Thoughts On Travel in Egypt

I subscribed to a lot of travel sites while preparing for my trip. And while it’s going to be a few years before I can go on another, I still find myself browsing the sites, getting particularly excited when I read posts about places I’ve been.

Today I came upon an article outlining the author’s recent 3 week trip to Egypt, and why they feel now is a good time to go. I think it’s well written and outlines some interesting points, but mostly I like it because it closely reflects my experience and feelings on the situation.

An excerpt:

The Egyptian tourism industry’s misfortune is, however, the visitor’s opportunity: I never had to battle my way through crowds of tourists, not even at the most famous sites. I have a photograph that I took of the Pyramids where the place looks empty.

In 2009, I was living in San Francisco when the “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” exhibit rolled into town. I walked down to the De Young with the intention of buying a ticket and having a look. Faced with a huge, noisy crowd waiting to enter the exhibit at its allotted time, and a $30 ticket price, I changed my mind and spent two hours in the park instead.

In Cairo, on the other hand, I walked to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, paid less than $10, and wandered through the empty, dusty museum, soon finding myself alone in front of King Tut’s solid gold death mask (which cannot leave Egypt anymore, so wasn’t even part of the San Francisco exhibit).

Our small tour group also got to enjoy Kom Ombo Temple — usually packed with cruise ship passengers — alone, and our visit to Karnak Temple was peaceful and unrushed. Usually it is so crowded that visitors are assigned a time slot for entry.

At times, the reason these tourist sites were so empty played on my mind — much as it must have been on the minds of those people who expressed concerns over my safety prior to my trip. Walking over the bridge in Dahab that was hit by bombings in 2006, ballooning over Luxor Temple where 62 people were murdered in 1997, I was made keenly aware of the history of targeted attacks on visitors, but also of the efforts Egyptians go to to ensure the safety of tourists.

You can read the rest of Karen’s report on Matador Network. Reading it certainly brought me back to my time there and reminds me of how lucky I am to have gone when I did.


Mount Sinai

Karol and I spent something like 5 days in Dahab, during which time I took approximately 0 pictures. It’s not that Dahab wasn’t nice – it was great. But it’s really somewhere to go to relax and unwind, and isn’t a place that inspires you to take photos while you’re there.

We snorkeled almost every day, and had $4 dinners at nice ocean-front restaurants. Our friend Shaima, who we had met in Cairo, joined us for a few days and on our last full night in Dahab the three of us went to Mt. Sinai.

The trip to Sinai leaves Dahab at 11pm, traveling ~2hours to the foot of the mountain. Arriving around 1:15am, it’s a 3-4 hour walk up the mountain to watch the sunrise. I’m really glad we did the walk at night – even with the occasional camel dung landmine taking out members of our party – because on the walk down we realized just how long and steep the climb really is. Not to mention it’s about 95F during the day.

We caught the sunrise about 5:30am. I somehow ended up next to a group of cult-like Asian religious pilgrims who would alternate between singing hymns, breaking down into fits of hysterical sobbing and crying and, in some cases, apparent speaking in tongues. It was….interesting, to say the least.

After sunrise we walked back down the mountain to St. Katherine’s monastery, which turned out to be really boring, and then caught the minibus back into town. We spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating before catching another overnight bus back into Cairo.

The last two photos in this set are from Karol

Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut Temple

Cameras aren’t allowed in the Valley of the Kings.

It’s actually quite small, at least compared to how I envisioned it. The valley is located a good ways out into the desert, but from the entrance to the rear of the valley is no more than a 10 minute walk, with tombs so close together that many of them accidentally broke through to adjoining tombs during construction. Unfortunately, most tombs are closed to visitors. We got recommendations from an employee at the gate, however, and were able to see some interesting things.

The first tomb was nothing like I expected. There were some carving/paintings at the entrance to the tombs, but the rest was rough-cut stone. In pictures and movies, tombs have smooth walls and lots of right angles, but this one was like a cave with unfinished walls and more rounded edges filling it out. Unfortunately, there’s almost no information about any of the tombs in the valley itself so I don’t know if this was by design or due to time/budget constraints, etc.

The other tombs we visited (Karol and I went with a couple we met on the drive from the Felucca to Luxor) were more in keeping with what I expected. The paintings and carvings were incredibly detailed, with all the incised hieroglyphics painted, and many of the animal hieroglyphics given faces, individuals feathers, etc. Like the valley, the tombs themselves were not as big as I had thought they would be, but to think that these were chiseled out by hand thousands of years ago and have survived in such condition until today is remarkable.

While the others waited, I paid an extra 50EGP to visit King Tut Ankh Amen’s tomb. That was actually more expensive than the 3-tomb entrance fee we paid at the front gate, but I had no reservations about the decision because, well, could I really go to the Valley of the Kings and not see King Tut’s tomb?

His tomb was the smallest and least remarkable of the three. It contained his mummy – very short, with small toes – one of the outer sarcophagi, and a tomb attendant who wanted me to give him extra money for pointing things out to me that I could see myself. Overall very underwhelming, but I’d be kicking myself in the rear back in Boston had I skipped it.

After the Valley we took a cab to Hatshepsut Temple. My understanding is that the temple was destroyed just a generation or two after it was built by an angry relative/pharaoh, and that it was reconstructed over a number of decades in modern times. (It was also the site of a massacre of 62 tourists by Islamist extremists in 1997.) The size and visual impact of the temple is remarkable. While it’s something of a shame that it’s not really original, it was very interesting to see a monument looking very similar to the way it would have at the time of construction.

After just a few hours in the sun at the Valley and Hatshepsut we were all exhausted. We caught a cab back to the public ferry and decided to check the train station for tickets back to Cairo (we were really sick of Luxor hassles by this point). The incredibly rude counter agent informed us that the trains were sold out for the next 3 days, but that we could buy tickets “outside”.

Eventually we determined that “outside” meant from a guy smoking shisha (hookah) outside the cafe across the street. As foreigners, the ticket agents at stations won’t sell you anything but sleeper (super expensive) and 1st Class (expensive) tickets on trains. After a good deal of haggling on Karol’s part, we were able to get two 2nd Class black-market tickets for less than the price of one 1st Class. We paid more than 20EGP over face value for each, but were happy to do so to get cheaper tickets on the train out that night.

We headed back to our hotel, packed our bags, and returned to the station to catch our night train to Cairo. Less than two hours after arriving in Cairo we were on an 8 hour bus to Dahab.

Luxor, Luxor Temple & Karnak

Our arrival in Luxor was something of a [crap]show. We had no less than 5 random guys jumping into and out of our van, some claiming to be representatives of travel companies that some of the passengers were using, others saying nothing, and still others telling me and Karol that the hostel we were going to (The Bob Marley Hostel) was “closed” and then offering to let us speak to the “manager” whom they had already pre-called on their cellphones. None of the men had uniforms or showed any sort of identification.

One of the first rules of backpacking is that you don’t believe people when they tell you the hostel/attraction/store/etc that you’re looking for is closed. It’s not. They just want your business somewhere else – somewhere where they get a cut of what you spend. So we spent something like 30 minutes driving through Luxor in this tourist clown car, men jumping in and out at random, trying to make it clear that we didn’t care what they said about the hostel, that talking to a disembodied cellphone voice wouldn’t be enough to convince us that it was closed, and that we could talk when we saw for ourselves that it was in fact not open.

Eventually they offered to take us to the Bob Marley to show us that it was closed. We were going to stay with Leah and Sean, so Karol offered to get out while the rest of us watched our bags and made sure we still had a van to drive us should the whole closed-hostel situation be a total crock (we didn’t want the van to drive off, stranding us with the touts).

We circled the block to drop off the last of the non-Bob Marley Hostel people, and when we came back 5-10 minutes later, Karol was gone. I immediately got concerned – he had exited the van with a total stranger, in a city we didn’t know, with none of his stuff and no way to contact us – and grabbed our stuff and jumped out to wait at the corner in case he came back.

It was probably a stupid idea on my part, but as it turns out he was just down the block being shown an ‘alternate’ place to stay. Apparently the Bob Marley really was under renovation and wouldn’t have been a suitable place to stay in, so we spent one night at the place the touts kept trying to get us to stay and then moved down the road to a hotel with better atmosphere and reputation.

The next day we walked something like 5k in 95F+ heat to visit Karnak, where Karol, who’s Polish, got extremely excited by the presence of a Polish tour group. I got an overpriced veggie burger and fries on the walk back, but damn was it nice to be eating some real food.


After catching the 10pm train from Cairo, we arrived to Aswan around 11:30am the next day. The first order of business was finding a hostel. Where we’re staying lacks some creature comforts – namely soap, toilet paper, and a second sheet on the bed – but for $3.50/person for a private room with AC, we really couldn’t turn it down.

We were tired from not fully sleeping on the train but decided to walk along the Nile and catch a boat to Elephantine Island to explore. We walked through back alleys surrounded by goats and chickens, and even played a little soccer with some local kids. During our wanderings we found an open gate into an area of old ruins. We explored a bit and took a much needed break in the shade before finding out way out of what turned out to be the entrance to the ruins. Apparently there is a fee to access the area, but the gate we went through had no sign and no one watching it and we were able to talk our way through the security guards to get out.

We caught a boat back to the mainland where we wandered for an hour in an unsuccessful search to find a good place to eat before making our way to a local internet cafe ($3.50 a night doesn’t get you free wi-fi, believe it or not). We met up randomly with Alexis from the hostel in Cairo (we knew she was here, but not where) and got food together before taking a walk through the bazaar.

I’d grown increasingly tired of the stares and comments that my sideburns were receiving from the locals, so when we talked a barber into shaving them off for 5EGP ($0.84), I didn’t hesitate. 30 minutes later I was offered a straight razor shave for another 5EGP, so my face is now as smooth as a baby’s bottom. And I look about as old as a baby to boot. I’m going to start growing them back since they shouldn’t be such an issue when I get to Asia, but it’ll be nice to now only get attention for being white.


Coptic Cairo

Yesterday I went to the Coptic Quarter with Karol, a very English girl named Alexis that we met at our hostel, and Shaima, a local girl who speaks Arabic, Hebrew and English and is friends with Dror (who I stayed with while in Tel Aviv).

We visited the Coptic museum, a church, and a synagogue, and got dinner at a small sandwich place before heading to the Cairo Tower to watch the sunset.