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....

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