Another article in our OBT series.
If you can get past the hawkers and the other tourists, Egypt will reward you with a wealth of antiquities and a story as old as recorded time. The entire region has emerged from the tourism void caused by the Arab Spring and is ready for you to visit.
Arriving in Cairo
We arrived at Cairo International at around 8 pm. On approach in the plane, the city seemed more developed than I remembered. There were bigger streets and more streets with lights. Cairo airport was much more modern, too. That was until we tried to get an Uber. It was a mess trying to get to the pickup point. Even after we got to the agreed-upon place, the driver was somewhere else. Eventually, we found each other.
It took about an hour in traffic to reach our hotel, which was a bit of a dump. The AC barely worked and WiFi was by the hour. That night, the power went out in our room. It was not a great start to our time in Egypt.
Tour to Alexandria
This was “arrival day” for our tour, a free day until 6 pm. We booked a “private” tour to Alexandria. When we were picked up, we were told our guide was sick, so we were put into a group tour and would get an upgrade of having our entrance fees paid for. We accepted because we had no recourse. No effort had been made to tell us in advance. Our feeling that it was a bait and switch was confirmed when our tour consisted of two other small groups who also booked “private tours”.
The tour itself was ok, but nothing great. We felt rushed through the fort and the catacombs. A stop was included for the library, but, it’s not like it’s the ancient library, so why? The guide didn’t tell us much we could not have learned on our own. The whole experience put another bad taste in our mouths. Diana thought the view of the pyramids in the distance on our way back to Cairo was the best part of the day.
One interesting finding was the many pigeon coops installed on houses along the road. Pigeon is a delicacy and an aphrodisiac frequently served for holidays. We didn’t try it but we had a few meals with really small chickens that Diana thought were actually pigeon.
We started at 7 am for the pyramids, to beat the crowd and the heat. Being a Saturday, traffic was moderate, not terrible, we were told. In fact, we frequently got up early (5 or 6 am) on our tour to mitigate traffic, crowds or the heat. It seemed successful, as we often toured famous places mostly by ourselves. The pyramids were impressive in stature and design. There are the 3 big ones everyone is familiar seeing, and another 6 nearby for the wives of the pharaohs, for a total of 9. I was able to climb onto the pyramid for a photoshoot, but neither of us went inside.
Next, to the Sphinx, which I had remembered as being larger. Our guide said the story about Napoleon’s soldier shooting off the nose was a myth, but I like it, so I will stick with it.
The afternoon was spent at The Old Egyptian Museum, which normally houses most of the antiquities not stolen by the British or French. At present, some of the antiquities are in transit to The New Egyptian Museum, a massive building being erected near the pyramids. The intention is to create an antiquities complex, where people visit the museum, the pyramids, and the Sphinx more easily. Because electric trams will be used it sounds more like visiting a US national park than the hodge-podge it is today. It could be convenient and grueling at the same time. The new museum is important, IMHO in part, because the current museum has zero climate control. There are many items that I hope will be well preserved in the future. It may also strengthen the Egyptian claim to repatriate items because better preservation will now possible.
Regardless, many objects contained in the old museum are in a very good state and allow for close examination. The King Tut artifacts are more impressive to me now than when I saw them on tour in the US in the 1970s. There are numerous interesting sarcophagi and other carved stones as well as jewelry and funerary items. We were also able to touch a stone with hieroglyphs. It is well worth a visit.
Cairo has many unfinished brick buildings that we were told are illegal. But the government is either tearing them down or wrecking them in some fashion because it is illegal to build on plantable land. In Egypt, only 5% of the country is cultivated, areas around the Nile. Still, many people build anyway, hoping to go unnoticed or perhaps bribe their way out of it. Corruption is as prevalent here as anywhere else.
After the museum, there was a brief stop at a papyrus shop, where they showed us how it was made. The process was interesting and not too difficult. The papyrus scrolls they have found over the years have contributed greatly to the understanding of the culture thousands of years ago. This was followed by the customary “have a look around, no-obligation”. At least it wasn’t another weaving demo. We’ve seen enough of those over the last few months to last us a while.
The Big Sleep
We arrived at the Cairo train station around 3:30 and had to wait in an outdoor café for 4 hours for the train to arrive. Dinner and breakfast were to be served on the train, so we didn’t get anything at the Café. When the train finally arrived, there was a bit of a rush to get to our cabins. Diana was crushed at the state of the train, even though it was the best class of sleeper cars available.
The hallways, carpets, compartments, bedding, and seats were all filthy. The bathroom was a special class of unsanitary, with standing water on the floor. The dinner was similar to what you get on an international cattle class flight, only without the beverage selection. Diana wouldn’t touch it. The seats were quite vertical with minimal cushion. Once the bunks were converted, it took some effort to get the bags stowed in a manner to give us any amount of room. The backpacks had to be lifted quite high up to a storage compartment.
Train from Hell
The night brought its own circle of hell. The train jerked a lot, especially when resuming after pulling off to a siding to let another train pass. The bunk was too short for my 6’2″ frame; I had to sleep curled up. During the night, we stopped in an area where there was a lot of smoke, which aggravated Diana’s asthma. The morning brought a breakfast tray of bread, bread, and more bread. Diana was miserable.
We arrived at our hotel in Aswan to find It was dirty, dark and smelly. Diana had had enough, so we arranged to stay at a better hotel at our expense. The new hotel was not great but it was sufficiently better to allow Diana to slowly come out of her funk. This was definitely the low point of our time in Egypt.
But things got better from there, see Walk Like An Egyptian – Part 2.