Saturday, 27 August 2011

... Egypt: One Hump or Two?

Luxor claims to be the World's greatest open-air museum. In ancient times it was known as Thebes and became important during the Middle Kingdom period, eventually becoming the religious capital. Perhaps unsurprisingly the most recent statement made regarding Luxor is that the greatest threat to its archaeological heritage is tourism. One visitor alone is responsible for carbon dioxide, friction & humidity created by 2.8g of sweat and it is affecting reliefs and pigments of wall paintings. Oh and it looks nothing like Luxor in Vegas (thanks Sarah).

My hotel was situated across from the Nile with Luxor Temple just off to the left of it. The temple apparently has some wonderful architecture although even more spectacular is said to be the great hypostyle hall contained within the Temples of Karnak just to the northeast. To be honest by the time I got back yesterday lunch time from an already jam-packed morning of adventures (and let's face it, it was going to be hard to top being told by someone "you are lucky, you got the most handsome pilot") I was kind of templed out and turned down the chance to go. I also suspected that I had had enough of the heat too and so the idea of sitting in the shade with a nice cold glass of karkadai (made from hibiscus leaves) and a bite to eat sounded like a plan to me.

I don't think that plan originally included trying camel tagen (stew cooked in an earthenware pot). Anyone who knows me however will not be at all surprised by the fact that I did. As-Sahaby Lane is an outdoor restaurant that I'd actually had a great lentil soup & salad at the previous night. It had been highly recommended for it's great tasting and freshly prepared Egyptian dishes. A two minute walk from my hotel, it was also on the edges of the Souq. Having seen slaughtered camel hanging from a hook for sale in one of the villages I'd driven through I can't say it looked particularly appealing. However served in a bubbling tagen with a side order of aromatic couscous, it looked like one of the brisket stews Grandma would make and it smelt absolutely divine. Taste test? Well it was a little chewy but incredibly tender and it tasted so yummy. Yes, this coming from a pescatarian. And just to think that less than a week a go I was riding one of these around the Pyramids of Giza. Feeling refueled and rehydrated a nap seemed like a very good way to ease myself into the evening.

Luxor is known for a place to go if you want to be hassled. Can't say "oh and get hassled" is on my holiday list of things to do, however in the right context it can actually be kind of fun. "Surely this is crazy talk Nic?" Well under normal circumstances probably yes but when applied to the context of visiting a Souq it becomes a whole new ball game. Having visited the Souq's in both Cairo & Aswan, and actually partaking in some bartering at the latter walking away with some great bargains, I figured I was pretty prepared to deal with whatever Luxor could throw at me. During my first attempt on night one I think by the time I'd been asked, "Are you Japanese?" for the 3rd time ("Are you Alaskan?" being a close 2nd) I figured this might be a bit more exhausting than initially hoped. Venders were in your face, I was pushed & pulled and I walked away feeling kind of angry as a result of my experience. Sorry but invading my personal space is not on.

Thankfully not too deflated I went back my 2nd night to a totally different vibe and met some wonderful people as a result who genuinely wanted to show you their goods with no pressure to buy from Moses the jeweler (he truly is excellent) to the scarf seller. Instead of the deal/blind/mute approach it was nice to be able have conversations with the sellers and still walk away with a polite "No thank you" if you were not interested. Bartering is a fine art and should not be abused just because in a bid to avoid getting ripped off you then turn the tables and rip off your seller. There was some absolutely fantastic items for purchase throughout the Souq in amongst some absolute crap. But I walked away very very happy with a couple of items in Egyptian silver including a new beautiful silver ring with my name in hieroglyphs and a scarab carved from stone to add to my spices & mask purchased in Aswan.

As dinner time approached, what better way to end a wonderful trip in Egypt with one final night in... An Irish Bar! Good food, great company and some pretty awesome dance moves were a fantastic way to bid a fond farewell to what has been an amazing trip. And now with a long day of traveling ahead this morning I'm getting ready to head out to Luxor airport for a flight up to Cairo and the start of my journey home.

- Posted using BlogPress from Nic's iPad

Friday, 26 August 2011

... Egypt: "Hey Mr. Spielberg, I've Got A Script For You"

By midday today I had been 2000ft in the air, landed in a field in a pile of poo, ridden a donkey that I nicknamed Mustafa just because, visited a temple of the female Pharaoh Hetshepsut, walked past Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings and passed more than one comment at the state of dress of some tourists (namely Eastern Europeans... Yes I shall name & shame!) who seem to think that Daisy Dukes & wife beater shirts are acceptable in a). A sacred place and b). A Muslim Country especially during Ramadan.

Despite an incident involving crashing into a cell phone tower in 2009, hot air ballooning remains an extremely popular activity here in Luxor specifically to see the sun rise over the ancient monuments of the West Bank and the mountains. This might be the only explanation I can offer as to why on earth I was up at 345am to do this seeing as I am acrophobic (and some of us were half way across the world enjoying the sunset). Despite downing two coffees between the hotel, crossing the Nile and the launch site I don't think it really hit me until I was in this huge basket with at least 18 others rising into the sky whilst a bunch of men below began praying loudly. That had the same effect on me as when people start clapping after a plane safely lands. I racked my brain trying to work out if I had watched any "MayDay: Hot Air Balloon Disaster" episodes recently.

I strategically picked my spot as far away from the burner as possible because I am quite fond of my eyebrows. The heat that thing gives off is pretty intense... So at least it'll be cremation then when I fall to my death. I was actually doing pretty well: able to get some great shots with all my cameras, particularly of the sun rise, without too much hand shaking. The sun rising on the horizon was pretty fantastic to watch that's for sure.

I think it was when we went so high that I could hear the wind whistling and every other balloon bar ours was much lower that I lost my nerve just a little. Still the scenery as you can probably imagine was amazing and quite literally breathe taking.

When we began to lose altitude about 25 minutes into our flight I think the vast majority of us expected it to be the end but we continued eastwards crossing the Nile. Hmmm ok, may be we'll do a loop and turn around? Despite the rather ungodly hour the was a bustle of activity below us. It is kind of funny looking down and seeing people sleeping on their roofless top floor with their chickens. Lots of people came out to see what was going on and waved at us all enthusiastically before snapping shots with their cell phone... Whilst they may live in mud brick roofless houses priorities appear to lie elsewhere. It really was very peaceful gliding through the sky and despite my initial (& usual) fears I didn't really want to come down just yet. But alas.... "resume the landing position" barked the pilot. "No! not yet. NOW!" Of course as I predicted, half the people hadn't been listening to his explanation at the start so faced the wrong way. Then again that had been "normally we have a safety briefing but we have no time. So we will just tell you the important things, this is the landing position." Oh dear God help us.

I don't think I have ever filled in a comment card for the "best bit about this trip" with "where we landed in a field in a pile of poo". Well now I have. They made it sound like they do it all the time landing in fields in the middle of no where. Hmmm, may be explain why a rather angry looking farmer trying to plough that very same field looked mightily bewildered and sounded a tad pissed off. Or why we were surrounded by adults & kids as though we were something strange and new. Because of the obvious disdain of at least the farmer we briefly rose again and went over to the next field to re-land. Surely it was comedic timing that caused one of the ground crew solemnly exclaimed upon our second landing "Happy Landing." I don't think I have laughed so hard... But then the pilot announced that "the balloon will die now" as it was deflated & quickly folded away. I couldn't make this up if I tried.

We'd travelled quite some distance from where we originally started from and so were driven back to the dock on the West Bank. This was where I was to meet my next mode of transportation that would take me to the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut.....

I have now seen a male donkey try to mate with another male donkey. And it wasn't satisfied with trying just the one. Let's just say I now have a whole new meaning to the phrase "donkey kong". What has been seen cannot be unseen. Thanks heavens I wasn't riding that donkey - Mustafa for most part was pretty placid and riding a donkey through the fertile green Egyptian countryside past Ramses II memorial temple, the Ramesseum, a wonderful way of getting to the temple.

The most famous of Egypt's female Pharaohs is Hatshepsut. She took over when her husband and half-brother died and she managed to get rid of the half-son. Oh yes, they tended to keep things in the family... Kind of like a certain modern Royal family? *cough* Deir al-Bahri lies at the foot of some rugged cliffs and incorporates her memorial temple. It is almost modern looking with it's design and lines yet is obviously several thousands of years old. Continuous excavation and restoration since the late 1800's has revealed a stunning monument and one can only imagine how much more stunning it was back then.

Over the centuries the temple was vandalized: One of the primary culprits was Hatshepsut's half-son Tuthmosis III, whom I guess she didn't do that good a job of making disappear. He removed her name wherever he could. There are some gorgeous reliefs in the middle terrace and then the Hathor Chapel was well worth a visit. Of note are the statues of what appears to be a male pharaoh with very feminine facial features.

The heat here however was extreme despite it barely being 9am and I felt my skin was still sizzling despite having slapped on some factor 50.

"KV 62" is probably the most famous tomb so far discovered within the Valley of the Kings. Howard Carter slaved away for six seasons and on November 22nd 1922 discovered the first step to the tomb of Tutankhamun. The rest, as they say, is history However, despite the treasures found within an already twice-robbed tomb, it is said to be one of the least impressive tombs and so I figured not worth the extra fee. Your regular ticket enables you to visit 3 tombs and unfortunately no cameras are allowed.

The tomb of Ramses IV contains a beautiful red granite sarcophagus said to be one of the biggest in the valley. The mummy is in the Royal Mummy Room of the Egyptian Museum In Cairo. The paintings have deteriorated in places but there is the most beautiful image of the goddess Nut stretched across the ceiling. The blue colour here is amazing.

Opposite the tomb of Ramses II is the most visited tomb. The tomb of Ramses IX has some fantastic drawings including animals, serpents and demons from the Book of The Dead, the Book of Amduat, the Book of Caverns and the Book of the Earth. On the ceiling the Book of the Heavens is represented. The tomb is relatively well preserved and was well worth the visit.

One of the longest tombs in the valley is that of Ramses III, the last of the warrior Pharaohs. His mummy, the model for the 1930s film "The Mummy", is also in the Egyptian Museum. The tomb, 125m long, is beautifully decorated with lots of very colourful reliefs. In the chamber beyond is an aborted tunnel where the ancient builders ran into a neighboring tomb so the axis was shifted to the west. The remainder of the tomb however is only partially excavated.

"Tomb raiding" three tombs in this heat was just right and I believe I picked three of the best. Eight hours after leaving the hotel it was time to head back to Luxor for some well deserved lunch and to rehydrate before adventures from a final night in Egypt.

- Posted using BlogPress from Nic's iPad

Thursday, 25 August 2011

... Egypt: Temple Trekking

I awoke this morning just after 5am to kingfishers singing & fish jumping whilst I lay on a Felucca moored on the bank of the Nile. Breakfast was a brisk & simple affair, the food nothing particularly spectacular but filled the void and washed down with a much needed cup of coffee albeit made with powdered milk. Starbucks this isn't.

There was actually not much sailing time left and this was sped up by the support boat which had a motor, the Felucca would be returning to Aswan. The boat finally docked at Kom Ombo and it was time to disembark upon which was the return to more modern means of transportation of the four-wheeled kind.

On a promontory overlooking the Nile lies a unique Egyptian temple. The Temple of Kom Ombo was not dedicated to just one god but two, the local crocodile god Sobek and Haroeris (Horus the Elder).

This is also seen with the layout of the temple: it is exactly split in half & replicated along the main axis with carvings of the two gods on either side and a double altar for them both at the centre of the forecourt.

Up until recently the small shrine to Hathor was used to store the mummified crocodiles in the clay coffins that had been dug up from a near-by sacred animal graveyard. The reliefs are pretty amazing to see, so intricately carved telling their stories. Little pockets of colour remain only to further enhance their beauty and you can't quite believe that you are looking at something thousands of years old.

Of particular interest is the piece depicting a collection of "surgical instruments" on the back wall of the northern corner of the temple. It is believed that they would have been used for surgery.

To the north, Edfu is where you will find the Temple of the falcon god Horus.

Interestingly the temple was completed by the famous Cleopatra's (Cleopatra VII) father and depicts the lives of the Greek Pharaohs through colossal reliefs.

Highlights of this temple include the huge granite statues of Horus as a falcon and the sanctuary of Horus containing a polished grate shrine. All of it however is fascinating to see.

The men that "guard" both temples are poised for action... To leap into your photo at just the wrong time because they believe that makes it "authentic" for you and then of course expect a baksheesh (tip) for their trouble. I have perfected the art of appearing blind, deaf & mute over the last week to avoid any misunderstandings that I not only wanted someone in my picture but their friend, their friend's friend, the neighbours donkey and some tat trinket made not in Egypt but China that they will then try to sell to me for some extortionate price.

Once I started to smell like chicken because I was cooking in the heat I realized I'd had my fill of temples for the day and it was time to head further north to Luxor in the comfort of air conditioning.

- Posted using BlogPress from Nic's iPad

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

... Egypt: In De-Nile

The Nile is the world's longest river. It meanders it's way north from it's two sources through an astonishing 6680 km (4175 miles) of Africa until it reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The White Nile flows out of Lake Victoria in Uganda and the Blue Nile emerges from Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands. They eventually meet at Khartoum in Sudan and only a single tributary joins it for the rest of the way. The river is shared by ten countries but Egypt is the main beneficiary. Rain seldom falls on this part and so without this mighty river the Country would cease to exist.

Until the arrival of decent roads and the railway in the late 19th Century, the Nile was the main highway of Egypt. What better way to move cargo and visit other areas?

The most famous stretch of the Nile is between Aswan and Luxor (Thebes). How else to experience the beauty of the river than by sailing on it? And the only way to do this to fully immerse yourself in the ambience is by a traditional Egyptian sailing boat known as a Felucca.

Let's be clear here. This ain't no Cunard ferry. There aren't even any toilets on board and if it's an overnight trip you sleep out in the open with the stars & moon for company. How wonderfully blissful does that sound?

And it was. Leaving Aswan midmorning this was as close as I could get to the river, that is until I went for a swim in it to cool myself down from the usual intense heat. You basically zig-zag from one side of the river to another and let the rest of the world do it's own crazy thing. It was absolutely wonderful. I was worried that after a few hours someone hyper like me might have gone a little stir crazy but I didn't. I just allowed myself to kickback & relax.

A little bit of sunbathing, some reading, a refreshing swim in the river along with some Egyptian kids before they decided to bring their cow along for a dip.... All wonderful ways to do some much recharging of your batteries.

The wind was pretty strong but even had it not been the northward current is strong so that boats are rarely marooned. Feluccas are not allowed to sail at night and so we stopped just before sunset with the support boat on which dinner would be served. Watching a glowing sun set over the west bank was pretty spectacular.

As the sky goddess Nut swallowed the evening sun, the stars began to appear in the night sky signaling that another amazing day was almost at an end.

Return to normal next week? I'm in De-Nile....

- Posted using BlogPress from Nic's iPad

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

... Egypt: Restoration Of The Past...

On the waters of the artificial Lake Nasser 280 km south of Aswan and 40 km north of the Sudanese border lies the village of Abu Simbel.

In 1813 Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt discovered a huge head of a Pharaoh sticking out of the sand along with another head that looked broken off and two crowns. He had rediscovered the Great Temple of Ramses II and by 1817 enough sand had been cleared away for the temple to be entered.

To travel by road from Aswan to Abu Simbel takes around 3.5 hours one way. Oh and you have to do it in a police convoy which you pay for and also means your schedule is rigidly dictated to you. The convoys were introduced by the government to give tourists a sense of personal security & safety in the 90's at the height of the Islamist insurgency when they were going around massacring people that unfortunately happened to include tourists. These days? Aside from providing duties for a large & underemployed tourist-police force, they are actually now more a means of a traffic control so that people don't speed along the highways. I kid you not. Most routes that previously had them no longer do. Alas this was not one of them.

The thought of 3.5 hours each way in a minivan in temperatures likely to hit over 50 around Abu Simbel not to mention a 330am start wasn't exactly filling me with joy. I would have sucked it up and just meshed it in with all my adventures but then I found out that for a mere Cdn$40 more I could fly there! HELLO!!!! If that wasn't sweet enough then I wouldn't have to leave my hotel until 830, a short 45 minute flight (if that) and a shuttle bus to the site. I would also get longer at the site to look around before doing the entire journey again in reverse. Have I mentioned yet how deliciously sweet this all was?

And so a mere 2 hours after leaving my hotel, bouncing down the runway at Abu Simbel airport thanks to a pilot whom I think thought he was behind the wheel of a tank and an entrance fee of LE£95, I was stood in front of four colossal statues of Ramses fronting what is best described as breathtaking.

The gigantic sentinels are more than 20 metres high and sit majestically guarding a temple as much dedicated to this rather vain Pharaoh as Ra-Horakhty, Amun & Ptah. They're accompanied by smaller statues of his mother, his wife Nefertari and some of his children and then the falcon-headed sun god Ra-Horakhty is above the entrance alas lacking part of a leg & foot due to being incredibly old.

You are allowed to take photos inside both temples at this site BUT from the doorway only. Get caught snapping away inside and they will make you delete what you have taken. One poor Japanese tourist almost had their memory card confiscated. Still I got some amazing shots from the doorway plus nothing beats the brain for a memory card anyway.

More statues inside the temple lead you to what are known as "reliefs" on the walls. Think Bayeux Tapestry except carved into stone. All depicting the Pharaoh's prowess in battle, walking all over his enemies before slaughtering them in front of the gods. The north wall of the temple depicts the famous Battle of Kadesh (Syria) dominated by the scene of Ramses in his chariot shooting arrows at the fleeing enemy. This was so strangely peaceful & beautiful that I simply took a seat and just gazed at what was around me. To the sides there are a series of storerooms all decorated and well worth your time.

A four-columned vestibule follows and then leads to a sacred sanctuary where Ramses & the 3 previously mentioned gods sit on their stone thrones. The temple is aligned in such a way that on the 22nd of February & October the first rays of the sun penetrate the temple and illuminate the figures except for Ptah. I was pretty sure as I finally left the Great Temple I could hear the Indiana Jones theme....

The smaller Temple of Hathor next door is fronted by six 10 metre standing statues of Ramses & Nefertari with some of their munchkins by their sides. Unusually the Queen is depicted as being the same height as her husband instead of coming only up to his knees like most consorts were shown. Even inside this temple she is shown in front of the gods as equal to Ramses and the reliefs in here show her honoring her husband. Inside is no less magnificent than the Great Temple.

One of the most interesting facts about this immense masterpiece is that since the late 1960's you are not actually visiting the true sacred site. That, along with other temples, disappeared beneath the lake with the construction of the High Dam. Ten temples were dismantled and moved then rebuilt on higher ground atone-by-stone and one of the greatest achievements was the preservation of the temples at Abu Simbel. More than 2000 blocks weighting from 10 to 40 tonnes each were moved and reconstructed in an artificially built mountain in a project that took over 4 years at a cost of UD$40 million. The skill and use of modern technology allowed for the temples at Abu Simbel to be carefully oriented to face their original direction in a re-created landscape of their original environment.

The temperature is believed to have exceeded 50 degrees whilst I was there. This will explain why I had drank 3 bottles of water before I even boarded the plan back to Aswan. But where better to cool off from the intense heat than inside one of these amazing temples?

The entire experience is certainly not being done the justice it truly deserves by my words. I returned to Aswan knowing I had been lucky enough to see something out of this world. Definitely not one to miss if you visit Egypt. The plaque to the right of the entrance sums it up wonderfully, "Through this restoration of the past, we have indeed helped to built the future of mankind."

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Monday, 22 August 2011

... Egypt: "We Apologize For The Delay... The Wrong Kind Of Sand Was On The Track"

I am pretty certain I have eaten... No, let me rephrase that to "picked at & spat back into a tissue"... probably the worst meal I've ever eaten/picked at & spat back into a tissue. That was perhaps until breakfast arrived the following morning and stole the accolade.

You'd be forgiven for perhaps wondering if I was riding good ol' British Rail, back in the day when they were frequently a target of public ridicule. The very same rail system (in)famous for rock hard scones and delays due to "the wrong kind of leaves on the tracks". Thank heavens that with privatization & Richard Branson giving it a swift kick up the arse they somewhat got their act together. The British-born Egyptian rail system is extensive however it is fit for the knackers yard. And I was going to be riding it for a 13+ hour journey from Cairo to Aswan.

A late arrival to the station (a little hard to understand when the train's journey had only began at the previous station) obviously meant a late departure. By Egyptian standards 30 minutes is truly nothing. Getting on board was a little chaotic but I had a designated seat in a cabin in one of the sleeper carriages. Still, despite the often laid back attitude, I got the impression that if you dawdled they would not wait for you.

The cabins were very simple and a bit dingey. It kind of reminded me of the James Bond scene with James & Jaws fighting in the carriage of a train. Namely because it was probably as old as that scene. Two bunk beds with clean linen, pillow & blanket folded out from the wall, there was a sink and a fold out table to eat your... Erm.... "food" off.

The "food". Well options were chicken or chicken. It came airline style... Allegedly. For all my flying I have to say I have a whole new appreciation for airline food (and admittedly I actually usually like what I'm given during a flight). The meal consisted of chicken, "vegetables" and rice plus some very dubious looking sauce which at first glance appeared to be a dessert but upon tasting most certainly wasn't. The chicken looked like it belonged with the urban legend regarding KFC chicken. I obviously didn't try it but it sure was entertaining to look at. The "vegetables" were a container of French fries that I am willing to bet were pre-heated, reheated & cremated. They basically had the potato & living daylights cooked out of them and were likely only a soggy mess thanks to the oil they were swimming in. The rice actually had a crust on it. I'm not quite sure how you get a crust on something like rice but this was achieved here. My saviours were a Golden Delicious apple & bread roll. Do not come expecting a gourmet food experience here. Breakfast consisted of something that was supposed to resemble a croissant, a Danish and some other cakey item. I think the croissant had been mummified. Again the bread roll & a not-half-bad cup of coffee saved my soul.

The shared washrooms however were very clean and always had toilet roll in them. Once you ignore the fact that you can see what comes out of you goes down the chute & onto the track you are basically good to go. Literally.

Sleeping on the train was an interesting experience. When I wasn't being woken by being thrown around & clinging on for dear life I was wondering why it sounded & felt like we were about to derail. I suspect the only real sleep I got was when we were delayed for 3 hours during the night. I am still not sure why although was wondering if, similar to their British counterparts, it was due to the wrong kind of sand on the track?!? I was also extremely cold too and woke up shivering on several occasions before remembering I'd my Lululemon hoodie in my backpack. This was even after turning off the air-con. It was quite a shock to the system arriving in Aswan to 47 degree heat after riding the "Siberian Express".

Arrival in Aswan was actually only 2 hours later than they had..... Assumed. I say assumed because apparently since the Revolution no-one really keeps tabs on what's going on in terms of arrivals/departure etc and they no longer feel obliged to explain either above anything more than "since the Revolution things have changed..." Oh well it's not like I was in a Westernised-rush now was it??

Aswan is an ancient town in southern upper Egypt with a strong Nubian-influenced local culture. One thing you immediately notice here is that the people are more African looking and in fact the Sudan border is just to the south. They say if you don't succumb to the intense heat then you will to the wonderful smell of spices at the souq and the slow relaxed pace. The air seems to be permanently scented with sandalwood.

The river Nile is wide & stunningly beautiful here too meandering down from the largest artificial lake in the world, Lake Nasser, around pretty little islands awash with palm trees, jet black granite rocks submerging from the depths and colourful Nubian villages on it's banks all to a backdrop of the golden desert on the west bank.

After finally showering & changing out of the clothing I'd worn for over 24 hours in my appropriately named "Nile Hotel", it was time to have my first experience on the Nile. I have to say it is pretty bloody cool being on a boat weaving your way in & out of the likes of Elephantine & Kitchener's Islands over to the west bank. You look up into the desert at the Aga Khan Mausoleum and the Monastery of St. Simeon marveling at the sights then someone chases after their camel as though it was scripted just to enhance your experience. On the high cliffs are the Tombs of the Nobles dating back from the Old & Middle Ages. Six tombs are apparently open to visitors. Even from the river they look like they belong in an Indiana Jones movie... Complete with Nazis on bikes with sidecars!

The Nubian village of Garb Aswan was where I was to have my lunch, in a traditional Nubian home. The food was amazing and mostly vegetarian. Alas I can't really remember the names of most of the dishes but I have never had an eggplant dish that tasted so good, including when I bit into a spicy hot pepper and had flames coming out of my nostrils as a result. It was all lush particularly the Nubian bread that is made using only the heat of the sun! I kid you not and it was wonderful. The family were extremely gracious and friendly. The two kids were entertaining & engaging and loved to talk with you about where you had come from. Even my pseudo anti-child facade melted a little when their eyes lit up as I showed them some pictures I had on my iPhone of Vancouver.

There was a very different attitude here compared to even the east bank let alone Cairo. Even as you drive through the streets on the back of a truck everyone is shouting out "Hello!" and waving at you. They are genuinely happy and incredibly proud to have you in their village and share their customs with you. Naturally I paid to experience this but there was no expectancy of a tip and if you tried they refused. It was a wonderfully peaceful place to be and with a contented & full tummy combined with the searing heat I caught 40 winks before heading back to the east bank the same way I had come.

As the sun sets on Aswan & the Nile, yet another day of adventures is almost at an end. But all it simply means is that I'm a step closer to the next....

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sunday, 21 August 2011

... Egypt: Geometrically Gargantuan in Giza

In the middle of the congested city suburb of Giza lies the only remaining wonder of the Seven Ancient Wonders of The World. Standing proud for 4000 years with their immense size, impeccable geometry and unusual shape, the Pyramids of Giza are Egypt's most iconic images. Nothing whatsoever can prepare you for the sense of wonderment and sheer awe you feel when you first set eyes on them. Absolutely nothing.

The tourist scene is pretty intense that's for sure. There are touts everywhere you look and when you're not trying to avoid them you're trying to avoid being mown down by a camel. Entry was LE£60 and then if you chose to go in one of the Pyramids (two of the three are open to visitors and they rotate every few years) it's extra.

It was their belief in eternal life that led the ancient Egyptians to build such incredible structures. Pharaoh's were deemed to be a son of the Gods and it was his role to conduct the Gods' powers to his people. As a result he was honored in life and worshipped in death.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the oldest in Giza and the largest in Egypt. Originally standing at 146m high, it's height has been reduced by 9m over the centuries. It is believed to consist of approximately 2.3 million limestone blocks weighing in at about 2.5 tonnes each!

The Pyramid of Khafre (son) seems larger but it's actually not, it just stands on higher ground. It is the only pyramid of the 3 still capped with a limestone casing.

The smallest pyramid is the Pyramid of Menkaure. This pyramid has a long slog out of it. Sounded like a good challenge to me for a mere LE£30 compared to the LE£100 for Khufu. There isn't much to see inside any of the pyramids except limestone and more limestone, but the experience of doing it, in my humble opinion, is more than worth it. However if you suffer from claustrophobia then it is probably not for you. Good airflow from an ancient airflow shaft will help you breathe easier although then you start contemplating the immense weight suspended above you. It really is quite something. Oh and you're not allowed to take cameras inside the pyramid. *cough*

The distance between the pyramids is a lot to cover on foot in the intense heat and so the best way to travel? By camel of course! It's quite the experience riding one of the gargling creatures across the desert. Mine seemed to take quite a shine to me as he provided me with transport to Menkaure. He would try nuzzling my foot and at one point decided to wipe his eyeball on my sandal. Lovely. Just what I wanted, camel eye goo on my foot. He did at least appear to smile in all his pictures.

On seeing the Sphinx for the first time I couldn't quite believe how much smaller it was than I had expected it to be. Not that that takes away anything from how amazing it was to see this intriguing monument that is unfortunately showing signs of decay (they say it's the stone equivalent of Cancer). This feline man is actually called after a Greek name and is carved from bedrock. He is missing his nose & beard and some still like to blame Napoleon for the removal of the nose. Napoleon's involvement has since been proven to have been impossible. Besides my camera didn't care about a missing nose. My trigger-finger went absolutely crazy during my time there.

The Egyptian Museum near Midan Tahrir is one of the most important museums of ancient history in the world. The number of exhibits means the building is literally bursting at the seams and so don't plan to see everything in one visit - you will be sorely disappointed. The highlights usually have the crowds around them but I found the best way to explore was simply walk around and see what caught my eye. My list of must-see exhibits has to include:
Tutankhamun Galleries
Old Kingdom Rooms
The Royal Mummy Room - extra charge but well worth it to see mummies such as Ramses II
Ancient Egyptian Jewelry
Animal Mummies - birds, cats, dogs, fish & crocodiles

Obviously the treasures of Tutankhamun are amongst the World's most famous antiquities. The tomb & treasures of this Boy-King were discovered in 1922 by English archaeologist Howard Carter and about 1700 items are spread throughout several rooms on the first floor. The room everyone wants to see contains the pharaoh's golden sarcophagi, jewels and of course the iconic death mask. The solid gold 11kg mask is quite simply astonishing to look at.

Be prepared to leave your camera at the cloakroom before entering the museum. Absolutely no photography is allowed inside. There are also several queues for your enjoyment *cough*, which I'm sure would be an absolute nightmare during peak season. Metal detectors, xray machines, ticket barriers and a bag search will all greet you before you can actually start taking in this wonderfully rewarding visit.

As I prepare to leave Cairo by overnight train to Aswan, I take a little piece of the Pharaonic wonders implanted in my brain today with me in the form of a sheet of papyrus with my name written in hieroglyphs and the eye of Horus (wedjat) looking over me protectively.

- Posted using BlogPress from Nic's iPad

Saturday, 20 August 2011

... Egypt: Walk Like An Egyptian

I started out in the morning once a). I'd corrected my watch to the proper time (no thanks to the air stewardess who got it wrong) and b). I'd refueled with breakfast (boiled egg, figs, bread & coffee) with plans to pay a visit to Islamic Cairo. I think I'd walked about 3 blocks in the blazing heat before I flagged down a taxi. Not everyone knows what "the Citadel" is and so I was advised to instead ask for the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. I also agreed a price before getting in. Soon we were whizzing through the streets of Cairo at light speed in a vehicle that resembled a skip on wheels. My cabbie delighted in trying his broken English on me and in return trying to teach me some Arabic. A very useful phrase I am certain will be "No, thank you". The more "modern" Cairo disappeared as Islamic Cairo took it's place with some amazing architecture.

At the eastern edge of the city is where you'll find what was home to Egypt's rulers for 700 years. The Citadel began construction in 1176 by Saladin in a bid to fortify the city from the Crusaders and with additions by the Mamluks, Ottomans, Napoleonic French and Mohammed Ali it now houses a collection of 3 very different mosques, several palaces and terraces with views over the city. it also became a military garrison where the British Army were barracked during WWII and parts of it to this day are used by the Egyptian Army. You pay an entrance fee of LE50 which also includes entrance into the Police & Military Museums.

The Mosque of Mohammed Ali, a mosque that took 18 years to build, dominates the fortress. Entrance is via its marbled courtyard and inside is a vast array of twinkling lights. The south end of it affords some great, although usually hazy, views of Cairo in particular the huge Mosque of Ibn Tulun and today was no exception. My snot is already running black which I'm sure paints a pretty picture.

The smaller and 500+ year older Mosque of An-Nasir Mohammed is a little sparse inside because it's marble was stripped by an Ottoman sultan.

As expected you remove your footwear upon entering and some Mosques, as I found out later at Al-Azhar, want your entire arms & head covering if you are female.

Al-Azhar Mosque and Khan al-Khalili were my next port of call. A quick (and very cheap) cab ride there and I was fully immersed in the core of the medieval city. You are overcome by aromas of livestock, spices, petrol and sewerage as you weave your way in amongst the street vendors, donkey-drawn carts and merchants selling everything from stuffed toy camels to gold and spices. Of course the previous days annoyances were even more rife here, "Hey pretty lady where are you from? Come look for free". The best way to brush it off was by wearing sunglasses so that even if you can't resist the temptation to look at the person they will never know. That and silence. Yes, an Ice Queen facade works wonders! I suspect that almost anything can be bought here. I had wanted to visit Fishawi's Coffeehouse but it was closed during the day due to Ramadan. In fact finding food was proving to be a real problem as a result and I was starting to get hungry. One of the most sacred Islamic sites in Egypt is here, the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein. As I arrived prayer was just beginning and so it was interesting to watch people arrive for that. Prayer meant I had to wait to enter the Mosque of Al-Azhar but the caretaker was kind enough to tell me when and also loan me a full length robe to enter. This has been the centre of Sunni Islamic education for more than a millennium and is one of Cairo's earliest mosques. The marble floored central courtyard Is a fantastic place to stand and soak in the atmosphere plus burn the soles of your feet as you gaze up at the three minarets added in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries respectively.

I decided to walk back to downtown. It's a little tricky in parts namely because you can become disoriented namely trying to not get killed when crossing any road. But aside from one incident of walking in a circle twice I made it back safe n' sound, gagging for a cold drink yet minus a stuffed toy camel.

I stopped off at my first night digs to collect my backpack and then it was back on the road to my next hotel in the Doqqi area which would require me crossing the Nile by two bridges. Lunch came in the form of a packet of peanut M&M's, two chugged down glasses of orange juice and a whole bottle of water. I'm pretty certain I squelched as I walked down the street towards Midan Tahrir. It was pretty cool crossing the Nile and admittedly for a brief nanosecond I thought about how lovely and refreshing it would be to join some kids swimming in it. But then I thought about Nile crocodiles which naturally became an entire lame Hollywood horror movie played out in my head. They had to be "mutated and with laser beams on their fricking heads" naturally. Hey, if you can have a movie about a sharktopus....! Don't ask... It was likely heat exhaustion getting to me.

Stuffed at dinner on a wonderful cumin-lentil soup, salad and a drink made from lemon & mint, it was easy to fall into bed for an early night to rest up for a day to come of all things Pharaonic... And may be a camel thrown in there for good measure.

The Pyramids of Giza await my sheer awe and wonderment.....

- Posted using BlogPress from Nic's iPad

Friday, 19 August 2011

... Egypt: Carefree in Cairo

As we descended through the clouds I could barely contain my excitement as I looked out of my window to see the World's longest river come into view with 4 pyramidal shaped..errr... Pyramids in the distance including the Step Pyramid. I was finally in Egypt!

Cairo International Airport is simple but clean & has free wifi! Take note Heathrow, which does not and instead charges you for a wifi service that packed in on you less than five minutes after you've paid for it. The process of leaving the airport is pretty straightforward but before you clear customs you purchase your visa at a cost of USD$15 to receive a visa stamp before queuing to be processed. Despite the fact I landed as a bunch of other flights did the process was pretty quick for a Country that I've been told runs at a much slower pace than one might be used to.

Whilst almost every second car in Egypt is a taxi I did not want a repeat of Mexico and so pre-booked mine via my hotel. Akhem, a rather jovial Egyptian greeted me as I walked into the arrivals area and whisked me away from all the touts who are all over you like a rash pretty much instantly. Yet despite the scams, hassles & hustlers, Egyptians take hospitality seriously and you soon learn to distinguish between the genuine and the "Hello sucker" types. Akhem was a joy to chat with as he drove his Peugeot 504 like he was racing Formula 1. Before I knew it we had weaved our way through the mayhem of Cairo and I was at my hotel.

Approximately 22 million people live in Cairo. Yes... 22 million. Only 34 million people live in Canada!!! As dusk arrived the city sprang to life as everyone and their mother came out to feast & get festive. What a great time to wander the streets and absorb the sights, sounds and smells. The crowds are like nothing I've ever seen before in my life. You basically weave your way in amongst everyone else weaving their way in amongst everyone weaving their way amongst... You get the picture. And when it comes to crossing the street you basically are playing chicken dare and your life WILL flash before your eyes.

Interestingly at Midan Tahrir, there were lots of police with riot shields. The mood however wasn't one that I felt required me to do a quick about turn. There was a peaceful demonstration occurring and relations between protesters and police was relaxed. I am lead to believe it was some form of protest against Murabak, who is currently standing trial for the deaths of peaceful protesters during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. It has been an interesting year for Egypt politically and will no doubt continue to be so whilst the trial continues.

In 3 wonderful hours I was hounded by papyrus sellers, hissed at (I was beginning to
wonder if I was in a city of snakes!), followed by several people at different times trying to become my best friend (this will be one of the "hello sucker" types of hospitality), taken into a scent emporium where I smelt the essences of lotus, papyrus and musk, drank tea with the locals, witnessed the 5th & final prayer of the day and bartered for a headscarf so that I could be respectful & cover my head when I went to look at the Mosques.

And the highlight of the evening? I got about as authentically Egyptian as one can get and partook in the tradition that is the sheesha. I opted for the tobacco and molasses mix that was soaked in apple juice (tufah). A decorated bulbous water-filled glass pipe was brought to my table with hot coals and I was told to enjoy. As I drew back the gloriously fragrant smoke that is filtered through the water, I tried to ignore the fact that I had read that the large volumes of smoke being inhaled into your lungs over the period of an hour equals the amount of tar as smoking about a packet of cigarettes. It was definitely worth temporarily breaking my usual healthy lifestyle for.

Interestingly when asked how long I had been in Cairo I was met with a reply of "and you're still smiling?" I suspect though that as long as you embrace the good, the bad & the ugly of this City there is no reason why that smile ever has to leave your face. Welcome to Cairo!

- Posted using BlogPress from Nic's iPad


... Egypt: Waiter! There's A Sausage In My Soup!

At time of "going to press" I've been awake for 22 hours, give or take an hour here & there dozing on one of the 3 flights that are taking me to Cairo. My usual decaf has been switched for jet fuel with coffee of questionable "taste" and BMI have just tried to convince me that a beef sausage is part of a vegetarian meal. Still, the likelihood of that sausage ever having seen a real animal are likely slim to none and so I probably would've been fine eating it. That said the rest of the food was rather delish and you can't go wrong with a good ol' British breakfast of omelette, mushrooms & baked beans sans aforementioned petroleum product sausage.

My flights have been pretty uneventful although Air Canada's idea of a window seat was thought provoking. As I stared at the spot where one would assume a window to be instead of panelling I pondered if may be they'd ran out of glass? May be if I wished hard enough one would miraculously appear? Alas no, and so I made do with the flight map and the inside of my eyelids. We landed in glorious sunshine at Heathrow, admittedly not something I am used to, pretty much on schedule despite leaving Toronto a little late and so I was a happy camper. The time I had between flights wasn't as great as I perhaps would have preferred but hey I've done "Amazing Race"-esque sprints through airports before now so I was ready! Thanks to being as close to the front as I could be for someone flying Cattle Class, I was off the plane very quickly and making my way to my connecting flight in no time. I've forgotten how huge Heathrow is, my last few trips through there have been a one terminal deal. So it's easy to forget what a right royal pain in the arse getting from one terminal to another can be. You walk for what seems like forever, then you get on a bus followed by more walking... Oh and more walking. Wear airport-yomping-appropriate shoes is all I can say!

It also doesn't help when you're in a semi-comatose state and don't read signs properly.... Let's just say the lady at immigration, after much bewilderment at my accent when presenting her with a Canadian passport, was kind enough not to make me feel like a total idiot for having queued in a line I should never ever have been in. Twenty-five minutes of my life I will never get back and something my bladder will likely never ever forgive me for. Once back on track and heading in the right direction more walking followed until I finally reached the gate for my BMI flight to Cairo.

At just over 3.5 hours into a 4.5-ish hour flight I'm holding up pretty well. Then again my backside is glued into a seat and I'm wondering how many DVT clots I've formed in my legs. Ahhhh that's why Heathrow has you walking miles for your connections! They don't want the responsibility of you collapsing in the middle of their airport causing a considerable amount of paperwork. Angry Birds has kept me entertained plus my immediate passengers are an Egyptian bloke and his niece. They're really very nice and whilst the young girl is a tad shy I've managed to abstract lots of useful info about my destination. We also had a very interesting talk about Ramadan - they can eat during the usual fasting period whilst traveling - and I was able to get an idea about being respectful of the Muslim culture as a Westerner especially in terms of clothing. This is particularly useful as I would like to try and visit Islamic Cairo on top of the pharaonic overload I'm naturally in Cairo for courtesy of the Pyramids of Giza and the Egyptian Museum. I'm in particular keen to visit the bazaar of Khan al-Khalili, Al-Azhar Mosque and the Citadel.

As my flying time diminishes and the Mediterranean appears below me thanks to Greek airspace, I'm getting psyched! It's almost time to embrace the brutal heat as my itchy feet get ready to explore the vast grandeur and beauty of the ancient lands of Egypt... May be via the back of a camel or two.

- Posted using BlogPress from Nic's iPad

Thursday, 18 August 2011

... Egypt: Ready, Set, Go!

A Nic-trip wouldn't be a Nic-trip without some form of drama... How about locking oneself out of their apartment building because one has grabbed the wrong set of keys? Namely the set missing the fob needed to get back up onto the fourth floor.

Being asked, "is there anything I can do to help?" probably wasn't the best question to be asking me at that moment in time judging by the response. Even the pooch bore the brunt of my frustration and all he wanted to do was take his morning trip to the bathroom. No wonder he had a bout of tight bum syndrome after that! Sorry Chip!

The travel Gods, likely after much mirth & merriment, decided to cut me a break. I don't believe 10 minutes passed before the 3rd person I came into contact with came down in the elevator and was able to send me up to the fourth floor. Much quicker than any previous incidents... Oh yeah, this isn't the first time this has happened..... You'd think I'd learn... Apparently not. My excu... Errrr... Defense is that my brain is recovering from the shock of exam mode.

And so Das Hund is at the Doghouse waiting to head to The Rex for 10 days of doggie bliss. Le chat, after leaving me with a few war wounds, was eventually stuffed into the cat carrier and is being pampered at Urban Tails.

And me? I've just stuffed my face with a rather delish breakfast whilst listening to the planes take off overhead. T minus 2.5 hours Vancouver - Toronto - London Heathrow - Cairo.

Itchy feet are ready to be scratched......