit.

Trip conclusion
Worth it? Hell yeah!
Cost?  Backpacking mode possible, low-to-med.
Tour potential?  ENDLESS
Recommended stay? At least 2 weeks, preferably 1 month! 
Security? Back then was ok, I didn’t get into any trouble. Check status.
Most recommended sight? For me -the Pyramids!

1 comment:

Jenny Morag said...

Egypt trip is very exciting to see. I have always wanted to travel anywhere and this just gave me an inspiration to get a Egypt pyramid tour